Last Call

by C.W.Smoke

Visit Castle Smoke

It lumbers through the night, carrying the next and the last wrapped within its singular lament as it rocks back-and-forth on rusty, abandoned rails laid more than a century before. Its name is furtively whispered in smoke-filled rooms and dark corners. Old-timers simply call it, 'The Express,' and the old and the infirm, who wait quietly near the end, always know when it passes them by.

And on that dark, moonless March night the regulars in Jake's Saloon tilted their heads and nodded knowingly as the rainswept wind carried with it the faint sound of a far off steam whistle.

"Drink up!" declared Handsome Jack, his good eye squinting beside the black eyepatch that covered his other as he spun around on his barstool to face the house. "'Tis a night not fit for man nor beast, and 'tis on such a night that it comes."

The clink of bottles and mugs was punctuated by a brief silence as the thirsty patrons tipped 'em high and drank.

"May it pass through without stopping!" toasted Sam McGinnis, followed by a few hearty 'Ayes' and 'Amen brothers,' then more clinks and a longer silence that hung like spent fireworks in the smoke-filled air.

Lightning flashed outside as the saloon door swung open to reveal a tall, gaunt figure wearing a long cloak and wide-brimmed hat. The man stood silhouetted for a moment in the doorway. Then thunder crashed, and the night wind howled and the stranger stepped inside, slamming the door on the night.

Jake's thirty or so patrons set down their drinks as one and stared at the stranger as he swept rain from his cloak with leather-gloved hands. They gave him plenty of room as he walked to the center of the wall-length bar.

"Helluva night to be out," greeted Jake, standing near the cash register behind the bar, his burly arms folded across his chest. "What'll it be?"

Even the jukebox had gone silent. Everyone, it seemed, awaited the stranger's reply.

"Jack Daniels neat. And leave the bottle," hissed the stranger in a voice like a chill wind scraping dry, brittle leaves across the asphalt. In the dim saloon the stranger's hat kept his face in shadow as he leaned against the bar.

"That'll be two-fifty an ounce," said Jake through his handlebar mustache as he set the bottle of Jack and a shot glass before the stranger. "Didn't see your lights in the parking lot. You on foot?"

"Car trouble," replied the stranger, pouring a shot and downing it, then pouring another. He slapped a twenty-dollar gold piece on the bar. "Let me know when that runs out."

"Do you mind?" asked Jake, picking up the gold coin and holding it beneath the small light beside the cash register. Quick as a wink he was back. "The bottle's yours, and the glass too. Need anything else? Like a phone?"

"A phone?"

"Yeah, you said you had car trouble. Need to call someone? Charlie over there has a tow truck." Inside a booth along the wall Charlie Trimble started to stand, took one look at the stranger, then sat back down.

"No," said the stranger. "Got an appointment. All taken care of." He downed a third shot and poured another, then he stared off into space. End of conversation.

At precisely that moment, Nellie, the cocktail waitress, carried a full tray of drinks past Old Doc Fisher, and his buddy, Harry Crum reached out and pinched her bottom. She stopped and carefully put the tray down. Then she gave him what-for by smacking Old Doc Fisher's grinning face with a resounding slap that nearly knocked the old coot off his chair.

"Now what'd you wanna do that fer?" asked Old Doc, rubbing his jaw as he tried to stand up. "Hell, I delivered you into this world."

"And Doc, that's the only time you'll ever get your hands on my ass," she shot back.

Suddenly the juke box burst into song as Sheryl Crowe wailed, "If it makes you happy....then why the hell are you so sad?..." And before Old Doc could even reply, the buzz had returned. It was once again Friday night at Jake's Saloon.

Jake patted the twenty-dollar gold piece tucked safely away inside his pants pocket.

Several old-timers still sat huddled around their regular table, whispering among themselves and treating the stranger as if he had a bad case of the Evil-Eye, but most of the patrons simply ignored him and the empty bar stools on either side of him at the center of the bar. It was payday, and solace was at hand.

Jack Daniels was about half gone when Dawn and Sean O'Shea entered Jake's Saloon. They were rosy-cheeked and as Irish as their surname, just returned from the Emerald Isle and their honeymoon -- full of themselves and their love as new lovers will be -- casting blarney and dispelling shadow, coaxing bright smiles as they passed by.

And that's probably why they approached the stranger who hoarded vacant barstools at the center of the bar.

Dawn put on her winningest smile and tapped the stranger on his shoulder. Her smile held firm when the stranger swung around to face her, his face bathed in shadow, his eyes masked by a deeper darkness.

"Could you be movin' over a wee bit?" she asked sweetly. "My husband, Sean and I would be payin' our respects to my darlin' Jake here."

Surprisingly, the stranger smiled too, if it could be called that. His lips curled upward, but darkness hid his eyes.

"Sure I will if you'll join me for a drink," he whispered.

His voice succeeded where darkness failed. Dawn's smile wilted.

"Certainly, we shall, sir," replied Sean, stepping up and putting his arm around his bride.

"Barkeep!" called the stranger, slapping another twenty-dollar gold piece on the bar. "Drinks for the young couple!" He vacated his stool and moved to claim the empty seat on his right as Jake arrived, his eyes riveted on the gold coin.

"The usual?" asked Jake as the coin disappeared beneath his hand.

"Aye," said Sean. "And one on the side for the wee folk." They seated themselves, Dawn in the middle between Sean and the stranger.

"You lovebirds back so soon?" asked Jake, interrupting a Dawn-Sean embrace. "Seems like you just left. Did you kiss The Blarney Stone for me?"

They laughed and hugged across the bar, chatting for a few minutes before Jake left to make their drinks.

"Excuse me," the stranger whispered at Dawn's back. "I couldn't help but overhear. Newlyweds, is it?"

"Aye! And who is it be askin'?" demanded Sean.

"Just an old man who was newly wed once himself."

Dawn whispered something fierce and short to Sean, then she turned to face the stranger. "We apologize if we offended you," she said, regaining her smile. "I am Dawn O'Shea, and this is my true love, my fine husband, Sean O'Shea, and we've been married these last three weeks, five days, ten hours and fifteen minutes."

"To the minute, you say?" smiled the stranger. The darkness seemed to lift a bit. He removed a gold watchcase from his vest. "Congratulations. May your marriage be long and happy. My name is Ian Hardy, and I would like to give you a wedding gift."

"No, 'twould not be proper," replied Dawn. "We are strangers."

"Aye, true enough as you say, lass," replied Ian, opening the watchcase and glancing quickly at the gold watch. Then he brightened visibly, another layer of darkness leaving him like vanished soot. "Here! I've got it. I shall tell you my tale. Then we won't be strangers. Fair enough?"

Dawn turned to Sean. Her eyes asked, and his acquiesced. She turned back to Ian who was pouring another shot as Jake returned with their drinks.

"On the house," smiled Jake, setting their drinks before them. "And two more on tap from this gentleman." Jake nodded toward Ian before moving down the bar to refill Handsome Jack.

"Be drinkin' up, now, and tell us your tale, old man," said Sean, lifting his mug. A spark flew from Dawn to Sean at 'old man,' but she too lifted her mug.

"To true love," toasted Ian with a clink of his shot glass against each of their mugs.

They drank.

And he told his story. A tale of love lost and then found again only to be taken by Influenza in The Epidemic of 1918. At their questioning glance he offered only a brief non-explanation, 'I am older than you think.'

He spoke of despair. Of not wanting to live without his Mary. Of drinking and travelling to forget, until finally, one day, in Bombay, India, he met a most amazing man, a man who radiated hope. A man who taught Ian to value life. A man who gave Ian a precious gift. A gift that could have saved Mary. And a gift that Ian squandered and misused over-and-over again for that very reason. A gift that brought him here, to Jake's Saloon, on this miserable, rainswept night. A gift that he must share before it was too late...

When the tale ended, Jack Daniels was empty, shot glass upended over bottle neck, and only a few of the faithful remained in Jake's Saloon.

"Last call," sang Jake as he wiped the bar.

"Your tale is a sad one, for sure" said Sean, hugging Dawn, teardrops brimming her eyes. "But what is this gift you be talkin' about?"

Ian opened the gold watchcase and consulted his watch. "It is nearly time," he said. "Surely you must have guessed by now?"

The newlyweds looked at each other, but they had no reply.

"Tell me," coaxed Ian. "What is the most precious thing that you both possess?"

Dawn became thoughtful and wiped her eyes. "For sure 'tis the time we have together," she finally replied.

"We have a winner!" exclaimed Ian as he stood.

"I don't understand," said Sean also standing and helping Dawn to her feet. "How would that be savin' your Mary?"

"Time, my young friends," replied Ian, putting on his leather gloves. "Time for treatment. Time to find a cure."

"But time cannot be stopped."

"Ah! But with this it can," Ian declared, pressing the gold watch into Dawn's hands. "It works like a stopwatch to suspend time. Use it while you're in love."

"But we cannot take your watch," Dawn protested. "'Tis too valuable. 'Tis... What will you...?" Her voice trailed off.

"I have no more need of it," replied Ian. "I have used it selfishly, and I have paid...dearly. Now, it is time. I must be off. I have an appointment that is long overdue." He swirled his black cloak around him and strode to the front door.

"Wait!" they both cried.

He half-turned, his hand on the doorknob. "To true love," was all he said as he opened the door. The wind howled, grabbing at his cloak, and the rain blew in, but above the weather's din a brass bell clanged and a steam engine whistled.

Ian Hardy stepped outside, slamming the door on the night.

Makes you wonder, don't it? Who exactly do you gotta pay to ride that train?


|Ogre's Den| |Study| |Observatory| |Library|

Or perhaps you'd like to read something else by C.W.Smoke?