Love Stories 2: Old Clare’s
A friend challenged me to write a story a day for seven days, on love. I’m going to post one a day.
Old Clare Bowden leaned back in her chair and spat on the floor.
At 26 most places wouldn’t consider her old, but around here she was Old Clare. Always had been, always would be.
Some folk reckoned she’d been a wise man in a past life, or something, but she held no truck with such nonsense.
She’d picked up her pappa’s chewin’ baccy when she was three and hadn’t stopped chewing since. She’d been Old Clare then, and she’d be Old Clare till they buried her aneath the dead grey stump out the back of the saloon.
She’s in the Last Chance Saloon, as she usually is. A chilly March afternoon, light sparse upon the ground.
She’s been here since noon, when she normally wanders in. She’d finished her morning chores, taken a leisurely stroll to the pisser, then settled into her favourite corner of the bar to fill up again.
She’d never lived anywhere else, but this saloon was her home.
Years ago before she was born it’d had a sign above the door. The Two Star Saloon it’d said – or so she’d been told. The sign had blown down in a storm and never been replaced. It didn’t matter. Folks for three counties knew it as the Last Chance and refused to call it anything else.
Story goes that Benny, the longtime loser who owned the place, got in deep with the mob.
Round these parts the mob comprised of Phil Jenkins and his inbred cousins Bob and SueBob. The thing with a pecking order is – it never matters how high the top goes, only how low the bottom.
The Jenkins clan had six teeth between them and couldn’t shit in a pot with a gun to their head.
That’s all you really needed to know about Benny.
He lived in fear of not making his weekly payments. He knew it. The town knew it. The Jenkins boys knew it. He’d gone wrong one time too many, and in every real sense this saloon was his very last chance.
Still, the whiskey here wasn’t as watered as most and the rats kept away, long as the music kept playing.
Old Clare liked it.
Mostly folks left her alone. Mostly she left them alone. It worked.
They’d arrive at their differing times and drink for their differing reasons. Each finding a place in the bar and a space alone in their thoughts.
In their own maudlin way, it was a solace, a refuge, a place of peace.
If the town had had a church, this would have been it.
Sober, Benny could never have been mistaken for a priest. Ten shots in he was close enough for anyone living within spitting distance of the saloon, which meant pretty much everyone.
With the sun fading and Tuesday drawing to a close, Benny’s congregation was topped up and meditating deeply. A silence fell over the saloon, barring the usual rattling tinkle from the half broken piano in the corner.
Old Clare was happy.
No particular reason, although alcohol has been known to bring states of euphoria to the weaker minded, of which this saloon had many.
No, Old Clare was just happy being here. Many folks go a life-time never knowing their place in the world.
As children, they dream of glory; of meaning; fame; money; of changing the world.
As adults, these dreams become more mundane. Paying the rent; limbs and joints working once more without pain; children growing up healthy or at all; someone to hold them at night.
As the saying goes – the young man dreams of money, the old man dreams of death.
Old Clare though? She knew her place in the world, and that place was right here. Right here in her seat in the Last Chance Saloon.
She couldn’t have put her finger on why – but as they say, when you know, you know.
Old Clare knew.
So instead, she put her finger on her trusty six shooter.
It had got her through more scrapes than she cared to remember. For someone who kept to herself, trouble had a way of finding her.
Old Clare enjoyed the peace and quiet, but if you asked her in just the right way, she loved the rough and tumble more.
A chance to grab her pistol firmly, squeezing the trigger with a firm purpose and clear knowledge of the outcome.
In the bad old days that could have happened three, four times a night.
There was always hope for the future.
She’d been warming up again recently. Shooting the odd varmint that came her way. Once or twice a day, just to keep her hand in.
She’d had a feeling that her time of quiet was coming to an end. That she needed to shake the cobwebs from her system, get her head clear again. Kick the dust from her boots and the rust from her spurs. Her gun was going to be seeing action again, real soon now.
She didn’t know when it would come, but in the meantime, she would wait. She drank, and she waited.
The sun was settling, a chill biting through the air. Benny was smearing the dirt around the bar with a filthy rag. Mike the grocer was asleep in a corner. All was well in the world.
The door to the saloon creaked open.
It slapped shut behind him, hitting SueBob in the mouth, knocking his last remaining tooth into the dirt outside.
Bob shoved SueBob out of the way and lumbered in, bumping into Phil.
“Gawdammit Bob,” drawled Phil, “how many times I gotta tells yah? Get the hell off me. Go pick up yer brother.”
Bob dragged him off the ground, as SueBob futilely shoved the now filthy tooth back into his gaping mouth.
“I’m here for mah money” shouted Phil, desperately trying to regain some sense of authority.
“But it’s only Tuesday!” whined Benny “I ain’t got yer money till Friday.”
Old Clare quietly swung her chair around, unlatched her holster and fingered her trigger. She didn’t like where this was going.
“I don’t care” muttered Phil, “I wants mah cash now. I gots some business expenses comin’ up.”
“But…” started Benny.
“…and SueBob needs dental work from your damn door” he continued, waving his gun at the ceiling.
“But Phil, I ain’t got thah money” cried Benny, “I never has the money till later in the week. These bums…” he gestured miserably at his congregation and stopped, tears in his eyes.
Phil leered delightedly at his cousins, “Well boys, know what this means?”
“No, please no!” whimpered Benny.
“Shut yer mouth!” snapped Phil, whipping Benny viciously across the temple with the butt of his gun.
Benny crumpled wordlessly to the floor as Phil turned casually away.
“Well folks, y’all knew this day would come. Benny can’t pay his debts, so we’s taking over.”
Mike lifted his head off the table at the commotion, wiping drool into his dusty sleeve.
“What the hell?” he muttered, more to himself than anyone else.
“You ‘eard me” shouted Phil “We now owns this place. Time for a new name! New owner, new name. Let’s see, what do you boys think?”
“Uhh…” muttered Bob, the sharper of the two.
“Never mind” Phil hurried on, “we’ll get tah that later. Right now? First order of business.”
“Enough” interjected Old Clare, quietly.
“What’d yous say?” demanded Phil, glaring as if he’d never seen her before.
Old Clare spat her baccy onto the floor.
“I said, enough” she repeated, “Benny has done nothing but pay you for years, for no reason other than he’s too stupid not to.”
“How dare yah speak to me like that?” screamed Phil “I runs this town!”
“Don’t yah mean we runth thith town?” slurred SueBob.
“Shut yer hole” said Phil, turning his attention back to Old Clare.
“Old Clare, I is warning yah for the last time, sit the heck down and shut up or… suffer the consequences.”
“No” stated Old Clare, as simply as if she’d been offered beer instead of whiskey, “leave Benny, leave the bar, and leave us be.”
“Kill her!” shouted Phil, waving his gun at his cousins.
Bob was fastest, yanking his gun from his holster. But Old Clare was already drawn and shot him clean through the shoulder. He dropped his gun, swearing.
SueBob was still fumbling when she shot him too. He’d been crouching on the floor and she hit him square in the chest sending him flying backwards.
Bob screamed and rushed at Old Clare, gun forgotten. All fear gone, nothing left but hatred and fury.
Phil wasted no time. He sighted on Old Clare and pulled his trigger.
Old Clare dropped to the floor with a grunt. Blood poured from her chest as Bob tripped, kneeling on her face as he crumpled past her.
Phil walked slowly towards her, groaning quietly on the floor, “I warned yah Old Clare. Stay the heck out of mah business.”
“This isn’t your business,” wheezed Old Clare, “this is my home” and with that she squeezed off one final shot, right between his eyes.
With a look of utter surprise Phil Jenkins tumbled backwards and into a table.
Bob scrambled back to his feet, accidentally kicking Old Clare again as he did.
“SueBob! SueBob!” he cried, rushing over to his brother’s body. Tears now welling on his face, he dragged SueBob’s body from the saloon.
Benny groaned from behind the bar as Mike the grocer helped him to his feet.
Benny shook his head clear. He looked around the saloon. He picked up Bob’s gun and then slowly, quietly, with growing conviction began giving orders.
In time, the night’s ruckus was forgotten. The town moved on, as towns everywhere do.
Benny nailed a sign behind the bar, “Old Clare’s”, and out the back, beside the dying grey stump, a beautiful new tree quietly but surely grew.