The Invitation

James L. Cowles

© Copyright 2023 by James L. Cowles
Image by Jorge Barahona from Pixabay
Image by Jorge Barahona from Pixabay

    He had ridden this trail many times, but he couldn't remember the name of the little town the cowboy had told him about.

    It must be another one of those damn gold rush towns," he thought. “They have cropped up all over creation since 1850. Calefornee is full of ‘em, and I bet this here one is jest another one that’ll probably go ‘bout as quick as it come.

    This damn road ain’t much more than a rut for the last ten miles er so. It’s mostly a muddy gutter from all this here rain. The dang sky has opened up on me these last three days, and the rain is a’comin’ in sheets. I reckon I’m ’a ‘bout ta drown out here.

I ain’t never seen rain come down this heavy in my life. Damned, if’n I ain’t soaked to the bone. My long coat is fastened as tight around my throat as I can git it without chockin,' and I can’t pull my hat down no further. Damn rain, it’s almost got me blinded. There mus’ be a buildin’ or a tent somewheres around here, least ways that’s what that ‘ol cowboy told me. Some place, any place I can get out of this gawd-awful weather and dry out. Lord help me.

    A light appeared dimly up ahead, and the only way he knew it was coming from a building, were the brief flashes of lightning now coming more frequently. He turned his horse toward the flicker and suddenly found himself riding through a city of tents, slowly closing in on the dimly lit lamp.

A stable, thank god. Old Jack needs to rest more than me, poor boy. You 'bout drowned, ain't ya, boy?"

The words were hardly out of his mouth, when a short, bearded man appeared.

    Howdy mister, what kin I do fer ya?

    Well, thank the Lord in heaven. Howdy! Well now, to start with you can dry out old Jack, here, then put 'im in a nice warm stall. Throw a blanket over 'im too, if ya please, and I'm thinking’ he's a might hungry. Give ‘im a bucket ‘o yer best oats.

    You betcha, mister. We’s happy to have you visit. It’ll be one dollar a day, in advance. Ya gonna be around here fer awhile?

    Well, I don't have no definite plans, but I sure as hell would like a place where I can dry off and bed down tonight. Ya got a hotel in this here town?

Nope, we sure ain’t, and we call this here town, "Gold City." We ain't got no hotel, least ways, not yet, but yer luck is a'holdin' tonight, mister. Right around this here corner is a pretty dang nice saloon and I ain't never knowed a time they didn't have a bed, 'er two upstairs. Pretty nice, too, least I been told.

    That 's what I was a’hopin' for, my friend. Thank ye, kindly. Lots uh gold here, is there?

    Well, some, but I wouldn't call it a lot. Say, ya think ya might need a woman tonight, mister? I can't think 'a no better way to warm yer bones, ya know, and I know a couple of ‘em. Good ones, too.

    No, I ain't got the energy, tonight, friend. I just want to sleep in a warm, dry bed. I feel like I could sleep for two days!

    So, ya been out on the trail long brother?

    Yep, for a pretty good while. Too damn long.

    You mind me askin' why you has come this way?

    Well… Yeah, I do. Let's just say I'm on a mission, okay?

    Yes sir, mister. Ain't none of my business, no ways. Sorry, I didn't mean nothin' by it.

    Around this way, you say?

    Uh, whadda ya mean, mister?

    You know. The saloon?

    Oh, uh, yeah, justa, 'round that there corner.

    Thank you. By the way, friend, you can call me, Jesse. What's your name?"

    Why folks from ‘round here calls me "Catchy," uh, Jesse. That's jest short fer Catchhill, Tom Catchhill's the name.

    Take good care of Jack, Catchy. He deserves it.

    You betcha I will, Mister Jesse. Have a good night, now.

    It was exactly as Catchy had said, just around the corner. You surely couldn’t miss it; it was the only building in town, except for the stable.Pretty convenient, Jesse thought.

He could see it was almost empty as he entered, with only four men inside. There were two men, each seated at different tables, the bartender, sitting on a stool half asleep, and a rather lovely young woman, whom Jesse immediately took note of was standing at one end of the bar. It was obvious she took note of him as well.

   Jesse walked up to the bar and rapped twice rapidly, startling the barkeep, and causing him to practically fall off his stool. Jesse tried not to laugh at the bartender's blustered appearance, but couldn't help himself. Although unintended, that put an angry scowl on the barkeep's face.fac and evoked an angry response;

   Ain't nothin' funny about that, mister. You know that?

   No harm, my friend, I promise. Ya know, if I was you, and had only four customers, I'd probably have closed down, myself. I right admire ya for stayin' open and let me tell ya, I'm glad you did.

  Sorry for bein'' so short with ya, Mister. It's been this way for the last three nights. I keep hopin' it'll pick up, but it ain't yet. Anyway, you made me five customers, tonight. Welcome! What can I get ya?

   Just a beer'll do, I suppose. Do you have anything to eat?

     No sir, I don't and if'n I did, I'd probably have more customers. Got some hardtack though, free to you, my friend. Everbodies snugged into them tents out there tonight, but if it weren’t a rainin,’ one of them boys would cook you up a steak, I'm sure. Ca nab’t say what they'd charge you though. Them boys is not diggin' much gold. They jest hangs in their tents when it pours; rain does the rest. I ‘spect you heard a heap 'a snorin' if ya came through 'em out there.

    Naw, it’s pretty loud out with all them raindrops hittin’ my hat. ‘Could barely hear my horse a’walkin. And I’m obliged for the offer, but my pockets is full of that dried out beef. Don’t need none of that, but Catchy tells me you got a pretty good place to bed down, is that right?

   Yessir, if'n ya got two dollars, I can put you up.

   Well, I'm one dog-tired cowboy. You got a key to that room?

   No sir, ain't no keys. Just walk on up to the top of them steps and it's the door straight ahead of ye. If ya want, drop your clothes outside the door there, and I'll have Lilly here bring 'em down and hang 'em by the stove ta dry out. Now, if ya want 'em cleaned, well, Lilly can take care of that to, but it'll cost ya another dollar.

    That's fine; Howdy, Lilly. I 'spect that would be a right good idea, what with all the trail dust turned to mud. It ain't good for a body to put dirty clothes back on after cleanin' up, but how are ya gonna dry’em

    That ain’t a problem, mister. I jus’ irons ‘em ‘til they don’t feel wet no more. You go ahead on up, uh, uh sir....

    Jesse's my name, Maam and thank you kindly.

    You are most welcome, Mister Jesse. I'll bring you up a pitcher of water and a towel right away.

    I'm obliged, Maam. I'll be a few minutes a’gettin' these clothes off; they are a stickin' to me somethin' fierce.

    Take your time, Mr. Jesse. Ain’t none of us goin’ nowhere in this here weather. I'll come up when I hear you call out.

   Take one of them lamps up there with you, Jesse, the barkeep offered.

   Thank you, barkeep. You folks is mighty kind.

   Goodnight, mister Jesse, the barkeep replied, as Jesse climbed the steps.

   When he reached the top of, he turned back to look once more at Lilly, and their eyes met. He sensed a longing from her and felt an unexpected closeness. It was as if he had known her for years.

   The room was cramped, with a small bed in one corner, and a blanket neatly folded over the bed rail. "The sheet looks clean," he thought. He took off his gun belt and laid it on the small table next to the bed, moving a wash pan to one side as he did. It ain't the best place I've ever stayed, but it sure beats lyin' in the mud by a campfire, especially with the rain so hard. Might not get no fire out there tonight.

    He set the lamp down and began taking off every stitch of his clothes, stopping only momentarily to look out the lone window, at the outline of dozens of tents. Each time the lightning flashed he could see there was a symmetry, an order to the campground. Gold City was a city of canvases, in the middle of nowhere. 

   When he was finished undressing, he shivered and hurriedly opened the door, announcing, "Okay, now!" In a minute he heard light footsteps coming up the steps, followed by a soft knock on the door. When he opened it, he did so only wide enough to hand his trail filthy clothes out to Lilly and allow her to hand him a large pitcher of water, with a drinking gourd. In the transfer, their hands touched softly and she reached out and clutched his wrist lightly.

   Jesse, do you need or want anything else tonight? She asked in a suggestive tone.

   Oh, no Miss Lilly, but thank you. I am just so tired.

   Jesse, it gets mighty cold up here at night and you'd be doing me a fierce favor if I could sleep in with you. There would be no extra charge.

   Lilly, you are not only very beautiful, but you are also very sweet. I would be proud to have such a woman in my bed, but the trail has taken its toll on me. I would be no company to you this dreary and tiresome evenin.'

   It's okay, Jesse, I understand. I would ask only one thing of you.

   What is it, Miss Lilly?

   Well, Jesse, mind you, I know it's a lot to ask, but when you leave this here town, I'd like to ride out with you.

   Lilly, I, I.... Can we discuss this more in the mornin?' Now, I aint ‘a sayin' no, but you don't know where I'm 'a goin' and I don't know why you are wantin' ta go. We need to talk, don't you think?

   That makes purfect sense, Jesse. You get some rest and I'll see you in the mornin.’ Good night!

   The room was still dark when Jesse heard his door open, and he reached for his gun from under his pillow. Just then he caught a whiff of perfume and knew instantly it was Lilly. He could see her shadowy figure, as she quietly brought a chair into the room, left, then returned with his clothes. He watched as she took her time to fold each piece neatly and lay them on the chair, then he watched as she walked softly to the window, apparently gazing out at the city of tents, and he thought he heard her crying softly. It was still raining hard, and he felt amazing comfort as he watched her.   

   She's a mighty good woman," he thought, "and so beautiful." He could see her gray figure outlined in the darkness, and he stared at her until his tiredness overtook him once more, then fell back into a deep, restful sleep.

    He had not been asleep long when he felt the bed move slightly, heard the sheets rustle, and then her warm body press against his back, her breasts softly touching him. He heard her say, "Jesse, I am so cold," but he knew that wasn't true. Her body felt warm, almost hot, and it awakened his. Still, he did not turn to her, nor did she try to persuade him to. They both slept, relaxing to the sound of the steady rain.

    Jesse found himself dreaming of her, and he heard her whisper, “Them men out there in all that canvas, is heathens, Jesse. I must go from here. I’ve jus’ got too.”

   I'm takin' you with me when I leave this place, Lilly. You deserve better, and so do I. Then he whispered, “Goodnight. Don’t worry none. I’m gonna take good care of you.”

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