Hospitality, Western Style
A.small light was burning in a rear room of the hamburger place. It was closed.
“Look, mom, there’s a man in there.” Adrienne, as well as Victor and Gail, had their noses pressed to the window, hands shielding their eyes — peering in.
The front room of the cafe was rather large — neatly arranged with tables and chairs, a large record player against the rear wall, and the serving counter connecting with the rear room, which must have been the kitchen. A light in the record player cast a yellowish glow around the main room. The rear room had its own light — and a man moving about.
I knocked hard on the glass pane of one of the double doors. Results, zero.
I rattled the door vigorously.
“He heard us,” announced Victor. “He looked up.” Still zero results.
Grabbing the handles of both doors firmly, I shook and rattled them until Helen made me stop.
At least, nearly so. The man switched on a light in the front room, came up to the doors, unlocked and opened them, and explained with more courtesy than might have been expected, “We’re closed.”
The Cattlemen’s Hotel experience had made us experts. In all seriousness, we would hardly ever do what we had been doing here in Springerville, but a week such as we had gone through might even have made a beggar out of a king.
As the man had switched on the light and come toward the doors through the front room, the sight of three pairs of childish eyes, glued on him through the window — maybe that had said to him all that was needed.
In a few minutes we were all seated inside at a large table and the man was heating soup and cooking hamburgers in the rear room.
He had forgotten to relock the front doors. From out on the street, a man tried the door, found it open, and came in. This was the first person — other than our hotel and cafe benefactors —that we had seen in Springerville.
“Place was closed an hour ago,” said the Stranger. “Glad you’re open. I’ll have a hamburger and some coffee.”
“We’re still closed,” said the man preparing our food.
Springerville, we were finding, was a place of compassionate people. With no further words, the cafe man — whether he was proprietor, cook, waiter, cashier, or all four, we never knew — was putting another hamburger on to fry.
The Stranger had taken a seat at a table near the center of the large room. We were at one side. Victor, always restless and curious, wandered up to the lighted record player, read the list of recordings, then asked of me, “Can I have a nickel? They’ve got a good record in there.”
I suppose I’m the only person in western America who has never put a nickel — or any other coin — in the slot of a record player to hear canned music. I don’t like their artificial clatter. I’d put in money to stop them — but never to set them going. It’s one of my peculiarities. I confess it but won’t attempt to explain it. I could say that it had been a hard week, and a trying day, but that was not the reason. To Victor’s request I simply said “No.”
The Stranger was obviously listening. None of us had been served yet, and there was nothing else to do. He reached into his pocket, fumbled for a coin.
“Here, kid,” he motioned to Victor. “Let’s hear your tune.”
The music was still blaring when our food came but this was once when I didn’t let it interfere with my appetite. I was not even too embarrassed over the episode of the nickel.
After too long, the music ceased.
The Stranger at his table, we at ours, were eating —hungrily, silently, earnestly. He finished before we did, but asked for some more coffee.
“First time I’ve been back here in 45 years,” he announced to no one in particular. “Used to work cattle down this way. Had some great times here. Haven’t been back in 45 years.”
I was glad he had spoken. Secretly I had been concerned that this might have been the absentee Jed, whose room we were occupying at the hotel. Relieved, I said,
“So you worked cattle? My wife’s father — most of her relatives — were cattlemen. Down near Globe and Superior —that area. Maybe you’ve heard of them. Gibsons.”
“Gibson?” The Stranger was bypassing me, speaking directly to Helen. “You mean you’re a Gibson? Not related to Charlie Gibson by any chance?”
“He’s my uncle,” said Helen.
The Stranger became a stranger no longer. We found his name was Jack. Even the cook, proprietor, waiter and cashier came in to listen as Jack recounted episodes of early Springerville days when he and Charlie Gibson used to work together on ranches in this region.
Our conversation was taking place across the customerless cavern of the unfilled room. We had to raise our voices a bit to be heard. Jack finished his refill of coffee, looked across at Helen with a hesitant expression, then motioned with his arm and index finger.
“Come here,” he almost whispered. Helen answered his look, glanced at me questioningly, then the both of us went over to his table.
Jack was speaking so low now that we had to bend close to hear.
“Do you know about Charlie Gibson and the cattle rustler?” he asked.
“Charlie had to use his gun.” explained Jack. “He was riding out toward the creek when he saw the widow who lives near there driving her cattle along toward a corral. A man on horseback suddenly appeared out of nowhere, and cut some of the cattle out.
“That’s when Charlie came up. ‘Leave that widow’s cattle alone,’ he yelled.
“The man didn’t pay a bit of attention.
“I’m warning you,” yelled Charlie.
“The man reached for his gun but Charlie reached for his faster and sent a bullet singing through the air. The last he saw of the rustler, he was hell-bent for Texas. Don’t know if the bullet hit him or not.
“The widow wasn’t about to keep a story like that to herself. Charlie was soon quite a hero.”
In the first beds we’d occupied for a week, we caught up on a lot of sleep that night. Not even the prospect that Jed might check into his room — or dreams of cattle rustlers — kept us awake.