Lester McClain sat at the bar, gazing over his glass of single barrel Four Roses bourbon at the glittering array of bottles along the mirrored wall. His hands rested on the worn oak bar top, its lacquer nearly nonresistant in places where for decades patrons had leaned their elbows, set their belongings or held on for dear life as the countless drinks had taken hold. The bartender passed back and forth, no more than an blur; a ghost drifting this way then that serving the spirit needs of the living.
Les had been fly fishing the Narrow Canyon Creek that day. It had been a good day for such adventure. Not too hot, the water was crystal clear as it hadn’t rained in a week, and the trout had been in the mood to be deceived. He had cleaned and packed the catch of three rainbows on ice before walking the pine-lined lane from his cabin to the Sierra Springs Tavern for his nightly cocktail. It was a relatively normal day, except for the bear.
The faintest scent of tobacco wafted in with the opening of the door. Les loved the aroma of tobacco, cigarettes, cigars or pipes; which was odd because he couldn’t stand the taste of any of them and so did not partake.
“Mind if I sit,” rasped a deep voice from behind and to his left.
Lester turned to see a man of substantial presence, heavy brown beard, bushy eyebrows, long wild hair and usually large deep brown eyes. So dark was the brown of the man’s eye color that it was hard to tell where his irises ended and the pupils began.
“Be my guest,” Les offered, sliding to his right to make room for the unusually large man.
The old stool groaned as the stranger sat and the bar flinched to a near buckle under the weight of his massive forearms. He seemed familiar, in an odd, not particularly comfortable way, as though Les had met him in a dream but never in waking life. He thought it curious that this fellow had chosen the neighboring seat at the long spacious bar. Perhaps he was in need of companionship. From the wild look of him, Les surmised that he might have gone quite some time without conversation or at least a conversation with someone who wasn’t concerned for their personal safety.
The phantom barkeep materialized in front of the two men but took a half step back when he focused on the newcomer.
“Shash,” he blurted, “long time no see.” His tone teetered between conversational and disconcerted. “What can I get you?”
“Old Rip Van Winkle 25, double.”
“No.” As an afterthought, Shash added, “thank you, no thank you on the ice.”
The barkeep vanished. Les turned to his new companion, who seemed suddenly lost in thought, “Name’s Lester, Lester McClain.”
“Yes,” agreed the stranger. Silence. Perhaps he wasn’t interested in conversation after all. The keep set the glass of Rip down on the bar; it seemed to emit the faintest glow.
“I’ve never heard of Old Rip Van Winkle” Les offered. “I’m a Four Roses man myself.”
“It’s not sold here, Old Rip Van Winkle,” said Shash. “Junior keeps it in a hidden cabinet at the end of the bar.”
“Junior?” Les thought, the guy’s name is Dillon. Though he surmised, compared to this substantial gentleman, everyone was a ‘Junior’ of sorts.
“How was the fishing today?” The giant asked.
“Ah, good. How did you know I was fishing.”
“I can smell it.” Shash offered.
Lester raised his glass as if to take a sip, which he did. More of a gulp really, but it was the sniffing of his hand, which he had thoroughly washed that was his true intention. He smelled only soap and bourbon.
The brown-eyed man raised his glass, swallowed the double in one gulp, set the glass down gently on the bar.
“Nice to see you, Lester. Be well.” With that he rose, his stool exhaling a sigh of relief. He adjusted his enormous brown leather coat, turned and walked out of the bar.
“Nice to see you, Lester?” Les thought, did I get too much sun today?
Dillon returned. “Everything okay?” He asked, a bead of sweat escaping his hairline.
“Yeah, ah, yeah, fine. Can I have another Four Roses please?”
“On the house.” Dillon offered, pouring quickly then darting off.
“On the house? That’s a first!” Les thought, swirling his bourbon in the glass. He watched the amber liquid cling to the walls of the cylindrical vessel then slowly fall in viscous waves under gravity’s pull. Dillon scurried outside for a smoke break. Les sipped his bourbon, considering the odd moments that had just passed, trying to conjure any waking memory of his curious new acquaintance. The sweet smell of Dillon’s cigarette wafted through the open front door of the Sierra Springs Tavern. Les inhaled deeply, raised his glass and took a long pull.
Continued in Lester McClain and the Bear – II