After college I took a temporary job as a wrangler on a 137,000-acre ranch in Northern New Mexico. My first duty station was in a remote location. It was me and four boys in a barn. We had no electricity and sparse running water – that is, we used an outhouse and an odd shower shed.
On occasion, we would ride our horses bareback down to the little field by the little road that led into the little town of Cimarron, NM, population 800. Our destination was the St James Hotel – more specifically, the saloon nestled within the hotel. Gold was discovered in New Mexico in 1828 and the rush thrived through the 1870’s. Cimarron was conveniently located on the Santa Fe Trail. Wealthy men, miners, lawmen and outlaws all frequented its only hotel. The St James is legendary.
In addition to the gambling, drinking and eating, the St James saloon (known then as Lambert’s place) had its share of barroom brawls, gun fights and death. Sometimes it was the drunken cowboys. Sometimes it was vigilante justice. Sometimes it was the outlaws.
On the route to Tombstone, the St James was an oft-used hotel. The Earp brothers, Buffalo Bill Cody and Annie Oakley were known to stay there. Jesse James and Black Jack Ketchum also stayed at the hotel. The saloon even had bullet holes in the ceiling – Wild West leftovers.
Once we rode the horses to the small lower field next to highway 21, we took the reins off, threw ‘em over our shoulders and set out on foot. It was nice because the sun was over our left shoulders and out of our eyes as it set along that mostly flat stretch of highway. Just as the town started springing up around us, the St James Hotel appeared.
From the outside, the St James was unimpressive – a simple tan and gray rectangular building with perfectly identical rows of small windows lined in evenly spaced double rows interrupted only by the front doors. The old porches and balconies were long gone. Rarely did we see horses tied up to the hitches outside, but it certainly did happen from time to time.
Inside, the St James was moving. They had preserved much of the 1800s look, and the bar was full of rich, dark colors and carved wood just like in the old western movies. The polished floor was also wooden, and the bar itself had a wood/leather/whiskey smell that mixed in perfect harmony with the dust and sweat of its patrons. We never ventured to the second floor. We preferred the bar: its corners and stools and pool tables.
The first time we made the trip, I followed the boys up to the bar where an attractive female bartender with a strategically low-cut shirt welcomed us.
“Hey fellas. How y’all doin’” She asked smiling. She was a skinny thing, probably in her thirties. She was definitely a local – knowing her way around those parts and all those cowboys, too. What struck me most, however, was her mastery of balance between her flirtatious persona and her even more natural don’t-even-think-about-messing-with-me attitude. I liked her.
Once the boys closed their mouths and wiped their drool, one of ‘em thought to grab me by the shoulder and said, “Oh, we have a girl, too.”
“Bless your hearts,” she replied as I raised my eyebrows in a tell-me-about-it silent response.
“What’ll it be then?” she asked.
With another pat on my shoulder, our fearless leader answered, “We’ve got to initiate her to the signature shot around here: the Three Wise Men. Shots all around!”
The boys cheered. The waitress smiled. Then she turned away, “Beer chasers?”
“Miller Lites will do. Thank you, ma’am.”
“What, pray tell, is the ‘Three Wise Men?’” I asked.
The boys grinned big, and one proudly puffed out his chest and replied, “Jack. Jim. And Jose!”
“You’ve got to be kidding me!?!” I look back at them grinning ear-to-ear. “Seriously? In one shot?”
“It’ll put hair on your chest.”
“Yeh, not what I’m going for, Craig.”
“Oh, c’mon! Try it. It’s tradition.”
By this time the bartender had expertly poured the concoctions, each liquor directly on top of the other, into the shot glasses before us. Prior to this I’d had some sips of beer and barely a taste of whiskey, so I was in no way looking forward to this little experiment.
“Here’s to Clark’s Fork,” Mike said.
“To Clark’s Fork!” everybody repeated downing the shots and chasing that nastiness with ice cold beers.
“Oh, wow!” I said.
The boys laughed and all gave me congratulatory pats on the back before we wandered over to the pool table. We found some stools to perch on while waiting our turn for a game. While we waited, I was careful in how I “drank” my beer. That is, I didn’t actually get more than a drop or two into my mouth each time I tipped that bottle into my mouth… appearances and all.
At some point, I got up to use the restroom – or so they thought. Really, I ducked around some folks at the end of the bar and got the bartender lady’s attention.
I put a twenty dollar bill on the bar and said, “I’m gonna need some help.”
She smiled, “I see. What seems to be the problem?” She raised one eyebrow.
“See those boys?” I asked. “It’s just me and them – about eight miles from here on a hill in the middle of a ranch. Just those boys… and me… in a barn… alone.”
She smiled taking my twenty, “Got it.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” I said tipping my hat and walking back over to the pool table.
We started shooting pool. The boys were pretty good, and I could hold my own. Growing up my grandparents had a pool table, and in college my friends and I liked to hang out in a pool hall downtown.
I was racking the balls for a new game when the bartender appeared with a tray of shots and beers.
“Again?” I groaned.
“It’s good for you,” somebody shot back.
The bartender handed me a shot glass with a wink and then passed out the others.
“To a night on the town!” was the toast, and I downed a stiff swig of… tea? What? Hmmm… The bartender was already gone by the time I figured it out. I wasn’t complaining anyway.
Playing pool was fun. It was all peppered with good natured harassment and story after story of glory days: in football, on the ranch, back home, etc. We all had something we wanted to relive.
We’d only been there a couple of hours, but we had to walk and ride back to the barn. We agreed to one more shot and beer, and so we all moved over to the corner of the bar.
Even though the boys were pretty tipsy, I had just been faking a li’l buzz. The bartender had been picking up my full beers and replacing them with new full beers every time a new round was ordered. All my shots after the first one had been non-alcoholic. With the boys all standing at the bar, she couldn’t fake the pour on this last round. Still, she gave me a knowing nod, exaggerated wiping down the counter and threw her towel over her shoulder before handing us the shots.
After we klinked our glasses, I threw my head back just like the boys, but I made sure my shot went over my left shoulder and onto the floor. As the boys cheered and picked up their beers, the bartender stooped down and wiped up a little spill on the floor behind me. I hadn’t even seen her come out of the bar. She was good.
With the beers finished and the tabs paid, we started our walk back to the field where we’d left the horses. It was a cool night and crystal clear. We were far from big cities and all of Cimarron had gone to bed except for the St James.
The storytelling continued as we walked – only now it was more frat boy tales and the occasional rodeo escapade thrown in for variety.
I heard the horses before I saw them, but they had heard us, too. Some came towards us and others immediately ran away. We had to catch them in the field still an acre or so big. Generally, my palomino gelding was fairly easy to catch – if he liked you. Fortunately, he liked me.
“All right! Let’s catch us a horse,” one of the boys said.
I swung a leg over the fence but paused before jumping down. I laughed as I watched the boys stumble in the uneven field. Hopping down, I slowly walked over to Questa. I quietly patted his neck, and when he bent down to nibble a little grass, I slid the halter on nice and easy.
The boys were a bit louder with intermittent bursts of “Shhh…” followed by “Don’t spook ‘em” then a giggle, a laugh and “Shut up!” or “Damnit!” Then there was more laughter.
I smiled and walked over to the hay drop, using its slats to climb up and gently mount Questa bareback again. Sober as a saint, I watched those boys trip, chase horses and fall off once they actually managed to mount one.
Eventually, everybody got on their horse. We rode a little while in the dark back to the barn and turned the horses loose. The boys passed out in their cots as I settled down in mine behind a little particle board partition, snuggling in for dreams of four drunken cowboys and three wise men.