Vardis Huntre was settling on the plot for his new historic romance. The setting would be a mining camp in the Tobacco Root Mountains of Montana in the nineteen twenties. The idea came to him as he was downing a beer in Darcy’s, a dive at the intersection of U.S 287 and Meadow Creek Road. Besides the many elk, moose, deer, mouse, monster trout and Jackalope trophies glass-eyeing down on imbibers and other patrons of Darcy’s there was a large photograph of four men and a woman standing in front of a large log structure. Vardis Huntre let his mind start to weave a story from the picture.
Meanwhile Darcy, the pale, slack muscled half-owner, chief bartender and full time bottle washer of the establishment was telling stories about the trophies on the walls. Darcy was a guy who looked like he had spent too much time popping tops, pouring cheap Scotch and pacing from one end of a bar to the other. For one thing, the beer can he parked at one end of the bar and occasionally lifted to his lips was a Great Falls Select beer can with two triangle holes punched in the top. Great Falls Select has not been seen or heard of since around 1968 or thereabouts.
As might be suspected Darcy was an accomplished liar. Or at least he was a pretty good story teller, if the owner of the other half of the bar was not around. The owner of the other half of the bar was Darcy’s wife Barb. She was not a story teller, but she was a pretty good bouncer, which is why she did not spend much time in the bar. It was not a place that needed a bouncer. But it did need a good liar, since lying and the juke box behind the three or four scattered tables was about the only entertainment in Darcy’s. If someone did not put a quarter in the juke box it played Linda Ronstadt singing “Old Paint” over and over again. It made a sort of light background to Darcy’s stories.
And he was in the process, right now, of lying about where, when, and how each of the elk, moose, rainbow trout, grizzly bear, and Jackalopes, on the wall was acquired. He was at the point he enjoyed the most, the story about the mouse in the bell jar beside the register behind the bar. The lies were fulsome and rich in their detail, but Vardis Huntre was a liar of no small caliber himself—being, after all, involved in the novel manufacturing trade. So he had heard almost all that could be told about acquiring trophies. He had managed to work quite a few of these acquisitions into his first four novels. Listening to Darcy’s lies was sort of a dejavu, been-there-done-that moment for him. And Vardis was becoming more and more interested in the blurry, four by six, black and white photograph of four blurred men and one blurred woman standing in front of a log wall.
So he stopped Darcy in mid description of the action packed explanation of the mouse capture, which involved a b-b gun, and a cat that did not kill, but ‘pointed mice like a Setter’.
“What about that picture there,” Vardis said.
Darcy’s mouth worked a second as he tried to leave one lie and pick up another that had been suddenly introduced by one of the audience. Linda Ronstadt started again on ‘I ride an old paint.” Before Darcy could speak the skinny drunk at the end of the bar said, “That there is Darcy’s great grandma and her first and second husband and one of her boyfriends and somebody else.”
Darcy stepped back from the bar, a look of great indignation on his pale bartender face. He picked up his Great Falls Select can, “Oz,” he said, “you got no idea of which you speak on this.”
“Just sayin, Darce, just saying.”
Vardis figured at least forty percent of what Oz said was a lie, but that didn’t matter. The idea for his novel took on a few more details and the edges of several good plots. A foursome plus one at some isolated mining camp. There were possibilities in that.
“So, is that your grandmother, then?” he said.
Darcy scowled at Oz. He pointed at him with his Great Falls can. “This flunk out has about none of the story correct,” he said.
“Close enough for liar’s poker,” Oz said. “You got another beer, there?”
“I should cut you off,” Darcy said. “You have drunk so much you are making up trash.”
“Just sayin’, Darce, Just sayin’.”
Darcy leaned into the cooler and pulled out a cheap beer, popped the top and slid it in front of Oz. He picked up the empty, and it clattered into the bin. Linda sang “. . . ride around/ ride around real slow. . . ”
“Yeah, that’s old Vergie,” he said. Great Grandma Vergie Mcgrudner. Murderess, adulteress, horse thief. You name it she did it. But she was only married once.” He sneered at Oz.
“O sweet Mother of Mary,” the skinny drunk said. He was grinning.
“Sounds like quite the pioneer woman,” Vardis said. Only married once was a good plot device, he thought. Especially with three other men, adultery, murder, and horse stealing for a writer to work with. Horse stealing was a nice touch—that had been a hanging offense, if Vardis remembered correctly.
“O, hell no,” Oz said. “She was just a kid whore who got lucky is all.”
“What?” Vardis and Darcy both said. Darcy’s ‘what’ was surprised indignation. Vardis’s version was surprised elation. A wayward woman who reforms, makes good, steals horses, kills somebody, and who is also an adulteress. There was a lot of character development possibilities in that. This novel was writing itself.
“She wasn’t a whore,” Darcy said. He lifted his head and slapped the Great Falls Select can on the bar. It rang hollow. He was obviously a man bent on defending a virgin’s honor.
“Whatever,” Oz said.
“She was the fourth wife of a Mormon Bishop down in Rigby,” Darcy said. “When she run off, she had to . . . .” Darcy let his voice trail off.
Linda sang, “. . . .One went to Dever/ and the other went wrong.”
“She didn’t have any say in it,” Darcy said, “After she ran off from that farm in Rigby. . . .” he let that trail off too.
“So she was on her own then, and. . . ?” Vardis prompted. You just couldn’t make this stuff up, he thought.
“She came up to the mines, took up a claim—or tried to, but it was easier to take up with a miner. Which she did. But she didn’t . . . .”
“Yeah, yeah,” Oz said. “It don’t matter anyway. That was . . . .”
“So that miner was your great grand father then,” Vardis said. He was hoping that this was not the case, since that would make the plot too simple. He was not disappointed
“His brother,” Darcy said.
Oz made a sound.
“What?” Darcy said. He shook the Great Falls can at Oz.
Oz shrugged. “Long time ago. Nobody to say. Who knows. You could be out of mailman for all we know.”
Vardis said, “There was a mailman. . . ?” He wouldn’t even need an outline to make this one. It was all there, adultery, murder, horse thievery, polygamy, prostitution, maybe polyandry all in one character. And a mailman thrown in for sordid effect. Novelists do not wander into stories better than this.
The back door squeaked and opened and in waddled a round woman wearing bib overalls and carrying a vase of flowers. It was the owner of the other half of Darcy’s. It was Barb.
The two old liars went silent. Oz lifted his cheap beer and sucked at it. Darcy didn’t bother with the Great Falls can. He concentrated on wiping the bar. Linda sang “Take my saddle from the wall/Put it on my pony/And lead him from his stall/Tie my bones to his back. . . .”
Barb put the vase on one of the tables, fiddled with it and smiled. She walked over to the juke box, slapped it, and Linda started over “I ride an old. . . .” But Barb punched in 104 and pretty soon the Mamas and the Papas were singing “Joan and Mitchy were getting kinda litch. . . .”
“So, stranger,” Barb said to Vardis, “What is my old man lying about today.
“Oh,” Vardis said. “Very interesting. The adventures of old Virgie there,” he pointed at the picture of four men and a woman on the wall above the bar.
“Hmfph.” Barb said. “Usually he just stretches fish and lies about buffalo heads he bought.”
“No,” Vardis said. “Very interesting story. She must have been quite a character.”
“Her?” Barb said.
Darcy put another beer in front of Vardis, who noticed a twitch from Oz that might have been a wink. “On the house,” Darcy said.
“Her?” Barb said again. “Della Fristbottom. I don’t know what these fishermen been saying. That’s Della and Frank Fristbottom, those two on the right, Gram and Grandad Fristbottom. She was cooking up at the Last Luck Mine in the summers.” Barb waved her large ham hand at the photograph. “Granddad freighted up to it. Real solid people. Hard luck never found friendlier than them. Went to Kansas looking for a ranch in ‘29, which blew away in the dust bowl, then they came back here in time to send their boys off, one at a time, to fight Hitler and Hirohito.” She looked around.
“What lies these slickers been telling you?”
“Yeah, she was a good old girl, Della was,” Oz said.
Darcy had found a spot on the bar that needed some wiping pressure.
“Not much,” Vardis said, he sipped at his beer. He had his story. He didn’t want another one.
The Mommas and the Papas sang “And California dreamin’ is becomin’ a reality.”