Winter had a hold on Utica, Montana this January day as Jeanne Hardcastle inserted a key into the door of her bar and grill. The key didn’t want to turn, and when it did, she had to tug to open the door. Typical of below zero weather.
“Hurry up, Jeanne, its damn cold out here!” Carol Ward said as she followed on Jeanne’s heels into the restaurant. The women were a team, unbroken for the last seven years. Carol, 30 years old and very attractive, was the hostess and cashier, while Jeanne, in her late 50’s, waited tables and supervised the kitchen. Her pleasant appearance and engaging personality won over locals who soon became regulars.
“We’re going to need lots of hot coffee today Carol,” Jeanne said as she dropped her purse and keys on the checkout counter and headed for the kitchen. “Let me brew some coffee before you put up the “open” sign?”
“Too late Jeanne,” Carol answered as three men walked through the door.”
“Damn!” Looking over her shoulder Jeanne said, “They’ll just have to wait.”
Buck’s was a mom and pop business for years until Jeanne’s husband, Buck died of pancreatic cancer three years earlier. Together they made Buck’s a respite for locals.
When the coffee was ready she served the early-birds, then went to the cashier counter to see Carol.
“Did you get the mail, Carol?”
“I did. And I think you should do it every other day, or pay me double time for braving the cold.”
“You poor thing. Half my age and so fragile. Anything important?”
“Probably. Here’s a letter from the mortgage company.”
“What in the world do they want now?” Jeanne asked as she tore open the envelope. “Hmmm,”
“Is it good or bad news?” Carol asked.
“It’s never good news. I’m in arrears, and now they want me to be paid up by May 1st, or they’ll foreclose on Buck’s.”
“No!” Carol said with panic in her voice. “Where else can I get a job in this town.”
“Maybe the mortuary. They have high turnover there,” Jeanne said with a mischievous grin.
“Never!” Carol barked. “They can’t do this to you, can they?”
“They can, and will. Damn it! I may need to sell my house and car and live in the kitchen. Winter business is not going to bring in the money I need.”
Focused on the frightening prospect before them, neither woman noticed a man walk past them into the dining room. With an air of resignation, Jeanne left Carol and returned to the dining room to take care of her customers. It was only a moment later that she smelled a rank odor. Sensing something went wrong in the kitchen she turned quickly, saw what was the matter, and stopped dead in her tracks. Max, a homeless bum had snuck in and was sitting in a booth.
Oh, my God! How’d he get in here? He’ll stink up the whole place.
Rushing up to Max, Jeanne said, “Max, you know you can’t be in here! Damn it, get up and get out, now!” Pointing to his plastic garbage bag she said, “Take that bundle of stuff too.”
At the door Max pleaded, “All I wanted was a cup of coffee.”
“Well, that’s what the back door is for. Waving her arms like she was shooing cattle, Jeanne hustled Max out. Now shoo, go, git!”
Frustrated, she turned on Carol. “It’s your job to make sure that he doesn’t get in here. What’s the matter with you? Get some Lysol to spray that booth Max sat in.”
“Jeanne, I didn’t see him come in, did you?”
Not wanting to answer the question Jeanne snapped, “Well, he’s gone now, that’s all that matters. Don’t let him in again.”
Returning to waitressing and bussing tables Jeanne approached a young couple seated in a booth for breakfast.
“How are you folks doing?”
“We’re fine, the meal was great.”
“Good to hear, but you didn’t finish your pancakes young lady. Can I box it up for you?
“Oh, it was delicious. Just too much for me, and there’s no place for it at the motel.”
“Well, okay then. I take it you’re just visiting and sightseeing, right?”
“As a matter of fact, we are,” the gentleman replied.
“Well then, how about taking some fruit along for the ride. I can send you off with banana’s or apples. What do ‘ya say?”
“Thank you ma’am,” the young man said, “Can we have one of each?”
“Of course. Let me put these dishes away and I’ll bring them back with your check.”
In the kitchen, Jeanne put the remaining pancakes in a carry out box, then put the dirty plates in the dishwasher. Quickly she put a cinnamon roll in the box, filled a large styrofoam cup with coffee, and opened the back door of the kitchen.
“Max! Hey, Max! You out here?”
Standing alongside the building by the door, Max said, “Yes ma’am. Right here.”
“Okay, then. Here’s some hot coffee for you, and something to eat. ”
“Thank you so much, Miss Jeanne. You’re very kind.”
“It’s damn cold out here. You going to be all right tonight?”
“Yes’m. Spose I’ll bed down at the mortuary.
Oh my, that too close for comfort, if you ask me.
“Don’t forget to get your butt up and out of there when the rooster crows or you’ll have a heap of trouble.”
“Yes ma’am. I’ll do that.”
That night when quitting time came around, Jeanne set up tables for tomorrow’s breakfast as Carol closed out the cash register. As she drove away from Buck’s, Jeanne intentionally passed the mortuary, looking to see if Max was around. She worried about the man, and hated to be rough with him when he snuck into the dining room. But they had an understanding he could only use the back door, and he knew it.
Don’t know what got into him today.
Early the next morning, when the sun was barely breaking over the mountain peak, Jeanne turned onto Dodge St. and saw the county sheriff’s lights flashing in front of the mortuary.
Oh, no! Did Max freeze to death?
She stopped in front of the mortuary and dashed up beside the sheriff. “Walter, what’s happened? Is Max alright?”
“How’d you know he was here?” The sheriff asked as he turned to look at Jeanne.
Jeanne felt like a kid with her hand in the cookie jar. “Ah, well, ah, I just guessed. Sometimes he’s here you know.”
“No, I didn’t know. But he’ll be warm in jail tonight.”
Shocked that Walter was taking the situation so seriously she said, “Why? Walter, you can’t do that?”
“Yes I can, and will. Found him inside the hearse, and Homer’s pressing charges for breaking and entering.”
“But he can’t do that!”
Sheriff Walter looked quickly at Jeanne. “Excuse me? The laws the law, and Homer’s got rights. Now, why don’t you make yourself useful and move your car so I can take Max to the jailhouse.”
Jeanne tried to smooth things over with Walter. “Sure thing. And, breakfast is on me, Walter, if you have time.”
Turning away from Jeanne the sheriff said, “Thank you kindly.”
Arriving at Buck’s, Jeanne knew she’d have too much time on their hands. Twenty below temperatures kept people close to home. She had just set her purse down when Carol dashed through the door and slammed it against the cold wind.
“You would think the post office would hire a delivery guy so that only one person in town would have to freeze their butt off instead of ev-er-y person in town.”
Jeanne laughed. “Carol, if that’s the most difficult thing you have to do in your young life, you’re lucky. No one’s shooting at you, like a soldier. And you’re not climbing poles like a lineman in this wind and snow. Get tough, girl. No man want’s a wallflower.”
“Well, excuuuuse me! Who put the bee in your bonnet?”
“Never mind. What’s in the mail. Anything interesting?”
“No, just bills and junk mail. Sorry to disappoint you.”
“That’s alright. At least there no mail from the mortgage company.”
Left with time to loiter, they talked about Max and worried what would become of him. The sheriff hadn’t been by the bar and grill for breakfast, so to find out what’s happening Jeanne would have to go to the jailhouse.
Anxious to learn the latest about Max, it ate at Jeanne until they finished their meager lunch crowd. Once they were gone she made a bee-line out of Buck’s for the jailhouse.
“Hey Jeanne, what brings you here?” Natalie Mane asked.
Jeanne smiled graciously at Natalie, who had been sheriff’s dispatcher ever since she graduated high school.
Poor girl. How does a beauty queen grown so large I can’t even see the chair she’s sitting on?
“Hi, Natalie. Well, I came to see about Max. Hadn’t heard anything and was worried ‘bout him.”
“He’s just fine. Warm as a bug-in-a-rug, I’d say. You can go back and see him if you want. Gotta’ pat you down before you go in.”
When Natalie was satisfied Jeanne wasn’t carrying any hacksaw blades or explosives, Jeanne walked into the jail and approached Max’s cell. It looked empty. Close scrutiny detected Max on the floor in the corner wrapped in a blanket.
“Max!” she said. “What are you doing on the floor?”
“Ah, just seemed the thing to do. Don’t sleep in beds much, ya’ know.”
Grabbing the bars and poking her face up to them she asked, “Are you all right? You’re not hurt are you?”
Max sat up and leaned his back on the wall. “Nah. I’m fine. Just didn’t skip outta the mortuary early enough. That old fart Homer just wanted to hear sirens and flashing lights at his place. Free advertising you know.”
“Max, how can you say that? Homer wouldn’t do such a thing”
“Don’t you dare bet on it. Anyways, a warm cell and three squares a day is like living at the Hilton. Hope the weather gets better before I have to leave here.”
“Well, I guess you’re the only one who would see jail that way. Can I bring you anything?”
“Yes ma’am.” Holding his hands up to form a circle he said, “I’d like to have one of your fresh cinnamon rolls, if you don’t mind.”
“I sure don’t, and I’ll send Carol over with one tomorrow morning. You take care of yourself now.”
Satisfied that Max wasn’t any worse for wear Jeanne went back to Buck’s to work the supper crowd.
When she walked in the door Carol asked, “Well, how is he?”
“Thinks he’s at the Hilton.”
“What! In jail?”
As Jeanne shook her head she said to Carol, “Yep. It’s warm. He’s got a blanket. And he gets three meals a day. To Max, that’s as good as the Hilton.”
“Always thought he was crazy.” Carol chuckled. “Now I know he is. Say, Mr. Fancy Pants over there just arrived. Obviously he’s from out-of-town. Wonder why he’s in our little berg?”
“Let me check him out,” Jeanne said as she put her apron on.
It was five o’clock, early for dinner, and the gentleman was only the third customer so Jeanne didn’t need to rush any. She approached the man, smiled and said, “Welcome to Buck’s sir. You’ve got to be my best dressed customer today. What’s a handsome man like you doin’ out here in the wilderness?
The man returned Jeanne’s warm smile as he lowered his water glass. “Actually, I’m just passing through. After breakfast tomorrow I’ll take care of business and head back home.”
Leaning her hip against the booth, Jeanne cocked her head and said, “Don’t know of any businesses in town that would attract a man in a suit. You’ve got to be something special.”
Leaning back in the booth he shrugged. “What brings me here isn’t anything special. I’m just here to settle an estate.”
“A lawyer huh?” Jeanne rubbed her chin. “Hmmm, anyone I’d know?”
“It’s such an old case I’ll bet it happened long before you were born.”
“Well, maybe not then.” Here’s a menu of Buck’s best. Can I get you something to drink?”
Jeanne’s magnetic smile brought a smile back to his face. “Would you happen to have any white wine?” The handsome man asked.
“Probably not the selection you’re used to at home, but I may have one or two. Speaking of home, where are you from?”
“Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The hotel operator here said this is a great place to eat, so here I am.
“Well, isn’t that nice. I’ll be right back with your white wine.”
Jeanne’s curiosity was peaking as she went into the kitchen. If a fancy man is in town to settle an estate, I should know who’s it is.
With her curiosity tingling inside her, Jeanne served a glass of wine to her special customer. “See anything on the menu you like?” She asked.
“I’m not much of a meat eater, Miss.”
“Oooo, Miss. How flattering.”
The gentleman smiled at her and said, “Would you have a simple pasta dish?”
“For you, we’ll whip one up. Enjoy your wine while you wait.”
True to his word, the gentleman appeared for breakfast, and was out of town by the end of the day.
The cold days of winter faded away, as did Jeanne’s memory of Max. Only when a delivery man knocked on the back door did she have a flashback of Max, who she hadn’t seen since she visited him in jail. More important to her now was her mortgage. There was only a month left before the bank foreclosed. Her house was up for sale with little hope finding a buyer in this weather. She’d sold her car already, and true to her word slept on a cot at Buck’s. May would bring on a death knell.
Everyone in Utica, Montana was in high spirits and enjoying the early spring weather. Business at Buck’s bar and grill was good, accommodating a flush of vacationers. When a well-dressed cowboy walked in carrying a manila envelope Carol didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary, until she took him to an empty table.
“Pardon me, Miss, but I need to sit at that booth over there.”
Surprised and a bit taken aback by his request, Carol replied, “It hasn’t been bussed yet, sir. I’m sure you’ll be comfortable here.”
When the man smiled Carol noticed the whitest teeth she’d ever seen. “If that’s all it takes, ma’am,” he said, then I’ll wait. If it’s all the same to you.”
Carol wasn’t used to customer’s being so insistent, but she didn’t have time to argue about it. She had things to do. “Suit yourself then. Why don’t you sit here, and take that booth when it’s bussed?”
“Fair enough, ma’am. Thank you kindly.”
Moments later as Jeanne bussed and cleaned the table she noticed her new customer. “Be right with you sir. Just give me a minute.”
Rushing back out of the kitchen to serve her new customer, he was gone.
What the hell? Where’d he go?
A quick scan of the restaurant found him sitting in the booth she had just cleared. A little irritated, she approached him stiffly to take his order.
“I thought I’d lost you. I see you like a booth better than a table.”
“Well now,” the man said rubbing the top of the table, “This booth has special memories for me.”
I’ve never seen this man before. That M bar W brand on his shirt pocket isn’t familiar either. What memories?
“So, you’ve been here before? She asked.
“Yes, and I’d like to order my favorite meal. Pancakes, with a cinnamon roll on the side and a large coffee please.”
Jeanne was quite surprised. “Sir, you do realize this is the lunch hour, and breakfast is over.”
Smiling pleasantly up at Jeanne he said, “It was never a problem for me in the past. I’m surprised you can’t accommodate my request now.”
Do we really need this pushy bastard’s money? Next he’ll want me to eat it for him.
“Well mister, we aim to please our customers, so I’ll place your order. Just be patient though, we’ve got a lot of lunch orders.”
Two cups of coffee later Jeanne showed up with pancakes and a cinnamon roll. “For the life of me, mister, I don’t recall you ever being in Buck’s or ordering this meal. When were you here?”
The man grinned. “Earlier this winter, I’d say.”
Hands on her hips and a doubting look on her face, Jeanne said,“I’ve owned this place since it opened. What’s your name, maybe I’ll recognize it?”
“I’m sure you will. I’m Richard Maximillian Wimberley, III.”
“What!? Where the hell did you get a name like that?”
“It’s a family name ma’am.” With a sly grin on his face he added, “We’re cattle ranchers. Largest in South, Dakota.”
“So you’re a rich cowboy.”
He nodded. “Comfortable enough, I’d say. Listen, I brought something that may help you remember me.” Motioning toward the other side of his booth he asked, “Won’t you sit with me for a minute.”
Jeanne straightened, scanned the restaurant and said, “Hey, I ain’t got time to sit and palaver with you.”
“I think you’ll be pleased you did. Now, won’t you sit with me for a moment?”
With her feathers ruffled at this stranger’s insistence Jeanne plopped onto the edge of the booth’s bench. “Ok, I’m sitting. Make it quick. I’m busy.”
Picking up the manila envelope beside him, the cowboy slid it in front of Jeanne. “Your name’s Jeanne, right?”
“Well, Jeanne the contents of this envelope is for you. If you don’t have time to open it, your life will sour drastically. However, if you chose to open it, you’ll be a very happy woman.”
“You can do that?”
The man slid the envelope closer to Jeanne. “No, you can do that. I came all the way from South Dakota just to give you this opportunity. I suggest you open it.”
Jeanne gave the man a skeptical look, then gazed at the blank envelope.
Oh, what the hell, I’ll play his game. I wonder what’s inside.
She slid her fingernail under a corner of the flap and opened it a bit. On her second attempt her fingernail opened three quarters of the flap. Curious, she looked inside, but saw only a paper or two. Hurriedly she slit the last bit of the envelope and removed the papers. On top of a deed for Buck’s Bar and Grill was a letter which she scanned quickly, then jumped out of her seat and screamed.
“Carol you won’t believe this.” Jeanne ran toward her cashier. “Carol, look at this. My loan’s paid off! This letter says my loan’s paid off! Can you believe it?”
“Oh my God, we’re saved,” Carol said as she gave Jeanne a big hug. Who’s paid it?”
Jeanne dropped her arms from around Carol, her face looking blank. “Ahh, I don’t know.” Turning toward the cowboy who gave her the envelope she said, “By God, that man’s gotta’ know.”
Rushing back to the booth she sat down. “Okay, you’ve gotta’ know about this. Who paid off my mortgage?”
“Jeanne, I didn’t expect you to recognize my full name, but I did think you’d recognize the meal I ordered. It’s the last meal you gave to me. Would it help you recognize me if I knocked on the back door of the kitchen?”
Jeanne blurted out “Max?” She jumped out of the booth, gave the man a long look, then turned her gaze. “No, you’re making this up. There’s no way you could be that old smelly man.”
Enjoying Jeanne’s reaction, the man chuckled and said. “You’d be surprised what a bath and a shave will do for a man. Plus, I’ve got a little money in my pocket now.”
Whirling and pointing her finger she said, “That lawyer? That estate business of his?”
He nodded. “Yes, he wanted me. I’m the last living family member with rights to our cattle ranch.”
Jeanne rushed to the other side of the booth and threw her arms around Max and hugged him. “Oh Max, you’re alive. I was so worried about you.”
Then she released him, drew back and asked, “Why did you pay off my mortgage? How’d you even know I was going to lose Buck’s.”
“I have many resources at my disposal now, Jeanne. You showed me so much love and kindness when I was down and out. I wanted to return the favor. My life changed for the better and I couldn’t watch your life change for the worse. You’ve were a friend when I needed one. It’s the least I can do for you.”
Jeanne kissed him on the cheek. “Oh bless you boy! Bless you!” Then she leaned back. “Oh, sorry I called you smelly.”