GRIFF AND THE IRISH DANCER
I had no right to be disappointed in Griff I reckon. It’s not like he did anythin’ I wouldn’t a done if that little Irish dancer had been lookin’ at me that way. Trouble was, I guess I’d kinda held him up as a man who’d found a woman he could be happy with, be faithful to. Sounds kinda silly, I know. A foolish romantic notion for an old guy like me. I lost my wife and every women I’ve ever had a real feelin’ for ‘cause I just never could resist temptation if it was wearin’ a skirt and spoke to me with sweet words. Hell, if she was pretty or I was drunk enough to think she was pretty, she could talk to me mean but I’d pursue her anyway, whether with fancy words or money would depend on her station in life.
But Griff, he was different. Leastways, so I’d always thought. I’ve known him for three years or so. Not real good, not like you’d know a man you bunked with and worked with every day, but good enough to get the measure of him. I’m a partner in a livery in Carson City but always cash poor. For the last three years, the Cartwrights have hired me on whenever they had a big bunch a horses to be delivered to the army or somethin’ like that. Two or three times a year, for a week or two at a time. Griff, he’d been working for the Ponderosa five or six years by the time I met him - ever since he got sprung from state prison. Guess he’d been workin’ toward settin’ up his own horse raisin’ operation right from the beginning. By the time I met him, he had his own little place but still worked half time for the Cartwrights. Guess he was cash poor too.
Griff had a good reputation as a trainer. He wasn’t any kinda bronc buster or nothin’. Couldn’t hold a candle to Joe Cartwright or Candy when it came to ridin’ a buckin’ horse to a standstill. He mostly broke horses the gentle way. But I reckon that way has its place too.
My first job with the Cartwrights, three years ago, wasn’t Griff’s first, but it was the first since he took himself a wife. Candy couldn’t get enough of teasin’ him about him pinin’ away to be with her. I couldn’t see what the big deal was. They’d been married four months by that time. Even Candy said it was about time they separated for a week or so or she’d never learn to appreciate him when he was there. Course I noticed Candy also kept askin’ things that gave Griff a chance to talk about her, ‘bout their plans for expanding their horse raisin’ operation, about their progress in improving their little ranch house. Griff’s wife – he referred to her as Lizzy but I noticed the others called her Elsbeth, like Lizzy was just his private name – she was good with horses too. And he brightened up so much when he bragged on her that I guess I didn’t mind listenin’ too much.
Funny thing was that after three years of these horse sellin’ trips, Griff still got that same look on his face every time he talked about that gal. Three whole years and he still talked like she was some kinda treasure he didn’t quite deserve but was gonna guard with his life.
And that’s why I was so surprised about that Irish dancer.
Every trip took us through half a dozen towns and there weren’t no harm in stoppin’ in a saloon in most of ‘em. We had to eat and we needed a drink or two to cut the trail dust. Griff, he weren’t no bluenose. I noticed he didn’t much go for the whiskey, but he didn’t pass up a cool beer for some kinda sissy sarsaparilla or nuthin’.
The workin’ girls at them places, they liked Griff. Most always there was one flirtin’ with him before our meal was finished. He’s a nice lookin’ young man and has a courteous way with women. He doesn’t treat a sportin’ gal like she wasn’t good enough for polite manners. Course it wasn’t like they was gonna give him a tumble for free. But I guess they figured they had to make a buck with someone and Griff would be more pleasant than most. And he was younger than the rest of us – usually the only one with no gray in his hair. Them girls might figure he’d be a vigorous boy, lookin’ for a whole night, sparin’ them from the rougher men that could get mean after a night of hard drinkin’.
But Griff, he never gave them any encouragement. Always polite like I said. But he never led them to think he was interested. If a girl got persistent, Griff would just lean back in his chair and drawl. “Miss, I do believe you’re one of the purtiest gals I’ve ever laid eyes on. I just know that someday you’ll find a man who’ll be as true to you as I am to my sweet wife.” If a gal was bone-headed enough to keep pushing after that, Griff would get a little less polite. But most of them backed off and damned if they mostly didn’t fuss over him like he was their long lost brother even though they’d given up getting anything from him.
I figured after he’d been married a year or two or three, he’d be interested in a little variety. But this trip had been like all the others. Well, not quite like the others ‘cause neither Candy nor Joe had come along. I thought maybe them bein’ around on those other trips and bein’ friends to his wife had curbed any natural urges Griff might’ve had. But we’d been all the way to Fort Lawson in Arizona and were only one night away from Virginia City on the return trip. In all that time, Griff hadn’t shown any more interest in the girls in the string of saloons we’d stopped at than he been when Candy or Joe were around to keep an eye on him. Some of them girls were real pretty too.
In some kinda way, I was proud of him. I’m old enough to be his father and maybe it was a fatherly feelin’. But if he really had been my son, he would’ve had me as an example. He was a better man than I’d ever been, a better husband at least. I’d wanted to think it was cause he’d found some kinda woman so special that no man would cheat on her. But my wife had been a special woman, a good woman, better than I deserved. And so was the gal I’d started keepin’ company with five years after my wife left me. It was me who wasn’t good enough, too weak in spirit to be true to a good woman. And it was me who was alone now. And here was Griff, married three years – two years longer than I’d managed to stay faithful – and he was still talking about his Lizzy with a glow on his face like some God-damn newlywed.
I’d never met his wife but I felt like I knew her. Griff carried pictures of her everywhere and showed them to anyone who showed the slightest interest and a few who didn’t.
One was of the two of them together in a typical formal pose. She looked elegant, like royalty with her formal hairstyle and gown. Standing next to Griff in the picture she looked tiny, a good foot shorter than his 6’2”. The other picture was taken at the Ponderosa ranch house. I’d only been there once but it was a grand place and there was no mistaking it in the background. The photographer must have been taking formal pictures at the house and caught her just as she came in from working one of the Cartwright’s horses. He’d had her stay astride the flashy dark horse, her face alight, her blonde hair loose and blowing in a breeze. That photo, more than the other, hinted at why she brought such a joy to Griff’s life. Of course, Griff’s talk did more than hint. If he was to be believed, she was beautiful, clever, a better horse trainer than him and most everything but a good cook. I’d heard Candy tease him more than once about how they always managed to make their work with the horses at the Pondersosa last into the dinner hour. Griff didn’t seem to care about that though. He said they were learnin’ together. Besides, he’d spent a year eatin’ prison food and nothing tasted bad after that.
Anyway, when we spent our last night out in Drover’s Ford, I sure wasn’t thinkin’ it was here that Griff ‘d meet a girl to make him forget his wife, even for a little while. But it looked like that’s just what happened.
It’d been a long hard trip and the six of us were happy to sit back and put down a few while waiting for supper. We’d thought about getting a bath but decided it wasn’t worth the bother with only one more day’s ride. We’d bathed before celebrating at the fort six days back. No point in actin’ like a bunch of dandies.
We’d almost put down two steaks each when the entertainment started. That was unexpected. We’d picked the nicest saloon in town, but that wasn’t sayin’ much. Mostly that just meant it was the cleanest place we could find. There were ten tables, mostly filled with locals eating between poker hands or for just drinking and socializing. There was only two girls workin’ the place. At the supper hour, they were busy servin’ food and clearin’ tables. Neither had gotten 'round to plying their more lucrative trade. There was no stage, just a rickety piano in the corner opposite the bar. I noticed the others in the room seemed as surprised as we were when the barkeep called for quiet and announced they'd be entertained by a Miss Colleen O’Shaunessy.
A slim young man came out and seated himself at the piano. His attire was surprisingly formal given the atmosphere of the place – a suit, tie and even a hat. But the formality of his outfit didn’t improve the condition of the piano. Now I don’t have much of an ear for music, but to me the piano seemed more than a touch out of tune.
But no one was thinking about the music when the girl came out on the floor dancing to the lively, if slightly off-key, tune. She had long black hair that she swung over her shoulder with an alluring sauciness. When she danced a tour around the tables, she came close enough for me to see the intense blue of her eyes. Black Irish. That’s what I’d always heard the Irish with that colorin’ called. And she was the most dazzlin’ example of it I’d ever seen. She had delicate features and her size gave her an elfin look. She was light on her feet and danced in a way that had the eyes of every man in the place following every move. I would have spent all my pay just to spend the night with her. But her manner invited us to look, even to admire, but not to touch.
Until she got to Griff.
Griff had shown only a mild interest in the girl when she’d come onto the floor. But as she moved around the room, his interest intensified. When she came close to our table, the look on his face would’ve cheered me if I’d been hoping for him to fall from grace and show himself no better‘en me. But to give myself credit, I wasn’t hopin’ for that. I was repelled by the excitement in his expression as he watched the dancer. So often I’d seen the light in his eyes when he talked about his wife. This beat that a hundred times over.
The girl’s dance changed subtly after she looked into Griff’s eyes. Maybe the others didn’t notice but I thought she continued her dance with the sole purpose of drawing Griff to her. She made circles around the room seeming to dance for all the customers, but her eyes stayed on Griff. And his on her.
When she passed by our table again she brushed the dark hair back off Griff’s forehead in a quick gesture that probably went unnoticed by everyone but Griff – and me. I could see him tense with excitement.
She made several more passes around the room. And each time she passed Griff, she reached out and touched him ever so slightly. A finger run lightly down his cheek, a slight caress of the shoulder, a touch on the arm. The others started to notice but I only saw a little envy. There didn’t seem to be any troublemakers in the crowd.
When the dance was over, the girl retired into the office – at least the door next the piano had a little sign that said “office”. Might have been nothing more than a glorified storage room. The barkeep promised she’d be dancing again in a half hour. Most of the men went back to their poker and socializing.
The young man at the piano continued to play, seemingly careful to tread lightly on the worst keys. Griff started to get up and I just knew he was headed to that office. I grabbed his arm to stop him and then didn’t know what to say. What right did a man like me have tellin’ Griff he shouldn’t be lookin’ for trouble. But Griff just grinned. “Now don’t you worry old man, I’m just going to get us another round. Those girls look busy. I’m not going to start anything with the local talent.”
That’s what he said. But there was trouble in his eyes. And it turned out he didn’t need to go lookin’ for it; it came for him. After letting the room settle for a few minutes, the girl came out and headed right for our table. There wasn’t an empty chair next to Griff so she sat opposite him. She might as well have been sitting on his lap, his attention was so focused on her. She started askin’ questions of all of us – where we lived, where we were coming from, how the journey had gone – but her eyes were locked on Griff’s and never strayed from them no matter who was answering her questions. After a while me and Ted and Pete and Jack and Bill all felt like we weren’t really there. Griff finally went around the table, draggin’ his chair with him and sittin’ down close to the girl so they could talk without shouting across the table in the noisy room. From what I could tell, they didn’t seem to be saying much, not with words anyway.
She danced twice more that evenin’. By then most everyone in the room could see she was dancin’ for Griff. The sparkle in his eyes said he knew it too. Finally, around 10 p.m she sat down next to Griff again. She spoke to him quietly but I was sitting close enough to overhear some. She said something about hot water for a bath in her room. And she told him where her room was. He was grinnin’ at her like a fool. Finally she got up and stood behind him. She leaned over with her forearms resting on his shoulders and put her mouth close to his ear. Whatever she said put a troubled look on his face. He’d finally remembered there was someone besides the two of them in the room. He looked around at all of us and then surprised the hell out of me by starting on his rejection speech, at least a variation on it, an ominous variation I thought. “Darlin’, you are for sure the most beautiful thing I ever saw in my whole life. But I got a wonderful wife at home who doesn’t deserve to be shamed by me actin’ like some kind of stud colt in front of a bunch of people who’d be spreadin’ the word soon as we got home. “ There was regret in his voice. Anybody’d be a fool to miss that. But at least he’d said it.
The little Irish dancer sighed. She started to leave seemed like, but after a couple of steps she came back. Griff was leaning forward in his chair, like maybe he’d had somethin’ to hide if he sat back. She came up to him and took his chin in her lovely slim hands. She held his face tenderly and then leaned down and kissed him. It was a long kiss, a kiss not befittin’ a married man. Griff didn’t touch her. Not to embrace her and not to push her away. He kept his hands on the arms of his chair, but his knuckles were white with the effort to keep them there.
Finally, she stood straight and looked down on him. She smiled, shrugged as though in defeat and walked away.
Griff didn’t watch her go. He lifted his hands from the chair but only to fold his arms on the table and rest his head on them so no one could see his face. When he finally lifted his head, he seemed to have gotten control of himself. He looked around at all of us. “What say we get an early start in the morning? I’m ready to get home.” With that he got up and we all followed, Jack taking a last swig of his beer.
The saloon had rooms out behind the bar. We’d had to double up because there were only five rooms and two had already been rented out -- probably to the dancer and the piano player. I was sharing a room with Ted. Griff was at the other end of the building with Bill. Ted was snoring in minutes but I couldn’t imagine Griff would sleep well. I’d only been watching the little goings on between them and I sure couldn’t sleep.
In between Ted’s snoring, I heard voices next door. I listened for a minute and recognized the lilting speech of the Irish dancer. She was sayin’ good night to her piano player. I hadn’t heard him speak before, but he sounded now like a kid of no more than 16. I heard the door open. The piano player spoke from the doorway. “Sorry, it didn’t work out. You sure had that boy goin’ though.”
I heard the girl laugh in response. “He’ll be here. He’ll wait for the others to fall asleep. Then he’ll come. I even brought another bucket of hot water in case the tub started to cool off. He’ll come.” I heard the door close.
I knew I couldn’t sleep. I should have. Weren’t none of my business what Griff did. Maybe I just had to see if once out of sight of the little dancer, his feelin’s for his wife would be strong enough to keep him on the right path.
Five minutes later I knew they weren’t. There was a knock on the dancer’s door and I heard Griff’s voice soft but distinct. “I couldn’t stay away.”
I tried to sleep but it was almost as if I could feel the excitement of the two people next door. My cot was next to the shared wall. Ted had stopped snoring after he turned over and sank into a deep sleep. I couldn’t hear everything they said and did next door – I wasn’t shameless enough to put my ear to the wall – but in the quiet dark, I heard enough to poison my gut with an envy I’d never felt for another man. I’d envied Griff before in a quiet way when he’d talked about his Lizzy. But this was different. I didn’t admire what he was doing but it's what I would’ve done, what I wished I could still do – attract a woman that beautiful and give in to the temptation.
At first it was quiet next door as though they were kissing. I could picture Griff bent down to embrace the dainty little dancer, maybe picking her up as his mouth pressed against hers. I heard water being added to the bath. Then I heard the bed creak. “Here let me help you with those.” There came the sound of boots dropping to the floor. The bed creaked again as though Griff had stood up in his stocking feet. I could imagine those lovely quick fingers unbuttoning Griff’s shirt, her hand stroking his bare chest and then going to his belt. Would he get shy or would he let her undress him? Did he have any experience with women before his wife. He’d never mentioned anyone else but I couldn’t imagine he’d been without his share.
Somehow he got his clothes off ‘cause I heard him get into the bath. There was a little splashing and she giggled. He said something about the scent of roses – probably some fancy soap. I heard the sounds of the bath for what seemed like a long time. I could picture her scrubbing his back, washing his hair. I wondered if she’d taken off her own clothes or maybe let him do it. Was the tub big enough for the two of them? I thought of going down to Griff’s room at the far end of the building. I could sleep there, Griff wouldn’t be needing the cot. But I couldn’t bring myself to leave.
It seemed like an hour before the sounds of bathing ended. There was laughing as she dried him off. Or maybe they were both wet and dried each other off. Soon enough the cot creaked again. I heard her say, “Come here” and then sounds that indicated he had. I was ashamed to be listening but it was like a drug. And it was like reliving the days when I could make love to a woman all night because that’s what Griff did. I heard creaking and sounds of passion and occasionally laughing. There were times of silence as though their passion was spent and they rested. But never for long. Finally sleep overtook me. When I woke up, they were talking.
“I could go to Virginia City next. I was going to go east, but I could go there instead. Then we could be together.”
Now reality would rear its ugly head. Griff would finally see what he’d risked for one exciting night. I could almost hear him fumbling for the right words – the words that would send her east as she’d planned without turning her into a woman scorned who might come to Virginia City and blow up his life.
“Honey, you know I’m married.”
She interrupted, “I knew that last night. So did you. I thought we’d started something special.”
Griff sighed. “It was special,” he assured her. “But it was wrong. I’m married. I love my wife. I’ve wronged her badly and I can’t let things get worse. I don’t know what came over me.”
“You don’t want me to come to Virginia City? You don’t want to see me again?”
She sounded unhappy, but to me she also sounded resigned. That was a good sign. Griff could feel sorry for hurting her, but he wouldn’t have to bear the consequences of her showing up in his home. And I didn’t think he should feel too sorry. She’d seduced him. There wasn’t a man in that saloon that night who didn’t see it. He was weak but he hadn’t gone looking for trouble.
I got dressed and went out to the livery to see to the horses. I figured the best thing I could do for Griff was to get him away from that woman. He was probably too tired to respond to her now, but passion like they’d shown had a way of renewing itself.
Griff showed up last, but he showed up alone. And things must’ve gone well ‘cause he was grinning. He stopped grinning when he saw the look in my eye. My disappointment in him must’ve showed.
* * *
It was almost dark by the time we rode into Virginia City. I was going to stay over at the hotel and ride back to Carson City in the morning. The others were goin’ to eat dinner before making the trip back to the Ponderosa. Everyone but Griff decided they could do with a bath. The public bathhouse would be better than fighting over bath water in the bunkhouse.
I’d avoided Griff on the way back. Not fair I know, but I couldn’t stand that gloatin’ on his face. Guilt I would have understood. But he looked like a man who’d gotten away with something. He looked like I’d looked until the day my wife up and left, telling me she’d known all along but just hoped in vain that I’d change. Everythin’ Griff had said about his wife suggested she’d be just as smart. I supposed I should warn him, but hell, I wouldn’t have listened at his age. I just hated to see him end up alone like I had.
We were all unsaddling at the livery when a tall blonde woman came up to Griff and gave him a welcoming hug. She was much too tall to be his wife. Did he have another woman right here in town? He brought her over and introduced her to me. Apparently the others already knew her. “Hey old man. Want you to meet Sonia, we call her Sunny. She’s Lizzy’s best friend.”
The woman had the face of a Viking princess. And it was familiar. When she said hello, her voice sounded a little familiar too. But I would have remembered a woman that striking. I was trying to figure out why she looked familiar when another woman burst into the stable and threw herself into Griff’s arms. It was a minute or two before I could see her face – she was kissing Griff with a vigor that hid her features. But she was the right size to be the girl in the picture – this had to be Griff’s wife. And I didn’t want to meet her. I wasn’t ready to look her in the eye.
I’d already finished unsaddling my horse, so I handled the lead rope to Ted and asked him to see to him. Mine was the only horse that would be spending the night. I walked away before Griff would have a chance to introduce us. I headed for the hotel. I might as well make sure I had a room for the night.
I was half-way to the hotel when I heard light steps behind me. I turned to see the woman I’d figured was Griff’s wife. She was breathing a little hard as she caught up with me. She reached out to touch my arm as though to tell me to stay put. “Nathan, Griff’s told me so much about you. I wanted to meet you. Griff and I are headed home now; I brought him some supper from the Ponderosa. I’d like you to come to supper at our place sometime. I know Candy’s probably warned you about my cooking but Griff and I together can cook up something respectable.”
As she stopped to take a breath, I tried to come up with some kind of noncommittal answer. I didn’t want to hurt this woman, but I couldn’t bear the thought of looking at her across her own table. Not with what I knew.
She must have seen something in my face. “Are you mad at Griff?”
“Course not. Why’d I be mad at him?”
She looked me in the eye and moved a little so I could see her face more clearly in the light from the hotel porch. And then she said with just the slightest Irish lilt in her voice, “I think you don’t approve of Griff cheating on his wife.”
My first thought was Griff must’ve already confessed to her. But there’d been no time fer that. Then I took a closer look at her face. Suddenly I realized why the tall woman had looked familiar. I hadn’t recognized her ‘cause the last time I saw her she’d been playin’ the piano in a saloon in Drover’s Ford, dressed in a man’s suit with a hat covering her hair. And this girl, whose elfin features were now emphasized by a sly grin, had been dancing in a black wig and a little make-up. When she saw I understood, she burst into laughter.
“Why didn’t he tell me?”
In response, she grinned again. “But that’s the fun. Pretending it’s real. We’ll never talk about it, even to each other.”
She took my arm and started up the hotel steps. She looked up at me, “But I couldn’t bear for you to be disappointed in Griff. He thinks a lot of you and I didn’t want something silly like this to come between you or to stop you from coming to visit.”
As we walked up to the hotel registration desk, the envy hit me again. For three years I’d envied Griff his ability to keep a loving wife. And last night I’d envied him his night of passion with a woman of a quality I could never hope to attract again. But my jealousy had been tempered by the surety that he’d traded one thing for another. But he hadn’t. Griff had everything I’d ever wanted and he’d found it in one woman.
I’d never felt so alone.
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