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There's a seedy little tavern called The Caboose in the the small mountain town of Ellensburg, Washington. The bar is known for its giant burgers, and is frequented by locals who don't seem to like outsiders much.

The only interesting thing about Ellensburg, Washington aside from being the home of this particular bar is that it sits just off interstate 90, about halfway between Seattle and Spokane. Other than that, this town might as well be in the middle of nowhere. The location of the town makes it an ideal place to stop when you drive across the state to go camping with friends.

Which is exactly what I was doing the only time I ever stopped there. My friend Norm and his kids and a few others all packed into a couple of four-wheel drive trucks and headed east to go offroading and camping. We stopped at The Caboose to get burgers while the kids, being too young to get in, watched us through the windows outside in the cold.

Entering the place was just like a scene from a movie when Black Bart or some other bad guy enters an old-time saloon and the piano player stops playing and everyone stops talking and stares. The place was full of rednecks and trailer-park folk, all looking at me in my neon fish-covered Hawaiian shirt. I might have had bleached blond hair that night too.

We sat down and ordered half a dozen burgers to go, and a couple of brews to drink while we waited. After a while the crowd went back to its business and forgot about us. About that time, I noticed some strange sort of artwork hanging from the ceiling. It was a steel rod, sort of like a thick wire coat hanger, bent into the shape of a cactus. Hanging from a piece of twine tied to the cactus was a small metal hammer. Hanging next to the cactus on the ceiling was a sign that read:

RING THE CACTUS, BUY THE HOUSE A ROUND.

When I saw it I knew what I had to do. I quickly counted up the number of people in the bar. About 20 people that I could see, including some truckers in back playing pool. Using Seattle prices, I reckoned it would cost me almost $100 to ring that cactus.

It didn't matter. I had to do it. A measley hundred bucks would be a small price to pay for a story like this. I walked over to the table nearest the cactus and asked if I could borrow a chair. The handful of people around the table gave me dirty looks but grumbled that it was okay. I pulled the chair over and started to climb up onto it.

About halfway onto the chair, a pool player in the back of the joint looked up from his game like he'd seen a ghost. "WE'VE GOT A CACTUS RINGER!" he shouted, and once again everyone looked at me. In slow motion I stood up on the chair, grabbed the hammer and started ringing that cactus.

It felt good, so I rang it a while before I stopped. When I finally did stop, everyone in the place was on their feet, cheering the cactus-ringer. I sat back down, finished my beer and waited for the check.

While the waitress was collecting everyone's drink orders, I overheard her (more than once) telling people that when someone rings the cactus, it's house policy that you can only order the same thing you were drinking before. Apparently some of the locals were trying to take advantage of my hospitality by ordering champagne and Long Island Ice Teas even though they were drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon earlier. Oh well.

The waitress told me it had been over a year since anyone rang the cactus, and the last ringer was the owner of the bar. Before that, she couldn't remember. We collected our burgers, paid the bill and left.

The bill for the round came to only $19.50 (in Ellensburg prices are much lower than Seattle). No one said goodbye or thanked me for their drink, but I didn't mind. That was probably the easiest twenty bucks I've ever spent.

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