Money in the Bank
It was raining, a wet Wyoming drizzling rain that soaked both man and horse as fast as any downpour. Too wet to ride to Dogbite which meant it would be a miserable Saturday evening in the bunkhouse. There was the usual desultory poker game being played for matches going on at the main table, Dan Crow was on his bunk reading a new book he had picked up on his last visit to Bailey and Henry Lee was sitting cross-legged on his bunk darning a pair of grey socks. Crow watched him for a while then, bored with the dime novel, he wandered over and sat next to his friend.
‘You watch, betcha the sun will be shining on Monday with the weekend busted behind us,’ Lee said quietly concentrating on threading a thick darning needle.
‘The way it goes,’ Crow offered then added, ‘Why the hell are you mending those socks? You’ve had them forever, they aren’t nothing but just one big hole and a lot of little holes all sewn together. You would be best off to buy a new pair.’
‘I’m trying to save some money, spending only what I need to and new socks are not on that list. Now why don’t you go back to your reading and leave me alone.’
‘I cannot do that, my friend, your actions of late trouble me somewhat. You don’t come to Halloran’s and even if it was not blowing a wet howler you would not have ridden into Dogbite with me this very day.’
‘What the hell do you think today is?’
‘Saving money for a rainy day is a saying, it means…’
‘I know what it means, but what kind a’ rainy day are you saving your coin for, Henry Lee?’
‘My old age.’
‘Old age?’ Crow laughed,’ that ship has surely long since sailed. You were born old.’
Henry Lee set down his needle, woollen tread and mushroom darner, took the makings from his shirt pocket and rolled himself a very thin quirly and fired it with a blue topped match. He did not offer the sack of Durham to Dan Crow.
Crow stared at the rolled cigarette. ‘That has to be the thinnest, meanest looking smoke I ever did see in my whole life, yes sir, and that is a lot of years.’
‘Do you ever think of that day when you just cannot haul your ass up onto a cold saddle, Crow, or when you creak so much when you pull on your boots or when joints freeze up and even getting out of bed on a wintry morning is not really an option? And do you think ever of that day when the boss comes around, takes you to one side and tells you it’s over and you must move on? Do you ever think of that day, Dan Crow?’
Crow settled on the bunk beside his old friend, leaned forward placed his elbows on his knees and cupped his chin in his gnarled hands. ‘I try not to think of things like that, Lee, it’s downright debilitating.’
‘There you go again with the smart words, but deep down you know what I am saying is true. It comes to all of us and you will not be an exception.’
‘That’s as it may be, Lee, but no sense in worrying about things you have absolutely no control over.’
‘I’m not worrying, I’m planning, saving a little here and there to make that day a little easier. Do you know what old over-the-hill cowhands do when they draw their last pay? You ever wonder about that? Old Johansson had it good, he may have died in the crapper but until then he had it good. A long-time hand he got himself a run down old line shack from the boss but there are just not enough old line shacks to go around. Mostly those onetime good ol’ boys end up as swampers in out of the way bars or shovelling horse shit in a stable for four bits a day or worse, downright deadbeats wandering from place to place looking for a handout. The government don’t give you enough to live on and you get real sick and you are a sure enough dead man.’
‘So how much do you think you have saved since this enlightened and very depressing point of view became your mantra.’
‘Forget it, nothing. How much?
‘That’s between me and Wells Fargo.’
‘And if you kick the bucket before you are kicked off the ranch, who gets the money?’
‘I hadn’t thought that likely to happen but. . .’
‘No buts. If you haven’t any kin then Wells Fargo or the government keeps it so, you could be sitting there with your thumb up your ass bemoaning the future and saving money for some rich slick banker.’
‘I think I have a brother somewhere in South Texas, or maybe Washington. Married a shrew of a woman, she had already buried three husbands and two of them weren’t dead yet.’
‘When did you last see him?’
‘I don’t recall. But there was this one kid they had, must be full growed by now, didn’t like me much, fat little sonofabitch sat on his ass all day pulling the wings off’n bees and butterflies he caught in a honey pot.’
‘He’ll likely get it then. Do you recall Jack Higgs? Died last fall up near Bensons Ford? Was the town Constable before they hired a marshal?’
‘No, what did he die of?’
‘That’s of no import.’
‘It was to him.’
‘Old age then, very old age, 101 to be exact.’
‘A lot of years is 101.’
‘More than plenty, more than we will see.’
‘What’s your point?’
‘He died in a rundown old shack by the railroad station. Died in poverty, skin and bones, no meat eatin’ teeth, rags, old boots the heels all worn down and the soles wore out.’
‘I just know there’s a point to this miserable story, Crow, so cut to it.’
‘Ok, I will.’ Crow said. ‘After he passed, and got himself buried in Potter’s Field, they found he had close on a thousand dollars in a Wells Fargo Account. Three weeks later some snivellin’ dandy of a nephew in a cheap suit turns up from Laramie and leaves Benson with the money in his pants pocket and a grin that stretched from ear to ear. Where was the sense in that?’
‘That a true story, Crow?’
‘Hand of God.’
‘You know something, Crow, you surely do know how to ruin a man’s day. Do you practice a lot?’
‘I’m just saying is all.’
Henry Lee was silent for a long while, his darning forgotten.
Crow held his tongue, watching his old friend deliberate his uncertain future and the eventual resting place of his few dollars.
Lee got slowly to his feet and walked over to the window and looked out over the rain pocked dusty yard watching small dun coloured birds splashing about in the muddy puddles. Suddenly he turned back to Crow and said quietly, ‘His name was Alphonse as I recall and I did not cotton to either of them greatly.’
‘Whose name would that be, your brother’s or the kids?’
‘Both I think.’ Said Lee, then adding, with a broad smile, ‘Goddamn it, Crow, it has stopped raining and I can see blue sky in the west. Let’s head for Dogbite, sink a few, get our bells rung at Halloran’s, my treat. Here, he tossed Crow the near empty sack of Bull Durham. ‘Roll us a couple of fat ones while I go change my socks.’
‘Now you’re talking, Henry Lee.’
Copyright Chris Adam Smith June 2017
Ghost rider in the sky…
Henry Lee rolled out from under his blanket and tarp, shook out his boots to make sure he had not picked up any overnight visitors and stamped his stockinged feet in to them. His partner Dan Crow emerged from the small stand of ponderosa pine. ‘It’s still there,’ he said, referring to the crapper they had fashioned one time on the familiar camping ground. ‘You go, I’ll get the fire going and the coffee brewing.’
An hour so later the two men their bellies filled with bacon beans and sourdough bread relaxed in the early morning sunshine. They had debated on going back to the ranch after three days of clearing out the arroyos and coulees of Slash Y beef and penning the half wild animals in a brush corral at the back of Cold Canyon. Lee wanted to stay saying they could loaf away the day and another night as they would likely not be missed. Crow was all for getting back to the comparative comfort of the bunkhouse, his joints ached from the cold and the hard riding but Lee was adamant they stay so, reluctantly, he gave up on the argument.
Lee pulled his hat low over his eyes and settled his head on his saddle, it had been a cold restless night and he was ready for a doze.
Crow watched his friend, too relaxed, he thought to himself, the day would drag a little if Lee slept. ‘Do you believe in ghosts, Henry Lee?’
Lee gave a deep sigh, thinking it had been too peaceful to last. He said, ‘I don’t know as I do.’
‘Well, said Crow, it is either something you do or something you don’t do, you cannot be ambiguous as to whether you believe in ghosts or not.’
‘Forget I said that.’
‘Well, yes or no, it has to be one or the other?’
‘If I say yes will that end this conversation?’
‘No, not if you don’t mean it, it won’t.’
Lee thought about that and asked, ‘Do you mean walking dead people some folk claim to see, spirits and the like haunting places? Ghost riders in the sky?’
‘Something like that and that would make a fine title for a song.’ Crow said. ‘So, do you believe in them?’
‘Do you?’ Lee countered.
‘I surely do. Did I tell you about that one time, a few miles from here at the head of this arroyo up by the old diggings and that old muddle of run down shacks is where I ran into a dead man? A miner he was with a royal flush in his bony hands. That howling wind last night, the way it screamed through the trees and that rider going by around midnight reminded me of the first time I ever used this camp, way back before you arrived. Did I not tell you this story?’
‘No, Crow, but I have the feeling you are going to now.’
Crow ignored the sarcasm and continued, ‘I saw a fellow one time, sitting on a dead burro just outside the town limits of this here Cold Canyon, in the summer of 1910 I believe it was. He sat that dead burro for most of the day. He was sitting there when I rode by and he was still sitting there when I came back down the same trail five hours later having mended a break in the fence up along the river bottom.’
‘How come he could sit on a dead burro?’ Lee asked
‘On account of it was lying down, on its side, you know dead, a bullet hole in the neck, bled out I guess.’ Crow answered.’
Lee left it as long as he could but it was always like this, you just had to know what started off in Crow’s mind as a yarn and what the truth of it was. ‘So why was he sitting on a dead burro?’
‘I don’t recall and it was no point in asking him as he was pretty much too dead to converse with.’
‘Pretty much dead?’
‘Deader than a hat, cold, grey and lonesome.’
‘What did he die of?’ Asked Lee, curiosity getting the better of him.
‘Not sure, but if I was to take a guess I would say he died of disappointment.’
‘Disappointment? Disappointment with what?’
‘With what I cannot rightly say as I know. That was hard to figure, but he had a sad look on his dead face, his burro was shot, his shovel handle broke and he was sitting by a big old rock at the entrance of what looked to be a worked-out diggings just outside of the Cold Canyon ghost town, which as you know full well just one day up and played itself out.’
‘That old ghost town?’
‘A ghost town is what there is of left of it today and yes, you could really call it a ghost town, least that’s what I found it to be.’
‘You ever go in there?’
‘Sure enough, rode on right by the dead man sitting on the dead burro and looked around. The usual, dust, more dust and ruin. Tumbleweed rolling down Main Street, saloon full of empty liquor bottles and broken chairs and tables with half-finished poker games on them, broken chuck’a’luck and gaming machines. Empty jail cell and that miner sitting at the card table playing five card stud, his hole card face down on the dusty green baize.’
‘Whoa there, hoss, what miner would that be?’
‘The one with the dead burro, sitting there at the table with a filled whiskey glass never once looking up at the lady.’
‘Lady? What lady? What the hell are you talking about?’
‘You asked me and I’m telling you.’
‘I am. The lady with the faded paper rose in her hair standing close to the miner, her hand on his shoulder.’
‘Okay.’ Lee sighed.
‘It was like one of them motion pictures we were in back in Californy only it was in colour.’
‘Colour, yes, real life colour.’
‘Could you hear him, the miner?’
‘Hear them you mean.’
‘No, I could not hear them. There were seven of them around the table and I just walked around them checking out their hole cards. Mostly miners a couple of drifters and a sure enough gambling man dressed in faded black dealing the cards. I walked around them, right around the table but no one seemed to notice me.’
‘You could see the cards?’
‘They were waiting for the fifth card face up and the dealer was dealing the Bicycles.’
Lee edged forward, nearer to the fire and pulled a glowing stick from the flames, relit his wet stogie and settled back against his upturned saddle. ‘Including the hole card what four cards were they holding?’
‘The two drifters were hoping to fill inside straights but didn’t make it. Two of the miners were looking for a flush and folded a third looked like a possible full house as did the gambler’s. And the dead man, well he was a card short of a heart royal and bet high, everything he had including the deed to his claim.’
‘How did that turn out?’
Crow stroked his stubble, ‘Not well. He drew a diamond and the gambling man cleaned up good.’
‘A heart royal is pretty ambitious.’ Lee tossed the stogie into the fire and pulled a couple more from his vest pocket handing one to Crow. ‘And the lady?’
‘Walked away with the gambling man.’
‘There’s a surprise, a losing hand and a cold deck. What happened then?’
‘That’s the strange part of it, Henry Lee, the whole motion picture just sort of faded away and I was left in that dusty rundown saloon with the pack rats not knowing what was real and what was not.’
‘So, what did you do?’ Asked Lee.
‘Like any man would, I went in the direction of the gunfire.’
‘Gunfire? What gunfire would that be, you did not mention gunfire?’
Crow raked around in his teeth with a matchstick he had trimmed with his Buck knife, spitting out the bacon debris and saying, ‘As the picture faded I heard a couple of pistol shots coming from somewhere in back of the saloon, I could smell the stink of the black powder so I wander in and find them.’
‘Find who for god sakes?’ Lee said, leaning forwards.
‘The gambling man and the lady with the faded paper rose in her hair, lying there side by side both shot clean through the head with the mine deeds and bank notes and the loose change spread all over them. Oh, and a fresh deck of Bicycles with the seal broken.’
‘No other way, hoss, when you are shot clean through the head.’
‘What did you do?’
‘Got out of there on a run, hit the leather with a jump and headed back the way I came in.’
Lee settled back against his saddle again while Crow tossed some fresh wood on the fire. ‘That’s some yarn, Crow, even for you that really is some tall tale.’
‘Tall or short, Lee, that’s a true story and what is more it didn’t quite end there. I headed back for the entrance to Cold Canyon on the fly and there he was…’ Crow paused thinking about it, as if remembering.
‘There was who?’ asked Lee. ‘What did you see?’
‘He was there, still there, the miner, there he was, him and the dead burro but not like when I first seen them. They was just bleached bones. The animal spread out, most likely moved about by coyotes or even bear, but whatever, it covered some ground whereas the man, the miner was propped against the big rock a rusty pistol in his hand. A skeleton of a man, mostly in one piece, the man I’d seen earlier, dusty rags and that horrible grin old skulls seem to adopt and,’ Crow paused for a moment, ‘that is not all…’
‘There’s more?’ Lee asked quietly.
‘He was holding a hand of faded Bicycles, all reds, all hearts, a royal flush…’
‘You don’t say,’ said Henry Lee.
‘Yes, I do say, I really do say, I swear to you that’s how it was at the entrance to Cold Canyon in the spring of 1910.’
Lee said, ‘That’s some story, sure enough.’ Then changing the subject asked, ‘Did you hear that rider late last night passing by the dry wash.’
‘Yes, I heard him.’ Crow said.
‘You don’t figure he was looking for us, do you?’
‘Not sure he was looking for anyone. I looked down there first light, no tracks of any kind as far as I could tell. A ghost rider maybe?’
Lee thought about that long and hard and said, ‘About tonight, Crow, smells like rain, this wash could flood, maybe we ought to quit this place get back to home.’
‘Whatever you say, Lee, whatever you want is ok by me.’ Crow turned away, smiling to himself and thinking there was always more than one way to skin a cat!
Copyright Chris Adam Smith October 2017