GUNFIGHT AT DOGBITE
Henry Lee said, ‘The only gunfight I ever saw was right here in Halloran’s Saloon, right here in Dogbite in the summer of eighty-one. Do you recall that one, Dan?’’
Dan Crow shook his head, ‘No, I was up on the Muddy at that time punching cows for Old Bob Harrison and his one-eyed sister, didn’t get back till eighty-two and then some.’
The two elderly men sat across from each other at a round, age patinated bar table in the early evening, a bottle of whiskey and two shot glasses between them, their whiskey and tobacco stained voices pitched low. They were deeply tanned with creased faces, long moustaches and battered, sweat-stained Stetsons, their range clothes faded and worn.
Lee asked, ‘Whatever happened to Old Bob, he never came back this way?’
Crow considered his empty glass and recharged it. ‘Got snake-bit summer before I quit, lost his leg, they had to cut it off on account the gangrene setting in.’
‘Which snake or which leg? If’n it’s the snake I don’t know, all them rattlers all look alike to me.’
‘I meant which leg?’
‘Left one, what difference does that make?’
‘Well, if was his left one he would find it hard to climb into a saddle so I guess he gave up ranching about then.’
‘Now that you mention it, I do believe he did. Moved back east with his wife they just about made one whole people between them.’
Lee smiled. ‘What was we talking about before Bob Harrison?’
‘The only gunfight you ever seen, me I never ever seen even one. I heard about them but was never there when it went down though. That must have been the same year as the Earps shot it out with the Clantons in Tombstone.’
Lee nodded, rolled a cigarette, licked the paper and fired with a table brick lit match courtesy of Halloran’s. ‘Hell no,’ he smiled, ‘I ain’t that old! It was about this time of the evening, Luke Cornwallis pulled on his cousin Newt and they blasted away at each other right across this very room.’
‘What brought that on?’ Crow asked.
‘Some woman. They was arguing about her all evening back and forth across the room, likely a woman could care less about either of them, a couple of barnyard roosters crowing for all the world to hear. Eventually the shouting turned to insults and before anyone could say anything much Luke hauls out his Colt, throws down on Newt and shoots right across the room at him. Newt near to shits hisself but still pulls his piece and fires back.’
‘Must have been something to see, all that powder smoke in this narrow room.’
‘Yes, sir, you had better believe it. They was tall waddies though those Cornwallis boys, so, firing straight-armed as they were they were shooting over the heads of the folk still sitting and well clear of those hugging the sawdust. Newt fires then Luke fires then Newt fires again and then… well you get the picture, they keep banging away five rounds each on account of they both have an empty chamber under the hammer.’
‘Can you spare those makings?
‘Sure,’ Lee passed the Bull Durham sack across the table and Crow shook some of the tobacco onto a paper and drew the sack closed with his teeth.
‘Who hit who?’
‘That’s the weird part of it though, ten rounds and they clear missed each other. A sometime black jack dealer named Spiers, I believe, Bernie Spiers that was it, got a nicked ear and Newt put a round through that old green parrot Halloran kept in a gold coloured cage above the bar. Just a squawk and a cage full of green feathers.’
‘That was it, all of that shooting and no one got hit?’
‘Oh, and Wally Dade’s hat.’ ‘Wally Dade?’
‘You remember Wally Dade?’
‘The US Marshal Wally Dade?’
‘Same one only he was only a deputy marshal back then,’ Lee paused pulling back the memory, rolling away the years. ‘Well, he was in the bar at the time back there in the shadows, and one bullet sliced through the brim of his hat, a brand new black Boss of the Plains Stetson his wife just bought him. He was pissed I can tell you.’
‘What did he do about it?’
‘Nothing at the time, we was all in a kind of state of shock what with the powder smoke, our ears ringing and all. Luke drops his piece on the floor and rushes out of the front and mounts his pony on the run. Cousin Newt makes for the back, only he stops, turns to Halloran, tosses a dollar onto the bar, says it’s for the parrot and whoosh, he’s in the wind as well. Dade ran ‘em down and brought them both in a couple of days later on account he said his hat was federal property and they had damaged it some, they had to buy him a new one and they got a county fine for disturbing the peace’
‘That was it?’ Crow asked, ‘That was your gunfight, ten rounds, a nicked ear, a wounded hat and a dead green parrot?’
‘What did you want for God’s sake? This is Dogbite, what did you expect , Tombstone? The Ok Corral?
As line shacks go the Rocking W’s western boundary cabin was more than ok. Built with its back to a low, rocky bluff with a fresh coldwater stream cheerfully tricking down across the gravel to what would become a full blown creek come the winter. Some northerly shelter was offered by a stand of leaning, sparse pinons. The small corral housed a substantial lean-to for the horses and a store for their winter food. The log pile was high and provisions had been delivered the day before. The shack itself was just a single room with bunks, a big cooking stove and a water pump over a tin sink. There was a small slatted crapper out back. Henry Lee had spent long, fence riding winters in worse conditions and considered that he and his old friend Dan Crow had struck lucky for once.
Henry Lee was filling a yellow cigarette paper from a sack of Bull Durham when Dan Crow rounded the narrow bluff and stilled his hot pony in front of Lee who nodded a greeting and fired his quirly with a thumb lit, blue top match. ‘Took you a while, you get lost?’ His drooping tobacco stained moustache twitched above his hidden upper lip as he drew deeply on the dark tobacco. The man lean and weather beaten like an old fence post.
‘Took a bath in Bailey before I left, got some clean duds and got my hair cut. I reckon it wouldn’t have hurt you none to do the same, I can smell you from here.’
‘Had one last year, didn’t cotton to it.’ Lee grinned up at the mounted man. The pair had ridden together for many years and this would not be their first winter in the confines of a line shack. ‘Step down, there’s coffee on the stove and I swept the place through and evicted the wildlife.’ Lee had a precise way of speaking and the merest hint of a Southern drawl.
‘A gopher snake and a couple of raccoons and I think I smelled bear.’
‘Bear, there was a fucking bear in there?’
‘Your language has not improved over the years and, was, is the operative word here, he is not in there now as far as I could see and…’
‘As far as you could see?’ Crow interrupted.
‘I didn’t look too hard.’
Crow swung his leg easily over the saddle and draped the rein loosely over the small, two horse hitching rail. He was a lot shorter than he first appeared when mounted, a lean middle-aged man with a sun-browned face and pale eyes. He stood there for a long moment, listening, his head cocked to the side in the direction of the trickling water. ‘Damned if that stream ain’t singing.’ He paused. ‘Sounds like Red River Valley.
Lee listened for a moment and said. ‘Sounds more like Clementine.’
‘Hell, you sing everything to same tune anyway so how would you know? You couldn’t hit the right note with a shotgun.’
‘I took the bottom bunk on account of my sore hip,’ Lee said, getting to his feet and ignoring the slight to his tuneless singing voice. ‘A Rocking W hand dropped by with enough grub for six weeks and will send up more later. Foreman also brought up a pair of spare saddle horses. I hobbled them and set them loose down in that meadow you just came through. You see them?’
Crow shook his head. ‘ No but I heard ‘em.’
‘Bear?’ Crow asked, later that evening with the stove glowing and the doors and window shuttered against the chill wind, ‘You really smelled bear?’ He was at the rough plank table oiling his Marlin lever action while Lee sat opposite him slowly and deliberately turning cards from a well thumbed deck of Bicycles, laying out a game of solitaire the smell of tobacco smoke, cooked bacon, strong coffee and gun oil permeated the air. ‘I’m not at all partial to bears not a bit of it ever since I heard what happened to Big Bo Larson up on the Platte a couple of summers back.’
‘I remember Larson, big man, a Swede must have been near seven feet high.’ Lee said, not looking up from his game.
‘About that, couldn’t walk through any doorway without banging his head. He had more lumps and bumps on his noodle than any man rightly deserves. Always got up smiling though.’
‘So what happened to him, the big Swede?’
‘Well as I heard it, he was out in the yard sawing cords for the winter, he had one of those long two-man cross-saws, and he would pull it one way then walk around to the other handle and pull it back…’
‘You don’t mean that.’
‘No, of course not, he was big and strong enough to push and pull on the one handle. Anyways, he was sawing away when this big old bear wanders into the yard and hollers at him, you know the way bears holler.’
‘Hell of a noise.’ Lee put a black queen on a red king, he was on the way to getting this hand out. ‘What did he do?’
‘The bear or the Swede?’
‘Well old Bo hollers right back at him and…’ Crow paused, thinking about it.
‘Then what?’ Lee asked, a slight edge of impatience creeping into his voice, familiarity with Crow’s long winded stories making him wish that he had not asked.
‘Well as I heard it, the bear hollers back even louder and the two of them stand there in the yard, Bo with his shirt off nearly a foot taller than the bear, the pair of them hollering at each other until Bo tires of it and picks up a cord of pine and steps forward and raps the bear over the nose with it.’
‘Not a smart thing to do.’ Lee said, now interested in the outcome of the confrontation his near complete game of solitaire momentarily forgotten.
Crow took the makings from his vest pocket and fashioned himself a smoke. ‘Not a smart thing at all, Henry Lee, that bear was pissed and he charged the Swede and the two of them wrestled around in that yard with the blood and fur a‘flying for nearly an hour till the bear gave it up and still hollerin’ legged it out to the pineywoods, fleeing as fast as he could.’
‘And the Swede? What happened to Larson?’
‘Poor old Bo didn’t make it. They found him in the spring curled up by the cold stove, still had the bear’s ear in his mouth, they think it may have choked him. Anyway, you see any bears around here you let me know pretty damn quick.’
Lee looked at his cards and moved a red jack to the black queen. ‘If Bo was dead how come you know all of this?’
Crow looked at him. ‘The bear told me, ran into him in a saloon in Bailey last fall.’
‘In a saloon in Bailey, you say?’
‘In Bailey, that’s what I said.’
Lee stared at his companion. ‘I didn’t know bears were allowed in bars in Bailey.’
Crow sighed, ‘It’s going to be a long winter, Henry Lee, a damned long winter.’
HOME ON THE RANGE
Henry Lee said, ‘Crow, you ever considered becoming a motion picture star?’
‘What’s a motion picture?’ Dan Crow asked.
‘Remember that night in Cheyenne, we went to a theatre and watched Bronco Billy in a two reeler?’
‘That was a motion picture?’
‘That’s what they call them, and I hear tell Bronco Billy is looking for some real cowboys down in California to play the bad guys or whatever in his motion pictures. They say he pays top dollar for them as can ride, rope and shoot.’
‘You can’t shoot worth a damn, Henry, and you know it. You tote your daddy’s pistol but you sure enough don’t know how to shoot it. Now me…’
‘You can’t shoot a handgun worth a damn either.’ Lee interrupted.
‘Never bothered with one, happy with my carbine.’
‘This here six,’ Lee tapped the ivory grip of his holstered revolver, ‘was once owned by Billy the Kid.’
‘Every damned pistol in the West once belonged to Billy, I hear tell that often enough but maybe so, maybe so, I concur.’ Crow said.
‘You concur? What the hell is concur?’
‘It means I agree with whatever you just said if it pleases you,’ Crow said.
The two friends were riding night herd for the Rocking W. The moon was bright and the tired cattle were in no mood to run. Henry Lee drew on his smoke and Dan Crow chewed a lump of Redman, spitting occasionally into the long grass that blessed that part of the Wyoming. They crested the brow of a small hill and dismounted. Lee rolled himself a fresh cigarette and squatted down. Crow, the shorter and heavier built of the two men, bit off a new chaw of Redman and leaned his back against a stunted pine, too stiff to squat. He looked over at Lee, the lean waddy was bathed in brassy moonlight giving his tanned face a yellowish glow, his drooping tobacco-stained moustache twitching now and then as he drew deeply on the tobacco.
‘You don’t look like no motion picture cowboy and you don’t speak much above a whisper, you ain’t eloquent.’ Crow observed quietly.
Lee turned and stared at Crow. ‘Eloquent? Where the hell you getting these dumb words?’
‘I got another book in Dogbite while you was in the room above Halloran’s bar doing I don’t know what.’
‘You bought another book, you dumbass? Didn’t the book tell you that there is no sound in motion pictures? They print the words when something important gets said so you do have to be able to read or have someone with you who can, but you don’t need no special voice, just have to look the part is all.’
‘It wasn’t a book on motion pictures and besides their lips was moving.’
Lee’s pony shook its head, snorted then farted long and hard, its long tail swishing gently. ‘Jesus,’ said Crow, taking off his battered hat and waving it into the night breeze, ‘that’s Wyoming grass for you. Think of them five hundred head of beef down there all blasting the night away, I wonder where all that gas goes.’
Lee ignored him and went on, ‘You recall Jesse Ironmonger worked over at Halloran’s Bar one time, did the swamping weekends when not riding for the Slash?’
‘Yeah, I remember him. Little raggedy-assed feller kept falling over his own feet or off his pony. Got on it backward onetime and no one could figure out the how or the why, he just done it. Wonder whatever happened to him?’
‘I’ll tell you what happened to Jesse Ironmonger, Crow, he went to California and became a sidekick to a big-time silver screen cowboy and now he is into the big bucks compared to our forty a month. That’s what happened to Jesse Ironmonger.’
‘But he couldn’t ride worth a damn.’
‘That’s the point, he does what he does naturally, falls over his own feet a lot and off a horse most times, but he does it in front of a camera. They call him the light relief.’
‘You know a lot about motion pictures, Henry Lee.’
‘I read about them, trying to better myself take you along with me, get us a pair of those big white hats, fancy shirts, striped pants and concho studded leather holsters, be somebody.’
‘You see me as a sidekick, don’t you?’ Crow’s tone said it wasn’t really a question that needed an answer but he got one anyway.
‘Sure, Crow, you were tailor made for the part and you are getting a belly, all the better, we could clean up. Bronco Billy will take one look at us and see something special, two good ol’ boys from the real west, out and out outlaws. He’ll say we are just what he’s looking for and look no further.’
‘I don’t think so, Lee, I ain’t going to be no Jesse Ironmonger. Anyway, it’s not dignified, a growed man falling down like that just to make folk laugh.’
‘Dignified? What the hell was that book you bought?’
‘I bought a lot of books lately but I’m reading Ben Hur by Lew Wallace at the moment, he’s the guy shot Billy the Kid.’
‘Pat Garrett shot Billy, everyone knows that.’
‘Garrett pulled the trigger right enough but Wallace loaded the gun. I would bet he ended up with Billy’s Colt Thunderer and that there piece you carry is a mere counterfeit.’
‘Mere counterfeit? You should stick to dime novels, Crow.’
Crow was quiet for a moment then, ‘Face it, Lee, dreamin’s not a bad thing but best we stick with what we know, what we do best and what we already got.’
‘And what exactly have we got?’
‘We got us a whole lot of Wyoming, Lee, a decent cook and a friendly bunkhouse. Anyways, you ain’t cut out to be no Bronco Billy, you’re too damned ugly and I sure as hell am no Jesse Ironmonger, I’m too damned smart. Besides, it’s a long hard ride to California.’
‘We were going by train, you dumbass.’
Lee killed his quirly with thumb and forefinger and Crow spat out the Redman and took a long swig from his canteen. The two men remounted and began their seemingly endless night time swing, circling the bedded herd. After a little while as the silence and darkness engulfed them, Lee began singing Lorena very slowly in his tuneless whisper and Crow was thinking of some new words he could throw Henry Lee’s way just to piss him off. Sidekick, hell, he would have been the one in the white Stetson and Lee the falling down, tripping over his spurs light relief. He grinned, liking that idea a lot.
Henry Lee sat alone at the bunkhouse table, the sack of makings laid out by his hand and a rolled cigarette set next to the half empty sack of Bull Durham. He ran the open palms of his brown, calloused hands across the table, its top worn smooth by countless elbows, plates and decks of playing cards. Sweeping the tobacco dregs onto the floor he sighed deeply, he had sighed deeply a great many times that day. The late afternoon sun filtered in through the fly-specked glass and somewhere at the back of the room a large moth battered itself noisily against a window pane. Presently, the door creaked open and a weary looking Dan Crow shuffled into the room, nodded to Lee, deftly tossed his sweat-stained hat onto the hook, unstrapped his spurs, unbuckled his pistol belt, stepped clear of his shotgun chaps and flopped heavily onto his bunk with a louder sigh than any that Lee had mustered that warm summer’s day.
‘You look plumb wore out,’ Lee said, quietly. ‘Rough day?’
‘Digging post holes out at Quarter Mile is never fun and on a hot day it has got to be worse than Hell.’ Crow pulled a book out from under his pillow, opened it and then closed it, sitting up on the tick pillow, staring up at Lee who had wandered over to his own bunk and squatted down on the threadbare Indian blanket then, restless, getting back on his feet and returning to the table.
‘What’s up, Henry Lee, you look like death warmed up. You sickening for something?’ Crow asked quietly, concern in his deep voice.
‘I got canned, Crow, fired, let go, the old Vaya con Dios, thanks for your time and happy trails.’
‘I get your drift, Henry.’ Crow sat up and swung his tired legs to the ground. ‘They can’t fire you, you’ve been here forever.’
‘That’s the trouble, Crow, let the old hands go first, we’re a bit worn and tuckered out any ways you look at us.’ There was a bitter edge to his leathery, tobacco stained voice.
‘What the hell happened?’ Crow joined his long-time companion at the table dragging out a chair and flopping onto it.
‘The war with Germany ended is what happened. The Indian wars are long over and then the Mexicans packed it in and now Johnny is marching home again, hurrah, and goddamned hurrah. They are all coming home and help is going to be cheap. The price of beef has dropped and the syndicate needs to trim down is what I was told. I am a casualty of the goddamned peace, old friend, an innocent victim of faraway wars.’
‘You ride, I ride, partner, how long have we got?’ Crow said. ‘You using that smoke?’
Lee pushed the rolled cigarette across the table. Crow put it in his mouth and fired it, drawing deeply on the Durham.
‘End of the month but you would be a fool to move just because I got the boot. Jobs are getting harder to find now and summer isn’t going to last forever, that old bastard winter is just waiting around the corner and cowboying, well,’ he paused, ‘well maybe cowboying is a thing of the past anyway. There’s fresh made coffee on the stove if you’ve a thirst for it.’ Lee turned away staring at the dirty window, his attention on some distant thought.
Crow groaned and stretched as he got to his feet and walked over to the stove ‘You sure make damned good coffee, Lee, I’ll say that for you. But had you done like I told you, got your grey hair cut, trimmed that damned moustache like mine and bought a new hat they might have overlooked you and busted old Ned Burley, he must be sixty if he’s a day.’
‘I don’t wish someone else to be out of a job on my account, I’ll just move along, check out the Rocking Moon or maybe head further west or maybe go to California and become a motion picture star like I intended before I let you talk me out of it.’
‘Or maybe you could ride the outlaw trail like Butch and Sundance? They rode around here down by the Hole in the Wall. Rob trains, raise hell.’ Crow said, his tone heavy with sarcasm.
‘Me rob trains, flee and end up shot to pieces in Bolivia, that would please you? That’s how you see my life panning out?’
‘You don’t know that’s what happened to them is all. Those stories are mostly spurious and anecdotal.’ Crow said.
‘Anec, what? When did you pick up all these words, Crow?’
Crow sipped at the hot, sweet coffee. ‘Last fall, remember, broke my leg and holed up with a homesteader and his missus? Guess they got tired of me talking so much that she taught me to read better than I already did. She was a schoolmarm back east, a fine, religious woman as I recall. Trouble was she only had two books, Tom Sawyer and Uncle Remus. One was mostly stories about a raggedy assed kid and the other about a fucking rabbit. They were the only two books she had brought west with her, those and the Bible. They was easy enough to read, just didn’t understand all of the words in them so she gave me this to keep.’ Crow dug under his tick pillow and came out with a well-worn, small leather covered book. ‘It’s a dictionary and it helps me with my reading, it’s all about words and meanings…’
‘I know what a dictionary is.’ Lee interrupted him.
‘Well, maybe so, but I try to look up a new word or two every day and today they were spurious and anecdotal. Together they roughly mean stories set around stories people heard and misleadingly pass on as being actual facts. And that’s what happened to Butch and Sundance. There’s no proof they were killed by federales in Bolivia, just speculation and hearsay.’
‘Speculation and hearsay? How many words you look up today and what the hell are we talking about anyway, Crow?’
‘I don’t recall, it’s just the way the conversation went because I try to better myself.’
‘Any way you look at it, come the end of the month I’m gone.’ Lee said.
‘And me along with you.’
Lee studied on his old friend for a moment or two and said quietly, ‘that is not necessary, Crow, winter is good here, you hold the job down and I’ll ride back next spring, see what’s what. It may be there will be another war, folk just don’t seem to cotton to each other over there in Europe these days. Beef will come back high you wait and see, America feeds on it.’
‘And maybe not. I kind of like your idea of California,’ Crow said. ‘Becoming motion picture stars along with Bronco Billy. Take our own saddles, teach them eastern fancy pants how to rope and ride. Maybe even out-clown Jesse Ironmonger if we find him. Within six months we’ll be a’walkin’ in tall cotton in new hats, you and me.’
‘It’s an idea. Maybe change our names to something more cowboy?’
‘Don’t like that idea so much. Dan Crow and Henry Lee sounds good to me.’
‘Buck and Hopalong might sound better,’ Lee said.
‘Hopalong? Sounds like another goddamned rabbit.’
‘And seems most of the best sobriquets have been taken anyway.’
‘Sobri what?’ Crow asked, glaring at him.
‘Fancy handles. Weren’t that a word in that there little old dictionary of yours? Things like the Sundance Kid, that wasn’t his real name it was a…’
‘Okay, okay, I get the point,’ Crow muttered, irritated. ‘So we going or what?’
‘Ok then, it’s a plan. I was going by myself anyway, going to California is the best we got.’
‘Sure you were, Lee, sure you were and now you got me for company.’
‘It would have been a long trail on my own.’
‘Every trail is a long trail if you ride it alone,’ Crow said.
‘You’re a pistol, Dan Crow, we will Butch and Sundance our way out of here come payday, go to California, make our play. Use some of them fancy new words you got, make an impression right off.’
The two men sat there laughing, planning, and seeing a bright future somewhere up ahead. They talked through supper and long into the evening, sharing their plans with the other hands as they drifted in from a hot day’s work. Two old cowboys, Butch and Sundance, eidolons, drifting across a white Wyoming moon, howling like the two old coyotes they were, true spirits of the old west.
SOUTH OF THE BORDER DOWN MEXICO WAY
Lee said, ‘This don’t look much like California to me,’ and ducked quickly as a Mexican bullet bounced off a rock close by to where he was sitting. ‘We done come too far south, Butch.’
Dan Crow crawled on his belly to a shady spot out of the Sonora sun and said, ‘When did you become Sundance and me Butch?’
‘Jesus, keep your voice down.’
Another round chipped dust above Crow’s hatless head spraying his dark hair with shattered granite. ‘Bit late for that, they done got us spotted. Did you see which way our horses ran?’
‘Down that draw to the left of you, heading for water I guess.’
‘We going follow them? I could use a drink myself.’ Crow complained.
Lee leaned back on the rock he had picked as a shelter when the Mexicans had first opened fire on them and checked the rounds in his Colt. ‘We sure as hell can’t stay here. You got your carbine?’
‘No it’s with my saddle but I got this handgun loaded, not that I can shoot it worth a damn.’ Crow replied.
‘How far south you think we came? We should have ridden the train like I said in the first place, damned if I saw the Rio Grande unless it was that shitty sandbank filled creek a mile or so back.’
‘You reckon they’re Mex bandits?’
‘They are Mex for sure, caught a glimpse of one of them. Big sombrero. They could be bandits or maybe we’ve run into another war down here. Could be the revolution maybe, there’s always a revolution down here somewhere?’
‘Jesus H, you ever shoot anyone, Lee? I’ve never shot anyone.’
‘I never even shot at anyone. Last time I busted a cap was out at Two Mile when I put down that crippled steer, two years ago maybe.’
‘They are not backward like that in Mexico, they’re going kill us for certain sure.’
The two men huddled down, hugging the dirt and their guns. The sun moved higher and then began to drop slowly and the shadows turned purple and lengthened. Lee rolled a smoke and tossed the sack of makings to Crow. It was a diversion and it helped steady them.
‘You ever been out with a one-eyed woman,’ Crow asked after a while trying to keep the silence at bay.
‘Not as I can recall but I did go out with a Mex girl in a saloon way down in Laredo, she had wonky eyes.’ Lee said. ‘Dark, black wonky eyes.’
‘What the hell is wonky?’ Crow asked.
‘Not sure, I may have made that up.’
‘You made up a word? I do not believe that.’
‘Is it in your dictionary?’
‘I don’t know and it’s in my saddle bag along with what’s left of our money.’
‘Well, if it isn’t in your little book then I made it up.’ Lee said.
‘What does it mean?’ Crow asked.
‘To me it means wobbly. Couldn’t tell if she was looking at me or the faro dealer.’’
‘Hey, gringos, you want some water?’ A distant voice broke the stunned silence that followed Lee’s explanation. ‘We got plenty water and we got your horses so you not going anywhere sometime soon. You got tobacco? We can smell tobacco. You want to share a smoke with us?’ The Mexican had a husky voice, clear English but with a heavy melodic accent.
Crow yelled back, ‘We got water and we got tobacco and we got plenty of ammo and you are in mighty deep shit, Pancho.’
‘Don’t piss them off any more than they are already, Jesus H, Crow, you have got a mouth on you.’
‘They’re pissing me off, Lee, who do they think they are don’t they know were Americans?’
‘I don’t think they really care too much about that, Crow.’
Crow ignored him and yelled, ‘You don’t know who you’re messing with here, we’re Americans for God’s sake?’
‘Then you should have stayed in America, hombre, safer there for you.’
‘You know who we are, Pancho? Do you have any idea who we are? We don’t want to kill you so leave our horses and move on, we won’t hunt you down and kill you like the bushwhackers you are. Just flee and we’ll call it all square.’ Crow, spat out a shred of tobacco and relit his dead cigarette. ‘And that’s my last damned match. You got any matches, Lee?’
‘What the hell are you thinking? They come over here they are going to blow our empty heads off and you worry about a match?’
Crow ignored the outburst and yelled, ‘Time’s running out, Pancho you do like I ask or we are going to come out from behind these rocks with six guns blazing a withering fire, and you are going to be two dead Mexicans.’
‘Withering fire, what the fuck is withering fire?’ Lee asked.
Crow ignored him.
The Mexican yelled back, ‘There’s maybe six of us, you can’t count, gringo.’
Crow yelled, beginning to enjoy the exchange. ‘Six is good, I got a bullet for each of you and my partner will finish off any is wounded or two dumb to run. We never lost a gunfight yet and we don’t aim to lose one this day. Now get it done or run because I’m tired of this bullshit and I’m coming out shooting, comprende, Pancho?’
‘Oh my God,’ said Lee, crossing himself, ‘they’ll kill us for sure now you dumbass.’
There was a long silence and the shadows deepened, it was about an hour before sunset as Lee had it figured.
‘Who are you, gringo, why are you so bold as to insult me in my own country, hey, you tell me that before I kill you?’
‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is who we are and we’re loaded for bear. You got maybe two minutes to pound leather before we come out shooting.’ Crow yelled and then howled like a coyote.
‘What?’ Lee whispered, his tone desperate. ‘Did I hear you right?’
Crow grinned over at him, ‘The words just fell out. This is a classic Mexican standoff, Lee, and when we rush them you can be Sundance if that takes your fancy.’
‘Rush them? Are you mad?’
‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, gringo?’ The Mexican’s voice was hesitant, not as threatening as it had been.
‘You got it, Pancho, late of Wyoming and on our way to Californy. You want to come, be in a motion picture with us, be our sidekick or do you want us to kill you right here in Sonora or wherever we damned well are? Make your mind up because I’m hungry.’
‘What is sidekick? I heard you was killed in Bolivia years ago, you and the Kid, gringo, you come back to life to haunt me?’
‘I’m going to be your worst nightmare.’
‘Which one are you, gringo?’
‘Crow thought for a moment and shrugged, ‘Cassidy, I’m Cassidy and what you heard was anecdotal based on spurious reportage, my friend, a made up story, a lie to fool the law, the basis of a myth. Now we are coming, ready or not.’ Crow rattled his boots on the rocks, jangling his spurs in the impending darkness.
‘You are an old man now, Butch Cassidy, can you still shoot straight?’ A mocking edge to the voice.
‘You bet your sweet life I can still shoot quick and straight,’ Crow yelled back. ‘And you are about to find out when you’re laying out there in the dark with a third eye in your head and looking up at nowhere.’
The reply was a while in coming and when it did it sounded a little further away, ‘Later, Senor Cassidy, maybe we meet again later, after the revolution, we’ll have some mescal together, but now we have to be someplace somewhere else. We thought you was Texas Rangers, sorry for the misunderstanding, Vaya con Dios.’
There was a long silence and then the pounding of hooves over rock slowly fading in the dark distance.
Crow got to his feet and dusted his hat by banging it against his thigh. ‘Hope they left the horses, it’s a long walk to California.’ He thought for a moment. ‘Maybe I should have said Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday. Yeah, it might have been quicker, maybe I’ll use that next time.’
‘There is never going to be a next time you crazy sonofabitch.’
‘Come on, Lee,’ Crow said, ‘we done real good.’ Then he grinned to himself. ‘You reckon them Mex had any idea what spurious meant?’
AUTHOR’S NOTE: The origin of the word wonky is unknown but appeared in the USA early in the 20th century so maybe Henry Lee really did invent a word…
OLD TIMERS DON’T GIVE A DAMN
Dan Crow said, ‘I hear rumours about how they’re bringing out talking westerns one of these days, singing cowboys and such.’
‘That why that rooster was yodelling all evening in the commissary, trying to get hisself noticed?’
‘I guess so,’ Crow said, ‘I never did hold with yodelling sounds like a waddy put his saddle on back to front and sat down hard on the horn.’
‘That would rightly do it.’ Lee chuckled at the thought. ‘But I don’t think talking pictures will ever happen.’
Lee thought about it for a long moment before answering. ‘Just because is all.’
‘That it? That’s all you got, just because?’
‘You’ve been in one hell of an ornery mood ever since we got here, Crow. You ought to be thankful we actually got here in one piece us getting lost, shot at and all. What the hell’s the matter with you?’
Dan Crow said, ‘If that fat director dude calls me old timer one more time I am going to shove that monocle he’s wearing up in that dark place where the sun don’t shine.’
‘Take it easy, Crow, he’s the man pays our wages,’ Henry Lee responded, his tone gentle, soothing, like talking to a spooked pony.
‘That does not make me an old timer or you either come to that although you do look like one more than me. Why don’t you get your damned haircut?’
The two men were seated on wooden rockers set on the veranda of the false-fronted general store which was part of the Death on Main Street motion picture set. Crow had one booted foot against an upright. It was a hot day and they had been sitting around for two hours waiting to be told what to do.
‘California was not such a great idea of yours, you’ve had better.’ Crow was irritated, he had been on edge since they first signed up to Western Picture Studios as extras some three weeks earlier.
‘So far it hasn’t been so bad and when it hasn’t been good, your bitching doesn’t help any. We are not the most popular people around here, you and your big words and being a Know-all John. Have yourself a smoke, we got an all-day of sitting in the sun.’
Crow, took out the makings and rolled a thin quirly. ‘There’s only two cowboys on this whole lot and they are you and me both. You see the way they shoot? Pointing the piece to the sky and whanging it down when they fire like they are trying to throw the round out of the barrel. They wear hats you could live in and who would wear a gun rig with metal conchos in this heat, you touch that silver it would burn your finger off. And that stagecoach chase yesterday, why didn’t them store-bought Indians just shoot the fucking horses and save all of that chasing and…’
‘Give it a rest, Crow.’ Lee interrupted the familiar litany of irritations from his old friend. ‘We get three squares a day, money in our pokes, we got comfortable accommodation and we can eat all the oranges we can manage.’
‘And they give me gas. I reckon they feed them to the horses. That swayback I was given yesterday farted, damn near cleared the whole street. Why don’t they grow peaches out here like they do down in Georgia?’
Lee smiled, ‘Yep, they surely do give you gas, but all things considered we are working and not working hard. Here he comes, easy now, remember tomorrow’s payday.’
Robert E. Laird crossed the street to where the two men were sitting. He wore a monocle over his left eye, a pith helmet, khaki shirt and cream jodhpurs laced on the inside right down into high leather polished boots. He carried a board with sheets of paper on it and a riding crop. He was followed, as he always was, by an attractive female blonde secretary, an aid he interchanged constantly with a brunette or a redhead. He was a big man, rotund and noisy.
‘You want us now, Mr Laird? We are raring to go.’ The sarcasm in Crow’s voice was seemingly lost on the fat man.
‘Sure, you old timers sit as you are. When I call out, a horse will come down Main Street and Billy’s stand-in will do a running mount. Now I want you two to jump to your feet and stare incredulously at the action. You got that? When I call out you do that. You know what incredulous means don’t you?’
Before Lee could cut him off, Crow said, ‘Sure we do. Stupefied is a good word as well. Do you know what spurious means?’
Laird stared at him, was about to answer when Lee said, ‘Take no mind of him, boss, he’s just funning you. We know what to do, we do incredulous great, and in fact we are known for our incredulous look. We sometimes have it most all day long down here in Californy.’
Still not certain as to what the exact attitude of the pair was toward his authority, Laird turned on his heel, throwing back over his shoulder, ‘When I yell, just move to the mark chalked on the boardwalk, I want this in one take, that rider costs me money.’
‘That eyeglass will be shoved up his butt with alacrity.’ Crow muttered.
‘New word?’ Lee said.
‘Yes, sir, new word for today.’
Lee cocked his head to one side, ‘Here comes the runaway.’
A riderless bay horse galloped down the street towards them. Across from them Laird was stationed with his team and the cameraman began to crank the camera’s polished wood handle. ‘Now,’ the big man yelled through his cone shaped megaphone.
As the horse neared the seated men the stuntman rushed out of the alleyway next to the mocked up storefront, grabbed for the saddle’s pommel, missed it, fell and rolled down the street like a windblown tumbleweed.
‘Jesus,’ said Crow, a look of incredulity on his tanned face.
‘Shit,’ said Lee, moments later, matching the look, ‘damned thing’s coming back.’
The runaway horse, its progress halted by a waving wrangler at the end of the street, turned and retraced its dusty steps at a pace.
Crow ran out into the street, crossed half way and turned as the animal passed his right hand. He grabbed the pommel, did two half bounces on the hard-packed dirt and swung aboard, a perfect running mount. He reined the frightened animal to a shivering halt and turned it back toward the cameraman and Laird, before stepping down and handing the rein to the dusty stuntman.
Laird strode across toward them, ‘Jesus, that was really something, old timer.’
Crow made a move toward him but Lee stuck his fingers in the back of his pants and held him back, saying respectfully, ‘He sure is a pistol when it comes to ponies, boss.’
‘I’ll say he is, drop by the office tomorrow morning, old timer, say nine o’clock, I may have something extra for you.’ He turned to the blonde, ‘Make a note of that, Gretchen, nine o’clock, remind me, something for the old timer, write it down.’ He turned to the rest of the crew, ‘next set up to the mineshaft, Billy is waiting and the light’s going so move your asses.’
Lee added a little extra weight to his grip and Crow gave it up.
‘What do you think he is going to offer us?’ Lee said. ‘More money maybe, a sidekick’s role, did you meet Jesse Ironmonger yet? Now I got toothache, damned steak, mine was still walking.’ Lee was weary but felt he needed to keep his partner’s spirits on the rise. The pair were seated in the small bar in the suburbs, a favourite waterhole of the extras and close by the pickup point where the studio bus collected them each morning.
Crow sipped his bourbon alternately with picking undercooked steak from out between his teeth. ‘No I haven’t seen Jesse, don’t believe he ever came out here, no one seems to know him anyway and they sure enough can’t cook beef worth a damn in California.’
Lee said, ‘You think we should head for home, see if the Rocking W is hiring again, leave this crazy shit behind, chalk it up to experience, or should we wait and see what he offers us tomorrow? Your call, I’m happy either way. It’s damned hot out here and I do not feel that we are rightly appreciated.’
Crow tossed the pick into the ashtray and poured himself a last drink from the near empty bottle. ‘I’ll see what he has to say in the morning, but I surely did mount that pony on the run, Lee, just like old times.’
Lee grinned broadly, ‘You surely did, partner, just like old times.’ He raised his glass high, ‘here’s to those old times.’
‘I’ll drink to them times,’ Crow said, raising his glass and clinking it against Lee’s.
Laird was sitting at his desk the next morning when Crow walked into the office accompanied by the blonde secretary who announced in a husky voice that made his skin curl, ‘Mister Crow, your nine o’clock is here, sir.’ Laird waved Crow to a chair. The wide desk was littered with paper, books and metal film cans. There was a large coffee cup in front of him and his ever present riding crop was propped against a telephone cradle.
‘I have an offer for you, old timer.’ Laird said, his voice friendly almost comforting. ‘Not too often we see a man of your years doing stunt work like that out here, maybe we have a special deal for you, something personal to you, if you know what I mean.’
‘Not sure that I do, sir,’ Crow said, genuinely puzzled.
‘It’s simple enough, Dan, it is Dan isn’t it?’ he glanced at the sheet of paper in front of him.
‘Here it is then, Dan, we dump the other old guy, you get his salary plus ten bucks a month, maybe more later on, do some more horse stunts, see how it works out further down the line, maybe make you a sidekick to Billy. What do you think?’
Crow frowned and thought about it, and tried to look like he was really thinking of dumping his partner, then he got to his feet, stepped up to the desk and dipped his finger into the hot coffee cup, licked the finger, considered the taste, picked up the coffee and leaning forward, poured the contents into the big man’s lap.
Laird screamed in anger, jumping to his feet, stepping back, knocking his chair over, grabbing for his riding crop. Crow drew the studio prop Colt he was wearing and cocked the hammer, pointing the pistol at the man’s fat belly. ‘Partner, I am not shooting blanks this day.’
Laird’s Californian tan seemed to vanish as he paled and backed away. The front of the cream jodhpurs stained with steaming coffee.
Crow holstered the pistol with a twirl, unstrapped the gun belt and tossed the rig onto the desk. ‘That there pistol belongs to you, sir, never in any way cottoned to them things, they shoot hot and don’t have any range worth a damn.’
‘You will never work in this town again you goddamned hayseed, I will personally see to that.’ Laird choked out the words quietly, his face now red with anger.
Crow touched the brim of his battered hat, turned on his heel and walked out through the open doorway, past the startled secretary and into the dusty street. He nodded to Lee who kicked back his rocking chair and joined him midway.
Crow said, ‘I told him we quit and we was going back to cowboying in Wyoming for real.’
‘How’d he take it?’ Asked Lee, quietly.
Crow thought for a long moment, then grinned and answered, ‘Hot and black with no sugar as far as I could tell.’
Harold and the Saddleback Hog
Henry Lee settled his thin back against the grassed bank, pulled his sweat stained hat low over his grey eyes and studied Dan Crow who was seated a couple of yards further along the creek. The stocky man sitting on a round topped rock, his legs crossed and a studied concentration on his weathered face as he threaded a crawdad onto the steel fish hook. He studied on the little crayfish for a long moment before tossing it, the sinker and the bobber out into the middle of the fast running creek. Lee had abandoned his own pole when the line snagged on a hidden root and, in any case, Crow was the better fisherman while he was the better campfire cook so he reasoned that was a fair distribution of labour and he could take a short siesta in the warm late afternoon sunshine. Besides, Crow had already caught a brace of fair sized cutthroats and another two would do for supper and maybe even breakfast as they had forgotten to bring any bacon or beans.
The pair were on their way back to the Rocking W after delivering six half broke ponies to the Slash Y on account of the wrangler there having busted a leg the previous week leaving the ranch remuda shy of six mounts, mounts needed for the drive to the Cheyenne railhead. It was a soft chore, a relaxing two-day ride and they were not in any great hurry to get back to working cattle and mending fences. Grub at the Slash had been good, they had finished breaking the ponies and set off back for home planning one night out under the Wyoming stars.
Lee was just drifting off to sleep when Crow asked, ‘You remember old Harold Vandermeer, the one-time cook at the Slash?’
‘No,’ replied Lee, keeping his head low, ‘can’t say as I do.’
‘Big old boy, German I believe or maybe a Dutchy or a Swede, whatever, he wasn’t from around here that’s for sure. Weird name, weird accent, talked like he had a mouthful of beans, fat cheeks, red faced. You sure you don’t recollect him?’
‘No, I don’t believe I recall anyone of that name on the Slash.’ Lee pushed himself up on his elbows and stared at Crow. ‘Why, was he a fishing man?’
‘No, sir,’ said Crow, twitching his line in the water with his left hand, moving the bobber, then taking in some line with his left. He always carried a couple of lines in his saddle bag and it was no trouble cutting a willow pole as good switches were to be found wherever there was running water. ‘He was the cook at the Slash for a while before that young fellow who cooked for us yesterday took over because poor old Harold Vandemeer couldn’t cut it anymore.’
‘What do you mean, couldn’t cut it? You say he was just a cook, what’s so hard about that?’ Lee felt himself just on the edge of showing a little curiosity at Crow’s story, then being dragged into it, a mistake he had so made many times in the past.
‘Just that, he couldn’t cut it and I know that he couldn’t because I was there.’
‘You were at the Slash? What were you doing there?’
‘Much the same as this trip, only that time I was pushing along some cattle the Slash bought from the old man.’
‘Where was I?’
‘I think you was still getting over that arrow I shot in your ass and you wasn’t riding at the time because…’
‘I remember,’ Lee interrupted him not wanting to recall the pain and the inconvenience and the three weeks he spent just hanging around doing menial repair jobs at the ranch on account he couldn’t ride because his partner had shot him in the backside with an Arapaho arrow. But that was another story and best forgotten.
‘Anyway, when I say Harold couldn’t cut it I mean just that. The Slash foreman told him to slaughter the hog he’d been raising all summer and smoke it.’
‘Was that such a big deal? It’s what cooks do.’
‘No, that old hog was different. That hog was a black and white saddleback Harold named Herbert. It was damn near as big as a small pony, big barrel on him, mean, piggy little face and a bite could tear your arm off. Harold was the only one could get near him. Used to tickle his belly when he was sleeping in the shit of his own making. Some said Harold cared too much for that porker, had feelings for it, unnatural like, talked to it, sang to it and fed it the best he could get. You can kind of get fond of a horse, a dog or maybe even a cat that don’t scratch or have fleas, but a saddleback hog? You are not supposed to have those kinds of feelings for a hog, even a pretty one.’
‘A pretty one?’ Lee interrupted. ‘You ever see a pretty hog? I’ve never seen a hog walking as didn’t look prettier hanging by his back legs in a smokehouse or sitting on my plate in the shape of a bunch of rashers.’
‘Anyways,’ Crow continued making no comment on the attractions or lack of such in a black and white hog, ‘old Harold just stared at that ramrod a long time then he picked up his cleaver and started out the door, but about halfway across the yard he stops, turns around and heads back to the cook shack. “What’s up, Harold?” asks the ramrod staring at him. Then Harold just bursts into tears, throws the cleaver at the wall, sits at the table and bawls some more, red faced and blubbering. Never seen anything like it in my life before.’
“You ok, Harold?” the ramrod asks once again looking real worried. “Damn right I’m not,” says Harold and goes right on blubbering. “I raised old Herbert from a pup and I am not about to cut him up for you or anyone else, damned if I will!” Well, Ike Purvis, yeah that was the ramrod’s name, Ike Purvis, a feisty little fellow but not a man with a mean streak in him as far as ever I could tell. You do remember Ike, don’t you?’
‘Yes, I do,’ replied Lee, getting deeper into the story.
‘Well Ike just stares at him, walks across the room and pulls the cleaver out of the wall, walks back and strokes Harold’s head and says to him, “Don’t you worry none, Harold, old son, I’ll make it quick for your old hog.” “A bullet would be kinder,” says Harold, “And safer I guess.” Says Ike, thinking about those sharp piggy teeth. He takes the twenty-two off the cook shack wall, and he walks out nodding to a couple of the hands to follow him in back of the barn to where the pig pen was at. A couple of minutes later we hear the crack of the twenty-two and Harold bangs his head on the table and weeps some more.’
‘Sad, sad story.’ Henry Lee said, settling back against the bank and watching as Crow pulled in the fourth cutthroat, a fine spotted trout. ‘Harold ever get over it?’
‘We’ll never know that for sure because before sunup next morning old Harold had drawn his pay, packed his mule and headed out for Texas.’
‘Long way to Texas, a lot of nothing down there but a lot of hogs as I hear tell,’ said Lee, matter-of-factly.
Crow stared at the chewed-up craw dog hanging limply on the hook. ‘Funny thing the power we have over critters, Lee, all critters, their lives in our hands from the day they are born. We love them, we pet them, some folks are cruel to them, if we are tired we ride them and if hungry, we eat ‘em and they never have a say in any of it.’
‘Was that what you was thinking when you was hooking that crawdad earlier, you seemed a little concerned?’
‘Maybe, maybe I was thinking along those lines, Henry lee, thinking glad I was born a human. That there crayfish was happy under his rock until I came along and pulled him out from under it, stuck him on a hook and fed him to the fishes…’
‘Which you caught and killed and we are now going to eat for supper. That’s the way it goes, Crow.’
‘Yeah, said Crow quietly, ‘That’s the way it goes sure enough.’
Later that evening with the dying sun being driven to ground by bright stars and a promising moon-filled night, Henry Lee watched as Crow scraped the fish debris from the tin plates and into the hissing camp fire before rubbing them clean with sand and then dipping them into water from the clearwater stream.
Crow said over his shoulder, ‘You ever think there might be a Higher Power somewhere out there, Lee, one that might love us, hate us, be cruel to us, pet us, ride us or even eat us if it had half a mind to?’
Lee smiled but did not answer thinking to himself that Dan Crow was one odd old waddy, a man who would put his life on the line for you and often had. An honest to goodness friend. A compadre to ride the river with and, in so many ways in later years, a learned man both from books and from life. He knew that Crow was all of those things and more, he was a fine fisherman and one hell of a weird cowboy!
A Cold Day in Valhalla
Dan Crow opened his eyes very slowly. His nose was cold, his feet were cold in fact he was cold all over. Perhaps it had not been such a good idea for he and Henry Lee to overnight at old Orville Johansson’s hillside cabin. They had only dropped by at the request of the Rocking W’s owner to see if the retired old cowhand was set for the winter and to deliver him some supplies. Orville was an old, long time Rocking W hand, a loyal and dependable rider and had been so for many a long year.
A few hours after they had arrived and right behind them came a heavy fall of the first winter snow. All three men had agreed there was too much of a blizzard blowing for the pair to head back for the home ranch in the dark. Crow thought it could be a pleasant evening, the large room held three bunks, a sink and a large potbellied stove. There was grub a’plenty and it beat sitting around the W’s bunkhouse listening to retold stories or, worse, out in the cold stable repairing harness.
Crow considered these things wishing someone had stoked up the fire instead of stoking themselves up on the fifth of whiskey Lee had packed in as a treat for the grey bearded old timer. He lay there a long while knowing his rumbling gut was telling him he had to move. He raised his head above the blanket. Lee was snoring and buried beneath a heap of bed clothes. In the far corner, Orville’s bunk was in a mess, his bearskin on the boarded floor and his blankets awry. The bunk was empty and appeared to have been abandoned in a hurry.
He beat me to the crapper, Crow thought, forcing himself onto his feet and draping the heaviest of the blankets around his slim shoulders. He stumped into his cold boots and made his way to the door and the cold outside. His breath hit the air and turned to vapour in large white bursts. He could see Orville’s footsteps leading across the yard to the two-holed crapper wondering why it had been built so far away from the cabin then remembering a Wyoming summer could be quite hot. Perhaps it would be a good idea to have two outhouses this high up, a summer and a winter one. He sighed, needs must and treading in Orville’s footprints he quickly made his way across the yard.
Crow yelled a warning before opening the door, diving inside and slamming it behind him. He plonked himself down on the seat, once rough sawn timber now polished shiny by countless backsides, and nodded to Orville. Orville did not nod back. Orville just sat there, open sightless eyes staring at only God knew what. Grey faced, hoar frost sparkling in his long white beard, frozen stiff and very dead.
‘Sorry, Orville, but I’m busting.’ Crow said, thinking what the hell was to be done.
He was quick but even in the short time it took him a fresh fall of snow had half-filled his outgoing foot prints. He stamped his way back to the cabin and Henry Lee, cursing their luck with every step of the way. Lee was still asleep and snoring a hangover snore, muttering now and then talking to some imaginary dream person in a language incomprehensible to Crow.
First things first. Crow put Orville’s bedding back onto the bunk then with paper, kindling, logs and a blue topped match he had within minutes a roaring fire in the belly of the stove. He heated some water in a steel pan, had a quick wash then put more water in a kettle for coffee and started breakfast in the old blackened skillet. Six thick rashers and four fresh laid eggs and several rough-cut slices of sourdough bread to mop up the grease
The smell of the bacon quickly reached Henry Lee and he sat up on the bunk pulled the blankets to his chin and wiped the sleep drool from the side of his mouth with the sleeve of his long johns. ‘Damned if that don’t smell good, Crow,’ He got to his feet with a long, drawn-out groan, pulled on his hat, pants and boots and made for the door. ‘Need a leak.’ He opened the door, took one look at the snow and relieved himself to the left of the opening and, leaving a neat, yellow steaming hole in the pristine white snow, quickly stepped back into the shelter of the cabin and closed the door.
Crow set two tin plates on the table and shovelled out the bacon and eggs, setting the cut bread on a board between them.
Lee stared at him. ‘What about Orville?’
‘He’s in the crapper.’ Crow said, dipping bread into his soft yoked over easy eggs.
‘Jesus, it’s cold out there he been out there long?
‘Most of the night I would guess.’ Crow said, matter-of-factly.
‘Jesus, is he ok?’
‘Orville is dead, froze to the seat, stiff as a board, eyes wide open, if dead is ok, then he’s ok. Pass the me the salt.’
‘Jesus, that’s bad.’
‘You got another word instead of Jesus?’ Crow said.
Lee stared at his untouched breakfast and then at Crow’s clean plate. ‘How can you eat knowing poor old Orville is sitting out there in the crapper, a crapper we helped him build?’
‘You think he would mind my eating breakfast while I think on what to do about him? And if you are not going to eat that grub, pass it over here.’
‘No, I’m going to eat it, just getting myself together.’
‘Good, Orville would have wanted you to eat it, he was a thoughtful old man, the boss is going to be pissed.’ Crow said.
The two old friends sat there in silence drinking their coffee, smoking their first of the day cigarettes, Lee coughing a little.
After a while Crow said, ‘He’s all bent up and frozen stiff sitting there with his pants around his ankles and we can’t leave him like that, it’s undignified.’
‘Grounds too hard to bury him.’ Lee said. ‘We could bring him in here and thaw him out some.’
‘That idea does not fill me with wonderment.’ Crow said.
‘Me neither.’ Lee said, after thinking about it for a minute or two.
‘We could leave him be, come back in the spring and bury him then, should keep well in this cold for a month or two.’
‘You think the boss would approve of that? He held Orville in high regard.’
‘’No, he would not.’
‘Any of that whiskey left?’
‘No, but Orville has some ‘shine, we could try that in our coffee while we think this thing through. It’s not an everyday kind of a problem.’
‘You are damned right about that, I never sat in a crapper talking to a dead man before.’ Crow said.
‘You know how old he was, where he came from?’ Lee asked.
‘Going on eighty, damned old for a cowhand from anywhere. I hear he was with the Rocking W for near on fifty year before he retired.’
‘I got another word for you if you need one.’
‘No, I was just thinking, Johansson, he was a swede maybe, name sounds about right.’
‘So?’ Crow said.
‘They was sort of Vikings, weren’t they?’
‘Sort of maybe, how the hell do I know, but it sounds right. I read a book one time…’
‘Did that book tell you about what they did with dead Viking folk.’
‘As a matter of fact, it did. You know something, Henry Lee, sometimes you really do surprise me. I know what you are thinking and I concur. You know what that means don’t you?’
‘Yes, you told me already.’ Lee said.
And so it was agreed and so it was done. Later that afternoon when the snow had eased and after both men had used the two-holed outhouse and said their respective goodbyes to an old cowhand, they rode out of that snow-covered hillside clearing. They looked back just the one time as the log and coal oil stoked fire took a strong grip on the two-holed timber framed crapper and consumed the remains of the very late Orville Johansson taking the old man to Valhalla courtesy of a book Dan Crow had once read.
Author’s note: The word crap, meaning waste or rubbish with no value, fell out of use in England in the seventeenth century but was carried to the Americas by British emigrants and continued its common usage there. Contrary to popular belief, Thomas Crapper did not invent the flush toilet, he did however manufacture many of the systems involved in modern day toilet plumbing. When US troops visited England during the first world war, said soldiers were amused to see the iron cisterns and lavatory fittings with Crapper’s name on them and thus, going to the ‘crapper’ came into common US parlance
The Smile of Hannah Dubois
‘Laughter is a great peacemaker, Henry Lee, you know what I’m saying here? There is nothing quite like an ordinary everyday smile to brighten your way and some smiles are brighter than others, hard to beat a real honest to goodness silent smile?’ Dan Crow was talking through a mouthful of sonofagun stew and sourdough bread. The two men were sitting at a table in the dining area of Millie Tuck’s Restaurant just south of Dogbite’s Main Street listening to the wind driven rain battering the small glass windows.
‘Sure, I know what you mean, Crow.’ Henry Lee replied, pushing aside his empty plate and taking the makings from the pocket of his leather vest.
‘Then just what do I mean?’
‘You are, in your long winded, back water kind of way, trying to tell me that somewhere along the line you have reached the conclusion that most of us have had since we were suckling at our mama’s tit, that a smile is worth watching and can, in most circumstances, be a delightful and pleasing thing.’
‘Well, something like that. Pass the tobacco will you, I’m out. I was just trying to make friendly conversation is all because you are so damned miserable these days. You got a nice smile on you, Lee, twitches that goddamned awful moustache, makes your ugly face come alive. Trouble is though you don’t use it often enough, you take life too damned seriously is all I am saying. And what do you mean by it can be a pleasing thing, you ever see one that wasn’t?’
‘Maybe I have,’ Lee offered, ‘Maybe I have seen a smile where a smile does not belong.’
‘And where would that have been?’
Lee shoved the makings across the gravy stained gingham tablecloth. ‘I knew a woman one time lived in the scrub lands, West Texas. She was like the land around there, drier than a dried-up sand creek bed just like the rest of the folk who lived thereabouts. Dusty people all of them. She’d walk by a rattler and that rattler would slither away and hide. Dogs walked around her, cats hissed if she came into a room and the birds stopped singing every time she opened the cabin door.’
‘When was this?’ Crow asked.
‘When was that?’ Lee corrected.
‘Oh, long before we partnered up. I was just a pup working on Billy Bodine’s spread, helping out on the chuck wagon and the branding as we gathered a herd for the drive up from Texas to Abilene back when the railroad was first built and cows were really worth something.’
‘You go back that far, Lee, how old are you exactly?’
‘That makes no never mind, you were asking about smiles and I’m telling you about a smile so just shut up for once in your life and listen.’
‘Sorry.’ Crow said, firing the bummed quirly with a blue top match.
‘Anyway, she was the wife of an old Civil War veteran, Sam Dubois, they moved down to South Texas from Virginia, he only had one leg and half an arm…’
‘How come he had a half an arm?’
‘Do not ask and do not interrupt!’
‘I like to get the full picture is all, half an arm is unusual.’
‘Fact is he only had a half an arm and he was probably the shortest man I ever did see is all you need to know. They had two fat lazy sons that looked like they may have eaten a third child had there ever been one. They ran about a hundred or so head of scrub cattle which gave them the right to tack them onto the drive even though they was in poor condition on account of the lack of grazing around their two by four outfit which consisted mostly of rock, rattlesnakes, gila monsters, sand and scrub.
‘Hannah Dubois was a skinny, wrinkly, mean faced little woman with a look that could cut a man in half so’s he could never be put back together again. I only ever seen her smile that one time all the while I was there. Just that one smile early one dark morning when we was branding and her old man had found himself some corn whiskey and stumbled around the fire on his peg leg, tripped on a root and fell, the red-hot iron he was carrying slapped their Arrowhead brand onto the backside of the laziest and fattest of the two kid. He screamed a blue norther, the old man swore, the cow bellowed and she smiled. Just that one time, she smiled and her smile lit up the world like nothing I ever did see. I tell you, Crow, I thought I heard birds twittering and a band of angels singing. The whole day took on a new light and her face was radiant. I had never seen a smile like that in my whole life and I guessed I never would again. It was a truly beautiful thing to behold.’
‘Birds twittering and angels singing? Colourful. You ever see her again?’
‘That next spring the old man sent me up there on my own to collect whatever they had and bring them back for the drive. I wasn’t hankering for that chore but by then I was on the payroll as a cowhand so I saddles up and makes it out to that dust hole of an Arrowhead. She was there sitting on the porch in a rocker, just like the first time I seen her, face like doom, thinner than I remembered even. He was hopping around and seemed pleased some to see me. We set out there and then, cleaned out the coolies in two days and brought down twenty or so head of crow bait and branded them in the corral with me keeping him well away from the branding iron. All afternoon I could feel her looking at me but she was grim faced, setting there and never saying a word to either of us. I ate a cold silent supper with Mister Dubois, said goodnight and bedded down in the barn although they did offer me one of the bunks vacated by the sons when the pair of them up and hightailed it to California in search of good times and gold. They was sure enough backward them two boys, the rush was long since gone.’
‘Maybe they went into motion pictures like we did.’ Crow said, smiling.
‘I doubt it. Anyway, around six in the morning, just as the sun’s coming up she pokes me awake with the handle of a pitchfork and says she needs some help up at the cabin. Seems old Mister Dubois got himself a skin full of liquor that night after supper, tripped over his peg leg and fell down the coldwater well. I pull on my pants and goes to take a looksee. Sure enough, I can see him down there in the water clinging onto the bucket with his one arm wrapped around it and his hand holding hard on the rope. He don’t weigh much on account he is small and only has the one half an arm and one leg so I winds him up and hauls him over the side and man, is he stiff and deader than Dick’s donkey. She just looks down at him then up and me and asks me to bury him, just like that, flat out asks me to bury him in the soft ground back of the corral and offers me a dollar for doing it. Well I’m young and that’s a full day’s wages to me so I agree, gets me a shovel and digs a hole. She is still standing over the old man and has laid out a small tarp for his shroud. Trouble was he had such a grip on the bucket line I couldn’t get his hand free. While I’m thinking what is the best thing to do, she goes into the cabin and comes out with a ball peen hammer and smashes his fingers real hard several times, then peels away the rest of the broken hand and looks at me as if to ask why didn’t I think of doing that? I get the tarp around him and drag him over to the hole and I roll him in. I tell her I think he landed face down and should I get in the hole and roll him over? She tells me no, that’s the direction he was headed anyway.
‘And this is where it began again. Like a warm morning summer sunrise, first a glow on a distant horizon and then, slowly, the rim of the sun appears and that glow spreading slowly across the land but, in her case, it was the beginning of that same smile and the warmth spreading upwards through her skinny cheeks and up to her pale blue eyes. A smile to die for. Feeling a little awkward, I ask her if she wants to say a few words over her old man and she just keeps on smiling, shakes her head, turns and walks back to her rocker on the cabin’s stoop.
‘Well, I filled in the hole, found a short board of old lumber in the barn and stuck it end up over the grave as a marker figuring when she was over the shock of his passing she would write his name or something on it at a later time. I put my hat back on gathers up my gear, saddles the pony and gets ready to mosey the cattle back to where the drive is gathering. She is still sitting there smiling but the smile has changed some, no longer a smile really. Oh, the shape was right but it no longer reached her eyes and seemed set on her face, ghastly it was. Where there had once been brightness and light was only darkness. I can tell you I felt real bad about taking her dollar but I did and shook my head at the offer of breakfast thinking the sooner there was a lot of gone between me and Arrowhead, Hannah Dubois and the late Mister Dubois, the happier I would be. I tell her I could write on the marker for her or she could do it later but she just fixes me with that awful grimace and tells me she and God knows where he’s at and that is all that matters. Cold, just like that and still the face never changing, not even as she spoke.
‘I got her to sign the release to sell her cattle in Abilene and gave her the receipt the boss had given me to give her once I filled in the details. She did what I asked and then just stared at me that damned smile fixed on her face like some kind of death mask, you know, like the ones you see in them travelling shows that come to Bailey in the summertime. Like I said, the shape was right for a smile but it just wasn’t a smile anymore. It was a kind of a nasty empty thing. I told Billy Bodine about what had happened when I got back to the herd and he just nodded and said not to worry, she was a crazy woman anyway.’
‘You ever see her again?’ Crow asked.
‘No, wild horses wouldn’t get me back there. I quit the drive in Abilene and headed on out here to Wyoming, never would go back there, not ever. I figure she is likely still sitting there in that rocker with that smiling mask fixed on her dead face thinking about old Mister Dubois face down in the ground with no name on his marker and just the thought of it sure enough gives me the shivers.’
Dan Crow thought about that for long while and said quietly, ‘I guess like most things in life, a smile is as you find it and it don’t always fit and it don’t always mean that what you see is really what it is.’ Crow said.
‘You are sure enough right about that, old horse.’ Henry Lee said.
Cats, Cougars and Three-legged Dogs
Dan Crow walked into the near empty bunkhouse covered in dust encrusted sweat and thumped himself down on the old barroom chair he favoured. Henry Lee looked up from a week old Dogbite Bugle he was reading and said. ‘You look a bit dusty there, Crow.’
Crow rolled himself a quirly, examined the result and, satisfied, fired it. ‘Bad morning. Lee, too hot for digging post holes, I’ll have this smoke and jump in the tank out by Mile High. You coming? I got us a jug’
‘I think I will, it’s been a sure enough hot one.’
Twenty minutes later the two men were enjoying the warm, late afternoon sunshine sitting by the Mile High water tank in their wet drawers and sipping moonshine laced with ice cold water from the well that fed the tank.
A very relaxed Crow said, ‘Lee, you remember old Bob Harrison up on that run off from The Big Muddy, him as lost his leg to a rattler bite? Lived with his sister, she only had one eye as I recall. You remember them?’
Lee thought about it for a long minute feeling one of Crow’s yarns about to be born and wondering whether or not he was up for it. ‘Sure, Crow, I remember them, didn’t know them well like you did. I never rode for them, just knew them in a passing kind of way.’
‘Well I rode for them for a couple of years just before I came to the W to join you. Strange couple right enough and they had some strange animals as well, not cattle, their cows were mostly normal but they kept a couple of pets close by. She had a cat that lost its tail in a trap old Bob had set for a cougar, you get a few cougars up there. Old Bob, he was partial to an old spotted hound he called Honker, a three-legged dog. He kept that old mutt, kept it as a pet not as a working dog.’
‘Born like that?’ Lee asked.
‘No, old Bob accidently shot off the dog’s front leg when they was hunting. Near broke his heart, he was so fond of that animal he couldn’t put it down as we would have done but nursed it back to a decent sort of life.’
‘Good job it wasn’t a back leg.’
‘Does it make a difference? A three-legged dog is a three-legged dog, not much good for anything except petting?’
‘Would have made a big difference to the dog had it been a back leg.’
‘Well for starters it would have fallen over every time it cocked its leg to take a piss and as for taking a dump…’
‘I get the point,’ said Crow, ‘but it makes no never mind as it was a front leg.’
‘Ok, so go on. They have any other odd animals?’
‘No, just the two. So, the story goes that a cougar came down out of the hills sniffing out the spring calves and stumbled upon the cat…’
‘What colour was the cat?’ Lee interrupted.
‘How the hell do I know, it was all over when I joined the crew, this is the story as I was told it. Sandy, I think, yes a red cat and stop interrupting for once.’
‘Sorry, I just like to get the whole picture in my head.’
‘Well get this into your head, the cougar tore that pet cat to shreds and pissed on its carcass.’
‘They’ll do that.’
‘It’s a filthy habit.’
‘Next time you meet a cougar you tell him that.’
‘Well, anyways, the old dog found the cat and started in howling like the north wind in winter, and took off after the cougar at a three-legged run. The noise shook old Bob and his sister awake and Bob winter’s up in his cold weather gear, gets his twelve gauge and sets out on foot after the dog. He found old Honker late that afternoon all tore up and deader than a hat and stinking of cougar piss.’ He paused, ‘Still life is like that I guess.’
Lee turned to Crow. ‘Like what for God’s sake, why is life like that and what is the point of that miserable story?’
‘Well life is like that, you know, you have an eye short, a leg short or a tail short or you’re maybe just born too short, no matter what hardship or bad luck some folk have in life there will always be something worse waiting around the corner to bite their ass or kill them. You would think that life couldn’t get any tougher for those critters and bang, a cougar kills them both. Then old Bob lost his leg to a rattler and she only had the one eye to begin with. And life just got harder for them and all I’m saying is that life is like that. Them animals and the Harrisons both had it rough and it just got rougher when their pets met that big old wildcat and Bob got himself bit by a rattler.’
‘So, what’s your point?’ Lee asked, irritation creeping into his voice as usual. ‘Life is not like that for everyone, it’s not for us, we got it pretty good here, we got all our limbs and we don’t got a dog or a fucking cat so life is not like that at all, you can’t generalise on something you heard but never actually saw up on the Muddy twenty years back. Some folk are just plumb unlucky. There’s nothing bad waiting for us around the corner ‘cept maybe old age and even that is not for sure.’
‘Well,’ Crow said quietly, ‘you never know, there might just be.’
‘For whom. It’s for whom and it could be waiting for you or me right now.’
‘What the hell are you talking about?’
‘You heard about old Stacy?’
‘You know more than one Stacy around here?’
‘No, can’t say I do.’
‘Then stands to reason it must be him!’
‘Ok, what haven’t I heard about Ben Stacy?’
‘Shot himself in the foot.’
‘How’d he manage to do that?
‘Pulled the trigger I guess.’
‘I mean an accident, or what?’
‘Can’t think of a reason he would do it on purpose.’
Henry Lee gave a deep sigh. Crow was in one of his moods and there was no good in fighting it. ‘You going to tell me what happened and the why of it all in one go without me asking a lot of fool questions.’
Crow smiled to himself, Lee was just too easy. ‘He was fooling around with that old thumb buster of a Civil War Colt his daddy left him, didn’t realize there was still a capped charge in the cylinder, cocked it and blew his big toe clean off.’
‘Ruined the boot?’
‘Yes, sir, he’s going to have a limp in an uncomfortable boot for the rest of his life and it’s sure enough going to be worse in winter. Poor old Ben, you just never know what’s awaiting you around the next bend of the river. He got up this morning feeling fine and this evening he is going to be a different man.’
Lee grunted, hoping that was the end of the story but knowing it wasn’t.
‘You ever think about that, Henry Lee, about not knowing what is waiting for you just around the corner?’
Lee said nothing.
‘What would be the chances of there being a fireable round in that rusty old gun after all of those years. A lead ball just set there waiting for old Ben’s big toe to come along and bang…’ Crow paused for effect. ‘Is there an old Colt round awaiting for you or me somewhere out there, Lee?’
But Henry Lee was not listening, Henry had drifted off into a cold moonshine and hot sun induced sleep and was riding an old swayback, somewhere far away, across a distant range littered with cougars, cats and thee-legged dogs…