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!
The Kentucky Kid
Dan Crow said, ‘He sure enough looks a mean son of a bitch.’
Henry Lee nodded in agreement, ‘I am surely not hankering to get close to him and that’s also sure enough.’
‘It can’t be helped, someone has to take him on,’ Crow said, a hint of despair in his tobacco stained voice.
‘I guess it will be up to you and me then if’n it comes right down to it then.’
‘He’s fast, an outlaw through and through.’
‘Quicker than forked lightning, he’ll do one of us in for sure.’
‘One of us or both of us.’
‘You think you can take him, Crow?’
‘To be honest with you, Lee, no, I don’t believe I can take him and that’s a fact.’
‘He’s got four years of hate in him but, like I said, someone has to.’
The two old cowhands were seated on the top rail of the corral fence staring at the subject of their apprehension, a paint horse, black and white with a trace of chestnut but more black on him than anything else. The large horse stared right back at them, one black-patched eye and one white-patched eye with coloured pupils to match, it seemed to be able to watch the world from both left and right at one and the same time. The big animal was tethered to a snubbing post set in the centre of the corral and to Crow and Lee it did not appear that the animal liked what it saw. Lee dogged the cigarette between a finger and thumb, ‘Biggest Indian pony I ever saw and that’s a fact no doubt about it. Smart too, it’ll let you get close enough to saddle it, maybe even climb aboard but the moment that blind comes off, he’ll kill you for sure if he can.’
Crow said, ‘I know, the boss wants him rid and lady broke for his visiting sister Kelly and he always gets what he wants come hell or high water.’
‘Others have tried, no shame in failing here.’ Lee said.
‘He threw the wrangler last week, broke his leg in two places, he’ll be a gimp for sure all because of that evil looking slope eyed chunk of meanness.’ Crow spat out his chaw and stoked another one from his tin of Redman, chewing in silence while Lee rolled his third cigarette of the morning from a dusty Durham tobacco sack. ‘I would rather quit than fork that animal.’
‘Just leaves you or me though, everyone else claiming to be busy, sick or just disappeared.’
‘Not necessarily,’ said Crow, ‘there’s always The Kentucky Kid.’
Lee spat into the dust. ‘Even he’s not that green.’
‘You think?’ Crow said.
‘You think different?’ Lee asked, with a smile, the smoke drifting from his mouth picked up and drifted away by the warm, dry, early morning breeze. ‘You think he’d bite was we to ask him?’
‘Depends on just how you bait the hook.’
‘You’re a better rider than me, Crow, so I guess it’s you or The Kentucky Kid and here he comes now, better get your fishing pole ready.’
The Kid was lean, twenty years old or there abouts. Short, wiry, red headed his handsome freckled faced sported a seemingly constant grin. His real name was Aaron Meade but he didn’t answer to that, not ever. He signed on at the Rocking W for the fall roundup and stayed on after the drive, popular with most of the crew although his constant need to please became a bit wearing to the older hands. He claimed to be from Kentucky and sat a horse well. In shotgun chaps, the cross-draw pistol he wore for show, faded red shirt and black leather vest he was quite striking and attractive to the young and not so young woman of Dogbite, another thing that scratched at the hides of some of the older hands.
‘What you two old farts up to, lollygagging around here while the boys are out riding?’ Asked the Kid with a grin wider than an open barn door.
‘Special duties, Kid,’ Crow said, shifting along the rail so the newcomer could swing up between them.
‘Special duties? ‘What are y’all watching?’
‘That old pinto,’ Crow offered.
‘What’s so special about watching that cayuse?’ The Kid said. ‘Looks like a mean one to me, part outlaw I reckon.’
Crow chuckled, ‘No, not even part outlaw, not anymore, he’s half broke already and me and old Lee here was just contemplating who was going to be lucky enough break the other half.’
‘Oh yeah, contemplating. He going to join the remuda?’
‘No,’ said Crow, ‘he’s got special duties as well.’ He turned to Lee. ‘I guess I won the toss there, Lee, so I’ll be riding him down.’
The Kid looked puzzled, ‘How come you get to bust your ass on that horse and that makes you the winner?’
‘Well, the old man wants him lady broke as a saddle horse for Miss Kelly, his sister, and that means whoever does the job is in solid with them both. Maybe even a meal or two up at the big house, they eat well up there. He’s got to be real gentled though and I am the old cowhand to do just that. Put my best duds on, proud walk that old paint up to the big house porch, dance him around for the lady.’
‘Where’s the wrangler at? Why ain’t Bob breaking him?’
‘Bobby broke his leg in two places, fell down the stairs in Halloran’s Saturday night, surprised you haven’t heard about it. Where you been at these past couple of days anyway?’
‘Just got back in this morning, took some beeves up to Bailey with the old man, surprised he didn’t mention it to me.’
‘He tell you everything?’ Asked Lee, then turned his attention to Crow saying, ‘You sure are lucky with the toss again, Crow, I was counting on some extra vitals and that sipping whiskey the boss keeps and that sister of his is downright easy on the eye and smart company.’
‘Even for an old fart like you?’ The Kid was smiling again, that wide innocent smile.
‘Especially for an old fart like me,’ Lee snapped back.
Crow slid off the rail, ‘Let’s go scare us up some coffee, Lee, while I get my gear and ride that old horse around so Kelly can see me from the house, maybe bring me some grub, I hear she packs a great boxed lunch. Maybe I’ll take her fishing down at Sawyer’s Creek catch us some cutthroats, walk that old horse for her.’
‘See you later, Kid, you look like you could use some shuteye.’ Lee climbed down behind Crow and nodding to the youngster and without a backward look the pair crossed the yard, went in through the front door of the cook shack, nodded to the dozing cook and exited through the back door, turned left and into the back of the barn. Crow leading the way, they climbed the loft ladder and settled down by the hay hoist to watch The Kentucky Kid.
The Kid stared after the pair for a full minute before turning his attention back to the paint horse standing quietly in the corral.
‘You think he’s going for it?’ asked Lee, quietly
‘He’s surely contemplating it.’
‘That your new word for the day?’
‘It’ll have to do.’
With just one quick final glance back over his shoulder The Kid seemed to have made up his mind and climbed easily into the corral. He unbuckled his pistol belt and hung it over the rail before taking down the blindfold from where it was wrapped around an upright then, swinging a saddle from the rail onto his lean back, he approached the paint with a high degree of caution, even a half broke animal could prove unpredictable. Then, talking to it, humming softly to himself. The animal stared at him from its right eye while the other one, the dark one, seemed to survey the landscape beyond and back of the approaching young cowboy, seeking out the two punchers settled on the hay bales, it’s flank and tail flickering now and then to disturb the gathering horse flies. The Kid slipped the blind over the paint’s head and the animal seemed to lower its head to accommodate the move.
‘You’re quieter than a lamb, old horse,’ The Kid muttered as he carefully swung the saddle onto the big animal’s back, all the time talking softly, almost a whisper, a soothing murmur, a hum and a gentle crooning sound. He tightened the cinch and reaching up to the cantle with one hand and the horn with the other gently rocked the rig to check it was set down hard.
Crow said, ‘I sure hope he screwed that saddle down tight, that pony has sure enough suckered The Kid in.’
‘He gets hurt it’s down to us, Crow, I’m wondering we done the right thing here.’
‘You thinking what I’m thinking?’
‘I guess, a tad worried is all.’ Lee said. ‘It’s just that for every action there is a consequence and if The Kid gets his neck broke that’s a load to carry.’
‘Your conscience bothering you all of a sudden?’
‘A mite is all.’
‘You want to ride that outlaw then?’
‘I didn’t say that.’
‘Good because I damn well don’t intend to and anyway, maybe the boy will make it, break it good. He sits a high saddle.’
They watched from their hiding place as The Kentucky Kid swung aboard, wrapped the line around his right hand and with his left slipped the tether from the halter and then the blind from the animal’s eyes. The paint just stood there for a long moment and then gently walked away from the pole, shaking its big head. The kid touched it gently with his heels a couple of times but the animal stayed put like it was glued to the dust of the big enclosure. The Kid relaxed a fraction and as he did so, the paint seemed to sense it and exploded beneath him. It reared, it bucked, its backside going one way and its head the other, it sunfished, it went high and came down hard on all four rigid legs, it turned like a whirlwind several times in its own length, it broke into a run and stopped hard, skidding in the dust nearly unseating the startled rider. And then it did it all over again harder only this time it didn’t stop the run at the rail but jumped clean over it horse and rider disappearing in a cloud of dust The Kid yelling and waving his hat in the air like a true bronc buster.
Crow and Lee watched the disappearing dust storm to where it vanished beyond the distant rim of the low hills that surrounded the Rocking W. Crow said, ‘holy shit, gives truth to that old saying, there’s not a horse that can’t be rode and never a rider that can’t be throwed. I sure hope he got religion when he was a boy, you think he’ll ever come back this way again?’
‘Oh, he’ll be back right enough, he’s The Kentucky Kid, he left a boy but he will come back a man.’
‘Damnedest thing I ever saw,’ said Lee, ‘He’ll be in Kansas come nightfall at that run.’
‘Or maybe even back in Kentucky,’ said Crow with a grin.
TOES OF THE WEST
Dan Crow and Henry Lee lay side by side in identical tin baths in the back of Chow Ling’s Chinese Laundry. Every now and then Chow Ling’s boy brought in a huge jug of fresh hot water and topped up the frothy, grey-coloured soapy water in the two baths. Both men wore their hats and both were smoking damp stogies and occasionally swigging at a bottle of whiskey purchased from Halloran’s Saloon and Pool Hall. This was a regular monthly outing for the two weathered cowhands and, while they soaked in their six-bit baths, Chow Ling washed and dried their range clothes while his son, apart from toting water, waxed and polished their worn boots. It was a ritual both men enjoyed.
Lee said, talking around the end of his well-chewed soggy cigar, ‘that last jug is going to be for my hair. I’ll save you some but you don’t need as much as me on account of you don’t have so much hair.’
‘Only because I get it cut regular and don’t try to go around looking like some out of place Buffalo Bill.’ Crow responded, conscious that his hair was a lot thinner than he would have wished it to be. He lifted one foot out of the murky water and trimmed at a split toenail with his pocket knife.
‘Hell, and gone away,’ muttered a stunned Henry Lee. ‘You only got four toes on that foot.’
Crow splashed his foot back into the bath and said nothing.
‘You only got four toes, Crow, where the hell you leave the other one?’
Crow did not respond, other than to toss his stogie into the bath and reach out to where the towels were heaped and retrieve a replacement, lighting it with the candle provided and sinking a little lower into the hot water.
‘Come on, Crow, you can tell me. You shoot it off when practicing that quick draw you brag on? Rattler get it? A bear, maybe?’ There was laughter in his deep voice.
Crow said, ‘if you must know, I was born with it.’
‘Without it you mean,’ Lee chuckled.
Crow said, irritably, ‘whatever makes you happy, Lee, but that’s a fact is all.’
‘Oh, come on, don’t be mad, Crow. Not your fault, not nobody’s fault, a mistake of nature, and I have known a lot of them in my time. Mistakes of nature, I mean.’
‘I suppose you want to tell me about them…’
‘Well now that you ask me, yes, especially if it will make you feel better about yourself. You know, better to know that you are not alone out there.’
Crow sighed long and hard, reached for the bottle and drew on that long and hard, waiting for an inevitable tall tale from the usually taciturn Henry Lee.
‘Nacogdoches, Texas, as I recall, one Shorty John Pell was born with a cloved hoof instead of a foot. His Ma cut it off below the ankle when he was a child, stuffed his boot with straw and he wore a boot stuffed with straw or horse hair the whole of the rest of his life, never taking it off in public.’
‘Same boot,’ asked Crow, trying to ride with it. ‘Must have been a big boot for a kid.’
‘Don’t recollect that,’ said Lee, ‘but he sure had a hell of a limp and couldn’t dance worth a lick.’
‘You actually believe someone could be born with a cloved foot? A hoof?’
‘You was born with four toes, so what else is possible? Willy James, no relation to Jesse of course but from around Missouri way nevertheless, he was born with green eyes that never closed. Green eyes with yellow rings around them, never closed them, slept with them wide open, rolled up into the top of his head. Gave me a hell of a fright first time I saw him asleep. Went to wake him for night hawking, thought he was a dead man for certain. Someone once told me the devil never sleeps for fear of God finding him and Willy sure enough looked like the Devil to me.’ Lee shuddered.
Crow said, ‘what happened to him?’
‘Don’t rightly know that for certain, only that one night when the herd stampeded after a lightning strike on an old oak, his horse bolted and he was never seen again. Found his horse that same night with half the saddle burned away right down to the wood. Another weird thing was the horse wasn’t even scorched a little bit. Nobody would ride him after that though and the boss stripped him of tack, burned out the brand and turned him loose. I guess he’s still out there somewhere along with Willy.’
‘Did you actually see any of this or is it just me you want to piss off with stories about oddballs on account of it being the only way you can irritate me?’
Lee said, ‘easy, compadre, I’m just trying to reassure you how lucky you are that your thing isn’t as bad as you might think – especially not as bad as that two–headed fellow from Kentucky, lived like a hermit in one of them Hollers. He was a man was able to turn lead into gold…’
‘Alchemy?’ Crow interrupted.
‘Don’t recall his name,’ said Lee, thinking about it. ‘Might have been Al something now that you mention it. Why, you heard of him too?’
Crow sighed longer and harder and hit the bottle with the same vigour. ‘No, never did, just a lucky guess. Go on.’
‘Well, he lived in a cave and folk used to bring him lead and he would turn it into gold at two dollars an ounce, made him a bit of money for grub and such but not the fortune he needed to keep both heads in tobacco and moonshine …’
Crow interrupted, ‘for a man with two heads, he wasn’t none too smart, was he? Why not get his own lead and turn it into gold, that way he could have been a rich man?’
Lee thought about it for a moment and shrugged the thought away. ‘Don’t rightly know. Was just a story I heard.’
Chow Ling’s boy came in with the last jug of hot water and Lee took off his battered Stetson, swished some soapy water over his long hair and indicated to the boy to pour. Wiping the soapy water from his eyes, Lee shook his head like a dog shakes after a swim and put his hat back on. The boy then moved across to Crow who took off his hat and awaited the drenching. Chow Ling’s son poured the water, and Crow cursed the fact that he had left his cigar in his mouth. The boy bowed and left the two men to their ramblings.
‘Seems to me, Henry Lee, you’re just making these stories up to make me feel bad about myself like I’m some kind of mistake of nature you can tell someone about one of these days, on account I only have four toes on my left foot. Well, Henry Lee, that would be another lie because I ain’t no oddity and that’s a fact.’
‘You was born with nine toes and that makes you an oddity, Dan Crow, so live with it.’
‘Wrong, Lee, I got ten same as you, same as everybody other than the boy with the cloved hoof,’
‘How come?’ asked Lee, irritated.
‘Because I got six toes on the other foot, you old fart. I got ten same as you, it’s just that mine are a mite badly organised,’ Crow said, with a chortle, finishing off the whiskey and lighting up the last stogie.
Copyright Chris Adam Smith 2017
The Christmas Tree Trail
Christmas could be a sad time for the working cowhand, many of them young, transient workers without a real home other than a bunkhouse. It can be an even tougher time for the older, long-time hands who have little to celebrate and little to look forward to other than a couple of days off, a bottle or two from The Boss and, if they were lucky, the foreman as well. Those and a jug or two of forty-rod stashed away for the occasion helped to lighten the load of a heavy few days.
A bottleful of memories is no replacement for a loving family and yet bunkhouse buddies are in many ways a family in their own right. While they no longer believe in a Santa Claus who was long ‘Gone to Texas’ and faraway it was still Christmas. Very few gifts exchanged but an effort is always made to ease the melancholy. Cookie makes a big show, a couple of wild turkeys with all of the fixings, a mountainous apple pie and whisky to round off a Christmas day feast. The evening that followed usually ended late in a tobacco smoke-filled room with a mournful sing-song to a lone guitar or mouthorgan around the red hot, pot-bellied stove.
Such is the cowhand’s lot but, one thing is certain, there has to be a Christmas tree.
While the festivities were limited that was a sure enough certainty, there had to be a tree and somebody had to ride ‘The Christmas Tree Run’ and take the small buckboard up to the high ground beyond the Rocking W’s meadowed valley to the pine trees that grew along the north ridge just about where the good winter grass ended and the rocky escarpment began. Those somebodies happened to be Dan Crow and Henry Lee, neither man too happy at the prospect of a sore backside and a long cold ride on a buckboard to the high country with a promise of early snow in the wintery sky.
Their combined protest of ‘we did it last year, Jake,’ to J.C. Cobb, the Rocking W’s ramrod, fell on deaf ears.
‘That’s right, boys and that makes you the best men for the job. Most of the older ha
nds are in Dogbite and if I send a couple of those shave tails up the hill they would likely get lost in the dark on the way back.’
Two days before Christmas and, apart from a couple of snoring early-nighters, the bunkhouse was deserted. Lee was mending the eternal hole in one of his once-white socks and Dan Crow was reading Ben Hur wondering why the hell there were no lawmen or cowboys in it when it was written by the man who really brought about the downfall of Billy the Kid. Was it allegorical, he wondered? He thought of mentioning to it Lee who claimed to own Billy’s pistol, but thought better of it. He dogged the corner of the page, stretched and wandered over to table where Lee was trying to thread a darning needle for the tenth time. Crow tossed the makings onto the table and the pair rolled themselves cigarettes in silence, each thinking the same thing; was there a way out of the cold early morning’s Christmas tree run?
‘You need some eye-glasses,’ Crow said, quietly blowing smoke rings into the warm air.
‘What we both need is a way out of that long, cold ride up the hill to get a damned tree we could have cut before the cold set in.’ Lee said.
‘It would have died.’
‘Ponderosa is evergreen.’
‘Not when its cut down it isn’t. It goes brown and sheds just like any other tree.’
‘I can’t think of no way out of this one, best we learn to live with it and get an early start tomorrow.’
‘We could try The Kentucky Kid again,’ Crow said, wistfully looking over to where the sleeping Kid was gently snoring into his striped pillow.
‘No, he wouldn’t fall for it twice and he let us off easy last time.’
‘He should have thanked us.’ Crow said. ‘He came back with that outlaw pinto real lady broke and gentled. The Boss was tickled pink, invited him up to the house for supper, and his sister has a soft spot for him now, I seen them riding out and they looked good together,’ said Crow, wistfully.
‘Our days and those days,’ said Henry Lee, ‘our time is long gone and I’m glad it worked out for The Kid, I never felt good about what we did to him. Besides, he would get himself lost up there on his own, he’s a close-to-home cowboy, not a hill climber. Lucky he ever found his way back here from wherever that pinto took him.’
‘Took him a while.’
‘Be that as it may, this isn’t a ride for The Kid, he’s not up to it, we have to step up and get her done. I’m not moving on that decision, Crow, so don’t waste both of our times you trying to persuade me otherwise.’
It was a long hard ride to the foothills and the shaggy coated pulling horse was in no mood to hurry. It was late afternoon before they reached the first stand of pines, selected and felled one, gathered a couple of gunny sacks full of cones for the bunkhouse stove, drank some cold bottled coffee, ate their paper wrapped corn dodgers and set off back down the hill.
They had not been on the move for more than five minutes before the sky suddenly darkened to an ominous, slate grey and the southerly wind changed direction for no reason at all as far as Crow could figure, and began blowing the first of the winter’s northern snowflakes hard at their backs. Within moments their range of vision was cut from miles to a few yards, decreased with every step and the temperature dropped sharply. Finally, bitterly cold and tired of fighting the blizzard, they gave up and pulled the small buckboard into the lee of a large rock and unhitched and hobbled the shaggy pony.
‘We have to get a fire going before we freeze to death.’ Crow said, pulling his scarf tighter over his hat and forcing the crumpled brim down to give his ears some protection.
‘We got some paper and we got some matches.’ Lee said, blowing on his hands. ‘We can pull the lower branches off’n that damned tree for kindling, use the cones for starters and break off the sides of the wagon for firewood, but we had best get a move on while we got the energy to do it or we’re going to freeze for sure.’
‘I seen a frozen man onetime,’ Crow said, as they sat beneath the buckboard in front of a crackling fire. ‘He was granite grey, eyes wine red and wide open, a deadly smile on his face, his lips froze apart, jaw clenched, his stiff hands around his long gun, the muzzle under his chin. I think he tried to shoot himself but didn’t have the strength to pull the trigger. You bring your Winchester, Lee?’
Crow grinned. ‘Just asking was all.’
Around midnight the whining north wind dropped as suddenly as it had come and a warmer, fresh southerly quickly blew away much of the drifting snow, clearing much of the downhill trail. A little before dawn, Dan Crow and Henry Lee rode the hardy pulling horse into the yard of the Rocking W, the pair clinging to each other for warmth. The cook banged the triangle and within minutes the two men were helped from the tough little animal’s back and half dragged into the warm bunkhouse. They shivered and their teeth rattled but they had no frostbite and warmed through quickly with the help of a shot or two from the cook’s brandy bottle.
‘That tough little horse okay?’ Asked Crow.
‘In better shape than the pair of you,’ said the ramrod, with some concern in his usually brusk tone.
‘Rough time for you old boys,’ The Boss said, relief in his voice as he refilled their mugs with brandy-laced coffee. ‘Cobb and me thought you were goners, that storm came out of nowhere. I’ll send someone out for the buckboard in a while.’
‘No good, Boss,’ Lee said. ‘We lit a fire under it and it kind of got out of control, burned it out.’
‘And the tree?’
‘That was on the buckboard.’
‘No worries, boys, just so long as y’all are ok. The bunkhouse can have the big tree we’ve got up the house.’
‘You already have a tree up at the ranch house?’ Said Crow.
‘Sure enough, Dan. The Kentucky Kid went up there day before yesterday and cut us a big one.’
Lee stared at Crow and Dan Crow stared long and hard right back at him saying, ‘merry goddamned Christmas, Henry Lee.’ It was all he could think of to say.
Copyright Chris Adam Smith 2017