The Guitar Man – Part 9: Sheriff Tom Bingham and Me
After his brilliant short series ‘Dogbite’, Chris Adam-Smith has written a new series featuring the adventures of The Guitar Man. The first installment is available here.
Part 9: Sheriff Tom Bingham and Me
‘Clare says the pump in the bathroom is leaking and will not shut off, while I am in town, I will get a boy I know to come out and fix it.’
Clare was our housekeeper. ‘No need,’ I said, ‘let me take a look at it first.’
‘OK, but be quick Georgy is waiting on me.’
I looked at the damned pump from every angle, twisted it fiddled with it and could see no way of stemming the steady drip.
‘Any luck, handy-man?’ She was standing behind me.
‘No, it’s a bigger job than I thought and I am busy with a new song this morning, had a dream last night and want to get it down on paper.’
‘I thought so.’ There was certain condescending note in her tone. ‘I’ll get Samuel to drop by later this morning.’
Samuel was a young man of colour with a wide white toothed smile. He was a chunky man carrying a carpet bag of tools. I waved him in toward the front door. ‘Come straight up, door on your right with a picture of a guitar on it.’ He waved back touched the brim of his battered slouch hat and before I could get to the bathroom door he was standing there.
‘What seems to be the problem, boss, the one Miss Jessica sent me to fix?’
‘Good of her.’ I said. ‘I could have fixed it but…’
‘That’s ok, boss, my job. Show me where.’ I pointed to the puddle by the brass pump that lifted the water from the ground floor to the first.
‘It doesn’t shut down properly, keeps on leaking. Something to do with a washer I’m thinking.’
He knelt down and studied it at length. Always happy to see how another man works, I set my backside down beside him and leaned back against the wall. He smiled at me. ‘Ok with you if I watch?’ I asked.
His smile widened. ‘No problem, whatever pleases you, boss.’
After a minute he reached into his bag took out a small wrench, tapped the pump twice and tightened a nut. He turned the tap on and off and no leak.
‘That’s sure enough fixed that.’ he said.
‘How much?’ I asked, impressed.
‘For Miss Jessica, two dollars covers that.’ he said.
I didn’t get up immediately and sat there staring at him.
‘Two minutes work, a tap with a wrench and it cost me two bucks?’
‘Pretty steep for two minutes work.’ I said.
He smiled, I guess he was used to this conversation when a task has been completed which betrays the uselessness of men not of his trade. He settled back opposite me. ‘Two things, boss, it took me years to learn just where to tap those things and here I have shown you in just two minutes how to do it yourself next time which means a lost job for me. You now have a working pump and have had a free plumbing lesson, I reckon you are the winner here. And I can sell you the wrench for six bits if you don’t have one of your own.’
He got to his feet, I struggled a little and took the offered hand to haul myself up.
‘Excuse me, boss, but a man of your age shouldn’t have such trouble getting up, pardon me for daring to suggest it but you need to take more exercise.’
I said nothing but fished in my bill fold and came out with a crisp five-dollar bill. A look of dismay momentarily crossed his happy face. ‘I got no change, boss.’
I folded the bill and tucked it into his shirt pocket. ‘Take the five, that includes payment for the advice on my lack of physical fitness. Come, I’ll make you a coffee and Clare will make you a sandwich if you are hungry.’
The confident look returned, ‘thanks, boss, but I ate already, a coffee would be good though.’
‘And, oh,’ I added, ‘no need to tell Miss Jessica how simple it was to fix the pump. Should she ask, make it sound complicated. Just between us two guys.’
By the look on his face I think I had made a friend for life. I wondered what Mister Twain would have made of that exchange.
At supper that evening, mellow with bonded Irish whiskey gifted to me by Billy Bones for my action or lack of it on the Mary Belle during the raid, I thought about Daniel’s advice on my physical wellbeing.
‘I’ve been thinking, ‘I said, ‘why don’t we take a proper winter break, go visiting, riding, walking maybe, a visit back to West Texas see if it’s still there. Get us some exercise.’
Jessica put down her book and smiled at me over the top of her wire rimmed spectacles. ‘You, exercise? Samuel get to you, did he? He told me you needed it.’
Ok, so probably he wasn’t my friend for life but that was ok he had known Jessie for many years and his loyalty to the both of us may have been a little confusing.
‘Well,’ I said, ignoring the young plumber’s reference to my agility. ‘Harry and Georgy could stay here and take care of the place for a month or so, probably be glad to have it alone for a change. What do you say?’
‘I say we ought to have a plumber around more often.’
West Texas was as it always will be, West Texas. The township of Orville had grown considerably over the years and getting there by rail and stage was a relatively easy journey. It was good to see the fertile valleys alive with wandering cattle and the occasional boundary rider checking the fences and waving a Texas hello to wayfarers.
Orville though had changed, grown, the railroad had seen to that and where there are rails there always it seems to me more and more people. New stores a new saloon two hotels and the school and the church had both been extended and the latter given a very recent coat of white paint
We had arrived late in the afternoon and booked into the grandly named Alhambra Hotel, bathed and had a better than decent evening meal. The sheriff’s office was closed when we arrived but we agreed that would be our first stop after breakfast in the morning following what turned out to be a warm, starry, sleepy Texas night.
I pulled the buggy to a halt just short of his front yard. We had been advised by a deputy that Tom Bingham had retired from office shortly before the last election and moved out of town to a small but comfortable property two miles outside of the town limits and not far from the Huckabee property where I had spent so many of my young years.
He stepped out onto the porch and Jessie waved, he squinted his grey eyes and broke into a wide smile as he recognised her and waved us in. He was now an old man. Older than I expected but still light on his feet. Gone was the black suit I remembered he so often wore but he still stood tall in a very faded shirt and denim pants. His handshake was firm and his hug of Jessie enthusiastically delivered. Up close the eyes were brighter than I expected.
He looked me up and down and a smile cracked the tanned face. ‘I heard about you two and cannot say I was surprised, I knew you would get tall enough one day.’ He chuckled remembering, I guess, the time a green youngster had told him he was in love with the school teacher and intended to marry her.
We had coffee with him, talked about old times but declined his offer of supper not wishing to drive back to Orville in the darkness and he was clearly not geared to putting up overnighters.
‘I would like to visit the old Huckabee homestead before we go but I guess they have long gone by now. I wrote them several times but never heard back.’
‘Yes, and so has their place mostly. Set a spell while I dig out a jacket and we will go see.’
He was right, the place was a destroyed ramshackle mess. The front porch had caved in and much of the house roofing along with it but the stone walls and smoke-blackened chimney were still intact. We stood there, the three of us each with our own memories of a time long ago.
‘The big storm ripped through here in ninety-six, soon after you left, tore a neat path about quarter of a mile wide, in an almost straight line. The twister took everything in that path and the Hucks were right the edge of it, huddled in the root cellar. Salvaged what they could and headed east, I never heard from them either, I guess they just wanted to forget.’
‘Are the graves still out back?’
‘Let’s go see.’ We followed him to where the flowered backyard would have been. The two small graves had survived, their crosses wildly tilted. I straightened them up, and put some wildflowers gathered on the walk, laid them first on Mister Piggy’s grave and then on Maisie’s. Her marker was flat and I needed to drive it back into the soft earth.
‘Who owns this now,’ I asked.
‘The National Texas Bank I should think, only Harry Straight has ever shown any interest in it and he hasn’t made an offer on account he can use old Huck’s grazing land for free.
‘Who was Maisie, Johnny?’ Jessica asked quietly.
‘Johnny?’ Bigham looked questioningly at me.
‘Don’t ask, sheriff. It’s showbusiness.’ I said, shaking my head and smiling, it was hard to think of him as anything but a sheriff, a four term one at that.
‘It don’t matter a hoot, son, as far as I know you were never christened proper so you can call yourself whatever you damn well please.’
‘You tell her about Maisie, Tom, you were more involved than I was.’
‘Yes, I guess I was at that. Maisie was a liver and white spaniel bitch. She belonged to a man named Chester Wood, you may remember him although he had no children as I recall, a boozer and a good for nothing…’ He paused looking at Jessie. ‘My apologies, Jessica, but he was just that. A mean man in every sense and a man to walk around when the drink was in him. One time Huck caught him beating up on the dog and threatening her with a shotgun. Huck, a mild man in every way, took that gun away from him and said if he ever touched that dog again, he would be back and stick both barrels up Chester’s backside and blow his goldarned brains out.’ He laughed at the memory. ‘That was the only time I ever saw old Huckabee angry.’
‘Chester came to me with a complaint and I told him if Huck didn’t do it I surely would. And that was that. A couple of days later Huck found Maisie tied to his mail box post and Chester Wood lived a fairly quiet life from then on although he never spoke again to me or to Huck. I never could tolerate a man or a woman, if comes to that, who was cruel to a dumb animal. That about right, son?’
‘Just about, Tom, we had that dog a little longer than we had Mister Piggy and they were good friends following each other around.’ I changed the subject fearful my voice might crack at the memory. ‘What do you reckon this place is worth?’
‘Good acreage, fair-sized, woodland, good water and they say a twister rarely hits on the same line twice, I would guess maybe around a thousand dollars, money the bank would like. Why…?
I didn’t answer but caught Jessie’s eye. She smiled at me and nodded.
The bank did indeed own the property and were glad to be shot of it situated as it was on open range and hemmed in by the larger ranches in the valley leaving little room for growth. But bigger isn’t better. Small but good land, maybe not much of a size for cattle or wheat but horses, now that was something different, and although corn and cows were a mystery to me, I did know something about pigs, dogs and horses.
The deal was done, the money paid and the land registered. For the first time in my life I felt that weird feeling of actually owning a small part of the world.
It took a couple of days to transfer money and to organise care for our new acquisition for which we left an account with Tom Bingham who offered to be our caretaker and hire help where needed. I promised I would send details of the work required and visit regularly. He held and kissed Jessie fondly and, curiously, gave me a hug reminding me of his caring for me in the barn with uncle Charly propped up in a stall with a hayfork in his heart. We left him there standing on the station platform, I was a happy man and had no idea as to the harm’s way my impetuous action had placed us.