Short Story: Jack Bones, Gone to Texas
January’s Short Story
Marshal Thomas Lang was old school and saw himself as a bit of a ‘I got here too late but would have been a hell of a star-packer had I been around twenty years ago’ kind of lawman and the first thing he did when appointed by the Bailey town council was to post an ordinance that no firearms were to be worn inside the town limits, an ordnance rigorously supported by the sheriff’s office. Not many town’s folk wanted to pack anyway, the law of the gun was long since gone and the cowhands that drifted in on a Saturday night left their working irons in their saddlebags or back at the bunkhouse. About the week that Lang posted his ordnance, was around the time that Dan Crow noticed a distinct change in the manner of Jack Bones, the oldest and longest serving hand of the Rocking W crew. A man in his sixties, tall, lean of body and face with closely cropped grey hair and a drooping but tidy moustache.
The first time was when Crow was laying on his bed in the deep shade of the bunkhouse, dogging it keeping out of the way of the foreman and hoping he would not be missed and that the day would soon cool down enough for him to resume his duties outside. It was a quiet afternoon and a snooze was not out of the question, the constant buzzing of a bluetail fly trapped against the dusty window was so soporific that the doze was almost inevitable. Crow was not far from sleep, eyelids drooping, mouth a little open, his breathing a gentle whistling sound, when old Jack Bones slouched into the room and stood in front of the indoor washbasin, spreading his hands beneath the brass tap scrubbing away in a frantic motion. Then, without turning, wiping his hands on the grubby grey rag of a towel and stumping out of the room whistling Dixie.
Crow watched from the shadows. Half-awake and half asleep, his eyes followed Bones out of the door, a puzzled expression on his tanned face as he realised what was wrong with the old man’s ablutions. Bones had not turned on the tap, no water, an imaginary wash, an imaginary drying of the hands that were not wet. He kept the hand washing incident to himself, not even sharing it with Henry Lee. He had seen old folk do some strange things in the past and he wrote it off as too long a day in the baking summer sun or, maybe, a long a snifter from the bottle Bones kept in the hay barn not realising his stash was the worst kept secret in Wyoming. The fact that no one else ever touched the bottle was a mark of respect for the old-timer whose days as a cowhand stretched right back before the turn of the century back when The West really was wild and packing a gun was as natural as putting on your hat.
That following week Crow kept his own council but also a very close watch on Jack Bones and if the old man noticed this close scrutiny of his movements and the appearance of Crow at odd times of the day he said nothing about it. One Wednesday evening a week following the phantom hand washing, Crow and Henry Lee along with other Rocking W hands were playing a hand of matchstick poker when Bones walked into the bunkhouse spruced up to the nines in his best Saturday night hat and boots announcing his intention to visit Bailey for the usual payday weekend wingding, and asking why no one else was ready.
Bobby Cole the wrangler, a sour-faced man whose mood often reflected the aches and pains of a lifetime of broken bones, stared at the old man for a long moment then continued dealing the greasy, dog eared Bicycle playing cards saying, ‘because it’s Wednesday, you old fart.’
Bones looked mortified, his lined face darkened and he stared down long and hard at his polished Justin boots, muttered something and shuffled away seeming to fade into the half light of the dimly lit interior, drifting like a spectre across the close boarded floor towards his bunk then, with a deep sigh, rolling onto it.
The silence settled like a fine mist around the quiet room and Crow said, his voice just above a whisper, ‘sure felt like Saturday to me, how about you, Henry Lee?’
‘It sure enough did, Crow,’ said Lee quietly.
Presently the old man was snoring and Crow left the table, crossed the room and covered him with a blanket after gently removing the shining boots.
‘You seen it too?’ Crow asked Lee the following morning as the two men saddled their horses for the north pasture ride and some fence mending.
Lee nodded and swung aboard his bay. ‘Last week he was late back from checking the windmill out at Turner’s Creek, very late, so I rode out in case he had taken a fall. Found him staggering around in the near dark, said that his pony had wandered off but I already found it, that gentle old roan of his was tied off tight to a spruce, no way it wandered.’
Crow’s animal fell in step beside Lee and the pair walked their mounts out of the corral to keep the dust down and off the full washing line the cook had stretched across the yard from cook shack to bunkhouse. ‘So, what do you think?’
‘I think he couldn’t remember where he left it is all.’
‘You didn’t mention it.’ Crow said.
‘And neither did you.’
‘Some things you don’t like to talk about, Lee, and old age and the things that can go with that old age is one of them.’
‘I’ve seen it happen before, but not close up like this with someone you know and work with.’
‘Brings it home with a bang, our supposed youthful mortality is a fragile and passing thing, could happen to anyone of us.’
‘You been reading those damned books again?’ Lee said.
They reined in their ponies when out of view of the ranch house, dismounted, stretched their legs and rolled cigarettes from a shared Bull Durham sack.
‘You and me, Crow, we are no spring chickens either, could be we are headed down the same trail.’
‘You are one cheerful bastard this morning.’
‘Just saying it is all.’
‘Wonder if old Doc Halloran could help, he seems to know about most things.’ Crow dropped his spent cigarette and ground the butt into the dry earth. ‘What do you think?’
‘Could ask him I suppose, he can fix a broken leg, patch up a gunshot wound but I doubt he can prescribe a pill for what ails Jack Bones.’
‘How come some men go that way and others, like old Halloran himself, never miss a step?’ Crow asked.
‘Why do some men die young, fall down a ravine, drown in a flash flood, get trampled by a snuffy or get themselves snake bit? How the hell do I know, that just seems to be the way it is you think? Best thing we can do is to keep an eye on the old goat, he wouldn’t thank us for any interference but it was a nice thing you did, covering him over and taking off his boots. We can do things like that but that’s about all.’
‘You do that for me if I get the way?’ Crow said.
‘Take your boots off? I surely would.’
‘I would rather you put a bullet in me,’ Crow said, soberly, ‘would you do that, Henry Lee, put a bullet in me?’
Lee didn’t answer but he spent the rest of the long morning’s ride in silence, thinking about it and wondering if Crow really meant it.
Lee rode south while Crow took the left that way they could cover the most ground, check the fence and meet back at the starting point and share information of what was needed by way of materials, it was a necessary but boring chore. Crow had only covered a mile when he saw a cloud of dust heading in his direction and minutes later the unmistakeable silhouette of Bobby Cole the wrangler. The man brought his mount to a slithering halt and waved.
‘What the hell you riding so hard for in this sun,’ Crow asked, when he joined the dusty rider.
‘The Boss sent me, wants you to ride into Bailey and check on old man Bones. You got the makings?’
Crow fished the sack out of his vest pocket and silently handed it to the man as he slid from his lathered horse, ground-hitched the animal, walked to the nearby shade of a pine and rolled himself a quirly.
‘Seems you and Lee know him best, y‘all been longer on the Rocking W than anyone else. He thinks you can talk some sense into him.’
‘What happened?’ Asked Crow, joining the man in what little shade the stunted pine offered.
‘I don’t know for sure, seems he packed that big old Colt of his and said he was riding hard for Bailey, was going to tree the town or so he claimed. Not been himself for a while that old man.’
Crow thought for a quiet moment and then swung back onto his bay. ‘Ride the fence north, find Henry Lee, tell him what happened and send him on to Bailey.’ Without waiting, he turned the bay and set off at a fast trot and broke into a canter when the animal reached level ground. Bailey was at least an hour away if he did not want to kill his animal so an hour it would have to be.
Bailey’s Main Street was deserted apart from the young tow-haired sheriff’s deputy who loitered on the shady side of the street opposite the Cattleman’s Saloon a Winchester .30.30 rifle cradled in his thin arms. The only other horse at the rail was the old roan Bones always favoured. Crow nodded to the deputy and tied his mount off beside the animal. ‘He in there, Jack Bones of the Rocking W?’
The young deputy nodded. ‘He’s carrying a firearm, I asked him to check it at the marshal’s office but he said he was going to need it in a little while and I was welcome to take it off him if I so desired, then he walked into the saloon and I’m waiting on the Mr Lang and the sheriff to get back from Dogbite. You know him, that old coot I mean?’
Crow nodded, ‘That old coot is a friend of mine so I would suggest you keep your finger well away from the trigger of that long gun you’re toting.’ And with that he turned his back on the youngster and walked into the shadowy afternoon light of the Cattleman’s.
Jack Bones was leaning against the bar, a bottle and three glasses in front of him, one half-filled with whiskey, the other two empty. Without turning he raised the bottle and filled one of the empty glasses. ‘Dan Crow, I figured it would be you or Henry Lee.’ He pushed the glass along to Crow.
‘Lee is on his way. What’s going on with you Jack, I’ve never known you to be a threat to anyone, especially a green kid can hardly be dry behind the ears and wearing a star at that? What the hell you toting that thumb buster for anyway?’
Jack smiled, drew the gun and laid it on the bar. ‘I’m telling you just what I told the kid, I need it today.’
Crow picked up the gun and examined it closely. It was a Colt copy, a Griswold pistol in .38 calibre with a brass frame and round barrel manufactured by the South during the Civil War in a Georgia factory later destroyed by Sherman. A handsome pistol and looking like it had never been fired. He replaced the weapon on the bar and Bones picked it up and dropped it snugly in the tan leather holster on his left hip.
‘Belonged to my daddy but I don’t believe he ever fired it in peace or in war.’
‘What do you aim to do with it this sunny day?’ Lee asked, sipping his whiskey and topping it up from the half-empty bottle.
‘I’m going to tree this burg is what I aim to do.’
‘Maybe you are just a mite old for treeing towns, Jack, how about we check this big iron with the deputy, finish this near finished bottle and pay the man,’ he nodded in the direction of the barkeep deeply absorbed in the town newspaper at the other end of the bar. ‘Then we grab us a bite at the Bluebird Café, I hear they do a mean chilli.’
‘I’m not hungry, Dan, and I knew the Boss would send you two. I know you both been watching over me like I was a kid again. That’s no life for an old man like me. I’m going to tree this town and take on that deputy and anyone who tries to stop me and that includes you and Henry Lee both. Then I’m going to ride on, heading back home to the Big Thicket.’
‘Texas? I didn’t know you came from way down there, Jack, the Thicket is not great cow country as I hear tell.’
‘All trees, Nacogdoches, born along the Sabine River. Lot of things you don’t know about me, Henry Lee, I’ve got a few years even on you.’
Crow shrugged, ‘why today?’
‘Why not today? Maybe because I’m more tired today, wearier than I was yesterday or maybe it’s because I don’t even recall what day it is.’
The old man chuckled. ‘So it is, but I needed you to tell me that. I needed Lee to find me when I was lost the other week. Hell, Crow, I’m always lost these days. Can’t remember where I am sometimes or even who I am. Making a fool of myself and never knowing the how or the why of it. When yesterday looks better than tomorrow it’s time to move along.’ The old man drained his glass and slapped it down on the bar top. ‘Time to get it done, Crow, and I want you to know I will always appreciate what you and Henry Lee done for me but it really is my time to ride on.’ He touched Crow’s arm briefly then turned, crossed the room and gently pushed open the swing doors.
Lee stared into the long bar mirror conscious that the bartender had refilled his glass before moving back down the bar to his crumpled newspaper. For a long moment there was just the mystical echo of the old man’s footsteps on the bare boards embellished with the faint jingle of his spurs then the silence was shattered by three muffled pistol shots closely followed by the louder, solid flat crack of a rifle.
‘He just came out at me, that old smoke-pole in his hand, blazing away like some kind of outlaw…’ The young deputy’s voice trailed off as Crow bent over the crumpled body of old Jack Bones. The man’s eyes were half closed the trace of a smile on his thin lips, blood spreading across his plaid shirt front. Crow ran finger and thumb gently down the lined face closing the eyes then he carefully removed the gun belt and picking up the fallen pistol, dropped it into the holster and stepped back through the swing doors. A small crowd gathered around and gazed down at the dead man some out of curiosity and the few who knew him out of a sadness at the passing of one of their own.
‘What kept you?’ Crow asked as Lee joined him at one of the saloon’s corner tables a fresh bottle and a glass in his hand.
‘Damned horse went lame, had to walk him in the last two miles.’
‘He going to be ok?’
‘Sure, just a split hoof is all. And you, how are you? I heard what happened just about everyone in town is talking about it.’
‘There’s his piece,’ Crow indicated the holstered pistol on the table, he had moved the holster along the belt as far as the buckle and then wrapped the belt around it. ‘Thought I’d keep it as he had no kin that he knew of, told me that one time. It’s a fine gun, I studied on it some before he went out. Only three of the nipples were capped and the three chambers only packed with wadding and powder, no balls, he was firing black powder is all.’
‘The deputy wasn’t to know that,’ Lee whispered.
‘No, he didn’t but I did, Henry, I knew the gun was empty.’
‘It wasn’t our call, Dan, it never was. That’s how he wanted to go, suicide at the hands of a lawman. Weird but practical.’ He topped up their glasses and raised his high. ‘To old Jack Bones, a man to ride the river with.’
‘To Jack Bones, gone home, gone to Texas.’ Crow said quietly, and they clinked their glasses in the smoke-filled gloom of the Cattleman’s Saloon in the Wyoming town of Bailey in the year of Our Lord 1918.
Copyright Chris Adam Smith 2018