TOES OF THE WEST – November Short Story
TOES OF THE WEST Dogbite Fourteen
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