This is a short story I put together some time back. I am thinking of expanding it and doing more with the character. What do you think?
It was a hot July day, the kind where you can fry eggs and potatoes on the sidewalk and it won’t take more than a minute to do it. I was a new cub reporter for the Clarion, and as all cub reporters do, I got stuck with all the little stories and personal interest pieces none of the real reporters wanted to bother with or didn’t want to travel for. I was just looking for a way to make this little three paragraph piece into a real story, you know, one you can get your byline onto.
The city editor, Clive Vernor, was nursing a grudge against me because I had spilled ink on his markups one day by accident, and from then on, he sent me out on all of the nowhere and nothing stories he could find. Regardless of what I did or what I wrote, I was never able to get any of my stories in the paper, they were always cut “for space” he would say with a straight face.
Well, one day he sent a runner to bring me to his office. That was always a bad sign. I knew nothing good was going to come of that, but being on the bottom of the totem pole, “I came when I was called and went where I was sent,” as the saying goes. So I knocked on his door, and he called me in, smiling again. Another bad sign.
“Lyons!” he roared. Clive, he never spoke in less than a roar. Some said it was because he couldn’t hear and always assumed no one else could either. He was too vain to wear a hearing aid, with the wires hanging down.
“Lyons, I’m sending you on a story. One of the old timers is having a birthday, his ninety-ninth, and the city desk thinks it would be good to get a piece on him…while he’s still here. He’s one of the last of the old timers from the wild and woolly days, so he should be good for a tall tale or two. Go down there, chat the old man up, take a camera with you and see if you can make enough sense of the old geezer to write a good story. Now, get going!”
“Mister Vernor,” I asked hesitantly. “Going where?”
“Oh, yeah…you’re driving out 41 to alternate 23a, then south on old Moore Road, to Dry Crossings. Look for the old man there, in a place called….The Tall Tale. I think it’s a bar or a diner or something. You’ll find it. Get going.”
Five hours later, I parked in front of this old beat up dusty bar. There were a few cars and pickups parked along the side, and as I looked around I saw something else there. There was an old shed off to the back, and an old time hitch rail leaning on its side, looking like it was about to give up the ghost. There was an old reddish brown horse, with the reins just lying on the ground, standing next to it. There was an old rusted washtub in front of the horse, and the nag had its nose in the tub. Well, being curious, I walked over to it and it raised its head and looked at me and the tub, which was empty. I looked around and saw a hose connected to a sprinkler that was trying to water the four blades of grass growing in the dirt. I could see the poor animal was thirsty, so I picked up the hose, and squeezing to create a bend in the hose, cut off the flow long enough to unscrew it from the sprinkler. I took the hose over to the tub and filled it up, and the poor beast started drinking like he was bone dry. After he had enough, I filled up the tub again and then took the hose back to the sprinkler and reattached it. I didn’t want to deprive those four blades of grass their water.
I got a little on me, but what the hell, it was only water. I went back to my car and got my case and started to go inside the bar. My way was blocked by a big man with an angry expression on his face.
“What in the hell do you think you’re doing, giving water to that animal?” he snarled at me. “Don’t you know any better than to let a horse drink until it’s cooled off?” he roared at me.
Now, I wasn’t very big then, only about 5’7”, and I had to stand sideways to throw a shadow, so I certainly wasn’t looking for a fight. Not with anyone three times my size, that’s for sure.
“He looked thirsty, and I didn’t…” I started to say, but he grabbed me by the shirt and lifted me up off the steps. I saw him pull back a huge fist and thought that I had the grounds for a good lawsuit for damages, once I got out of the hospital, that is. But before he could begin his attack, a voice came out of the bar.
“Mistuh Dawson, suh, I think that man might be comin’ to talk to me, an’ I surely would appreciate it if you let him on by,” this deep and slow voice called out.
The man just looked at me like he found something interesting all of a sudden.
“That right, little fella? You come here to talk to Newell?” his tone suddenly friendly. He gently put me down and patted me on the shoulder lightly enough to send me flying inside the bar. “Have a good chat, Newell. I’ll see you tomorrow,” the giant called out.
“I be here, given the Good Lord wants me here, Mistuh Dawson,” the man called out.
There in front of me was a black man, sitting at the bar. He must have been about 6’ tall, and although he was wide in the shoulder, he was as big around as a fence post. He had a dusty grey Stetson sitting on the stool beside him, and his hair was as white as snow. There were few lines in his face, with almost as many teeth in his mouth. He had large hands, one of which was holding onto an empty beer mug. There were a large variety of scars on the backs of his hands, but they didn’t seem to affect his grip any.
“I heered you was comin’ to talk to me, so I been waitin’ here for you. You from the paper, son?” he asked in a very calm strong voice, no sign of the usual rumble or shakiness that most of the old timers had. He reached out his hand and shook hands with me, and I was astonished at the strength and firmness of his grip.
“Well no sir, I’m here to meet with someone named…” I took my notebook out of my case and looked through it for the name, “…. named N. B. Canebrough,” I said. “He’s supposed to be ninety-nine and I…”
“Yes, son, that’s me. Newton Brewster Canebrough,” the old man said with a smile.
“No sir, I think I’m supposed to be meeting with your father, mister Canebrough Senior,” I said.
He took the beer mug and drained the last few drops, wiping his mouth with a paper napkin from the counter, and looked me right in the eye.
“That is me, son. My birthday is tomorrow, and I wants to get it all down while I still remembers it. I wants to tell you all about the greatest man that ever lived, and I’m the last man alive who can do it. Now then, you got one of them recording machines or are you goin’ to write it all down?” he asked softly, but clearly in command.
“I have a recorder, sir,” I told him. Somehow not saying sir seemed unthinkable.
“Then lets us go sit at that table while we talk, son, so we can talk in peace and quiet. By the way, do you suppose you can buy an old man a beer to wet his whistle while we talk? Talkin’s might powerful dry work, son,” he said as he slowly stood up.
When he stood up, I noticed something else about him. He was wearing a gun. He had an old fashioned six shooter in a worn leather holster resting against his hip. All I could see was the handle, but it looked worn smooth and shiny. What I also noticed was that no one else in the saloon — I was now seeing it as a saloon rather than as bar — seemed to even notice he was armed. His cartridge belt was full, I saw no empty loops anywhere on it. I decided not to bring it up, quite possibly he was touchy about that sort of comment.
I signaled for the bartender to bring him another beer and a Coke for me. We sat down under the fan, and I set up the tape. The bartender brought out drinks without a word, other than to sniff in disdain when he put my glass down, but I ignored him and made a mental note to lower his tip.
“Mr. Canebrough, I understand you have a story to tell, and I want to hear it. Is it about your life and…” I began.
“Son, I’m going to tell you all there is to say, but first, you tell me who you are,” he said politely, but firmly.
“Yes sir. My name is Everett Patrick Lyons, but my friends call me E. P. or Pat,” I told him.
He didn’t respond right away, but looked out the open door at a place and time long ago.
“Son, don’t you never be ashamed of your name. Not none of it. If you be livin’ right, and followin’ the Good Book, you don’t never need to be ashamed of no part of your name. He taught me that,” he added softly.
“Who’s that?” I asked. He looked me straight in the eye and said it was the man he wanted to talk about. This is his story, straight from the heart and mouth of the only man who could tell it as it really happened.
I remember the first time I met Lester Ignatius Simmons Moore. It was the spring of `84, and I was lookin’ for work. I’d just come down from the High Country after a long hard winter where I had been workin’ for ol’ man Tatum, and you knowed how hard it was to get along with him. He paid good enough, but he expected a man to work two dollars worth for every dollar he gave you. He had a real good cook, Justin Belmont it was, and I never ate so good as I did when I worked for Tatum, but enough was enough. I warn’t no slave no more, and I didn’t want no man working me like one. We had parted company on good terms, and he’d given me a roan to ride out on. `Course he took ten dollars of my final pay, so I reckon he didn’t give me Blue so much as he sold him to me cheap. I bought a few things from Justin. I’d al-ways made it a habit to be nice to the cook and never complain like all the other boys done `cause I knew that when the time came I did leave, I might need a few things from him out the back door, so to speak. So Justin, he gave me a sack o’ beans, some day-old biscuits, a slab of bacon he was going to toss anyway, and a small tin of Arbuckles. I know what you be thinkin’ about that bacon, and yes, there were a few green spots, but when I cut them off it was good enough to eat when I fried it down. Corky, Corky Weems, that is, he also gave me a small sack of makin’s for all the nights I covered for his time on the line when he had a snoot full of who-hit-John.
I had gone through all my supplies over the last three weeks, and damn near all my socks. I was reduced to takin’ my share of Blue’s oats…he could eat the grass and I never did take a likin’ to eatin’ grass. So as I was sayin’, I come down the pass and thought I was finally out of bad luck, when ol’ Blue, he went down. He was a damn good horse, and it tore me up a sight havin’ to do that, but he didn’t deserve to suffer none. So, I did what I had to do and put him out of his misery. But you don’t want to hear about my troubles, you was askin’ about my time with Sheriff Lester Ignatius Simmons Moore.
See here, the thing is, Sheriff Moore, he was right proud of his name, and the surest way to get on his bad side was to shorten it down any. Now, my mama, she didn’t raise no fools and I learnt that my first day in his town. Anyways, as I was sayin’, I was walkin’ aimlessly, tryin’ to find some place to hole up until I could save up enough to buy me a new mount, and that damn rig of mine was gettin’ mighty heavy. I wern’t about to leave it nowhere for some driftin’ tumbleweed to find — that saddle cost me a good three months wages, and that Winchester, well, that Winchester cost me another three months. It was sure worth it though, I’ll tell you. I could hit…well, it was a good one and I didn’t aim to leave it behind for some snot-nosed kid to find and use for shootin’ woodchucks or some such. It was too good of a rifle for some dirt farmer to put to such triflin’ uses.
Where was I? Oh yeah, Sheriff Lester Ignatius Simmons Moore. You want to know about him, not my favorite rifle. Anyway, after Blue went down, I was kinda’ dazed for a spell, so I just picked up my saddle and rifle and started walkin’ down the mountain. You see, I had aimed to avoid some unpleasant fellows who had come by the Bar T looking for work. We had been playing cards and one of those boys tried to take the pot with a full house, queens over tens. It was a good pot, and it was mostly my money because Sim, Pete, Corky, and Dave had all backed down and throwed in their hands. So it was just me and those three boys from Colorado. Now, you got to understand, I didn’t mind losing to a better hand, ‘cause it happens to all of us now and then, but I was holding three queens myself, and a pair of nines to support them. That was a sight more ladies in the deck than I usually saw. And his three didn’t look quite the same color on the back as mine and the rest of the cards. Well, things got pretty hot up there, and it didn’t take a lot of jawin’ back and forth before one of those boys decided to try and push his luck. He drew pretty slick, and he had his gun pointed in my direction. Corky, he threw down on him with that old Greener he had and suggested that old boy drop his gun in the water bucket by the door, and he grudgingly complied. I thought things were calming down, when suddenly the card player, he went for his gun to take out Corky…and I just slapped leather and cut him down. It all happened faster than it took me to tell it, don’t you know? The third man, he wanted no part of that game and went to hold up the roof.
Well, for an old man, that Mr. Tatum he made good time coming from the main house to our cabin, but his shotgun came in first, and then he followed it in with the hammers eared back. “What happened here, boys? Why is there a dead man on my floor?” he asked quietly. He was looking around at all of us, mostly at me, as I was the one holding the smoking gun. I slid it back into the leather and opened my mouth to explain.
“My partner tried to cheat your boy here, Mr. Tatum,” the one holding up the roof said.
“Son, I built this place real careful like, I don’t reckon the roof will suffer none iffen you put your hands down. I think you can safely relax now. I just wouldn’t do nothing to make no one nervous, if I was you,” he advised kindly.
Now, I surely did appreciate him sayin’ it warn’t my fault, but I didn’t care much for him callin’ me ‘boy’, but under the circumstances, I was prepared to let that slide.
“So, your man there,” Mr. Tatum, he dipped his shotgun towards the figure on the floor, and then brought it back up to center on the one without a gun, “he tried to cheat my MAN at cards. My MAN draw first?” he asked, making it clear that I warn’t no boy, but a man. That fellow, he didn’t miss that message.
“No sir, Mr. Tatum. Your man didn’t draw then at all. Jeb, that’s him over there,” he nodded at the other man with the empty holster, “he tried to draw down, but that other man,” he nodded at Corky, “he threw down on him with that shotgun and made him drop his iron in the water bucket. Me, I didn’t want any part of any of it,” he blurted out.
“Well, that seemed right smart of you, youngster. So how did your friend end up running out his string then?” Mr. Tatum asked him curiously.
“He killed my friend for no reason!” Jeb complained, not that anyone was listenin’ to him.
The first man, he gives Jeb a look of disgust and explained the rest of it to Mr. Tatum. “When Jeb was made to drop his iron in the bucket, we all turned to look at him and then Clete, that’s Clete on the ground there, sir. Clete, he tried to draw on your man there with the shotgun and he,” he said, nodding at me, “pulled and got Clete first. It was a clear case of self defense, Mr. Tatum. Honest it was,” the man pleaded.
“Canebrough,” Mr. Tatum began as he turned to me. “You got anything you want to add to this jasper’s story?”
My pappy taught that you repay kindness with kindness, and an eye for an eye. This man, he didn’t hurt me and he even tried to help me. I owed him, and I didn’t want no debt between us.
“Mr. Tatum, he told you true. I ain’t holding no grudge against him. I reckon he can go on his way if you don’t want him here,” I said.
Mr. Tatum, he hooked a thumb towards the door and told the friendly one to go. “I reckon we got no more use for you here, son, so you’d best be searching for a new campsite off’n my prop’ty. I’d suggest you get started now and hustle your hocks a’fore I decide you’d make good fodder for my hogs,” he told him as sternly as he could.
“Thank you, sir. I’ll be collecting Jeb and…”
“No,” Mr. Tatum interrupted. “I don’t reckon you will. This varmint tried to kill two of my men and that’s just like trying to send me under. I don’t take kindly to that, so I reckon we’ll be talking a while longer with Jeb. You are free to go, and take that….” paused to point to the late Clete, “…with you and get it off my land. If I find it buried on my prop’ty, I’ll come looking for you and you won’t want me to find you. Understand me, son?”
“Yes, sir, I understand you real well!” he assured Mr. Tatum and began dragging Clete out of the cabin.
Jeb had started to object to this, but Corky was still holdin’ the Greener and jabbed him in the back with it and Jeb he sure shut up fast.
In three minutes, the friendly one had loaded Clete on his horse and was hightailing it down the road. But I still had a problem on my hands. Jeb was very mad and he warn’t going to let up on this thing. I couldn’t kill him, not in cold blood, but I knew if he didn’t drop it I would probably have to kill him at some point in time. I only had once choice. I had to get out of his range…fast. I glanced at Mr. Tatum and walked towards the door. Mr. Tatum tells Corky to keep Jeb calm, and he followed me outside.
“Mr. Tatum, I reckon I gots to be movin’ on. I don’t want to, but that Jeb feller, he ain’t gonna let this thing go, you can see that, cain’t you?”
“Canebrough, I surely hate to see you go. Maybe we can hide you out for a while and…”
“No sir, Mr. Tatum, sir. I ain’t hidin’ from no one iffen I didn’t do nothing wrong. But that Jeb, he’s got it in his mind that I killed his friend, no matter that his friend was tryin’ to kill my friend. If he don’t do it now, he’s prob’ly goin’ to lay in wait for me somewhere, and cause you a lot of trouble until he does. You been real good to me Mr, Tatum, and I don’t want to bring no trouble on you on my account,” I told him.
He was silent a minute, and then he looked back at the cabin door. He had closed it behind him so no one could hear us talking. He looked back at me, and then he looked away and spoke in a low voice.
“Canebrough, I like you. You work hard, don’t complain and do more than your share. I know that Corky’s really going to miss you most of all. I know how many times you’ve covered for Corky when he came back from town too drunk to take his turn at night herd, and all the of men respect you. It could be that something happens to that varmint and no one ever saw him again. It could happen, you know. Real easy to take a fall if he were walking around up here at night by himself, not familiar with the terrain, you know,” he suggested.
I was stunned, I’ll tell you. I thought we had kept those nights I had covered for Corky a secret. I never knew he was aware of it, but it didn’t surprise me none. I always thought it was damn hard to slip something past the old man, but for him to offer to solve my problem like he was, that took me back. I never had no white man go out on a limb like that for me, not ever. I knew what it took for him to make that offer, but I couldn’t let him do it.
“Mr. Tatum, sir,” I said, choked up. “I can’t let you do that. No sir, it be best I take myself down the road to spare you and the boys any hurt on my hook. Iffen you could keep him busy for a day or so until I can get out of the county, I’d sure appreciate it.”
“Well, if you’re sure,” he agreed reluctantly. He looked at me for a moment, and then put his hand in his pocket.
“Corky ain’t the hand you are, Canebrough, but he plays a mean fiddle. I don’t know how I’d replace him. So, saving his drunk hide is worth somethin’ to me. I want you to take this,” he said as he handed me a small wad of bills (I later seen it to be about ten dollars), “to help you get where you’re goin’. It isn’t a gift, mind you, it’s a loan. You send it back as you can when you can. And when you do, send along a note. Err, have someone put in a note for you to tell me how you’re doing,” he corrected.
It may have been the light, but I’d swear I saw his eyes waterin’ a bit. “I’ll surely do that, Mr. Tatum. I give you my word.”
Just then, Corky came out of the cabin and when Mr. Tatum looked at him, he waved and told us not to worry.
“Sim is sitting on him, Mr. Tatum. Actually sitting on him, so he ain’t goin’ nowhere anytime soon,” he said laughing.
Sim weighed close to three hundred pounds, and he was the blacksmith and farrier for Mr. Tatum. I oncet saw him hit a mule between the ears with a big fist, and that damn mule staggered. He didn’t go down, but he stopped givin’ him any trouble, so I knew Jeb warn’t goin’ anywhere for sure.
Corky, he turns to me and says “Newell, I `spect you’re goin’ to be movin’ on now, an’ I hate to see you go. You know I ain’t got much, but I want you to have this to `member me by,” and he handed me his makin’s pouch. He said he made it from…well, it was mighty damn soft leather and he was awful proud of it. It meant a lot for him to give to me, and I warn’t about to insult him by refusin’ it. Corky, he went back inside after shaking my hand, and he never looked back. I always planned to send it back to him after a while, but something happened and I never did. That always bothered me some.
I turned and went to saddle my old mare, and then Mr. Tatum, he says bring my saddle and come with him. He walked me back to the corral and he points at Old Blue. Now you got to understand, Blue was the smartest cowpony on the ranch. He was about 6 years old, and he didn’t spook at nothin’. You could shoot off him, wave a scarf or a rope or a hat, nothin’ scared him. He was ground tied and you could mount from either side. He was a dream to ride, he had five gaits and all of them smooth as silk. The only problem with Blue… he liked to drink. That damn horse would take an open beer bottle and tip it up and drink it down…hell, that horse could hold his beer even better than Corky could! He had belonged to Mr. Tatum’s son, Mark. Mark had gone off to that damn war and never came back home. Mr. Tatum, he wouldn’t let anyone ride Blue, but here he was telling me to take Blue and ride off.
“Mr. Tatum, sir? That’s Blue…you can’t be giving me Blue?” I protested.
“Hell no, I’m not giving you the damn horse. I never gave no one a horse! You pay me my price and he’s yours, and my price is…ten dollars. Now give me the damn ten dollars and git on out of here a’fore I change my mind. And mind you take the back trail, the one over the mountain. Ain’t no one going to follow you there. Not from here anyways.”
I tol’ him I only had the ten dollars to my name and turned to walk away.
Mr. Tatum, he calls me back and says “Don’t you want your final pay, Canebrough?” and he hands me a wad of money. I looked at it and there was five ones, a five, and a ten. I threw my saddle on Blue, and he just looked at me like he was rarin’ to go hisself. When I had everythin’ cinched up and ready to go, I mounted up and turned Blue toward the path to the trail. As I started to gig him into a trot, Mr, Tatum, he called out to me again. I stopped Blue and waited. Mr. Tatum walked over to me, stuck out his hand and near brought me to tears with just three simple words.
“Take care, Newell,” was all he said. It meant a lot to me, and I never got back to that old man. It was only fifty miles, but it was the other side of the world.
I saw him look at his empty beer stein, and the flow of words seemed to dry up. He looked around the room, and I saw him look back down at his empty beer stein. I hit pause on the recorder while he collected his thoughts. After a few minutes of silence, I got the hint and waved at the bartender for a refill for both of us. Once the beer arrived, he picked it up and leaning back in his chair, he downed the entire mug without stopping for a breath. I stared at him in awe.
“Talkin’ is might dry work for a cowboy, sure would make it…a beer would be right fine, but two would be even better. Thank you, son. That sure hits the spot. Now, where was I? Oh yeah, talkin’ about meeting Sheriff Moore.”
It took me almost two days to get over the ridge, and it was a real nice ride. Blue was having a good time too, he was taking bites off every clump of clover or sweetgrass he found, and when he saw a salt thistle, he would eat that damn thing down to the ground. So, I didn’t really know where I was going, but I was makin’ good time.
Now the thing is, a man learnt to survive in them days by bein’ alert and learnin’ how to read signs. And the best damn sign a man ever had was his own mount. All of a sudden, Blue’s ears went forward and his head came up. I eased the hammer tie off my Colt, just in case, mind you. Then I shucked my Winchester and made sure it was loaded. As I thought about it, I refilled the loops on my belt from a box of shells in my off-hand saddlebag and threw a few extra into the Winchester as well. With both of them fully loaded, I felt better. I no sooner got the box back into the saddlebag and my rifle back into the boot, then I see these two men sittin’ on their mounts waitin’ for me.
One was lean and short, wearing what looked like worn out butternut pants and the remains of an old Confederate uniform coat. He was smilin’, but there warn’t no humor in it. He had a mouthful of yellowed or blackened teeth, where he had any at all. I was upwind of them, and I could smell them from 60 yards away. He were wear’n old worn out cavalry boots with soles that were separatin’ from their uppers. He had dirty, oily lookin’ hair hanging down from under an old forage cap with the insignia torn off and had a big Remington in a military holster hanging off his hip and Spencer in a rifle boot under his leg.
The other man was a bigger man, and dressed in the standard garb of the west. He had a big wide-brimmed hat with a crease in the center, stained around the front and with the sides curled up. He had a dark leather vest over a blue bib shirt with the top button undone and were wearin’ brown whipcord pants tucked into black high top boots. On his heels, he had a pair of big Mexican roweled spurs with sharp points. No self-respectin’ cowboy would wear such spurs that could hurt his horse that way. I could see that he liked to hurt people and animals, and I knew he was the one to worry about when I saw the crossed bandoliers and twin holsters around his waist.
Now, there was somethin’ evil about these two men, I could feel it and I think even Blue could feel it, because he was back steppin’ and he never did that. I could see their faces, and I was determined to show no fear…on account I warn’t scared of them. I don’t fear no man so long as I walk the right path. I knew where I’d be going when my time came, and I was right certain I warn’t goin’ to be seein’ these two there.
“Looky here, Aaron, we got us a real fancy darky. Riding a real nice bay, with what looks like a brand new rifle. A Winchester, no less. Might be the darky’s got some real money in his pockets. Whatcha’ think, Aaron?” the skinny one asked without takin’ his eyes off me and Blue. Aaron just smiled meanly and his hand slowly drifted downward.
“Darky, why don’t you get off that nice bay and come over here so we can talk? We need a change of horses, and that bay looks too good for the likes of you. Now if you don’t make me mad, you can take your pick of these two. But, if you make me mad, we’ll just take yours and keep ours,” Aaron said with an evil sneer.
“Mister Aaron, you don’t want to be doin’ that,” I warned him. “My pappy always told me that I should never start a fight, but always finish it.”
“Darky, are you threatening me?” Aaron growled at me ominously as his expression darkened.
He looked over at the skinny one, and I saw a look pass between them and I knew what was goin’ to happen. The skinny man, he started to walk his horse slow like to the left to get on my side where I couldn’t see his hand go down to the flap on his holster, but I didn’t take my eyes off the other, ‘cause I knew he was the more dangerous.
“Mister Aaron, if that man takes one more step to the left, I’m goin’ to take that as an unfriendly move and I will defend myself.”
“Darky, I see I’m going to have to teach you how to talk to your betters. Now, we’re in a hurry. So, you get off that horse and lead it over to me or we’re going to have to shoot you off so we can git on our way,” he said, his hand hovering over the butt of his gun.
“Mister Aaron, I don’t want to draw on you, but if you don’t ride on right now, I will have to kill both of you if you try to take my horse. Why don’t you two just go on your way and I’ll go on my way and all of us will keep on living and enjoy this beautiful day?” I tried to talk myself out what I felt sure was comin’, but I knew I warn’t goin’ to be able to do that. They didn’t want me to.
“Darky, you are trying my patience. I think you need a clearer message of what I am saying here. Floyd, why don’t you show the darky just how serious we are about trading horses with him?”
Without taking my eyes off the heavy man, I tried to warn the other one. “Mister Floyd, if you touch that gun, both of you is goin’ to die. I don’t want to hurt nobody. I just want to be left alone to go where I mean to go.”
“Hey Aaron, I think the darky’s scared! I think it will just take a little more pushing and….” he started to say before I saw the twitch that said he was going for his gun. I pulled mine before he cleared leather but held my fire, seein’ as how he warn’t in position to fire noways. I could see his eyes widen, as he saw how close he was to goin’ under.
“Now Mister Floyd, why don’t you just drop that shootin’ iron on the ground? You can pick it up after I’ve gone on by. And you, Mister Aaron, why don’t you drop yours, too? That way no one gets hurt, and we all get to keep on enjoying the sunshine,” I told him, hopin’ he’d do as I’d asked.
“Well, Darky, it looks like you win this time,” he said as he dropped his gun on the ground. He warn’t angry, so I knew he had a holdout somewhere and most likely would go to go for it as I rode by. But I warn’t plannin’ on going by, and I warn’t lettin’ him get behind me. But I let him think he won anyways.
“Mister Aaron, that’s a good choice, sir. Now why don’t you just get off your horse, and go stand by your friend. That way, both of you can keep the other safe.”
He slowly walked his horse over to where Floyd was, and I could see a look pass between them again. As he walked past Floyd, Floyd began to walk his horse around between Aaron and me so that I couldn’t see Aaron reach for his back gun. But, I reckon it didn’t matter none on account of I knew what they was up to. What they didn’t know was that Blue was a damn good horse, and he could walk backwards for a long time because he trusted me. So as I got to be far enough behind them, I wheeled Blue around and backed out of the clearin’ off the path and down the hill. As soon as we was out of sight, I jumped off and led Blue into the underbrush behind a clump of pines. Sure `nuff, them boys came barrelin’ after me and right on by. I let them go on a bit before I crossed over and went on down the ridge, thinkin’ to myself how I outfoxed them two trouble makers. My pappy always said that pride goeth before a fall, and I tell you now, I had done forgot those words. But, I ain’t forgot them since then.
I was ridin’ relaxed and easy, thinkin’ about what I was ridin’ into, when suddenly a shot rang out and just missed me by inches. If I hadn’t leaned forward to scratch Blue’s ears, it would have put a hole in my head. I piled off Blue, grabbing my rifle as I left the saddle, and rolled away. Blue, he just stood there waitin’ to see what happened next.
He stopped talking again, and this time I was on the ball. I flagged the bartender and called for two more, and when he got to the table, I decided to not waste any time.
“Just keep them coming sir, whenever he is empty, just bring him another one. Maybe even two at a time,” I said expansively. I pulled $5 out of my pocket and laid it on his tray, but he just stood there. I put another $5 down, and he went away. I turned my attention back to Newell. “Go on, Mr. Canebrough,” I urged him.
“Thank you, son,” he said. “Now where was I? Oh yeah…”
Just then, a voice called out to me, and I knew my chickens had come home to roost, as my old pappy would say.
“You killed my friend, damn your black hide! Now it’s your turn to feel my lead putting holes in you! And I’ve got a couple of friends of yours here to help me! Say hello to the dead man, boys!”
“Hey, dead man. Remember us?”
It was Floyd and Aaron. And Jeb. And they wasn’t here to play mumblety-peg with me…. unless it was to use me as the board, but I sure as shootin’ didn’t want to play. I decided it was time to stop playin’ and get serious or this ol’ boy was on his last day on this earth. I decided to go Injun and get around behind them to get the drop on them, but every time I stuck my head up, one of those boys tried to take it off. I only had twenty-six rounds in my belt, twelve in my rifle, and six in my Colt, and I couldn’t get to Blue for extras, so I couldn’t waste the ammunition I had.
I listened for their movements as they shouted threats at me, but I didn’t give them the pleasure of my respondin’ to them ‘cause they ‘ave could used that to get a sight on me and git me in a crossfire. And, guaranteed, that wouldn’t have no good outcome for me. I let them jabber their threats at me and I used that to get a line on the three of ‘em. I figured Jeb was the least dangerous because he was mad, and nobody what’s mad makes a good fighter if they let that mad affect their thinkin’. Now Floyd, he was sneaky, but I didn’t know what kind of a shot he was. I had him down as someone who would try to get behind me for his shot. But Aaron, I still had him for the most dangerous one because he was the most calm and cool headed. This was just business for him, so he became my first target, but he warn’t talkin’ none `cause he was too smart to do that.
I thought I saw something movin’ off to my right, so I drew my Colt and let loose with two shots in that general direction and was rewarded with a flurry of return fire from a clump of brush under an oak tree. I was all set to return fire at the brush when I saw something that brought a smile to my face and hope that I could avoid killin’ anyone before getting’ gone. I slid my Colt back into the leather and picked up my rifle. I took my time sightin’ in on my target and when I was ready, fired only one shot.
Floyd let out a loud jeer, thinkin’ I’d missed him and all, that real quick turned to a scream when those hornets began swarmin’ all over him, mad as they were about something disturbing their hive. He jumped up, wavin’ his arms all around to chase them off, but they wasn’t chasin’ nothing but him. He didn’t drop his shootin’ iron however and he began firing off shots in my general direction, leavin’ me with no choice. I sent him on his way to meet his maker with one shot.
A hailstorm of lead came flyin’ my way just a few seconds later, and I dropped to the ground and crawled away in the direction that storm came from, trying to get behind the other two. There was no more talkin’ from either of them as they had figured out that warn’t to their advantage. I knew they would be trying to get me in a crossfire for certain now, but I didn’t intend to be sittin’ there waitin’ for them to come to me. I was mad now, and I was goin’ to take it to them.
I slowly inched my way in their general direction, listenin’ every inch of the way for anything that didn’t belong. For about an hour…I didn’t have no pocket watch to go by, but the good Lord put a most excellent watch in the sky for me to use, and I reckoned I was wormin’ my way around that there mountainside for most of an hour. I was hopin’ those boys would get tired and move on, cuttin’ their losses, but knowin’ they warn’t goin’ to do no such thing.
Sure enough, they began tryin’ to scare me out into the open by firin’ blind in my direction. My pappy would always tell me that even a blind squirrel can find a nut now and then. Sure enough, one of them blind shots saw me and it hit me in the right side, and I let out a quick yelp, cutting it off fast, but not fast enough. That brought the other two right to me and they wasted no time in coming.
“Hey Darky! We know where you are now, and either you come out and take your medicine like a white man, or we will just burn you out where you hidin’. We don’t much care which you choose, but you better make your choice before Jeb here finds his tinder box! Now you have two murders to answer for, Darky! You’ve got to answer for Jeb’s friend…what was his name?” he asked Jeb.
“Clete Bowers,” Jeb called out.
“Yeah, Clete Bowers, and my friend, Floyd Givens. That’s two good men you kilt, Darky! Now I’m getting bored here, so I’m just going to let Jeb start his fire so I can get on my way!” he yelled to me.
“No need for that, I’m already out,” I told him softly. While he had been flappin’ his jaws, I had been working my way around them and I didn’t speak until I was standin’ right behind ‘em. When I spoke, they both whirled around and saw me on my feet in front of them. I reckon they saw my bloody side and thought they had it made, that I was a goner. I had turned my belt around so I was drawing with my left hand on a gun that was sittin’ butt first, like ol’ Wild Bill used to draw. They thought it was mighty funny, my doin’ that.
“Look at the darky, Jeb!” Aaron said as he laughed. “He thinks he’s Wild Bill-by-god-Hickok. Got a big smoker in that fancy pouch, got his gun all turned ass-backwards, and he’s got his feet spread wide and he’s ready for action!” Aaron added with a sneer.
Because he had been firing at me, I knew the tie down was off and he could draw with it. What I didn’t know was how good he was. Now you got to know, son, that back then speed didn’t always get the job done. That boy, Aaron, he spoke of Wild Bill Hickok. Wild Bill, he warn’t the fastest, but he was mighty damn accurate. And some of them other boys, John Wesley Hardin, Bat and Wyatt, Luke Short, and even Doc Holliday, they wasn’t so quick as they was calm and accurate. That was what I was countin’ on, that these boys were all about speed more than they was gettin’ it right the first time. At least, that was what I was hopin’ for.
As I think on it now, sonny, it all seemed to happen right quick from that moment. Now what I’m tellin’ you, you got to know it was all happenin’ at once like, not strung out like I’m tellin’ it. So you keep that fact tucked away in your mind when you hear how it all went down, okay? That way you can get a better sense of what I was facin’ right then.
Jeb, he started the ball by drawin’ and throwin’ lead in my direction. He was a lot better’n I hoped he was, because his shot blazed by my head a whole lot closer than I wanted it to. I could hear it hiss right by me, and then I heard a horse scream. I reckoned it was Blue, but I was a mite busy just then and didn’t have no time to look to him. I shucked my pistol and let fly back at him, but the sumbitch was movin’ and I missed with my first shot. He didn’t miss with his second, cutting meat on my right side. I didn’t miss with my second shot neither, and I saw his head explode into a fine red mist and ‘fore he pitched off the back of his horse, who then cut out for the high timber as fast as he could.
Then I turned my attention to Aaron, but he warn’t nowhere to be seen. That worried me some, `cause I knew that boy, he warn’t goin’ nowhere withouten settlen’ up with me. He couldn’t afford to have it known that a black man had run him off and made him backwater. He knew it, and I knew it — and we both knew this could only end with one of us toes up. I was just determined it warn’t goin’ to be me! He had to be somewheres around there, and I didn’t see no good reason to be standin’ up in plain sight just then. My old pappy, he always said the good Lord watches over fools, and I guess that’s true, on account of I no sooner dropped to the ground than his lead come buzzin’ right where my head had been just seconds before. I was too busy kissin’ the good Lord’s earth to take note of where it came from, but I heard him call out, and that I put off to my right, so I rolled off into the underbrush to my right.
“Darky, you’re a good shot, but you’ve really made me mad now. That’s two of my men you’ve put down, and I can’t ride away without putting you down as well!” he yelled. “We can do this the hard way or the easy way, if you think you got the cojones to face me like a man, you….”
“Mister Aaron,” I interrupted his yellin’ with a bit of my own. “You want me to face you like a man, you best start calling me by name. My name is Newell Brewster Canebrough, but you can just call me Mister Canebrough.” Now I knew he warn’t goin’ to call no black man ‘Mister,’ I only said that to rile him up some. A shooter like him, he ain’t got no business gettin’ riled up on account that makes his aim less accurate. I was just messin’ with him to try to make him yell back so’s I could pinpoint his location.
He warn’t fallin’ for that, though. He was a sight smarter than I gave him credit for. Meanwhile, my side was really startin’ to hurt where Jeb’s second shot had nicked my side. He hadn’t broke nothin’ real vital, but he made it sure smart some. I figured it was closing it on noon, and I was gettin’ mighty thirsty, but my canteen was back on Blue, wherever the hell he was. I needed to get some water and take care of my side, and that Aaron, he warn’t lookin’ to let me have that kind of time. I had to do something fast to keep him off balance.
My old pappy, he used to say the best way to win a fight is to take to the other man, ‘cause he’s goin’ to expect you to run. I had to think of somethin’ he wouldn’t be expectin’ or know how to deal with. I slid my pistol out of the leather and filled in the last pellet. Now I was carryin’ six, somethin’ no real fighter ever done, `cause that’s a good way to shoot off a toe or a foot, iffen the draw ain’t smooth or gets hung up. This was fixin’ to be the best draw I ever made…or the last one I ever made.
“Mister Aaron, you come out and meet me face to face, we get this done right now. You try to back shoot me, everyone goin’ to know you was afraid to face a black man no matter how you try to say it,” I taunted him, holdin’ my breath.
“Darky, I’ll say this for you, you got sand, boy. You got sand. Okay, I’ll make it quick, I won’t play with you. You come out, we get it done. And when I’ve killed you, I’m going to make myself a good long whip out of your hide,” he threatened me.
I warn’t threatened, though. If I didn’t make it, it warn’t goin’ to make no nevermind to me what happened next. I just wanted to see tomorrow. I told myself, it ain’t getting the spot that counts. I had to make it count. I give that boy credit, though, he warn’t afraid to face me. I faced down a lot of men since then, but he was the first and the hardest. I figure that was ‘cause he was the first. But, they don’t get any easier to live with, no how.
Newton stopped talking, and drained the last few drops from his stein and looked at me.
“Son, I feel real bad drinkin’ alone here. Iffen I’m gonna tell you my story, you got to join me in a beer,” he told me pointedly. I got the message.
“Barkeep, bring two beers for each of us!” I called out. That was my first mistake. The bartender brought over four beers and this time I got a smile out of him. He stood there waiting while I fished in my pocket for some money. I pulled out a $20 and held it out to him.
“All I have is this $20….” I started to say. The bill vanished out of my hand and he was gone before I got another word out. That was my second mistake.
“Thank you, son,” the old man said with a smile, as he downed the first one in one long swallo I was just as amazed the second time he did it as I was the first. Evidently he could read minds too, because I picked up my first beer and he put a hand on my arm.
“Son, you shouldn’t do that without you got experience drinkin’ and I’m a thinkin’ you are a mite young for that. Why don’t you just drink it slowly and enjoy it, son, while I tell you a little more about Sheriff Moore?” he suggested.
So as I was sayin’, that man Aaron…I never did know his last name until I met up with Sheriff Moore later on, he stands up and damn, if he hadn’t gotten behind me again. I waited until he got clear of the brush, and he kept his hands waist high until he were clear. Finally, he was standin’ 12 feet or so from me, with his back to the sun. I reckon he thought that give him the edge on me, it would for most men. But he didn’t know me. Or where I growed up. Or how.
“Darky, I figure you got just a minute left to live, you got anything you want to say?” he asked me.
“Mister Aaron, you don’t want to do this. You could just ride off,” I offered him, knowin’ he warn’t goin’ to do that no more than I would have in his boots.
“Darky, that’s enough of your jabber. I never took no favors from no darky, and I damn sure ain’t going to start now. Because you got sand, I’m going to give you a break. You can draw first. I’ll wait for you to go then I’ll draw. That’s as much of a chance as I can offer. But make no mistake, it won’t matter. I’m going to kill you for killing my friends. Well, they wasn’t really my friends, but they were white men, and I can’t stand for your doing that. So, any time you finished breathing, make your move,” he told me, his hand over his pistol butt.
Some men look at the hands of the other man, I watch the eyes. The eyes tell it all, son. You can see what a man plans to do by watching his eyes. He will tell you every time, he blinks, he opens them up or he narrows them, but he will always tell you he’s about to do something in his eyes. If he’s got someone behind you, he will flick his eyes in their direction to make sure they got you in their sights. Always watch their eyes.
I made sure I didn’t move a muscle until I was ready. I was getting my eyes used to the sun, and I was watching a big cloud that was rollin’ in from the west behind him. I figured I needed to stall him for another two minutes until it was in place and would take away his advantage.
“Mister Aaron, why does you want to hurt this ol’ darky who ain’t never done you no harm?” I asked him as plaintively as I could.
“Darky, don’t go soft on me now and spare me that field hand talk. I heard you speak before and you talked plain enough when you had the drop on us,” he said coldly. “Are you going to draw or not? Do I have to cut you down a little at a time to get you to act?” he said with a sneer, but making no move to draw his iron.
Suddenly it came to my mind that he was stalling too. Right about then, I got a glimpse of shadow movin’ behind
me, just as the cloud started to cover the sun. I had someone comin’ ‘round behind me and I’d been distracted by the smooth talker in front of me. Well, I knew I had to move then, so I jumped to the side and spun, firin’ blind where I’d be if I was behind someone. I saw the man go down and turned back to face Aaron, who had his gun out and was aimin’ for my back. I dropped and rolled to the left, and his shot went wild. I took a snap shot at him and missed, as he faked a move to the right then jumped back. I didn’t want to waste no more time dancin’ around with this snake, he was a sight too tricky for my likin’. I took a big gulp of air and challenged him to a stand-up fight.
“Mister Aaron, we both know this is just funnin’ around. We got to get to it so one of us can get on his way. I’m ready to do it if you are. If you got the stomach for it, that is,” I dared him. It worked.
“Darky, I’ve had enough of your smart mouth. Time has come to shut it once and for all, so I can get on and make that whip I told you about. Every time I crack it, I’ll be whipping your black ass!” he yelled. I pulled my pistol and fired, and he did too. Let me tell you, that man was fast! He was mighty fast! The boom of both shots were so close it sounded like one big cannon. I felt my gun fire and then it was knocked out of my hand, and he was standing there with a big, cold smile on his face and a damn big gun in his hand.
“I guess that shows you who’s best, Darky. I beat you and now…”
He stopped talkin’, and I looked up to see a thin line of blood runnin’ from the corner of his mouth. His eyes began to widen and his hand dropped. He put his other hand under his dark vest, which was beginnin’ to show a dark spot growing over his pocket. His eyes burned with hate, but they were getting’ a glassy look to them.
I straightened up and looked at him, then I got the last word in. “I guess you’re right, Mister Aaron. I guess that does show who’s the best,” I said quietly.
He tried, I’ll give him that. He tried to get that last shot off, but the gun was too heavy. He dropped it, and then he fell face first onto the ground. He twitched once, then stiffened, and relaxed. The air was suddenly fouled as his body relaxed all the muscles, and I was able to relax too. I looked around for my gun and saw it three feet away. I picked it up and threw it away after taking a look at it. He had ruined mine, so I figured he warn’t going to be needin’ his no more so I picked it up. I brushed off the dirt and looked at it, it was a beauty. It was nickel plated, real bright and shiny. It was a brand new Colt’s Peacemaker. This was a thirty dollar gun for sure, and the grips were real ivory. That Aaron, he sure put some store by it, I could see that right off. He didn’t do no cheap tinhorn thing like cut on his grips, no sir. I still got it. I’d show it to you, but it’s back in my room. I took a look at his belt, and it was quality too, so I figured, what the hell, and I took it too. They was made for each other, and they fit me fine.
I needed a little time to get my head straight, havin’ to put someone under, even a snake like them three, still gets to a man…if he be any kind of real man, that is. The way my pappy tol’ me, only the good Lord can decide when where a man finds the end of his road. So I sat there for a while, tryin’ to reason all this out. I decided to clean this nice new gun, just in case someone needed to see if it had been fired lately. I figured it wouldn’t hurt none if it didn’t look too used. Once I got done with that chore, I went to look for Blue and I found him eating grass a little ways off like he had nothin’ else on his mind. I went over to him and looked him over, I didn’t see no wounds…well, not then. I led him back to where Aaron’s horse was also eating at a bunch of sweetgrass and allowed Blue to join the feast.
I unsaddled mister Aaron’s horse and took off the bridle, then looked at his saddle. That old boy, he had the best tools for his job that he could find. I was real tempted to keep the rig and leave mine, but I remembered what my old pappy always said. Don’t take what ain’t yours, no good will come of it. I also remembered what happened to old Gus Tompkins when he went to town on a new rig he found lying by the trail. He got hung for a horse thief, on account of he was identified by the rig as the man who took Ernie Miller’s herd. So, I just left it there. I took his rifle, though. It was a brand new Henry repeater, and I warn’t going to leave that to rust out. I let the horse keep on eating, and I stepped up into the saddle and turned Blue on down the trail. I reckoned I could have gone back to Mr. Tatum, but now I was startin’ to wonder what was further down the road. My pappy always said I was a fiddle-footed cuss and never satisfied where I was. I guess he was right about that too.
I was riding Blue kind’a easy like, on account of I warn’t sure about him, he was stumbling a little and Blue, he never stumbled anytime no matter what he was walkin’ on. After about an hour or so, I sees it heads into the side of a mountain and up again. I warn’t too sure about doing that, but I figured it had to come down again somewhere, so I took a deep breath and pointed Blue up the trail. We hadn’t gone but about another hour or so when all of a sudden he stops and shakes his head, and I feel his knees start to give out. Well, let me tell you, I dove off there as fast as I could, grabbing my Winchester as I fell. I reckon I got my spur hung up on something, because I didn’t get as clear as I wanted and Blue he gave a snort and dropped and rolled over… on top of me. It took me about ten minutes to pull myself out from under him, and I was seein’ stars when I did and it warn’t night time, neither. I stood up, shook my head to clear out the cobwebs, and then I saw what happened. During that fight with those ol’ boys, somehow a wild shot had gotten Blue from underneath. He had been bleeding on the inside for the last hour or so, but never gave up on me. I took off the bridle and laid it aside so he could have some peace. I would have stripped the saddle too, but I couldn’t figure out how to get it off him without hurtin’ him some more, and he didn’t deserve that indignity. I hated to do it, but he didn’t deserve to suffer none, so I said my goodbyes, petted him, and slowly slid my nice new Colt’s revolver out of the holster. I think he knew what was going on, because he snickered once and lipped my hand, then laid his head down and closed his eyes. I put the gun to his head and squeezed the trigger. The report sounded mighty damn lonesome to me.
I saw the damn vultures beginnin’ to circle overhead, and I was billybedamned if they was going to get old Blue. I spent two hours covering him up and hiding him until I was satisfied they warn’t going to ever get at him. Then I began climbin’ the trail up the mountain.
After a while, I reckon it was about four or five hours, I saw another trail that headed down the side of the mountain into a cave of sorts. I followed the trail, it looked like it went somewhere and had been used recently, so it seemed like a better idea than just wanderin’ around like a stunned ox. I could see right off that the cave was a long one, but it seemed to be well used because there were torches along the way. I lit one and held it up over my head so I could see, and then I started walkin’ down the path. Every time I come up on a choice of turns, I just took the one that looked to be most used. I was always walkin’ down, I could tell that much, because I could kind of feel myself goin’ faster than I had been. Well, bein’ in that there cave, I couldn’t tell how long I was walkin’, but after a while I could see light ahead.
Well, when I come out, I was at the base of the mountain and I could see the curve of a road just ahead. Now mind you, I hadn’t eaten anythin’ since the day before, so my belly was a growlin’ so loud I figured all the game could hear it and stayed outta my sight. Back then, I weighed a sight more than I do now, so my meals were mighty important to me, don’t you know. Well here I was, comin’ up on a road and no way to know which way to turn. There was hoof prints and wagon tracks, but I didn’t have no way to know if they was goin’ or comin’ from the nearest town. I tried readin’ the tracks like Clem Warben used to, but it warn’t no use. Clem, he could tell which way the animal was goin’, whether or not it was bein’ ridden, and what it had for lunch. He could tell…no matter, you don’t want to hear about Clem anyways.
Anyways, so there I was, with an empty belly so bad my backbone was rubbin’ up against my belt buckle, and my shoulder hurtin’ like I was tryin’ to carry an anvil on it, all from luggin’ that heavy saddle all that time, and no way to know which way to go. My side was hurtin’ me something powerful and my arm was complainin’ some as well. Well, I figured I warn’t gonna’ get nowhere sittin’ there, and the road warn’t goin’ to tell me which way to go all of its own, so I had to make a decision. I reckon I’ll never know what made me go left that day instead of right, but I might not be sittin’ here with you now if I hadn’t. And I wouldn’t have all these memories of such an incredible man or so many excitin’ adventures that come from bein’ his friend if I had gone right.
Alright, so there I am, trudgin’ along with my rifle down this dusty road. Let me tell you somethin’, son. There ain’t no cowboy worth his pay what’s gonna’ walk when he can ride. Hell, I knowed boys what would mount up to cross the street to the next saloon rather than walk ten feet. Now I reckon I been walkin’ most of the day, and the sun, I see it’s startin’ to retreat behind the mountain. Just then, I hear a voice from behind me. Now I want you to know, back then, a critter couldn’t sneak up on me, much less a man on horseback. Hell, boy, back then I could sneak up on my own shadow. But now, this here man on his goddamn horse had just come up behind me out nowheres, and I was both mad and scared.
“Drink up, son, that there beer’s gittin’ warm, and it don’t taste right warm noways. Here, I’ll finish that one and you get us two new cold ones, okay?” he asked as he took the stein out of my hand and drained the last half of my beer.
“Bartender! Bring us four more beers!” I called out as I raised my hand. He was there before I got my hand all the way up. He was starting to look a little fuzzy to me, but it was probably the heat in the saloon. He left four more cold beers on the table and was in a good mood, because he was laughing when he saw me reach out and miss on my first try to pick mine up as he left the table. I was starting to feel a little lightheaded, but all that beer didn’t seem to bother Mr. Canebrough one bit. “So what happened next, Mr. Canebrough?” I asked.
Well, he didn’t look much like a man-killer, but he was one. Not for fun, mind you, he hated to pull iron. But he could, and would if pushed to it, but he always gave the other man a way out. He’d tell them, in that soft drawl of his, he’d tell them “Raise your hands, son. If I see them go down, you’ll be goin’ down too.” And if they raised ‘em, he’d just have them turn around and back up to him, then he’d take their shooter and tuck it in his belt and walk them to the jail. If they tried to make a play, he’d drop ‘em in the ground. Sheriff Lester Ignatius Simmons Moore, he never shot to wound. He told me oncet that he had a good friend who tried to do that, and he didn’t want to go to no more funerals of his friends or make them come to his. Say, I’m gonna just call him Sheriff from now on, ‘cause spittin’ out his whole handle’s gonna take up a lot of time. But, you know who I mean, an’ I ain’t gonna’ shorten it none on account of I don’t want it gettin’ back to him that I did that. He just might get up and come after me, no matter where he might be when he hears tell I done that.
Where was I? Oh, yeah. Now, you see, I’m in a strange territory and I don’t know no one there, so I warn’t so keen on havin’ some stranger comin’ up behind me. I put the rifle down, and my hands on my back like I’m stretchin’, and I’m all set to pull my iron and turn to face the person comin’ up behind me. So I’m jest about to make my turn and I hear his voice call out. Now mind you, I don’t know he’s a lawdog right then, but I sure learnt that right quick. Did you ever hear him…no, you couldn’t have, you’re too young. Anyway, he calls out to me before I can make my move.
“Son, I reckon you’re about to do somethin’ you won’t be happy about the way it ends, and there’s no need of that happenin’. I’m the law hereabouts, and I just want to ask you a few questions. You aren’t in any trouble if you just turn around slowly.”
It warn’t a loud voice, or a hard one, really. No it was more of a soft conversatin’ type of voice, the kind you’d use to ask for a can of Arbuckles or some such. It had kind of a soft roughness about it, like he was gettin’ over the cough or somethin’. Later on, we all learned what gave him that voice, but by then it was too late.
Well, let me tell you, back in my day, you could hear in a man’s voice that he was just bluffin’, and sometimes you knew he wasn’t. This voice, I heard right clear that he wasn’t, so I just kept my hands in plain sight and turned around slowly.
That was the first time I saw him. When I close my eyes, I can still see him. He was ridin’ as nice a paint as I’d ever seen, and leadin’ a nice lookin’ roan without a saddle on him. That paint, he was standin’ as still as if he was made of stone, and for a second I wondered if he was real, then I saw one of his ears twitch. He never did move, not until the Sheriff, he gave him some signal it was okay to move. The Sheriff, he just swung one leg over the head of that paint and eased hisself down to the ground without ever losin’ his mark. Did I mention he was holdin’ a damn big-barreled forty-four aimed at my middle? Well, that damn forty-four never wavered one inch from my middle the entire time he was gettin’ down from the saddle. He never got close enough to me to give me a chance to grab for the gun, but he didn’t take mine from me. I saw the badge on his shirt pocket, so I knew sure enough he was the law. What he wanted with me, I warn’t so sure of, but I figured I was goin’ to find out soon enough.
The Sheriff, he warn’t a big man, maybe five foot six or so, and he was light enough to bend in a stiff breeze. He was clean shaven, somethin’ you didn’t see in a lot of lawdogs, and he had real green eyes. I don’t reckon I’ve ever seen anyone with eyes that deep a green…not unless you count that girl in Fred Emerson’s saloon. She had….never mind. Let me get back to the Sheriff. He was dressed in those black whipcord pants he tended to favor and had on that cavalry bib shirt he liked so much. I swan, he must have had six or seven of them, all blue, and never wore nothin’ else. He had light sandy hair, startin’ to roll back a bit on top, which is why he always swore that black Stetson with the 5-inch brim. He tended to favor the bright solid color kerchiefs, and had a cavalry yellow one on that day, over a black leather vest. He had a full cavalryman’s moustache, sandy brown in color, that he wore droopin’ down to his chin almost, and he would put out a slim hand and twirl the ends of it when he was amused. Like he was right then.
So he says to me, he says, “How long have you been walkin’, son? And why are you here?” I told him about Blue, and that I was lookin’ for work to stake myself to a meal and another mount. He says to me, “I can offer you some jerky if you like, and then we can talk about the work.” I warn’t so sure about the work, but I warn’t about to turn down the jerky and I told him so right quick. He slid that forty-four back into the pouch and walked back to the pinto and took off the saddle bag and came back to where I was standin’. Real quiet like he invited me to sit and start a fire, and he dug around in that saddle bag and pulled out two cups, a coffee pot, and a bag of Arbuckles. Well, that coffee smelled real good and it tasted even better, then he tossed me some jerky from the other side of the saddlebag. That was the best meal I had eaten in days. After we had eaten and gone through a pot of Arbuckles, he asked me where I had worked last. I told him the Runnin’ J up in Montana, and he just nodded. He asked if Old Man Carson still owned that spread and I told him he must have some bad information, because Carson had sold out to an Englishman named Tillotson as much as seven years ago. He just nodded and said he knew and that he was just testin’ me. He looked at my new Colt Peacemaker and asked if he could see it.
Now you got to understand somethin’, son, and that is that in those days to hand over your gun to someone you didn’t know was the same as surrenderin’ your life if you chose to trust the wrong man. I reckon he saw the hesitation in my eyes ‘cause he didn’t say a word, but usin’ his right hand he took his own shooter out of the pouch and flippin’ it in the air, he caught it by the barrel and handed it over to me grip first. That got me, because as a lawman, he was sayin’ he was puttin’ his life in my hands. I never had no lawman do that before, so I didn’t hesitate to take mine out and hand it to him the same way.
I opened the loadin’ gate on his and emptied the cylinder, then closed the gate. I spun the cylinder and all I could hear was a very soft whirr as it turned. I looked in the barrel and saw it was shiny, which told me he took very good care of his gun. A lawman had to, it was oft’ all that stood between him doin’ the shovelin’ and eternity in the dirt. The butt was well-worn and colored ivory, no carvin’s or cheap tinhorn notchin’s, just solid grips that showed a lot of honest wear. The real gunmen, they never had nothin’ but scorn and contempt for the cheap imitators who notched their guns. It showed nothin’ but a lack of class and disregard for the tools of their trade. Their trade bein’ shooters, doin’ anythin’ to mess up the balance of their gun meant they were takin’ a chance with their very lives if their grip slipped at the wrong moment, and it usually would…once. Anyway, the Sheriff, he had none of that cheap stuff. Just a smooth turnin’, clean, and I was for certain sure, accurate piece of iron. I never did get to fire it, but I saw him fire it now and then and he never missed what he was aimin’ at.
So I handled it with proper respect and reloaded it and handed it back to him. He was still lookin’ at mine, notin’ that I kept my bore clean as well, although not as shiny as he did his, and I thought I detected a small nod when he saw I didn’t do any of that silly notchin’ business either. He aimed it, cocked it and keepin’ his thumb on the hammer, slowly lowered the hammer. He handed it back to me and watched as I slipped five rounds from my belt and opened the loadin’ gate. He kind of tilted his head some, then asked me what I was doin’. I told him I was reloadin’, since he had kept my shells. He asked me how I knew that, and I said the weight was different and I could see there were no shells in the cylinder as he handed it back to me. Soon as I said it, he smiled and I knew I had passed another test of some sort. I asked him how he knew it was safe to hand me his loaded gun, and he gave me a faint smile and said he could tell about people and I looked good and safe to him.
I asked him what he was goin’ to do with the roan, and he said he was savin’ it for his new deputy. I nodded and said that I understood. He smiled that little smile he had, where just the corners of his mouth turned up, and told me to drink up because we had to get goin’. I told him I didn’t have no way to get goin’ anywhere and he just whistled. Then that pinto reached down, picked up the lead rope to the roan in his teeth, and walked that roan right over to where he was sittin’ and stood there, head down, like he was waitin’ for further orders. The Sheriff, he just pointed to me and I’ll be goddamned if that pinto didn’t walk the roan over to me and stick his neck out for me to take the lead rope from him. I just sat there, not believin’ my eyes, when the Sheriff, he sighed and asked me if I was goin’ to make his horse hold that rope all live long day. I slowly took the rope from the horse, and he walked back to the Sheriff and stood behind him, waitin’ like he was bored with all of this nonsense. It took a minute for all this to register on my mind, then it hit me what he was sayin’.
Now, you got to know, son, when I was a helluva lot younger, I had me some experience with the law, but it was usually from the other side of the badge. I mean, I spent a few nights here and there sleepin’ where I didn’t have to worry none about who might be breakin’ into my room, but it warn’t for nothin’ no more serious than celebratin’ too much at the wrong time. Although there was that one time down in El Paso that I…..oh well, never mind about that now. So I asked him, is he sure he wants me for a deputy on account of I might not be a good shot or trustworthy. He don’t even look at me, and he says “Any man who can tell a loaded gun from an empty one by the weight is someone I want on my side.” The fact I saw the cylinder was empty meant that I could see thin’s most other folks didn’t, and that was just another reason for him to want me. I saw right there that I was goin’ to have work a lot hard to convince him I warn’t no deputy material, so I thought I had the corker if I could make him know I couldn’t back him up. He stood up and picked up his saddle bags and turned to tie them to the back of his saddle.
So I told him, as Sheriff, he needed someone he could depend on in a gun fight. Someone who could back him up and help him put down the troubles. He just looked at me, then opened the other side of his saddle bags and pulled out two bottles of whiskey. He looked at both of them, then tossed me the mostly empty one. I reached out to catch it and he went for his gun. I let go of the bottle and drew mine, suddenly aware that he hadn’t fired his. We both stood there, lookin’ at each other, him with his gun pointed to the ground and me with mine pointed at him. I lowered mine when he looked at it directly, then put it away. He gave me that damn smile again and I’ll tell you, it was startin’ to irk me some.
He told me to pick up that bottle and follow him, while he took the one he was holdin’ and turned to walk away. Well, he turned his back to me when he done that, so I had no choice but to follow him. He headed for a clearin’, and then he turned and motioned for me to come up to his side. He says to me, “Let’s see you shoot.”
He threw the bottle out in front of me and told me to take five shots at it and do the best I could. Now you got to know this about me, I can’t lay down for no one. If I ever put my hand to somethin’, I got to do the very best I can every time. My pappy, he done drilled that into me real good. Always do your best, is what he would say, then you don’t have to apologize for nuthin’. I drew and fired, hittin’ the bottle four times out of five. I only load five and keep an empty under the hammer, because that’s how a man shoots his own foot off. A gun comes out when he sits down or if he’s ridin’ through brush or in a fight, makes a man look downright stupid …or maybe even dead. That’s not a future I ever had a hankerin’ for.
Now the Sheriff, he nods and says that I’m a good shot. That’s nice of him to say, but I know I’m a good shot. I don’t need nobody to tell me that. Then he says it’s his turn.
He had me throw the bottle out in front of him. While I’m doin’ that, I see him load a sixth round in his gun and drop it back into his holster. I threw that bottle out in front of him, and he drew his gun. Now, I seen a lot of men shootin’ in my time. I seen Wyatt Earp one time, and Bat Masterson draw down on someone twice. I even seen John Wesley Hardin shoot the spots out of a playin’ card, but I never saw no one else do what I saw the Sherriff do.
I saw him throw six shots at the bottle, and I saw the bottle jump every time he fired. I told him that I thought he was a pretty good shot too, considerin’ that he was firin’ six and all six shots sounded like there was no more than three shots fired. I told him that I had seen the bottle jump every time he fired, then the full meanin’ of what I had just said, it hit me. I had seen him make that bottle jump six times just by comin’ close to it. He stood there smilin’ at me, twirlin’ that moustache. Suddenly, his earlier compliment took on a lot more meanin’.
Then he asked me if I had ever killed a man. I don’t lie for no one, and that’s gotten me in a fix or to in the past. I told him I had and he nodded, no smile this time. First he asked me why I had done it, and I looked him right in the eye and I told him why.
“Well, Sheriff, some white trash with a snoot full of redeye tried to put a rope where it didn’t belong because I had three queens and he had three jacks,” I told him.
He asked if I enjoyed it, and I glared at him and told him no real man enjoys takin’ a life. He asked what I did afterward, and I told him I had a hard time sleepin’ for a few days. He nodded again and reached into his vest pocket and came out with a badge.
“You’re the man I want, son,” he told me, and I tried one last time to talk him out of it.
“Sheriff, perhaps you didn’t notice, but there’s somethin’ else about me that might make your job harder,” I said.
“You aren’t wanted anywhere are you?” he asked, his tone not changin’ a bit.
“No sir, I’m not wanted anywhere… for nothin’ by no one,” I told him with confidence.
“That’s your first mistake son, but it’s a minor one,” he said. “Now what’s that somethin’ else that’s supposed to make me not want you for my deputy?” he asked with a smile.
“I had to defend myself again a just a bit back up the trail a while ago and ended up plantin’ three more white boys,” I told him, lookin’ him right in the eye.
“That where you got the fancy rig, son?” he asked me, sleepy like.
I told him I had and how it went down, and he just nodded. I realized I hadn’t given him my name, and that he had never asked for it. I had a urge to not put him on the spot, so I just spoke up quick like.
“Sheriff, my name is Newell Brewster Canebrough, but most folks call me Newell or Cane.” I leaned forward to offer my hand to him and he took it without hesitation in a firm strong grip and held it for a few seconds before lettin’ go.
“Deputy Canebrough, I think you’ll do just fine,” he said solemnly as he handed me the badge before headin’ back to his horse.
I just looked at him and it slowly dawned on me that he didn’t care about anythin’ but me puttin’ on that badge he was holdin’, and I’ll be damned if I didn’t put that damned thing on after all. Well, after I done that there warn’t nothin’ left for me to do but slide my rifle into the boot and climb up into the saddle of that roan and follow him back to town. I didn’t ride out of that town again, or take that badge off for good for the next 50 years.