Western Short Story
It wasn’t Collie Sizemore who called out the news this time, about Jehrico Taxico coming back into town after his excursion out on the prairie on his recent search, which really amounted to his annual scavenging adventure. The town drunk, Larrupin’ Lou Pinnette, tromped back into the saloon just after getting kicked out by the barkeep.
“Hey, gents,” Larrupin’ Lou yelled, as if in command for the first time in the day, whole again, his throat cleared, an octave reached, “he’s coming back. He did it again.” He threw his hands into the air, the new great herald, bugling out the news, “Jehrico’s got some damned fangled thing all done wrapped up on that sketchy little tote wagon of his, only this time it’s a three-wheeler.” He raised his hand and his voice for another delivery, sweet affirmation, yet holding the wonder of it all; “I swear it’s so, Bobby Bell. It’s got three wheels, and one a them’s in the back.” Barkeep Bobby Bell forgot he had kicked Pinnette out but minutes earlier and joined the out-going crowd.
The saloon emptied again, as it had when Jehrico brought back the tub in his search and recover venture a year past, everybody exiting except Larrupin’ Lou who stood in the corner, solitary and hopeful, his hands clasped seeking Eternal assistance, waiting to see if anybody left a sip in his glass.
All of this had started more than two weeks earlier, early July ahead of itself with hearth-warm evenings, the halfway-known moon sharing golden light with someone somewhere, the last few nights quiet enough to put an owl to sleep, horizon-wide blinds drawn to a pinch.
Jehrico Taxico, part-time businessman of Bola City (junk collector), simply addressed or referred to as “Jehrico” by everybody who knew him, sat at the back of the saloon scrutinizing a crude map spread across a poker table he leaned over. The sheriff, with no haste in his movements, enjoying his part in a send-off of sorts, an actor in the small drama, pointed to a few places that called out to Jehrico’s imagination, stoked his interest … ghost towns in the land between the mountains and the big rivers, dry, dead towns or once-wishful settlements that curried hope, gave it a shot, let it go in a strained moment of revelation. Such once-promising centers made the joy of synonyms pop up in Jehrico’s mind … debris, junk, cast-offs, forgotten jewels of early enterprise; ah, as luck sometimes crawled out of hiding, favored but forgotten-and-left-behind collectibles. Jehrico would say, if asked, “The whole Earth is full of things worth collecting and using over again. I seen it done. Nothing dies easy.”
Jehrico’s mouth watered as did Larrupin’ Lou’s throat.
Plotting trails in his mind, constructing his own map, Jehrico said to the sheriff, “How do you know they’re ghost towns? You been there? To all of them?” They ain’t blown away yet?”
“Take my word for it, Jehrico, they’re still there, dry as ever,” the sheriff said. “It’s not that they haven’t blown away yet that’s the wonder, it’s they ain’t burned up yet from prairie fire, lightning, saddle bums heating coffee, all the like.”
Just out of his weekly bath in his own tub situation he and Molly Yarbrough had arranged, Jehrico looked better than he had in a week. He was even shaved clean, which was generally a monthly outing; Jehrico, all Bola City understood, was saving all he could to get to Independence, or to St. Louis, but mostly New Orleans, if he could ever make it.
In the meantime, to pass time now that he was a businessman, he took scavenging trips with Mildred his mule. Different parts of the landscape and geography, and historical points between the great river and the mountains, pulled at him. It was how he had found his tub in the first place … through interest and bare chance.
Now, the term “ghost town” intrigued him with a sense of adventure. With the map in hand, a little map also marked off in his head, he backed Mildred into his old rig, the two-wheeler he had assembled from a wrecked wagon out in a small canyon, and set the traces in place.
Jehrico and Mildred toured the first three places marked on the map. Dust, tumbleweeds and timber dry as matchsticks littered the remnants of small towns at dried crossroads grown over, beside dried-out waterfalls, in the middle of a false gold strike hard against a mountain wall full of fissures, cracks, marked levels or striates of colored rock 4 and 5 inches high. Reasons or causes for current conditions were obvious to Jehrico even if he was not the smartest mule rider around. He understood where he stood in the population mix; he just wanted to see New Orleans. That desire, he knew, did not make him a bad man. Contentment, moreover, carried his days.
And the days if the current adventure, Mildred mostly willing to him along the way and doing her thing as he did his.
There was not much to see and he could list the things that almost made a better list: a bar mirror, cracked in too many places even a glasscutter would have problems with; a collection of crushed spittoons that could be melted down with a good fire, if he could devise a use for the melt; the remains of an elegant bar top some critters had wormed their way into; a frame for a painting long gone missing; spigots, hinges, a mess of square nails from a crude source; a couple of three-legged chairs; even a set of two-legged chairs that looked like good firewood and nothing else.
Through four of the ghost towns he had gone, finding nothing of use other than firewood, dust, debris, and a hint at infinity with all the puzzlement attached. Mildred, he thought, would not understand the puzzles.
Leaving the fourth deserted town, the little map he had constructed in his mind asserted itself. The plotting had surfaced because he had seen an imaginary “X” situate itself dead center between six of the ghost towns. He had placed the “X” there himself, realizing the route must have carried lots of travelers at certain times in the past from one town to the one almost directly opposite. It was like speaking of luck, chance, and a new adventure that might grab you right by the boot straps and pull you along. “Just over the next hill, Girl. That’s where it is.” The words came as lyrics from his throat keeping Mildred settled, composed.
As he often did, he discussed all the other issues with Mildred. “Listen, Girl,” he was apt to say, “you know how my hunches are. Some start nowhere bad and end up somewhere good. Not always, mind you, but often enough makes me want to play cards with them dressed-in-suit gents that come and go all the time in Bola City. Only Molly says they’d steal the tub from me with a extra ace of spades. Way it goes, Girl. Way it goes.”
A bit further on the trail, still talkative, Mildred the best of listeners, he said, “There are days, Mildred, that count up better than others ‘cause we took an extra look for excitement or good fortune. Like with that old iron tub, Girl. We took the extra step for that, and be damned sure, Girl, it’s going to get us to New Orleans one day. Me and you, ‘cause I ain’t going without you, old girl.”
A hawk broke out from the rim of the mountain with a screech that sent an echo down the canyon and across the back of his neck. The hawk’s shadow shot across the trail, in front of him, like an arrow loosed from a bow.
Mildred shied at the closeness of the hawk.
“Don’t get personal, Girl. It’s okay. It ain’t no black cat. This will be a good run. There ought to be something there after all that traffic a town in the middle gets.” As he spoke to Mildred, the next ghost town, the “X” town, hove into sight. “There it is, Girl, called Welcome Fire in its day. It sure looks like it’s owed a fire, or two of ‘em.”
Mildred, he knew, was aware of what was ahead of them. That Mildred had a way of her own with things of this world, never found any doubt in Jehrico’s mind.
They pushed down the trail, long since used, to Welcome Fire, with the flat prairie sitting around the remnants of half a dozen buildings like a frame holding a picture in place.
One close-up look at the first building, once a kind of shop, he said, “Mildred, that’s one place hanging on longer than it ought, and it ought have been blown away or got sucked up by fire.”
The next building, small, windows gone, birds in and out regularly in quick flights, looked to have been the general store. The shelves still attached to two walls were bare except for dust, dry prairie grass, and three bird nests on the top shelf. He thought them to be swallows, but he wasn’t sure.
He had tied Mildred off out in front on an old hitch rail. It took him only five minutes to release her and move on.
All he saw on a half-fallen sign in the next building was “LOON,” and was obviously the only saloon in Welcome Fire.
Chairs were smashed, tables were legless, and half the bar had been smashed by intent. Every bottle was smashed to pieces and now and then a shaft of sunlight set off a sparkle on the floor debris.
In one corner, buried under dust and sundry debris fallen or dropped on it, was a piano. The key lid was closed and Jehrico could not see the condition of the keys. Lights of different orders were already bouncing around in is head; possibilities, the future, new business, effort, labors new to him, Mildred’s stamina thrusting itself into the situation, and the questions that might shake up, draw from, or excise any or all of his energies and ingenuity.
Jehrico tried to lift one end of the piano. It came slowly off the floor after exerting all his might.
He measured and plotted and thought about things … the lift, the movement, the transport. Finally he sat down in a corner to rest. About him the birds continued their flight paths to and from nests, busy as bees at the hive. The hawk sounded again, its screech a signal of accomplishment or threat. Jehrico shivered thinking of talons sharp as knives. From the hills beyond, or from the hunting paths out on the grass where prairie dogs scampered, a coyote deemed itself a ruler of the domain, its cry a notch above melancholy. Mildred, still as a post, chimed in with her own messages.
Jehrico , getting ready for the night ahead, brought Mildred inside and set her off in her own corner, after letting her drink from an old basin still able to hold water from one of his canteens. With Mildred comfortable, he spread his blanket in another corner, darkness on the move.
Night came in bunches, pinching in, nuzzling, getting closer, Soon it was dark as dried blood, touching black. An easy wind rode with a minor scale. Deep shadows inched inside like figures walking right through the open doors on their own, dragging deepness with them…….. The mystery of sounds sifted in from unknown sources, all with a hum coming off the prairie soft as a moan. Molly Yarbrough walked through his early sleep motioning to him. He did not know what her gestures meant.
He slept well, seldom moving, Mildred tapping her foot in full room dominance during the night, like critter talk was going on. Only faintly-remembered dreams came to him, Mollie possibly saying “shush now,” the piano floating in space across the prairie like a low-flying kite, Molly again, the tub filled with cool, clean water from a mountain spring, and breakfast atop a red-checkered table cloth.
In the morning he leaped from his sleep. Mildred was staring at him, the birds still moving as if he was not there as an intruder. Other night sounds had diminished, set off, muted on purpose or cycle.
But Jehrico’s mind was full, replenished, rewarded by all his worry. He saw his day develop.
After a salty breakfast of bacon, biscuit and coffee, and Mildred cared for, he went scouring through the rest of Welcome Fire. Scrounging for things, he was at home, his eyes looking at one use, seeing another. Comfort came upon him.
What he sought he found, in a small shack down at the end of the little stretch of town road. Work, not foreign at all to him, started with a bang as he separated his new find from its mooring. Mildred stood close by, without judgment on his efforts, or insight on his plans. She too was content with all elements.
In Bola City, the crowd gathered by Larrupin’ Lou’s alert stood and chattered as they saw Jehrico, Mildred and the three-wheeled contraption coming down the dusty road. Jehrico, sitting on a box nailed to the framework of his cart, nodded at known faces, smiled at Molly Yarbrough who had come out of the livery and was waving at him like he was a returning war hero.
“What in tarnation you capture this time, Jehrico?” Molly Yarbrough said from the head of the crowd, pointing at the shrouded form on the cart, and sending a hand signal to Jehrico that she was but minutes from the tub, a secret signal not a soul in Bola City had any idea of. “Been waitin’ on you, Jehrico. Business been good since you left out on your expedition.”
“What you think he brung back this time, Molly? Ain’t you been frettin’ for more’n a week and can’t say so?” A mutual friend was standing across the street from her. “He brung himself, Molly, and that’s as good as it gets. The surprise is second place.” She laughed louder than anybody else and enjoyed the repartee.
Near Molly, having rushed with other patrons from the saloon, wavering slightly in the wind that was not blowing, a tipsy cowboy said, “Should I put a bullet in it see if it moves itself?” The gun waved in his hand, waved one half a circle before Molly punched him on the side of the head and he went down as fast as squaw pine at the yank of a rope. The crowd laughed again. The drunken cowboy’s gun fell to the dusty road.
Standing up on the box that was his seat, Jehrico waved his hands, made believe he was dabbling at something with his fingers, and said, “Molly, I brung a pianer for you, a real pianer. The keys are still white as clouds and black as sin.”
The crowd, most of whom had known the comfort of Jehrico’s “found tub,” as one user called it, guffawed and yelled and clapped at Jehrico’s new “find.” Definitely, most definitely, a dance or a party was in the offing, was their due. Exhilaration of a first order went through the ranks as friends clapped each other on the back or nudged a near friend as they hailed the possibilities. A cow town, needing little to twist its days one way or the other, turns on the sharpest edge or the softest one; the players, of course, make the difference. It was easy to see that Jehrico Taxico was a community shaker.
One tub user said, “Jehrico, I figure you got that danged thing up on those haunches by your lonely self. You gonna git it off the same way? I sure like to see that. Yes, sir.”
Jehrico giggled a bit. Only a few heard it. Molly saw the slight curve of a smile, as Jehrico said, “We got some ground work to do, me and Molly, so we’ll let you all know when it’s going to happen.” He sent a sign to Molly that she understood with ease. It was if Jehrico had sent her a wire message, for her only.
With the celebration over, the drinks downed properly and with gusto, the homecoming acknowledged all the way, and alone at last with Molly, Jehrico said, “Molly, we got to figure this one good. I was thinking of our own saloon with the pianer our big attraction, but I think I’d rather have our own dance and party place. Something more fun than just a saloon.”
Molly smiled the smile that Jehrico loved. “You amaze me, Jehrico. Not just the goin’ out there and bringin’ stuff back, but thinkin’ of good times all the time. That’s real nice. Makes me warm all over.”
He melted again. “Let’s do it. Make a dance hall. Our own place. J&M’s Emporium and Dance Hall or something. We’ll even let Collie Sizemore paint the sign for us. Whatever he thinks it ought to be. Collie’s the one and only initial-maker of Bola City names and associations.”
Molly did it again, lit up Jehrico’s face, when she said, “How does my hero scavenger see it all coming?” Her hand touched his wrist almost as secretly as earlier gestures.
Jehrico, fully energized, parked the cart and its freight in the livery barn, then laid out a foundation for an added building beside the livery, set up the stones, got timbers for the beams, and laid out the floor with planking, and an extra wide ramp at the front side. He worked hard for more than a week, with a little help once in a while from fellow aspirants, and finally sent word around town that he’d “set up the ‘pianer’ just before supper this day.”
The Bola City Junk Collector, under the adoring eyes of his business partner and much of the population of the town, hitched Mildred back to the shafts and traces of the cart, led her to the ramp and up onto the plank flooring in a site without walls, doors or windows. With soft commands admired by knowledgeable mule men in the crowd, he backed the cart into one corner, unhitched Mildred. The shafts of the cart pointed straight out and parallel to the floor.
Pointing to three husky men, one of them Collie Sizemore, his mind at a gallop, Jehrico directed them to the cart with instructions to press down on the shafts just hard enough so he could free up the third wheel, completely disengaging it and its parts from the cart. That done, the three men as directed by further instructions eased up on the shafts and the cart, with its piano load still shrouded, slowly eased over until the edge of the piano was touching the floor. Molly and Jehrico, loosening the ropes on the piano gently pulled on the free standing piano and pulled it fully upright.
The canvas shroud came off in shreds. The piano keys shone unlikely white and bright and the flat surfaces of the instrument glistened where Jehrico had rubbed them down with a twist of bronco grass.
The crowd cheered, and Jehrico said, “We’re going to build a dance barn around the pianer now and those who help us build the dance barn and those who helped us with the foundation get to come to the first three dances free as birds.”
The junkman and the business man tossed his hands in the air as part of the announcement. “Free as birds,” he declared again, “Free as birds.” And a coop of pigeons in one corner, all pre-arranged and released by Molly, flew up in a gray mass and a whir of wings. The cloud of pigeons passed over the gathering quick as flight.
The crowd roared again, clapping and banging each other on the back and generally celebrating the new dance barn before it was completed. A clear moment of happiness and pleasure sat over the town.
The hero junk collector had once again put Bola City on the map and further enamored his business partner. New bonds, surely, were in sight. J&M’s Emporium and Dance Hall.