Western Short Story
He wore the name, Top-Hat, the way it came to him, after good years in the saddle pushing cows and cowboys, eyes alert for rustlers’ marks on the trail, in the centers of small towns by their inactivity on good days, how they might cluster in a saloon away from the other patrons, plans being cooked-up for sudden thefts, their jargon loaded with key words that came as part of their language, vocal or hand-made, their secrets transmitted often in silence.
Brandon Landon got away from his birth name by dint of his habits as a working member of trail herds, rising to be boss of several such trail campaigns pointing at best markets for herds of cattle; like best price, least distance, fewest losses of cows or men, once in a while giving away a cow for food to an odd gathering of Indians beset by hunger, not always thanked by his bosses, but showing up on his social report card.
Top-Hat was a stern man with a good heart.
When trail jobs were completed, herds delivered, his men paid off, he’d manage a few days in a local saloon, a goodly number of his crew joining him, drinking beer, swapping tales, and enjoying the various side-pleasures on hand. Moving herds didn’t get measured by days on the trail, but by incidents that involved most of the crews he bossed, such as attempted rustlings, death of a subordinate by any means or manner, a raid by hungry tribesmen, the rare walk-away who’d never get hired again by any crew boss knowing his background.
One time in the first Top-Hat Saloon, in Pottsville, North Colorado, he accepted a round of applause when a trail hand toasted him with a drink; “My old boss, Top-Hat himself, is here with us, and I salute him being the man he is, was and always will be, Top-Hat of all Top-Hats. Hell, I’ve known him for a dozen years or so and never once knew him by any other name, or even if he had one, like being born and christened as Top-Hat right from the damned beginning.” His laughter came like punctuation to his words, as he said, “I swear I don’t know his real name, but here’s to him, whoever else he is.”
The laughter, after a spell, settled into a silence, as if every man in the saloon was searching for a known name and none of them even able to nibble the edge of a real, honest-to-goodness birth name of Top-Hat, which we all have to admit is and was a moment of tribute that rarely comes along to any of us, cowman or not, lawman, bandit, even any rustlers hiding in the group here twixt us.”
So, his days went on to the next hiring when a new herd was destined for market and a large ranch owner, cattle raising and selling his ace activity in life, was looking for a trail boss and Top-Hat’s name came to him from various sources who knew of him and his talents, his past
an amalgamation of unquestionable commissions and completions in the trade.
The owner’s outburst was not much different from all other compliments ringing up from Top-hat’s past: “My God, man, it’s like you’re talking about God himself riding herd out there on the Plains. That’s a bit far-fetched from where I sit.”
“Well,” said the respondent, “the only way you’re going to make that justification is to hire the man himself. He’s available but I sure don’t know for how long. No time is riper than this very minute. When Top-Hat commits, he’s committed, and for the length of the job.”
“I have to see this from each end, so go hire him immediately. Let him prove himself. It’s hard to believe all this. I feel it has to be proven. Let’s do it.”
So, it was done, Top-Hat himself was hired to drive the largest herd of cows ever to come off that huge ranch in Texas. 2900 cows, and go clear to Abilene, Kansas, for railroad transfer, by way of the Chisholm trail, over 500 miles of open country, a lot of it in Indian country, doing the drive at about 10-12 miles a day, at times near two months on the drive, 25-30 men, food wagon, cook, all under the direction of Top-Hat.
During an Indian raid on the herd, Top-Hat lost two of his men, both to arrows in the back and a dozen cows, enough to feed an Indian village for “a month of Sundays,” as some men expressed it. He was wounded in his upper arm by a scathing burn of an arrow “that merely tore his skin,” as he reported to the cookie of the drive, sitting in as the medical man of the drive, a man with practice on several earlier drives in the same Chisholm route.
“You know, Top-Hat, how damned lucky you were it wasn’t a bit closer to your chest, would have taken you right off the saddle, no question about it. None at all.”
At one stop, where Top-Hat had to rest the cattle before they started dropping on their own, local folks living nearby began to build a little town to cater to the crew of drivers, setting up lean-to’s, tents, small wooden buildings that grew overnight as building work continued day and night on a new town on the route, and those small starts of towns often standing in place unto this day, the stories carrying on in places where stories always fill the time of day and night, the local saloon, most often being the centers of such towns to these very days, stories galore, histories galore, Top-Hat galore.
Of course, Top-hat’s name resounds each and every day in such a place, as though he was the founder himself of the town where a statue erected to him was often discussed, if just for the sake of talking, of adding to his history and the history of the town, like the way of the West grew at pit stops and herd stops on the way to Abilene, leaving towns and stories all along the way..
Of all places, in the small town of Landon, Texas, which wears the birth name of Top-Hat, nobody remembers how it all came about, but somebody in that place knew something about someone else that he kept to himself, but let a name be used that he alone knew the source of, the man who rode in on a horse and rode out the same way almost 200 years ago.