Bullpen Short Story
It was the first day of the drive, and the hands were still getting used to working together, so there were plenty of missteps during the shift, and much joshing among the crew as they came in for dinner. All this fussing settled down considerably when Cookie served up the meal of beans and bacon dumped over a slab of hot corn bread. It was only when the last bean had been split, and the tin plates wiped clean, that the talk resumed, but now there was a weary slant to the conversation. The men were realizing they had just completed the first in a long series of days on the trail, and the fact made them tired just thinking about what was ahead of them.
As the sun set, the flickering fire began casting shadows on the men's tired faces. Many of the crew rolled up in their blankets and propped their heads on their saddles as they settled down for the night, but for others sleep remained elusive. These men sot refuge in talk as the Moon and stars rose over the prairie. Most of the tales told were simply brags about how this or that cowboy had accomplished some feat of horsemanship, but occasionally someone told a hunting tale about a particularly tough animal they had tracked. One such tale had just concluded when Jack Raynes spoke up from his place by the fire. Jack was a thin rangy man who never said much, so when he began to speak the other men quieted down to listen.
Raynes started his story with, "Well, I'll allow that a big lobo is one o' the smartest and toughest animals on the prairie, but I've seen an animal 'at's far meaner. Somethin' that could swallow a man whole if it didn't want to play with'em first."
"Oh yeah?" Black Johnson asked, "An what might dat be?"
Jack looked around the firelit campsite, and adjusted his hat, "This was back before the war, I was bout fourteen or so, and my family lived 'long the Florida coast. We was fishermen, and proud of it. We had several small boats, and went out to sea every day, to fish. What we didn't eat we sold in town. It was a good livin', and we was proud o' what we did." If any of the cowboys were surprised by Jack's admission of growing up in another trade, they kept quiet, they all had taken different paths to become a cowboy, and Jack's had just started further away than the others.
Raynes smiled like a man remembering a pleasant memory, then he went on with his tale, "We would go out early and work different spots in the ocean till we started catching fish. If'n they weren't biting in one place, we'd set up a little mast and sail we kept in the boats, and move to another location, that way we didn't have to spend a lot of time rowing." He stretched, and yawned a bit, "Well, one day I was out a couple of miles, and had gotten into a school of white fish. I had several o' those in the boat when a big tuny hit my bait, and I was an hour or more getting it up ta' the boat. It was a beautiful fish, and I almost hated to kill it, but my family could sure use the money, so I took the club we always kept on hand and knocked its head in."
Jack sighed at the memory, and looked around at his listeners, "By the time I got all that done the beach was just a faint line on the horizon, and the wind was blowin' me way north o' my usual haunts. I knew it was no use trying to run straight back in, so I put up the mast and let the wind blow me north toward Holly Hill. I figured I put in there for the night and then head home in the morning."
"Didn't your people get worried when you didn't come in at night?" Black Johnson asked as he drank off the last of his coffee.
Jack stretched and belched as his beans started working in his belly, "Nah, we was used to working out on the water, and knew that sometimes things just didn't break your way." He took a sip of his own drink, "But if'n we stayed out more'n a day or so folks would get concerned, and start lookin' along the beach for boat wrecks. If they found somethin' then we'd always wait 'bout a week to see if'n the body turned up or not, so's we could hold a service for the departed. Nobody ever come back after being gone 'at long..." He shrugged, "Anyway, I got the boat into Holly Hill without too much trouble. They was a public dock that we used when we got blowed around, and I knew some people at restaurants in town that might buy my catch. So, after I tied off, I hoisted that big tuny over my shoulder and headed uptown."
The boys laughed and nudged one another at the thought of Jack Raynes walking into town with a tuny-fish slung over his shoulder. Jack let them have their jest and then went right on with his story. "I walked up to Macy's, a place we'd sold fish to before, and the cook took one look at my catch, and had me bring it in so's he could put it on ice while I dickered with the manager over the price. We was standin' in the back of the restaurant talkin' over what I'd take fer my fish when we heard a man talkin' all important-like to someone who was sittin' behind these potted palms that the restaurant had sitting around."
Jack leaned forward and made his voice sound all tough and mean, "Now see here, Miz Czesar, your family has plenty o' outstandin' debts, and your creditors have decided to foreclose. As Sheriff o' Holly Hill, its my duty to serve you with this lien. All property is to be confiscated as of the end of the week. Your clothes, and personal items you can keep, but you'll have to surrender the rest of it to me or one o' my deputies..."
Jack shrugged, "I didn't hear the rest cause I had gotten a glimpse o' who the Sheriff was talking to through the palms." He grinned, "She was the purtiest thing I had ever seen in my life, with chestnut colored hair, that framed a heart-shaped face, set with two of the most strikin' blue eyes I had ever seen. She sat there looking down at a collection of papers on the table top without dignifyin' that Sheriff by acknowledgin' his presence," Jack laughed a little, "I thought she was swell, and could hardly pay attention while the manager talked about how much per pound, he'd go fer my tuny."
One of the boys suddenly asked, "Hey! Where's dis animal dat can swaller a fella whole 'at in dis story?"
Jack pulled one of his boots off and warmed his foot by the fire before answering, "That comes along toward the end, do ya wanna hear the whole thing or not?"
Chunky Jones spoke up, "Sure Jack, go head on wit yer tale."
The cowboy nodded, "That manager finally see'd that I was preoccupied with somethin' and weren't listenin' to his talk, so he turns 'round to see what I was lookin' at." Jack pulled his boot back on, "Ah," the manager said, "That's young Lili Czesar. She's been staying over at the Plantation hotel while her father's out of town. It looks like their welcome has run out though." I asked what he was talkin' 'bout, and he explained, "They're circus people, animal trainers I hear. They work fer traveling shows, but right now they ain't got a contract, and the hotel and several other businesses in town want their dues." He shrugged, and returned to business, "I'll go ten cent a pound and not a penny more Jack, tuny's are running right now and..."
"Take it I reckon," I said without takin' my eyes off the girl, "So, he pays the money and I went out the back door, but I couldn't get the girl out o' my mind. I had to see her again, and walked around to the front of the restaurant to watch her when she left." Jack chuckled a bit before going on, "It was probably one o' the worst decisions I ever made."
"How come?" Chunky Jones asked real quick like.
Jack sighed, "Well, Miss Lili Czesar came out of the restaurant after a bit with 'at bundle of papers in her hand, and walked off toward the railway depot. I watched her go, she was shore a sight with 'er dress blowin' in the sea breeze. That should'o been the end o' it, and I was just 'bout to head back to the docks when I realized that she was crying, and decided I jus' had to speak to her."
"Oh-oh!" several of the cowboys laughed and nudged each other.
Jack looked up and frowned, "Now it weren't like that at all!" he said loudly, "If'n ya want a saucy tale ya can just go off somewhere else an' tell one!" He reached for the coffee pot and poured some more of the hot black brew in his cup. Jack settled back against his saddle and blew on his drink, "I screwed up ma courage and spoke to her," he paused in thought, "You know that might've been the first time I spoke to a woman who wasn't a relative or schoolmarm..." he shook his head, "When I spoke up she turned 'round, and I could see her clear fer the first time," he sipped his coffee, "She was older than me, but I was still taller, and not too shabbily built, although now that I think 'bout it I must have smelt o' tuny-fish." The boys laughed at that admission, but Jack kept on, "I heard the Sheriff talkin' to you Miss," I said. "is there anything I can do to help you?"
Miss Czesar looked at me oddly, "Why would you want to help me?"
Jack laughed, "That flummoxed me fer sure, I couldn't say why I wanted to help her, but now I realize I was stuck on her."
"At'll git ya in trouble everytime," Black Johnson nodded.
"But I didn't know that," Jack smiled, "And she had the purtiest blue eyes a feller ever did see." He sat up straight then, "We introduced ourselves, and talked fer a spell. It came out that her father was down in Edgewater trying to get a circus there to give them a contract. She said her people were horse trainers from Hungary goin' back four generations, and they had a quite a reputation in the circus world."
"But our accounts aren't in order," Lili sighed and gestured with the papers the Sheriff had served her, "I was supposed to get Xerxes on a train for Edgewater this evening but that Sheriff has impounded all of our property including him!" She stamped her pretty little foot in vexation, "Without Xerxes, we can't make any money to pay these debts," and she started to tear up again.
Jack shook his head at the memory, "Then like a damn fool I told her that I had a boat down at the docks that could get her to Edgewater in only a days sailing. All she needed to do was get her things down there and I'd be happy to take her that far."
"What'd she say Jack?" Chunky asked.
"Well o' course she jumped at the offer," Jack laughed, "By the time we was done talkin' I was in so deep I would 've robbed a bank fer her!" He spat into the fire, "We went to her hotel and she packed her things real quiet-like, then I totin' everything down to the boat." Jack sipped his coffee again, "That was when we went to get Xerxes."
"Funny name fer a horse." Johnson said, and the boys agreed.
Jack nodded, "Yep, it would've been a funny name fer a horse, but Xerxes wasn't no horse. He was a full-grown Bengal tiger."
"A TIGER?" Chunky's eyes bulged out of his head.
"Yep," Jack nodded. "Seems the Czesar family had gotten out o' the horse trainin' business and was trying to start up in tiger trainin'."
The boys laughed while Black Johnson asked, "What'ja do?"
Jack grunted, "Well Blackie, I helped her climb up in the boxcar where the cage was, and she walked over to the big cat humming this little tune," he hummed a few bars of the Blue Danube waltz, "She said that if you hum a tune like that the animal knows it's the trainer, and it sort'a prepares the critter for the jobs you got fer it."
"At's true!" Chunky agreed.
Jack nodded, "I weren't prepared for what she did next though," he said. "Lili opened up that cage, and the big cat padded out just as slick as you please. I was scared to death, but the girl fussed over that tiger like it was a kitchen cat. She fluffed the fur around its ears before slipping this big leather collar on him and attached a short leash." Jack stretched his hands out to show how long the leash was, "I didn't like the idea of having a loose tiger in my boat, but I had already declared we could make the trip, so's I was sorta stuck. Besides, I didn't wanta back down in front of her, I didn't want her to be disappointed in me."
"Let me get this straight," Chunky said, "You let her put a live tiger in your boat?"
"She was quite a gal Chunky," Jack sighed, "And ya got to remember that I was only fourteen or so."
"Wal, I hope ya leant something since then!" A voice catcalled from the other side of the fire.
Jack huffed, "I believe I said 'at I was more than a little scared." He poked at the fire with a stick and a shower of sparks flew into the air as he said, "Lili jus' smiled when she saw me stiffen up, and said 'Just let him sniff you Jack. Once he gets used to your scent, he'll be fine around you.' But I wasn't so sure. I stood still as a statue, while the tiger brushed its nose over me real gentle-like. When the cat finished sniffing me Lili peeked out of the box car and looked around."
"It looks like everyone is gone for the night, Jack," she said, "Let's get going." She turned from me to the tiger, "Now Xerxes," she instructed, "You must be very quiet." She reached into a bucket that was sitting by the cage and handed the big cat something. The animals mouth opened and its long pink tongue shot out to engulf the tidbit. "This is a bucket of treats I keep handy for him, "Lili explained, "It helps keep him calm."
I nodded, and thought that the last thing I wanted right then was for that cat to get antsy. "C'mon," I said, "Let's get a move on before someone sees us." And off we went back through town. Most of the buildings were dark by now, and the folks inside were asleep. At first, I tried to imagine walking in the moonlight holding her hand, but then I'd look down at the half a ton of cat she was guiding with the leash, and the spell was broken purty quick.
Jack laughed a little, and reached for some more coffee, "Well, we did alright goin' through town, 'cept fer a stray dog that came a barkin' at us around a corner," the cowboy snickered, "But once that dog got a look at that tiger it changed its mind really quick." He sipped at his drink, "We got down to the docks without too much trouble. I'd already stowed her cases in the bow, and started to slip the mooring lines while she got the tiger settled amidships. The big cat was very interested in all the different fishy smells in the boat, and Lili had trouble getting Xerxes to settle down despite her bucket of treats, and the humming of the Blue Danube waltz. I had just shoved off, and was settling the oars in place when we heard a commotion back up in town."
Lili laughed, "They've noticed that Xerxes is gone! They'll be looking over their shoulders for days now worried that a tiger is loose in their little town. Serves them right for being so hard-hearted about what was owed them!"
Jack grunted, "I just oared the boat, not quite believing that I was helpin' a girl rustle a tiger."
"So, you actually rowed a boat out on the ocean loaded with a tiger and a pretty gal?" Black Johnson asked.
nodded, "I knows it sounds purty fishy boys, but it's the Gods
"And what'd you do after you got'em out on the water?" Chunky asked.
Jack grinned, "I rowed until we was out o' the harbor and then put up the mast. Once the boat got goin' the tiger lay down and closed its eyes. Xerxes seemed to like the sound of the water slidin' under the keel."
"An the girl?" Chunky cut in.
"Oh, she settled down purty quick too," Jack said. "I was busy sailin' the boat so's there weren't much talk until I got us pointed where we wanted to go."
"Right. How'd ya do that out on the ocean?" Some wag yelped.
Jack glanced up and smiled. "That was the easiest part o' the trip. I just watched the stars and made my course by them. You never can get lost if'n you can see the stars..."
"At's true too," Chunky nodded.
"So, what happened?" Black Johnson asked suddenly, "You just sailed 'er down ta Edgewater, and that was that?"
"Yeah!" another voice spoke up, "What 'bout the man-swallowin' animal you been promising us?"
Jack shook his head, "Oh, we had a quiet enough night," he said, "Lili got cold after a bit, and snuggled down beside me while I steered." He smiled, "I admit it was right pleasant to have a purty girl like her so close," he looked up at the stars, "It was around daybreak that the real trouble started. I figured we were about halfway to Edgewater when I saw the fin coursing around about a hundred yards from us."
"Fin?" Chunky said, "Whattya mean a fin?"
Jack held his hands up in a triangle shape, "Sharks," he said, "They always scoot through the water close to the surface, and their dorsal fin sticks out," he nodded his head, "This'un was hunting and spotted the hull of our boat. It must'a thought we was a baby whale or something."
"Why?" Chunky asked.
Jack shrugged, "Because it started circling, they always do that before they hit their target."
From across the fire somebody asked, "What'd ya do?"
Jack paused for a moment remembering a time when he was more frightened than he'd ever been in his life. "Sharks is some of the biggest eatin' machines in the ocean," he began, "They ain't real smart, but they are real good at what they do, which is kill stuff and swallow it whole. This'un was a Great White female, almost twenty-five feet long," he paused again, "Hell, that damn shark was bigger'in ma boat. I was rackin' ma brain fer a way out o' this, when Lili noticed the fin, and started askin' me what was the shark gonna do, so I tol' her the truth; that the it would keep attacking us until it swallowed some meat and was satisfied, or we killed it somehow."
"So, you killed it?" Black Johnson asked.
Jack shook his head, "Nope."
"Then how'd ya get away?" Chunky almost shouted.
Jack leaned back and put his hands behind his head as he looked up at the night sky, "The shark came at us from the east, it hit the boat hard and tipped us up so that we shipped water fer a moment. Lili screamed and grabbed a hold o' me as the boat swung around and the wind spilled from the sail. Xerxes woke up and growled deep in his throat, and I thought he was going to come at me. But the cat's green eyes were tracking the shark as it swung around to come at us again."
The cowboy nestled down on his saddle, "I pulled out my fish club, it was the only thing we had that amounted to a weapon, so when that shark hit the boat agin' I stepped up and smacked it hard across the snout. Sharks got a soft spot right on the tip o' their snouts, and this'un was no different, but my blow only made the shark madder, and it ripped a piece of gunwale off the boat. Xerxes was pacing back and forth, growling as he looked out over the water, and Lili was trying to calm the big cat, but he wasn't listening to her commands. When that shark came back around to hit us again the tiger roared, and leaped over the side o' the boat all claws and fangs as it lit into that shark."
Jack adjusted his hat so that it covered his eyes, "The sea was jus' full o' foam, claws, and flailing fins fer a moment. I never saw such a sight in my life. Lili was screaming and shouting fer Xerxes to come back, but there weren't no use in giving that sort o command now. The shark breached once more, close to the side o' the boat, one o' its eyes was clawed out and there was the tiger with its jaws clamped on the big fish's neck. Both were splashing and thrashing around in the bloody foam. The shark couldn't shake the tiger, and the tiger couldn't quite kill the shark."
"What happened?" Several of the cowboys asked almost reverently.
"The shark sounded," Jack mumbled. "An we didn't see either of them for a bit. Lili was frantic, callin' and cryin' as she rushed from one side o' the boat to the other lookin' fer her tiger. Then the water bubbled next to the boat, and the shark heaved up wigglin' from side to side, with the tiger still ripin' into its back and neck. Lili screamed and ran towards the side o' the boat just as the shark heeled over and crashed into us. The boat capsized, and tossed me out, but the lady and the tiger went down with the shark..."
"Didja see'em again?" Chunky whispered.
"Nope," Jack answered slowly before continuing in a choked voice, "Afterwards I climbed up on the wrecked hull, and I could see what looked to be the shark floatin' belly up with a flock o' gulls peckin' at it." He wiped his hand across his eyes and pulled his hat lower over his face. "I drifted around fer a day or so, before the tide washed me ashore. I couldn't go home after losin' the boat, and I couldn't face her people after losin' Lili and the tiger. So, I used the money from where I'd sold the tuny, and headed west..."
Black Johnson suddenly put it all together, "So, they found the wrecked boat, an yer family thinks..."
"Yep," Jack murmured as he snuggled into his blanket.
"Pshaw!" Somebody grumped from across the campfire, "I don't believe it!"
"I didn't ask ya to..." said Jack as he rolled up in his blanket, but the boys could hear him humming a little tune as he dropped off to sleep, and to some it sounded like the Blue Danube waltz.