The men near the corral heard the noise as the blue pickup pulling a stock trailer rumbled across the cattle guard and headed their way kicking up a dust cloud as it drove over the dry caliche road.
The driver pointed the truck toward the corral but stopped a good way away so as not to spook the animals. Several cowboys in leather chaps and sweaty shirts sat on horses near the enclosure and more men were leaning against the wood fence. One rider was shaking some Bull Durham tobacco from the little cloth pouch into his wrapping paper. When he had the correct amount in the paper he stuck one side of the pouch between his teeth and pulled the drawstring on the bag shut and stuffed it into his shirt pocket. The man used his rough thumbnail to strike a wooden kitchen match and light his smoke.
Chance stepped out of the cab and stretched, trying to get the blood flowing back into his body after the long drive. He had left Canyon before daylight. The trailer he was pulling held two horses he had tested and purchased earlier in the day.
He looked at the men near the corral and quickly took their measure. These men were tough, working cowboys, who weren’t likely to be impressed by the skinny young man walking toward them, or the large trophy belt buckle he wore. An older man moved away from the others and met Chance about halfway to the truck.
The man stuck out his hand and said, “My name is John Anderson, I guess you’re here to see the horses.”
Chance shook the man’s hand and said, “Yes Sir. I’m Chance Sterling and Mr. Jackson sent me to take a look at your broncos.”
“Didn’t Jackson come with you,” the man asked in a quarrelsome tone?
“No Sir, he had intended to but something came up so he sent me instead.”
The man looked at Chance and frowned. He said, “It looks like you’ve already hit the ground a few times today, you sure you’ve got the sand for more rough landings?”
“I’ve got to at least try to ride ‘em. Mr. Jackson wouldn’t appreciate me buying him a pig in a poke.”
“OK boy, get your rig and come on.” The young man didn’t appreciate being called a boy and resolved to drive as hard a bargain as possible.
Chance got his rodeo saddle and followed the man to the horse pen behind the corral where three horses were milling around. There was a palomino with a long bushy mane and tail, a black mare with a white patch on its head, and a solid colored bay gelding. All the animals looked healthy.
“I’ve only got room for two horses but I’d like to ride all of them. I can always come back if I have to.”
Mr. Anderson walked over and talked to the cowboy who had been rolling his smoke. He and another rider moved into the pen and roped the bay and led it into the corral. The two riders quickly moved the horse to the fence where several other men helped hold it in place while Chance got his saddle bronc rig on the animal. As soon as he was set in the saddle he gave the word and the men let go of the ropes. Chance marked the horse with his spurs up on the shoulder as required for a qualified ride and kept spurring him for 10 or 12 seconds. He stopped raking the animal but didn’t jump off. The bay bucked pretty well but was never able to get Chance off his back.
The two mounted riders got ropes on the horse and held the winded animal in place while Chance got his rig undone. The scene was repeated twice more with the other two mounts.
Finally, Chance put his saddle in the back of the pickup and walked back to Mr. Anderson. After some hard bargaining, Chance finally made a deal for two of the horses. When it was done, Mr. Anderson spat in the dirt and said, “If Jackson wants to buy any more of my broncs he has to come; I don’t want to dicker with you again.”
While the ranch hands were getting the two animals into the trailer, Chance noticed a cow dog that was trotting alongside a mounted cowboy. The sight made him smile but it also made him very sad. He turned away and pretended to be looking for something on the floorboard so no one would see his tears.
Chance drove away from the ranch and steeled himself for the long drive back to Canyon. As soon as he was on the road his mind turned back to the cow dog. Pretty quick he pulled his handkerchief out of his back pocket because he knew he was going to need it.
The fall semester had just ended at West Texas State College in Canyon and the school was shutting down for the Christmas break between semesters. Chance had arranged to get a ride to Amarillo with another student in the Ag department. They were supposed to leave around 8:00 a.m. but the driver didn’t show up until nearly noon. It didn’t seem to bother him that he was late, but it sure as hell pissed Chance off. He’d hoped to get to Amarillo in plenty of time to catch a ride north. Now here he was, standing out in the cold at the corner of NE 8th and highway 87N hoping like hell he could get a ride to Dalhart before he froze to death. He had been there for about 30 minutes and a bunch of cars had passed going north but none paid any attention to the young man shivering by the side of the road.
Chance was stationed at the edge of a drug store parking lot hoping to catch a ride. He was getting discouraged when a dirty green Studebaker pickup turned right off of NE 8th and pulled up close to the drug store. A man and woman got out and went into the building. Chance’s spirits rose a little when he saw the man was wearing dusty Levi’s and had on a grey Stetson hat that showed plenty of wear.
When the couple came out of the store the man opened the truck door for the woman and then walked around to the driver’s side. He had his hand on the door when he looked up and made eye contact with Chance. He turned and slowly walked toward the young man.
“Where are you headed, Son?”
“Well, I’m not going that far but you can ride with us and spend the night in the bunkhouse and go on tomorrow. You’ll freeze to death if dark catches you outside.” He pointed at the rodeo saddle rig on the ground and asked, “Are you a bronc fighter?”
“I ride some,” Chance said modestly.
“Well, come on. It’s going to be snug in the front seat and my wife is going to talk your ear off but it’ll be a damn sight better than standing out here in the cold.”
“Thank you! I sure appreciate it.” The young man quickly put his stuff in the cluttered pickup bed.
The woman had gotten out of the cab and was standing there when the two men walked up. The man held out his hand and said, “My name is Clyde Byrd and this is my wife Hilda.”
The young man took the proffered hand and said “I’m Chance Sterling and I really appreciate this!” Chance slid into the middle of the seat delighted to be out of the cold Panhandle wind and in the warm cab.
The older man asked, “Have you eaten, Chance?”
“No Sir, but I’m fine.”
“You may be fine, but I’m hungry as a wolf. There’s a café a little north of here in Pleasant Valley that makes great hamburgers.” The last meal Chance had eaten was at supper the previous night in the college dining hall. As good as a hamburger sounded Chance only had about 70 cents to his name and he was pretty sure that wasn’t enough.
When they walked into the café several people waved and spoke to the man and woman by name. They sat at a square table with a scratched-up top and a wad of folded-up napkins under one of the legs to make it level.
As soon as they sat down the waitress brought two cans of Coors to the couple. “What would you like, Sonny? You don’t look old enough for a beer.”
Chance ordered hot coffee because he was sure he could afford that. Without asking Chance, Clyde ordered two hamburgers for each of the three of them. Chance told the waitress, “I’m fine, I’ll pass.”
Clyde just laughed and told the waitress to bring the order. “Don’t worry about it, Son, it’s my treat. Plus, I intend to get a little work out of you tomorrow.”
“OK, as long as I can repay you,” Chance gratefully replied.
The burgers were great and the skinny young man finished his quickly. Hilda claimed one burger was all she could eat and insisted Chance take her extra. He didn’t try very hard to turn her offer down. Without asking, the waitress brought him a big piece of cherry pie.
Chance was grateful for the ride but Clyde was a very slow driver and seemed to have a story about every house and building they passed. Anytime her husband wasn’t talking Hilda took up the slack. Now that he was warm and had a full belly Chance was beginning to nod off. Clyde hadn’t said where he lived and Chance was delighted when they turned to the west shortly after crossing the Canadian River and drove about a quarter of a mile down to a house and outbuildings that were surrounded by large cottonwood trees. Chance had seen the place before and had admired it every time he had driven past it. He thought it was one of the prettiest places he had ever seen.
When they stopped a man came out of what Chance assumed was the bunkhouse. The man was about the same age as Clyde and walked with a slight limp.
“Chance, this is Chester Holland. You’ll be sharing the bunkhouse with him. Good luck on gettin’ any shuteye. Chester snores like a freight train and farts like an elephant.”
“Shit, Clyde, you wouldn’t know an elephant if it stepped on you,” Chester retorted.
Chester was quick to pick up the two cases of beer Clyde bought at the café and Chance started carrying the rest of the goods into the house. After everything else was unloaded Chance took his bag and saddle into the bunkhouse.
Clyde came out of the house and said, “Come on, Son, and I’ll show you around.”
“That would be great. I’ve admired this place every time I been by here.”
Clyde led the way as they made a quick tour of the outbuildings. After looking at everything else they stopped by the pens and looked at the horses. Chance saw three cow ponies in a separate pen. There was a buckskin gelding, a shaggy white horse with liver-colored spots, and a bay mare with two white feet.
“Those three are new to the ranch. The boss lady bought them but they’re a little too wild for old-timers like Chet and me. Maybe you could ride them some to get a little of the orneriness out of them?”
“I can sure give it a try, Mr. Byrd,” Chance said, glad that he had a way to repay the kindness the man had shown him.
“Son, Mr. Byrd was my daddy and he’s been dead a long time. Just call me Clyde if you don’t mind.”
After the tour, Clyde said, “Go wash up. Hilda will put supper out pretty soon.”
Supper was a simple meal of steak with pinto beans and cornbread, but it was filling and delicious. While Clyde and Chester sat at the table drinking beer, Chance helped Hilda clear the table.
Hilda asked, “Chance, do you know how to play Forty-Two?”
“Yes Ma’am, I do.”
“Great. You and I should be able to beat those two old drunks pretty easy.”
The four people sat around the kitchen table playing a spirited game of dominoes for about two hours until everyone decided it was time for bed.
Chance woke a little before daylight. After listening to Chester snore for a while he finally gave up trying to go back to sleep, got out of his warm cot, and got a fire going in the pot-bellied stove.
By the time he saw a light in the kitchen window Chance was dressed and ready to go to work. He took a walk around the corral and noticed several loose boards so he searched the barn to find a hammer and nails. He was just finishing repairing the last piece of fencing when Clyde stepped out on the porch and waved him up.
“Thanks, I’ve been meaning to do that but hadn’t got around to it.”
“You’re welcome. I was getting ready to feed the horses but figured I’d wait to see if you had anything special for them.”
“Let’s have a cup first and then we’ll feed.” The two men walked into the kitchen and sat at the table. Hilda was cooking breakfast but she took time to pour coffee for them. Even though Chance had been in the room the night before, he now slyly examined the house more carefully. It was small and had a low ceiling and was warming up quickly from Hilda’s stove. The place was not as fancy as he had always imagined when driving past, but it was still much nicer than the house he’d grown up in.
Chance noticed a lot of small boots carved out of cedar. They were different sizes but all looked to be the same design. He picked up one and examined it and then asked Clyde, “Did you do all of these?”
“No, that’s how Chester spends his idle time.”
Hilda kind of cackled and said, “You can tell he doesn’t do much work.”
Chance asked, “Does he carve anything else?”
“Nope, just boots.”
About then Chester walked into the room and got a cup of coffee. After a hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, and hash brown potatoes the three men walked out to start the workday. Chance did most of the work but was happy to be able to repay Clyde for giving him a ride.
“So, you want me to try to ride your new stock?”
“Yeah, but leave that buckskin gelding to the end,” Clyde answered.
Chance went into the tack room and picked out a saddle. He adjusted the stirrups to the right length and then carried it out and put it over the top fence rung. With that done he got a rope and walked slowly into the pen with the three new horses. Clyde could hear him talking softly to the animals. Chance easily got a rope over the white horse’s head and led it into the corral and tied it close to the fence. Chance spent a long time getting the animal settled before he put the saddle blanket on his back. The shaggy horse fought a little but eventually Chance got the saddle and bridle set. The young man took the rope off the horse’s neck but didn’t try to mount it. Instead, he walked the horse around the corral talking to it. Eventually, Chance put his boot in the stirrup and easily swung his leg over the saddle.
The horse had been broken and ridden some but still wasn’t used to the idea. He didn’t buck a lot and Chance had no trouble staying with him. He walked the horse around the corral once and then put it into a slow trot. After riding for about 30 minutes, Chance slid off the animal but continued to walk him around holding the reins. The young man repeated the same procedure several more times and then asked Clyde’s permission to take the horse out of the corral.
Chance spent about half an hour riding the animal around the property and then brought it back into the corral.
“I think he’s ok, but both of you should take a turn with him. Chester and Clyde rode the horse without any issues. Chance repeated the process with the bay mare and Clyde seemed very pleased.
By the time they had finished working with the two horses, Hilda walked out of the house and yelled that dinner was ready.
After they finished eating Clyde asked, “Are you in a big hurry to get home?”
“Well, I’m anxious to see my mom, my grandfather, and my dog, but I can stay here another day or so if you need me to.”
“I didn’t hear you mention being anxious to see your father.”
“No Sir, I didn’t.”
“Is Jess Sterling your pa?”
“Yes Sir. Do you know him?”
“Not very well, but I reckon I know him about as well as I care to. Your pa ain’t a real easy fellow to like.”
“No, he’s not.”
“Your brother getting killed in Korea probably didn’t help much.”
“Well, there’s one less person for him to yell at so now it seems like I’m getting my share plus Jessie’s share too.”
The older man was silent for a time and then said, “There are a few things around here that I need someone with a strong back to help with. How about you stay today and tomorrow and then I’ll drive you to Dalhart so you don’t have to hitchhike?
“That sounds fine, Clyde. I’ll be happy to help you any way I can.”
Clyde asked, “If I drive you to Dalhart, can you get a ride to your place? I don’t think your pa will be very happy to see me drive onto his property.”
“That’ll be fine,” the young man gratefully replied.
Chance spent most of the rest of the afternoon helping Clyde and Chester with some hard manual labor. About an hour before sundown he rode the two new horses again.
Clyde and Chester stood by the corral watching the young man ride. Chester said, “He’s a damn good rider, Clyde. Are you going to try him on the buckskin?”
“I think so, but I want to talk to him about it first.”
After Chance unsaddled the last horse and put it back into the pen Clyde said, “I’m not sure what to do with that buckskin gelding. I don’t think there’s any way that Chet or I am going to be able to ride him and we’re both too damn old to take a bad spill.”
“He seems to be ok with the other horses.”
“He is, and you can put a saddle on him without any trouble. The problem starts when you climb aboard. I just wanted you to know before you try him.”
“I’ll give it a go in the morning,” Chance said.
Chance had an enjoyable evening visiting and playing dominoes with the adults, but in the back of his mind, he was thinking about the buckskin gelding. He had an idea how he could help Clyde out and maybe himself as well.
The horses had been fed and a few other chores done before Clyde and Chester got up. As soon as breakfast was finished Chance had the saddle he had used the day before sitting across the top rung of the corral waiting for the buckskin. When Clyde and Chester came outside, Chance went into the horse pen and easily put a rope around the gelding and led him into the corral.
Just like Clyde said, the horse was as tame as a kid’s pony and let Chance put a saddle and bridle on him without protest. Chance talked to the animal and stroked his neck trying to keep him calm but as soon as one foot was in the stirrup and Chance put his weight on it the horse bucked violently and sent Chance flying about ten feet toward the middle of the corral.
The horse didn’t move and was still standing next to the fence ignoring Chance. The would-be rider tried twice more to mount the gelding with about the same results.
Chance looked at Clyde, “It don’t look like he’s cut out to be a cow pony but I want to try something else. Chester, will you bring me my rodeo saddle?”
While Chester was going to the bunkhouse, Chance was removing the western saddle and bit from the horse’s mouth. It didn’t take long to get the saddle bronc outfit on the gelding, and again, the horse didn’t fight. The three men managed to get the animal in position by the side of the corral. Chance climbed up on the fence and eased into the saddle. Before he could get a good handhold, the horse jumped about six feet to the left and then started spinning. After rolling three or four times Chance ended up about 20 feet away. He stood up and knocked the dirt off and tried twice more to ride the gelding with much the same result. After the third failed ride Chance took his rodeo saddle and halter off the horse and led it back into the pen.
“How much do you want for that outlaw, Clyde?”
Clyde looked at the young man for a long moment and then said, “If I could get $150 for him I’d be plumb happy.”
“Can I use your phone?”
Chance pulled a piece of paper out of his wallet as he walked through the door. Clyde and Chester followed their young friend into the house curious as to what he was going to do.
The young man dialed a number and waited for the connection to go through. Finally, he said, “Is Mr. Jackson there?”
“Mr. Jackson, this is Chance Sterling. I don’t know if you remember me but I met you at a rodeo in Tulia.”
“Of course I remember you, Chance. Have you found some rough stock for me?”
“I’ve only found one but I think it could be a good rodeo horse.”
“Were you able to ride it?”
“Not even close, but there’s no chute here so getting a good hold on it was a problem. I think it would be worth you taking a look at.”
“How much does the owner want for it?”
“I’m not sure he’s dead set on selling it, but I think $200 could probably get it done.”
“Where’s it located?”
“South of Dumas. I was hitchhiking and I caught a ride here. I’m heading on to Dalhart tomorrow but I’ll be back this way after Christmas. I’ve got to be back in Canyon by Jan. 5th. If you came up a little before then maybe I could catch a ride back with you.”
“That would probably work for me. Call when you get back there.”
Chance hung up the phone and filled Clyde in on the other end of the conversation. “So, you think this man might buy that gelding for a rodeo horse?”
“I think there is a chance. He wants to become a stock contractor so he needs some good bucking horses.”
“You think he might pay $200 for that buckskin?”
“Maybe, but that’s up to the two of you. Do you know anyone else around here that has a bad horse?” Chance didn’t mention that he was hoping to get a finder’s fee from Mr. Jackson.
“I’ll ask around. I’m sure there’s probably a few more rank horses in this area.”
Chance stayed one more day to help Clyde and then the older man drove him to Dalhart and surprised him by handing him forty dollars for the work he’d done.
Clyde dropped the young man off at a small white stucco house and then headed back south. No one was home but Chance knew where the owner kept a key so he let himself in and fell asleep on the couch.
Chance woke when he heard the back door open and swung his feet to the floor and sat up. A woman walked into the room and said, “Lordy, lordy, lordy, lookie here, Santa done come early and left me the handsome man I asked for”
Chance stood and said, “Hi, Aunt Sis.”
“Boy, I keep telling you that’s a silly name to be calling me.”
“That’s all I’ve ever called you and I intend to keep right on doin’ it.”
They both laughed and hugged one another tightly.
“How’d you get here? Wait; don’t tell me, you hitchhiked because your old man’s too tight to send you the bus fare.”
“He claims he does it to build my character.”
“Bullshit, he does it ‘cause he doesn’t want to dip into his pool hall and beer joint money! I don’t know why my sister stays with that SOB.”
“Ma ain’t no quitter, that’s for sure,” Chance replied.
“Are you ready to go?”
“Not really, but I guess I might as well get it over with. Maybe I can give him enough work today so that he won’t bitch at me all night.”
The car stopped at the cattle guard. “I’m letting you walk from here, Chance. Your daddy and I had a big fight about a week ago and the only thing we agreed on was that I wasn’t going to step foot on his property ever again.”
“Haven’t you both agreed on that before?”
“We have, but I think it may stick this time.” She reached over and took hold of his hand. “Chance, I need to tell you something; Rusty’s in real bad shape.”
“He’s pretty old.”
“It’s not just his age, Chance, he’s dying. I hate to tell you that, Honey, but I don’t want you to be surprised when you see him.” She squeezed his hand and leaned across and kissed his cheek. On that sad note, Chance stepped out and pushed the car door shut.
A rundown house stood about a hundred yards from the cattle guard down a rutted dirt path. The young man reluctantly started walking into the biting Texas Panhandle wind, dreading what awaited him.
Wisps of smoke were coming out of the metal stovepipe on the tiny weather-worn bunkhouse that Chance and his grandfather shared. He pushed open the door and quickly shut it to keep as much cold air out as possible. Chance saw his grandfather sitting in his old wooden rocking chair, smoking a pipe and reading a tattered paperback book. The boy had no doubt it was one of the Louie Lamour westerns that the old man read over and over again. A big grin cracked the age and weathered face of the aged man as he quickly rose to embrace his grandson.
“Damn Boy, you’re a sight for sore eyes!” He grabbed Chance in a bear hug and pounded him on the back. “I sure have missed you, Son!” Chance heard the old man’s gravelly voice crack with emotion when he spoke. The two men held each other tight and were reluctant to release their embrace. When they finally separated tears were showing on both their faces.
Chance looked hesitantly around the room and saw Rusty asleep on a pallet near the stove. He was glad his aunt had prepared him for the sight, otherwise, he would have started sobbing immediately. The faithful dog had been a huge part of Chance’s life. For as long as he had memories, Rusty had been by his side looking after him and his brother Jessie and giving them unconditional love. Now he had shrunk into a frail mass of fur and bones and was lying there barely breathing. Chance sat down and stroked the old dog’s head and began talking to him. Rusty raised his head and looked at Chance and his mouth opened into his old goofy grin. Chance couldn’t even come close to controlling his tears. Rusty closed his tired old eyes and went back to sleep.
The heartsick young man finally stood and asked, “How long has he been like this?”
“He’s been going downhill for a while, but it’s gotten a lot worse the last couple of weeks.”
“Do you think he’s in pain?”
“I ‘spect he is, but it’s hard to say for sure.” The old man sort of coughed and said, “I’m glad you’re here, your Pa has been talking about shooting him for a while but your Ma and I have been arguing against it until you got here.”
“I’ll take care of it tomorrow. I sure don’t want Pa to do it.”
The boy left Rusty and his grandfather and trudged to the main house. As soon as the door cracked open the cold air alerted his mother. She dropped her spoon into a big pot on the stove, rushed over, grabbed her baby boy in her arms, and hugged him impossibly tight.
After a moment she stepped back and said, “Let me look at you. I think you’ve grown since I saw you last.”
“Maybe a little bit I guess.”
She pulled him over to the table and made him sit down. “How was your trip? Did you have any trouble?”
Chance didn’t see anything to be gained by telling her he thought he was going to freeze to death on a street corner in Amarillo so he lied and told her it was fine. Thinking back over the trip, he had to admit that it was probably his best hitchhiking adventure.
They talked for a while and she asked, “Have you seen Rusty?”
“Yes Ma’am I saw him.”
“Chance, you need to take care of Rusty soon. Your Pa’s been talking about shooting him for two weeks.”
“I’m not surprised, he’s never liked Rusty. I’ll do it tomorrow. Where is Pa?”
“He had to go to Dalhart to get something.”
The young man had a pretty good idea what his father went to town to get but he kept that thought to himself. He knew his mother wouldn’t appreciate his criticism. Despite his father’s many shortcomings, she was loyal to the man.
“I guess I’ll go do a few chores before he gets home.”
“That’s probably a good idea, Chance.” They both stood and she hugged him tightly.
Supper turned out to be closer to the train wreck Chance was expecting rather than the joyous reunion his mother was hoping for. His father didn’t get back until close to dark and showed clear evidence of what he had gone to Dalhart for and barely acknowledged Chance’s presence.
As soon as everyone was seated at the supper table and the man had his audience the badgering started. “Nice of you to finally show up, Chance; I was expecting you two days ago. I guess you had some important parties to go to with all those pretty gals you’re chasing down there.”
“I have two worn-out pairs of pants and three shirts that don’t get washed often enough; and, the only girls I see are the ones in the dining hall when I’m cleaning up their tables, so none of them are chasing me. If you wanted me here two days ago you could’ve sent the money for a bus ticket. Hitchhiking in the middle of winter isn’t the surest or safest of ways to travel.”
Chances mother was trying unsuccessfully to keep the conversation civil, but his father was dead set on having his say. “Are you still planning on becoming a rodeo clown,” the man asked in as sarcastic a tone as he could muster.
“I don’t have any intention of being a rodeo clown, but I’m still riding rough stock in some local rodeos that I can get to.”
“That’s a damn foolish and dangerous way of making a living if you ask me.”
“I’m not sure riding a bronc for eight seconds in an arena with soft dirt is any more dangerous than riding unbroken two-year-olds all day in your corral full of rocks, or spending all day on horseback in a snowstorm looking for strays. You’ve been perfectly happy for me to do those things since I was about 10 years old.”
Chance’s father slammed his hands down on the table making all the dishes rattle “That’s real cowboying gawd damn it, not playacting like a fool at a rodeo.”
“Stop it, both of you!” Chances mother screamed as she stood with tears in her eyes. She was sure her husband and son were only minutes away from a fistfight.
His grandfather stood and said, “Come on, Chance, let’s go to the bunkhouse.” The older man quickly moved between the father and son and maneuvered Chance to the door.
When they were in the bunkhouse Chance sat down by Rusty and started petting his old dog. He finally said, “Well, this has been an even shittier homecoming than I was expecting.”
“Your dad seems to be drinking more than usual. It’s been a pretty tough year with the drought and everything and it’s working on his mind.”
he’s worried about money and then spends what little he has on
booze. What damn sense does that make?”
“I’m not trying to justify it or say it makes sense, I’m just telling you what’s going on. Listen to me, Boy, don’t let him guilt you into quitting college and coming back here. You coming back won’t make a lick of difference to what happens to this shirttail operation, but it will mess up your life.”
“I’m not sure that isn’t what he wants,” Chance said. He stood up and opened his bag and took out three Louie Lamour westerns. “Someone left these in the dorm. I didn’t remember you having them.”
The old man looked at the dog-eared books like they were priceless treasures and then hugged his grandson. “I’m sorry you had to come back to this, Chance.”
“Does he ever hit her?”
“Not that I know about and I don’t think he will. He knows I’ll kill him if he does.”
Chance pulled his old lumpy mattress off his cot and put it on the floor by Rusty. While he laid there stroking the old dog’s head his grandfather repeated the story of how Rusty came into their lives.
“Your dad was playing Nine-ball at a pool hall in Dalhart. Both your dad and the other guy were drinking and making bets that neither one could cover. When they finally had to quit, your dad was up about twelve dollars. Of course, the other fella didn’t have the cash and it looked like there was going to be a fistfight. They were both drunk and it was probably a coin toss on which one would get hurt the least but the other guy convinced your dad to take Rusty in payment. He went on and on about how Rusty’s mother was the best damn cow dog in either Hartley or Dallam County and his daddy wasn’t far behind. Your dad wasn’t happy about it but he finally agreed to take the dog to settle the bet.”
“By the time Rusty proved that he didn’t give a shit about chasing cows you and Jessie had fallen in love with him and your mom wouldn’t let your dad kill him even though he’s threatened to do it many a time. I think your dad always felt that the fella cheated him and somehow blamed Rusty.”
Tempers had cooled slightly overnight and Chance’s father had sobered up so breakfast was a little more civil, but far from friendly.
The first thing the man said to Chance was, “If you don’t take care of that dog today, I’ll do it for you.”
“I’m going to tend to it this morning.”
“Don’t take all day. When I get back from town you need to do some work around here.”
“Yes Sir,” Chance said in as a conciliatory tone as he could muster.
When breakfast was over Chance went back to the bunkhouse to check on Rusty and his dad got into his truck and headed to town. Chance had been hoping that Rusty would do him a favor and die but the old dog’s heart and will to live were too strong for that.
Chance went to the barn and got a spade and a pickaxe and headed up to cemetery hill where his mother’s mother was buried along with a ceremonial grave that held a pair of Jessie’s old pants and his favorite work shirt. The government said the plane his brother was in was shot down by North Korean Mig jets off the coast of Korea and no bodies were recovered. Chance knew his mom needed someplace to go to grieve and that was the reason she buried Jessie’s clothes.
The weather was still bitterly cold and the ground was hard and rocky but after about an hour of hard work, Chance had a suitable hole so he walked back to the bunkhouse. Rusty was still alive, but just barely. Chance wished he could just sit there petting his old friend until he passed naturally. Unfortunately, he couldn’t be sure Rusty wasn’t suffering and his dad was being an asshole about the whole thing.
“Can I borrow your .22 Grandpa?” The old man didn’t respond but got out of his chair and handed his grandson the old Winchester pump. The gun was old and had a cracked buttstock that was wrapped with copper wire to reinforce it. The feed tube had been broken loose at some time and was now held in place with a large spot of brazing solder. Despite its cosmetic flaws, the gun was mechanically sound and Chance had shot it countless times. In the summer he would kill a few prairie dogs and annoy a bunch more. Jackrabbits were abundant on their place but his dad wouldn’t eat them in the summer because they had worms. He said they were ok in cold weather so when snow was on the ground Chance would look for jackrabbits hunkering next to fence posts and shoot them for the table. One winter he made his mother some slippers out of the skins and he still remembered how much she liked them. Now he was going to use that rifle to kill his best friend.
Chance bent down and picked up Rusty and his pallet. The dog he had always thought of as being big now seemed weightless but the weight in his chest was huge. He made the trek to the gravesite and put Rusty on the ground by the hole. Chance sat by the dog talking to him and thanking him for all of his love. He knew that having Rusty in his life had got him through some tough times when he was a kid.
While he was saying his goodbyes he heard his father’s pickup come bumping down the rough path. The truck stopped and his dad rolled down the window and yelled, “Hurry the hell up, gawd damn it,” before he drove on.
Chance knew he couldn’t put it off any longer so he stood up and worked the pump action to chamber a cartridge. He put the stock against his shoulder and tried to aim but he was crying so hard he couldn’t hold the barrel steady and couldn’t see the sights. When he turned away to clear his eyes he could hear his father yelling at him to hurry up. Chance sat next to Rusty and put his feet in the grave so he could be closer to the dog. He patted the old head one last time and then laid the barrel between his thumb and forefinger. He looked one more time to make sure the barrel was in the right spot then turned his head away and pulled the trigger.
He had probably heard the crack of that old .22 a thousand or more times and it never seemed very loud. This time it sounded like the world was exploding. Chance put his head in his hands and sobbed.
The heartbroken young man finally lifted Rusty and laid him gently in the grave. He used his bare hands to pull the rocky dirt into the hole. When he was done he stood and picked up the Winchester and started walking back to the house. About halfway back he could hear his father talking to his mother plain and knew he was drunk, or close to it.
“Damn waste of time, he should’ve just shot him and left him to the coyotes.”
“I should’ve killed that damn dog a long time ago. He damn sure weren’t no cow dog.”
With every step Chance’s sorrow was falling away, being replaced by rage and hatred. His father stepped in front of him telling him he was stupid for crying over a worthless dog. Chance didn’t even look at the man berating him but just brushed past him.
“Boy, you don’t walk past me like that. I’m going to whip your ass.”
Chance spun around and threw the rifle to his shoulder. He jacked a fresh round into the chamber and aimed the Winchester at his father. The sights were pointed at a spot between the man’s eyes, the hammer was at full cock, and Chance’s finger was on the trigger.
“Boy, I’ve told you to never point a gun at anything you didn’t intend to kill.”
“Yes Sir, I damn sure remember you saying that.”
Everyone was stock-still and quiet. After what seemed like an eternity, Chance moved the barrel slightly and used his thumb to lower the hammer to the safety position. He raised the gun, handed it back to his grandfather, and turned away from his old man.
“You’re going to pay for that boy!” As he heard his father’s oath he felt the sting of his belt. Chance grabbed the leather with his left hand and jerked it to pull it away but his dad held on and pulled back. Chance jerked it again and this time his father stumbled forward trying to control the belt. Without thinking about what he was doing Chance took a big step toward the older man and hit him in the forehead with his right fist as hard as he could.
His father dropped backward as stiff as a board, his head bounced off the frozen ground and blood gushed from his forehead.
“Gawd damn,” his grandfather exclaimed.
“Help me get him into the house,” his mother screamed! Chance and his grandfather picked the man up and carried him to his bed. His mother placed a wet towel on his wound to stop the blood flow.
“Is he dead,” Chance asked?
“No, but you may be if you stay here,” she said. “Daddy, take the truck and get Chance out of here.”
His mother rushed to a cupboard and came back with an envelope that she pressed into his hand. “I’m sorry that happened, Chance but you need to leave before he comes to.” She ushered her only living son to the door, kissed him on the cheek, and then pushed him outside.
His grandfather had already put Chance’s bag into the bed of the truck and they drove off the property.
“Do you think he’ll be OK, Grandpa?”
“Your old man has a hard head so he’ll probably be alright. You’re going to need to stay away from here for a while though.”
“If it wasn’t for you and Ma I’d never come back here.”
The old man asked, “Where do you want to go?”
“Take me to Aunt Sis. Maybe she can give me a ride.”
They went to his aunt’s and told her what happened. “Gawd damn, I wished I’d been there to see that.”
His aunt agreed to drive him to Clyde’s place and they got there just as Hilda was serving supper. She tried to get Aunt Sis to eat but she politely refused but did get the phone number so she could report to Chance.
Chance was exhausted by the events of the day and didn’t feel up to eating. He told everyone he would explain tomorrow and then said he was going to bed.
Chance was up early the next morning feeding the horses when Clyde walked up, “It looks like you’re favoring that right hand. I’m guessing your visit didn’t go like you’d hoped.”
“Well, it sure didn’t go like my mother had hoped it would, but I can’t say I was all that surprised about how it ended.”
Chester had joined them and Chance told the two men what had happened. When he was done he asked Clyde, “Can I do a little work around here for my room and board until I catch a ride south?”
“Sure, Son. You’re welcome here anytime.”
Hilda called them to come to breakfast and while they were eating the telephone rang. Hilda answered and listened for a little while and then motioned for Chance.
“Chance, I talked to your mom. Jess is going to live but he’s highly pissed off and is talking about trying to find you. I’m the only one who knows where you are and I sure ain’t telling that no good son of a bitch anything. He’ll calm down, but if I was you, I wouldn’t be planning on any trips back home for a while.”
“Unless Grandpa or Ma dies, I don’t plan to ever go back. Thanks for calling, Aunt Sis.”
As they were finishing breakfast, the young man told the others what he had just learned. They all offered him comforting words, but no one asked him any questions.
Clyde finally asked, “How bad is your hand hurt?”
“It’s pretty sore but I don’t think I broke anything. Did you locate some more wild horses?”
“Yeah, I did. The foreman at the LX said he has three renegades he wouldn’t mind getting rid of.”
“Right now I don’t think I could keep a good hold on the reins, but it should be better in a couple of days. I guess I could try using my left hand but I’m not sure how good that would work.”
Hilda sat a bottle of liniment on the table. “Try that, it usually seems to help.”
After the noon meal was over Hilda asked Chance to help her with something. When Clyde and Chester went back outside, she led the young man over to the bunkhouse. She opened the door of a small, crudely made wardrobe cabinet. Chance saw several pairs of pants and some shirts on wire hangers.
Hilda said, “These clothes were left here by cowboys that worked for us. I suspect some might fit you pretty good.” Chances eyes immediately fell to a nice pair of high-top boots that looked to be custom made. Hilda saw what he was looking at and said, “The young man that left those was killed in Korea so you’re welcome to them if they fit.”
“I don’t know what to say, Hilda.”
“Thanks will cover it just fine I expect.” Chance mumbled a thank you and then surprised Hilda by grabbing her and hugging her tightly.
Chance spent the next two days helping around the ranch while trying to rest his hand as much as possible. When he felt he was well enough to ride he phoned Mr. Jackson in Canyon who agreed to come the next morning.
About 9:00 a.m., Holt Jackson drove onto the ranch pulling an empty four-horse trailer. After a cup of coffee and some conversation, everyone walked outside. Chance got a rope on the buckskin gelding and walked him into the corral. After getting his rodeo saddle on the horse the three older men threw ropes over the animal’s back to try to hold him against the fence.
Chance climbed up onto the top rung and tried to get a good hold on the reins before he slid onto the saddle. As soon as the men outside released their holds on the ropes the bronc started bucking violently. Chance wasn’t set good and wasn’t able to even try to spur the horse before he was flying through the air.
When he walked back to the fence Holt Jackson laughed and said, “I don’t think you made the eight, Chance.”
“Hell, I don’t think I made the two.”
“Are you up to trying once more?”
“Turn him the other way this time,” Mr. Jackson said.
The change in direction didn’t affect the outcome and Chance was again dismounted in short order.
“Do you want me to try him again, Mr. Jackson?”
“No, Son. I’ve seen enough. Get your rig off of him.”
While Chance was unsaddling the gilding Holt Jackson and Clyde went into the house to talk business.
“That’s quite an outlaw you’ve got there, Clyde. How much do you want for him?”
“I’ll let him go for $225.”
“I thought the asking price was closer to $200.”
“I’ll be truthful with you Holt the extra money is going to that young man out there. Hilda and I have taken a shine to Chance and he’s between a rock and a hard place so I’d like to help him out some. If that horse keeps bucking like that he’s going to make you a pocket full of cash and I ‘spect you know that full well.”
“OK, as long as the extra goes to the boy I’m fine with the deal.” The men shook hands and Mr. Jackson handed Clyde $225.
When they walked out of the house Holt Jackson said, “Load him in the trailer, Chance, and put your stuff in the back of the truck.”
Mr. Jackson noticed the troubled look that came over the young man’s face. “What’s wrong, Son?”
“The dorm doesn’t open for three more days and I don’t have any place to go.”
“Don’t worry about it, Son, I’ve got a place you can stay.”
Before they left the ranch Chance gratefully thanked the Byrds for their kindness. Clyde shook the boy’s hand and passed him some cash. He also gave him a manly hug and said, “There’ll always be an empty cot in the bunkhouse and a place at the table for you, Chance.”
Hilda hugged him tightly and then cupped his smooth cheeks in her work-worn hands and said, “Chance if I ever hear of you going past here without stopping I’ll track you down and spank your bottom.”
“That won’t ever happen, Hilda.” Chance had trouble getting the words out. He was sure the man and woman had no idea how much they meant to him.
Holt Jackson followed a map Clyde had drawn to the LX Ranch headquarters. The corral at the LX had a bucking chute that enabled Chance to get set in the saddle correctly and he was able to successfully ride two of the three horses he mounted. Jackson purchased all three animals and he and Chance headed to Canyon.