Side Trail Story
I met Pete Cracker in an overnight homeless shelter in Denver. A real hellhole full of alcoholics (like Pete), drug addicts, and crazy people. The crazies hung with the drunks and the dopers since they were drinking and using street dope instead of their prescription meds. There were also some mean ass bottom-feeders around who fit in nowhere and they didn’t want to. They were there to prey on the weak, and they were good at. I watched them kick the shit out of a scraggly-haired twenty year-old and take his backpack, sleeping bag, and North Face winter coat.
Seeing I was there for no reason other than old age, the shelter staff took pity on me and let me store my saddle and other belongings in the back room during the day. They even hooked me up with social workers who put in my application for Social Security. After I saved Ol’ drunk Pete from getting stomped one night, I found out he had a Cadillac. While Pete was content to panhandle to buy booze, I worked spot jobs to save up gas money to get us the hell out of Denver. That fucking town is cold in more ways than one. I tried to talk sense into Pete on one of his few sober moments, saying, “Your car insurance expires in two months and your registration in three. You’ll never have the money. You really want to be stuck here?”
When I got enough saved, we tossed our shit in the Caddy and took off down I-70 going east. I wanted to get to Texas, South Texas. I was seventy-six and shit-full of cold weather. My knees, hips, and elbows were rusty hinges.
Pete pulled from a bottle of Wild Turkey he bought at a liquor store in Colby, Kansas. By the time we turned south at Salina and headed down I-135, Pete was mellow drunk. I wanted to push on into Oklahoma, but that dumbass refused to give me the wheel. He kept babbling about Doris Dinks, some gal that he used to hose in Clinton, thirty miles east of the interstate. “She’ll put us up for the night. You’ll see.”
Any woman that would bang Pete, I really didn’t want to see. The skanks he took up with in Denver would gag a maggot.
Pete used a Kwik Shop pay phone and reached her on the first try. I got on the phone for directions because I knew Pete would fuck them up. I took the wheel and found her tiny yellow paint-peeled house on West First Street. The yard was nothing but powdery dirt and some weeds. The front door opened and a large woman in a nightgown with dyed black hair, more chins than a Chinese phone book, waddled out to hug Pete, kissing him deeply with a yellow-caked tongue. As Pete introduced me, I couldn’t decide what was worse, her body odor or the most obnoxious laugh I’d ever heard in my life; a stuttering hur-hur-hur that was loud and gooberish all at once.
Once inside, Doris got me a beer. Pete decided to kill the rest of his Wild Turkey straight from the bottle, offering her none. No matter, she poured vodka into a plastic jug of orange juice, gave it a shake, and called, “Screwdriver time!” She was all over Pete, licking his neck and rubbing his crotch. They thankfully left for her bedroom, leaving me in solitude, but not in the quiet. Her copulating noises were as bad as her laugh. I killed my beer, lay on the couch, and tried to sleep, thinking, How did I end up like this?
“Maybe you need to find another place to stay,” Pete said the next morning.
“I thought we’s headed to Texas.”
“Not no more. Hell, me and Doris might get married. Right, honey?”
“Aw, sugar,” Doris said, kissing Pete, leaving pancake syrup on his mouth.
“Like I said, maybe you oughta find somewhere’s else to go, huh Hank?”
Doris said something about this shelter called Another Chance. Pete drove me there. It was a big old rundown boarding house. I unloaded my duffel bag, suitcase, and saddle in the yard. Pete just dumped me off like I was a bag of trash and drove back to his skank.
I walked inside and a nice fella had me fill out an intake sheet. Said his name was Mac. It was embarrassing as hell to have to answer those questions in front of him. I felt like a piece of shit. After he found out I lived most of my life in the West, he asked, “How the hell did you wind up here?”
“I got old,” I said.
He told me they didn’t have an open room, and then explained how their waiting list worked, and how I’d have to stay nights at an Overflow Shelter a few blocks away until a room opened up. “They’re open from six in the evening to seven in the morning.”
“Just like Denver. But do I gotta haul my stuff around?”
“The Overflow’ll store it, but I wouldn’t stash that fine saddle there”.
“I’ve had her a long time.”
“Why don’t we keep it in my office closet where it’ll be safe?”
I leaned into him, looking deeply into his eyes, and nodded slowly. “Yeah. I can trust you.”
“I like your hat.”
“Had it for a good long spell.”
“I bet every bit of manure, sweat, blood, and mud has a story, huh?”
“And then some.”
Mac said I needed to check in every day on the waiting list to let them know I was still interested in a place to stay, and then he described their homeless program. I told him about my pending Social Security claim they signed me up for in Denver. “I’d go to the Social Security office here and tell them that,” he said. “Change your address to ours. That way you won’t miss any mail.”
“Since I’ll be out on the street, know anybody that’d hire an old man for any spot jobs?”
“As a matter of fact, I do.”
I was on the street from that Tuesday to the next Monday. Mac hooked me up with a guy named Cecil Bates for work. He was a landlord with rentals all over town. In his late fifties. Nice old boy, kinda gruff, smoked like a chimney. He was suspicious of me at first.
“I get all kinds from Another Chance,” Cecil said as I helped clean out one of his apartments trashed by what Cecil called druggie fuckheads. It didn’t take long for me to prove myself. I’d worked like a grown man since I was a tadpole. Even bent and all aching, I could out-work guys half my age. Just not for very long.
“Yeah,” Cecil said during a smoke break, “some of those guys are twenty years old and worthless as tits on a two-by-four. Lazy cocksuckers. No wonder they’re homeless. Now, you and me, Hank, we know how to work, whatever the job is. Trouble is, guys like us are just dyin’ off.”
Cecil fed me lunch every day, paid cash every evening. We even sat out in his truck after work to kill a six and a few shots of schnapps before he dropped me off.
The liquor made the overflow tolerable and helped me sleep.
That Saturday and Sunday Cecil had no work for me. I was on the streets until evening. At least I had spending money for meals and could waste time drinking coffee in cafes. I went to the library both days and read Elmer Kelton novels. Most people thought of Louis L’Amour when they talked westerns, but to me, Kelton was the best.
I saw others from the Overflow in the library, but kept my distance. They were scrotes, users and abusers. No balls, no guts. Whining bastards wanting a handout. I might have been at the bottom, but not their bottom.
When I walked into Another Chance that Tuesday morning to check in, Mac told me a room was open. A place to stay. I gripped my hands together, squeezing them tight to keep from crying. A man don’t do that.
I moved into a small single room (number Eight) that Mac said was usually reserved for single women, a woman with two kids, or a couple, but his waiting list was nothing but single men at the moment, so he stuck me into the first room he could. The first thing I did was sign up for a laundry slot, but seeing nobody had a claim on the next two hours, I washed and dried all my clothes except the ones I had on. After that, I took a long shower and then checked myself out in the mirror: thinning hair turning blue-gray, skin sagging, pot belly, hairless legs, and stooped. I tried to straighten up and toss my shoulders back, but my spine felt like it’d been replaced by a broom handle. I put on my just-washed and dried clothes: faded jeans, snap-buttoned denim shirt, cowboy boots, and, of course, my hat. I didn’t think like the old man I saw in the mirror, but how the hell do I know how old men are supposed to think.
I was alone on the couch in the living room sipping a cup of coffee, TV off, when Mac noticed me. “Feel better?”
“Feel reborn. Thanks.”
He sat next to me in an ugly orange easy chair. “Looks like you been a cowboy your whole life.”
“My clothes give it away?”
“It’s how you wear them. That and the missing fingers on both your hands. Those had to have been lost roping, right?”
“Among other things.” I told him about growing up on a ranch in West Texas, close to Fort Stockton. “Desolate as hell out there, Mister Mac.”
“Just Mac. Where all you worked?”
I spoke of the ranches I worked in Texas, New Mexico, Utah, Idaho, Montana, and Colorado. “Montana was my favorite. That’s God’s country.” I went to my room and fetched a shoebox of old pictures. Going through them, Mac did nothing but smile. “You lived life wild and free, didn’t you?”
The pictures showed me at various ages on ranches (usually on horseback), at rodeos, elk and deer hunting, fly fishing, leading pack trains, sitting around campfires, and drinking with my buddies. There was only one picture taken inside. In a log cabin. I was about thirty-five and dressed in new jeans, white shirt, bolo tie, and wool sport coat, but no cowboy hat for a change. My hair was combed back, long like a hippie and dark—not a spot of gray. I was sitting in front of a fireplace next to my girl. Her long black hair hanging down in a peasant dress, turquoise jewelry, tan legs showing, and that smile.
“Who’s she?” I asked.
I took the picture and traced my finger over her face. “Shauna. The one that got away.”
“What happened to her?”
“I was a fool.”
He could tell I didn’t want to say more, so he pointed out a horse I rode in so many of the pictures.
“That’s Duke,” I said. “Had him for twenty-six years until he swelled up and had a stroke. The vet thought it was due to a snake bite.” Even after all those years, thinking of Duke choked me up; Duke was Shauna’s favorite.
I showed him a picture of me and Richard Farnsworth. Most know him as an actor, but I knew him when he was a stuntman and horseman. Good guy. “He got me jobs in the movies.”
“No shit?” said Mac. “Which ones?”
“Aw, hell. Comes A Horseman, The Grey Fox, Tom Horn, and some others. But you’d need a magnifying glass to see me. Man, it was fun. Girls don’t give a damn if you’re credit is Sixth Outlaw or not. If you’re in a movie, they’re interested. I mean willing. Get me?”
Mac laughed. “You made me think of a quote from Homer.”
“Homer and Jethro Homer?”
“No, the Greek poet who wrote The Iliad and The Odyssey.”
“If they ain’t westerns, I ain’t read them.”
“Some might say they were the first westerns ever written. Homer said, For afterwards a man finds pleasure in his pains, when he has suffered long and wandered hard.”
I was damn lucky I’d found Another Chance. I really liked Mac; the man had worked on farms and did a bit of cowboying when he was a kid. He played good music on his office stereo and didn’t talk down to me like some of them other, what did they call themselves? Service providers. They provided service like it was giving them piles.
I met my Case Manager, Ms. Ott, that afternoon. She knew how to play the system like a piano. She promised she would push like hell to get my benefits as fast as she could. She also gave me the address for the local HUD office and told me to get over there pronto to apply for a housing voucher. With it, I’d only have to pay a small percentage of the monthly rent.
I told her I wanted to earn my keep. “I’ve always worked. If I don’t, I’ll go nuts.”
She gave me a list of people and businesses that paid in cash, saying, “Don’t be taken advantage of, Hank. There’re some real pricks in this town.”
At suppertime I met a lot of the other residents, most in their twenties and thirties. The boys looked able-bodied, but all but a couple said they were trying to get SSI for their mental issues. Watching them, I decided their major mental problem was head-up-ass disease.
The food reminded me of my Ma’s cooking: Chicken fried steak, mashed potatoes, green beans, and fat brownies for dessert. My nightly chore was cleaning the upstairs bathroom and shower room. I couldn’t believe the way some people treated things. Sure that old house was rough, but, Jesus Christ, they didn’t have to piss all over the toilet seat. I taped a piece of notebook paper to the tank with the following scribbled on it with a Magic Marker: SHORT SHOOTERS STAND CLOSE TO THE FIRING LINE.
The other residents were all watching goddamn TV, so after I smoked one of my hand-rolled Bull Durham cigs on the front porch I took a look in what they called the Quiet Room for a book to read. They had a piano in there, a few comfortable (and half-worn-out) chairs, and a big bookshelf. I looked through all of them, but not one Elmer Kelton, so I went to my room, stripped to my skivvies, and slipped into bed under a sheet, blanket, and nice quilt. My joints cracked and popped as I settled in, smiling. For the first time in too long a time, I knew I’d sleep without worry.
I dropped by Mac’s office the next morning. He had Lyle Lovett playing on his stereo. “Can I lock something up in here with my saddle? By your rules we ain’t supposed to have no weapons.”
“What’d you have?”
I pulled a pistol from my waistband and handed it to him, handle first.
“Whoa,” he said.
“Hank, this is a Colt Peacemaker .45, isn’t it?”
“The gun that won the West,” I said. “Had it my whole life. It was my dad’s.”
The bluing was long gone, the wood grips worn and faded, but it was an impressive handgun. “I’ll slip it in your saddle bags in the closet under lock and key. This old piece seen much action?”
“From my dad, yeah. From me, not much. Just some snakes and small critters for eatin’. Mostly cans for target practice.”
“What’d your dad do with it?”
“Plugged some sonofabitch tryin’ to rape a girl after a rodeo.”
“Yep. He saw what was goin’ on and shot him in his bare ass.”
Mac laughed from his heels.
“That woman became my ma.” As Mac stored my Colt in the closet, I said, “Thank you for this place. It means a lot.”
“Thank you for finding us.”
My eyes welled up so I got the hell outta there.
I got a job at The Rose Animal Farm about ten miles west of Clinton. Mac said a few of their residents had gotten jobs out there over the years with mixed results. My job would be feeding the exotic animals, cleaning pens, and doing basic farm chores. Since I didn’t have a truck, they agreed to board me while I worked. I could sure use the dough, and I had to keep busy or lose my mind. I called Mac after my first day on the job and said, “I ain’t never fed no zebra before.”
But the job didn’t last. I was so goddamned embarrassed about being fired, I hitchhiked back to the shelter instead of calling Mac for a ride. Later, over coffee in his office with Linda Ronstadt playing on his stereo, I told him what happened. “They said I couldn’t keep up. But, hell, even some of them punk kids they hired couldn’t keep up, either!” I didn’t tell Mac how winded I got throwing out eighty-pound bales, or how my arthritic knees had me shuffling instead of walking, or how they found me nodding off a few times. The word shame didn’t do justice to what I felt.
“Your Social Security will be approved soon,” Mac said. “So will your HUD voucher. Just cool out here and once you get all that, you’re allowed to work twenty hours a week on top of your benefits. Get a part-time job after you move. I’ll help you.”
“I ain’t good at, what’d you call it, coolin’ out? Sounds lazy.”
“Besides work, anything else you like to do?”
“What’d you mean art?”
“Art. I like to draw and paint. I lost all my supplies and easels and shit in that stinkin’ Denver shelter. Got no money for new supplies.”
“What’d you like best, acrylics, oil, pen and ink?”
“Charcoal pencils best. But I do like oil paints.”
Mac handed me a legal pad and a pen. “Give me a list of what you need. Let me see what I can come up with.”
“I can’t do that. Wouldn’t be right.”
“Just think of it as an investment in your future. As hard as you’ve worked your whole life, don’t you deserve it?”
“I never thought I ever deserved much of anything.”
The next song on the stereo was Old Paint. I smiled hearing the first verse and said, “That’s pretty.”
“You like Ronstadt?”
“Oh, she’s goddamn pretty.” I leaned forward to listen.
Ride around real slow
The fiery and the snuffy are raring to go
As I listened, water welled up in my eyes.
Well when I die
Take my saddle from the wall
Put it on my pony
And lead him from his stall
Tie my bones to his back
Turn our faces to the west
And we’ll ride the prairie
That we like the best
The song ended with two rounds of the chorus. My voice broke, “Man, that’s good.”
Not one tear fell. I willed them to stay put.
When I got to my room the next afternoon there were sacks on the bed. I opened them and found an easel, charcoal pencils, sketch pads and poster boards of various sizes, oil paints, and a variety of brushes. A note from Mac read: Go for it!
I ran my hands over the pens and brushes. Been too long. Without hesitation, I arranged my stuff on the tiny desk by the window, set out the largest sketch pad, and with a charcoal pencil in hand, began to draw. I was at home drawing and painting as I was on horseback. Everything went away while I sketched. I drew with a purpose, for this piece of art would be a gift of gratitude.
I wanted my saddle.
“What for?” said Mac.
“Got me a part-time job at the Sale Barn in South Clinton. They said I could leave it in their tack room when I wasn’t workin’.”
He loaded me and my saddle in his crappy Ford Festiva and drove us to the sale barn. I introduced Mac to a few of the ol’ boys working there, and we had to decline beers since Mac was working and I was under Another Chance rules. But I could tell Mac and me shared something: a powerful taste for the hops.
I loved my job. I had to be at the sale barn loading hay and grain for the livestock on hand before sunrise. The yard foreman, Mike, picked me up at 3:30 every sale morning. After feeding, we have coffee and eat breakfast in the little diner they have before unloading trailers, trucks, and semi loads of livestock for sale.
When the sale started at 11 o’clock, I helped pen what sold. Depending on the numbers, this could go as late as eight in the evening. I rode one of Mike’s horses, Chico, a nice roan. I felt the years flow backwards. I admit, I was whipped at the end of those long days, aching and plain worn out. But I sure as hell never complained.
I volunteered to stay and help the load-out man, Butch, fill trucks and trailers with livestock, but Mike wouldn’t let me. “Goddamnit,” he’d say, “get home and git some rest.”
“I ain’t got a home.”
“You got a place to go at least, and you done a good day’s work. C’mon, I’ll drive you.”
Mike still had a shitload of work to do, but he drove me back to Another Chance after every sale, and slipped me an extra twenty dollar bill before I got out of his pickup. “You’re a good man, Hank” he said.
That was worth more than the paycheck.
Things were going so good, I had to hunt to find the bad. I had time to draw in the evenings and on weekends. Ms. Ott and I worked on budgeting my earnings, and she said both my Social Security and HUD housing voucher should be coming in soon. But during the next sale, fate come up and bit me in the ass.
Most of the day was going great as usual, but then two Brahma bulls, both weighing about 1500 pounds apiece, were put in the same pen by a junior college kid they hired, Brad. They should have been penned separate. Bulls get contrary, and those two got to fighting, butting heads, and pushing each other around like them fat Japanese wrestlers.
I tied Chico up in another pen by himself, grabbed a sorting stick and told Brad to run the gate. My plan was to separate them and drive one out of the pen and into the alley. Brad could slam the gate shut and then we could pen the other one separate.
I started whooping and hollering and banging my sorting stick against the ass of the bull nearest me. I should’ve used a hot shot, but didn’t have one. I was able to get him to turn his head and when he did, I whacked him along the jaw and he turned toward the gate. I screamed and kept pounding his ass with the stick. That old bull loped toward the alley, taking his time.
I hustled toward the gate as Brad closed it. I noticed his eyes got wide and his mouth fell open. He hollered, “Look out,” just as the other bull rammed me in the small of the back with that boulder-sized head of his. I went down on my face in the dirt and manure.
I tried to get to my feet, but the big bastard knocked me down again. My hat flew off and he stepped on my right leg. I screamed feeling it break.
Where he come from I don’t know, but Mike ran into the pen and shoved a hot shot in the bull’s face. He groaned and bellowed and backed away. “Can you stand?” asked Mike.
“Nope, leg’s busted.”
Mike charged at the bull and zapped him in the face again with the hot shot and then drug me out of the pen by my shirt. Brad closed and latched the gate. The poor kid was white with fear.
“Get that other fuckin’ bull penned-up and tell somebody to call an ambulance.”
Brad was frozen in place.
“Move your ass, kid. Now!”
After Brad did as he was told, I tried to roll over on my back.
“No!” said Mike. “Don’t move.”
“Why in the hell didn’t you yell for help? Goddamnit, you ain’t no spring chicken.”
“Can you gimme me my hat?”
I had surgery and they put a couple of pins in the bone. Mac, Ms. Ott, the good-lookin’ Facility Manger, Esperanza, and even the director, Ms. Page, came up to see me. While I appreciated it, I felt like a circus freak on display. When I was released, they moved me to Room Ten downstairs; a room normally reserved for disabled folks. Since it was near the kitchen, dining room, and downstairs bathroom, it was noisy as hell. Damn people. I had a walker to gimp around with, but could only go to the dining room, living room, and the front porch to smoke.
I ended up layin’ around like a vegetable. Mac knew I hated TV, so he set up a donated VCR in my room and brought me rental movies from a list I asked for. Stuff like The Professionals, The Wild Bunch, Hour of the Gun, Ulzana’s Raid, Lonesome Dove, and the like. But seeing them characters on horseback made me depressed about being stuck inside. I asked Mac if he could sneak me in a pint of hooch, but he just smiled, crossed his arms, and spouted the rule against drinking.
My housing voucher and Social Security came in about the same time. By then, I was moving without the walker. Well, limping. I got an apartment in an elderly/disabled hi rise in South Clinton behind the Alco store. I found a bed, dresser, couch, kitchen cookware, and some other stuff I’d need at the Salvation Army thrift store and a few other junk shops. Mac arranged for some church volunteers to help me move. They found me a TV and VCR combo unit, too.
After everything was set up and all the well-wishing and handshakes were done, they all left and I was alone.
Most of the other residents were either mentally ill, worn out, or just plain stupid. I tried to make conversation when we were outside smoking, but I had nothing in common with any of them. I was able to get a maintenance man to buy me a bottle of Jack Daniels, a 12-pack of beer, and some Red Man. That night I had me shots and beers in my room until I was pretty damn drunk. Regrets poured out of me. I kept retracing my life to this point, the choices I has made, trying to figure out what I could have done different.
Why am I still alive? I cried thinking of Shauna, of the life we could have had. She wanted to get married and settle down in Missoula. I put her off with Just a few more years, darlin’, and you can put a bit in my mouth. I loved her more than any woman I ever knew and let her get away because I didn’t want to be fenced-in. What I wouldn’t give to have been fenced-in with that woman now. She moved on before I was ready; married a goddamn banker and had two kids.
I thought about trying to find her number and calling her on the phone. And then what? Cry like some fucking baby over spilt milk?
Which is what I did right there in my chair. Tears poured out of me. I cried until my chest heaved. I could not understand how I could end up like this. Nothin’ but a busted-up old man in a tiny room waiting to die.
I wiped my eyes, I took up my charcoal, and began to draw. At that moment, I was what I felt, not what I really was.
I took a taxi over to Another Chance to see Mac early that morning. Esperanza said he was at another one of his meetings. I handed her a rectangular package wrapped in the Sunday funnies for wrapping paper. “Make sure you give this to him.”
“And I need the saddle bags I left in the closet. I forgot ‘em.” She handed them over, gave me a hug (Jesus, she smells good!), and I took the taxi back home—well, back to the place I was living. I’d gone to the liquor store the previous day and bought a six-pack of tall Buds and a pint of peppermint schnapps. I killed two of the Buds as I wrote the letter I slipped into Mac’s present. The envelope said: Open in the event of my death.
I slung my saddle bags over my shoulder, and walked out.
I was winded by the time I got to the sale barn. I went to the horse barn and found Mike. I asked him if I could take Chico out for a ride.
“Are you up to it?”
“Hell, yes,” I said. Mike helped me saddle Chico and I tied on my saddle bags. Swinging up into the saddle felt like real life, not the shit I’d been wading through the last couple of years. I took off west, riding through open pasture. I had Chico in an easy lope while I sipped on another of the tall beers. It was life. My life. Just riding and drinking and breathing and being. I wasn’t an old man, just a man. I felt the same as I did at twenty. If I could just keep riding, I might be twenty forever, might live forever. I drained the beer, crushed the can on my saddle horn, and stuck it in my jacket pocket. And then I unscrewed the cap off the schnapps, put it in the same pocket with the crushed can, and started drinking. The warmth was soothing from mouth to gut.
I drank and rode, road and drank. I kept my eye on a red-tailed hawk as he floated around the sky—the lucky bastard. He ended up swooping down and pouncing on a field mouse, plucked him up and took off. That old circle of life shit. The circle I was about to complete.
I pulled more and more on the schnapps bottle as the reality of what I was gonna do hit home. To not be here on this earth I could not make real in my head. I knew it would happen someday, but, hell, it was always in the future. But the future was now.
More schnapps and I cracked another beer. I had to get good and liquored-up to do what I planned. I kept thinking of Shauna and all the women I’d missed out on. But mostly her. Then I started thinking of my whole life. What had I done for seventy-six years other than punch cows and have fun? I wasn’t a success by what the world thinks, and sure as shit wasn’t rich, which is the only thing people think success means. Nobody’ll miss me when I’m gone. Why that bugged me, I dunno, but it did. Made me sound like a pussy, though. I just wish I’d made a mark. Done something that people would remember. Maybe then I wouldn’t feel like such a waste.
I tied Chico to a stump near a sprawling willow tree and dumped some grain on the ground to keep him occupied. I slipped the loaded Colt from my saddle bag and took it and the rest of my beer and schnapps to the tree and sat down, leaning against the bark. I felt good, relaxed. The more I drank, the more I wished I was Chico, the willow tree, the birds I saw swooping around, anything but me. I was sick of my racing thoughts. Why couldn’t I just react to the world directly, without memories, guilt, and regrets?
I took Shauna’s picture from my jacket and looked into her face, those eyes. I kissed her, struck a match, and set it on fire. I watched her face go up in red/blue flame and cried.
The Colt was chilly in my hand. I spun the cylinder and, yep, all six chambers were loaded. Not that I’d need them. I turned the barrel and looked down it. Just one pull of the trigger and Hank would be off this Earth forever. I decided to kill one of my two remaining beers, drain the schnapps, and then have one last beer before sticking the barrel up against the roof of my mouth at an angle where the bullet would rip up into my brain and cut the connection between me and the earth. Yep, that was the plan. But first, I needed to drain the rest of the booze.
After the last beer was done, I started chugging schnapps. For some reason, I started singing the song Mac had playing in his office, Old Paint. I could not sing worth a shit, but at that moment, by God, I sounded like Johnny Cash. To me, at least:
Well when I die
Take my saddle from the wall
Put it on my pony
And lead him from his stall
Tie my bones to his back
Turn our faces to the west
And we’ll ride the prairie
That we like the best
Somebody was shaking me. Goddamnit, let me sleep!
“Hank, wake up.”
I opened my eyes, pissed. Almost dark. Cold, too. Where am I?
“Hank, it’s me, Mac.”
I focused my eyes and, I’ll be damned, it was Mac. I looked around at the ground, saw my Colt, the empty cans and schnapps bottle. I heard Chico fart, and then I got my bearings. Aw, shit!
“Yeah, yeah. Must’ve fell asleep.” I sat up. “What the hell’re you doin’ out here?”
“Esperanza told me you came by with that drawing of a buffalo hunt, and you picked up your saddle bags. And pistol.”
“I was worried. I drove to the sale barn and they said you were out here riding Chico, so I thought I’d track you down.”
“Guess you did.”
“What’s the Colt for?”
“In case of snakes.”
“Too cold for snakes.”
“Oh, you never know,” I said, but we both knew what we knew.
“Let’s get Chico put up and I’ll buy you supper.”
“You sober enough to ride?”
I got to my feet. “Hell, yes.” I grabbed my Colt, unloaded it, and stuck it deep in a saddle bag. “I’ll ride back the way I come and meet you there.” I grabbed my left pant leg and stuck my boot in the stirrup before hoisting my still half-drunk ass into the saddle.
“You sure you’re not gonna stop along the way, maybe finish what you started?”
“Glad to hear it.”
“But that option is always on the table.”
“It’s your right. But I would miss you.”
“You’re a good man, Mac.” I turned Chico and gave him the heels.
“So are you,” Mac called after me.
Maybe I’d keep the Colt in my saddle bags a little bit longer, I reckon.