Western Short Story
“I see you guys ain’t done nothing to prettify this rathole,” Clem growled, sitting on his cot and looking at me and the other ranch hands. We was sitting on our cots, too, right there in the middle of the bunkhouse, which I gotta say wasn’t someplace you’d ever wanna bring your ma to. It wasn’t someplace you’d ever wanna bring anybody to, for that matter, except maybe another ranch hand--and only then if he wasn’t too particular about sights and sounds and smells. But I also gotta say that to me and the other hands and now Clem, who’d just come back to the ranch after being away since the weaning, it was home.
“It wasn’t so bad,” said Jordan, a kid that had joined the crew just before the branding, “till about a minute ago.”
Lester and a couple other guys snorted in a way I took to mean they thought Jordan was a funster.
Clem snorted, too, but in a way I took to mean he thought the kid was a banty rooster.
I’d known Clem for over fifty years, and most times I wasn’t riled by him. Don’t get me wrong. After a hot, dusty day full of feisty cattle and busted corral boards and other botherations, I could get a little flustrated by how he grouched, and how he huffed and puffed and moaned and groaned, and how in one way or another he seemed bound and determined to do his damnedest to try and make everybody else feel like shit. But, I’ll say it again, most times I wasn’t riled by him. And since we’d had an easy go of it today, the third day of the branding, I wasn’t riled by him tonight.
“I see that old man Fenton ain’t done nothing to prettify this crew, neither,” Clem growled again, giving Jordan the evil eye. “’Course, what else would you expect from him?”
Like I say, I knew Clem. He’d rode for Mr. Fenton before, and he could rope better than anybody we’d ever had on the place. He could also make himself high and mighty, but so could a lot of other ranch hands. They talk like they know more than the owner. I sometimes wanna ask ’em, If you know so much, why ain’t you an owner, not just a hand? But I never ask, ’cuz the answer’s plain as the spots on an Appaloosa.
Now, Jordan didn’t know Clem, but he did know Mr. Fenton, and he was real grateful to him, ’cuz of how Mr. Fenton had took care of Jordan and Jordan’s ma after Jordan’s pa, who’d worked on the ranch, died from the virus that come through the valley ten years back. Mr. Fenton paid for their bread and butter till Jordan’s ma went to heaven. By then, Jordan was old enough to do some cowboying himself--first in Colorado, then in Wyoming, and now here.
“Yeah, old man Fenton,” Clem went on, “he’s always been a fool.”
Jordan tightened up his jaw.
The kid was real good on a horse and on the ground, but he tended to be hotheaded like a lot of kids are, and he tended to be a little mouthy, too. I could see he was about to say something like Mr. Fenton ain’t a fool, but he does make some mistakes, like hiring you again. And I figured it wasn’t going to ease the situation, so I jumped in.
“Tell me, Clem,” I said, “you gonna rope some for Mr. Fenton tomorrow?”
“Hell, yes, Bobby,” he said. “The old bastard needs somebody that knows the difference ’tween a cow and a calf.”
I don’t have to say so, but I will anyway. I hadn’t eased the situation none. In fact, I’d given Clem the chance to rile up everybody. And typical of him, he’d done just that.
The guys squinted at one another, then shrugged and didn’t take no more offense, ’cuz they knew Clem, too.
But Jordan stood up and faced Clem.
And Clem stood up and faced Jordan.
I looked at the guys, hoping one of ’em would pull out a harp or a deck of cards. But nobody moved.
So I did.
I stood up and stepped between Clem and the kid.
“Jordan,” I said, “come outside for a minute, will you?”
I grabbed his arm, took a step, and tried to tug him along, but he didn’t follow.
Now, what the hell can you do when a feller don’t wanna come with you? You got him by the arm, and you’re tugging, but he ain’t moving. Do you tug harder? You could, but it wouldn’t make no difference. So I dropped his arm.
“You’d be doing me a favor,” I said with half a heart, not really expecting him to do it.
But he surprised me.
He grunted and followed me through the doorway, which didn’t have no door in it ’cuz Lester had broke off the hinges tonight when he’d brought Clem out from the train station.
Jordan and I stopped on the porch.
“Mr. Fenton is a great man,” he said, “and his ranch is a great place. And you can say anything you wanna, but you ain’t gonna stop what’s gonna happen when we go back in there.”
I’da said that Clem was a foot taller, a hundred pounds heavier, and a hell of lot meaner than him, but it wouldn’ta mattered. Heighth and weight and meanness never matter to somebody that’s gotta do what he feels is right.
“No, I ain’t gonna stop what’s gonna happen,” I said, “But before it does, I want you to know something.”
“Clem is Dutch on his pa’s side,” I said. “And them Dutchmen, they talk gruff to everybody ’cuz that’s the way they was talked to when they was young’uns.”
“That’s what you want me to know?”
“Not the whole of it,” I said.
I always try not to let the cat out of the bag, ’specially when the guy that owns the cat and the bag has begged me not to, and more ’specially when I’ve given my word I wouldn’t.
“Well,” the kid said, “tell me the rest.”
I knew I shoulda followed the old saw that advises Never miss a good chance to shut up, but I’d gone this far, so I figured I might as well go all the way.
“Clem had a tough go of it this winter,” I said. “He lost his wife.”
“So she died,” the kid said. “At least she’s shed of the son of a bitch.”
“No,” I said. “She’s alive, but he lost her.”
“So she walked out on him. I don’t blame her.”
“No,” I said. “She didn’t walk out, not even hardly. She come down with a real bad kinda arthuritis. She stopped moving, then stopped talking, then stopped eating. And Clem couldn’t do nothing more for her.”
The kid puckered up his mouth.
“He told me it damned near killed him when he had to take Mr. Fenton up on the offer to pay for her to go into that sanitarium back East,” I said. “Then he made me give my word I wouldn’t tell nobody, ’cuz he didn’t want nobody to feel sorry for him.”
“So why you tellin’ me?”
“’Cuz I feel sorry for him,” I said. “And I figure you might, too.”
The kid tightened up his jaw and looked away.
“Well,” I said, “that’s all I got to say.”
He looked back at me, then went into the bunkhouse.
I looked down at my boots, then went in, too.
I stopped beside my cot and looked up. The guys was still sitting where they’d been, and Clem was still standing where he’d been, all two hundred and eighty pounds of him, all two hundred and eighty pounds of muscle and mean.
Jordan walked right up to him.
“So Bobby’s been telling you how tough I had it this winter,” Clem said. “Well, to hell with him! And to hell with you! And to hell with this ranch, this lousy, stinking, wrong-working ranch!”
“You gonna leave?” the kid asked.
“Who the hell would make it work right if I did?” Clem shouted. “Not you, not Bobby, not Lester, not these other Monkey Ward cowboys here, and not that old fool bastard Fenton!”
“Mr. Fenton is a great man,” the kid said.
“Like hell he is!” Clem shouted.
“Like hell he is,” the kid said real soft.
“Then why’s his ranch such a shithouse?”
“His ranch is great,” the kid said. “But I can’t say the same for one of the fellers on it, ’cuz that feller don’t fit in--and never will.”
Clem stared at him.
He stared at Clem.
Then I’ll be damned if Clem didn’t blink.
“That feller’s gotta leave,” the kid said.
You know how when you pick up an egg, the shell seems hard, but when you tap it on the edge of a frying pan, it cracks all to pieces and everything inside pours out? Well, that’s just what happened to Clem. He plopped down on his cot, and I swear to God some big ol’ tears run down his face.
And then the kid surprised me again. He surprised all of us.
“So,” he said, “I’m hittin’ the trail.”
He picked up his war bag and walked toward the doorway.
I wanted to say something. I was sure the guys wanted to say something, too. But nobody said nothing.
Except Clem, who put the pieces of his shell back together again real quick.
“If Lester hadn’ta broke the door,” he shouted, “I’da swung it after you and hollered, ‘Don’t let it hit you where the Good Lord split you!’”
He busted out laughing.
And Jordan surprised all of us again.
The man just kept walking.