Western Short Story
So it was a two-way watch for a few quiet but busy weeks, and herd branding completed and a drive scheduled for the end of the month, just after a dance was set up in town by the town fathers.
Trendle walked into the bunkhouse and announced his schedule of duties for the night of the dance to the six hands in the bunkhouse, three and three bunking opposite each other. “I got two pieces of paper in my hands,” he said and held out his fists. “One says ‘stay’ and one says ‘go’ and that’s for dance night, ‘cause we all can’t go, and of course I’m goin’ ‘cause I’m the honcho. Now who wants to pick a hand?”
Gavelin leaped from his bunk and said, “Let me do that, Gus. For our side over here.”
Gus looked around the room and said, “Any objections?”
None came, so he held out his two fists and said, “You pick, Merchant.”
Gavelin picked the left, Trendle handed him the slip of paper, and Gavelin unfolded the paper and said, “We go,” and looked jubilantly at the others on his side of the room.
Trendle opened the piece of folded paper in his other hand, saw “Go” in his own handwriting, showed it to one of the others and turned around and punched Merchant Gavelin so hard in the face that he sprawled flat out on the floor, almost unconscious. The liar shook his head and sat up.
“You lyin’ son of a bitch, you’ll stay the night of the dance or you’re gone forever from here. Is that understood?” Then he stomped out of the bunkhouse.
Verna heard about it from the cook, Lem Too Sin, who heard it from one of the hands. “’Magine him tryin’ to fool Gus like Gus was an idiot? What makes a man so stupid like that? Gus is no idiot. Gus is smart. Gus knows his way around things. I smell trouble from a troublemaker. I see how he beats a horse sometime when nobody is around to see him do it. Like he’s mad at the whole ranch and takes it out on the poor horse. He doesn’t like my dog either. Likes to tease him when I work in the kitchen, but I see, and hear him. The dog knows too.”
Lem Too’s dog was a barrel-chested golden mix of who-knows-what in dogs. Lem Too found him as a puppy and named him Huang Hu the yellow tiger, and when nobody was around the pair of them, Lem Too Sin would talk to Huang Hu in his native tongue, always looking around to see who was too close. “你是从动物的伟大的比赛，这就是为什么我给你打电话黄虎，和大家分享古老的智慧，我们听到风的，你和.”
(“You are from a great race of animals, that is why I call you Huang Hu, and we share the wisdom of the ancient ones, for we hear it on the wind, you and I.”)
Verna had an answer to Lem Too Sin’s warnings, but didn’t like it; things weren’t supposed to be like this and she looked forward to the dance, knowing it would be a good time, knowing that Laird’s arms would be around her for much of the evening. That contentment was different from all the deeds she had accomplished and what they had brought her; she finally realized what love could do to her, for her. Her ride to Mountain City was full of new expectations, new hope, and life was a grand feeling as she looked at the sweep of the land, the grass running for green miles, the majestic rise of the Tetons crowding the blue of the sky where an eagle flew a lazy flight high over her head looking for the next meal. Perhaps that next catch would be brought back to the nest for one or two young ones cradled in the high peaks of a nearby mountain or the chiseled scarp of a steep cliff where the young waited, their heads cranked up looking for sight of the parent out on the hunt.
It all made her heart jump around, and in her mind she heard the music long before the playing began, the ride into Mountain City a sudden and whole new experience for her.
At dusk, as the sun pushed down beyond the Tetons, as it let go its grip on the land, Gallivan’s Barn appeared all lit up with a dozen oil lamps and streamers hanging every which way in every gay and bright color. Signs of welcome hung all over the outer walls, and claimed the eyes again on entering.
The dance was a huge success from start to finish. It came with a mixture of guitars and fiddles and the old piano brought all the way from Independence to Mountain City in a wagon by Gus Lawton, the freighter. That grand instrument was shot at by bandits, and hit by bullets, and never was one of its wires disturbed or one of its keys. Gus Lawton swore ever after that during the gunfight, when he and his shotgun rider were fending off the bad guys, he could hear notes coming from the piano even while it was under a canvas cover.
“I heard some notes that day like they was from my mother’s piano back in Peoria and her at the keys and me at her feet with some of my pals and she could calm the band of us kids or all the wild horses in a canyon or a pack of hungry peccaries with her playing. And I’ll swear to you that I swore to myself and my dear mother that I would not let this magic thing be taken or hurt by any fool thinkin’ he could.”
He stopped short in his words, as though he was seeing an old image, and continued, “When you’re hearin’ some of these notes from its low end, you’ll get my drift, for music ain’t just the invisible sounds you hear, but the pictures they kick up in your mind, like they was just waitin’ on your listenin’ for them. And I heard them notes that day and you can hear them if you was just to listen like you got no place to go today and no way to get there anyways. I’ll hold sacred forever that music is magic and sickness can get cured or fixed by music if it’s the right kind like the good mothers can play.”
The notes from that dark instrument the night of the dance were heard as if coming from a cave, or down from the far end of a tunnel into the heart of a mountain. The music was played all night, and if a townsman had not stepped inside the barn and was anywhere in hearing distance, he’d be clicking his heels on some floor or the boardwalk along the main street or up in a hotel room and soon called out of his lodgings by the music.
The highlight, musically, of the evening further lit up the dance when a dozen fiddlers from surrounding ranches and towns both down and up the river, set up and began an impossibly marvelous heel-and-toe series of songs, and then swung into a significant session of melodies and old cowboy songs to please the souls of those in or near the barn. The lovers swooned, the cowpokes felt their horses at a trot or a gallop all according to the songs played that night. And the old favorites rang out, the way a single guitar player or a fiddler did his plucking by a trail’s campfire, locking mind and memory onto other places and other faces, even as the words came at them. The dancers went swooping with Annabel Lee, and I’m Riding Home Again and My Fair Lady at Home Remains and Down by the River Lived a Maiden and A Cowboy’s Love Song and felt their hearts break and held their partners close as Johnny Randall’s Gone Away, Johnny Randall ‘s Bound to Stray sifted off into the night and dancing partners and lovers and dearest friends shared the grief about Johnny Randall, knowing joy sometimes comes right out of the heart though it’s borne with sadness for another person in this life.
Gus Trendle, in a corner, sipping slowly at a drink slightly touched-up, watched as Verna and Dockery merged closer as a couple, the music catching them up just as he felt the liquor catching him up. It made him think of Merchant Gavelin, and an edge came into his thinking, its disturbance warning him about the critter he called Mr. Ornery. Any more shenanigans out of him, against Verna or Dockery, who was obviously going to be her husband down the road a ways, and he’d personally step in as protector of the young girl he had first seen when the bridge was built and she hired him, looking into his eyes like she was some creature from another place and had the power to see his mind. And accepting what she had seen.
The young couple seemed the happiest of all those at the affair. They were so close and so secretive in their talks that tongues went wagging for days afterward in Mountain City, five miles from the other side of Verna’s bridge.
That news, whether gaining other fancies in the telling or not, naturally was told to Gavelin by the two hands who had gone to the dance with Dockery and Trendle, and told to him with glee, as Mr. Ornery was disliked by those who worked with him and they often employed the jibe or the twist of a fact to get under his skin. And that dislike had continued to grow because of the attempted cheating incident, among other doings.
Verna’s parents also got into the act, her mother first, saying that she never trusted Gavelin from the first day and her father saying he was a damned good horseman and could break in a horse as good as any man he had seen at the task. “That boy’s not afraid of anything,” Paul Brody said at dinner one evening. “I saw him go into that stall the night Ginger went wild, like he didn’t even take a second breath. I’m guessing there are some things in this argument that I am not aware of and that I don’t wish to get into. You women folk seem to be working those considerations that we men folk should be attending to.”
Verna, as was her habit for a good spell when work was going on in a good fashion, the herd tended to and getting fatter, kept at her lone rides also, but always in the peak of the day when she could see all the beauty of the valley … the waterfall, the grass leaping in its greenery, the air sometimes so soft on her face and the back of her neck that it made her think she was under a spell of contentment that would never end. She had found her heaven and loved it dearly, but now envisioned some kind of hurt coming down the trail or over the mountain, and realizing finally that it was already here.
More than once she had been interrupted on her ride by Gavelin who would slip out of a wooded area and come up behind her with an obvious insincere greeting, such as, “Say, Verna, it sure is strange to meet you out here. I thought your ride would be over by now. My guess at the hour of the clock must be way off, but I’ll ride along with you, if I can, right back to the ranch. That is, if you don’t mind.”
She would not believe him for a second, but never brought up her thoughts to him. “Let him be, loser that he is,” she might have said to herself. “No sense of adding another sorry trick to the situation.” Such a reaction would only run around the dinner table as well as the bunkhouse and get everybody, including her parents, her foreman and Laird Dockery, caught up in the mix. One of them would surely step into it and mess things up further.
The many small incidents that generally pointed at Dockery, like stolen property being discovered in his saddle bag or under his bunk and other obvious places, placed more testaments against Gavelin than Dockery. The other cow hands, and the foreman, all figured that Mr. Ornery sat behind the pointing, behind the left-handed pointing.
Nobody ever saw Gavelin doing the dirty work, though they stayed on the alert much of the time. But he was as smooth in trying to condemn another man, a suitor opponent, as he was at breaking in horses or riding the toughest ones to handle.
The situation, in some degrees of difference on occasion, was a lingering topic of conversation among ranch hands, Verna’s parents somewhat on opposite sides, and local citizens of Mountain City who sat in the saloon on too many afternoons with nothing else to talk about. That was especially true of those who mixed card playing, real hard card playing, into their daily lives. It was almost, with some of them, like reading Tarot cards or gypsy cards when a hand was dealt to them that they needed, or felt their blood stop its course when a poor card was turned over in a big game; the lot of them felt like the romance between Merchant Gavelin and Verna Brody or the romance between her and Laird Dockery plain as daylight depended on the turn of the cards, the river card, the final piece not yet in place. A loser of a big pot, according to which side of the romantic war he might be on, would say, “Damned if it don’t tell me that’s a Gavelin card, plain as lookin’ at it, loser from the word go. I was only tryin’ to fill a good flush and got the odd man, the Jack of Spades and not the Jack of Hearts. I plain got the Gavelin card this time around. A loser by the nose.”
The odd affair of hearts was wide open in the Double M bunkhouse also, which bothered Gus Trendle. He often made his feeling on the matter an open matter. “I don’t need much of this love blabber when you’re workin’ and I sure don’t want to hear it when I’m tryin’ to sleep, so keep your accounts of the situation out of my reach. It ain’t appreciated here. Verna makes up her own mind on all matters, as you damned well better know by now, so leave it be.”
One cowhand, eventually whispering to another, said, “I’ll tell it straight out, Kirby, that when I fall in love with a woman, I hope that I don’t get it like Merchant boy, all hung up in how to get what he wants and not takin’ into account what he really wants out of all of it. I think he hates the pretty boy in Laird more than he thinks he loves Verna who ain’t havin’ none of him and won’t ever on which I’d bet my next six months’ pay or I ain’t no good at lookin’ at women and havin’ a mind of my own in it. Course, I ain’t got too much real good experience in these things.”
The laugh was low and guttural and fully aimed at his own inefficiencies in things romantic.
His pard, thinking over all things that had been tossed at him, said, “I wouldn’t bet on Merchant either, and I sure won’t bet against Laird ‘cause we both can see how Verna lights up about him no matter where she is, even us bein’ right there in the open with her. Wouldn’t it be this side of heaven to have a woman like her dote on you like that? What kind of luck does it take to get that done, will you tell me? I ain’t ever been that lucky even back in Turtle Box in the territory when Molly Clare said she favored me over the devil his self. Course, we was busy at the time and that might have twisted her tongue so that it scared the hell right out of me.”
The healthy laughter ran right around the bunkhouse and barbs and other slingshots of words came riding on the air, all of them from cowpokes who felt the same way about love and women and the mix in life and always managed to bring some humor to their shortcomings, and their real lonesomeness.
When the fire started in a corner of the barn, and Gus Trendle spotted the first wisps of smoke as he sat on a log in front of the bunkhouse, all hell broke loose. No sooner did he set off the alarm than he started trying to keep in sight where and how and when Merchant Gavelin made himself available for firefighting. In his rush, though, he missed the appearance of Mr. Ornery, who was at his elbow and pitching in with water like he had never been away from bed or night watch.
The fire was put out with a burst of energy by all hands, and a small lamp was found burnt out at the center of the mess, a lamp no one had seen before. It did not come from the bunkhouse or the ranch house and all of them said they had never seen it before.
Only Dockery admitted to have seen it, “but I can’t remember where,” he said when questioned by Trendle and then by Verna herself.
“I have seen that lamp, but where is a mystery to me, like it sat in the corner of my eye someplace and I never paid it much mind.” A solid frown passed across his face, doubt fully in place.
Gavelin offered that the lamp may have been from Dockery’s deep past. “None of us know really where you came from, Laird, and how you ever got here. Not that it matters too much, unless you’re the one who set it in place to start a fire. Nobody gains anything here from the fire. But it might well have put some of us out of a job if it really got going.”
“Merchant, you can speak a lot planer than that,” Trendle said. “You have a whole series of problems that make their way from a dark place down inside your gut. You have a strange way of making your point on matters or shoving yourself in places where it really looks like you’re not wanted.”
“If you wasn’t the boss,” Gavelin answered, “I’d punch you right in the mouth.” He had his fists clenched but didn’t employ them.
“Oh, big man, you had a chance or two to bust me one and never got around to standing up to do it. I don’t see nothing now to make that any different. Where were you when the fire broke out? Where you been for the evening?”
“I just been around. Couldn’t sleep like Dockery there can’t sleep and got to go out there to who knows where every night it seems. Maybe he meets someone out there that has ideas on getting this place in his grubby hands. Like some old pal from that wherever he come from when he landed here like it was a whole accident happening, him finding the bridge, coming on like he was lost and found. I plain don’t feature none of that, and I don’t care how close you think you are with Verna, Gus, ‘cause she’ll cut you out of things in a minute if Mr. Wonderful gets his way in things. For me, all I ever tried to do was keep things in the right line. Maybe I did it all wrong, but I ain’t the bad dog in this mess. I bet you ain’t ever thought of it that way, have you?”
He looked at the other hands and added, “I never hurt none of you and never let you down when I had a chance to help, like when you was cornered in that canyon, Kirby, and was feared you wouldn’t get back to a hot supper on the table. I was in it up to my neck then, and you know it. I don’t suppose you’re going to forget that now, are you, just because Mr. Pleasant there is on the other end of the see-saw from me?”
Kirby, looking as if he was in the middle of it all, said, “I never forgot that, Merchant. I never said I forgot it. I ain’t forgot it now either. Why’d you carry me in on this? It’s like you’ll do anythin’ to get out from under. That just sits kind of bad with me. I ain’t sayin’ I forgot and I ain’t sayin’ for sure that you’re a fire starter, but I have to keep my head up and gettin’ air or I’m too deep to get out. I just ain’t smart like you or Gus or Laird, or Verna, for all that matter. I’m just a cowpoke what tries to do his job and not get in any traps, though that one time when you saved my butt.”
He stared hard at Gavelin, as though it was the first time he had ever seen him clearly, the way a body is silhouetted on a ridge and light all around him, or in the doorway of a brightly lit room, just like this moment with all kinds of illumination showing all the parts of Merchant Gavelin.
All that illumination made him conscious of other parts of the relationship, and they spilled from him. “It’s just the way you carry on about things you know, Merchant, and things you think you’re tellin’ me and teachin’ me for the first time. It’s how you use things common as all hell, like you’re the great teacher, like you think you taught me all that stuff about horses and how I’d be better off if you taught me the real stuff, like when their ears go flickerin’ and tossin’ about that they’re hearin’ somethin’ you ain’t heard yet yourself and better pay attention. Hell, man, my pa taught me that when I was hardly off his lap, because your horse is your best pal out there on the grass or on a lonely trail and you’re huntin’ down loose cows wandered off in their hungers or their thirst.”
He caught his breath, the sudden silence in the bunkhouse casting him a centerpiece of the group for the first time ever. It hit him that this would be his last time doing it, too, so he let it go, freed a lot of things that had built up in him as he stood there in the middle of the room, blond hair like a mop on his head, a beard one could hardly see in its lightness, concern on his face as though all of life had gathered in him.
Even Gus Trendle, measurer of men at all angles, was seeing Kirby fully for the first time, saw his eyes with a fire not seen before, and a staunch tone in his voice, strong as it ever had been, and his body standing its ground the way it had in a forgotten stampede. Trendle nodded with his keen acceptance the spirit of the man.
“I ain’t so dumb as you thought I was, Merchant,” Kirby continued. “There’s stuff I knew before you came along with all your schoolhouse lessons.” He carried on, aware of the lone chance in this short life, being up front of all his pards. “It’s like when your horse’s ears are stood up alert and facin’ forward, ‘cause that’s when the critter is just sayin’ he’s glad you’re around and sure would like another apple out of your hand or a carrot, meanin’ he’s hungry and happy you’re ridin’ him. But all the time you’re tryin’ to make me think you’re smarter than me, while you’re tossin’ me right in front of a runaway wagon or a wild-ass, bull-run stampede.”