Western Short Story
My name is Jerome Ira Barnes. Everyone just calls me Jib. It took me a long time to get comfortable being called Jib. I guess I have Mr. Will Gates to thank for explaining how some people just like to give out nicknames. Actually, I owe Mr. Will Gates my life. Here is why.
When Smiley Wilson an old friend suggested that we go camping up north, I agreed. Originally being from what some people refer to as the ‘backwoods’, I felt quite at home in the mountains. My childhood home may have seemed a little rustic to some because our running water consisted of two streams going past our place. Our neighbor, Mr. Gates, was a handy-man by trade. He and my pa fixed up the ol’ cabin so we two bachelors (my ma past away when I was only ten months old) could live there.
Our needs were simple ones. Mr. Gates explained to pa the procedures in arranging with the power company to have electricity brought to us. Pa never liked telephones, but agreed to one because of me. He felt it was important to be in touch with the outside world when a child is around. Other than the telephone and a small radio, our comforts were simple. Reluctantly, pa had an old car sitting around to take me to school and in case of an emergency. Fortunately, we never needed the car for emergencies.
I laid all of this out for you in hopes that what I have to say is not only believable in your eyes, but a way of telling the world that not everything that goes bump in the night is evil.
What I remember the most about Mr. Will Gates was that he would never turn down my pa’s request for some help around the cabin or the small patch of ground we called a vegetable garden. My idea of growing the tomatoes on poles because the ground was almost always damp was hailed by pa and Mr. Gates. I remember Mr. Gates saying that I would become a respectable adult someday. He said anyone at my age (I was ten years old at the time) who could come up with something like I did about the tomatoes, would be a force to be reckoned with. Of course, back then I had no idea what that meant. By the time I was nineteen years old, I found out.
My pa had made a considerable amount of money in his younger days. When he met my ma he already owned three gas stations and three motels in our town. It was ma’s love for the countryside with the mountains as a backdrop, that made pa ‘see the light’. He sold off everything except one motel. He put his money to good use and it grew and grew. We eventually moved from the countryside into the mountains. Between the investments and the motel, we never hurt for money. The way we lived in the mountains was by choice not because we had too.
Pa died suddenly. He was on the porch; talking with Mr. Gates when he grabbed his chest, and let out a small moan, then fell dead. That was the day I realized what Mr. Gates had said so many years back. Because of pa’s dying so suddenly, I had to learn about the outside world as fast as possible. Fortunately for me, Mr. Gates was there to help. It was from his guidance and the schools I attended that I learned that life is not only what you make it; it’s also what you make of it. Thanks to Mr. Will Gates, I became that force to be reckoned with, at least in the business world.
Now, twenty-years later, Smiley Wilson and I are going camping in the same woods I lived in as a boy. I had moved away from the cabin shortly after pa died and stayed in the motel we still owned. Up until the last fifteen years, I saw Mr. Gates off and on, because of his mentoring me while I went to school. Our time together was becoming less and less because I became so wrapped up in business deals. I sometimes missed seeing the friendly man.
Mr. Gates never did ask me if I wanted to stay with him and I never asked him if I could. It just didn’t seem right that a nineteen year-old man couldn’t live on his own. My pa taught me to be able to do it and by the grace of God, I did it. These thoughts of the past came back to me only because Smiley wanted to fish.
Smiley said he knew of a portion of the lake that the largest bass lived. I couldn’t bring myself to tell him that they were probably the off-spring of some of the ones I caught when I was a boy living up there. I never told Smiley or anyone else that my childhood started out in what some call ‘hillbilly country’. I played along with his path blazing all the while wondering to myself ‘why is he going this way?’ When we finally arrived at his secret ‘camp-site’, I had to mentally staple my mouth shut. He took us to the exact spot my pa and I fished at, so many years ago. It was too late to fish. It would be dark soon and up there (according to Smiley) you didn’t fish by lantern because the bugs would eat you alive. Where he heard that ol’ tale I never did find out. Pa and I did our best fishing at night. When we arrived we set up camp and planned on getting up early the next day. That was the plan. Unfortunately, plans don’t always work out to your benefit.
Our tent was sized for four adults, it was because of the variety of equipment and food containers we had with us, we needed a large tent. Not to mention that Smiley and I are both fairly good-sized ourselves. We had to leave our truck a mile from our camp-site. So everything we had came into the tent. We both knew from our previous camping trips, it is best to keep all of your foods inside while you sleep. You never know what may come around looking for a free meal. A zippered flap isn’t much protection from a large animal on the prowl, but it does keep out the ‘little-critters’.
I’m not sure of what time it happened, but I got the urge to answer the call of nature. I took the little shovel, the paper, etc, along with a battery-powered lamp. I went about thirty feet from the tent when the pain hit me in the small of my back. I hit the ground and instinctively rolled over to see what hit me. A very young, but ravenous bobcat attacked me. It must have been out of its mind with pangs of hunger. As quickly as it hit me, it ran away, surely thinking to itself, that it was about to bite off more than it could chew… literally. My scream of agony awoke Smiley. He was at my side, pistol in hand, before I could stop screaming.
The bobcat’s claws or teeth must have hit a large vein, because I was laying in a large pool of blood. ‘My blood’ I remembered thinking. “I’m going to bleed to death out here.’ I tried to sound tough, asking Smiley if he could see well enough in the lamplight. I heard my voice trembling. I hoped that he didn’t.
“I gotta stop the bleeding, ol’ buddy. Hang in there. This is going to hurt a lot. I’ll be right back.” He took off toward the tent. I could hear him rustling around looking for something. After a couple of minutes… or maybe tens of years later, he was back. He had another lamp, and the portable burner we use for cooking, which he lit, a buck knife he put on the burner and a bucket… with mud in it. I was in no condition to ask him what he was doing. I was too busy trying not to feel the pain in my back.
It took him about five minutes to get to working on stopping the bleeding. He examined the wound, and then he placed a very cold cloth on it. “That should help ease the pain. I’m almost ready to stop the bleeding.” With minimal light to work by, he cleansed the gash in my back and began to stop the bleeding. Hoping that watching him stitch me would help me keep from blacking out, (which I now realize that blacking out would have been the thing to do) I craned my neck looking over my shoulder and saw how he stitched most of the hole closed. To my surprise, he reached into the bucket and pulled out a handful of mud. He applied it and then packed cloth strips over it. For some reason the pain of the needle going into me countless times didn’t cause me to pass out, but the mud pack did. I passed out moments after it was laid on my wounds.
Several hours later, I awoke to the smell of fish cooking. I was hungry, I was curious as to how long I slept and most of all I was astounded that I was feeling no pain. I needed to find out from him what miracle drug he used on me. I was about to call out to him when he turned around and smiled at me and said. “How about that? Right on time. He said that the mud mixture would not only work to heal you but it would knock you out for at least six hours.” He looked at his watch just to make sure what he said was on track. “Yep. Six hours. How that old coot knew that, I’ll never know.” He filled a plate of food and headed toward me as he said, “when my father and his father use to come up here, the old man who lived around here would come over to visit them. He would tell my dad, who was a little kid at the time, all kinds of things. He would tell him when the fishing was good and how to take care of yourself if you ever get hurt or attacked by an animal. That mud- pack I put on you was one of his secrets. He made dad swear to God that he would never give away the stuff that goes into it. I don’t know if its true, but he said that once dad told anybody except a family member what it was, it wouldn’t work anymore. I really don’t know how true that is, but why chance it?”
I took the food and just as I took a forkful, I mentioned that I too once had a mentor up here. “Boy, that’s sounds familiar. When my pa and I lived up here, or pretty close to here and old man who befriended pa and me seemed to know exactly what you needed when you needed it the most. I sure miss the ol’ guy. I got so busy with my life that I lost track of him just about fifteen years ago. He was pretty old, so, I’m guessing that Old Mr. Gates is probably dead and gone by now.”
Smiley was standing in front of me holding a plate of fish he had been picking at, listening to me go on about Mr. Gates and how helpful the man had been. He turned pale and dropped his plate. He stared at me for so long that I started to ask if he was OK. “Smiley? What happened? Are you… ”
He stammered, then caught himself and slowly asked me, “Did you say Mr. Gates? Will Gates? It can’t be. No way in God’s name could it be the same man. He was old when my dad was a kid.”
After hearing Smiley say, that I became upset, figuring he somehow knew about the old man and he was playing games with me. I let him know that I didn’t appreciate the joke.
“Joke? No joke, Jib. My dad always talked about Mr. Will Gates. It was Mr. Will Gates this, Mr. Will Gates that. This is strange. It can’t be the same man. Add up the years. My dad died at seventy-two. The way dad described him; Mr. Gates was already in his sixties when they met. My dad has been gone for eight years now. I’m no math genius, but we’re looking at least a hundred and forty years. He must have had a son who lived up here also.”
I couldn’t believe I heard Smiley talking so nutty. He was always a sensible guy. But, he was sounding very strange. I offered an idea. “Look, Smiley. I really don’t feel like fishing or camping anymore. That whole bobcat thing last night has taken its toll on me. What say we pack it up and head home?”
Surprisingly, he agreed. “Yeah. Ya know, I kinda lost the feeling too. You take it easy and I’ll load the truck.”
We were almost out of the park when we spotted the Ranger’s Station. We agreed that we would go in and report the bobcat incident for the safety of other campers. We drove into the parking area. As we went up the stairs and approached the office door, a bronze plaque caught our eye. We walked up to it and read the inscription. We both felt a sickening in our stomachs after we read:
This park is dedicated to Wilfred Gates, the 1838 pioneer who crossed these mountains and blazed the trail so others may seek out a new life.------------Wilfred Gates 1820-1888.
Smiley and I drove home and never talked again about Mr. Will Gates.