Western Short Story
I first spotted the old man when he came riding into Colorado City on a lame paint. His gear was faded and worn. When he sold horse, saddle, and bridle to the hostler at the livery, not much money was exchanged. Everything about him was well used---including himself. He was a tough old man, the leathery kind. He had a face weathered by the sun, and it looked like he had lived a hard life and earned every wrinkle. There sure were a lot of them.
School was over for the summer and I was helping Ma and Pa at the store. I was sweeping the porch when I first saw the stranger and figured he was an old frontiersman stopping for supplies. I was surprised when he sold his horse and gear, and even more surprised when he entered the store with the advertisement. He walked right up to the counter and spoke to Pa. Old, he may have been, but there was a spry way about him. He was wearing a wide sombrero, a stained buckskin shirt and yellow neckerchief, worn corduroy pants, and big old boots. On his hips he wore a wide belt with a pistol and a large skinning knife.
“This here cabin still for sale?” asked the oldster.
“Why sure, stranger,” answered Pa. “You fixin’ to live here?”
“I reckon it’ll be my last stand,” the old man commented. “Says here a hunnerd dollars. That include a well and a hunnerd feet on both sides?”
“Yes, sir,” answered my Pa curiously.
“That there place fit to live in?”
“It needs some work. Some cleaning, and repairing. But the roof’s sound.”
“How do I see it?”
“My son’s there on the porch. He’ll take you down and show you. We don’t keep it locked.”
That old man walked out on the porch and focused his grey eyes on me. I felt as if he took my measure and summed me up before ever speaking.
“Well, boy, you gonna sweep or show me your Pa’s cabin?”
“I’ll, I’ll,” I stammered.
“Well, spit it out, boy.”
“I’ll show it to you, sir.”
Seems like on that walk down to the far end of town the old man put me at my ease, I never stuttered in his presence again. He asked me a lot of questions and, being that it was a small stamping mill town for the mines, I knew everybody and everything he asked. He mentioned needing supplies. I told him Ma and Pa asked fair prices and would appreciate his business.
We made it to the cabin, and he took a walk around the outside. After a long gander at the mountains behind, he commented on the view. Then he tried the well, and the pump was dry and wouldn’t suck. I told him Pa would fix it. The old man pushed hard on the warped back door and entered. We walked around in the dust and dirt of the two room cabin. I was plumb embarrassed at the condition of the place.
“I’ll help you fix it up, mister,” I said. “Sorry it’s so dusty dirty. No ones been in it for a year.”
“Well, that’s right neighborly of you, boy,” he answered.
“My names Teddy,” I told him. “Short for Theodore. Pa named me after Roosevelt.”
“Right glad to know yeah, Teddy,” responded the old man.
He shook my hand and his grip was rock solid. It made me feel respected and all growed up. We walked back to the store and I was afraid he wouldn’t buy the cabin. I wanted to get to know this strange man, and I was delighted when he laid out five twenty dollar gold pieces on my Pa’s counter.
“I want you to throw in this boy for a few days cleaning. I’ll be buying supplies and I’ll especially be wantin that there rocker you got outside on the porch.”
“Why sure, ah…Mister…?”
“Haven’t been called by my right name since I was a youngster,” said the old man. “Some folks have called and known me by a lot of names. Now the Injuns, they had a way of naming a man. The Cheyenne used to call me Big Man Walking. The Crows, well, let’s just say they had a harder one. Heck, one names good as another. Supposin, you just call me Sandy.”
And that was the introduction the old man made to our little town.
Sandy settled in. After him and me fixed up that cabin, it looked right homey on the inside. We became good friends, and I took to spending all my free time down there. He was most interesting, and the things he had seen and done were better than any stories out of some book. His talk was more thrilling than the school marm’s. When I told Ma and Pa, they just sort of stared at each other, and put hands to their mouths. They didn’t believe his tales. But I did. That old man was telling the truth.
Sometimes I felt that what he was saying was so important it should be written down. At night, lying in my bed, I wondered that I should know a man who had lived so long---a man who had met so many famous people. He was like a walking history book. Why he had known just about everybody. He spoke of Kit Carson, Jedediah Smith, Uncle Dick Wooten, Black Kettle, all sorts of folks. There was no telling how old that man was, but he had lived a long time. He kept talking about being afeared of dying with his boots off. The way he went on about it, I sometimes thought he was ashamed he had survived.
“Teddy, it ain’t fittin for a man to grow so old he can’t do for himself. I was afeared of this. My mammy and her folks all lived to more’n a hunnerd years old. Never dreamed it would happen to me.”
Sandy took to sitting in that rocker, with his face full to the hot western sun. He would sit for hours and stare off across to the Greenhorn and Wet Mountains. Each day I would come and see him there. Sometimes I wasn’t sure he was still breathing. He liked to bake those old bones of his. One day, I came to ask and listen for another story. He was sitting there, like always, staring off at the mountains. I kept thinking he was still as death. And that time, he was.