Western Short Story
He stood like a tree on the edge of the burning desert, the last of its kind, the last of its breed, not a small bit of it coveted by a single pair of eyes out of the universe of men mounted on horses, passing on to the near-infinite deserts, the Chihuahua and Mojave. He was the most desolate-looking man many men had ever seen. They studied his eyes and wondered what in the world he had seen, heard the crackle in his voice as if from the back-end of a destroyed chicken house, could tell his body had known some awful kind of torture the way it leaned away from the day and was seeking darkness and being hidden from what else might come along to plague him, what had made life the rotten Hell it was, from dawn clear though darkness..
Teddy the Wreck, ever-pitied, ever-scorned by passing men riding high in the saddle as if stretching their distance from him, had survived near forty-five years of this torture, had bent him, had knocked him down continually, had separated him from all women of the entire Earth except for Mere Alice, locked into her own Hell of labor camps, back rooms, once three years in a cave with like lost souls with no place to go and no way to get there. If she ever had any sense of beauty, it was squeezed into her heart right from the outset of a ravaged wagon train the Sioux had destroyed in a month of raids, separating children from parents, taking them captive, especially little girls to be brought up in a different culture for lives of servitude.
One grace that Mere Alice had was carried unseen in her heart, a kinship for those like her who had lost all connections to their families, found a new culture they could grow in if they survived the beginning days of the lost sense of belonging to special persons, living practically in the open on the wide prairie, slave to others unlike herself. She pitied lost souls like herself when she came upon them in her hardships. Every once in a while, in her pain and slavery, she found a kindred soul who held her hand, saw the kindness and care in her eyes, allowed her lovely blonde hair to surmount loss, pain, hatred borne by another loser.
Teddy the Wreck was one such person whose pain and suffering she shared, as she seemed to inhale it from them. There came a sense of pity at first for his physical straits and his possibilities of a short life full of agony. The day she held his hand, life changed for both of them.
It was inside a cave in a mountainside overlooking the sole body of water in a hundred miles, both of them coming there by separate routes at separate times, existing in semi-darkness, living off theft of food, handouts from others, eating meals that would make most people gag or choke at the smell, the taste, the being remnants of who knows what. Mere Alice thrilled at the returning squeeze coming in the darkness, not caring what the new acquaintance looked like, though the other hand, the newly found hand, was a man’s hand.; she could tell that from the size of the mitt, the strength of the squeeze, the answer to a search.
She believed she could accept any person regardless of looks or condition, as long as that person held onto her hand like Teddy did, like life itself depended upon it. Which it did, in both directions.
“My name is Teddy the Wreck, which many people over the harsh years have called me. I am not a pretty boy or a handsome dude, but a bent and feeble middle-aged man lost for his whole life until I found your hand in mine and knew at that second the purity at the touch, the kindness lingering there within you in this darkness that life is, felt your beauty in the touch. I’ve never known love, but feel it oozing about inside me, taking over me. Is it supposed to be like that? “
“I don’t know either,” Mere Alice replied. But I feel the real warmth in your hand that must be in your heart. It’s almost breaking my heart apart to sense it, to know it, here in this darkness about us.”
“I hope I don’t scare you away in the sunlight when we see it.,” Teddy said.
Mere Alice replied, “I don’t care if you’re the Devil yourself. This is the first time in my life that a person’s hand told me a message I never dreamed of, never wondered about.”
And she set about to have a doctor give him exercises to help his back, which worked quite well, and when he finally put on a good pair of boots, he was almost upright as any man. The pair of them left their hideaway and went to work for a wealthy rancher. The pair of them gave that man ten years of honest labor and found some ingenuity to help make the ranch a special place to work.
The rancher lived in a splendid house with two great rooms out front and all other rooms off behind them, including the kitchen. They convinced Karl Tarbox, the rancher, to convert one of the front rooms to a cafeteria-style room where they fed every ranch hand a suitable breakfast and at night a sumptuous evening meal, all kinds of hands helping out with the dish work and serving/clean-up tasks. The Tarbox Ranch, the KT-Niner became the place to work. It was the highlight of the whole southwest.
When Tarbox lost his only son in a stampede, and his own health started to sink and dwindle into a large chunk of sadness and he was morosely overcome, he made up his mind to leave them, Teddy and Mere Alice, his property, make then landowners, put them at the other end of the scale from their origins,
Few complaints arose about that matter, like from a distant cousin who tried to steal the property bud was quickly put in his place when Tarbox had a great party to make his announcement and treat Teddy and Mere Alice to the time of their lives. People all over, seeing what had been done to the KT-Niner, saluted him as a most just man and Teddy and Mere Alice as provident receivers of good will and surely a bit of love in the mix.
Karl Tarbox’s death was saluted and honored with a joyous wing-ding befitting the occasion and the marriage of Teddy and Mere Alice, and the two poor lost souls who met in a dark cave, became true landowners in the heart of Texas, as many Texans were apt to say, “There ain’t no place else like it.”