Western Short Story
I know a place in West Texas where the land is stark and flat and nearly treeless. It’s a great dry-docked ocean with small swells of sand and humpbacked rocky knolls. The landscape changes color as daylight shadows move across it creating shades of brown and red, and then grey as the sun leaves the sky. That Heavenly high sky…there’s simply just too much of it. A man feels diminished realizing how small he appears under its vastness.
The cowboys and other hermits that stay “out yonder,” in-time succumb to the fever…the desert fever. I know the place and the fever, I was born there.
The fever is a kin to malaria in that there is no cure. It’s a disease of the mind’s eye. The plague-ridden brain sees beauty where the clear headed see sand and snakes and that eternal pale blue sky. The few poor infected inhabitants don’t feel the persistent wind swooshing unencumbered from the Great Plains. They don’t hear the howling, whining, off-key singing torrents of sand laden wind streams. They don’t feel the sting of freezing rain down their necks or hear the thunder as lightening cracks across the Llano Estacado.
There was a cowboy born “out yonder,” some eighty years before me. He had the fever bad. He sang songs to the cattle while he rode across the land that most called uninhabitable. He found beauty in the sky and he found harmony in the wind. His skin turned to color of a weathered saddle and it cracked like the dry ground in summer. His blond hair bleached nearly white before he lived 25 years.
His name was Newt, or as he was to become known, “Gap-toothed King,” and he was a tough ol’ boy. Not the mean kind of tough, but resilient as good leather and hardy as a Clydesdale plow horse. Matter of fact, Newt took up Bible reading early on and his big black, “Book of Scripture,” as he called it would be found in his saddle bag next to his 44 Colt. He was later described as “religious and reverential by nature.”
He was on his own by the age of 16 and fell right into cowboy’n. His first job was on the J-A, and in a few years he’d seen most of its 1,333,000 acres and could read the bovine mind. The range became his mother church. He took to it like he’d been born in the brush and reared by coyotes. He slept under that eternal star filled sky and dreamed of Heaven. On rare occasion he’d work close enough to a line shack or the headquarters bunkhouse to sleep under a roof. It didn’t set well with him though, he couldn’t see the Heavens.
He was about to turn 26 when a preacher that he’d met talked him into taking some time away from the J-A to get a bit more educated. He couldn’t read very well and sometimes he just didn’t understand what he read. The preacher had a church down in the little town of Canyon and needed help to build a school room onto it. Newt would pound nails for a while instead of chasin’ cows all day and the Preacher / Teacher would tutor him in the evening.
Sundays Newt was schooled in social behavior. He’d never been in the company of church goin’ folks and pretty young girls. He wasn’t backwards but he was a bit ignorant about dealing with the attention he stirred among the young ladies. He did spend some time lookin’ at his boots when they spoke to him. One of those young gals didn’t approach him, she only looked up at a glance when he was near and continued on her way. She was far more interesting than the others and Newt often found himself thinking about Miss Adelle when he was supposed to be studying.
As the building rose higher and the days passed by, Newt and Adelle found themselves entangled in a mutual attraction. Soon he was confounded by his desires. Adelle had easily captured his heart, but he also knew that he had to return to the ranch and the mother church. He wasn’t honest with her about his conflict and that troubled him as well.
His first love was the open range and the cowboy way. There was no place for a woman there, nevertheless it mattered less with every afternoon spent next to Adelle on the banks of Palo Duro Creek. He’d fallen hard, his heart was trapped by a snare and he’d have to chew it off to get out.
The matter was settled when Adelle came to him in tears and told him that she was “with child.” They held one another and cried. He prayed out loud as he held her close, asking for God’s forgiveness. For hours he apologized to her and walked in circles while he castigated himself.
The next day he and Adelle told her parents. For years Newt was reminded of when her father knocked him on his butt and would have shot him with his revolver if his wife hadn’t stopped him. Newt said that he had it coming and soon they were on good terms. They needed to be since Newt and Adelle moved in with her parents right after the hasty wedding. A few months later Mister and Misses King had a lovely new daughter named SallyAnn.
Newt needed to improve his finances. That’s what his friend the preacher called it anyway. Working on his father-in-law’s farm wasn’t going to provide well for his wife and daughter. He had saved up some money over those years of working on the J-A and he had nearly $2,000 in the Canyon Merchants Bank. When the little dry goods store just outside town burned down and the elderly owner decided to retire Newt figured he’d buy the property and rebuild the store. Adelle agreed and the range cowboy became a dry goods store clerk.
He did his best to be a good husband, father and provider. After a time he built a house just down the road from the store and the family was happy. Deep inside his soul though Newt couldn’t forget the romance of the desert and his first love. The fever never subsided, he imagined that instead of a board ceiling, he saw the night sky, he could almost smell the chaparral bushes and see the golden glow of sunrise cutting sideways across the flats to form a red halo around the Velvet Mesquite. He hid it well, from Adelle and himself. Often he thought about pathways and destinations, how intention is allayed by the trail a cowboy takes.
He told himself to get over it, and to some extent he did. The years clicked by quicker than roadrunners chasin’ rattle snakes. All of a sudden SallyAnn was grown and married. He couldn’t fathom where the years had gone. The repetition of going to the same place every day and doing the same thing caused him to lose any reference marks on calendars.
It was just after the beginning of the 20th century when tragedy befell his house. Adelle became ill with a kidney disease and three months later she died in his arms. His grief was insufferable. He did love her with almost his whole heart. And still, he felt the guilt of the sin that held them and the desire he’d always had to live the life he thought for which he was predestined.
A year had passed and his son-in-law had gone to work in the store for him. His dream of returning to the range still held him, though he never mentioned it to a living soul. He spent so many hours alone trying to determine the pathway that might lead him to peace within. One day he decided that he had to go out there to the place that beckoned him, and he told his son-in-law and daughter that the store was theirs.
He sold the house and land and gave most of his belongings to his daughter. On the appointed day he signed the title and collected his $4,000 in cash. Then he returned to the house for one more night. He would head out to the range the next day and planned to visit the old ranches. He knew that things had changed in the last 25 years, but he really didn’t comprehend how much.
As he put the old skeleton key in the front door lock he heard something behind him. Before he could get turned around he felt something hard strike him above his right ear. It nearly knocked him off his feet. Then again, but this time he barely caught a glimpse of it coming at him and blocked it as he was pushed backward through the door into the house. He fell to the floor but had the presence of mind to pull his small pistol from his back pocket. The light was nearly gone and his vision was blurred so he didn’t see the pistol pointed at him before he heard the shot that nailed him directly in the mouth.
He had dropped his gun and was trying to get a grip on the situation. He made out the man above him wearing a sock hat pulled over his face with holes cut out for the eyes. The thug was holding a small one shot Derringer and trying to get another bullet in it. Newt held up the bag with the money in it. He couldn’t say anything because his mouth and tongue were in shreds. The bandit grabbed it and ran out the door and into the woods.
Newt lay on the floor there for a bit, spitting out blood, teeth and chunks of lead. He could feel the pain in the back of his throat, but his head and neck seemed to work okay. He got to his feet and walked a half mile to a neighbor’s house. They loaded him into a buckboard and took him into town to the Sherriff’s office. The Sherriff took him another 18 miles to a hospital in Amarillo. The doctor in Amarillo dug out fragments of lead and teeth from the gums and back of his throat. He told Newt that he was lucky that the bullet was a 22 caliber bird shot. Anything bigger would have probably killed him. He returned home the next day to his daughter’s house, missing his upper and lower front teeth and swollen up like a toad frog.
Newt rested a few days and found that his tongue wasn’t badly damaged, he could still talk but with a bit of a lisp. The newspapers took pictures of him grinning with a big gap in his teeth and labeled him, “Gap Toothed King.”
He and SallyAnn sat at the kitchen table a few days later and she ask, “What are you going to do now dad? You don’t have any money, do you still want to go on out to the range?”
“You know darlin’,” he replied. “I been thinkin’ bout it and I’m kinda of the mind that the good Lord may be tryin’ to tell this dumb ol’ cowboy somethin’. He proceeded to tell SallyAnn what he had never told anyone. About how he’d always had a hankerin’ to go back to the cowboy life and the open range.
“But,” he said. “It ain’t open no more, and the place that I always wanted to return to might-a not ever existed anyway. Not in the way I’ve always imagined it anyhow. After all this time, I’ve begun to realize that it was just my idea of greener grass.”
He walked a mile to the grave of his sweet Adelle and stood there with tears in his eyes.
He said, “I come here to apologize to you. Not for my sinful way that prompted us to marry, but because I had an imaginary mistress all the years that we were together. I thought that I’d given up something when I quit the cowboy life and married you. I know now that anything I gave up had no comparison aye-tall to the life and the love you gave me. I hope you can’t see me from heaven, I had my front teeth all shot out, but somehow it woke me from a 25 year dream. So when I cross over Jordan, I hope to find you there on the shore. Just like on the banks of the Palo Duro Creek.”