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Night’s Passage

Night’s Passage

Jimson paced inside the small line camp cabin, stopping only to peer out the window. Baker leaned back in the wooden chair, sipping his coffee.

“What you hope to see out there?” Baker asked.

“What about you? Ain’t you worried about the storm?” Jimson said.

“It is what it is,” Baker said. “Can’t do a damn thing about it.”

“Wilson is countin’ on us to have the cattle from the Crag Pasture down to the shipping pens before dark tomorrow. They’re loadin’ out first thing day after tomorrow.”

“We’ll do what we can. Hell, the snow will start them off. We’ll just have to follow them down.”

“You don’t know that for sure,” Jimson said. “You can’t be sure of anything in a storm.”

“No, can’t be sure of anything. In a storm or anytime else for that matter. Worrying ain’t gonna help you none,” Baker said, slamming his chair down on the hardwood floor.

Jimson jumped. “Jesus, Bake, you scared the hell out of me.”

“Why so jumpy?” Baker said, walking to the window to look over Jimson’s shoulder.

“I ain’t jumpy,” Jimson said. “Just nervous about the weather.”

“That’s one thing you can’t do a damn thing about,” Baker said. “Hell, what you lookin’ at? You can’t see nothin’ but your reflection in the glass.”

Baker stepped to the table and turned down the wick in the kerosene lantern. “There, ain’t that better?”

“Not really. Still can’t see a damn thing,” Jimson said.

Baker kneeled in front of the woodburning stove to stir the fire, throwing in another log.

“Come to think of it, can’t do much about most things,” Baker said. “Worrying never helps.”

Jimson stared out the window.

“Why don’t you have a cup of coffee?” Baker asked, holding up the coffee pot.

“Won’t be able to sleep if I drink coffee this late,” Jimson said.

“Hell, you won’t be able to sleep anyway,” Baker laughed.

Jimson looked at Baker and then back to the window. Baker walked to the heavy door, pulled it open, and stepped outside. The clouds were low and heavy with snow. The storm was coming. Leaning inside, Baker said, “I’m gonna check on the horses.”

Baker made his way through the dark to the small trap where the horses were kept. Opening the gate, he heard the rustle ahead and the rush of hoofbeats. Out of the darkness, he could see the short bursts of their breath.

As they nuzzled against his shoulder, Baker scratched under the long jawline of each of the four horses.

“Hey, take it easy,” Baker said as the horses crowded in close. “You feel the storm coming, don’t ya? A long day ahead.” The air was cold and heavy. “Get some rest, I’ll be back before first light.”

The horses followed Baker to the gate and stood there as he walked to the cabin. In the dim light from the lantern, Baker could see Jimson’s outline in the window. He smiled and shook his head.

“What’s it like out there?” Jimson asked as Baker came in.

“Dark. Dark as a cave. And gettin’ colder,” Baker said. “I think your storm is on its way.”

“I’m not liking this, not one bit,” Jimson said.

“Whether you like it or not, it’s what we’re facing,” Baker said. “Best not think about it tonight.”

“How am I supposed to not think about it?”

“Just stop thinkin’ about it, it’s simple,” Baker said.

“That makes a lot of sense,” Jimson said, turning from the window. Baker knelt in front of the stove, shielding his face from the intense flames, poked the fire, and reached over to the stack of wood next to the stove for another log.

“Hotter than hell in here,” he said, closing the door. He stood up, filled his cup from the coffee pot on the stove, plopped down in the chair, and leaned back, propping his boots up on the table.

“My friend, you worry too much. Won’t get you anywhere but dead sooner than necessary,” Baker said.

Jimson walked to the small bunk against the wall and sat down, but stood up again, pacing around the small room.

“I wish you’d sit down, you make me nervous,” Baker said. “Listen, there’s nothin’ we can do about the storm. It’s called nature. It’ll come if it wants to and do whatever it wants to do. We got no control over it.”

“I don’t know how you can sit there drinking coffee like everything’s fine when you know we’re in for it,” Jimson said. “Could be a helluva storm and we’ll be up to our necks, scrambling to find cattle.”

“Cattle know what to do,” Baker said. “They’ll beat us off the mountain and will be waiting at the gate for us to let them in.”

“I wish I could be so sure. Could be they’ll scatter, and we’ll be searchin’ all over damnation for ‘em.”

“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” Baker said, sipping his coffee.

Jimson walked back to the window. “It’s begun,” he said.

Baker slammed his chair down, stood up, walked to the door, and peered outside. “Snowing hard,” he said over his shoulder to Jimson. He stepped outside and looked up into the snow. Down below, he could hear the horses stirring. And the snow fell.

Baker stepped back inside, closed the door, and walked over to his bunk, picking up Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time before sitting down. He looked over at Jimson, who was peering out the window. “You ever read this?” he asked.

Jimson looked over his shoulder and then stepped away from the window to get a closer look at the book Baker was holding up.

A Hero of Our Time? Don’t have time to read.”

“You have time to stare out the window, seems you’d have time to read,” Baker said. “Might take your mind off the storm.”

“No book is gonna take my mind off the storm,” Jimson said.

“You might be surprised,” Baker said. “The hero of this novel, a soldier by the name of Pechorin, has been through many storms. And while he is something of a cynic, underneath it all, he’s a romantic.”

“You’re crazy,” Jimson said. “Romantic? What’s that got to do with anything?”

“Maybe nothing, maybe everything,” Baker said. “I knew a fella once who was a lot like Pechorin. He sure as hell was a romantic. Couldn’t settle down. Always on the move. And it damned near killed him. His name was Than. Than Fareheart. One thing for sure, he made me laugh, and for that, I’m glad I had the chance to know him.”

“Than? That’s an unusual name,” Jimson said.

“His mother told him that his father gave him that name, saying, ‘Better here than there,’ just before he disappeared from their lives. Than never got to know his father. Didn’t get to know his mother either. She tried to raise him right, but he was too restless. Couldn’t stay put. She finally gave up and Than was on his own before his fourteenth birthday.

“I met him in John Day, Oregon. We both worked for the Lazy Z. He was good with horses. It’s one thing that kept him interested for more than a week or two. The cowboss at the Lazy Z saw his gift with horses and put him in charge of the remuda. The horses he turned out were kind of edgy. But once you got the fire and buck out of them, they were honest and true. Just like Than, who, although he had a raging fire in his gut, was always honest and true.

“It was his honesty that got him in the most trouble. You know, an honest man doesn’t stand a chance in this world. But I shouldn’t say it was only his honesty that got him into trouble because he also had this impetuous nature. He just couldn’t control what he thought and said – or what he did. And he made the big mistake of getting too close to the cowboss’s wife.

“It all began after that Saturday night brawl. After branding and moving cattle all summer on the mountain, we finally got a weekend in town. John Day was a quiet town – most of the time. But at certain times of the year, it exploded. The country around John Day was timber and cattle country and a couple of times a year, the timber fallers and cowboys found themselves in town at the same time. Cowboys will hold their own against most everyone else, but those damn timber fallers were an ornery bunch. Tough as nails.

“We found ourselves in the Hangin’ Dog Saloon, and after too many shots of whiskey, Than looked over at a table of lumberjacks and snorted. It was obvious that it was meant as a challenge. I quickly grabbed hold of his arm and tried to ease him out of the saloon, but we had to walk past the table of lumberjacks. A mistake.

“One of the timber fallers stood up to block our way. I said, ‘Excuse us, but we’re just leaving.’ He didn’t move. ‘Ain’t nothin’ filthier than a cowpuncher, stinking up the place with your cow breath and shit stomping boots’ he said. That didn’t sit well with Than. Without a word, he hit the timber faller square in the nose. Blood squirted everywhere. And the timber faller went down in a heap. All hell broke loose. Fists and chairs flyin’ like the middle of a tornado. There was a lot of steam being let off. I got hit hard behind the ear and was out like a light. Not sure how long I was out, but by the time I came to, the fight had kind of burned itself out.

“Believe me, there was a lot of carnage. I looked up to see the bartender standing in the middle of it with a double-barreled shotgun, cussin’ and kickin’ like an angry mule. I crawled over to where Than was slumped against the wall. When I got close, I could see his face covered in blood. His front teeth had been knocked clean out. He just smiled through his bloody mouth and shook his head. ‘Partner,’ he said, ‘did ya get a good look at the mule that kicked me in the head?’

“I just looked at him and smiled. ‘Than, you oughta know better than to bust a lumberjack’s head. They’re as hard-headed as a mule and twice as stubborn.’ I helped him up and we eased out of there. By the time we made it back to ranch headquarters, the cowboss had heard all about the brawl and was standing in the door of the bunkhouse. A few of the other cowboys were already there, slumped on their bunks, heads in their hands. Old Sanger, the cowboss, was none too happy. ‘Than,’ he said. ‘I heard that you started the whole mess. Is that true?’ Than just looked at him with a blank expression on his face, smilin’ through his broken mouth. ‘Boss, I don’t rightly remember. Might of.’

“Sanger just stepped aside and Than and I walked directly to our bunks without looking back. I felt like my head was inside a tub with someone beating on it with a hammer. I collapsed in my bunk and fell instantly asleep. When I awoke, it was still dark outside, and my head was pounding. I made my way out to the well, sticking my head underneath the spout as I pumped the handle. The cold water seemed to clear my head and I looked up into the deep night sky. I was caught up in my reverie when I heard voices in the trees about a hundred feet away. It was the middle of the night, so I couldn’t imagine who might be up at this time of night. I moved cautiously toward the voices, making sure I wasn’t discovered. Before I got to the edge of the trees, I could just make out the image of two people standing close together, whispering so softly that I couldn’t make out what they were saying. I eased around a big cottonwood tree, close enough that I could hear them. There was no doubt, it was Than and the boss’s wife, Delora.”

Jimson dragged the chair closer to Baker’s bunk and sat down, intent on Baker’s story.

“I’ll tell you, I was shocked,” Baker said. “But then again, I wasn’t. It was just like Than. He just didn’t know how to stay out of trouble. I knew if the boss ever found out about this, he’d kill Than. Maybe that was exactly what Than was lookin’ for. I listened intently and when I could no longer hear their voices, I knew that they were wrapped tightly in their lustful desires. My head still ached but I was wide awake now, thinking of the many things I would say to Than. He was playing fire.

“But I didn’t want to interrupt their lover’s tryst, convincing myself that it would be best to have it out with Than first thing in the morning. I moved cautiously back to the bunkhouse, making sure I didn’t wake up any of the other cowboys. I tried to fall back to sleep, but the wild thoughts racing through my head kept me awake. It was just before sunrise when I heard Than sneak in. When he eased into his bunk, I startled him by asking, ‘Where the hell you been?’ ‘Shhh…,’ he said. ‘You’ll wake the whole lot of ’em.’ ‘Me?’ I said. ‘You’re the one sneaking in here at the break of day. What have you been up to?’ ‘Nothing,’ he said. ‘Couldn’t sleep. Just getting’ some fresh air.’ ‘Fresh air, my ass,’ I said. ‘I saw you.’ He didn’t find it necessary to respond, so I gave up, rolled over, and tried to sleep.

“In the vague light of morning, I could barely make out his outline, slouching on the edge of his bunk. I could tell he was struggling to come up with some excuse but nothing was coming to him. He’d been caught and he knew it. But I also knew he was relieved it was me and not the boss. ‘Are you crazy?’ I whispered, not wanting to wake up the other cowboys. ‘Kind of,’ he said. ‘Kind of, that’s an understatement,’ I said. ‘You’re lookin’ to get killed, you know that don’t you?’ He just stared at me, saying nothing.”

“What happened?” Jimson asked.

“What do you think happened?” Baker asked.

“Sanger found out,” Jimson guessed.

“You guessed right, and it wasn’t pretty,” Baker said. “I even felt sorry for Than. But Sanger put him in an impossible situation. Granted, he brought it all upon himself. But when Sanger cornered Than, Than responded with fury.”

“Were you there?” Jimson asked.

“Sure was. Saw the whole thing. Seems that Sanger was waiting up for Delora when she came in that morning, and he wasn’t in a good disposition anyway because of the brawl the night before. It turns out that the Lazy Z was responsible for the damages at The Hangin’ Dog Saloon.

“When Sanger cornered her, giving her a couple of slaps to the side of the head, she gave Than up, figuring it was better to have Sanger take his rage out on Than instead of her.

“I was leaving the cookhouse after breakfast when I saw Sanger storming across the lot toward the bunkhouse. He was steaming like a boiling teakettle and I knew that he’d found out about Delora and Than. I didn’t have time to warn Than, so I followed Sanger into the bunkhouse. It was likely there would be bloodshed, so I pulled my pistol out of my holster and held it by my side. Than was stupid but didn’t deserve killin’, so it seemed to me. No man deserved killing over unbridled passion.

“Than was standing at the washbasin shaving when Sanger busted through the door, his gun drawn and aimed at Than’s back. Than saw Sanger in the mirror, and, quick as a cat, turned and pounced, hitting Sanger hard upside the head. Sanger went down in a heap and Than stood over him, the razor in his hand. I could see that Than, blind with rage, was considering cutting Sanger’s throat. I screamed at him to step away, but Than paid no attention, just stood there.

“Sanger stirred and tried to get up, but Than kicked him in the teeth. Sanger fell back and Than knelt, the razor at Sanger’s throat. I yelled at Than again, hoping to divert his attention away from Sanger, but Than was wild, ignoring my shouts. Desperate, I ran over to where Sanger lay cold on the floor and kicked the razor out of Than’s hand. He glared up at me, and pounced, knocking me backward. Before I knew what happened, he had grabbed my gun and had the barrel pressed to the side of my head. I thought I was a dead man.

“Waiting for him to pull the trigger, I heard him let out a loud laugh. ‘Baker, what in the hell do you think you’re doin’?’ he said. ‘You got no hand in this game.’ He stood and walked back over to Sanger, who was sitting up now, holding his head in his hands. He knelt in front of Sanger and said, ‘You’re worse than a bulldog, once you get your teeth set in something, you won’t let go. There’s only one way we can settle this, as far as I can see. I’ll get my gun and holster and meet you out in the lot.’

“Than walked over to me, helped me up, handed my gun back to me, and then walked to the washbasin to wipe the lather off his face. Sanger sat on the floor of the bunkhouse, his head still in his hands. Finally, he looked up at Than. ‘You know I don’t stand a chance in a gunfight with you,’ he said. Than looked at Sanger in the small mirror above the washbasin. ‘I assure you, I’ll give you every chance. You might just surprise yourself.’

“Than turned away from the washbasin and walked to his bunk, lifted his gun and holster from the hook above his bunk, put on his hat, and walked over to Sanger and reached down his hand. Sanger looked up at him, trying to shake the cobwebs out of his head, and grabbed Than’s hand and pulled himself up.

“The cowboys in the bunkhouse waited until Than and Sanger walked outside before scurrying out after them. By the time Than and Sanger had reached the middle of the big lot that separated the barn from the bunkhouse, I could see the cowboys from the cookhouse had rushed outside, each one of them holding his breath in the cold morning air. Just as I knew, each of them also knew one thing for sure, this wasn’t a bluff. There was going to be a gunfight.

“I walked up to Than, ‘Nothing good can come from this.’ He stared right through me, saying nothing. And I knew there was nothing more that I could do. When I turned to leave, he grabbed my shoulder. ‘It’s the only way,’ he said.

“Than and Sanger stood only feet apart when Than said to Sanger, ‘I’ll leave it up to you. Step off as many feet as you want and on your signal, we’ll draw.’ Sanger looked at Than in disbelief. Up until this moment, he didn’t believe that Than was serious. He could see now that Than was not bluffing and had every intention of seeing this through.

“Sanger reluctantly moved away from Than about thirty paces and turned. Than looked over his shoulder into the bright sunlight breaking over the roof of the bunkhouse and moved to his left so that the sun was not in Sanger’s eyes. ‘Okay?’ he asked. Sanger nodded. ‘Whenever you’re ready’ Than said.

“Sanger stood there, nervously tapping his holster. I could tell that Sanger didn’t want to draw. Than, on the other hand, didn’t seem to care. I was beginning to wonder if Than would even draw his pistol when a shot rang out. I looked over at Sanger and then back at Than, who just stood there, his hands down at his sides. Sanger’s bullet had grazed Than’s left cheek. Than didn’t even react, just stood there staring at Sanger. I thought it was over, but Sanger fired again, hitting Than in the left shoulder. Again, Than didn’t react, just stood there, staring straight ahead. After Sanger’s third shot missed Than altogether, he drew his pistol and shot Sanger through the chest. Sanger crumpled to the ground.

“What I remember most about it was that Sanger never wobbled, never stepped back from the impact of the bullet, nor stepped forward. It was like he wasn’t even human, but rather like a bloated canvas water bag collapsing in on itself. There was no question about it, Sanger was dead.

“And then Delora ran to Than. I hadn’t noticed her until that moment. Than simply stepped away from her and walked toward me. ‘I reckon I need to be moving on,’ he said. ‘I don’t know if I’ll ever see you again, but you’ve been a good friend.’ I glanced over his shoulder at Delora, standing with her mouth open. I remember feeling sorry for her, but I don’t know why. I held out my hand to Than and told him to be safe. ‘It won’t be the same around here without you.’ I didn’t know what else to say.

“Than shook my hand and I watched as he walked back to the bunkhouse, gathered his gear, walked to the corral where the horses were kept, caught his favorite horse, saddled it, and lead it out of the barn. I saw the other cowboys crowding around Sanger’s body, but I hadn’t moved. Than walked up to me. ‘Tell Peterson to take the price of the horse out of my paycheck. If it ain’t enough, I’ll send him the difference once I get settled.’

“I wanted to say something to him but nothing came to me. The phrase, better here than there, kept running through my head. For Than, nothing could be farther from the truth.

“It was the last time I ever saw Than. Heard lots of rumors about him over the years but never could confirm any of them. My guess is that his restless spirit got him killed somewhere along the way. Maybe not. He was good with a gun. And he seemed to have an angel on his shoulder. Seemed to be lucky that way. Why an angel would choose to sit on his shoulder is beyond me, but it did seem to me that he was blessed.”

Baker stood up and walked to the stove to stir the fire. Jimson didn’t move, deep in thought, contemplating Baker’s story. He wondered about Than. Had Baker made the whole thing up? Or did Than exist just as Baker had portrayed him? Either way, Jimson thought it was a good story. Finally, he stood up and walked to the window. He had forgotten all about the storm. When he peered out through the window, he could see that the snow was falling heavily now. Over a foot had piled up on the ground. But it didn’t seem to matter. They would get through it in the best way they knew how. It’s called life. Some things we choose, some things choose us.

 

 

 

 

 

4 Comments
  1. Gratefully for us readers, always, there is a story within you!

    “The snow was falling heavily now….but it didn’t seem to matter. They would get through it in the best way they knew how.”

    “How,” is with your beautiful writing and your powerful gift of story-telling. I look forward to your stories! Please keep them coming!

    • Oh, Mitra, this is so beautiful. Thank you. I truly appreciate your keen insights and your appreciation of my stories. Most of all, I appreciate your love.

  2. A story within a story! Executed beautifully. I saw every visual, could almost smell the gun powder. You are a true storyteller, David. I love your gift. Thank you for sharing it. Keep them coming!! Moral of the story…storms come in our lives, nothing we can do anout them but hunker down and get through them. Love you!

    • Oh, Rita, thank you so much. Your interpretation of the story is so accurate. Indeed, storms come into our lives with such intensity that all we can do is hunker down. But we must never lose hope. Even the harshest storms pass. And no amount of worry will ever prevent the storm from coming. I love you, too.

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