We got out there probably a good couple hours worth. I don’t know how far we were from the ranch exactly. I’d never been there. We took a straight shot from the town and headed that direction without stopping. When we finally did, nothing indicated why we did. It looked like we were in the middle of nowhere. There was nothing around us except brush and tumbleweed and a cascade of large boulders. “Over here,” he said, then led the way slowly toward the boulders.
We tied up the horses behind one of the tallest ones, and gave them each some water. He started talking with his, and affirming with it that they found a good spot. I casually looked elsewhere, and didn’t give it no second thought. Then he thanked his horse and began walking around to the side of the boulder. He arranged and pressed some of the smaller rocks up against it, and made some steps.
“How’s your leg?” he asked as I watched what he was doing. It was killing me. I said it was fine though. He told me not to worry, and after a couple more rocks he went over and grabbed a rope out of the satchel on his horse. Seemed obvious enough, but there was always something with this guy. An extra note of wonder. An extra element to soothe the soul. He took the rope and proceeded up the boulder. I just continued to watch and wondered why I was there.
He secured the rope around his waste and anchored it in between the rocks he used as stairs, then tossed it down to me. After showing me how to secure it to my arm he told me to hang on as he began to pull me up. There was no footing on the boulder for me to push off of, but still tried to levy my weight with it as much as possible. He grabbed my hand when I got to the top and pulled me to my feet.
“You didn’t think I’d let you sit this one out did you?” he said looking over. I just sorta smiled. I was really humbled by how he treated me and just by being there at all. It’d been a long while since anybody depended on me or made me feel useful for anything other than a joke_ either one from me, or one about me, a loss at the gaming tables, or occasionally an opinion on matters that weren’t of much significance. In fact it was right after my injury when I moved to town. No one ever knew me with two good legs. I guess it’s just as well though. I mostly kept to myself. And that’s probably one of the reasons why I’ve survived the last year or so with how it’s been. We took a seat on the edge looking out over the valley where I was able to rest my leg.
“Frank’s men will be coming soon,” he suggested. “We’ll be able to see them from here. There’ll only be a couple of them. Once they pass, we’re going to have to ride them down, and send them back to Frank a little colder than they came. He’ll send more tonight after the storm hits. We’ll be ready by then though.”
Whatever being ready meant, I trusted him. “How do you know that’s what he’ll do?” I asked. …What storm? How’s he know…
“Just a feeling I have,” he said looking in the direction of the ranch. “Frank’s a business man. He won’t be easily shaken. He probably doesn’t show himself often I imagine. Once he has what he’s after, he controls his interests from a distance leaving his goons to enforce his ways and do the dirty work for him. And his moves are all predicated on managing the business, and establishing control. Taking what is not his to take. Having what he never deserved to have. That’s what he cares about. That’s what it is. But he didn’t expect to have to deal with any of this from this town. The last year and counting, however long it’s been, the jurisdiction has started and ended with Frank, without challenge or interruption. And that’s what Frank likes. That’s how he is able to do what he does. Frank’s a calculated business man, even if it’s not legitimate. That’s how he sees himself, and rationalizes his existence. If the vision he pursues yields profit and gives him a sense of power and control, especially over peoples’ lives, that’s how he determines success. The more money there is, the more people at his disposal, the more he gets away with his cheap games and domineering, the more Frank. His vision complete. …Geez, it bugs me just thinking about it. But underneath his success and his clout and whatever face he puts out to the big wigs and societal elitists, he is the bully in the school yard. When he gets wind his bounty on me is not formidable, and that the town is actually pushing back, he won’t tolerate it too long and seek to push back himself. He’ll seek to eliminate the threat a different way. And when the storm tonight wipes away any thought of him just choking us and letting us die from thirst, he’ll respond immediately. He’ll send a hunting party for me in the middle of the night.”
“That’s when they’ll find all those traps,” I replied.
“And so it is, Buck. And so it is. By midnight tonight every entrance in town will be protected. I will also stand watch. That way the town can be assured it’s guarded and nothing goes wrong. It’s also a measure against anyone in town.”
“You mean from anyone that wants to collect the bounty reward?” I asked.
“That weighs more on me than Frank,” he answered.
I paused for a moment and gave it some thought. None of these men would be willing to fight with him. Mr. Rawlingwell doesn’t necessarily agree with any of this, but he wouldn’t be someone to betray the town like that. “Mr. Fillmore.” I said out loud.
He looked over at me and I explained what I was thinking, “He’s one of the men working in the stables. George Fillmore. He’s never been all that friendly, and he never wanted the town to get involved with Frank. He suspected foul play early on with him. He knew the stretch of land Frank had marked for the station would carry a heavy price, and warned about making sure it was a municipal transaction that would leave the land owned and operated by the town, and not by any single individual, especially Frank. He had his own idea for expanding the town too. Suggested building closer toward the river, then building a dam and creating a reservoir. He told us. He said it’d be more cost effective, and we wouldn’t have to rely on Frank as much. Of course know what ended up happening. Frank_ that bastard_ built a dam next to his ranch once we were out the money for the railroad. He talked about how the dam would generate access to water throughout the whole town easily and we could expand the town that way. Frank basically leveled the idea though. Frank showed up and just dazzled everybody. Off the bat, he was buying everyone drinks, he would buy everyone’s dinner in the room if he was there, he was always impressing, showing everyone a good time. And his plan was so grand it had everyone looking forward to their retirement. People weren’t fond of Mr. Fillmore, and he never seemed all that fond of everybody neither. We listened to him, and he made fair points, but by the time the night rolled around when everybody signed that shady contract, the entire town was already completely intoxicated by Frank’s idea, his plan, and by Frank himself. The county official that presented us the contract, Frank said he’d worked with him before, but we didn’t know what that meant. Everybody that he needed to signed the contract, not knowing that it was incomplete, and that was that. Later on after construction was already underway, and everybody began to revolt against him after the incidents at the ranch, that’s when he revealed the full contract, and the missing payment that was due. We couldn’t come up with our share, and Frank put up all the money for the final payment. We lost our claim, and Frank took title of the land. With the help of the county official, he appointed himself as mayor, and began moving his men in. We were forced to continue the construction, and practically right after that Frank began neutralizing any opposition. And did so by making any excuse he could to kill whoever he wanted to. …Anyway, Mr. Fillmore hasn’t said a word about it, but it’s not a secret he hasn’t been happy with us.”
“Thank you, Buck. I’ll keep an eye out tonight.”
I thanked him right back. “Thank you, sir.” I said it and emphasized it with probably more meaning than I’d ever thanked anybody before. We continued to look out and watch over the landscape a couple more moments while I wondered to ask him or not. I was nervous to ask. Again, I don’t know why. Maybe he hadn’t thought about it. Maybe if he did he’d recognize the broken down shell of an old war hero. I resented that thought in my own head, but what was it? He didn’t need to be doing any of this. I didn’t want to jinx it, and I didn’t want him to think any less of me neither. But he already wasn’t doing that. Still looking out, I just asked. “Why me, mister?”
He looked over at me, and sort of turned back in front of him, but not all the way. I looked down and continued to wonder out loud, “Why am I here with you doing this, and not somebody else?”
“Because I saw you first,” he said without hesitation. I laughed it off and picked my head up again. He did the same. But he wasn’t finished with his answer. He also wasn’t finished with the jokes…
“Never trust someone who doesn’t have a limp. You have one of the worst limps I’ve ever seen,” he said jokingly. We both laughed again, and I wouldn’t ask a second time. If that was the answer he wanted to give, I was going to leave it like that. He took a sip of his canteen and waited a moment.
“When I first saw you, I knew that was an injury from the war. I also knew you didn’t fear me. I watched as you grew calm and waited before I asked you where Thelma’s was. The more I watched the more I knew what was already known. You’re a patient and thoughtful man. You observe. You wait and see, rather than take a guess and look to confirm. You’ve probably done a lot of observing since the war. You forgot about what you already knew when I backed away from those guys the first time, but I don’t mind that. Someone that retains that kind of perspective, that kind of ability to see Life, to still have patience and curiosity, and hold the space to witness a fuller and deeper picture, that’s someone with immeasurable strength and extraordinary grace, especially in a town like yours. It’s me who should be thanking you for being here. You’re more than needed, Buck.”
Damn. Tears would have fallen, but I took a quick sip out of my canteen, and blurted the first thing that came to mind, “Yeah, this entire town I guess has a limp.” I took another sip and regained my composure.
“That’s why I trust it,” he replied. “The sum of the parts looks a lot different though when the parts are all pulled apart and not maintained properly. Even worse when the parts are overrun and abused.”
“You’re right about that,” I replied. “Things were a lot different before Frank showed up.”
He panned toward me slightly and said sorta softly, “When you told me about Frank and I saw everything for myself, I was relieved. When I saw those women carrying the body out at Thelma’s I immediately knew why I was there. I knew I was in the right place. It was good to see Thelma too. And I also knew trusting you would not end in disappointment.” I didn’t know what he meant by that and didn’t ask.
He went on, “I come across situations and scenarios a lot that are incomplete, or somehow have missing parts, or are hurt in some way or another. A town in pain can be helped, it can even mend itself back together if it’s broken. But a town that falls into the wrong hands, and for whatever reason makes a deliberate choice to stay there, or makes the best of it by becoming what it was not, corrupting itself into some type of monster, is a town that’s lost and doesn’t want to be found. It’s at least not a journey I would choose to embark on. Frank has beaten, torn apart, and crushed your town. Those men back there, digging those holes, are not the same men as the ones that signed on with Frank’s idea to begin with, looking to build and develop the town. They’ve been stripped of their livelihoods, their hope, their dignity, their loved ones many of them, and that’s not saying all of it. Many of them that thought about it assume kill me, and take the money. They’re not looking for a fight. It’d be easier, and they could split it amongst each other, try to flee with it_ something. And they might if they believed or had some sort of guarantee Frank would pay up. But they don’t have that, not in the slightest. They have each other, and enough recognition of that to be digging those holes rather than plotting to kill me. For a very long time they haven’t known what to do, how to decide on doing it, or where they would begin if they did. They don’t know who they are anymore. But they know they don’t want to continue where they are, or anymore of what’s been the reality the last year or so. So they’re digging, and they’ll continue digging until we get back and tell them not to dig anymore. And when they’re done digging, and all this is over, they’ll be able to see what they’re not. They’ll recognize what they had, and what they could have again, and they’ll remember. They’ll remember who they are and what they want. It’s an easier hill to climb showing somebody, or something, the value of what they’ve lost, and the memory of what was known, if they’ve fought and clawed, bargained, or even pleaded for something better, or more so, what they know they deserve. Rather than a sum who’s made a way, finds agreement with, and seeks reward from cruelty and injustice, in the insidious toxic methods and means of corruption, and in the company of those who never cared about them, or much of anything to begin with.” He sat there and waited a moment. I didn’t know if I should say something or not. I didn’t think it was time to from the look on his face. I also didn’t feel a need to. I sat there and just took it in. Then he kinda sighed and laughed it off, “Between the two of us, it’s at least more rewarding a journey for someone like me.”
He knew I wouldn’t tell anybody any of this, I thought. I couldn’t. I thought of Mr. Rawlingwell, and what he used to look like… the way he dressed… how he sounded… how he was. He’s nothing like he used to be. You’re guaranteed a complaint anytime you see him. And he just kinda awkwardly goes on day to day the same way, looking to run into you so you can hear it. He’s a nuisance actually. I imagined how he probably never looks in the mirror anymore. …God, the town’s been through a lot.
He finished laughing the way he was and took a deep breath like he was exhausted. I continued watching him as he looked back out over the entire valley. He had the type of intent you maybe only see a few times in your life and that made sure you kept your mouth shut so you could listen to what was going to be said. He continued with a more somber, self assured, and assertive tone, “To care.” he said. “To care deeply and intensely is life’s greatest gift. There’s no telling where you’ll end up or what you’ll come across when you truly care. And there’s nothing more sad than when people stop caring, especially when they just don’t have it in them anymore. People can always be shown a better way or a different life that doesn’t involve cheating or methods of subjugation, but once you’ve boughten into that for whatever reason and you’ve deliberately chosen not to care anymore, it’s near impossible to go back the other way, especially if you’ve found reward in it. Some might say otherwise. Some might say agony and despair, like the kind that plagues over your town are the worst things to experience, and would seek to avoid them at all costs. …I guess you can avoid a lot of things if you don’t care. But those that truly care_ those that have passion streaming in their veins, and whose eyes are filled with magic and depth, those are the ones that get to know life beyond any measure. It’s easy, and lazy, to treat another person, or an animal, or this earth without regard or concern. But it’s worth it to hold such things like they truly matter… because they do. Life’s a beautiful thing for those that love it, and that’s the only way it is suppose to be, especially for human beings, or anything with the ability to reason and make a choice. It’s a tragedy that you don’t find that very often. …That town of yours is more lucky than they realize to have people like you and Thelma. Hear me when I say that, Buck. You’ve been more depended on than you realize. All the weight and suffering that’s been will be over soon. And you’ll be to thank for that as much as anyone.”
I felt a tear begin to fall this time before I could consider trying to hold it back. I didn’t think to stop it either. I’d never heard anybody talk like that. I was so honored just to be here, and perhaps there aren’t words to describe how that made me feel. Don’t recall really ever feeling better, and don’t reckon I could. The tears weren’t stopping, and finally I wiped some away and stumbled around saying, “Ahhh, shit, sir. Forgive me. I, uh, I…”
He cut me off and said, “I know Buck. I know. …You oughta care about crying on that rifle though. That thing rusts and misfires on you, you’ll have a matching hand to go with that leg.”
It lightened the mood instantly when he said that, and we both shared a laugh together, and gazed back out_ the warmth of the sun against us, and the vast open terrain before us, and I don’t think either one of us had a worry about anything at all.
We stayed there not much longer. I told some old stories about some of my fellow soldiers from the war, and about when I first settled in town… what that was like, the first time I met Thelma… how she saved my life and what her place used to be like when it first opened, and we joked about the saloon and some of the people we’ve come across in our day to pass the time. I guess he said what meant to say cause he kept quiet mostly the rest of the time.
In a peculiar almost divine sequence, while the sun was still high and the heat roared, a soft soothing breeze floated on by and wiped across my face that interrupted the beads of sweat dripping down. A moment after that, the ground began to erupt and blankets of dust piled in the distance. There were two of them. Both loud. Hollerin somethin or other, and riding as fast as they could.
I jumped up and balanced myself on my good leg, eager and spry like a kid that didn’t know any better. Sitting there all that time, I’d basically forgotten what we were doing. I looked at the Man In Black like he was about to do the same, but he got up very calmly, almost like he was standing up for the first time in days. He took his time, and quietly joked, “I guess the I’m not fighting anymore days are over for you?”
I didn’t even know if I was ready to do what we were about to, but he lowered me down with the rope, and followed after that. We got on the horses and he said to wait and take a sip of water. I was looking around thinking we needed to go, but he was in no rush at all. He did everything one beat at a time. We had a drink. After that we shot out from behind the boulders and were on their trail in less than a minute. …The timing couldn’t have been better.
It didn’t take very long at all, and there wasn’t much to it. We accomplished what we went there for, and sent them back to Frank.
Music: Budos Band – King Cobra
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