CUTTHROAT TRAIL excerpt
We had us a early fall that year, an’ a fair snowy winter. 1887 I believe it was. I took some ol’ barrel staves to use as runners an’ built Bill kindly a little sleigh a his own that he could set on while I pulled him through the snow behind Willie. He thought he had his own chariot or somethin’, I reckon. Me an’ him would strike off after a new snowfall, him zippin’ around on the end of about thirty feet a rope behind me. If the footin’ was alright, I’d git Willie up in a fair lope an’ turn a tight corner or two, with Bill pickin’ up quite a bit a speed whippin’ around on the end a that rope. Hearin’ him laughin’ an’ such was a real treat for me. I even got his momma to set on it a time or two, but after I turned a little too tight an’ she come to collide with the gate post an’ got knocked around a little bit, she decided that she’d just as soon survive the winter an’ wodden git back on it agin.
We had another preacher an’ his family show up in late fall, ‘cause the Methodist preacher we had was fair old an’ went off down to Springfield or someplace to live out his days with his daughter an’ her family. Deer Run was growin’ quite a bit an’ the new preacher wanted to expand the church house some to git enough room for a new Sunday school for the children. That put me back in the carpenter bidness for a while.
Arliss Hyatt come down with the shingles in December an’ the doc had to fuss over him quite a bit. We was some concerned about his condition an’ all, an’ rightly so, I guess. The doc had quite a time with him. Arliss got to where he was plumb wore down from it, broke out all over his back an’ ribs like he was, an’ not bein’ able to git much rest nor sleep. It was terrible painful for him an’ awful hard to git relief from, but he was as tough as mule belly leather an’ managed ta pull through. By the time early February come around, Arliss come around too an’ seemed to not be over burdened with it after a spell.
Marion Daniels showed up now an’ then, an’ even stayed at our place for a couple weeks in early March. He got offered a job in administration with the marshal’s service so he could quit the trail, an’ the notion that he might git hisself involved in politics come up agin. He turned it all down sayin’ he was a marshal, not a damn pencil pusher or politician, an’ didn’t wanna make his livin’ breakin’ promises an’ such. He did spend a little time as a mail carrier though, bringin’ a letter to Miss Harmony from Homer Poteet’s wife, Miz Suzy, after he stayed up around Dunston with them for a few days.
Deer Run was on the boom. I speck they was near a couple hunnerd new folks callin’ it home by the middle a spring. We had a new notions shop on the east edge a town an’ a sawmill just east a that a half a mile or so. A couple dozen families or more took up land just outside the city limits, an’ the town fathers expanded Deer Run’s borders some to take ‘em into the community. That helped increase the tax income to the town, an’ I got back inta the carpenter bidness agin, kindly overseein’ puttin’ up another schoolhouse so they’d be enough room for all the kids. Another blacksmith come to Deer Run, an’ Verlon was some glad for it. He was purty busy expandin’ his livery bidness an’ couldn’t keep up with all the blacksmithin’ that the town needed.
The railroad didn’t never git no spur laid out our way like they said they wanted to, but a pair a brothers by the name a Kinney that had a freight service over by Jeff City put Deer Run on they regular route an’ was right dependable. They needed someplace to keep a couple a extra teams a horses an’ a freight wagon out our way, an’ I helped Verlon an’ some fellas he hired to put up another stable an’ fence in five or six more acres for some new pasture.
Little Bill an’ me come to git right close. He was about five an’ a half years old that spring, an’ figgerd he was purty much all growed up an’ ready to do whatever his daddy did. Arliss the mule come to follerin’ him around the place like he done with me in years afore. Bill was that mule’s main interest an’ the two of ‘em was real pards. Now an’ then I’d see ‘em under the big oak tree down by the forge, Bill settin’ on the ground an’ jabberin’ away about somethin’ or other, while ol’ Arliss would stand there listenin’ to what Bill had to say an’ switchin’ his tail.
Early spring me an’ Miss Harmony got to talkin’ it over an’ decided it might be good for Bill an’ me to take to the trail some. Verlon agreed with us an’ went to work makin’ Arliss a hackamore so Bill could git some control over him without havin’ to put no bit in the mule’s mouth. I went down to Elmo’s place an’ got ol’ Bill a little slicker a his own, an’ Harmony sewed up a ground cloth an’ bedroll just his size. Bill didn’t know nothin’ about it ‘til about the middle a April that spring, then we give him the slicker, roll, an’ that hackamore in a box with his name on it. I was afeard the boy was gonna explode when he seen all that stuff made up just for him an’ Arliss the mule. After he settled down some, I took him outside to try the hackamore out.
I warn’t terrible sure how ol’ Arliss might take to the boy actually havin’ some real control over him, but that little mule never seemed to give it one thought. He answered the reins like he’d done it all his life. I managed to convince Bill that they warn’t no need to be heavy-handed no more like when he was just usin’ a halter, an’ he backed right off an’ come to be real easy with the reins. After just a week or two, he’d put on his hat an’ boots, git down to the livery, saddle that little mule, put on the hackamore, an’ git to trottin’ around the place like he knowed what he was doin’. Now an’ then, after he asked permission, he’d strike off to go visit with Arliss the gunsmith. They was usually a cinnamon roll or a piece a pie in it for him. Arliss tolt me that Bill never displayed no more interest in drinkin’ coffee, however. It was early May, I believe, when Miss Harmony an’ me decided it was time for the boy an’ his daddy to take to the trail. The quietest part of the week was usually on Monday, Tuesday, an’ Wednesday. On a Tuesday afternoon me an’ Bill gathered up our chuck an’ possibles, hung what we needed on Willie an’ Arliss the mule, an’ stuck off on the trail. Bill was some distressed he warn’t gonna git to carry no gun, but the promise of a stop by the Sweetwater for a piece a pie to start our journey cheered him up right smart.
My deputy, Hank Buford, was settin’ on the boardwalk in front a the office when me an’ Bill come ridin’ down the main street. He grinned at us.
“Hello there, Bill,” he said. “You out for a ride this afternoon, are ya?”
“Me an’ the Marshal is headin’ out on the trail for a spell.”
“You got all the possibles an’ chuck ya need?”
Bill nodded. “Yessir,” he said, “we’re packed up.”
Hank was fightin’ with his grin some. “I see ya got yer roll an’ slicker. How long ya gonna be gone, ya reckon?”
Bill squared hisself up.
“Long as it takes, I speck,” he said.
That about done ol’ Hank in. He had to turn away an’ look down the street a ways to keep the boy from seein’ his grin.
“Well,” he said, “you take good care a your daddy.”
“Yessir,” Bill tolt him. “Momma already mentioned it to me. That there is my intent.”
Hank showed us his back then, waved over his shoulder, an’ struck off down the way. Me an’ Bill went on a little an’ stopped at the Sweetwater.
Bill was about two bites into his pie when Arliss the gunsmith come in an’ set with us. He give me a little wink.
“Bill,” Arliss said, “I seen your animals all packed up out at the rail. Leavin’ town, are ya?”
“Yessir, Mister Arliss,” Bill said. “Me an’ the marshal is on the trail.”
“Good for ya,” Arliss tolt him. “A feller needs to git out a little ever now an’ then. Git the feathers outa his feet an’ free his mind up some. Where ya goin’?”
“The marshal ain’t tolt me yet,” Bill said.
“How long ya reckon you’ll be gone?”
“’Til we git back,” Bill said, adjustin’ his hat.
Arliss grinned at me. “You boys have a good trip an’ watch yer backtrail,” he said, an’ went on his way. Bill took another big bite a that piece a apple pie.
It had been in my mind to take little Bill out to that pond where me an’ his momma went when we was courtin’. It was a purty place with that little pool an’ them willow trees an’ such. I hadden been out that way in a couple years or more an’ was kindly lookin’ forward to campin’ with the boy in such a nice spot. With Arliss the mule’s best gait bein’ a trot an’ all, it took us near a hour to git there, an’ when we did, it was some of a disappointment to me.
The whole place had been fenced off with bob-wire. A couple a the posts had signs on ‘em tellin’ folks to keep out. Not only that, all them willow trees had been cut down an’ the little spring pond, which had been clean with a nice sandy bottom the last time I’d seen it, was all stomped down from the banks an’ warn’t nothin’ more than a dirty tore up low spot with standin’ muddy water. Lookin’ out over the way, I seen several a them Galloway cattle an’ a ol’ boy on horseback. He noticed us an’ come our direction. When he got to hearin’ distance I spoke up.
“Mornin’ to ya there, sir,” I said.
He was a fair size fella in a short drover’s coat, settin’ on a narrow withered dun that looked some wore down. He come up to the fence an’ looked at me.
“What’s yer bidness?” he kindly growled.
“Me an’ the boy is just out for a ride, sir,” I tolt him. “Nice day, doncha think?”
“Ain’t rainin’,” he said. “What’s yer bidness?”
My ruff come up a little, but I hung onto it.
“We was lookin’ for a spot to camp, an’ this here usta be a good’un. Not no more, I guess.”
“Then yew ain’t got no reason ta be out here, do ya? This section a land belongs to me. Git to movin’ on.”
“Yer land start at this fence line, does it?” I asked him.
I smiled at him. “Then me an’ the boy ain’t on it. The way I figger it, yer tryin’ to impose your will on folks when you ain’t got one bit a legal reason ta do that. We’ll be on our way, sir, an’ not be no bother to ya. Won’t set one foot on yer place.”
“Damn right yew won’t,” he said.
“But,” I went on, “I git a good enough reason, I’ll go where I damn well please. I got no ill intent toward ya, sir. Not one bit. That’s in yer favor. It’s a wise man that don’t kick at a dog he don’t know.”
He let his coat come open a little then an’ looked at me right hard. “You threatnin’ me, boy?”
“I am if yer hand gits one inch closer to that gun yer wearin’,” I said. “You are bein’ a bully, sir, an’ a loudmouth. Yer used to gittin’ yer own way an’ figger, ‘cause a yer attitude an’ size an’ all, that folks is afraid of ya. I speck a lotta ‘em are. I ain’t. Me an’ the boy will be on our way an’ not bother ya any more. You come to be a bother to either one of us, an’ you’ll have yer regrets from it.”
He puffed up quite a bit. “Just who in the hell do ya think you are?” he kindly bellerd at me.
I smiled at him then.
“My name is Ruben Beeler, sir. I am the town law in Deer Run an’ a Deputy United States Marshal,” I said, an’ turned Willie away.
I only looked back once, an’ that was to see if Arliss an’ Bill was follerin’ me. They was.
I turned south then an’ rode his fence line on down past that little grove a river birches where the fella was hidin’ to spy on Miss Harmony an’ me that time. About half a mile father on, the fence ended. We went west to what was left a that little run off creek an’ follerd it on south for a ways ‘til we finally come on a likely spot close to the water with a little stand a trees. It looked like a fair spot to throw our rolls. Little Bill hadden said one word.
I got down an’ so did Bill. He come over an’ stood fair close to me. I laid a hand on his shoulder an’ give him time. Putry soon, he looked up at me.
“Was he a outlaw, Daddy?” he asked me.
I smiled. “No, I doan believe he was, boy. I think he was just afraid that somebody warn’t gonna be nice to him, so he behaved like he was some mean to git the jump on ‘em so they wodden treat him bad.”
“He warn’t very friendly,” Bill said.
“No, he warn’t.”
“He was kindly fearsome.”
“No need to worry about that man, Bill. We left him behind an’ he ain’t gonna be no trouble to us. I promise.”
“Are we gonna have to keep out a nighthawk?”
That tickled me quite a bit. I never even knowed ol’ Bill had any idea what a nighthawk was. He musta overheer’d me an’ Marion talkin’ or somethin’.
“Nossir,” I said. “We ain’t gonna need no nighthawk. We can sleep sound. Willie’ll take good care of us. I have trusted him many a time out on the trail, an’ he ain’t never failed me.”
That seemed to settle Bill’s mind some, an’ he went to luggin’ down the chuck an’ possibles we’d tied on Arliss the mule. I follerd his example an’ done the same with Willie. When we finished, I sent him off along the crick bank, lookin’ for firewood. While he was fussin’ down the way, I kicked the grass an’ such away from a spot for us to build a fire. I had it about clear when Bill come staggerin’ back in camp totin’ a mess a little sticks that was so big, he was lookin’ through a brush pile just to see where he was goin’. I had to turn away so he wodden see me grinnin’ at him. He dropped that mess a sticks right on the spot I’d just cleared out an’ stood there, pantin’.
“Good job, boy,” I tolt him. “One more load like that an’ then two or three with bigger pieces a wood, an’ we’ll be purty much set for the night. When ya git done with that, take yer saddle offa Arliss an’ rub him down a mite. He’s been sweatin’ under his blanket, I bet.”
Bill went off agin’ an’ I moved the wood he’d brung in. While he was gittin’ more, I dropped Willie’s saddle an’ rubbed him some with a piece a gunny sack. I had just got him hobbled, when Bill come back, lookin’ through another brush pile, dropped it where I had just cleared away the first load, an’ struck off agin’ to git some more. I moved the second load outa the way an’ started to stretch the tarp for us, tyin’ line to each corner an’ stringin’ it up in them little trees. I was near done when Bill come back, gruntin’ considerable as he drug a chunk a wood near five feet long an’ as big around as he was. He pulled it up to near the small stuff an’ let it drop, pantin’ an’ lookin’ some satisfied with hisself. I bit my lip to keep from laughin’ at him.
“Ya done good, Bill,” I said. “One more load’ll do it. We need some wood some smaller than the last one ya brung back in, an’ shorter too.”
He nodded at me, an’ got after it.
I had just finished tyin’ the forth corner on the tarp when the boy brung in his last load of five or six pieces about as big as my forearm. I give him a little praise at his wood gatherin’ skills an’ sent him to git the saddle offa Arliss the mule. Warn’t no need to hobble Arliss. His two best friends was in camp.
About the time I got some more suitable wood gathered an’ a fire lit, Bill had took it upon hisself to git his ground cloth an’ roll throwed under that strung up tarp. He warn’t terrible good at it. It bein’ his first time an’ all, I was some proud a the boy. He seen where I’d put my saddle an’ blanket near the fire, an’ toted his up to set beside mine. I poked at the fire with a stick, kindly gittin’ things arranged, then turned to the boy.
“Momma send us some biscuits, did she?” I asked him.
“Yessir,” he said. “They was in a bag on my saddle. I put ‘em by the wood.”
“Beans an’ ham with some biscuits sound alright to ya, Bill?”
“I could eat a little bit,” he tolt me.
“Git us out a can a them beans then,” I said, “while I put coffee on.”
I got coffee water outa a three-gallon bag we’d brung, an’ I was glad for it. After what that feller’s cattle had done to that little waterhole, I didn’t want much ta do with any a the runoff. While I got coffee on, he grabbed a stick an’ commenced to pokin’ at the fire a little bit. I set my saddle an’ blanket up for a backrest like, an’ Bill grabbed his an’ done the same. If I tilted my hat, he’d tilt his. If I changed the way I set, he’d shift hisself to match it. I got quite a kick out of it. It was a fine thing is what it was.
It was gittin’ near sundown when them beans an’ ham got hot enough to eat. I put a cup about half full a water next to the fire to warm up, an’ lifted the coffee pot to let the grounds settle some. After the water in that cup was fair warm, I topped it off with a little bit a coffee to give it some flavor an’ handed it to Bill.
“A fella drinks coffee around the fire of a night, Bill,” I said. “This here is just between you an’ me, boy. They ain’t no need for ya mention it to yer momma.”
He nodded, smiled, an’ took hisself a sip.
It was our first secret.
After we et, it was plain to see that Bill was gittin’ fair tired. I banked the fire, throwed my roll under the tarp, an’ straightened his up for him to where it was useable. It was a fair ways afore my bedtime, but I took to my roll so he could git some rest. I give him a little hug an’ got him settled usin’ his saddle for a pillow, an’ made sure he was good covered up by his roll. I’d stretched out for a spell, an’ thought he was plumb asleep, when Bill spoke up.
“Daddy,” he asked me, “how big a bird is them nighthawks?”
“We’ll talk about it in the mornin’, boy,” I tolt him, an’ he drifted off agin.
I laid there, grinnin’. I thought quite a bit a that little fella.
I was up about false dawn the next mornin’. Bill was way down in that black hole. I took care a my necessaries, got the fire started up agin, an’ set some bacon grease to warmin’ in the skillet off to the side. The coffee was just comin’ to a boil, an’ the sun was peekin’ a little bit, when Bill set up an’ commenced to lookin’ around. It was a bit of a chore an’ nothin’ I had ever had ta do for him afore, but him an’ me went off a little ways an’ I helped him with his necessaries. Bill seemed like he was kindly proud a hisself when it was over. I was kindly proud a myself, too.
I took the time that mornin’ to fix Bill some Johnnycakes with a jar a cherry jelly his momma had sent with us. It was one a Bill’s favorite things ta eat an’ he got right after it, makin’ a fair mess a everthin’ an’ finishin’ up his meal with some more a that coffee flavored water. I reckon the boy figgerd he was about all growed up by the time we got done. Without me sayin’ nothin’ about it, he collected his possibles, got his roll tied up, more or less, saddled Arliss the mule, an’ was ready for the trail afore I was.
It was my intent to go back the way we come for a spell, then head toward the river an’ ride along it, lookin’ at the boats an’ such afore headin’ back to Deer Run, an’ that’s what we started ta do. About a mile afore we’d pass where them cattle had ruint that little pond, I seen that fella we’d near tangled with the day afore come ridin’ our way on that wore down little dun. He pulled up about twenty feet from us, an’ was easy in his attitude.
“Marshal,” he said, “I wonder if you might could spare me a minute or two?”
“A course I can, sir,” I tolt him. “What’s on yer mind?”
That fella started to speak up, then his eyes slipped over to little Bill an’ Arliss the mule. A little smile flickered over his face.
“Boy,” I said, “why doan you an’ Arliss ride on down the trail a ways then turn around an’ come back. Keep that mule from gittin’ bothered by standin’ still. Don’t go terrible far, though.”
“Alright,” Bill said, an’ him an’ Arliss went off. That fella looked at me.
“I was terrible rude to you yesterday, Marshal,” he said. “I spoke harsh to ya an’ was some upset. I had to run a hand off from my employ the day afore yesterday. He was fixin’ to head out anyways and take three a my heifers with him. I found a hole in my west fence line an’ come up on three a them cows tied out that way. I’m mad at myself for not takin’ into account what kinda feller he was afore I took him on. Now that Fin is gone, I’m the only one on the place.”
“Fella named Fin, is he?”
“Yessir. Findley Hays. Most folks call him Fin. He threatened me some and such. Said if he ever seen me agin, he’d cut my throat. Hard words, but he went on his way. Damn. Would you look at me? Here I go agin, bein’ rude. My name is Walter Valentine, Marshal. Call me Walt.”
I smiled at him an’ eased Willie forward. He helt out his hand an’ we shook. His handshake was easy an’ he felt tired to me.
“Ruben Beeler, sir.”
“I remember, Marshal. I’ve heer’d of ya. I just wanted to tell ya that I’m ashamed a myself for comin’ at ya the way I done, an’ offer a little excuse for my bad behavior.”
“I find that hard to understand,” I tolt him. “Long as I can remember, I been just as sweet as the frostin’ on a piece a white cake.”
He smiled a little. “That ain’t what I heer’d.”
“Vicious lies, sir,” I said. “The product of envy from lesser men.”
That comment brung him into a full grin.
“I meant what I said,” he went on. “I hated to lose the only help I got, but Fin just showed his true colors, I guess. If I hadden found ‘em, I bet them cows would be hangin’ in somebody’s barn an’ coolin’ out by now.”
“Most likely,” I said. “I’m sorry I cain’t be more social to ya, sir, but I have took a couple days off to spend a little time with my son, an’ I got to git him back to his momma yet today.”
It was about that time that Bill come ridin’ back to where we was. Mister Valentine looked at him an’ Arliss right close as they come up.
“Sets that little mule right steady, doan he?”
“He does,” I said. “Boy, this here is Mister Valentine. Mister Valentine, this is my son, William Cole Beeler. We call him Bill.”
“Good to meet ya, Bill,” Mister Valentine said, easin’ his horse up enough to offer Bill his hand. Bill shook with him an’ nodded.
“Yessir,” he said.
“Bill,” I said, “why doan you an’ Arliss go ahead on an’ foller that fence line. Me an’ Willie’ll ketch up to ya in a little bit. That alright with you?”
“Yessir,” he said, an’ reined Arliss the mule away.
Mister Valentine watched him go an’ turned to me. “What did ya say his full name was?”
“William Cole Beeler,” I said. “We call him Bill.”
“Bill Cole?” Mister Valentine said. “Like Arkansas Bill Cole?”
“Yessir. That’s who we named him after. Arkansas Bill Cole was my friend. He saved my life a few years ago an’ come ta die from it.”
“That was back in ’81 or ’82 as I recall,” Mister Valentine said. “I was livin’ up north a Saint Joe at the time. That was with that mess over the Waxler clan if memory serves. You rode with Marion Daniels, I believe,” he said.
“I did,” I tolt him. “An’ Homer Poteet. I still do, now an’ agin.”
He kindly peered at me.
“Marshal,” he said, “I’ve gotta find me a hand for the place. If yer gonner be around in the mornin’, I’d like to talk with ya for a spell. I’ll be in Deer Run lookin’ for help. Would ya have time to jaw a little with me?”
“I would. As a matter a fact, coffee an’ pie is on me.”
“I’ll se ya in the late mornin’ then,” he said.
“In the late mornin’, Mister Valentine.”
“That’d be Walt, Marshal Beeler,” he said.
I smiled. “That’d be Ruben, Walt,” I said, an’ turned Willie away.
Ridin’ on after little Bill, it come to me that whatcha see ain’t always whatcha git. I mean that the Walter Valentine I met up with the first time was a damn site differn’t than the ol’ boy what come at me along his fence line the second time. When we first met, I was kindly enjoyin’ the thought a smackin’ him with a big ol’ rock or somethin’. Then he cogitated on his behavior, was sorry for it, an’ done somethin’ to set it right. He didn’t seem like no bad fella at all. I believe that him comin’ to us an’ apologizin’ for his rudeness like he done is one a the things that is in the nature of a good man.
Me an’ Bill talked it over on the way home about how, sometimes, the first thing a fella might think of another person could be total wrong. I explained to Bill that first encounters might not tell a fella the truth about somebody else, an’ that it usually took more than that to git a fair idea about what kinda person somebody might be. Then I reminded him a how, when he was little, he was some scairt a Marion Daniels the first times he seen him, but that after a spell him an’ Marion come to be pards.
“Is that man a good fella, Daddy?” he asked me.
“I believe he might be, Bill,” I said. “Not only because he seemed different than he done yesterday, but also because he said he was sorry for the way he treated us when we first come up on him.”
Bill thought about that for a spell, then nodded his head. “Daddy, I was scairt a Marshal Daniels when I was little, but I ain’t no more.”
“Why do ya think that is, Bill?”
“’Cause him an’ me come to know each other, I reckon.”
“That’s right,” I said. “When ya first meet somebody sometimes ya like ‘em right off, but you ain’t really gonna know ‘em until ya spend some time with ‘em. Back afore you was born, boy, an’ before your momma an’ me took up with one another an’ got married, I knowed a lady by the name a Miss Margie.”
“Was she mean to ya, Daddy?”
That kindly tickled me. “No, she warn’t mean to me. As a matter a fact, she was right nice to me. At one time, I believe that if’n I asked her, her an’ me coulda got married. As I got to know her some, I come to figger out that it would be better if me an’ her stayed just friends. Then yer momma an’ me got to know each other an’ we figgerd we might should git married an’ have us a son. An’ here you are.”
Bill nodded, but he didn’t say nothin’. I could see him rollin’ things over in his mind quite a bit.
When we got back home, Harmony come down to the barn while we was takin’ care a Willie an’ Arliss the mule. She come over, give Bill a hug, an’ asked him how our trip on the trail went.
“Momma,” Bill piped up, “did you know that Daddy almost had me for a son with another lady by the name a Miss Margie afore you an’ him got me?”
“Is that right?” Harmony said, fightin’ a smile.
“Yes M’am,” he said. “That’s what he tolt me.”
“I wonder what he’s going to tell me?” Harmony said. “Let’s go to the house while your Daddy works on his story.”
Oh, Lord. The mouths a babes.
That evenin’ I explained to Harmony what Bill meant about Miss Margie. To tell ya the truth, Harmony made it some difficult on me to git rid a my explanin’. It sorta seemed to me that she was havin’ too good a time from it.
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