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My father's brother Ray, just before he died, told my brother about something that happened to him when he was a young man working as a cowboy in Montana. I thought it was so funny I just had to fictionalize it, even though it didn't require much change from fact to fiction.
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Cold. God, he couldn’t remember ever before being this cold, never ever in his life. Only one day and he was already beginning to regret his decision. His jaw was numb from the cold and his shoulders ached from hunching against it. The wind was blowing out of the northwest, sweeping snow under the brim of his hat, the beautiful new Montana peak he’d bought just two days before. It swept in, no matter how he tucked his chin or turned away from the blast, blinding him and taking his breath away.
Hell, it was April. It wasn’t supposed to be doing this in April.
His name was Ray Turner, seventeen on his last birthday, and he was bone weary from his first day working the line, his first day of fence duty. No one had told him what a pain in the butt working the fence would be. Where was the glamour? The lariat on the straying calf, the long gallop over the plain to turn the errant steer, the fact-to-face encounter (oh god yes, the encounter) with some angry Sioux warrior come to plague the herd? Where the hell was the romance?
He and Curly were walking their horses back through the snow toward the line shack where they’d stowed their gear after riding out from the main ranch. That morning the Montana sunrise had been beautiful, the prairie grass glistening with dew in the slanting sunlight, nearly blinding him as it glanced off the ground. April in Montana, the huge sky above, the buttes in dark silhouette against the western horizon, the rounded hills leading down to the Yellowstone. What more could a young man ask for?
Well, how about some glamour? A little romance? He knew they were there somewhere.
But first the reality of a long day riding the fence, re-stapling sagging wire, straightening posts, re-attaching supports to the “deadmen.” Curly had thus identified for him the glacial boulders to which the tension wires were strung. By noon his fingers were numb from too many misdirected blows, his hands bloody from handling, mishandling, the barbed wire. By three his back was screaming from all the bending, lifting, pulling—using muscles he hadn’t used before, at least not in the way he was using them then.
And now the reality of a late spring blizzard as only Montana could know it, the Canadian low sweeping out of the north to turn the blush of April back to January scowl.
So much for glamour and romance.
With visibility near zero, they were following the fence back to the line shack. Finally, topping one last rise, there it was, barely visible below them. The slope leading down to the Yellowstone was irregular, with low hills and hollows north and south along the river, and the line shack was built into the side of one such hollow.
It was a sorry affair the color of Montana mud, almost indistinguishable from the rest of the landscape. The back wall and half the two side walls were earthen with cottonwood poles for the front, sides, and roof, the roof then covered with cowhides and sod. But it looked like a palace to the boy.
They dismounted at the shed on the north side, unsaddled their horses and turned them into the fenced enclosure. Then they hauled their gear into the shack.
The line shack was primitive in construction, but it had everything they would need while they were there on fence patrol. One room facing east, fifteen feet square with a plank floor, a window in each side wall, and a door that opened out ward and was covered with cowhide to keep out the drafts. There was a pot-belly stove in the middle of the room with a wooden table and four chairs in the south half, then two sets of bunk beds along the north wall with the window in between. Near the door, hanging from a nail, was a water bag, and hanging from nails in the south wall were the sacks of provisions they’d brought with them.
Curly lit the lamps and turned to Ray. “Chips outside,” he said pointing north. Curly was not one to waste words.
Ray came back with an armload of cow chips, deposited them, the put some in the stove. On the chips Curly poured oil from one of the lamps and then dropped in a match. Soon the room was warmer as well as smokier, most of the smoke going up the stovepipe, but not all. And the air was pungent with the mixed aromas of coal oil, steaming saddle blankets, and burning cow chips. Ray didn’t care. He could hear the wind outside but he no longer felt its cutting edge, and the odors were a small price to pay for being warm again.
Curly took off his coat and hat and placed them on one of the upper bunks along the north wall. His head, shining dully in the lamplight, gave the lie to his name. Ray assumed he’d acquired it years before, in the days of his youth and curly locks. Or maybe it was the same mentality that called circus elephants Tiny. Using that logic, the boy thought, Curly should be Gabby. Curly McCoy, Ray guessed, was somewhere in his late forties or early fifties, one of the old-timers in Montana cattle ranching, and a man from whom Ray could learn much . And even though Curly seemed a bit slow with anything other than cows, horses, and fences. Ray could learn by example rather than word. Could learn from him, that is, if Ray was going to continue to pursue his career as a cowboy. After today, he wasn’t as sure of that as he’d been the day before.
He followed Curly’s move, putting his coat on the other bunk, then carefully placing the new hat on top. He’d paid too much for it, he knew, about half a month’s wages he hadn’t yet earned. But it was worth it. He loved the way he looked in it when he stood before the bureau mirror in his hotel room in Miles City where he’d bought it just after signing with the Bow and Arrow. It had taken too much of his meager savings but he didn’t care. No self-respecting cowpoke would be without a proper hat. And that raggedy old cap he’d worn there from home just wouldn’t do.
“You scrounge up some grub ‘n I’ll go tend the horses," Curly instructed, putting his coat and hat on again.
In the gunnysacks they had provisions for a week: four loaves of bread, coffee, a half-gallon of baked beans, potatoes, carrots, onions, a slab of bacon, a ham, and two chickens. Though Ray had never before done any kind of cooking, he’d watched his mother do it often enough at the Ismay Hotel to believe he could pull it off. After all, a stew’s a stew. How tough could it be? He’d show Curly he was no greenhorn. At least not when it came to cooking.
He found a kettle big enough for more stew than the two of them would need, rinsed out the dust, filled it halfway with water from the water bag, and set it on top of the stove.
That morning, at Curly’s instructions—Curly wordlessly handed him the bag and pointed—Ray had gone down to the river, filled the bag, brought it back and hung it on the wall to be ready for them when they returned that evening.
He got out three potatoes, a half dozen carrots, and an onion. With his jackknife he peeled the potatoes and carrots, then cut them in chunks and dropped them in the water, which was by this time beginning to steam. Next the onion, in generous slabs. He took out one of the chickens from the other sack. It was already plucked and gutted so all he had to do was cut it up and put it in with the vegetables. Legs, thighs, wings, then the carcass in four chunks.
It was all bubbling nicely by the time Curly came back. He sniffed once and nodded. Ray took that to mean it smelled good. Curly brushed snow from his shoulders and beat his hat on an arm. “Nasty un,” he said. “Probly no work tomorrow.” He put coat and hat on the bunk, then sat in a chair with a long sigh. Then, “Thet’s probly okay with you, huh, Ray?” he said, smiling, already knowing Ray’s answer.
Ray assured him it would be better than okay—would Curly believe great, wonderful, heavenly? Even being cooped up for a day or two with Curly, no great conversationalist, beat having to go out to work the fence again. They sat with legs outstretched toward the stove and waited for the chicken to get done.
When Ray awakened, at first he didn’t know where he was, thinking he was back in Ismay still dreaming of being a cowboy. Then he remembered, and looked to see if Curly was laughing at him for falling asleep, like some kid exhausted from men’s work. He was relieved to see Curly slumped in his chair, hands folded over his belly, chin tucked in his chest, snoring vigorously. He looked older now in the lamplight, his features sleep-loose with deep creases in chin and cheeks, lines raying out from eyes that had squinted for too many years into too many Montana suns, his forehead and scalp a smooth white contrast to the heavily weathered face. Then Ray noticed the jagged flesh bunched and puckered from just above the left eye and running across the temple to a point above his ear. When Curly was a young man just learning the trade, he’d been bucked off a frisky mustang and then kicked into a three-day coma. Some of the Bow and Arrow cowboys unkindly suggested that was the reason Curly said so little: the kick had addled his brain and he just didn’t know what to say. But Ray hadn’t been around long enough to have heard the story of the mustang and the kick. Sometime, he promised himself, when he knew Curly better, he would ask him about the scar.
He got up to check the stew. He spooned out a potato chunk, blew on it, and popped it in his mouth. Oh yes, just like his mother’s—no, he decided, better than his mother’s.
He gently shook Curly awake, and they scooped out stew in their cups and ate together in silence. The vegetables were delicious, the chicken the best Ray had ever tasted. They ate it all, sopping up even the last drops with chunks of bread.
“Oooooeee,” Curly cooed contentedly, “mighty fine, boy. I cain’t remember any better.” For Curly, that was a speech, and Ray glowed with the praise.
Curly took out a sack of tobacco and a paper and rolled a smoke, licking the edge, twisting the ends and lighting it, then blowing out a stream of smoke. He extended the bag to Ray, who declined, not so much because he wouldn’t have liked to try it, but because he was certain he’d never be able to get the tobacco in the paper without scattering it all over the shack. While Curly smoked, Ray cleaned the pot out with some water and then hung it on a nail by the vegetable sack.
Just then, even over the moaning wind, they heard the sound of an approaching rider, then a horse’s snort and an answering whinny from one of the horses in the corral. Curly got up and went to the north window. He shrugged and sat down again.
“What is it, Curly? Who’s out there?” Ray asked.
“Too dark,” Curly answered.
Moments later the door opened and a man entered in a swirl of snow and wind, saddle in one hand, bridle and blanket over his arm. He pulled the door shut, threw his gear down in the corner, took off his hat and slapped it against a leg.
“Howdy do, boys,” he said. “We got us a good un out there.”
He took off his coat and put it and his hat on a bunk. Then he pulled a chair up to the stove, holding his hands out and rubbing them together. “Nice to hear yer sweet voice again, Curly. Who’s this young feller? Don’t believe we met before. Name’s Bob Atkins, Texas Bob to my friends. So what’ll it be, young feller—Bob Atkins or Texas Bob?”
Curly snorted his amusement.
Ray wasn’t sure who the man was or why he was there or how he should respond to him. “I’m Ray, Ray Turner,” he said, extending his hand. “I signed on just a couple days ago.” The man took his hand and they shook. “You work for the Bow and Arrow, Bob?” Ray asked. “Texas Bob,” he corrected himself.
“Me ‘n Curly been workin’ fer the Bow fer more years’n I’d keer to say. How many now, Curly? Gotta be . . . damn near thirty. Right, Curly? Just nod , Curly. I know how it pains ya to open yer mouth.”
“I was out checkin’ fence to the north, ‘n when the damn storm blew up . I figgered to come here ‘n spend the night with you boys. This un looks like that blue norther we had in, what, ’92, right, Curly? You ‘member that un, Curl?”
Curly was in the middle of rolling a cigarette, but he nodded as he licked the paper shut. He remembered. He wasn’t simple, after all. He knew what the others said about him, but he chose to ignore them.
“So, Ray, how’s ol’ Curly been treatin’ ya? He talkin’ yer ears raggedy?” He laughed. Then he frowned, having thought of something else. “Ya like ridin’ fence?”
Before Ray could respond, he went on. “Gol dern bob wire anyways. Curly ‘n me remember the days when this country was open—no fences, just God ‘n buffla grass ‘n cows ‘n open range.” He produced a corncob pipe and a pouch of tobacco and proceeded to fill it, tamp the tobacco in, and light it, puffing mightily with blue smoke billowing around him. He sighed when he got it going to his satisfaction, and slumped in his chair remembering the old days, the good days.
Ray considered him in the yellow light from the oil lamps. He was about the same age as Curly, medium height, but lean and tough as old cowhide. His hair was black streaked with gray, and his cheeks and chin were black with a day’s growth of beard. Another one he could learn from, he decided. And this one loved to talk.
“You boys already et, I spose. Yeah, I was afeared I’d get here too late. Well, I kin always rustle up somethin’ in a bit.” He punched down the tobacco with a blunt thumb, then struck a match and sucked the flame down into the pipe bowl.
“How old er ya, Ray? Look a little green to me.”
Before Ray could tell him he was twenty-one and no greenhorn, Bob went on.
“But then I ‘member Luke Sweetman, outta Texas, back in ’86. He’s only eighteen on the big spring roundup that year ‘n he’s headin’ up one of the big outfits in District Eight, Circle Dot, it was. Or mebbe N-Bar-N. I dunno. Which was it, Curly? You ‘member?”
“Yeah, well anyways, don’t much matter how old ya are, long’s ya know what yer doin’.”
The fire in the stove was down, so Ray added several more chips. He was happy to be sitting there, listening to the talk, even though only one of them was doing any talking.
“Them were the days, all right,” Texas Bob went on. “I ‘member when the XIT drove herds all the way from Texas to Montana range. Now we got ‘steaders all over the dern place. Everthin’s fenced now. Short-horn Herefords now ‘steada them mean-eyed, stringy, pisshead longhorns. Probly short-peckered men ‘n boys now too.” He looked at Ray and smiled. Curly was nodding off by the fire, Bob’s patter like an old, often-heard serenade.
Texas Bob got up and stretched. “I’m gonna find me some grub ‘fore I hit the sack. What’s left over here?’
He went to the south wall to the provisions. When he saw the pot hanging nearby, he turned to the others and said with hands on hips, “Gol dernit, Curly! What in sam hill’s the pisspot doin’ hangin’ over here?”
Ray never cooked chicken after that. Ray never ate chicken after that.