TITUS HIGH • • • a “Nineteen Sixty Three” excerpt

CH – 1     TITUS HIGH

 

The grassy knoll in front of Titus High School, with its colorful flower garden and sunny exposure, had been a perfect place to chill-out between classes before the winter’s cold arrived. Lying back on the cool grass, the sun radiating warmth into my body, hands clasped behind my head, the clouds drifting past against a deep blue sky — I could easily lose myself and miss a class if I didn’t watch my time. For three years I had found comfort and reflection there. It had been a place for inspiration, weekend planning, solving social conflicts or whatever.

Unfortunately, this year the charm and serenity were missing. The grass still felt cool when I laid on it. The clouds still played on their blue playground, and the sun continued to massage my body with its rays of warmth. But somehow, being on that hill had lost its charm.

The problem, of course, was my attitude — my pouting over the circumstances I found myself in. I had spent three years at this school, and although I’d enjoyed most of it, last year should have been my graduation. It should have been a time of moving on to a new life at university or trade school or even into the working world.  And, I would have been doing that at this very moment if not for the fickle finger of fate. Well, fate and my naïve stupidity — probably mostly the latter. My wallowing in self-pity was broken by a voice from the other side of the garden.

“Hey, Adam. What’s up? I thought you had a class?”

A voice I could recognize in a whisper across a room—Bobby Griffis. We were BF’s since the beginning of time; next door buddies since our days in diapers. His family eventually moved, but as chance would have it, their move was in the same school district, so our bond continued into our high school years.

“Yeah!” I answered. “Math. But, that’s it. Math with old Pendergast, then I’m done for the day. This year is going to be the weirdest experience ever—a Math class and an English class. Two frigging classes. I’ve got so much extra time, I could get a job and still have time to spare.”

Mum and dad had laid down the law: No part-time jobs and limited play time. I’ll tell you about it later.

“Gawd! Like I’m going to spend all my time studying?  Same with you?”

“Yeah! You got that right. It’s going to be a bummer, both here and at home. I know I’m already fed up.”

Bobby’s parents had constantly been after him about his involvement in school sports, claiming it affected his academic performance. I suppose they could have been right, he wasn’t the worlds greatest academic and loved his sports. It was pretty much the same for me.

“Bummer!” I said.  “Anyway, you done for the day?”

“Yeah! Just finished Physics.”
Bobby, like myself and for the same reasons, was held back an extra year at Titus, with only two classes: Physics and English.
“Think I’ll check out who’s on the field; maybe throw the ball for a while. You got anything planned after class? Want to go to Pete’s?

“Nothing, planned,” I replied. “And sure, Pete’s sounds great.”

Pete’s was a billiards hall we frequented: a cavernous hideaway, buried in the basement of an old commercial building on Whyte Avenue. It was a bit of a sleazy dump, with a musty odour that matched, but it offered the cheapest tables in town and was never crowded, other than when the Demon Hunters motorcycle gang held their monthly meeting. They never bothered us, but they could certainly make one nervous. Tough looking group they were. For three years I held out hope they’d find themselves a private clubhouse.

No one from school except Bobby and I frequented the place. It was like a secret get-away — a place for a quiet game of snooker, where we could contemplate life-defining decisions like, ‘What do you want to do this weekend?’ or, ‘How’s your love-life with Patty developing?’

“Well, I’ve got a class to get to, so I better move it,” I said.

“Yeah! See ya later.” And with that, Bobby turned to leave.

As I attempted to jump to my feet from my seated position on the lawn, I slipped on the grass and landed spread-eagle in the garden of scarlet and gold flowers that spelled out our school’s name.

“SENIOR TITUS HIGH.”

It was an impressive display, complete with our school emblem all emblazoned in gold, well maintained and on view for everyone walking or driving past the school to admire. In my flailing to extricate myself from the flowery mess, I completely obliterated the flowers forming the letter “U.”

Hearing my cries of misfortune, Bobby turned back, bursting into laughter at seeing my predicament. I crawled from the garden, onto the lawn, stood and dusted myself off. We admired the new name that was now spelt out.

“SENIOR  TIT S  HIGH

“Kind of like it better. How about you?” I said.

“Well, at least you’ll smell good for Pendergast.” Bobby quipped.
He turned to leave. “See you after your class, buddy.”

At least my tumble had uplifted our spirit.

 

A Novel

 

 

CAIRN

 

“Help!”
It was a drawn-out, wailing plea. Distant and nearly inaudible. Had there been any sound at all? I stood motionless, senses sharp, twisting slowly to the left and right, scanning for signs of anything that might indicate someone or something in trouble. There was nothing!

It’s strange how the peacefulness of a quiet walk through the woods can suddenly come alive with chatter when you want to listen for a particular sound. Any hope of hearing it again was lost in nature’s sinfonietta — tree branches whispering in the breeze — dry leaves rustling past my feet  —  birds singing. My senses strained to filter the noises of nature’s harmony but failed.

‘Just cry out once more —  I’m here,’  I mentally pleaded, questioning my sanity of searching for a sound I wasn’t even certain had occurred.

“Yowl!”

There it was! Again faint and lost in wind. But, I definitely heard it. Different now — muffled — but still filled with painful distress. Perhaps it was simply a pair of intertwined trees, groaning as they twisted and rubbed in the breeze. My curiosity remained intent.  I had to find the source.

The sound had cut its way through the forest noises, but from what direction had it come?  I turned and left the path to search the forest.  I moved forward, gingerly stepping over the leaf-covered ground, trying to keep any noise I might make to a minimum. My senses were keened to anything unusual; ears tuned for the slightest of sound.

A twig beneath the leaves snapped in an explosive demolition under my weight. I jumped as if I was about to be attacked, tripping myself to nearly stumble to the ground. I took a deep breath.

‘Settle down! Relax!’ I told myself.

“Where are you?” I called out as if expecting a voice to reply, ‘Over here!’

I waited, hoping for a reply, but there was none. Perhaps, whatever had made the sound, used its last ounce of energy in one final cry-out, then expired. I would wait and listen. A fallen moss-covered oak provided a sit-upon.  I sat down, to watch and wait for just one more cry of distress, frustrated that I was too late — unable to track the sound in time to have saved a life?

Fifty feet or so to my left I noticed a pile of rocks, decorated, like my log, with moss and decaying leaves. It made me think of an ancient druid ceremonial gathering spot. I found myself studying the nearby oak trees for mistletoe growth they would have used in their fertility rituals.

Then, in a moment of symphonic respite, the sound happened once more. It was louder and closer. I was certain it had come from the rock pile. I moved to investigate this ‘cairn-of-ceremony‘ more closely.

“Are you there?” I called out, leaning over the tomb of rocks. “Can you hear me?” A cry echoed from deep within the pile. An animal — somehow trapped. I moved a few rocks to one side and heard another weak howl. It sounded like a cat, but whatever it was, it was still alive and I was here to rescue it.

My heart was pounding as I removed stone after stone. I began to wonder what Druid curse I might incur for my destruction of this possible shrine. I frantically worked my way down to the animal buried below me.

As I thought about the entombed animal I was attempting to save, my thoughts drifted, to a stray cat that had chosen to let me share my property with it over the past year. When it first took up residence in my yard, I was concerned that it might become a threat to my chickens. I only had a few hens, mostly for the eggs — and Rusty my rooster. Until the cat’s arrival, raccoons had been my biggest problem. I didn’t want to have to also defend my chickens against a cat. But it seemed to have no interest in chicken meat or their eggs.

In fact, besides showing his talents as a yard mouser — apparently one of its favorite foods — it wasn’t long before I realized my raccoon problem had all but disappeared. I was quite content to allow him the run of the yard. I had determined it was a Tom. For whatever reason, he remained shy of my efforts of friendship, always keeping his distance when I’d approach. Although there was no hesitation to feed on the bits of food and cream I’d leave on the porch for it each night. I’d watch from the window, as he would sneak between the outbuildings, then bound across the yard and up the steps for dinner.

Unfortunately, the cat had disappeared as he had appeared; moved on; or he was possibly taken by a raccoon that was too big to handle. The way of the wanderer —here today, gone tomorrow.  Now I began to wonder. Was this my tom-cat?

There it was — well, its tail anyway — flicking back and forth as if warning an aggressor to, stay back. It had found its way into the pile, perhaps after a small rodent,  but having gone too far, was unable to reverse direction and so was stuck. Already in its grave, it could only wait for death. As I removed more stones from around it, I could see it must have been here for some time. A few more rocks and I waited for it to back out, but it appeared to lack the energy for even that. If it was my stray, he certainly looked different, very scruffy and emaciated. I gently wrapped my hands around the cat’s middle and with no fight left in it to object, I lifted it from the hole.  It was pathetically weak, as I coddled it into the fold of my jacket for warmth. Its eyes shifted to meet mine in a weak thank-you. We headed home.

I named him Cairn. It seemed fitting and I thought it might appease any Druid spirits that might be evaluating me. A symbolic gesture of respect. Cairn regained his strength and made his return to controlling the mice, and chicken and egg-stealing raccoons. But he spent his nights in the house, either on the rug in front of the fireplace or on my lap. Our relationship had bonded.

 

 

JACKSON CANTRELL — An Excerpt from “Nineteen Sixty-Three”

On the trip back to Alberta, Adam meets a character seemingly out of wild-west history, while he’s relaxing alone with a Coca-Cola in a Kaycee, Wyoming saloon. 

Jackson Cantrell

 

An old chap shuffled through the saloon doors, a cowboy hat, possibly of the same vintage as him, draped over his head, his eyes focused on the floor just beyond his step. Moving past the bar, his head lifted slightly, glimpsing the barkeep, and with a simple flick of his finger, he ordered a drink and continued in my direction. As the old cowboy approached, he noticed me and hesitated for a moment before turning slightly, choosing the table to my right and settling himself into the chair. I was possibly sitting at his usual spot. By the time he got seated, the bartender had placed a beer on his table and was headed back toward the bar. As he passed my table, the server gave me a wink, perhaps a friendly suggestion of something to come.

The old man removed his hat with one hand, while he stroked back his long white hair. A partially missing ear and a scar on his left cheek begged a story be told of what had happened. Re-donning his headgear, he took a swallow of his beer and gave a sigh, as if that was all the work he could muster for the moment. His squinted eyes drifted in my direction, and he nodded a silent, ‘Hello.’

Beneath a two or three day’s growth of beard, his face was tanned and wrinkled, showing years of exposure to nature’s elements. I returned his greeting in kind, then we sat silent, each staring at the drink on our table. When he reached forward placing his glass back on the table, his oilskin coat slid back from his hip, revealing a revolver, snuggled into a low-slung holster strapped to his leg.

My Gawd! A western gunslinger?’ I thought. ‘Was there a movie being made in town? Was this an actor taking a break, waiting for a call to his scene?’

His eyes again shifted in my direction, aware of my staring at the weapon on his hip;

“You never saw a revolver before, son?”

His voice was deeper than I was expecting—slow and measured, with a drawl—a John Wayne drawn-out sort of speak. This storybook character, with a voice to match, had me. I was mesmerized, in awe. I stumbled out a reply.

“Well, I-I must admit, I’ve n – never met a gunslinger. I mean, someone wearing a s-sixgun on their hip. Are you a movie actor — is it a real gun?”
My Gawd! ‘. . .  . Never met a gunslinger . . .  . Is it a real gun?’ Maybe I should just ask for his autograph and leave before I thoroughly embarrass myself?

“It’s real alright,” he said, pausing for a moment.

“Been with me a long time. Don’t get much use out of it anymore — ‘cept maybe to shoot the odd coyoté.”

He looked directly at me and introduced himself.

“Names . . .  , Jackson Cantrell.”

The name rolled off his tongue like it should have been preceded by a drum crescendo.

“Adam Hayden,” I managed to squeeze out.

He unholstered the weapon and laid it on my table. Apparently, I was no threat. I stared at it for a moment, just lying there, next to my coke, then I gingerly picked it up.

“Careful there son,” he warned. “She’s loaded.”

Like he had to warn me. It was cold and cumbersome. The metal, tarnished from years of exposure, was otherwise in pristine condition. The wooden grip was a dark chocolate colour, smooth and shiny from the sweat and oils of years of handling. I could see the bullets in the cylinder waiting to be fired. My Gawd, it was ready to shoot. It was hard to believe, such a heavy, awkward weapon, could be quickly drawn from a holster and accurately shot. All I’d ever seen of such a gun was in movies and on TV. It was daunting seeing one strapped to the side of someone’s leg sitting next to me. And, I was actually holding it in my hands.

“It looks . . . old,” I said.

“Well, it is. ‘Bout sixty-five years or more, I reckon.” The words chewed out of his mouth. “Startin’ to show its years, though—kinda like me,” he said, then took the final swallow of his beer and placed the drained glass back on the table.

When I handed it back, I noticed four distinct notches carved into one side of the wooden handgrip. Notches! What did the notches represent? A scorecard of killings? Possibly, human lives that were taken by this weapon? Why was he wearing it now? Questions I was almost afraid to ask. I thought about how old he said the gun was and the stories I’d heard from some of the locals earlier in the day when Bobby and I had walked around Kaycee. If the gun was sixty-five years old, it had come from the late 1800’s; the time of gun-slinging outlaws like the Wild Bunch.

“Sixty-five years!” I said. “That goes back a long way. How’d you come by it?”

‘How’d you come by it?’ Did I actually say that? He’s got to think I’m a moron trying to mimic him.’

A slight smile curved a corner of his mouth and then faded. He reached for his glass, then remembering it was empty, rested back in his chair. That movement seemed like a cue for me; I looked toward the bar, signaling the barman to bring another round, then we sat— not speaking —waiting. The silence was unnerving. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so nosy. Or, was he simply thinking of a memory of his past, to share with the kid he had for an audience. After what seemed an eternity, the bartender approached us; on his tray were two glasses of beer and a coke. He placed the coke on the far side of my table and a beer in front of the old cowboy and the other in front of me. It seemed unusual; I was sure I was underage for drinking in Wyoming. Perhaps that wasn’t such a concern out here in the wild west country. I wasn’t about to argue; I paid for the drinks and took a sip before he changed his mind and took it back. As I put my glass back on the table, I noticed the old man looking again in my direction. He motioned his glass toward me; a silent salute of ‘Thanks,’ and took a swallow, then settled back in his chair.

The gunslinger spoke. “You a stranger to Wyoming, son?”

I told him about Bobby’s and my journey on our way back to Alberta; about the car breaking down and our waiting for a ride home, from my father, who was coming to rescue us. He listened—I’d bought him a beer.

“Alberta,” he said. “Good cattle country, a bit like Wyoming, you might agree?”

I told him, that what little I knew of the area, I had learned today from a few of the townsfolk.

“Mostly romanticized history of wild-west lawlessness. Outlaws and desperado gangs from the past, like ‘The Wild Bunch,”  I said.

His cheek twitched a smile, and he gave a little snicker. “There was lawlessness alright,” he said. “Didn’t seem all that romantic at the time. It was the life—for some a short one.”

He stared down at his drink, retreated in thoughts of his past. Finally, after a swallow of beer, he started to tell me a tale.
“It was tough in Wyoming back then,” he began. “For many folks—probably most I’d say—life was a damn hard struggle. Wyoming was changing. The railroad had arrived, and that was good for the cattle markets. But it also brought in settlers, who set up their small ranches and farms, complete with government-endowed settler’s deeds. They fenced their properties; cutting up the open rangelands, blocking off large parts of grassland from the larger herds of the wealthy cattle barons and causing detours for the large cattle drives.”

As he told his story, he spoke slowly, pausing here and there, either for effect or to think out what he was about to say.

“Hostility grew pretty high between them. These small-time farmers were intruders, a thorn in the way it used to be. The owners of the massive herds of cattle saw them as an expense of both trouble and money. They accused the settlers of cattle rustling and range busting, but the courts supported the government entitled farmers. They turned to a more aggressive approach to ridding themselves of their problem; threatening the small land owners, burning them out, even killing.”

“Were you around here, then?” I asked.

“I was. I was just a boy. My folks had a homestead, actually not too far of here, in Platte County. Dirt poor, they were—30 or 40 head of cattle, but they had one of those government settler’s deeds. I suppose it was a start.”

He hesitated and took a large swallow of beer.

“One day in the spring of ‘92, my Momma, Pa and older brother were workin’ in the yard, when a posse for the cattlemen’s association rode in, kicking up a cloud of dust. I was in the house doin’ chores for momma. It wasn’t long before I could hear them all shoutin’ back and forth; my folks being threatened, tellin’ Pa that he had no rights to the land, that the government deed was invalid. Then, they began accusing him of cattle rustling. I was pretty young, but I knew that wasn’t true. Pa told them that he had brands on all his cattle, but it didn’t seem to make much difference to them.”

Jackson’s eyes, heavy-lidded and squinted, shifted left then right, like a threatening glare. I could almost feel the rage that the memory had set in him.

“They were no legal posse,” he said. “They were paid gunslingers and hired hands of the members of the Cattlemen’s Association. The Invaders, they got to be called by most of the locals. Their job was to drive out the small landowners by whatever means necessary, tear down their fencing and get back the open rangeland.”

I was almost relieved for the break when the bartender arrived with two more beer; again leaving one in front of each of us. I paid him and turned back to hear more of the cowboy’s tale. He was a great storyteller, and the beer was cheap. It was turning into a great afternoon; too bad Bobby was missing this.

“So, what happened with the ‘posse’?” I asked.

Cantrell took a small sip of beer.

“I heard several loud gunshots. They echoed through the house like a stampede of horses. I ran to the door to have a look, expecting to see the riders bullying my family, shooting in the air and still shouting threats. But, when I peered out, my brother and pa were laying on the ground, and momma was screaming.
I scrambled around the house to get the rifle and some shells. Pa had taught me to shoot when we hunted pronghorn. I was panicked and not as quick as I wanted to be. By the time I came out the door with the gun loaded, they’d all ridden off, except for one rider. I could hear Momma sobbing. A man was sitting on his horse, with his back to me and a gun in his hand, pointed it at my momma, on her knees crying over my brother’s body. He fired once, and she slumped over my brother. He didn’t hear me coming up from behind. When he swung his horse around to face me, I had his head in my sights; damn near blew it clean off. His body flipped backward off his horse.”

I’d been holding my breath; it was time to breathe. I wanted to say something, but the words wouldn’t come out. He hesitated a moment, his eyes moving to look at me, then back to the glass in his hands resting on the table.

“My whole family had been murdered in front of me, and I had just killed one of the men that had done it. I was afraid some of the posse would return when they heard the loud crack of my rifle, and I knew they’d shoot me just as fast as the rest of my family. I removed the gunslingers gun n holster and the cash from his pockets then caught his horse and climbed up into the saddle. I took one final look at my family, lying in the blood-soaked dirt and left; my face was soaked in tears even though I didn’t remember cryin’. I headed out—west toward the mountains. I didn’t know where I was going; I was just riding.
Seen a lot of country since then, but I’ve never been back to the old homestead. Don’t imagine it’s even still there. But, that’s where I got the gun.”

I was still at a loss for words. My eyes dropped to the holstered six-shooter; the gun that had killed his mother and possibly the rest of the family.

Six or seven years old. When I was that age, I could barely walk to school without help. I could not imagine, having the calm maturity to do what he had done. What does someone that age do to survive in such a harsh environment? Words tumbled, almost incoherent, from my mouth.

“Where did you go? H-how did you live?” I asked.

His mouth was dry from telling his story; he paused for a drink then continued.

“Pretty much hand to mouth. Strange thing was, once I got over the loss of my family, life didn’t seem all that bad. I had a good horse and saddle, a gun n holster that was too big for me to wear, and a rifle. I roamed a lot of country.”
He gave a little snicker. “I wore an old floppy hat that hung down over my face to hide my age best I could. I worked when someone would hire a kid, earned a few dollars here and there.”

He paused for a drink and thought a bit.

“Stealing . . .  , did a lot of stealing. I even got to thinking I was good at it. Until, one day in Casper, I must have been eleven or twelve by then, I tried to sneak out of a store with some rifle cartridges in my pocket, but the owner caught me. I think he would have killed me with the whippin’ he was about to lay on me, except a stranger stopped him. The two of them talked for a bit, the stranger hanging onto my collar all the while. Then he stepped on my foot to keep me from moving while he paid the man. I was impressed with his payin’ for my shells , but I remember I’d thought for sure all my toes had been broken. After that, we headed outside. He told me I was free to go. But for some reason, we stood and talked for a while. He was impressed that I had my own horse n saddle and rifle—bein’ alone and all—and I was grateful for the rifle shells he’d paid for. After a bit of talking, he offered me a job at his ranch, tending his horses. It sounded good; I had nowhere I had to be, so I took it.
His property was on the edge of the Big Horn Mountains, over near Dubois. It wasn’t much of a ranch; he had a bunch of horses and a few head of cattle, but I got paid some, and I had food on my plate and a bed to sleep in. He was one of the friendliest men I’d ever met, quick with a joke and he liked to tell stories. It wasn’t long, though, ‘til I learned why he wasn’t much of a rancher.”

He paused long enough to take the last swallow of beer from his glass and settle back in his chair. This old man sure could suck ’em up; I flagged the barman to bring him one more. There was no way I could ever keep up with his drinking, but I didn’t mind paying for his beer and listening to the story.

“He was an outlaw, just like the ones the townsfolk here was tellin’ you about. He rustled cattle from the big range herds, held up banks, and robbed trains. The funny thing was, everyone seemed to like him—even the odd lawman. He was a kind of Robin Hood, always sharin’ with those that needed it. His name was LeRoy—LeRoy Parker—though most of his close friends called him Butch. He’d done a little jail time, but still, he was one of the smartest men I’d ever met. A real planner. When he and some of his gang would rob a bank or a train, he would set up a relay of fresh horses every few miles on their getaway route. When they were being chased, the posse’s horses just played out after a short while, but he had fresh horses waiting along the way for him and his men.
There were hideouts in the mountains that a lot of those—desperados as you called them—could get lost in and not be found. Robbers Roost, Hole in the Wall; there were others. I got to see some of them in my short time with Butch.”

I was absorbed in the tale, sitting on the edge of my chair, glued to his every word. Another person strode through the saloon doors. He was dressed in rugged cowboy clothing similar to Cantrell, although slightly taller and possibly younger. His step was brisk—his oilskin coat flipped open, exposing a holstered six-gun hanging from his hip, strapped to his leg. His weathered face had the same three or four-day growth of beard. He signaled to Jackson, a friendly—time to go’—motion with a nod of his head then turned and breezed out of the bar as he had entered.

“Well, son, that there’s my partner, so I suppose it’s time for me to head out.” He stood and reset his hat on his head and finished the last swallow of his beer.

I slid my chair back and stood up; he extended his arm, and we shook hands.

“Nice meetin’ ya, kid,” he said. “And, thanks for the beer.”

As he turned to leave, I called after him,

“Thanks for the story.”

He turned his head back toward me and touched his hat; a final goodbye.

There were so many questions that I’d never have answers to. I felt like I had my book taken away before I had reached the end of the novel.

The clock above the bar said 5:00 pm. The afternoon had passed quickly. I was about to go and wake up Bobby when he walked into the bar.

“Man! I’m hungry,” he said, glancing at the nearly empty beer glass in front of me. “What’ve you been up to?”

We still had several hours before dad was expected. We ordered a light snack, and while we ate, I shared my afternoon experience with Jackson Cantrell and the unfinished story. But for some strange reason, the supply of beer ceased. Bobby had really missed a great afternoon.