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

 

 

“Engine Trouble” • • • NINETEEN SIXTY THREE Excerpt

On a travel adventure through the racially-torn American South in 1963, Adam and Bobby find themselves in a perilously dangerous situation when their VW breaks down on a quiet country road near Albany, Georgia. They are confronted by three seemingly friendly Afro-American strangers who are offering them help.  • • •  or are they?

 

Engine Trouble

 

The engine’s quit! It just stopped,”

I coasted to the side of the road, and tried the ignition—the engine turned over but wouldn’t start. We sat in silence for few moments, thoughts of nothing and everything running through our heads, confused that such a thing could happen. I tried again to start it but with no luck. We got out of the car, raised the engine cover and stood, staring at the motor. Everything seemed normal: it wasn’t smoking, nothing appeared burned or damaged, not that we had any idea what we were looking for. I had worked on my engines before—at home in dad’s garage—with a full assortment of tools. But now, we were broken-down on the side of a country road, somewhere in Georgia, with no tools, little money, and no one to call for help.

A feeling of anxiety began to develop in me. My first thought, ‘Maybe I should hitchhike to the next town, search out a phone and call dad.’ I quickly came to my senses. It was a lame idea; he’d probably just hang up. After all, leaving a note for our folks, telling them that we had quit school, and were off on a trip to Florida, and oh yeah, I had taken his Texaco credit card, was not the best precursor for requesting assistance.

We were definitely in a pickle. We stood at the roadside pondering our predicament. An idea would inevitably develop. Bobby grabbed a couple of Cokes from the car, and we plopped down on the gravel shoulder and stared into the distance. After several minutes of nothing inspirational, I got up and tried the engine once more. As expected, nothing had changed.

“Well, that’s it!” I said, returning to the side of the road. “I think we’re screwed! You want to hitch-hike to New Orleans and catch a freighter?”

The attempt at humor had no effect on Bobby.

“I suppose there’s nothing for it. We’ll just have to walk to the next town and find some help,” he said. “I wonder what this is going to cost.”

“Yeah, good point.”

The only hope was if the credit card would be accepted to pay for the repairs.

We were about to start the five or so mile walk into Albany when an old Ford pickup rolled up and stopped behind us. Three black, young and muscular guys got out and approached. It didn’t require a lot of knowledge of the American South to recognize that our situation could potentially develop from a car problem into something much worse. Three strong coloreds—two white boys—no witnesses. Having a better knowledge of racial tensions down here probably would not be of any use. As they walked up, the driver of the truck was the first to speak.

“Hello there. You fellas got a problem?”

He certainly spoke a lot more ‘white’ than I was expecting.

“Well, yeah,” I said. There was a slight quiver in my voice that I prayed was not noticeable. “The uh . . .  , engine’s quit. We’ve no idea what’s wrong. It’s been running great up until now.”

I was sounding as if I was apologizing for our problems. He looked at the engine then looked back to me.

“Name’s LeRoy Scroggins, and this here’s Rodney, and that’s Sam,” he said, gesturing toward his partners.

“Adam Hayden,” I said, and then motioned toward Bobby. “And Bobby Griffis.”

I extended my arm toward LeRoy with the intent of a handshake. My gesture, possibly too abrupt, took him by surprise and he stepped backward quickly as if a reflex to protect himself. Recognizing my gesture as friendly, he stepped up and shook my hand, then turned, reaching toward Bobby to do the same. Preoccupied with watching Rodney’s close inspection the engine, when a hand suddenly appeared in front of him, Bobby jumped. We were all apparently a bit nervous but were somehow able to recognize the humor in the situation.

Looking at the car, LeRoy said, “Well, I wouldn’t say I’m an expert, but I’ve worked on a few engines. I could take a look if you like?”

“Sure, go ahead,” I said. “I’ve tried to restart it. The engine turns over easily, but that’s about all.”

LeRoy knelt down and looked into the engine compartment.

“Mind cranking it over a couple of times?”

I got in the car and ran the starter for a few moments, but of course, it didn’t come close to starting.

“I can’t say for sure, but it sounds like the timing is off somehow. Maybe a broken timing gear or belt—I’ve never worked on one of these, but it does sound like a timing problem,” LeRoy glanced at Rodney, who responded with a head nod in agreement.

“Damn!” I said, “Just what we needed. I hope there’s someone in town that works on Volkswagens?”

They seemed sincerely friendly, but I wasn’t sure if it was that or were they just working their way up to providing us a good thumping and stealing the car.

“Where y’all from anyway?” Rodney asked. “I don’t recognize your licence plate. Y’all sound like you got a Northern accent.”

“Yeah!” I said, “Canada!”

I told them the part of Canada we were from and a quick version of our trip. It was none of their business, but I thought it would delay a potential beating. They were intrigued by our accent and continued to ask questions. Bobby and I answered like it was an interrogation, then we’d ask them something. It was an awkward confrontation, to say the least, filled with nervous fidgeting, but still, we seemed to exchange pleasantries quite readily. The anxiety at times would relax.

While we were discussing the engine with Rodney, LeRoy wandered away to speak to Sam, who was fussing with something in the back of the pick-up. After a bit, Sam got in the vehicle, made a U-turn and drove off. When LeRoy returned, all he said was that Sam was going to get more help.

“More help?” I said inquisitively. ‘Why would they need more help? I’m sure the three of them could handle us with no problems at all.

“Yeah. He’ll be back shortly,” LeRoy then began quizzing us about Canada and our trip. I tried to act calm, but I was feeling like a mouse being played with by a cat before being devoured. My imagination was running rampant with thoughts of robbery, a beating or worse. We could be killed right here on this road in Georgia, and no one would know.

Our conversation teetered on with LeRoy and Rodney for half hour until Sam returned; an old flatbed truck followed him. The two vehicles pulled to the side of the road and parked behind our VW. When the driver of the flatbed jumped out of the cab and started approaching us, LeRoy provided an introduction.

“Adam, Bobby, this here’s my Lil’ sister, Carla.”

My Gawd! Carla was gorgeous! Tall with a shape that begged to be hugged. Her soft, bronzed complexion shimmered like velvet in the sunlight. A delicate nose and sparkling steel grey eyes that peered out from under an afro, so massive, if the wind blew too hard, it would surely blow her away like a dandelion fluff. Her short-shorts were ratty-edged, torn rather than scissor-cut and rode high on her thighs, making her long and shapely legs appear to go on forever. A bright, rainbow-colored sleeveless blouse hung from her shoulders, with the shirttails pulled up and tied beneath her breasts for support; breasts that I was satisfied would spill out if only she would twist just a little. I could only hope. If a physical assault was the intent of this foursome, she could take me down now.

LeRoy looked at me, his eyes in a Clark Gable, ‘Gone with the Wind’ squint, which suggested, ‘Down boy.’

“Now, if y’all want some help,” he said, “we can load your car on the back of this here truck and take it to a garage we know in town.” He hesitated a moment, then added. “It’s a ‘White’ garage, and I’m pretty sure they’ll be able to help y’all out. They’re good folks.”

That sounded like a great plan. LeRoy had eased the tension I was feeling; this appeared to be sincere generosity from perfect strangers. While I remained a bit concerned about a potential nefarious outcome, it seemed our best plan. Our only plan. At least now, I knew what LeRoy meant by ‘More help.

The flatbed had a winch and a ramp that made loading the VW a simple task. With the car securely positioned on the truck, we were off—to where exactly, I wasn’t too sure. Bobby wedged into the pick-up with Rodney and Sam. I joined LeRoy, with Carla snuggly squeezed between us. We hadn’t traveled far on the paved highway when LeRoy turned off onto dirt side road.

“Just taking a shortcut,” he said.

That nervous twitch in my stomach returned. I wanted to ask where we were going but decided it would probably expose my tensions. The only comfort was Carla’s, warm bare arms and thighs pressing against me in the tight confines of the front seat.

It was hot, and the dust from the pickup ahead of us was choking; at least Bobby was breathing clean air. Hopefully, we would reach our destination soon; the constant yo-yo of tension and relief was causing me the need of a bathroom.

The old road was finally about to enter the outskirts of Albany. At last! I was confident we would be arriving at the garage shortly. Carla, LeRoy, and his friends had so far seemed sincere.

Unexpectedly, LeRoy turned from the dirt road into a trail traveling between several rundown properties, and my anxieties exploded again. We proceeded slowly, over the pot-holed lane, past yards littered with refuse: old rusted vehicles, and deteriorating abandoned outbuildings. The truck bounced and jolted through the holes, and I hoped we had tied the VW to the truck securely. Rocking back and forth, Carla grabbed my knee, her forearm pressing against my inner thigh for support — I almost wet myself. The trail continued beyond the derelict properties, through a grove of tall trees that reminded me of the pecan farm entrance Bobby and I had experienced the day before. Carla’s body continued to press against me, her hand remaining clutched on my knee. It was definitely stimulating, but I wasn’t sure if it was enough to distract my anxiety. I began to feel our fate was imminent.

We exited the alley onto a paved street, complete with street lighting, and modern housing. LeRoy made a right-turn into a service station parking lot. The garage—at last. It was a Texaco station and service garage. Things were again looking up. My first thought, ‘Would we be able to pay for the repairs with the credit card?’ I glanced at Carla, my beaming smile belying my relief at feeling liberated from potential assault and robbery . . .  , or worse.

We parked on the far side of the lot. LeRoy suggested he would go in first to confer with the owner. We agreed and other than my immediate trip to the station’s washroom, we waited, huddled in the limited shade of the truck. The afternoon sun was warm, radiating off the paved lot.

The station was busy; several cars were at the pumps; the two garage bay doors were open, with a car, high on a hoist. Vehicles were parked along the far side of the lot, either repaired or waiting their turn like patients in a doctor’s office.

Eventually, LeRoy leaned out the door and motioned for Bobby and me to come in. Eric Andrews, the proprietor, his name displayed above the door as we entered, was busy talking with a customer. He was an older man, possibly in his late fifties, with sparse greying hair, thick eyebrows, and a bit pudgy around his middle. He reminded me a little, of Archie Bunker, from ‘All in the Family.’ After finishing with the customer, his mechanic was waiting to discuss another matter. As he listened to the problem being presented, the phone rang. Answering it, Mr Andrews had no trouble handling both the phone call and his dialogue with his mechanic, at the same time.

“Busy man!” I said to LeRoy.

“Yeah! He is a busy man,” he said. “He knows how to keep people happy. One of the good ones.”

I wasn’t sure what he meant by saying, ‘One of the good ones,’  but before I could ask, the station owner had finished his business and approached.

“Mr Andrews, sir. As I was telling you, this here is Adam and Brody, the two fellas we found stranded on the highway.”

Bobby pursed his lips at being called Brody. He was about to correct the misnomer, but LeRoy never gave him a chance as he continued describing our plight. Mr Andrews put up his hand, interrupting LeRoy’s story.

“Well boys, LeRoy here has already given me a bit of information on your situation, and it sounds like a problem that we might be able to help with. But right now, I have to slip on home and have a little supper with my wife before she heads off to work. So you and LeRoy go ahead and get your vehicle off his truck and park it over there.”

He motioned toward a vacant spot at the edge of the service station lot.

“I’ll be back in an hour or so, and we can do some talkin’ then before closing time.” He hesitated a moment as he gathered up a couple of things to take home. “Y’all Okay with that?”

“Yeah! That sounds great,” we chirped.

“Thanks, Mr Andrews. Appreciate it,” LeRoy said, as he shook the old man’s hand.

 

Andrews left for home, and we went back to the truck to unload the VW and pushed it into its designated spot.

“Well, I guess, that’s about it,” LeRoy said, dusting his hands off, on his pants,

“S’pose we best be getting home, mama’s gonna have supper ready real soon,” Carla said to LeRoy.

Then unexpectedly, she looked at us and said, “You fella’s welcome to join us if yous got nothing planned.”

We were both taken back by the sudden offer. ‘If we got nothing planned?’ At this point, we didn’t have any plans. We were just going to sit in the car and wait for Mr Andrews to return. We’d seen more Southern hospitality in the last couple of days than I would have thought possible. But, being invited home for dinner after such a short encounter took me by surprise. I looked at Carla, then at LeRoy. He recognized the surprised look on my face.

“Yeah! You’re welcome to come if y’all care to,” LeRoy said. “I think mama would like to meet a couple of boys that come all the way from Canada.” Then he added, with a smirky grin, “White boys, at that.”

I smiled at the joking racial comment. “Yeah!” I said. “Dinner would be great. Thanks.”

And with that, Bobby and I joined LeRoy in the flatbed, while Carla rode with Rodney and Sam, who dropped her off at home.

LeRoy’s place, though rustic, was clean and well maintained. A picket fence in need of paint surrounded a grassy, treed yard. A young boy was playing on a swing, floating back and forth below a giant oak.

“That’s Titus, my young brother,” LeRoy said pointing to the boy, who flew from the swing, tumbling to the grass, then was up and running to greet his brother. We got out of the truck and went into the house.

His mom reminded me a little of Savanah from the pecan plantation, although much younger. I could see where Carla got her high cheekbones from and her striking looks. After introductions and LeRoy’s explanation of our situation to his mom, she welcomed us into her home as if we were family. Bobby and I joined Titus and LeRoy at the kitchen table, while Carla went to help her mom finish preparing dinner.

Oh, My Gawd! What a meal. Was everyone in the American South a chef? First Savannah, now Mrs Scroggins. A large platter of the best Southern-fried chicken I’ve ever tasted sat in the center of the table. Around it was smaller bowls filled with fresh, warm buttermilk biscuits with a side dish of butter, a delicious hot Creole Okra dish that could have been a meal in itself, and of course, a bowl of grits. People in America eat grits with every meal—at least in the southern United States. Bobby was more polite and only had a little of everything, but I ate as if it was my last meal of the week. When dinner was over, and I knew I couldn’t eat another bite, Carla brought out a freshly made, hot, bourbon-n-pecan pie, flavored with a hint of chocolate, that I would have pushed my grandmother down the stairs, for the last piece. There’s always room for dessert.

The ambiance, while we visited with the Scroggins, was as relaxing and comfortable as eating at home. There was no suggestion of racial animosity. Nor was there any discussion of it. We were new folks and white, visiting in a black family’s home, deep in the racially charged American South, the center of explosive Civil Rights issues, sharing a meal, friendship, and mutual respect for one another. I felt supercharged with the emotion I felt for the people we’d met in Georgia, colour of skin had no meaning, and yet the hatred and mistrust that ran between blacks and whites here was rampant with hatred, protest, fighting and even killing. I knew I would never understand.

As much as it would have been nice to visit longer, it was time to go; we were due to meet Pop Andrews back at the garage. I thanked Mrs Scroggins for the meal and gave her a hug. I’m certain she must have felt I was trying to squeeze the life right out of her. She hugged me back and told me to take care. After our goodbyes, LeRoy drove us back to the station.
What we were about to learn, would completely belie the caring we had just experienced Scroggins family.

 

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.