Whichaway

Excerpt

          The boy rousted at six o’clock, dressed, yawned outside the bunkhouse to the tap, and poured a basin of ice-cold water over his head as the hands did. That slapped the sleep out of you in a hurry.  Then he dripped and snorted over to the cook shack. There were eight hands on the Box O and he bunked and  took his meals with them summers.
          Nobody said much at chuck. They ate. This particular morning the boy put away three eggs sunny-side up, a hill of fried potatoes, five sourdough biscuits with sorghum on them, and two cuts of leftover dried apple pie. To irrigate this breakfast he used a cup of black coffee powerful enough to poison rats. 
          Beans, the cook, stopped him on the way out. Beans was a sawed-off old gent who’d been a waddie, a cowpuncher, in his youth.  Now that he was too rickety for the saddle, he rode his tongue instead and cooked for the ranch and had bad teeth. Once, when a tooth got ornery and he complained too much, the hands bull-dogged him and pried open his jaws and gave him a shot of whiskey and took hold of the tooth with a pair of pliers and ripped it out like a nail from  a hoof.  For his hollers they gave him another shot of whiskey.  For revenge he baked the tooth in his next pie.
          “Whichaway you goin’?” asked Beans.
          “Crittenden’s.”
          “That ain’t but five mile. You’ll be back t’lunch.”
With a finger in his mouth, Beans tallied how many teeth he had left and regarded the boy seriously. “Take you a think now an’ then.”
          “What for?”
          “So’s you’ll recollect the world’s round an’ you’re on it an’ won’t fall off.”
          Walking to the corral the boy looked over his shoulder up the rise at the ranchhouse. It was a fine house with every modern convenience, hardwood floors and water piped in and carbide gas lamps and bathtubs. But it was a Western house, too. There were racks of guns on the walls and bear and lion skins and Navajo rugs on the floors. Outside, great cottonwood trees graced it. In the winter their leaves were gold, but on this June morning they rejoiced in green. Except for a woman who cleaned and washed and did for him, his father lived alone in the house. Sometimes the boy wished he lived there and sometimes he was glad he didn’t.
          By the corral and barns and gear shed the hands were already about their business. Skeeter and Texas Tommy were saddling up to go mend fences and dig a couple post holes, maybe yahoo some strays out of the brush or doctor some sick stock. Guy and Lafe were working on a tore-down truck motor that they were cussed if they could put back together again. They were good men but they weren’t real cowboys. Nowadays all they could be was ranch hands. There was a difference.
          In the gear shed the boy helped himself to cartridges from an open box, topped off his grease bucket with a ladle from a small drum of lubricant and made sure it was tied to his saddle and his rifle was in its boot, hoisted the whole heavy rig to his shoulder and staggered it down to the corral. Dub, his horse, was scratching himself on a post, but when he saw who was coming he nickered and jigged at once to the gate. The boy opened it, heaved blanket and saddle onto him, tightened the cinches under his belly till Dub gave a grunt, flopped the stirrups down and climbed aboard. 
          Once up he tied a red cotton handkerchief around his neck with the knot  on one side. Then he and the horse rode out together looking, they both thought, mighty sporty. No one waved so-long or paid them any mind.
          The boy was fifteen. Lately Beans and the hands had taken to calling him “Whichaway,” or “Which” for short, but that was not his name.
          The Box O was sixty-three miles long and thirty-one miles wide at its widest point, making up twenty-one hundred square miles of range and deserts and mountains. The nearest town was Prescott, which was forty-four miles from the main house. On this spread they ran about fourteen hundred head of cattle. In the good old days they could have carried twice that, for the grass was then belly-high and the water ample.  But now, in the year nineteen and twenty-three, grazing and erosion had sparsed out the grass and drought had done for the water. The Box O was down to a couple of springs and a couple of creeks  which gave up in summer. Water was life in Arizona, though, and what the ranch depended on for its life was thirty-one windmills.
          The boy rode toward Crittenden’s. This was just a dry wash near two windmills. A family had been caught there with a wagon wheel off--a man and wife and four kids. Indians slaughtered them, kids and all. Their name was Crittenden. That was only forty years ago. History is what you read about. But there was so much of it in these parts, and it was so recent, that sometimes as the boy rode about his solitary chore it seemed to him that he could hear the crash of gunfire, smell the powder and the ponies and the blood, and taste the bitter medicine of fear. He could feel his heart coil, excited, and like a rattler strike his ribs.
          “Why?” he would demand out loud. “Why does it have to be over?”
          If you had followed him around a day or two you’d have judged he talked to himself a great deal. He did. And he had reasons. For one thing, he was bone lonesome. He had no brothers or sisters.  His father was a silent man, as were the hands. Arizona was a land of people who spoke only when spoken to. Chinning or using too much tongue oil was frowned on. Nor did the cattle have much to say, or the horses ,or the wild beasts, or if they did they kept it to themselves.
          So this boy did appear to talk to himself a lot, but it was really just one of him conversing with the other. The fact was, in the last year he’d become two people inside one hide, and stretch that hide all he could, it was still too small. There the two of him had much to discuss.
          He also talked to his horse. Dub said in his opinion it was a whistler of a day, just a whoop-de-doo day, and why didn’t they run a little? He said this by doing a dance, allemande left and sashay right. The boy knew what it meant because they were very close. 
          Dub was a gray gelding with black patches on his legs and a black tail and one black eye, not very handsome but big. He was twelve years old, a bit middle-aged for critter work, which was why he’d been cut out of the range bunch two years ago and turned over to the boy. He tired in the afternoons, like most middle-aged people, but in the mornings he was full of vinegar. 
          “Want to kick up your heels, huh?”
          Dob poked his ears forward.
          “Say, Dub, tell you what. Let’s go to Crazy Men Mesa!”
          Dub laid his ears back.
          The boy twitched him in another direction and pulled down his hat and got a good hold with his knees. He leaned over the saddle horn and at the instant he whumped Dub in the sides and the stirrups he shouted “Hoo!”
          They lit out like a cat afire.
          They ran for maybe a mile. The boy hung on for Aunt Hannah with his eyes watering and scared stiff and let Dub do the driving.  For the big gray, the full gallop was fun now and then, and good exercise, and made him feel young again.  Probably he pretended Indians were after them and he was a hero horse.  But when the boy’s thighs ached with banging on to that half-ton of horsemeat he   put on the brakes, snubbing slow and easy. They stopped.
          His first thought was, why in thunder did I get a notion to go to Crazy Men Mesa? His second was, because that’s the way I am lately and that’s why I’m called what I am.
          It was true. Lately he’d been bitten by the peculiar bug.  He forgot things.  He couldn’t seem to concentrate. He was given to riding off into the blue--no one knew where, even he himself till he got there. Take now, for instance. Instead of a half-day’s ride over to Crittenden’s and back by noontime, he was headed fifteen miles in the opposite direction, an all-day expedition.
          Dub slobbered comfortably as he rested.
          Then it occurred to the boy that he had no food. Well, he’d shoot lunch. When the settlers came out to Arizona Territory in the good old days, nobody packed lunches of pinto-bean sandwiches and jugs of tea for them.
          He laid a leg alongside Dub and listened with it to the big heart working. Then he heard his own as something else occurred to him.  No one knew where he was going, no one. Beans usually kept track of his route, but he’d said Crittenden’s. What if anything happened?
          He grinned. Like what? Like being ambushed by Apaches?  Like being held up by desperadoes? What an ignoramus he was.
          But it wasn’t entirely his fault. Arizona had been a state for only eleven years and its glorious, wild-and-wooly, shoot-‘em-up past was as near as yesterday. The tall tales of the old-timers, and Beans’s stories particularly, had put a burr under his imagination.  He’d been fed on adventure as much as  on beef, and it was no wonder if he was disappointed when he looked around at the way the West was now.  The rough was smooth, the untamable had a ring in its nose, every challenge had been met. Life now was sweat and dirt and grease and ho-hum and making meat for dudes back East to eat and that was all. This sad state of affairs was one of the three things he talked to himself most about.
          “You might as well say it,” he said out loud, “the good old days are gone. The Indians and outlaws and cavalry and rustlers and real cowboys and gold and thrills have turned up their toes.  You missed it. You were born forty or fifty years too late.  Everything has to change, including times and places and you. That’s the picklement. You and the West are just alike. You know what you’ve been but you don’t know what you’re going to be.”
          Dub whiffed.
          “Shut up, horse,” he said. “You missed it, too. You’ll never rescue anybody or carry a soldier in a charge with bugles blowing.  You’re an ugly, slobbery, old mill rider’s kack, that’s all. And unless you want me to sell you for glue, stir your stumps.”
          Down into and up out of dry washes he rode for an hour through nothing country, over rocks and sand and gravel, between buckhorn cactus and the  yucca, greasewood bushes and mesquite.  Lizards scurried. Ground squirrels bounced into their holes. The day warmed.
          For a second hour Dub picked his way along the lower slopes of mountains. This was mile-high country, and they were going higher.  Scrub oak and juniper and salt cedar trees had rooted here.  Over the horse and rider a hawk sailed, studying them.
          Then for a third hour they zigzagged through the Butter Mountains.   These resembled slabs of butter fresh from the churn and shaped by hand. Once, as they climbed, the boy looked back between the shoulders of a pass. He could see for fifty miles.  In all that fifty miles there was not one sign of life. There were only sounds. A hoof dislodged a pebble and it tumbled downward, clicking, clicking.  The leather of the hand-me-down saddle creaked.  Even God, the boy thought, would be lonesome here.
          He was what was known as a long drink of water.  He’d grown almost   six inches in the last year. Beside being tall and thin he was awkward, because he hadn’t yet learned how to handle his new arms and legs.  His face had grown longer and leaner and hairs had commenced to sprout on his cheeks and chin which he’d soon have to shave off or pluck out or tie ribbons around. His voice was deep and manly most of the time but now and then, as though a frog in his throat had been tickled, it leaped and croaked.
          The rest of him he kept pretty well hidden. Under his range hat he had a bowl of plain brown hair. That was how it was cut, around a bowl with shears, by Pablito, one of the hands. The broad brim of his hat concealed the out-size of his ears. You couldn’t tell about his eyes because he had to wear heavy old-fashioned spectacles with rims of steel, and the lenses were always dusty.    When he remembered to, which wasn’t often, he took them off, breathed “hah” on them, and polished them with his shirttail. Every day during the summer he wore what he wore now: a long-sleeve denim shirt washed to silver, Levis in the same condition, and boots run down at the heel.
          Fall, winter, and spring, of course, he gussied up. Every September he packed his town duds and was trucked into Prescott, where he roomed and boarded with a family and went to school.  It was the only way youngsters from vast ranches like the Box O, Slash Bar K, Jughandle and the Flying Z could get their schooling. His mother had taught him till he was ten, having been a teacher herself. After that, from the sixth grade going on the tenth, he’d led a whipsaw life--off to Prescott with people to talk to, sights to see, books to read; then back to the ranch, button your life, bunk with the men and act their age and read catalogues and Western stories as they did.  It was whip, be a book boy; saw, be a cowboy.
          Except that he wasn’t any more a cowboy than the hands were. He rode the mills.
          His was a thankless, lamebrain, never-finished task, done in winter by hand for lack of anything better to do. In the old days it didn’t need doing because there weren’t any windmills.  He supposed it was important, though.
          Beans said it sure as blue blazes was. The cook, who, was the most talkative man in Arizona, would say time and time again: “A windmill’s like a man. It don’t matter how hard the wind blows or whichaway, that mill’s got t’go on turnin’. The cattle depends on it.  An’ a man’s got t’go on doin’  his job, too, no matter what. Folks depend on him.”

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