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By Bruce H. Thorstad
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1993 Bruce H. Thorstad
All rights reserved.
Too Much Bear
I HEARD OF PUNCHERS IN WYOMING ONE TIME WHO ROPED themselves a grizzly. The bear had wandered out of the Bighorn Mountains onto the flat, thinking he'd breakfast on a steer or two. When the cowhands spotted him, they loped in and hazed him awhile, just to take some starch out of him. Then they threw out their loops, and the big bear was caught.
These were sprouts as cowhands go, but they were savvy enough to keep their ropes taut and the bear between them. Well, Mr. Grizzly raged and the morning aged, but the punchers had him dead to rights. Before long, up starts a discussion of just what to do with him.
"Sure thing a zoo would want him," one waddy opined, which was sensical enough had any zoo been within five hundred miles of there. "Haul him to town in a wagon," said another. The thinking was folks would pay good money to see a captive grizzly.
Then a seasoned hand rode up and looked the situation over—the bear snarling and his jaws popping and his claws flashing like new razors. The sprouts, they wilted, expecting a chewing out on account of no one was minding longhorns.
Well, the old boy didn't say they'd done good and he didn't say they hadn't. What he said was, "Whatever you're fixing on doing, don't let go of that grizzly!"
Which came a trifle late for the cowhands, who already had their hands full, in the same fashion as similar advice would have come a hair tardy to Cass McCasland in that summer of 1875, when he was hatching more extravaganzas than P. T. Barnum and mixing me up in them. In the end, it was a hard lesson learned by both of us—that there is such a thing as roping too danged much bear.
I should say I am Riley Stokes, originally from back in the Kentucky hollers, and Cass is my business partner, sometimes my pal. Being from Texas, he is subject to highfalutin notions, which, from my observation, is a weakness of the breed generally.
Every soul on earth has his burdens to shoulder. Cass has been chief among mine going on forty years. It is my self-elected office, and darned near a life's work, to take Cass down a peg when it's plain as sin he needs it.
Which is a long way of saying that what follows hereinafter might in some way be my fault. On account of that summer I am telling about, Cass needed taking down a peg or five—if not ten or more—while I, my attention snared by fame's siren song, for once neglected my duty.
Pull a chair up. Have a mug of this coffee. If you're not too awful in a hurry, I will relate the full particulars.CHAPTER 2
START WITH MS WAITING FOR CASS, WHICH, IN OUR partnership, is the normal state of affairs. I was lounging in the Varieties, in old Dodge City on the wide plains of Kansas. Saloons in general make fine places for beginnings, as folks enter them optimistically and about anything can happen.
Not much was happening at that moment, however. Me and two other drinkers, lounging like we were posed for a painting, were awash in that blue-brown, secondhand light that collects in barrooms on spring afternoons, the dim and guilty sort that oversees dissolution. To sharpen your picture, I'm middling in height and proportion, even middling good-looking after my own fashion. I had dark hair then, and wore the ordinary garb of the Western frontier. In age, I'd just achieved thirty years, which put Cass at twenty-eight. It should have been a safe age for a man of his ambitions. Had he been thirty-five, he would've tried to run for president.
Beyond the door, which was propped open on account of false spring, something dunned my attention. I looked out toward Front Street to see that wagon and horseback traffic had quickened and was all moving one way. Men hustled by in excitement, some calling to others. The hubbub struck alight in me a minor flame of interest.
In that instant, all six-foot-five of Cass McCasland erupted through the doorway, his eyes squinting and blinking to pierce the gloom.
"It's about time," I noted.
"Dang it, Riley—where in hell have you been?"
"Me? You said wait in the Varieties, and danged if—"
"The Long Branch."
"Long Branch, hell. You said the Varieties."
Cass's shoulders sagged to show that partnering with idiots taxed his forbearance. "I distinctly remember saying ..." Cass said, but I recognized McCasland subterfuge. He was taking the blame for lateness and sticking it on me.
"The thing is, you're here now," Cass said, and he grabbed a handful of my coat and towed me toward the door.
"And have been since two," I said. "You can ask Ed." The reference was to the barkeep, Ed Masterson, brother of the famous Bat. Ed became town marshal in '77, and later died on Front Street from a shot triggered so close it set his clothes afire. He looked hale enough, though, on that March day in '75.
In a flash Cass and I were through the doorway and striding down Front Street, the boardwalk springy under us and the crowd by this time a river. My lands, it was wheeled traffic, horsebackers, and men and boys afoot, all heading in the same direction.
When Cass gets his legs unlimbered, he can be a trial to keep up with. "So what kept you, really?" I managed to ask him. I was freshening my claim as the injured party.
"I got into a game," Cass admitted.
"I might've figured that much."
"Some New York hide buyer had whole satchels of money. It took me a while to clean him out."
"Clean him ...? Cripes, how much did you win?"
Cass flashed a grin through his hurry, then patted a pocket. "Haven't had time to tally it. I came straight from the table."
I whistled, then asked why everybody was hustling up Front Street. "Gunfight?" I offered. "A legal hanging?"
"You didn't hear about the horse race?"
In truth I hadn't. Some crucial difference between us allows Cass to catch wind of every doings, from a church social to a cockfight, while I stay in the dark about them. He's got more feelers out, I guess.
It was then I noticed the whiskey bottle Cass carried, for he upended it as we hurried and took a long slug. "Kind of early in the day for serious drinking," I noted.
"I'll explain in a minute," Cass said. "We're here already."
His words yanked my attention to where Front Street crosses Bridge. A line had been marked across the intersection with quicklime or something, stretching from Zimmerman's Hardware on
was punctured by a banjo player on the boardwalk, keeping time by foot shuffling, while catcalls in the crowd drifted back and forth. A tout stood on a barrel, yelling, "Last chance to put down your bets!"
Then I saw four long-legged horses wearing light saddles for racing. The run was apparently going to be frontier-style, straight down Front Street.
"I can imagine you've got money on this," I said, but Cass, being his pace hadn't slowed, was too far ahead of me. He plowed square through the crowd, towing me in his wake, and did not stop till he came up to a chestnut racehorse, a filly. I saw her blood was up with excitement, for her knees trembled and her hide rippled like a breeze across a pond.
A seedy old hostler on one crutch gripped the filly's bridle, while perched on her back, with his knees high and his stirrups too short for normal riding, was a Mexican youngster no older than sixteen.
Cass asked, "You set, Gilberto?" The boy nodded and looked down the street in a determined way. He gripped those reins like he was ready to sprint across Kansas. Then Cass spoke in Spanish, which he likes to trot out sometimes, with the boy nodding grimly in response to everything. Cass pointed down the street with Spanish lingo rolling out of him. He was maybe indicating features of the course, though to my eye it was a frontier street like any other—churned mud, mostly. It was false spring, like I said earlier.
Cass threw in some final encouragement and slapped the boy's knee, making him break out a grin. Then Cass patted the horse's neck, a minor gesture that nevertheless caused the filly's eyes to flare like she'd been snake-bit. That horse was so peppery, I believe they fed her on coffee.
Cass said something I didn't catch to the old goat of a stable hand. When he turned back to me, he had the sparkle he gets when expecting big windfalls. "That youngster's got sand from here till Tuesday," Cass said, and then tipped his head back and took the biggest slug of all from his whiskey bottle.
"The fact is, you've got a whole lot riding on this," I observed. "Don't you?"
"I've got my hand in," Cass admitted. "You want to make some quick money, bet on that filly there."
I kept my hands in my pockets, having too often followed Cass's suggestions straight to the poorhouse.
"Suit yourself," Cass said. "Come on." He launched off again, his long legs windmilling. "Let's get a good vantage point," he said, his voice floating back. "I aim to enjoy this."
Cass's notion of a vantage point was the balcony of the Dodge House. We went down a block, hurried in past the desk clerk, and got glared at like we were truant schoolboys. We took the steps double, then thundered down the second-floor hall, at the end of which Cass jacked open a window. In two shakes we emerged onto the balcony, looking west toward the starting line into low, afternoon sun. Up and down Front Street, gawkers jammed both boardwalks, but the street itself was empty and expectant.
"Time," Cass demanded. I hauled out my old watch and proclaimed it four o'clock. "I guess any second now," Cass said. He blew like a horse from all the hurry, then took another long pull on his whiskey bottle, glugging twice.
"What in blazes are you celebrating?" I asked him.
"My best day in Dodge yet," Cass said with satisfaction. "And by gol, it isn't half over."
At the starting line, a plume of smoke blossomed, followed by the flat report of a pistol shot. Then a shout from the crowd propelled four horsemen down Front Street. On both boardwalks, men broke into wild yelling. Shots erupted everywhere, one tearing up through the balcony floor not four feet from my boot, showering me with splinters.
I forgot racehorses and wagers and made a move for the window. But Cass caught my coattail, so that I was forced to witness anyway—the four horses drawing nearly abreast, then pounding by, their forelegs spoking out and their hind hooves throwing mud in rooster tails.
Despite the years I've partnered with Cass, I still dislike gunfire in my direction. So what with the distraction of yet another shot ripping through the balcony floor, I couldn't tell one horse from another. Cass, though, breathed "Beautiful" in a reverent way. For a second he might have been admiring high art in Paris.
Then, without waiting for the race's finish, Cass turned and poked a leg back through the window, with me dogging him in great relief. Down the steps we rattled and across the muddy lobby, and erupted onto the boardwalk to meet the crowd plunging headlong down the street in the wake of the horses. Suddenly, Cass let all the hurry out of him. He said, "Well, sir, we'll know in a minute," and then stood on his heels, slugging from the bottle he'd become so fond of.
Before I could say beans, a shout went up from the finish line, clapping off the buildings and echoing up the street. At the raggedy hem of the crowd came the old hostler Cass had spoken to earlier, tripodding on his one crutch, white hair wild as chicken feathers. "Mr. McCasland," he croaked, "that boy did us proud."
"I sure hope so," Cass said.
Then, magically, the Mexican boy, Gilberto, was prancing the filly in front of us. I guess he'd circled back through the alleyways or something. Anyhow, he was busting with pride and trying to calm the animal, and his appearance caused the crowd to reverse directions again. Here they came, breaking in waves against the rider and mount, most of them darned near delirious. It appeared at one point they might lift horse and all on their shoulders, but they settled for the boy, hauling him from the saddle and parading him around.
"I take it he won," I said sort of stiffly.
Cass extended one leg and stepped proprietarily into the street. The ancient hostler said, "What'd I tell you?"
"Jenny," the folks near the filly were chanting. "Jenny. Jenny."
"Jenny?" I said.
Cass had himself another swig. "Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale. But also the name of my filly."
I like to've dropped my teeth. "She's yours?"
"Won her Wednesday at poker," Cass said. "She's a lulu, she is. A regular gold mine."
"I swan," I said, and sat down on the boardwalk, for there are some developments a man can't absorb on his hind legs.
Cass got busy collecting bets. A sour-faced businessman paid him a wad of greenbacks, followed by a man who could have been a full-time gambler, same as Cass is. Next came an army captain, who apparently paid off the biggest bet of all, and looked the least happy about it.
"Beautiful stuff, money," Cass said. He gave a wad of it to his stable hand and another fistful to young Gilberto, just as the crowd happened to parade Gilberto on by.
"Have fun," Cass called, and we watched that poor youngster, still perched on men's shoulders, being hauled off to the Wolverine Saloon, despite his tender age. I hope he didn't drown in there, for I never did see him again.
Cass said, "Just out of curiosity, what's the time now?"
"Do I look like a danged train conductor? You got your own watch."
"Nope," Cass admitted. "I lost it on Tuesday."
"I thought you're riding this fabled streak of luck."
"That started Wednesday. Anyhow, somebody needs to walk Jenny so she doesn't stiffen. Ben here can't do it on one crutch, and Gilberto's in demand for a while. Besides, I need to talk to you."
Without giving me a chance to object, Cass began walking, leading the filly. "I can't say it appears you need me for anything," I said, catching up. "By the way, something tells me this race was your doing."
Cass displayed a guilty grin.
"I swan, McCasland. You could've told me beforehand."
"It was a time your cautions weren't called for," Cass said. "Anyhow, you've been such a one-note Charlie lately that I've been staying clear of you. Always pestering about buffalo hunting."
I scowled at that. It was true hide hunting was my theme that season. The buffalo harvest was in full swing from Kansas to the Panhandle, and I itched to be in on it. Hunting for a living sounded like fun rather than work. Besides which, I am a fair shot with a rifle, as you'll see later, and there's a satisfaction in doing something you can do better than others can. A fact I reminded Cass of.
"That's part of what I object to," Cass said. "You get to shoot them. I only get to skin them."
"I'd help," I offered.
"Smelly beasts," Cass said. He pretended to shudder. "I prefer living within range of a bathtub."
"With hide buyers coming in from all over," I said, "hunting buffalo is a regular job of work."
"I don't need a job of work," Cass said. "I've got my work right here." He displayed a thick wad of greenbacks, then plumbed his various pockets for more. I was going to say that wagering for a living was darned unreliable, but Cass kept producing more sheaves of money, to the point where my objection kind of trailed off and died.
At which point I had to go and ask, "Then why on earth are we business partners anyhow, if we can't agree what business we're in?" It's a question that still comes up between us forty years later.
"On account of we're businessmen in general rather than in particular," Cass said.
"That's just your word for tinhorn gamblers."
"All right, speculators, if you prefer that term. Investors. Sports. I'll even admit to opportunists."
I said, "All of which boils down to gambling, one way or another. I just don't have a knack for it."
Cass made his puke face. "Look, Riley—I offered to teach you my gaming secrets, but you claim you're not interested."
"What you call gaming secrets most folks call cheating."
"That's what worries me. You're getting to be a regular sharper. Hell's bells, look at you."
We stopped, filly and all, to look at him. Cass wore a flat-brimmed Stetson, a high- class item in 1875. On his feet were twenty-dollar Coffeyville boots. Between those two ends of him he wore a boiled white shirt and maroon cravat, and over that a vest with fancy gold stitchery. His suit was good gray broadcloth trimmed black on the collar, the waist pinched the way he likes it, with frocked tails flowing below.
"Cripes," I said, "your average steamboat ain't that ornamental."
Cass frowned. If you peck at him long enough, he can eventually sense criticism. He drew himself up taller than usual. "In my view, a professional gambling man is about half entertainer and half educator. I figure I provide a service."
I'm sure I looked skeptical.
"Well, it's a fact," Cass said stoutly. "The race I staged today entertained the whole town, didn't it, whether folks wagered or not?"
"Where's educator come into it?"
Excerpted from Sharp-Shooters by Bruce H. Thorstad. Copyright © 1993 Bruce H. Thorstad. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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