The Smiling Countryby Elmer Kelton
"The Smiling Country is about a footloose puncher who finds out the hard way that cowboys don't remain young forever and that the inevitable wear and tear of a rugged life forces changes and compromises on the willing and unwilling alike."— Elmer Kelton
Hewey Calloway did not know how old he was without stopping to figure, and that distracted/p>/i>
"The Smiling Country is about a footloose puncher who finds out the hard way that cowboys don't remain young forever and that the inevitable wear and tear of a rugged life forces changes and compromises on the willing and unwilling alike."— Elmer Kelton
Hewey Calloway did not know how old he was without stopping to figure, and that distracted his attention from matters of real importance.
Elmer Kelton introduced Texas cowboy Hewey Calloway, one of the most beloved characters in Western fiction, almost thirty years ago in The Good Old Boys. The novel was transformed into a memorable 1995 TV film starring Tommy Lee Jones and Sissy Spacek.
Hewey returns in The Smiling Country. It is 1910 and his freewheeling life is coming to an end—the fences, trucks, and automobiles he hates are creeping in even to remote Alpine, in the "smiling country" of West Texas. When he is badly injured trying to break a renegade horse, Hewey sees the loneliness that awaits him, and regrets his decision to run away from the only woman he has ever loved, the schoolteacher Spring Renfro.
At the Publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.
Read an Excerpt
Hewey Calloway did not know how old he was without stopping to figure, and that distracted his attention from matters of real importance. In his opinion anyone who wasted time worrying about his age had more leisure than was good for him. He had not acknowledged a birthday since he had turned thirty a dozen years ago—or was it fifteen?
In horse years, Biscuit was older than his rider, but the brown gelding was equally indifferent to the passage of time. Any minor concessions to his age were offset by steadiness and a light-reined response to any task Hewey called upon him to perform. He could outguess a cow in nine of ten confrontations and outrun her the other time.
Hewey could not say nearly so much about the green-broke pony on which Skip Harkness picked his way along the rocky mountainside above Limpia Creek. Since Hewey and the freckle-faced kid had left the corrals and chuck wagon camp down on the yucca flat, the colt had stepped high and kept its ears working nervously while it watched for a booger. Any booger would do. It had already pitched twice, once spooking at a jackrabbit skittering through the underbrush, then taking fright at the cry of a disturbed hawk that sought to scare the horsemen away from its nest high in a tree. The two outbursts had been little challenge, for Skip was young and wiry and laughed at every jump.
Hewey respected anyone efficient at his trade, but he worried about this button’s long-range prospects. A kid from a blackland farm back in East Texas, Skip had cowboyed a couple of years and learned just enough to be dangerous to himself and everybody around him. Small triumphs tempted him tokick trouble in the ribs when it could just as well have been left asleep. Instead of pulling up on the hackamore rein to stop the pony from pitching on treacherous sloping ground, Skip had encouraged it to buck harder by spurring high in its shoulders and back in the flank. The colt pitched until its sorrel hide glistened with sweat.
Hewey could not bring himself to criticize, for he used to show off too, not all that long ago. He still gloried in a challenge, but he saw no future in suicide. He said, “I’ve seen broncs that’d throw you so high the hawks’d have to look up to see you.”
“Ain’t been a bronc throwed me since I was sixteen.”
Hewey guessed Skip to be eighteen, no more than nineteen at the outside, with his heart in the right place but his head on backward. “Biscuit would’ve busted you good when he was a colt. He flattened me several times.”
“Was that before or after the War between the States?”
The kid was thumbing Hewey in the ribs about his age and Bistuit’s. This was 1910.
“Wasn’t nothin’ I could do then that I can’t still do. I can ride more miles, find more cows and rope more calves…”
He quit talking, for Skip’s satisfied grin said he had thrown out the bait and Hewey had swallowed it, hook and all. Hewey never understood why some buttons barely weaned from mother’s milk took such pleasure in warting their betters. His nephews would never do such a thing, not Cotton or Tommy. They showed respect, even when he knew they disagreed with him. He wished he had one of them here now instead of this reckless kid with more brass than good sense. They could teach Skip something about manners.
If he put his mind to it he could almost feel sorry for the youngster, born too late to see Texas before the grasping hand of civilization reached out and spoiled it. Hewey had ridden across more country than Skip was likely ever to see. He had driven cattle to the Kansas railroad and had broken broncs from the Rio Grande to the Canadian line. He had shipped out to Cuba under Teddy Roosevelt. He had traveled horseback across much of the West before it was parceled out by barbed-wire fences and ribboned with roads for the automobile. Skip would never have that opportunity or even realize what he had missed. Hewey Calloway had done it all, yet here he was, still in the prime of life.
He would admit, when he looked into a mirror, that his hair and his whiskers showed about as much gray as brown, but that was a sign of maturity and reliability. If his joints sometimes ached when he threw the blankets aside of a morning, most of the pain faded once he got the muscles working and the blood flowing freely. He was sure he was a better hand now than he had ever been. He would never ask, but he was probably drawing down five or ten dollars a month more than Skip or the other weanlings on this outfit. At least he should be. He could ride anything they could and rope rings around them.
If a genie were to pop out of a whiskey bottle and offer him three wishes, Hewey would give one or two of them back. There wasn’t much he would change, beyond tearing down the fences and ditching all the automobiles. Anybody who couldn’t get where he was going on horseback or in a wagon was in too much of a hurry.
The kid offered, “You want to ride my bronc a little while, just to keep your hand in?”
“There’s no fight left in him now. You’ve already spurred it out of him.” A real hand didn’t let some button sweat the rough edges from a bronc and then turn it over to him as if he were too old to do it himself. Hewey could still do it himself, any time he wanted to. And he often wanted to, for he still enjoyed a good contest between man and horse.
The J Bar crew was rounding up two-year-old steers to ship to Kansas for summering on Flint Hills grass, but the wagon boss had sent Hewey and Skip to look for a bunch-quitting bull that had fled from yesterday’s drive. It had evaded three years’ worth of roundups, the branding iron and knife, and had left a long scar across the chest of one unlucky cow pony that had not moved out of its way. The bull had a reputation for being easy to find but hard to catch. The few pursuers it had not outrun, it had outfought, so most local cowboys accorded it an averted gaze. It ranged in one of the narrow, brushy canyons that time and rainfall had carved through the Davis Mountains. Grazing mostly in the dark of the night, it drank from the small and hidden tinajas, depressions that eons of runoff water had scoured from flat rock.
The solitary maverick responded to its mother’s wily Longhorn blood, which overpowered the gentler influence of its Hereford sire. Old Man Morgan Jenkins was trying to breed the Longhorn blood out of his herd, and this bull was putting its outlaw stamp on too many calves to suit him. Such brush-popping fugitives furnished entertainment to cowboys who loved the chase, like Hewey and Skip, but they were a financial albatross to ranchers and their bankers.
Hewey was bothered a little when Skip was the first to spot their quarry. He knew his own eyes were still sharp enough; he figured Skip just happened to be looking in the right direction at the right time.
Hewey stepped to the ground and tightened Biscuit’s cinch so the bull’s strength and weight would not pull his saddle down on one side. Skip took no such precaution, and Hewey was not given to offering advice that had not been asked for. If the kid was half as smart as he thought he was, he shouldn’t have to be told.
Skip had a way of turning routine into a contest. “Reckon that old horse of yours can catch him?”
“Biscuit’ll kick gravel in your eyes.”
Skip did not give him the chance. He spurred the bronc and took the lead. Hewey was tempted to overtake and pass him, just to demonstrate that he could, but he decided the trail the bull followed in its hasty retreat was too narrow and treacherous to accommodate two fools. One was enough.
Hewey took his time, loosing the horn string that held his rope. His sun-browned hands were leather-tough, scarred by rope burns and mesquite thorns, the knuckles large except for one knocked down years ago in an encounter much like this one.
The fugitive bull outran Skip into a heavy brush thicket. Skip followed him partway, then stopped in confusion. As Hewey caught up, Skip said, “Can’t see him anyplace. Looks like he sprouted wings and flew.”
“Outsmarted you is what he did.” Hewey listened intently for the sound of popping branches but heard none. “He’s laid down in some thick brush where you can’t see him. Let’s go root him out.” He motioned for Skip to take the left side of the draw. Hewey moved up the right, weaving around the mesquite and catclaw.
Though he was watching closely, the bull almost took him unawares. He heard a snort; then a black apparition exploded out of a tangle of mesquite, head down and sharp horns coming straight at Biscuit. The horse whirled so quickly that Hewey had to grab the saddle horn to keep his seat. The bull made a thrust at Biscuit’s haunches as it passed, but the horse was an old hand at avoiding such calamities.
Skip shouted, “I’ve got him.” He spurred by while Hewey was trying to collect his wits and get his breath back. The bronc crow-hopped as Skip shook out the coils. Its only experience with a rope had been on the receiving end, frightening and painful.
Dread burned in Hewey as he saw that Skip had the near end of the rope secured to his saddle horn instead of taking a couple of dallies that he could turn loose in a hurry. There were many places more pleasant to be than sitting on a nine-hundred-pound bronc tied to an ill-tempered bull that weighed sixteen hundred pounds and was looking for something to kill.
Boy, Hewey thought, you’re fixing to learn not to suck eggs.
The chase was fast and rough, the bull shattering brush, its cloven hooves scattering small rocks in their wake. It probably would have gotten away had it not lost its footing on a bare, slanting slab of rock and slid on its belly. It arose quickly, but its speed was hindered by a limp. Foamy saliva streamed from its mouth. When it became weary enough and provoked enough, it would turn to fight. Then it could be roped, though retrieving that rope might cost bull, horses and men some blood, hide and hair.
Hewey had once seen a tiger in a circus. The sound welling from deep in the Longhorn’s throat reminded him of the great cat’s roar. The bull wheeled and lowered its head.
Skip shouted, “You stay back out of the way. I can handle him.”
Like Richmond handled Grant, Hewey thought.
Skip’s rope hissed like a snake as he sailed his loop over the horns. The bronc tried to buck just as the bull hit the end of the line. The impact jerked both animals off their feet. Skip gave a surprised shout and hit the ground on his back. The bronc regained its feet and ran in panic. As the rope again stretched taut, it snapped at the saddle horn, popping like a whip. The horse galloped away, holding its head high and wringing its tail.
The loop was still around the bull’s horns, the frazzled end of the rope lying on the ground. Skip jumped to his feet, instinctively grabbed it, then dropped it as the bull lowered its head again and charged. The boy sprinted toward a catclaw bush not much taller than he was. “Hewey! Do somethin’!”
It was high time this scatterbrained kid learned that the way of the braggart was strewn with shame and regret. “You told me to stay out of the way.”
The bull stepped on the trailing rope and broke its stride long enough for Skip to reach the other side of the catclaw. He looked desperately for his bronc, but it was still running. It might as well be ten miles away for all the good it could do him. The bull made a run around the bush after the boy, hooves clattering on the hard ground. Skip managed to stay two paces ahead, circling.
Hewey suggested dryly, “Why don’t you climb the tree?”
The catclaw was well named, for its branches were armed with needle-pointed thorns shaped like claws. Perhaps a cat might climb that bush, but Skip never could, not even with a sharp-horned bull providing incentive.
The bull stopped and began to paw dirt back over its shoulder, a sign it had barely begun to fight. Skip crouched on the opposite side of the tree, ready to run to the left or the right as circumstances might require. “You just goin’ to sit there and laugh?”
Hewey leaned on his saddle horn. “Been a long time since I saw a circus. You might be able to run faster if you took your boots off.”
The bull feinted to the left, then the right, but Skip kept the bush
between them. Stymied, the animal stopped and pawed dirt again.
Hewey said, “I wish the boys at the wagon could watch you
handle this bull. I’ve got half a mind to go back and get them.”
Sweat cut trails through the dust on Skip’s flushed young face. It was hard to see which was strongest, anger or fear. “Time you got back there wouldn’t be nothin’ left to see, just a puddle of blood and a little bit of hair.”
Hewey decided the lesson had gone on long enough. He eased Biscuit toward the bull, which shifted its attention from Skip arid charged at the horse. Hewey kept Biscuit far enough ahead to avoid the horns. At a safe distance from Skip he cut around and brought Biscuit up behind the bull. His loop sailed down around the long horns. He left enough slack that the bull stepped into the loop with its right foot. Hewey quickly drew the rope tight, pulling the foot up against the head. The animal faltered, lost its balance and fell heavily, raising a puff of dust. It lay struggling, unable to rise with its leg immobilized against its muzzle.
Skip complained, “You took long enough.” His voice cracked, perhaps from outrage, perhaps from a remnant of fright, most likely from both. The red in his face exaggerated the freckles.
“Wanted him to wear himself down a little.” Hewey untied a short length of rawhide rope coiled on the back of his saddle and pitched it to Skip. “Tie him.”
Skip struggled to bring the other three legs together, accidentally backing into the catclaw bush in his efforts to stay clear of the threshing head and dangerous horns. The clutching thorns ripped the back of his shirt.
Hewey dismounted and untied a short dehorning saw he had brought for good purpose. “First thing we’d better do is to tip his horns so he won’t gore any more horses.”
Skip knelt on the bull’s head to keep the animal still while Hewey sawed off the outer several inches of horn. He gripped the muzzle and raised the head to let Hewey work on the other side. The bull snorted mucus in Skip’s face.
Hewey ran a finger over the rough edge after the sharp tip was gone. “He could still bust your ribs with that. But he wouldn’t poke a hole in you that the Lord never intended.”
Skip’s emotions began to subside. “I thought you were fixin’ to let him put a new hole in my butt.”
“I just wanted him to educate you a little. I’ll bet you’re a lot smarter than you were twenty minutes ago.”
If Skip felt any appreciation, he kept it well concealed.
Hewey said, “I’ll let you and that bull sulk together while I go catch your horse.”
Skip’s bronc gave up running after catching a forefoot in the looped hackamore rein. At first it resisted Hewey’s efforts to free it from entanglement, and it stepped on Hewey’s toes before it calmed down. “Broncs and farm-raised buttons,” Hewey muttered. “You deserve one another.”
Skip’s face had lost its angry color by the time Hewey led the bronc back. The boy said, “At least Old Man Jenkins ought to be tickled. We got him his bull.”.
Hewey watched the animal fight against the restraint of the rawhide that bound its feet. “Mr. Jenkins didn’t send us out here to not get him.”
A ranch owner paid little attention when cowboys did the work he expected of them. He paid close attention when they didn’t. That you could and would do the job was taken for granted when you went on the payroll. Excuses were worth only about a nickel a carload, and good reasons about a dime. Hewey rarely offered either.
Skip asked, “Now that we’ve caught him, what’re they fixin’ to do with him?”
“Take away his bullhood and send him to Kansas with the steers. He’s a throwback to the old days.”
Putting the spurs to me again. He learns awful slow. “Them old Longhorns had a lot of good qualities.”
“They were mostly leg and horn, and the meat was so tough you couldn’t cut it with a cleaver.”
“Nature bred them to survive in a tough country. They could grub
out a livin’ where nothin’ else but a horned toad could stay, and you
couldn’t hardly kill one with an ax.”
“Looks to me like you’re kin to them, a little. All you old cowpunchers are.”
“Maybe that’s why I hate to see the last Longhorns go. It’s like buryin’ old friends.”
Skip studied the helpless form lying on the ground, straining against the rawhide that bound its feet. “If that’s the way you feel about it, we could turn him loose and tell the wagon boss we never did find him.”
Hewey suddenly appreciated the kid a little better. “I hate to tell a lie.” He pondered the ramifications, then knelt to untie the knot
in the peal. “Better hit the saddle. He’s liable to be on the prod when he gets up.”
The bull realized its feet were no longer secured. It kicked free of the loosened rawhide and rose shakily, hind end first. It pawed dirt, bellowing its anger to the world. Then it turned and trotted off, tossing its head.
Hewey said, “Looks like he’s gettin’ away.” He followed the fugitive but did not let his horse out of a walk, so that the bull quickly outdistanced him. “Biscuit’s tired. We’ll never overtake that outlaw like this.” He turned back to pick up the fallen rawhide. “No need in tellin’ a lie, exactly. We’ll just say we had him but he got loose.
The horses were too give out to catch him again.”
Hewey said, “You ought to never deceive the man you work for. Except when you need to.”
They watched the bull disappear into a thicket three hundred yards away, crackling brush and bellowing its indignation. Other cowboys might eventually catch him, or he might live out his life in these hidden canyons, his wild spirit undiminished. In either case he would be less of a hazard to men and horses because his horns had been blunted.
Hewey said with satisfaction, “There’ll be at least one more calf crop carryin’ that Longhorn blood.”
“It’ll take real hands to run them down.”
“Wild cattle and wild horses are the makin’ of a good cowboy.
You don’t learn much handlin’ gentle milk stock.”
“I just wish we could’ve throwed him into a bunch and seen him
challenge some of them other bulls. Ain’t nothin’ I’d rather watch than two big stout bulls fightin’ one another.”
“You’ve got a streak of mean in you.”
Hewey and Skip turned away, heading back toward the chuck wagon camp. His scare past and anger drained, Skip reverted to his more typical high spirits. “Gave us some fun for a while, didn’t he?”
“Me and you would call it fun. Some people call it work.”
“My old daddy throwed a fit when I left home for a ridin’ job.
Said I’d never amount to a damn, takin’ up the saddle instead of the
plow. But I wouldn’t want to be anything except a cowboy.”
Hewey said, “My brother Walter got him a homestead and took
up farmin’, but them lace-up shoes never fit my feet.”
“Only thing is, there’s always a boss like Old Man Jenkins or Bige
Saunders watchin’ what you do.”
“They don’t own you. You’re free to saddle up and go any time you want to. It’s easier to take a few orders when you know you’ve got an out.” “Ever been tempted to do somethin’ besides cowboy?”
“Not much. You’ve got to make choices. You choose one thing,
you give up another. You can’t have it all.”
The cowboy occupation offered many pleasures, though there were days when Hewey wondered if they were worth the bruises, lacerations and general soreness that often supplemented his meager wages. He believed being a cowboy was a privilege reserved to a chosen few. He did not know how the Lord had come to pick him, for his willful nature caused him to stray from the gospel path now and again. But he was not one to question his maker’s judgment. He was grateful to be among the chosen.
He looked off to the distant blue mountains and fell quiet, withdrawing into the bitter and the sweet of old memories. There were times when he felt like talking and no one could shut him up. Other times he had nothing to say.
Skip kept his jaw working, making profound observations based on the accumulated wisdom of his eighteen or nineteen years and trying to prod Hewey out of his silence. But Hewey barely heard. In his mind he was at home in Upton County with Walter and Eve and their two boys. And he was remembering a teacher whose name conjured up images of wildflower fields. They called her Spring.
* * *
The chuck wagon and its accompanying “hoodlum” wagon were camped beside an old set of rugged corrals constructed of heavy tree branches stacked between double posts and tied in place with rawhide. The corrals were a remnant of the 1880s, as Hewey knew himself to be when he bothered to give the matter any thought. Approaching camp, he saw horses circling in a run, raising a cloud of dust inside the largest pen.
Several cowboys, a mix of Mexican and Anglo, stood outside the rough fence, watching as Aparicio Rodriguez swung a rawhide reata and dropped its loop around a long-maned neck. The bite of leather made the caught horse pitch and squeal in protest. Aparicio began speaking in a soft Spanish and slowly working his way up the rope. Soon the bronc quieted down, its ears pointed toward the wiry vaquero.
Hewey would acknowledge that Aparicio was the best hand on the ranch, except for himself. He smiled much but talked little except to horses.
Skip said eagerly, “Looks like they brought in that new set of broncs.”
Hewey grunted. Cow work in this rough mountain country was challenging enough just on its own account. The challenge was compounded by having to do it while breaking a set of raw ponies that knew nothing except bite, kick and pitch. But that was what the ranch paid him thirty dollars a month for.
Old Man Jenkins was reputed to be worth a million dollars. Hewey was taking it away from him at the rate of a dollar a day. A million days, a million dollars.
Skip said, “It’s a wonder the old man don’t dock us for the entertainment we get out of ridin’ them broncs.”
“I saw how much entertainment you were gettin’, runnin’ around that bush ahead of them horns.”
Skip’s face became troubled. “You don’t have to tell the boys about it, do you? They’ll hooraw me for a month.”
Cowboys could be merciless to a braggart. They would do whatever it took to bring him down, then laugh at him until he ate crow or quit the outfit.
“Just promise me I won’t have to listen to any more chin music about what all you can do.”
“You sayin’ I’m boastful?”
“If brag was whiskey, you could open a saloon.”
Skip took it in fair grace. “I’ll try to remember.”
He might try, but Hewey knew he would backslide. It was not in Skip’s nature to hide his light beneath a bushel.
Hewey recognized Old Man Jenkins sitting on a tarp-covered bedroll near the chuck wagon. Morgan Jenkins was a rancher of the 1880s school, as much a relic now as the Longhorn. More than six feet tall, he had probably weighed two hundred pounds of pure muscle and bone in his prime. Now, well into his seventies, he weighed a bit more, and his shoulders were bent a little. But in moments of stress Hewey had seen him straighten his back and become once again the formidable figure he had been. It was said of him that once he had single-handedly trailed and confronted four horse thieves, shooting one and escorting the other three to jail.
In contrast to his physical size, he was given to economy in his gestures as well as in his expenditures. Where others might holler and wave both arms, Jenkins beckoned with the index finger of an arthritis-knotted hand. Hewey sensed that the come-along was meant for him.
“Think you can unsaddle that bronc by yourself?” he asked Skip.
The youngster already seemed to have forgotten Hewey’s cautionary words about boastfulness. “I could do it with one hand tied behind my back.”
I ought to have let that bull chase him a little longer, Hewey thought.
He tied Biscuit to a corral post and spent a minute surveying the new broncs that still milled around nervously, looking for a booger strong enough to make them break out of the pen and run. He was fixing to have his work cut out for him the next couple of weeks, but nobody ever said life had to be dull. As a matter of fact, he looked forward to pitting his skill as a bronc stomper against the wild rebellion of the young horses.
He turned and walked toward the wagon so Jenkins wouldn’t have to tire himself out crooking that finger again. He stopped at Blas Villegas’s chuck box and dug a tin cup out of a drawer, filling it from a coffeepot suspended over a pit of glowing coals. Blas raked the coals with a pothook. “Don’ burn yourself, Hooey. She’s plenty hot.”
“Fine. I’d sooner drink dishwater than cold coffee.”
Blas had been a vaquero much of his life, but one bronc too many had left him with a shattered knee and a crooked leg that would never straighten again. He had turned to that refuge of many a crippled cowboy, cooking at a wagon.
Jenkins did not get up from his seat on the bedroll or waste a lot of breath in his greeting. “Hewey.”
“Mr. Jenkins.” The mister was more in deference to age than to the old man’s money. Hewey stood in awe of no one’s bankroll. In fact, he felt sympathy for Jenkins because the rancher’s age and infirmities prevented him from making a hand on horseback anymore. In Hewey’s eyes nothing was sadder-looking than an old cowboy too stove-up to ride.
Jenkins gestured for Hewey to sit on a nearby bedroll. Hewey waited for him to initiate the conversation. When the old man did not, Hewey asked, “You bring them broncs with you?”
He knew better, for he could see Jenkins’s open touring car parked a respectful distance from the wagon. But the idle question broke the silence. The driver had the hood up, messing around with something on the engine. Hewey had no idea what; he had never had any truck with automobiles. To him they were the ruination of the country. For a long time he had hoped they were a passing fancy and everyone would get back to the horse as God intended. Now it appeared they would bankrupt the nation first; then maybe the fad would die the death it deserved.
As for that driver in his duster and goggles, he seemed as out of place in a cow camp as a monkey in church. Hewey thought anybody who went around holding his nose that high was in danger of drowning if he ever got caught in a rain. The man seemed to have an exalted opinion of himself because he knew how to drive a car, but he probably couldn’t drive a Jersey cow down a sheep-fenced lane. Hewey had to feel a little sorry for him.
Jenkins said, “Them broncs ain’t none of your concern. I got a proposition for you.”
The rancher had red-rimmed eyes that indicated he liked whiskey more than he should. It probably gave him comfort from his arthritis and other miseries that went with having celebrated so many birthdays. Hewey had heard he could put away a prodigious amount under the right provocation, though he could not remember that Jenkins had ever offered him a drinks
Jenkins had made his start in the freewheeling maverick-catching times after the Civil War, when an ambitious young man with a fast horse and a quick loop could build toward a fortune by burning his own brand on unclaimed cattle. The period had been relatively short, for those who made theirs first declared further mavericking illegal, kicking down the ladder by which they had climbed so Johnny-come-latelies could not follow.
Hewey had arrived too late to take advantage of the opportunity, though accumulation of worldly goods had never been of much concern to him anyway. Property he could not tie to his saddle and carry with him to the next job was a burden, not an asset.
“Hewey, I just bought the Circle W outfit, a hundred sections down yonder under the rimrock.”
Hewey was not surprised, for Jenkins was never comfortable knowing he didn’t own everything within a day’s trip from his headquarters. Since he had acquired that car, the miles he could travel in a day had stretched a right smart.
Jenkins said, “I want you to run it for me.”
Now Hewey was surprised. “Me, run an outfit? I’ve never done nothin’ like that.”
“It’s time you did. Look at you, six years older than God and still workin’ for cowboy wages. It’s time you taken a grip on yourself and tried to amount to somethin’.”
“I ain’t that old, and I’ve always made you a hand.”
“True enough, but I can hire more young hands than I need. All I have to do is honk that horn in Alpine, and a dozen come runnin’ down the street draggin’ a saddle and a bedroll. But somebody who’s hads experience enough to run an outfit…that’s a horse of a different complexion.”
Hewey struggled for words he thought Jenkins might understand. “It’s a lot of responsibility. I’ve never liked bein’ responsible for anything or anybody except myself.”
“I never could understand a man that didn’t want to better bis lot in life.”
“I’m satisfied with myself the way I am. Ain’t much I’d want to change.”
“Nature’s changin’ you whether you like it or not. Them creases in your face keep gettin’ deeper, and your gitalong don’t get along like it used to.”
“I can still move fast enough to get out of the way.”
“From all them years of work, have you saved up any money?”
“A hundred dollars, maybe. But I’ve had ten thousand dollars’ worth of fun.”
“A hundred dollars! That ain’t even enough to bury you in any style.”
“I wasn’t figurin’ on that happenin’ for a long time yet.”
Jenkins’s frown furrowed his face like a prune. “Ain’t often I give a man a chance to go from forty dollars a month to seventy-five.”
“You’re only payin’ me thirty.”
“Sixty-five, then. All the more reason you ought to consider the opportunity.”
Never had Hewey felt comfortable giving orders, so he had given very few in his life. He had always liked best just being one of the boys, doing whatever the job called for with easy competence and without pressure. If the work became tiresome or the boss got under his skin he would draw his time, saddle up and ride away without regrets. For a good hand, there was always another job down the road.
That was what he would do now if Jenkins tried to twist his arm too much. Lately he had been looking off toward the north a lot anyhow. He had already worked two years for the J Bar, longer than he was used to spending in one place. It had been a long time since he had cowboyed in the Guadalupes, and he had studied on going back. It was a smiling country, like Upton County, where Walter and Eve and the boys had their homestead. For that matter, just about everywhere Hewey had worked had been a smiling country.
Jenkins knew cowboys, for he was still one at heart. He knew when to stop pushing. “I won’t try to make you do somethin’ that’s against your religion. I’ll just have to find me somebody that’s got ambition. I’d do better with a family man anyway.” His eyes narrowed. “You ain’t never found a woman that gave you a marryin’ urge?”
Hewey stared into his half-empty cup. “I did once.”
Remembered pain softened Hewey’s voice. “We both smartened up before it was too late, and I left.”
Jenkins thought about it. “You ever wonder if you did the right thing?”
Jenkins shifted his gafce to the touring car and its driver, who was clamping the hood shut. “Looks like he’s finished monkeyin’ around with that engine. Wish sometimes I still used a horse and buggy. Didn’t need to hire no fifty-dollar driver for that.”
Fifty dollars! Hewey was just drawing thirty, and he was a top hand. But he wouldn’t trade places, not for a hundred.
He said, “I wouldn’t swap one bronc in that pen yonder for a dozen of them stink wagons.”
Jenkins frowned. “Them broncs are for the young hands to break. I don’t want you ridin’ any of them.”
Hewey almost spilled the coffee that remained in his cup. “I’ve already broke twenty-five or thirty broncs for you, and I in’t ruined one yet.”
“I ain’t worried about you ruinin’ them, I’m afraid one of them is liable to ruin you. I kno“I’ve already broke twenty-five or thirty broncs for you, and I in’t ruined one yet.”
“I ain’t worried about you ruinin’ them, I’m afraid one of them is liable to ruin you. w your age, Hewey, even if you don’t. I don’t want you on my conscience.” Jenkins dropped his coffee cup in Bias’s washtub and walked toward his car. He hollered at the driver, “You got that contraption fixed?”
The driver wiped his greasy hands on a cloth. “She’ll run like a young filly on a spring day, Mr. Jenkins.”
Hewey snorted. He would bet that driver wouldn’t know a young filly from an old stud. And he was being paid fifty dollars a month!
The car started with a backfire that set all the broncs to circling again in the corral. Jenkins shouted back, “You stay off of them green ponies, Hewey.”
Hewey did not respond, for he did not want to make a promise he would not keep. He watched the automobile kick up a trail of dust across the pasture until he was satisfied that Jenkins would not think of something he had forgotten and come back.
What the old man did not know would not hurt him.
Hewey walked to Biscuit and untied the rope from his saddle. He said, “Skip, let’s take a close look at them broncs.”
Copyright © 1998 by Elmer Kelton
Meet the Author
Elmer Kelton, author of more than forty novels, grew up on a ranch near Crane, Texas, and earned a journalism degree from the University of Texas. His first novel, Hot Iron, was published in 1956. For forty-two years he had a parallel career in agricultural journalism.
Among his awards have been seven Spurs from Western Writers of America and four Western Heritage awards from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame. Among his best-known works have been The Time It Never Rained and The Good Old Boys, the latter made into a television film starring Tommy Lee Jones.
He served in the infantry in World War II. He and his wife, Ann, a native of Austria, live in San Angelo, Texas. They have three children, four grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
Elmer Kelton (1926-2009) was award-winning author of more than forty novels, including The Time It Never Rained, Other Men’s Horses, Texas Standoff and Hard Trail to Follow. He grew up on a ranch near Crane, Texas, and earned a journalism degree from the University of Texas. His first novel, Hot Iron, was published in 1956. Among his awards have been seven Spurs from Western Writers of America and four Western Heritage awards from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame. His novel The Good Old Boys was made into a television film starring Tommy Lee Jones. In addition to his novels, Kelton worked as an agricultural journalist for 42 years. He served in the infantry in World War II. He died in 2009.
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Elmer Kelton does it again with realistic characters you wish you knew. Not quite as good as the previous book about Hewey Calloway, but still a good read.