The Good Old Boys

The Good Old Boys

by Elmer Kelton


Hewey Calloway has a problem. In his West Texas home of 1906, the land of the way of life that he loves are changing too quickly for his taste.

Hewey dreams of freedom—he wants only to be a footloose horseback cowboy, endlessly wandering the open range. But the open range of his childhood is slowly disappearing: land is being parceled out, and barbed-wire fences are spring up all over. As if that weren't enough, cars and other machines are invading Hewey's simple cowboy life, stinking up the area and threatening to replace horse travel. As Hewey struggles against the relentless stream of "progress", he comes to realize that the simple life of his childhood is gone, that a man can't live a life whose time has passed, and that every choice he makes—even those that lead to happiness—requires a sacrifice.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250751317
Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates
Publication date: 04/15/1999
Series: Hewey Calloway Series , #2
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 702,136
Product dimensions: 4.25(w) x 7.00(h) x 0.72(d)

About the Author

Elmer Kelton (1926-2009) was the 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. 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, and served in the infantry in World War II. He died in 2009.

Read an Excerpt

The Good Old Boys

By Elmer Kelton

Tom Doherty Associates

Copyright © 1985 Elmer Kelton
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-1295-2


For the last five or six days Hewey Calloway had realized he needed a bath. Now, in the final miles of a long horseback trip, it was a necessity no longer to be denied. By nightfall he would be eating hot biscuits and brown gravy at his brother's table. Sister-in-law Eve Calloway was not inclined to generosity regarding the social graces.

Ahead of him the red wooden tower of an Eclipse windmill stood almost astraddle the wagon road which meandered casually among the gentle hills and skirted respectfully around the scattered stands of low-growing mesquite trees. The leaves were still the fresh pale green of early spring. Tall above those trees, the mill's white-painted cypress fan turned slowly in the warm west wind which had stuck Hewey's old blue shirt to his skin much of the morning. A vagrant white puff of cumulus cloud drifted over him, yielding a few minutes of pleasant shade before the sun broke free again in the full heat of early May.

The more he thought about it the more he began to look forward to that cool bath, but he didn't want to push Biscuit into a trot. The brown horse was favoring his right forefoot a little. If it got any worse Hewey would have to walk and lead him.

Hell of a note, going lame the last day out. But better here than where they had started the trip three weeks ago in the melting snows of New Mexico high country.

He had known this region for years, and the sight of the red and white windmill confused him a little. Those colors were the trademark of the Two C Land and Cattle Company, old C. C. Tarpley's outfit. Hewey would take a paralyzed oath that the place just ahead belonged to a four-section bachelor homesteader, a former cowboy who had always been glad to provide Hewey a meal or two and let him roll out his blankets on a hard and civilized wooden floor instead of the soft and uncivilized ground.

The red towers and white fans scattered from here halfway to Midland were sign to a traveler that he was crossing Two Cs land, and welcome to it so long as he shut all the wire gates behind him and didn't run the cattle. He was welcome to camp a night anywhere but never two nights in the same place unless he had a broken wheel. One night was traveling; two nights was squatting.

Gradually Hewey realized he had been right about the homesteader. He recognized the layout of the place, the fallow field, some faded, rotting stalks where last year's hegari crop had grown, and last year's cane. By now a good farmer should have plowed it up and started planting anew. The crude shed stood where Hewey remembered it, but the little frame house was gone. Nothing remained but stubby cedar posts that had been its foundation, and a weather-bleached four-by-four privy thirty feet from what had been the back door, a short run on a cold wet night. Somebody had dismantled the house for the lumber, more than likely. By the windmill's color, that somebody had to be C. C. Tarpley.

Old C. C.'s still spreading out, Hewey thought idly, begrudging him nothing, curious as to why he hadn't taken the privy too. It looked lonesome standing there by itself.

C. C.'s water would be as wet as anybody's. Hewey looked up at the Two Cs brand painted in red on the mill's white tail, which automatically held the fan into the west wind to keep the maximum driving force on its angled wooden fins. The slow turning activated a sucker-rod which clanked and shuddered down the center of a pipe reaching deep into the ground. Each stroke of the rod brought up cool water from the dark depths of the earth, rhythmic gushes pumping it into a big dirt tank which long hours of man and mule sweat had scooped from the ground.

Hewey swung his right leg across Biscuit's rump, holding the leg high to clear the rolled blankets and the "war bag" of miscellaneous cowboy accumulations tied behind the high cantle. Over that cantle was stretched a dried rattlesnake skin, supposed by many to ward off rheumatism, which became a mark of the trade for cowboys who survived the other hazards long enough to acquire it. Some said it also helped prevent hemorrhoids, another ailment common to the horseback profession.

Hewey doubted that, because he had them.

He stretched himself and stamped his feet to stimulate the blood and to steady his saddle-cramped legs. He unbuckled the girth, slid the saddle from Biscuit's back, then led the horse down to the water's edge to let him drink. Not until Biscuit had taken his fill did Hewey tie him to one of the tower legs and prepare to get a drink of water himself. He laid down astraddle the heavy pipe which extended from windmill to tank. He pushed carefully out to the end of it. The pipe was pleasantly cool. He held on with both legs and his left hand, cupping his right hand just under the mouth of the pipe. He drank thirstily from the hand as the water pumped out in time to the mill's even strokes.

It was good water, carrying only a faint suggestion of the gyp common to much of West Texas. Water was a thing to be cherished in dry country. A man prized a good sweet well the way he prized a fine horse. Hewey finally took some of the water up his nostrils and choked. He decided that was enough for a while.

He inched his way back along the pipe, misjudging where to step off and sinking his left boot into the mud. He talked to the boot the way he was accustomed to talking to his horse. "Won't hurt you none. Damn little mud you'll ever get on you in this country."

Inside a small plot which had been the homesteader's garden, green grass was coming up between last year's plowed rows and the fence. Hewey led Biscuit there and turned him loose, fastening the sagging wooden gate to keep him from straying off. He watched the horse roll in the soft dirt, taking up the sweat where the saddle and blanket had been.

Hewey was vaguely disappointed. He had counted on a noon meal from the homesteader, even if only some rewarmed red beans and hogbelly. Well, at least the horse could graze awhile. Hewey would make do with a cold biscuit and dried- out bacon brought from the Two Cs line camp, where he had stayed last night with old cowpuncher friends. He might brew himself a can of coffee too, after a while. Right now he wanted to test the water in that tank.

He emptied his pockets and piled their contents on the bare tank dump. They didn't amount to much ... a couple of silver dollars and some smaller change, a Barlow knife, a sack of Bull Durham smoking tobacco and a book of brown cigarette papers, a wallet containing his life's savings of twenty-seven dollars. He set his boots beside his treasure. On them jingled a set of scandalous "gal-leg" spurs, the shank shaped like a woman's leg, silver-mounted to show the high-heeled dancing shoe, the stocking, the garter on a plump thigh. It took a sport to wear such as that. He clutched his sweat-stained cotton socks in his hand and waded off into the tank with the rest of his clothes on.

The deepest part came up barely past his thighs. He took off his faded jeans and washed them out, then his shirt and finally his long-handled cotton underwear that once had been white. Naked except for the hat, he walked out with the wet clothing, squeezed as much water from it as he could, then hung it piece by piece to dry in the sun on the bottom brace of the windmill tower. That done, he waded back into the tank until the water was to his knees, then sat himself down shoulder-deep.

If a bath always felt this good, he thought, I would take one every week or two.

He sat soaking, only his head and his battered old felt hat above the water. By and by half a dozen cows and their calves came ambling out from a thicket, bound for a cool drink of water and then a long, lazy afternoon shaded up beneath the mesquites, chewing cud. The cow in the lead made it all the way to the top of the earthen dump before she noticed Hewey. She stopped abruptly, her head high in surprise. Her calf spotted him at about the same time and turned to run off a little way, its tail curled in alarm. The cow stood her ground but advanced no farther. The other cows came up even with her and joined her in consternation.

Hewey spoke gently, "Don't be afraid, girls. I'd scare you a lot worse if I was to come up out of here."

The voice was not reassuring. Hewey held still, and one cow's thirst overcame her timidity. She moved cautiously to the water, lowered her head for a few quick sips, then jerked it up again to study Hewey critically, the water drops clinging to the hair under her chin. Gradually she decided he posed no threat as serious as her thirst, and she settled down to drinking her fill. The other cows, followers all, took this for a clearance and moved on to water. Hewey watched, knowing that curiosity would sooner or later lead one of the cattle to investigate his boots and his pocket possessions. When a calf warily started toward them, Hewey brought up a handful of mud from the bottom and hurled it at him. All the cattle ran. But in a few minutes they trailed down to the water again. Hewey held still. It was a cardinal principle not to disturb cattle unnecessarily, especially when they were watering. A cow had to drink plenty of water to make milk. She had to make milk to wean off a healthy calf. Motherhood—human or bovine—was a sacred thing.

Eventually the cattle trailed away to the thicket and lay down in the shade to relax away the warm afternoon and rechew the grass they had packed into their paunches all morning. Hewey began to think he ought to be fixing himself a little coffee and moving on, but the water felt good. He sat lazily watching a hawk make slow circles above the thicket, screaming a vain protest at the cattle. She probably had a nest in one of those big granddaddy mesquites. The cattle ignored her.

Too late he heard the rattle of chains and then the clopping of hoofs and the sand-slicing sound of narrow iron rims along the wagon road. A desperate thought came to him: these might be womenfolks, and they were going to catch him in this tank barefoot all the way to his chin. He weighed his chances of making a dash for his clothes without being seen. They were poor. He sat where he was, stirring the muddy bottom with his hands to make sure nobody could see through the water. The move was unnecessary; there had never been a day when this tank was that clear.

Up to the windmill trotted two matched dappled gray horses pulling a buggy. Two men sat on the spring seat. Hewey's attention went to a gaunt old man with sagging shoulders and sagging mustache. Sawing on the lines to pull the horses to a stop, the old man stared at Hewey with about as much surprise as the cows had shown. He reached instinctively under the seat, where he probably carried a rifle.

Finally he found a brusque voice. "Are you alive out there, or have I got a drowned man on my hands?"

Hewey grinned, relieved that there were only the men. "How's the womenfolks, C. C.?"

"Just barely tolerable. That you, Hewey Calloway?"

"It's me. I'm comin' out, C. C."

His surprise gone, the old rancher watched with a measure of tolerant humor.

"Damn if you ain't a pretty sight! I don't believe I ever seen a man take a bath with his hat on."

"I sunburn easy, C. C."

Hewey waded out, following a patch of bermuda grass along the water pipe to keep his feet from getting muddy. He felt his clothes, found them mostly dry, then began putting them on over his wet skin. His body was almost white. His hands and neck and face were browned, but the rest was customarily never exposed to the sun. Even his loose collar would usually be buttoned to keep the sun out. The last thing he did was to rub the sand from his feet, then put on his socks and boots.

The other man had never spoken. Hewey decided he probably wouldn't. He was a generation and a half younger and fifty pounds heavier than C. C. Tarpley. His name was Frank Gervin. Behind his back, people referred to him by a boyhood nickname, "Fat," but the tactful and prudent never called him that to his round and ruddy face.

Hewey said, "Howdy, Fat."

Fat Gervin winced and slumped a little deeper in the buggy seat. He gave no more than a nod, a very small and tentative recognition of Hewey's existence, and then he looked away, his eyes resting in the direction of home, shade and cool water. Fat had worked as a cowboy on many West Texas ranches, usually for only a short time at each place. He tended always to be lost on drive or to be sitting his horse in the middle of the gate when other hands were trying to put cattle through. Evidently he was better as a lover than as a cowboy, for he had somehow swayed and won Tarpley's only daughter while the old man's attention had been directed to more important things. This gave him a hold on the Tarpley inheritance, provided the old man did not decide at the end to take it all with him.

Hewey gave Gervin no more of his attention. He said, "I had it in mind to fix me a little coffee. Join me, C. C.?"

It would amount to nothing more than some water boiled with coffee grounds in the bottom of a smoke-blackened can and drunk directly out of that can. Hewey didn't even have a cup. But C. C. Tarpley, biggest cattleman this side of the Pecos River, said he wouldn't mind if he did, and he climbed down. Fat didn't say anything; he kept his seat in the buggy.

C. C. didn't look like a big cattleman was supposed to. If anything, in his frayed old clothes and run-over boots he appeared as if he might have a hard time holding down a swamper's job in a saloon. His wrinkled shirt was pockmarked by tiny tobacco burns. He didn't have to dress up to impress anyone; everybody in this country knew him. If he went somewhere else on business, nobody knew him, so he didn't dress up for them either.

The two men squatted on opposite sides of an economical fire and watched while the water stubbornly refused to boil. Tarpley said, "Boys at the Tule camp told me you spent the night there. I'd decided you left this country for good."

Hewey shrugged. "I've got kin here. Walter and Eve and their boys. I got lonesome to see them."

"How long since you left here, two years?"

"One year, ten months and twenty-odd days."

"I reckon you got lots of money, Hewey."


"I recollect you ridin' away on old Biscuit, leadin' a packhorse with all your stuff on it, sayin' you wasn't comin' back till you was rich and famous. I ain't heard a word about you since, so I don't reckon you're famous. How rich are you?"

Hewey grinned sheepishly. "Had twenty-somethin' dollars, last time I counted."

"What come of the packhorse?"

"Sold him."

C. C. turned his head and took a long look at the brown horse. Hewey was glad it wasn't apparent that Biscuit was trying to come up lame. Tarpley said, "Well, if you ain't famous, and you ain't rich, maybe you've come home two years smarter. Ain't you about worn the itch out of your feet, Hewey? Ain't you ready to light someplace?"

Hewey looked at the coffee. "I believe it's finally about to come to a boil."

"Ain't you ever found anywhere you wanted to stay?"

"Just about every place, at first. Then directly I get to thinkin' there might be somethin' better down the road."

"But it's never there, is it?"

"It's always there, for a little while." Using two big sticks as a clamp, Hewey gingerly lifted the can from the fire and set it off onto the ground. "Ought to be ready to drink in a minute. You're company, you can have the first sip."

"No, you're company. This place is mine. I bought out Sam Gentry as soon as he got it proved up."

Sam Gentry. Hewey had been trying for an hour to remember the homesteader's name. Sad, how quickly a man's name got lost. It was hard to make a big-enough track that your name was long remembered.

People here would remember C. C. Tarpley for a long time, of course. He had done well for himself the last twenty-five years, since he had stretched a castoff army tent on the Pecos River in 1881 and had turned loose his thirty-three spotted cows and one droop-horned bull. If that bull hadn't made the first winter, C. C. wouldn't have survived either. But the cattle had been prolific. People used to say that on the Tarpley place even the bulls had twin calves. It was also said that C. C. Tarpley could find and put his brand on more unclaimed mavericks than any three men on the Pecos. In his prime he rode fast horses and carried an extra cinch ring tied to his saddle so he could stop and brand any animal he came across that didn't already have a claim burned on it. That sort of ambitious endeavor was occasionally fatal to other men, but C. C. was tough enough to make it stick.

Now, six years into a new century, if anyone were to gather the whole Two C herd from where it was scattered over four hundred square miles of mesquite and catclaw and greasewood country, he would probably tally out five or six thousand mother cows plus no telling how many yearlings and two-year-olds. All that in twenty-five years from thirty-three cows and a bull.


Excerpted from The Good Old Boys by Elmer Kelton. Copyright © 1985 Elmer Kelton. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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