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By Robert Greer
Fulcrum PublishingCopyright © 2009 Robert Greer
All rights reserved.
Big Horn County, Montana Autumn 1991
A year ago this past August, on the outskirts of Hardin, Montana, riding along I-90 on the crest of a warm downslope summer wind, I picked up a hitchhiker wearing a $250 5X beaver Resistol cowboy hat and no shoes. He told me his name was Spoon. TJ Darley, I told him in return. His hat was snow white with a Tom Mix block, and he wore it tipped forward just enough to shade his eyes. When I asked him what had happened to his shoes, he winked, looked deeply reflective, and said, "Shoes can be excess baggage when a man's in a hurry."
A mile or so of silence later, he told me he was a part-black, part-Indian cowboy searching for his roots and that he'd just been fired from a ranch eighty miles back down the road. Pensively drinking in the landscape, he added that he was hungry, and if we ran over a jackrabbit, we could build a fire and roast it on a stick. I nodded without responding, now surveying the countryside I'd known all my life just as intently as Spoon. When a jackrabbit popped up along the shoulder and Spoon yelled, "Hit that long-legged s-o-b!" I knew with certainty he meant every word.
Hardin is Custer country. Rolling grasslands and sagebrush-covered hills rim the town and the green river valley where the golden-haired general made his final stand, and the Rosebud Mountains rise in the distance, highlighting the site of America's final Indian war. On wind-silent, ice-clear summer days, when the sky is gemstone blue and a few orphaned alabaster clouds hang motionless overhead, you can look from the western bluffs that border the fourteen thousand acres of my family's Willow Creek Ranch and see the Custer battlefield monument rising from the Bighorn riverbank in the northern distance. Those are the days that make me wonder how my dad will keep the whole thing going.
The animal-centered ranch he grew up with has become a thing of the past. Modern ranches are nothing more than machines for feeding cows. He can't hire anybody who cares enough about mechanical work or irrigation to do either one right, and God knows he never planned to count on me. He says I dream too much, like every second son. My mom, the glue and buffer between us, accommodates us both in her own special way as we reach the climax of a Montana ranch land culture that's fading like ripples in a stream.
Brown eyes gleaming, Spoon twisted toward me in his seat and eyed me pointedly. The sun-baked vinyl squeaked as he relaxed and tipped his hat back. "Got any idea where there might be a job for a first-class hand?"
"What are you good at?"
"Anything to do with cattle, but calvin's my thing."
I shuddered, thinking of all the icy winter nights I'd slept in our calving barn tending a mother cow trying to calve, recalling the helpless times I'd lost one of them, or both.
"Are you a chain puller or a wait-and-see kinda man?" I asked.
"Never used a chain to pull an animal in my life. Would you want somebody usin' a chain to yank you into this world?"
Spoon paused, looking for my response, then took right off again.
"I talk to an animal real soft and sugar sweet, or maybe use Spoon's 'gentle persuasion,' but never no chains. Mostly I trust my head and my hands."
He shoved his callused palms my way and turned them from side to side. The backs of his hands were cocoa brown and surprisingly butter smooth.
"How are you at irrigation?" I asked, following the curve of the interstate.
"Not bad, but like I said, birthin's my game."
"Have you ever heard of Willow Creek Ranch?"
"Can't say that I have."
When he leaned back against the truck's door and stroked the midline cleft in his chin, I noticed that his forearms were long and muscular, his upper torso solid looking and lean.
"We might have something for you there."
"Do you own the place?" he asked, looking puzzled.
"No, but my folks do."
"Then you don't have no job to offer." Spoon tipped his hat back down over his eyes and smiled. "But take me to the source. You never know, I might be able to do your folks some good."
My dad brought my mom to the Willow Creek valley from New York at the end of the Korean War. They'd been married for only sixty-five days. She had been a June Taylor Dancer, the tallest in the original pretelevision troupe of seventeen. My dad had been a navy Seabee and demolitions expert stationed somewhere in the Sea of Japan. Back then, he was a teller of tales. My mom says his stories all had a dash of yeast added to allow them to rise.
One of his best, the one my mom claims first sparked her interest, detailed how long before Korea he'd gotten into demolitions. He told my mom that during the early 1900s, his grandfather had been a leading Montana citizen intent on building a half-million-acre cattle empire on the banks of the Little Bighorn. In doing so, his granddad created his share of enemies, so he built a ranch house in which every room had an outside door, and the dining room offered views in all directions. A panel beside the living room fireplace led to an underground hideaway connected to a tunnel running two hundred yards west. According to my dad, my grandfather kept ten sticks of dynamite in a ventilation pipe in an underground room. If enemies were to enter the house, a family member had instructions to bang on the bedroom floor with a broomstick. Moving to the room below, my grandfather would then light a stick of dynamite with an extra-long fuse. Then he would ring a cowbell, a signal for his family and allies to vacate the house, and leave himself just enough time to crawl through the tunnel to an outbuilding where he would quickly saddle a horse, ready to fly.
My parents traveled first class by train on the El Capitan from New York to Montana in the spring of 1954. When my mom saw the original Willow Creek homestead, a two-room mud-and-split-log cabin surrounded by two hundred fifty acres of chickweed and sage, she refused to eat for three full days.
My brother, Jimmy, was born in 1954. He died trying to swim across Willow Creek in 1969. When Jimmy died, my dad's far-fetched tales smoldered to an end. For a while the ranch filled the void, but soon he soured and let the land temporarily drift to seed. I was born in 1972, a midlife replacement, too late to resurrect his fire. In the nineteen years since, his bitterness has reached the point of raspy-voiced distrust.
* * *
The sun was setting, its slow arc west nearly complete, when I eased my short-bed truck up to our ranch house's back door. I left Spoon sitting in the pickup, promising him that if I couldn't get him a job, I'd at least round up a pair of shoes for him. I stepped into the darkened mudroom and tripped over a cluster of widemouthed Mason jars filled with wild blackberries that my mom had picked earlier that afternoon. The sound of breaking glass echoed through the room.
"Bill Darley, if you broke the skin on a single blackberry, I'll have your head!" my mom called from the kitchen.
"I'm gonna need a broom. There's been a berry disaster out here," I said, scooping up a handful of blackberries from a nearby bowl and stepping into the warm glow of my mom's kitchen.
"TJ, I thought you were your dad. I didn't hear you drive up."
"I drifted in on the wind," I said with a smile.
"Well, drift back out there and clean up your mess." She handed me a dustpan and broom.
I popped a couple of blackberries into my mouth, went back to the mudroom, and began cleaning up. "I've found someone I think can help with calving and maybe irrigation too," I called.
"I'm not the one you need to convince," she said, her voice straining as it always did when it came to making decisions about the ranch.
"He'll have to hire someone, or sooner or later we'll go under. The place is too much for the three of us to handle alone."
She came into the mudroom, looked right through me, and said, "He's stubborn, TJ."
"So was Custer."
When she brought an index finger up gently across her lips, I knew not to say another word.
Spoon was sitting on the tailgate of my truck, hunched over, knees beneath his chin, massaging his feet when we came out of the house. It was nearly dark. Next to the truck, a stand of aspen rustled in the breeze. The instant he caught sight of my mom, he jumped to the ground and took off his hat.
"Arcus Witherspoon," he said.
"I'm Marva Darley," my mom said, placing the same forceful emphasis on both names, as was her custom. "You're an irrigating and calving man, I understand."
As she eyed his shoeless feet, Spoon shot me a look that told me he wondered what else I might have said while I was inside.
"Mr. Witherspoon, if you don't mind my asking, do you irrigate with or without your shoes?"
"It's Spoon, ma'am, and I can do it either way."
"Always take special care with mothers and their babies. It's the only way."
My mom smiled, gave me a thumbs-up sign, and said, "Convince your dad."
Spoon sat back down on the tailgate, looking self-satisfied.
"Nice meeting you, Mr. Witherspoon." She was halfway to the house when she turned back to me. "Run over to the tack room and get Mr. Witherspoon some boots, TJ."
I smiled and waved for Spoon to follow me.
Once a horseman's jewel, the neglected tack room had been in decline since Jimmy's death. Mom called the room one of my dad's confusions. It was a twenty-five-by-twenty-five-foot heat-trapping hot box connected by a breezeway to a decaying bunkhouse that hadn't been used in twenty years. Yellowing boxcar siding made up the interior walls, and years of spur tracks had bruised almost every inch of floor. A hodgepodge of aging saddles, all in need of repair, hugged several rickety sawhorses scattered around the room, and badly weathered bridles had been looped over several wall-bracing two-by-fours. Mildewed heaps of saddle blankets and rugs were lumped on either side of the door, and boots, some still caked to the heel scallops with dried mud, lined every wall.
Spoon, taking in the scene and getting his bearings, immediately gathered half a dozen boots, sat down sidesaddle on an unsteady sawhorse, and began trying them on one by one. "What's a man need with all these shoes?" he asked, shaking his head as he tugged on a fancy-looking tricolored boot with inlaid jingle bobs. He struggled to free his foot with a loud grunt, and the boot fell to the floor, jingle bobs ringing.
"Boots just seem to accumulate in here," I said. "Hired hands leave 'em behind. People outgrow 'em. The ones over there in the corner — the ones that look almost new — those belonged to my brother, Jimmy. A few around here are even mine."
"That sucker I just tried on pinched like heck," said Spoon, shaking his head and tugging on another boot. "Too big," he sighed, tossing it aside. Quickly he tried on three or four more, each time frowning at the fit.
While Spoon continued trying on boots, I walked over to the musty pile of saddle blankets, nudging them with my toe, then knelt and began smoothing out a frayed Indian blanket with an intricate zigzag design. Just as my thumb punched through a raveling moth hole, Spoon yelled, "Damn, these fit!" He jumped off the sawhorse, admiring the pair of run-over boots and grinning broadly.
"Let me have a look."
He walked over to me proudly, long arms swinging at his sides. The boots were rough-cut cowhide, and the leather was cracked from heel to toe. On the right boot, a worn leather strap held on a tarnished silver spur.
"Those belonged to a buckaroo. All you need now are chinks and a fancy silver bit for your horse," I said, forcing back a smile.
"Means these didn't belong to no real cowboy," Spoon said, looking disappointed.
"You're right there," I said, knowing that real cowboys favor full-length chaps and never sport silver, while a buckaroo is what you might call a sorta cowboy yuppie.
Spoon nodded, jiggled his pants down over the boot tops, and walked around the room, testing out the fit. "Nice, real nice."
After half a dozen circles around the room, Spoon eased back onto the sawhorse and stretched out his right leg. The spur spun counterclockwise in the musty air.
"Thanks," he said, bending down and tracing one of the scores of spur tracks in the soft pine floor with his thumb. For a while there was silence, except for the sound of the two of us breathing and the outside howl of the wind.
"Know how I lost my shoes?" asked Spoon, sitting up straight and admiring the boots.
"Haven't got a clue."
He stood up and eased the sawhorse back against the wall. Like the legs on a newborn colt, all four of the sawhorse's legs wobbled out of sync. In a tired, sullen, day's-end kind of voice, Spoon whispered, "Playin' cards. And to make matters worse, I lost 'em to a couple of down-and-out Crows." His voice rose an octave. "I don't particularly like Crows. The s-o-bs scouted for Custer, and, to top it off, they let white folks saddle 'em with dumb-ass names."
He looked at me for confirmation, but I didn't say a word.
"Well, they did. Still do," he said. "Would you let anybody stick you with a moniker like White Man Runs Him or Firewater Lover or Chicken Heart?"
I shook my head.
"The mistake I made was tellin' them two Crows up front I was part Cheyenne. There's no love lost between us Cheyenne and the Crow, you know. One of 'em even said to me while he was dealin' that I looked more like some bug-eyed colored boy than any Indian he'd ever seen. I bit my tongue, like I always do to check my temper, reached in my back pocket, pulled out my wallet, and showed the Crows my tribal card. All real Indians carry a card, you know," Spoon said, proudly slipping a card from his wallet and handing it to me to emphasize his point.
I flipped the Bureau of Indian Affairs blue card from side to side and handed it back.
"Those two Crows looked my card over, just like you. The one who'd called me bug-eyed let out one of those so-what kinda grunts, and the next thing ya know, we were playin' Texas Hold 'Em and drinkin' 151-proof rum like long-lost friends. Forty-five minutes later I was up a hundred and a half. About then the other Crow, a fancy dancer who claimed he'd won hundreds of dance competitions on reservations all over the West, started to cheat. I caught him turnin' the edges of his cards so he could watch for 'em on the next deal. When I called him on it, the fancy-dancin' bastard pulled a knife. Next thing I knew, his buddy was down on all fours, pullin' at my feet. By the time they left they had my boots, my belt, my socks, and the last ninety bucks I had in this world. Yes, indeed. They left, and so did I."
Looking sullen, Spoon pulled a miniature tenth of Bacardi, the kind the airlines hand out, from his shirt pocket, uncapped it, and handed the bottle and cap to me. I hesitantly took a swallow, recapped the bottle, and handed it back. As he slipped half a dozen more from his pockets and lined them up in front of us on the floor, I had the sense we were navigating the edges of a special occasion and that drinking wasn't something Spoon normally did. In the next half hour, as we went through the bottles, I learned that Spoon had been an eighteen-year-old aft-deck machine gunner on an assault support patrol boat that had cruised the Mekong River during the Vietnam War. He had lost a half brother and a cousin during the war and had been drifting ever since.
"I wore my hair short during 'Nam. My chief would shit a brick if he saw me now," Spoon said, uncapping a new bottle and tugging at his thick, coarse, almost-shoulder-length hair. Hair that seemed too abundant for his narrow face and lean, shorter-than-six-foot frame. "I read a lot of Malcolm X on them river floats and pissed and moaned the whole while that come separation day I was headed back to the States to do two things: find my roots and get my rights. But after Cisco and my cousin Davey-Boy got killed, I sorta lost my way. For three years after Vietnam, '71 through '74, I drank. Drank like a brain-dead wino, some folks said. When I wasn't drinkin' I was driftin' and tellin' anybody wantin' to know that I was tracin' my roots. The only thing I knew about my family, besides us bein' what they call half-and-half back where I come from, was that my great-grandfather had supposedly been part of a band of freedmen who'd filed homestead claims in Kansas about 1878."
Excerpted from Spoon by Robert Greer. Copyright © 2009 Robert Greer. Excerpted by permission of Fulcrum Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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