The Lengths a Man Can Be Driven To…
Mesquite-John Smith had witnessed sixty-three summers that he remembered. Perhaps three or four more that he didn’t recall. Smith had been a lot of things in his long and eventful lifetime; not all of them he was proud of and not all of them could be considered strictly inside the law. His most recent range of endeavours fell, quite distinctly, into the latter category. On this particular summer’s morning, not long before midday, he stepped out of the sway backed cabin that had been his most recent home and stood, splay-legged, on the porch while he admired with due appreciation the undeniably artistry of the good Lord’s creation.
tiny valley was a shallow bowl, lush and green, tucked neatly away into a fold
of the hills. It was quite indistinguishable from any one of a dozen others of
this southern fringe of the
rubbed at his coarse-stubbled chin and briefly considered a shave. He scratched
at his chest through his none too clean vest and hooked his thumbs underneath
his suspenders. From where he stood, he could just about see the cattle: fifty
or more Longhorn and Hereford-cross steers grazing contentedly knee-deep in the
grass. The steers were fattening nicely
and they, and a hundred or so cousins that would soon be joining them, would
bring a good price come autumn in the beef-starved villages and outlaw camps
just south of the border in the sovereign state of
He stretched and yawned, coming to the conclusion that all this fresh air and sunshine at this unearthly hour of the morning simply wasn’t good for a man. He needed a slug of good, strong coffee to get the day started right. Scratching again at the place where it itched, he turned back to the cabin door. Then he turned back and peered myopically into the sunlight. There were men riding up the valley from the direction of the live oaks, following the line of the stream. In the glare of the sun, Smith had almost missed them. He considered fetching his rifle from where it leaned by the door, but as they drew level with the shack and turned up the hill, their faces came into focus.
He recognised them – two of them anyway. Jethro and Jessie, the Lothro brothers and Mesquite-John’s supposed partners, ‘though, if truth were told, he wouldn’t trust either one of them as far as he could spit. The other man, the one in the middle with his hands bound tightly to the horn of his saddle and his neckerchief wound ‘round his mouth, he had never seen before in his life. Curiosity getting the better of him, Mesquite-John stepped down from the porch and walked out in front of the shack to meet them.
“What you two doin’ back here so early?” he demanded, addressing himself to Jethro, the eldest of the two brothers and the one who laid claim to at least a few brains. “Why ain’t you brought no cows with you? An’ who in heck’s he?”
Jessie and Jethro exchanged long and meaningful glances. Jethro shifted in his saddle and Jessie uneasily looked away.
“We had cows,” Jethro said, “Three or four head all gathered up and headed this was as nice as you please. Then this here fella comes ridin’ towards us, yellin’ an’ wavin’ his arms. I reckon he’s clean off his head.”
Mesquite-John stepped close up and peered at the stranger. He was a big man: tall, wide in the shoulder and lean in the hip, all dressed in black clothes with a somewhat disreputable yellow barn-coat worn over his shirt. Black hair curled into the nap of his neck, and gold-flecked brown eyes stared back down at him with an expression that was something closely akin to panic. Mesquite-John sucked thoughtfully at the stumps that were all that remained of his teeth. “What’d he say when he was doin’ all that yellin’?” he asked at last.
The stranger tried to answer himself, but the words were lost in the folds of the scarf and came out a mumble. He pulled at the rope on his wrists but he couldn’t get free. At least the Lothros had made a decent job of tying him up.
Jethro pushed his hat to the back of his head and scratched at his thinning hair. “He seemed to be sayin’ as how these were his cows an’ how he wanted us ta give ourselves us ta the sheriff. Seemed ta be real important ta him.”
The stranger nodded his head energetically.
Mesquite-John said, “Why didn’t you just shoot him?”
“Heck!” Jethro recoiled as if he’d just stepped on a snake. “I can’t shoot no mad-man. Just don’t seem right. Anyway’s, ain’t that supposed ta be bad luck or somethin’?”
“Sides,” Jessie added, “He weren’t doin’ no shootin' at us. I ain’t never shot at no man what didn’t shoot at me first.”
Smith scratched his stubble. “Well, why’d ya bring ‘im here fer?”
Jethro and Jessie traded another long look. “We couldn’t hardly leave ‘im out there on the range crazy like he is.” Jethro explained. “Even after we give ‘im back his cows he kept comin’ after us, rantin’ and wavin’ his hands. That’s why we had ta truss ‘im up like ‘e is. He was so all-fired excited, ‘e was like ta fall off his horse.”
The stranger tried again to say something, with an equal lack of success. He rolled his eyes in frustration. Mesquite-John smith took a long step back. It didn’t look like he could get free from those ropes, but there was no sense in taking chances.
“We had ta put that cloth round his face just ta stop him a-talkin’.” Jessie added. “He just kept goin’ on about how the sheriff was a real good friend o’ his and would let us off real easy, and his Pa givin’ him some sort o’ reward. Didn’t make no sense at-all.”
Mesquite-John was mystified. “There ain’t no reward on our heads.”
“I know it, an’ you know it,” Jethro shrugged. “Reckon he’s just plain loco.”
Smith heaved a sigh. “Loco or not, we can’t leave ‘im sittin’ up there in the saddle.” You better bring ‘im inside.”
The single room of the cabin was not very large, and the stranger, when they got him down from his horse, was a whole lot bigger than he had appeared. With his hands still bound and the gag in his mouth, they sat him down on the bunk in the corner, the very same one Mesquite-John had only recently vacated. They stood close together – there was no room left to do anything else – and looked him over. He looked back with those tawny-gold eyes. “What we gonna do with ‘in now?” Jethro inquired.
“We could still shoot ‘im.” Mesquite-John suggested without any real conviction. “I had a dawg once, went loco. I had ta put ‘im down.”
Evidently the stranger had enough of his wits about him to understand what they were saying. He shook his head violently.
Jethro considered, then shook his head. “Can’t do that. A man ain’t like a dawg. Sooner or later, some folk’ll come lookin’ fer him. They ain’t gonna be happy iffen they find him dead.”
The stranger nodded agreement.
Smith scratched his vest. “Who is he anyway?”
Jethro and Jessie both shrugged. “I ain’t never seen ‘im before,” Jessie ventured. “Iffen you take that gag off ta ask ‘im, he’s gonna start up that yelling ag’in.”
“He sure ain’t hard up for a dime or two,” Jethro put in. “With them fancy duds and that fancy gun he’s tottin’”
“You got somethin’ wi’ you name on it, Mister?” Mesquite-John asked. The stranger thought about it and nodded. Mesquite John searched through his pockets. Inside the yellow-barn coat he found a letter. He pushed it at Jethro. “What’s that say there?”
“Heck, I don’t know! No one ever learned me ta read.”
Smith looked at Jessie and decided not even to ask. He squinted at the letters but couldn’t make out the name. “Then I guess there ain’t nothin' fer it. We’re gonna have ta let ‘him tell us. Take off that gag.”
Jethro’s thick fingers fumbled with the knot at the back of the stranger’s head and eventually pulled it undone. The stranger spat out the cloth. The three of them looked at him expectantly while he pulled a long breath. His eyes shifted from one to the other, and then to the pot-bellied stove. “I sure could use some of that coffee, fellas.”
Jethro and Jessie looked at each other. Mesquite-John scratched an itch. “Well, he sure ain’t yelling. Pour him a drink.”
Jethro turned to the stove and slopped thick black coffee in to a cup; he handed it over and the stranger took it in his bound hands. Hot as it was, he sipped at it greedily. “Who in heck are you?” Mesquite-John asked. Certainly the stranger was starting to look a better colour. He’d been quite pale under the tan.
The stranger held out his cup for a refill, and Jethro duly obliged. “My name’s Adam Cartwright. I come from a ranch to the north of here.”
“You one of those ‘Ponderosa Cartwrights’?” Mesquite-John asked. “I heard a whole lot about you.” He didn’t add that half the cattle in the meadow outside were wearing the Ponderosa brand on their hips.
The stranger nodded; he seemed to be regaining his composure. His eyes slid round the shack. “I’m one of them. And you’re the men that have been stealing our cattle.”
Mesquite John hooked his thumbs in the top of his pants. “What makes you think that.”
“Your friends were driving my steers.” Adam said, reasonably.
“That don’t mean we was stealin’ ‘em,” Jessie objected. Three pairs of eyes regarded him with some speculation. No one had ever claimed Jessie was bright.
“What was all the yellin’ about?” Jethro asked. “Why’d you want us ta give ourselves up ta the sheriff?”
Adam’s expression changed to one of acute embarrassment. “I have to apologise for that. I’ve had a bad week. I’m afraid I kinda lost my head.”
“Perhaps you’d like to explain?” Mesquite-John suggested.
Idly, Adam scratched at his chest. “It’s kinda hard to put it into words.”
Adam pulled a long breath. “Well, I saw these two stealing my steers, and I wondered if you’d be willing to help me out.”
The three rustlers took a long step backward – as long as the space would allow. “I told you he was plain loco,” Jethro said.
Adam Cartwright shook his dark head. “I’m not loco. I’m just a hungry man.” He looked hopefully ‘round the inside of the shack. “While we’re talking, you wouldn’t have somethin’ a man could eat, would you?”
Jethro gazed at him thoughtfully, trying to work it out inside his slow head. “You Cartwright’s got all that land an’ all that money, an’ you don’t get enough ta eat?”
Mesquite-John Smith opened up a can of baked beans and set some bacon to fry in the skillet. The room soon filled up with savoury smells. They all stood around and listened while Adam told his sad story, “ There’s plenty of food, and we’ve got the best cook in the territory. It’s just that every time I sit down to eat, my Pa finds somethin’ else for me to do. It’s always, Adam, do this; Adam, do that; Adam, go fix it; Adam, find Little Joe. Joe’s my little brother,” he added by way of explanation. For a moment, he buried his face in his hands. “This morning it was, Adam, go find the lost steers. I haven’t had a square meal for a week. I’ve tried snatching food off the table to take with me, but eating on the hoof gives me fearful indigestion. I’ve stolen food from the kitchen, but the cook only yells. I’ve even tried sneaking into town for a meal at the hotel, but somethin’ always goes wrong with my plans – say, is that bacon ready?”
Solemnly, as befitted the occasion, Mesquite-John tipped the bacon and beans on a plate and handed it over. Jethro untied Adam’s hands, and everything was quite for a bit except for the sounds of Adam eating. Mesquite-John watched him shovel it down. “How was it you figured we could help you?”
In between mouthfuls, Adam explained, “I thought, if you let me hand you over to the sheriff, my Pa might let me eat supper for a couple of days. Then, I could withdraw the charges, and the sheriff could let you go.” He finished off the last of the beans and looked around for some more.
Mesquite-John scratched his chin. “I don’t fancy seein’ the inside o’ no jail.”
Adam ran a hand through his hair and scratched at the back of his head. “I don’t rightly see any other way out of this.”
“Here’s what we do,” Mesquite-John said. “You go back to your Pa an’ tell him that you didn’t find us. You tell him you’ll go out looking every day. Instead, you come up here, and we’ll feed you. Your Pa need never know what you’re up to.”
Adam looked doubtful. “Well, alright,” he said, dubiously. Something shifted deep in his eyes. Then, he brightened, “At least I’ll get a square meal!”
Mesquite-John stood alongside Jethro and Jessie and watched Adam Cartwright ride away, scratching somewhere under his shirt as he went. Mesquite-John scratched at his butt. “Pack up the gear,” he said to the other two. “Lets round up the cattle and get some distance behind us.” Jethro looked bemused, and Jessie gaped. Mesquite John-Smith explained, “I never met that fella ‘til today, but I seen his sort before. Adam Cartwright’s too Goddamned honest for anybody’s good. Hungry or not, tomorrow morning, he’ll be up here with his Pa and his brothers and his friend the sheriff, and, by then, we better be one hell’ve a long way from here.”
Potters Bar 2002.