October 3, 2012 by Whispering Smith
One generous comment from a reader suggested that Henry Lee and Dan Crow of the recent short story DOGBITE should be resurrected from time to time. I like a good idea so here are Henry and Dan back on the range…
THE LINE SHACK
As line shacks go the Rocking W’s western boundary cabin was more than ok. Built with its back to a low, rocky bluff with a fresh coldwater stream cheerfully tricking down across the gravel to what would become a full blown creek come the winter. Some northerly shelter was offered by a stand of leaning, sparse pinons. The small corral housed a substantial lean-to for the horses and a store for their winter food. The log pile was high and provisions had been delivered the day before. The shack itself was just a single room with bunks, a big cooking stove and a water pump over a tin sink. There was a small slatted crapper out back. Henry Lee had spent long, fence riding winters in worse conditions and considered that he and his old friend Dan Crow had struck lucky for once.
Henry Lee was filling a yellow cigarette paper from a sack of Bull Durham when Dan Crow rounded the narrow bluff and stilled his hot pony in front of Lee who nodded a greeting and fired his quirly with a thumb lit, blue top match. ‘Took you a while, you get lost?’ His drooping tobacco stained moustache twitched above his hidden upper lip as he drew deeply on the dark tobacco. The man lean and weather beaten like an old fence post.
‘Took a bath in Bailey before I left, got some clean duds and got my hair cut. I reckon it wouldn’t have hurt you none to do the same, I can smell you from here.’
‘Had one last year, didn’t cotton to it.’ Lee grinned up at the mounted man. The pair had ridden together for many years and this would not be their first winter in the confines of a line shack. ‘Step down, there’s coffee on the stove and I swept the place through and evicted the wildlife.’ Lee had a precise way of speaking and the merest hint of a Southern drawl.
‘A gopher snake and a couple of raccoons and I think I smelled bear.’
‘Bear, there was a fucking bear in there?’
‘Your language has not improved over the years and, was, is the operative word here, he is not in there now as far as I could see and…’
‘As far as you could see?’ Crow interrupted.
‘I didn’t look too hard.’
Crow swung his leg easily over the saddle and draped the rein loosely over the small, two horse hitching rail. He was a lot shorter than he first appeared when mounted, a lean middle-aged man with a sun-browned face and pale eyes. He stood there for a long moment, listening, his head cocked to the side in the direction of the trickling water. ‘Damned if that stream ain’t singing.’ He paused. ‘Sounds like Red River Valley.
Lee listened for a moment and said. ‘Sounds more like Clementine.’
‘Hell, you sing everything to same tune anyway so how would you know? You couldn’t hit the right note with a shotgun.’
‘I took the bottom bunk on account of my sore hip,’ Lee said, getting to his feet and ignoring the slight to his tuneless singing voice. ‘A Rocking W hand dropped by with enough grub for six weeks and will send up more later. Foreman also brought up a pair of spare saddle horses. I hobbled them and set them loose down in that meadow you just came through. You see them?’
Crow shook his head. ‘ No but I heard ‘em.’
‘Bear?’ Crow asked, later that evening with the stove glowing and the doors and window shuttered against the chill wind, ‘You really smelled bear?’ He was at the rough plank table oiling his Marlin lever action while Lee sat opposite him slowly and deliberately turning cards from a well thumbed deck of Bicycles, laying out a game of solitaire the smell of tobacco smoke, cooked bacon, strong coffee and gun oil permeated the air. ‘I’m not at all partial to bears not a bit of it ever since I heard what happened to Big Bo Larson up on the Platte a couple of summers back.’
‘I remember Larson, big man, a Swede must have been near seven feet high.’ Lee said, not looking up from his game.
‘About that, couldn’t walk through any doorway without banging his head. He had more lumps and bumps on his noodle than any man rightly deserves. Always got up smiling though.’
‘So what happened to him, the big Swede?’
‘Well as I heard it, he was out in the yard sawing cords for the winter, he had one of those long two-man cross-saws, and he would pull it one way then walk around to the other handle and pull it back…’
‘You don’t mean that.’
‘No, of course not, he was big and strong enough to push and pull on the one handle. Anyways, he was sawing away when this big old bear wanders into the yard and hollers at him, you know the way bears holler.’
‘Hell of a noise.’ Lee put a black queen on a red king, he was on the way to getting this hand out. ‘What did he do?’
‘The bear or the Swede?’
‘Well old Bo hollers right back at him and…’ Crow paused, thinking about it.
‘Then what?’ Lee asked, a slight edge of impatience creeping into his voice, familiarity with Crow’s long winded stories making him wish that he had not asked.
‘Well as I heard it, the bear hollers back even louder and the two of them stand there in the yard, Bo with his shirt off nearly a foot taller than the bear, the pair of them hollering at each other until Bo tires of it and picks up a cord of pine and steps forward and raps the bear over the nose with it.’
‘Not a smart thing to do.’ Lee said, now interested in the outcome of the confrontation his near complete game of solitaire momentarily forgotten.
Crow took the makings from his vest pocket and fashioned himself a smoke. ‘Not a smart thing at all, Henry Lee, that bear was pissed and he charged the Swede and the two of them wrestled around in that yard with the blood and fur a‘flying for nearly an hour till the bear gave it up and still hollerin’ legged it out to the pineywoods, fleeing as fast as he could.’
‘And the Swede? What happened to Larson?’
‘Poor old Bo didn’t make it. They found him in the spring curled up by the cold stove, still had the bear’s ear in his mouth, they think it may have choked him. Anyway, you see any bears around here you let me know pretty damn quick.’
Lee looked at his cards and moved a red jack to the black queen. ‘If Bo was dead how come you know all of this?’
Crow looked at him. ‘The bear told me, ran into him in a saloon in Bailey last fall.’
‘In a saloon in Bailey, you say?’
‘In Bailey, that’s what I said.’
Lee stared at his companion. ‘I didn’t know bears were allowed in bars in Bailey.’
Crow sighed, ‘It’s going to be a long winter, Henry Lee, a damned long winter.’
Copyright Chris Adam Smith September 2012