For my birthday one year, my mom gave me all of her writings from 1960 to what was present day. In 1973, my dad had undergone open heart surgery, and they had been told he maybe had 8 years to live. Having trouble processing what was their new reality, she was assigned to write a story. She decided to write about my dad and his imaginary friend, George Kennedy. The story would’ve taken place surrounding his 12th birthday in June of 1948. Everything below are her words that start with a description, a note to her doctor, and finally the story.
1974 “The Kid and the Cowboy”
I had resigned my job at Lee High School. It was the spring before the last quarter. Then I made an appointment with J.D. Cone for him to confirm what I suspected, that I was dying of leukemia. It had to be leukemia, and I had to be dying because I felt so bad. When he walked in the examining room, he didn’t put a stethoscope to listen to my heart. He didn’t even take my blood pressure. He just looked at me and said, “Artis Ann, you’re depressed.” Part of his treatment was to ask me to write a story or a poem. (I found out later he didn’t even read it!) “The Kid and the Cowboy” was mostly about Gary, but the scene with the tub full of water is one of my memories from childhood. The scene about the man shooting the dogs really happened in downtown Ballinger, and your daddy witnessed it. And the boots that never came really happened.
Well as you can see, this short story is finished. I have not done any revision or polishing, so you are receiving it in a very rough form. I thought you might want to read it before I see you next Tuesday. If you don’t have time, don’t worry about it.
I would tell you that if you want to write on it, that would be fine; however, I would want the copy back eventually. Perhaps you are right that I have clothed things in symbols, but what if even the symbols are symbolized?
It has no name yet, but I am pondering the possibility of calling it “The Kid and the Cowboy.” Hope you enjoy it and hope even more that it will help you to help me.
See you next week.
THE KID AND THE COWBOY
The car stopped abruptly, and a tall, blonde-headed man got out. The dirt road had run aimlessly down through fields and past abandoned windmills and old houses. Why the man had chosen this particular stopping place wasn’t clear, for other than a dried creek bed a hundred yards ahead, an old mesquite tree at the edge of the road and a dilapidated house out to the north, there was nothing to look at. He just stood gazing out at the horizon in all directions and to any passerby would have seemed somewhat lost in thought. As he got back into the car, he took his handkerchief and wiped the dust from his shoes. He half smiled to himself and then turned the car around and headed back the same direction he had come from. He had not seen what was actually there for he was remembering a summer some twenty years before. An early summer when the mesquite had been full and its shade had been a place to dream . . . .
Sometimes the shade was Gary’s house; other times it was a raft. But lately he had been meeting a cowboy there named George Kennedy. If anyone had pressed Gary for details about Kennedy’s arrival, he would have answered vaguely. Not to confuse or avoid the questioner, but rather because he really hadn’t thought about it. One day George Kennedy wasn’t there and the next day he was. It was just as simple as that.
Sometimes they popped maize in a tin can over a little fire, and other times the boy and the man sat by the little creek that cut across the back end of the farm. George Kennedy was always willing to do whatever the boy wanted and it seemed the lazy summer days would stretch out like molasses. When they were together, the cowboy always knew what to say to make the boy happy. George Kennedy was a curious mixture of Gary’s father, grandfather, and the Durango Kid all mixed up in one. At the same time he was the type of cowboy that every West Texas boy wanted to grow up to be. He was soft spoken, and he could roll a cigarette out of Bull Durham using just one hand. That left his gun-hand free. Now that school was nearly out, Gary planned to spend all the time he could with his new friend. He would finish up sixth grade on Friday, and on Saturday he would be twelve. And the whole summer would be his.
It was a Thursday afternoon, and Gary decided not to ride the school bus. It was only three and one half miles to his house, but if he took the bus, he’d have to ride over twenty miles and suffer innumerable stops. The bus driver was nice enough, but on a day when the sky was bright and blue and there were things to see, Gary couldn’t see the wisdom in riding.
As soon as the weather turned warm, Gary would walk to and from school barefoot. He liked to take his shoes off and feel either the warm sand or matted grass beneath his feet. But even more important, it would help him save his shoes from that extra wear. For a while he had sat down at the edge of the school yard to take off his shoes, but the girls had taunted him with “Bare feet . . . Bare feet . . . Gary thinks his toes are neat.” Now he walked to the park at the edge of town before sitting down to remove his shoes. He was in the process of watching a doodle bug when he heard the first loud boom. He knew instinctively what it was, but he disbelieved his own recognition because it seemed so out of place in the park. Before he could see what was happening he heard two more loud noises and dogs barking. When he reached a little ride at the edge of the park, he could look down the slope to the north, and at first he couldn’t understand what he saw. Three or four large dogs were lying still, and two others were barking at a man who very methodically leveled a shotgun at one of them and pulled the trigger.
“No,” Gary yelled. “No, don’t do that.” And he ran toward the man who by that time had aimed at a little black dog. “Don’t do that. Quit it,” the boy yelled, and he ran and grabbed the man by the left arm. Only then did he recognize the man. It was Mr. Barris who owned the wrecking yard on the other side of the park.
Mr. Barris shook loose from Gary’s grip and growled out, “Go on home where you belong. Git out of here’ fore you git hurt.” And he reloaded the shotgun from his pocket. “Go on, git,” and he pushed the boy out of the way.
Gary ran stumbling back up the slope; he felt like his insides were on fire. “I hate you,” he yelled. “Dog killer, I hate you.” It was the worst thing he could think of to say. He looked back long enough to see Mr. Barris chase the small dog out of some brush and then level the gun at it. The loud blast followed by the pitiful yelp were the last sounds of the massacre. “Dog killer. I hope somethin’ awful happens to you.” Then the boy turned and ran toward the road home. He felt that if he could talk to George Kennedy, if he could say aloud all the things raging in his head, he would understand what he had witnessed. He didn’t even go to the house; he just ran toward the tree when he got in sight of the farm.
Gary knew that the rugged man would be there at the end of the fence row waiting for him. “Mr. Kennedy, Mr. Kennedy,” he began to yell before his young voice could have possibly carried that far. The wind-tanned man grinned at the sight of the blonde-headed boy running across the field, and Gary rushed toward him.
“Mr. Barris took his shotgun into the park, and he shot all the dogs,” he sobbed out as soon as he could control his breathing. His head still ached from the sound of the 12 gauge. Between gulps he told George Kennedy how the littlest dog ran at the exploding sounds. “He was just a little short-legged, cute dog. He warn’t hurtin’ nobody, and Mr. Barris chased him out into a flat place between the swings and merry-go-round and then . . . and then.” He couldn’t finish. He broke into loud sobs. He tried to shut his eyes tight enough to hold in the tears but could not stop the hot stinging. His heart ached with the thought of the small, still dog lying in the dust of the path the children had worn from the teeter-totter to the water fountain. “Why’d he do it?” he demanded of the cowboy.
“I don’t know for sure, Gary.” And George Kennedy was incapable of explaining the brutality the boy had witnessed. He understood it no better than Gary. “Maybe he just don’t like dogs,” he finally said.
“Lots of people don’t like dogs, but they don’t kill ‘em.”
George Kennedy didn’t answer, for it was the sort of childish logic that is impossible to refute. The two of them sat against the tree and gazed down the road to Ballinger. At last Gary wiped his face against his arm and stood up.
“Are you leavin’?” George asked the boy.
“Goin’ to the house.”
“Don’t you want to stay and talk?”
“Nope, goin’ to the house.” And he walked off toward the farmhouse thinking over the events he had witnessed promising himself he could never grow up to be like Mr. Barris. He was a fat, spindly-legged man. His face was always red, and he yelled at kids. No sir, a boy might have to grow up, but he didn’t have to grow up to be such a mean, cruel man.
By Friday afternoon Gary had gotten over the shock of what had happened at the park. His father’s explanation that the dogs had gotten dangerous and bitten several children didn’t make Gary like Mr. Barris any better; although, he understood a little better what happened. Gary walked homeward with his shoes tied together and slung over his shoulder. He pondered what would be waiting there for him. His mother would have a washtub full of hot water, and a cake of lye soap would be on the floor with a soft towel and washcloth. She would inspect his ears and elbows before she let him out of the tub. He didn’t know if the soap or the hot water left him so red looking, but he always felt more naked after the bath than before. By the time he reached the railroad trestle, he had begun to consider the reason for bathing on a Friday afternoon instead of Saturday night. His uncle Clint was coming for supper.
Clint McAdams was really his great uncle, but the intricacies of second cousins and great aunts escaped Gary, and it sufficed to call the man Uncle Clint. Tomorrow Gary would be twelve, and he was sure that tonight’s supper had something to do with his birthday. No one ever commented straight out about Clint’s finances, but Gary had come to understand that his uncle had more money than anyone else in the family. Most of the family treated Clint McAdams with a special deference influenced by his wealth, but Gary loved him purely. In fact, once Gary realized that his uncle Clint had money, he filed it away as part of his knowledge and gave it no more emphasis than the knowledge that qualis won’t come back to an egg that has been handled or a nest that has been disturbed.
When Gary reached the house, he saw the washtub on the back porch. “At least it’ll be outside,” he thought. In the winter time when it was cold, he bathed in the kitchen, usually with his dad sitting at the table drinking coffee or with his mother close by. He had more privacy outside with the whole world watching than he had in the kitchen behind closed doors.
“I wonder if George Kennedy takes baths,” he mused and then allowed as he didn’t. A cowboy probably just rode his horse out into the middle of the stream and called it bathing.
“Gary, that you?” his mother called out as she heard the screen door open.
“Get your clothes off and get into that water and really scrub. Don’t forget your fingernails.”
She always said, “Don’t forget something,” and Gary was amazed at the many things she could think of. He skinned out of his clothes and debated with himself as to how to begin. “If I get in real slow, I dread gettin’ the rest of me in. If I get in real fast, I feel like my skin will pop open all over.” At last he opted for “real fast” because that way he could bathe more quickly.
When he finally considered himself clean, he called out to his mother to come and inspect his progress. She came out on the porch and looked him over. “I declare, Gary, I do believe there’s hope for you yet. You’re finally growing up. You’re as clean as I’ve ever seen you.”
Gary grinned with satisfaction, and as his mother went back into the house, he called out, “Maybe pretty soon you won’t have to tell me when to take a bath.” Then he thought to himself if he had a horse to ride into the creek behind the house, he’d stay clean all the time. Then he dried himself off and put on a clean pair of pants and dumped the water out of the washtub. It ran down the boards on the porch to a low spot and then “kinda eased off the grass” as Gary’s dad would say. The house would be shining clean, and Gary dried his feet again so that he wouldn’t spot the floors.
By the time Uncle Clint arrived Gary had combed his hair repeatedly and had shoved his uncooperative shirt back into his pants too many times to count. Gary was the first to hear the car coming, for he had listened the hardest. “It’s Uncle Clint; he’s here; he’s here,” he yelled in a war whoop of joy. “Uncle Clint’s here.” And he barreled off the front porch and into his uncle’s arms.
“Whoa, Comanche. You’ll knock me over,” Clint McAdams said as he raised Gary up. Then he set the boy down and gave him a thorough tickling before he turned to greet the boy’s parents. “Sy, Margaret, you’ve got a yougun here,” he said as he held his nephew close and shook Sy’s hand all at the same time. Gary jumped up and down around them and nearly fell off of the front porch. “Settle down, Son,” Gary’s father said sternly, and Gary quit his outward enthusiasm, but his uncle knowing the boy’s excitement said, “Comanche, go out there and bring in my suitcase,” and Gary bounded off the porch.
He looked back to see if they were watching him, but they had turned to go into the house. Gary ran his hands over the fender and then eagerly opened the door on the passenger side. The car smelled new; “Sort like leather and shavin’ lotion,” Gary thought to himself. The suitcase was a deep maroon with his uncle’s initials beside the handle. Gary heaved it out of the car but was careful not to scuff it or rest it on the ground.
He carried the bag into the house and set it down on the bed in the front bedroom. Uncle Clint would sleep here tonight, and Gary’s parents would sleep in his bed while he slept on a pallet on the floor. He could hear his parents’ voices talking grown-up talk to Uncle Clint, and so he just stood in the bedroom, looking at the maroon suitcase imagining all the places it had been. Then he heard his father’s voice.
“I tell you, Clint, he may be twelve tomorrow, but he’s no more help than when he was six. He just fools away his time, and when I say ‘Where’ve you been?’ he just says ‘Around.’ I didn’t mind him playin’ away the hours when he was younger, but he’s near a man, and it ain’t right that he don’t help.”
Gary felt a hard knot forming in his chest and he wanted to yell, “I can hear you.” But instead he just stood staring at nothing, hurting to think he had disappointed his father.
“He’s always daydreamin’, imaginin’ things. It ain’t good form him to think he can always play away the afternoon. No sir, it ain’t good.” Finally the conversation turned to other matters, and Gary slipped quietly into a chair at the kitchen table.
His mother had put a blue checked tablecloth and white napkins on the table and had placed a bowl full of flowers in the middle. For a time Gary seemed to be considering the blooms, but finally the uncle drew the boy into conversations.
“Your mother tells me you’re eatin’ your way right up the pantry. Whatever she cans, you eat before she has time to paraffin the jar. Is that right?”
Gary laughed at the teasing and then said, “That’s because she’s such a good cook.” As if to prove he had spoken the truth, she began to bring the meal to the table. She had fixed fried chicken and dumplings, which was Gary’s favorite. By the time she had finished putting all the food on, the table was filled to the edges. As soon as they finished the meal, she whisked away the dishes and spooned homemade peach ice cream into bowls and cut thick wedges of chocolate cake. Nobody said “Happy birthday,” but Gary knew that all the special dishes were for him as well as to welcome Uncle Clint.
Finally the only thing left at the table was the bowl of flowers. “I’m of a mind if I passed you the salt and pepper, Gary, that you’d eat your momma’s bouquet.” Everyone laughed, especially Gary as he wondered what they would taste like.
When the kitchen was cleaned, they all went into the living room and lit the kerosine lamp and listened to Uncle Clint tell the rest of the family about what he’s done lately. Gary had almost dozed off to sleep when Uncle Clint called his name.
“Sir?” he said.
“I said I bet you think I haven’t brought you a present.”
“Oh, I hadn’t really thought about it, Uncle Clint,” but already he was wondering what secrets the maroon bag held.
“Well, you’re gonna find out soon enough that I haven’t really brought you anything, but I do have a question for you. Have you ever thought about having a pair for boots?”
Suddenly it was all worth it, the bath, the waiting. Gary didn’t know the answer. He’s thought about boots a lot, but he’d never thought he would actually have a pair. Finally he said very simply, “ No sir.”
“Well, I thought cowboy boots might be to your liking.”
“Yes sir,” Gary said. He didn’t want to appear too eager, or even worse, greedy. He wanted the boots desperately, for George Kennedy wore boots, not ordinary ones, but rather they had been hand tooled and the stitching came across the pointed toes in a final flourish. They always gleamed and the leather was soft to the touch. “That’d be nice.”
“We better get you off to bed now,” Gary’s mother said. “Tell your Uncle Clint ‘good night.’”
“Good night, Uncle Clint,” and he held out his right hand to shake with his uncle instead of the little-boy hug. He had thought about what his father said, and he didn’t want to act like a little kid anymore. His uncle seemed a little puzzled, but stood up and shook hands with Gary.
No sooner had Gary lain down on the pallet than he was asleep. When he awakened the next morning the house was very quiet. He slipped on his pants and went to the kitchen. His mother was drinking a cup of coffee by herself.
“Where’s Dad?” he asked.
“Well good mornin’ Sleepyhead. He’s been out in the fields since day-break. Sit down, and I’ll fix you breakfast.”
“And Uncle Clint?”
“He left quite some time ago. He wanted to get on to Abilene to take care of some business.”
“Oh,” Gary said. He sat down and was surprised his mother put cake in front of him for breakfast.
“It is your birthday, you know,” and she patted him on the head. “Happy birthday, Son.”
“Thank you, Momma.” Then as if struck with a sudden thought, he said, “What about the boots, Momma?”
“What about the boots Uncle Clint was gonna get me?”
“Why Gary, you acted like you didn’t even want them. You said you’d never thought about havin’ any, and then you acted so strange about huggin’ your uncle Clint good night that he thought you were displeased with the suggestion. He said to tell you he’d mail you a card when he got to Santa Fe later this month and that he’d be back sometime in the fall.”
Could anyone understand what was happening to Gary at that moment? It was as if some bright and fragile bubble inside him had popped. He wasn’t at all sure he could go on breathing. He wanted to run and throw his arms around his mother and have her tell him she would make everything alright, but two things stopped him. After all, he was twelve now, and secondly he knew that there were some things that no one could fix. George Kennedy couldn’t erase the ugliness in the park on Thursday afternoon, and Gary’s mother couldn’t mend the aching tear inside him now. Gary’s grandfather had talked of growing pains, and Gary decided he had experienced more pain in the last two days than he could bear. But he knew too much now to go back to being a child.
Gary just stayed around the house all morning as if he could somehow will his Uncle Clint back and let him know that he really did want the boots. At lunch Gary’s father came in from the fields all hot with sweat running off his forehead, down onto his eyebrows. They all ate in silence, but as Gary’s father finished his meal, he looked at his son and said, “Boy, you’re gonna have to start thinkin’ like a man. You need to grow up and quit wastin’ your time. This whole year you’ve been big enough to help. But no, you’ve been off down below the house playin’.”
The mashed potatoes Gary had in his mouth turned heavy. He didn’t cry much anymore, but sometimes it felt like the tears got inside his mouth instead of rolling down his cheeks. He swallowed hard and lifted his eyes to meet his father’s already steady reproving gaze. “Yessir,” was all he managed.
“I told yer mother that she was raisin’ you to fritter away yer time.”
Gary dare not look at his mother’s face which he knew would be filled with concern and a pleading look for him not to argue with his father. “Yessir,” he said again.
His dad stood up from the table and wiped the sweat from his face on the back of his sleeve. He looked again at his son, his jaw muscles working. As he went to the door he said, “Day after tomorrow I want you to be ready to help me.” It was an ultimatum. As soon as Gary’s dad was out of sight, Gary rushed out the back door and across the field to tell George Kennedy that they only had the rest of today and tomorrow to be together. He ran so hard that he caught a cramp in his side, “a stitch” his grandfather called it.
Gary didn’t know exactly what to do about George Kennedy. After all, the boy was responsible for him. He couldn’t just walk off and leave the cowboy in the pasture not knowing if Gary would ever come back. He considered just telling George goodbye, but he knew that the friend he had made had nowhere else to go. “He’ll just have to understand how it is,” he thought as he ran. Then he was struck by another thought, but pushed it to the back of his mind, refusing for the moment to consider it.
By the time he reached the edge of the field and climbed through the barbed wire fence, he was too winded to talk. He sat down heavily and gasped for air, George Kennedy watched him thoroughly, and when the boy began to breathe more regularly, he asked, “Is a posse after you?”
“Might be,” Gary answered; “just might be.” It was the sort of pretend game the two fell into easily,
“What’ve you done?”
“I busted a little town wide open.”
“Might you be Billy the Kid?”
“Naw, I’m the Ballinger Kid, and I look out for the little guy. Nobody’s gonna pick on anybody else if I’m around.”
The game would last as long as Gary wanted it to, which was the best part about playing with George Kennedy. Although Gary dreaded telling his friend about the change in plans for the summer, he continued to consider his dilemma in the back of his mind. Finally he reached a decision which he didn’t share with George Kennedy, but already plans were being formed.
“What will you do if a bounty hunter comes after you?” the cowboy asked.
“I’ll handle it when it happens,” the Ballinger Kid answered. “What would you do?”
“Don’t know,” Kennedy said. “Never thought about it.”
“Is there a price on your head?” Gary asked.
“Reckon there is, but I just kinda drifted away from that trouble spot.”
Gary almost asked what he had done, but decided it was unimportant. There were other things to be considered this afternoon.
For a time the game progressed easily enough, and before long Gary went back to the house to request supper in a paper sack.
“Why don’t you want to eat with your dad and me?” Gary’s mother inquired.
“I just have some things that need doin’ today, and I thought I’d eat on the way.” Gary’s mother smiled to herself knowing that Gary was just involved in some make-believe. But after all, it was his birthday, and surely a boy could have such a small favor granted on his birthday. As she put a thick piece of cornbread and some bacon and a cold potato in a sack, Gary stood looking out the back door.
The early summer heat already had taken hold of the land, and Gary tried to make the summer shimmer between him and the horizon be still. It was a good try, but not even the Ballinger Kid could control the weather.
At last his mother held out the sack to him, and she had put some lemonade in a Mason jar. As he started out the back door, he looked back to the north and saw his father’s outline. Gary felt a twinge of conscience, but then he considered this afternoon’s outcome important enough to put off helping his father. Besides, he had until Monday morning to do whatever he wanted.
With that thought in mind, he turned toward the south end of the farm, and his father’s image was quickly swallowed by the heat waves.
George Kennedy didn’t want anything to eat; he never did. But he waited pleasantly while Gary ate. Despite his mother’s good cooking, Gary felt a growing coldness in his stomach. George watched him until finally Gary gave up on the food and said, “We’ve got trouble.”
“Yeah, I saw the dust risin’ off the posse. They’re headed away from us now, but they’re too close for comfort,”
“That’s bad news, Kid.”
“Even worse, they have bounty hunters with ‘em.”
George didn’t question how the Kid knew. He simply accepted all that Gary said as being true.
“What’ll they do?”
“Well,” the Kid replied, “I reckon we’ll give ‘em their money’s worth.”
For a time the two were quiet, and then off in the distance, Gary heard hoof beats. “Someone’s comin’.” And the Kid got up and looked expectantly down the road. There was no point in hiding. Whatever today and tomorrow held couldn’t be avoided by crouching behind a tree or hiding in the furrows of the field.
It was the first time a third party had ever interrupted their game together, but George Kennedy didn’t seem surprised. He just stood there waiting with the Ballinger Kid. Soon the rider was in view and although Gary had known what to expect, he still was stunned at the sight. A large burly man was riding a sleek black horse. The rider dismounted and dropped the horse’s reins. Then he reached up and took a sawed off shotgun from the saddle. He held it loosely, almost carelessly, at his side. He wore a black hat that put a shadow across his face so that they couldn’t see his features, but his voice was deep and raspy as he spit out the words, “ I been trailin’ you.”
“I ain’t that hard to find,” the Ballinger Kid said.
“Not you, him,” came the guttural reply, and the man jerked his head toward George Kennedy.
George Kennedy stood looking at the newcomer and replied easily, “I ain’t that hard to find either.”
“Mebbe, mebbe not, but now you’ll play Jessie gettin’ away.”
“What’ve you got in mind?” the cowboy asked.
“I’ll be given’ you ‘til noon tomorrow to clear out of this place. If you’re not gone by then, I’ll come after you.” The saddle leather creaked as he remounted. “‘Til noon tomorrow. You’d be wise to be gone. Otherwise, I’ll shoot you down like a dog in the dirt.” He wheeled the horse about and rode away without looking back.
For a time the Kid and the cowboy were silent. Then the Kid asked, “Will you be leavin’? but he knew the answer already.
“Reckon not. One place ain’t much better than another, and you only make things worse by runnin’ away.” As he spoke, George Kennedy took one silver handled gun out of his holster and spun the cylinder. Then he removed the other one and did the same thing.
The Kid knew that George Kennedy was good with a gun, but he had never seen a man with a pistol go up against a sawed-off shotgun. He calculated in his head how much time the cowboy would need to draw and get off a shot. Then he realized he didn’t know how long it would take a man to raise a gun and . . . .
Off in the distance Gary heard his father’s shrill whistle. “Better get on home, Kid,” George Kennedy said. Gary was startled to realize that the long evening shadows had turned to early twilight. He looked expectantly as George Kennedy.
“Don’t worry, Kid. I’m not afraid of the bounty hunter. Don’t you be either. And don’t be frettin’ that I’ll change my mind and leave. I’ll be here tomorrow waitin’ for whatever the day brings.”
Again Gary’s dad whistled across the still evening, and the boy felt the need to hurry home. The sooner he got home and in bed, the sooner he’d be asleep. And the sooner he’d face tomorrow. He, like George Kennedy, would be ready. He didn’t say good night to George Kennedy; they both knew they’d see each other again, and with that thought in his mind, the boy turned toward home. The evening star hung off to Gary’s left, and he considered making a wish as he ran. Then, he pushed it out of his mind as being childish.
Gary didn’t have to be told twice to go to bed. His mother mused that he had played himself out, and when she checked on him before she went to bed, she was somewhat surprised to see his jaw clenched tight and a whiteness about his mouth as he slept.
When the boy awoke the following morning, he wondered if he could wait for noon. Everything seemed to move in slow motion, especially the hands of the clock. After breakfast he stayed in the house, half filled with dread, half exhilaration. Then the time inexplicably began to race, and he tried to delay the inevitable arrival of noon. He looked out the window in the direction of the tree. He felt a prickly sensation at the nape of his neck, and he knew that the bounty hunter and the cowboy were out there. He knew they wouldn’t start without him, and stayed in the house until his mother asked him, “Are you sick?”
‘No,” he said, but the feeling in his stomach belied his answer. It was worse than what had happened to Gary Cooper in High Noon. In that movie everybody knew what was going to happen, but here only Gary knew, and he didn’t know how to tell anyone else, not even his mother. She was kneading bread, and as usual she pinched off a piece and held it out to him. The only thing he liked any better was a piece of raw bacon, but now he gravely shook his head. “You really do feel bad, don’t you?”
“No, I’m okay,” and his gaze drifted past her and out the window. He knew they were there even though he couldn’t see them. That was why he had chosen the backside of the house because no one would see him from the house.
Finally he knew he would have to go, and he slowly opened the back screen door. His dad was coming from the barn, and briefly Gary thought about sharing his burden with his father. Then he reasoned, “This is my problem, and it ain’t so likely anyone else can help me with it.” He turned away from his father’s inquiring eyes and started determinedly toward the waiting arena.
When he could see the two figures in the distance, he saw that they were already standing facing each other. He instinctively knew what was going to happen, but he hurried towards them.
“It’s noon,” said the bounty hunter. The Ballinger Kid heard the menace in his voice.
“So it is,” the cowboy replied easily.
“I gave you a chance to leave, but you’re still here.”
“Didn’t have no place else to go.”
At that moment the bounty hunter caught sight of the Ballinger Kid. “Git out of here ‘fore you git hurt,” he said threateningly.
“I’m stayin’,” the Kid answered. And he climbed to the top of a fence post and pretended his heart wasn’t racing.
Then the bounty hunter turned back to George Kennedy and said, “Are you ready?”
The cowboy looked at the Ballinger Kid and grinned. Then he said, “Kid, some day you’ll have a pair of boots, but I’ll be needin’ mine.” He returned his gaze to the bounty hunter and said, ‘I’m ready.”
The Kid suddenly felt light headed, and the noise of the shotgun and the pistol nearly knocked him off the fence. He looked expectantly at the cowboy. He was still grinning at Gary as he fell. He lay ever so still, and the day turned hotter, the heat, more oppressive. The sight of George Kennedy lying in the dirt and the smell of gunsmoke caused the Kid’s stomach to churn.
He stumbled off the fence and yelled at the bounty hunter, “Git out of here. Git off our land.” And the bounty hunter calmly mounted his horse and rode off in the direction of the creek.
The Kid turned back to the fallen cowboy. He ran to him and knelt down. “He’s killed you; he’s killed you, hasn’t he?”
The cowboy opened his eyes for a moment and said softly, “Reckon he has, Kid. Reckon the game’s over.” And George Kennedy let out a long sigh.
Gary sat in the dirt for a long time and vowed he’d never forget George Kennedy, vowed he would grow up to be a better man for having known an easy-going, comfortable cowboy.
Gary got up and started toward the house. He promised himself he wouldn’t look back, and he wouldn’t cry.
At last he reached the back porch. The screen door shut with a flat sound behind him, and the summer heat followed him into the house. He went to his room and lay down on his bed. He felt sweaty and weak. When his mother came to check on him, he pretended he was asleep. When his father came later to his room and said supper was ready, Gary said he wasn’t hungry.
He lay there until long past sundown, not thinking, not feeling. And the coolness of the late evening crept into his room, he still felt flushed and light-headed. His mother brought water to him, water from the cistern. To reassure her that he was going to be alright, he drank a glassful. The water always tasted the same to him, like it had nails in it, but it always came out of the cistern cool.
His mother made a fuss over him, smoothing the covers and plumping his pillow. “Momma?” he said.
“Momma, don’t worry about me. I just need some time to think.”
“Do you want to tell me what’s wrong?”
“I can’t, not now anyway.”
Perhaps the answer satisfied her, perhaps not, but she left his bedroom after feeling Gary’s forehead.
When the house became quiet, and when Gary could hear his father’s regular, heavy breathing, he went to the back porch and looked into the darkness. He stood there for a long time. He looked at the evening star and then sighed. It was the sigh of a farewell, of letting go, of relief. He went quietly back to bed and drifted into a dreamless slumber.
Gary was up before sunrise and the cold linoleum felt good to his feet. He dressed quickly and went to the kitchen where the smell of oatmeal and coffee mingled. Ordinarily he had oatmeal and a glass of orange juice, but he saw that a third coffee cup had been put on the table.
“Good mornin’ Son.” His father said, “Eat yourself plenty of oatmeal; it will stick to your ribs, and we’ve got a lot of work to do today.”
Gary’s mother lifted the coffee pot from the wood stove and poured the three mugs full. “Sugar?” she asked.
“No, I’ll drink it black,” Gary answered, and he took a gulp of the hot, acrid coffee. It burned his tongue and made his eyes water, but it felt good.
“What have you got planned for today, Boy?”
“I reckon I’ll be drivin’ the team for you or work at whatever you’re doin’, Pa.”
His father nodded his head soberly and said, “Reckon that sounds good.”
“You don’t feel sick anymore, do you?” his mother asked.
“No’m, I’m fine, doin’ just fine,” he replied. Then he poured sugar and cream over his oatmeal and ate the bowl empty. After he had finished his third helping, his dad picked up the water jug and put on his hat. Gary grabbed his cap and followed his dad out the kitchen door.
The sun still hadn’t risen, but the east was streaked with light, and the sky was cloudless. It would be hot again today. The father stood for a moment and looked down toward the edge of the field. “Are you through with that down there?”
“I think so . . .” and the boy’s voice trailed off to a whisper. His father rested his hand lightly on his son’s shoulder. Gary looked toward the creek and swallowed a lump in his throat.
“C’mon, Son.” Gary looked up at his dad and for a moment imagined his father rolling a cigarette with one hand.
“Nothin’, I was just thinkin’.”
The two of them walked briskly off toward the barn. And down at the edge of the south pasture a dream died. All that remained of those days was an empty road and a gnarled mesquite. The little boy who had played there had changed. The Durango Kid, Hopalong Cassidy, and George Kennedy would have to find other playmates. The Ballinger Kid wouldn’t be coming back their way. He would find other refuges and harbors, other plans and older ways.
Today he would work in the fields, and some tomorrow he could be a man and would remember his childhood with fondness.