A DRESS FOR JANEY
Copyright 2009-2020 Wendell G Sweet. This material is protected by copyright laws both foreign and domestic. All rights are reserved. You may not use this material for any purpose without written permission from Wendell G Sweet.
A DRESS FOR JANEY
I rode slowly watching the trail side. There wasn’t much to see in the moonlight, but enough to follow if you knew where to look, and I did.
The thing was, this fella was not no kind of careful anyways. And he was not no horse man neither.
I rubbed my geldings rump, patted a time, and silently promised him a little extra rest time once we caught up to this fool sometime later in the night.
Mister Johnson was a good horse. More used to plow than saddle, but circumstances dictate those positions more’n I do. And this man I was trackin’ had dictated tonight’s circumstances clear and straight.
I turned Mister Johnson down a short chute of a canyon, keeping him to the side so as not to mark the trail, and to keep his iron shoes from ringing out on the stone. We come to a little stream that cut the canyon and I stopped, rolled myself a smoke. I sat, hand cupped and smoked. Listening to the surrounding night.
If this was a smart fella, no way would I have lit no smoke. But this was no smart man at all. This, from what I could see, was a desperate man. Desperate or dumb. Or, possibly, both. I’d know for sure before dawn.
I finished the smoke, flipped it into the crik and went on my way again, following the trail of my own other horse, Mizz Johnson.
I had, had her as long as I had, had Mister Johnson. Truth be told I thought Mister Johnson might be even more pissed off about the situation that I was. He just didn’t know how to use a rope, if so I’m sure he’d a been out for a hangin’ too.
I worked my way sideways down a gully, leaving the actual trail behind me where it out and did a loop back onto itself. The direction was clear enough, and he was far enough ahead that I wouldn’t come up on him, and the shortcut would save me time considerable.
I had me a farm, a good woman and two boys old enough to help a little already. A girl child who made me feel like crying ever time I looked at her. I don’t figure how that is: That a girl child can do that, ‘cept I can see she will have to live her life, and it’s a hard one, and I wisht better than what I got to give her.
Men is men. The boys will grow up rough and tumble. That’s boys. That’s boys comin’ to be a man. But a girl child, seems to me, looks out at the world all pretty and hope, and then the world sort of breaks her down. Sometimes fast, sometimes slow.
I’d seen that truth in the eyes of a whore down in Dodge several years back. A young pretty whore, but resigned to be a whore. I’d paid my dollar and stayed for a little conversation as it was a slow night. I don’t never want to see that look in my Melissa’s eyes. But I can’t see that my Janey would ever let her go down that path. We learn from our mistakes, we do: If we don’t we don’t last long in this world.
I made the trail and walked Mister Johnson on the up-slope at a steady pace. He didn’t need much help or pointin’: I figured he could smell ol’ Mizz Johnson at that point, and he was, as I said, a might upset himself.
I was two days out from home. Me out from home meant that Janey had to do it all with no help from no man. Plow what she could with that goddamn, son-of-a-bitch mule we had. Be lucky if it didn’t kick her bad is what I’d be.
This life don’t slow down for no horse thief. The kids got to be fed. The chicks fed too. The cows milked. The other things a woman’s got to do. Cook, and clean, what all. But she’s got to do all the things a man’s got to do as well. All piled in there. No break at all. That was this life out here, how it had to be. How it was.
I caught the smell of fire and meat roastin’ on the air. Fresh, green wood. Not much of a woodsman either, I opinioned. But, considering the horsemanship, the theft itself and all of the rest of it, I’d say I was not too surprised. I stopped, rolled another smoke, kept it cupped to hide the flame, didn’t worry about the odor even though I was close now. The wind was at me after all, and his own, smokey fire would hide all other smells if the wind did shift. Chances were he had no idea of smells on the wind anyways.
I let my eyes travel the sky, lookin’ and I spotted a few stray sparks as they rose into the night sky not far away. All kinds of dumb. But I bet he considered himself some sort of woodsman just because he could light that fire.
Some figure if they can build a fire they’s a woodsman. I laugh at that. I have slept in snow banks and stayed warm. I tracked snowshoes in dead winter and got them. I have been lived in the wild with just a knife for two months while I was working out of the back country and my first horse dropped a leg in a chuck-hole and I had to shoot him.
I was green then. Used up one of my last four bullets on the horse, when I could’a used the knife and saved that bullet. Packed some out with me, dried over the fire, and et better those two months. I was young, dumb and life to come. And for me I was goddamn lucky to have lived through it that time. But, as I done said the one time, you learn or you die. Life, it don’t forgive a lot out here.
I finished the smoke, crushed it out between my thumb and forefinger, then angled Mister Johnson down toward the fire I’d seen. I could be, maybe, cocky and ride right up on him, but I don’t like to misjudge. I tied Mister Johnson to a tree to keep him out of it in case there was gun-play, which I intended there might be. I’d just have to hope there were none that got Mister Johnson. But he’d fare better hidden away. A man will always try in shoot a man’s horse at first sight if he can.
I walked the last hundred or so yards into his camp. My old sprung boots was so mushy and soft they was like walkin’ in Indian mocs anyhow. He never heard me comin’.
He had a chuck spitted over the fire, and probably ever cat, wolf, bear and wild dog for two miles around was sniffing on the air. He was stupid alright. I’d seen some green eyes, and two sets of red eyes as I had made my way into his camp.
He sat before the fire. A fat man: I’d knowed that from the depth of the hoof print though. And a stupid man just as I had guessed, as he had allowed me to walk right up to him, too busy tryin’ to twist the cap off’n a store bought bottle of whiskey he’d got from somewhere.
I decided on the spot to save the bullet: Put my gun away and pulled the rope that I had bought with me free from my shoulder. If a man ever works with cattle, branding, he don’t forget how to rope. And, as a younger man, I done my share of that. I had him in on one toss, and cinched it tight as I walked up on him face to face like.
“Hey,” he says, but me, I go about my business. I got me a limb picked out. We wrestle a little while I drag him to the limb, shift that rope quick like to his neck, and haul him up. He don’t say nothin’ after ‘Hey’, he tries to though.
Folks think hanging a man is easy. And, it can at times be easy, but this wasn’t no easy time: This was one a them hard times. A fat man, a thick neck, and me being plain tired out. He kicked and thrashed for all of ten minutes before he slowed. Me hanging on the end of that rope to keep him stretched, but I could not get him to swinging. And then, me being tired as I was, I looped that rope around Mizz Johnson’s saddle horn, the dumb bastard didn’t know enough to take a saddle off’n a horse, and walked her a bit to get him swinging free. Goddamn if he didn’t kick some more at that. I waited ten more minutes, ticked ’em off on my Elgin. I seen men come back if they neck ain’t broke, and I was sure it was not.
I let him down after that time, rope don’t come cheap to me, and left him laying there for the coyotes, wolves, bear and cats the damn fool had called down. Fat man might not be their favorite, but when times is tough it will do I’d bet.
I gathered up Mizz Johnson, went back and got Mister Johnson. They was happy to see each other. Blowing and touching noses to necks.
The fat man had two pair a saddle bags. The first had a food store, no surprise there, except why he’d been about to eat chuck when he had bacon. The second was a surprise: Gold, and not a little. I will tell you it was enough to sit me right down there by the fire to look it over.
I can count, but there’s a limit. What I knowed, I did, and then I had reached the limit and there was a long ways to go yet. A very long ways. And the trouble was I did not know for absolute what each piece was worth. Coin, stamped, but I could not read none. I could only say there was five times of counting to one hundred and a way to go after that.
Janey could read and write too. And she could cypher figures a sight farther than I could when it come to that. Whoring had taught her that. No whore could afford to get cheated.
I looked at it there in the moonlight for a piece, then put it all back in the saddlebags except a few pieces I kept for my pocket. Janey could count it; whatever it was we were a huge sight better off than we had been. It almost made me want to thank the fat man. I didn’t though. He stole my horse and he got what a horse thief is supposed to get.
I tied Mizz Johnson to the saddle horn of old Mister Johnson’s saddle by a longish lead and we rode out of there. I did put that fire out before we left. I left the chuck where it was, dug me out a piece of jerky my own Janey had made. I chewed thoughtful, thinking about the money as I rode. I was gonna stop at Abilene, which was on the way, and buy Janey a dress. She’d always had such pretty dresses when I’d met her, but times being as they was there weren’t no money for pretty dresses.
I smiled to myself thinkin’ about Janey’s eyes when she saw a new dress or two and then a saddlebag full a gold pieces. It made me feel good inside. I looked up at the moon, sent a prayer to God above up there somewhere, turned Mister Johnson for the next ridge and headed towards Abilene.
From the short story collection Mister Bob, available below…