FICTION

Ol' Crowbait

S. OMAR BARKER November 15 1934
FICTION

Ol' Crowbait

S. OMAR BARKER November 15 1934

Ol' Crowbait

FICTION

S. OMAR BARKER

LUNT STRAYHORN sat in the old cowhide-seated rocker on the shanty porch and cracked his knuckles. Mrs. Strayhorn came and stood in the door, wiping suds from her hands. They were big, strong-looking hands for such a pinch-faced, withered, little, old woman.

M)u needn’t set there lookin’ so beat out about it, pa,” she commented. “That fifty dollars will make enough to move us ’long with what we’ve saved—an’ maybe leave some over. Seems like fifty dollars is right generous to pay for a few hours yarnin’. You tell her all such as she wanted for her story, pa? That about the time you swum the herd in a norther without losin’ ary head? An’ them different horses you always set such store bv? Muggins an’ Snap, an’. . .”

Old Lunt sighed. He ran his left hand up over his head and let it rest there, the bony fingers tugging nervously at the straggly grey fringe back of the bald spot.

I give it to her the best I could,” he said. "But I don’t like to think about them old days, Molly. It makes me feel bad an ol crowbait, all stove up like I am now. I hope she don t get things all mixed up in her story.”

Molly Strayhom came over in a very matter-of-fact manner and picked up the five ten-dollar bills lying as if forgotten in her husband’s lap. She folded them neatly into an apron pocket.

I don t know as it matters a heap if she does. Ain’t many book readers will know the difference. I wouldn’t fret about it, noway. Maybe this’ll leave us enough to buy us a

milk cow once we git moved—if we can find one cheap. Seem like I'd be mighty proud to be makin’ my own butter again.”

But she knew Lunt was not thinking about milk cows and butter. He was seeing the herd stringing out from the bedground in the crispness of a high plains morning; watching leathery men on horseback—himself among them— rolling them out, pointing them “up the trail;” hearing the soft clack of split hoofs; smelling the dust and the pungent burnt hair smoke of the round-up; feeling the once familiar, creaky hardness of saddle-leather beneath him, the touch of rope and reins in his hands, the sure strength of horseflesh between his legs.

She knew he did not mean it, either, when he said he didn’t like to think of those old days long gone. All he meant was that it made him feel bad to be telling about them, for pay, to a bespectacled young girl story writer who, quite

naturally, wouldn’t know a yearling from a mosshom. A nice enough girl, of course, who would probably write a nice enough book, but who wouldn’t really understand about cutting horses, top roping mounts, rough strings, nightherd ponies, remudas, dale vueltas, sleepers and so on—even if you told her.

"K/fOLLY STRAYHORN knew that Lunt "set a heap of -*-*-*store by” his memories of the longhorn days. He did like to think about them, and to talk about them—to her. He had been a trail boss at twenty, but even more than the perilous days of the long trails, he loved to recollect his later punching days, and most especially some of the great ‘‘cuttin’ hosses” and “ropin’ hosses” he had either owned or trained and ridden for tne big outfits— the T Anchor, the Turkey Track, the 7D, the LFD. “Muggins,” “Bug-Ear,” “Long Sim,” “Snap”—Molly remembered most of them herself, for she had been with him in those later days.

Lunt had never got to be a “big owner” himself. Like many another old-time cowboy he had tried it out near High River but had gone under from his winter losses the “year of the blizzards.” Disaster had ridden him hard. It was the old story: broke, savings gone, getting stiff with years—and then a horse fall, broken bones, and the inevitable retreat from the seat of a saddle to a rocker on the porch.

Even then any one of several of the old outfits he had worked for would have pensioned him with a nominal job and a place to live; but Lunt’s pride stood in the way. All

right to pension a horse whose saddle days were done, but a man had no business to clutter up a place when he wasn’t of any use to it.

So, with no children of their own left alive, they had moved to “her folks” in a little town east of the range country, and slowly he had become able to get around and work a little at this and that. But the cramped little town was no place for an old man with saddle-bowed legs and a picture book of the wide plains for ever turning its pages in his heart.

Like a child who clings to the last battered remnant of a once lovely doll, Lunt Strayhom had managed somehow to salvage and keep, out of his disastrous ranch venture, a forty-acre patch of grass-rugged, floor-flat land with a shack and a windmill on it. Out of its scant rental and their own small earnings, they had slowly scrimped and saved; and now here was a windfall of $50 for a few mornings telling his “story” of the early days. Little as he had liked to take it, the money was welcome. It would make enough to move them, fix up the shack a little, repair the windmill and maybe do a little fencing. The fencing would be because Molly had set her heart upon having a cow. They could “mighty nigh live on a cow an’ a few chickens.”

Lunt got up creakily from his cowhide chair. I lis cane thumped with new briskness across the thin, splintery boards of the porch.

“I aim to light in an’ begin packin’ right off, Molly,” he called into the house where she had returned. “Rouse ’em up, boys! We’re rollin’ out!”

The little old woman in the kitchen smiled.

“To hear him beller,” she thought, “you’d think he was trailin’ a herd!”

Continued on page 43

Continued from page 17

They came when the plains were green with the short-napped carpet of spring. There had been change, even in a dozen years—more fences and windmills; the blackish grey of plowed land patch-quilting spots of the vast green flatness; plank houses, already weathering; oil derricks at intervals. It was different, yet the same. A lot of it was still cattle range, red-sjxAted with grazing Herefords. It was still the plains, still home.

Lunt Strayhorn drove the battered and burdened flivver slowly. He would not have driven fast if he could. There were too many remembered places to wacch for and point out.

“Yonder’s where we worked the herd, time I doubled ary other rider's cut on ol’ Muggins—an’ him without no bridle, too!’’

They passed cowboys working a herd, and Lunt stopped to watch them, a little envious, a little disappointed that he didn’t see any familiar old ’uns among the riders; a little prideful, too, that their "cuttin’ hosses” weren’t quite up to the standard of Muggins and Snap when he used to ride them. Yet “mighty proud” to see cattle again, and cowboys.

Molly was on the lookout for cattle, too — of a different kind. Every homestead they passed, her eyes brightened at the sight of a Jersey or a Holstein with a milk-swollen udder.

“Mighty lot of milk cows in the kentry,” she commented. “We ought to get us one purty cheap.”

Presently whatever fate it is that deals with the desires of stooped, gnarl-knuckled, bright-eyed old plains women in sunbonnets, chose this final day of Molly Strayhorn’s long, hard journey to be kind. On a gatepost not a mile from where their own little shack and windmill tower stood out small but sturdy against the Western glow of evening, was a yellow placard. And on it, in big black print, an announcement:

PUBLIC SALE

They got out of the car and went closer to read the smaller type, for their eyes were none too sure. On April 18, the notice said, there would be sold at public auction, the livestock, farm implements and household goods of one Edward Timmins, deceased, consisting of six horses, five milk cows (two Jerseys and one Holstein fresh, two Jerseys dry), two barrows. . . That was as far past the milk cows as Molly Strayhorn bothered to spell out the list, except to note that the Timmins heirs wanted a quick sale, for cash, even at sacrifice prices. It looked like a providential chance to get a milk cow cheap.

Old Lunt Strayhorn climbed back into the flivver almost sprylv. He started singing a verse of an old range song:

“Oh, Molly, oh, Molly, it’s for your sake alone,

That I’d leave my ol’ parents, my house an’ my home. . . ”

He left off abruptly, took one hand from the wheel and patted his wife’s knee, then burst forth in a couple of improvised lines of his own:

“Oh, Molly, oh, Molly, yore hair’ll shine like silk,

When we git you fed up on an ol’ Jersey’s milk !”

They laughed together like children. The old shack, in its setting of green young grass, lay right ahead, and tomorrow would be April the 18th.

OLD MOLLY STRAYHORN would have given her eyeteeth—if she had had them—to go with Lunt to the sale; but they had found the shack in worse shape than they expected, and it smelled of rats.

It was a good practical reason that she gave, but deep in her heart she knew she didn’t dare go. “Li’ble to set my heart on one of them Jersey critters,” she told herself, “an’ then get outbid on her. I’d be plumb provoked.”

She gave Lunt $35, which was the top, by careful figuring, that they could afford to pay for a cow. Then she called him back and gave him two more—“jest in case.” Lunt had a couple of dollars in his own ]K>cket.

“Maybe I’ll bring you a surprise,” he said.

He was thinking there might be one of these newfangled glass churns up for sale among the household goods.

After he had climbed into the flivver she came and stood in the door, wiping the mopping suds from her hands.

“I’d fancy one of them fresh Jerseys, Lunt, if you can get her. We can stake her out a while till we get around to fencin’ some pasture.”

Lunt’s flivver had a severe attack of asthma on the way, and he reached the sale late; but not too late. The farm implements had been sold, the household goods were going rapidly under the hammer. Lunt bought a glass chum with fancy flowers on the sides for $1.90. The livestock was to be sold last, in the order listed—horses, cows, hogs.

Toward the pen where the horses were, Lunt began to run into old friends. Slow leathery smiles showed in greeting under “hoss-tail” mustaches—most of them grey. Lunt warmed to the grip of rope-callused hands, some of them a little shaky.

“Why, howdy, Lunt!’’. . . “Well, if it ain’t the ol’ rannyhan hisself !”. . . “How you been, Lunt?”. . . So it went—old comradeship, casual on the surface, but soberly warm underneath.

It was Hay Hook Charlie that called him over to the corral fence.

“Come here, you ol’ scallywag. They’s an ol’ amigo of yours here might like to see you.”

Hay Hook Charlie gave him a hand up the pole fence. Inside the corral, a stocky, longmaned bay stood apart from the other horses, dozing in the sun. He was sleek, but a little bony about the hips, saggy at the fetlocks, as very old horses sometimes are. Lunt could see that the hair over his eyes was salty with white.

“Recollect ’at ol’ crowbait?” asked Hay Hook Charlie.

Lunt all at once forgot his lame knee. He stepped down inside the corral easily, without help. The bay woke up, shied away as he came near. Lunt whistled softly.

“Muggins, dam your ol’ gizzard,” he said. “Ain’t you gittin’ mighty old to be ’tendin’ auction sales?”

THE BAY STOPPED, pricked up his ears and stood while Lunt came up to him. When Lunt’s hand touched his neck he nickered softly, nuzzling at the old man’s shoulder.

“Shore knows you, Lunt,” said Hay Hook Charlie.

“Ought to,” said another old ’un, “number of cowherds ol’ Lunt has sorted out on him. How old is he, Lunt? I disremember.” Lunt Strayhorn didn’t disremember. “Thirty-one, come June,” he said, “an’ plumb purty yet. How come him here, Charlie?”

“01’ Timmins jest took him off the Turkey Track to pension, I reckon. But now Ed’s dead, I reckon the young ’uns don’t aim to be bothered with him no more. Fact is—” The auctioneer came, sweaty and waddling, into the corral.

“Gentlemen,” he boomed, “we are now going to sell the horses. You’ve all had your

chance to look 'em over—kindly step hack to the fence, while I. .

Just beyond gate bars, a trim, welluddered Jersey cow bawled to the calf that had been taken away from her to make her ‘‘show her milk” for the sale.

‘‘Hold it, bossy,” grinned the auctioneer at the interruption. “Your tum purty soon. Now then, gentlemen...” He waited till Lunt had climbed back upon the fence, then pointed to the old cowhorse standing apart. ‘‘Gentlemen, we are told that age brings wisdom; and wisdom, gentlemen, in a cowhorse, is worth money. For Muggins—what am I offered?”

Hay Hook Charlie nodded toward the man who had made the offer.

“Feller that buys ol’ plugs an’ locos fer one of them fertilizer fact'ries," he grunted. “I’d hate to see ol’ Muggins—”

"Four,” said Lunt. He cleared his throat hoarsely. That would still leave $33 for Molly’s cow.

“Five,” said the reducing-plant man. “My top.”

"Six !" Lunt choked on it.

“Six—who'll make it - seven?”

A big, showily-dressed man in a white Carlsbad, with a thick cigar between his teeth, shifted his weight on the top rail.

“Ten,” he said loudly.

Lunt climbed over close to him.

"Brother,” he said, “what you want with that ol’ hoss, anyhow?”

“Me? Why, that there hoss is Muggins, old man. Got a history, see? Reputation as a reg’lar ol’-time cuttin’ hoss. I’m in the rodeo game, see? Promote ’em ever’where from Frisco to NewYork—all the big towns. I’m aimin’ to buy this here ol’ plug an’ ship him around somegive him a big ballyhoo an’ let him show off his stuff—if he’s all he’s cracked up to be. ’Course he’s old—he won’t last long—yeah, ten’s what I offered, Mr. Auctioneer. I reckon that oughta—”

"Fifteen !” Lunt Strayhom snapped it out.

It was all right for Hay Hook Charlie to refer affectionately to Muggins as an “ol’ crowbait,” but to see him sold to a stranger who carelessly called him an “old plug” was quite a different matter.

“Sixteen!” said the fat man with the cigar.

Lunt had a vision of an old, stiff-muscled cowhorse exiled from these pleasant plains, shunted about, bumped and bruised in

crowded stock cars, bewildered by the crowds and floodlights of the big rodeos, abused, like as not, by careless handlers, when he had earned the right to pass his last years at home, in peace. A man couldn’t go back on an old “special” thataway. “Twenty-five!” said Lunt.

At $35 the rodeo promoter balked. For $36 Lunt Strayhom found himself the owner of his bay comrade out of the past—the best cowhorse he had ever straddled. He had forgotten all about milk cows.

Over in the next corral the young Jersey with the full udder bawled again. Lunt swallowed hard and led Muggins out through the straggling crowd.

TIRED AS SHE WAS, Molly was still too busy to hear him when he rode up to the ; shack, bareback, the glass chum in his arms. He had to call to her before she came out. She came and stood in the door, wiping the inevitable suds from her large hands.

“Why, pa!” she cried out. “Where’s the. . .”

Lunt shoved a hand up over his forehead. Under his faded hat his fingers tugged nervously at wispy fringes of grey hair.

“I never bought no cow, Molly,” he said slowly. “They—a feller was aimin’ to buy him to bump around the country to rodeos an’ such. Seems like he kinder knowed it, too, way he kep’ prickin’ his ears at me. So I jest—I dunno, I jest—it’s ol’ Muggins, Molly. I jest. . .”

For a brief instant the eyes of the stooped old woman in the doorway flashed fire, then all at once she had to reach up her apron and wipe them. Then, with something of the gallantry of a soldier who marches unafraid to face a firing squad rather than betray a comrade, she came outside. Her strong fingers trembled a little as she patted the i horse’s stringy-muscled neck.

“Why, seems like he might’ nigh recollect me, too, pa ! I reckon we can stake him out, cain’t we, till we git around to a little fencin’?”

With her other hand she touched Lunt’s knee—for he had not dismounted—gently.

“I don’t know but what milkin’ a cow would be a mighty hard chore for our ol’ rheumatic hands, anyhow, Lunt,” she said.

Then, lest the tears should come too fast, she reached up, took the chum from Lunt’s hands and hurried with it back into the house.