Tam the Tall Tale Teller, Chapter 4: Conk the Conker


I’d been riding with the Lazy Rack crew of drovers fer the Chisholm Trail drive a full week before Tam showed up at the bunk house one evening as the blazing west Texas sun was jist fixing to drop over the horizon. Man, was that windy cowboy a sight fer sore eyes! The rest of the bunch was all decent hands, but a little dull, you know? With the tall tale teller on the job, our free time in the evenings livened up considerably.

There was still some days ahead of us, gathering the herd from all them rolling hills, dry washes, and chaparral thickets. Harder work, truth be told, than most days on the drive itself would turn out to be. A lot of them dogies knew to brush up by day, and digging ’em outa there was always a contest. If you didn’t entirely miss seeing ’em in the first place. Then, even once they was dug out, we still had to brand ’em and add ’em to the tally book.

But tired or not, we weren’t about to let ol’ Tam git away without telling a story, not even that first night.

Tam speaks

Well now, afore I git started, y’all ever heard about the man they called Conk? No? Nobody. All right, then.

His real name was Preston Purvis, but everybody called him Conk behind his back. As far behind his back as they could git, too, never to his face. ‘Cause this Conk, see, he was a really bad man.

Oh, not like any of them gunslicks or bank robbers. In fact, it’s not likely he ever owned a shooter, what with every dime he ever earned, begged, or stole—mostly them two latter—going straight to firewater. The man craved his drink something fierce, he did indeed. If he did ever own a gun, it got swapped for a jug or a bottle right quick. He weren’t a nice drunk, neither. Not Conk. If he’d been drinking, a couple of counties wasn’t always enough space between you for comfort.

But he was still bad enough in his own right, drunk or sober, gun or no gun. See, he got his nickname ’cause he liked to conk people on the head without warning. Sneak up on ’em, ambush a feller who didn’t know who he was and who had no reason to suspect the varmint. Except when the victim was old and feeble and alone; then he might do the conking right out in the open.

We knowed of three attempted murders he’d done by the time things come to a head—not a conked head, jist what them fancy talkers call coming to a resolution. When Conk’s hash finally got settled, so to speak.

Who’d he try to murder? I’m gittin’ to that, cowboy; hold yer water.

The thing is, a relative of Conk’s had gotten a telegram from Preston Purvis’s own mother. She sent it when the man come West at eighteen, nineteen years of age. He weren’t called Conk then—even behind his back—but the message made some reference to his having been run out of Georgia by members of his family’s church. Which made it seem right likely that he’d been conking people in the head back there, long before he was run off.

You git to thinking about that, it comes to reason, somebody died along Conk’s backtrail. You go conking people in the head enough, they’re not all going to live through the experience. But he’d never even been arrested, so there it was.

When Purvis showed up in Deadwood, South Dakota, one year, he ended up living fer a while with a young man about his own age by the name of Stack Holter. This Stack was as good a man as Purvis was bad. He took the stranger in out of the goodness of his heart and—no, dang it, don’t git ahead of me here! It weren’t Stack that got conked on the head.

Naw, the victim was Stack’s best friend, a man by the name of Anston, also a fine feller except fer liking the firewater almost as much as Purvis did.

Well, one day the three men were roofing a barn on Stack’s little place outside of Deadwood when Purvis, who was working up on the roof, suddenly pegged a rock down at Anston. Yep. Conked him right on the head with it. Coulda killed him. Woulda killed him, ‘cept fer the fact that this Anston had a head near as hard as the rock. That’s when the man who would soon be known as Conk demonstrated another one of his sterling qualities. He lied a lot.

Said that rock accidentally got throwed offen that roof.

Guess it accidentally got up there fer no good reason in the first place, too. Didn’t take long after that fer Stack to run Purvis off, after which the rock-conker drifted on out Californy way fer a while. Made it to San Francisco and moved in with one of them fellers what likes other fellers.

Slim, what the Hell is your problem? You trying to say one bull riding another is against Nature and God’s law? Who died and made you the Pope, cowboy? We all know every animal breed out there has some in the bunch who lean that direction, and we two-leggd critters ain’t no different from the rest!

If you still want to pursue that, why don’t we all go on down to the corral, ask that favorite little roan mustang of yours how she feels about your midnight visits to the remuda, shall we?

Lessee now, San Francisco. The action took up on a little ranch jist outside the city limits. Nah, not no real ranch, jist a few hunnert acres and maybe a dozen horses, enough beef to supply the family business. The feller-lovin’ feller—his name was Matthew—and his father ran a butcher shop in the city. It weren’t no mother lode bonanza, but they made a decent living.

Conk figgered out the way the wind blew, so he let on to the man that he might jist be interested in a little manly romance, but like I said, he lied a lot. He weren’t that way at all—in fact, he’d left a trail of unwed mothers behind him about as long as the list of conked heads. But he schemed to use the lonely feller, hoped to weasel his way into the business and then take it over.

Sadly enough fer this Matthew, he was a kind Soul who wouldn’t think badly of no one, and he made the horrible mistake of telling Mr. Purvis that he, Matthew, managed the business and there wasn’t presently any need fer new blood in the mix.

“Blood” was probably a poor choice of words, as it turned out.

There was a big ol’ cottonwood tree with a branch hanging over the north side of the ranch house. One fine foggy San Francisco day, Conk climbed up on the house roof, sawed off the offending branch…and tossed it off the house on the wrong side, conked poor Matthew right in the noggin. Knocked him cold. By the time Matthew’s mother got him into the buggy and off to the doctor, it took twenty-seven stitches to sew up the scalp. The blood had set tight in Matthew’s shirt; he had to jist throw that away.

The third attempt? Coming to it, son.

Matthew’s father, Lemuel, was getting a bit old and feeble, but he still worked as best he could from dawn to sunset. One day a few weeks after the tree branch conking, innocent Matthew—who was still doing his best to believe Preston Purvis was jist stupid instead of pure evil–made yet another horrible mistake when pressed yet again by the younger man about being brought into the family business.

“Ain’t gonna happen,” Matthew told him, “until or unless my Dad retires.”

Purty quick, just a few days later, old Lemuel come crawling into the house, collapsing on the floor, trying to speak. He could barely git it out, but his wife of fifty-two years heard him say, over and over,

“Honey…I tried to run, honey…I tried to run.”

When they got Lem to the doctor, it was determined he’d had a near fatal stroke. But he also had a nasty bruise on his left temple, and his son—who might have been gullible but was no total fool by a long shot—had finally begun having ugly suspicions.

“Doc,” he asked, “could a blow to the head cause a stroke like that?”

“Absolutely,” the sawbones replied, and that was that.

Yeah, yer right, boys, this one is gittin’ shaggy dog long. Let me wrap it up so’s we kin all git some shuteye.

Well, word got around, this being a smaller world than most folks recognize. It looked like Conk Purvis had plumb run out of suckers to conk when he hooked up with the meanest woman ever to survive the mining camps. She’d done some conking of her own, mostly catfights with other women of easy virtue, but she didn’t fight like no female—more like one of them javelina boars from down Arizona way, all pig-eyed and full of red rage.

She went by the name of Pizen, and she surely was that.

They roamed around the Southwest some, mostly Tombstone and around there, claiming to be purely in love, but of course neither one of them rounders had the slightest clue how to even spell the word. One night—so they tell—them two got drunked up to a fare-thee-well, sort of their most ordinary condition, and Conk somehow figgered out he was never gonna see one red penny of the money she’d talked him into letting her keep fer him. The ill will cranked up spectacular-like, and they went to fighting.

What? Yeah, Curly, that’s right. He’s dead, and you can still see the gravestone poor sweet, man-loving Matthew paid fer, right there in the back part of the Boot Hill cemetery at Tombstone.

Preston Purvis, born 1850 (?), died 1877

He who lives by the Conk dies by the Conk

Trouble was, from the Conker’s viewpoint, anyway, he’d always underestimated the danger of deadly mean women. When they fell to fighting, that Pizen female conked him in the head with an axe handle.

She told the Court it was purely accidental that the blade was attached to the handle when she done it.

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