For a time, it looked like Tam, the tall tale teller, was going to be far too busy that night to spin one of his yarns for our benefit. Not one but two of the drovers had gotten themselves snakebit during the early afternoon. Chauncey Greevas had taken a full load of venom from a five-foot diamondback, killing the blasted rattler what killed him nearly half a day before he himself was dead enough to roll into the hole. Tam had volunteered to be our designated gravedigger, and in that hardpan, he more’n had his work cut out for him.
Timothy Hanson looked like he was gonna make it, mostly–we all figgered–’cause that same viper, writhing and thrashing in its death throes after being shot up purty good, had only hit the fool youngster with a dry bite, and only nailed his hand at that. Hanson had cut the site and sucked out the venom from his own body, something a feller can’t always manage without help. Like the idjit we had with us three years back, sat right down on a little sidewinder sunning itself on a rock. Got bit right in the butt, dead by moonrise, without a single one of us giving enough of a damn to suck out that poison.
Jist another day on the Chisholm Trail.
As it happened, though, we’d done up and underestimated old Tam again. That cowboy could put in a day’s work and then some, even when that work weren’t on horseback. While everybody else was settling the herd and getting sorted out fer nighthawk duty, the Windy One had swung that shovel and pick alone fer hours on end, finishing up with a cairn of boulders he lugged up from the river we’d jist crossed. He done all that…after which he still found the energy to ask the question we all wanted to hear.
“You boys up fer a story after supper?”
A rhetorical question, to be sure. Rattlers and such can be entertaining enough in their own right, but Tam’s tales beat all. The bunch of us jist kinda looked at him and grinned like a pack of hungry hyenas waiting fer a pride of them African lions to be done with their kill.
“Well, then, seems like the one about Twig Bentley might be worth a telling.”
We didn’t need to respond to that; our evening entertainment was off to the races.
Twig Bently was a Union solder during the War, knocked cold by a Confederate ball that grazed his scalp in the heat of battle. He was captured and shipped to Andersonville, locked up in a prison from which, it was generally conceded, there was no escape.
Yet escape he did, and in short order at that.
When he made it back to the Union lines, the first thing they asked was, “Soldier, how did you manage to git out of Andersonville?”
All he’d ever say about it, though, was, “As the twig is bent, so grows the Bentley.”
Since he could shoot–in fact, he did a purty fair job of soldiering overall–nothing more was said about it, except that folks started calling him Twig. He’d had a given name before that, but today there ain’t likely but a handful could tell you what it was.
After Appomattox, when he was mustered out, young Bentley–he was still under twenty-five, though no one knows by exactly how much–he headed out West. Some say he turned bad, some say he jist had one hellacious run of bad luck, but whatever the case, he kept getting into scrapes that would’ve killed most men…and then escaping them, one after another.
The Comanche had him fer a while, fixing to stake him out fer the ants or some such, and danged if he didn’t squiggle out of that one.
Naw, he didn’t go bragging about that. Nobody woulda believed him if he had, doncha know? No, it was an old warrior from the very band what was fixing to antify the boy. He was an old man by then–the warrior, not Twig. Many a time he told the tale of the White Ghost, the only man his people had ever captured who’d escaped Red Man’s Justice. At least that he knew about, and he’d lived a long time.
Then there was the posse that had him surrounded, somewhere out in the Bighorn Mountains in Wyoming Territory. They told him to surrender, throw down his guns, but he jist hollered back at ’em, “As the Twig is bent, so grows the Bentley!”. When the smoke had cleared, three deputies had bit the dust, four more were nursing flesh wounds, and Twig Bentley was nowhere to be found.
It was after that escapade that the Wanted posters started calling him The Great Escaper. Not particularly poetic, I reckon, but it got the point across. The legend kept growing, people counting up all of his miraculous removals from tight spots–three hunnert and twenty-seven of ’em, by some counts–and finally, this one dime novel writer by the name of Hack Johanson started wondering why.
Why was this man so all-fired determined not to be confined? Sure, he was great at escaping, but the real question was: Where had all that determination to be free come from?
Hack decided to find out. He started follering The Great Escaper around, trying to catch up with the lad fer a discreet interview. Which weren’t easy, since by this time Twig had the Comanche, Sioux, Blackfeet, Arapahoe, federal marshals, sheriffs in several states, a couple of teams of Pinkerton detectives, and a batch of unwed mothers trying to pin him down.
But Hack Johanson weren’t only a persistent kind of feller fer a writer; he was also unconscionably lucky. One day he jist happened to ride up on a little mountain spring, up somewhere in Montana Territory, at a time when he and his horse had both conjured up a powerful thirst. He was filling his canteen when a voice spoke from the shadow of the cottonwoods.
“Ya don’t look much like a Pinkerton man.”
After deciding the pants he’d jist peed would have to dry on their own, Johanson replied, “No, don’t reckon I do. Name’s Hack Johanson. I’m a dime novel writer, figured–”
“I’ve read yer stuff.” The voice cut him off. “Not bad fer a…hack. No offense intended.”
“None taken. I am a hack.” The writer shrugged. “It’s a living.”
Long story short, the outlaw known as The Great Escaper ended up allowing Hack Johanson to tag along back to his camp, a deeply hidden spot under a rock overhang so massive it was almost a cave. Over fresh coffee–a gift from the dime novelist’s saddlebags–Twig Bentley told the scribbler what he wanted to know.
“Where’d I git the motivation? Ya know, yer the first feller to ever ask me that. Lessee, I was, mmm…mebbe eight years old. Raised on a ranch back in Kentucky. I’m the eldest of us three kids. At that time, Clara would have been six and little Bonnie just, mmm…three, I guess.
“The three of us was out playing in the grass, near the horse-tilt chute. The old man had a lot of junk iron laying around, anything from wornout plowshares to carriage bolts, jist about anything you could imagine. We loved that spot–there was so much stuff piled up there, we could plumb hide from Mom, jist disappear, yet we weren’t but mebbe fifty yards from the house.
He paused in his tale to take down a couple of gulps of coffee, then continued.
“We decided to play rancher, and I did one of the most damfool things I’ve ever done in my life. Volunteered to be the calf due fer branding. Must have been my own tomfool idea; I was definitely the troublemaker of us three. So what was coming, well, I sure enough done it to myself.
“Anyway, I come up with a piece of clothesline rope, told them kid sisters of mine to hogtie me good. Made sure they done it right, too. And there I was, trussed up fer market like a sqealing pig, only a pig has more sense than I did that fine summer morning.
“And then it happened. The little one, three year old Bonnie, she decided I needed dehorning. After all, the grownups dehorned the calves right along with branding ’em, and we was playing rancher. So what did she do? Why, she picked up a chunk of angle iron–Hell, I don’t know what it come from, okay? She picked up that hunk of iron and whanged me right upside the head with it. Dehorned me right on the spot.”
The way Johanson told this story later, he started laughing at that, spewed a mouthful of coffee all over the fire and his writing pad. Bentley danged near jist up and shot him dead on the spot.
“See?!” The outlaw snapped. “And you wonder why I don’t go around telling this?”
“I see!” Hack sputtered, dabbing his notebook on his jeans to blot up some of the spill. “I surely do see!”
Now, boys, there’s some who say you can never trust anything written by one a them dime novel writers. They say them fellers make up everything they write. But I dunno. It would explain the man always saying, “As the twig is bent, so grows the Bentley.”.
And I gotta admit, if I’d ever been tree-stump dumb enough as a kid to have my sisters hogtie me and then give me a dehorning with a chunk of angle iron–well, I reckon I’d be right motivated to be careful of my own freedom from then on, too.