The blizzard had come out of nowhere, a howling norwester totally out of season. It was tornado season on this section of the Chisholm Trail, and a couple of years back, I’d seen a dozen prime steers sucked up into one a them black devil vortexes, half of ’em deader’n doornails when they finally come back to Earth, the other half still chewing their cuds.
To a south Texas cowboy, that was nothing compared with this blinding snow everywhere. It was bad enough fer the cattle, who tried wandering off in all sorts of directions with just 31 of us to herd nearly 9,000 of them. After the few drovers with north country experience–me, Tam, the trail boss, half a dozen others–had come near losing a bunch a them green kids in the whiteout, the boss shut things down.
“Not a danged thing we can do till this lets up,” he told us. “Pull everybody in. We’re gonna have to hunker down in camp, let the critters drift where they will. The storm may let up by daylight, or maybe not. Double the guards, jist in case some crazy Comanche war party got lost and comes stumbling our way. We don’t need to lose no horses.”
He knew, as did the rest of the old hands, that we’d have Hell to pay when it come to rounding up the herd after the skies cleared, but at the moment there was nothing for it.
Thankfully, Cookie and his boys had filled the possum belly with plenty of buffalo chips before the weather shut us down, so we had decent fires fer supper and coffee after. By the second cup, cowboys were calling on Tam to fire up one of his stories. The tall tale teller decided to tell us about Earl and James.
Earl was gutshot during the War Between the States. James wasn’t.
Oh, James served in the Union Army right enough, jist like Earl did, only James never had the opportunity to make acquaintance with a bullet up close and personal. He’d worked maintenance, patching up the various war wagons, never in the front lines.
Earl, on the other hand, made up the difference and then some. He’d caught a near fistful of grapeshot on the first day at Gettysburg, left fer dead and lying among the dead throughout the following night and well into the next day before a mule skinner on a passing water wagon noticed he hadn’t quit breathing yet. He should have been dead; the sawbones who stitched him back together couldn’t explain why he hadn’t bled out the first hour after being wounded.
Nonetheless, the young man, in his mid-twenties at the time, had recovered fully, though slowly. Two years later, the War was over, Earl was bartending in Montana Territory…and he met James, who’d been fairly close to but never in the sort of action his “gutless” new friend had seen.
Earl was quick to point out to anyone who cared–plus more than a few who didn’t–that he really was gutless, more or less, the Union Army surgeon having removed something like three quarters of his stomach in the process of saving his life. On the other hand, his ability to tolerate B.S. in general had been severely damaged, as more than one fool discovered to his own sorrow.
One such fool had walked into the Pronghorn Saloon where Earl tended bar, ordered a shot of whiskey, handed the barkeep a double eagle…and palmed the change.
The rounder had his right hand on the bar when he yelled at the veteran, claiming he was short ten dollars. “Barkeep! You shortchanged me, you #&%!!.” Earl, of course, knew full well the fellow lied. He walked his five foot eight, 140 pound frame back calmly from where he’d been washing glasses in the sink at the far end, grabbed the fellow’s hair in a firm, manly sort of grip, and slammed the guy’s head down face-first onto the bar.
The bridge of the customer’s nose sort of accidentally impacted the edge of his shot glass en route.
When the wounded cheat’s hand flew up–which you may be assured it did right smartly–the “missing” ten dollar gold piece was revealed for all to see. “Why, there it is!” Earl exclaimed in obvious surprise.
That sort of thing didn’t happen often. Word spread.
James had a quieter sort of career going, clerking at the local general store, but “quieter” up in Montana Territory was a relative sort of term. The occasional passel of kids who’d try stealing hard candy and sometimes tobacco didn’t amount to much, but the West being the West, not every adult coming through a businessman’s front door qualified as a gentleman. The store owner kept a Greener under the counter, close to the cash register. James knew how to use it, likely better than the owner did.
One fine morning jist as the sun was coming up, the two friends left the jail together. No, no, they hadn’t been locked up. Nothing like that. See, James had a cousin, a fine young lady by the name of Marcy, whose son–a strapping fifteen year old boy named Harris–much resembled the ne’er-do-well father who’d sired him and then promptly left the Territory on a high lope. Earl was more than sweet on Marcy.
Seeing the connection here?
Yep, both them men had been doing their best to help that boy out, but some youngsters jist plain don’t wanna be helped all that much, and Harris was one of ’em. The previous day, Marcy had been plumb frantic with worry. The rotten apple of her sweet blue eye had run away…again.
Now, we all know many a youngster has set out fer himself at a much younger age than that. A fellow doing a man’s work and earning a man’s pay at twelve years old isn’t exactly unheard of in these parts. But there is fifteen year olds, and then again there is fifteen year olds. This Harris acted more like he was five, and the two friends had a hunch where they might find him.
They got it right. The kid was in jail. Did they want to bail him out? The fine was only two bits; he’d been caught stealing a pie from Mrs. Hankshaw’s windowsill, not holding up the stage.
Did they? Earl and James looked at each other. James spoke, “Nah, Deputy, he’ll git to see the judge tomorrow anyway; an extra day in lockup might do the little yahoo some good.”
The lawman had jist nodded; they were all on the same page.
The bank doors had opened fer the day. They looked inside without stopping, noting the gleaming hardwood teller’s cage, jist the one customer standing there doing his banking business. Then they looked at each other. Stopped in their tracks. Looked in at that bank lobby again. Looked at each other again. Neither one of ’em was packing a hogleg, their hunting rifles being the only weapons they could afford, but….
You guessed it, folks. That’s when it happened. See, them boys was plumb broke jist about every day of the year. Neither bartending nor clerking paid a lot of money. James had a family to feed, and Earl didn’t feel right about asking Marcy to marry him until he had at least a hundred dollars in his poke.
Yep. That’s when it happened, all right?
What? Aw, Hell no! That ain’t what I meant! They didn’t rob the place; them young men was salt of the Earth and honest as the day is long.
No, what happened is, they figgered it out that the lone customer in there was the one robbing the bank. He didn’t have a mask on or anything like that, no gun showing–it was shielded by his body from where they stood–but them boys knew.
James spoke first, forever begging the question as to which of the pair was crazier.
“I’ll take him high.”
“I’ll take him low,” Earl agreed, and jist like that, them two fellers catfooted right into that bank lobby, which you wouldn’t think you could do in cowboy boots on a hardwood floor, but them boys was born sneaky. By the time the bank robber realized somebody was coming up behind him and started to spin around, it was too late. James clotheslined the man, sweeping an arm up across his throat, trusting his future cousin-in-law to keep him from getting gutshot (like Earl had been in the War). Earl tackled the man’s gun hand in the same instant, disarming the owlhoot jist as slick as you please a split second before he kneed the guy in the crotch.
End of robbery.
But not quite the end of the story. Turned out their victim was none other than Quint Tallahack, him they called the Sunrise Bandit. Always worked alone, always hit his targets right after sunup. $50,000 Reward, Dead or Alive.
Yeah, I whistled, too, first time I heard the tale told.
Anyway, it’s one a them happy-ever-after stories. Earl and Marcy got hitched, and both families decided to move to Texas. See, they didn’t like them Montana blizzards much more’n any of us are liking this whiteout we got here tonight. So they come down south, started up a little ranch, raising longhorns they mostly rustled up outa the brush to start their herd.
Yep. I see you nodding there, Terry. That’s right. Theirs is the E-J brand, Earl and James, and this is their herd we’ll be trying to find when once again the sun shines upon us. Y’all owe yer jobs to the spontanous actions of two War veterans who were jist civic-minded enough to resent robbers of banks and jist insane enough to know it ain’t always the weapons that win the war.
It’s the warriors.