Tam and I generally eschewed the fancy houses and even the better hotels on our rides back to Texas after delivering a herd to Abilene. It was one of several things we had in common, the saving of money. My dream of one day owning my own ranch demanded it, and Tam jist seemed to be naturally inclined in that direction.
Even so, we did make a point of doing one overnight in Skeleton Station. There were a couple of places that put on a fine feed without gouging you an arm and a leg, a barber with a big copper tub in the back room and plenty of hot water he’d share in return for one of Tam’s stories, and best of all, it was well into Oklahoma and out of Kansas. We neither one of us liked hanging around Kansas overmuch, though that’s a tale fer another time.
Little did I know I was about to see one of Tam’s more fanciful tellings come to life in front of my very own incredulous eyes.
We’d gotten our ears lowered and the chin stubble scraped off, wrapped ourselves around a couple of the finest ribeye steaks this side of Denver, and settled in on the bench in front of the barber shop when it happened. John Hansen, the barber, lounged in his shop doorway, a longtime habit of his. Why he didn’t choose to set when the settin’ was good, don’t ask me. Tam was leaned forward, elbows on his knees, whittling. I was slouched with my back against the barber shop wall, doing nothing much but digesting.
The feller that yelled interrupted our peaceable evening something fierce.
“Hey, old man! I’m calling you out!”
Naturally, somebody hollers them words, no matter who you are, you look to see what’s up. Off to our left, sure enough, an old feller was crossing the street. Now, when I say “old”, I mean he was at least in his sixties, unless hard drink and harder women had aged him quicker than most, and I somehow didn’t see that in him. He was fairly tall, close to six feet, decent shoulders and long of limb, and he stood remrod straight and easy at the same time, like maybe he’d seen a fair stretch in the Army.
Union or Confederate, of course, you jist never knew.
The old guy turned, not seeming in any hurry about it, looking back at the man–no, men–who were fixing to make trouble. As he did, the light of the setting sun fell full on his face…and I heard Tam’s sharp intake of breath, which was curious in itself.
“Buzzard, you done mouthed off fer the last time!”
“Yer the one doing all the yelling, Frank.” The man known as Buzzard–or being described as one, whichever–replied quietly, as calm and still as the other man was riled.
“Yeah, well–” A much younger individual, likely still the short side of thirty, stepped off the boardwalk and stalked aggressively forward. He looked momentarily confused, but got over it right quick. “You told the Railroad man I wasn’t fit to be hired. Do you deny it?” Three more fellers trailed behind the speaker. This wasn’t looking good fer the oldster. All four of his would-be opponents were half his age if that and looking as eager as a stud when the mare’s in heat.
I risked a quick glance at Tam. Wanna take a hand in this? He shook his head jist slightly, and my gaze whipped back to the street.
The old man was speaking. “Nope. Sounds like Mr. Branston’s got a bit of a mouth his own self, but I said what I said. You slacked off bad, Ronald, the one time I hired you to put up hay, and you know it. I wouldn’t hire you back iffen the Lord and all His Angels requested it personal.”
“Agh-h!” A strangled cry erupted from Ronald, or maybe his tonsils were having a wrestling match with his adenoids. He came on the run, throwing a haymaker with thirty feet of hurry-up behind it.
And went flying over the top of old Buzzard. The ancient had somehow leaned off low, down to one side, balanced himself on one foot, and whacked his attacker in the shin with the other boot. Hard.
I never seen nothing like it.
By the time pore Ronald made it up on one knee, danged if he didn’t catch the other boot smack upside his head. When he went down that time, he didn’t git back up. The way that old man had kicked him, I weren’t none too sure whether Ronald was going to be needing the doctor or the undertaker.
It happened so fast, them three backup fellers hadn’t gotten into the action at all before the old rancher was facing them, his knees bent almost like he was still in the saddle. The man didn’t look particularly aged at the moment, I can tell you that much. More like a mountain lion that’d just tore the throat out of one dog and was fixing to rearrange the features on the rest of the pack.
“Are we done here, boys,” Buzzard asked so softly we nearly didn’t hear what he said, “Or not?”
The three rounders put their hands up and out, huh-uh, boss, don’t want no part of you, no way, and they was gone. Pretty soon, so was the rancher, leaving his victim face down in the dust and the three of us watchng it all in admiration.
“Okay, Tam,” I finally said, “You seemed to know that feller, or at least know about him. Give.”
The tale teller chuckled quietly. “That, old son, was Buzzard Baker. And thereby hangs a tale.”
He weren’t named Buzzard at birth; few mothers would allow such a thing. Some said it was another kid at the one-room school what hung the moniker on him, called him a scrawny little buzzard one time, and the name stuck. With a last name like Baker, it sounded right to the ear, Buzzard Baker, and you know how boys are, looking to haze any member of the herd they can, even before they’re old enough to care about girls.
They never called him that at home, of course, but everywhere else they most surely did.
Oh, by the way, what day is it? November seventh? Okay, thanks.
Let’s see…by the time he was about half growed, Buzzard had a double barreled problem: He was more than a bit of a smart-mouth…and he was a coward to boot. He remembered clearly the first time a neighbor ever told him–in front of his father on his father’s ranch, no less–that he talked too much.
“You talk too much,” Skeeter said, and Buzzard never forgot. He did forgive after forty years or so, but he never forgot.
He never stopped talking, either. His teacher said it was because he was brilliant, tried to encourage him off to college at one point, but the boy weren’t having none of that. He’d growed up on a ranch as a rancher’s son, and a rancher he would be. Not them cruddy, tick-infested longhorns, neither, like his Daddy raised. No sir. He’d be upgrading from there, bet yer bottom dollar.
Not that he was dumb enough to say this to his father.
Now, Buzzard didn’t overly fear most things. He’d outquick a striking rattler without giving it a thought, cross a raging river alone when he basically swam like a rock, break a fiery eyed bronc with the best of ’em. Hell, he weren’t even afraid of a gun battle. A rogue band of Injuns hit his Daddy’s place one time, and he’d winged one of the red devils with the .44-40 after an arrow had sliced his left shoulder open enough to bleed like a stuck hog.
But he was flat terrified of a fistfight.
Which is not a good thing to be iffen you’re a young boy growing up in one of the wilder parts of the wild, wild West. Time and again, he’d run his mouth until another boy couldn’t take it and challenged him to a fight. Twice he accepted the offer, neither time went well for the young Buzzard, and after that–around age twelve–he turned plumb coward. When another kid called him out, he’d back water.
Then on the ride home to the ranch, and all through the night, and all the next morning on the way back to school, he’d rage inside. Dream about taking that .44-40 and drygulching whatever feller had braced him this time.
Everybody in the county knew Buzzard Baker was yellow.
This went on until he was sixteen or so. Not being any dummy, he’d knowed all along that he was going to have to git hold of himself, and he finally did. Had the obligatory half dozen scuffles to repair his reputation. Some of ’em went his way, some didn’t–one fat kid got him down, sat on him, and farted in his face fer good measure–but everybody in the county now knew he weren’t no coward after all.
Instead, considering some of the guys he’d tackled, they figured he had more guts than common sense.
What does all this have to do with the Buzzard Baker we seen in action today? Well, it reminded me of something he told me, back when we happened to work together on the same job fer a while. We got to know each other a little. He was older than me by a fair bit, but we could talk, and he shared a secret known to few other men.
“Tam,” he told me, “When I was a kid, I barely knew how to hold my fists in a dustup. That wasn’t a good thing, ’cause anybody who knew more ways of fighting than me was going to win if we got into a disagreement. Then I met a young Indian buck who showed me some wrestling moves that were jist plumb amazing, and I finally figured it out.”
“See, most boys growing up, they learn a bit of fighting the hard way, and then they’re done. They quit adding to their knowledge. But I don’t intend to do that. The teacher at the school used to say, “Once you quit learning, you’re already dead.” We snickered at that behind her back, but I remembered later on.”
“I’m going to keep on learning to fight, Tam. Different ways. Turns out there are so many different ways of beating a man down, out there in this big wide world, probably nobody could ever learn all of ’em. But I’m going to learn a bunch. At least to the point that I know one or two ways to use any part of my body to take out a feller and one or two ways to counter any body part he can throw at me.”
I remember staring at the man when he made that declaration. “That sounds like a fine thing to do, Buzzard, but surely not something that could be mastered overnight. When do you figure you’ll git all this done?”
“Tam,” he said with a straight face, “I figure to become one dangerous sumbitch by the time I’m seventy.”
Boys, I laughed so hard I dang near fell off the fence rail we was sitting on at the time. Why, not that many of us in these parts make it past sixty, let alone seventy. He grinned, too, like it was jist a big joke, which I most surely believed it to be. I was certain sure he was pulling my leg.
Until today. That’s why I asked you what day it was. Today is Buzzard Baker’s seventieth birthday.