Tam and I had been ordered to scout ahead of the herd fer water, the Chisholm Trail through southern Oklahoma being drier than usual this year. Our regular scouts had temporarily quit on us, Jeremiah being slung under the chuckwagon’s possum belly with a bad case of what we all feared might be tick fever and Stoney suddenly disappearing in the middle of the night.
Stoney would be back. He had himself a girl in Arson Springs (Hottest Little Town in the West!), a few days ahead fer the herd but less than a day’s hard ride fer a man hungry to see his honey. Any other hand on the Trail would be canned fer running off like that, but the former buffalo hunter was the most talented scout west of the Mississippi, bar none. That’ll buy a man a bit of leeway, most times.
Fer the two of us, his absence and Jerry’s sickness were blessings, pure and simple. Sucking no trail dust whatsoever, moseying at an easy pace–though still covering ground–we had plenty of time to shoot the breeze along the way. Especially after we reached Larson’s Lake. The “lake” weren’t much more’n a glorified slough, but the animals would git their thirst quenched, and that was all we needed to know.
Although Cookie would likely insist on boiling pots of water half the night to refill the water barrel. He was funny that way.
We let the horses take on a bit of water, got ourselves turned around, and headed back.
“You know anything about the town of Pony, up Montana way?” Tam spoke without warning, causing me to jump in the saddle a bit, like I’d been bit by a horsefly. The black mare I was riding flicked an ear back, jist kind of mildly asking in her equine way if I was okay or fixing to have the fits.
“The gold mining boomtown? Heard of it; that’s about all. Well, that and supposedly the town got its name from a miner feller who’s so sawed-off in stature they decided to call him Pony. And then named the place after him, jist fer a joke.”
“That’s the one,” the tale teller nodded, seeming pleased I had at least some clue. “Feller’s real name is Tecumseh Smith.” He fell silent. I waited. Knowing Tam, he’d have more to say on the subject.
Right then, a big jackrabbit burst from a clump of sagebrush alongside the trail, hightailing it straight across in front of us. My black jist snorted, but my partner happened to be forking a bit saltier bronc this fine day, a big, heavy-boned brown and white pinto stag.
Which, fer them that don’t know, is a stud that was left to git too old before he had his family jewels removed. The critter still thought he was all stallion at times, full of piss and vinegar. A rabbit underfoot was an excuse to buck any time, and buck he did. Broke plumb in two, jumping straight up in the air with all four feet, though from there he managed to kick up purty decent with both hind hooves while coming down in front on jist the right leg.
Fer the next little while, I gotta say, that big spotted pony but on a bit of a show. Likely half of the drovers would have ended up getting stood on their heads before he was half finished.
Naturally, that half didn’t include Tam; he was plumb at home on a bronc’s hurricane deck. But he did quit talking till old Paint settled down, which told me the horse was every bit as tough as he looked. The tall tale teller don’t quit running his mouth fer no mere crowhop; Ill tell you that much.
When we were lined out again, he went on as if nothing had happened. Which, according to Chisholm Trail standards, it hadn’t.
“Pony Smith has a friend they call Keepaway Ken. Last name of Hardaway. Keepaway Ken Hardaway. I been thinking, how he come to wear that name might be worth telling about. You know. This evening.”
“Ayuh.” There weren’t no need to say more. The storyteller was mostly jist thinking aloud.
Folks around Pony, Montana, had learned not to mess with Ken Hardaway. He wasn’t a terribly big man, though he did tower over his miniature buddy, Pony Smith, fer whom the town had been named. Nor was he any kind of renowned gunfighter like Reese Anderson, or even terribly handy with his fists.
What he was, was persistent. The Garrison brothers found out jist how persistent when they jumped his claim. Like most gold miners, Keepaway Hardaway had his own way of doing things. People warned him, when his claim started showing color, there’d be jumpers looking to run him off.
He wouldn’t take on any help or a gunhand to protect his assets, though, no matter what.
So the Garrisons–there was five of ’em, a whole clan of scum that had come west when things got too hot back East–the Garrisons decided the man would be easy pickings. They hit his shanty in the dead of night, beat him to a pulp, pumped him full of lead, and dumped his body under an old dead log about a mile up the draw from the claim.
The thing is, it turned out reports of the feller’s death were a mite premature. Them boys was out there fooling around on the claim the next afternoon–not really getting much done, mining being hard work however you cut it, and none of them overly interested in honest labor. Mostly, they were hunting around fer Hardaway’s cache of dust and maybe even some big nuggets they were certain sure he’d hidden around there somewhere.
Finally, one of ’em…believe it was Cricket, the second youngest, he got to wandering a bit wide and come across a blood trail where something big had obviously been dragged through the dead leaves and pine needles. Not being exactly the brightest star in the heavens, he was still scratching his head when Hardaway’s blade come up from that funny-looking pile of leaves, right up through his belly and through his diaphragm.
By the time the men working closer to Pony got there after hearing the shooting, the butcher’s bill had addded up some. Three of the Garrisons were dead, the other two on the run, and Keepaway Ken Hardaway was once again looking fit fer the undertaker.
Once again, he wasn’t quite as dead as he looked.
Eh? Jimmy, don’t rush me, all right. I gotta tell this in my own way. Hey, boys, it ain’t that funny! Now, where was I….
Two on the run. Them fugitive Garrisons ended up down Virginia City way. Vigilantes strung ’em up. Don’t know if their sky dance had anything to do with what they done to Keepaway; never did hear.
Anyway, there was a new preacher who’d moved to Pony jist a week or two prior to the Garrison-Hardaway dustup. This sky pilot had two things in his possession besides his Bible, those being a heap of medical knowledge he’d gained as a sawbones during the War and a stunning young daughter who helped her Daddy by passing the plate when he preached and by working as his nurse when he had to patch people up.
Edwina was her name, but believe me, she was a lot purtier than the name sounds.
Long story short–shut up, Jimmy–long story short, the preacher patched Keepaway Ken up the best he could, the lovely Edwina nursed him back to health, and by the time Hardaway was back on his feet, it was all over but the shouting. Except fer one thing. When the miner asked her to marry him, the lovely Edwina batted her lashes, smiled that sneaky smile women git, and said,
“Mr. Hardaway, I would be honored to be yer wife, but first you must tell me: How did you come to be called Keepaway? Was it the mining claim? Telling jumpers they’d best jist keep away from you and yours?”
Ken was a mite puzzled as to why such a thing would be important to her, but he’d have roped the moon if she’d asked. Even though, quite frankly, he couldn’t catch a cold with a rope. So he told her.
“No,” he said slowly, “I got the name in third grade, back in my school days. One winter day at recess, a bunch of us kids were playing keepaway with a ball we’d made ourselves, jist a bit of cowhide wrapped around a few fistfuls of dead grass and stitched together.
“There was one big kid, an eighth grader named Ronnie. His parents and mine were good friends, but Ronnie and I hated each other’s guts. He was mean, nasty, jist not a nice guy. Why he decided to play with us little guys that snowy winter day, who knows.” Hardaway shrugged and raised an eyebrow. “Though my best guess is the boys his own age wanted nothing to do with him, and he figured he could lord it over us.
“Anyway, he started out with the ball, the rest of us were chasing after him, and nasty Ronnie was having a high old time. Smoked right through our little puppy-pack once, out the other side. He was again in the clear…except fer me. I’d gotten myself wrapped around one of his legs. I was skinny at the time, but wiry even then.
“He couldn’t shake me off. Couldn’t pry me loose. I hung onto that leg, and hung onto it, and hung onto it. Ronnie cussed at me like a grown sailor, words I didn’t even know, but he couldn’t make me git off him. It slowed him down something fierce, dragging a third grader, sort of a little-kid ball and chain. The rest of my class caught up and gang tackled him.
The future Mrs. Hardaway looked up at her about-to-be fiance, eyes sparkling. “Did you get the ball, then? Win the game of keepaway?”
“Nope,” he grinned. “The bell rang. We had to get up out of that wet snow and head back in to class. But nobody in that school forgot what I’d done that day. Ronnie never again offered to play with us little kids, and somebody came up with a silly chant, jist Keepaway Hardaway! Keepaway Hardaway! Keepaway Hardaway! Nasty Ronnie hated me even more after that, of course.”
Edwina’s laughter tinkled. “I can imagine!”
“Indeed. The point is, I learned something that day. I learned that if you ain’t got no quit in you, there ain’t nobody who can make you quit.”
“Ah-h-h,” she breathed. Ken did get more than a mite distracted at that , the sight of Edwina breathing deeply being worthy of a man’s full attention.
“Ah,” he agreed, “And that’s why I’m alive today. Or at least why I lasted long enough so’s yer father could stitch me back together and you could steal my heart. By the time them Garrisons dumped me under that log, I’d begun having serious thoughts about jist letting go, moving on to meet my Maker. But ever time–ever time I started in to give up like that, I’d remember. I was Keepaway Ken Hardaway. I’d stuck to old Ronnie’s leg till he could be brought down. Done that as a little kid.
“And I’d think, if I could do that, I can do this. Edwina, I jist kind of…refused to die.”
“That’s good, Mr. Hardaway, ” she grinned, which made her somehow look like she should still have been wearing pigtails, “But don’t you ever think you can keepaway from me!”
“Ma’am,” he replied seriously, “I wouldn’t think of it.”