Friday afternoon. It had been Marie’s turn this week to stay in town with Henry so’s he could go to school, which meant it was my turn to ride escort when woman and child headed back out to the ranch fer the weekend. Our rule was that if no Flywheel man showed up, the lady in charge did not head out alone, not even if it meant staying an extra night in Walsenburg.
Fortunately, that had only happened twice so far, and I was on schedule this time.
My wife and favorite “nephew” met me at the yard gate. “We’re ready to go,” she informed me, “except we have to stop by the school on the way out. Miss Hathor sent a note home with Henry. He got into a fight at recess.”
“Is that so?” I looked down at the boy. From the top of a pinto standing sixteen-two, almost anywhere else is “down”.
“Yeah. I did.” The six year old clambered into the saddle on his own mustang pony. No matter how skilled you are, there’s still no really graceful way to mount up at that age. He had a decent black eye–the left one, a sure indication his opponent had been right handed.
“How’s the other guy look?” Standard guy talk. That’s always the number one question.
“I never even got a lick in, Dawson. I chickened out.”
Uh-oh. Now I saw the distress in young Henry Tamson. He’d taken a punch and then walked away from a fistfight in the schoolyard. The Hell with the schoolteacher; fer a schoolboy, getting labeled a coward had worse consequences than anything the school administration could come up with.
A fact with which I’d once been intimately acquainted myself, though no one else out West knew about it. Not even Tam. Not even my wife. There’s some memories too painful fer words.
“What’s done is done, cowboy,” I told the kid. “Let’s go yank Miss Hathor’s chain so’s we can hit fer home.”
His shoulders straightened some at that, and Marie give me an approving look from under her hat. Nothing in the world made Henry feel more like a man than having Uncle Dawson call him a cowboy.
One thing I didn’t ever do was call him kid. He was one, but then again he wasn’t.
“I really need to talk to his parents,” Lucinda Hathor told us sternly. “You two are not related.”
“Lucy,” I reminded her, gently enough I thought, “do you really want another conference with Cougar and Penny Tamson? Did you enjoy the last one so much?”
The woman paled a bit at that. She was tough enough fer a town woman, but her one encounter with the half-Cheyenne shootist and his big redheaded warrior wife had been more’n a bit unnerving from what we heard. None of us at Flywheel wanted to go around intimidating schoolteachers fer fun and games, but she’d cracked Henry’s knuckles with a ruler fer talking when he shoulda been studying.
Cracked ’em hard.
She wouldn’t be doing that again.
What she done with other kids was none of our business–none of us were members of the School Board or had any desire to be–but when it come to Flywheel offspring, we disciplined our own. Let us know and we’ll take care of it.
“Well…I guess you do stand in for them.” She went on like it was no big deal. Good fer her.
Henry was waiting out in the hall. I remembered them days. Not good times.
“The thing is, Mr. Trask, Henry cannot be getting into fights during school hours and especially on school property. It’s simply not acceptable.”
Marie had heard enough. “Miss Hathor,” she began, me being the only one disrespectful enough to call the teacher Lucy whether she liked it or not, “from what Henry tells us, Quentin Pritchard has been tormenting the first grade girls fer quite some time now. He’s older, a second grader but only because he was held back twice. Nine years old and picking on the six year olds.”
“I’m not sure that’s true,” the teacher shook her head in denial. “I watch the playground quite closely, I assure you. Not once have I seen Mr. Pritchard do anything untoward. He’s always seemed quite the young gentleman.”
“Seemed,” I pointed out carefully, “would seem to be the operative word here. You’re one person, Lucy. Despite your well earned reputation,” as a nasty old dragon, I thought but did not say, “you don’t literally have eyes in the back of your head. A bully is not always dumb enough to get caught in the act by people in positions of authority.”
We knew she hated having to deal with Flywheel people. Most of the parents looked up to the schoolteacher or at least accorded her a measure of respect whether they meant it or not. Our bunch appreciated her good work–in truth, she was one helluva fine teacher when it come to the three R’s and inspiring the slower kids–but we also called her to account whenever she got outa line with Henry.
Which she had a tendency to do. So-called professional educators, I’d long believed, have real trouble dealing with kids who’re smarter’n the teachers…and Henry was smarter’n Miss Lucy by a coupla light years.
She hated that, prob’ly even more’n she hated having to talk to us.
In the end, it all come out a wash. The schoolmarm couldn’t believe the boy had only spoke up to Quentin Pritchard to git him to lay off Carolyn Thimes, a girl in Henry’s class who’d been reduced to tears by the bully’s teasing. That was frustrating fer us, but we’d made it clear Henry was not to be punished in any way–by word, deed, or marked-down grade on his classwork–fer taking a sock in the eye in defense of a female.
We didn’t even bring up the idea of going after the bully boy. At this point, that would do Henry a whole lot more harm than good, anyway.
Nor did we bring up the dirt we’d uncovered on Miss Lucinda Hathor herself, who’d taken to shacking up on the weekends with one Solomon Pritchard, a hardrock miner who happened to be Quentin’s Dad. We’d save that fer later, jist in case.
“So am I in trouble?” Henry asked. He’d wisely waited till we were all mounted up and clear of the town. Keeping your private conversations well away from prying ears was a key principle with our bunch.
“Not any more,” Marie grinned. “We settled the Dragon Lady down right enough.”
“I mean with you. And Dad. And Grandpa.”
My turn. I turned my head, looked him in the eye. “Nope. You couldn’t git in trouble with Tam if you tried, and I’ll speak to Coug. As fer me, sport, I been in your boots myself. I know where you’re coming from.”
“You?” He looked and sounded incredulous. “You?!”
Marie laughed. I explained, “I weren’t always the splendid specimen of manhood you see before you today, Henry. But I tell you what, let’s not worry too much about that till tomorrow. You can ride along with me on cow check if you want. We can talk then. It’s my turn to cover the east herd, but with all them brand new Murphy stranger cows in the mix dropping calves like crazy, I could sure use another set of eyes looking to spot problem births.”
I smiled inside. It woulda been nice, back in the day before my folks got themselves drowned in that river, iffen my old man had known to talk to me like I’d jist talked to Henry.
“You let a kid beat you,” Dad had told me in no uncertain terms, “and when you git home, I’ll beat your ass twice as bad.”
One helluva fine pep talk, that. Way to go, Pops.
Looking back, knowing a heap more about how the world worked than I had then, I realized my father was only trying to help. It weren’t that he really wanted to beat me up; he jist hadn’t known any other way. No doubt his old man had told him the same thing when he was a kid.
Well, what don’t kill you makes you stronger. I’d survived. Twisted, scarred, and batsh*t crazy in a lotta ways, especially right after the War, but alive.
Hopefully, I could help Henry find a learning curve that didn’t have quite as many hard knocks along the road to self respect.
“There,” Henry pointed. “the roan, over by them trees.”
I focused the binoculars, studied the Murphy cow with her firstborn already sucking teat and the twin jist getting to its feet. “Good eye, cowboy,” I told my partner. “Twins all right, and both of ’em making it without any help.”
“That’s eleven, isn’t it?” These days, I noticed, he didn’t always say ain’t. Lucinda Hathor’s influence without a doubt.
“Yep.” The Murphy herd, in addition to coming to us at a bargain basement price, had close to a 98 percent live-calf rate…including eleven pairs of twins. A record fer sure. Even Murphy himself had never done quite that good with this bunch.
It might never happen again, but we’d take it this year. Not only a bonus calf count at market time, but a good omen. A good omen indeed.
“Well, that’s the bunch. Time to head fer the barn.” We lifted our reins, which was all there was to it. Our mounts were anything but barn sour, but they knew enough English to realize oats and hay were a-waiting.
“Ready to have our little talk, Henry?” I asked. It’d take a good hour’s ride to git back.
“You were scared shi*tless yesterday? Of Pritchard?”
“Yeah. I don’t like saying it, Dawson.”
“No man does. No real man, anyway. Let me tell you a little story on myself, though. Help you understand a mite if nothing else. Okay?”
I watched the ravens swooping in to feed on a pile of afterbirth a bad mommy cow had failed to eat. No way to know which one; the new mother had moved off somewhere with the others. If we knew, we’d cull her in the fall…where was I?
Oh. Yeah. “It didn’t happen to me when I was six. The school I was in, fer whatever reason, I didn’t see I had a problem till I was….I think eight or nine. But the situation was nonetheless highly similar to your own. There was a big kid, one grade up, by the name of Virgil. Can’t recall his last name; it’s been a while. Virgil and I hadn’t had any real trouble between us before that, but one day he called me out. I was too scared not to accept his offer to fight, so I stepped up to battle–but only sort of. He hit me once, give me a fat lip…and I quit.”
“You really did? You quit? Like me?”
“I did, Henry. I ain’t proud to say it, any more than you are, but yeah, I did. But wait. It gits worse. There was a friend of Virgil’s watching us, and he said to Virgil, I don’t think he’s a coward; he’s jist a weakling. And Henry, I was so chicken sh*t right then, I was actually grateful to him fer saying that.”
“You weren’t really a weakling?”
“Hell, no. I grew up on a ranch, jist like you, wire tough from working hard. I was prob’ly actually stronger’n Virgil ever thought a being.”
“You see that coyote?” I asked. The big fellow was jist sitting there, close by a rock outcropping about halfway up the knoll we were passing. Sitting and watching us.
“I think that’s Medicine Coyote,” Henry replied.
Yep. He’d seen him, prob’ly ‘fore I did. Boy didn’t miss nothing.
“Thing is, it took me years to git my act together so’s I could whip my fear and stand up to a fistfight. The local folks had known me as a coward fer all them years–well, not that many I guess, three years or so. But to a man that age, three years is a lo-ong time.”
“I’ll say. Half as long as I been alive.”
Dang. Henry was smart. Six years old and doing fractions already.
“Yes it is. Anyway, I had my obligatory half dozen scuffles to git my reputation squared away again, and went on from there. But I puzzled and puzzled, trying to figure out why I was more scared of a fistfight than about anybody else I knew. Except fer the wimps, and they don’t count.”
“Did you figure it out?”
“I did finally, Henry. I really did. You know what it was?”
“Nope. Tell me.”
“I’m fixing to. The reason I was so damn full of fear about a fistfight was because I wasn’t stupid. I was the only kid in my class smart enough to realize even then that fighting was not a game. It was war, and it could git you killed, or the other kid killed at any time, without warning. It was flat-out life and death, and them other idjits jist couldn’t see that, or didn’t want to.”
“Huh,” Henry commented helpfully.
We rode in silence fer a while. I was waiting to see if Henry would come up with the right answer–which, after a time, he did.
“So Dawson, you mean I’m afraid to fight Quentin Pritchard ’cause I’m smarter’n he is?”
“Cowboy,” I deadpanned, “that pile a road apples your pony jist dropped is smarter’n Quentin Pritchard.”
He laughed. “I’ll remember that one!”
“Jist don’t repeat it away from the ranch.”
“I won’t. So I’m afraid ’cause I’m smart enough to know the danger, not jist ’cause I’m a lily livered, yellow belly, tail-tucking, sapsucking coward?”
“He’s got it,” I grinned, “By George, I think he’s got it.”
Dawson had done the prep work on Henry and Cougar had showed the boy a few moves. It was up to me to finish the process,
“There ain’t none of us can’t fight,” my son had explained, “but you’re the grand master of unarmed combat.”
“Ain’t killed but the one man without weapons,” I’d protested to no avail, “and that was a long time ago.”
“Which is one more’n either Coug or i’ve done,” Dawson had pointed out all too cheerfully. “Quitcher bitchin’ and educate the boy.”
(*Sigh*) A warrior’s work is never done
“You blink ever time a fist comes at your face,” I pointed out.
“Well, duh! Grandpa, you could knock my face into next Sunday! You already knocked me out once!”
True. That had had been one of the tiniest of taps to the tummy, but apparently it’d hit his breadbasket jist right. He’d come around quick enough, which saved me from having to explain to his Mom why I was coldcocking her son out behind the barn.
“I know, Henry. I’m not saying you shouldn’t blink. Iffen you can’t help it, you can’t help it. All I’m saying is, if you’re gonna blink anyway, let’s turn that lean away from a fellow’s fist into an advantage.”
“Here, I’ll show you. Learned this from one a them Frenchie foot fighters. Iffen somebody’s coming at me and I lean back away from the blow like this, it’s natural to jist cock your foot like this, then snap it out like this. Kick your enemy right in the kneecap…or the thigh…or the nuts, fer that matter. Don’t kick no higher; he might grab your foot.”
“They’ll say I’m a dirty fighter if I kick. Especially in the nuts.”
“Yep,” I agreed. “They will. And they’ll also be afraid to fight you.”
“Huh.” Henry thought about that a moment and then, without another word, began practicing his kicks.
I had a feeling Miss Lucinda Hathor, schoolmarm extraordinnaire, would be requesting another parent-teacher conference in the very near future.