It was supposed to be easy. All Stan had to do was clean out the loft in the barn. As a young teen, he frequently got assigned the “dirty” work. Most of the time he didn’t mind, even when it meant mucking out the horses’ stalls.
So, here it was, a steaming day in July, and Stan was going through the junk in the loft, organizing it, and getting rid of anything that was too broken to fix.
He knew what was up there for he was the one who dragged designated detritus up the steps to be stored. Over the years, Stan had brought up a rocking chair with a cracked runner, an ancient bed frame that lacked one wheel, and at least five boxes of mismatched glassware.
How did his grandfather define too broken to fix? He truly didn’t know, and rather than risk making a mistake, he decided to simply go for organization.
It was supposed to be easy. That’s what Grandpa said, but he was wrong. This place is a mess. Where should I begin? Stan picked a pile of junk just inside the door as a starting place.
There was a cardboard box filled with plastic hangers that no one had used since his grandmother died. That can go. Stan carried the box down the stairs and put it in an empty stall. Back up the stairs again.
Next he tackled an old brown trunk whose hinges were made of leather, and the lock was so badly rusted that it would never latch again. He lifted the lid, and found a pile of dresses. Now what do I do with these? Grandpa must want them, or he wouldn’t have stored them all these years. Does he ever look at them and think of Grandma? Maybe I should leave them alone. He gently closed the lid, lining it up as carefully as he could.
In the corner he found several broken tools. The handsaw was badly rusted and the handle cracked. The other tools were in equally bad shape, so Stan carried them down.
As the sun rose, the temperature in the loft soared. It had no windows that opened, and the swamp cooler broke last summer. Sweat poured down his face, back, and legs.
Stan moved on to Grandpa’s old chest of drawers, covered in dust. It needed to go, as the back leg could not be repaired, but it was too heavy for Stan to move alone. I’ll go through the drawers and see what I can get rid of.
The top drawer was filled with county fair ribbons. Most of them were for prized horses, some for the cows, and a few were for sheep. They spanned the years from the early 1980s to 1995, when Grandpa quit showing. That was the year that Nightingale had died. Grandpa was so devastated, that he almost quit living. He went days without eating, and refused to work the ranch at all.
I think these can go. They’re pretty old now. Stan found a paper bag stuffed behind the dresser, and put all the ribbons in it.
The second drawer had a bunch of colorful handkerchiefs and some rope ties. Since his grandfather hadn’t worn any of them in years, Stan added them to the bag.
The bottom drawer held photo albums. Stan gently lifted out the top one. Its leather cover was faded and frail. Stan sat on the floor, and put the book in his lap. When he turned to the first page, he smiled. There was his grandfather as a young man, standing proudly next to his wife. Nightingale was dressed in her white leather wedding clothes. Her hair was braided, and piled on top of her head. On her feet were the beaded moccasins that her sister had made.
Grandpa wore leather leggings, a buckskin jacket, and rows of beads around his neck.
This is a keeper. No way would Grandpa ever let this go. Stan turned a few more pages, and saw photos of Nightingale’s father, who was a chief in the tribe. Her mother, a shaman, in a different photo. There were pictures of horses,and people on horses, and the building of the ranch house and barn.
Stan put the album back away. He really wanted to look at the rest of the photos, but the heat was worse and he was feeling somewhat dizzy.
I’d better go get some water before I pass out. Stan closed and locked the loft door, then went downstairs. When he stepped from the darkened barn into the morning sun, the brightness blinded him for a few minutes. It didn’t matter, as he could make this walk in his sleep.
Across the drive, up the five steps onto the porch, and then through the front door. The swamp cooler was doing its job, for the house was comfortably cool. Stan went into the kitchen and fixed himself a tall glass of ice water. He carried it into the front room, and settled into “his” chair.
Even though he wanted to turn on the television, he didn’t. Grandpa had rules about when it could be on, how long it could be on, and what type of programs could be watched. Stan had learned quite young that the risk was not worth the limited enjoyment, so he left the set off.
He was reading a Louis L’Amour book called Bendigo Shafter. It takes place in an area of Wyoming that Stan knew. What he liked about L’Amour’s books was that he wrote about cowboys and ranchers. Stan identified with the author, as he also wrote poetry and short stories.
Bendigo had just met the widow Ruth Macken who was both beautiful and crafty. Wanting to know if the hero would put aside his dreams of finding gold to settle into married life, Stan found his place and began reading.
The afternoon sun came in through the front windows, falling across Stan’s chest and lap. Soon he fell asleep. In his dreams, he became the leading man.
Ruggedly handsome, he swaggered up to Ruth’s front porch. She stood in the doorway, leaning suggestively against the frame. “Howdy, Miss.” Embarrassed by his dusty boots, he wiped the toes against the back of each leg.
“Come in and have some water. Or would you prefer somethin’ a might stronger?”
Bendigo followed the beautiful woman inside the cabin. Ruth’s furniture was more elegant than anything he had ever seen before. Out here, living was rough and fancy goods were hard to come by.
He headed for a stuffed armchair near the fireplace. It looked strong enough to hold his muscular body.
“Don’t sit there,” she said. “That was my husband’s favorite chair. Come in the kitchen.” Bendigo did as told. The kitchen was painted a bright yellow. Sunlight filled the room, and the smell of flowers wrinkled his nose.
The table and chairs were store-bought, a might too fancy for Bendigo’s taste.
“Here’s some whiskey. So what do you want? Men never just drop in.”
“Well, I was hopin’ that you’d step out at the dance with me. I don’t dance too good, but I have fun. Are you gong’ with anyone yet?
“Why would I go with you? You’re a runt, you don’t own a durn thing except for a beat-up horse and a patch of land with a might small cabin.”
Bendigo shrugged. She was right about everything. After downing his shot, he got up and headed for the door.
If you really want to take me dancin’, then I’ll go with you.”
Bendigo walked out the front door. “Seven. I’ll come by and escort you.”
Stan didn’t hear his grandfather’s old truck pull into the drive, or the angry voices just outside the front door.
Stan awoke, somewhat disoriented.
A shot rang out. Stan, ran over to the rifle cabinet and pulled out his favorite gun, a Browning cynergy 28-gauge sporting rifle, with a walnut oil finish that he kept well polished. He liked the feel of the gun, the way it nestled against his shoulder, and the lightning smooth pull of the trigger. It made shooting easy and accurate.
After closing the cabinet, Stan hustled to the front door, afraid of what he might find. His Grandpa was a bit of a character. He frequently “riled” the neighbors, to use Grandpa’s term, by scheming against them in poker games, auctions, and even in drinking contests.
“Git off my land.” Grandpa stood with his hands planted firmly on his hips.
“How am I supposed to do that when you drove me here?”
Stand stepped outside, his rifle held against his chest. “What’s going on?”
“This dang-gum liar says Rosie isn’t a Mustang. He won’t pay more’an a hundert for her.”
Stan looked at the man, and recognized Mr. Werner, the principal of his school. Decked out in jeans, cowboy shirt, and high-top boots. Mr. Werner was a good guy. He was fair and honest and liked kids. Stan lowered his gun and quietly came down the steps.
“Put your gun down, Grandpa.”
“Nope. Ain’t a gonna do it. Not ‘til this here cheater is long gone.”
“I’ll take him home.”
“You don’t have a license, do you?” Mr. Werner knew every student, so there was no use lying.
“No, sir. I can drive on our land, though. That’s legal. I can take you just over the bridge and out to the highway. From there you could walk home. It’s only a couple of miles.”
Mr. Werner backed away from the cocked rifle. Step by step, he slowly moved. Stan pulled open the creaky door. He kept an eye on his grandfather, whose arms now shook from the effort of holding the gun. He still glowered, and Stan knew that look. He had seen it many times when he had disappointed his only living relative.
Werner got inside the cab. Stan turned the ignition. The truck, as always, didn’t catch the first time, or the second. Thanks goodness it kicked in on the third try, as his grandfather had stalked up even with the truck and was pointing his gun right at Werner’s sweat-streaked face.
“Don’t you never come back unless you offer a fair price. You ain’t no charity case. You make more at that school than I do in a good year. You got no business cheatin’ ranchers that way. It’s disrespectful, that’s what.”
Werner sat still, staring straight ahead. His face had a peculiar green tinge around the lips and eyes. Stan thought the man was going to puke, right there in the cab.
After putting the truck in gear, he turned left and headed toward the bridge. Just as they pulled into the shelter of the surrounding quaking aspens, a shot rang out.
“He’s old and cranky,” Stan said. “He hasn’t been feeling too good lately.”
“He’ll get over it, Mr. Werner. He works hard on the ranch. Lots of folks laugh at him, as he never finished school. He reads some, and is pretty good at math, but he has a hard time writing. It embarrasses him, ‘cause he feels stupid compared to the college-educated ranchers moving in. Grandpa’s a proud man, and he does get upset when he thinks someone is cheating him.”
After crossing the bridge, Stan turned off the engine. “This is as far as I can take you. There’s a bottle of water in the glove compartment. It isn’t cold, but it’s wet enough to get you home.”
“Thanks.” Mr. Werner’s hands trembled so badly that he couldn’t open the bottle.
“Let me do that,” Stan said as he reached over and twisted it open. “I’ll see you Monday. If you want, you can call me and let me know that you got home safely. Grandpa never answers the phone. He says he’s too old for gadgets, yet he owns a pretty good tractor that he maintains himself. He’s good with his hands. Did you know that he built the house by himself? For my grandmother. It was his wedding gift. She was the prettiest woman he’d ever seen.”
When Mr. Werner got out, he looked at Stan, as if for the first time. “Thanks. I appreciate your help. That old man had me pretty scared.”
“Next time you want to buy something from him, don’t haggle over the price. Folks think it’s easy to cheat him, but they’re wrong. He’s a smart man. Smarter than most.”
Werner nodded, and then shut the door, the rusty squeak filling the blue skies. “I’d still like to buy that filly. Think he’d sell her to me?”
“Give him a few days to calm down.”
Werner patted the truck door, and then stepped away. Stan watched him amble onto the paved highway and head south, toward town. As the man’s figure got smaller and smaller, he thought of Bendigo Shafter. Bendigo might not win the heart of Ruth Macken, but there were lots of other women out there and lots of other battles to fight. Like Bendigo, Grandpa Ellis was a handsome, proud man, who would pull a gun rather than be thought back down on a fight.
Stan smiled when the engine kicked in on the first try. He smoothly turned around and headed across the bridge. Grandpa was standing in front of the barn, with a scowl on his face.
“You were supposed to clean out that loft,” he said as soon as the motor died. “It was an easy job, and you didn’t follow through.”
“It wasn’t easy at all. You got all kinds of memories stored up there. I was afraid to throw much of anything out. Maybe you could help me a bit?”
“Let’s tend the horses first. Then we’ll go take a look.”
Stan followed his grandfather into the barn. The horses whinnied at the promise of fresh hay and oats, and maybe an apple or two. Like Bendigo, Grandpa knew good horseflesh, and only bought and bred the best. That part was easy for him.