Published on Thursday, February 7, 2013
The Conversion of Boze Carter
By Michael R. Ritt
When a man gets a noose slipped around his neck and his horse is about to be slapped out from underneath him, he will often take to praying. Even the wildest, most reprobate, most irreligious fellow will find religion at the end of a rope. However, this is often mistaken by onlookers as a sign of repentance on the part of the scoundrel--a preparin' to meet his maker--when more times than not, what the unfortunate fellow is really praying for is that they are using a good stout rope! A cheap rope will leave you hanging there, kicking and struggling while your face turns purple and your eyes bug out. Then at the last moment the damn thing will break. While you struggle to gasp in oxygen through a windpipe that is all but crushed, your tormenters are hauling you back up to repeat the whole process of choking the life out of you. I once saw a guy down in Ogallala get hung four times because the county was too damn cheep to buy a decent rope. Praying for a good, stout rope. That's what I was doing just before they hung me.
Now a hanging could be exciting and downright entertaining to a western town that saw very little of either excitement or entertainment. It usually drew people in from miles away that would pack themselves a picnic lunch and make a day of it. But we were not in town. We were under a cottonwood along the banks of the North Platte and the nearest town was nearly thirty miles away. By "we", I of course mean myself and the three gentlemen who seemed to have taken it kinda personal that I was in possession of some cows of rather dubious ownership.
The other two gents were cowhands working for him. The first one was just a kid, probably only eighteen or nineteen years old. He was a pleasant-looking kid with dark eyes and dark hair. He looked as if he was part Indian, but I couldn't be certain. I had the immediate impression of an easy-going, likable young fella. He looked out of place at a lynching party. The second man looked to be closer to my own age, which was thirty-four years old. He was a thin, wiry, nervous-looking guy. He had bulgy eyes and thin blond hair that hung down over his neck. If I hadn't seen him actually blink his eyes, I would have swore that he had no eyelids. He reminded me of a ferret I had seen in a side show in St. Louis.
I awoke to find the three of them standing over me, one on either side, Pan facing me.
"Mornin', Boze." That was me, Boze Carter. So named because I was born on the Bozeman Trail in 1864. "Right neighborly of you to invite us in for coffee like this." Pan was pouring himself a cup as he spoke.
"Not at all, Pan. You're always welcome at my camp." Now I am not exactly a heavy sleeper. The fact that these three could injun up on me like this told me something about the three of them. I had me a situation here.
"Any last words before we string you up?"
I rolled out of my bed-roll to pull my boots on. The ferret had a Winchester aimed slightly above my belt buckle. He raised it a mite to let me know not to try anything. He was itching to pull the trigger, and I wouldn't have stood a chance at that range.
"Now what kind of talk is that Pan? What is this all about?"
"Seems to me you've got the explainin' to do. Like, for instance, you can start by explainin' this bellowin' of cattle I hear." He cupped his hand to his ear as though he were straining to hear something.
"That's what this is all about? Them cows? Hell, I thought it was something serious."
"They're wearin' the Double Diamond brand," said the ferret. "That's serious enough." At that, he loosened a rope from the pommel of his saddle. Tossing the end up over a protruding limb of a cottonwood, he proceeded to fashion a noose.
"Now, Pan, you wouldn't be thinking that I rustled them cows now, would you?"
"Looks that way to me, Boze. You got any other explanation why thirty head of DD cattle are camped out with you on the banks of the Platte?"
"I ain't never rustled a cow in all my days!" I said with all of the indignation I could muster. The fact of the matter was that I had lost track years ago just how many brands I had thrown my loop over. "Them cows have been a considerable source of irritation to me, and I would regard it as a favor to be rid of them. I've been trying for three days to lose them, but, no matter what I do, they keep on following after me!"
Pan stared at me like I had lost my mind. "They followed you."
The kid, who Pan had called Will, smiled and gave a little chuckle.
"That's right. Nearly killed my horse trying to outrun 'em. Figured my only chance was to cross the river and hope that they would give up following." Now I had no notion that they would buy my story, but I thought by making light of the situation I might be able to defuse some of the tension. My theory being that it would be hard to hang a man who was making you laugh.
"You know, Boze, according to the trail you left, them cows must have spent most of the last three days followin' in front of you. I can see where that would be a great frustration to you, tryin' to outrun them when they are constantly in your way."
"There is a perfectly good explanation for that, Pan. And if you give me just a few minutes, I am sure that I can think up one that will be mutually satisfactory to all parties involved."
"Why are we wastin' our time with all of this talkin'?" It was the ferret, whose name, I found out, was Simmons. "We caught him red-handed. Let's string him up." This Simmons had a mean streak, and I decided right then and there that if I got out of this mess I was going to punch him in the nose the first chance I got.
Pan finished his coffee and threw the dregs into the fire. "Sorry, Boze. 'Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting,' book of Daniel, chapter five, verse twenty-seven. Tie him up."
Now Will may have only been a youngster, but I never saw anyone toss a loop like he did. I had no more as got to my feet when he had tossed not one, but two ropes; and done it so quickly that he might have thrown them both at the same time. The first rope landed neatly around my shoulders, pulling my arms tight against my sides. The second one caught one of my feet and pulled tight, forcing me back down to the ground. I started to struggle when something hit me on the head from behind and I passed out.
When I came to, I was sitting on my horse with a noose around my neck and my hands tied behind my back.
"It's about time you come to," said Simmons. "I was afraid I gave you too hard a knock on the head. I sure would have been disappointed to have deprived myself of a good hangin.'"
I felt as though I had been kicked in the head by a horse, but I said, "Don't worry about it, Simmons. I hardly felt a thing. My grandmother hits harder than you, and she's got the gout."
Will let out a little chuckle. Simmons just got mad. He turned toward Will and shouted, "Shut up!" He leveled his bug eyes back at me. "Keep making jokes, funny man. Five more minutes and I'll still be laughin', but you'll be dead."
"You know, Simmons, I never met a man I didn't like, but in your case I am going to make an exception."
Will was grinning ear to ear now. "That's a good one, Mister," he said.
Simmons turned again and lashed out at the kid. "I told you to shut up and I meant it!"
"I want you both to shut up!" It was Jessup speaking this time. "This man is about to meet his maker. This is a serious thing. Let's treat it with a little respect."
The sun had broken free from the nocturnal grip of the eastern horizon and had started its trek across the cloudless dome of the Nebraska sky. I noticed how the distant sandy hills seemed on fire with Indian paintbrush and goldenrod. Down along the river grew wild iris, forget-me-nots and elephant head. I had never really paid much attention to flowers before. It was going to be god-awful hot today, but just then a cool wind was coming off of the Laramie Mountains, just over the border in Wyoming, and I turned to face it. Over there was home.
That got me thinking about Ma. What would she do when she found out her only boy had been hung as a cow thief? It weren't her fault I turned out the way I did. She done the best she could by me after pa was killed by the Sioux when I was six years old.
By the time I was fourteen, I was man-size and doing a man's work riding line and chasing strays for an outfit near Cheyenne. The owner of the ranch was a tight-fisted, stingy old Englishman who always found a way of deducting from our wages. After stiffing us three months in a row, the boys and I decided to take our back pay out in cattle. So we cut his herd and headed for Montana.
I had heard that a man could take the cinch ring from his saddle, heat it up in a camp fire, and, holding it between two sticks, use it as a makeshift branding iron. I got real handy at altering brands. I was a regular Michelangelo with a cinch ring.
Now, I could have stopped after rustling that first herd and justified it because that old coot owed us the money, but the fact was I always was looking for the easy way--the fast dollar. What was it ma used to say to me? "Wide is the gate, and broad is the way that leadeth to destruction." I surely do understand now what she was trying to teach me. I had taken the broad, easy way, and it had led me to the end of a rope.
Jessup walked his horse up next to mine. "Sorry to see you go like this, Boze. Mr. Diamond is hard line when it comes to rustlers, and I am his foreman. I ride for the brand."
"I don't fault you none, Pan. You got a job to do. Let's get it done with."
"If it's of any comfort to you, you've got yourself a Hooven-Allison there." Jessup pointed to the noose. "That there is the finest rope made."
For those of you who are ignorant of such things, let me tell you that the Hooven-Allison Company started making rope in Ohio in 1869, and after a few years they were the leading manufacturer of cordage in the United States. Their ropes are exceptional workmanship. Top quality. They are probably used in more successful hangings than any other rope there is. I always figured that they should put that useful bit of information in their sales catalog.
Assuming you've got yourself a good rope, one of two things will take place when you're strung up. If you are lucky and they got you fixed up so that you drop several feet, your neck will snap and death will be fairly instantaneous. On the other hand, if you are like me--sitting up on top of a horse--and that horse gets spooked out from under you, there is no real drop to speak of. In that case death is by strangulation. Slow and painful. Strangely enough, I was still comforted by the fact that Hooven-Allison was on the job.
You know how they say that a man's life passes before his eyes when he is about to die? It's true! I saw Jessup remove his hat and raise it up over his head and I knew that my time had come. With a yell he swatted his hat down against the hindquarters of my horse and the gelding took off. The funny thing is that it all happened in slow motion. Everything moved like a herd of turtles through molasses. And during that time, I saw my whole life laid out in front of me and, I'll tell you, it was not something to be proud of. My plate was "full of transgressions," as my ma would say. Besides the rustling, there was the drinking and the gambling and the loose women. But they were all only appetizers. The one thing that impressed me the most--the entrée, if you want to call it that--was the great waste I had made of my life. I was thirty-four years old and I had nothing to show for all those years. A man can always give up the boozing and carousing, but he can't get back the lost years. In a few minutes it would be over and I'd be dead. I had no real friends to mourn my passing. Ma would do that, but after she was gone, then what? My body would be dust. My face would have long since been forgotten. My name would mean nothing to nobody. My whole life had been for nothing because that is what I was leaving behind. Nothing...
"We're finished here, boys," said Jessup. "Let's get these cows back home." He turned toward the kid who had gotten off of his horse to tighten the cinch. "Will, Simmons and I are headin' over toward Alliance to look at some horses that are for sale. I want you to start the herd back to DD range. We'll see you back at the ranch in a few days."
"Yeah," said Simmons. "Just start headin' north. Don't worry none about the herd. They'll follow right behind you. They're the followin' kind." He was still laughing at his own joke as he and Jessup pointed their mounts toward the east and put them to a gallop.
Will looked over his saddle and watched as the two men rode out of sight over a low hill.
When I came to, I had no idea where I was or what had happened. My head throbbed like someone was inside trying to kick their way out, and there was a burning sensation where a nasty, bloody welt had ringed my neck. My lungs were screaming for air. I gasped and coughed and was finally able to force my wind pipe open again. I had been hung! I remembered now. But how is it that I was still alive? That rope! That damn Hooven-Allison must have broke! I began to panic, for now they would haul me back up and I would have to endure the whole ordeal again.
I heard a horse stomp behind me. I rolled over, expecting to see them coming after me. There was no Jessup in sight and Simmons was nowhere to be seen. The only one there was Will, sitting on his horse smiling down at me.
"Good to see you are still with us" he said.
"What happened? Where's Jessup?" The words were strained and came out in a horse whisper. It was still difficult breathing, let alone speaking.
"He and Simmons are headed for Alliance to look at some horses. They left me here to start the herd back. As soon as they were out of sight, I cut you loose."
"Why?" I asked.
He tossed me a canteen. "Mister," he said, "in a few more years we will be in the twentieth century. Nebraska's been a state for thirty years now. We don't go around hangin' people. We've got sheriffs and courts to take care of that kind of stuff. Besides," he said with a huge grin, "I don't like Simmons."
"But I'm a rustler."
Will stared down at me for a slow moment. "You might have been at one time, but I don't think you are any more." He hooked his leg over the saddle horn and pushed his hat back on his head. He reached in his shirt pocket for the fixin's and rolled himself a cigarette. "I don't know," he said. "All I know is what I read in the papers. You have a good sense of humor though. That's a quality I admire. That thing you said to Simmons about never meeting a man you didn't like... that was good. Mind if I use that sometime?"
"Be my guest."
"Your horse is grazing over yonder, down by the river. He didn't go very far."
"Thanks, Will. I owe you my life."
"Pass it on sometime. We'll be even. You take care, mister. I've got to get these cattle back."
He turned his horse to start bunching the cows for the drive back to the ranch. I called after him, "What will you do when they find out that you cut me loose?"
He turned his horse back around until he was facing me. He took a long draw on his cigarette while he thought the question through. "By the time they get back to the ranch, I'll have pulled out. I'm gonna draw my pay as soon as I get these cattle back on our range. I like the work, but I've a hankerin' to do somethin' more. Maybe do some travelin'. See the country. See the world." He snubbed out his cigarette on his saddle horn. "I am pretty good with a rope," he said. "Maybe I'll join up with one of them Wild West shows."
I was on my feet now, brushing the dust from my pants. I walked over and held out my hand. "Good luck to you, Will. And thanks again." We shook hands, and he turned to leave.
"Oh," I said, "I never did catch your last name. What do I remember you by?"
"Rogers," he said. "Will Rogers." He waved so-long and rode off toward the herd.
I caught up my horse and mounted up. From where I sat, I could see Will off in the distance, heading north with the herd. I sat there for a while thinking about him. Just a young kid, but he had already made a difference with his life. And if I wasn't much mistaken, he would go far.
The sun was overhead now. Sweat trickled down my face and burned like the dickens when it ran down my neck and into the welt left by the noose. I turned my horse and looked west. Wyoming. Home. I crossed the river at a gallop and never looked back.
Mike currently resides on the eastern plains of Colorado with his wife, Tami and their Australian shepherd, Lucky. Mike is a writer trapped in the body of a Consumer Safety Inspector for the United States Department of Agriculture. He is an avid reader of history and theology, and enjoys writing short stories, poetry, and essays. He is an active member of the American Christian Fiction Writers, and maintains a blog on theology and apologetics at http://www.theemmausroad.org/.