Published on Friday, June 29, 2012
By Ron Scheer
Crooks was overdue. Should have been back days ago with supplies for the winter. There was beans enough to eat, and out checking traps one day, he'd shot a deer. He wouldn't starve. But where the hell was Crooks?
Bringing in firewood, he stopped to look at the sky. Dead gray, the mountain ridge lost in a low bank of dirty clouds.
Deep into autumn. Snowfall already, and only October. Good to see the snow after years without. But a rider with a loaded-down pack horse. There could be trouble getting back over the pass. Or he might have run into thieves.
The jack of diamonds from their only deck of worn cards. That was his fault, too. They'd searched the cabin for hours and never found it. And the long nights soon got a helluva lot longer without their games of rummy.
Saddling up when he left for supplies, Crooks seemed glad to go. His eyes hadn't met Davey's but once before he rode off. There might have been the usual joke about Crooks' fancy for a widow in town. Would there still be a light on in her window.
But not this time. There hadn't been a joke between them for a long while. Hadn't even been much talk.
"Go read one a yer damn books if what you want is company," Crooks had said one night, to shut him up.
Another sore spot. Davey kept three books in a small trunk he'd found along a road years ago. Latch broken, but with an old leather belt holding the lid down, it stayed closed. Inside, under the wool shirts and socks were three books. They'd once belonged to his grandfather. He'd been an airline pilot in the Old Days.
He'd stopped reading them because the paper had begun to crumble in his hands. Still, having read them countless times, he knew the stories almost by heart. One was called Riders of the Purple Sage. Another was Lonesome Dove. The third one wasn't even a whole book. Someone had ripped out the last pages for some reason. Start fires maybe.
It was a story about a gunslinger called Shane. Davey always wondered how that story turned out. Anyone he'd ask didn't seem to know. Anyway, for a long while—most of his life—there'd been more important things than old books to worry about.
Crooks had hardly learned to read. He could write his name and tell the letters of the alphabet—a rhyme somebody had taught him when he was a boy. But of schooling, Crooks had got very little. He'd learned instead what he needed to survive. You didn't need knowing how to read for that.
He'd listened to Davey tell him the stories from his books. He liked hearing about Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call. He was curious, too, about Shane, and on an unusual night, he'd joined Davey in speculating warmly on the story's missing ending.
But the next day, like he'd let himself get too friendly with his trapping partner, he'd been cold and distant. The subject had never come up again, and he told Davey he was tired of the same old stories about people and things that weren't real anyway.
The past was over and done with. There was no damn point in remembering or being reminded of it. "If it was even like that anyway," Crooks said. "Bunch of made-up bullshit."
They'd run out of tobacco about then, and Davey figured it was Crooks just being mean because of that. But whatever had got into him, the books had something to do with it.
Alone now in the cabin, fire in the stove and a single candle burning, Davey washed his tin plate and skillet. The dark outside was deep and bitter cold. And he wondered if Crooks was out there in the mountains somewhere, hurt or freezing to death. Even dead already.
Or had he found the widow more to his liking. Cuddled up next to her under a feather comforter surely beat sharing a lumpy bedroll on the coldest nights with a farting, whiskery bedmate.
Davey sat on his bunk, staring for a long time at the flickering candle flame. Now he was getting angry. Where the hell was Crooks?
Had he known he wasn't coming back when he left? How could he take both horses and leave Davey here with few supplies and winter coming on? They'd been partners for so long, it hadn't occurred to Davey to distrust him. It troubled him now to feel this doubt.
A night wind stirred the naked branches of a bush, brushing against the outside wall of the cabin. Pulling off his boots, he undressed to his long johns, blew out the candle and slipped into his bed.
He lay for a long time in and out of sleep, wakened once by the cry of an owl. A pair of them, he knew, hunted together in the night. He'd looked up once in the dying light of the day and saw them hovering high overhead, eyes intent on the carpet of summer grass below.
Kinda like you and me, he'd said to Crooks, who'd followed Davey's gaze into the sky. But he hadn't replied. Crooks was like that whenever he had the same thought as you. His silence always meant more than words.
Now Davey wondered at that silence.
Whether Crooks had stayed in town or died on the way back, either way, the silence looked like it could last a long time. It would be spring before he could leave the cabin himself and make the three-day walk to town.
If he made it through the winter. If the days and nights alone didn't drive him mad first.
He heard the owl cry again. And a blanket of loneliness swept over him.
He awoke with a start. A sharp thump. Was it a dream? Or something outside the cabin? There it was again. Louder.
The fire was low in the stove, and the floor was cold on his feet as he stepped from the bunk, reaching for the shotgun.
"Who's out there?" he called.
No answer. He called out again. "Who's out there?"
"Davey!" he heard after a moment.
He threw open the door, still holding the shotgun. It was Crooks lifting packages from the panniers on the packhorse and dropping them against the cabin wall beside the door. The night swirled with flurries of snow that stung Davey's face.
"Where the hell you been?" he said. "I'd half a mind to shoot you when you finally showed up."
"Got held up in town."
"That widow, I bet."
Crooks laughed. "I ain't sayin'."
He left the last of the packs by the door and took the horses to the lean-to behind the cabin.
"You want somethin' to eat?" Davey called after him.
"Just about anything you got, pardner."
Davey set the shotgun against the wall and began bringing in the canvas packs, stiff with the cold. There'd be canned goods, molasses, flour, tobacco, three kinds of beans, salt, ammo, a bottle of whiskey, and more.
He lighted the candle, got the fire going and set the pot of beans to warm on the stove.
When Crooks came in, he threw off his heavy coat and rubbed the feeling back into his legs for a while.
"Like to froze out there," he said. "It was nothin' but sheer ignorance that kept me going."
He stepped stiffly to one of the packs and opened it.
"This," he said, producing a leather pouch, "is a hunting knife to take the place of the one that got lost."
"And if it ain't broke, what we got here is—" he lifted out a long cardboard box and carefully opened it. "A chimney for the oil lamp, and for godsake don't bust this one, too."
He lifted out a small packet and held it up to the light. "Playing cards. Full set, none missing. I checked."
He scratched his head, peering into the pack. "Something else. Oh, yeah, guess what." He reached in and handed Davey something wrapped in paper. "They got themselves a new establishment in town. A library. And I went inside and found that."
Davey slowly pulled open the paper. He couldn't remember the last time anyone had given him anything but a hard time.
Before he saw the cover, he realized it was a book. A heavy old one.
"I asked the girl specifically for that. What's it say?"
"Shane," Davey said, and felt a lump in his throat.
"Good. I's afraid she'd fooled me."
Davey opened it to the first pages. They were discolored with age but not crumbly and fragile. He remembered books like this. The cover was hard, not pasteboard like the ones in his trunk.
"It ain't yours to keep," Crooks explained. "Had to promise I'd bring it back. If I don't it's overdue."
Davey was at a loss for words.
"So hurry up and read the damn thing," Crooks said with a grin. "And tell me how it ends."
Ron Scheer reviews western fiction and movies at Buddies in the Saddle. Currently at work on a book about early western writers, 1880-1915, and a glossary of early western language. His fiction has appeared online at FIRES ON THE PLAIN, A TWIST OF NOIR, SCHLOCK MAGAZINE, and WORDLAND. Native of Nebraska, he makes his home in the Coachella Valley, California.