First Line contest entry
Me and Rooster
The sunrise signaled a fresh start. Once again I had ended the previous day on a sour note. I squinted against the light, then rolled away from it and closed my eyes.
Rooster whinnied in my face. I hollered and swatted at him, wiping slobber off my jaw with the back of my hand. I sat up and stretched my sore back, then picked up my hat and settled it on my head. I was too old to be sleeping on the ground, especially with my rheumatism. I should have known better; should have kept my mouth shut at the saloon. But that’s always been my problem, especially when I’ve been drinking. Last night was a humdinger, because it was New Year’s Eve and the town of Black Rock knew how to celebrate.
I shook out my boots to check for any critters that might have crawled into them looking for a hidey-hole, then pulled them on.
“Danged if you ain’t the most hateful mule I ever did see,” I said as I rose, shaking my head. Rooster had once been a race horse and didn’t like it when I called him a mule, which was why I said it. Rooster bobbed his head and grunted. He knew me well and wasn’t fooled by my complaints. He nuzzled my shirt pocket where I kept my chaw of tobacco.
I pulled out a sugar cube and held it in the palm of my hand. Rooster greedily took it, then turned towards Black Rock. He looked back at me and nickered.
I sighed. “Well, Rooster, it looks like I’m going to have to eat some crow. We need to get back to Black Rock so you can be fed and watered proper and I can get a meal. Maybe a bath and a pretty lady.” I chuckled, then picked up the saddle. Rooster snorted. “Now, don’t go giving me no lip,” I said. “You know I’ve had me a pretty lady a time or two. Had a couple of baths, too, somewhere along the line.”
As much as I wanted all the comforts a town could afford, what I needed most was coffee. Black and thick as mud. The closer I got to Black Rock, the more my body quivered for it.
“Why did I have to go and get myself thrown out of the saloon last night, Rooster? Upstairs there’s rooms just waitin’ for a weary traveler like me to lie down on one of them feathered mattresses.” I rubbed the back of my stiff neck.
“Just gettin’ too old,” I mumbled. Rooster said nothing.
We entered Black Rock just as it opened for business. A skinny man with wire-rimmed glasses stood on the porch outside the bank and stared at me as he swept. I never did understand that. The whole town was covered with dust and once they’d been out a short while, so were the citizens. It hardly seemed to matter whether a few weathered boards stayed clean for no more than thirty minutes. I tipped my hat as I passed him.
I hitched Rooster to a post in front of the hotel so he could drink from the trough. Before I walked into the restaurant, I removed my hat and knocked some of the dust off my pants. I ordered coffee and a slab of bacon with potatoes. Sleeping under the stars can bring on a powerful appetite. So can an evening of gambling and drinking. When I finished eating, I grabbed two sugar cubes from the bowl and laid down a dollar for the meal and a sizable tip for the waitress who had smiled at me. I stepped outside and looked around.
The saloon was on the opposite side of the street, past the mercantile and the barber shop. At the south end of town was a stable.
I led Rooster to a young boy sweeping out the stalls. Once I made sure my horse had hay and would be properly looked after, I headed for the saloon. My mouth was dry. I sure could use one of them whiskeys to gird up my courage. It wasn’t likely I would make it that far before Big Billy accosted me. That’s what they called him last night—Big Billy. I don’t reckon I ever heard why. What I did remember, however, was that he was a mountain of a man. Worse, he wore a badge. He was the law in Black Rock, which said neither good nor bad about his character.
“Didn’t expect to see you,” the bartender said sarcastically. “Thought you left town right after Big Billy threw you out.”
I couldn’t deny the humbling I’d received. I shuffled my feet.
“Well, you see, that’s why I’m here. I need to talk to Big Billy. Apologize like.” The bartender said nothing. “I didn’t mean nothin’ when I said he was a card cheat. That was just the whiskey talkin’, don’t you know.” I risked a glance at his face, which was harder than the rock I’d laid my head on.
“He’s busy,” said a voice above me.
I looked up at the lady behind the railing. Something about a woman’s voice always makes me feel gooey inside, like one of those wrapped caramels left out in the sun too long. I snatched off my hat and cleared my throat.
I heard an upper door open and close, then Big Billy appeared at the top of the stairs.
“Well, well,” he said as he came down. “Look what the cat drug back in. Ain’t you the same rat I threw out of here last night?”
My toes curled in my boots and I tugged at the kerchief around my neck. My eyes followed his descent.
“Yes sir,” I said as I rotated my hat in my hands. “I mean, I came to apologize to you, Big Billy. I don’t hold my liquor like I used to and my tongue gets to waggin’ without consultin’ my brain sometimes.” I made a feeble attempt at a smile. “I’m just an old man who doesn’t have much cause to celebrate these days. Should have known better than to consume so much while playin’ cards.”
He was in front of me now and I had to crane my sore neck to look up at him. My legs shook like the ground under a buffalo stampede.
“Well, I’ll tell you what, old timer. Seein’ as you broke up a good game last night, why don’t you set your sorry ass in a chair over there and play me for whatever you got. If you win, I’ll give you a keg of beer, a fling in the bed with Daisy here, and let you leave in peace. If I win, well, I don’t reckon you’ve got more than your saddle and your horse. I’ll let you keep the clothes on your back, since it would be a disservice to my citizens havin’ you runnin’ around Black Rock butt naked.” He laughed and headed for a table. “Bring me some coffee and my cards,” he ordered the bartender.
My legs were as weak as a newborn calf’s. I had gambled away most everything I ever owned, but I couldn’t do that to Rooster. He was more than a horse to me. He was my friend, my companion. Rooster had a soul.
Big Billy glared at me as he picked up the deck of cards. “What are you waitin’ for?” he growled. “Time’s a wastin’. I got a town to run.”
I stumbled forward, then realized the bartender was behind me, helping me along. I tried to dig in, but he was strong for someone who stood behind a bar all day. I landed in my seat with a thud.
Big Billy shuffled. My eyes were wild as I watched the cards fly between his hands. He dealt. I almost missed it when he palmed the card. Startled, I looked at him and his eyes bore into me. My forehead beaded with sweat. My hands shook as I picked up my cards and looked at them. I clamped my mouth tight as I groaned inside. Low cards, every one of them. I frantically searched the room for answers. There had to be a way out of this. I wouldn’t give Rooster up for no man, let alone a card cheat.
“Whatsa matter?” he grinned. “Did your momma turn over in her grave?” He leaned back and guffawed.
I wiped my forehead. “As a matter of fact, I don’t feel so good.” I stood up and pressed my hand into my stomach. “I think somethin’ I ate for breakfast didn’t set well.” Suddenly I doubled over. “I’m gonna be sick.” I turned to the bartender. “Where’s the outhouse?” He pointed to a door down a hallway.
“Don’t think you’re gettin’ away,” Big Billy hissed. “Sick or not, we’re gonna finish this game.” He started to rise. I threw my hand over my mouth and gagged. “I...I gotta go.” I turned and ran out the door to the outhouse. Once there, I peeked between the boards and saw Big Billy had followed me. He stood between the saloon and me, his arms crossed in front of his chest. I briefly wondered which would be worse—jail or death? In this town, they probably weren’t too dissimilar. What could I do?
I’m sorry, I silently told Rooster. My stomach clenched and I threw up.
I peeked out at the bartender as he ran toward Big Billy. “We got trouble at the bank! Someone just tried to rob it.”
I watched as Big Billy hesitated, looking back and forth from me to the bartender. Finally he swore and hurried into the saloon.
After several deep breaths I barreled out of the outhouse and took off behind the saloon, making my way to the stable. I paid the boy and threw Rooster’s saddle on him, talking rapidly. “We gotta get outta here, Rooster. The law’s on my tail and he’s fixin’ to come after you.”
When the sun sat high in the sky and the town was long out of sight, Rooster and I stopped to rest by a spring. I slid off his back and saw how the sweat glistened on his coat and the lather dripped from his neck. I had run him hard and he wasn’t so young either. He walked to the cool water and drank. I sat on a boulder and contemplated my latest predicament. The next town south was Peters Pass and it would probably take the rest of the day and part of the next to get there. I soaked my kerchief in the spring, pulled off my hat and wiped my face and neck. I looked at Rooster and knew I couldn’t push him any further. He always gave me what I asked for and would likely die right out from under me if I didn’t rein him in.
That night the stars seemed brighter. I found a patch of ground, an oasis, where the growth of young grass softened my bed and a blanket I had grabbed in the stable made a decent pillow. Rooster grazed contentedly until he was ready to sleep, then he nickered at me softly.
“I know, boy,” I said. “I messed up again. I just don’t got no sense when it comes to bein’ friendly-like. Folks don’t cotton to me somehow. Guess I’m just good with animals, like you old friend.” I rolled to the side and pulled my hat over my eyes. “Tomorrow is another day. At sunrise we’ll have us a fresh start.”