A challenge entry piece.
The old man from the mountain grinned behind his thinning gray facial hair, his stained and broken teeth like stones behind stalactites of dried spittle. While this bent and haggard man hadn’t seemed exceptionally witty, he had outwitted me, and he smiled ruefully as he turned his back, stealing one last glance at me from the corner of his eye. His back turned, I saw his grim chuckle bounce in his shoulders.
Things had started innocently, or so I thought, but now I know the truth: the old man had it out for me from the start.
I was young, and I had been traveling for a while when I first encountered the old man. I was coated in a thick film of dust and sweat, smelled like cattle, generally bone weary, and in desperate need of a shave. I’d been out on a drive with several others from the Colorado Territory and had finally arrived at the stockyards where my uncle’s cattle would sell. I was anxious for the sale so I could collect his money and return to Colorado.
Leaning against the corral fence, I dreamed of the mountains and cooler temperatures.
“Looks ta me lak you need a drank.” A gruff voice boomed from behind me. I didn’t turn around; nobody here knew me aside from the crew I drove the cattle with, and those men started hunting the bars before the cattle were even in the lot.
“Hey!” A hand slapped my shoulder, nearly toppling me over, before an arm wrapped around both shoulders. A weathered and wiry man grinned. “You hear me? Looks ta me lak you need a drank. Come with me.”
The old man tried to pull me away from the corral, but I straightened, the shorter man’s arm falling off my shoulders.
“No thanks. I’ve got business to attend to here.”
“Wale, there’s plenty o’time for drankin’ ‘round the lot. ‘Sides it’ll take ‘em a bit ta get yer cattle sorted anyhow. Come on.” He stepped away, clearly expecting me to follow.
“I prefer to stay.” I didn’t want any part of whatever con this man was trying to run. I could tell he wanted more than to sell me alcohol. I didn’t know what, and I sure didn’t want to. Plus, the offer for alcohol was enough to turn me away.
My mother had taught me not to drink. She was gone now, but her lesson stayed with me. Growing up with a notorious drunk in the family did that. Her father had been shot and killed after his drinking led to yet another wild night. My mother was the second oldest of seven children at the age of 16 when it happened, and she vowed to never mess with the stuff. She taught me not to drink, she taught me not to gamble, and she taught me not to lie. Recalling now how all three had destroyed her family encouraged me in my convictions.
The old man conceded. “Okay, okay. Suit yerself.” The old man backed away a couple steps before turning and walking toward the center of town, the dust from his footsteps drifting on the hot breeze behind him.
By the time the cattle were sorted for selling the next day, twilight had come and gone, and night was settling over the town. Laughter and music swelled from the various bars as I walked by. I had arrangements to stay with a friend of my uncle’s and made my way toward his family’s home.
Out later than I had anticipated, I was grateful I had already gone by earlier in the day to shake hands with Henry Wilkerson and his wife Anna. I couldn’t recall their connection to my uncle, but that didn’t much matter. They were kind and generous, and that was good enough for me.
Over the next several years, I continued to drive cattle for my uncle to the Kansas City stockyards each year and stayed with the Wilkerson’s each time. Each time, the same old man tried to lure me to his establishment. Each time, I refused. Each time, I stayed in the city only long enough to collect the money, then returned to Colorado.
Except this time. This time, I stayed longer. This time, I visited with the old man. He had lingered, and I had entertained him.
We stood at the corral, where I always stood to oversee the sorting, but he didn’t walk away when I refused him as usual.
“Looks ta me like you need a drank,” he grinned and shook my hand, knowing how I would respond.
“I prefer to stay,” I said, shaking his hand warmly.
“So where ya from anyhow?” he asked.
Shrugging, I said, “I’ve been everywhere. Colorado is home these days.” Turning toward him, but still leaning on the corral, I asked, “What about you?”
“Wale Kansas City is home now, but Colorada was home once ta me too.”
Then, from there, I was swindled. I fell for his story and offered to bring him back with me -- gave him a few days to get his affairs in order, then we left.
I never dreamed it would have ended this way -- only a year later, and my mother is remarried to the old man from the mountain, my uncle has disowned his children as his heirs, and here I am -- exiled here out in the fields.