Better a Pocketful of Respect Than a Fistful of Lightning

Tuesday was a red glowing promise on the eastern horizon as I blinked the tobacco smoke and whiskey from my eyes as I stepped outside the gambling house. That’s when young Jesse Fountain ran up behind me.

“Do you want to see?” he said. He was pretty lucky I was so tired and my hand was a second slow behind my eyes and head.

“See what? Can’t we talk after I get a few hours sleep?” I said.

“This can’t wait. Do you want to see the piece I bought?” he said, leading me down the alley between The Grand and Mrs Pynchon’s house of horizontal delights.

“Piece of what?” I said.

“A gun, Daniel. I bought me a gun.” Jesse said. He reached down and pulled back the long canvas coat he received from the effects of his brother Matthew, an old acquaintance of mine who was a sometime deputy, other times cheating gambler. When Jesse’s hand came out of its folds, it held a nickel-plated pistol. He pointed its business end directly at my chest, where a triphammer suddenly started banging.

“Jesus Christ, Jesse. Be careful with that thing” I said, as I pushed the .38 caliber muzzle down and away from my chest. If you don’t know, let me tell you, any gun pointed at your vitals has a way of waking you up no matter how sleepy you might be.

“Sorry, Daniel. Isn’t she a beauty?”

“I have two questions. First: Why do you want a gun like that? Second: Who in the world would sell you a gun like that?”

“I want it for protection. And Dutch Van Dorn sold it to me. Actually, I traded my horse for it, now that I have Matt’s.”

“If Van Dorn’s involved, I’d be careful squeezing off any rounds lest the damn thing blow your hand off. But again, why? And put that away.”

“You know. I want it for…protection.”

“Jesse, having a gun don’t mean you can use it. For protection or anything else. That thing was made for one purpose.”

“Yeah, to show everyone I’m not a man to be trifled with.”

“No, a double-action Colt Lightning is made to kill other men.”

“See?”

“See what?”

“Ain’t nobody, not from around here or some yahoo up from Texas, gonna mess with a man like me who can pull his iron and get off six shots without once slowin’ down to cock the hammer,” Jesse said, once more pulling out his eight-year-old roan’s worth of backbone.

“I’m not gonna tell you again, Jesse. Put that thing away. If a lawman sees you waving that around at me in an alleyway, he’s likely to get the wrong idea and drop you like a sack of corn.”

“I’d like to see him try.”

What is it they used to say? “God created all men, but Samuel Colt made them equal.”? In my times lawing in some cowtowns in Kansas and Colorado, I met too many young fellas bought into that bullshit. Some, either touched in the head by going too long without liquor or women or getting too much of either too quickly. Or maybe just plain touched. They believed a gun made them more than equal. Jesse was one of those sad cases that qualified on all counts.

“Shot it yet?” I asked.

“Yep, yesterday afternoon behind the stable. Pretty good shot if I do say so.”

“That’s nice. Loud, wasn’t it? What you shoot at, cans or bottles?”

“Cans…and a chicken”

“I’ve yet to meet any cans — or chickens — that can draw a pistol and return fire with mortal intent. But congratulations, I’m sure you showed those horses who’s boss.”

“Stop it, Daniel. Told you, I won’t be disrespected no more.”

“Jesse, I want you to listen close. I’m telling you this for your own good. A gun — even a wonder weapon like your Lightning — won’t earn you any extra respect. In fact, I can attest to the fact it can get you less. Or killed.”

“I told you, I’m a dead-eyed shot, Daniel.” Jesse’s tone changed. I’d heard it maybe a hundred or two times before and I was ready.

“And I’m telling you that will not be enough to change how people regard you. I don’t want to see you turn out like Matthew, s’all. Listen, you’ve always been a good boy…”

“Don’t you call me that. I’m not a boy.”

“No, not really anymore. But you’ll always be a kid to me, Jesse.”

“What do you mean?” I knew I was taking a chance, but I needed to prove something to him.

“I mean I’ll always think of you as Matt’s little brother, tagging along and watching him swagger into a room, gun slung low, eye’s cold, looking for some mark he could hook while he bottom-dealt…”

“Take that back, Daniel, or I’ll…”

“You’ll what?” I had him.

Jesse reached for his Colt, but he had to pull his coat out of the way. As he looked down, I pulled my pistol and cold cocked him a good one with the barrel. I flagged down Deputy Charlie Bassett, who was making his rounds, and we hauled away young Jesse and, minus his Colt of course, stuffed him into the calaboose.

“Charlie, see if you can hold onto that Lightning, will ya? The kid is in no way one to own a piece like that. Same damn gun the likes of Hardin carries, for Christ’s sake. Maybe you can talk some sense into Jesse before…”

“I know. Maybe you taught him a lesson, though, Dan.”

I left Dodge that day and headed over to Trinidad, Colorado for a couple of weeks. When I got back, Charlie met me and told me the story over a couple of beers.

Seems after his two of nights in jail, Jesse and his gun left the safety of Charlie’s hospitality and right off he walked into the Long Branch and tried big-footing some Texas cowboy. They told Charlie Jesse reached first, but he fumbled his draw. The cowboy didn’t.

“Caught his hand in his coat pocket,” Charlie Bassett told me. “Lying there, four fingers of his right hand tucked inside his pocket and thumb hooked outside. With the exception of a .44 caliber hole in his head, I thought he looked rather respectable that way.”

I nodded.

“Good, good. It was only a matter of time, I guess. But that’s all the boy was ever looking for. Respect.”

Built this Western from a 250-word something I wrote for a mini-competition this past week. It’s still in Draft 1.5 form, but you know I love to share my frontier stories. So bear with me as I try remembering how.

My Figment, Your Poet

Here you are again,
sitting, standing,
floating in front of me.
There but not there,
inevitably as real
as I can make you.
And yet I’m your captive,
one of my own imagination,
one who who lives to see you
and loves to please you,
one who chronicles
the never-weres in clicks
of never-wills,
one who almost never can
without you.
Then I realize it’s time
for you to go again,
fading into the light.
At least until tonight,
when you return, floating
on a river of blackest ink
across my ceiling dark.
And I, your poet, without a pen.

Feeling My Way

I wonder and wander each day at this time,
hoping I won’t need to resort to some rhyme
to chronicle the tour from right brain to left.
Sometimes the scenes are forests or plains wind-swept,
others like deserts, barren of even sounds.
But the best trips are those where I, spelunker
of this cavern, drop into my heart’s abyss
or maybe the bottomless black of your eyes.
I guess that’s because I don’t see as much as feel
my way into these chambers of mystery
where I’m sure there are glyphs of our history
on the walls that echo each heartbeat and blink.
So if, while you read, a tear on your cheek falls,
it’s just irritating me trying to feel
with hands and heart, my way out, along those walls,
imprinting memories I hope I don’t drop
before my wander is done, when I’ll wonder
not how I found my way, but how I lost it.

Weir Like a Broken Heart, Pain Like A Rainbow

Are you still feeling that pain
you’ve looked for me to capture
in a weir of words
strung across your river of tears?
It’s a difficult thing,
to weave a net for another’s suffering,
since each of us carries
our own sorrows, denizens of
the murky bottom, slithering through
the broken hearts of my words
and the knottiness of your needs.
And so I fail, not for lack of trying
or even for misunderstanding, since loss
is as much my tool as this clickity keyboard
and this clackity metaphor.

Today’s one of those bright days,
one in which I wade through the shallows,
picking at the small miseries
that beset us all. Then, with a splash,
the great sorrow leaps over
my words, headed upstream.
And I know. I’ll never capture
what’s allowed to return and spawn.
In that, though, I find a beautiful solace,
like a rainbow after the storm.

Full Circle

“What do you wish us to do?” the doctor asked, his benevolent demeanor, but with a double-parked, motor-running, it’s 4:58 on Friday vibe.

You never think about making the ultimate decision for someone you love. You divert yourself with other thoughts. What’ll the family say? How can I face myself after this?

“There’s no coming back for her,” the doctor said. But there’d be no coming back for me, either.

You stand still for that second, three heartbeats replacing the one normally filling that space.

“Okay.” My throat locking in that word and out the air.

The doctor does what he does. Then we wait. Not long. But a whole life together in an instant. She closes her eyes, takes a few deep breaths and… Gone.

But in that instant everything changed. All from one second of indecision to decision.

I had to make the same decision for my Dad, a year later. Everything comes full circle, they say. But you don’t want on this ride more than once.

I’m sure the weepers thought me an unfeeling bastard. The doctor gave the same rap about no coming back, for the best, no-resuscitate order. Then…

“Well?”

In that second, the guy for whom agreeing to have his dog put down changed everything, nodded and said, “Okay, Let’s do it.”

Then I began to breathe again, as others began sobbing. They could never make this decision. But, like I said…in less than a second…changed everything.

I’d cry later.

All The Questions Behind Our Masks

If you could hear my voice,
would you know who I am?
If you could see only my eyes,
would you just shrug and move on?
You, who notice so much, how would
I stand or walk or scratch
my nose that’d signal I’m
the one standing before you?

I only ask because years and tears
take their tolls, and to chase life,
we now wear masks to jump the stiles.
Would I recognize you, if you
covered half your face?
Your smile, once so infectious,
would retain some anonymity
and protection from me, though
your laugh might break through
as if shrouded only by Salome’s
diaphanous veils.

Would I recognize those pools
of sadness or of anger cascading
over your protective wall, as well
as your mask? It doesn’t matter.
Apart is our part in how life goes on,
and happy face to face need only
happen where there are no masks
and distance is dissolved in time
and the dark mask-drop of dreams.

Always Facing Whatever Way The Winds Blow

As the North wind bullies
the trees out of its way,
I watch the baby leaves
get shuffled like poker decks
within the branches.
I know that feeling, the one
where my thoughts scatter
and bounce within my mind,
buffeted this way and that
by winds some call emotions.
But guilt, doubt, anger, fear
aren’t ascribed to any direction.
They follow variable courses,
blowing hot or cold, sometimes
stinging my eyes to tears,
other times tortured, tornadic,
leaving behind thoughts as twisted
as the bedclothes I crawled from
this morning, like emerging
from a dreamy storm cellar
to watch the North wind show
how it should be done.
That’s when I hear myself whisper
to those flattened flapping feelings,
“Hold my beer.”

An “unsettled” poem. Oh, do I know unsettled!

Like A Picture Drawn In Lavender

The fields of lavender stretch like bolts of corduroy from where we bask in summer sunlight. Their perfume wafts sweet and intoxicating, when we need not their breath, for she knows we must be living in a dream.

A breeze combs the wales this way and that. They dance like rows of tiny willows, swaying to the tunes of that aeolian flute rising from the sea, that brilliant mirror of the sun’s face. Does she know it can never be my face?

“Where are you?” she asks, as if my thoughts are always somewhere else. But I’ll be with her all day. “The light is perfect. Do you wish to draw me? Shall I disrobe?”

Within these purple fronds I’m sure she cannot see my smile. Neither is it lecherous nor amused. She’s not some whore like in the village tavern, nor is she some silly child. She is earnest, yearning, waiting for me to memorialize her today. Some instrument of recollection for when she is old and alone.

Then the tear forms at the corner of her eye, as realization crosses her mind like a cloud.

She’s recalls I’m heir to the darkness, yang to shining yin of this Provence light. I can record my chiaroscuro impressions of her, but they’re fleeting. I’m leaving, evening drawing me in its charcoal-covered hands, drawing me as a stick man of two-dimensions, drawing me longer and narrower as I near my vanishing point out there beyond these fields of lavender.

 

The Visions of Henry At-the-Water and He Pounds With His Left Hand

Frances Canyon Pueblito ruins, New Mexico. Photo by T. Mietty, June, 2007.

“Another twenty, twenty-five,” Hank Atwater said as he counted the tufts of white drifting on the edge of his property, lonesome as clouds in the late-spring New Mexico sky. 

“They must be dropping like flies,” he said as he scanned the scattered sheep herd. 

“I know. Reminds me of the shipping fever we got back when I was a little one in aught-nine, but they was beeves,” his son Chet said with a chuckle.

“You think this is funny, Chester Mateo?” Hank’s eyes flashed beneath the shade of his sombrero. 

“No sir, I was just comparing how they’re all fine on Tuesday and dead on Thursday.” Chet had learned the hard way that hearing his father use his proper name followed by the baptismal name his mother gave him was akin to the warning of distant thunder. A storm could be coming.

“These ain’t cows we’re talking about, boy. And it ain’t these stinking, bleating blankets on the hoof, either. These are real people, despite what your grandfather would have you believe. And they been here a hell of a lot longer than he was. Even longer than your mama’s supposedly conquering Spaniard ancestors,” Hank said. He would’ve spit if he could work some up in his mouth.

“If these Navajo keep dying off like this, there won’t be any more sheep or wool or people living out here. And if there’s no people, then all you see is the flat nothing you can’t see in an old painting. No spirit, no soul. And if they can get sick, that means we can, too. You understand that, Chet?”

“Yes, Pa. I get it. But how’re you gonna stop these blanket-heads, I mean these folks, from getting sick? Or makin’ us sick?”

“That, Chester Mateo, is the problem. No one knows. Yet.”

Hank spurred his horse east, but veered off the main trail toward the edge of the Navajo reservation, toward the hogan of his friend Klah Etsiddy. Etsiddy’s family lived beneath an old pueblito tower of adobe bricks and mud. Normally, Hank would know his friend was home by the smoke coming from the smithy his grandfather built within the pueblito after The Long Walk from Arizona.

As they rode nearer, even Chet was aware something was different. All he heard was the wind. By now, he should be hearing the ring of Etsiddy’s hammer on his anvil, turning red-hot iron into tools or horseshoes. His father broke the silence as he spurred his horse into a lope toward the hogan, from which no smoke rose either.

“Lefty, you here?” Hank called out his friend’s nickname as he jumped out of the saddle. In the Navajo language, Klah Etsiddy meant He Pounds With His Left Hand. 

As Chet reined up, he saw his father approach the front of the house, then stop short a couple of yards from the entrance as a figure emerged from the shadows in the doorway. 

“Come no closer, Henry At-the-Water,” Etsiddy said. “I wish you well, my friend, so I ask that you stay back from my home. The evil spirit of your war against the Kaiser has invaded the Diné, I think.”

“Are you sick, Lefty? Is Johona all right? Your Mom, The kids?”

“We are not yet sick. But we are not attending the great healing ceremonies with other families because my mother is so feeble now. But you know she is a blessed medicine woman and a hand trembler. She had a vision that this great sickness was coming.”

“A vision? You’re kidding, right?” Chet said as he alit onto the hard-packed dirt in front of the hogan. AS he strode toward the doorway, his father roughly grabbed his arm.

 “Yes. She saw the saddle catch fire on the old horse’s back when was not near any flames. So we have eaten of that horse.”

Chet still couldn’t believe what he heard. “What?” he said as he scanned Etsiddy’s corral. “Out here in the middle of nowhere, no doctor for fifty miles. An old grandma and kids. And you ate one of your only ways of getting help?” Chet asked. Hank shot him another of his thunderstorm looks.

“My mother knows what to do, Chester At-the-Water. I took one of my other horses to warn my neighbors, but they aren’t so…accepting of Mother’s gifts. So we will stay here and follow the old ways.”

“Pa, I can’t take anymore of this blanket-head hocus-pocus shit. I’m gonna start for Gallup. I’m stopping at the Jennings’ spread on the way.”

“I would feel a lot better if you went right home, Chet. Your Mom might be needing you until I get there,” Hank said. But, with a squeak of leather and of huff of breath from his mount, Chet was already in the saddle and headed to his girlfriend’s father’s ranch.

“I swear. That boy will be the death of me, Lefty.”

“He is young and has not found his way yet, Henry. He needs guidance and knowledge of the spirits inside him and around us.”

“He needs a swift kick in the ass is what he needs. So what is it you and your family really gonna do, Lefty? I worry about you out here.”

“Mother said we should be safe. She was taught by her grandfather who was a great hatalii during other such sicknesses. We have seen illness as bad as this before.”

“I don’t know, my friend. The doctors still don’t know what this thing is or where it really came from. Some say France, where they were fighting the war. Some say Kansas, where we trained boys to go fight there,” Hank said, pushing the brim of his hat back.

“As I said, Henry, any way you look it is the evil shadow of that war begun this sickness, as sure as the many rivers like the webs of spiders are born of one, Tółchíʼíkooh, the river you call Colorado.” 

Well, just the same, if I didn’t know you and the Diné as you taught me, I’d haul you back to my place, just to be closer to a doctor.”

“Henry, I am already closer to any doctor than you are. She sleeps on the other side of my hogan,” Etsiddy said with a chuckle.

“What’s she sayin’ to do?” Hank said.

“We are now supposed to stay away from others, keep our life force close within us. After today, I will not see you until this is over or in the next life. I only leave the hogan to go to the pueblito or to tend the animals. We will pray and keep ourselves clean. Mother says I should not go to my forge because it will make my hands too dirty.”

“She wants you to keep your hands clean? How the hell…?”

“Yes, it is what she was taught. We have many things to do. The children will learn from Mother, Johan and me more in the next weeks than they would in many months. This illness could be a good thing for my family.”

“Well, I don’t know about that, compadre, but I learned a long time ago not to pooh-pooh the teachings of the Diné elders. They proved too right too many times. Hell, you’re all still here, aren’t you?”

“Many won’t be after this, Henry. I have cleansed myself in a great sweat and seen this in a vision, too. I pray you take Mother’s warning to heart for yourself and your family. Keep close to home. Keep clean. Stay happy. Pray. That’s the best way I can explain it to…”

“A white man?”

Both men laughed.

“Well, Yá’át’ééh, Klah Etsiddy, my friend. You keep well, okay?”

Yá’át’ééh, Henry At-the-Water. I hope to see you when the sickness is gone.”

But Hank Atwater and Klah Etsiddy did not see one another again.

Hank decided to adhere to his friend’s mother’s advice, but his son did not. That day, Chet stopped off at the Jennings’ place where his girl, Alice, was nursing a tickle in her throat. With a peck on the cheek, he left for home.

In a week, she was dead. 

In ten days, so were Hank Atwater and his wife. But, for some reason, not Chet.

When word of his friend’s death reached the hogan of Klah Etsiddy, the Navajo blacksmith arose from listening to his mother teach his children about how the Diné Bizaad continued to survive in this difficult land over the centuries. His children kept her alive she told her son many times. 

“Even with all our prayers and Mother’s knowledge, the great illness took my friend. But I will always believe Henry At-the-Water had a vision of his end,” Etsiddy said to his wife. 

“He always told me Young Chester Mateo At-the-Water would be the death of him.”

Man, I’ve been aching to write one of my Western stories for months. Who knew that the Coronavirus pandemic would be the impetus for one? Upon rereading it, I believe certain spirits have whispered to me how I might grow this tale into something greater. Nevertheless, I wished to share this infant story with you at this time.

Oh, and I did my usual quick and nerdy research for this this story. The Navajo did, as they are with COVID-19, suffer horribly with the Spanish Flu of 1918-19. But, anecdotally, some families were not touched so severely. And Edittsy’s mother prescribes how they say they did.

 

It Happens Every Spring

These were the days I would
run like tree sap, uncontrolled
by any man’s order. Not even my own.
A seasonal shade of masculinity
drip-drip-dripping from me
like tears at a funeral,
freeing my joints and tongue
in a low-gravity dance
with the baseless hope one feels
at 0-0 before the first pitch.
And, before you know it,
after a few scoring opportunities
got turned away, I’d be down
Spring to Nothing. Life throwing
a shut-out at the guy who still
misreads the rules. Always thought
’twas Spring hopes eternal,
not some other way ‘round.

Too true for it to be fictionalized. What is it they used to say? Oh yeah, “It happens every Spring.” Still.