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Four Trails

A Quartet of Country Tales

by Anthony Roberts

Copyright © 2011 Anthony H. Roberts.

Smashwords Edition

Smashwords Edition, License Notes

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To George Washington Hardy

An Oklahoma cowboy and my great-grandfather.

He loved me even though my hands were soft

and it was clear that the Cherokee had done run out.

Four Trails

A Quartet of Country Tales

The Forgotten Trail

Sweet Kahilu

The Twisted Trail

Rattlers

The Broken Trail

The Beautiful Shore

The Blazin' Trail

Honky Tonk Gal

The Forgotten Trail

Sweet Kahilu

Keoni Yoshida sat in an old brown recliner in the shade of his garage on Spencer Road. The paniolo house had been in his family for generations. It was a simple home, single wall construction with exposed pipes, a rusting tin roof and a rat's nest of electrical wire running beneath it. In places, you could see the ground through the cracks in the floor boards. Outside of the addition of electricity, it hadn't changed much since his grandfather's days. The old place had been repaired many times over the years and there was hardly a board that Keoni had not laid hands on: three bedrooms, a small kitchen, one bathroom, a covered garage with a wash house and a dilapidated horse barn out back.

The barn had long fallen into disrepair from lack of use and maintenance. It had been many years since he had ridden, not since the time he was thrown and had broken his wrist and pelvis. That was over twenty years ago and he still felt the stiffness and pain whenever the mornings were cool and damp.

After a long hospital stay his last surviving daughter, Aulani, had told him that his riding days were over, and his body sadly agreed with her. Too many years with the wild three year olds had taken its toll, but in his dreams he still rode the hills of Waimea with the cool mountain mist on his face and the confidence of a powerful animal in stride beneath him. Such were the dreams of old cowboys.

He was young and strong when he first joined the ranch, back when the horses and cattle still ran wild in the hills and the names of the Kings and Queens of Hawai'i still held their power. Now he sat on his lanai, another lonely old man who watched the cars pass by. He raised his good right hand to each one as they passed: sometimes they waved back, or tapped their horn, but mostly they drove on.

He sat far enough inside the garage to keep out of the rain in case a mauka shower suddenly swept down the mountainside and surrendered its waters to the valley below. Next to his chair was an old workbench that held his daily necessities: a radio set to Hawaiian Oldies, a box of tissues, a thermos of coffee, some crack seed and a portable telephone which he never touched. His granddaughter, Betty, would arrive soon. She worked at the hospital and checked on him every morning and again at lunch time when she could. Betty would be angry that he had left his pills inside the house again. She would lecture him , "Those pills gonna save your life but cannot less you keep 'um close. If you get one heart-attack, no way you gonna make it back into da house for those pills. How many times I gotta tell you, Grandpa, huh?"

He didn't want the pills but he wouldn't tell Betty that, it would make her sad and worry for him. He was 93 years old and his wife and five children had all passed. He raised them as best he could, loved them all, and watched them grow into adults, have families of their own, and then grow old and sick and die. No man should have to bury his love in the cold, hard ground. No father should have to watch child after child pass before his eyes and into the solemn earth.

Sometimes he would hear a song on the radio and warm tears would flow down his wrinkled face.

There were days now when his memory was so clouded that he could not remember their faces or their names, only how much he missed them. When the next heart attack came, he did not want pills. He would welcome its crushing embrace and pray to find his lost loves on the other side.

Keoni noticed a black cat jump up on a fence post next to the garage. He called the cat Boots as it had white fur on its two front paws. It was a stray that wandered the neighborhood and looked for mice and hand-outs. Sometimes it would come visit him and rub up against his leg for a while before it moved on. His last friend. On clear days Boots would lie in the driveway and soak up the warmth of the sun and occasionally flick his tail in indignation. Keoni saved scraps from his meals-on-wheels for the cat but today he had none.

"Eh, Boots. You going sit on da fence post all day? How come you no come ovah here see me, you?"

The stray cat looked at the old man for a second and jumped back into the alley and out of sight. He must have sensed there were no treats today and decided to look elsewhere for his meal. Keoni hoped Boots would find a nice fat mouse to eat.

It was spring, the rains fell and life renewed. The cherry trees along the front fence line were all in bloom. So much beauty wasted on an old man. A sudden gust of wind whistled across the driveway and lifted a thousand cherry blossoms gracefully into the air, swirled them around then dropped them as a blanket of tender pink blossoms on his yard. A small bit of magic for Keoni's tired eyes, but there was something else too... that cat, it was something about the cat and the wind... but he couldn't remember.

An image grew slowly in his mind and rose through the distant fog of memory, a moment from over 70

years ago of a tall slender woman in a tightly cinched riding skirt who leaned against a stone corral fence and held a black cat with white paws. The young woman's long braided hair and ebony eyes were as lovely and dark as the cat's jet-black fur. The wind suddenly swirled around her and kicked up a dust devil in the corral. The woman laughed and pulled the cat close to her bosom to calm its nerves. The wind died just as quickly as it came, and she whispered to the frightened animal, "Oh, such a pretty kitty, such a lovely little kitty". Keoni could hear the cat purr as it nestled against the comfort of the young woman's bosom. Sweet Kahilu.

Keoni saw the white Chevy Impala turn the corner and lumber down Spencer Road. The car pulled into the driveway and his granddaughter Betty got out with a bag of take-out and her phone. They all had phones these days and wore them like paniolo used to wear knives. Always ringing, so much calls and talk, talk, talk -- too much for Keoni. He had no use for them. He preferred the quiet, to enjoy the wind and the rain, and listen to the songs that played softly on his radio.

"Eh, Grandpa. I brought you one bento roll for your lunch. How you doing today?" asked Betty as she walked up the driveway.

"Okay, same same," replied the old man but with a slight tremor in his voice.

Betty put the take-out on the bench and sat down in a white plastic chair across from her grandfather.

She looked at the old man's red and swollen eyes. It was so hard to grow old, especially for men like her grandfather, tough old cowboys whom time had left broken, crippled and alone.

"You sad today, Grandpa? You been crying little bit?"

"Little bit. I was thinking of Kahilu... da kine... Elizabeth Carver," said Keoni.

"Eh, she was that Mr. Sharpe's mother? You knew her? Whoa, long time ago that, huh? What you remembering?" asked Betty.

"Yah, long time ago when I was small boy. We spoke Hawaiian back then, all the cowboys, Carvers too. I can't remember -- you speak?"

"I can understand some, Grandpa," replied Betty. "You like talk-story 'bout Elizabeth Carver in Hawaiian? I would love to hear that. We go eat some lunch and you tell me, OK?"

The words formed in Keoni's mind; the dancing language of his mother and his grandparents and of generations before stretching back a thousand years. To think and speak in Hawaiian took him back to the days his youth, back to the time of wild horses and iron men, before radio and television and computers and cell phones, back when the Big Island was still Hawai'i and the Carver family ruled the Ranch like the Ali'i of old. The old man let the language flow through him as he told the story to his granddaughter.

"Elizabeth Kahiluonapuaapiilani Carver, her name meant 'The Quiet One, Descendant of Piilani' from the line of the great Maui King. Her father died when she was a baby and left her sole heir to the ranch.

She was raised by her mother as royalty, which she was, and by her legal guardian, D. W. Perkins, who taught her the ways of the ranch."

"I first met Elizabeth Carver when I was six years old, she was a few years older than me. My father was a top-hand and would get called to the Big House, the Carver Estate. Sometimes he would take me with him and I would play by the wash house while my father met with the bosses."

"One day a beautiful little girl came around the corner of the wash house. I was playing with a stick and drawing circles in the dirt, and she came and sat down beside me. I was a cowboy's son, dirty and a little rough around the edges, but to me she was an angel, all dressed in white with long flowing hair sprinkled with silk white ribbons. Her dress had a ruffled collar and sleeves that came down her arms and ended in fancy lace around her wrists. She picked up a stick too and drew a cowboy roping a horse beside all my scribbles, and she spoke to me."

'Are you Hoshi Yoshida's little boy, Keoni?'

"I was so stunned that she knew my name that I couldn't speak. I just nodded and looked back down at the dirt again. She touched me on the shoulder and asked,"

'Are you thirsty, Keoni?'

"She took me into the Big House - my father never allowed me in there - and she gave me some juice. I think it was guava, though I am not sure, but at the time I thought it was the best juice I had ever tasted.

I finally worked up the nerve to speak to her and asked her for her name. She laughed and told me,

'Kahilu'."

"For the next few years I played with my friend, Kahilu, whenever my father took me to the Big House.

She was an only child and treated me like a little brother. Never made me feel that I was beneath her, that I was just a paniolo's son. When Elizabeth turned fourteen, they sent her off to school in America.

She came come back to Waimea every summer, but spent most of her time with Mr. Perkins who was teaching her the business of the ranch."

"It was during Elizabeth's summer trips home that she started to call me by my English name, Johnny.

She spent so much time with the haoles that English became her first language, or perhaps she liked to tease me as older sisters often do. I didn't mind. I was happy to be her Johnny.

Like her name, Kahilu, she moved gracefully through the ranch like a gentle breeze. She gave her aloha to all. All of us cowboys loved her; some as a daughter, some as a niece, or as a sister, and some of us loved her as a woman. We watched our Sweet Kahilu grow from a loving child into a beautiful and regal Princess. She was our Ali'i. My father and the older cowboys respected her and looked forward to the day when she and Mr. Perkins would run the ranch together."

"It was after Elizabeth graduated from High School that distance grew between us and we became who we always were, a dirt poor cowboy and his wealthy boss. This was also the time that William Sharpe arrived in Waimea."

"On the passage home from San Francisco, she met this William Sharpe, a wealthy haole boy from Georgia. They fell in love on the ship and three weeks later they were married at the St. James church, the same church where I married your grandmother."

"We didn't know this foreigner, this Sharpe character, but we immediately distrusted him for being haole and because he snatched our Sweet Kahilu from us, but he was a good match for Elizabeth: very handsome and an excellent horseman. He always wore the finest clothes. What they called a Southern Gentleman back then, which made us cowboys hate him even more."

"Elizabeth and William had baby James their first year of marriage. The baby brought new life to the ranch and acceptance for William. It was around this time that I first met your grandmother. We were young sweethearts too, but your grandmother's story is a much longer one and it comes after Elizabeth."

"I saw little of Kahilu during her marriage. It was only natural that she spent her time with her family and, of course, she now had the responsibilities of the ranch. She was nineteen and just a year away from her inheritance. On her twentieth birthday she would take her place as the Big Boss beside Mr.

Perkins."

"I remember that William caused quite a stir on Elizabeth's birthday when he gave her a very fancy automobile. Automobiles were nothing new to Waimea, but William's car was different. It was a Sportster, which he called The Silver Ghost. It had a convertible top and was very fast, at least for those days. He and Elizabeth would race up and down the backroads of Waimea and scare the hell out of the horses and cattle. She loved that car, and William too, I suppose."

"The last time I saw Elizabeth, now Elizabeth Sharpe, was not long after her birthday. I was assigned to mend fences out at Punahele station. The other paniolo rode out early to sort cattle, but my father made me stay behind as punishment for something, I don't recall what. I was sixteen and a bit of a rascal, always got scoldings."

"You Grandpa? Mama told me you was always GIVING scoldings!" said Betty.

"That came later. When I was young, I got them," said Keoni.

"I dug out rotten fences posts all morning and planned to set the new ones in the afternoon. I was pulling up a post when I saw Elizabeth on one of her grandfather's prize palominos. She rode paniolo style, not like the English ladies who ride for show. Elizabeth was a true horsewoman. I waved at her, and she turned her horse and trotted over to me. I was very hot and sweaty and a little embarrassed for her to see me in such a state, after all, she was a Royal Princess and almost the Big Boss. She rode up to me with a smile on her face, the way she looked on that horse melted my heart."

'Good morning, Johnny. Are you in trouble again? Pulling posts while the rest of the men are out doing real work?'

'A little bit trouble, Kahilu, but I do more work here than all of them put together.'

'Yes, I can see that,' she said. Then she asked me to water her horse while she took a short break from her ride. I was happy to spend time with her again. I lead the palomino to a water trough and pasture with plenty of long grass. I took off the bridle, saddle and blanket and slung them over the fence rail and cleaned myself up a little before I returned to the paniolo house to meet Elizabeth."

"She sat on the front lanai with her feet propped up on the porch railing, and said to me, 'I thought I might sit down and let you wait on me. I'll have a cup of coffee if you don't mind.'

"There was a half a pot still left in the kitchen from the morning crew. I put it back on the stove and added another chunk of wood through the feed door. I poured fresh water for both of us while we waited on the coffee. When I returned to the lanai I found Elizabeth had set up the checker board.

Cowboys all like to play cards and checkers, and she was no different."

'I bet I can still beat you,' she said. 'I recall that I was always much better at checkers than you.'

I laughed and answered her, 'Maybe so, but I am not a little boy anymore, Mrs. Sharpe. You might be in for a surprise.'

"I sat down and played checkers with Elizabeth. She was so different from her mother. Mrs. Carver was a very reserved and proper woman. Like Elizabeth, she had much aloha for all of us, but there was a distance to Mrs. Carver's love. Perhaps it was because her own husband had died so young from the great fever that had swept the island. But with Elizabeth, there was no distance. From when she was a little girl she rode out to spend time with her cowboys, talk-story with us, and play checkers and cards.

Sometimes she stayed so long that her mother would send one of the house staff to fetch her home. She was our friend, almost like a cousin, and to some us, she was a cousin. Small towns lead to many cousins."

Keoni stopped for a moment as a dark cloud passed before his mind.

"What...? Where was I?" asked Keoni.

"You and Elizabeth Carver were playing checkers, if that's what you were really up to," said Betty with a mischievous grin.

"Don't talk like that!" scolded the old man. "Show respect. Yes, we played checkers, talked and laughed like the old times, as a brother and sister would. She told me about a great voyage they were planning and how excited she was about it. She was going to Paris though she had been before. She wished to show off her favorite places in Europe to her husband. She said that this would be her last chance at freedom before taking over the heavy responsibility of running the ranch. He mother did not want her to go, and neither did Mr. Perkins, but they could not talk her out if it."

'What will you do with your little boy?' I asked her.

'We'll take him with us, of course," she said. 'James is two years old and that's old enough to travel. '

Then she leaned close to me and whispered, even though we were miles from the closest person,

'Johnny, I have other big news, but you can't tell a soul. Promise you won't speak a word to anyone. If it gets out, I'll know it was you.'

Playing along with her, I said, 'I promise, and you know I can keep a secret. I never told anyone about the time you broke the vase that the Emperor of Japan gave your grandfather."

She laughed at me and replied, 'Oh, Johnny, I'm sure I don't know what you are talking about, but my secret is... I'm with child again! William knows, of course, and I had to tell Mother. I guess everyone will know soon enough, but it's still a great secret for now. We plan to have the baby in Paris. Isn't that exciting? To have a child born in Paris, France.'

'So far away, Kahilu," I said, "Everyone will be worried."

'Don't be silly," she told me. 'Paris has the best doctors in the world. It will be lovely."

She swore that the next time I saw her she would be back from Europe with a little French baby. We finished the game and I went and got the coffee. Elizabeth didn't want to play any more so we sat on the lanai, looked out over the plains and watched the clouds drift down Mauna Kea and across the valley.

We sat there and drank the hot coffee and enjoyed the silence between us, just like we were children when we drew pictures in the dirt."

"Out of the blue, she turned to me and said, 'You know, Keoni, if I didn't meet William I might have married you.'

"Oh, Grandpa, you could have owned all of Carver Ranch, you sly dog!" said Betty.

"No, never! She was Ali'i and I was not. It was a strange thing for her to say and I told her so. We finished the coffee and I went off to saddle her horse. I can still see her on that beautiful palomino with the mountains and sky behind her. Before she rode away, she said to me," 'It's so beautiful here, Johnny.

I shall never leave it. No matter what, this will always be my home.'

"Elizabeth and her entourage left for Europe not long after that. They arrived in Paris right before World War I. Elizabeth had her baby, Anna Jane Sharpe, but it was a difficult birth and both she and her baby were ill. The Great War started but Elizabeth and the baby were too weak to travel, still, William had no choice but to take his family away from the fighting. When they arrived in America, Elizabeth and baby went straight into the hospital. The baby died in not long after their arrival."

"Oh no, Grandpa. She lost her baby? Oh my God," said Betty, who reached for a tissue.

"It was a great tragedy. My sweet Kahilu had lost her baby girl. William took the family to his home in Georgia to grieve as Elizabeth's health continued to worsen. Little Anna Jane's casket traveled with them like a piece of luggage. It was then that the doctors told William that his wife had tuberculosis and he became lost in his sorrows. The death of his daughter and the failing health of Elizabeth was too much for him. It fell to Mrs. Carver to go to Georgia and bring them all back home to Hawai'i."

"They made it as far as San Francisco, but Kahilu was too weak for the ocean voyage home. There was a World Trade Fair in the city and Mrs. Carver arranged for the Hawaiian delegation to come and visit with Elizabeth. They sang to her of Hawai'i, beautiful songs of her homeland to lift her spirits and give her courage. It was in San Francisco that she inherited the ranch. She was the Big Boss Lady at last, and she died in America as she listened to the songs of her homeland."

Betty reach for another tissue. Both she and Keoni wept, as the old man continued, "That was over 70

years ago. Mr. Perkins gathered all us ranch hands together to tell us the dreadful news. His tears fell as he told us of her death and the death of the baby. I remember Mrs. Carver all dressed in black at his side, so still and so strong. She did not cry, not even at the funeral when her only child and baby-granddaughter were lowered into the earth.

Elizabeth had come home to us at last. The Big House was filled with thousands of flowers piled high around two koa caskets. We loaded the caskets onto a horse drawn trailer and led the funeral procession through Waimea town and out to the family cemetery. Hundreds of people walked with us, all trailing behind Sweet Kahilu and her child. I heard the wails of the women echo off the mountainside, and saw cowboys as tough as leather, unable to hide their tears.

My own sorrow was beyond control. I wanted to scream, to drown myself, to carve the pain from my heart - but I could do nothing but endure. When the cowboys laid her and little Anna Jane to rest, I longed to jump into the grave beside them and pull the earth over me. My Elizabeth was gone. My Sweet Kahilu, gone forever."

The old man wiped his eyes, took a sip of coffee, then added, "We buried her with the baby on the plains of Mauna Kea, on the land she loved and swore never to leave."

Betty wiped her eyes, reached over and grabbed her grandfather's hand.

"She was your first love, wasn't she, Grandpa?"

"Yes, Kahilu was my first love. The first of so many I have buried, yet cannot lay to rest."

* * * * *

The Twisted Trail

Rattlers

A man in a dusty Chevy Nova pulled up to the first pump at the Balmorhea GasnGo service station, though it was unlikely he would receive any service from the employee on duty who was firmly ensconced behind the counter in the air-conditioned food mart.

Jimmy Segwick sat on his stool at the cash register and watched as the man stepped out of his car, stretched and then walked over to the pumps. He obviously wasn't a local, and a Nova being your standard rental car, Jimmy decided to throw caution to the wind and reset the pumps rather than have him come in and pay first. Company policy at the GasnGo was for all patrons to pay before they pumped, but Jimmy didn't stand on policy, in fact, he tried to stand as little as possible. He mostly sat on his stool all day long and sold gas, snacks and sodas to the occasional tourists who passed through, or beer and cigarettes to the handful of locals who could pay the inflated prices. You didn't see many tourists take the scenic loop through Balmorhea these days. Travelers tended to stay on the interstate.

Balmorhea in the summer time had little to offer. It was nothin' but hot and dry, some patchy scrub grass, and a hell of a lot of scorched earth and rattlesnakes.

The man made several trips back and forth to the water bucket and methodically squeegeed all the dirt off his windows. Jimmy could tell he was business man, nobody around these parts dressed like that unless they were gettin' married or buried. The temperature was already 105 degrees and Jimmy figured the man had to be roasting in his monkey suit. The man topped off his tank and headed into the food mart.

"Hot enough for ya, Mister?" asked Jimmy, as the man entered the store.

"If it was any hotter I'd be searching for the devil himself," said the man.

"I reckon you'd find him too. If this ain't hell, it's awful damn close," said Jimmy.

The man walked up to the counter and threw down a fifty for the gas.

"Hope you don't mind, but I'm supposed to check anything over twenty for counterfeit, not that you're a suspect or nothin'. Just doin' my job," said Jimmy, and ran his detection pen over the bill.

"A man's gotta do his job," said the man.

"Well, you'll be glad to know you ain't carrying no funny money," said Jimmy, as the ink on the bill turned to a light amber color.

"Thank heavens. I'd hate to get hauled off to jail way out here."

"And it would be a haul, friend. The Governor closed down the jail last year. Budget cuts, or so they say. They'd have to take you all the way to Van Horn."

"You got no police around here anymore?" asked the man.

"Don't got 'em. Don't need 'em. Everyone 'round here takes care of themselves. Law has always been cowboy law out in these parts, and that's the way we like it. Besides, the police are too busy chasin'

wetbacks and dope dealers to pay attention to much else," said Jimmy. "Here's your change, thank you for stoppin' in."

The man pocked his change then said, "I noticed some beer over in that cooler yonder. Mind if a had one or two before moving on? I've been drivin' all day and wouldn't mind stretchin' my legs before climbin' back into that matchbox."

"Policy is no alcohol consumption on the premises," said Jimmy looking the man over before handing down his verdict, "but seeing as you're my third customer all day, and there ain't no law around anyhow, I suppose there's no harm sellin' a grown man a beer."

"There ya go," said the man with a friendly smile. "Cold one's on me if you don't mind drinkin' on the job, seeing as there's no law around."

Jimmy never once had a beer while working, wasn't even tempted, but the man was offering so he thought he might as well be sociable.

"All right then, but just one. If anybody drives up I'll have to stash it behind the counter. I don't need any pissy calls from the head office in Dallas 'cause some old biddy got her panties in a bunch seein' me sippin' a Bud."

"That your flavor then, Budweiser?"

"That'll work," said Jimmy.

"Then ring me up a couple them tall boys, son."

The man popped the tops on the ice cold beers and passed one off to Jimmy, and said, "Name's Harlan, Harlan Robichaud. I work out of San Antone but spent the last couple days down in El Paso."

"Jimmy Sedgwick," said Jimmy. "Nice to meet ya and thanks for the beer. What line of business you in Harlan, salesman for the oil companies?"

"No, I'm just an glorified accountant. I had to run an audit down in El Paso and the sonsabitches overbooked my flight back to SA. Rather than wait a couple days for the next one, I said, 'Screw it, I'll get a rental.' Bad to worse, all they had was this piece-of-shit Nova. And to top it all off, the AC is on the fritz."

"Wearin' that suit in a car with no AC. Lordy, I imagine you do need a cold beer or two," said Jimmy.

"Oh, it's not off by a damn sight - it's stuck on full blast! I'm wearin' my jacket just to keep warm.

Freezin' to death in 100 degree temperature. Can you believe that shit? This trip is one for the ages,"

said Harlan.

Jimmy took a long pull on his beer, "Whole country's goin' to hell in a bucket. Everything you buy is a piece of shit, most of it Made in China. Jews up in New York usin' the Stock Market to rob us all blind, and then that Obama - Good Lord, don't even get me started on that boy. No offense now, if you lean the other way. Everybody's got the right to their own opinion, I suppose."

"No offense taken. I grew up in Texarkana and never thought I'd see the day we'd have some Ubangi for our President. Just goes to show you how far we've sunk, in my humble opinion," said Harlan.

"You got that right, Mister. This country won't be fit for white people much longer. The niggers, wetbacks and queers have done took over. Unless we do somethin' quick we all better start learnin' to habla the espanol or dance the watusi."

"It'll be a cold day in hell before I do either of those," said Harlan, taking another drink off his beer.

"Not much traffic out here this time of day."

"No sir, most of the traffic comes through in the mornin' and slows way down in the afternoons. I'm usually closed by 5:30 if not earlier. It's a ghost town around here at night," said Jimmy.

Harlan took another large pull off his beer, burped, and took a look around the room. Dozens of pictures of rattlesnakes adorned the walls along with a pair of six foot long rattle snake hides tacked up behind the cashier station.

"Gotta lotta damn snake pictures in here. Some real monsters too. What's the deal with all this stuff?"

asked Harlan.

"Well sir, one thing Balmorhea has in abundance is rattlers. Rattlesnake huntin' is big sport down here.

There's an annual round up, but that's mostly for the tourists and university types. They come down here with a big milkin' crew for the venom and put on a big show for the tv crews. Most of the local boys just hunt 'em for the meat and hides, or just out of spite."

"You ever do that? Hunt the big rattlesnakes?" asked Harlan.

"Hell yeah I do! That's what brought me down here. I saw a hide on sale a couple three years ago in Fort Worth for $120. I thought, Hell, man, easy money," said Jimmy.

"You came all the way down here from Fort Worth just to hunt rattlesnakes?"

"That and to get away from my crazy bitch of an ex-wife," said Jimmy.

"Runnin' from one poisonous snake to another, eh?"

"You might say that, but I tell ya what - I prefer the ones that slither on the ground to the ones that bitch and moan, that's for dang sure!"

"Not quite the easy money you imagined though, snakes I mean, you workin' in a gas station and all,"

said Harlan.

"No, not as easy as I thought," frowned Jimmy. "You gotta do a volume business to make any money with snakes. Didn't know that 'fore I got here."

"Is that you in that picture there?" asked Harlan, and pointed to a photograph of a grinning man in a confederate T-shirt holding up a large rattlesnake.

"Yeah, that's me, alright. That sumbitch was 8 feet long and weighed near 50 lbs. We found a half-eaten rabbit inside him, and not a little bunny neither, a big ol' jackrabbit 'bout the size of a house cat," said Jimmy with pride.

"How in the hell do you catch somethin' that big? I reckon he's longer than a man is tall," exclaimed Harlan.

"Very carefully, my friend. I ran across that big bastard not a mile from this store. Summer drought brings 'em in lookin' for water," said Jimmy. "Now the first thing you gotta do when approachin' a big-ass rattler is to gage how pissed off he is. If he's all coiled up and hisssin', then brother, he's ready to strike and you need to back-the-hell-off."

"Jesus H. Christ, I can't even imagine," said Harlan.

"You gotta keep your eye on him all the time and move in slow like. I bought me an official snake-stick but you can use anything that puts a little distance between you and that rattler; a golf club, a piece of rebar with the tip bent over, anything that'll put his head down in the dirt. The trick is learnin' how to approach him," said Jimmy. "He don't see too well - he gets most of his information from vibrations, so you gotta come up on him slow and pick your spot. Don't be messin' around with a rattler on uneven ground. If he's up against some scrub, or half under a bunch of rocks, hook him and drag him out into the open. Take your time, line it up, and then, quickly pin his head to the ground. He ain't gonna like it and a he's strong sumbitch, so you gotta be committed - pin him and keep his head down. And be damn sure when you make your move."

"Good Lord, that calls for another beer," said Harlan. "Ring us up two more, Jimmy."

"Yes sir, two more tall boys!"

"So what do you do when you have that monster pinned to the ground? Sounds like a Mexican stand-off to me," said Harlan.

"You sure as hell don't let him go. It's you or him. Keep him pinned, and slowly, and I mean slowly, reach down with your free hand and grab him hard behind the head. Not close to the head, not an inch behind the head, but right where his head hits his body. Grab his ass tight and don't let go. He'll twist and fight and try to scare ya into lettin' him loose, but you gotta hold on for dear life, 'cause it's your life or his. There ain't no hospital 'round here, and that John Wayne bullshit of suckin' the venom out don't work. You get bit out here and the poison gets in ya... well, friend, your eyes bug out, your throat swells up and you're dead meat."

"You're a braver soul than I. Now that you got a pissed-off snake by the throat - do you put him in a sack? Or beat him to death, which would be my first choice."

"You don't wanna mess up the hide so you get him in a sack, but make sure it's made of heavy canvas, don't use a pillow case that he can bite right through. A lot of folks like those five gallon plastic buckets with the lids. I just assume kill 'em right off. You can shoot 'em, kill 'em with a knife - oh yeah, you might think this is funny - but I've heard tell of people freezin' 'em to death."

"No shit? Just throw 'em in the fridge?" asked Harlan. "That might be a way of gettin' rid of the ex-wife too."

"Wish I'd thought of that, but no, you get yourself one of those cheap freezers at the Costco, bring your bucket of snakes home and dump 'em in. Before you know it, you got Rattlersicles," said Jimmy.

"Leave 'em for a few days, then thaw 'em out, skin 'em, eat the meat and treat the hides."

"Is that how you do it then?"

"Nah, freezin' 'em sounds kinda crazy to me. I like the direct approach. I cut their heads off with my knife, and I've never shed one single tear."

Jimmy reached down to his side, unbuckled his holster and pulled out a folded hunting knife. He opened the blade and snapped it into place, holding it up for Harlan to see.

"Four inch blade, Damascus steel - sharp as a razor, my friend. It'll take your finger off as easy as a snake's head if you're not careful," said Jimmy, then folded the knife back up and returned it to its holster.

"Not bad for protection either, I imagine," said Harlan.

"Slice through a man's belly as easy as a snakes, but my real back-up is under the counter here, Old Betsy. Twelve gage, double-barreled shotgun - sawed off for that can't hardly miss advantage," said Jimmy, who brought the shotgun up from beneath the counter. "This is the only security system I'll ever need."

"Between that knife and your shotgun, I'd say you're pretty well covered," said Harlan. "Can I have a look at that gun? Reminds me of one my Grandaddy use to have. He ran a little moonshine back in East Texas in the 40's and 50's, and that was his preferred security system too."

"Mister, I think you're an OK feller, but I'm not in the habit of handin' over a loaded shotgun to a stranger. No offense," said Jimmy.

"None taken, son. Perfectly reasonable. It just reminded me of my old Grandaddy's gun. I do a lot of bird huntin' and I'm always interested in lookin' over a nice shotgun."

Jimmy took another long pull on his beer then said, "Tell ya what, I'll take the shells out and you can have a quick look. My daddy gave me this shotgun when I was a boy, and his daddy gave it to him. I sawed-off the barrels when I started workin' here. It's a good gun. I wouldn't stay workin' here without it."

Jimmy pushed back the locking lever, broke open the shotgun and pulled out the two shells placing them side-by-side on the counter in front of him. He snapped the barrels closed and handed the gun over to Harlan. The accountant sat his beer down next to the shotgun shells and stepped back to admire the old weapon.

"It sure is a beauty, a real beauty. I can see why your father held on to it. I bet it made a great bird huntin' gun before you cut it all down," said Harlan. "Bird huntin' sure is a great sport. I love everything about it, I surely do: being on your own, gettin' out in the wild, flushin' out the birds, the thrill of knockin' them down from the sky. It's the best sport in the whole wide world."

"There's a few ranches down here that dove and quail hunt. I can put you in touch with them if you'd like," said Jimmy.

"I'd like that. Thank you, Jimmy," said Harlan. "You know another sport I really like? Football.

America's national pastime. I'm crazy about some football. Do you like football, Bobby?"

"Sure, who doesn't like football? But you called me Bobby there, Mister, my name is Jimmy."

"Bobby? Did I? I apologize, Jimmy. I must have been thinking about this thieving redneck I heard about up in Fort Worth. He liked football too, and he loved to bet on the games, But this feller, he was a real loser, Jimmy, a natural born loser. You might not believe this, but he ran up a 40,000 dollar tab.

And that's not even counting the vig! And then he just up-and-disappeared. That was about two years ago. His name was Bobby. Bobby Sellers. Now, when did you move down here again, Jimmy?"

Jimmy dropped his hand to his knife and replied, "Now wait just a minute, Mister. I don't know what the hell you're talkin' about, but I've lived here for the last ten years of my life, just ask anybody in this town. And I ain't no gambler neither, and I never heard of no Bobby Sellers."

"That's not what your crazy ex-wife told me," said Harlan. "Think fast, Bobby!"

Harlan tossed the 12 gauge back to Jimmy who snatched it out of the air and pointed it right back at Harlan's chest. Jimmy smiled for a second until he saw the two shotgun shells sitting on the counter next to Harlan's beer.

The accountant from San Antone gave Jimmy a friendly smile and took a step toward the counter.

"You know, Jimmy... Bobby... Jim Bob, whatever the hell your name is," said Harlan, as he pulled a

.357 Colt Python out of his jacket and pointed it directly at Jimmy's head. "It occurs to me, son, that the main thing about dealing with snakes is being smarter than the snake."

* * * * *

The Broken Trail