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Buck Goes to the Barn Dance

Buck Goes to the Barn Dance

(Buck Goes to the Barn Dance is excerpted from the novel, Longhorns, published 2007 by Carroll and Graf, Publishers)

   

The Hansen farm was the next property over from the Double H, so they were the nearest of neighbors, but this was Texas, and neighbors did not mean close. It was a twenty-mile ride from house to house, and that was going directly across the prairie instead of by road.

The three cowboys set out in the gloaming, but it was night by the time they arrived there and hitched up their horses. There were other horses by the score, and buggies and wagons from around the county, and some had even ridden out from San Antonio in fancy carriages. Texans mostly lived a hard life, and they took their fun where and when they could find it.

The Hansen’s enormous barn had been cleaned out for the occasion, bales of hay put around for the men to sit on, and chairs brought from the house for the ladies. The dirt floor was watered and packed down for dancing, and the glow of scores of lanterns made the inside of the barn as light as day.

The boys had dressed in their best. Buck had washed and scrubbed until his hands were red and raw and his face just about glowed. He put some bear grease on his hair to try to hold it in place—with only modest success, since one or two shiny curls insisted on spilling across his brow, grease or no grease—and he picked his teeth clean with a sprig of wintergreen from the garden, to be sure that his breath was sweet.

One of the hands, who was close to his size, loaned him a fancy shirt that had come all the way from down Mexico way, embroidered across the front with red and white roses. Buck was rightly proud of the dungarees he had bought while he was in Galveston, which were the height of fashion just then, and he got the attention of one or two of the hands earlier in the day while he knelt bare assed by the horse trough for the better part of an hour to scrub his trousers to a fare thee well, so that they were spotless now and nearly as good as the day he had bought them. He had purchased a new bandana at the Mercado when he was in San Antone the week before, yellow as the eyes of a wildcat, and he wore that tied at his throat, and his white snakeskin boots were cleaned and polished, to where you could just about see your reflection in them.

Only his Stetson was old and shabby. He would like to have replaced that, but there hadn’t been the time, and he hadn’t wanted to ask any of the boys about borrowing one, since a cowboy’s hat was a personal thing and something he was hardly ever without. Buck wore his own, old one, for the ride here, and though he felt somehow half naked without it, he hung it over the horn on his saddle and strode hatless with Les and Red toward the light that spilled out the barn door.

Glancing at him as they went in, Les thought the boy looked right fine. It appeared to him, surveying the room, as if Buck was the handsomest young fellow in the place, in fact. For some reason, it made him feel downright proud to have the boy alongside him like this, and his chest kind of puffed out, like. If there were any unattached girls present, he felt sure they would sit up and take notice.

Red looked at Buck, too, as they went into the barn, and found himself wishing after all that him and Buck were back at the ranch. Damned if the boy didn’t look like he was good enough to eat. Well, it was hard to imagine that any little girl here wouldn’t feel the same, seeing him, so maybe this idea of Les’ had been a good one after all.

There was a moment of stillness as the three stopped in the barn doorway, and even the musicians at the far end of the barn let their music trail off as everyone turned to look. Old man Hansen himself, though, came quickly across to welcome them, his wife at his side, and after a moment, the hum of conversation started up again, and the fiddlers picked up their tune and began to scrape and saw again.

“Mighty glad you could come,” Miz Hansen greeted the cowboys. She was near as tall as her husband, a big boned woman with a sun-dried face like a prune, but her smile was friendly and her eyes shone warmly.

“Mighty good of you to have us,” Les said, and introduced the two with him.

“There is some punch over there where the ladies are standing at that long table, if you are thirsty from your ride,” she said, waving a hand in that direction, “And I expect that one or two of the fellows might have something stronger, if you were to ask around, but of course, I know nothing at all about that.” She smiled and her husband gave the boys a wink as if to say they would get to that later.

“Reckon you should meet the rest of my family,” Hansen said. He led the way across the open floor, where a few couples had begun to dance together. His three sons stood with their friends off to one corner, all of them wearing the farmer kind of overalls that cowboys disdained.

“You know my oldest boy, Ron,” Hansen said, “And this here is Brett, and the youngest, Tom.” His oldest boy, Ron, ignored the hands that were offered, but the other two shook with the cowboys, although they did not look too enthusiastic about it, particularly when it came Buck’s turn.

Buck did not much mind for himself. He was a half-breed, and he was used to the idea that some people didn’t care to shake his hand, but he took offense at seeing Les and Red rebuffed, since he felt certain that they were the better of any man present. If either of them minded, though, it did not show on their faces. You might almost have thought they had not even noticed when Ron turned his back on them.

“And these are our daughters,” Miz Hansen said, and led the cowboys to a pair of young ladies seated on wooden chairs nearby. “Emma is our oldest. She will be getting married in the fall.” Emma was tall and willowy, plain of face, although she might have been pretty if her lips had not been set in such an icy line. She only nodded at them without saying a word, and quickly averted her eyes.

“And this is our baby, Margaret,” Miz Hansen said, indicating the other girl.

“Maggie,” the young lady corrected her. “Margaret makes me sound like an old maid, Mama.”

“I don’t reckon anybody would mistake you for that,” Buck said, grinning, and she responded with a little giggle and bowed her head, blushing shyly, but not before she had favored him with a friendly smile. “Not as pretty as you are.”

She was pretty, too, Les thought, with hair the color of corn silk, and cheeks that needed no rouge to paint flowers on them. He began to feel that maybe this had been the right idea, after all, to invite Buck to come along with them. If that little girl couldn’t run some of those crazy notions of his out of that Indian’s head, he reckoned nothing could. After which, maybe he could have some peace back at his ranch, which was greatly to be desired.

The fiddlers launched into an energetic polka, and more couples joined the enthusiastic movement on the dance floor.

“Say,” Buck said, “That music has my toes to tapping, Miz Maggie. What do you say, the two of us take a whirl?”

Maggie giggled again, but she held out her hand to him and got up from her chair. “If it’s all right with Mama?” she said, and gave her mother a quick glance.

The pause in her mother’s reply was no more than a heartbeat long. “No sense in wasting the music,” she said, and turned to Les. “Would you care to try your luck with an old farm woman?” she asked.

“Thank you most kindly, ma’am,” Les said, “But you’d be lucky to have the use of your feet by the time I got done stomping on them. I never did learn how it was done. Now, Red, here, he knows his way around a barn dance.”

“If you would do me the honor, ma’am,” Red said, taking his cue, and led her onto the floor.

Les and Hansen stood together and watched the couples twirling and jouncing energetically. The polka ended and was followed by a reel, the dancers lining up in facing rows. Les saw that several of them were looking sideways at Buck, like they were not quite sure that they ought to be on the floor with him, but he was with their host’s daughter, and while one or two couples retired to the sidelines, most chose to wait and see.

If Buck noticed their reluctance, though, he paid it no mind. He gave a tap of his foot, and seemed to fly across the floor with his partner, dashing at the line of dancers before him as if he would run right into them, then spinning his partner about with graceful abandon, her skirt billowing in a cloud about her legs, and a swift promenade while the others clapped time. There was the rippling sensuality of a gamboling colt in the easy swing of Buck’s hips and thighs, and the other dancers on the floor with him forgot entirely their reservations, and found themselves instead sharing his boyish delight, and threw themselves into the dance with renewed vigor, the men determined not to be out-danced, and the ladies thrilled to be whirled about with such manly enthusiasm.

It came as no surprise to Les to see that Buck was as light as a feather on his feet, and it seemed as if he and the girl were enjoying themselves mightily. She laughed at something he said, smiling up at him, and it was clear enough that she found him pleasing to look at.

Well, shit, who wouldn’t, Les asked himself? The boy was truly a treat for the eyes, all fancied up the way he was tonight, as sweet looking as an angel, if he was full of the devil inside, with them dark curls of his and that big grin, and built as lean and hard as an Indian pony.

Les was immediately embarrassed by those thoughts, though. A man wasn’t supposed to notice about another man being pretty, was he? Hell’s bells. What was happening to him? It seemed any more like he didn’t hardly even know himself.

He dragged his eyes away from the dancers and turned to Hansen. “I guess I could use something to wet my whistle,” he said, “If there was anything a little more interesting than that punch your wife mentioned.”

“I think we can find the right thing,” Hansen said, with a friendly smile. “Let’s us stop over to the house for a minute.”

#

Red escorted Miz Hansen back to her chair after their one dance and thanked her for it, and was relieved that she did not expect another one. He thought that his dancing was about the same thing as watching a dog walk on his hind legs. You were so surprised to see him doing it at all, you just about didn’t notice that he was doing it so badly.

He watched Buck and the girl, gliding about the floor now in a two-step, as elegant as his reel had been spirited, and he was happy to see how well Buck danced. He kind of wondered where and how he had learned it. However it had been, though, it was clear that the girl was enjoying herself, and the looks she was flashing up into Buck’s face were plenty pleased.

For some odd reason, that gave Red a pang. But that was the way of it, wasn’t it, he told himself quickly. A boy and a girl met, and fancied one another, and generally they did something about it, and maybe they even got hitched in time. That was not likely to happen in this case—he had seen the quick glances that Miz Hansen gave her daughter and Buck while they danced, and it was certain she would not welcome a half-breed Indian into her family, if she did let her daughter dance with one.

More than likely, though, Buck would get himself hitched in time, if not with this filly, then with another one day. It saddened him to think that what he and Buck had going between them would mostly likely come to an end when that time came.

“Well, it ain’t come yet, not over one little dance or two,” he told himself. He took his tobacco pouch out of his pocket, and made to roll himself a cigarette, but then he looked around at all those bales of hay, and decided to do it outside after all.

Wouldn’t do neighborly relations any good to burn the barn down in the middle of a dance.

#

Buck saw him go, and when he had escorted Maggie, laughing and with her yellow hair falling across her face, back to her chair, he excused himself and went in search of Red. He found him by the glow of his cigarette, in the shade of a live oak at the far edge of the farmyard. Red passed the cigarette to him as he walked up.

“Looks like you are enjoying yourself some,” Red said.

“Been a while since I done any dancing,” Buck said, laughing softly in the darkness. He took a puff off the cigarette and passed it back.

“She is a pretty little thing,” Red said.

“That she is.”

“You getting any ideas?”

“What kind of ideas?” Buck said, and looked at him in the darkness, just able to make out his face, and laughed again. “Well, I ain’t no farmer, exactly, but I have never minded doing a little plowing now and again, when the opportunity presented itself.”

He reached to put a hand on Red’s shoulder and gave it a friendly squeeze. “Don’t you be worrying none about that, though. Girls like that, they don’t get themselves tangled up with half-breeds, except for some wrestling out behind the barn, which I got no objections to, but I can take it or leave it. I told you before, I like what I like, and I ain’t forgetting who my friend is.”

“That never even crossed my mind,” Red said, but he felt better for hearing that said.

#

When they came back inside, Buck saw that Maggie’s oldest brother, Ron, was engaged in some serious sort of conversation with her. They appeared to be having an argument. She tossed her head at something he said and gave him a fierce glower.

Buck walked over to them and, giving Ron a nod, he said to Maggie, “I was hoping you would favor me with another dance, Miz Hansen.”

“The dancing is over,” Ron said.

Buck glanced at the dance floor, where other couples two-stepped lightly to the beat of the music. “Looks like some are still at it,” he said.

“Let me make it plainer, then,” Ron said, “We are done dancing with you.”

“Ron,” Maggie said, “I told you to leave it be.”

“Well, now,” Buck said, smiling at the young man, “I had in mind dancing with your sister, but I guess I could accommodate you, if you are wanting it badly enough. The thing is, I only know the man’s part, by which I mean to say, you would have to be the girl of it.”

“You come outside with me, half breed,” Ron said, looking nasty, “And I will give you a dance all right.”

Buck took a moment to consider this in silence. Over Ron’s shoulder, he saw Red hurry out the barn door—going, he supposed, to find Les. He knew exactly how Les would feel about his making any trouble. The last thing he wanted was to cause Les any aggravation—of that sort, anyway.

“I ain’t of no mind to fight with you,” he said.

Ron sneered. “I might’ve knowed you would be a chicken,” he said.

Buck looked around. Others had begun to notice them and to listen to their exchange. Still seated in her chair, Maggie was red with mortification.

“Oh, Ron,” she said. Beside her, her sister Emma smirked and looked hopefully from one to the other of the two young men.

“I guess I could teach you a step or two,” Buck said with a sigh. “Whyn’t you lead the way, then, seeing as this is your dance?”

“Come on, then,” Ron said, and began to shoulder his way through the crowd that had gathered. They went out into the barnyard, a distance from the barn, so that they were mostly in shadows. Buck stripped off his shirt as he went, since it was borrowed and he would not want to give it back with no blood on it. His bandana went too, and he tossed them to the ground, and unlaced his holster, and the sheath for his Bowie, and put his weapons aside with his shirt.

Ron began to do the same, but seeing his opponent like this, he couldn’t help having some second thoughts. Parading around on the dance floor the way he had been, Buck had looked more like a frolicsome boy than a man to be concerned about, but now that he was shirtless, flexing his muscles as he waited, he looked like someone to be reckoned with.

Ron looked at some of the boys crowding around the open door of the barn. “Someone go find Brett and Tom,” he yelled, “Tell my brothers to get their asses out here.”

One of the boys in the throng turned toward the barn and yelled, “Brett, Tom, Ron is fixing to kick the shit out of this half breed.”

A minute later, the two younger Hansens, neither as tall as their brother but both of them thickly built, rushed out and pushed their way through the crowd.

“Hang on, there, brother,” Tom called, and Brett said, “I’m wanting to carve me a piece of that Indian’s ass while you are at it.” Tom already had a Bowie in his hand and Brett pulled his from the sheath strapped to his legs as he ran.

They stopped abruptly. A six foot three inch cowboy had stepped directly into their path, his feet planted wide, his hands resting on the handles of his six shooters. While the brothers blinked, trying to take this in, the big red headed fellow came up to stand alongside him, hand on his gun as well.

“What you cowboys got on your mind?” Brett asked, making a show of bravado.

“We got on our mind that those two over yonder will have themselves a fair fight, one on one,” Les said. “Without no help from you two and without no knives.”

“Well, who says you got any right to say how things will be, here on our farm?” Tom asked, but he took a step back so that he was half behind his bigger brother.

“It ain’t me saying it,” Les said, running his fingers over the butts of his guns. “It is Mister Colt’s idea.”

“Maybe we could just tell you and Mister Colt to go somewhere and mind your own fucking business,” Brett said.

“You could,” Red said, speaking calmly, like a man without a care in the world, “But you wouldn’t want to if you had good sense. Some people don’t take kindly to being smart mouthed.”

Tom took another step behind his brother, and Brett swallowed hard and slipped the knife back into its sheath, but he put his hand on his gun instead.

“You ain’t scaring me none with them damned guns,” he said, “Hell, I got me a gun of my own, if you are looking for a shooting match, and I know how to use it, too,” and he started to draw it, but it hadn’t begun to clear its holster, before he saw that there were two six shooters aimed right at his middle section. Damn, he hadn’t even seen the fucking cowboy’s hands move. The other one, the redhead, his gun was still holstered, but he was grinning from ear to ear like he had just heard a good story.

“Shit,” Brett said, shoving his gun back down into his holster, “Ain’t got nothing to do with us anyway, that’s between the two of them, seems like to me. Say, Tom, I hear some of the boys have got them some Pensacola rye down back of the house, and I reckon I am feeling a mite thirsty. Whyn’t you and me go get ourselves some?”

“I could use a snort myself,” Tom said. They began to move in the direction of the corner of the house, backing up at first, and then turning and moving quickly.

“Hey, where you guys going?” Ron called after his brothers, but they didn’t answer, they just kept going, not quite running but not exactly walking either, until they reached the corner of the house and had disappeared around it.

“You come back here, Brett, Tom,” Ron called after them, and got no reply. “Damn chicken shits,” he said, and spit at his feet.

He turned back to the half-breed and took stock of his situation. Damn, what worried him the most was that the guy didn’t look like he was scared at all, even though he stood a head shorter than Ron himself. Didn’t even look nervous, in fact. What it was, actually, was he looked like he was fucking crazy, now that Ron took a good look at him. The shirtless half breed stood kind of in a crouch, like a cougar getting ready to spring, his muscles still shiny with sweat from the dancing he had done earlier. His eyes glittered in the moonlight, it almost seemed like there were sparks coming out of them, and the way he grinned, his teeth showing, unnerved a fellow. There was something else too, that he did just then, that Ron had never seen nobody do before: the Indian’s nostrils flared as he stood there waiting, like he was sniffing the air, or something—like an animal, looking for a scent.

Ron suddenly thought of when he was a boy, and older fellows had scared him with stories of Apaches, the things they did when they were in hand fights. He had heard of one, sprang on a man and ripped the fellow’s throat wide open with nothing but his teeth. There was another tale, too, about a fellow, got into a hand fight with an Apache and had his balls clawed right off him while they was wrestling on the ground, the Apache just reached down and grabbed a hold of them fast as lightning and tore them loose before the other man knew what was happening.

Remembering, Ron felt a little shiver of fear zigzag its way up and down his spine, and all at once it felt like he was about to take a shit in his britches. Sure thing, this fucking Indian looked plenty crazy enough to have something like that in his mind. He did not much care for the idea of losing his balls, let alone having his throat ripped open.

“Shit, I ain’t of a mind to fight with no half-breed Indian trash,” he said, buttoning his shirt up again. “I got me more important things to do.”

He turned his back and began to walk away, but you could see that he was listening for any movement behind him. Buck was motionless though, until Ron had disappeared after his brothers, walking a bit faster as he got further away.

Buck looked at Les and Red then. “I didn’t start it, Les,” he said. “Don’t be sore at me.”

“I know you didn’t,” Les said, holstering his guns.

“And I appreciate your help, boys, really, I mean it,” Buck said, donning his shirt and his bandana, and strapping his weapons on, “But I wasn’t worried about that peckerhead. I could’ve took him on with one hand tied behind my back, him and his piss ant brothers too.”

“Sound mighty sure of yourself,” Les said with a grin. “He is a pretty good sized dude, appears to me.”

“Reckon so, but he was scared shitless,” Buck said. “I could smell it on him.”

“Like them Indian horses do?” Les asked.

Buck grinned back at him. “Guess it just runs in the blood,” he said. “Anyway, once you got a fellow scared, you got him half beat already.”

“Reckon you could have whipped him, at that,” Les said. “Didn’t mean to say that you couldn’t. Imagine you could have easy enough, as long as a fight stayed fair. We was just providing knife insurance. Ain’t got no mind to see any of my cowhands carved up by a couple of polecats.”

“I am much obliged to you for that.” Buck stepped forward and the three of them shook hands all around, in a strangely formal sort of acknowledgment of their comradeship.

“You planning on any more dancing?” Les asked.

Buck glanced at him, and toward the barn, and thought of little Maggie, but there wasn’t much likelihood now of any trips behind the barn, and he knew well enough that nothing more than that was ever going to come of it.

He looked back at Les and shook his head. “I reckon it would just cause trouble for her with her brothers,” he said. “They won’t forget they was humiliated, and others to see it happen. And by a half breed, that will make it worse.”

“Then I expect we might as well be heading for home,” Les said.

Red said, “Unless you want to wait and dance with old Ron there and his brothers when they come back, looked to me like they was pretty light on their feet,” and they all three laughed.

#

When they were on the trail for home, Buck looked from one of his companions to the other. The night smelled of sage and dust, and the faint scent of something dead and decaying that came downwind at them, a stray steer, maybe, that the coyotes had brought down, but a long ways off. The air was warm and dry, and fine for riding.

He thought about the two of them backing him up the way they had, and he felt like his chest was about to bust with happiness. There wasn’t anything in the world better, the way he saw it, than to have a couple of true friends, cowboy friends. He began to sing at the top of his lungs: “Oh, bury me not, on the lone prairie….”

“If I had known you was going to howl like a wounded coyote,” Les said, “Reckon I would have let them boys cut you up back there.”

He larruped his palomino up to a gallop, and after a moment Red and Buck spurred their horses and galloped alongside him, Buck between the other two, the three of them pounding across the plains, feeling free in the way that only a cowboy can feel free, on his horse, out on the range.

Out of nowhere Les, who was not as a rule a man to show excitement, yelled at the top of his lungs, “Yippee-i-o, cowboys.”

Buck answered him by throwing back his head and giving a coyote howl, and they all three laughed, for the sheer joy of being cowboys and being alive, and riding through the summer night together, the hooves of their horses beating a steady thrumedy-thrumedy-thrum on the iron hard ground.

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Journey’s End – a fable

The road was difficult and my destination far distant.

“What a beautiful meadow,” my soul said as we traveled. “See, there, where the stream cascades over the rocks, how the sunlight glistens on the water, and a bird is singing in that tree. Surely God is an artist. Let us rest here to savor the goodness of his nature.”

“We haven’t the time to waste,” I answered, and trudged valiantly onward.

When we had journeyed for some while, we came through a village. A small child sat upon a doorstep, sobbing. My soul cried, “But, wait, let us stop to comfort this little one.”

“We have far to go still,” I answered. “We haven’t time to stop.”

The road flowed behind us, and behind us, and still behind. The shadows lengthened and the air chilled. “Oh, let us squander just a moment in the shelter of that wall,” my weary soul said. “I am sad and need respite. Can you spare nothing for my sake, at least?”

“Can’t you see, the day is growing short,” I said, impatient. “And if we do not persevere, night will be upon us before we reach our goal. We haven’t the time to spare.”

Then I saw death, in robes of black satin and with silver snakes twining in his hair. He came down the road toward us and, as he grew near, he looked directly at me and smiled in greeting.

“We must pray,” I said, frightened.

“You haven’t the time,” my soul said.

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