When JoDee Dees rode up to the gate, the bottle the hunter left was still sitting on the post. His eyes went to it the way eyes do to something they didn’t know they were expecting. He blinked, shifted in his saddle.
JoDee focused on Ephraim Sheridan’s three cows, one steer, and two calves strung out on the trail ahead of him, the lead cow almost only a ghost that wisped into and out of his vision in the snow, a fine powder blowing out of the south. He was letting the wind and snow drift his little herd ahead of him down the trail to Bows Camp. And there wasn’t much to do except keep his mind off the blunder his life had become and hold the gelding, Dilo, so he didn’t race past the cows to the barn. “What goes on at Bows, stays at Bows,” the hunter had said. It was a common saying, to which Eph Sheridan was likely to reply. “What happens at Bows don’t stay there any more’n a belly ache stays away from crab apples.”
Joe D. Dees was nearing thirty-four years old, and when he was sober and could face himself in a mirror he saw a lengthening space between his thin, brown hair and eyebrows that hung like unstable ridges over the caves of his eye sockets and the side-skewed, broken nose that ranged between them like a crooked mountain range. There were glows back in those caves, stifled fires that had dulled to coals. When he was not sober and those eyes came back to him from the mirror behind a bar, they were dull sheens whose only spark was the greenish glitter of barroom neon. Even drunk it was not something he liked to see looking back at him. But likely as not, before he looked away, he would stretch a slow inebriated grin, and salute with his shot glass, saying to himself, ‘last one,’ before he tossed it back. Usually it wasn’t the last one.
Funny name for a horse, Dilo, a racetrack loser Eph’s wife had picked up cheap, “rescued” she called it. Only, the kid who was just learning to talk at the time couldn’t say Diablo’s Daunt, so now everybody called him Dilo. Not a bad ride for a loser off the track, a bit gumptionless, except when it came to the feed box and his buddies in the pasture, but not a bad ride if you kept him reminded of spurs and common sense. Probably why he hadn’t been much on the track. He was a good ride, though. As long as you made him mind his manners and kept his head on the job, he could carry you all day in a ground eating single foot. Did have a taste for the oat bucket and his buddies in the pasture, but what pony didn’t have that?
Now, this racetrack loser wanted to drift on down to Bows and the bucket of cotton seed cake in the horse trailer parked there. And if it wasn’t for the cat JoDee would have let him.
The cat was Ephraim Sheridan’s daughters’ pet tabby that Eph kept at his cow camp cabin during the summer to deal with vermin, and he had forgotten to pack it up when he rounded up most of his cows and pulled out the week before.
This morning at breakfast one of the girls asked JoDee if he was going to bring Fsster home, too.
Eph said, “He will if he can, hon. But ole Fsster will winter out just fine up there at the cabin, if he don’t.”
“All winter?! Alone?!” Ellen, the youngest, screeched, “ALONE!” Then she ran off to the back of the house wailing. Eph bunched his lips and frowned, then went on munching at his toast and eggs. “See what you can do, JoDee,” he said. Eph’s other girls sulked over their orange juice.
Ellen was eight or nine, about the age of JoDee’s own Molly. He saw Molly once a month, and then only if Anne, the woman he still called his wife, thought he was in a decent condition. It wasn’t something he could let his mind get onto or he’d be a wreck and back in the Lost Mine bumming drinks. Which is exactly why it had come to seeing Molly only once a month. Anne, too, for that matter. Remembering the good times with them didn’t do any good, just made him hungry for them, made him angry and sad that it was gone. A drunk buddy once told him, “let’r go, move on, JoD’, no woman worth that. Leave’r.” It was a damned fool thing to say. Both of them were making bar stools their second home at the time. But it still didn’t make any sense to JoDee, drunk or sober.
So you just kept on and didn’t let your head touch on it. You kept on the job, on the shovel, or hammer, or the cows in front of you, and you did what you needed to do to make that part of the world work somewhat like it should.
When the steer went through the gate he threw his head and swung his heals up, kicked. He made a play bunt at one of the cows, and the whole bunch of them broke into a shambling, clumsy cattle gallop down the trail.
“Yeah,” JoDee told them, “you girls just dance on down to Bows for your hay party. Ole Monty’s probly already got it started for you. Me? I still got me a cat to round up.”
The only question was should he ride Dilo up to the cabin this evening or down to Bows Camp and operate from there in the morning. Even in this weather the ride was doable, though not entirely comfortable.
Eph had told him to avoid Bows Camp.
“I’d work out of the cabin and stay away from that Bows Camp,” Eph said, “You’ll come back with a barstool up your behind and useless for a month.”
“Likely those strays’ll be moseying on out of the mountains with this snow pushing ‘em, JoDee told him, “and the best place to get ‘em will be Bows’ corrals.” The idea of dragging the horse trailer two hours over the Forest Service jeep track into Eph’s cabin and then two or three hours back loaded with cow and horse and fighting snow and mud did not appeal to JoDee.
“I aint tellin’ you how to do your job, JoDee. And I aint tellin’ you how to run your life, except as it relates to making your wages. If they’re at Bows corrals, you pick ‘em up at Bows corrals, obvious. But you know and I know, JoDee Dees and Monty Bows get carousing, cows or cat neither one will be much on JoDee’s mind.”
The hell he wasn’t telling him how. Old Mormon worry pot.
But he was sober and had been sober one hundred and twenty-one days. Thanks to that Old Mormon worry pot, sure, no doubt about that. Thanks to him dragging him out of the Mint Bar and giving him work, sure. Nobody ever said Joe Dees wasn’t grateful.
But it was him, Joe D. Dees, that was sober, and it was him that was going to stay sober. That life was behind him now. Maybe it hadn’t stuck a couple of times back in the day. But that was the old JoDee. That was before Anne left and took Molly. The drinking part was behind him. He couldn’t think about the rest of it. Anne told him it wasn’t up to him anymore. So he just had to let it rest.
Anyway, JoDee didn’t need a teetotal riding herd on him. He’d proved it twice already this morning.
The first thing Monty Bows said, when he waddled up to where JoDee was saddling Dilo beside the horse trailer was “The pot’s on, kid. Stop up to the house before you ride off. Got a little ‘o the Irish to warm it up for ye.” With the wind hazing wet flakes of snow in the chill morning, a cup of coffee sounded pretty solid. The Irish warmer upper sounded both better and worse.
So JoDee said, “Naw, thanks, Monty. I better get those last cows in before it really turns winter,” and he hitched the cinch tight, dropped the stirrup, turned it, and stepped on.
The second time was the hunter who offered him a last swig from his brandy bottle. There were about three amber inches left in the bottom of his flask that he shook up against the dim light and snow. He offered it to JoDee but JoDee said he quit, thanks anyway, and shifted in his saddle. So the hunter reduced the three inches to about one inch and a half and grinned back his lips and looked at the trickle left in the bottom.
“Always leave a little comfort for the Gods,” the stout little hunter said. “make it a point every year to quit when I go through this gate, and leave a last bit to placiate the Mountain Spirits. I leave it sitting on this post, and every fall when I come back, it’s gone. ‘Magine that.”
He set the bottle on the gate post. There was still about two fingers in the bottom of it. “What the wife don’t know and boss don’t know, they don’t need to,” the hunter said. “Do it at Bows, leave it at Bows.”
“What happens at Bows don’t stay there any more’n a belly ache stays away from crab apples,” JoDee said. The hunter laughed, turned and shambled down the trail.
Ann walked out with Molly four years ago. JoDee couldn’t remember the details except he woke up one morning fur-tongued and a head like an anvil, and they were gone. It shouldn’t have happened but it did. That morning was the second or third time he started to dry out.
“Well, keep your wagon dry,” JoDee said to the hunter.
The hunter waved his hand back at JoDee. “Same to you, kid,” he said. Likely the dry wagons and crab apple comments went right past him at thirty thousand feet. Likely he thought it was just some hick cowboy thing to say.
JoDee Dilo turned Dilo into the wind. He did not look back at the hunter or the scant amber taste in the bottom of the flask sitting on the fence post.
So, now with the little bunch of cows on their way to break the famine, JoDee held Dilo and figured which way he’d handle the cat.
The brandy flask nestled now in snow on the gray post, a vulgar and enticing flash of color. He shifted in the saddle, then leaned over and hefted the bottle. There was just enough in it to wet a thirst without putting on a full drunk. The snow that had gathered against it whisped off the post in the wind. He turned the flask in his hand. He remembered Anne standing in the crack of a door, her face hard and her thin mouth saying “Can’t you ever do just one thing. Just one little thing.” Molly was behind her in the room, tears starting to well in her eyes, and he couldn’t look at her. Then the door closed. It hadn’t been that way the last couple of months, but it had been like that enough before that.
He firmed his lips and set the flask back on the post. Not enough for a drunk, maybe, but enough to get him started on a binge down at Bows. Well, he didn’t need that.
He probably should have done what Eph told him to do. He should have bypassed Bows Camp, he should have driven on around to the Eph’s cabin and work out of there. But it just didn’t make practical sense. He could ride for the cat from Bows just as easy as he could drive it. And as expected, the cows were all within a mile or so of Bows corrals anyway.
This morning, Monty already had three of the eight JoDee was looking for corralled, and he found the other five just off the trail where it swung a bit to the east to come over the ridge and around the lake. These five, their mind more on getting to Bows camp, than on how to get there, had decided to try the short cut. And, not having a boat and not inclined to swim, were flummoxed by the lake and the fence that came out of it and sagged 100 yards to the gate they should have gone through. Well, they were on their way now, disappearing down the trail toward a bale of hay and a corral cud chewing party.
Old Eph wouldn’t think twice if JoDee told him he couldn’t get the cat. Eph was a bit callous about any animal, and a cat was one of the much lower forms of animal, easily and cheaply replaced, regardless of his daughters’ breakfast sull. And it was true enough a cat could likely manage. But all JoDee could think of was the little girl wailing “ALONE.”
JoDee swung off Dilo. He picked up the gate that was lying on the ground in a loose jumble of wire and wooden stays, half under the snow. He shook the snow off of it and dragged it against the fence and leaned it there. He didn’t needed to stop for the gate, but it felt good, putting things neat, even something as small as an open gate. Every little thing had its reasons.
When he turned around the bottle glinted an amber wink at him from the fence post. He pulled Dilo around, between him and the bottle, faced into the wind. He snugged the near rein so when the animal turned from the wind to start toward Bows, it would turn around JoDee mounting instead of away from him. When he was in the saddle, he held back. Dilo wasn’t too pleased, being checked from manger and cotton seed cake. He perked his ears down the trail, danced and pulled his head against the bridle, and JoDee turned him a 360 to let him know who was in charge.
Then, the bottle was right there next to him, with its small fragment of amber still in the bottom. JoDee reached and took it.
But instead of opening it—whether to pour it out or swig it, he was never able to tell—he swung it behind him, over his shoulder, and let it loose. He heard the crack of it hitting a rock and the glittery sound of glass breaking. The wind carried the smell of it to him.
Well, that was finished. He took a deep breath and let it out. Tossing it and hearing it break was like putting the whole thing behind him. He probably shouldn’t have tossed it off like that, though. He sat the saddle, holding back on the reins, feeling Dilo tugging him through the bridle, feeling the wind against his back and the wet snow on his neck. Doing it was likely the right thing to do, but he probably shouldn’t have done it. That brandy was good stuff, and Monty Bows would appreciate even that little bit after the home brew and Mountain Fire junk he stocked up for winter. He should have kept it for Monty. Would have been the neighborly thing to do.
Well, it was done.
He considered letting Dilo have his head now, follow the cows the fifteen minutes down to Bows, spend a comfortable night there, shoot some billiards, lose a few bucks at it for Monty Bows’s company, then drive the pickup without the trailer around to the cabin for the cat in the morning. The thing about it was, losing a few bucks at Monty’s billiards table meant open bottles as part of the company. How many times can a man say, “Naw, thanks anyway,” and still be sociable.
The heavy pines whooshed and swung their tops. Snow went past him in the wind, already covering cow tracks and the tracks he’d made fiddling with the gate. The last boot print he made as he mounted was filling with blown snow. The toe, pointed back toward the mountains, into the wind, was rounding and blurring. The wind blew sickly wafts of the broken brandy bottle past him, and the saddle creaked under him, and Dilo pulled on the bridle to get him moving. The hunter had said “Do it at Bows, leave it at Bows.” Maybe the fat little guy believed it. It was a fool thing to say.
JoDee turned the race track loser and ducked his head against the bite of blown snow.
When he passed where the bottle had broken on a rock and washed away the snow, the full power of it reeked up at him, ripe and cloy, an odor that always, when he was sober, made him faintly ill. Tossing it behind him was a good thing, but he wished he hadn’t done it. One little nip up at the teetotal Mormon’s cabin would be pretty safe, likely nothing there to keep him on a binge. One nip always cured the ill. Who would know about that. It was good he had done it, but wished he hadn’t. It was a good thing to have the cat to haul out right now, a lucky thing. That and the broken bottle made the rest of today a lot simpler.
The wind and snow scraped against his face, pushed at his chest, and he touched his spurs to Dilo to duck his head and go on into it. The sickness in his stomach from the smell of the broken brandy bottle was with him for a long time.
Tomorrow it would be one hundred and twenty-two.
“You don’t ever leave nothin’ nowhere,” Joe Dees told everything that would listen.