Watchin' My Sun Go Down
by Rocky George Rutherford
Fridays when I left school I headed straight for Grande’s; he lived in a little shotgun house just south of town. He had chickens, pigs, ducks, dogs, and an old mule named Murph and McClop ( One stiff blind horse, his every bone a-stare/Stood stupefied, however he came there: / Thrust out past service from the devil’s stud )who just stood and stared. Grande didn’t have a wife so I didn’t have a grandmother; don’t know why, it just fell that way. He was my deddy’s deddy. But they didn’t get along too well. Deddy worked for the bank and I believe he was kind of ashamed of Grande. Mama liked Grande but she looked at him kind of sideways, calling him a character.
Maybe it was the clothes he wore, the stained cowboy hat, the crisp white shirt with the pearl snaps, the starched hard, brass butted jeans, cut slim fit and trim. “Ladies like them butt snug jeans,” he said. Maybe it was the way he talked, his soft Southern brogue rich with thank yous, ah reckons, and you betchas. Or “A man has got to do what a man’s got to do,” or “I should have done what I should have done when I should have done it.” Or “Knock a man to his knees if you have to but kiss him on the way down.”
Or the way he smelled of rollyaown makin’s and freshly polished leather, and sometimes like kerosene and collard greens to cover up his “red eye water back” he took once in a while. Grande said red eye water back makes for nothing but ease of pain for a while; it’s “the viewless wings of Poesy” that counts.
“Come, buckaroo, let us ride off into the sunset on the “viewless wings of Posey,” he’d say.
“You betcha, Lone Ranger,” was my reply.
If being a character meant looking like Grande, quiet, tall, slim, and trim, taking giant steps in his red, white, green and brown, pointy toed, double eagle cowboy boots, then I too would be a character. Yeah, he was easy and laid back as they say but he could be tough.
One Everybody’s Day Celebration, Mama let me go to town with Grande. It was like a big carnival with the streets blocked off and folks dancing and drinking and buying and selling and having a good time ’cause it was everybody’s day. Grande and I were standing in the shade eating our hot dogs when out of nowhere a voice said “You some kind of drug store cowboy?” It was big old moon faced Egolly Atwater, a mean and useless young man who badgered folks for the fun of it. On each side of him stood his just as useless brothers, Dink and Screno. Idiots all.
Grande said two words “Drop it.” And it got quieter than moon glow on a West Texas winter night. His blue eyes smoked and he did not blink as he eyed them over his hotdog. Just like that they moved on. Grande smiled down at me and shifted a little because I had his leg in a death squeeze. Those knotheads don’t know yet how close they came to being kissed on their way down.
My Deddy wasn’t happy with my infatuation of his Deddy but Mama just smiled and said “He’ll outgrow it.”
Grande didn’t have much money but he was rich in so many ways. He could make you feel warm and happy, he knew poetry by heart, and he would never tell the same story twice unless you asked him to. I wouldn’t say he knew more than my teachers, he just had a better way of getting it across.
Once I came on Friday complaining about an English assignment given me.
“They do it on purpose, Grande. Just to mess up the weekend. Now, I got to go to the liberry in the morning. That messes up our whole day, huh?”
“Nah,cowboy. Readin’ and studying’ is good for you.”
“You mean learning the parts of a Pindaric ode can be good?”
“Yep, First a strophe then an antistrophe. Throw in an epode and what you got?”
“A big old triade. Nuthin’ to it cowboy.”
Sometimes Grande got real quiet, cocked his stetson back, his blue eyes quiet, a rollyaown burt to his lip. He called it stuydin’ on something. Then his words came clear, polished, like from the radio:
“ Day after day, day after day
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.”
Or “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace.” Once when I came into the front room he was standing in front of Grandmother Maudie Raymond McQueen’s picture on the mantle “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. I love thee to the depth and breadth and height my soul can reach..” He looked at me “Tears, idle tears.” He smiled but I didn’t see any tears.
Grande had his own code which he lived and wrote:
I am Cowboy
Got to go down my own road
Carry my weight, bear my load.
Don’t care what other folks do,
What you do is up to you.
Don’t give advice, I don’t butt in.
I’m here if you ever need a friend.
I work the land, a working hand,
An American who loves his land.
Sometimes Grande would take out his old gutar he called The D28 and play and sing all the old cowboy tunes like Git Along Little Doggies, When the Work’s All Done This Fall, The Dying Cowboy, Billy the Kid. My favorite was El Corrido De Gregorio Cortez. Boy, hidy, could Grand sing and make old D28 ring like a bell. “Never git’s outta tune,” Grande bragged. Sometimes when he thought I had fallen asleep he’d sing “a sad cowboy song, about love that’s gone wrong.” If I woke he’d say “Sounds like a dyin’ calf in a hailstorm, huh?” All I could think to say was I wished I could do it.
His steady blue eyes cast long and far, but they were not cruel, they crinkled but they did not hate, they got your attention but did not hurt. And he laughed so much you couldn’t tell when he was serious.
No doubt he was the greatest man I knew and I wanted to be just like him, a man with real cowboy style. And I believed every word he said; if he said he was All Round Cowboy 1939, I believed him; if he said he was the first bull dogging champion from Carolina, I believed him, if he said he was the best looking cowboy from Amarillo to San Francisco, I believed that too.
I’d run all the way from school to his house just to be with him, pumping with excitement, just thinking of what he might say or do. But most of all I knew we’d be taking a trip West, just Grande and me. Or maybe Nate Love, a great cowboy Grande liked would ride with us. Maybe we’d ride out to a place in West Texas Grande knew called the Dying Moon Saloon. Whatever, I knew good times were coming.
One nippy October late Saturday afternoon we sat on the back porch watching the sun go down when Grande stood up, stretched his long arms till his fingers touched the ceiling. When he did that I knew something good was coming.
“What, Grande?” I said, my eyes must have been bigger than that old Carolina moon.
He sat back down, flung his long legs up on the rail, fished out his Bull Durham makings, and with one hand, his fingers flickering like a Saturday morning cowboy movie, opened the sack with his teeth, papered, packed,and rolled one as firm and round as a tailor made, lit it from a red headed match struck on a thigh of his tight jeans and blew out a perfect smoke ring doughnut that hung there waiting for me to punch my fist through it. And all in about a minute. As the ring started to dissolve I punched and Grande laughed, reared back, clasped his hands behind his head, and chuckled.
“Cowboy, how’d you like to take a trip out West? “ Magic words, spoken by a man of style with a real cowboy heart. Where would we go this time? Colorado? Texas? Arizona? Sometimes we would even go way up to Coos Bay Or on up to Kamloops. Sometimes we’d ride the rodeo circuit from “Kamloops to the San Francisco Bay.” He might talk of big legged rodeo gals, or ranahans, or the Canadian Rodeo Man. Or the sad story of Junior Varner’s last ride. Maybe we’d ride for the brand or head out in search of the Lost Dutchman’s Mine! How about riding hoof banging, ass busting, leather pounding, hard with Kit Carson as we outran a prairie fire?
“Your, choice, cowboy. How about Tombstone, or Cheyenne or maybe Fort Worth?
How about Fort Bridger, or El Dorado, or Puking Eagle Gap? You name it. I been there. And I’m lookin’ for a podner to ride the river with. How about a big time rodeo: Pendleton Roundup, Prescott Frontier Days, Calgary Stampede?”
I yanked open the old screen door almost banging it off its hinges and like a wild bronc tore into the back bedroom, knocked his double eagle tailor made boots winding, snatched his 1912 edition of Nancy MacIntyre, A Tale of the Prairies from the pinewood book case next to his bed, set his boots back up while never slowing down, and ripped back through the not yet settled screen door.
“Whoa, cowboy, set tight,” he laughed, his voice slow, gentle, and deep. Nobody had a voice like Grande‘s; it kind of rumbled from deep inside, low, sweet, and came out without his lips moving. He could put me anywhere, make me believe anything, make me do anything, just by talking.
He opened the little red book, with Bill Truly standing on the cover looking into Nancy’s dugout door.
“Hold it, Grande,” I exploded back into the house. Wham! went the screen door.
In nothing flat I was back with our hats, his a fine, well manicured but old Stetson, mine a rodeo throw-away I bought for a buck at Roses Five and Dime. Now we were ready.
“Can’t do no cowboying without the right lid,” Grande said, putting his on and cocking it just right so he looked like Hoot Gibson, a cowboy he knew from way back. I cocked mine the same way; Grande liked that.
“Now that the smoke has settled, let’s git on out West, huh, cowboy?”
“Let ‘er buck, Grande, let ‘er buck,” I shouted as I mounted his solid knee.
I caught my breath as the deep, almost quivering sounds came, magic words forming, painting majestic pictures that opened up our trail west. Me and Grande headin’ out to watch the sun go down:
In the west where twilight glories
Paint with blood each sky-line cloud,
While the virgin rolling prairie
Slowly dons her evening shroud;
While the killdeer plover settles
From its quick and noisy flight;
While the prairie cock is blowing
Warning of the coming night-
There against the fiery background
Where the day and night have met,
Move three disappearing figures,
Outlined sharp in silhouette.
Zeb and Si and Bill, the lover,
Chafing under each delay,
Pass below the red horizon,
Toward the river trail away.
Whiff, Grande’s magic mesmerized me and I rode with Bill Truly as he started on his long journey West in search of his sweetheart, Nancy. I thought he was crazy wasting his time chasing after a girl when he could be off in the hills searching for gold, or droving a herd over the Chisolmn Trail, or tracking down Billy the Kid. Nobody but Grande could make me believe a cowboy could be so in love he didn’t have sense enough to see the sky, the mountains, and the hills or hear the birds calling down the night. But Grande could make all kinds of love come alive, singing prairies, moaning mountains, blistering suns, even God’s love for ungodly creatures.
He didn’t say much about girls he had known, not even my Grandmother Maudie Raymond McQueen, but sometimes he’d mention a name like Big Sal The Rodeo Gal, and he’d smile deeply or emit a little grunt or sigh. But he knew love, where it was, how to find it and how to show it without saying it. He never said he loved me, just called me his number uno podner.
“Greater love hath no man, than he lay down his life for a friend,” he said many times without preaching.
As the Carolina fat-faced moon inches up the Ridge we cross the Solomon River and Grande talks us deep into the opening West where we become specks against a vastness so great we fade into nothing. He speaks quietly of endless days of heat, hunger and thirst which cannot keep real cowboys from their mission even if it was chasing after some gal. By now I have crawled up in his lap. The West is big, scary at times; I want me next to him. His white handlebars switching my cheek as he speaks, his moist breath of raw tobacco and red eye, water back, insure me I am safe. Through the coarse denim I hear and feel the fuzzy meandering of his heart as the West comes alive:
High above the wind is moaning
In a lonely, fretful mood,
Through the lofty spreading branches
Of the elm and cottonwood.
Where the willows hide the fordway
With their fringe of lighter green,
Lies the dam, decayed and broken,
Where the beaver once were seen.
On the sycamore bent o’er it,
With its gleaming trunk of white,
Sit’s the barred owl, idly blinking
At the early morning light,
While, within its spacious hollow,
Where the rotting heart had clung
Till removed by age and fire,
Sleeps the wild cat with her young.
It is dark now, the fat faced moon, mellow yellow; the shadow of the Ridge fades against the leaving day. Grande talks on though the book lays on the porch by the rocker. He knows the story by heart and it pours from him as if he had lived then written it. I am fighting sleep because I want to hear my favorite lines, lines Grande knows I want to hear, and just before I slip off into that silent world, his handlebars twitch, and his lips touch my cheek, with his magic:
Tall of stature, dark of visage,
By the wind well dried and tanned,
Clad in”shaps” and spurs that jingled,
With a bull whip in his hand.
The cowboy, Grande, the cowboy, a real honest to goodness, cowboy! I mumble but he understands and hugs me closer. “’At’s right, buckaoo, just like you,” he whispers. “But what’s a buckaroo without his pony:
Close behind him in the shadows,
Eyes aglow with red and green,
Stood a blazed-face Texas pony,
Ewe-necked, cat-hammed, wild, and mean.”
“And there’s his mustang…just like you and me.” So I drifted off into that great echoing canyon of silence, into the Western night where it’s quieter than moon glow on a West Texas winter night and the fat faced moon shines frozen white. Me and Grande…riding down the canyon to watch the sun go down.
I reckon I did outgrow Grande for a time. Like he wanted, I went to college, got married, and went off to fight for my country. College didn’t make me a better man, marriage didn’t work and war warped me. Grande died sometime during this bitterness and I never said goodbye. Our worlds had separated, he went his way, and I, mine, his passing just another casualty but I never forgot him.
When I finally came to my senses and visited home, my father had torn down the “old eyesore,” shotgun house but I went to the empty lot to see if I could find Grand’s spirit there; I really wanted to say goodbye like I should have done in the first place. I couldn’t make myself go to his grave because I just could not believe he was dead. It’s like he said “Dying is a part of living, cowboy.”
“But, Grande, we never did anything to hurt anyone. Yet the sonsofbitches of this world put all their filth and evil on us. We die for them and they don’t give a damn about us one way or the other.
“Grande, it’s me, McQueen, I’m a man now but I kinda lost my way. Please come and take me West again. You know I always wanted to be a man of style like you. Where ever you are, please come and take me with you. I’m tired and lost.” I knew I could say to him what I really felt and I could cry and empty the pain from my heart. And he would hold me until it all went away and I’d be safe and warm and happy again. Only my Grande, a man of style could do that.
That old fat-faced Carolina moon inched up behind the Ridge, its yellow glow easing around the peaks.
“Listen for me, cowboy,” Grande said if I needed him and he’d find me.
So I sat on the ground where I thought the old porch used to be and listened. Please, Grande, come to me, take me in your arms and press me to you so I can feel you and smell you and be safe again. Please, Grande, I have walked through the valley of the shadow of death, I am blood stained, drained, and tainted. Please, Grande, let’s saddle up Zeb and Si and ride off together, ride down the canyons to watch the sun go down. Show me again how to be a man of style like you.
And he came.
“Hush, little cowboy and listen. To me and to yourself.” I listened and I heard:
A Man of Style
A quiet man from whom few words flowed
Genuine as a sunrise, clean as morning mist,
Never saying what I should or shouldn’t do,
Strong hands helping me find my own road.
Advice came softly with a touch , a smile,
An honorable look into my searching eyes.
That thing between us never needed words.
I worked so hard to mirror his cowboy style.
Listen to your heart, son, speak without hate.
Ride straight to where you’re going but stop
To feel the goodness the Great Spirit makes.
Listen for life, a mating call, a creaking gate.
Listen to your heart as you ride mile by mile,
And, my grandson, you will be a man of style.
For my Grande who lived the way he talked.I made a promise I would follow his advice and I did. When I failed it wasn’t because I didn’t try. And I promised myself, as a gift to the greatest cowboy who ever lived, I would capture his spirit in words so I would never forget him. Though they would never equal his, they would be from my heart and like he said so many times heart is at the heart of everything good. So, Grande, I’ll saddle up Zeb and Old Si while you make yourself comfortable there in your rocker under that Carolina moon. Please don’t whip out a rollyaown until I get there ‘cause I want to see your magic fingers flying, see your white handlbars twitching, and smell your nearness. And, Grande, please don’t laugh when you hear me trying to sound like you. Promise?
I am cowboy at heart, soldier by trade. I still believe a person is as good as his or her word. A handshake seals a deal, and "daggum" and "dagone" are a lot better than cussing. I'm an English graduate from the University of Alaska, Class of 1974. I live in the country in Silver Valley, North Carolina with my "farmer wife," Patsy. We are overrun with dogs, chickens, goats, cats and a whole bunch of God's creatures. I've been a reader, writer, and story teller, all my life...I've always madethings better by pretending and "telling stories." Some folks down here call me cowboy poet which tickles me. Rocky.