Author: Rocky Rutherford
On the first day of the new year, right after noon, I walk into the Down
But Not Out Saloon in Cut Bank, Montana. It's near zero with swirling
snow. The road to Great Falls is closed. I sit across from an old
cowboy business friend who is putting away Jim Beam like it is Pepsi.
A roasting fire churns in the old cracked and sooted fire place. A few
cowboys lounge around, all waiting for a weather break so they can get on
with their lives. Me? I'd like to get home but it doesn't matter, home
is where I go when there's no other place to go.
I sit for a while watching old Jo Dough getting shit faced by the drink.
He shoves the bottle across the table but I yell at the barkeep for a cup
of cowboy coffee, stuff so strong it will give you the big eye for a week.
I've never been a drinker. Anyway it didn't seem to be helping Jo Dough.
Something is bugging the hell out of him. Maybe it's our last cattle
He always sulks after a deal because he figures I always get the best of
him, which ain't so.
"Brander Wayne, you're a crazy little son of a bitch but you always been
straight with me except for hustling all my cows out from under me." I
fix my coffee up, keeping an eye on Jo Dough. Sometimes he can go off
like an old rank bucking bull and I want to make sure I got a way out
when he comes busting out of the chute.
"Thank you, Jo Dough. You hitting that JB kinda hard ain't you? You know
how you are when you get shit faced." He laughs and that makes me feel
He takes another snort then holds the glass at eye level and looks over it
at me like he's squinting down a .30-.30 barrel. I look for the way out
again. But he mellows.
"Was you ever in love when you was a kid, Brander? I mean did you have a
first love that's been with you all your life? I been reading a lot about
this kind of shit and I was wondering." This shakes me. I don't want to
lie and I don't want to tell the truth, not yet, at least until I know
what he's driving at.
A couple more cowboys clump in, cussing the weather, yank off jackets and
order double JBs. Jo Dough frowns at them and they settle down. One
punches a George Strait number on the jukebox, one about a cowboy finding
out how hot an old flame can be.
"That's the goddamned truth," Jo Dough moans when the singer bawls out a
line saying his love will always be a fire he can't put out. He glares at
the cowboy who punched in the number then back to me.
"Ain't you gonna answer my question, you little rounder son of a bitch? I
know you been to college and I know you got one of them English
Something he says puts me back in that place. I'm on the playground at
Colonial Drive School. I'm in the seventh grade. Cold, a soft snow
falling. It's Valentine's Day. I'm waiting for someone. When she gets
here I'll take her books and walk her to the auditorium for the annual
valentine swapping. We'll sit together and this time I've made up my mind
to be brave. I'm going to hold her hand and tell her I love her. I know
I can do it. I've been practicing and thinking about it all night. I've
got a feeling if I don't do something to show her I love her I'm going to
lose her. I've already seen her turning her blue eyes on Billy Joe
Cunningham. Waiting, I feel deep into my jeans and finger the old timey
John Clare poem I have copied for her. My plan is to hold her left hand
with my right after we sit down then ease the poem out with my left and
whisper it to her in her left ear. I panic. The poem is in my right hand
pocket. I slip it out and slide it in the left but before I do I read it
out loud to make sure I know it. It's only one stanza of the whole poem
but it says exactly what I want to:
Are flowers the winter's choice?
Is love's bed always snow?
She seemed to hear my silent voice,
Not love's appeals to know.
I never saw so sweet a face
As that I stood before.
My heart has left its dwelling-place
And can return no more.
She appears like a deer in the whispering snow. So close I feel her warm
breath, her impressive blue eyes moving over my face flitting, flashing,
feeling. I freeze. Like the blue Spring Azure, suddenly, ephemerally it's
over and she's gone. Inside I sit across the aisle and pretend. As
Elvis sings Love Me Tender over the pa I force myself to look at them.
She glances at me. As I catch her eyes my heart falls like a broken
elevator and slams into the bottom of my right boot. Her left hand is in
Billy Joe's right.
"Damn, Brander Wayne, " Jo Dough growls, "git back in the world. I ast
you a simple question."
"Yeah, Jo Dough, I believe that you never forget your first love."
"I mean after five wives you'd think I'd get it right," he says. "I don't
and I keep thinking about a gal I grew up with down near San Angelo. I
heard tell she's having the same luck I'm having. Too many marriages."
He sights over his shot glass again. "You reckon, cowboy?" he says after
a long stare down.
"I reckon, cowboy."
Jo Dough kicks back from the table, stands up.
"Love you, cowboy," he says, poking out his huge right hand.
"Love you, too, cowboy," I say standing and taking the shake. We bump
shoulders and he's gone. San Angelo I suppose, if he can get there.
I take out my cell and spin it for a while on the table. I know the
number and I'd know the voice. I punch a number. The jangling shoots
across the US.
"Hello. Mary Joyce? This is Brander Wayne."