by Rocky Rutherford
"Dust to dust, and then to ashes-
I forget the other part-
I can't say the words I want to,
I can't think---all's in my heart.,"
( from Nancy MacIntyre, A Tale of the Prairies)
A big long shiny black hearse pulled up in the front yard almost to the porch. A fat man in black got out, swung open the back door, then stood there looking at the house. Pretty soon a gaggle of kin, led by Uncle Bruce, came through, banging and scraping the coffin against the door frame almost knocking the old molding off. They struggled a while but finally got it in the hearse and the fat man slammed the door, wobbled around up front and got behind the wheel.
"Put 'im in the ground," scrawny, time wasted, Grandma Maudie Ramon McQueen hollered as they all piled in their cars and lined out behind the hearse.
Two things I remember about that. A picture of myself, twelve, tow headed, freckled and skinny. And how alone I felt when they carried my best friend away. An early autumn breeze nipped my cheeks and I shivered as it zipped around the corner and like my friend was gone. My first encounter with time.
After they left for the grave yard I went back into the little shot gun house for a final look around. I knew this would be the last time I would see it because my Deddy said as soon as Uncle Buck was gone he was going to doze the "eyesore" down. And he meant it. He didn't like any part of Uncle Buck's life; I knew that and it hurt to see Uncle Buck treated so badly by his own brother. His real name was Austin but folks called him Buck because when he was a kid he was always riding bucking broncs and anything else that bucked, he said. Rough stock rodeo man, that's what he was, he said.
All those coffee cups and ashtrays sitting around everywhere wouldn't be here now if Uncle Buck was alive. He drank his coffee at breakfast and never smoked in the house, always on the front porch where he rolled his own Bull Durham. And, boy, could he tell great cowboy stories.
My Deddy called Uncle Buck a story teller; we didn't call people lairs because that was too harsh, even for my Deddy who said Uncle Buck didn't know a cowboy from a hobo. Said Uncle Buck made it all up just to impress me, showing off, and pretending he was something he wasn't...an old cowboy. And he never won any big shinny buckles with his name on them and he was never all around cowboy or anything else. Huh, little did he know.
So what if he made things up and told stories; he made folks happy. At least he didn't go around grousing and grumbling all the time, making life out to be nothing but one damn thing after another.
Come on back here and I'll show you our bunkhouse. That big old iron bed is where Uncle Buck slept. And Grandmother Dillahey before she died long before I was born. That's her picture there on the mantle. That old lady you heard hollering when they carried Uncle Buck away was really a great aunt or something who always came to family funerals and yelled put him or her in the ground because she thought it should be done as quickly as possible so the soul could get on up to heaven.
Take a look at this. It's his John B Stetson hat, a genuine 1920 head piece he wore when he cowboyed back in the old days. And these boots. Tailor made, 16 inch high buckaroos. And how about this pearl snapped pin stripped rodeo cowboy shirt he wore in the Frontier Days Rodeo? You see this buckle he's wearing in this picture? You can't see it too good but it's his All Around Cowboy buckle. He told me all about it. Won it up at the Calgary Stampede in Canada. Times got real bad for him and he had to sell it. When I get older I'm going to see if I can find it and bring it to the big ranch I'm going to have out in Oklahoma and hang it on the wall with all the buckles I'm going to win in the big rodeos. I'll put Uncle Buck's at the top because it's the most important one to me. He even wrote a poem about it. Want to hear it? Be glad to:
Buckle, Buckle Burnished Bright
Buckle, buckle burnished bright
Stuck on the pawn shop wall,
Who's number uno cowoby tonight?
Buckle, buckle what a sad sight,
Can't hardly see you in this bad light
Buckle, buckle burnished bright.
Buckle, buckle what great delight
To win you without having to fall:
Who's number uno cowboy tonight?
Burnished buckle do you think I might
Ask how much is your bid and call
Buckle, buckle burnished bright?
Buckle, buckle how much is right
For a life of a man who stands tall,
Who's number uno cowboy tonight?
And you, cowboy, what is your height?
Grab it quick, do not stall.
Buckle, buckle burnished bright:
Who's number uno cowboy tonight?
I showed this to Miss Burris my teacher and she said it was doggerel. But I told her it was about cowboys not dogs. Mama said it was silly and Deddy said it didn't make sense. Seemed like nobody knew anything about cowboys but me and Uncle Buck.
I don't mind telling you my uncle was the greatest rodeo cowboy in the world back in his day. He was all around cowboy a bunch of times and rode 79 straight bulls without being bucked off. Once when he was parade marshal in the Prescott Rodeo he kissed Lana Turner smack on the mouth; he danced with Marilyn Monroe and she loved him so much she wanted him to marry her but Uncle Buck told her he had so many lady friends it wouldn't be right to get married to just one. Besides, he never took advantage of a lady.
Most of all he was the best friend I ever had. I liked the way he smelled, like tobacco and whiskey, the way he talked like Gary Cooper, the way he dressed like an all around blue bell wrangler cowboy. He never complained, never whined, never put other folks down.
"Cowboy," he'd say, "Life is too short to go round bad mouthing and pissing and moaning. Life is meant to be lived. Let me at them big legged rodeo gals!"
The ranch, me and Uncle Buck called it "The Big Diamond D," although it was only a little shotgun house on Kendall Street out on the city limit line near Fair Grove Forest. I can remember when he didn't even have street lights and he kept his out house until the city made him hook onto the sewer. That really made Deddy mad because it embarrassed him with his city council buddies.
"When are you going to stop lying and acting like a child?" I heard Deddy say to Uncle Buck. " You got the boy thinking you were a real rodeo cowboy and you know there isn't a word of truth in it. And why are you always doing things to embarrass me? To tell you the truth I think you're getting senile."
"A man's got to do what a man's got to do," Uncle Buck would say, smile and wink at me as if to say just me and him know what he's talking about. That really made Deddy mad. So he had a talk with me about it more than one time.
"Son," he said, "your uncle is senile. Do you know what that means?"
Of course I didn't and even if I did he'd explain it anyway. "He doesn't know what he's saying half the time, he makes things up, he thinks he's Tom Mix reincarnated." Nor did I know what that meant but from what Uncle Buck told me about Tom Mix he was a great man. So that made him okay with me. Uncle Buck said Bill Pickett, one of his best friends invented bull dogging. That's when a cowboy dives off his horse and wrestles a bull or steer to the ground and they come to a screeching halt in a dust storm and the cowboy who ties the fastest wins. Deddy said that couldn't be true because Bill was a black man and there weren't any black cowboys. Well, I know the Bible says you should honor your mother and father but in this situation I believe Uncle Buck was right and any friend of Uncle Buck's is a friend of mine, and I didn't give a hoot what color he was.
"And another thing, he's leading you to believe you can be a cowboy. Well, you can't. There is no such thing as cowboy. They died out even before your Grandfather was born. And Will Rogers was a clown, not a cowboy. A clown who made a bunch of money talking stupid. Now I want you to get all this nonsense cowboy stuff out of your head and start concentrating on your studies. College isn't that far off, you know. You keep this up and you'll wind up at Dix Hill up in Morganton where they keep the crazy people."
College? I thought no more about college than a man in the moon. I could read, that's all I needed. Besides, Uncle Buck told me more about the world I wanted to live in than all the colleges in North Carolina could do, and that includes the University at Chapel Hill. Uncle Buck called his brand of education Cowboy U. Maybe they should have packed us both off to Dix Hill.
"Cowboy up," he'd say when I told him about a tough situation I faced and didn't know what to do. "Cowboy up."
It's not like Uncle Buck was a bum or anything. He had a night watchman's job at Plant B where they made bedroom furniture. If he said he was a rodeo man before I was born, then that's what he was. I always remember him working at night at the plant. I used to go with him on his rounds as he punched his clock at the different stations. In between rounds he'd tell me stories about his cowboy life out West, mostly in Oklahoma.
Now, look at this. See this little book? It's old, 1912, old as Uncle Buck. It's really a poem but it fills a whole book. It rhymes and everything. It tells a story about a cowboy who roams about the West looking for his sweetheart who ran off with another cowboy. I never did really understand why the cowboy did that when he could be rounding up cattle or prospecting for gold or hunting down outlaws. Well, I got to liking the book because Uncle Buck read it to me over and over and the way he read it I could just picture in my mind the old West. The sunrises and sunsets, the snow tipped mountains, the dangerous trails, the mean horses and cattle and cowboys to boot. I'll just put it here on the bed.
Well, maybe I'll just put everything of his on the bed, his boots and stetson and fancy shirts. But I got to hurry up because they are expecting me at the graveyard for Uncle Buck's ceremony. I really don't want to go because I hate to think of him dead in the ground. And I hate to think of his stuff here in the house going to folks I don't even know.
Like I saw Aunt Agnes looking at Uncle Buck's stetson and saying "Why, that sure would look good on Joe Herman, don't you think?" Joe Herman was her citified son, a fatso who wouldn't even come to see Uncle Buck not even when he was bad off sick. Said he wasn't going to see an old coot who drank himself to death.
And Uncle Ranelle who said he wore the same size boots as Uncle Buck and aught to have them because of all the work he had done around the place. Shoot, only place I ever saw him near Uncle Buck was when Uncle Buck saved his life by hauling him out of the pool room so drunk he couldn't walk and a bunch of hustlers was a fixing to kill him because he wouldn't make good on his bets. Besides, Uncle Buck wore size ten and that weasel Ranelle had a foot like a girl, maybe a six.
"I aught to put this pointy toed boot right in the middle of his fat ase," said Uncle Buck more than once.
Ain't it funny how folks twist things around?
Pretty soon everybody in the family was looking at things they wanted, like beds, and pots and pans and bed clothes, sheets and blankets. Why Amos and Alonzo, Uncle Buck's first wife's boys got in a fight over a pair of Texas longhorns that had hung on the wall for fifty years. Amos wanted to sell them as antiques and Alonzo wanted to strap them to the grill of his pickup for an ornament. Well, I'm gonna take them down right now and put them on the bed with the other stuff.
The bed? Oh, he called it his iron bedstead. Headboard of iron railings, foot the same. The springs were older than Methesulah, bouncy but firm. I bounced off it many times pretending I was coming out of chute number one riding Dy-no-mite. I spent nights curled up beside Uncle Buck, listening to his stories, half asleep, not knowing the difference between dreaming and believing. I liked the way he touched my head and whispered in my hair, the way he smelled of tobacco, collard greens, cornbread and red eye water back whiskey. The bed's just about full of stuff, huh?
Oh, there's his Bible. He didn't preach at me or anything but he sure knew his Bible and read me a lot of stories from it. My favorite was Deuteronomy Chapter 25, verse 11, where it tells what to do with a woman who reaches between her husband and another man who are fighting and grabs the other man by his privates which is against church law. Uncle Buck said he grew up in the Deuteronomic Free Will Baptist Church and they enforced Biblical law to the nth degree. When he read this to me he kinda grinned and looked at me sideways.
"Know what the punishment is for doing that, cowboy"
"No, sir, Uncle Buck, I surely don't.
Then he read the verse 12 which said to cut her hand off.
"The moral of it is don't go messing around with another man's wife. Got that, cowboy?"
"Yes, sir, I got it." I'll just put the Good Book here on the bed.
Uh, oh, I just remembered. He kept his single action colt forty five under the mattress. Yep, here it is. Excuse me. I think I'll take this outside and hide it under the house and come back for it later before they bulldoze the house down.
Excuse me, I've got to find a little note book Uncle Buck kept in his pocket to write down poems that came to him. Oh, yeah, he was a real good poet. If I can find it I think I'll just slip it into my pocket and keep it without telling anyone about it. Oh, here it is under the edge of the carpet. Listen to this:
I just hit town not a penny in my jeans
I been livin' on fig bars, coffee and beans.
Been out on the road the better part of a year
And what I been doin' just ain't no longer clear.
By Austin McQueen "Buck" Dillahey. That's Uncle Buck. He liked to be called Buck and he didn't mind me calling him that. Mama and Deddy said it wasn't right for a boy my age to be calling his Uncle a ridiculous name like Buck especially when his real name was Austin.
Well I guess I'd better get going. I've got to get on to the graveyard by the Deuteronmic Free Will Baptist Church just over that last hill.
I hate to leave all his stuff piled on the bed like that. After all that's all that is left of him. It will all be like ashes in the wind because pretty soon, after the funeral, the kin folks will come and take what they want and there won't be anything left to remember Uncle Buck by at all. I just can't bear it, seeing his stuff and his memory going up like a puff of smoke. And what does it matter now what happens to me, my best friend and companion is gone. Like Uncle Buck says, a man has got to do what man has got to do.
"No need to talk about it, Officer Morris, I'm ready to go to prison or the chain gang or to the electric chair, a man has got to do what a man has got to do." So there.
"So you just piled all your Uncle Buck's personal stuff on his bed wrapped it in a blanket, took it out behind the house and set it on fire?"
"Because I knew when they got back from the grave yard they would tear through the house and take anything they wanted. And there was things I didn't want them to have."
"But, why burn them up? You could have taken them off somewhere and hid them." That kind of startled me and made me think of the revolver I hid under the house.
"I knew deddy would make me tell where they were and they'd take them away from me."
Officer Morris frowned but I don't think he was unhappy with what I'd done.
"Sounds like there was another feller with you for a while, Donny Ray? Who was he?" My heart jumped plumb up into my throat. But I didn't let on and I didn't bat an eye.
"He said his name was Bill Friendly. Said he was looking for his sweetheart who run off on him. He stopped by when he saw me on the porch. Said he was from Oklahoma."
"Wanted to know which way it was to the bus station and I told him. Then he said adios, God Bless, and happy trails to me, and left."
He looked at me kind of sideways, grunted and went outside and I could see him talking to Deddy through the glass which distorted his face even more. Deddy grabbed his head like he normally did and yanked at his hair and glared my way. Right then I wasn't afraid of him and I didn't care what he did one way or the other. Anyway, all he would do is yell and complain about the valuable things I'd destroyed and how the money we could sell them for would help toward my education. He didn't really give a flip about Uncle Buck and to tell the truth I really didn't give a flip about him.
That night when Mama came in to say goodnight I hoped she would understand but all she could say was "Your father is right, Donny Ray."
She touched my hair like she always did and kissed me but I didn't feel anything.
I woke up in the middle of the night. Someone called me. I went to the window and raised it. The air was crisp with autumn. I listened hard. Nothing. After being back in bed a while I heard my name again. This time I eased a chair to the window, sat down, and listened. The next thing I knew it was morning. I had laid with my head in the window all night but I woke up refreshed just like when I'd fallen asleep in Uncle Buck's bed.
In school that day I felt someone looking at me but I couldn't tell who.
Miss Burris asked me if I was all right and said she was sorry to hear about the death in the family. Said I'd be better off forgetting about it and get back to my studies. In the lunch room I felt somebody sit down beside me and when I looked it was only Bicey Edwards, a girl who liked me but I didn't like her back.
"Donny Ray," she said, "what is the matter with you? You haven't even spoken to me today. I heard what you did and I'm sorry you did it but you can still talk to me if you want to."
"I don't want to," I said and she got up and huffed away. Then somebody sat down beside me again, so close I felt it.
"You betcha, cowboy," it replied. There he sat in his John B Stetson, his buckskin shirt, stove pipe Dan Posts, and wearing a buckle bigger than the Lone Star State.
"Uncle Buck, you found it!" He stood up, twirled his handlebar mustache, swept off his John B, bowed low, then let our a cowboy yell that could be heard all the way to Circle, Montana:
"Cowboys called me the Iron Man back in my day
'Cause I'd rode in 'em all, Calgary to the San Francisco Bay.
Top notch buckles, bucks, and ladies, I've had 'em by the score,
I'm the all around blue bell wrangler cowboy nineteen twenty four."
I jumped up, reaching for Uncle Buck. The cafeteria teacher told me to sit down but I ignored her. "Uncle Buck, you found it," I hollered this time so loud everybody dropped their soup spoons and gawked at me, their eyes rolling to the teacher disappearing through the door, no doubt, on her way to the principal's office.
Uncle Buck did a high stepping cotton eye joe around the table while the kids gawked at me. Lightly he sprang up on the table, his high heels clicking and clacking like he was Fred Astaire. Then, suddenly he stopped, looked down at me, grinned from ear to ear, yanked off his John B Stetson, bowed so low his nose almost touched the table top, rolled his eyes to heaven and recited:
"Now when tomorrow gits the final whistle on me
Western cut, sanforized, slim fit and trim is what I'll be.
Cause I'm the blue bell wrangler cowboy in my brass butted jeans,
The blue bell wrangler cowboy livin' on blue bell memories."
He held his brown hand out to me; I squeezed it and he was gone.