Last Dance for Christmas
December 14, 2014
EDGAR WAS TIRED OF BEING ALONE. He shouldn’t have been. He should have been used to it. After all, he saw a lot more cattle than he did men, and he never had much to say even when standing in a crowd, and too many people made him nervous anyway.
Edgar lay back into the rumpled bunk of his line shack and listened to the wind try to wedge its way between the cracks in the gray, weathered cabin, stuck back amidst a clump of mesquite that bent low across the Caprock.
He had been there for two months and didn’t mind at all until December came rolling out of the Panhandle with frost on its breath. During the day, he was busy enough, chasing down Swenson cattle that had drifted too far from the winter grazing range. But it was those nights that tormented Edgar, those hours when he had too much time on his hands and nothing he could do with it. He even missed George. And he never really liked George in the first place.
It had been a wet, chilled November afternoon when the two cowboys came riding back to the line shack that held their grub and whiskey. They kept their dirty clothes on to keep from messing up the floor and draped yellow slickers over their shoulders to push back the sleet and rain.
George shivered. “These danged old slickers ain’t too warm,” he growled.
“No,” Edgar answered. “If I had two of the damned things on, I’d probably freeze to death.”
Late that night, they heard the howl of a hungry beast echo across the barren West Texas countryside.
“Wolf,” George said quietly.
“Coyote,” Edgar replied.
The next morning, just after daylight had sneaked in beneath the slate-colored clouds, George, without a word, packed his grub and whiskey in leather bags, walked silently out to his horse, and slung them across the saddle horn.
“Where you goin’?” Edgar asked.
“You argue too damn much.” George lit a cigarette, bowed his head into the winds, and was gone.
Edgar slumped across the wooden bed, shook the dirt from his ragged quilt, and pulled the wrinkled covers tightly around his shoulders. He wasn’t sleepy. He was only cold. His stomach was complaining, something about food or lack of it. Edgar wouldn’t have minded eating if the fire had already been lit, and the wood wasn’t buried beneath the drifting snow. He chewed tobacco instead and hoped it would ease the dull ache of hunger pains in winter.
Edgar looked up and counted three thousand, six hundred, and twenty-two bullet holes in the ceiling, put there by another bored cowboy during another boring December. He had spent his nights shooting at bugs and spiders that crawled out of the rotten wood, and he had hit about as many as he had missed.
Edgar sighed. He could either kill time reading labels on the baking powder cans, or he could thumb through that old patent medicine pamphlet again. Edgar grinned as he remembered what an old friend had once told him after a season in a line shack: “I read about them patent medicines so often, I was convinced I had the symptoms of seven different maladies, all of them said to be fatal.”
Darkness moved inside the room, and Edgar at last climbed out of his bunk, shoved his hat into a broken windowpane to shut out the wind, and kicked snow off the kindling that lay just outside the back door. He rubbed the numbness out of his hands and rolled his sourdough biscuits with a whiskey bottle. He would sleep that night on a full stomach after all.
The days dragged fitfully on, and loneliness began to nag Edgar like a bad cold that wouldn’t go away. He rounded up wayward Swenson cattle, mended a broken barbed wire fence or two, and late one night even added a dozen bullet holes to those three thousand, six hundred, and twenty-two in the ceiling, trying to gun down a runaway cockroach that was better at running away than Edgar was at aiming his pistol.
On a blustery December afternoon, Edgar Davis nailed the door shut on his line shack and rode off toward Anson and down to that big barn just outside of town where the ranchers and their wives, and especially their daughters, were gathering to dance away the troubles of an awkward year. They celebrated because it wasn’t as bad as it could have been.
Edgar drifted in with the crowd but didn’t say much since too many people always eroded his nerves and made him feel like the splintered end of a broken bottle. He just watched, standing in the shadows back behind the hay bales, tapping his foot to the rhythm of a hoedown fiddle. He drank a little whiskey and smiled at the ladies but was much too bashful to let any of them see him.
He would have struck up a conversation, but Edgar Davis couldn’t think of anything to say. It had been a long time between words, a long time since he had said anything to anybody, except, of course, arguing too much that night with George. He thought it was a coyote. Hell, it might have been a wolf after all. Edgar had cursed at a cow or two, and he did berate a rattlesnake in the woodshed one morning before he shot him. But those vocal outbursts didn’t count as conversation. Not really, they didn’t.
Edgar couldn’t take his eyes off the Harper girl. She was young and soft, and she laughed a lot, and her long skirt was only a flash of blue and white gingham as it swirled to the music in the glow of the yellow lantern lights. Long skirts. That’s all he had ever seen west of the Caprock, and Edgar grinned as he thought of the dance hall girl who had performed off-key up in Dodge one night at the end of a three month cattle drive.
She had awed and amazed him in that little bitty get up she was wearing. It was the first time that Edgar ever realized that women did indeed have legs beneath those long skirts, and, for the life of him, he couldn’t imagine why in the world women, at least the tall, slender ones, wanted to keep them hidden.
The Harper girl must have thought Edgar was grinning at her because she smiled back, and he finished his glass of whiskey and didn’t taste any of it at all. His head was clear, but his mind wasn’t. The snow slacked off outside and finally stopped about the same time the fiddler did.
The lanterns dimmed, and the ranchers all began their long journey home. Edgar Davis watched them go, waiting around the barn until he couldn’t hear their voices in the distance. Then he began walking toward the doorway, as alone as he had always been. Near the entrance, Edgar spotted a pair of rubber boots that some lady in her haste had left behind. The name inside indicated they had come from the Harper Ranch. Edgar smiled and didn’t feel so lonesome anymore.
The next morning, he dug around beneath his bunk and found some clean clothes. He washed his hair amidst the ice in the stock tank and let the cold wind dry it as he rode twenty miles to the Harpers’ front door. He knocked and came face to face with the young girl who looked so soft and laughed a lot. “Ma ‘am,” he said as earnestly as he could, “I believe you left this rubber boot at the dance last night. So I brought it to you.”
Her eyes widened with surprise. “Why, thank you,” she replied. “But I had two boots.”
Edgar looked shyly away and shoved his nervous hands into the hip pockets of his faded Levi trousers. “Yes, ma ‘am,” he said. “And I’ll bring you the other one tomorrow.”
Her smile told him that she would be waiting, and he told her on their wedding day that he had ridden all the way home wishing to God that she had been a centipede.