I’d give a lot if life was as easy to manipulate as it is in story books. If it was there would be an overturned wagon or store nearby that I could salvage from, maybe a convenient Walmart tractor trailor sitting on the side of the road. At worst I’d have to trade for what I needed … and what I needed was a new pair of boots. Only there weren’t any convenient wagons, stores, or tractor trailers … nor any hand towns nearby at the moment either, least none that hadn't been looted ten times over.
If they had put a mileage life on my boots I would have realized I was due for a flat. I’m not an easy fit either. I’d been forced to use a size nine sandal back in San Francisco because we couldn’t find anything bigger … mostly because Mom had flatly refused to check out the cross-gender shop that the shop owner had recommended. We just let the buckles out as far as they would go across the front of my foot and my heel and toe hung off just a little but as she said, “You’ll never notice it on a galloping horse.”
Well, I needed to be shod all right but it was going to be hard to find a women’s size 11 wide. I would have taken a man’s boot, and most of the time did when I couldn’t find my own size, but I didn’t see a Red Wing or Wolverine shoe store anywhere about. As I put yet another fixing of duct tape on the inside of my shoes to try and cover the hole in the sole I thought about how far I’d come.
After Grant it took me a week to get sixty some miles to this little place called Benkelman. What a hoot that place was. For some people reason people got it into their heads that returning to their pioneer forefathers’ ways was the only way to survive. I’m not just talking about how they did things but I mean how they dressed, talked, the whole nine yards. I saw women in prairie dresses and sun bonnets and men dressed in collarless shirts, suspenders, and straw hats. The kids were dress like miniature adults and frankly didn’t look too happy about it; June was setting up to roast us all. I couldn’t even go into the town proper because I had “mechanicals from the modern age.” Say what?!
They had a small stretch of road that they had blocked off from everything else and they were redirecting foot and wagon traffic from outside of their very closed community through it. I don’t think they meant anything bad by their actions, they were just trying to protect their community I suppose, but I could see where it could go from harmless eccentricity to hard line fanaticism without too much of a push.
Right after Benkelman I crossed into Kansas and the day after that I stopped in this little place called Bird City for the night to gather information if I could but I was out of luck. After weeks on the road I looked more than a little rough around the edges and even I thought the reflection in the mirror was a little scary. Three days after that I tried again in this little town called Edson which only looked like it existed because of the I70 on-ramp.
I had more luck there. I got a private bath, a hair cut … made me look like a geeky accountant until after I mussed it up a bit … and then looked around to see which of the three eating establishments that I wanted to try. I was tired of my own cooking and tired of my own company. I was lonesome but I’d made my choice and I thought that I’d made the best one I could. Eventually I would have had to be on my own and better to give it a bit of a try out in this flat land with few people than to get dependent on people that had already admitted they would be there in the long run. I also needed information before I got to walking down the interstate.
Mom didn’t raise no fool and Dad had taught me a few lessons too. When you want to find out where the best eats for the price was, follow the locals. It took me all of five minutes to decide that I was going to give Minnie’s Place a try. It was rough around the edges but there was honest to goodness cowboys in there. The other place looked like it mostly served travelers. When I saw a guy that looked like a sheriff … he had a badge on his pocket and a white hat and everything … I was sold. Dad said cops know all the good local joints worth going to, and more importantly which ones to avoid.
I brushed myself off and went to the door but there wasn’t anyone there that did the seating. I looked around but found myself getting a little intimidated and was rethinking my choice when I got pushed from behind hard enough that it sent me to one knee. Two men came rushed into the place with big ol’ shotguns shouting, “All valuables in the bags!” I heard screaming and carrying on from the other places up and down the strip as well.
I was just on my knees like a knucklehead until they pushed an older lady that came out of a side room down to the ground. You just don’t do things like that and expect no one to take exception to it. They didn’t call me “Freight Train” for nothing. I put my shoulder into it and plastered the closest one into the wall so hard that the shotgun disappeared into the paneling. He kind of slid down all boneless like a Looney Tunes character in the cartoons.
I turned to go after the other only to see he’d disappeared under a pile up of cowboys that were putting a bad whooping on him. I picked the older lady up off the floor and sat her in a chair, brushed her off, then turned to see the guy I’d thought was a sheriff grabbing a few of the locals to go check on the rest of the street; I figured I’d follow and do something about the adrenaline I already had flowing.
We came out to see the rest of the bunch hopping on horses about to make their escape. Before they got far the sheriff and the locals opened up on them. One of the bad guys tried to take off around the side of Minnie’s and I just sorta reached out and plucked him out of the saddle and proceeded to have a brawl that my mother would have grounded me for the rest of my life for exhibiting such unladylike behavior. It was about like that pile up when one of the Consolidated schools we’d played had taken exception to one of our players whistling Dixie. I was grounded for a month after that one.
The guy was about my height and weight but he had no stamina to speak of; all I had to do was get a few punches and stay out of the way of his haymakers and as soon as he lost his wind, one good tap on the side of his noggin sent him to his knees and I finished him off with a left. I don’t think Dad had ever meant for me to actually use the fighting techniques he’d taught me … but I was finding in this new life they’d equipped me for survival better than they had ever known.
I hadn’t come out unscathed. My left bicep was going to have a heck of a bruise and his head butt had split my lip but at least there’d be no sunrise on my face to have to explain away to folks so I wouldn’t scare them more than I already had a bad habit of doing.
I wiped my lip and saw the sheriff standing there with his arms crossed. I asked, “You want I should carry him someplace for you?”
A couple of the cowboys covered up a laugh but I hadn’t meant to be funny. I was trying to be helpful and stay out of the trouble that looked to be aimed at me from the sheriff’s eyes. Instead he bellowed, “Nelson! Take this cretin to the holding area.”
I must have looked as scared as I felt but then he said, “Not you boy, the one on the ground. You leaking brain matter as well as blood?”
“Er … uh … no sir.”
Then the older lady stepped out onto the porch, looked me square in the eye and told me, “Get your self in here right now!”
Ouch! I’d heard my mother and grandmother use that tone only a few times but when you hear it you know that you disobey under threat of death and dismemberment. I swallowed and stepped up on the porch and then followed her back into the eatery.
“Just look at my wall!”
“Yes ma’am. Sorry ma’am,” I mumbled while the cowboys all gave me that nice-known’-ya look before sitting back down to eat.
“Well, don’t just stand there. Sit down and eat and after we close you can clean it up.”
The look she gave me said all she wanted to hear from me was “Yes ma’am” and that’s exactly what I gave her. And what she gave me was a big plate of beans, wheat pilaf (instead of rice), fried corn, a slice of cheese, some of the best sausage links I’d ever put in my mouth, two huge cat-head sized biscuits with fresh butter to put on them, and for dessert an apple dumpling. To drink there was fresh cow’s milk which I found out was kept cold in the cellar beneath the eatery.
I plowed through it like I hadn’t eaten in days. When I finally looked up it was to find a couple of the cowboys laughing at me. “Must’ve been good.”
I wouldn’t lie. “Yes sir. The cook could give my mom a run for her money on the biscuits and that’s about the highest compliment I could give anybody.” They thought that was funny too and then got up and after a look at the sheriff who was sitting there finishing his own plate of food walked out the door and out of sight.
I sighed, picked up my plate and cup, and started to carry it back to the kitchen area. “Ma’am?” I called not wishing to go someplace I wasn’t supposed to. When the older lady … and she was indeed Miss Minnie … I asked her, “Um … I’m not sure what to do with … you know … my plate and cup.”
She wiped her hands on her apron and told me, “Take it over to the sink and set it in there. Watch that you don’t break or chip anything. Then get that broom and dustpan in there and get started cleaning that mess up.”
I did as I was told and then scrubbed the white wall where the man’s dirty face had left a good sized smudge. A guy about my own age clumped over and said, “Move outta the way you big ox. You made work for me, you make any more and you’ll pay.”
“Great personality there slim, must attract all the girls.”
A throat clearing behind me had me turning and then going over to the sheriff’s table. “Sit down.” I sat. “There was a reward for that fella you flattened against Miss Minnie’s wall. You come to the office and I’ll count it out to you.”
I was so surprised I didn’t know what to say. It really was like the old west all over again. “Uh … yes sir. I just have to pay Miss Minnie for the meal … and … I guess figure out what I owe for the wall too,” I added glumly hoping and praying that I could find some way to pay for the mess I’d unintentionally made.
Miss Minnie had overheard the last and said, “Oh, go on with you boy. You cleaned it up and Benji needs something constructive to keep him out of trouble anyway. And here is something to take with you.” She gave the Sheriff the eye too and then shooed us out so she could close up and get ready for the breakfast rush in the morning.
I followed the sheriff one street over to a tight little office and then watched as the baddies were being driven away by the cowboys. I looked until I couldn’t see them anymore and then turned to see the sheriff looking at me. “They’re being taken to the cemetery.”
“Huh … oh … Oh! Oh you … you mean …”
“You got somethin’ to say about that boy?”
“Uh … no sir. It’s y’alls town and none of my business,” I said quickly.
“That’s right. Now get in here so we can complete our transaction and then I want to see the backside of you right quick. Something about you boy … it bothers me. I don’t like things that bother me.”
Contrary to some people’s expectations I did know how to keep my mouth shut on occasion and this was one of those occasions. He reached into a drawer and pulled out a small bag that clinked and tossed it at me. I looked inside it and saw a mishmash of small silver ingots, old silver coins, and a small gold nugget that looked like it had been melted down from something else.
I pulled the nugget out and looked at it. To get this that guy must have been a bad dude indeed, but even bad dudes can sometimes come to cartoonish ends.
“You thinkin’ you're getting cheated?” the sheriff asked dangerously.
“Huh?” It took me a second to figure out what the sheriff was talking about. “No sir, I was just wondering … it really was my fault that hole got put in Miss Minnie’s wall. I don’t guess supplies to fix it are easy to find these days. That Benji kid don’t seem too helpful either. You … you reckon she would take this if I give it to her?” The sheriff’s eyebrows would have gone up into his hairline if most of it hadn’t already receded to the other side of his head.
In the end I left the nugget with the sheriff to give to Miss Minnie once I’d gotten out of town. I had a feeling had I tried to give it to her myself she would have taken a broom to me. Then to smooth things out more … I mean you just never know when you’re gonna have to go back through a place … I spent about half of what was left on stuff over at this trading post kind of thing. If I’d only had the sense to pick me up a new pair of boots while I was there.
I got some good gossip while I was in the trade post so it was worth it and spending the coins there made the gossip flow even more freely. I bought a bar of homemade soap, a comb, a real cowboy hat, a wedge of cheese, a box of waterproof matches (boy did they cost dear), a muslin bandana, some dried corn and wheat, a small jar of home canned pickles (watch out for the deposit on them jars), honey to refill my bear with, some homemade cheese crackers, and a few sticks of homemade hard candy. I figured I paid more than a local would have the way the store owner was smiling but I knew I had more silver (and gold) than he did and it meant the sheriff wouldn’t be such a hardcase. I stuffed it in the top of my backpack and the sheriff was more than happy to have me shaking the dust of Edson from my boots.
I didn’t get far that night since I’d gotten distracted so I wound up sleeping under an overpass. It wasn’t much of an overpass and it felt freaky as all get out but it was better than sleeping in the light rain that had started. Next day I made it to a place called Levant. The people weren’t near as friendly as I’d gotten used to in the Great Plains but I guess every place is different. I was hustled on through by the local law and that’s where I started noticing my shoes.
By Oakley my right shoe had a hole big enough in it that road gravel kept sneaking up in there. And then the heel of the other shoe started falling apart. I guess I shouldn’t complain, those boots had had a lot of miles put on them and they weren’t exactly new when I’d brought them from home, they were just my most comfortable. Well, they weren’t comfortable any more. I went some miles further and then got on the other side of this little place called Wakeeney and there is nothing back there worth going to. What little bit of town there used to be is dead and looted. The next town Ogallah was worse having been burned to the ground.
If my map is right I’ve got a ten mile walk to this little town called Ellis. If there is nothing there I’m in trouble. Water is a problem as well as it is flat, dusty and dry. I wish I had thought to catch more of the rainwater but that’s water under the bridge … and ain’t that a stupid pun. I’m going to be barefoot soon and that might be better than these blisters and bruises I’m getting on my feet.