At the end of October, around the same time winter came back to the north rugged hills of Nebraska, I watched Virgil Manke’s spotted paint bangtail outrun Ben Frymire’s Kentucky bay mare under a pair of heavy pine trees at Long Pine Creek near Seven Springs. I kept company with Sonny Clausen and Henry Richardson, and the nearby forest made a dark silhouette against a blue curtain of storm clouds.
I wore a suit because I was in Long Pine with Sonny on business, buying canyon timber from Manke. My collar was starched and itchy, and it pestered my neck something fierce. I dug at the stiff attire, fingers brushing against my sandy brown hair curling long over my shoulders. I guess the jacket kept me warm enough.
Manke’s track across the grassy meadow was wet from an afternoon shower, and the horses chewed the damp loam to oatmeal. I prayed nobody turned a hoof.
Sonny sipped rum from a ceramic crock and encouraged his jockey toward the finish. “Push her, you sonuvabitch!” Sonny wore what he always wore, wool pants and a long-sleeved cotton shirt over the top of his long underwear. Didn’t matter if it was summer or winter, the only two seasons we have up here, Sonny was comfortable.
Neither one of us carried a hat, but I wished I did because Virgil Manke had a dandy bowler and Frymire fancied his Stetson. I liked rubbing elbows with monied equestrians. Bareheaded, I stood a little lower than them.
Manke’s Miss Baghdad was wild and quick, and Sonny had ten dollars bet on her.
When she beat Frymire’s Shady Jane, he ’bout choked up a lung.
“I had hopes, August John,” he told me. “I had hopes, but—oh, my stars—I never believed it. I never believed I would win. Not in a million years of Sundays.” He smelled like sweat and rum and piss the way some old men do, but he won close to twenty dollars when that pacer pounded over the line. Financially, he was better off than me.
“You still know your horseflesh, Sonny,” I said, patting his back. “Now, go get your winnings.”
It was old Henry Richardson who’d encouraged Sonny to place his bet. “Did I tell you, Clausen? Or did I tell you?”
“You’re right about it, Henry.” He still couldn’t believe it. “You both told me true.”
Sonny’s expression made me laugh out loud. “Will you just go get your money before they hand it to somebody else?”
Sonny beamed with success. “Boys, I know horses better’n anybody. But, I never believed we’d win today, let alone so much money.” He shook his head, honestly surprised at his good fortune. And he really did know horses. He could recognize a horse by her prints in the sod.
“You go collect your winnings,” I said again.
“I’m gonna do just that. C’mon, Henry.” The two walked off together to join a ring of happy gamblers gathered around Miss Baghdad. Sonny said, “See you later, August John.”
I took off my string tie, stuffed it into my pocket, and tugged at the itchy collar again.
I still wished I had a hat.
Sonny’s the only one who still calls me August John, a name I buried with my career as a horse thief five years gone and more. Now I was just John Augustus—friends called me Gus—watching the half-mile race with a dozen other folks, jawboning like partygoers do when chance throws them together, on a restful Thursday afternoon. From the looks of things Manke had invited all of Brown County, plus a few easterners from Holt and Knox.
Sonny Clausen was a pal from those bad old days, longer in the tooth than my old man but with the benefit of still drawing breath. Sonny and my pap had served together at Fort Randolph, though I never really knew my dad, and my mom . . . she could go hang.
I looked up to Sonny in ways I never could understand because, Good Lord!—the damned yapping cuss could get under your skin. I still don’t understand it.
Sonny was near eighty years old, with rheumy yellow eyes and puffy vein-mapped skin, and he didn’t walk straight. Back when Sonny lived in Paddock, and when Pleasant Valley was a store for local homesteaders, he carried in wholesale goods to me and Trudy, my wife. That was in the days before the railroad came to Long Pine and made it a regional hub for dry goods and produce.
Having no kin of his own left, Sonny now stayed with Trudy and me at Pleasant Valley, and I watched out for him—parent to a man three times my age and then some. Not the kind of father I wanted to be, but life doesn’t often give you a choice.
In turn, Sonny wrangled deals for me, like the wagonload of cut cedar and pine I’d purchased from Virgil Manke.
I checked my pocket watch and saw the day was near lost. Lightning laced the southern sky, and thunder followed along. A warning.
Across the Niobrara River on one of the tributaries of the Keya Paha, Pleasant Valley was a far piece north from Manke’s spread where Sonny and I sat without slickers. And us low on tobaccy.
When a big gust of wind came rolling up from that batch of cauliflower clouds on the horizon, I was in a hurry for Sonny to shake Manke’s fat hand so we could leave with our wagonload for home.
I didn’t love the idea of freighting all that wood in the rain, nor traversing Long Pine Creek Canyon twenty-plus miles to where it opens to the wide Running Water valley.
Near the horse race finish line, stroking his waxed fat mustache, white-haired Virgil Manke was pampered with attention from a slew of grinning livestock barons. There was Cap Burnham from Carns, and C.C. Dodge stood alongside Henry Richardson’s nephew, Ted Roberts. Ted worked for Manke as a hand and lived here on his ranch.
Manke wore a big wool coat and kid gloves and waited for his jockey to swing Miss Baghdad back around. His coat looked awfully expensive. But I guess it cut the wind better than my jacket.
Sonny was right up front, running off at the mouth, “What a show! What a trotter!”
I took a few steps back away from everybody else.
On the far side of the mud, Ben Frymire was being a good loser, leading Shady Jane around toward the bunch with his boy who rode the mare into second place. The old devil was everything Manke wasn’t—broomstick thin and leather tough wearing jeans and a light, long-sleeved shirt. Frymire was a bachelor sodbuster whose dad immigrated from Norway to Bassett, a few miles east of Manke’s spread. His pa had kicked off early and left a young kid to grow old alone with his ma on Nebraska dirt.
A kraut farmer clapped his shoulder, “Better luck next time, Ben,” and wandered off toward Manke’s enormous white house.
“Thanks,” Frymire said, and while he talked with the boy, his hat wagged back and forth like it might make a jump at any second.
I knew Virgil Manke from the Long Pine auction barn since he ran cows along with horses. Cap Burnham was a local attorney with an interest in livestock. Trudy knew Manke, too—but from longer ago, when she ran guns for Doc Middleton and us Pony Boys and whoever else had folding money or gold.
Manke had his fingers in everything for as long as I could remember.
Sonny clutched his winnings in hand and gushed all over Mr. Manke. “I sure enough thank you for asking us to stay over this afternoon. God knows I’ve been awful unlucky of late. God knows it. I guess I was owed something.”
Manke brushed him off quick, but friendly enough. “Well, Sonny, I was glad to help you boys out with that wood. Call again, soon, won’t you?”
“Yes, sir. By God, next time we’re here, we’ll look you up. We certainly will do that.”
Sonny never knew a stranger, and while them clouds boiled up mad, pregnant with a lake of water and ice, I liked to think he’d never get a move on, him showing his wad of bills to each of the other men. Some of them had won money too, of course.
I shoved my hands deep in my hip pockets and played with my folding knife and wondered if—as long as I was hanging around waiting—maybe I oughtn’t have a drink. Maybe something to eat before we took to the road.
Manke’s wife and daughters had a lunch laid out in front of the house behind us on linen gray tablecloths, mostly deviled eggs and ham sandwiches, but there was a barrel of beer at the far end of the spread. The kraut farmer was there now filling his mug.
With Miss Baghdad beating out Shady Jane, there’d likely be a hell of a good party in the offing, even if the weather forced everybody to move inside. Maybe Sonny and me should stay a while, after all? A beer would taste awfully good.
While I tried to make up my mind, a stick figure with a fancy claw-hammer coat, gray britches, braces, and black hat slipped out from behind one of the cottonwoods. The sneaky fellow was on his way toward Manke’s congratulatory crowd, and I guess he wasn’t expecting me to be standing there because he flinched when he saw me.
That’s just what he did, flinched, and his hand worried the big nickel-plated six-shooter drooping off his hip.
And me with nothing but a dime-store knife tucked away in my trousers.
“How do,” I said, with a cautious nod.
He lifted his chin. “How do.”
The short man’s eyes were dry, hard stones, his jaw clenched around a smoking cigarette in a grimace that made me sad.
That first time seeing Albert Wade back from jail, I figured he’d give me a smile.
Guess I figured wrong.