(Part Eleven of the Ranch Days series)
By Maz McCoy
Hannibal Heyes yawned and adjusted his hat as he walked across the yard from the bunkhouse to the barn. The sun was barely above the horizon, clouds gathered in the eastern sky and a breeze blew across the prairie. He kicked a stone and watched it roll away. He looked at his boots. The soles were wearing thin and his feet had grown making them a tight fit. When he was next in town he’d have to invest in some new ones. He’d have to win the money at poker first. He saw men moving around inside the barn.
It was another day on the Bar T; another morning of mucking out the stalls, of shovelling horse manure and taking orders. Another day just like the one before and the one before that and…Just like tomorrow would be too. Except that it wasn’t just another day. Today was different. It was special. At least it was special to him. Not that anyone else would know. It wasn’t as if he’d expected anyone to make a fuss or anything but he’d expected Jed to at least say something; to have remembered. Oh, he’d said good morning when he climbed from his bunk; he’d chatted with the other men, all friendly like, but he hadn’t said the two words Heyes was hoping to hear. Two words his parents would have said before he was even out of bed. He sighed. He was too old to keep thinking back to those days. They were long gone. He wasn’t a kid anymore. Heck, he was seventeen now.
A horse whickered as he walked inside the barn. Heyes leaned on the stall door and a velvety nose nudged his arm.
“I ain’t got anything for you, Spud.” Another nuzzle. “And no one’s got anything for me.” He let out a long breath. The horse looked at him. “Okay, I’ll see what I can find.” The horse nodded his head in agreement.
“Heyes? That you, boy?”
“Yeah, Marty and in case you haven’t noticed I’m not a boy anymore.”
“You’re a good few years younger than me, son. Believe me, in my eyes, you’re still a boy.” Marty strode towards him, carrying a rope. “Gotta get those mares in for the sale in town tomorrow. Get your horse saddled and we’ll head out to the pasture.”
“Okay.” Heyes walked head down, back to Spud’s stall.
“You okay?” Marty asked.
“You seem down.”
“It’s not important.”
“You haven’t argued with Jed again, have you?”
“You boys gotta learn to get along.”
“We do, until Jed says something stupid.”
“It’s never you, huh?”
“Marty, you should know by now, I’m always right where Jed’s concerned.”
“Sheesh! And you wonder why you argue. Just get that horse saddled.”
“I shoulda said something.” Jed handed the new horse shoe to Bill Napier and watched as he placed it onto Winifred’s hoof, testing it for size.
“Too late now. He’s out with Marty. Hand me that…” Bill pointed and Kid picked up the tool he was indicating.
“He’s not gonna be happy.”
“Hold Winifred’s halter will you?”
Kid moved to hold the horse, rubbing her nose absently as he did so.
“Bill, do you know when Emily’s coming back?”
The man chuckled.
“Forgotten Heyes that quick huh?”
“Like you said, nothing I can do until he gets back.” Bill nodded. “So, do you?”
“She’ll be back for the wedding, that’s all I heard. You planning something special?” He studied the boy.
“You’re gonna hafta learn to lie better than that, boy.”
“I’m not lying! I just…”
“I’d just like to see her again, that’s all.”
“She’s a pretty girl.”
“Yeah, she is.” Jed smiled, remembering Emily’s pretty face and the way she…
Bill released Winifred’s leg and put down his tools.
“Jed, don’t get into trouble over Emily.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, it’s not wise to mess with the boss’s daughter.”
“I ain’t messing with her.”
“Make sure you don’t. You’re both of an age when…”
“Feelings can get outta hand and you can end up doing things you wish you hadn’t.”
“I’m not sure I know what you mean.”
“When the time comes, you will, boy. Trust me, you will.” Jed considered this. “Now, stop day dreaming about that girl and give me and hand here.”
Heyes rode on one side of the small herd of horses and Marty on the other. The older man had a new born foal draped over his saddle as they descended from the pasture. Heyes made clicking noises with his mouth urging the horses on.
“So no one knows it’s your birthday?” Marty asked as he turned the herd onto the trail.
“Nope. Well apart from Jed.”
“Why didn’t you say anything?”
“I don’t know. I…I didn’t want anyone to make a fuss but now that it’s here…”
“You wish someone would?”
“No, birthday’s are for kids.”
Marty turned in the saddle to look at Heyes.
“Who the heck told you that?”
“No one. I just. Well none of you have celebrated anything since we’ve been here and I just thought that…”
“That grown men don’t worry about birthdays.”
“Well you got that wrong. Grown men can be little boys over their birthdays. Just ‘cos we haven’t had cake and candles, doesn’t mean we don’t celebrate. Remember when Gerrard came back from town with that black eye a couple of weeks back?”
“He got it celebrating his birthday. Propositioned the wrong gal and her husband took offence. One punch. Laid him out cold.”
“I didn’t know.”
“Well, he wasn’t about to advertise the fact.”
“What about you? You had a birthday and not told us?”
“Not yet. It’s coming up in a couple of weeks but don’t ask me how old I’ll be ‘cos I already feel like an old man and I sure don’t need reminding of it.” He urged his horse on and rode in front of a straying mare.
“You’re not old.” Heyes steered another horse back into the herd.
“I am compared to you and Jed.”
“Maybe I can get Henry to bake you a cake?”
“I ain’t gonna tell you not to ‘cos that old goat sure can cook. Heck, if he was a woman I’d marry him just for his stew.” Heyes laughed. “Just don’t tell him I said that.”
“So, Jed getcha anything?”
Marty turned to face Heyes.
“What? But he did remember?”
“I don’t think so. He never said a word this morning. I thought he’d have remembered but I guess it’s not important to him.”
“That boy’s got a lot on his mind of late.”
“You making excuses for him, Marty?”
“Nope. Stating a fact.”
“He tell you what?”
“I reckon Miss Emily features in his thoughts a lot.”
“In his dreams too.”
“And I have a feeling he’s gonna get himself into a lot of trouble when she comes back if he’s not careful or I don’t keep an eye on him.”
“Well there ain’t too many gals his age out here to fall in love with. A boy hasta have a first love some time.”
“Yeah, but does it have to be the boss’s daughter?”
“Guess we’ll all hafta keep an eye on him then.”
Heyes smiled. He might be a grown man now but Jed, well, he still had a lot of growing up to do.
“Hi Marty! Heyes!” Jed called from the bunkhouse porch as they tied their horses to the corral fence. The mares were safely in the corral and the foal reunited with its mother. Marty eased himself from the saddle and stretched his aching back muscles. That felt good.
“Henry got the coffee on?” he called.
“Whatcha been up to?” Heyes asked as he lowered himself to the ground.
“Helping Bill, this and that. Everything go all right?”
“No problem.” Heyes took the reins from Marty and led the horses into the barn. When Heyes’ back was turned Marty looked at Jed. The boy gave him a thumbs-up.
“Heyes, why don’tcha let me take the horses?” Marty called. “There’s a few things I need to do anyway. Go get me a cup of coffee, will ya?”
“Okay. If you’re sure?”
Heyes handed the reins back and followed Jed to the bunkhouse.
Jed stopped when they reached the door.
“Heyes, I forgot something this morning.”
“What?” Sheesh, Jed sure was drawing this out.
“I forgot to tell you something.”
“Happy Birthday, Han.” Two dimples appeared on his friend’s face. “Did you think I’d forgotten?”
“No. I mean, we’ve both been busy and I…”
“You did, didn’t ya?”
“Yeah, I guess I did.”
Jed pushed open the door.
“Well, I didn’t.”
Heyes stepped into the bunkhouse. Jed pointed to a small parcel on the table. It was wrapped in brown paper, tied with string and had a tag attached with the word ‘Heyes’ written on it in Jed’s handwriting.
“Is that for me?”
“You know anyone else around here named Heyes?”
Heyes shoved Jed.
“Don’t get smart, kid. I’m seventeen now.”
“Yeah, a real old man!”
“Older than you.”
“You’re always gonna be older than me!”
“You boys still arguing?” Henry asked as he entered the room.
“Nah. I’m just putting the kid in his place.”
Jed shoved Heyes and the older boy laughed.
“So you gonna open it or what?”
Heyes picked up the parcel and gave it a gentle shake. Something moved inside. Hmm. He untied the string and placed it to one side. He had learned early on in the home never to waste a valuable resource.
“Open it!” Jed urged.
“It’s my present.”
“I know but I wanna see if you like it.”
Heyes tore off the paper to reveal a box with the name Barlow written on it. He gasped. Surely Jed hadn’t bought… He removed the lid and his mouth dropped open. It was a Barlow knife. A folding knife. He looked at his friend.
“D’you like it?” Jed asked.
“Like it?” Heyes removed it from the box and opened it, reverently. He’d wanted a Barlow knife for ever. Sheesh! How had Jed managed to afford it?
“It’s the closest I could get to the one your Pa had. Marty helped me pick it out and we sent away for it.”
“You sent away for it?” Heyes couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He thought Jed had forgotten. How wrong could he have been? His vision blurred. Oh no, they couldn’t be tears. He was seventeen, he couldn’t cry.
“Jed’s been doing extra chores to raise the money,” Henry told him as he placed a cake on the table. “Nearly drove Jeff mad asking for extra jobs to do.” Heyes stared at Jed and then down at the cake. There was a single candle sticking out of the top. “You ain’t going all mushy on us are you, son?”
“Nope,” he said, gruffly, rubbing his nose hard with the back of his hand. He looked up at Henry. “You made me a cake?”
“Yep. Better light this candle and make a wish before the rest of the boys get here.” Henry struck a match and lit the candle. Heyes looked at Jed, then blew out the flame. He opened his knife and cut into the cake, handing Jed the first piece.
The door opened and Bill and Nathan entered the bunkhouse.
“Is that cake?” Nathan’s eyes zoomed in on the table.
“Bir’day ghake,” Jed stated as crumbs tumbled down his shirt.
“Someone got a birthday?” Nathan asked innocently, then slapped Heyes on the back. “Happy Birthday, Heyes. You forgiven this kid for not saying anything this morning? We were all bursting to tell you what he’d bought.”
The door opened again and Marty and Gerrard entered.
“Oh, the cake’s finished,” Gerrard said as Henry handed him a piece.
“You all knew?” Heyes looked from one man to another.
“Of course we did. Jed was too excited about that knife to keep it a secret.” Nathan smiled at Jed.
“Why didn’t you say anything? I went all day thinking nobody remembered.” Heyes looked at them.
“We had work to do,” Bill stated, expecting the explanation to be good enough.
Marty placed a hand on Heyes’ shoulder.
“Happy Birthday, Heyes. Don’t be in such a rush to grow up, okay. You got a lot of years ahead of you, son.”
Heyes nodded and smiled.
“So what’re we drinkin’?” Gerrard asked as he sank down onto a chair. Faces turned to Bill, who in Collins’ absence, was the man in charge.
“What you got, Henry?”
“Whiskey do ya, boys?”
“No complaints from me.” Nathan threw his hat across the room onto his bunk.
Henry opened a bottle, handed round cups and began to pour. He looked at Heyes as he stood holding out his enamel mug.
“I reckon you’re old enough now.”
“I’ve been old enough for a couple of years.”
Henry poured and Heyes took a swallow. The cook ignored Jed’s cup and filled Nathan’s.
“What about me?” Two blue eyes fixed on Henry.
“I don’t think so.”
“I’m old enough to drink!”
Henry turned to face the others.
“What d’you think boys? Do I pour Jed some?”
“If I remember rightly, last time you tried whiskey you couldn’t handle it,” Bill remarked, pulling a pack of cards from his shirt pocket. “And you had to be carried outta the saloon.”
“That’s ‘cos I had too much.”
“That’s ‘cos he was in lurve with Miss. Emily,” Gerrard cooed and received an ice blue glare.
“C’mon Henry, just a little, huh?” Jed pleaded and the cook smiled.
“Well, I can’t see a little doin’ any harm and it is Heyes’ birthday.”
Jed beamed and held out his cup. Henry tipped the bottle very carefully, allowing two drips to fall.
“Is that it?”
“You’re kinda short for anything more.”
“Since when has height been a..?” And then Jed saw them grinning at him. “Sheesh, you fellas think you’re so funny.”
As the men laughed, Henry filled Jed’s cup.
“Don’t swallow it all at once.”
Bill dealt the cards, Nathan passed round cigars and the men of the Bar T settled in for a game of poker. Heyes took a long draw on his cigar as he studied the cards he’d been dealt. Jed reached for a cigar, but Heyes swatted his hand.
“Don’t tell me I’m too short to smoke!” Jed complained.
“I’m not. But mixing cigars and whiskey is a sure fired way to have you throwing up all night.”
“Heyes is right.” Nathan threw down two cards and Bill dealt him two more. “Listening to you take another look at your supper at two o’ clock in the morning is not my idea of fun.”
“I’ve smoked cigars before,” Jed muttered but didn’t push the point. He looked at his cards. Nothing. He threw in his hand.
Heyes settled back in his chair, looking around the table as he shared a drink and a smoke with men of the Bar T. Men he called his friends…His…He hesitated to use the word but they were…His family. He had good food, a warm bed to sleep in and the best friend anyone could have, had bought him a Barlow knife. It wasn’t a bad birthday after all.
As the early morning light streamed through the bunkhouse windows a blanket was thrown to one side and two bare feet landed on the cold wooden floor. No one else stirred as Jed stood up and stretched. Readjusting his union suit, he scratched as he went to the stove and felt the coffee pot. Cold. He surveyed the various shapes hidden beneath grey blankets and a mischievous smile formed. Holding the coffee pot he proceeded to bang it several times hard on the stove.
“What the *$!@*!”
“OW! My head!””
“I’ll shoot the son of a…!”
Bleary eyes glared at him. Tousled heads peered over the tops of blankets.
“Mornin’ fellas,” Jed said cheerfully. “I sure hope none of you had too much to drink last night ‘cos we got horses to move! It’s time to rise and shine! ”
Someone threw a pillow in his direction as the swearing continued followed by hacking coughs and groans.
“Someone shut him up!”
“Sheesh, Nathan, don’t you want your usual runny eggs for breakfast with an extra helping of pan grease?”
“Heyes, I know he’s your best friend but I swear I’m gonna shoot that kid.” Nathan’s eyes, barely open, fixed on the blond boy.
Despite his own pounding headache, Heyes smiled. It was another day on the Bar T.
End of Part 11