A Ranch Days vignette
By Maz McCoy
“You sure about this?” Nathan asked as he removed the lid from the bottle of blue ink.
A blond head nodded. The young man sat, stripped to the waist, at the bunkhouse table, his left arm poised. Several of the hands had gathered around to watch the spectacle. From his position near the open door Heyes shook his head in disbelief.
“Hold still,” Nathan instructed as he placed the needle, covered in ink, on the kid’s left shoulder. “This might sting a bit.”
“I thought you said it was painless!” Blue eyes shot Marty a look.
“I got mine a long time ago. Guess my memory ain’t so good.”
“You ready?” Nathan queried.
The young man took a deep breath and braced himself. “Do it!” The needle pierced his skin and he grimaced.
“Of course it hurts! I’m stikin’ a needle in ya. Whatcha expect?”
“Darn foolishness if you ask me,” Henry muttered as he collected up the dirty breakfast plates.
“We ain’t askin’ you, Henry,” Reno stated. He sat on his top bunk, legs swinging in mid-air as he craned his neck to get a better view.
“Well, I still say it’s darn foolishness. Why would ya wanna have someone’s name written on ya?”
Louisiana smiled as he held his hand over his heart. “It’s a mark of his undyin’ lurve. I swear you ain’t got a romantic bone in ya body, ol’ man.”
“Romantic? Ha! I don’t know any woman had her head turned by a bit of ink on skin.”
“So we know you ain’t got one. What about you Reno?” Louisiana turned to the man.
“Nope. Thought about it once but by the time I got the nerve up she’d up and run off with another man.”
Amidst the guffaws Nathan could be heard to ask, “You all right?”
A somewhat pale face, nodded.
A mixture of blood and ink ran down the youngster’s arm. “Hand me that cloth.” Nathan held out his hand as it was passed to him and he wiped the bloody ink away. He glanced down at a crumpled piece of paper lying on the table and then returned his attention to the tattoo he was carefully applying. “You sure this is how she spells her name?”
“You asked me that several times. Maisie. M.A.I.S.I.E.”
“Just want to be sure. Hate to get it wrong.”
The needle pierced the skin once more, carrying the ink to the hidden dermal layer of cells.
Footsteps sounded on the porch outside and Jed Curry appeared in the doorway. “What’s goin’ on?”
“Billy’s getting tattooed,” Heyes informed him.
“Where? I wanna see.” Jed eased his way through to stand on the opposite side of the table to the tattooee. Billy Wilson sat grim-faced across from him. Nathan, his tongue poking out of the corner of his mouth in concentration, worked the needle. “Does that hurt?”
“Naw,” Billy stated bravely. His ashen face told a different story.
“What’s it gonna say?” Jed asked.
“Maisie.” Billy informed him. “And there’s gonna be a heart around it.”
“Gonna be a lot of blood around it too,” Henry muttered.
“Stop scarin’ the boy,” Marty scolded.
“You shoulda talked him out of it.” Henry pointed at the boy’s arm. “If that thing gets infected, don’t ask me to tend it for ya.”
“It won’t,” Nathan stated. Worried blue eyes fell on his. “It won’t Billy, trust me.”
Billy didn’t look convinced.
On the insistence of the other hands, Jed sat down so they could see the operation over his head. “How long s’it take?” he asked.
“Not much longer.” Nathan dipped the needle in the ink.
“Could you do one for me?” Jed asked.
Nathan shot him a sideways glance. “You sure?”
Heyes rolled his eyes but kept his mouth shut.
“I could have a Colt 45.” He shot a look at Marty. “Or maybe two? Crossed? Whatcha think?”
“I think it’s the stupidest idea I ever heard,” Henry stated before the other man could speak. Then he turned to Billy. “No offence, son. You go right ahead and let Nathan mark you for life.”
Heavier booted footsteps sounded on the bunkhouse steps before a shadow fell across them. The ranch foreman, Jeff Collins, stood in the doorway. He quickly sized up the room and the procedure holding everyone’s attention. Like Heyes, he shook his head in dismay as he entered the room.
“Got the mail, boys,” he announced, then preceded to hand envelopes to several of the hands. The room fell quiet as men headed to their bunks to read letters from home. “Henry.” Jeff held out a package to the cook. “Reckon this is that catalogue you wanted.”
“’Bout time.” The cook took it, then headed for the kitchen.
Jeff continued to distribute the mail. “Reno. Louisiana.” He held the last envelope, a white one, to his nose and sniffed. “Smells like your gal, Billy.”
With his right hand Billy took the envelope. “Open it for me, Marty, will you?” Marty did as asked as Nathan finished the e in Maisie’s name. Marty removed a sheet of white paper from the envelope and opened it before handing it to Billy. “It’s her all right.” The youngster positively beamed.
“When you see him look like that over a piece of paper from his girl, it’s no wonder he wants her tattooed on his skin.” Heyes looked at Billy as Jeff spoke. “I reckon she’s already tattooed on his heart.”
The foreman was right. Billy was in love with Maisie. He wondered if he’d ever feel that way about a woman. He liked Susanna, but then he reckoned a lot of men liked Susanna, some on a weekly basis. Maybe one day he’d find someone who made him feel differently, made him want to settle down, stay in one place, build a home like his folks had. Heyes stood up straight. “I got chores to do.” He turned and headed out the door.
“Billy, you all right?” Kid asked.
Nathan looked up. The youngster’s face was paler than before, if that were possible. “Billy?”
“Nathan, don’t bleed him to death!” Marty warned.
Nathan picked up the cloth and wiped the wound. “Billy?”
Billy’s eyes were fixed on the floor. Slowly the fingers of his right hand closed around the letter.
“Billy?” All eyes were on the young man. “Billy?” Nathan prompted.
Finally blue eyes turned back to the man holding the needle. “Can you change it?”
“The tattoo. Can you change it?”
“Not right now, no. Why?”
Billy held up the letter. “She married Wilbur Inwood. Can you believe that? Wilbur. Inwood. A banker’s son! Maisie married Inwood. How could she do that to me?” No one knew what to say. Billy looked down at the tattoo, saw the blood running down his arm and promptly passed out.
Chair legs scraped on wood and Nathan was on his feet before Billy hit the floor.
“Wow,” Louisiana exclaimed. “I didn’t see that one comin’.”
Jed looked down at Billy. “Guess I won’t have a tattoo after all.”