I’m an Old Cowhand

M. Chase Colton

One road led away from Dalton and I was on it—washboard red dirt narrowed by unkempt wheat growth. About five miles back on farm-road 196 the rotted-oak electric poles laid flat. The town sign, full of buckshot, read: Dalton, OK, Pop. 325. The actual population was probably one. I say probably because you’d have to be crazier than a shit-house rat to live there. And Emmet was. He was also my uncle, my mother’s brother, and the last of her kin. When she died in ‘98 of a stroke, he didn’t show. Her will and testament left me nothing but an instruction, “Skip, take care of Emmet.”

Finding Emmet dead wasn’t the worst of it. It’s the song that I can’t shake—that old Johnny Mercer song—it stuck with me like the scrub and lowland mesas of western Oklahoma. I first heard it as a boy, a lullaby from my father. Then, in elementary school, the song was my reeducation, a source of confusion as I wore roper boots to the mall. With lines like I’m a cowboy who never saw a cow, never roped a steer cause I don’t how. As a city kid I learned to live divided from what I was supposed to be—rough-palmed, red-necked, and stoic—the type of man who put a fistful of salt in his hot beer like Emmet. The song played on Emmet’s busted radio in Dalton, the voice of Bing Crosby faltering—it is a song of loss. Emmet knew it too. He knew that if you took the farm-road long enough, and if you didn’t mind being alone, that you could get west of everything that matters.

 

I saw the tin grain elevator rusted and gone green with ivy. The homes along Old Main were weathered, paint-pealed, and caving. The brick-brown town hall was boarded over with oak, one plank painted “No place like home.” I wasn’t sure, but this always seemed like Emmet’s handiwork. I pulled up to the abandoned diner, its windows busted out, the stink of lard still inside. I waited there not because of the swelter, but because Emmet was in the habit of shooting first, sitting on his porch with coffee and his twenty-two, watching humming birds dance at the feeder. He loved to draw them and stopped only to train his scope on those who wandered up the dead streets. I shielded my eyes to spot Emmet. Nothing. A rattle of glass slipped from the diner. In the darkness of the interior I could see a bare back, convex and bony. I went inside. Emmet mumbled drunkenly though he was not drunk. His bald head was bluish and bloodied on the right side. He didn’t notice me as he sat in his underwear on the dusty seat.

“Emmet?” I said and rested my hand on his shoulder.

“When ‘at waitress comin’ back, city boy,” he said. Although confused, he at least recognized me. Emmet was fond of calling me “city boy.” I realize that doesn’t seem like much, but it’s a distinction of coarseness, a difference in the labor of our lives. For some rural types it means nutless, but from Emmet’s mouth it was endearing.

“Emmet,” I said. “We’re at the diner, OK. I need to get you into Liberty to see the doc.”

“City boy?” Emmet gave me a straight-on look. His eyes were full of cataract, opaque and moist, and his head was all but bald and cratered like a moon, right down to the scruff on his chin.

“Come on, let’s get you up.”

I drove Emmet to Liberty Regional while he mumbled about his grand-dad’s hands and a watermelon patch by the warm Cimarron River. He was conscious one moment. Then the next, the doctor told me he had suffered a stroke. After a few weeks in the hospital Emmet begged me to bring him saltines and raw ground beef or a bag of chew. The doctor suggested I take him to the rest home for a visit, it would be best for him. So I did. Emmet knew what was happening and demanded to go home. I told him I would visit daily to square him with living back in Dalton, alone again. If it didn’t work, then he’d go back to Liberty and stay under constant care. I thought the threat might challenge him, but he refused to shake on it, gulped deep and looked ahead, his eyes watery. After a few days I had no choice.

I returned one evening to take Emmet to the home. We had argued, but I reminded him of our deal when he was unable to bathe or feed himself. As I came to town the sun teetered on the western tree line in an orange haze that colored tracing clouds like grapefruit. Emmet would’ve been watching. He said that the big sky was always good in Dalton—the flatland forces your eyes up to see sun, cloud, and moon as a pre-electric world must have. I stopped at the diner, but I couldn’t see well enough to catch a glimpse of Emmet in the dusk.

I cautiously opened his door to the sound of cicadas screeching a prelude to the cricket’s call, grass grown past the tires of his riding mower. I couldn’t hear his gas generator. As I came in, I noticed the duct-taped electric cable was unplugged. The house looked empty. The radio was on, but the failing battery jumbled the sound.

I know all the songs that the cowboys know

Bout . . . where the doggies go

. . . learned them . . . the radio

Yippie Yi Yo Kiyah . . .

I searched the rooms. The stench of rotten meat came from the fridge. The bedroom was calm. The sheets were undisturbed. I wondered how far he could be. It didn’t matter. Emmet was gone, his rifle off its rack. I walked back outside and called. My voice echoed through the old downtown, hollow as a drainpipe. I kept shouting as the evening stars huddled into warming bands. He wasn’t coming back, and I didn’t blame him, in fact, part of me was relieved. I felt guilty for that. But this town died around Emmet and quit him. So there is no blame—Emmet was just the kind of stone that couldn’t be turned. I called the sheriff in Liberty and waited for him and his deputy. They searched the place as I had, Bing on repeat, ran their spotlights through the town hall and diner, the old bank and an abandoned rail car. They asked me how long he had been out here. I told them his whole life. Both men watched me with disbelief. Far off in the dark we heard a report, distant and going further. The wind blew, a storm pushing in. I smelled the sweetness of the wild wheat as rain passed through our flashlights. In the morning I was alone when I found Emmet near a muddy creek, half way to Liberty as the crow flies, his rifle at his side. I knelt in the creek bed, red and roiling. I touched Emmet’s cold hand, dimpled with raindrops, and felt a coarseness not unlike my own.

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