"You ever been this far out?"
"Na, I never made it this far."
"It's quiet, peaceful."
"Um-hum," George looked at me with The Grand Canyon between his eyebrows where he'd squished them together in concentration. He never had much of a poker face, I always knew what he was gona' say even before he said it.
I spoke before he could, "you're wondering if I'll even want to go back with you when we get out to Denver . . . Ain't ya?"
"Maybe, maybe not."
"I knew it! You were never any good at cards."
The campfire crackled and drew my eyes over, just in time to see the coffee almost boil over. I jumped up and snatched it off the grate.
"Coffee's ready." I said, handing George a cup. Then I poured my own, and sat down again, leaning my back against the saddle which I'd taken off old Tom. He was my horse and the best one I'd ever known. He was gona' take me all the way to The Rockies.
George took a sip and then spoke up, "You got any smokes left Bill? I had my last coming over that ridge this evening."
I reached into my shirt pocket and tossed the box of smokes over to him. He let them land on his lap, then he looked back at me and took a breath to speak. I cut in before him again "and the matches, don't worry I wouldn't leave ya with out," I tossed the match box over. Sometimes it bothered me, always knowing what he was gona' say next. It felt like I was having a conversation with myself. And as it turned out, I weren't much fun to talk to.
"That weren't it," he said, "that weren't what was gona' say." But I wasn't sure I believed him. I could see him fumbling with something then, and it turned out to be a bras match box which he threw over, "that's my lucky tin, you hang on to it till we get there."
He puffed and sipped gently, and rolled his head back a little, the way he always did when he'd start thinkin' about the 'big picture', as he called it. Tonight felt as good as any for it, we were almost there, almost to Denver.
"You ever think about why the sky turns pink just before the sun goes down?" George asked, with his head still pointed skyward, "or why the stars seem to twinkle and not hold their place?"
I piped up, "Well when the sun is setting it gets just a little further away and so some of the light can't get . . . "
"I know, I know but," George tried to stop me.
I kept up, "and the stars they . . . "
George cut in again, and rather sharply too, "you really got an answer for everything, don't ya Bill?"
I smiled at that, I knew George, he meant no insult by it. To him it would have been rude not to put me off, and let me go on yammering my sense to man who didn't want it. If George asked a question about the livestock we were driving or how my horse was doing, he'd want a straight answer, but if he asked about the sun or them stars? Well, it was 'big picture' stuff, and my guess ought to be as good as his. In truth, I liked George, even if he was plain as crackers.
"I think the pink is for those that got someone and the twinkling probably the same," George said lightning his tone again.
"You ever been married?" I asked.
"Yea once. That was a long time ago. A life time back by now," he trailed off in his words and I didn't want to follow, coz it seemed I'd find a deal of pain there. It just wasn't that kinda' night, bein' as George had asked that we drink the coffee and not the whisky.
So, I tired talking us into someplace else, "Tom was good today, I know you were worried about his leg n' all but he's fine, I kept an eye on it."
"This valley used to be a lake I think, I wonder if there were ever any fish right where I'm sitting now?" Back to the big picture, and it seemed that's where George wanted to stay.
"Yea, and I wonder if any of them sat around a camp fire drinking coffee and smokin' here too?"
I could see George smiled a little but kept his head leaned comfortably back, and I can't blame him. The stars were out something proper that night. Twilling and spinning just like George said, the clear black sky was jewelled with diamonds of cosmic light. I looked out west, to our destination and the great backdrop of the Rocky Mountains laid there, with their snowcapped peaks. They seemed like such a vast and insurmountable wall, I wondered how folks ever made it to California. I too leaned my head back, to take in the night sky.
"George? You've been drivin' cattle a long time ain't ya? How come you never made it this far?"
"Always one thing or another kept me where I was, or there enough abouts. I mean, I drifted around sure, but never made it further than Kansas."
"What made you take this run?" I asked. I was about to cut in before he could answer and tell him that I thought it was cuz the money was right, and there was promise of a similar run coming back this way after, but I didn't. George was right about me, I did always have an answer for everything, but those were my answers, not his. And I was glad that this time I kept quiet long enough to hear.
"Well, it was time I left some people behind that needed leaving, and it was time I moved on from those places that needed moving on from. Kansas and Oklahoma ain't all that bad but I'd done all I could do there. You see old Tom? You know if you'd keep him cooped up in a stable, he'd be alright for a while, but too long and he'd whine and give up, and die. I came to realize I ain't much different, things move on and so, I must as well. Life goes on, and on, and on, from Carolina to California, East to West, from one thing to the other. I am starting to learn -albeit later in the game then might have served me- that all life is a beautiful prairie and I am old Tom there, built to roam. Too long I'd been afraid of the wolves or caught with my leg stuck in a gofer hole. When this job came up, it reminded me well enough that I should be movin' on."
* * *
"We're all the way out west now."
Tom gave me a gently whinny to let me know he was still listening. We rode easy through the brush and came clear alongside the gently flowing water.
"What do you think he'd make of it?"
Tom was getting sick of me, but he kept on slow enough. He wasn't the race horse I knew him as in Kentucky, but just like he promised, he had taken me all the way to the Rockies, and then some. That leg of his held up, even if it made him a little slower now.
The late evening was drawing down over the vallie's ridge line, and the clouds had begun to blush their pink.
"He'd have liked that I'm sure, that big picture."
I hitched Tom to a tree where he'd have some cover for the night, just close enough so I could still talk to him. Lifting my things off from his saddle was painful now, and always reminded me of that loose rib swimming in my guts. I pushed that out of my mind and set about making camp at the river's edge. I got the fire going and hung over a pot for beans and one for coffee. I realized only then it was just me and decide it was gona' be a whiskey night instead.
The clouds blushed there last and then rolled off to let the stars have their turn. Out there on that river bank, I took in all those twinkling and spinning lights, and I drank long and slow.
"Is that you George?" I was bein' a fool, aint nothing else to it. But it felt good to say his name and try to hear him speak. "That you out there, spinning those stars?"
I had heard him, the last few nights, after a pint of whiskey. I heard him asking, if we were gona' make it west. If I could take him there. I heard the crack of rifle fire and the calls of those men. Their horses like thunder in the dirt all around. The bone knife in my gut. The end in sight but not in reach. George panicked and bleeding. I closed my eyes, took a breath and opened them again, I was back on the river bank.
We made it west in the end, one way or another, we'd all get here. I took George's lucky tin from my breast pocket and lit up a smoke. He was right, Tom and I would keep on, keep takin' runs till we ran clear into the sea at California. He was right about me too, and my having answers for everything, and those answers not often being right at all. But I remember him now, when I go making my assertions, or whenever I go thinking about that big picture of his.