The Virtues of Tobacco

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There were an unknown number of strays hidden in the canyons and higher pastures along the northern end of the ranch. The Foreman and the Oldest Hand were sitting their horses in the shade of a sycamore waiting for the crew to spread out when the newest member rode back to them. He was a stocky young man from out of state and this was his first day on the ranch.

“You told me when I get up to the top of that mountain to head east or west?”

He turned his head and shot a stream of tobacco juice at a rock. “Bull’s-eye.”

“I told you to go east first,” the Foreman said, “until you come to the fence line, then turn around and head back west with any cows you find till you get to that year-round stream. Then bring your cows down along that. We’ll be coming down the valley about then and we’ll take them all to the chutes in a herd.”

“Gotcha.” He shot another stream at the rock. “Missed. Damn.” He turned his horse and trotted off through the sage.

The Oldest Hand shook his head. “Disgusting.”

He was carefully rolling a cigarette with one hand and the Foreman stared at him.

“I don’t see how chewing is that much more disgusting than smoking.”

The Oldest Hand licked his paper. “I wasn’t talking about his chewing. I was talking about his association-tree saddle and his nylon rope and that taco-brimmed hat. He looks like a damned Texan. That’s disgusting.” He lit his cigarette and inhaled deeply. “Tobacco, in any form, is one of those things the Good Lord gave us to make us better men.”

“How do you figure that?”

“Tobacco makes a man patient and tolerant and easy going, and without it there’d probably be a whole lot more violence in this old world.”

The Foreman snorted. “Sounds like it makes a man senile too.”

The Oldest Hand looked at him with pity. “That’s just the childlike ignorance in you talking. Didn’t I ever tell you about the time I tried to quit smoking?”

“If you did, I was able to forget it.”

“Well then, I’ll tell you again, ‘cause there’s an important lesson to be learned.”

Alice and me (the Oldest Hand said) we’d just met, and I was courting her pretty hard and pretty serious. In fact, I was trying ever damn thing in the world I could think of to get a reata on her and wasn’t having no damn success at all. I was riding for the Double J back in those days, and I got into a routine of getting back to headquarters, cleaning up, and going straight over to Alice’s place. I’d tell her how pretty she was and how much I loved her and how I couldn’t possibly live without her and would she marry me, and she’d laugh at me and tell me no, and I’d say, oh okay, and the next night we’d do it all over again. It was real comfortable and all like that, but I was starting to get a little impatient. I knew she liked me so finally, after a couple of months, I asked just exactly why she wouldn’t marry me.

“Daddy won’t let me. He says you have all the bad traits of my brothers and none of the good traits.”

Alice was only seventeen and still living at home with her folks and her two brothers. Her daddy was the local preacher man, one of them hell-fire and brimstone types. He was built along the lines of an Angus bull and when he’d get worked up and start pounding the pulpit the whole damned church would rock on its foundations.

Her two brothers were built just like their daddy, but that’s where it ended. It’s a funny thing how that happens in preachers’ families. The wildest kid in town is always the preacher’s son. Who gets arrested for drunk and disorderly ever Saturday night regular as sunup? Preacher’s kid. Who gets into a fight ever time he gets liquored up? Preacher’s kid. And who’s dumb enough to try and duke it out with the sheriff ever time he gets arrested? Preacher’s kid.

That’s just how it was at Alice’s. Her daddy was a teetotaler. Them two boys was busting up a bar ever Saturday night. Her daddy thought smoking was the devil’s invention. Them two boys only took the cigarettes out their mouths when they was shaving and maybe not even then. Her daddy was a regular model of morality. Them two boys could find their way around Madame Louise’s social club blindfolded. In fact, when Alice told me what her daddy said it kind of left me speechless, ‘cause I couldn’t think of one damn single good trait them boys might have. They was always going after me ever time I went to the house, laughing at me and making fun of me on account of Alice wouldn’t marry me and all, but I made up my mind early on that I wouldn’t let them get under my skin no matter what they said, ‘cause I wasn’t going to do nothing that might turn Alice against me, and I wasn’t going to do nothing to give her Daddy any excuses to run me off the place. So that’s where things stood.

Well, I went to studying on it. It was in the early summer and we was moving a pretty big herd up into the mountains and that gives a man plenty of time to think. I was riding old Freckles back then, best damned horse I ever had, the kind of horse I could of just about sent him out with the herd all by himself and stayed in bed. I dropped the reins and started to roll myself a cigarette to help the thinking process. It’s a well-known, well-documented-and-calcified scientific fact that smoking stimulates the brain, and by golly, it worked just like a damn charm this time.

My thinking went kind of like this: Alice wouldn’t marry me because her daddy wouldn’t allow it. Her daddy wouldn’t allow it because he said I had all of the bad traits of them two boys and none of the good traits. So what I had to do was list all the traits of them two boys, good and bad, and then figure out which ones her daddy might think I had or didn’t have, and then start working on them, dropping some and adding others. You follow my thinking so far?

Okay. I pulled out my little tally book and a pencil and I made two columns and it sort of looked like this:

Alice’s Brothers Good Traits:

Bad Traits:


Well, of course that made my job a whole lot easier on account of I didn’t have to waste a bunch of my time figuring out which good traits to work on, so I set about studying the bad list.

Drinking. Well, I do like to have a little chat with Mr. Jack Daniels in the evening after the work is done, but I don’t usually ever have more than one, and at that time I wasn’t even doing that on account of trying to make a good impression on Alice’s daddy and all.

Fighting. Ever now and then a man runs across someone who just naturally needs to have his head thumped, but other than Alice’s brothers I hadn’t met anyone like that in a pretty long time, and like I said, I was trying real hard to ignore them so as not to give her daddy any excuse for running me off.

Whoring. I’m not going to say I hadn’t never been to Madame Louise’s, but with Alice on my mind, I couldn’t even think about another girl, so that was out.

Cursing. I’ve always prided on myself on not using no damned strong language, so she was out too.

Cheating. I don’t even cheat myself at solitaire, so that wasn’t it.

Stealing. Other than girls’ hearts, I never stole a damn thing in my life.

Fat. I didn’t weigh a pound more or a pound less back then than I do today. Still wear a 32-inch waist.

Lazy. I starting putting in an eight-hour day soon as I was old enough to go out on a horse by myself, and I shifted up to working full-time soon as I graduated high school.

Ugly. Well, of course it don’t do for a man to brag on himself, so I’ll just say my family has always been known for its good looks.

Then I got to smoking. Tell you the truth, I almost hadn’t even put her down on the list. The only reason I did was on account of I knew the old man didn’t approve of it, so I figured he might have some unnatural prejudice. But the more I thought about it, the more I figured that had to be it. That had to be the whole damned reason behind her daddy’s dislike for me.

I took my pack of tobacco and papers out and looked at it. I thought about that first cigarette in the morning with your coffee, and I thought about that last one at night as you’re sipping on your bourbon. And then I thought about Alice.

Well son, I’m not going to lie to you. I felt pretty much the way a man does who has to choose which one of his kids he’s going to throw out in the snow ‘cause there ain’t enough food for the winter and the wolves is howling outside the door. But I dropped that pack, tobacco and papers and matches and all, right into a cow patty and kept on riding.

And a funny thing happened. I didn’t know it back then, but there are three separate stages a man goes through when he quits smoking.

The first stage is kind of hard to describe, but I guess it’s sort of the way Saint Paul must of felt in the Bible when Jesus gave him all that trouble with his eyes and then that guy in Damascus fixed it and all. I was blind but now can see. Or maybe that was someone else said that. Anyway, that’s what you feel like. You feel like you just want to go around doing good things and helping people. When we stopped for lunch and I saw old Sam Gingold, who was the cowboss back then, lighting up, it was all I could do not to rip the cigarette right out of his mouth. The only thing that stopped me was I knew damn well he’d fire me on the spot, and if I didn’t have a job I wasn’t never going to get married.

That night, when I went over to Alice’s, her two brothers was slopping around on the porch, smoking, and they right away started in on me.

“Here comes old Hopeful.”

“Looks like a mangy old hound trying to figure out how to get inside the fence.”

“Say, Hopeful, ain’t you getting discouraged yet?”

“Maybe you should consider becoming a monk, ‘cause you sure ain’t having any luck with the girls.”

But I just thought about Jesus saying in the Bible that we should turn the other cheek, and so I smiled at them and walked on in the house. Their daddy was sitting right there by the door and he shook his head in disgust when he saw me, but I smiled at him too. And by golly, I felt good about it.

And after I’d kissed Alice a little bit I asked her again to marry me and she laughed at me and turned me down again, and instead of feeling frustrated I felt like I could forgive her anything. I almost felt like I’d be satisfied to go on wanting her and getting turned down for the rest of my natural life. I just felt…. Virtuous! That’s the word I was looking for.

The second stage is a little different. You’re drinking that first cup of coffee in the morning and you reach up to your vest pocket and there ain’t nothing there, and the first thing you feel is shock. Then you remember, and it’s like remembering that the person you love most in all the world has died, like maybe your whole damned family and your best horse and your dog have all died. You don’t know what to do with your hands, and you’re so damn depressed all you want to do is go jump off the bridge and end it all, and then you remember that it was the driest winter in twenty years and there ain’t enough water in the river to drown you and the best you could hope for is maybe you’d bust both your legs. So you go and start your day and ever time you reach up to that vest pocket the day gets a little greyer and drearier, like the sun is trying to shine through an old sweat sock, a damned dirty sweat sock that ain’t been washed all season.

And that night you go to see Alice and them two brothers are slopping around in the yard with cigarettes in their mouths, and when they start in on you –

“Yee-haw! Old Hopeful’s back for his nightly refusal.”

“He’s like an old gelding in with a bunch of mares. He knows he’s supposed to do something, but damned if he knows what it is.”

– all you want to do is cry. And when you walk in the house and see her daddy shaking his head the way he does ever night you start thinking maybe there is something wrong with you after all. You’re so damned depressed you don’t even feel like kissing Alice, and when she turns you down again, you actually have to go into the washroom and put cold water on your face before you can look at her.

But it’s the third stage where things get kind of interesting.

I’m pretty confident, having been through it and all, that the third stage is responsible for all of the wars and most of the murders that have ever taken place. I know there’s no mention of it in the Good Book, but I’d be willing to bet you that Cain was trying to give up smoking and that’s why he was so rough on old Abel. ‘Cause, son, when you’re in the third stage, you just naturally hate the whole damned human race. In fact, there isn’t a single living thing on this earth you wouldn’t happily kill with your hands.

You step outside and your dog wags his tail when he sees you and all you can think is where the hell did you leave your gun. Your horse knickers when you get to the barn and the sound goes through your skull like a masonry drill. You pass someone on the street and they wave and say, “Have a nice day,” and all you want to do is slam them up against the wall and say, “Don’t you dare tell me what kind of a day to have, you miserable son of a bitch!” You keep thinking if you could just kill 14 or 15 people how much better you’d feel.

Genghis Khan, Attila the Hun, all them guys? They was just trying to quit smoking.

Well, I made it through the day without killing anyone, mostly on account of I didn’t see anyone all day. And when evening came I didn’t want to go see any ugly half-grown, half-witted girl and her loathsome family of morons, but habit is a strong thing, so I showered and put on some clean clothes and went over there.

Her two brothers was slopping around near the woodpile, making a show of chopping some kindling, and the sight of the cigarettes in their hideous mouths was just more than I could stand.

“Say, Hopeful – ”

That’s all it took. I hit him so hard he was still airborne when I slammed him into the water trough. I was holding him under and had him pretty near drowned when his brother called out.


That dumb tub of lard was staring at me with his mouth open. He still had the ax, not like he was fixing to use it, but more like he had forgotten he was even holding it, and I ripped that thing out of his hand and if he had been a fraction slower they would of had to bury him with the ax still in his skull. But he was quick. Both them boys was a whole lot quicker than you would have given them credit for, and the last I saw of them was where the driveway curved heading out to the road, running neck and neck, and I’m telling you, you’d of had to have a horse with pretty damn good speed index to have caught either one of them.

When I walked back to the house Alice and her daddy was both standing on the porch with their mouths open.

“Why young fella,” her daddy says, “I thought you was a man of peace.”

“Shut your trap you big damn fool or I’ll run you right off after them two damned hogs you’re dumb enough to claim as kin.”

“I thought you wanted to marry my daughter.”

“If I wanted to marry that feeble-minded mud fence of yours I’d of done it long before this.”

“Am I to take it you no longer wish to marry my daughter?”

“You can take whatever you want and stick it where the sun don’t shine, and if you don’t like it feel free to step on down here and do something about it.”

I still had the ax in my hand and I was looking forward to using it. In fact, I was already working in my head on a short list of people in town and guys I worked with that I was going to go looking for as soon as I finished up with the old man, but he did something strange. He turned to Alice and just beamed at her as if this was the finest evening of his entire life. She beamed back at him, and then he turned around and went back inside and I could see him picking up his paper and sitting in his chair by the door.

Well, that so disgusted me I slung the ax out into the pasture and started back toward my truck. But I hadn’t taken two steps when I saw the most beautiful sight I had ever seen in my life. Not Alice, though she came down off the porch and was standing next to me, but a cigarette lying in the dust, still smoking, that one of her fool brothers had dropped.

I picked that cigarette up and brushed the dirt off the wet end and took the longest drag any mortal man has ever taken. It was like I had lungs all the way down to the soles of my feet.

And you know, as soon as I did, the milk of human kindness came rushing into my veins by the quart, by the half-gallon. I looked at Alice and she was smiling up at me like I’d just won the world championship of everything, and it began to cross my mind that maybe I had said and done some things that a beautiful and intelligent and sensitive girl might find a little on the harsh side. After all, there are some girls who might not enjoy seeing their daddy and their brothers killed with an ax. And of course there are some girls who might misunderstand if they heard you calling them a feeble-minded mud fence.

But she was just glowing at me. “You were magnificent,” she said.

“Uh, well, you know, maybe, just maybe, I might of kind of over reacted there just a little bit, but – ”

“No. You were wonderful. Aren’t you going to kiss me?”

“You want me to kiss you?”

“Yes. Oh, yes. And then we need to go in and set a date for the wedding. I thought we could maybe wait until the roses are all in bloom, but not too long.”

“What about your daddy?”

“Oh, Daddy will be happy to marry us anytime.”

“You mean he won’t mind us getting married?”

“Mind? Why, he’ll just be tickled pink. He only objected to you because he thought you were kind of spineless, putting up with my brothers and all. But he said when he saw you trying to drown Cletus and only giving up on the job so you could brain Rufus with the ax, he knew right away he had misjudged you. Kiss me you fool.”

So when you think that we’ve been married going on 45 years, me and Alice, it just goes to show what a good thing tobacco is.

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