The Horseman at Midnight

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Chapter One

Woody’s Bar & Grill sits at a crossroads where there used to be a small village. There used to be a general store-cum-post office directly across the north-south road, a small hotel directly across on the east-west road, and a gas station kitty-cornered on the far side. All that remains are the concrete islands where the gas pumps once stood. The pumps themselves, circa early 1960’s, vanished long ago. If you poke around in the dry weeds on the other two sites you can still find a few old concrete footings, but you have to look for them.

Woody and Rose bought the bar and grill nearly forty years ago when there were still some twenty or thirty little houses spread out over half a mile or so along the roads. Back then Woody was banking on the future growth of the cities down in California’s Central Valley, and even had dreams of buying the old hotel. He was young and full of energy then, his thin, ropey arms and sloped shoulders deceptively strong.

“I can fix it up, Rosie. I can fix anything, plumbing, electric, carpentry, anything. We can make this place hum again.”

The little community never hummed; it died. The cities in the valley did grow, spreading like mange across the fertile land, but they didn’t grow up the mountain. The location in the Sierras was too remote, the roads too steep and winding, services too far away. Woody watched his patrons dwindle down to a handful of ranchers and the cowboys who worked for them, and finally had to tailor his dreams to fit the crude cloth of reality.

By the time he decided to cut his loses and sell out Rose had come down with the emphysema that finally took her and Woody hung on to let her die in the only home they had known together.

But Rose gave him one last gift. It took her seven years to die and by that time both the north-south road and the east-west road had been discovered by bikers who began using the bar and grill as a stop on their weekend rides.

Now they park their motorcycles in formation in the shade of the ancient cottonwoods and swagger into the bar in their black leather chaps and leather jackets, walking as if they have something large and dangerous swinging between their legs, or as if the thousand long and arduous miles they have ridden to get to this spot have left them with a straddle-legged strut. In fact, they are all prosperous middle-aged bankers and lawyers and businessmen who drive up from the cities in the valley for a day’s outing on customized Harleys that cost more than Woody makes in any two years of his life, Harleys that rarely do a thousand miles in a year, black leather saddlebags stuffed with copies of The Wall Street Journal on one side, American Iron on the other. They are the daytime clientele. At night the bar still belongs to ranchers and cowboys.

The bar is open three-hundred and sixty-five days a year. The grill is open three-hundred and sixty-three days a year, Woody figuring that beer and whisky are reasonable on Christmas and Thanksgiving, but steaks and hamburgers are unreasonable. 

Saturdays and Sundays are Woody’s most profitable days. He makes more on either of those days than he does during the whole rest of the week, the bikers keeping the place jumping. He has even had to hire a plump and bubble-headed teen-aged girl – Betty-Ann, daughter of the Shell gas station owner in Lake Beulah, twenty-five miles away – to help him during the weekend lunch periods. The bikers flock to the bar and grill. They think the place is colorful, with its listing weathered exterior and sloping porch, the old wooden bar inside with its iron foot-rest and neon Hamm’s Beer sign (Woody has never served Hamm’s Beer, never drunk Hamm’s Beer, has no memory even of where he got the sign) the uneven floor, and heavy oak tables. The restroom is outside in a separate structure, a little unisex building Woody keeps fairly clean. He has hand-painted a little sign over the toilet, in credible calligraphy, that reflects the scarcity of water in these mountains: If it’s yellow, let it mellow. If it’s brown, flush it down. First-timers always come back from the restroom talking about the little sign. That too they think is colorful.

Saturday night is Woody’s favorite busy-time. A rotating core of regulars comes in: ranchers, ranch managers, cowboys, farriers, brand inspectors, sometimes the two veterinarians from down at Potter Station if they’ve been working late in the area. They all come, with or without their wives, and everybody, Woody included, cheerfully ignores California’s No Smoking laws as they discuss local gossip, beef prices, rain or lack of rain, quality of the grass, taxes, the latest idiocy to come from those boneheads up in Sacramento, the even greater idiocy of the Forest Service and those boneheads back in Washington, DC.

Woody keeps the windows open to catch the evening’s cooling downdrafts, and he keeps the grill going in the kitchen, though usually it’s just beer and whisky the cowboys want. He keeps the television on, but muted, only pumping the sound when the latest urban horror catches someone’s eye: a murder, a kidnapping, a drive-by shooting, a home invasion, a high-speed chase, all the ugliness that happens somewhere else. He keeps the volume down low on the jukebox. From time to time he slips a couple of coins in for atmosphere or sentiment – Buck Owens, Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn – the old classics he and Rose once danced to, none of that modern rock-and-roll-influenced stuff.

          His favorite quiet-time is in the early morning before the heat builds up inside or outside, when the world is quiet and still, and all he can hear is birds bickering over territory and the dripping of the day’s first pot of coffee. He likes to sit on the back porch and enjoy the peace of the world waking up.

          So he wasn’t pleased to hear the squeak of the screen door out front. Only a few minutes after six. The ranchers and cowboys did all their early morning chores before stopping by for breakfast around eight or eight-thirty, so it sure as hell wasn’t a regular. For a moment he continued to sip his coffee. Then he rocked the front legs of his chair down and walked through the kitchen and into the dining room keeping the mug in his hand as a symbol, a tangible sign that he was still on his own time and might or might not fire up the grill depending on the look of the stranger, the attitude of the stranger, the manners of the stranger, Woody’s mood, and the alignment of the damned planets.

          The stranger was a kid, a raggedy-ass kid in a filthy baseball cap with a stylized logo that read, “Harrison Feeds.” He was maybe ten, maybe twelve, Woody couldn’t tell. He and Rose had never had kids, and Woody hadn’t ever been particularly perturbed by the lack of them. Didn’t have them, didn’t care that he didn’t have them, didn’t know enough about them to be able to tell how old this one might be, and certainly didn’t want one hanging around his place and disturbing his first damned cup of coffee. Especially not some kid who looked like he’d been sleeping in his clothes in a ditch for some time now. And how the hell did he get here? There wasn’t any car out front.

          The kid stood staring back at him. He had a duffle bag by his side.

          “Can I get some breakfast?”

          Woody turned around and looked ostentatiously at the Coors clock over the kitchen doorway.

          “Pretty damned early for breakfast.”

          “Yessir. I like to get an early start on my day.”

          The way he said it, evenly and matter of fact, as if it were an aphorism hard won from years of labor and an acute awareness of the shortness of a man’s span on this earth, rattled Woody. Maybe it wasn’t a kid after all. Maybe it was a forty-year old midget. But it was the “yessir” that did it, a politeness as easy and natural to him as his stillness and steady gaze.

          “Well,” Woody felt uncertain. He wasn’t used to kids, didn’t particularly care for the ones he saw in Lake Beulah when he drove in for groceries. “How’re you going to pay for it?”

          The kid dug into a pocket of his jeans and pulled out some bills, folded in half, and held them out a little way from his body, far enough to display them, but not so far that he couldn’t snatch them back.

          “I got money.”

          “I guess you do. OK. What’ll it be?”

          “Glass of water, glass of orange juice, cup of coffee, and an omelet.”

          “An omelet?”

          “Yessir.”

          “Jesus. What kind of omelet would you be wanting exactly?”

          “Spinach and cheddar cheese, if you got it. But I’ll take whatever’s handy, any kind of vegetables and cheese.”

          “Spinach and…!” Woody swallowed the last of his coffee. “Well. I’ll take a look, see what I’ve got.”

          “Where’s your restroom?”

          Woody pointed through the window. “Out there.”

          “Do I need a key?”

          “No, you don’t need a key.”

          “Thank you.” The kid picked up his duffle bag and threw it up on his shoulder like a sailor. “I’ll be back in a minute.”

          Woody watched him as he walked past the bar and grill and into the bathroom.

          “Spinach and cheddar cheese. Jesus.”

          He went into the kitchen, turned on the grill, poured a glass of water and a glass of orange juice, and carried them out. He put them on the bar and laid out a paper napkin and a knife and fork. Then he went back into the kitchen and started rummaging through the big refrigerator and the freezer. He had cheddar cheese, but he was pretty damn sure he didn’t have any spinach, and he couldn’t find any, so he chopped up some broccoli instead. He sliced up a boiled potato, threw some butter on the grill and laid the slices out individually to brown. He broke two eggs into a bowl, hesitated, then broke a third one, added some salt and pepper and a splash of milk and whipped them up with a fork until they were frothy. He put a small frying pan on a burner and turned on the gas. After he turned the potato slices he put butter in the pan, swirled it around, and poured in the eggs. Then he sliced half a tomato onto a plate.

          When he carried the finished breakfast out the kid was sitting at the bar, and the orange juice and water were both gone. His clothes were still dirty, but he had made some inroads on his hands and face. The baseball cap was on the bar stool next to him and his hair was wet and slicked back. With his face clean he looked a little younger, but the slicked-back hair made him look older, so Woody still wasn’t sure how old he might be. He poured a mug of coffee for the kid and another for himself and leaned back against the counter and watched.

          The kid ate with a kind of restrained urgency, as if he were dying of hunger and trying to hide the fact. When he took his first sip of coffee he gave a little sigh, as a man might after that first sip of beer or whisky at the end of a long day.

          “You want some toast? English muffin or something?”

          “English muffin. Thanks.”

          Woody toasted an English muffin and put it on a plate beside the boy, but the kid didn’t touch it. Instead he finished the rest of his breakfast, leaned back, took another swallow of coffee, and looked at Woody.

          “You know most of the folks around here?”

          “Pretty much. Lived here going on forty years.”

          “You know Matthew Sullivan? Horse trainer?”

          “Matt? Hell, yeah, I know Matt. Grumpy old man.”

          “Know where he lives?”

          “Everybody knows where he lives.”

          The boy reached down to the duffle bag at his feet and pulled out a California State Highways map.

          “Can you show me where his place is?”

          “Hell, son, my reading glasses are upstairs and I don’t feel like going up there. But I don’t need any damn map to tell you how to get to Matt’s place. Look here.” He pointed out the window. “You’re going to take that road that runs north there out to the fork. That’s about seven, eight miles, maybe a little more. Where it splits, you’re going to take the left-hand road. There’s a sign says Hollins-Cottonwood Springs. That’s the road you want. Course, the sign may be up or it may be down, depending on whether CalTrans has gotten around to putting it up again. Just about every time someone gets a snoot full and heads out that way they knock the sign over. You’d think CalTrans would get tired of re-setting the damn thing every couple of months, or maybe they’d get smart and put it somewhere else, but that’s my California tax dollars at work. Makes you wonder how they’re wasting the rest of my money and everybody else’s. Anyway, you want to take that left-hand road and you’re going to go another four, maybe five miles. You’ll be heading on down the hill there, and about where the trees start thinning out some you’ll see a big old oilfield-pipe ranch entry and a sign saying ‘Spit Creek Ranch.’ That’s his place on the right-hand side where the road curves. It’s the first place you come to on that road. Matter of fact, it’s the only place you come to on that road, for a good piece anyway. House is back in there a ways.”

          “Thanks. How much do I owe you?”

          Woody wrote out a receipt and put it down on the bar. He poured the kid another cup of coffee, picked up the empty plate and turned around to put it in the pass-through to the kitchen. As he did he glanced in the Pacifico mirror in time to see the boy quickly wrap the English muffin in his napkin and put it in an outside pocket on his duffle bag. It was kid’s damn muffin, he could do what he wanted with it, Woody didn’t care, but there was something furtive about it that made him put the coffee pot down and turn around.

          The kid was just straightening up, straightening and standing. He didn’t look at Woody, but dug his money out of his pocket. He looked at the receipt, counted out some bills, looked at the receipt again, and added another bill. Then he put his money back in his pocket and picked up his duffle bag.

          “Thank you. That was a real good breakfast.”

          “You’re welcome.” But Woody was looking around now to see if the kid had pocketed anything else. There wasn’t anything else he could have taken. The tables were all still bare from the final cleaning last night, the knives and forks were behind the bar, the salt shakers and Tapatío bottles were on the shelf beneath the bar, nothing. The kid shouldered his bag and moved to the door.

Maybe he had shorted his payment. Woody picked up the money. It was all there plus a tip, almost fifteen percent. Oh well. So he didn’t want to be seen putting an English muffin in his bag. It wasn’t any of Woody’s business.

It wasn’t until after he had washed the plate and glasses and the mixing bowl and wiped out the frying pan that it occurred to him to wonder how the hell the kid was going to get all the way to Matt Sullivan’s place. And parents. Shouldn’t a kid that age have parents somewhere around? Shouldn’t he be in school or maybe camp or something? He walked out past the bar, through the dining room, and out the door. He looked up the road to the north, but the kid had vanished.

Chapter Two

The gate was a sixteen-footer leading into a twenty-acre pasture, right where his driveway branched, one road to the barn, the other to the house. The propane delivery truck had filled the main tank behind the house, but the hay truck had come in the meantime, eighteen tons of grassy alfalfa, blocking the drive to the little tank behind the barn, so the propane guy had tried to back around at the branch to go the other way and had re-configured the gate into a shallow ‘V.’ They were good about buying him a new one pretty quick, but now he had to hang the damn thing and he had about seven hundred other chores he’d rather be doing and of course his hired hand had to go down to the Owens Valley, take care of some family emergency, a family emergency just about every damn day it seemed like. Yeah. He might be old, but he wasn’t stupid.

Problem was, when the truck hit the gate, it must have pulled the H-brace on the hinge side out of true, not enough so you’d notice it, and not enough, thank God, that he had to dig it out and re-set it, but enough that the damn gate was now hanging down at an angle, not much, but it meant he had to crank the top hinge screw way the hell in, which meant he had to adjust the bottom hinge, which meant the gate hung a little higher than before, and that meant he’d have to cut a new block to brace the other end of the gate, one damn chore leading to another, and he’d already driven back to the barn twice and he’d be go-to-hell if he went back there again. So he spent twice as long as it would have taken him to drive to the barn looking for a rock just the right size to put on the old block and hold the gate until he could get the damn top hinge tightened up, but every time he went to re-hang the gate, the damn rock rolled slightly and the end fell off and then he had to start over again.

“Son of a bitch.”

He balanced the end of the gate on the rock for the third time, and walked back to the hinge. He took off his hat, an old, flat brimmed Nevada-style straw Stetson, pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket, and mopped his brow. Sweating like a hog in the afternoon sun, which was a damn fool phrase, seeing as how hogs don’t have any sweat glands. He folded the bandana carefully, put it back in his hip pocket and picked up the socket wrench. Then he stopped.

There was a head in the middle of his driveway about two hundred yards away, a head with a baseball cap on it, peering up over the rise, watching him. He stood, staring back, and then the head vanished.

It wasn’t a Mexican. It didn’t look Mexican and you couldn’t get Mexican help up here anyway because it was too damned far back in the mountains and there wasn’t enough work, so they never came up here looking for work that didn’t exist. Occasionally over the years, rarely, he had seen transients on the roads, once a guy with a huge backpack and a guitar and two tired dogs, once a man leading three mules, a few guys hitchhiking, but he’d never seen one, nor any sign of one, on his ranch. It sure as hell wasn’t anyone he knew, because anyone he knew would come driving in. And it wasn’t anyone looking for help or lost or anything on account of the way the head had ducked down like that.

He kept a .38 in the pocket of his chinks, but they were hanging in the tack room. OK. He had a socket wrench in his hand big enough to split the skull of a Hereford steer. He’d just drive the tractor down there and have a little conversation with that ducking head, maybe open it up if he had to.

But now the head reappeared, this time with something beside it, and as he watched, a pair of shoulders came into view, then a chest, a waist, legs. Son of bitch. It was a little kid with a duffle bag up on his shoulder.

He stood watching as the kid walked steadily toward him, then he turned back to the gate. He fitted the socket wrench onto the nut and cranked it once, twice, and on the third go the damn rock rolled again and the end of the gate slipped.

“Son of a bitch!”

He slapped the socket wrench down on the top of the fence post and walked back to the end of the gate. The rock had rolled off the wooden block and he had to re-set it. Then he hoisted the gate up onto the rock for about the forty-seventh time – damn that worthless hired hand and his emergencies and his whole family – and suddenly there was the kid at his side.

“Let me hold it for you.”

He was a grubby little thing, tracks of sweat in the dust on his face, clothes that hadn’t been inside a washer anytime in recent history, baseball cap dark with sweat around the brow. The kid grabbed hold of the end of the gate with both hands and braced it against his cocked knee.

The old man stepped away from the gate and looked at it. He walked over to the tractor, got a magnetic level out of the tool box and placed it on the top rail.

“Can you hoist her up a snootch?”

The kid lifted, grunting slightly.

“Now down a snootch. That’s good. Hold her there.”

He grabbed the socket wrench and tightened both hinges, cranking down hard. “Let her go.” He looked at the level. “That’s as close to perfect as mortal man can make it. Appreciate it.”

He pulled his hat off and mopped his brow again just as the kid pulled his baseball cap off and wiped his face on his shirtsleeve. After five and it was still right around a hundred degrees, the wind coming up out of the desert and over the mountains like a foundry. They both put their hats back on, the old man folding his bandana meticulously, and stood looking at each other, the kid squinting up at him from under the brim of his cap. There wasn’t any Harrison Feeds in this neck of the woods, not anywhere in central California that he’d ever heard of, so the kid must be from someplace else.

A red-tailed hawk screamed loudly and they both looked up and watched as it passed low over their heads, wings set, dropping down the slope of the hill to a big live-oak. It settled on a dead branch that looked too small to hold its weight, half spread its wings to lean into the wind, then sat still, only its head turning like some smooth and well-lubricated piece of machinery, a clock-work mechanism, or an expensive wind-up toy. They looked at it for a bit, then went back to studying each other.

“Well, what can I do for you? What are you doing on my ranch, other than helping me hang a gate?”

The kid tilted his head to one side. He might have been considering the question or he might have been appraising the questioner.

“Are you Matthew Sullivan?”

“Could be. I’ve been called that. ‘Course I’ve been called a bunch of other things too, some of them not nearly so complimentary.”

“Are you?”

“Yeah, I am. Who are you?”

“I’m your grandson.”

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5 thoughts on “The Horseman at Midnight”

  1. A good read so far. I’m hooked so have to get it. It will be on my mind now until I can finish it. Darn you Jamison Parker. I already am trying to guess where it’s going!! Love wondering tho, keeps my brain working.

  2. Dear JP
    I love, love, love the way you write. Your ability to present a fluid setting of place and time with scent and texture make me jealous. Your attention to locality, flora, fauna. and the rest is exemplary. When I turn 60 I hope I can write like you. I am 48 now. Got a lot to learn.
    I will finish your book tomorrow. 20% done. Fast read. So yummy.

  3. Dear JP,
    Thanks for writing such a lovely book. I gave it a second reading over the weekend and updated my review.
    Wishing you all the best.
    Ken from Dallas

    1. Thank you very much for the kind words, both here and on Amazon. It may seem silly, but Amazon reviews really do have a tremendous influence and I appreciate your taking the time to write such a nice review.
      JP

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