Howard said, “Son, I want you to get twenty-five thousand dollars in gold, get on your horse, and carry it up to a man in Oklahoma. I want you to give it to him and tell him who it's from, and tell him it's in repayment of the long-time debt I've had of him.”
I didn't say anything for a moment. Instead I got up from the big double desk we were sitting at facing each other, and walked over to a little side table and poured us both out a little whiskey. I put water in Howard's. Out of the corner of my eye I could see him wince when I did it, but that was doctor's orders. I took the whiskey back over to the desk and handed Howard his tumbler. It was a little early in the afternoon for the drink but there wasn't much work to be done, it being the fall of the year.
Howard was father to me and my two brothers. Sometimes we called him Dad and sometimes Howard, and in years past quite a few other things. He liked for us to call him Howard because I think it made him feel younger and still a part of matters as pertained to our ranch and other businesses. Howard was in his mid-sixties, but it was a poor mid-sixties on account of a rifle bullet that had nicked his lungs some few years back and caused him breathing difficulties as well as some heart trouble. But even before that, some fifteen years previous, he had begun to go down after the death of our mother. It was not long after that that he'd begun to train me to take his place and to run the ranch.
I was Justa Williams and, at the age of thirty-two, I was the boss of the Half-Moon ranch, the biggest along the Gulf Coast of Texas, and all its possessions. For all practical purposes I had been boss when Howard called me in one day and told me that he was turning the reins over to me, and that though he'd be on hand for advice should I want it, I was then and there the boss.
And now here he was asking me to take a large sum of money, company money, up to some party in Oklahoma. He could no more ask that of me than any of my two brothers or anybody else for that matter. Oh, he could ask, but he couldn't order. I held my whiskey glass out to his and we clinked rims, said “Luck,” and then knocked them back as befits the toast. I wiped off my mouth and said, “Howard, I think you better tell me a little more about this. Twenty-five thousand dollars is a lot of money.”
He looked down at his old gnarled hands for a moment and didn't say anything. I could tell it was one of his bad days and he was having trouble breathing. The whiskey helped a little, but he still looked like he ought to be in bed. He had a little bedroom right off the big office and sitting room we were in. There were plenty of big bedrooms in the big old rambling house that was the headquarters for the ranch, but he liked the little day room next to the office. He could lie in there when he didn't feel well enough to sit up and listen to me and my brothers talking about the ranch and such other business as came under discussion.
It hurt me to see him slumped down in his chair looking so old and frail and sunk into himself. I could remember him clearly when he was strong and hard-muscled and tall and straight. At six foot I was a little taller than he'd been, but my 190 pounds were about the equal of his size when he'd been in health. It was from him that I'd inherited my big hands and arms and shoulders. My younger brother Ben, who was twenty-eight, was just about a copy of me except that he was a size smaller. Our middle brother, Norris, was the odd man out in the family. He was two years younger than me, but he was years and miles different from me and Ben and Howard in looks and build and general disposition toward life. Where we were dark he was fair; where we were hard he had a kind of soft look about him. Not that he was; to the contrary. Wasn't anything weak about Norris. He'd fight you at the tick of a clock. But he just didn't look that way. We all figured he'd taken after our mother, who was fair and yellow-haired and sort of delicate. And Norris was bookish like she had been. He'd gone through all the school that was available in our neck of the woods, and then he'd been sent up to the University at Austin. He handled all of our affairs outside of the ranch itselfâbut with my okay.
I said, “Dad, you are going to have to tell me what this money is to be used for. I've been running this ranch for a good many years and this is the first I've heard about any such debt. It seems to me you'd of mentioned a sum of that size before today.”
He straightened up in his chair, and then heaved himself to his feet and walked the few steps to where his rocking chair was set near to the door of his bedroom. When he was settled he breathed heavy for a moment or two and then said, “Son, ain't there some way you can do this without me explaining? Just take my word for it that it needs doing and get it tended to?”
I got out a cigarillo, lit it, and studied Howard for a moment. He was dressed in an old shirt and a vest and a pair of jeans, but he had on his house slippers. That he'd gotten dressed up to talk to me was a sign that what he was talking about was important. When he was feeling fairly good he put on his boots, even though he wasn't going to take a step outside. Besides, he'd called me in in the middle of a workday, sent one of the hired hands out to fetch me in off the range. Usually, if he had something he wanted to talk about, he brought it up at the nightly meetings we always had after supper. I said, “Yes, Dad, if you want me to handle this matter without asking you any questions I can do that. But Ben and Norris are going to want to know why, especially Norris.”
He put up a quick hand. “Oh, no, no. No. You can't tell them a thing about this. Don't even mention it to either one of them! God forbid.”
I had to give a little laugh at that. Dad knew how our operation was run. I said, “Well, that might not be so easy, seeing as how Norris keeps the books. He might notice a sum like twenty-five thousand dollars just gone without any explanation.”
He looked uncomfortable and fidgeted around in his rocking chair for a moment. “Son, you'll have to make up some story. I don't care what you do, but I don't want Ben or Norris knowing aught about this matter.”
Well, he was starting to get my curiosity up. “Hell, Howard, what are you trying to hide? What's the big mystery here? How come
can know about the money but not my brothers?”
He looked down at his hands again, and I could see he felt miserable. “If I was up to it,
wouldn't even know.” He kind of swept a hand over himself. “But you can see the shape I've come to. Pretty soon won't be enough left to bury the way I'm wasting away.” He hesitated and looked away. It was clear he didn't want to talk about it. But finally he said, “Son, this is just something I got to get off my conscience before it comes my time. And I been feeling here lately that that time ain't far off. I done something pretty awful back a good number of years ago, and I just got to set it straight while I still got the time.” He looked at me. “And you're my oldest son. You're the strong one in the family, the best of the litter. I ain't got nobody else I can trust to do this for me.”
Well, there wasn't an awful lot I could say to that. Hell, if you came right down to it, it was still all Howard's money. Some years back he'd willed the three of us the ranch and all the Half-Moon holdings in a life will that gave us the property and its income even while he was still alive. But it was Howard who, forty years before, had come to the country as a young man and fought weather and bad luck and
and Comanches and scalawags and carpetbaggers, and built this cattle and business empire that me and my brothers had been the beneficiaries of. True, we had each contributed our part to making the business better, but it had been Howard who had made it possible. So, it was still his money and he could do anything he wanted to with it. I told him as much.
He nodded. “I'm grateful to you, Justa. I know I'm asking considerable of you to ask you to undertake this errand for me without telling you the why and the whereofs of the matter, but it just ain't something I want you or yore brothers to know about.”
I shrugged. I got a pencil and a piece of paper off my desk. “Who is this party you want the money to go to? And what's his address?”
“Stevens. Charlie Stevens. And Justa, it ain't money, it's got to be gold.”
I put down my pencil and stared at him. “What's the difference? Money is gold, gold is money. What the hell does it matter?”
“It matters,” he said. He looked at the empty glass in his hand and then across at the whiskey. But he knew it was wishful thinking. Medically speaking, he wasn't supposed to have but one watered whiskey a day. Of course we all knew he snuck more than that when there was nobody around, but drinking alone gave him no pleasure. He said, “This is a matter that's got to be done a certain way. It's just the way and the rightness of the matter in my mind. I got to give the man back the money the same way I took it.”
“But hell, Howard, gold is heavy. I bet twenty-five thousand dollars worth would weigh over fifty pounds. We'll have to ship it on the railroad, have it insured. Hell, we can just wire a bank draft.”
He shook his head slowly. “Justa, you still don't understand the bones of the matter. You got to take the gold to Charlie on horseback. Just like I would if I could. You understand? I'm askin' you to stand in for me on this matter.”
I threw my pencil down and stared at him. I nodded at the empty glass in his hand. “How many of them you snuck before you sent for me? You expect me to get on a horse and ride clear to Oklahoma carrying twenty-five thousand dollars in gold? And that without telling Norris or Ben a thing about it? Howard, are you getting senile? It's either that or you're drunk, and I'd rather you was drunk.”
He nodded. “I don't blame you. It's just you don't understand the bones of this business. Justa, this is a weight I been carrying a good many years. I done the man wrong some time back, but it took a while for me to realize just how wrong I done him. When I could of set matters straight I was too young and too smug to think they needed setting a-right. Now that I can look back and be properly ashamed of what I done, it's too late for all of it. But I got to make what amends I can. If you knew the total of the whole business you'd agree with me that the matter has to be handled in just such a way.”
I got up, got the whiskey bottle, and went over and poured him out about a half a tumblerful. It was dead against doctor's orders, but I could see he was in such misery, both in his heart and his body, that I figured the hell with what the doctor had to say. I went back over to my desk, poured myself out a pretty good slug, and then said, “All right, Howard, you want me to do something I find unreasonable. I think the least you can do is tell me something about what you call the âbones' of the business.”
“Justa, you done said you'd do it without asking me no questions.”
“Well, goddam, Howard, that was when I thought you were just talking about the money. Now you're talking about me riding all the way clear up to goddam Oklahoma hauling a tow sack full of gold. Hell, Oklahoma is a pretty good little piece from here. Where in Oklahoma, by the way? What town?”
He shook his head. “I don't know,” he said. “I've lost track of Charlie Stevens for better than twenty years.”
“Aw, hell!” I said in disgust. I took a sip of my whiskey and got out another cigarillo and lit it, having let the first one go out unsmoked in the ashtray on my desk. We sat there in silence looking at each other. It was quiet in the house. The room we were sitting in had once been practically the whole house. It had been built out of big sawn timbers that Howard had had hauled in by ox teams after he'd started making some money. The rest of the house had just kind of grown as the need arose. Far off in the kitchen I could hear the sound of the two Mexican women going about the business of starting supper for the fourteen or fifteen hired hands and cowhands we kept about the place. A man named Tom Butterfield cooked for the family. Us boys had always called him Buttercup just to get him riled up. As near as I could figure he was as old as Howard and should have been in worse shape, judging by the amount of whiskey he could put away on a daily basis. Outside, in that year of 1896, it was a mild October and the rolling prairies of two-foot-high grass were curing off and turning a yellowish brown. We'd hay some of it, but the biggest part of it would be left standing to be grazed down by our cattle and horses. The Half-Moon was right on the Gulf Coast of Texas about ninety miles south of Houston. Our easternmost pastures led right up to the bay, where soft little waves came lapping in to water the salt grass and lay up a little beach of sand. All told we held better than sixty thousand deeded acres, but we grazed well over a quarter of a million. At any one time we ran from five thousand to ten thousand cattle, depending on the marketing season. A more gentle, healthy, temperate place to raise cattle could not be imagined. There was plenty of grass, plenty of water, and except for the heat of the summers, a climate that was kind to the development of beef.
The nearest town to us was Blessing. It was nearly seven miles away and we owned about half of it, including the bank, the hotel, the auction barn, and any number of town lots. Blessing had once been a railhead for the MKT railroad, but now it was a switching point between Laredo and San Antonio. It would have been no trouble at all to have shipped $25,000 to a bank or a business or some party in Oklahoma. But it sure as hell was a different proposition to ride a horse all that way and try to protect such a sum in gold. Hell, you'd need a packhorse just for the gold, let alone your own supplies. And such a ride would take at least three weeks, going hard, to get there, not counting coming back. And even if it was all right with Howard to come back on the train, that was another three days.