COMING IN 2016 – A NEW NOVEL by RODNEY BARKER
Working Title: Tequila Twilight
For the most part, the curtain had fallen on the legendary American West by the end of the 19th century. The wilderness had been conquered, the frontier explored and settled, the Indian wars fought and won. What had become a cattleman’s West of roundups and trail drives, cow towns and cowboys, had gone the way of Custer.
The West belonged to history, it seemed, as did the conditions that created the heroic, larger-than-life characters whose exploits would be commemorated in dramatic fashion in dime novels and Wild West Shows, and later, in movies, books, and television.
Not so fast. In remote western locations, a few rare reminders of the Old Days remained well into the 20th century. People whose lives were every bit as thrilling as those of wider fame, including one woman whose story was as full of adventure, romance and mystery as a Western heroine of yesteryear, even ending in gunfire.
With her passing, a distinctively American way of life came closer to ending; but fortunately, while she was alive, a chronicler happened along who would rope her story onto the printed page.
Barker in Durango, 1978
I continued driving down a road that, for miles, twisted to match turn-for-turn the course of a shimmering stream, ever gaining altitude as told by the amount of color change in the cottonwood and aspen whose leaves were cashing in green for gold. The road crisscrossed the Florida River on narrow bridges, pitched up then down, and just about the time I was beginning to wonder if I had gone too far and missed a turn, I entered a bend in the road that opened on a sight that drew me to the gravel shoulder to take silent stock.
Where a white-water stretch of the river made a wide swing away from the road, the weather-beaten remains of a frontier ranch reposed in picturesque dilapidation. All that was left of the original house was a great rock chimney that jutted out of the weeds like a historical marker, and with no trace of a stone foundation or charred timbers to indicate the rest of the homesite, an enormous hay barn whose roof had partially caved in had become the centerpiece of the old place. It floated in the tall and uncut grass like the wreckage of an ancient ark.
It was my kind of place. Companion to my contempt for those who sold God’s country by the lot was an enchantment with old mining camps, ghost towns and tumbledown homesteads, and for several minutes I sat there taking in the sights with a sort of whimsical speculation. The ancient farm equipment – a mower, rake, disc and harrow – rusting in an overgrown field that could have been parked and walked away from during the Depression. A row of droopy cottonwoods along the river, branches bent to the earth except for one that had been sawed off about four feet out from the trunk, ten feet off the ground, with a length of frayed rope hanging down that might have been what was left of an old tire swing, but evoked the image of a vigilante necktie party and a strung-up outlaw’s dying dance. A black bullet-riddled body of a wrecked roadster that had crashed against the stone blocks of a spring house and probably had a perfectly innocent story, but could plausibly have been a getaway car from a bank heist in the Forties that had veered out of control careening around the bend and ended up the site of a last stand shoot-out with coppers.
If there was such a thing as ghosts, this would have been the perfect playground for them. A place where they could swing on the dangling remains of a hangman’s knot. Drag race the rusty implements across the pasture. Fire up the bullet-ventilated roadster and take it for a joyride.
Everywhere I looked there was something to hold my interest, ignite my imagination. And making a mental note to return and next time bring my camera, I drove slowly on, following three strands of sagging barbed wire posted with No Trespassing signs that had been used as .22 targets by pickup truck cowboys bored with gunning just their engines.
Enter now a man the Sheriff described as a Cowboy-and-Indian cross. A rough-and-tumble horse wrangler and a dark-eyes half-breed whose mother was a full-blood Cherokee from Oklahoma. He wore his black hair a little long, and with a stubble that looked like he shaved when he got around to it, a whole new grooming style seemed to be seeking expression through his swarthy good looks. He dressed working class Western – a plaid shirt, faded jeans and worn boots; a leather belt with his name tooled in the back and a trophy buckle in front; a big black cowboy hat with its sides rolled tightly up. At one time Slade Nash had been what was known as a “five-event man.” Calf roping, steer wrestling, bull riding, bareback and saddle bronc riding. The only rodeo event he didn’t register for was cowgirl trick-riding.
Of course he rolled his own smokes.
The oldest of three brothers with a rootless field hand from West Texas for a father, the Nash family followed the seasons and the harvests. They were so poor they would go for weeks at a time just eating flour biscuits and gravy. As a boy, Slade had one change of clothes, and his mother would wash them at night and hang them up to dry so he could wear them again the next day. He left home at fifteen to work as a horse-breaker on a ranch in Midland, and this led to riding broncs in his spare time and later a full-time career in the rodeo racket. Which ended when a bronc went crazy while it was still in the chute and smashed Slade’s left leg all to hell. It was so broken up one doc wanted to cut it off. He got a second opinion in Dallas and was glad he did. He was on crutches for two years and it never did heal right, ending up shorter than the other with no muscle just skin and bone, as big around as his ankle all the way to his knee. But at least he was whole.
Some said that injury was key to understanding the man Slade Nash became. That he acted so tough because it was his way of proving he was as good as any man with two legs. But the Sheriff thought it was the nature of a boy who at the age of three could throw back a shot of whiskey and not wet an eye. When he grew up, he was going to come at life like one of those western badmen in the movies who rides into town to cut the dust and pushes through the swinging doors of a saloon where an old-timey piano player is hammering honkytonk, like he’s ready to start kicking over chairs and looking for someone to hit.
He was famous for the line, “I don’t need stitches, what I need is a drink.”