Although open his eyes blur the images. Realizing focus consumes a moment while he kicks the frost out from legs and sciatica.
* * *
Hawking a gob he expels the sputum into a pail.
Searching between his legs he disappointedly feels of the wet leaked during his sleep. The reality is shameful.
Working the stiff from his hands while he rises he applies himself at the pisser bucket. Sometime has passed since he can abide winter's sting on the way to the privy. His bowels don't move often enough to make the trip necessary with any frequency.
Yesterday's bowl of atole stands cold on the table. The spoon congealed in the mass, it is breakfast for this day.
He pulls on the jug of Mezcal to warm his bones.
The few sticks in the pile serve to start the fire in the estufa with the result the room begins to warm at least on top of the blaze.
In the instant he freezes as he marks the faint clopping of horse shoe iron on the rocks of the dry crick bed serving as the track to his camp.
* * *
He knows of no one who would venture out in this inclement weather to attend him. He secures his Navy Colt and rotates the cylinder to assure the caps.
Truth be told, he can't see but ten yards, not clear anyhow, but at ten yards the thirty-six will rip a hell of a hole. Take a man's arm off'n or might be, a leg.
Backing into the corner at the end of the pallet, he allows he'll blot out the fella as he comes through the door. He's wish'n the windows weren't frosted over like they was.
"Mr. Clemens, Buster Clemens, it's me Aldolpho, you know the beer man's son. Hey, Mr. Clemens, hey Buster," yells the rider to be heard over the conditions, with a sneaking suspicion the old man being near blind will pot him by mistake.
"That you, Al, I say is that you Aldolpho?" Shouts Mr. Clemens from his defensive position, "Hey Al, is that you out there?"
"Yeah, Mr. Clemens, it's me. Come on out, see for yerself," eagerly requesting Mr. Clemens to assuage his fears in the hopes of easing the danger.
Slowly, Buster angles towards the door, trying with cocked head to see through the opaque iced over window glass, finally convinced there is no option he cracks the door and surveys the yard.
"Why, Alph, I am that surprised to see youse' up here in this blow, what's the reason for it son? Somethin's awrong is it down below?" His head shifts back and forth as he speaks still on the prowl for danger.
"No, Mr. Clemens no trouble, just Miss Estelle, tells me to fetch yawl, she says come up right quick, bring you this horse and see gon'a give me a quarter for the job." With that he tugs on the bridle rope secured to the horse's head with a hackamore.
The plug draws forward. Buster takes notice of the ribs protruding and the swayed back. The hair covering the horse hide is scalded and manged.
With critical eye he wonders as to whether this cull can carry him out to Miss Estelle's but no matter he must try, there is nothing for it.
"Come in out of the cold, boy, warm yourself at the fire, I have no Arbuckle, but at least you can get heated." So saying he crawls into his raggedy chaqueta, wraps a strip from his blanket as a scarf about his head and shambles out the door to grasp the reins on the pony.
Buster pasears the beast over to the shed ties the lead to the rail and begins to assemble his outfit.
His saddle is worn through to the tree in several locations and the oxbow stirrup on the near side has been reattached to the stirrup leathers by the threading of wire.
Once his horse is harnessed he proceeds into the shack to collect his doofunnies, put on what extra clothes he has and covers all with his poncho. He mounts his slouch hat.
A quick glance about the room affirms there is nothing else he need take. So with that he departs trailing Aldolpho along the trace.
Miss Estelle sits grandly upon the porch of her imposing house. She is ensconced in her rocker, a location wherein she has spent the better part of the past twenty years.
* * *
In her hand the omnipresent stone pipe which she tamps with a thumb having years ago lost all feeling and accrued a large callus so that she can pack burning tobacco with it.
When she is of a mind she grips the instrument with what is left of her browned teeth.
Her plew is in a poke to her side.
The pupils are yellowed with cataracts constricting the myopic vision of her rheumy eyes.
The wrinkled, parchment skin is streaked by the dirt that accumulates in the crevices as she does not bath and has not for these many years.
The scraggly hair is done up in a loose bun drawing attention to the almost universal grey.
She wears a calico summer spectacle which over the years of exposure to the blast of sunshine has been faded to a blotched mosaic.
On her feet the ubiquitous clod hoppers of the plains, with the sole separating from the toe leaving a gap where one can observe the foot within.
She watches now as he rides in. What she sees is a man tall in the saddle, well mounted on a California sorrel pony, Concho Mexican saddle with a manzana for his reata. He sports fine boots, with a sombrero for his shade.
* * *
Straight backed sitting high in the saddle, proud and strong, thick black hair. Skin tanned by the sun and wind while he works the cattle.
All say an all-day hombre.
She smiles at what she sees, how handsome he is, how grand.
Buster's horse saunters up to the gallery whereon the old woman sits in her rocker, evidently oblivious to the polar weather.
"Might cold to be asitten out ain't it Miss Estelle?" He pushes on the pommel with both hands to lift his body from the saddle and work the cramp from his legs.
"Why hello, Mr. Clemens, so nice to see you, what a welcome treat your coming," so saying she smiles to reveal the prodigious gaps in her darkly, yellowed teeth.
He steps down, ties the horse to the hitching rail and mounts the steps having removed his deformed hat. Surveying the old woman, his heart breaking a little at her pathetic sight, he nevertheless gathers and says, "Why Miss Estelle you look so nice today."
The ancient orbs shine just a mite and crinkle at the corners.
Mr. Clemens steps over to her and gently lifts her hand by placing his beneath so hers only rests upon the back of his in the way of the ballroom and says, "Querida, may we go inside?"
She's taken by the gallant and rises with her hand.
The wind borne sand scours the white lap siding and the cream and green trim. Not uniformly, but dependent upon the location's exposure to the wind.
* * *
There is a further differentiation based on which wind strikes, the winter blasts, the spring and fall zephyrs or the summer storms. Each blow removes the paint in a singular pattern.
Inside the cats have created a powerful presence which takes Mr. Clemens a moment to become accustomed too. The dogs do not seem to have added to the pungent odor.
* * *
Walking Miss Estelle across the tile of the foyer they enter the library.
With shreds of carpet upon the floor, stuffing bulging from the several locations of rended upholstery and a dearth of knick knacks and picture frames. The absence of which having left squares, rectangles and ovals of discolored wall paper.
Guiding the lady to a chair he grabs another and places it so that they may sit face to face.
Sedentary, he recalls the look of her vivacious youth prior to the ravages of time and the pillaging of the creature's attributes by the forbidding life upon this difficult land.
The destruction inflicted on her assuming over the years the role of ranch hand, working the cattle throughout the day, sleeping on the ground, eating biscuits and beans and eventually undertaking heavy drinking to relieve the tediousness of the unabridged venture.
The devastating loss of her husband, then her two sons and finally her only daughter, with the attendant drift from normalcy and the failure to return.
Time heals all wounds is a non-functioning bromide in the case of Miss Estelle.
Over the ensuing years, her continuing glide from rationality was occasioned by an ever varying response of the townsfolk.
At first the sympathy and empathy, then the acceptance of a supposed angelic but damaged mind, followed by the humorous acceptance of the eccentric wealthy old lady and finally the realization whatever dinero there had ever been was gone revealing the inevitable scorn with which she is currently regarded.
Mr. Clemens, can remember though the days when he was a top vaquero, on a path to straw boss and thereafter range boss. Well favored by the patron of the rancho and many of the Cyprians in town.
The girls endured the wrath of their madams and pimps as a result of having gifted their favors to the dashing young man.
Then Miss Estelle arrived in Broderick.
She arrived as a mail order bride from her home in Boston. She arrived with a trousseau fit for a life in New England and held a femme fatal literature shaped romanticized fiction of life on the Great Plains.
Her betrothed by all accounts an honorable man, a hard worker, with a good head and a strong potential to build a profitable ranch, affording a comfortable life for his family.
* * *
There already was a Soddy on the place the roof of which was covered with shingles to prevent leaks in the rain.
* * *
Many corrals and necessary outbuildings had been constructed from tree trunks and limbs hauled in from a boscage on the range. There was anticipated the building of a proper house at the earliest opportunity.
Miss Estelle's initial negative reaction to the appalling dust, filth, heat and constant wind was in short order overcome by her natural stature as a sensible woman who had the ability to take the vagaries of life in hand and work them to her will.
* * *
And she took note of Mr. Clemens. Compared to her husband he was charismatic. In possession of the attributes she imagined when she conjured the Wild West of her girlhood dreaming back in Boston. He fit the mold to a tee.
* * *
So she dove in, working like a hand, having a baby a year, supervising the Mexican girls who cleaned the house, tended the babies and prepared the food.
* * *
Together the two newlyweds built up a right smart ranch, raising good beeves, desirable horses and stumbling on a profitable sideline in mules.
And all the while at dances, celebrations, and political rallies she noticed Mr. Clemens and to be honest he noticed her.
* * *
There being no way for the matter to progress any further since Mr. Clemens's honor would not allow intercession in a marriage.
His only option to his mind would be to rub out the husband however; he harbored an opinion such a solution would be unsatisfactory to Miss Estelle.
And so the matter progressed with discreet eye contact, the most innocent of remarks and occasionally the holding of one another during the trading of partners in the progression of a Virginia reel.
As the years pass the Italianate style house is built, the ranch prospers, the husband and children die.
* * *
During the same period Buster Clemens continues his activities without abatement, spends all the money he makes, improves his lot not at all and as age catches up with him starts a long slide towards invalidism.
No longer is he the dashing cowman, with the beautiful horse, spectacular saddle, and thick shock of hair.
Now, he passes through middle age, and thinning hair. He rides an old roan, has a second hand working saddle, limps from several broken bones and is increasingly seen as irrelevant.
Still the clandestine attraction persists, in point of fact if anything it amplifies.
Even so Miss Estelle, now having sustained significant damage is unable to function rationally. Consequently, although she is now free there can be no consummation of the relationship, no formal bonding through marriage, nothing but the bitter longing on each side for what cannot and will not be.
* * *
As Miss Estelle retreats into her daunsy life, Buster Clemens does much the same. Each withered with the years passing becoming increasingly uncouth and isolated. They slip and slide down into their individualized pit of paucity and eccentricity.
* * *
Now, Miss Estelle, her hand lightly within the handsome vaquero's two, makes her appeal. "Mr. Clemens I need you to grant me a boon. I require you deliver my animal Ismael to the Worthing Land and Cattle Company spread as soon as possible," she says it with the simple grace of a child completely and utterly innocent of the depth of her request.
* * *
She is in fact asking for his life.
Unexpectedly, his first thought is why does she want to kill the bull?
Immediately, his mind refocuses and without changing his expression in the slightest begins to reason through the matter and reckon his response.
If he says no, she will be terribly offended however, for how long is anyone's guess. He does not believe her mind can hold a thought for over a few minutes. It is surprising she has been able to engage Aldolpho and remember what she wanted to ask him once he arrived.
He must say yes, as it has no meaning, she will have forgotten the whole thing by the morrow, probably even the fact of his being here. If she remembers at all it will be as a dream.
With her wizened hand upon his own, he looks into the flecked eyes and with a gentle voice intones, "Yes, my dear I will grant your wish and take Ismael through the pass to Worthing Rancho, happily I will do this for you."
She looks back at him but her eyes contain not even the faint light of moments prior. The muscle beneath her skin is limper than just earlier. Her whole body collapses in on itself. On the floor spreads a puddle.
The accumulation of sign gives him to understand she has willed herself to live only for as long as it takes for him to arrive and for her to deliver her request.
What possibly the true import of this message is he cannot fathom.
However, he is now faced with a conundrum.
When he agreed to fulfill her request he thought it would pass from her memory. Now with her death it becomes a deathbed promise. That is to say inviolable. He now has no option but to fulfill his oath.
Within seconds as he sits holding the inarticulate hand he begins to realize Miss Estelle has bequeathed to him a gift.
Possibly, to balance the years of unrequited affection between them, she now gives over what he truly needs and could not have attained elsewise.
A final adventure, with him in pursuit with the strength and passion with which, he would have braved it in his prime.
With such exertion he will collapse and his life will end, not as an enfeebled, rotting ruin but as the robust vaquero of his youth.
This is a fine present something he can sink his teeth into and chase with verve and vigor.
Laying her hand gently in her lap, he goes out and rides the dilapidated horse into town and approaches the Minister of the Methodist Church. Not that he knows which Church if any she would prefer but just because it would be more Anglo than Mex.
He knocks at the door of the rectory, "Hello, my name is Clemens; I want to tell you that Miss Estelle has passed."
"How do you know, my good man?"
"I was with her when she went over the hill." Having had his say, he turns on his heel and rides back to Miss Estelle's house.
Her body will keep well enough in the cold house, and he can pass the night in a bedroom upstairs and get his start in the morning.
He wishes he had a quarter for some bait.
In the morning once dressed he enters the barn and begins to pluck the threads with his Barlow to separate old feed sacks at the seams.
The meal they once contained has been attacked by mice and rats who to facilitate getting at the grain chewed holes in the sacks.
Consequently, the sacking is somewhat tattered. He parts one sack to wrap about his hands as gloves. Others he cuts holes for his head to be draped over his body to fortify his shabbily thin coat.
He saddles the horse Aldolpho brought him, wishing as he did so that there had been oats for him last night; the animal has had nothing but the dried dog town grass poking up through the snow, on the way up here.
It's a difficult thing for either the horse or the bull to keep warm on scant feed.
Aboard the derelict horse and leading Ishmael, Buster winds up off the ranch. Striking a trail which will take him up the cerro to the break in the Musselshell, he settles on an easy pace.
Since in all likelihood there is no place they actually have to be and there is small chance they will survive this ordeal, he has no reason to torture them into the bargain.
He's heeled with the hog leg but he hankers for a carabina. He doesn't know what he would shoot nohow, it's the weather that will have done with the whole kit and caboodle.
He stops at what looks to be the last place on the trail before it begins its rise up off the valley floor.
In the old way he rides up to the door. "Hallo, the house, anyone to home? Hallo," his voice is such even though he is trying to shout what comes out is only a smidgen above a normal voice, and fractured at that.
The door opens a slight then more. "What you needing?"
"Why I'm taking this animal over to Worthing's way and was wondering if you could spare a crumb of bread or something."
"There's a little sopapilla in the pan, step down and welcome."
Settled at the table, Buster fills his plate and digs in, his host one Christian Matthews hoists the jug of red eye takes a pull and places it down on the table with an obvious invitation for Buster to help himself, which he does.
"Wall, you're a life saver that's what, I hadn't had nothing since the morning yesterday and I was right empty, I'm thanking you."
"Glad to be of service," says he. Actually, Christian is just as glad to have the company which being rare this far out. Additionally, he likes having a man more his age, one who knew the west back when with stories to tell.
Passing the jug back and forth lubricates their language, "So you really are going to walk that bull up over the mountain?"
"Well, I won't say it don't sound foolish, but truth be told I don't know what options I have, I promised a lady as she was dying I would, can't take it back and she can't let me off the hook."
"But that colds gon'a kill y'a and the animal both, that horseflesh your riding can't make it, there ain't no feed atall, he'll freeze sure if he don't break a leg." The jug to his lips he allows the liquid to flow into his mouth and over, down his chin and the front of his shirt.
"Probably you're right but what's to be done I give my word." Pouring the brown venomous juice in his mouth he guzzles what he can and the rest spreads on his breast.
Buster is having the best time he has had in years. There is in his mind just the slightest reminder of the old days, and how they were just like this.
The only thing missing is a little female companionship; however, he recognizes he has little use for it.
At some point, the bottle ceases to be passed, the two take to the cot, one with his head at each end and sleep peacefully till the morn.
After coffee, biscuits and sowbelly, Buster rises to be on his way.
"I'm grateful for the night's entertainment, it brightened my spirits." Taking Christian in both hands he is warm in his parting.
"I'd like to talk you out of this fool venture, but if you are agoin take a poke of biscuits at least."
In the pen Buster surveys the carcass of the stricken horse, down on his side, overcome by the previous day's exertion or the cold or both. He expresses no disappointment or consternation, just proceeds with his affairs.
He puts a cavraces about the horse's neck and ties the other end to the bull. Then with a quirt he encourages the critter to pull the load out to a brasada of black chaparral.
Returning he restores the rope to its place in the shed.
Without expression or even a thought of change of plan, he takes up a piece of twine, ties it about the top of the sack of biscuits and makes a loop for over his shoulder.
Then grabbing onto Ismael's lead and he begins to walk up towards the mountain pass.
"You a crazy soma bitch!" The epithet rings in his ears. In his heart there is the warmth of fellowship.
Their ascent while slow is steady and they make a good distance. Ismael works without belligerency, he plods at a good pace.
Eventually, dusk begins its descent. Buster searches for a place to spend the night. He finds a suitable overhang which will keep him out of the wind and snow.
Eating his third and fourth biscuit of the day revives him to a degree which lets his mind wander to the many times in the past when he has slept out of a night.
The round-ups, the drives, on the prowl for cattle on the high plains and even just for the sheer fun of it, he and his paisani out to hunt, drink, tell stories and generally howl at the moon.
The flour sacks under his thin jacket and the poncho over that, insulates his chest and gut to a degree. The scarf wrapped about his neck and head under his slouch hat provides protection for that portion.
However, all that shields his legs from the bitter weather is the worn pants flannel a most pitiable insulator.
His legs propelling him up the mountain all the day generated heat within however, now at rest there is nothing to keep them warm. He feels the chill seep in the moment he lays down.
He pulls his legs up to his chest as high as their inflexibility and the stiffness of his spine will permit. This allows the poncho to cover from his shoulders to his ankles maximizing its protection. But it is not enough. He is thoroughly chilled in moments.
Were there sufficient light he could keep walking thereby maintaining flexibility and warmth. However, the darkened mountain trails present inestimable dangers. There remains only hoping for sufficient life to realize the morning's false light which will allow the resumption of his trek.
Lying as he does on the cold ground with nothing between him and the soil, the little heat in his body is drawn away.
The effect is to keep him in agitation unable to sleep soundly.
There is now a horrific scream in the night. He recognizes the sound immediately as that of the bull being attacked by a cougar. He has heard it many times on drives and round-ups when steers screamed in the same way as their throats were being torn by the huge canines of the cat.
He secures his pistol and tries to rise to the bull's defense however; his frozen legs and stiff back restrict his movement.
As he struggles to regain his feet the cries of the animal become decidedly weaker until they cease and there is no longer cause for Buster to rise. Ishmael no longer needs his help.
He folds back unto the poncho, slumping too tired to unravel himself, panting and wheezing from his exertion.
The cold continues its invasion of his body however; Buster Clemens nee Ricallio Francisco Bolivar Jesus Warez experiences a warming sensation throughout his body except for the creeping numbness of his extremities.
His mind is reeling with the wheen of remembrances of the wonderful, happy days of his life. Interestingly, there is difficulty in recollecting any bad days except for the fruitless potential of Miss Estelle.
There is a slight tinge, but only slight, that he failed to attain the levels of achievement for which people once considered him worthy.
In all I've had a good life being the penultimate thought to pass through his mind before sleep, Miss Estelle being the last.
The denizen's lips are curled into a faint smile as has not appeared on the vaquero's features for these many years. The mien is reflective of the peace in which he abideth.