The Poachers

Daddy set the coal-oil lamp on a wooden box beside the bed and learned to stroke hair from the sleeping boy’s eyes.  They opened.  “Mornin’ pardner.”  The eyes blinked.  “Ready for huntin’?”  The lad bolted upright.

“Chuck and Uncle Wiff will be here by five.”  Daddy rumpled the coal-black mop.  “Get dressed.”  He disappeared down the stairwell.

The boy threw back the flannel sheet and Mama’s quilt and perched on the edge of the bed.  Bare feet found bare floorboards.  Impelled by the cool attic and impending adventure, the seven-year-old fumbled into long-johns, Levis, plaid wool shirt, sox, and size six cowboy boots.  Holding the metal bail of the lantern, the boy started down the stairs.  He smelled coffee and bacon.

From the warming oven of the Great Majestic kitchen range, Daddy delivered plates of bacon, eggs, and slices of Mama’s homemade bread to the table.  “Want jelly?”

The boy nodded.  “Yes please.”

Daddy smiled.  From a kitchen cabinet, he brought a ceramic jar of apricot preserves. 

Father and son ate quickly, in silence.  Daddy drank coffee from a blue enamel mug.  The boy gulped milk from a glass tumbler.

Assembled beside the door were, Daddy’s 30-30 rifle and cartridge belt, a cotton bag holding Mama’s roasted mutton and mustard sandwiches and chocolate cake in waxed paper, and a burlap-wrapped water jug.

At the front gate, Buck, Daddy’s buckskin gelding, and Snip, a sturdy bay mare with a white diamond in her forehead, were bridled and saddled.  The crunch of hooves on gravel signaled Chuck and Uncle Wiff’s approach.

Greetings were warm but subdued.  Moments later, four quarter horses carried four horsemen through the shadow of a gate, across a barely visible bridge to the County Road.  With a blush of sunrise on their right, riders nudge heels against equine ribs.  The animals broke into an easy trot up the gray, gravel ribbon. 

As they passed “Zumadakis the Greek’s” yard, a silhouette set milk pails on the ground and waved.  The horsemen returned the silent salute.  On Easter, Mama, Daddy and the boy came to Pete’s for spit-roasted lamb, round loaves with Easter eggs in lumpy crusts, and sweet purple wine that made the boy warm inside.

At a deserted CCC camp, the road became a four-foot-wide trail through waist-high sagebrush.  They reined up.  Daddy and Uncle Wiff pulled rifles from saddle scabbards and levered bullets into chambers.  Grasping above the trigger guards, they rested the rifles’ but plates on their thighs.

Stirrup-to-stirrup the men lead.  Uncle Wiff’s voice was subdued but clear. “Pete saw that four-point, a spike, and some does below the canal.” 

Daddy pointed his rifle to the left.  “At the Forest fence we’ll cut west, tie up in the cedars and walk.”  Uncle Wiff nodded.

Stirrup-to-stirrup the boys followed.  And their minds worshiped every phrase, and every word.

******************

It really happened—more or less.

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