As any 18-wheeler driver can tell you, when you are on long trips there is little to do but stay alert and safe, watch that white line, and…think. Back when I traveled a lot, that ‘thinking' led to such results as this tale.
I call ‘em ‘snapshots', because one can see something for just a moment in passing, that sort of sticks in the mind. Developing a tale from that ‘snapshot' is the next step, and relieves the boredom of white-line-watching for quite a while.
I was on Hi-way 60, several miles east of Show Low, Arizona. Up on a little rise, I see something ‘odd', to say the least...a man in a wheel-chair. Standing beside him is a teenage boy. As I pass, they raise a hand in greeting. I wave back and drive on.
It seems untoward that someone in a wheel-chair would be so far out here in the wide-open spaces with no houses for miles, and no vehicle in sight. How did they get here? And for what purpose? (There is the ‘snapshot'; and the core for the following yarn):
I make a U-turn and head back. Nearing where they are, I signal a left turn...just out of habit, for there has been no traffic for an hour or more. Out here, you can see three days in every direction.
As I turn onto the calichi-rock path going up the little rise, the man in the chair push/pulls the wheels to face in my direction. I stop and kill the engine. It is eerily quiet. I step out of the truck and ease the door closed. For some reason it seems improper to make noise here.
Now I can see that the man in the chair is quite well advanced in years. His appearance reminds me of a weather-beaten locust tree. His presence can be felt from a distance. There is a strong family resemblance between the old man and the boy. I step towards them, push back my cowboy hat, and say: "Hidy."
The old man sticks out his hand for a shake. His hand is all knotted and maimed from decades of arthritis. I gently take his hand in mine...up/down, just once.
"Howdy, young feller", the old man says; "Glad you could make it. You're just in time."
(Just in time? He makes it sound like I was expected.)
"I don't mean to stick my nose in your bid-ness, sir, but you looked sort of like a settin' hen at a fox convention when I drove by...up here in a wheel-chair with no houses or vehicles around. I came back to see if you need any help...mebbe a ride somewhere?"
"Nawwww! The boy's Grand-Maw brought us out here. We're just fine...ain't we boy?"
The lad laughs like his heart is full of sunshine, as he shakes my hand with all the vigor of youth.
"Yessir, Pap-Paw. We're fine!"
"Well, I'll get along then. I didn't mean to disturb you."
"What's your hurry, young feller?", the old man asks, with a mischievous smile; "You're just in time for the reunion. Ain't that right, boy?"
"Yessir, just in time."
(Reunion? I am wondering if I have found a couple of loonies from a funny farm…then the old man speaks again):
"Let's go up on the rise there, and join the others."
The lad moves to take the chair, but the old man says:
"Naw, Chip; this feller'll push me."
I guide the chair up the slight incline. As soon as my eyes are above the level of the rise, I see a cemetery on the other side of the hill. It is a large, and obviously old, cemetery; sprawling over several acres and hidden from view by the little hill.
When the chair is on level ground, the old man says: "Right here's good enough", and sets the wheel brakes. I look around to see where the ‘other people' are. There's not a living soul…just the three of us.
Now it's clear to me that the main entrance to the cemetery is on the far side, more'n a quarter-mile from the little hill we're on. The arc of a white-painted steel sign, with the name of the cemetery in black letters, spans a macadam access road.
I suppose the old man sees something in my expression, because he grins and says to the boy:
"Go ahead, Chip…Tell him."
"Sir…", the boy explains, "...there are five generations of our family here. This-here is my Great-Grand-Paw. He's 101 year old now. We come out here every once't in a while. He likes to set, and think, and talk about the good old days."
The old man begins to point to various markers and headstones, and to recite the names of the family members there. He makes a few comments about each one, as he names them off. The litany is mesmerizing...and sometimes hilarious, when the boy interrupts to correct the old man for a slight error in direction, or about which marker is whose. It's obvious the boy has been to this ‘reunion' before.
At times, the old man's voice meanders off and falls silent. When it does, the boy smoothly picks up the tale and continues without a hitch. He points to a native stone marker off to the right, and names a relative from the 1840's...a woman named Sadie. The old man ‘harrumphs' and says:
"Now that gal never was worth a dern! She took up with that wild McAllister boy, and went on the owl-hoot trail. It took two generations to get that mess quieted down!"
"Awwww, Pap-Paw", chides the boy; "...she was your favorite, and you know it."
The old man chuckles with inner pleasure, and his eyes mist a little as the memories flood his mind.
I am amazed at how fast the time has slipped by. The next thing I know, it's almost sundown. In these parts, sundown comes like dropping a black quilt across the world. It'd been about noon when I turned around to come back.
Tires crunch on the calichi-rock path, and a blue van pulls to a stop behind my pick-up. The woman driving the van mashes a few buttons. The off-side door slides back, and the automatic ramp comes out and settles on the hard path.
The woman gets out of the van and closes the door. I turn to the old man and give him a broad wink! He nods and grins. The boy understands, and laughs softly. As the woman walks towards us, I step forward, whip off my cowboy hat, and make a wide sweeping gesture with it, as I bow from the waist. She stops in her tracks.
"Wa'al, how...do...ye...DO, Miz Clara!", I greet her; "My goodness, but you sure are the spittin' image of Great-Aunt ‘Zalia, from over to Blue Rock."
She drills me with the steeliest look I've ever seen. It seems like a month before she breaks into a broad smile and says:
"Sooooo...you've met the kin-folks, have you?"
"Yes'm, sure have. One of the best reunions I ever been to."
"Well, boys...I'm sorry to break this up, but it's time for Pap-Paw's medicine…and his supper."
As we shake hands goodbye, the boy says to me:
"I'm glad you could come, mister."
I could only respond:
"Me, too, Chip McAllister."
As I take the old man's gnarled hand in both of mine, he grins broadly and leans his head towards me. I bend down. He whispers a few words. I know exactly what he means. I reply:
"I will, sir. You can count on it."
The woman says:
"It takes a little while to get the chair in the van and locked in. You want me to back up and let you out, mister?"
"No, ma'am. If it's all right with you folks, I think I'll tarry a while here."
As the van drives away, young Chip McAllister is waving out the window. I can hear the laughter of the old man long after the van is out of sight.
After all the span of time gone by since that day, I can still hear the old man's robust laughter...every time I come to the reunion. Young Chip McAllister is a Grand-Paw his-own-se'f now. Before long, he'll be a ‘Pap-Paw.'
Of course, I visit with the old man a lot. His final words to me were: "You come back and see me, now...ye' hear? I'll be here."
I visit with Miz Sadie, too; bless her untamed pioneer heart. And ol' man Horace yonder; who swears-and-be-durn that he fought on both sides during that ‘trouble with the North', back in the 1860's.
And there's that high-strung boy, Lige, to the left of old man Horace yonder. He was dadgum-determined to draw iron on ol' Wyatt Earp that time...'til his mama walked out in the street between them and slapped the livin' tar out'n the boy; then she led him off by the ear. (His mama was Aunt ‘Zalia, ya know...from over to Blue Rock? )
She's the one kept that cougar cat away from her children that time…with a stick of mesquite stove-wood. Lost her left eye doin' it; but, aye ganny, when the menfolks got home that evening, she was busy skinning that beat-to-death cat.
That little bitty wooden marker there...that's Miz Sadie's nephew, Ezry....he had too many horses with different brands on ‘em when they cotched him, over t'other side of Rufus Crick. He warn't but 17 year old. They hung ‘im anyway, of course.
You ought to come to the reunion sometime. The old man'll be glad to tell you all about the folks here. If he forgets, Chip'll remind him…you can bet on that!
Aw, heck! Come right down to it, I can tell ya about ‘em my-own-se'f.
Like Miz Hepzibah yonder, with that high marble spire? At one time, she had 16 off-spring scattered around these parts. Then the cholera come through here an' wiped out ever' last one of ‘em...'cept for her.
I rek'n you could say it kilt her too; ‘cause she just give up and quit after that. They say she must-a went slap crazy after that tragedy happened. Jest stayed by her-own-self; never spoke another word…to anybody.
Now that feller yonder, to the right of Aunt Reba? He ain't part of the family a-tall...not real kin, anyway. "Mister Raiford", everybody called him...a wealthy cattleman. They say his spread covered more'n a hundred and fifty square miles. He was the only beau Aunt Reba ever had. After she was kilt by them renegade Injuns, he asked to be buried close't to her when his time come, even though they never had a chance't to get hitched. The family was glad to do it like that.
Then there's ol' Farney yonder...a one-armed blacksmith. Now, he was a cut-up! I ‘member that time he---
Well, shoot...it's close to sundown. I better git down off this hill. Come back and see me…ye' hear? I'll be here.