Heartbreak, Texas, lies on the edge of New Texas and Old Tejas; half-wrapped in myth and religion, brought to its senses daily by the hard grind of work, while energized by the startling beauty of its surroundings. Heartbreak is 50 or 500 miles west of Houston’s depraved sushi bars. There on Main Street, Sally Rae and I run The Waterin’ Hole Café, a unique position of trust within the city. We guard the public food supply and try to maintain a degree of decorum, along with a bit of flexibility on Friday and Saturday nights.
“John Smith” rode into town on a Saturday morning. Horses were hardly rare in Heartbreak, but this man was packed for traveling. After a century and a quarter of automobiles, horses were regulated to work animals in herding our cattle, or big pets that allowed us to ride them a few times a week in return for endless petting and free board.
John Smith was something different. It was obvious that, when mounted, he had all that he needed: tent, sleeping roll, bulging saddle bags, and even a smoke-burnished coffee pot tied to the rear of his saddle. There was really nothing out of place about him, if one subtracted a century or so from the calendar, and disregarded the bandana he had around his face.
Heartbreak was different, too. We had dodged the first wave of COVID-19, only to be hit, and hit hard, with the second wave. Our streets were nearly deserted. Storekeepers took phone orders, wrote up the bills, and stacked the goods on their doorsteps. Customers cooperated by signing the receipts and loading their pickups without contact. Of course our eatery suffered, but what is a financial concern compared to a funeral?
Thanks to faithful friends and generous take-out orders, my family had enough to eat and so we (mostly) hid indoors, counting our good fortune.
Mr. Smith rode up to the front doors of The Waterin’ Hole Café, started coughing, and slowly slid off his horse. He dropped over, sat on the curb, and melted into a full prone position, never ceasing his cough.
By now, we knew the drill.
I dashed inside and told Sally Rae, “Call Doc Bailey.”
I put on a kerchief and got iced tea in a disposable cup and carried it out to the pilgrim collapsed on our front steps.
“Stranger,” I said, “you look kinda puny. Doc Bailey is on the way.”
“No (gasp) human doctor (gasp),” he said. “Get me the vet. I (cough) hear that you got a (gasp) good one here. (cough, cough) Take care of (gasp) my horse.”
Fearing the worst, I asked, “What’s your name, stranger?”
“John (cough, gasp) Smith.”
I went back inside and called Doc Sam, our town veterinarian. Such requests were not uncommon. Most older people had seen lots of physicians attend family members, who later died, and they also saw their critters recover.
Now, I consider myself a man of science, but if Doc Bailey wasn’t around, well, I didn’t consider Doc Sam a bad second choice.
That’s why Doctors Bailey and Sam both showed up at the same moment. Once again, it was hard to tell the difference between low comedy and high drama. It went something like this …
Doc Bailey: “He’s a human, he’s mine!”
Doc Sam: “He wants me.”
Mr. Smith: “Gimme the (cough, gasp, spit) vet!”
Doc Bailey: “This is medical malpractice in broad daylight!”
Doc Sam: “He wants me!”
Mr. Smith: “(cough, gasp, mumble, silence).”
Doc Bailey had enough. “Go on, take him! I got enough patients with the virus to keep me busy!”
In the end, Doc Sam loaded the sick cowboy into his car and went to his infirmary.
I got the horse.
* * *
There is a certain moral responsibility that comes when you receive a man’s possessions. I thought on this as I unpacked his things. The easiest part was his dappled gray gelding; I turned him out into the little pasture behind Great Aunt Katy’s house.
I secured permission by talking through a screened door. She was sick and sinking slowly. Our conversation was brief.
“Can I put a stray horse in your pasture?”
“I don’t care if you put a purple people-eater out there! Now let me die in peace!”
I put Mr. Smith’s saddle in my garage, and I carried in everything that could be washed. It was there I learned the mysterious stranger’s name. I laid out his paperwork — it was scant — and I sprayed everything with disinfectant. Then I washed all my clothes and showered.
His papers had a few references to “Jacob Scatmore.” There was a news clipping about rustling up in Uvalde County. That was about as interesting as noting that fish were given to wetness. There was seldom a time when there wasn’t rustling up in Uvalde County.
The most ominous thing I found was a pint of Jim Beam. Maybe it’s just me, but I never fully trusted a man who didn’t prefer Jack Black. In the end I refolded all his papers and repacked his clothes. Another man’s business is, after all, sacred.
The next morning, I took breakfast down to Doc Sam’s veterinary for Mr. Smith. I know that I didn’t have to, but it was my front steps that he had collapsed on; somehow, that made me sorta responsible.
“How’s the patient, Doc?” I asked.
“Poorly. Awful poorly,” Doc Sam answered. “Last night I had to start some heroic measures.”
Doc Sam had poor Mr. Smith hooked up to a CPAP machine, similar to the one I used. He had rigged a line run from the oxy side of an oxyacetylene cutting torch into Mr. Smith’s air hose.
Mr. Smith looked, well, “dead-ish” came to mind, but it was a mite optimistic.
“Don’t worry about his color. Lots of folks get that look when you use xylazine on them.”
“Xylazine! I thought that was just for horse and cows.”
Doc Sam looked at me. “Are you taking up medicine, Dave?” he asked mildly.
I knew what usually came after a mild question from Doc Sam.
“Oh no, just askin.’”
“Is that Mr. Smith’s breakfast there in your hand?”
“Oh, yeah, it sure is.”
“Hang on just a minute,” Doc Sam said. “I’ll give him 2 cc of Polanto lin, and bring him back around.”
Mr. Smith came to, looked at the breakfast, coughed, and closed his eyes. He was mute, but as eloquent as my dog, just wanting to be left alone.
“Well,” Doc Sam said, “waste not, want not.” He helped himself to Mr. Smith’s breakfast.
* * *
There was a lot of news around town, but it was uniformly depressing. I had heard rumors of a betting pool going around: Who would die first, with bonus bucks for getting the order of dying correct. I would have no truck with it myself, but the best bets were that Emmitt Bennett would go first, followed by Great Aunt Katy, then BJ Elkert and Miss Scarlett Hawkins. Some put Mrs. Brigadier General John Ashford Miller Forrest, Ret., (just call me “Millie) on the death list, but I had seen her, and I knew that such hopes were merely aspirational.
Gen. Miss Millie was tougher than an old saddle, and I dared not get my hopes up over sniffles that would probably prove to be hay fever.
The great coronavirus pandemic of 2020 was a perplexing sort of a thing.
All Texas males have the “Alamo spirit” drummed into us from early on. The best medical information around told us to huddle indoors; our traditions made us want to charge out and confront it, make something happen!
Perhaps most symbolic of our confusion was the heavily armed men who boldly walked around the state Capitol, demanding to be liberated. I mean, what were all those guns really for? You can’t shoot a virus. As for being free, well, they were out there, weren’t they? Nobody was stopping them.
Like many other “survivalists,” I have a closet of guns and a big freezer. If anything threatened to humble us, it was a toilet paper shortage! I mean, who in their right mind wants to wipe their bottom with a 30.06 shell, or a frozen packet of spinach?
After a lifetime of preparation, we were, well, stymied. Of course, you could wear a gasmask, but they were hot and uncomfortable, so most of us settled for wearing a bandana, like an old-time outlaw. Somehow, we felt cheated as well as bored.
Another eight days passed; fortunately, none of our citizens passed along with it, but several were obviously losing the fight.
About a week later (or what Sally Rae called “Blursday, the quarenteenth”), Old Doc Sam called me up.
“Got some breakfast for Mr. Smith? He came back today and he says that he’s powerful hungry!”
I immediately fixed him the Rustler’s Special: four eggs over easy, hash browns, gravy and biscuits, ham, bacon and sausage. I never knew that doing a deep fry could be so celebratory!
At Doc Sam’s veterinary clinic, I found one very hungry man. Old cowboys tend to either die off or bounce back. Mr. Smith was bouncing.
As I sat, watching Mr. Smith eat, I saw Doc Sam preparing some syringes and vials of blood.
“What’re you doing, Doc?” I asked.
“Mr. Smith has agreed to a medical experiment,” he said. “Fortunately, he’s O-positive, a universal donor. I’m going to inject our hardest-hit folks with a bit of his blood. I hate to say it, but we are about to lose a bunch if we don’t do something.”
“Doc Bailey will never agree to that, I’m sure.”
That’s why we aren’t telling him.”
About a week after this conversation, folks were well on the road to recovery. Even Great Aunt Katy pulled through to our universal relief!
Mr. Smith mounted up and rode off. Less than an hour later, a Texas Ranger showed up, asking about a drifter called “Jacob Scatmore.” No one could help him, but some did say that there were a lot of masks worn around Heartbreak these days.