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Authors: Mike Blakely

Shortgrass Song

BOOK: Shortgrass Song


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Title Page

Copyright Notice


I: Wind & Grass 1860

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

II: Glory & Horror 1871

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Chapter Thirty

Chapter Thirty-One

Chapter Thirty-Two

Chapter Thirty-Three

Chapter Thirty-Four

Chapter Thirty-Five

Chapter Thirty-Six

Chapter Thirty-Seven

Chapter Thirty-Eight

Chapter Thirty-Nine

Chapter Forty

Chapter Forty-One

Chapter Forty-Two

Chapter Forty-Three

Chapter Forty-Four

Chapter Forty-Five

Chapter Forty-Six

Chapter Forty-Seven

Chapter Forty-Eight

Chapter Forty-Nine

Chapter Fifty

Chapter Fifty-One

Chapter Fifty-Two

Chapter Fifty-Three

Chapter Fifty-Four

Chapter Fifty-Five

Chapter Fifty-Six

Chapter Fifty-Seven

Chapter Fifty-Eight

Chapter Fifty-Nine

Chapter Sixty

Chapter Sixty-One

Chapter Sixty-Two

Chapter Sixty-Three

Chapter Sixty-Four

III: Sorrow & Beauty 1882

Chapter Sixty-Five

Chapter Sixty-Six

Chapter Sixty-Seven

Chapter Sixty-Eight

Chapter Sixty-Nine

Chapter Seventy

Chapter Seventy-One

Chapter Seventy-Two

Chapter Seventy-Three

Chapter Seventy-Four

Chapter Seventy-Five

Chapter Seventy-Six

Chapter Seventy-Seven

Chapter Seventy-Eight

Chapter Seventy-Nine

Chapter Eighty

Chapter Eighty-One

Chapter Eighty-Two

Chapter Eighty-Three

Chapter Eighty-Four

Chapter Eighty-Five

Chapter Eighty-Six

Chapter Eighty-Seven

Chapter Eighty-Eight

Chapter Eighty-Nine

Chapter Ninety

Chapter Ninety-One



Five editors have left their stamps upon this work:

My first line of defense against embarrassing myself in print—Rebecca Blakely.

Joe Vallely, who delicately suggested economy and imagery.

Bob Gleason, who inspired me to hone and define.

Dale Walker, who engaged his logic and love for the old west.

And Anna Magee, who weighed every word and phrase.

The libraries of the University of Texas at Austin proved invaluable sources of research material.

For helping me understand the discipline of fiddle playing, I am indebted to Doc Blakely, Johnny Gimble, Alvin Crow, Valerie Riles Morris, Ricky Turpin, and Ron Knuth. Doc Blakely, Johnny Gimble, Hank Harrison, and Ron Knuth were also instructive on mandolins and mandolin playing.

For sharing their passion for western music and cowboy poetry, I thank Jim Bob Tinsley, Waddie Mitchell, Rusty Richards, Red Steagall, J.B. Bowers, John Byrne Cooke, and especially Don Edwards. I will remember Elmer Kelton and C.F. Eckert for sharing their collections of cowboy balladry. A special thanks to Bess Lomax Hawes and Shirley Lomax Duggan. And, though I never met them, I owe John Lomax, Nathan “Jack” Thorpe, and Charlie “Badger” Clark.

On songwriting, I have received instruction and inspiration from Floyd Tillman, Alex Harvey, John Arthur Martinez, and Jana Stanfield.

For continuing to let me work the roundup, I thank the boys at the Duncan Brothers Spade Ranch, near Egypt, Texas, including G. Cameron Duncan, Dr. Dwight “Thumbs” King, Robert Spitzmiller, Rollie Coy “Buddy” Reid, Henry Wobbe, Tony “Kid” Kitzmiller, Sonny Andersen, Noah Lopez, Bubba Blair, and Emmitt “M.T.” Mathews. For teaching me long ago how to throw a rope and saddle-break a horse, I thank my father, Doc Blakely.

Thanks to the friendly people of Colorado, Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Wyoming.




Nothing Caleb knew of could best his pocketknife. It was the first thing he had ever owned that he really wanted. Life and quack doctors had granted him plenty he didn't want: measles, mumps, whooping cough, croup, cramp colic, flux, bilious fever. But when he clutched the double-bladed, bone-handled, tempered-steel pocketknife in his little fist, he felt retribution for all his past ills.

His mother looked into the door of the dugout. “Caleb, come out and get some sun now,” she said. “It will make you better.”

Better? He had never felt as well in his life. He owned a pocketknife! The boy stepped out of the dugout and watched his mother climb the bank of the creek and disappear over the rim. His house was like a cave, carved into the brink of the dirt bank, its roof of poles and sod level with the vast plains his family had crossed by wagon.

He stood and looked at the mountains before he followed his mother. He didn't know why they couldn't live in the mountains. It would be fun to slide down them. He reckoned it would take him two days to slide down mountains that tall.

The scramble up the bank winded him a little. He panted and watched his mother carry her water bucket to the flowers she was trying to grow. She looked like a stick figure lost in a dream of dead grass. He preferred to look at the mountains.

Dirt fell into the dugout when the boy jumped on the sod-covered roof. He heard it sprinkle the tabletop inside. He looked over his shoulder to make sure his mother hadn't seen him; she hadn't, so he dropped to the seat of his pants and let his legs dangle over the doorway to his home.

He fished out his knife, warm from his right pocket. The midday sun glinted against the brass endpieces. His father had oiled the hinges, and the folding blades swung easily from their slots in the handle. He chose the long one. He didn't really know why the knife had a short blade—couldn't think of anything he would want to stab that slightly.

From his left pocket he produced a chunk of kindling wood with a square end. He meant to whittle it into a point that looked like one of the mountains across the creek. Maybe he could give it to his mother and prove to her that he could do something besides lie around sick.

The blade sliced easily through the soft pine, and left facets smooth enough to reflect the sun. Caleb turned the blunt stob into a precious gem. He held it at arm's length to check its shape against the mountain. He smiled, then heard the handle of his mother's water bucket rattle behind him.

“Caleb,” she said, “don't sit on the roof, you'll shake dirt.…”

The boy's every muscle flexed, snapping his little body into the air. His mother was screaming as if she had a panther in her petticoats. He could grab nothing, his hands busy with the paraphernalia of whittling. He bounced on the roof, pitched forward, saw the threshold below, where he would land. Suddenly his head jerked down and his shirt caught him under the chin.

His mother dragged him by the collar, up over the roof edge, and away from the creek bank, screaming. “Ab! Come here! Come here right now!” She pinned Caleb's wrist to the ground and took the pocketknife away.

Caleb's father was plowing a short way down the creek. He left his oxen and came running as the boy rubbed his throat and caught his breath. “Ella? What happened?” he said.

“Where did Caleb get such a knife?” she asked, shaking the bone handle at her husband.

“I gave it to him.”

“Did you not think it important to ask his mother first?”

“The boy's six years old, Ella. I think it's time he had a knife. It folds up. It's not dangerous.”

“He was sitting on the roof with it!” she screamed. “I caught him by the collar just as he was falling off! He would have cut himself to pieces!”

“Is he all right?”

“No, he's not all right. He's scared half to death.”

Caleb tried to speak, but the coughing came instead.

“Oh, now he's shaken something loose,” Ella said. “Take him into the hole. I'll get him some water.”

The boy's father helped him to his feet and led him by the hand down to the door of the dugout.

“Can I have my pocketknife back?” Caleb wheezed.

His father squatted to his level and pushed his hat back, revealing his untanned forehead, reddened by the sweatband. “Where were you sitting when you were whittling with it?” he asked.

Caleb pointed to the roof of the dugout, above the door. “Up there.”

“Is that a safe place to use a knife?”

“No, sir.”

“No, it sure isn't. I thought you were old enough to have it, boy, but I guess you're not. I'll keep it for you, and you can have it when you learn to use it right. Now go in the house and think about that.”


“I said get in there, boy.”

Caleb ran into the dark hole in the creek bank. He fell on his pallet, buried his face in his blankets, and cried, coughing between sobs. His mother came in and made him drink some water she had hauled up from the creek, then he was alone again in the dark.

It wasn't fair. Matthew and Pete had owned pocket-knives as long as he could remember being their brother. He had seen them carve their names twenty feet up the trunks of trees, standing on limbs no bigger than broom handles. No one had ever taken their knives away. They got to do everything. They got to ride the horse. They got to chase the cows. They went hunting with their father. Caleb never did anything. His mother wouldn't let him until he got better. But he was never going to get better. She wouldn't even let him do that.

He looked under his arm at his view of the mountains, framed by the darkness of his dugout home. Through his tears he gazed at their vast, forested flanks—blue, black, and purple against the pale sky. He rolled over and sat on the dirt floor. He was tired of crying. No one was listening, anyway. Across the creek was a bald hill, and beyond that hill stood the mountains. He had seen Pete and Matthew playing on the hill just a couple of days ago. It hadn't seemed to take them very long to get there. He wondered if he could make it there and back before his mother returned to the dugout to cook supper.

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