An Outlaw Visits the Ranch

Butte-MTShe stood on the edge of a Montana butte with her horse at her side. From there, the teenager could see the colors of the far off sunset just beginning to sweep across what had to be the biggest sky in the world.

This butte was one of her favorite places; there aren’t many places out on the plains to get an eagle’s view of the world. The view far surpassed the descriptions in the Western Romance novels she loved to read. She also loved poetry but even more than all that, she loved riding her horse in what would someday be called “Big Sky Country.”

The shadows from the distant mountains moved across the endless plains and the badlands. The only sounds were the gentle breathing of her horse, the chirp of a cricket, and the occasional cry of a bird in flight or the bawl of a calf in a far pasture. Amidst this overwhelming beauty, her voice quietly broke the silence, “I swear, you can see the whole damn world from up here.”

I was about sixteen when Grandmother first shared with me her memory of the stranger’s visit to their ranch when she was a young girl. It’s true as I remember it, but there may be some parts I’ve made up to fill in the spaces between the available facts. Yet even those parts are based on the truths I’ve learned about the girl who became the legendary Ptomaine Joe.

Jessie Barrere turned seventeen on April 1st in the spring of 1910. She was slim and fit, wearing some old trousers and a solid leather belt with a few extra belt holes punched in it to keep her pants around her waist. Her shirt and boots were well worn and plain, but there was no mistaking her for a boy. Her flowing blonde hair and a slight shape to her body were the surest signs. Her hat was pushed back, resting on her back, hanging by the leather strap.

A momentary flash of reflected sunlight from down below caught her eye, then it was gone. She scanned the area around the trail she knew. Just before it flowed into the valley, there it was again! A small flash, like the sun glinting off something shiny. She stared hard, and could barely make out a lone rider. He probably had some silver on his saddle or bridle. As soon as the trail dropped into the valley, the sun could no longer glint off the silver, but there was enough light and she could still see him.

“Who do you think that is?” she asked her bay mare, Sunshine. “He’s not a cowboy; there’s silver on his saddle. Nobody like that would be comin’ from any of the ranches around here. I’ll bet he’s traveled a very long way.” Sunshine snorted softly.

She imagined him coming from some far away exotic land, or from even as far as Denver. He was a real stranger! She was getting excited.

Whoever it was, that trail led directly to her folk’s ranch. He probably needed food and water, and there was nowhere else to get provisions for many miles around. She had to get to the ranch before he did.

She pulled her hat up, pressed it firmly on her head, and tightened her chin strap. “We need to get home, fast. Let’s go!” she said as she swung her body into the saddle.

Sunshine knew immediately that her young rider was looking for some adventure. For an athletic horse, adventure means running, and she loved to run. Sunshine leaped into a dead run across the flat top of the butte, toward s trail that wound to the plain below. On reaching the trail, they hardly slowed at all. This was familiar territory; they both knew every turn and stone. They trusted each other, and their bodies moved as one, shifting their weight back and forth with the twisting trail.

On reaching the flats, they charged on toward her family’s ranch house, where she anticipated meeting a real stranger. The wind in her face made her eyes water, but this was the most fun she had had all spring. A real mystery requiring a mad dash across the plain. Life couldn’t get better than this!

As the ranch house, barn and corral came into view, Jessie could see her half-brother, Earl, four years younger than she, standing on the corral fence, watching her. She gave a sharp whistle, and he jumped down to open the gate.

Sunshine knew just how Jessie liked to make her entrance. They ran through the gate, sped around the outside edge of the corral, and skidded to a stop with a flourish and a cloud of dust right in front of Earl. Jessie leaped to the ground and handed him the reins.

“There’s a stranger comin’ to the ranch! I’ve got to tell Pa! Here, cool her down for me. I’ll be right back.”

She ran off toward the house. “Hey, I don’t want to… Aw, hell!” said Earl as she left him in the dust, holding the reins. Sunshine panted and tried unsuccessfully to stand still.

Jessie burst through the front door shouting, “There’s a stranger comin’!”, pushing her hat back and letting her blonde hair free. “Where’s Pa?”

Jessie’s mother, Rachel, called from the kitchen, where she balanced one-year-old Bobby on her hip, “Jessie, stop yer yellin’ and act like a lady!”

“But there’s a stranger comin’, and I’ve got to tell JR!” Jessie said.

Rachel put the baby down on a blanket on the floor, took a hand-rolled cigarette out of her mouth, and said, “He’s comin’ in the back door now, but don’t run at him shoutin’. You know he don’t like that!”

John Robert Schneider (“JR”) stomped the dust off his boots as he took off his leather gloves. He growled, “What’s all the racket about?!” He looked up and saw Jessie coming into the kitchen. “I thought it would be you. What’s yer latest disaster?”

“I was up on the butte and saw a stranger riding toward the ranch, and I knew you’d want to know right away,” she said, hoping that he would appreciate her effort.

“Yeah, well, how do you know he’s a stranger? He’s probably a cowboy from one of the other ranches.”

“He doesn’t look like a cowboy; his gear has buttons that reflect the sun, like silver, and he looks like he’s traveled a long ways. You think he might be bringin’ trouble?” asked Jessie.

JR frowned at his step-daughter. “My god, you are one dramatic child. You shouldn’t be readin’ so much. Everything that happens around here is an adventure or a disaster to you. Life is usually just plain. Get used to it!”

Earl poked his head in the door and said, “Pa, there’s somebody comin’ and I don’t think we’ve ever seen him before.”

JR looked out a window, and finally got a look at the fellow riding toward the ranch. “Earl, go on out there and let him water his horse. See what he wants.” Jessie started to follow him, but JR said, “You stay in here!”

“But I saw him first!” she snapped, and went to a window to watch.

JR watched from the other window as Earl walked out to greet the visitor. They couldn’t hear what he said, but they saw Earl motion to the watering trough, and the rider dismounted to lead his horse to the water.

JR went out to join them and they all stood by the trough. Jessie thought that since they were all men, they were probably talking about horses, sheep, cattle, the weather, and other stuff amounting to nothing at all. Except for horses; she really liked horses.

Earl came in after a while and told his mother, “The stranger will be havin’ supper with us, and Pa wants you to pack up some food that the fellow can take with him, ’cause he ain’t stayin’.”

He turned to go back out, and stopped next to Jessie and whispered, “I think he’s a gunslinger. He’s got two six-guns and says he came from St. Louis. But then he said something about Santa Fe, so I don’t know where he’s really from.”

When the stranger came into the house, Jessie finally got a good look at the man. He did indeed have two six-guns strapped to his thighs, and his gun belt had silver buttons, just as she expected. Probably matches his bridle, she thought. His vest, gun belt, and boots were made of matching leather tanned in a dark brown. His hat was about the same color, and had a woven leather band with pheasant feathers and Indian beads woven into it. Jessie guessed that he was probably in his late twenties, but his face had a look of weariness that might be more suitable on an older man.

He took off his hat as he came in and nodded to Jessie with a lingering look and a slight smile. Jessie thought he was kinda good looking. He had dark eyes, and his nose was a little crooked like he’d been in more than one fight.

He turned to Rachel and spoke hesitatingly with a husky voice, “Thank you, ma’am, for lettin’ me stay for supper. I’ll try not to be a bother to your family.” He put his hat on the mantle, and stood with his back to the fireplace.

JR barked, “Jessie! Get the man a cup-a-joe.” Then to the stranger, he said, “My wife’s name is Rachel; you’ve met our son Earl, and Rachel’s daughter Jessie will be bringin’ you some coffee. That’s our son Bobby on the floor. I already told you my name’s John Robert, or JR, but I didn’t catch your name.”

The stranger looked around the room then quietly said, “Bill. My name’s… just Bill.” Jessie brought him a hot cup of strong coffee, and he said, “Thank you, miss.”

JR’s attention turned to Earl, who had just come in the door.

“They call me Joe,” she said to the stranger, pretending it was true. “That’s quite a hatband ya got there. Did you make it yourself?”

“Nope. I won it in a card game with a… a former friend,” he said.

She watched his eyes for a reaction when she smiled and said, “Maybe we could play cards later. I could use a hatband like that.”

“I don’t play cards with little girls,” he said.

A bit of fire flashed behind her eyes. “And I don’t play cards with old men. It’s too easy to beat ‘em,” she snapped.

“I’ve never seen shiny six-guns before,” said Earl. “I don’t suppose you’d let me look at one of them, would ya?”

“You’re right. I wouldn’t,” said the stranger, who looked into the boy’s eyes with an unwavering, but not unfriendly, gaze.

Jessie looked around to see if Rachel or JR was watching, then leaned a little closer to the stranger and quietly said, “Well, if you change your mind about playin’ cards, just let me know.” She smiled, turned with a flip of her blonde hair, and went into the kitchen. The stranger and Earl both watched her leave, but Earl shook his head and rolled his eyes.

JR invited the stranger to sit with the family at the supper table, but he declined, and asked that someone just bring him a plate of food by the fireplace. He stood with his back to that stone fireplace all through supper. As the sun was almost completely set behind the western hills, he thanked everyone for their hospitality and said he had to be moving on. He accepted some beef jerky and bread with appreciation, then put on his hat with the fancy hatband, went out to his horse, hung his replenished water bags on his saddle, mounted up and rode off to the west.

“A fellow who rides out into the sun at sunset, don’t want nobody followin’ him,” said JR, “He might be on his way to Canada to avoid the law.” Then he went into the kitchen to get his pipe.

“And a guy who wears six-guns, and won’t turn his back on you, is probably an outlaw with a bounty on his head,” said Earl.

Jessie asked Earl, “Did you cool Sunshine down?”

“Yup,” grunted Earl.

“Well, I’m gonna go out and check on her anyway,” she said as she walked into the kitchen toward the back door through a small hallway with parkas and hats on hooks. Below the coats was a worn wooden bench with a variety of boots and shoes on the floor underneath. She grabbed a coat and her hat, and pushed open the outer door, walking toward the barn.

She saddled her horse, and swung into the saddle. After looking to the west, where the stranger had disappeared, she smiled, and pointed Sunshine to the north, and urged her on. Sunshine walked up and out of their valley, over the top of the ridge.

Later that night, Jessie and Sunshine walked into the barn, where Jessie removed the saddle and was brushing Sunshine in the dim light of a lantern when Earl walked in.

“Did ya find him?” asked Earl.

“That’s none of your business,” Jessie said with a wry smile.

“Well since I think I’ve seen that hatband you’re wearin’ somewhere before, I think you did find him, and apparently he can’t play cards worth a damn,” Earl said.

She smiled, but didn’t turn around. “Actually, we didn’t get around to playin’ cards.”

Other stories about Ptomaine Joe

© 2015 by Michael Kysar
All Rights Reserved.

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