WEST FROM YESTERDAY EXCERPT: PRAXITELES SWAN
His mare didn’t like the dogs. She started to skip sideways, ears back, neck arched, snorting. He drew his pistol. “Dang, I do hope I don’t have to shoot a dog to start off the day. That’ll sure complicate the greetings....”
When he guessed the hounds were in earshot, he stood in his stirrups and yelled, “Howdy, pups. Hello, you old hounds.” The sound of his voice brought them up short. They circled him at a distance, ears back, heads down, tails erect and rigid, legs stiff. Clairborne fetched a piece of jerky, tore it in half, and threw the meat to the dogs. “Nice little bite for you, so we can get along with business, you hounds,” he said.
He slipped his Colt back into his holster and spurred his mare toward the battered shack. Someone was sitting in a rocking chair on what passed for a porch. Clairborne waved his right hand, twisted around in his saddle to note the location of the dogs, turned back, and yelled, “Hello the house.” The man in the rocker waved back, but if he said anything, Clairborne didn’t hear it as he slowed his horse to a walk.
“Good morning, sir. Name’s Tucker Clairborne, riding for the Rocking C. Mr. Caudill sends his regards.”
The man nodded. Clairborne removed his hat and gloves as he stepped up on the porch and extended his right hand.
The wizened gnome said, “Praxiteles Swan. But I expect you already know that.”
Swan seemed ancient. He was small. On the stones beside him, a twisted crutch explained why he didn’t rise to greet his guest. Swan’s bald head gleamed in the morning light, and his rheumy, red-rimmed, gray eyes seemed unfocused. Cataracts. His deerskin shirt was shiny with grease. Some of the holes in his homespun pants were patched. Some weren’t. His tiny foot was hidden in a battered boot, but the big toe, unfettered by any- thing resembling a sock, peeped through a ragged hole. “Help yourself to water. Ain’t got no coffee, but if’n you’re plannin’ on stayin’, I can whip some up.”
Clairborne waved his hand and spoke up when he noticed Swan holding his hand to his ear.
“No, sir. Thanks, but I can’t be staying that long. Just wanted to see how things are going’s all.”
“Well, sonny, you tell Nolan I’m just as fine as frog’s hair and tell him any time he wants to come this way, I’ll wrassle him to the ground. Always was able to best him in a wrassle fight.”
Thinking of Caudill’s solid mass, Clairborne didn’t think so.
Looking over Swan’s shoulder into the dark interior of the one-room cabin, he perceived the faded colors of a Confederate battle flag nailed to the log wall.
“You fought for the cause, sir?” “Yup. You?” “No, sir. My daddy and brother. Both gone. Daddy of typhus
and my brother at Cold Harbor.” “Wasn’t at Cold Harbor but heard of it.” “Where’d you fight, if you don’t mind my asking?” Swan didn’t immediately answer.
He seemed to shift his unfocused gaze to the ill-defined horizon. Clairborne tried to imagine the scenes of hardship and sacrifice, brotherhood and savagery shuffling through the old man’s mind like a deck of cards, Swan examining them one at a time, deciding which he would lay in front of his young visitor while holding the rest close to his narrow chest.
“Well,” he finally said in a voice so low Clairborne had to lean forward to hear it over the wind, “we all went up to Gettysburg, the summer of sixty-three, and some of us came back from there, and that’s all except the details.”
Neither man said anything. Clairborne looked around.
Half blind, one legged, and near deaf. How in blazes did a man live in this hard a country carrying burdens such as those? “You deserve better than this, old man,” he thought.
Stepping up on the porch, he passed Swan and picked up the empty bucket by the door, then walked to the well, filled it, and placed it back by the door. He retrieved a sack of coffee beans, a can of peaches, and slices of jerky from his saddlebag and deposited both on the battered bench beside the door. One of the yellow dogs plopped down at Swan’s feet. The other sat beside the rocking chair and licked its large balls. Swan reached down and worked his gnarled fingers into the hound’s neck fur. Clairborne saw the dog close its eyes and almost smile with pleasure. He noted that the dogs were scarred but well fed and marveled how that was accomplished in so mean a place.
“Well, Mr. Swan, it’s a pleasure meeting you, an honor. Is there anything you need before I go, sir?”
Swan’s smile displayed his three remaining teeth. “A feisty redhead to keep me warm at night.”
Clairborne laughed. “Don’t happen to have one, but I’ll keep my eye out for you. I put some coffee beans and jerky and a can of peaches on your table. It’s good jerky, sir. You can boil it for chewing. I’ll open the peaches if you’d like.” He did so.
“Right Christian of you,” Swan said. “Don’t think I et a peach in a few years now.” Raising the can to his thin lips, Swan sipped the syrup slowly. It transformed him. The flinty, old gnome became a small child, flushed with an almost illicit pleasure.
“Mighty fine,” Swan said as he wiped his mouth with the back of his liver-spotted hand. “Yes sir, mighty fine.”
Clairborne reached over and shook Swan’s hand again.
He swung into his saddle and regarded the living monument to the hard Texas life that was Praxiteles Swan. An urge to say something profound was frustrated by his failure to retrieve the words he sought. He thought of “Parting is such sweet sorrow” but knew quoting Shakespeare would be lost and probably counterproductive with this old man who was more stone than tissue.
“Good-bye, Mr. Swan,” he said.
“Adios, young man,” Swan replied, holding up the can of peaches. “Come on back, and I’ll wrassle you someday.”
Riding away from the hardscrabble home of Praxiteles Swan, Clairborne once again wondered how this man who had ridden with John Bell Hood survived on his own. Nearly blind, nearly deaf, and nearly crippled. Hell of a combination. He pulled up at the lip of the canyon leading back to the herd and turned in his saddle to study the distant homestead. He decided Swan was about as good an example of an independent man as he had ever known—or even heard of—and most importantly, he decided that Swan didn’t need any undue concern or, Lord forbid, outright pity from anyone. He doubted Swan was even sad about his situation. In fact, he thought, Swan was probably as at peace with his lot in life as anyone he was likely to meet.