“Don’t know how I done it,” the Coosie said out loud to no one in particular. He shook his head and let out a long sigh.
“Its okay Slim,” one of the young buckaroos commented. They had all heard it before and they didn’t want to hear it again. They all sat around the campfire or near the chuck wagon eating the beans and warm biscuits that the Coosie had served.
“I know it’s only been a couple of days since we ain’t seen Old Joe,” said the Coosie. “But it sure seems longer,” he added. He poked a long branch into the fire, stirring up the orange ambers. The fires light danced yellow and red in his nearly white beard.
He was the oldest man there. That was no doubt. And he proved it. He could remember things about the lay of the land that some of the young ones never knew. He could read nearly three hundred different brands without pause and he could make a mean son-of a-gun-stew. He had been the outfits’ cook for the last eighteen years.
Now old age seemed to be creeping up on him. And he didn’t like it one little bit. His memory seemed to be failing him and the hands knew it. Worse yet, so did the jigger-boss. The Coosie had been seeing it in Reds’ eyes for the last couple of days.
The Coosie rose up off his haunches and grabbed a few more pieces of wood and tossed them on top of the fire. The flames danced back to greater life. The Coosie sighed again.
He turned and looked south. “Where in the devil is that Houlihan?” he asked. He’d sent Smitty back by hoss the moment he realized that Old Joe was missing. The way the Coosie figured it, the button should have been back by now.
The night wranglers could be heard catching up their mounts and saddling them. They had a two-hour watch ahead. The Coosie was certain that they missed Old Joe’s company by now. He breathed another sigh and shook his head. He felt full of grief over the loss of Old Joe.
There was work still needing to be done, so the Coosie set about doing it. He moved the wagon-tongue around till it pointed to the North Star. Then he set about washing up the tin ware in the bucket. He hoped as he worked that the young Houlihan would be back before the camp pulled freight. Everyone was miserable without Old Joe.
The Coosie could imagine the aroma of Old Joe as he poured the piping hot liquid into a cup. “Want another cup of Joe?” a voice asked inside his head.
The room was silent as the old man finished up his story. Then came a little voice, “Is that true?” one of the nine grandchildren asked Grandpa Smith.
He pulled a couple of times on his pipe and then answered, “Yep.” He blew out a thick cloud of blue smoke and then added, “I know it to be true as I was the young Houlihan that rode all day and night to fetch the missing bag of coffee beans.”
“Okay,” a woman’s voice came. “It’s time for bed.”
“Ahhh,” responded all nine grandchildren in disappointment.