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The Best Hand In The County

An excerpt from the novel The Watershed Years

Exactly one week after my wedding, I waded out into the early morning dew, shading my eyes from a semicircle of sun. A voice from behind and to my right startled me.

“Excuse me.”

I turned to find a man no taller than a pony. “Mornin’,” he said.

“How you doin’?”

“Good. Good. Name’s MacArthur.” He offered his hand, which was as hard as a stone. I told him my name, and although we shook for only a second, I could feel his strength all the way up my arm. His body looked like a series of fists, muscles bunched and piled up on top of each other, testing every seam in his sky blue western shirt. Even his head sat on his shoulders like the largest, most imposing fist of them all. His hair was a red stubble, and he peered up at me through the cloudy lenses of wire-rimmed spectacles that magnified his blue eyes.

“I guess you’re looking for work?”

“That’s right.” His smile was mischievous. I also noticed, behind the murky lenses, that the whites of his eyes were clear, like egg shells. He was a bit older than most of the men who showed up at our door, but probably still in his twenties.

There were several other things that were unusual about this introduction. First, a man who was looking for work in our parts rarely showed up at 5:00 in the morning. And second, if he did show up at 5:00 in the morning, there was a good chance he was either still drunk, or very hung over. And third, Mr. MacArthur had even shaved. He didn’t have a hint of red whisker on his chin.

“Where you comin’ from?” I asked.

“Well, I’ve been working for a man near Belle…Tabor.” He had been twisting a gray felt cowboy hat in his tight fists, and he now tugged it onto his head.

“And?”

“Well, I’ve been working there for several years, and that situation has just run its course, you might say.”

My respect for this little man increased tenfold with this statement. I knew Garland Tabor from REA meetings, and he was one of the more difficult men I’d ever met.

“Walk with me,” I said. “I need to get my milking done.”

“You can’t get your wife to do the milking for you?”

I chuckled. “Funny you should ask. I just got married a week ago, and I offered to milk the cow for the first month we’re married. A little wedding gift, you might say.”

“And you don’t regret that offer?”

“Every morning at five.”

“Well, congratulations,” he said.

“Thank you. What’s your first name, MacArthur?”

“Oscar.”

“Really?”

“Yep. My German mother.”

“Ah. Okay. Scottish dad?”

“As tight as they come,” he said.

“Well, you’ll fit right in here. I’m Scottish myself,” I said.

“I thought Arbuckle might be one and the same,” he said in a perfect Scottish brogue.

For the rest of the walk to the barn, and the time it took to milk the cow, I asked Oscar MacArthur the standard questions I’d ask any new man. But it was a formality, as I knew from that first handshake that this man had a job.

Although most of the ranches had become more efficient since the war, with improved machinery and better irrigation, they had also gotten bigger, with so many people leaving in the thirties. Those of us who stayed acquired land in chunks. So there was often a lot of work. The bigger ranches needed haying crews, harvest crews, and shearing crews. There were men who organized these crews, moving from place to place, earning most of their money during those seasons. There were also the sheepherders, but this was a solitary life, more suited for older, often eccentric men, who were more comfortable being alone for weeks at a time.

If a young man was a good, steady worker, the best he could do for himself was to hire on as a hand, and work year-round for one of the bigger ranches. So ever since the war ended, young men had been appearing at our door, sporting a three-day stubble, and carrying a satchel filled with work clothes. Many of these men were fractured somehow, if not by the war, then by a lost love, or the loss of their own family place. They were generally hard on the outside but tender souls, unable to shake off a harsh word.

The pattern was often predictable. After working like their lives were at stake for the first few weeks, something would rub them the wrong way, and their productivity would drop in small but steady increments. It was usually just a matter of time before they disappeared late one night for three or four days, and come back with the obvious battle scars of a bender. We asked them to leave after these episodes. There were other places that were more forgiving, but there were enough good workers out there that we didn’t need to tolerate the unreliable.

And of course, there were also a fair number of shady characters, who showed up with remarkably bad haircuts, and shaky references. We usually turned away the boys who were obviously just out of jail. But occasionally, a hand would take a few ‘gifts’ when they disappeared—maybe a rifle, or a saddle.

We fell victim to thieves only a couple of times, and there was a simple but mysterious explanation for that. Despite spending less time around people than just about anyone I’d ever known, my father possessed an amazing knack for spotting a man with ‘a nose for merchandise,’ as he liked to say. Countless times, I watched my father talk to a man who said all the right things, bore calluses in all the right places, and had all the right gear. Dad would never look a man in the eye when he questioned him, but he drew a conclusion, and on those occasions when he told someone, “Well, you seem like a good hand, but we don’t really need anyone right now,” I’d learned to keep my mouth shut and trust him. Sure enough, there had been at least five instances where word came back that these men were thieves. One even stole a horse.

I asked Dad about it once. “All you gotta do is listen to their voice. If they got something to hide, they’ll sound like they got something to hide.”

I tried to figure out what he meant by this, but I could never hear it. I apparently didn’t inherit that particular ear.

“What about you, Oscar? No family?”

“I had a wife,” he said without hesitation. “Didn’t make it through the Depression.”

“Sorry to hear that.”

“Took her own life,” he offered, an unusual confession to someone he barely knew, I thought. I didn’t know what to say.

“It was a horrible thing to do,” he continued. “Tore up everyone who ever loved the poor girl.”

Again, I was speechless. But I managed a nod.

“Not that I begrudge her,” Oscar said. “I really can’t blame her. From the time I met Sadie, there was something dark and powerful working away at her. Something a hell of a lot more powerful than her—or me. There wasn’t anything anybody could do to make that poor girl see the good in the world.”

“That’s tragic,” I muttered.

“It is.” Oscar stopped. “It is tragic. Because the world is a beautiful damn place.”

“Yes it is.” I was embarrassed by this sentiment, and couldn’t look at Oscar.

“I got a proposition for you,” Oscar said.

“Let’s hear it.”

“How ’bout I milk that cow for you and we won’t tell the missus.” MacArthur jerked a gnarled thumb toward the barn.

If I hadn’t already been taken in by this man, his method of asking for a job certainly would have done the trick. “Well now, Mr. Oscar MacArthur, I just might be interested in that proposition, but how much is that little deal gonna cost me?”

“How about six dollars a day?”

“How about four dollars a day?”

“How about six dollars a day?”

I laughed. “What the hell kind of negotiation is that?”

“Oh, are we negotiating?” He smiled, and his blue eyes twinkled behind those thick lenses.

“You got a horse?”

“Oh, do I have a horse.” Oscar pointed toward the house, but the horse wasn’t in view. “Patsy is more than just a horse. She’s a legend.”

I smiled. “Okay. Six it is.”

We shook, and I swear to god, my hand hurt for the next four hours.

Oscar went off to take Patsy to the barn and get her fed and watered. When I came back to the house and sat down at the table, Rita took one look at me and asked, “What are you smiling about?”

“Was I smiling?”

She set a plate of eggs, bacon and fried potatoes in front of me. “Like a circus clown.”

“I think I just hired the best hand in the county.”

Russell Rowland's first novel, In Open Spaces (HarperCollins, 2002) was named one of the 2002 Best of the West by the Salt ake City Tribune .
Publisher's Weekly called it an 'outstanding debut' and gave it a starred review.  He currently teaches online with Gotham Writer's Workshops and  was a recent MacDowell fellow.

The Best Hand In The County is an excerpt from the novel The Watershed Years, the sequel to In Open Spaces. The Watershed Years is represented by Simon Lipskar, with the literary agency Writer's House.

An interview with Rowland and his short story One Small Step also are available on VerbSap.

Top photo "Little House On The Prairie," a Montana landscape, courtesy of Shawn Himmelberger.
Bottom photo "handshake" courtesy of Laura Kennedy.



 


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