All Heaven’s Lights
Pete Miller woke up exasperated—he’d almost caught it but like a thief, the scent had escaped with his dream.. The old cowboy rubbed sleep from his rheumy eyes, wondering why on earth he couldn’t recollect the scent of his wife after she’d had her bath, donned her nightgown, and came to sit in his lap before bedtime? Pete smiled. He did remember that Claudia hadn”t been around to sit in his lap since 1950. Still, he thought he should be able to remember her scent forever. “Swear to Agnes,” he declared. “I can’t call it.”
He rolled out of bed and poured a generous tot of Jack Daniel’s into a Mason jar. “Thank you, Jesus, for another day,” he said, “and thank you, Jack, for the courage to face it.” He turned on the radio just in time to catch the Texas Playboys hammering out, “A Maiden’s Prayer.”
Pete whooped. The old dance hall classic put him in mind of his little running buddy, Chris Kinsey, with whom he shared a passion for Western Swing music. According to a member of the Texas Playboys, Chris was the “best twelve-year-old fiddle player in the world.” Her life’s ambition was to become a member of Ray Benson’s legendary Western Swing band, Asleep At The Wheel.
As Pete sipped at his toddy, he expected Chris was on her way out here with her daddy, to help work the steers coming in from San Angelo. Clay was Pete’s employer, owner of Kinsey Land and Livestock and Kinsey Drilling Companies. Too bad he thought of himself as the Donald Trump of West Texas. Last time he’d seen Chris, she’d said her parents “were a divorce looking for a place to happen.”
The best part of Pete’s day would take place after the cow working, when he and Chris would make a welty -a little circle– on horseback, drifting the freshly worked cattle out on native grass pasture. This would allow Clay some quality time with his beloved cellphone.
Pete had just lit his first Lucky Strike when something exploded between his ears, knocking him flat on his butt. Lying on the floor with his teeth clenched, he wished he’d gone to the doctor six months ago, when the headaches first started. Now, thanks to a hard head and a dumb ass, he’d bet he’d be dead by Christmas. “Oh Claudy,” Pete moaned. “If it ain’t one thing it’s another’n.”
Clay Kinsey removed his hat and shirt and hung them from the brake handle of a windmill. The windmill supplied the trough in which he was about to take “a little whore’s bath,” as old man Pete would call it. Clay had been up for three days and nights buying cattle, and all he’d eaten during those72 hours was a couple packages of Cheese Crisp and a twelve-pack of Dr. Pepper. He’d dozed off behind the wheel of his pickup and driven through the little burg of Robert Lee, Texas, sound asleep. If not for a blast from the airhorn of the cattle truck with which he was about to collide head-on, Clay knew he’d be dead right now. His brush with death had frightened him but a man that’s out to conquer the world can’t sweat the small stuff. He’d just have to shake it off and learn to play hurt, like they do in the big leagues, where his hero, Mr. Donald Trump, was known to play.
His soul was soothed by the rhythmic clank of the sucker-rod stroking up and down in the windmill’s standpipe and the muffled sounds of a crew of roughnecks tripping pipe on a nearby drilling rig, along with the ripe stench emanating from the cattle-working pens in which he’d encamped. These were the things that made him tick. It all sounded and smelled like money to Clay Kinsey.
He took a big dip of Copenhagen and started to phone the drillers on his seventeen rigs to find out if Kinsey Drilling was making hole and thus money, when he thought better of it and called his wife Mary Ann instead. He got the answering machine. “Hello, asshole. Chris and I are some gone Indians. I’ve landed a teaching job in Borden County and a house came with the job, so we’re all set. Till school starts, well be out in Ruidoso, bettin’ the ponies. We don’t want your precious-ass money or your stayin’-gone-all-the-time ass, either. We’re sick of it! BYE!”
Clay chucked his cellphone into the pasture. A few seconds later he was in the midst of a crying jag. “Oh Lord,” he said to the moon, “If it ain’t one thing it’s another’n.”
Twenty-four-hours later Pete and Clay were sprawled in lawn chairs beneath the huge cottonwood tree in Pete’s backyard which was pleasantly perfumed with wet Bermuda grass, burning mesquite wood, and barbecued beefsteak. Pete was bitterly disappointed that Chris hadn’t shown up, while Clay was wishing he still lived down here on the old home place, instead of hanging his hat in the million dollar monument to stupidity he’d built out by the country club in Post. They were drinking cold beer.
“How come them girls in Ruidoso?” Pete asked. “Thought they just got back from there.”
“Must a liked it,” Clay replied. “Cause they gone again.”
“Your family’s drug up and left you, ain’t they?”
Clay stood up and looked at the sky.
“Sorry, Boss.” Pete went on. “None of my business if they have.”
“Don’t call me Boss. You called it right,” Clay admitted. “Be my luck for Mary Ann to run off with some sawed-off fart of a jockey.”
“I sorta doubt that,” Pete said. “Though it would serve your fool ass right if she did.”
Clay burped and said, “ Then Chris’ll wind up in some out-of-the-way place like Rooster Poot, Indiana, strung out on dope.”
“Better not,” Pete answered with a burp of is own, “or I’ll whip her daddy’s butt.”
“These ole bright stars,” Clay said , “is somethin’ else, ain’t they?”
Pete yawned and stretched. “One a these days, Clay-boy, we’ll make us a little welty out among them bright and shiny boogers. Sort a lookin’ forward to it, myself…” how ’bout you?”
Clay had never known how to respond to spiritual queries of any sort. So he ignored the question and said, “how ’bout another beer?” instead.
Three weeks later:
As he crossed the Double Mountain Fork of the Brazos River, Pete thought about God, Whom he believed to have ordered into being a set of immutable laws which governed the universe and by which he’d been granted certain opportunities of love. Free will coming into play by choosing what and whom we love and pledging our heart’s allegiance thereunto. It had been Pete Miller’s great fortune to have loved and lived the cowboy way of life for eighty-three-years, and to have loved Claudia in his youth and Chris in his old age. In the arena of life, Pete was a winner, and he would not tarnish his victory by rotting to death in an old folk’s home.
He headed his pony up the trail leading to the Caprock, praying as he rode that God would forgive his vanity. At the top, Pete reined his horse to a halt in a shallow draw through which Indians had driven buffalo over the cliffs onto the rocks below. The old cowboy dismounted and turned his horse loose. “Go home,” he said and watched until the horse had trotted out of sight.
Pete walked out to the edge of the cliffs overlooking the river, and upon the gentle breeze he caught a fragrance of jasmine and lavender and flannel, the scent of Claudia in her nightclothes.
Later that morning, Clay sat at Pete’s card table reading:
“Clay. You will find me at the foot of the Caprock across the river from the house. My doctor told me what I knew already and this beats going out hard and slow. When Claudia passed away she left me money her folks left her. Now I am passing that money on to Chris. The funeral home has been paid already to bury me next to my folks in Double Mountain Cemetery. I would like for Chris to fiddle the “Maiden’s Prayer” and for you to read from James the first chapter verse 17. Short and simple. Clay. I am leaving you something too. There is a mile of fence between your outfit and the Koonsman outfit that wants rebuilding. Build it and don’t use no outside help. Think of it as a gift. I would give my left nut to build it but I am too sick. See to your family Clay for where your heart is there also is your treasure. So long. Pete.”
Clay picked up the Bible that lay beside the note and discovered what James, the half-brother of Jesus, had written some two thousand years ago: “Whatever is good and perfect comes from God above, who created all heaven’s lights. Unlike them, he never changes or casts shifting shadows. In his goodness he chose to make us his own children by giving us his true word. And we, out of all creation, became his choice possession.”
Four months later.
Clay stopped his pickup on a low mountain overlooking a stretch of fence he was rebuilding. During the course of his fencing project, Clay and his family had been the recipients of blessing after blessing; the first of which was getting back together, then coming to a mutual decision to sell Kinsey Drilling.
They were living here on the Homeplace now and doing pretty good. Mary Ann had kept her teaching job, while Chris had recently performed to rave reviews with Ray Benson’s band at the Golden Light Cantina in Amarillo. In the meantime, Clay had built fence and grown a handlebar mustache that, in his not-so-humble opinion, was sexy as hell. Clay had also made a habit of going to work an hour before daybreak, and as he sat in his pickup sipping coffee, a portion of a faraway star fell from the sky, burning fiercely across the indigo canvas of the earth’s atmosphere. “There goes Pete,” Clay said, “a makin’ his circle.”
The new day dawned and Clay slung a set of posthole diggers across his shoulders and draped his wrists across the handles at one end of the tool and the diggers at the other end of the same, creating the illusion, unbeknownst to himself, of a man bearing his own cross. With an easy mind and a light-footed gait, Clay Kinsey went to receive Pete Miller’s gift of work; thus continuing a circle of his own.