The Education of Dovey Coles
By Leo W. Banks
The rider pulled up to the corral and stepped down from his mount. He moved slowly, as if exhausted, his clothes throwing off puffs of dust from the long ride. Dovey Coles had seen and heard nothing of the mysterious rider’s approach, and finally aware, the boy dropped his milk bucket and squinted into the sun.
Company was a rare thing on eastern Arizona’s Eagle Creek. Most visitors swooped out of the sky to peck at a carcass, or they had four legs. This one was lean, not too tall, and wore a red bandana over his face. As he walked toward Dovey, he pulled it down, revealing a narrow hawk’s glare, intense and full of purpose.
With that look and the clink of his spurs, Dovey stepped back, afraid. This was no ordinary cowboy. Nearing the house, carrying a knapsack and a two-rig holster, the rider acted as if he were the only man in the world. He certainly didn't let on that he noticed Dovey. He set his eyes to meet the boy's for the first time.
"Your folks, I want to see to them."
Dovey's heart beat so fast he couldn't speak.
"This your place?" the man asked.
Dovey stood stiffly in his canvas pants and suspenders. He was barefoot, had jug ears and a pudgy face. The brim of his hat curled up. He stared up at the rider’s face. The line of his jaw firm below eyes that were green and cold as stones. His cheeks were sunken and his color weak. Dovey sensed resignation in his manner.
"How old are you, son?"
"F-f-fifteen, sir," said Dovey. Then quickly: "Well, next summer."
"That oughta be enough years to get the hang of talkin’."
From behind Dovey came a voice. "I reckon he talks just fine," said Diamond Coles, Dovey's mom. She had auburn hair going to gray and lace-up boots.
"You gotta name, mister?"
Diamond stepped closer and stopped. Her eyes went wide with recognition and locked on the visitor's, and the two of them stayed that way a while.
By now, Tom Green, Dovey's stepdad, had come out. He walked with a limp from a horse throwing him years ago. "What all can we do for you?"
"Before I came here," Jace spoke steadily, "you had no business with me and no reason to want any. If you're against what I'm proposing, say so and I'll move on. You got no cause to care what happens to me, or any other dying man that rides up to your place uninvited."
Jace really was dying. But he had no kin to see him into the ground. His proposal was for Tom and Diamond to let him ride fence and do other chores for as long as he could, and in return, they'd bury him the way a man deserved. He guessed he had six months. In the meantime, he'd sleep wherever there was a roof and space to spread his bedroll.
"By the look of things," Jace said, "you could use another pair of hands 'round here."
"You're not much for flattery, are you?" Diamond said.
"What'll it be, ma'am? If the answer's no, I'd prefer to ride before dark."
Tom and Diamond wanted to talk it over.
"There's one more thing,” Jace said. “I've killed men in my time. Done so with these here pistols. It's only proper you know."
Tom and Diamond went off to speak privately and Dovey listened. Tom was eager to send the stranger off, and fast, but Diamond said, "How can we turn away a dying man?" Tom was surprised at her resistance. He argued heartily to no effect.
Poor Dovey Coles stayed scared every day the next three months as he worked the ranch with Jace. If the two of them said more than three words in succession, they might as well have been gabbing.
But Dovey didn't need talk to keep his interest. He was fascinated by the way Jace handled a rope, and how he rode wayward cows clear of the brush, and his long, thin fingers and how he could lay them on his horse’s face to calm the animal.
Sometimes Dovey walked behind Jace, mimicking his movements, and at night he'd let his imagination run, supplying the missing details about the men Jace had killed.
Dovey was raised on cow town stories, like the one Diamond told about his dad, Ed Coles. He was a deputy marshal in Wichita during the Texas cattle drives and got shot busting up a holdup. What Diamond said was that he died doing good.
As he got older, Dovey wanted to know more about his dad. But Diamond made it plain she had no more to tell, and it sat on Dovey's mind that something was wrong.
He didn't know what until one night, falling asleep, he recollected the look Jace and his mother had shared that first day. There was something behind it, something deep. And right there lying in bed, it hit him that they knew each other.
Yes, they'd met before, Dovey thought. Could it have been in Wichita?
He bolted up in bed, his head swimming. Jace was his real father.
Now, even young Dovey Coles knew that this would’ve been a most unlikely happenstance. And at 14, he was already aware of the power of desire, and it was his fondest one to have a father of his own blood who did all the things Jace could do, the way he did them.
Dovey knew all that. But he couldn't shake that look out of his head, and he heard how Diamond had argued with Tom to let Jace stay.
That night Dovey sneaked out to the barn where Jace slept, snatched his knapsack and returned to his room to rifle through it. He found a stack of letters of recent date, a pistol sized for a hip pocket, a woman's necklace and lock of hair, and a small leather case.
When he gripped the case, a newspaper clipping fell out.
Dovey's stomach flipped when he unfolded the yellow paper and saw the words Wichita Eagle Press, August 12th, 1872, the very year Ed Coles had died.
The story was about three men getting killed in some saloon trouble. Dovey's hand shook uncontrollably as he searched for his father’s name, seeing nothing until the closing line caught in his throat: "Our brave Marshall Davis rode out last night searching for his deputy’s killer, a drifter and hard case known only as Jace."
Dovey's admiration for Jace disappeared in a blink. Now he was filled with a burning hatred for the man who’d killed his father.
Over the next two months, Jace weakened considerably. He could no longer ride or even venture from the barn. Dovey felt a tremendous weight. He had to confront Jace about what he knew, yet he was frightened, as frightened as he'd ever been. And of what, a man going to bones on a tattered bedroll?
Summoning every bit of courage he could, Dovey got up one morning, marched into the barn, stared into Jace's ghostly face and blurted out the question.
"Did you kill my father in Wichita?"
"You shoulda kep' outta my things, boy."
"You knew I looked? But you didn’t say nothing.”
Dovey stood his ground. "Well, did you kill him?"
"How come you're carrying that paper around?"
Jace shut his eyes. He was as near a corpse as could be and still draw breath. "On account of I don't wanna forget what I done. But your father, he wasn't one of the men that died that day."
"Then who killed him?"
"I said more than's needed. Ask Diamond."
Dovey felt ashamed that he'd doubted Jace, but he felt brave, too. Now he had to know. He ran to the house and burst in the door. Diamond and Tom looked up from breakfast, startled, not so much by the suddenness of Dovey's entrance, as the look of him. He seemed taller, more confident, more a man than he'd been even the night before.
He told Tom and Diamond what he'd done, and what Jace had said. "I'm here for the truth. All of it."
"No need to rush in here like a tomcat on fire," Tom said. "You know the truth."
"No, he doesn't," said Diamond, sighing under her burden. "But time's come. Sit down, Dovey."
When Diamond was ready, she looked straight at her boy.
"Jace is Jace Thomas," she said. "He was the one that brung you to my place of business in Wichita. You was barely an infant, no more 'n' a week from your mama's belly."
The room was heavy with the silence that followed.
"Jace wanted you raised up good,” Diamond said. “Your mom died on her birth bed and your dad didn't want you. Jace knew them somehow and I don’t rightly know how. As for who your daddy was, I told Jace, 'Don't tell me. Far as I was concerned, he had no name worth knowing if he didn't want you."
"What businesses was you in?" Tom asked. "You told me you were schoolteacher in Wichita."
"I ran Diamond's Place on Front Street. Our ladies saw to the … needs of cowboys." Diamond looked at Dovey. "We nicknamed you Dovey and it stuck."
Tom looked like he'd swallowed a fence post. And Dovey, well, he looked like he was trying to choke down the barbed wire.
"You mean a house of soiled doves?" Tom asked.
"You ain't my real mom?" Dovey chimed.
"I got no idea who your mom was,” Diamond said. “And until a few days ago, I didn't know who your daddy was. I told you about Ed Coles because I thought you needed a story. Every boy needs a story about the man he came from, and it has to have something good in it. You didn't have a story, so I gave you one."
Tom flattened his hands on the table and said, "Jace came here on account of you?"
"He said he wanted to die with someone he knew," Diamond said.
"You talked to Jace, too?" Dovey asked.
"Few days ago. After all these years, I wanted to know who your daddy was. So I asked.”
“He was a no-account named Harvey Benson, out of Little Rock. They called him shotgun."
Tom bolted upright in his chair. "Lord have mercy. I used to ride with Shotgun Harvey Benson. He come down to border country after getting run out of Wichita."
Diamond eyed him across the table. "You rode with him in jackpot rodeos, right, Tom?"
"Not exactly. See, Harvey and me, we were in an outfit that worked the roads in and out of Mexico."
"You were a common thief?"
"Common? Heck, no. We was top drawer at thievin’."
She stared at Tom, eyes hard.
"Aw, Lil, this was years ago."
"I bet it wasn't a horse that hurt your leg neither?"
"Got shot." Tom shrugged. "Moved to Blue River country and met a nice woman from Wichita. Used to teach school."
Diamond shifted uncomfortably in her chair. "What happened to Benson?"
"Yeah, what happened to my dad?" Dovey asked.
"Jace said he died few years back,” Diamond said. “Turned himself around and became a bigshot judge in New Mexico. I woulda told ya, Dovey. But I didn't know until the other day."
“Gee,” said Dovey, “looks like I'm the only one 'round here without secrets."
On that day, Dovey Coles got his education. It wasn't the schooling he would've picked, any more than he would've chosen to have a gunman like Jace Thomas ride into his life. But he came anyway and brought the truth with him, and it would have to do.
Jace died the following night. Tom and Dovey dug a good deep hole for him, and Diamond spoke over him like he wanted. Afterward, Diamond told Dovey she was heartbroken that he didn’t have a story of his beginnings that was decent, and could nourish him through his coming days.
But Dovey, now possessing all the answers he needed, said that was okay with him, because he was fixing to make his own story, starting then and there. Diamond and Tom knew they had to do the same.
Copyright © 2017 Leo W. Banks