Monday, January 5, 2009

Old Matt

Old Matt? Why I s'pose any of us kids could tell you who HE was. We sure liked him a lot. Some people said he wasn't nothin' but an old tramp, but us kids knew better. He was our friend.

Old Matt lived all by himself in a dark little room over a ramshackle movie theater on the south side o' town. Ever' Saturday he'd limp up and down main street sellin' pencils and givin' nickles to the kids to buy popcorn and candy. There was always a bunch of us taggin' along askin' questions and gettin' in everybody's way.

His body was all twisted and he leaned pretty heavy on his old cane, hobblin' along advertisin' "bright new pencils" in a shaky sorta voice. He didn't have much hair, and he always wore a beat up old Stetson he musta had ever since he used to ride in the big rodeos. His nose had been busted and had a crook in it, and he couldn't see very good. We used to ask 'im why didn't he wear specs and he'd say he didn't like 'em, but I guess he just didn't have any money to get 'em with. His hands shook so that when anybody bought a handful of pencils, they had to pick 'em out of the box and put the money tight in his hand.

Old Matt's clothes was always old and patched up and wrinkled, mostly hand-me-downs. He never had no money to buy clothes. What he didn't give to us kids he spent for a Saturday night bottle of whiskey. He said it was good for his rheumatism.

He lived for Saturday afternoon when the farm kids come to town, most of us just as patched and ragged as he was. We'd always stop by Red 'n' White for a popsicle, and we'd buy some gum drops or licorice sticks and then hunt up Old Matt. Me and Sandy, my little brother, would bring 'im a plug of Dad's chewin' t'baccer if we could get away with it.

Old Matt always 'lowed that town kids was too smart-alecky and ignor'nt to talk to, but us farm fellers knew what was what. He'd ask about the stock, and the crops, and the new colt, and 'fore long somebody'd get around to askin' about the time he rode Lucky Devil at Cheyenne.

He never got tired of tellin' about the crowds and the big arena, and we could almost smell the sweaty horses and dust and fresh-oiled saddle leather. He'd tell us how that big red horse killed his best pal and how he drew the same horse the next night in the finals. He'd always stop there, and tap his cane on the sidewalk, so quietlike you'd think he'd forgot we was there. Finally he'd push that old Stetson back from his face, and say, "Well boys, I scratched that hoss, til they was blood runnin' off his hocks, an' I was thinkin' how he throwed Jim and busted his neck the night before. I rid 'im to a standstill, and slid off and left 'im standin' there blowin', but I didn't get ten steps t'wards th' fence 'fore I heard him scream, an' he landed on me, hoofs a-flyin' Ain't many hosses natcheral born killers," he'd always say then, "but that there'n was."

Sandy had heard the story almost as much as me, but he always got excited easy, and when Old Matt didn't go on he'd say, "An' what happen'd then, Matt?" just like he didn't know. Sandy was Old Matt's favorite. He'd shake his head sorta sad-like, and say, "Son, I never woke up good for a month, an I stayed three more 'fore they'd let me outa bed. That hoss did me up good. Ain't been able to walk right since, and that was nigh on fifty years ago."

He'd pause again and then finish up with the same words he always did, "Don't none o' you young sprouts git th' idee of follerin' the rodeo. Tain't wuth it to end up walkin' crooked and sellin' pencils fer a livin'." And he'd pull himself up from the bench and hobble off without so much as a "s'long", leaving us kids plumb decided to be bronc riders soon as we got old enough.

Old Matt was our hero for several years. We wouldn't a-missed seein' 'im on Saturday for anything. He could make us see what the real old West was like, and he made Roy Rogers sound like a sissy. We never got tired of hearin' his stores about rodeo life and the horses he'd rode, the big towns he'd seen, and the prize money he'd spent.

Then one Saturday we come to town and somebody told us Old Matt was dead. We wouldn't believe 'em at first, and we looked all over town before we gave up.

There was about six of us settin' there in front of Red 'n' White, sorta pitchin' some rocks back 'n' forth in a game Matt had showed us, talkin' about how we was gonna run off and join a rodeo gang, when Mr. Olson come out o' the store behind us, with somethin' wrapped up in his apron.

"One of you boys named Sandy?" he asked.

My brother got up and nodded his head "yes". We sat there wonderin' what was up. Mr. Olson handed a paper sack to Sandy and said Old Matt left it at the store for 'im a few days b'fore he died. We all crowded around to see, and Sandy pulled out a big pair of real silver spurs, all polished and shiny, with big red sets on the straps. We all reconized 'em as the ones Matt told us about winnin' in Chicago first time he rode.

That was 'bout a year ago, I guess. Sometimes me and Sandy get out the spurs and polish 'em all up and talk about Old Matt and when we'll get to be rodeo cowboys, but we don't look forward to Saturday anymore like we used to.

This story appeared in the Winter 1951 Baylorian. Mother had taken over the editorship of the magazine by that time.


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