Ruby had always planned to tell JJ the truth about his father, and the truth about herself, but as the years went by it was easier to let him think he knew the truth. Besides, she’d never actually lied to him, although the lie was there, every time she said his name. Son of a Gun is the story of Jack Smith, a Texas cowboy, and Ruby, the beautiful farm girl who gave up her innocence to raise their son. And Leo, the man who discovered the truth about all of them.
“Once the baby comes, they’ll have a bit more tolerance,” Turk told her. “I’ve seen it happen. Right now you’re a fallen woman in their eyes, but afterwards you’ll be a novice in need of advice. Those old women will fall all over you in a matronly welcome, full of critique and opinions.”
“After the way they’ve cat-called and gossiped? They’re all hypocrites and frauds. I need to start over, make a life for us, find some man who’s as kindhearted as you to step in as this baby’s daddy.” Her blue eyes twinkled. “But I want him younger and with more hair.” Ruby untied her apron and flicked it at Turk, dusting his newly swept floor with a billow of flour.
“You find someone better’n me—someone who’s made a good name for hisself,” he told her.
“So, what’s your real name, Turk?” Ruby said.
“Ain’t you ever heard of courtesy, girl?” Turk asked, surprised.
“Laws, I was raised on courtesy! When I was a girl and a stranger showed up at our ranch, Ma always offered food. And my daddy gave him tobacco. In fact, he tacked a note to the door when we was gone that said, ‘Help yourself to grub—please feed the chickens.”
Turk smiled. “What if they was on the dodge from the law?”
“Most of ‘em probably was, but my folks allowed them their privacy. After one cowboy had finished his dinner I asked him what his name was. ‘Jones is the name,’ he said. As soon as he rode off, Ma laid into me for being so ill-mannered as to ask any man his name.”
“So why you askin’ me, if you know it’s an impoliteness?”
“Because you’re not a stranger—you’re a friend.”
The old man looked at Ruby fondly. “It’s ‘cause you’re a friend that I’ll keep it to ‘Turk.’ Don’t want you influenced by my past.”
“You think I’d judge? After all the mud I’m draggin’ through? Come on, how’d you turn into a cook? Just tell me that.” She got out a cigar and handed it to him. “Let’s set outside a bit,” she said, knowing he couldn’t resist a smoke and an audience at the same time.
“Seein’ as how you’re producing the grandchild I’ll never have, I’ll trust you with my history.” He carried the stool outside for Ruby, and sprawled himself on a deteriorating rocker that squawked when he sat. “From the time I was fifteen I was cow punching. Came up from the south and joined an outfit. But you can only be a cowboy for so long before your bones betray you,” Turk rubbed his back unconsciously.
“Something breaks or the arthritis sets in, and you can’t handle those thickheaded, panic-prone beeves any more.” He rocked back and puffed the cigar. “Then a man finds another career. Like cookin’ ‘em.”
Turk had been a top hand until his knees stopped bending backwards with every dip of the horse. He took over in the chuck wagon, where he was respected as a know-it-all and a considerable talker. He held that it did a man no good to be more brilliant than others unless he let them know about it, more or less endlessly.
“I ran foul of a bad man in some Abilene gambling house back when I was punchin.’ And the bad man, who had a record of having killed someone somewhere, attempted to take some sort of liberty with one of my bets. When I politely requested the bad man keep his hands off, the bad man became very angry and made some rude remarks. I walked out.”
“Don’t you take it all!” Ruby said. “Is this a lesson on forgiveness?”
“You ain’t heard the rest of the story. This same man hooked up with our outfit a couple a years later, and I recognized him right off. He didn’t take no account of me, being bearded now, and a mere cook. He was a bit of a braggart, telling the boys how dangerous and feared he was.”
Turk chewed on the wet stump of his cigar, remembering.
“Did any of the other cowboys know about Abilene?” Ruby asked.
“Yeh, they did. But cowboys are a private lot. They don’t share news that’s not theirs to share.
“Well, the bad man went on irritating the hands, and one night, a couple of weeks into the ride, he beat up on a boy who helped me with the chuck wagon. This particular boy was a mite slow, didn’t catch on quick, and was a bit too friendly in a child-like way. He smiled too much, eager to please. The cowboys liked him and put up with his gregarious manner. But he got in the rascal’s hair and he beat the kid— boy lost an eye.
“There was talk of stringing this devil up, or shooting him on the spot—he was a bad man, a killer. But cowboys are merely folks, just plain, every-day, bow-legged humans, not wanting trouble. They decided to let things ride til we got to town.
“Next morning there was a little ruckus, and somebody found him dead in his blanket. No bullet, no noose, no nothing, but dead as could be.”
Turk stopped talking, cracked his knuckles and stood up. He looked back at the dark sky as if he had finished his story.
“Well, tell me the end!” said Ruby. “What happened?”
“I poisoned him,” said Turk, burying the cigar stump with his toe. “That’s why I changed my name.” He chuckled silently and went back inside The Blue Belle.