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Saturday, 18 July 2015

Saturday Story - 'Bubbles'

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Ross Morton


- warning - about 6,000 words! -

Last night’s storm had swollen the river and it seemed to be rising by the minute as they herded the longhorns into the fast-running shoals. ‘Keep movin’, movin!’ Josh Mason barked. He was a big-boned man and, though he’d lost a lot of puppy fat, he was still overweight. Guiding his whickering horse among the steers, he boldly continued to chivvy along the fearful critters with shouts and whistles. On the other side of the broad wedge of beef on the hoof his best pal, Scott Finley, was also persuading the cattle to keep moving. Fording the river now was dangerous, but Boss Fairweather and his foreman Stratton had been adamant, they couldn’t risk wasting the time to wait for the water to subside or even to skirt round the river. To mitigate against disaster, they forded obliquely down stream, hopeful that the action of the water against the steers would assist them in getting across. Yet every faltering step the animals took, there was the strong possibility of one or more of them losing their footing.

            Josh was tired after spending several hours helping to quell a stampede when the critters had been spooked by forked lightning that made night into day. Otherwise he might have noticed the cut cinch on his saddle caused by a horn during the rain-drenched mêlée last night. Now the strain proved too much for it and the cinch broke when Josh was midway across.

            Without warning, saddle and rider slid sideways. Josh’s shoulder hit the side of beef and then he plunged into the water with an almighty splash.

            Amidst the roiling water there was only a cluster of bubbles where Josh had been. Nothing else. Not even a gloved hand thrust through the surface.

‘Bub!’ Scott exclaimed, using a truncated version of Josh’s nick-name.

Boss Fairweather and his foreman turned in their saddles and stared, alarmed, then settled back to their work and hastened to get the steers to the other side before they all panicked and were lost.

‘Damn you to hell, Bub!’ Scott growled. He didn’t hesitate but gently guided his mount through the loosely packed bodies of the steers. He knew there was no point in watching the diminishing number of bubbles, waiting for Josh appear. Unbuckling his gun-belt, he snagged it on the pommel and gulped in a big breath and dove in after Josh.

Luckily, he’d had plenty of practice and though the river was running fast and visibility was real bad, his questing fingers found his friend’s leather vest. He closed his hand round the material and, fearing that the water in his boots would drag him down and his lungs would burst, he gave a tremendous kick and pushed himself upwards with all his might, hauling Josh with him to the surface.

In a welter of splashing water and bubbles, they burst into air that was hardly fresh, since a dense miasma of cattle-odour hovered over the river’s surface. Barely conscious, Josh was spluttering and struggling in Scott’s grip.

It wasn’t easy, since he had to restrain his friend’s panicky gyrating arms, but Scott finally heaved Josh to the opposite bank. Fortunately, their horses were sensible and well-trained and obediently followed. Scott collapsed in the mud, gasping for breath. Lying alongside him, Josh disgorged his breakfast and a fair portion of the muddy river water.

            Scott got no thanks from Josh and he hadn’t expected any. Just the usual: “Why’d you pull me out, Scott? I near swum to the surface!”

            That got a few laughs from the watching cowpokes and then, in high dudgeon, Josh dragged his horse away.

            Once the cattle were back on dry land, Scott and Josh ‘Bubbles’ Mason trawled the river-bed with weighted lariats and, after about half an hour, Scott snagged something. An air-pocket must have been caught in the saddle-bags and a clutch of bubbles burst on the surface.

            ‘It’s ‘bout time you learnt to swim, Bub!’ Scott remonstrated as he waded into the river. With nifty rope-work he finally pulled his friend’s saddle out.

            ‘Christ-sakes, you know I damn-well try, Scott!’

            ‘Yeah, if tryin’ was all there was to it, you’d swim like a fish!’ Scott dumped the saddle in the mud and stalked away to dry off.


Josh Mason’s life seemed to be beset with bubbles so much that he ended up with that sobriquet. ‘Bubbles’ was an ill-fitting nick-name as he was more morose than bubbly by nature, yet the moniker stuck.

Scott and Josh were kids together on their neighbouring Nebraska Territory farms just south of the small township of Stiller’s Lookout. They spent many a long hot summer stealing Mr Johansson’s apples and ogling the Fitzpatrick sisters, whose legs seemed so long that they fair went up to heaven. In contrast, they also had simple fun blowing bubbles with sticks and soap and skylarking in one of the creeks off the Platte,  

While Scott was a good swimmer, Josh never mastered the skill. He tried, but he just tended to sink. As Scott remarked more than once to those who witnessed Josh’s doomed attempts, ‘You’d likely reckon that with Josh being so round – rotund, some polite folk call it – he’d just float like a balloon or a ball.’ But for some obscure scientific reason he just sank. He spluttered and wind-milled his arms and hands in a fearful frenzy but still managed to sink. Always leaving behind on the surface lots of bubbles.

Scott soon lost count of the number of times that he fished Josh out of the deep part of the creek, but he reckoned it was at least a hundred.

‘What you go an’ do that for, Scott!’ Josh exclaimed when he got his breath back, bubbles of saliva flecking his lips, the water sluicing off of his dungarees. ‘I was that near to learnin’ to swim!’

Scott’s tone was close to being exasperated as he replied, ‘One of these days, Bub, I won’t be here to save your hide. Then you’ll be sorry!’

You’ll save me?’ Josh laughed and softly punched his friend’s bicep. ‘Yeh, all right, if you say so!’

As usual, Scott let it go. Pride was somethin’ awful, ‘specially when you was young. Fortunately, their friendship was rock solid and in the scheme of things Scott reckoned that these disagreements amounted to squat.

They’d grown up together, both the same age – though Scott sometimes pointed out that he was two months older than Josh, since he was born in December ’44.

The Mason ranch was next to the Finley spread. As far as Scott was concerned, ‘Ranch is a high-falutin’ word for what amounts to a dirt-farm.’ Both homes were constructed of sod since there wasn’t much in the way of trees to fell nearby. But, Scott’s Ma kept telling him, ‘It’s all ours, son.’ On a good day he could stand on the stoop and shield his eyes from the sun and still not see the limits of their land. Scott’s pa had enjoyed some luck in the rush of ’49, by all accounts, and used the money wisely. He always reckoned it was his dedication to the big Family Bible that ensured his good fortune.

Pa was a big man, six-two in his socks, which surprised Scott. He reckoned that his pa should’ve built the roof of their home higher. Pa had to walk from room to room stoop-shouldered. ‘Penance,’ he called it, which didn’t sit right with Scott, since it seemed self-inflicted. But religious study was not his strong suit at the Stiller school, so he let his pa’s comment go. Maybe that was why Pa don’t spend much time with Ma in our house, he thought. They’d see him at food times and then he’d go off to bed early. Ma would linger a while, repeating chores, as if reluctant to retire. Then pa’d bawl, ‘You comin’ to bed, Eunice! I’m waitin’. You surely try the Lord’s patience!’

The rest of his pa’s life seemed to be spent down at the township or out on the farm, ‘sowing my seed in both places, son,’ he would say, chuckling to himself. ‘One day, you’ll understand.’

Scott never understood his pa but he knew that the old man worked hard on the land and sometimes the land was just plain cussed and denied pa its bounty.

When the spring and summer storms started, the thunderheads a magnificent if frightening sight, Scott’s pa used to turn strange and at those times he was almost as devastating as the frequent tornadoes they witnessed scourging the land. Pa raged and hit out, breaking crockery and upturning furniture, behaving like a demented animal. Ma just put up with it, saying he went like that if the weather was unforgiving. ‘I’d knowed it afore I wed the man, son, so I can cope,’ she told Scott, but that didn’t make it any less scary.

Pa was strict and used his belt on both Scott and his wife to enforce his will, quoting the Bible when he was inclined. Scott tried hard to give him no cause to be displeased and performed all of his allocated chores without complaint - and made a point of being regularly seen saying his prayers. He never told his pa about ‘Bubbles’ and him ogling the Fitzpatrick girls, though.

Scott was glad when every other month or so his father took himself off for some days to visit Stiller’s Lookout. On those nights he could hear Ma sobbing in her bedroom. He lay there, wanting to comfort her but not knowing how, and he always felt guilty next morning when he realised that she’d still been crying when he fell asleep. At the time, he didn’t know whether she was crying because she missed Pa or for some other reason.

            Josh didn’t fare any better regarding his father. His pa was a drunk and by the time Josh was able to help out with the chores the old man made it plain that he had no respect for his wife or his farm. ‘Some kind of maggot must have burrowed into his brain and disturbed his humour,’ Josh told Scott once. Many a time Scott noticed Josh’s bruises and bit back any comment.

            It was no surprise to either of them when they both thought about running away from home. They had just turned fifteen and were lying in the straw in the Mason barn’s loft. ‘I feel sorry for Ma, leavin’ her,’ Josh said.

            ‘Yeah, me too,’ Scott agreed. ‘My ma’s shed enough tears on account of pa already, but I don’t reckon I can take much more of this dirt-farm life, Bub.’

            ‘Me neither. We ain’t cut out to be cornhuskers.’

            ‘And I’m sick of his Bible punchin’...’

            ‘I hate pa punchin’ ma, but I can’t fight him – yet.’ It was true enough; though Josh was big and round, he was more flab than muscle and no match for his brutish father.

            ‘If we’re serious about goin’, we need to get provisioned-up,’ Scott mused. ‘A change of clothes and other necessaries.’

            ‘We’ll need six-guns, Scott. For our protection – and to hunt for food, mostly.’

            ‘Yeah, I’ve put aside a few dollars in savings. What about you, Bub?’

            ‘I can afford a gun – but what about transport? Do we walk everywhere?’

            Scott chuckled. ‘I’ve been thinkin’ on that, Bub, and I have an idea where we can get us some money and horses.’

            Eyes widening at the prospect, Josh said, ‘It sounds to me we’ve gone and decided.’

            Scott nodded and stood up, a serious cast to his young features. He brushed straw from his trousers. ‘Bub, it’s time we stopped playin’ at adventure and went and found some for real.’

            Josh jumped up, grinning from ear to ear. ‘By God, Scott, let’s do it!’

            Laden down with spare overshirts, undershirts, cotton and wool drawers, socks, spare shoes, belt knife and whetstone, they slunk away from their homes and met up under the light of the moon. Later next day, at Three Crossings on the Sweetwater River, they lied about their ages to Mr Slocum, the division superintendent who conducted their interviews.

            Slocum had hired Scott but now eyed Josh with some misgivings. ‘I reckon you’re too heavy, son – we’re after riders who’re about 125 pounds.’

            Scowling, Josh clambered into the corral and mounted a horse already saddled in the enclosure for try-outs. ‘I can ride better’n the next man!’ Josh said and proceeded to prove his point with ease.

            ‘Okay,’ Slocum said, coughing on the dust raised by Josh’s antics, ‘you’re hired.’

            For $50 a month plus board and keep, they signed the pledge of honesty, loyalty and sobriety and joined the Pony Express.

            Besides riding superior horse-flesh, they proudly used the special light-weight stripped-down saddle, over which was draped the leather mochila, complete with its four padlocked cantinas or pouches. With the hard riding and long hours came an unexpected bonus – young women seemed to take a shine to riders of the Pony Express. While Scott was fortunate to find a young lady to introduce him into the heady experience of physical love, Josh remained overweight, unattractive and uninitiated.

            One of the relay riders working with them was a fourteen-year-old by the name of William Cody; he was a mite full of himself, Josh thought. The days riding to Red Buttes on the North Platte were tough, and after some months Josh actually lost weight. It was as if those many hours in the saddle were preparing them for future employment and vocation, but they had no inkling what. They dodged Indians with mounts that could easily out-distance the grass-fed Indian ponies and got the mail through without fail. But they’d also seen the telegraph poles being erected. The transcontinental telegraph was completed that year and Scott knew it was only a matter of time before the Pony Express bit the dust. The months passed and they moved from post to post until they were the last Express riders to arrive in San Francisco in the fall of 1861. Newspapers said, ‘You have served us well!’ But such praise didn’t put food in their bellies and they found themselves without a job.

            They lingered for a week, regaling folk about their exploits – and Scott made a few more female conquests - but that soon palled and Nebraska seemed to be calling them back. Scott fancied going home to see how his ma was faring, but Josh didn’t want to face down his pa yet. So they got work on the overland stage coach between Atchison and Denver and spent a couple of years eating dust and shaking their bones to hell and back.

            When the papers were full of the news about the Homestead Act – which didn’t apply to them, since they were not yet twenty-one - it looked like Nebraska would be crawling with homesteaders in a matter of months. ‘Too many people, if you ask me,’ Scott said.

            ‘Yeah,’ Josh agreed, ‘they’ll swamp the place.’

            So they quit and joined the Union Pacific work gang. Hard labour built up their young muscles as they helped the iron horse go west. It was damned hard graft and the pay was lousy, but they had good companions and felt they were actually making history.

            When the Chinese workers were brought in for lower pay, Scott and Josh decided to quit.

            Unlike many of their work-mates, they’d been sensible and had banked most of their wages while some of their pals had gambled their money away each payday. Josh and Scott had plans for the future, which didn’t entail returning to their farming roots.

            ‘I’ve had my fill of scrabbling in the dirt,’ Josh said.

            ‘Aye,’ Scott agreed. ‘I want to make my mark.’

            They lived frugally and pay from small jobs kept them going. For almost a year they were in the Army - - but Sheridan’s claim that by killing the buffalo they would kill the Indians stuck in their craw.

            Scott remarked, ‘Them Prairie Indians are bein’ hounded to hell and it ain’t fair.’

            ‘It’s only a matter of time,’ Josh said, ‘poor devils.’

            ‘I want no part of that, Bub.’ So they up and left.

            In ’67, the same year that their territory became a state of the Union, they joined Goodnight and Loving’s first cattle drive to Abilene. What a place that was: it was obvious to both of them that Abilene was a town growing before their very eyes. Their Nebraskan capital Lancaster was renamed Lincoln in honour of the late President, God bless him, which made them proud, but they had no wish to return yet. They stuck with driving cattle.


With his saddle dried out and repaired, Josh continued with the cattle drive to Abilene. They found that the place had changed a lot since their first visit. Josh finally built up enough courage to frequent Miss Dora Boston’s Parlour House, which was referred to by many as the House of Ill Repute. ‘Never seen nobody ill in there,’ Josh remarked afterwards. ‘Lots of smiles, though.’ He too wore an uncharacteristic smile as wide as the Colorado for a whole week – and Scott never knew if it was the champagne – bubbly, they called it – or the pretty half-dressed strumpet who kicked him out after two days.

            ‘You know, Bub,’ Scott observed, ‘you ain’t half as cussed as you used to be, since you took up with Miss Rosie Lil.’

            Josh threw his hat at his friend. ‘Every time, Scott, she bursts my bubble!’

            But by then his nickname wasn’t going to change.

            As usual, they banked some of the cattle drive earnings and blew the rest in the town, playing poker or just boozing. When that money had gone, the pair moseyed on to Wyoming, landing up there just at the time when it was announced that the women of that State would have the vote.

            ‘Seems fair to me,’ Josh said.

            Scott shrugged. ‘Women don’t have the power, Bub. Look at our mothers. They’re drudges for unappreciative men!’

            ‘Well, maybe if they could vote, they could change things,’ Josh suggested.


            That conversation spawned the idea that had been brewing over the years. They up and left next day and, with mixed feelings, went home.

            In the nine years that Scott had been away, his pa had aged. Part of the reason was the grave out back. Ma had died two years gone. Guilt pummelled Scott’s chest as he felt sure that the old man had driven her to an early death. If he’d stayed, maybe she’d still be alive, he thought. He wanted to use the man’s own belt on him, but he didn’t have the heart. He walked out, surprised to see that the familiar view of their land was blurred. Wiping the unmanly tears away, he saddled his horse and rode over to the Mason ranch.

            When he got there Josh was dunking his pa in the horse-trough and there were bubbles floating to the turbulent surface. His ma was trying to drag Josh free, but she might as well have attempted moving a mountain.

            Scott pulled out his six-gun and fired it into the dirt a few feet away from the trough. Mrs Mason shrieked.

            Josh desisted from near-drowning his pa and stood back, his clothes dark with splashed water. ‘What you go an’ do that for, Scott?’

            ‘I’m saving your hide, Bub, that’s what!’

            My hide?’ He gestured at the gulping gasping sorry excuse of a father. ‘He was near done for and serves him right! You saved him, not me!’

            ‘I’ve no hankering to see you strung up for his murder, Bub. Maybe if you leave him be, your pa will now behave himself.’ Scott shrugged. ‘But whether he does or don’t, he sure as hell ain’t worth dying for.’

            Josh nodded, seeing the sense in that. He turned to his mother. ‘Me and Scott are going away again, Ma, but if I hear he’s gone back to his old ways, I swear I’ll return and next time he’ll breathe his last!’

            His pa weakly moved a hand and spat out green-tinged water. ‘I’ll try, son...’

            Josh’s ma crushed him to her, the top of her head barely reaching his chest. For a fleeting moment Scott was envious of his friend. ‘Be careful, son,’ she sobbed and let go.

            After that, they took up buffalo hunting for a few months and again met William Cody, who was now quite the dandy compared to the rest of the crew. But it was dispiriting work and their heart wasn’t in it. They kept remembering Sheridan’s prediction. ‘If they’re lucky, they’ll have ten years,’ Scott observed, sadly. ‘Then there’ll be no buffalo left. Leastways not enough to support the Indians.’

            Footloose and fancy free, they wandered down to Los Angeles but didn’t stay too long and got out during the nasty city-wide anti-Chinese riots. They returned briefly to San Francisco where they marvelled at the new-fangled cable cars and that was followed by a short stay in Deadwood. They caught the Black Hills gold fever and bubbles again figured in their lives.

            Bubbles mingled with the lustre of gold in Josh’s pan. They shared their stake and used the money to buy a small cattle ranch in New Mexico. This wasn’t like cow-punching. They owned the beef and hired men to do the long hours and the hard work. They met up with an Englishman by the name of Tunstall and, before they knew it, they were caught up in the Lincoln County range war. It was a bloody affair and Billy the Kid was bred out of that mess. Sickened by the blood-letting and bad feeling, Scott and Josh decided to sell up. They were lucky and managed to buy a cattle ranch up north, shortly after the death of McSween, and not long before the Kid’s Regulators were branded as outlaws.

            The world was changing. Billy the Kid was shot down and the fight at the OK Corral in Tombstone created controversy over lawmen taking the law into their own hands. Scott couldn’t believe it when he heard that the Texas Panhandle cowboys went on strike for higher wages.

            ‘You either sign on for the wages they offer or you find another job!’ growled Josh.

            ‘If they try that on us, Bub, they’ll get short shrift!’

            Neither of them had to face a demand for higher wages and they prospered on their ranches for three good years. Then, in the winter of ’86, terrible blizzards decimated their cattle on the northern range and within months it seemed as though the beef bonanza was at an end.

            ‘Our financial bubble’s burst,’ Josh said, sombrely. Scott went on a two week drunk but found he was only poorer at the end of it.

            Reluctantly – they were in their forties and their bones were starting to ache – they joined the Buffalo Bill Wild West show. Although it wasn’t their idea of proper work, they stuck it for three years and yet amassed little in the way of savings.

            ‘I can’t stick Cody another day,’ grumbled Josh.

            ‘He’s headin’ for a fall,’ Scott said, his tone sympathetic. ‘The poor idiot’s a soft touch for any sob-story that comes around – except from his poor workers!’

            ‘Let’s git,’ Josh said.

            South of the border beckoned. Those were the days - south of the Rio Grande, where they found the living was easy and the women generous.

Unfortunately, Pancho Villa didn’t take kindly to gringos in his territory. One night they were rudely awoken and advised to flee the pueblo. Their women stood by, watching, in tears to see them go.

            Without horses, they couldn’t get far. Villa had a couple of half-breed trackers and wanted to find and punish them to serve as an example to any other americanos who ventured on his land.

With only the clothes and boots they stood up in and a single pistol between them, they ran for their lives under the bright full moon.

            Finally, they could run no further as they had to cross the river; there was no ford or bridge for miles.

            “I can’t swim!” Josh said. “I’ll fight them off so you can get away.”

            Scott shook his head. “We’re pals, Bub. I haven’t let you drown yet, have I?”

            He shook his head, eyes full of fear. “No, Scott, I won’t be the cause of your demise.”

            “If’n that’s the way you want it, then...’ Scott said and turned away and then abruptly swung round and hit him with all he had with his fist. Josh was felled like a tree trunk, his big body slithering down the muddy bank. Massaging bruised knuckles, Scott hastily checked that his friend was still breathing, fearful lest he’d hit him too hard. He was surprised at himself; his hand sure did hurt.

            Straining with the weight of him, Scott dragged Josh into the river and grabbed two reeds. Slicing them with his Bowie-knife, he then whittled an air-hole in each. Scott stuck one reed in Josh’s mouth and one in his own and sank under the water, pulling his friend after him. Slowly, Scott felt his way round the reed bed, heading down-river, all the time keeping the reed in his friend’s mouth.

            Scott peered up from time to time as he moved silently through the reeds. There were wavering images on the river-bank. Horses, moccasins, boots.

A couple of bubbles escaped from Josh’s nostrils, but luckily nobody noticed and they escaped. Broke again. The Black Hills beckoned, but they desisted. ‘When we’re really in need, then it’ll be time,’ Scott said.

‘Yeah,’ Josh said, ‘and I believe in rainbows!’

Scott shrugged. ‘We agreed. While we’re still young, we’d try to make our way. That gold can wait.’

Those years were filled with gun-smoke, whiskey, posses and gunfights. For a time Scott was a sheriff and Josh his deputy, and a while after that they returned to the Wild West Show, though this time they were clown cowpokes.

The century turned. Scott was sitting in on a poker game, Josh behind him. When it happened, neither could quite believe Scott’s luck. ‘Jeezus, Bub, this is the best game I’ve been in!’

‘Yeah,’ Josh said, ‘you’ve just gone and won shares in an oil well!’

The loser, whose stake was in the recent find at Spindletop, Texas, was not overly pleased. ‘I don’t reckon you played fair, mister.’ He pulled out a derringer. ‘Keep the money, but I want them shares back!’

Bystanders shuffled away. Whispers drifted over. ‘This ain’t Deadwood!’ ‘Only crooked card-sharps carry derringers!’

Pulse racing, heart pounding, Scott raised his hands. ‘Take it easy, mister.’

‘Don’t tell me what to do! Just give me my shares!’

‘They ain’t your shares,’ Josh explained reasonably, leaning over the table and scooping the winnings towards Scott. ‘You gambled them and lost.’

A few voices tended to agree with Josh but the bodies belonging to them stayed well back.

‘Who the hell are you?’ the loser demanded. ‘My goddamned conscience?’

‘I aim to see fair play, mister,’ Josh said levelly, ‘and my partner here won good and square. Put down your weapon and we’ll say no more about this.’

‘Go to hell!’ Aiming at Scott, the man fired.

Scott had never seen his friend move so fast. Josh jumped in front of him, landing full onto the table, sending cards and chips and shares every which way. The table collapsed under him as one big hand wrestled free the weapon while the other formed a fist and pounded into the man’s surprised face.

The bad loser jack-knifed backwards, unconscious.

Scott knelt by his friend’s side. Bright blood bubbled out of Josh’s chest.

‘I reckon I saved your hide this time, Scott,’ he said, forcing his mouth into an unfamiliar smile.

‘Your lung, it’s punctured,’ Scott breathed, mortified.

‘Bubbling, is it?’


‘Then, partner, you’d better get me to a sawbones pretty darn fast!’

Sticking his finger into the small hole, Scott stopped the bright red blood flowing out.

The doctor was able to siphon off the blood from Josh’s punctured lung and sew it up. His lung never fully recovered, though, and he wheezed from time to time with any exertion. But the more he encountered problems, the more his sense of humour seemed to grow.

Josh took four months to recover and their money flowed in as quickly as the oil spewed out of their new oil-well. Josh’s luck was really in, it seemed, as he somehow discovered an effervescent personality of his own, probably due to the sweet chemistry of Jane Whitehead, a pretty redheaded restaurant-owner who brought food to him in the infirmary. She was a looker, he thought, and he dived into her dark brown eyes, never wanting to surface; if he was destined to drown, this is where he wanted it to happen. When he was fit, he married Jane and at the ceremony Scott opined that his pal was well and truly sunk now.

Scott and Josh went their separate ways after the marriage.

Twelve months later, Scott found himself being hounded by a young female journalist wanting to write about his exploits. ‘You some kind of female Mark Twain?’ he demanded.

‘Nope,’ she said. ‘I’m Gillian Parnham Bridges. An original, not some dad-blamed copy!’ She was opinionated, sassy and had long auburn hair and flashing hazel eyes.

‘I must admit I’ve led a long and interesting life,’ he said.

‘So I hear,’ she replied. ‘That’s why I want to tell the public about you.’

‘I reckon it might take a lifetime in the telling.’

‘Whose lifetime?’

‘Ours,’ he said, grinning.

‘Is that the kind of proposition I’ve been waiting for, do you reckon?’ she asked.

‘It’s the best you’ll get this side of Sunday,’ he suggested.

‘OK, Scott Finley, I accept.’ She eyed him carefully. ‘Are you sure you know what you’re taking on?’

Scott grinned again. ‘No, and that’s part of the fun, ain’t it?’

‘Maybe it is,’ she said, ‘maybe it is.’ She pulled out her notepad. ‘Now, where were you born?’

‘Is this for the marriage certificate?’

‘Nope, that’s your department. I’m starting on your life, buster. So pay heed to my questions, will you?’

Well into his fifties, Scott fancied settling down with Gillian, but she wanted to live and work in New York, which she reckoned was the centre of the universe. Reluctantly, Scott agreed and they were married and bought an apartment in Manhattan. Although he didn’t feel comfortable in the big city with the huddled masses of people, he endured it and wrote to his friend Bubbles on a weekly basis. Josh and Jane ran a small restaurant and made a go of it, opening similar establishments in neighbouring towns. Every few months Scott and Josh took the train and met up in some outlandish place and got drunk, just the two of them.

By now, Scott had two children and Josh had three.

            When they were in their sixties, they missed out on the last land-rush to Oklahoma in 1911. ‘I’m considerin’ land down Florida way,’ Josh explained, slumped over the bar counter one evening.

            ‘Okay, your luck’s held so far, Bub,’ Scott said, ‘let’s mosey down and take a look.’

            Against Gillian’s advice, Scott threw in his financial lot with Josh and they speculated on land in Florida. ‘Bide your time, folks, this land means riches beyond your wildest dreams,’ the realtor had promised.

            In 1913 they both watched Buffalo Bill’s last show before it closed down, burdened by debt. ‘Poor bastard,’ Scott said. ‘The leeches have bled him dry.’

            ‘Yeah, it’s a shame. Sure, he was overblown and over the top but, hell, he brought colour and magic into the hum-drum lives of ordinary folk.’

            ‘It seems like the end of everything we knew,’ Scott said.

            ‘Yeah, nobody has time for the old stories anymore.’

            Four years later, the four of them attended William Cody’s funeral in Denver, which was a bit like a circus, according to Scott. That wasn’t the only funeral they went to. Both Scott and Josh lost a son each in the Great War.

            Within the next decade, Josh took to chewing the new-fangled bubble-gum and blowing bubbles which burst all over his mouth. He almost choked on the stuff several times, laughing so much. ‘Bubbles, they’ll be the death of me!’ he laughed while his wife Jane looked on, amused.

            When Josh was eighty-one, the Florida speculative building bubble burst. That hurt their family financially and Gillian was on the verge of divorcing Scott. ‘We’ll manage, darling,’ he promised and, to her surprise, he found money from somewhere without incurring any debt and they coped.

            Barely three years later, worse was to come with the Wall Street Crash. That was the mother of all burst financial bubbles.

            At the age of eighty-four Josh and Scott left their family homes and spent a weekend camping and fishing in the Black Hills. Their long-suffering wives let them go; by now, both Jane and Gillian had an inkling that these male bonding jaunts coincided with periods of financial difficulty.

            Making sure that nobody was nearby, Scott and Josh took turns at the spade work and, after a few hours of sweating toil, they dug up the last of the gold they’d hidden.

            Surveying their cache, wiping sweat off his brow, Scott straightened his back. ‘It sure kept us goin’ over the years, Bub.’

            ‘Leastways, we didn’t squander it all at once. It’s seen us and our families through the bad times.’

            ‘Yeah, it has that, Bub.’

            Life improved for both families and they were able to take advantage of the recovery period. Scott had five grand-children and Josh seven and they were both surprised to find that they had the most fun watching the youngsters blowing bubbles with liquid soap; it brought back memories – so many memories which seemed so delicate now, so gossamer thin, that they could be popped into non-existence, as if they had never happened.

            As the industries of the United States flexed their muscles, the various Finley and Mason family businesses built on success; they had learned to spread their risk and prospered.

            Grey and bent under the heavy weight of years, Josh sat on the veranda of Scott’s back yard. ‘You know, Scott,’ he wheezed, ‘living on one lung has been hard.’

            ‘Yeah, Bub, so you keep remindin’ me without fail at this time of year. It kinda stopped you learnin’ to swim. I always reckon that’s why you got in the way of that slug. Just so you’d have an excuse.’

            Chuckling, Josh said, ‘We’ve had some good times, eh?’

            ‘Yeah, we’ve ridden one hell of a ride.’ Of all their adventures, those far too brief months riding with the Pony Express stood out, a time when youth convinced that anything was possible, when life seemed everlasting.

            Josh sighed and coughed, his over-strained lung rebelling. ‘I reckon we’re near the end, partner.’

            Scott started, brought back to the bone-aching present. ‘Nah, we’ll both see out a hundred years, you’ll see.’

            Josh, however, was prophetic. On the Day of Infamy, when Pearl Harbour was attacked, Josh died in his bed in New York City. He’d taken ill with pneumonia and was surrounded by his family for his last moments. The doctor reckoned an air-bubble killed him when a nurse didn’t perform an injection properly.

            ‘Hell, it seems a shame, even if he was ninety-six,’ Scott mumbled at the bedside.

            Scott had agreed the arrangements with Josh’s family. And as he stood there in the rain, wondering how long he had before he shuffled off this mortal coil, Scott smiled at the epitaph on his friend’s headstone:

Josh ‘BUBBLES’ Mason

Born February 7, 1845 – Died December 7, 1941

All bubbles burst eventually. He lasted longer than most.
Previously published in the paperback anthology Where Legends Ride, edited by Matthew P. Mayo, 2007, using my penname Ross Morton. Copyright Nik Morton, 2015
This story started out as a thousand-word piece written for the Writers' Circle prompt, 'Bubbles' in 2005. The characters didn't want to let go and I felt they had more in them - so it grew. Certainly, there's potential for a book here - one fine day...
As you may have gathered, there is considerable play on the word 'bubble'. I've done something similar with another published western short story, 'Silence' - you guessed it, 'silence' intrudes for various reasons in that... Subconsciously, I may have been attempting to emulate Gabriel Garcia Marquez who uses the word 'solitude' quite a lot in his tome, One Hundred Years of Solitude.

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