That night Ross and Mark played their flat tops while the rest of us sang along to the old favorites. Occasionally we’d switch who sang the chorus or harmony parts but it was basically the same half dozen songs we knew by heart. Our ‘gourmet chef’ Jim finally announced that it was ‘bean time’. The chow wasn’t anything to write home about but after a full day of herding cattle, none of us had to be told twice.
As the plates were being filled with ‘pot luck stew’, the menacing stranger reappeared at the edge of camp. It was as if he had been waiting in the darkness for us to serve the grub. This time Jim politely fixed him a plate without waiting to be asked. Ordinarily we live by the simple creed that ‘only those who work hard and earn their keep, deserve the right to eat.’ but no one dared to protest, under the circumstances.
He accepted the food with an unspoken hint of appreciation; and then sat down by the fire to paw at it with his massive fingers. This time he did so without any of the previous night’s hesitation. Curious glances were exchanged between all of us for a moment; before we went back to filling our bellies. I suppose we wondered if his stealthy campfire visits were going to become a regular thing.
We didn’t mind sharing our food since Jim made enough to feed an army but we didn’t actually know anything about him. Nor had the oddly dressed giant volunteered anything either, for that matter. Worse still; there was a subconscious desire among the ranch hands to just avoid communication with him. As suspicious and unsocial as we could all be to any stranger, a complete avoidance of conversation seemed like a perfectly acceptable plan of inaction.
I tried to reason that he already had ample opportunity to kill us the night before as we slept. As shut-eye time rapidly approached again, that wasn’t very comforting.
When supper was over, it was our custom to gather around the firelight and take turns telling stories. Most, if not all of them had been told dozens of times before. In order to make them more interesting the storyteller would try to add something new each time. ‘Spicing up’ the old tales was our way of compensating for the limited imaginations we possessed. Eventually these yarns became quite elaborate. The fun part, (if you could call it that), was trying to figure out where the new parts would lead the next time it was told. Besides playing music and singing old folk standards, this was the only real pastime we had on the range.
There was no better spinner of yarns in the group than Sammy; and it was his turn to speak. I was so deeply lost in thought about the aloof stranger that Sammy was nearly finished with his tale before I realized it was actually one I had told before. His version was so vastly superior to my own that it only bore a slight resemblance to what I had told.
While he delivered his enhanced rendition with expertise, I absently watched the firelight dance on the nearby giant’s massive features. Despite his blank expression, he genuinely seemed interested in our storytelling session. Once Sammy finished recycling and improving my bare bones story, there was unanimous applause. The general consensus among those present seemed to be that originality was less important than creative delivery.
With mock disgust, I told Sammy I was happy to have inspired ‘his’ story idea. My playful little jab brought a round of laughter from everyone except the lurking stranger. Oddly, he didn’t seem to understand basic sarcasm; or the appropriate response to it. Reflecting on the previous nights exposure to him, he appeared to be oblivious to other emotions too. I assumed his intimidating stature had made him a societal outcast. He had probably lived a very sheltered existence with limited human interaction. It was the only explanation I could surmise.
When the laughter died down, Sammy deadpanned: “By the way Jimmy, I think the stew was a little bland tonight.” All the other men cringed at the sour note his complaint was sure to strike with Jim.
Sammy was the only one who ever called him ‘Jimmy’ because we knew that Jim hated it. Sammy realized it too but he would do it just to aggravate him.
“So you’re telling me how to do my job now, are ya? Well, perhaps the ’master story teller’ would like me to step aside so he can do the cooking from now on!”; Declared Jim angrily. He always had a very hot temper and any form of criticism ignited him like dynamite. Fortunately his proverbial bark was worse than his bite.
“It might be nice to see how the other half lives.”; Sammy sneered. The unspoken implication was that Jim ‘had it easy’ because he (only) prepared meals while the rest of us did the ‘real’ work. That retort didn’t sit well with Jim, to say the least.
“You’re welcome to my ‘easy’ job any time you want it but don’t expect me to eat anything you fix, you son of a…” Sammy stopped Jim before he said something he would regret later.
“I was just pullin’ your leg, you ol’ cuss! I didn’t really mean it, Jim. I think the stew was just fine; …really.”; Sammy apologized sincerely.
Jim’s face lost most of it’s anger but in an attempt to restore his pride he shot back; “It was never my intention to fix stew that was ONLY ‘fine!’” His tone changed mid-sentence from rage to embarrassment when he realized Sammy’s complaints were only a joke to get a rise out of him.
Another round of chuckles filled the air when his facial expression finally softened. Jim was still slightly distracted from the ribbing and a little insecure of his cooking abilities. He turned to the quiet stranger observing our internal squabble and blurted out; “What did you think of the stew? Was it to good to your tastin’?” All of us gasped perceptibly at Jim’s spontaneous questions to the stranger in black.