The Wise Man

by Charles Badger Clark Jr.

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          “Hempson’s,” said Tuck, hitching round straight in his saddle and looking up the gulch toward the bung-eyed old ranch house of that outfit.  “If there was any way to get up in the mountains and serve these papers on Coolidge without going by Hempson’s, I reckon I'd take it.”

          “It aint a very sweet place,” said I, “even to pass by, but you can hold your nose and we’ll lope.”

            “Oh, my nose will stand it,” he answered.  “A officer of the law has got to have a nose that will stand anything.  But Old Man Hempson has got it in for me, and I have enough trouble in a deputy sheriff’s regular line of business without hunting it up when there aint no legal call.”

So begins Charles Badger Clark Jr.'s (1883-1957) story, "The Wise Man." Clark historian Greg Scott shared the story, and he introduces it:

Badger Clark is correctly known as a cowboy poet. His well known verse is recited wherever cowboy poetry is featured.

Clark is less appreciated for his short story writing. He had a couple of his stories published while he still lived in Arizona (1906-1910). It wasn't until a decade later that he began writing short stories in earnest. In the period 1920 to 1923 Clark wrote a popular series of stories for Sunset magazine.

At the time he and his mother were providing care for his aged father. He told famed Montana photographer L.A. Huffman, who provided illustrations for Clark's famous collection of poems, Sun and Saddle Leather, that the work of a caregiver was not conducive to writing verse.

Clark's series of stories about an Arizona cowboy, Spike Saddler (a character clearly fashioned after Clark himself) was immediately popular with Sunset readers. In all, he wrote seventeen "Spike" stories for that magazine. He had to present all the basics of a good short story each month, including introduction of conflict and its resolution. His Christmas story, "The Wise Man," appeared in the January 1922 issue of Sunset.

"The Wise Man" and other stories are included in the acclaimed book edited by Greg Scott, Cowboy Poetry, Classic Poems & Prose by Badger Clark. See our feature about that book here.

See our additional feature about Badger Clark here, which includes many poems.

We presented "The Wise Man" in regular installments throughout the Christmas season in 2011.

Find the entire story below.

photo from Cowboy Poetry, Classic Poems & Prose by Badger Clark, used with permission
Clark at his writing table in 1906


The Wise Man


Visit Christmas at the BAR-D, where we keep Christmas during the season, with new poetry, news, features and more. 

The Wise Man

          “Hempson’s,” said Tuck, hitching round straight in his saddle and looking up the gulch toward the bung-eyed old ranch house of that outfit.  “If there was any way to get up in the mountains and serve these papers on Coolidge without going by Hempson’s, I reckon I'd take it.”

            “It aint a very sweet place,” said I, “even to pass by, but you can hold your nose and we’ll lope.”

            “Oh, my nose will stand it,” he answered.  “A officer of the law has got to have a nose that will stand anything.  But Old Man Hempson has got it in for me, and I have enough trouble in a deputy sheriff’s regular line of business without hunting it up when there aint no legal call.”

            “What’s come off between you and the old man?”  I asked.

            “Why, we had a little difference of opinion about a month ago,” said Tuck.  “Yes, more than a month.  It was the day that the baby was six months old and Chiquita had her folks over to supper for a celebration.  Say, you aint been at our house in town for a good three weeks.  You ought to see that kid now.”

            “Yes, I reckon he must be bulldogging steers by this time,” I sarcasted. “And you’re like all these new dad—you’ve quit counting time from the year one, like a Christian, and gone to dating everything back to day your little heathen was born.  But what's this about you and Old Man Hempson?”

            “Nothing much,” said Tuck.  “I met him over at the Six Mile Tree on the day that the baby was six months old, as afore-said, and he held me up and hopped me about the man on my ranch doing him dirt last roundup.  He was about as polite as a sore-footed bull, and I aint a overly patient man and never had no use for Hempson, nohow.  We talked and we argued and we got down on the ground and drawed brands in the dust with our forefingers, but I couldn’t make him see his mistake.  One thing led to another and finally he called me a name—the name—and I hauled off all of a sudden and hit him, though it was only with my open hand.  I ought to have done things someway different, for he was a old man and no match for me.  Besides, a officer of the law aint got no business settling his personal and private scraps on the public road in that kiddish way.  But I got mad and I done it and we parted in no kissing humor, him swearing he’d have shooting hardware on the next time he seen me, and that I had better look out for myself.”

            “Threatening a officer,” said I.  Aint that a legal crime?  Why didn’t you get a injunction or a bench warrant or a habeas asparagus or something on him?”

            “In a personal row?”  said Tuck, looking at me shocked and disgusted.  “My business is to settle other folks’ troubles, folks that aint supposed to know better.  I ought to know how to handle a private and personal enemy without running up costs on the county.”

            “Well, it looks like here’s your chance to do it,” said I, pulling my hat on tight and touching my horse with the spur to wake him up.  We had come up in front of the Hempson house as we talked, and now Old Man Hempson come wabbling out of the door in a most onpleasant way, shouting and swinging a sixshooter.  It was easy to see he had been doing business with his Mexican bootlegger and was about as safe and sane as a August rattlesnake.  Most of what he said to Tuck don’t matter—it was just ornamental—but the point of it all was something about “come and shoot it out like a man.”  Tuck’s hand slid down his side in the dangerous old-fashioned way, but he seemed to freeze for a second with his fingers on the butt of his weapon and then he said: “Beat it!”

            We done it so unanimously that our horses come near leaving their skins behind at the first jump.  There was a bend in the trail about two hundred feet ahead, with some brush and trees that offered cover, and the time we used up getting there aint worth mentioning but I heard the old man’s sixshooter pop four times in that stretch.  After we turned the bend and the bombardment let up, I took my ear away from my horse's neck and straightened up and looked at Tuck.

            “Hit?”  I asked.

            “Nope,” he answered.

            “What was the matter?  Gun stuck?"  I went on, when the horses had jogged back to a road gait again.

            “Nope,” he said in the same way.

            “Well, why didn't you get into action?”

            “Didn't like to,” said Tuck.  “The old man was too drunk to hit the Rocky Mountains.

It would have been plain murder.”

            “Murder your grandmother’s cat!” I argued. “It was self-defense as clear as daylight, with me for a witness.”

            “Legally, yes but morally, no,” said Tuck.  “I got some morals left, even if I have run round with you for the last six years.  I can’t kill a doddering old drunkard like that, especially when I started the trouble with a wallop that wasn’t hardly fair, considering his age.”

            “Well, all right, if you want to split hairs,” said I, “but you’re learning too much of this technical stuff from the lawyers in the courthouse to keep your health very long on the range.  Now, if we take our time it will be plumb dark when we get back here.  Then you can sneak into the house, get the drop on the old man, arrest him kindly and onpersonally and take him to town and stow him in the refrigerator.  This stunt he pulled off today will put him behind the bars long enough so you can quit worrying about him.”

            “Oh, you don't get me at all, you roughneck,” said Tuck in a weary way.  “The old man wasn’t popping at me as a officer, but as a man.  It’s a personality.  I can’t use my power, the power of the state, to scrunch every man that happens to look cross-eyed at me personally.  I got to square the old man by myself if I can. When one of us is shot up it will be time enough for the law to step in.”

            “But it may seem too everlasting late to Chiquita and the baby,” said I like a owl on a cloudy night.

            “Mebbe,” he said, looking thoughtful like I wanted him to.  He rode along for a minute, doubling his bridle rein and slapping it together.  “Yes, a wife and family generally makes a coward of a man sooner or later,” he went on, “but I aint reached that point yet.  I’ll make a try at settling this ruction out of court.”

            That was Tuck.  Once his conscience hoisted up its tail and started, especially if it started in the wrong direction, he would let it run clean away with him.  Sometimes he could control his temper, but he had no control at all over his notions of what was proper.  I argued with him all the way to Coolidge’s, dragging in Chiquita and the baby so often that I had him figuring on his life insurance and the mortgage on his ranch, but I never stirred him a inch from his first proposition.  Nope; it was a personality, and he wasn’t going to cut loose the power of the law at a personal enemy.  By palaver or by pot-shooting, it would have to be settled out of court, and if the law was called in at all it would be for the inquest.

            He done his business with Coolidge and we jogged back down the trail, with the debate going on yet.  It was a still, sunny afternoon late in December and the hills seemed to be holding their breath and waiting for something to happen.  Pretty soon it did.  A shot whanged back among the brush on a side hill, something made a queer noise between us and a spurt of dust sprung up in the dry grass fifty feet ahead.  There was nothing to do but use our spurs again and we done it for a quarter of a mile.  Tuck was laughing a little when we finally pulled in.

            “The old man’s sobering up,” he said.  “He’s shooting better.”

            “You born idiot!” said I.  “Do you think this is fun?  You’re a fine husband and father.”

            “Nothing extra,” he joked.  “I aint been at it long enough.  You see, I mostly never get shot at except in a professional way, and that’s always kind of cold-blooded and ugly.  This is more interesting.  It’s got the—the personal touch.”

            “If the old man had held about two feet further to the left,” said I, “you’d have got a personal touch under the shoulder blade that would have finished you.”

            “Poor old Hempson,” he went on, paying no attention to me.  “He’s done run away from his ranch and flatters himself he’s a fugitive from justice.  He’ll hide out in the high mountains and starve and get rheumatism in his poor old legs, while he watches for the bloodhounds of the law and lays for another shot at me.  I begin to like the old pelican.  If I could only get close enough to talk to him.”

            “You’ll never do it while he’s armed,” I warned.  He’s the only real reckless and dangerous man in the country that I know of.  Use as much sense as the Lord give a horned toad, and go to town and have the sheriff sick a posse on him.”

            “Yes, and yell ‘ma! ma!’ and run and hide behind the skirts of the state,” he snorted. “I tell you, Spike Saddler, this is a personality—”

            “Oh, shut up!” said I.  I never had knowed before just what a thankless job it is to try and save a man from suiciding, and I was sore and discouraged.  We rode along until, just above Hempson’s place, we met up with Lafe, one of Hempson’s no-account boys.  He rode round a clump of brush and was within twenty feet before he seen us; otherwise I reckon he would have circled half a mile to dodge us.

            “Howdy, Lafe,” said Tuck.  “Is the old man home?”

            “No, he aint,” said Lafe, looking from Tuck to the scenery and back again.

            “Know where he is?” asked Tuck again, kind and cheerful.

            “No, I don't,” said Lafe, scowling at his horse's ears.

            “Well, when he comes home,” said Tuck, “you tell him I want to talk to him—just talk to him.  I reckon there's a little personal misonderstanding between us that ten words will clear up.  He can phone me from somebody's ranch and I’ll meet him where he pleases—and I'll come alone.”

            “Likely!” grunted Lafe, and lifted one side of his lip at Tuck like a cross dog and rode on.

            Tuck watched him out of sight over his shoulder and then made the same kind of a face at me and laughed.

            “That boy would be a star on the witness stand,” he said.  “The lawyers would have to run him through a steam wringer to get anything out of him.”

            “He’ll be on the witness stand one of these days,” said I, “at the inquest over the remainders of one Tuck Williams.  And when the testimony is all took the coroner's jury will bring in a verdict of bullheaded insanity and suicide.  And they'll turn the old man loose and make him the official fool-killer of the county.”

            “Mebbe,” laughed Tuck, “and if they do, you better move to Alaska.  But you wait a while.  Some fools die hard.”

         Tuck was at his old game of risking his life without no need and, as usual, it went to his head like mixed drinks and left him without a lick of sense.  I rode clean out of the hills with him that afternoon and seen him well started across the flats toward town before I left him—I was that nervous.  People round the neighborhood passed a good many jokes about Old Man Hempson, but Hempson wasn’t really no joke.  He often hollered about his rights and always nursed his wrongs, and though he was considerable short on sweetness he had a full layout of nerve.  Nobody loved him, but most people walked round him stiff-necked, like turkeys round a dead snake, for he had done some pretty rank things in his time and had always managed to do them in self-defense.

            When I got back to the ranch I sat up late and burned lots of tobacco trying to clear my mind, but I kept on continuing in a fog of oneasiness.  Here was Hempson, hiding out in the mountains with no baggage but a loaded gun and a killing grudge.  Here was Tuck, weaving round through them same mountains most every day on the sheriff’s business, and all the roads lined with brush and trees.  Worst of all, there was Chiquita and the baby in town.  But after all, I reckoned, there wasn't no call for me to take Tuck’s family  responsibilities harder than he did, and I cussed his fool personalities and said I’d go to bed.  Then I would light one more cigarette and circle round over the same old trail of thought again—the green-eyed old bobcat in the brush, and then my cheerful friend, as particular as a cat crossing a wet road about his honor but as careless about his life as a June bug diving down a lamp chimney, and then pretty little Chiquita and her baby as innocent bystanders.  I cussed Tuck again and dismissed the whole business from my mind and went to bed, and then laid awake till toward morning.  

            I got up in the morning laying out to make a new horsehair cinch and rig it on

my saddle, but when my hand hit the saddle it naturally grabbed it and drug it out and put it on a horse, and the horse carried me off over to Hempson’s.  Nobody home.  Then the horse took me up into the mountains and we slithered round over the rocks all day and made it down on the north flats by dark, and stayed overnight at Al Stidder’s place.  Next morning I clumb up in the hills again and poked round the day without finding track of what I was after ontil I met up with a man about three o’clock.

            “Hempson?” he said, scratching his ear, “yes, that’s who it was, come to think.  He dodged his horse off into the brush when he seen me and I been studying about it ever since.  He looked kind of wild.”

            “Where’d this happen?” said I.

            “Over near Middle Pass about eleven this morning,” said the man. “He was hitting towards the Pass road.”

            The Pass was ten miles further away and my horse was lame.  Tomorrow would be Christmas, anyway, and Tuck would sure be home like everybody else, and safe.  For the same reason Hempson would be circulating round pretty free so I could run across him.  I come out of my nightmare a little and jogged home, glad of a chance to ease down.  But about the time I got onsaddled, here come a car up the road with Tuck and Chiquita and the baby and Chiquita’s sister, Dolores.

            “I fetched you some company, Spike,” said Tuck. “I want to ditch the girls here for a few hours while I breeze down through Middle Pass and see a man on particular business.”    “Middle Pass!” said I, starting my nightmare all over again.  “All right; the girls can go in and make themselves at home in the house, but I reckon I’ll go along with you.”

            “Slam!” said young Dolores, making a face at me.  “We can’t go into his old house after that, Chiquita. If Tuck won’t take us along, we’ll have to build a fire and camp in the corral.”

            “But Tuck,” said I, too earnest to josh with Dolores, “I know that old Hemp—”

            “Silence in the ranks!” cut in Tuck, looking at me hard.  “I know you like to ride on rubber, but you aint going to be so ongentlemanly as to leave these two ladies stuck out in the middle of nowhere alone, and night coming on. By the way, have you seen anything more of that wild maverick we run across the other day?”

            “I wanted to tell you just that,” said I.  “He was seen over near Middle Pass this noon.”

            “Well, I'll keep my eye out for him,” said Tuck.  “Much obliged, old hand.  You give the girls their supper, and I'll be back by ten or eleven, and then you can ride into town with us and help eat Christmas dinner tomorrow.  Adios.”

           I stood looking after the car like a kid that has been naughty and is kept home from the picnic ontil Dolores asked me if I had a girl over in Middle Pass. Then I drawed a long breath and led the way into the house, as onhappy with two lovely ladies as I ever expect to be.  While I talked to them about this and that and praised up the size, heft, muscle and good looks of the baby, like a man is expected to, I was thinking about something else and shivering a little on the insides as I reckoned that it would still be daylight when Tuck snorted up the long hill into Middle Pass.  I don’t generally play the old lady so, but then Tuck was Tuck, and I was plumb beat out with riding and I had a hunch that something horrible was going to happen even if it was Christmas eve.

            We had supper and Chiquita put the baby to sleep on my bed, and then we sat and talked ontil it was time for Tuck to be back, but no Tuck.  It didn’t worry them any, but it did me, and even the chance of having Dolores to myself, with no other sweet Williams hanging round, couldn’t make me anything but fidgety and absent-minded.  Pretty soon a queer sound come from the bedroom where the baby was, and my hunch of horror begun to work itself out.  We heard a cough that seemed a whole lot too big and ugly to come from his little red mouth, and when we went in he was laying back with his head boring into the pillow, fighting for breath in a way that made chills chase each other up my back.

            “Oh, Lord!” thinks I.  “He’s dying,” but I didn’t say anything.  Chiquita crouched down on the edge of the bed and put her hands on him in the mother way and looked at him, thinking hard.

            “It’s croup,” she said, talking more to herself than Dolores and me.  “I have read up on about everything else, but I didn’t expect croup for a year or two yet.  Dolores, what was it mother used to do for croup?”

            “I never had it, Chiquita,” said Dolores, her face full of scare, “and I was too young to remember the others.  You must know.”

            “It didn’t happen many times,” said Chiquita, trying to keep her words steady, “and all I remember is the fright.  No medicine here, anyway, and no Tuck, and no car.  Spike, how far is the nearest phone?”

            “Eight miles,” said I, hating to say it.

            “Too far,” she said with a catch in her voice.  “Too far, but you must start, at least. Ride down the road as fast as you can, but if you meet a car for mercy’s sake stop it and bring it here.  Dolores and I will do whatever we can think of.”

            I whirled out of the room, chased by the noise of that horrible cough and glad to get away, but as I jerked open the kitchen door I stopped dead with the muzzle of a sixshooter jammed against my belt buckle and Old Man Hempson glaring into my eyes.

            “Does Tuck Williams want to see me?” he snarled.

            “Haven’t you seen him today?” I shot back.


            “Thank God!” said I.  “And now you take that gun off of my stomach and quit movie acting and let me out of here.  I got more important things than you to think about. There’s a couple of ladies marooned here with a awful sick baby, and I got to reach a doctor.”  

            At that minute Chiquita come out of the bedroom with the baby in her arms, and something made Hempson slip his gun back into its place.  He limped a step or two into the kitchen, staring at her while she stared at him.  They didn’t know each other and naturally I wasn’t anxious to introduce them.  I didn’t blame Hempson for staring. Chiquita must have been something to gaze at after days and nights in the brush.  With her face so solemn and the baby’s head against her cheek, I was reminded of the Mother and Child in the Christmas pictures.

           “Hm, it’s the old barks like Lafe used to have,” said Hempson after a minute.  “Give him here!”

            The old man was ga’nt and dirty, with his eyes bloodshot and white bristles all round his jaw, and Chiquita stepped back, and held the baby tighter.  Hempson onderstood, and a hard grin flickered on his I face.

            “Oh, I won't eat him,” he said.  “I raised four of my own, though I aint specially proud of the job.  My oId lady was a master hand at doctoring kids.  Lemme take him.”

            He slung the baby into his left arm as if he was used to it, and laid his hand on the a little heaving chest and listened to the breathing for a minute.

            “Spike, you got any hot water?” he asked.

            “Teakettle and reservoy,” I answered.  “Get a hot bath ready for him,” rapped out the old man.  “And you,” he went on, handing the baby back to Chiquita, “peel him, quick. Somebody get me some bran and onions, lively!”

            And so, all in a minute, we were all hard at work, with that ga’nt, snake-eyed old outlaw driving us, and we taking his orders as if he was a angel.  The baby was peeled by the time his bath was ready and the old man let him down into the water.  I was paying most attention to the little fellow’s choking, but I couldn't help noticing how queer Hempson’s knotty hairy hands looked on the smooth soft little body.  He knowed his business, though, and seemed to get a sort of fun out of the job, and as we seen the baby get easier under his work even Chiquita lost her suspiciousness and hopped round waiting on him with shiny eyes.  

            “Now that towel!” he snapped after a while, “and a blanket.  Get that bran and onions into a poultice—not too thick but hot as the devil.”

            About that time the door edged open behind me and I found Tuck Williams looking over my shoulder with his mouth dropped open.  I pushed him into the saddle room and whispered a dozen words in his ear to make him stay there, for I didn’t want the old man excited or put out till his job was done.  And gloriously the old man done it.  He rubbed the baby down like a professional and wrapped him up and took him into the bedroom. Then he took the poultice from Dolores, stripped up his sleeve and tried it on his bare arm, waved it round a spell to cool it and then laid it on the baby’s little round chest.  As he hunched there on the edge of the bed, watching, he seemed to have forgot all about Tuck Williams and cusswords and guns, and you might have took him for a real good, grandfatherly old man.  But he little knowed that he was doctoring Tuck Williams’ baby, and less that Tuck Williams himself was watching him in the shadow of the doorjamb.  The stillness lasted quite a long while, with the old man perched on the edge of the bed and the women looking on with their arms round each other and me filling the doorway to keep Tuck from showing.

            “He'll do for now,” said Hempson finally.  “Keep him warm and don't let that poultice freeze on him.  I got to be going.  Spike, you come outside a minute—”

            “Hands up, Hempson,” said Tuck, shoving me to one side and covering him.  The old man jumped and blazed out with a mouthful of language that didn't take no account of ladies and babies, but he put up his hands.

            “That's all right,” said Tuck. “I won’t shoot you, but I aint going to let you shoot me ontil we discuss matters.  Hempson, about a month ago I walloped you alongside of the jaw.  That wasn’t hardly fair, considering my size and your age, and I apologize.  But since then you have had the pleasure of cussing me out once and shooting at me twice.  The account pretty near balances, don't it?  But besides all that, you have done a big thing tonight for my baby—”

            “Your baby!” gurgled Hempson.

            “Yes, he gets his beauty from his mother, so naturally you didn't notice me in him,” said Tuck.  “But he’s mine, the only one I've got, and it looks as if you had pulled him out of a pretty hard fix tonight.  If you're agreeable, I'm willing to call off this shooting business for good.”

            “Sounds nice,” growled the old man, “but it don’t get me nothing.  Your law hounds are all on my trail.”

            “Nary one!” said Tuck in his highest, moralest way.  “I aint that sort, Hempson.  This row of ours is a personality, and nobody on earth knows a thing about it but you and me and Spike Saddler.”

            “The sheriff—“

            “The sheriff never heard of it and never will.  It’s our scrap, onderstand.”

            The old man looked jarred and foolish, like you feel when you go upstairs in the

dark and lift your foot one step too manv and come down with a bang.  He forgot the circumstances and lowered one hand to run his sleeve across his nose in a thoughtful way.

            “Why, Tuck Williams,” he stuttered at last, “you’re a man.  I reckoned you were just a officer.”

            “A little of both,” laughed Tuck, “and you’re a old humdinger. Do we call it square?”

            He stretched out a hand, and Hempson, staggering a little and looking old and weak and, someway, pitiful all of a sudden, got up and took it.  Just then I waved my arms for them to be still.  The door stood open and we could hear the whistle on the hoist in town, ten miles away, blowing for the change of shift at midnight.

            “Ladies and gentlemen,” said I, “it’s Christmas morning.  Peace and good will to men—and women—and babies.  Hempson, do you reckon you could get away with a good, hot meal of chuck?”


Thanks to Greg Scott for providing the story.



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