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TITLE: Me And The Boys 2
By Mark Bell

This is a story generated by a song I wrote in 1985. The song is about old cowboys who cannot be cowboys anymore. The chorus goes:

We can be found, just sitting around,
swapping lies about things that we've done.
Reminiscing about the times we had
in the days when we used to be young.
It's easy to find us, just look for old cowboys.
When you see 'em you'll know you found me and the boys.

The premise to the story is there were four friends. One remains alive and arrives after the third member of the group passes away. He is met by a group of neighborhood kids. And, he starts telling the stories of his friends and himself.

For now, I am looking for comments on readability, "realness" of the characters, setting, dialogue.
We were pretending to play catch in my yard. We were doing that every day, or something else—just to be outside in case the old man came out. It had been two days since the stranger had gone inside Old Man Hanson's house.

On the third day, we watched Mr. Ward bring out a box, and set it on the curb. Then he went back inside, leaving the door open. Billy, Linda and I met him at the curb when he came out with the fourth load.

"What are you doing," Linda asked sweetly.

He paused, looked all of us up and down. Then leaned back over the bush at the end of the walkway, and spit a stream of brown liquid into the shrub.

"Cleaning," he said flatly. He was dressed in a t-shirt, jeans and cowboy boots.

"Can we help," I asked, not believing those words came out of my mouth. My parents would have sworn I had been kidnapped and replaced by pirates or aliens if they had heard it. They also would have given me a long list of things to do.

The old man stopped and looked at me, eyebrows raised. Billy looked at me in amazement. Linda was checking out one of the boxes.

"Oh," Linda exclaimed softly, glancing in one of the open boxes. "Pretty pictures. How come you're throwing those away? What are they pictures of?"

"Kids and their questions," he grumbled, smiling out of the right side of his mouth. "It's old stuff Jimmy collected over the years. He didn't have any family, other than me and the boys, and I've got no use for it."

He turned to go back inside, then stopped. "You're welcome to go through it and keep anything you find interesting," he added with a shrug. Then he smiled again. "I'll even tell you the story behind anything you find, if I know it."

We each dove for a different box. Linda beat us all to the one with the pictures sticking out of it. Mine was all kinds of papers. The old man just stood there watching us, and chuckling.

"Mister Ward," Billy asked, looking up from his box, "how come you're here doing all this stuff?"

"It's a promise we made each other about ten years ago," Dale said, that wistful look in his eye again. "Back then, we'd get together once a year somewhere, face to face, and just catch up with each other. That year, we were in Denver. Somehow the subject came up that we needed to look out for each other when the sad day came and one of us passed on. So, we looked up an attorney and had the papers drawn up."

He paused to wipe the corner of his eye. "I think it was Henry's idea originally," he said tightly. "None of us knew then that Norman had cancer and would be gone within a year."

I looked back into my box. I wasn't sure how to handle that. I glanced at the papers I had in my right hand.

"These are Army papers," I said, surprised. "Was Jimmy, I mean Mr. Hanson, in the Army?"

"Jimmy fought in the Korean War," Mr. Ward said proudly, with a grim smile. "He even earned a Purple Heart."

"So, he got shot," Linda said, her brow furrowed down as she thought that over.

"That's what they give the Purple Heart for," Billy said knowingly.

"That's not all they give that medal for," Dale corrected him gently. "You can get it for all kinds of things that don't involve being shot at. But, in Jimmy's case, he saved his squad by drawing enemy fire while they were out on patrol. Took a bullet in his side while doing it."

"Wow," I heard myself breathe. "A real hero used to live right on my street! That's cool!"

"Nothing cool about killing other people, son," the old man said sadly, "even if they are shooting at you. Anyone who tells you otherwise either hasn't had to do it, or is sick in the head."

"Still," Linda said firmly, "he earned a medal for what he did."

"He should have gotten more than just a Purple Heart," Dale said, suddenly angry. Then, he shook his head, and spit in the bush again. "A white guy doing that would have got other medals, maybe a Bronze or Silver Star. But, Jimmy was a black soldier in 1952. They didn't get much recognition then, any more than they did in WWII or Vietnam."

We were all silent then. Not much you could say to that, even as a 12 year old. All of us stood there uncomfortably for a few seconds. Dale cleared his throat, and spit into the bush again.

"I bet that's that why he was so angry," Linda asked softly.

The old man raised his eyebrows, and half smiled—just the right side of his mouth.

"Part of it, young lady," he said sadly. "Lot of racial crap—pardon my language—went on in those days."

"Jimmy hated people because they were always changing their ways based on who they were around," he went on after a long pause. He stood there staring off into the distance. "Jimmy said he liked it better around animals because they never changed."

"What I liked most about Jimmy was if he said something, you could trust it. What most folks didn't like him because he was down right blunt about stuff. If you asked him something, he would tell you the unvarnished truth. He never softened what he had to say." Dale Ward chuckled mischievously. "That got him in a lot of fights. I think all of us ended up bailing him out of some conflict or another."

There was another long, awkward silence. The old man lifted his head and sniffed the air. Then he grunted, picked up a box and stated carrying it back inside. That's when I noticed the breeze.

"What are you doing," Linda asked, obviously as confused as I felt. "Why are you taking it back inside?"

"If you plan on going through this stuff," the old man called over his shoulder, "grab a box and bring it in with you. It's about to rain."

The three of us looked at each other. We all wanted to see the inside of the house. We wanted it since the Old Man Hanson had passed away. Something about wanting to see some part of the man's life got my curiosity up. It was even worse now that I knew he was a soldier.

Here we were with the chance to go inside, and we hesitated. I knew why I waited. I wasn't so sure about the old man. He was a stranger. We'd never seen him before the other day. He could have been an ax murderer. My gut told me I could trust him. But, still I wondered about him.

Besides, I'd watched the weather forecast. I knew it wasn't supposed to rain. I knew that could change. There was a chance of rain every day. I wasn't going in there by myself. I was waiting for the other two to commit.

Billy shrugged. Linda shook her head. Then a rain drop hit the back of my hand. My eyes popped open. I grabbed a box and ran inside. I beat Billy and Linda. We all beat the rain—but not by more than a step or two.
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