“We’re gon’ buy Elmer McCurdy’s body. That’s what we’re gon’ do.”
Ellen leaned into her best friend Harlan’s side, her features locked with seriousness. She was all Russett hair and messy braids with a splattering of sawdust freckles along the tops of her cheeks. As much as her hair stood out among the folks in town, it was easy for the prairie’s natural colors to capture the essence of Ellen’s features and hide her away as she dreamt about what it might be like to leave the boringness of Oklahoma. Nothing exciting ever happened in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma until the passenger train that came through was robbed and the lawmen killed the robber with a knock-down shootout.
“What in the world d’ya mean we’re gon buy Elmer McCurdy’s body?!”
Harlan cinched his forehead as he unwrapped his sandwich from the waxed paper his momma made him for lunch. It was the same sandwich he ate every single Friday, sugar, and lard on whole-wheat bread. This plan that his best friend Ellen just presented him with was grandiose at best, and perplexing at worst. For every showboating thing Ellen Whitmore did, like proposing they buy a dead man’s body, Harlan Autry enjoyed activities of a solitary nature. He much preferred reading out in the barn and riding his horse around the perimeter of his family’s property looking for breaks in the fence. It was a job that only required one man, his tools, and his horse. Quiet, simple, and predictable, it was the way that Harlan liked to live his life.
Ellen was enough calamity for his often quiet world, but the two provided a necessary balance in one another. His momma told him that true cowboys followed one rule above all others; that there are two theories to arguin’ with a woman, and neither one of them works. If being Ellen’s best friend meant he’d be a real cowboy one day, well, then he’d mastered the number one rule already.
“Don’t be a spineless yellow belly Harlan we can pull this off. I see that look you’ve got there on your dumb ole’ face. But it’s the only way we’re gonna get your pocket watch back. Meet me out back by old man Herman’s pasture right before class tomorrow, I’ll tell you the plan then.”
Ellen slapped Harlan right on his shoulder, with a grip as strong as any other boy his age that had been hauling hay all summer. He wanted his pocket watch back, but he wasn’t sure what Elmer McCurdy’s body had to do with it.
Two days prior, Harlan’s daddy, a train conductor, was held up on that passenger train by a sad excuse of a petty robber by the name of Elmer McCurdy. The train his daddy worked on ran from Broken Arrow down to Oklahoma City, where the bigger banks were located. It wasn’t uncommon for him to be gone a few days at a time. Harlan’s daddy survived the robbery and the subsequent shootout, but Elmer made off with his daddy’s pocket watch. Mr. Autry returned home shook up and watchless. He had to explain to Harlan that the watch that was his to inherit one day was gone, held with Mr. McCurdy’s personal effects.
At the sound of the earliest rooster crow, Ellen anxiously waited in the tall amber wheat fields for Harlan to tell him all the details to get his family’s watch back. The clouds covering the prairie behind old man Herman’s pasture were thick like curdled milk.
When Ellen Whitmore had a plan, everyone knew she was dead set on following through with it. It was common for the girls at the local schoolhouse to wear calico printed dresses with wide-brimmed bonnets. For four months straight Ellen begged and pleaded with her mother to sew her a pair of pants, she argued that it would make her chores in the barn far easier to complete. She argued that it could help drive in the cattle atop one of their pinto horses if she were in pants and not some cumbersome dress. Her head often left uncovered for the sun to kiss her freckles more than they already had been, Ellen had too much tumbleweed in her blood to follow the status quo.
Her mother conceded to one pair of pants the year that Ellen turned sixteen with one warning.
“Now Ellen, I expect you to wear a dress to chapel on Sundays and I won’t hear anything else about it. You can be gregarious out there on the prairie, but in the Lord’s house you will be dressed as a lady.”
Ellen laughed at the notion that a young lady was some kind of exhibitionist if she wore pants, and not if she wore a dress. The access points on each piece of clothing seemed to prove otherwise when Leland James and Ellen had some secret time out behind the well house at the school one day.
“Harlan, leave it to me. I was born on the Fourth of July, and I ain’t scared of no man. Momma says that I popped into this world loud like a firework any ole way.”
Harlan chuckled any time Ellen sassed him, it was the most endearing part of their friendship as he knew she didn’t mean any harm.
Ellen could see the simple flaxen-colored hair of Harlan moving across the prairie, his broad shoulders presented themselves first before anything else ever did. If it weren’t for how tall he was, you’d never even know he was coming. That's how quiet he was. He hesitated with some reservation and asked, “Okay, Ellen Whitmore. What d’ya have up your sleeve? How’re you getting this watch back? I hope you know what you’re doing.”
Energetic giggles filled the early morning silence of the pasture. Ellen mauled her wild loose hairs back from her forehead and got straight to the point.
“Harlan hope is a four-letter word, and you know how the good Reverend don’t like us using them kinds of words. We can’t hope, hope ain't a pain management plan. If we’re gonna get your daddy’s pocket watch back we’ll need to be clever.”
Harlan pulled out his tiny paper notebook, and with his pencil made bullet points of the plan.
- Ellen will wear
That’s all that could come to mind when Ellen said they’d need to falsify a live birth certificate for Elmer McCurdy, and then one for Homer McCurdy (Elmer’s imaginary brother). Harlan was to pose as Homer’s younger brother, come to collect his brother’s body and personal effects. Ellen instructed Harlan to wear his best cowboy boots, the ones he wears to chapel and she’d show up in her best calico dress with accompanying bonnet. “The carnival is in the city this weekend Harlan, our parents won’t mind if we go as long as we make it through the Reverend’s service!” They’d catch the passenger train into Oklahoma City to where they held Elmer’s body.
“From there, we just have to convince that undertaker with our very fancy made-up documents that Elmer is your brother and you’ve come to collect! Easy as pie, Harlan.”
Ellen made it sound like stealing candy from a baby when in fact it was more like a ballroom waltz with a rattlesnake and Harlan wasn’t one to enjoy dancing or the company of snakes. Everything about Ellen’s wild west plan of stealing a body by hitchhiking on the train seemed dangerous and impossible. Harlan thought it might be better to let the family watch go, there would be other watches. He’d save money to buy his daddy a new one by riding his horse around the neighbor's property offering to fix fences. Yes, that seemed like the safest way to play this whole thing out.
“Ellen. Now, you know I love you, wild girl. But this, this seems dangerous. I’m worried you’re biting off more than the both of us can chew. What will we do once we have his body?! We're gonna drag it, just the two of us, and then what?”
The light flared in Ellen’s eyes as if to accept his challenge.
‘Well, it’s a good thing for you Harlan Autry that my mouth is bigger than anyone could imagine. You just watch.”
Two days later Ellen and Harlan caught the passenger train after chapel down to Oklahoma City. They had three hours to go over the plan, to get it right, and to correlate their details with one another. They figured that hiding in a packed feed car, hidden behind large bags of corn meant to feed cows and pigs, was their best bet at hitching a ride without being caught. The day had been hot to begin with, but now they were tucked inside the stuffy train car with hardly much of a breeze. The train moved slowly with the occasional jolting motion. This gave the two enough time to practice being engaged and getting their sad faces perfected to appear simply devastated by the untimely death of their wayward brother. They had to be convincing.
“You can’t forget to take off your hat when you enter the building. If they’re going to believe that you are Elmer’s brother you have to abide by all the rules of the West. Hat off in the hall. Nod firmly, and say ‘I reckon a whole bunch.’
Harlan nodded slowly and sure like, “I reckon I can do that.”
Ellen knew to lead them past the Holloway Saloon with its bright white painted shudders and wooden porch. The doors of the saloon swung back and forth with a squeal that could use some greasing. Ellen led Harlan around the back of the building to the undertaker's entrance. The door was marked with a small skull in the window frame and no other identifying features, except for the smell. On a hot day like today there wasn't an undertaker in the world that could keep the smell of decay at bay.
Ellen quickly remembered that Elmer wasn't the only one that was killed in that robbery a few days back, and it wasn't uncommon for Oklahoma City to see its fair share of shootouts once or twice a week. This undertaker was busy, unable to keep up even, and the smell told them so.
Their local newspaper had written up three big stories all about the train robbery explaining all the details about McCurdy’s body, and how the undertaker kept the body in his backroom as no one had come forward to claim his remains. The sun burned the back of Harlan’s neck until the sweat dripped through his entire collar. It was a good thing too, because before he’d just been sweating bullets out of sheer nerves. At least he could now blame the sweat on the sweltering heat.
Harlan used his upper shoulder to push the heavy door open. The smell inside wasn't much better than out, and the place felt downright creepy like the ghost town's Harlan read about in his old books. The chills on his arm were covered by his long sleeved button up. The undertaker seemed indifferent, smug even. This was a man that profited off the death of others. Harlan didn't put it past him to be the kind of man that drank downstream from a herd of cows.
“Hello Sir, we read in the newspaper that you have my future brother-in-law’s remains here and we’ve come to collect him and his personal belongings.”
Ellen kept her arm hooked into Harlan’s as she reached into her purse and pulled out the fake documents. She slid them across the counter with a quiet and conservative nod. Harlan stifled the shock at seeing his best friend being so demure by clearing his throat.
The undertaker looked at Harlan and Ellen and back at Harlan again.
“Y’all expect me to believe that you’re McCurdy’s brother?”
As if on cue Harlan chimed in with a, “I reckon so Sir. This here is my girl Willa, we’re set to be married in the Spring. She was born on the Fourth of Juu-ly. Ain't she pretty like a firecracker?”
Ellen shyly tipped her head to gaze at Harlan’s face as he squeezed her tight to the side of his body as they’d rehearsed on the train.
“Oh Homer, you always know what to say to make a girl feel pretty. It’s true, my momma says I burst into the world like a bright ole firework! It’s how I knew that Homer here was my one true love. Go on, tell ‘em, Homer, tell this fine man why we’re suited.”
The undertaker crossed his beefy arms across his leather apron covered in bodily smatterings. Before he had time to interrupt, Harlan followed the script as if it were in his blood.
“We’re suited because I was born on the Leap year. Meaning, my birthday don’t come but every four years, or something like that. Any ole way, I won’t bore you with that math. Either way, we’re suited I reckon.”
“Now you two listen here, I’ve had plenty of people come here hoping to get Elmer McCurdy’s body for their own. If you wanna see the man embalmed you can,” he leaned in and whispered, “for a small price.”
Harlan hadn’t expected there to be a price, he was invested in Ellen’s plan and had started to believe that it just might work. He firmed up his posture ready to argue with this overly shady undertaker, “Now listen here, we’ve come to collect my-”
Ellen snapped the back of Harlan’s suspenders, shutting up his flapping jaws. She dug down into her purse again and placed two coins in the man’s hands.
“That should be enough to cover our viewing, shouldn't it?”
The undertaker nodded, waving the two past a hallway of pine coffins devoid of bodies with prices written on the inside of the lids. Harlan at the thought of all this death surrounding him, and even more at the notion he’d have to look at the dead train robber in a matter of seconds.
“You got 5 minutes y’hear? I’ll come to get ya when your time is up, don’t try no funny business.”
Ellen’s red hair fought its way out from her bonnet as she pried it off her head. Harlan could hear that Ellen was rushed but his boots felt heavy like he was stuck in quicksand.
‘Well, what’re we gon’ do now Ellen Whitmore. I spect this wasn’t part of your grand plan!” Harlan whispered firmly, he was right scared of the big undertaker man in the other room and knew he’d much prefer not being buried in one of those pine boxes back in the hall.
Ellen made quick for the back door cracking it like a bandit sneaking through the night.
“Now listen here Harlan Autry, you hush up real quick and fish around for the watch we came for. Check all his pockets, we don’t have long.” She kept scanning the back alleyway urging Harlan to hurry.
Harlan’s stomach soured at touching a dead man’s body.
“Now Elmer, I don’t want any trouble. I just came for my daddy’s watch you stole.”
His momma’s words flooded his head and his eyes went black like coffee on the campfire, “Don’t go messin’ with nothin’ that ain’t bothering you.”
“Harlan! Breathe! We’re runnin’ outta time!” Ellen shout-whispered as Harlan came back to.
Fishing around in the front and back pockets, Elmer’s gap-toothed mouth hung open and Harlan swore that he felt the breath of the very dead man. His fingers made contact with something cool.
“Ellen! I got the watch!” He ran to the back door where Ellen was quietly staked out. Two questionable men with tattered and dirty cowboy hats approached the back door.
Ellen waved the men into the room and Harlan watched as they hoisted the embalmed bandit up and out the back door. Ellen waved Harlan back into the alley and they sprinted at full speed back to the passenger train.
“What are you staring at Harlan?”
Harlan mustered up the last of his guts and noted, “Ellen Whitmore, I’m not sure if I’m more speechless that your whole scheme worked or that you’re wearing a dress! I have questions.”
Ellen’s freckles squished together at the intensity of her smile.
“Well Harlan Autry, I may or may not have answers. All I did was tell those carnies that we were related to McCurdy by flashing them those birth certificates and that we’d give them the body if they gave us some money. Half upfront, and the other half after the body was delivered. That’s all.”
Harlan whooped with laughter, feeling more alive than he’d ever felt. Nothing about mending fences ever brought him as much joy as being Ellen’s sidekick in the wild west ever did.
“Ellen, I hope you got a plan for that money you just acquired.”
She leaned into him as the train lurched forward, “What’d I tell ya about them four-letter words Harlan?”