Dear Readers:

Some of you know that Johnny Harper was a storyteller. In a fictional experiment here I decided to tell a few stories that he told me. I have no way of knowing what he exaggerated (you know how storytellers are — they tell you what makes a good story), nor of verifying the events. I am sure that bits of the stories are true, but I am fictionalizing elements that I cannot know. Incidentally, my Grandmother Carroll used to say, “You’re a stinking storyteller,” meaning “You are lying.”

“Shhhh,”Johnny told his little brother David as they crept partway down the staircase in their cowboy pajamas. Johnny knew they were supposed to be in bed, but he couldn’t resist the sound of the party downstairs, the clinking glasses, the laughter and the sound of their father Art singing over his guitar:

“I ride an old paint,
I lead an old dan
I’m goin’ to Montana
For to throw the hooley-ann.”

Johnny didn’t know what a “hooley-ann” was, but he bet it was fun to throw. He hadn’t been roping or riding, but he heard cowboy stories on the radio and had begged bits of cowboy gear from his parents. At four, he already organized mock gun battles between him and his brother, but now he was intent on hearing all of the words to the song.

Long after David fell asleep in his own bed, Johnny lay awake, humming the tune he had heard and turning over the words in his mind:

“Ride around, little dogies,
Ride around real slow.
The fiery and the snuffy
Are rarin’ to go.”

Johnny was rarin’ to go himself the day his first grade teacher asked if anyone would like to sing a song for the class. He shot his hand into the air and strode up to the front of the classroom, where he opened his mouth and spun the long tale of how some drunken cowboys in the Sierra de-horned the devil, branded him and left him howling with his tail tied in knots.

Mrs. Teacher called Johnny’s mother Marian Lumsdaine to talk about that performance, not because of the surprising themes of rowdy behavior and drinking, but because Johnny had given a flawless account in eight long verses, singing in tune and keeping the attention of his classmates.

Marian Lumsdaine thanked Mrs. Teacher, but she was not surprised. Johnny had been memorizing songs since at least age three and singing bits of them at age two. She boasted of this one night at when she and her husband Art had friends over, colleagues from the psychological institute, friends in the foreign service, all people interested in aspects of human behavior. “Johnny sings beautifully.”

Tom Diplomat said, “Oh, come on, Marian, toddlers can’t sing.”

“Johnny can.”

“Two-year-olds don’t sing. Perhaps a bit of sing-song.”

“No, Tom. Johnny sings.”

“Sure he does.”

“Come with me, Tom.”

Marian put down her glass, stubbed out her cigarette in the beanbag ashtray, and rose from the blue tweed sofa, followed by Art and a couple of curious guests. Up the stairs she marched, flipping on the light in Johnny’s room to find him lying in bed staring at the ceiling, although she had put him to bed an hour ago.

“Johnny, will you sing us something, please?”

Johnny sat up, leaned against the headboard, cocked his head at the adults and began:

“As I walked out in the streets of Laredo.
As I walked out in Laredo one day…”

Marian flashed a smile at Tom. The others looked at each other, listening to the child who had only been walking himself for a year singing the recognizable melody in a high clear voice.

When Johnny finished, Marian nodded at him and said, “Thank you, Johnny. You try to get some sleep. I’m going to turn out your light now.”

She flicked the switch, leaving only the light of a nightlight plugged into the wall socket. The guests filed out of the room and back down the stairs as Marian softly closed the door.