Authors: Paul Bagdon
Tags: #Historical, #Fiction, #General, #Westerns
They'd barely slurped the snow-white foam off their first beers at the bar when a voice cut through the saloon chatter and the drunken laughter.
Will turned slowly, stepping away from the bar. There were two men facing him from about eight feet away. The speaker was Mexican, with long, greasy hair and a drooping mustache that hung two inches below his jaw. His holster, tied low on his thigh, held a Colt .45. “You have someteeng my fren' Meester VanGelder wants.”
The second man was white, short, and scruffy, looking like a cowhand at the end of a drive, except for his tied-down holster.
“Your friend VanGelder is a fat, cowardly pig, an' you two sows look like you came from the same litter,” Will said in almost a conversational tone. “You got something to take care of with me, let's get to it.”
The Mexican's eyes were coal black and glistened like those of a snake. “You make beeg talk,” he snarled, “but now you die. No?” His hand swept to the grips of his pistol . . .
books by Paul Bagdon:
THE BUSTED THUMB HORSE RANCH
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Copyright Â© 2011 by Paul Bagdon
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
ISBN 13: 978-1-4285-1166-8
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This one is for Don D'Auria, the absolute best editor a writer could possibly have, as well as for the cover art folks, the promotion people, the proofers, and the contract people at Dorchester/Leisure.
As my protagonist would say, “Damn! They don't come no better'n that.”
The sun hung over Will Lewis and his Appaloosa stud, Slick, like a gigantic, flaming brass disk, sucking all moisture from the earth, the desiccated prairie grass, and the man and his horse. An endless sweepâa swellâof merciless heat had begun shortly after first light and had escalated almost exponentially since then.
Slick was dragging his toes and weaving slightly, even at his plow-horse walk. His head hung low, muzzle barely a foot from the ground.
Will reached forward and took a pinch of hide from Slick's neck, stretched it up an inch or so, and released it. The flesh moved back into place slowly, lethargicallyâSlick was baking in his own hide and not far from going down. Lewis knew that it was a sure bet that if Slick did go down, he'd never get up again.
Will hefted his canteen: it was maybe a quarter full. His throat was a sandpit, his lips cracked and weeping blood, his entire being screaming for water. He reined in, slouched down from his saddle, dumped the canteen into his Stetson, and held the hat to Slick's muzzle. The horse sucked once, emptying the hat, and eyed Will, demanding more, begging for more.
Lewis stepped back onto his saddle, red and black spots floating in his vision. He pulled in a long, deep breath. The spots didn't disappear but they diminished in size and number.
His words weren't anywhere near perfectly formed, and he could barely hear himself speak. “We shoulda hit th' town if Hiram's directions was right. Hiramâhe's a idjit. He jus' mighta up an' killed me an' a good horse.”
Slick was weaving more noticeably.
“Sonofabitch,” Will mumbled, and heeled Slick to keep him moving.
At first Will thought it was just another oddly shaped cholla. As he drew closer he saw it was a sign. Like all the signs of jerkwater West Texas towns, it was a slab of barn wood with hand-painted text. It was pocked with bullet holes and speckled with shotgun pellets. The sign read
Slick's head shot up as if he were suddenly checking the sky, his nostrils flared, his breath huffing through them. He smelled either humans or waterâit made no difference to him. Either one promised the end of his thirst. He picked up his pace without urging from Will.
Another couple hundred yards later the tinkling notes of a honky-tonk piano reached Will. A vision of a schooner of beer the size of a hog's head popped into his mind and refused to leave it. His throat moved up and down in a swallowing motion without his volition.
They came down a grade and Dry Creek spread before them, such as it was. There were the usual false-fronted structures on either side of a pitted and rutted street that put a tail of dirt and grit in the air
behind each horse and wagon. The town offered a mercantile, a shoe and boot, an undertaker and furniture maker, three saloons, and a sheriff's office. At the end of the street was a small church, and beyond that, a livery and blacksmith operation. The reason the town existedâa railroad depot with stock fencesârested at the far end of the street, beyond the church and stable.
Each gin mill had a watering trough in front of it, partially under the hitching post. The scent of water goaded Slick into an awkward, shambling lope and Will gave him all the rein he wanted. The horse slid to a stop at the first trough and buried his muzzle in the water, sucking like berserk bellows. Will climbed down and fell to his knees next to Slick. He pushed some of the horse spittle and green scum to the side and planted his face in the water.
The water was piss warm, metallic tasting, with a good growth of stringy, weedlike scum at the bottomâand it was the finest thing Will Lewis had ever tasted in his life. He drank until he puked, stood, dragged Slick's head out of the trough, and stepped into a stirrup. Slick fought him, rearing and snorting, but Will wheeled him around and jabbed his heels into his sides, pointing him toward the blacksmith shop. Too much water at one time to a dehydrated horse could cause founder or twisted gut. If Will's old man had taught him anything, it was this: “Ya take care of yer horse 'fore ya look after yerself.”
The smith was a barrel of a man with forearms like hams, a full beard, and the chest of a bull buffalo. His hair, twisted and greasy, hung well below his shoulders. He came out to meet Will as he dismounted.
“Nice animal,” he commented in a deep, hoarse voice, “ 'cept the poor fella's dryer'n a dust storm in hell. You oughta know better'n toâ”
“That horse an' me just crossed that goddamn desert out there,” Will snarled. “I gave him the last of my canteen an' both of us come close to croakin'. You got a problem with me, do somethin' about it. If not, shut your yap an' listen. You water this boy every twenty minutes, maybe a quarter bucket. I want shoes all aroundânot keg shoes, neither. I want you to turn them outta good bar stock and bang in an extra nail at each toe. Give him small rations of molasses an' oats, maybe some corn, a few times a day, an' all the good hay he wantsânot this burned-out shit you got stacked up here, the trefoil an' clover I see there in the back. Got it?”
The smith grinned. His teeth were an almost startling white. “Feisty, ain't you? Now lookâall that's gonna cost you some money,” he said.
Will flipped a double eagle to the big man. “You need more, let me know.”
The blacksmith raised the coin to his mouth and bit down on itâhard. Will saw the muscles at the man's jaw flex and harden.
The smith wiped the coin on his muleskin apron and dropped it into the pocket of his denim pants. “Look here,” he said, “we got off to a bad start. I had no way of knowin' you crossed the sand. I figgered you was another twenty-five-a-month-an'-chow cowpuncher who'd run a good horse to death. I was wrong.” He extended his right hand. “Lucas Toole,” he said.
Will took the hand. It was like grasping a brick that had grown fingers. “Lewis,” he said, “Will Lewis.”
Lucas grinned again. “I got me a bottle out backâreal whiskey, not 'shine. I was wonderin' maybe you'd like a little taste after drinkin' some of that good water outta the barrel there with the scoop hangin' on it. Pure deep well water it is, cold 'nuff to crack yer teeth.”
“No more'n I want to wake up tomorrow morning.” Will grinned, heading to the barrel. “But maybe first, my horse . . .”
“I was hopin' you'd say that,” Lucas said, stepping ahead of Will with a bucket, filling it a quarter full, and holding it to Slick's muzzle.
It was good whiskey, just as Lucas said: the label was real, not a sloppy counterfeit, and the booze tasted of woodsmoke and fresh prairie grass. Will took three long sucks. “Damn,” he said almost reverently, handing the bottle back.
Lucas lowered the level of the bottle a good two inches and wiped his mouth with his arm. “Done some time, Will?” he asked.
Will's eyes showed nothing. “Time? What makes you think that?”
“Well, hell,” Lucas said, “there's jus' somethin' about a man who been inside for a good bitâhis eyes ain't never still, and he don't seem to ever relax. He's always tight, like he's waitin' for a punch he knows is comin' but he don't know exactly when.”
After a long moment, Will said, “I done four. I was movin' some beef that maybe had the wrong brand on 'em. An' I lost the bill of sale, too. Musta flew right outta my pocket with the wind. The fact I was movin' 'em at night toward Mexico didn't impress the law positive.”
“That'll happen to a man,” Lucas said. “Where they lock you up?”
“Damn. Hard time.”
“My younger brother done three in Folsom,” Lucas said. “That's how I knew about how a fella looks when he first comes out.”
There was a long and somewhat uncomfortable silence. Lucas broke it by asking, “Soâwhat're you gonna do now?”
“My brother, Hiram, has a cattle spread not far from here. I've got some money I hid out before I went to prison. Me an' Hiram are gonna expand his place a lotâmore land an' more beef. Hiram, he's a hell of a hand with . . .”
Lucas's grin dropped as suddenly as it would have if someone had sucker punched him. “Hiram Lewis, that'd be?”
“Well, yeah. But what . . . what . . . ?”
“Take this,” Lucas said, handing back the bottle. “Have a good belt an' then sit you down on a bale of hay.”
“Why? What's . . . ?”
“Jus' do it, OK?”
Will, confused, did it, eyes locked with those of the smith.