This book is dedicated to
those of us who put on chaps
and spurs to go to work.
The winter after little Bill was born was some harsh. It warn’t terrible cold or anythin’ like that, but Lord, we had a mess a snow. It just kept stackin’ up most all winter long. Them with stock to care for had a time, an’ they was some cows an’ pigs lost to it. Even a couple a old folks passed on while tryin’ to dig out an’ such, an’ a lot a supply wagons was slow in comin’ ‘cause a the roads bein’ so covered up an’ all. I purty much had my hands full doin’ what I could to keep the town goin’; an’ my deputies, Emory Nail an’ Hank Buford, didn’t git off no easier than me. On top a that, I was a daddy an’ all, an’ that was a helluva change in my life.
Harmony took to bein’ a mother some easier that I took to bein’ a father, I reckon. I done what I could to lighten her load, an’ so did her daddy, Verlon; but it was some fretfull havin’ a baby around. Seemed like to me that little Bill had a sense about him of just when to git to squawkin’ or somethin’ at the most inconvenient time. He’d start up in the middle a the night an’ most always wake me up afore Harmony would hear him, my ears bein’ tuned to the trail an’ all. I’d git up an’ fetch him to her so he could git a bite to eat an’ such. As time went on, I come to notice a difference in the way he’d holler if he was hungry or just wantin’ somebody to fuss over him. Them times, I’d walk him around or go downstairs an’ lay him on the davenport for a minute while I stoked the stove or somethin’. It got to where, after a while, that him an’ me kindly worked it out between us, an’ he’d purty much settle down whenever I picked him up. I even got to be a fair hand at changin’ him, but I left that to Harmony when I could. She seemed to handle it better. Sometimes what come out a that boy would set me to gaggin’.
He didn’t lack for friends much. Miz Clary come by whenever she could to mess with him an’ make sure he was bein’ attended to in a manner fittin’ her standards. She most always brung somethin’ for him, knittin’ him little booties an’ such, an’ even a pouch with a head flap to stick him in if Harmony wanted to take him someplace out in the cold. For his first Christmas I built him a cradle from some hard rock maple that hung in a stand an’ could swing back an’ forth to give him comfort. Arliss carved him a little-bitty Colt out a oak an’ showed up with it all wrapped up in tissue paper on Christmas day. Harmony got a kick outa that an’ allowed as how little Bill was a mite young for firearms. Arliss give it to him anyway an’ Bill grabbed aholt of it, like babies do, an’ waived it around a little afore he lost his grip on it. Arliss pointed out the fact that, ‘cause the boy had took it by the barrel an’ not the grip, he warn’t no smarter than his daddy an’ we probably should put it up ‘til he was old enough to git some proper instruction on the use a handguns.
Bill could be troublesome, no doubt about that. Now an’ then I’d threaten him about givin’ him to the Injuns, or feedin’ him to the hogs, but it didn’t seem to make no difference to him. I loved little Bill as much as I loved his momma, an’ it was a treat watchin’ him git to know me an’ recognize his daddy among all others.
Seemed to me that he got a little bigger ever day. By the spring, he set where he was propped up an’ looked around, studyin’ on things. I’d watch him lookin’ at stuff, seein’ things for the first time an’ all. I could durn near hear them little wheels turnin’ in his head as he come across somethin’ new, an’ almost everthin’ was new to the boy. What a wonder that musta been for him, discoverin’ the world all fresh an’ such. Sometimes I’d ketch Harmony watchin’ me while I watched little Bill an’ smilin’ in that sweet way she had. The truth of it is, I was happy. Oh, life warn’t all sugar cookies an’ rainbows, but I was anchored in a family, my family, an’ I took some fine pleasure in that.
Spring broke sudden like after that winter, an’ everthing greened up durn near overnight. All that snow cover had done the ground some good, I guess. It was early April an’ Deer Run was boomin’. We’d added several more families an’ another church was goin’ up. I worked some on the finish carpentry when I could to help out an’ such. The new preacher was a younger man named Clayton Beech. He was more love yer neighbor than he was fire an’ brimstone, an’ seemed to be a good fella. Part of the roof of the Red Bird Saloon had fell through from the snow load of the winter, an’ when they started fixin’ it, they went at the whole inside, too. Brought in a bunch from Jeff City to do the job, an’ it looked like it was gonna be some fancier than afore, the way they was goin’ after it.
I went to the office on a real nice afternoon an’ run across Hank Buford comin’ out as I was goin’ in.
“Hey, Boss,” he said, “how’s that baby?”
“Mean as a snake,” I said. “Caught him chewin’ on a table leg this mornin’. He got halfway through it afore I could pull him off.”
“I was you,” Hank said, “I’d git Verlon to build a iron cage to put that boy in afore his teeth sprout. Won’t nobody be safe.”
We stood there grinnin’ at each other for a minute. Then Hank spoke up agin.
“There’s a telegraph on the desk for ya,” he said. “I’ll be down at the Sweetwater for a bite.”
That message said that I was needed for some marshallin’ business over near Dunston in Calico County an’ that Homer Poteet would be comin’ to see me about the job. I should look for him to get details. I hadn’t seen Homer since afore he got shot by Cleveland Pettigrew in that Waxler mess, an’ I was some curious about how he was doin’ an’ how bad he’d been hurt. I put that telegraph message up an’ went outside to start my rounds an’ durned if I didn’t see Homer Poteet ridin’ up the way on a likely lookin’ blaze-face sorrel with four white socks. He stopped in front a me an’ brimmed his hat.
“Homer Poteet,” I said. “I just got a telegraph that said you was comin’ to see me. When ya gonna git here, ya reckon?”
“Hell, Rube,” he said, “ya cain’t depend on me. Might be another day or two afore I show up. That good lookin’ woman a yourn’ ever quit pinin’ over me an’ have that baby?”
“You’ll find out at supper tonight, I reckon,” I tolt him.
Homer swung down offa that sorrel then an’ come toward the porch. He had a leather an’ steel brace on his right leg that looked to me to be troublesome an’ he limped quite a bit, but he didn’t seem to be slowed up much. He follerd me inside an’ we set.
“How’s yer leg?” I asked him.
“I done fer them two fellers Pettigrew had with him, an’ got one in him, too, but he shore done me worse than I done him. The doc wanted me to let him cut it off, but I tolt him that I’d go under afore I be one-legged. They brung in a feller from Jeff City an’ he cut on it some an’ left instructions. I done some exercises I was supposed to an’ he come back a time or two, checkin’ up on me an’ such. Then he had this brace built for it. I’m still gittin’ used to it an’ all, but I git around purty good.”
“It cause ya much pain, does it?”
Homer nodded. “Fair bit,” he said. “But less than it did. I got some laudanum I carry, but I doan use it none if I can help it. It does for the hurtin’ all right, but I’ll tell ya what. A feller takes too much of it an he can easy git to where he craves it even when he ain’t hurtin’. It kinda got on top a me for a spell. Got to where it was on my mind most of the time. That ain’t no way to live, Rube. I got the best of it, but it durn near had me, boy. I come close to bein’ a dope fiend, an’ that’s the straight of it.”
“Gotcha a new horse, I see.”
“Yessir. I didn’t know how far down my ol’ gray really was. This geldin’ I got now is purty fair. You still got Willie, I guess.”
“I do,” I said.
“You still got Arliss the mule?”
“Him, too,” I said “He runs loose over at the forge with the chickens.”
Homer grinned. “I reckon he ain’t had his back scratched for a spell, has he?”
“Not since you done it,” I said. “You shoulda been here when Arliss the gunsmith found out about his namesake, Arliss the mule.”
Homer laughed. “I bet that bandy-legged little shit got plumb insulted,” he said, “an Arliss the gunsmith prob’ly didn’t like it much neither!”
That hit me sideways an’ it took a minute for the two of us to settle down.
“I didn’t know you was a Marshal,” I said.
“Deputy,” he said, “like you. Marion is out in the territory runnin’ after somebody. They doan know when he’ll be back. When he is, I speck he’ll look us up.”
“What do they need us for?”
“Jeff City got some complaints from over near Dunston in Calico County,” he said. “You seen any a these red cattle with white faces?”
“A few. Purty things. Built stocky an’ meaty like.”
“Comin’ thing, the way I hear it,” Homer said. “Them an’ those Black Angus ya see now an’ then. The days a the Texas cattle drives is fixin’ to end, I reckon. Prairie grass is sufferin’ some from drought an’ them ol’ range cows is thinnin’ out. The beef on these new ones is a damn site better, but they cain’t be just left ta run loose like them ol’ longhorns. They take some care. Call ‘em Herefords. The breed come from England, or Scotland. Someplace like that across the waters. There’s a ol’ boy come over from England name a Merrit Treadstone. Sir Merrit Treadstone, whatever the hell that means. He showed up over Calico County way a while back with more money than Ol’ Scratch. They say he’s buyin’ up everthing he can git his hands on to ranch them Herefords. Sellin’ a few bulls an’ cows to other fellers out in Oklahoma, Nebraska, Ioway, an’ such for big money, keeping stock back for his herd, sellin’ off steers at high prices for Hereford beef in Kansas City an’ Sain’t Louis. Fixin’ to build hisself a empire or somethin’. Folks is complainin’ he’s tryin’ to take over the whole durn county, an’ then some. Marshal’s Service wants us to go take a peek.”
“How far is it?”
“Less than a hunnerd miles, I speck,” Homer said. “Calls it the Calico Cattle Comp’ny. A extra two dollars a day an’ expenses if ya wanna go.”
Homer come to the house that evenin’ for supper to visit with Harmony an Verlon. He enjoyed the meal an’ made over little Bill somethin’ near shameful. After he went off to toss his roll at Miz Clary’s place, I tolt Harmony about why he’d come to town.
“Ruben,” she said, “you can’t let Homer go off on this all alone. He’s not up to it yet. Plus, you have been cooped up here all winter. I know your nature. You need to get out from time to time. I married you without the intent of trapping you or binding you to me. You were a wanderer when we met and, in your heart, you still are. If you don’t go, you will be a mess worrying about Homer every day and missing the space you need now and then to be happy here. The baby and I have a lot of support. You go on and you come back, safe and sound.”
Two days later we had all the chuck an’ possibles we needed an’ took out a little after daybreak. Me an’ Homer, on the Calico Trail.
Homer an’ me didn’t hurry none, tryin’ to make it easy on the horses, especially mine. Me workin’ in town mostly an’ it bein’ early spring, Willie had been some idle for a spell, an’ then had been after that new grass about as fast as he could swaller. He had a couple a problems. He was feather-footed ‘cause a bein’ not rode much, an’ he was spring fat. He was strong in his mind, figurin’ he knowed more than I did, an’ he was overweight an’ soft. After a hour or two a him tossin’ his head an’ gittin’ after the bit, crow-hoppin’ an’ fussin at me, I tolt Homer that I’d be back in a while, give Willie both spurs, hissed at him, an’ turned him loose.
That little buck was a mess. He squealed an’ durn near run plumb out from under me when I let him git after it. If it hadn’t a been for my saddle horn, I’d a rolled right offa his butt. He could run an’ he knowed it, but he was some optimistic about how long he could keep goin’. Warn’t more than a few minutes ‘til Willie figger’d he slow down. I wouldn’t let him. I give him another mile or so about as hard as he could go afore I let up. He had enough left to git upset with me an’ try to buck a little. When that didn’t do no good, he got plumb mad an’ figgerd he’d just go back home.
Willie had never been hard to git along with, but when he got to actin’ like that, my ruff come up. I cannot abide a barn-sour horse. I tolt him that he could go anyplace that he wanted, as long as he’d back up to git there. Horses don’t care for backin’ up much, it’s a unnatural gait for ‘em. If they is made to do it for too long, it gits after their hocks an’ can cause swellin’ an’ such. Ol’ Willie lost his taste for it purty quick. I trotted him in a circle a little while, then kept it up at a easy short lope. It helped cool him out a mite an’ straightened out his attitude. After he settled in, I got off of him an’ give him a half a biscuit I’d stuck in my jacket pocket afore we left home. By the time we got back to where Homer was, Ol’ Willie was plumb humble. Homer grinned at me.
“Git his mind right, did ya?” he asked.
“He’s settled some,” I said.
“Let’s take it slow today, Rube. Make a early camp.”
Prob’ly should. Be easier on the horse. He ain’t been rode much for quite a spell. He’ll be sore tomorrow.”
Homer grinned at me. “You ain’t been out no more than he has,” he said. “Gonna be interestin’ to see who rides who in the mornin’.”
As it turned out, I was the one that got on top. I didn’t like it much.
By late afternoon we crossed the river at Jeff City an’ got outa town a ways afore we made camp. Homer had brung some cans of them beans with him. We heated them beans up in the can an’ I fried up a little bacon. Harmony had sent along some balls a corn meal she fixed that had onion an’ wild garlic cooked in ‘em. She’d never made ‘em for me afore an’ they was right tasty.
“Corn Dodgers,” Homer said.
I looked at him an’ he went on. “Or Hushpuppies is another name for ‘em. Depends on where yer from, I guess. My momma usta fix these things whenever we’d have catfish. I got used to ‘em. Sometimes she’d make ‘em without the salt an’ onion an’ such, an’ put dried blueberries an’ cinnamon an’ honey in ‘em. Good to chew on when a feller was workin’ out in the cold. Give ya a little boost like.”
We tossed our rolls after we et an’ I passed Homer a peppermint stick. He spit out his chaw an’ stuck it in his cheek like a cigar.
“I noticed you ain’t carryin’ yer Yallerboy no more,” he said.
“Nossir, I ain’t.”
“Winchester ’76 ain’t it?”
“It is,” I said. “Centennial 45/75.”
“Purty good rifle,” Homer said. “Shoot two-thirds as far as my ol’ Sharps.”
“Arliss put one a them adjustable peep sights on it for me a couple a months ago,” I said. “It’ll reach out there a ways.”
I waited for him to say somethin’, but he didn’t. He did commence to snore, though. I swear, Homer an’ Marion could both go to sleep so quick they’d beat their eyes gittin’ closed. Me? I’d most always lay there for a spell, thinkin’ about this an’ that.
There come a little rain the next day that slowed us down a mite, an’ then Homer’s sorrel throwed a shoe. We got into Columbia late in the afternoon an’ found a smith. He put new shoes on the horse all the way around an’ let us stretch out in a empty stall for the night. They was a restaurant a couple a blocks away an’ we et there that night an’ had ham an’ eggs there the next mornin’. They sold us a dozen biscuits to take along an’ we was back on the trail a couple a hours after daybreak. I give Wille a bite a one a them biscuits afore we left an’ he took right to it.
Homer swung up an’ grinned at me. “I shoulda brung Willie back a piece a pie or somethin’,” he said. “I doan know what I was thinkin’.”
We made it to a town called Mexico by late afternoon. It was kindly a bustlin’ place. We found a livery down by the rail yard an’ left the horses there, then got some purty good fried chicken and found a roomin’ house. We got a double room an’ Homer took off about as soon as we got settled. He said since we was in Mexico, he figger’d they was a senorita out there someplace with his name on her. He never did come back to the room that I noticed, but he was at the livery when I went down there the next mornin’, leanin’ agin his horse. When he seen me, he put a leg over the saddle.
“Ain’t we gonna git no breakfast?” I asked him.
Homer didn’t say nothin’ back to me, but just turned that sorrel an’ headed off at a walk. I got Willie under leather an’ took out after him. He hadn’t gone a half a mile afore I caught him, settin’ head down an’ swayin’ quite a bit. I fell in behind him an’ left him alone. Looked to me like Homer didn’t feel too good.
We didn’t make mor’n twenty miles that day, but it was shore some nice country. Easy rollin’ hills an’ heavy grass. A little stream showin’ up now an’ then. Gittin’ on toward late afternoon, we had to detour from time to time ‘cause a fences bein’ put up with that bob-wire. Now an’ then we’d see a few a them Black Angus cows strung out makin’ dark spots agin the green grass in the sunshine. Except for havin’ them fences in the way, I don’t believe I ever had a nicer ride. Gittin’ on toward evenin’ we was about five or six miles outa Dunston an’ made a early camp by one a them little cricks. They was a small bunch a them red cows with white faces grazin’ off a ways, lookin’ as purty as they could. I got out some beans in a can an’ bacon while Homer picked up sticks a firewood. I had just got the skillet hot when Willie tossed his head an’ fussed a little. Homer looked off down the way across that grass an’ studied on things for a minute with them eyes a his.
“Hide yer badge, Rube,” he said. “Four of ‘em comin’ at a walk. Fair horses. Prob’ly ain’t just stockpushers or hayshakers. We’re just passin’ through, ain’t we?”
“On the way somewheres else, I reckon,” I said.
Homer nodded, went over an’ hid his Sharps under his roll, an’ come back an’ set. I started heatin’ up the beans an’ put some bacon in the skillet, while he made coffee. The bacon was near done an’ the coffee boilin’ when them fellas showed up. They rode in an’ stopped close, about thirty feet from the fire. We looked at them an’ they looked at us.
“Howdy, boys,” I said. “Coffee’s hot if ya got cups. Sorry, but we’re a little short on bacon.”
The one in front, settin’ on a handsome black geldin’, let his horse step forward. He was older than me but younger than Homer, carryin’ a 1875 Remington in a crossdraw. I had always admired them Remingtons.
“You fellers is on Calico land,” he said.
“I’ll be damned,” I said. “Ya learn somethin’ ever day, I guess. How ‘bout that coffee?”
“This here dirt that yer squattin’ on belongs to Mister Treadstone,” he said.
“By God, he has done hisself right fair,” I said. “He’s got hisself some fine grass. Purty cows, too. It a no on that coffee? Got some brown sugar if yer sweetooth is actin’ up.”
He set up some straighter in the saddle. “Yer tresspassin’,” he said.
“We are?” I said. “Homer, did ya know that? Did ya know we was tresspassin’.”
“Never give it no thought,” Homer said.
“I ‘spose you two just didn’t notice that bob-wire,” the fella said.
I grinned at him. “I mighta,” I said. “Lemme check my horse for cuts.”
A little snicker come from behind him. “You men havta move on,” he said. “Ya cain’t stay here.”
Homer spoke up. “We’ll git outa yer way in the mornin’,” he said. “Camp is made, I’m tired, tomorrow is soon enough. You run us off now, we’re gonna be out here on unfamiliar ground in the dark. I just got that sorrel. I run him up agin some a that wire in the night, likely he’s gonna git hurt. He gits hurt an’ sheds blood, I’m gonna have to cut some a that wire. I cut that there wire, an’ some a them good lookin’ cows might git out an’ run off. That there would be yer fault, pard. I’d hate to see you git in trouble ‘cause a nothin’ more than bacon, beans, an’ a night’s sleep.”
That fella an’ Homer looked at each other for a spell. “All right,” he said. “Tomorrow mornin’ you two be gone. I’ll be back to check.”
Homer smiled at him. “All by yerself?”
That fella reined his black around right smart, an’ the bunch of ‘em left at a high lope. Homer turned to me.
“I reckon them four ain’t the best that Treadstone’s got,” he said.
We got into Dunston late the next mornin’ an’ rode down the main street. They was a couple a saloons, a handsome eatin’ place, a bank, a barbershop an’ bathhouse, a general store, a drygoods store, a little grocery place, an’ a sheriff’s office an’ such. We stopped at the restaurant, tied the horses at the trough, an’ went on in an’ set. Purty soon this good-lookin’ little gal with deep red hair come over an’ brung us coffee and a smile.
“Gentlemen,” she said, “the special today is beef roast. Have you ever had Hereford beef?”
Me an’ Homer allowed as we didn’t believe we never had an’ took her word on everthing. She come back after a while with a big ol’ bowl a mashed potaters, a bowl a sweetcorn, an’ two plates with a couple a big slices a beef on each one under gravy, an’ baked carrots along the sides. I’ll tell you what. That there was the best beef I ever et. I couldn’t git over it. Homer neither. We tolt the waitress so when she come with more coffee.
“A gentleman named Treadstone raises the cattle near here at a place called the Calico Cattle Company,” she said.
“If he’s half as good as his beef, he’s a heck of a man,” I said.
“At least his beef is good,” she said, and walked away.
Homer smiled. “That there,” he said, “was some less than what a feller might call a ringin’ endorsement.”
We had no room for pie or anythin’. When the waitress come back to git money, Homer asked her if she knowed where the Royce Taylor place might be.
“Why would you be asking me about something like that?” she said.
“I figger’d you workin’ here an’ all, you’d be acquainted with most folks,” Homer said. “An’ seein’ how you feel about Treadstone, I thought you might be wise enough not to tell anybody else that two United States Marshals was here in response to Mister Taylor’s complaint about the Calico Cattle Comp’ny.”
“You men are marshals?” she asked.
“Yes, M’am,” Homer replied. “This here is Ruben Beeler. My name is Homer Poteet.”
“I have heard those names before, Marshal Poteet,” she said, her face comin’ over a little pink.
“It would be kind of you not to mention us to anybody,” Homer went on. “Word like that gittin’ out could put lives in danger. ‘Specially the two that’s settin’ here at this table.”
“My name is Susie McGrill, mister Poteet,” she said, smilin’. “Mister Taylor’s place is about three miles west of town. There’s a wagon road that runs that way. He’s probably puttin’ in corn about now. White house with a small white barn and some corn bins. And I shall not say one word about the two of you.”
Homer stood up an’ handed her two dollars. “Keep the change, Miss Susie,” he said, “an’ the secret.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” she said, smilin’ at him. “You two gentlemen come back an’ see us now, Mister Smith.”
“M’am, that’d be Homer. Just Homer,” he tolt her. “Right pleasin’ thing, meetin’ a handsome lady like you.”
I held onto my grin ‘til we got outside, but then it got the best of me. Homer looked at me a little sideways.
“Why Homer, just Homer,” I said, “I am just so thrilled to be in yer comp’ny, I don’t know what to do with myself. Mercy me.”
Homer snugged his hat down real low in front. “I reckon that’s enough a that, Rube,” he said, an’ struck off for his horse.
I let him git a little ahead a me, an’ followed him on outa town. When he turned west on a little wagon road I eased Willie up beside the sorrel.
“You ain’t gonna slap leather on me or anythin’ like that, are ya Mister Smith?” I asked him.
“Goddammit, boy,” Homer said, “I cain’t take you nowhere.”
“Well now, Homer,” I said, “I don’t understand why you ain’t in a better mood, you makin’ a brand new friend like ya done.”
“Keep it up,” Homer said.
“Knowin’ now that yer so fond a redheads,” I said, “I bet you are plumb thrilled to be settin’ on a sorrel horse, ain’t ya?”
“Rube,” Homer said, “I believe I enjoyed yer comp’ny a lot better when you was a wide-eyed kid that knowed how to keep his mouth shut.”
“Speakin’ of enjoyin’ comp’ny,” I said, “I reckon there’s a livery someplace that’d rent you a little buggy or a high-wheel gig so you an’ Miss Susie could take a little night air together.”
Homer took a swipe at me with his hat then, but Willie spooked an’ jumped away. If I hadn’t a been ready I’d a come off.
“You could, by God, spend a little time mindin’ yer own business,” Homer said.
“I am mindin’ my own business,” I tolt him. “If’n you was to take up with a woman I could give Miss Harmony the bad news. Then maybe she’d quit settin’ up nights starin’ out the winda, waitin’ for you to return to her an’ pay attention to her own business. That way, I wouldn’t have to walk that durn baby all night.”
Homer nodded. “She did take it hard, me leavin’ her with you, didn’t she?” he said.
“Red swole up eyes ever mornin’,” I said. “Pitiful to see.”
Homer grinned. “Bullshit,” he said, an’ touched spurs to his horse. That sorrel was purty fast.
In a little while we come up on a place on the south side of the road with a white house an’ barn, an’ a couple a corn bins. There was a feller in a field workin’ a team a big ol’ mules an’ a two bottom plow an’ planter comin’ our way. We waited for him. When he got fair close he shucked his reins an’ faced us from about fifty feet. They was a Remington conversion tucked in his belt.
“You boys may as well go on back,” he said. “My word is final. I ain’t sellin’. Not to Treadstone nor nobody else. You can tell him that agin.”
“Never met the man,” Homer said. “We’re lookin’ for a feller name a Royce Taylor. You him?”
“What if I am?”
Homer brimmed his hat. “Mister Taylor,” he said, “The Marshal Service mentioned that you maybe could use a little help. That’s why we’re here.”
Mister Taylor took off his hat an’ wiped his brow on his sleeve. “Can you drive a team a mules?” he asked.
“Druther not,” Homer said, smilin’.
“Well, go on up to the house,” Mister Taylor tolt us. “Martha’s got some sweet tea. I’ll finish this row an’ be on up that way. Good to see you fellers.”
Martha Taylor was a plump little woman with a sweet smile that, once we tolt her who we was an’ what her husband said, stuck us on their porch an’ got us each a glass a tea from a crock wrapped in a wet rag settin’ in the shade. It was plumb good. After a little bit a small talk, she left us alone. In about twenny minutes, Mister Taylor come walkin’ up from the barn.
“Hate ta take ya away from follerin’ them mules around,” Homer said, standin’ up an’ stickin’ out his hand.
“Ground’s a little too wet anyway,” Mister Taylor said. “You know who I am, I guess.”
“Yessir,” Homer said, finishin’ the shake. “I’m Homer Poteet. This here is Marshal Ruben Beeler.”
“Nice to meetcha, Mister Taylor,” I said, shakin’ with him. He was a thin man an’ not tall, but he was ropey an’ some stout, I reckoned.
“You boys are on my porch drinkin’ my tea,” he said. “I guess you better call me Royce.”
‘Bout that time, a little girl with yella hair in a blue gingham dress come out of the house carryin’ a plate a sugar cookies. She was brave enough to hold the plate out to Homer an’ me, but too shy to say anythin’. We each took a couple an’ thanked her. She smiled at her feet an’ went back inside.
“Yer daughter I ‘spose,” Homer said.
“A twin,” Taylor said. “Her sister died of the fever when they was four. Mandy is seven now.”
“That’s a hard thing,” Homer said. “A wound like that doan never really close up.”
“No, it don’t,” Taylor said. “Walk with me to the barn, fellers, an’ we’ll have a snort. I’d be right proud to share a little busthead with Homer Poteet an’ Ruben Beeler.”
I’ve mentioned to ya afore that I ain’t much of a drinker. An’ I reckon I shouldn’t a been too surprised that Royce, raisin’ corn like he done an’ all, might have some busthead on hand. Lord, did he. We walked down to the barn an’ set, an’ he brung out a jug an’ passed it around. I made the mistake a actually gittin’ some of it in my mouth the first time it come to me, an’ that was plenty. I swear I could durn near feel the edges a my tongue gittin’ black an’ curlin’ up from it. That jug a corn come by me three or four times, but after the first round I just let on that I was drinkin’, bein real careful to not git anymore a that liquid fire down my neck. After the jug was passed around an’ put up, Homer asked Mister Taylor what the situation was.
“A Englishman name a Merrit Treadstone showed up out this way near four years ago with the grant rights to four sections a land that he’d got from some company back east. None of us out this way even knowed who had rights to the land. Nobody had filed on it a course, an’ some folks just used it as a little spot of free range for some cows an such. Here come Treadstone with five or six wagons a stuff an’ about ten hands, an’ set hisself up in the roomin’ house in town. He started throwin’ money around like it was dirt. Donated the funds to the Dunston City Council an’ Calico County to build a new schoolhouse an’ hired everbody he could to git to workin’ on buildin’ a homeplace for him. Brought men in from several towns around to git enough labor, set up a tent city for ‘em, an’ went after it.”
“I bet the city an’ county fell plumb in love with him, didn’t they?” Homer said.
“Hell,” Royce said, “this place had never had two nickels to rub together afore he showed up. All of a sudden, three or four new businesses sprung up in town, folks was gittin’ work an’ paychecks, money was flowin’, the bank was doin’ business. It was a boom, no doubt about that.”
“Anybody know where he got his money from or anythin’ about the ol’ boy?” Homer asked.
“He’s a Englishman. A Duke, or a Earl, or somethin’ like that. Hell, boys, he might even be a Prince. I doan know. I do know he sets to shit like everbody else, an’ I do know he likes to be called sir.”
“That’s just common courtesy,” I said. “Until ya know a fella, it’s polite to call him sir.”
Royce nodded at me. “It is,” he said, “but this feller likes that sir to come in front a his name. Wants folks to call him Sir Merrit. It ain’t no courtesy, it’s a fuckin’ title.”
Homer smiled. “How’d that go over with everbody?” he asked.
“The way he was passin’ out money,” Royce went on, “folks woulda called him the King a Siam I reckon, if there was income involved for ‘em. A name that ain’t yer name can git to part a yer name if everbody says it enough.”
Homer looked at me. “Arkansas Bill Cole,” he said.
“I heard that ol’ boy was a scamp,” Royce said.
“He was,” I said. “But he was a damn fine scamp.”
“I heard he got killed a while back in that mess up along the Nodaway.”
“Bunch a fellers did,” Homer said.
“You boys was in that, was ya?” Royce said.
“We were,” Homer tolt him.
“Mercy,” Royce went on. “I reckon you fellers live up to some a what I’ve heard about ya then.”
Homer smiled. “Some of it,” he said.
A cow commenced to bawlin’ heavy from the other side a the barn about then an’ Royce stood up.
“That’s Bessie,” he said. “We took a calf offa her a couple a days ago an’ the ol’ girl just don’t know what to do with herself. I gotta tend to her an’ my chores. Be time for supper afore too awful long. You boys are more than welcome to join us.”
“I think we’ll go back inta town for a bite,” Homer said. “Git us a look-see an’ such. Maybe a room for the night. Come back out this way tomorrow.”
“You can throw your rolls here in the barn if ya care to,” Royce said. “They ain’t no extra room in the house, I’m afraid.”
“That’s kind of ya, Mister Taylor, an’ I speck we’ll be doin’ enough a that, but me an’ ol’ Rube here need to light a shuck right now. There be more a that sweet tea around tommorra, will they?”
Royce grinned at him. “Always sweet tea at the house an’ sweet corn in the barn,” he said.
I could see Homer cogitatin’ on matters on the ride back into town, an’ I purty much kept still an’ let him think. When we come into the outskirts an’ up on a little livery, we rode up an’ got off. We left the horses an’ such there an’ walked on down the way. Homer was just carryin’ his ol’ Colt. I left everthin’ a mine except the crossdraw with my saddle an’ such. We come up on the barbershop an’ Homer spoke up.
“I need a haircut an’ a shave,” he said. “So do you.”
“I do?” I asked him.
“Yessir, ya do,” he said. “Go for a little walk an’ then come in an’ wait ‘til I’m done to git yours.” He turned off then, an’ I went on.
Purty soon I passed what they called the Calico Drygoods Store, then come by the Southfork Saloon. I crossed the street then an’ drifted on back past the Sheriff’s Office, an’ a little place called Calico grocery. Several folks I passed nodded to me, an’ I brimmed my hat a time or two at some ladies. When I got to the barbershop, Homer was in the chair, the fella workin’ on his hair.
“Howdy, stranger,” the barber said to me. “Name’s Kenny Jones. I’ll be with ya purty soon, if’n I doan cut this feller’s ear off.”
I grinned at him. “Smart man that knows his limits,” I said, hangin’ my hat on a peg in the wall.
He laughed then. “I average about one outa ten,” he said, “an’ I already got two today, so the odds are with you boys.” He leaned over an’ looked at Homer. “You doan want a shave too, do ya?” he asked.
Homer smiled. “I thought I did when I come in,” he said, “but now I ain’t too sure.”
The barber laughed agin. “Well,” he said, “I’m game if you are. We got a purty fair doc in this town. He might be able to save ya if things go bad.”
That tickled me some, an’ I got got to laughin’ as I set. Mister Jones looked at me.
“Ya know,” he said, “it ain’t polite to laugh at the possibility of another man’s misfortune, son. What’s the matter with you?”
That got Homer goin’ an’, I swear, that barber was a caution. He never got serious about nothin’ ‘til he got that straight razor up agin Homer’s neck. Then he settled down an’ done a right good job. He finished up an’ took that sheet off. Homer handed him two bits an’ asked where he might git a bite.
“You could try the Chuck Wagon restaurant,” the barber said. “You look like a purty brave fella an’ I ain’t seen nobody carried outa there today.”
Homer thanked him an’ went on. The barber turned to me an’ bumped his eyebrows.
“Next victim,” he said.
I got up in the chair an’ he throwed that sheet over me an’ cinched that collar thing up around my neck fair snug.
“I like to git the collar purty tight,” he said. “I find it restricts blood flow if somethin’ bad happens.”
I chuckled. “You kindly like to have a good time, doncha?” I said.
“Mister,” he said, “I been doin’ this for near thirty years. If’n I couldn’t make a good time of it, I’d cut my own throat. If a feller doan enjoy his work, he doan enjoy his life. If’n he doan enjoy his life, they ain’t no point in livin’. You got any next a kin you want notified in case things don’t go well?”
That set me to laughin’ agin an’ he went on.
“Son,” he said, “yer easy. You stop by ever day an’ I’ll give you a special rate.”
“You been barberin’ here in Dunston very long?” I asked him.
“’Bout five years now. It was a sleepy little place an’ I was barely gittin’ by, then the boom hit. This town had changed some. You ain’t from around here, I guess.”
“Nossir,” I said, “just passin’ through. My stake is getting’ thin. Thought I might find a job a work for a spell. I’m handy an’ I got a good horse. I’m a fair finish carpenter too, but I’d have to send for my tools.”
“The way Sir Merrit is goin’ after it,” he said, “a fella might find work with his bunch. You got any cow sense?”
“More than cows do, I speck,” I said. “Who’s Sir Merrit?”
“English feller. Come out this way a few years back. Raises them white-face cattle an’ loves that bob-wire. Durn near got the whole county in his pocket. He may be the life a this town, but I’m afraid that before he’s done, he’s gonna be the death a this county. Maybe more than just this one.”
Barber Jones lost his sense a humor for a spell then, but it didn’t take him long to git me cut an’ shaved. When he finished, he patted me down with some Bay Rum an’ whipped that sheet offa me kindly like a flippin’ a cape or somethin’. I paid him two bits an’ thanked him. When I got to the door he spoke up.
“That offer of special rates if you come by ever day still stands if you want to risk it, son,” he said. “We got a ol’ boy comes by now an’ then that sells insurance. I’ll even pay the premium if you’ll name me as beneficiary. I’m tryin’ to add to my income, doncha see?”
I walked in the Chuck Wagon an’ seen Homer across the way. He toed a chair back an’ nodded at me. As I set, that little red-headed gal, Miss Susie come up with more coffee for Homer an’ some for me.
“I would recommend the pork chops,” she said. “They’re boneless and come with roasted potatoes, pinto beans, greens, an’ hot rolls an’ butter.”
“That sounds just fine to me, Miss Susie,” I said. “Is that what my dear friend, Mister Smith is havin’?”
She put her hand on Homer’s shoulder. “Why, yes it is,” she said. “It’s what he told me he’d like to have, an’ I just could not find it in my heart to deny him anything he wanted.”
I grinned at her. “It appears to me like yer a generous person, Miss Susie,” I said.
“Wouldn’t it be nice,” she said, “if Mister Smith here felt the same way?” she patted Homer on the shoulder an’ sashayed away.
“Why, Mister Smith,” I said, “it looks to me like that little Miss Susie has set her cap for ya. I bet her generosity would know no bounds. I believe that if she had a thing an’ you wanted it, you could have it. Have it an’ welcome.”
Homer laid his hard eyes on me. “You know you could just shut the hell up,” he said.
Miss Susie was very attentive to us all through the meal. After we et, we went to a roomin’ house an’ got us a place for the night. Homer took off a hour or so after dark, an’ I heard him comin’ in a little afore dawn. I played possum an’ didn’t say nothin’. Ain’t no point in a fella pushin’ his luck.
Visit us on our Ironbear Facebook page by clicking here!
Watch David perform excerpts of his work on
the DAVID R LEWIS YouTube Channel.
(Just click on his name.)
And then, there is TWITTER!