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Published on Monday, June 25, 2012

Three Damn Cows

By Paul Peppers

 

Chisolm's northern trading post wasn't busy. Two horses and an Indian woman were the only signs of life about the place. The two horses were tied at the rail and the Indian woman was seated on a stick chair industriously chewing a buckskin hide; softening the hide with her teeth and saliva. She was a young squaw not yet in her twenties and her white teeth flashed as she chewed. The building was part mud brick, part log cabin; a hulking structure carelessly scabbed together and made nearly invisible by the materials used in its construction. Smoke boiled from a cobblestone chimney to drift languidly away on the chill air.

   

Hake ducked through the building's entrance. Removing his hat he was forced to keep his head down due to the low ceiling. Willis entered behind him and the two cowboys examined the room.

Willis was a thin wiry man with a shock of black hair. Unable to remain still for more than a second at a time he appeared always on the verge of action. He detested silence and filled it with his voice at every opportunity.

The room was dark, smoky, and redolent with the scent of poorly cured pelts. Two men and another young Indian girl sat at a rough wooden table; Gourd drinking cups before them. Buffalo hunters Hake decided. The fifty ninety sharps leaning against their table and the dirty buffalo robes they wore bore out the assumption.

Hake looked again at the Indian girl. She was a juvenile not yet showing the development of womanhood--just a girl. The hunter sitting next to her clinched the girl's head against his side and began pouring liquid into her mouth generously bathing her face and the front of her clothing in the process. The girl gasped and choked on the drink, which elicited evil laughter from the two hunters. One of the men had been graced with a nasty wound on the side of his face; it was wide and poorly healed, from chin to hairline and nothing remained of the man's ear but a puckered flap of skin. The two hunters glanced at Hake and Willis with hostile eyes.

"What's for dinner?" Willis asked no one in particular.

Hake was anxious to hear the answer to that question himself. He was a six-one, two hundred pound man with a quiet demeanor. He was slow to speech and set in his ways. A big man, he had a big appetite to match.

No one responded for several seconds. Then a small dark man, wearing Englishman's clothes, popped up from behind a counter. "Yes sir," he said. "We have corn bread, beans, salt pork, and jerked buffalo meat." He spoke with a thick British accent, but was either an Indian in white man's clothes or half white. Hake decided it was probably the latter.

"Sounds good," Hake said.

"Just a minute," the man ducked outside and re-entered, hauling the other Indian girl by the hair. "Get your ass in there and get the food ready," he growled, shoving her in the direction of a side room. She went without comment, her face impassive.

The hunters laughed nastily as she passed.

Willis was keeping an eye on the two men, so Hake relaxed enough to look around the room. There was not much to see. Beans, squash and other dry goods hung from the ceiling in woven baskets. Hides, farm implements, traps and other trade goods were stacked around and on top of rough-hewn tables. Picking the only other empty table, they seated themselves facing the room.

The Indian girl re-entered with her arms loaded. Hake said a few words to her, but she merely smiled-the first since they'd entered-and shook her head.

Placing the stuff on their table, she turned to go for more. The scarred hunter grabbed her by the arm and pulled her roughly onto his lap, shoving his hand under her clothing and thoughtlessly tearing her already ragged dress. She took it with a look of utter resignation stamped on her smooth young face.

"Stop!" the storekeeper yelled. Both hunters jerked in surprise, anger flashing on their dirty bearded faces.

"It ain't free, god damnit," the breed said. "You want her, by god, you pay for it."

The earless man shoved a hand into his shirt, causing the storekeeper to back away fearfully. Grinning, he tossed over a silver coin.

"All right then," the storekeeper said, catching the coin. He smiled and shoved it in a pocket.

The two resumed pulling at the girl's ragged clothing in earnest.

The cowboys looked at each other briefly.

"Jesus Christ," Hake muttered.

"Don't call on him," Willis muttered, "them two ain't partial to strangers."

In the world, they knew there were no rules. No law existed beyond what a man could impose on the land and the people with his own strength. Both men simultaneously reached the same conclusion.

"Willis said. "What about the food?"

The half breed looked around as if he'd forgotten them. "Yes sir I'll get it," he said.

"We want her to get it," Hake said, indicating the woman.

The storekeeper looked nervously at the now attentive buffalo hunters. The youngest of the girls took this opportunity to get up from the table and stagger away from the two hunters. "Who are you to say, you son-of-a-bitch?" The words were wet sounds as if spoken through a mouthful of spit. The scarred man reached for his Sharp's .50-.90.

Without apparent movement, like a showman performing a magic trick, Willis presented a Colt to the two hunters. The cold black eye of the gun barrel wavered between the two men. "We're the ones doing the damn talking," he said, "and I don't appreciate you cussing my friend."

The other man moved his hand cautiously away from the Sharps. The girl went about her work, and the storekeeper fell silent. Both hunters glared at the cowboys.

Willis holstered the gun. He and Hake shared another look. They had hoped to relax a while and neither had any particular desire to shed blood before dinner.

Rising, Hake walked toward the men. "I'm afraid you boys are leaving," he said a bit apologetically.

The men returned his look dumbly.

Hake breathed a sigh. "Get out," he said shortly.

Hake wore no gun and his large body blocked any shot Willis might make. The scarred man's expression turned crafty as he realized this and pulled a belt knife.

Hake moved quickly, stomping the top of the hunter's foot that dragged the side of his boot viciously down the man's shin. The trapper bawled like a sick calf and fumbled the skinning knife he was to trying stick into Hake's guts. Hake followed the foot stomp with a hard right to the side of the man's head. The hunter went down and out, like a snuffed-out candle pouring blood from a busted nose. The other man had remained immobile, hands carefully in view with fear palpable on his dirty face.

"Time to leave," Hake said again.

"Ye-ye-yes sir," the conscious man stuttered. Standing, he began shouldering his partner onto his back like a dirty blanket.

Courtesy was an ingrained part of the cowboy's character. Walking to the door he held it open for them. "Here you go," he said magnanimously.

"I should'a shot them both," Willis griped a while later, after he'd devoured a surprisingly large amount of food for a man his size. "They will probably be laying for us when we leave here."

"Not with that." Hake motioned toward the rifle lying on the floor by the now empty table. "I don't reckon they'll do much," he said, "One is sleeping right now anyway."

"Storekeeper," Hake said. "We need to get a few supplies before we leave."

Willis was picking his teeth with a broom straw. He shook his head, snorting a laugh. "How many buffalo chips you reckon we will have to sort through for them three damn cows?"

 

*         *        *

 

Abilene was at the terminus of the rail head and the trail that Jesse Chisholm had blazed between the Red River and Kansas City trading posts. The trail was later used by ranchers to move cattle from Texas to the Kansas railhead. The appetite for Texas beef made shipping the cattle eastward a profitable enterprise.

The stink of cow shit and the press of humanity increased as Hake and Willis neared the rail yard. Most of their days were spent dealing with cattle and cow shit was a fact of life. However, they both found the press of humanity unnerving. The hooves of their horses tossed up clods of sticky mud as they made their way down the street.

Willis looked critically at the many people around them. People were filling the road, making travel difficult and also crowding the boardwalk. "You hear that breed at the trading post tell what happened to the last sheriff they had in this town?"

"No."

"Somebody cut his god damn head off, that's what. And I heard tell the sheriff was a mean son of a bitch too."

Hake made no reply. Removing his hat, he wiped sweat from his hair and forehead with a forearm.

"That tell you anything?" Willis asked.

"We ain't going to be here long," Hake said, placing his hat back on.

"That's what it's telling me too," Willis said.

The street was bordered on one side by a line of split-rail fence and on the opposite by a row of store fronts. The buildings all bore signs painted on their sides-huge garish letters advertising everything from watch repair to palm reading.

"The rail office ought to be close by," Hake said.

"That old boy said Bill Hickok is fixin' to be the new sheriff," Willis said. "It's a damn miracle they can get anyone to work for 'em after what happened to River Smith."

Hake made no reply.

Close by, a group of men were loading longhorns on a rail car. They packed the cows in deep, their horns gouging and pricking one another which caused the narrow boxcar to rock from side to side on its big iron wheels. There was enough racket coming from the operation to make talking arduous, which caused Willis to remain uncharacteristically silent. The cows bore colorings unfamiliar to Hake-white with blue tick spots, and horns a little shorter than the Texas stock he was used to. He began going over in his head the description he'd been given of the Herefords: white head, crest, dewlap and throat with white underside, white socks and white brush to the tail. The rest a red color with horns not much longer than the ears. Their sole reason for coming to Abilene was to retrieve the three Herefords-two cows and a bull. Hake's daddy Sand Thomas had ordered them from a cattle company in England.

"I wouldn't know a Hereford from Adam," Willis called over the noise.

Stopping in front of the stationhouse, Hake unsaddled and stretched. His buckskin horse snorted in complaint when he cinched it to the hitching post.

"Reckon you know the routine Buck?" Hake said. He rubbed the horse's ears affectionately. Taking a feed sack out of one saddlebag, he hung it on the horse's alert ears. "They's still a little corn left boy."

"You talk to that damn horse more than you do me, "Willis said. "I'm waiting for it to go to answering back." Dismounting from his pony with a theatrical groan he took hold of the seat of his pants and eased the denim cloth away from his thin backside. "My flanks are lit up," he complained." I swear I'll need to get some corn starch on my ass else next time I squat it'll start a brush fire."

  

Hake grinned at his friend's discomfort "After we see to these animals you can sprinkle corn starch on your rear end all day if you want to."

"Very funny," Willis said, walking forward gingerly. "All day you say?"

"Let's get our cows," Hake said.

The rough hewn planks of the boardwalk complained as Hake and Willis set their weight on them. The rail office was a squat structure constructed of rough-hewn planks. They kicked the mud from their boots and entered a small front room. A hole was cut into a partition wall and an iron grate covered most of the opening. A fidgety little man, wearing arm guards and a bill hat, looked nervously out at them.

"Can I help you?" he asked.

"I'm Hake Thomas, here to pick up three cows-Herefords. I was told to check in at the rail office."

"Yes sir," the man said. "Caused quite a stir those cows. Never seen anything like them Herefords. No sir never have. Of course, no one around here has. I will have to see proof of ownership. You understand I can't just-"

Without comment, Hake shoved the letter of introduction and the bill of sale between the bars.

"Feel like you're in jail behind them bars?" Willis asked.

"No sir," the clerk looked up from the bill of sale. "Mr. McCoy built the place. I just work here. Everything appears to be in order Mr. Thomas."

Picking a ring of keys off the wall, the man came out from behind the bars. "Best not to tempt fate," he said apologetically. "We don't have a sheriff in town right now." He locked the front entrance from the inside. "Follow me, please."

They followed him down the hall and out a back entrance where there were several stalls and a small corral that was made secure by the press of the buildings surrounding it.

"Such a special case. We-Mr. McCoy-thought it best to lock them up here where they couldn't be-um, disturbed."

Fumbling once again with the keys, the clerk unlatched a stall, and they found themselves looking at the three Herefords. Hake studied the cows with a practiced eye. They had reddish brown coloring on the sides and white on the face and throat. They were not as thin as he'd expected them to be. A long boat ride and a trip overland by rail was quite a journey for three animals accustomed to grazing on open pasture, but their bones were not as prominent as those of a long-horn cow at full fat. The beeves were stocky, and he could see great potential for growth and fat in their wide shoulders and thick haunches. The bull with its short down-turned horns, heavy muscled torso and thick flanks looked especially promising. He wondered whether all of the bulls were as thick and hardy as this one or if he was looking at a prizewinner.

All three of the animals had rings in their noses. Stepping into the stall, Hake rubbed a hand over the bulls head and neck to calm the animal, which displayed no sign of nervousness. Then he ran a rope he had brought for the purpose through the nose rings while the animals waited patiently chewing cud. It was almost like they'd been expecting him. As he led the Herefords from the stall, he was surprised by their docility.

"Aint no way you could lead a longhorn like that," Willis said.

"They are kinda tame." Hake said thoughtfully. "The open range'll get 'em more nervy."

"I won't argufy that," Willis said.

The townspeople stopped to gape at the cows as they passed. Even the crew loading cattle on the rail car ceased working to watch them. In the sudden silence, even the longhorns seemed to be watching.

All over three damn cows," Willis said. "You'd think the Mayflower just landed."

Hake said: "We can be in Cedar Creek in two days, and I can finish our other job-delivering that letter for the old man."

"The good lord willing and the creek don't rise," Willis said.

 

*         *        *

 

The trip from Abilene proved uneventful, and as predicted, they rode into Cedar Creek Two days later. It was early morning and their footfalls echoed hollowly between the faded plank buildings. Willis was pulling along the bull and two cows by a lead rope. True to form, Willis swung from the saddle groaning loudly.

Hake banged on the side of the building with the heel of his hand. Immediately, a dog began barking, and a door swung open to reveal an old man holding a lantern in one hand and hitching up his overalls with the other. A small dog dodged around the man's ankles, barking furiously. "Go lay down, Pitch Fork," he yelled.

Growling, the little dog slunk forward, sniffed Hakes ankles, growled at Willis, and beat a tail-wagging retreat back into the building.

"Well, I reckon I've seen it all now," the old man said. "Pitch Fork don't geehaw with most folks. You boys didn't wake me up just to ask the time of day." He finished the job of fastening his overalls, leaving one gallous flapping loose over a dirty red shirt. "What'll it be?"

"We got two horses and three cows to stable," Hake said.

"Cows?" The old man looked closely at the animals. "Well, I reckon," he said, sounding dubious. "They ain't Longhorns, less somebody sawed the horns off of them."

"Them's Herefords," Willis said sourly," they's an English breed of cow."

"If you say so," the stable keeper said, shoving his stubby fingers thoughtfully through his tangled beard. "We got a place for 'em, same price as the horses. Nothing fancy- water and hay- corns extra."

Hake smiled at the old man. "I heard tell a feller name of Muley ran the stable here."

"You're talking to him--I'm Muley."

Hake extended a hand and the two shook. "My name is Hake Thomas-I'm Sand Thomas's boy."

"Old Sand is still kicking." The bearded face split in a snaggletooth grin. He looked Hake over closely. "You favor him, boy. Your poppa saved my life more than once fighting them Spanish."

"Well Sir I -"

"Muley boy- just Muley."

"Yes Sir, Mr. Muley." Hake dug in his saddlebags and produced a letter. "Poppa said to give you this, sir."

Without another word, the old timer broke the seal on the letter which held a single sheet of paper and a one cent coin. Producing a magnifying lens from the bib pocket of his overalls, he began to read.

Hake had seen the coin before Sand placed it in the letter. It was a one-cent coin depicting a woman with flowing hair. It must have had special significance for the old stable keeper, because he pulled a rag from his pocket to wipe away the tears which sprang to his old eyes.

"You boys go on now," he said gruffly, "I'll see to your animals."

"You got any corn starch on hand?" Willis asked.

Cable stood in the morning sun looking at the town. Signs of activity were evident everywhere. A man was sweeping the boardwalk in front of the general store. Several ponies were already tied up at the saloon, and a buckboard was rolling through the dust of Main Street. The hotel was three stories high, which made it the tallest building Hake had ever seen. Everywhere he looked the ground seemed to have sprouted some kind of a building.

"Towns bigger in the daylight ain't it," Willis commented.

Slowly Hake cut a chew of tobacco and stuck it between his teeth. "Yeah."

Willis pulled a face. "I don't see how you can chew that stuff. I tried some of maw's snuff one time and like to have heaved my insides out."

Hake had heard this before. Cocking an eyebrow, he gave his companion a bland look. "I don't chew it," he said, "like I told you before, I just waller it around."

Hake couldn't understand why so many people wanted to live so close together. He had been raised on a ranch so large that the idea of neighbors was foreign to him. He wasn't sure if they had neighbors-maybe Mexico, he thought whimsically.

The ringing of a blacksmith's hammer began to fill the town.

"The suns drawing clouds," Willis said. "It'll soon rain."

"What's that?" Hake asked.

"Granddaddy Johnson used to say that when the sun draws clouds, and they bunch up like a herd, it'll rain."

"That''s-" Hake met Willis's eye for a second. "No worse than some things I've heard, I guess," he amended. "I seen your granddaddy around a time or two. Never wore more than an old wore-out pair of long johns."

Willis laughed. "Granny had a hell of a time getting him to wear those long johns. It was granddaddy's inclination to run around bare ass naked, but she wouldn't hear of it."

"The old man painted some circles on the side of our hog shed one time." Leaning forward Hake squirted a stream of tobacco juice into the dirt. "Momma thought they was kind of pretty."

"I reckon he painted circles on everything in the territory-everything that would hold still for it anyway. He was a hell of an Indian fighter back in the old days," Willis, said, "but after those Choctaws cut a chunk of hair off him, he claimed an Indian devil ate a piece of his soul. He never got over it. He is still partial to liver though"

"Well," said Cable, finally, "I reckon there's more going on than folks can see with their eyes."

The silence stretched unbroken for a while.

I ain't never seen this much dust stacked up in one place before," Willis said. "If it rains, they's gonna be a mud slide right down Main Street."

Hake looked around speculatively. "I reckon," he said.

 

*         *        *

 

The sound of a voice raised in anger halted their conversation.

"Look yonder," Willis said, "some Indian has got his self in trouble."

The yelling man was shaking an Indian boy. The man struck the boy, an open hand slap that cracked loudly.

"Let's see what's going on." Willis, said, starting for the store.

Hake, groaned. His partner was somewhat more sentimental toward Indians than most Texans on account of his granny was an Indian. A few Indians lived on the ranch, and Hake had grown to see them as a part of everyday life. It was a different situation in other parts of the territory where the people weren't thought of nearly as well.

"Are you mad at the boy, or are you just passing the time?" Willis asked.

"I suggest that you mind your own business," the man said, not bothering to look up.

Willis felt his anger rise. "I am minding my damn business," he retorted. Circling to one side he stopped at a point where the man was unable to see both him and Hake without turning his head. "Let the boy up," Willis said.

"This little heathen kin to you?" the stranger asked with a nasty smile.

Willis stiffened as if a second slap had landed.

The stranger ground his heel into the boy's chest as he spoke. "This damn boy was making eyes at the girl and Mr. Crawford didn't appreciate it."

Willis met the boy's eyes and was prompted by the pleading look in them. "The boy couldn't have caused a full grown man much trouble," he said.

Judging by the man's clothing, Hake pegged him for a city dude: pin striped suit, shiny black shoes, and derby hat. The business-looking Colt the dude sported in a tied-down holster gave him pause; it didn't quite gibe with his assessment. The dude's hand hovered near the pistol grip.

"Hold on now," Hake said. He was determined to head off trouble if he could. But neither Willis nor the other man paid him any attention.

The stranger locked eyes with Willis. "Are you calling me a liar?" he asked.

While the man was distracted, Hake eased a little closer.

"You're a damn fool is what you are," Willis said hotly, his anger suddenly coming to the fore.

"Oh hell," Cable muttered. "Here we go again."

The stranger rested his left hand on the grip of his pistol, locking his attention on Willis. Quick for a man his size, Hake stepped forward to monopolize on the man's mistake. Before the other man could react, he trapped the hand against the pistol butt, preventing the weapon from being drawn. "That's a bad idea son," he said.

"Get your hands off me you, big son of a bitch!" truggling to free himself, the man drove a punch at Hake's head, which he batted aside effortlessly. Hake was a big man and strong from years of hard work. He controlled the other man with ease.

A large grey mustache, waxed and twirled after the fashion of the day, emerged from the general store with a man in a black, broad cloth suit close behind.

"It's alright TL," the mustached man said, eyeing the tableau. "Let the boy up."

"Yes sir, Mr. Crawford." Immediately, TL removed his foot from the boy.

The moment of danger having passed, Cable released the man's gun hand though he watched him closely.

"We'll talk about this again," TL said. Backing away warily, he massaged his gun hand.

"The only thing that keeps the damn Indians in line is fear," Crawford said. He sounded like a politician giving an election speech. The rowels on his silver spurs jangled as he walked forward. "They'll do whatever they can get by with."

Willis got hold of the boy's arm and pulled him to his feet. "You all right son?"

"I don't say anything, senor," the boy stuttered. He rubbed dirt from his tear-stained cheeks. "Her smile-I smile is ok..."

"No, damn you, it's not ok," Crawford snapped the words." Who are you boys, anyway? What is your business in my town?"

Hake nudged the boy with one big hand. "Get on down the road, hombre."

Without a word, the boy ran out of sight between the buildings.

My town, Hake thought, and then said aloud: "I'm Hake Thomas, and my partner is Willis Early."

Crawford looked at them speculatively. "I bought some cows from Sand Thomas couple of years back," he said. "Over to the Fish Hook Ranch-any relation to you, son?"

"That's my daddy," Hake said.

"Well," I'll be damned," Crawford said. The change of attitude that came over him was like a change from night to day. "I sure do hate to meet Sand's boy under such unpleasant circumstances." Crawford looked meaningfully at TL. "Ya'll already met, I see. TL-guess you'd call him my troubleshooter. This part of the country is far from being civilized, gentlemen. I keep him with me to handle any unpleasantness that might arise. How is Sand doing these days?"

"He's going as strong as ever sir," Hake said.

Ignoring them, the hired gun moved to lean on the hitching rail and began cleaning his fingernails with a pin knife.

"Glad to hear it," Crawford said. "I figured it would take more than time to snuff out old Sand's candle." Crawford stuck out his clean pale hand. Hake shook it, and so did Willis, albeit a bit reluctantly. "I'm Bob Crawford," he said. "The biggest part of this town belongs to me, and what I don't own doesn't amount to a hill of beans. They was nothing but open range around here when I came to these parts, gentlemen - and Indians-we had plenty of damn Indians..."

"Poppa." The girl's musical voice carried over their talk, stopping Crawford in mid sentence.

Hake looked at her and instantly understood the situation. The frame of the door encircled her like the frame of a cameo. Her dress was plain, blue, and severe, but only served to accentuate her beauty, her small waist, full bosom, and round hips. The old rancher was guarding a treasure that many men would kill for.

"I told you to wait, Catherine," Crawford said.

She tossed her head in exasperation causing her black raven's wing hair to catch the light. Her brown eyes met Hake's and she smiled. Red lips and white teeth. The smile was compelling, the face healthy and youthful. The beautiful smile fled from her lips instantly when Crawford turned his gaze on her.

"Poppa," she said, "I'm ready to leave and Mr. Purdy is waiting to see if you want to..."

"All right, girl. I hear you," he said gruffly. "I'll be along in a minute."

Her cheeks colored with embarrassment, and flashing Cable a defiant look, she turned into the store and faded from sight.

"You gentleman will have to excuse me," Crawford said, preening his ornate mustache with a thumb and forefinger. "I have business to attend to."

"With me TL," Crawford commanded and turned away without a backward glance. "Nice to meet you boys. Tell old Sand that I said howdy." Without a word, the bodyguard followed him.

"Yes sir, Mr. Crawford," Hake said.

Crawford ducked into the dim interior of the store.

The two cowboys turned away. If they had spared a backward glance, the hate-filled stare directed at their backs by Crawford's body guard might have given them pause for thought.

"Yes sir, Mr. Crawford," Willis mocked.

Hake said: "I thought you were looking for some corn starch."

"I'm better now that my rear end is out of that saddle," Willis answered. "Why don't we get a drink?"

"How about we get something to eat?" Hake countered.

"How about we get both?"

He could feel the shot of rot gut liquor coating his insides and he decided that one shot of the awful stuff was more than enough. Removing his hat, he fanned himself with it.

A large crowd filled the big one-room saloon. Hake felt the hair on the back of his neck prickle and knew that he and Willis were the center of attention, though no one seemed to notice them.

Willis had been raised up in church and occasionally after a drink or two he was prone to get a little philosophical. "You think anything is worth giving your life for?" he asked thoughtfully, "anything that don't sound silly?"

"I don't know, Willis," Hake replied. He was counting the wet rings on the counter with the bottom of his shot glass. The whisky was eating mercilessly into the beeswax coating on the wood. Wiping a hand across his chin, he brushed the last drops of alcohol from his lips, and his whiskers rasped loudly. "I'm going for a shave," he announced. "You coming?" He dropped some coins on the scratched surface of the bar.

Willis followed, still working his side of the one-sided conversation. "Reckon people would forget about you right away?"

"Can't say."

"Now I don't study about it a lot or anything," Willis said," but somebody's got to do a little thinking. How you going to understand things less you think on em some?"

"Wait and see what happens?"

Willis snorted. "That's you allright- 'wait and see what happens.' It's a good thing you have me along."

 

*         *        *

 

Hake looked for the barber pole they'd passed on the way into town, and he soon spotted the familiar candy-stripped sign.

"I seen Crawford's girl making them big-moon eyes at you. I know trouble when I see it."

Hake said nothing.

The entry bell of the barber shop chimed as they entered. The barber was a dark, ancient little Mexican, his leathery skin furrowed deeply with lines and his hair almost nonexistent.

"Mucho gusto, Senor Hake." The little man smiled broadly, shaking hands with Hake and indicating the barber chair with a flourish. "Sieta, por favor. It is a pleasure to meet you also, Senor Weelis."

"Do I know you?" Willis asked.

"No, Senor Weelis," the little man said. "My cousin, he is the one you helped with the bad man."

"Nice to meet you," Willis said, shaking the proffered hand.

"How about a shave?"

Hake seated himself in the barber chair. The barber shook out a blanket that looked suspiciously to Hake like an old horse blanket. He tucked the rough material around his neck and began brushing up lather with a pig-bristle brush, tapping the brush against the sides of the cup and humming along with the sound. Satisfied with the consistency of the lather, he applied it generously to the cowboy's whiskers and began stropping the razor while he waited for the beard to soften. "Senor," the barber asked, "do you like my galibo-my sign?"

"The barber pole?"

"Si!"

"Yeah sure," Hake, said, "I spotted it on our way into town."

"You know this sign- it was once used to indicate a place for the bloodletting?"

"No," Hake said, and stifled a further reply when the little barber placed the razor blade against his neck and began smoothly to remove the stiff whiskers.

"It is my little joke senor." The withered old Mexican smiled broadly, showing his yellowed teeth as he pulled the razor effortlessly across the flesh of Hake's cheeks.

"Very funny," Hake mumbled, holding his face as still as he could while the razor pulled against it.

Willis guffawed, loudly slapping his knee. "You wanted a shave."

"You could use a shave yourself," Hake mumbled.

"No thanks," Willis replied hurriedly, "I got my own kit."

Minutes later, they stepped from the barber shop. "No wonder Crawford grows that mustache," Hake said. "I swear this is the best shave I've ever had, but I'll grow a beard before I get another in this damn town."

Willis stifled laughter and shook his head without comment.

 

*         *        *

 

"I'm glad to see you boys."

They instantly recognized the voice and realized that the dude was standing in the street. The now familiar, nasty snide grin planted on his face.

"We've got some unfinished business. And old man Crawford isn't here to help you this time," he said.

The body guard had positioned himself with the sun at his back. "You hombres didn't think I would let you get away with making a fool out of me in front of Mr. Crawford, did you?"

The look on Willis's face was one Hake had seen before. Several slow, fat seconds ticked by. "This son of a bitch is wearing me out," Willis said finally, and walked to a position in the middle of the street. He pulled his hat brim low enclosing his thin face in shadow.

Hake watched his friend without comment. The situation was past stopping. When the anger was on Willis, he was like a force of nature that couldn't be stopped. Willis wasn't a mean man. He'd never known his friend to kick a dog, mistreat a child, or, disrespect a lady, and he'd known him all his life. You have to take the good with the bad-the bad is just part of the package.

The body guard was talking: "Alright then, the loudmouth first."

Suddenly the street was empty of people, and the town was as silent a ghost town.

TL looked at Willis, his expression slipping momentarily when he gazed into the cold, grey eyes. Time slowed to a snail's pace and the bodyguard seemed to regain a measure of confidence, which his expression reflected. His face split into a crooked grin, and he reached for his gun.

Almost casually Willis reached for his own weapon his hand blurring as he cleared leather and fired three lightning fast rounds. The bullets slammed into the chest of the bodyguard. Three forty-five caliber hammer blows rocked the man back on his heels and dumped him on his ass in the dirt as a look of shocked disbelief flitted momentarily across his face, freezing there as the ghost of life passed from him while he sagged motionless. The black-powder smoke floated languidly away on the hot, still air.

Quickly the anger had come upon Willis, and as quickly it had left him. He walked to stand by his friend in the ensuing silence and began reloading his pistol with practiced ease.

Doorways began to fill with cautious on-lookers.

Willis presented a grieved look. "I hope he was ready to go," he said.

"I tried to stop him once today," Hake said, "looks like it didn't take."

 

*         *        *

 

The two cowboys sat at a scarred table across from the sheriff.

"You two have cost me money that I can't spare," the sheriff said. His shirt and vest were stretched taught over a full belly on top of which he rested his clinched hands. "Them coffins ain't free, and somebody has to dig the damn hole."

Willis said nothing.

Hake said nothing.

"You boys say you're in the right? Well, ain't that nice. Course, I can't ask the other party for his account-he's dead." The lawman's heavy jowls wobbled and his face reddened as he glared at the two men. Presently, he sighed loudly.

"They was witnesses said TL called you out, son," he said to Willis. "Looks like it was a fair fight, so I guess ya'll can leave-and I mean leave.

Cedar Creek is a peaceful town, and I mean to keep it that way. Besides, I've got an empty cell just begging to be filled."

"Yes sir!" they replied in unison and looked at one another foolishly.

"Now get out of my sight. I'm tired of looking at you two hombres." The sheriff rubbed a palm across his forehead in mock despair. "I'm getting too old for this shit," he muttered.

 

*         *        *

 

The clouds gave up their water, and as Willis predicted, Main Street was a sea of mud. The two cowboys were standing just inside the stable. Water poured off the roof and a wooden roof shake slid off to disappear in the mud.

"I said it was going to rain," Willis said. "Didn't I say it was going to rain?"

"You said it was going to rain," Hake replied wearily. Willis acted like the storm was a baby calf he'd just help deliver.

"Woo, wee," the old stable keeper said. He tugged his long grey beard with one calloused hand. "I'm glad I ain't about to travel in this mess."

Muley flipped a coin in the air and caught it to flip it again. He grinned at Hake. "Tell Sand that as long as I have this here penny, I'll still have my hair."

Willis said, "We won't have to shoot any of Crawford's men. They most likely have enough sense to stay out of the damn rain."

Hake waited for the horse to exhale so that he could finish the square knot on his saddle. The old horse had learned enough over the years to turn the act of cinching the saddle into a kind of cat and mouse game. Finally, Hake was able to pull the knot. "Can't risk them Herefords to a high-water crossing and we done wore out our welcome here."

They topped the rise, leaving Cedar Creek, and Hake paused to gaze briefly back toward the town which was made dim and peaceful-looking by the heavy rain. The buckskin shifted impatiently from foot to foot beneath him, and rain poured off of his hat and slicker. Willis paused beside him, wet and forlorn water slopping off the brim of his own limp hat. Turning away, they headed down the muddy trail. Lightning and thunder assaulted the sky, but the three Herefords followed Willis' lead as docile as puppies.

"You know what's real funny?" Willis said, hooking a thumb in the direction of the following animals. "This whole business is due to them three damn cows."

THE END

 

Paul Peppers is a diesel mechanic in Cartersville Georgia. He has an Associate of Applied Science Degree from Coosa Vally Technical college and is fifty-three years old.

 

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