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Published on Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Telltale Boot

By Eli Spoon


The town looked big enough for my purposes. It had a bank, a hotel, a sheriff's office, and two saloons. As always, I checked in with the sheriff first. A man traveling alone can't be too careful. Nobody trusts a stranger, and my appearance didn't exactly inspire confidence. I wore buckskin because it suited my activities and would blend into the landscape if I had to go afoot. Many a man had looked at the buckskin clothes, my shaggy black hair, and reddish tan and assumed I was part Injun. If the jagged scar down my cheek and a look at my pale blue eyes didn't set them straight, my fists did. No one made that mistake twice.

I let the sheriff know I was looking for prime horseflesh, and showed him the commission I carried, and the letter of credit I would leave at the bank. I wanted to be sure everyone knew I didn't carry much cash. I let him know I wasn't opposed to a little bounty hunting, should the need arise. I asked his opinion of the two saloons and whether there were any bad men in town I should watch out for.

"If you're looking for gambling, try the Lazy Ace," he said, "their poker games are straight, but I wouldn't trust the roulette wheel. If you just want entertainment, the Silver Slipper has some purty gals that sing and dance. The food's okay there too. The chili is the only thing worth eating at the Lazy Ace. The hotel has good food, but they cater to families and don't serve liquor. As for bad men, "he spat into the dirt of the street, "the Bolen brothers are in town. I've got nothing to hold them for, but they are well known to lawmen hereabouts."

I knew the Bolen brothers well, they wouldn't trouble me where there were any witnesses. I thanked the sheriff for the information, and headed to the bank to place the letter of credit on file, getting a note telling the hotel they could draw on it for my bill. At the hotel, I got a room on the second floor, looking out over the street. It would be noisy and catch the morning sun, but it gave me an observation post.

I took my time settling in, washing the trail dust from my face and noting the slow drift of cowhands into town as the sun set. I had a plate of beef stew and coffee at the hotel, before heading down to the Lazy Ace. I strolled slowly, taking note of the horses and brands as I went. I saw several with the Lazy T and Circle K, two big ranches south of town. A pinto branded with a Diamond M was tethered in front of the Lazy Ace. It bore a silver trimmed saddle. That was the outfit of a young man, a foolish one to boot. He'd better learn soon to stop making himself an easy target or he wouldn't get much older. Myself, I favored a line-back dun. That gelding would blend right into the brush, just like my own gear.

The owner of the pinto was easy to spot. He had a red and white checked shirt that could be seen a mile away, a belt with a big silver Concho, and tied down guns with pearl handles. His boots bore Spanish rowel spurs, another poor choice. He was playing roulette and had amassed a good-sized stack of chips. One of the shills was urging him to bet it all on one more play. I saw the setup coming. I couldn't make him win, but I could keep him from being cheated. I jostled the dealer, just when he would have pushed the hidden button. The boy did have luck. His number hit, and he picked up his winnings and cashed out.

Every freeloader in the place was slapping him on the back, "You show 'em, Bobby Lee," and the like rang out across the saloon. While Bobby Lee downed two whiskeys in celebration, I saw one of the Bolens slip out. The other Bolen hung back till Bobby Lee left, and then drifted out as well. I had a pretty good idea what they had planned for Bobby Lee. Too bad for them that I had my own plans. I took time to let the sheriff know my suspicions and headed out on the north trail. The Diamond M, operated by a woman named Marissa Cavanaugh was to the north.

I heard a gunshot up ahead and nudged the dun to a trot. The pinto was standing by the side of the trail, its reins dragging on the ground. One of Bobby Lee's boots hung upside down in the stirrup. The Bolens were notoriously bad shots, relying more on their fists and treachery. My guess was that Bobby Lee been shot out of the saddle and dragged a bit before the boot came off. I heard groans and the sounds of a man being hit, so I readied my rifle.

In the moonlit clearing beside the trail, the two Bolens were working over Bobby Lee. One of them, Clay, I think, was holding the boy's arms behind his back, while the other -- must be Carter -- was punching away at the boy's torso. Bobby Lee's face was already bloody, so Carter must have gone first. I fired a shot that creased Clay's arm.

"Gentlemen," I shouted, "Now that I have your attention, please release our young friend and drop your gun belts." Clay was holding his wounded arm and ignored me. Carter turned so that Bobby Lee would serve as a shield. "I heard you Bolen boys were stupid, but I didn't think you were that stupid," I shouted, "Clay, I could just as easily have put that shot through your heart, or your head, or any other target I choose." I fired another shot, neatly clipping Carter's ear. Then, because he irritated me, I shot him through the leg, just above his ankle.

They got my message then. Clay couldn't get his gun belt off fast enough. Carter had released Bobby Lee of necessity as he fell heavily to the ground, where the decision of whether to hold his injured ear or his leg seemed to be more than his brain could handle. Clay had to go over and strip off Carter's gun belt. I'll say one thing for Bobby Lee, he manned up. He was staggering and bleeding, but he gathered up the guns and brought them to me. I looped them around my saddle horn. "You boys can get these back from the sheriff's office, day after tomorrow. He'll be expecting you."

It was clearly a struggle, but Bobby Lee managed to get back up on his pinto. Frankly I was impressed that he was able to get his boot back on without sitting down. The boy had grit.

We rode quietly the rest of the way to the ranch. His injuries had to be stiffening up, so I gave him a shoulder to lean on when he got off his horse. He was barely holding it together, so I hollered, "Hello the house."

I could see glows brightening inside the house as inhabitants lit candles or turned up hurricane lamps. First to the door was an old Mexican woman with a shawl wrapped over her nightgown. She immediately began fussing over Bobby Lee and led us to the kitchen. While I helped Bobby Lee settle into a chair, the senorita lit two more lamps so we could get a good look at his injuries. She busied herself filling a basin with water, setting a kettle on to boil and bringing out some soft rags and rolled bandages. I helped Bobby Lee out of his shirt and checked to be sure he had no broken ribs.

Next to join us in the kitchen was an older man I judged to be the foreman. He took a quick look at Bobby Lee and then turned to me. "Just who might you be?" he growled, "and why are you bringing Bobby Lee here in such a pitiful condition?"

"Well," I drawled, "I figured you'd prefer him like this, over having the sheriff bring you his corpse in the morning." I explained how I'd seen the trouble brewing with the Bolen brothers, and gave them the back story I'd given the sheriff.

The foreman seemed to relax, and as if that had been the key, the ranch owner, Marissa Cavanaugh, walked in.

She had taken the time to get fully dressed and do up her hair. The years were starting to take their toll on her looks, but I'd have known her anywhere. She still favored dresses in a rich blue that brought out her eyes, and her boot heels were still stamped with a silver M inside a diamond. She spoke briefly with the foreman, dismissing him on the pretext that he needed his sleep. She fawned over Bobby Lee, which disgusted me -- he was more her junior than I was, and she had a good fifteen years on me. I could tell that Bobby Lee wanted to talk to her alone, so when she asked the Mexican woman, Concepcion, to get another bucket of water from the well, I excused myself for a smoke.

The sound carried quite well out the kitchen window. Bobby Lee was pouring out his heart to Marissa, bragging about his roulette win and how it was "all for her" and how he wanted to "solve her problems and take care of her". It turned my gut to hear it. I waited until Concepcion was coming back with the bucket of water and stubbed out my cigarette. I relieved her of the heavy bucket and followed her back into the kitchen. Marissa looked a bit flushed, and Bobby Lee's eyes were shining brightly. He was going to be a rainbow of bruises by tomorrow, but there weren't any serious cuts. Most of the blood turned out to have been from his nose.

Marissa offered to put him up in the downstairs guest bedroom and I helped settle him, before she gave him a spoonful of laudanum to ease his pain. I watched carefully as she measured out the dose. Bobby Lee would probably sleep most of the next day, but he'd recover. She dismissed Concepcion without a word of thanks, just telling her to clean up in the morning.

Bobby Lee had managed to tell enough of what I had done to rescue him to interest the lady in me. That didn't surprise me, I knew her tastes. She talked about it being too late for me to ride back into town and mentioned she had another guest room upstairs, that shared a sitting room with her bedroom. Then she invited me up for a drink.

She didn't recognize my name. Not surprising, as I had changed it almost as many times as she had changed hers. I had found out her birth name was plain Mary Cook, but when I first met her she was Marie Campbell, and worked as a dance hall girl. When I crossed her trail ten years later, she was going by Margaret Connors, still working saloons, but now as a gambler. There were more names in between those and her current Marissa Cavanaugh identity, no doubt.

I had wondered if she'd recognize something in my face. Of course, when she last saw me I was a tow-headed boy of six. That was the night she killed my father and gave me the scar on my face. Now I was here to kill her.



Eli Spoon works in supercomputing and scientific research, the bleeding edge of technology, but is a big fan of works by Louis L'Amour, especially those set in the Old West.


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