The instant would replay itself in his mind time and again, in the days to come. The friendly murmur of men's voices, random laughter from the regulars down the bar, even the clink of the bartender washing glasses - shattered by a whacking explosion that slammed all into a forever of stunned silence. The stranger fell heavily against the bar. Sagging with eyes and mouth agape, and white smoke curling from - what? Facing the man, a Remington pistol wavered in the wide-eyed grip of the coyote boy. That Chris Larabee suddenly viewed it all over the sights of his own pistol struck him as not so remarkable, as the way the man seemed to go so utterly boneless, a complete stranger sliding, dying, down the mahogany face of the bar. And then the stricken man began a great, gargling scream.
+ + + + + + +
The arrival of the stage meant many things, to the far-flung towns of the West. With the mail came letters from home, newspapers with word of the nation and world, magazines that carried gossip, adventure, and what people were wearing in London and New York. Hope and new beginnings, farewells and heartache, reunion and last chances all rode as passengers. For the seven peacekeepers of the town, a wary eye on the arrivals meant at least one finger kept on the pulse of things.
Vin Tanner heard a distant shout, and turned towards the jangling rumble of the incoming stage. With his lanky frame shouldered against a post, he watched the drama unfold. Here they came, several thousand hurtling pounds of varnished wood, iron, and galloping horsepower, whipped up to a last, gallant rush by the artist who held the reins. Tall upon his box, with the ribbons in gloved hands and a brilliant red kerchief snapping at his bearded neck, the driver never so much as turned his head. He was a king upon his swaying throne, and master of the overland routes, and no mere mortals were worth his noble glance. The hotel in sight, he ordered his halt in a mighty voice, and dust heralded the arrival with silent trumpets.
Today's passengers were illustrative of the changes slowly coming to this raw Southwestern town; a businessman, a pair of newlyweds, a woman returned from a visit away, grandparents reunited with grandchildren. Mighty peaceable, Vin reflected. Downright ordinary. Maybe not what his own life encompassed, but it was what they all worked for, the reason for their being here. Willing hands tossed baggage from the coach's boot, and greetings rang in hearty voices. Last to wait was a solitary young fellow, scarcely more than a boy, who reached up to retrieve a single, fat carpetbag and a blanket roll. The youngster then stepped back and stood for a long, empty moment, staring blankly as white dust curled around him. Welcome to the West, kid, Vin thought.
The rapid clatter of horses' hooves on hard-packed caliche earth turned his head, then. Three familiar forms approached at a clipping trot, the man in front a black blade in a flat-crowned hat, and in the rear a tall man slouched in a wide plainsman's hat. Beside him posted a trim young fellow, almost comical in a self-consciously natty bowler, was it not for the way he rode, as if he were of the same bone as the horse beneath him. The two men trotting between them appeared far less imposing, their heads bobbing on loose necks to the gait of their own mounts. One might suppose that the delightful agony of a day's ride, bareback on harness horses, had hammered them pretty well into submission. Biting down on a smile, Vin straightened to go meet them.
"Hey, Vin!" JD Dunne's greeting rang out like a happy gong. It was echoed less enthusiastically, but no less heartfelt, by the others.
"Boys," Vin replied, a salute which in any other man would have been a full-lunged shout. Studying the two ragged prisoners on bareback, now his white teeth did show wry humor.
Stopping at the head of Chris's horse, he said, "Any trouble?"
"Well, not actual trouble." Larabee cast him a wry glance. "But we fetched 'em."
Voice rich with disgust, JD announced, "We had a hog stampede."
Vin's eyebrows climbed, as Buck swung to the ground. There the tall man shot a black look at his young companion.
"Yeah, and whose fault was that?"
"Well, hell, the damn fool came at us with a shovel!" JD dropped to the ground and stuck out his chin as only stubborn youth can. "If I hadn't fired a warning, Chris woulda blown his head off!"
"How many times I tell ya, don't waste your ammo! You only shoot to -."
"Dammit, Buck, you can't kill an unarmed man over a wagon load of stolen hogs."
"Four feet of hickory and iron," Buck's long arm swung in a wide arc. "Whooshin' past my kneecaps ain't what I call unarmed. And shootin' him beats the hell out of gettin' me bucked off!" Jaw clenched, he reached up to seize a fistful of the nearest prisoner's shirt. "Git down, you."
The man hit the hard-packed street with a yelping thud, only to be jerked upright in the big man's iron grasp. JD's treatment of the second man managed to be a little gentler.
"C'mon, Buck, how was I to know those damned pigs were gonna tear the wagon apart?"
Prisoners in tow, their familiar bickering receded with the clump of boots into the jail.
"Tailgate broke," Chris explained to Vin, as he looped the reins over his horse's weary head. Smiling was not a common expression on his hard face, but the grin creasing his cheeks now was positively wicked. "Apparently hogs don't like gunfire. And horses don't like hogs."
Hogs. Horses. An explosion of the two together. The image in Vin's mind came clear, and his shoulders now shook with silent laughter.
"So Buck got a dirt bath, huh? Hell, I didn't know ol' Grey had it in him!" Vin chuckled as he touched the soft muzzle of Buck's now-dozing horse.
"Neither did Buck!" Chris said. Then he gestured at the two saddleless horses. "Well, now that we got this taken care of, Ol' Man Glasgow will want his horses back. I told him we'd get this team back out to him, soon as possible."
"I'll take 'em in the morning," Vin replied.
"Whoa, son, watch your step, there!"
They turned at Buck's exclamation, and saw a teenaged boy standing at the rear of Chris's horse. Just a thin figure in floppy hat and plain shirt and breeches, the baggy whole seemingly held loosely together by a set of canvas suspenders. A worn carpet bag sagged in his hand and a blanket roll was slung across his back.
"I'm all right. Y' horse got a pretty good cut here, mister."
His low-toned young voice slowly unspooled its words, in a Southern accent so thick one might spread it with a knife. Here, however, were no genteel echoes of moonlight and magnolias, no sir. To Chris's ears, this kid's speech rang of coon hounds and sour mash, and hard eyes peering down muskets that were new when Andrew Jackson was president.
Narrowed hazel eyes did not flinch from Larabee's scrutiny. The man stepped off the porch, followed his hand along the horse's side.
"I know. We got in some rocks."
"Rat chere, down low," the boy said, as he stepped back.
Chris ran a hand down the horse's rump and leg, gently grasping the hoof that jerked up at his touch. "Easy, let me see, ol' fella."
Dark blood and caked sand blackened the fetlock of that foot, and the cut gaped as he gently rubbed off some of the dirt. It was not a crippling gash, but one that would require attention and rest.
"I'll doctor 'im for ye."
Chris let go the foot and straightened to meet the boy's stare. He was not a bad-looking kid, smooth-faced at fifteen, maybe sixteen years, with the hand-me-down appearance of some struggling homesteader's son.
Hitching at the weight of his carpet bag, the youngster continued, "twenty-five cents, I'll clean 'im up and brush 'im down good for ye."
"Kid, I only make a dollar a day."
Vin said, "He just come on today's stage."
Sharp eyes swung to catch Tanner, measured, came back to Chris. "So I wanna work. Fifteen cents."
Chris then noted the details; fine, boyish features drawn close to slender bones, like a colt left for too long on poor feed. The kid held his careful distance in a tight stance, as if he might either bite or run like hell. Too much wear frayed the edges of baggy britches and brogan shoes. If Larabee were to feel of those stubborn-set shoulders, likely he wouldn't find the heft of a house cat. Damn.
Buck answered his questioning glance with a shrug, and Chris sighed.
"Fine. Ten cents. Take it or leave it."
In the musky-sweet dimness of the stable, Larabee heaved his saddle onto its rack, and flopped the sweat-damp blankets on top. Heavy steps heralded the kid's return from the corral, awkwardly sloshing a bucket of water to rest outside the stall. Neither spoke, Chris choosing instead to watch. The youngster picked a brush off a window ledge and stepped into the open stall with a soft word. The horse turned its head just enough to eyeball the newcomer, but under the firm, luxurious strokes of the brush, the animal turned its attention back to the oats in its grain bin. There was quiet sureness in the boy's manner, ease only born of long familiarity.
Chris took a step, then paused. The long habit of distrust nagged with tiny, silent claws.
Across the horse's back, the boy's eyes suddenly met his. Light hazel-brown, in an errant beam of light.
"Don't worry, mister," he drawled. "I ain't gonna steal no lame horse." And for the first time there was humor on his fine-boned face.
Chris suddenly found himself thinking of a little coyote he had seen on the road. Shortly after the hog debacle, he spied it trotting easily apace and some yards off the road, amongst sagebrush and yellow grass. The narrow amber eyes had stared straight back at Chris, bold as brass, until the mouth dropped open in what looked for all the world like silent laughter.
"No, you won't." Larabee held the boy's gaze for a beat, pinning him with a silent threat. That coyote hadn't blinked, either. "There's a sponge and a couple clean rags on that shelf by the door."
+ + + + + + +
Dust devils danced in brief, hot passion and whipped away to gritty tatters against dry board walls. This time of year, the desert wore her most fickle moods, as the dry gold of summer leeched to chilly autumn brown. In the slanted light of morning, where a man once sought early shade, now he reached for coffee in the thinning sun.
But there was no coffee for Sam McLachlan, who marched with head down and a gait of steady purpose, from one shop door to the following. With a quick glance in the next store window, the youngster went inside. Moments later, the door opened and broken brogans again strode along the uneven board walk. The pattern was repeated again and again, although a millinery shop and a cobbler's business seemed to not suit the youth's attentions. In a door, gone for no more than moments, then out again to repeat the performance at the next.
Sorry, son. Not hirin', kid. Not today, boy. The litany of negative answers just kept getting longer. Sam resettled the worn hat ~ need to cut my hair. Then sighed at the snarl of an empty stomach. A good meal came long before any barber's attentions, but only if fortune started grinnin', right soon.
The bell on yet another door jingled, as Sam drew it closed with a bump. Can't help ya, boy. With a quick, deep breath, Sam straightened thin shoulders beneath the old shirt, and glanced up the walk. Two men lounged in chairs beyond the next door. One was the man whose horse Sam had doctored on, whose dime had bought a meager supper last night. Chin up, Sam walked towards them.
This greeting from the brown man. Wide brown hat, worn buckskin coat, brown hair to his shoulders. Nothing but mild interest graced his youthful features, yet Sam's belly jolted at meeting that cool blue stare. Back in the hills of Tennessee were men just like him, lone, silent hunters with Indian ways, who could read the tracks of a ghost and the thoughts of a wolf. Suddenly Sam did not want the brown man studying too closely.
The youth gave a curt nod, attention flicking back to the black-garbed fellow. Hard to tell what color this man's eyes were, pale, cold. "This place your'n?"
The black hat wagged a slow negative. "Nope."
Yet these two men sat there in tipped-back chairs, savoring coffee like it was their own front porch. Sam's eyes narrowed in suspicion.
"You 'uns some kinda law?"
"Part of it." The man in black tipped his chin up to regard the youngster, an agate stare designed to make a man's bones go hollow. "We keep an eye on things around here."
Things like ragged kids who look like an underfed footpad. Yet hardness in a man was familiar as cornbread to Sam. The warning warranted no more than a simple nod, and the youth stepped past them to lay a hand on the saloon's batwing doors. The shadowed, hushed interior breathed the stale reek of old liquor, faded tobacco smoke. Hope you ain't watchin', Papa.
The door swung back to slap Sam on the rump, but another matter had seized full attention. A woman in a tavern? There one was, standing on a chair, thick, black hair jostling across busy shoulders, as she scrubbed the back-bar mirror. Nor did she wear a workin' girl's gaudy trappings. Sam glanced around, but saw no one else in the silent room. All right then, a chamber maid or something. The woman spotted Sam in the polished glass, and the youth was in no way prepared for the smile that practically lit the room.
"Hello! Can I help you?"
Her cheerful greeting held an unfamiliar, silken accent ~ perhaps Mexican? The quick grace of her spun a many-pleated skirt, as she stepped down to floor-level. Sam swallowed, pulled off that abominable hat with hands that suddenly felt clumsy as mallets. Surely those lovely, liquid eyes would register scorn just any second.
"Ahh . . . Is there a boss-man around?"
"I am the manager, yes. I am Inez Recillos."
"Oh." A woman running a tavern. They surely did things different, out West. "Uh, are ye hirin'?"
Graceful dark brows arched curiously. "What kind of work?"
Sam shrugged. "Whatever ye got. Sweep. Mop up. Paint the shutters."
The reply was visible in the pitying twist of her delicate features, even before the words came. "I'm sorry, chico. We already have a swamper. He comes in after closing . . .."
"Thank ye, miss." Swept the hat back on, touched fingers to its brim.
The swinging doors had settled to stillness, by the time Inez reached them. Pushing through, she looked out, sighed gently. No one was there but Chris, sitting alone with two empty coffee cups.
"He went next door." A glint of humor lit Larabee's features, as he tipped his head back to watch her.
"Chris, he . . . "
"Looks hungry." Chris set his empty cup on his crossed knee. "I know. I let him doctor and groom my horse for a dime, yesterday."
"He's looking for work. You know what he asked for? Whatever we got. That's the job he asked for. I just . . .. Dios, he's too young!"
Larabee knew the sudden set of the Latina woman's chin, and closed his mouth on the grin that threatened, as she slapped the doors behind her. Down the walk she swept, and met the youngster as yet another door closed on failure.
"Hey, chico," she said briskly. "Are you too proud to scrub?"
Now the amber coyote eyes registered surprise, as the youth fumbled, "Uhh, no, ma'am."
"Good. I have much scrubbing, and the swamper, he is a lazy man. You come."
Mother instinct, Larabee thought wryly, and rose to get on with the day. If Inez didn't work him to death, Chris would pay the boy to doctor on his horse again, this evening.
+ + + + + + +
Scrubbing there was, and plenty of it. Behind the stove, under the stove, the floor under the taps, on storeroom shelves and back walls. Yet at noon the woman, Inez, came to the storeroom, and clapped hands sharply in the wet-wood scented gloom.
"Come. You must eat."
"Eat? Miss, I can't -."
"Civilized people eat at noon. It is noon. Come now."
"But I have no -."
"You work here, you eat. Very simple. Go sit at the table out front, I bring it to you."
Tortillas con frijoles y carne asada, y arroz con salsa colorado. Sam rolled the words silently through memory. Inez had repeated them slowly until the youngster could say them back to her. Rice, beans, meat, and a helluva flat hoe cake, is what it was, but with every swallow, strength seeped to weary sinews. Sam chewed each savory bite slowly, luxuriating in the exotic play of strange spices, with eyes only for the marvelously laden plate at hand.
"Who's y' little friend?"
Inez glanced up from her inventory list, to the broadly grinning man who leaned his long frame against the bar before her. Leveling a mock scowl, she replied, "Someone who is willing to work, Senor Buck. Unlike you."
"Ooh, darlin', you do shoot low."
Buck's boyish grin never wavered, and she replied with a sweet smile, "That way I can be sure to always hit you."
Buck clasped a hand to his wounded heart, then scooped up his beer and laughed. "Aw, you know I love a woman with spirit! One of these days, darlin'! One of these days . . . "
"Ha! In your dreams."
"Only every night!" With a laugh, Buck swung around and sauntered over to the corner table.
"Howdy!" he said cheerfully. "Mind if I sit?"
Sam looked up warily, noted the holstered Colt's pistol and the remarkable length of man stacked above it. Folks sure packed a lot of artillery in this town.
"Suit y'self, Slim."
"Oh, not Slim." The man's smile broadened as he sat, his beer thumping emphasis on the table between them. "Name's Buck. Buck Wilmington. Looks like Inez is gonna fatten you up, there."
"She's a lady." Sam leveled amber eyes at his overly-congenial companion. 'Rascal' and 'rake' may as well have been tattooed in blue ink across the man's forehead. "Ye'd do well to treat her like one."
"Oh-HO!" His jolly face split in open laughter. "Why, look at you, all horns and rattles! Hell, kid, I know that! I was just funnin' her a bit."
When the youngster's slit-eyed stare never wavered, however, Buck sobered and cupped both hands around his glass. Voice suddenly soft, he leaned forward and said, "Son, Senorita Inez is my friend. I would cheerfully gut any man who wrongs her, so don't go worryin' yourself about me. Hear?"
Sam looked down, impaled a piece of beef on the fork. Real smart, kid. Well, might as well be a man about it.
Hand suddenly out-thrust, the youngster said, "Sam McLachlan. Miz Inez just got me doin' some chores, is all."
Buck returned a firm grip, and sat back with what seemed a habitual smile once again stretching his moustache. "Oh, she'll work you like a rented mule. Best you make sure and eat the difference, as the wages ain't so great, but damn, that gal can cook!"
With a shrug, Sam glanced at the noontime beer in the tall man's grasp and said, "A body gotta work to eat. Reckon I'll do my part."
Buck caught that glance, and straightened. "Well, kid, don't let that Puritan work ethic be the death of ya. Be seein' you."
With that, Buck raised his beer in salute, and scraped back his chair to stand. Sam stared into the half-empty plate. Every smile held teeth, every gesture a closed fist. Dammit, Sam, the only ass brayin' around here is you.
"Mister?" Sam's word halted Buck with one hand on his chair back. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to . . . Say, is there any such thing as a swimmin' hole out here? I mean, I know it's a desert, but . . . "
Buck blinked, frowned down at the kid. A swimming hole? Geez, this boy was even younger than JD, with a backwoods accent so thick it made his jaws ache, just listening to it. But where JD was all gregarious, cocky energy, this one suddenly struck him as more like a wary, half-starved stray pup.
"Yeah, kid, there actually is. You go out the road thataway about a mile, and you'll see a little lane turn off towards some sycamore trees. Good fishin' in there, too."
"Thanks. And uh . . . it's good to meet you, Mr. Wilmington."
"Just Buck. Now don't forget to ask for seconds. Oh, and kid?"
"It's all right you sleep in our hayloft. But you really gotta make sure that stable door latch catches, when you leave. Gust of wind about ripped it off the hinges, this mornin'."
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