Sunday, November 21, 2010

Rural Legend, Part III (Final) - Fiction

Welcome to the third and final installment of "Rural Legend". If you're new to my little corner of the web, I encourage you to take some time to catch up with Parts I and II further down this list. Also, I know I said this would go up on Monday the 22nd, but quite frankly holiday weeks are a bit of a pain in the ass in my mundane-world career so I decided to get a jump on the week and post a little early. I hope you enjoy the end of the tale. - Author




The woods surrounding the pasture came alive with responding howls and not a few yelps of pain as nearly a dozen creatures broke from various points in the scrub and made for the pasture. Those unlucky enough to be near the chicken coop and the northern side of the pasture found the traps Paul had laid earlier in the day in the worst way. Servants of the wolf, the silver Paul had taken from his own mouth and used to cover the jaws of the traps went to work on them, searing their flesh from the inside out. The werewolves that remained came across the pasture at a full run, some on two legs and some on all fours and broke around their leader like a wave bearing straight for Paul.


“You should all run for the house now.” Paul said over his shoulder to the family. “The boy doesn’t need to see this.” Mabel nodded mutely and started pulling her boys across the yard towards the house. Billy broke free of her grasp but didn’t move back towards the pasture.


“Everett… go get my gun…” Billy said.

“Billy! Whatever this is, we got no part in it!” Mabel reached for him but Billy pulled away and broke for the barn.


“Get Everett inside and lock the doors!” he yelled back. Mabel screamed for him twice, then grabbed up her youngest and ran for the house as the wave of fangs and flesh met Paul.




###


Paul roared and threw his arms out. There were only four of them left, the traps having done their deed well. If he wasn’t careful, though, four of these overly–large curs would be more than enough. The first one didn’t even slow as it neared him, intending to bowl the giant over. It slammed into his chest at full speed and seemed to bounce off, falling to the ground in a heap. It shook its shaggy head a few times and stood up on its hind legs as the other three rushed past and fell upon Paul.


“Kill the Green Man!” the thing that was Barnhart screamed at his minions then took the advantage of the giant’s distraction and ran after the tiny unicorn. Drahkshin, still groggy from the emergence of his true nature, looked back and saw the werewolf coming for him. It turned in a slow circle as it tried to decide if it could run.


Paul let out a war cry that shook the ranch house windows as he tried to pick the smaller werewolves away. They held on with rending claws and crushing jaws as they tried to open every vein the big man possessed. They had been successful in a few places, but not enough to bring the man down. One had sunk its claws into his chest and was snapping for his neck as he darted his head back and forth. Another of the creatures had had the misfortune to be caught in his vice–like hand. Paul swung the creature around and bashed at the one on his chest with all the power he could muster. Both yelped, then the one used as his weapon went limp, its throat crushed. Paul knew the animal wasn’t truly dead, that only a bit of silver to the heart or an old–fashioned beheading would be the only way to completely destroy them. Dazed, the werewolf stopped trying to tear out his throat for a moment. Paul drubbed it again with its pack mate and finally succeeded in knocking it off his body.


Paul threw his weapon away and watched it land near Granny. The mare had struggled to her feet and stood swaying, watching her foal and its impending demise. Paul whistled for her while tried to remove one of the werewolves from his left bicep, but he knew she wouldn’t come. The mare brayed fiercely and moved to intercept the large werewolf. Barnhart was so intent on the foal that he didn’t realize the mare was bearing down on him. He caught her movement a moment too late as she rode him down. As the wolfman fell, it swiped with its great claws, opening four long, fatal gashes across the mare’s neck. Granny keened and stumbled then fell to the ground as her life’s blood seeped into the new grass.


Paul used his free hand against the side of the werewolf’s head and bashed it against a fencepost, and both it and the creature's skull cracked with equal volume as the creature fell whimpering to the ground. He turned towards Drahkshin just as another of the creatures leap onto his back and sank its fangs deep into his shoulder. He roared in pain and tried to reach behind him, but the its rear legs were already going to work on his lower back. Paul could feel the blood roll under his shirt as he got a hand on its scruff and tried to pull it free but the jaws were cinched tight, letting even more of his blood roll down his chest. Just as he was about to fall backwards and use his weight to crush the creature, a peel of thunder split the night.


Paul could feel the load of buckshot crash into the werewolf’s back. He knew the blast wouldn’t kill it, but the sudden and unexpected attack shocked the creature enough that it opened its jaws to scream. Paul reached behind his head with both hands and grabbed the thing fully by the scruff like a mother would her pup. He pulled and lifted with all his considerable strength and the thing flew over his head and to the ground, its grasping claws tearing chunks of flesh from Paul's body in the process. Paul lifted a massive boot and brought it down on the curr’s head, the results best left to the imagination. He turned quickly and saw Billy standing in the moonlight, the old shotgun still leveled at him. Billy dropped the muzzle slowly and shook his head as if clearing it of a fog.


“Thought I told you to get in the house.” Paul said off handedly.


“Couldn’t let someone do that to my best hand, could I?” Billy said. Seeing the beast on the ground had galvanized Billy. He broke down the barrels, reloaded and then flipped the barrels back into position with a practiced motion as Paul made for the foal.


###


Drahkshin watched as his mother fell in a gush of blood. He could see as well in the gloom as he could in the noon day sun, and the bright red and coppery smell broke his trance. The colt turned from the screaming werewolf and ran as hard as he could for the far side of the pasture with the werewolf in pursuit. Instinct took over as the colt ran in a random pattern, changing course and direction with blinding speed. Barnhart howled and slobbered as he tried to keep up and anticipate the unicorn’s next change, the odd loping and shifting making him look like a grotesque rodeo clown. After a few moments, the werewolf got lucky in his anticipation and leaped, landing immediately in front of the unicorn. Drahkshin bleated and tore off in the opposite direction, but not before the werewolf landed a long graze from its claws on the unicorn’s left flank. It bleated again and ran in a pain–filled haze for the shelter of the barn with the werewolf hot on his hooves.


###


Everett could just make out the combat in the pasture from the safety of the sitting room window. His mother stood at another window by the door, waiting for Billy to come back to the house. They both saw the young man fire on the wolf and Everett nearly cheered. Everett had asked his mother if the creatures really were werewolves. Her only answer had been to shush him and tell him to watch the window for any trouble. Mabel had already tried the phone and found the line dead. She was sure if they made it through the night they would find the service line out at the road slashed in two.


“Ma’! Drahkshin!” Everett screamed as he saw the werewolf bearing down on the days’ old colt.
“It’ll be okay Everett…” Mabel said quietly, tensely.


Everett watched in horror as the werewolf chased the young horse. He waited until his mother’s attentions were completely fixed on the events outside and slipped out of the room. Hurrying as quietly as he could, he made it up the stairs and into his room. He dug around in his “treasure drawer”, the place he reserved for all the tiny mementos and other assorted brick–a–brack of his young life. He passed by small photos of the father he’d never met, his first merit badges and several flint arrowheads before he found it near the back of the drawer. One of the main reasons he had wanted to go to the Fair last year was to meet the Lone Ranger in all his glory. Billy had used the opportunity to enter a few steers in one of the competitions, and Everett’s vaunted, masked hero served as a celebrity judge for the event. Not only did his screen idol sign the plastic grip of his official Lone Ranger cap pistol, he even gave him a silver bullet from his own cartridge belt as a souvenir.


Everett clutched the bullet tightly and ran for his mother’s room. Having been born and bred on a ranch, Everett had come to regard guns in the same way as anyone else in the area did. They were tools and not some great, evil thing. He’d been taught gun safety from the time he could walk and as all farm people did developed a healthy respect for them as well as the rudimentary skills to use them. He boy threw open his mother’s closet and drug a chair to the doorway. Climbing up, he rooted around the upper shelf at a fevered pitch until he found an old hat box. He remembered the dull red box from when he and Billy went shooting and pulled it down. He jumped off the chair and threw the lid off the box. The old Colt .45 revolver looked incredibly large in the bottom of the box. He let the box drop to the floor, stuck the gun in the front of his pants then ran for the back door.


###


Paul chewed up the ground as he made for the barn. It was the worst place it could have ran and robbed the unicorn of its only real advantage; speed. It wasn’t old enough yet to use its horn as a weapon and lacked any of the real strength and size it would hopefully live to gain. Paul reached the open barn door and stopped short. He pulled his knit cap off his head and tossed it into the room. A huge paw swiped at it from inside the doorway. Paul grabbed the still–closed right hand door and ripped it from its hinges with a shriek of rusted metal. The werewolf leaped from the shattered doorway and was caught by surprise as Paul used the heavy door as a shield, battering the creature with it. The werewolf bounced back into the barn and barely had time to get to his hind feet as the giant came after him.


Barnhart was nowhere near Paul’s equal in size, but his transformation had still made him a head taller than an average man. The two locked in struggle and danced across the front of the barn, smashing each other against walls, tools and anything else they could find to try and gain the advantage. Billy ran to the door then took several steps back as he watched the two. He raised the shotgun but knew that he had as equal chance of hitting Paul as he did the werewolf. He looked back to the house and saw that every window in the house was lit up. Then he saw Mabel come out onto the porch and heard her screaming Everett’s name. Mabel caught sight of Billy in the light from the barn and ran off the porch and across the yard towards him.


“Everett’s not in the house!” she screamed. “He’s gone!” she cried out as she came over the pasture fence and towards Billy.


“Get back ma’!” Billy shouted, his head swiveling between his mother and the supernatural battle before him.


“I have to find Everett!” she screamed. Billy met her several feet away from the barn to keep her away from the battling figures then stared wildly around them, waiting for any of the creatures to come around. The moon was swelled and impossibly bright in the cloudless sky and lent an eerie glow to the ranch. They were in the open with only the barn to block their view, letting Billy see the entire length and breadth of the pasture. Mabel continued calling for Everett while Billy stood a tense guard. The ones that Paul had put down were noticeably twitching and moving, still alive even after the giant’s assaults. Billy kept an eye on them and said a tiny prayer for his family and Paul.


###


Paul let the wolf’s arm slip from his right hand and dropped it, coming up with an uppercut that nearly severed the animal’s tongue. Its head snapped back violently as it let fly with a pained growl. The force of the blow made the wolf slack his own grip, allowing Paul to get both hands on the creature at once. He heaved and sent the werewolf crashing against the barn wall then took a precious moment to breathe.


###


Barnhart had hit the wall with such force that the thick boards cracked behind him, sending slivers of harsh electric light out into the night nearly at Billy’s feet. Billy spun at the cracking noise and leveled the shotgun as the werewolf pulled himself away from the torn wall. A flash of movement caught his eye towards the rear end of the barn. He immediately recognized Everett’s darkened form as it raced down the pasture and disappeared behind the barn.


Everett!” Billy called out. “Come on ma’! He just went into the back of the barn!” The two took off at a run as Mabel screamed for her son to get out of the building.


###


The werewolf recovered far more quickly than Paul had expected. It hit the floor in front of the wall and sprung through the air towards him almost as soon as its feet touched down. Paul let fly with a backhand at just the right moment and sent the beast hurtling through the air. It hit the straw-littered floor and slid like a howling puck nearly the length of the barn. It caught the edge of a stall with its claws and pulled itself around, disappearing into the darker part of the barn. The sound of its claws scrabbling on the walls and then overhead on the thick beams echoed, making it difficult to track his movements. Paul walked slowly down the aisle and opened his senses. He could smell the wolf, but with the scent of so many of them on his clothes and the collected scents of hay, animals and years in the barn he couldn’t rely on it to betray the master wolf’s direction. He spun in slow circles as he went, straining his ears to catch the slightest murmur of movement in the place. One moment, it seemed the thing was to his left, another directly above him. He kept moving until he was near the end of the barn and looked down into the stable that had witnessed the birth of the colt less than two days before. There in the far corner was Drahkshin, his head held securely in young Everett’s arms.


“You won’t let the werewolf hurt him, will you, Paul?” Everett asked quietly, his eyes full of tears. He had already found a saddle rag and was keeping pressure on the colt’s flank where the werewolf’s claw had raked it. Paul held his finger up against his pursed lips and turned his head to the side as the werewolf’s claws sliced through the air. Paul pulled his head back but couldn’t avoid the tips of the claws as they passed his cheek. Two thin gashes like paper cuts opened and bled freely as he shifted his bulk and twisted at the waist. His balled fist shot like an arrow and caught the creature in the center of the chest, briefly pinning it to the roof support he clung to. It hit the stall floor accompanied by Everett’s scream and the colt’s bleating, then coiled and came up at Paul with every ounce of strength it had.


The beast hit Paul with the fury of a hurricane, slashing violently at any part of the giant’s body it could. Paul deflected most of the blows, but more than one hit home. The creature wasn’t as strong, but it was far faster than Paul, especially with the man’s loss of blood. Paul knew the mortal world kept many of his abilities dampened, but it had been so many years since he had walked it that he had indeed forgotten just how taxing it could be. He let the beast dig both sets of claws deep into his chest to still its paws, and then grabbed it under the arms. He spun and lifted the werewolf off the ground in the same motion and watched as the beasts claws slid free of him. It hit the stall floor and flopped about for a moment before it came up in a crouch facing the unicorn and the human boy.


“If I can’t have the bastard, neither shall you!” the thing that was Barnhart growled. It coiled and leaped through the air before Paul could grab hold. Billy and Mabel came through the back door of the barn in time to see the werewolf spring towards Everett and the colt. Mabel screamed for her son as Billy raised the muzzle of the weapon and let loose with both barrels at the wolf’s back.


The werewolf felt the lead pellets tear into its thick hide. The attack did little more than anger it and did nothing to change either its course or resolve. He knew he could at least reach the soft, smooth coat and the equally soft flesh hidden under the colt’s mane before the Green Man got to him. The human boy would be less than a flick of a single claw to send his spirit to the Undermaster. They were all soft and would be so weak and stunned from the loss of both young animals that he would easily escape their grasp and make good his getaway. He howled as he went through the air, the noise stilling abruptly when he saw the muzzle of the revolver leveled at him. He had been shot, stabbed, beaten and otherwise assaulted hundreds of times before, but an argent glint caught his notice just as the cylinder rolled in the revolver’s frame.


Everett touched off the revolver, sending his hand skyward from the recoil. There was less than three feet between them as the silver bullet slammed into the werewolf’s chest and buried itself in its heart. It crashed into the wall above and behind them and fell into them as it clawed at its own chest. Unicorn and boy screeched and tried to separate themselves from the tangle of the werewolf’s limbs as it howled and yelped. Paul reached down and plucked them away one in each hand and stepped back to the stall opening while the beast thrashed and rolled on the straw–carpeted floor. He set the young ones down gently behind his thick legs and watched the werewolf in its final death throes. Fur and flesh melted and slid from it, bubbling and roiling onto the floor as it ripped pieces of itself away. After a few moments, all that remained was a very human and very dead Barnhart still wearing bits of fur and gore from his murderous alter ego. The eyes were the last to change, losing their greenish glow and fading away to dull, glassy, dead brown orbs. Paul and Everett stared into the dead man’s eyes for long moments before Mabel and Billy rushed forward and pulled him away from the stall.


“Everett!” Mabel screamed and hugged the boy. “What were you thinking? Why did you run out like that? That thing could have killed you!”


“I couldn’t let it hurt Drahkshin, ma’.” Everett said into her shoulder as she held him close to her again.


“What happened?” Billy asked, the shotgun held at port arms. He was still scanning the barn nervously, waiting for the next thing to leap out at them. Paul walked into the stall and toed Barnhart’s body gently. He bent over and picked up the revolver from where Everett had dropped it. He examined it for a moment and shook his head, then smelled the cylinder.


“Silver.” Paul said and dropped the gun with an air of disgust. He had no use for guns, or anything designed solely for intelligent creatures to kill other intelligent creatures with for that matter. Paul had always been reasonable himself and disdained violence committed by intelligence. He expected wild animals to fight for their survival the way nature intended them to. Violence should always be the last resort of an intelligent species. Humans seemed well–versed in ways to destroy and only precious few to create. But in this instance, he felt the boy was completely justified.


“Silver? Where in God’s name did you get a silver bullet?” Billy asked Everett.


“Last year, at the fair…” Everett said. Mabel let him go and started going over his face and hands, looking for any injuries. “Ma’… I’m okay…”


Well I’ll be… guess the Lone Ranger really does use those things…” Billy said softly.


“Mr. Sinclair? Mrs. Sinclair? Everett? I need you to stay here. There are still matters that need my attention that are not for your eyes to see. If anything happens, call for me.” Paul said.


“Billy.” he corrected as Paul walked towards the rear door of the barn.


“Mabel.” she added. Paul looked over his shoulder and smiled at them.


“Billy and Mabel it is then.” Paul said.


“Paul… what are you?” Everett asked sheepishly, childish innocence and curiosity coming to the fore. “I don’t mean no disrespect or anything by askin’…” he quickly added.


Paul stopped and hung his head for a moment. He turned and regarded them with a deep sigh but a wide smile. “Just think of me as the grass beneath your feet and the trees overhead. I am one, yet one of many, yet the greatest and yet most humble of my kind. I am the first, yet not the last. You may call me Paul.”


“Are you… are you the Paul? Paul Bunyon, I mean…” Everett asked. Paul laughed in a deep, warm tone and hitched his thumbs into his belt. The sight would have been reminiscent of picture books and children’s tales if not for the gashes on his face and the shredded, bloody flannel that clung to his body.


“I have been known by many names, child.” Paul said warmly. He laughed again as a soft light seemed to grow from his wounds. The gashes and punctures from his battles with the wolves shrank and closed, sealing themselves and leaving the flesh whole and unmarked. “And in many times. I walked this world in the days before memory and have walked it many times since. Now, stay and tend the unicorn, if you would.”


###


Paul went out behind the barn and found several of Barnhart’s minions caught in his traps. They lay on the ground, writhing in agony as the silver continued to boil there flesh at the sight of the wound. A few had even tried to gnaw away at the trapped limb to escape, but the pain of that and the silver soon made the effort impossible. He pitied them. Most likely, they were innocent humans led into a trap that would guarantee them a place in their own purgatory. The strength of Barnhart’s curse wouldn’t die with his own death in these ones, but Paul knew after these were gone, any that they may have infected would be purged of the mark of the wolf.



He went to each in turn and apologized for what he must do. Paul snapped his fingers and a woodsman’s axe made to his proportions appeared in his hand. The thick, wedge blade was made of silver and the haft of the finest oak that had ever grown in any realm. The tool glowed softly in his grip and he regarded it with a smile. The axe would not have come to him in battle, for it was even more prone to peace than even Paul himself. But it had let itself be called up from its place of honor at his hearth for this task. The battle with the werewolves had been just that; battle. But this was now a task more for mercy than violence, and it knew the purpose he had called upon it to serve.


Paul showed far more mercy in ending their curse than Barnhart would have showed bestowing it. Each succumbed instantly to a single blow from the great axe as it cleaved the head from the body, the axe head glowing with a white–hot intensity that could be seen through the cracks in the barn wall and seared both halves of the ruined bodies, keeping the blood from flowing into the hungry ground. He produced a velvet pouch from his trousers and gently placed a bit of the night–blooming wolfsbane in each of their mouths. Their curse broken, he went to the horse pasture and repeated the process with those he had defeated and stacked all the bodies into a neat pile in the pasture. He then went back into the barn and without a word removed Barnhart’s body while the Sinclairs wisely looked on in silence.


Paul carried the body out and added it to the pile made from the bodies of his minions then bowed his head and said a prayer to the Lord of All and Nothing, asking for the gentle treatment of those that had unwittingly become minions of the beast while at the same time praying that the spirit of the true werewolf be damned to the Pits for his willing service to the Undermaster. The axe head glowed with the intensity of a small sun as he placed it against the pile. White flame spread rapidly, searing the bodies within so quickly and completely not even a hint of smoldering hair could be scented on the wind. The fire burned for no more than a few minutes and left not a single trace when it was done. Even the grass beneath the horrendous pile laid untouched and a vibrant, early–spring green.


###


The family had watched the burning of the creatures from the safety of the ruined barn door. They parted for the giant as he ducked through the doorway and smiled at them. He turned and spread his arms, a hand on each doorframe. With a smile and a knowing wink to Everett, the wood slowly reformed into its intended shape. The door rose up from the ground and reattached itself to the hinge works, making sure not to hit the mystical carpenter as he finished the job. Without a word, he left the family and went back to the birthing stall.


“Paul…”


“Yes, young Everett?” Paul answered as he kneeled down and lifted the colt in his arms. It looked like a carnival prize in his grasp.


“Do you have to take Drahkshin away? Couldn’t he stay here? We won’t tell anybody ‘bout it! Honest!”


Paul sighed and scratched the new unicorn’s head. It nuzzled into his barrel chest and snorted in content. “I know you would not speak of it, Everett… nor would your family. But there are things in this world that would sense the unicorn and would come for it. I could not do that to any of you. No, young one. Drahkshin and all of you will be far safer when he is back in his sire’s care, in the realm where he belongs.”


“Where… where is that?” Billy asked. “Where do you come from? What was all this?”


“There are things best left from the eyes and minds of mortals, William Sinclair. Just know that you have my gratitude, as well as that of Mashorie, Drahkshin’s sire.” He hefted the colt easily in one arm and tousled Everett’s hair. A soft glow emanated from his hand, almost unseen in its subtlety. “You will make a fine man someday, Everett. Like your brother.” He nodded to Billy, then a more solemn nod to Mabel. “You are to be commended for raising such fine sons in the face of your adversities, Mabel Sinclair. There are few mothers in any realm that could do as much. I thank you for your hospitality and the fine food. Your skills will be the envy to all that I tell the tale. Goodbye, family. Again, my thanks to you.” He smiled at them and walked out of the barn and started across the moon–drenched pasture.


Paul stopped and seemed to be speaking to the unicorn, though his voice was too far away to hear. He set the unicorn on the ground and watched along with the family as Drahkshin approached his dead mother. The unicorn whinnied once and tipped his head towards her. His horn touched the dead horse’s smooth neck. Granny’s entire body glowed with a soft light. A few moments later, Granny opened her eyes and snorted, getting to her feet just as the glow faded away. Mare and foal regarded each other for a moment before Granny turned away and loped off across the pasture. Paul reached down, picked the unicorn up again and started to walk away toward the far side of the pasture. But instead of shrinking in the distance, the giant’s body seemed to grow ever larger. The silhouette of a huge animal seemed to appear out of nowhere just past the pasture fence. Bovine in profile, it waited patiently while Paul secured the now tiny–seeming colt to its back and led it away into the night.


As Paul disappeared from sight, the family found themselves incredibly tired and physically weary to the bone. They secured the barn and traipsed into the house, finding their beds and falling immediately into the deepest sleep of their lives.



###


Mabel slept well after the dawning sun, something that had occurred few enough times to be counted on two hands in all her adult life. She'd had breakfast finished before she remembered that Paul had left the night before for parts unknown. Mabel stared at the extra food and smiled. There weren’t many men like Paul left in the world, and she hoped the world wouldn’t kill the rest of them off out of spite. The man had only been there for two days but he had done so much to help them, from dealing with Barnhart to trapping the wolves that could have slaughtered their calves, chickens, and maybe even the new colt. She was happy the colt would be staying on with them, and not just because of Barnhart. Everett would need a horse in a year or two, and he and the colt would do a lot of their growing up together.


Mabel set the plates loaded with eggs, bacon and biscuits on the table just as her boys sat down to eat. “You boys need to eat up. I plain forgot that Paul wasn’t here anymore, think I made too much.”


“No worry there, Ma’… I’ll take care of it!” Everett said as he loaded his plate. Mabel stared at him. Had he gotten bigger?


“Could you believe that about Barnhart? I can’t imagine that!” Mabel said as she sat down to the table. They ate in silence, enjoying the closeness of family. Had any one of them mentioned an odd dream they each had had last night, about werewolves and the new colt being a unicorn and Paul being the Paul, they might have thought it odd. Mabel had gone so far as to go down to the barn before making breakfast to make sure all was as it should have been. Granny and the new colt were doing just fine, though they did seem a little skitish. Mabel attributed that to the smell of the wolf hides curing outside the barn that Paul had left. They weren't worth much, but Billy had been sure he could sell them for a few dollars to an Indian he knew. All being right with their world, Mabel and the rest of the Sinclairs would be happy to leave their nightmares behind them, and even happier to keep looking towards the future.


###

Billy walked out of the bank and took a moment to bask in the late-morning sun then adjusted the strings on his bolo tie before walking across the street to where he’d parked the brand new pick–up truck. He looked down the street to the hanging saloon sign and smiled as the memory of Paul and Ferguson’s run–in came back vividly in his mind’s eye. Billy hadn’t been back in the place since and had nearly sworn the stuff off altogether.


Billy hated to admit it, but the Sinclair streak of good fortune seemed to have started with the short time the big hand had come on at the spread. As it turned out, Barnhart had been a con man wanted in three states, with a fat reward for his capture in each. If it hadn’t been for Paul telling Billy about it, he would never have known. The reward money from Barnhart’s capture had been more than enough to pay the balloon payment and with the ranch secure, Billy had been free to take the deal out west. No one was more surprised than he when the futures prices didn’t drop as predicted. The resulting profit allowed for an expansion of the herd and improvements to the ranch. In that short year, the ranch had become prosperous enough to add on three hands and clear away the rest of their debts.


“Billy!” he heard Everett call from down the street. He'd sent his little brother to the feed store to pick up a bag of sweetfeed. The boy had grown half–again his size in the past year alone, and at just past twelve he was now nearly as tall as his elder brother. Everett ate voraciously now and had become strong as an ox in that short time, and according to his climbing pant cuffs he was due for another growth spurt any day now. Billy turned and watched the strapping boy coming down the sidewalk with a hundred–pound burlap bag of feed thrown casually over his shoulder. Everett hurried down the street and tossed the heavy sack in the back of the truck like it was filled with feathers.


“Hey! Easy on the truck!” Billy barked.


“Wanted to make sure ya’ didn’t forget about me. Ma’s makin’ chicken for lunch…”


“Is that all you think about? Food?” Billy asked.


“Can’t help it. I’m hungry. Let’s go!” Everett said.


The brothers got in the truck and headed east, out of town and towards home. Billy looked past Everett and out the passenger side window as they made their way down the road. He swung the truck off to the side and pointed out the window to where more than a half-dozen, over-sized ash trees were growing a few yards from the road. “Weren’t those just saplings a few months ago?” Billy wondered out loud.


“Naw.” Everett answered and pulled a chocolate bar from the front pocket on his over–alls. “Nothin’ grows that fast. Just must not have noticed ‘em before is all.”


The brothers smiled at each other as Billy started the truck and eased it onto the road and back towards their lives. Had they looked closer, they would have seen what could only have been deep smiles formed into the trunks of the great ash trees.
Well, I hope you've enjoyed "Rural Legend" as much as I've enjoyed bringing it to you. If you have, or even if you haven't, you can drop me a line via e-mail or leave a comment here. I'd also like to take this opportunity to wish all of you a happy Thanksgiving. I do hope in the hustle and bustle of the holiday week you find time to think of those things you're most thankful for, and that you're able to share the season with those you love.
For those of you saying, "Dude... seriously? Unicorns? WTF?", let me assure you I'll be back next week with something a little more in my usual (read "no fucking unicorns"...) vein. So until then, enjoy the holiday, and, just write, damn it. - Author

Monday, November 15, 2010

Rural Legend, Part II - Fiction

As promised, here is Rural Legend, Part II. If you like what you're reading here, please check out some of my earlier posts, and as always I'd love to hear your comments or thoughts either through comments here or via e-mail. Rural Legend, Part III (the third and final part), will be posted next Monday, 11/22/10. So, without further ado....


Early spring had brought the young ranchers and hands out in full force. The young men worked hard and long from sun to sun, and the odd occasion that brought them to town made sure that the Mustang, the only tavern in Hardinsberry, kept its reputation. It could be a rowdy place, especially on paydays and the changing of the seasons as the young bucks sought to spend their money and act like they thought real men should. The sheriff turned a blind eye to the place so long as the proprietor kept the noise and action inside.

The mood inside was charged with youthful adrenaline and not a little alcohol. Beer and hard liquor were the only things served in the place, and any man that dared ask for a glass of wine would be run out as a limp–wristed dandy. The only women that dared enter the place were those that worked there or cared little for their reputations. The war had made more than a few women into ranchers overnight, and they had had to adapt to the increased presence of the fairer sex nearly overnight. The intervening years had seen more than a few women in the place, but it still lacked even a separate facility for them, not counting the rooms upstairs for the working girls that depended on a lonely ranch hand’s pay to keep her. The saloon still sported the open stairway leading up to these rooms so that all could see from the bar if their favorite girl had a ribbon wrapped ‘round the knob.

Billy had been there for nearly an hour but had drunk three hours worth. One of the girls had seen him for an easy mark and had been working him for nearly as long as he talked and bragged to his few friends in the place. Everyone knew Billy, and most had known his father. Few ever called him on his boasts and bravado, chalking it up to a dying ranch. A few had already gone, bought up by large companies that found it far easier and cheaper to raise the cattle themselves than to work through the ranches. Even the men that worked those ranches frequented the place but there was little fraternization between the family ranches and the corporate ones, unless you counted the fights.

Billy had his back to the bar as he sat on a stool, the harlot to his left and a double shot of rye to his right. A friend from the Arbuck place in the southern end of the county had turned the conversation to horses and Billy was regaling one and all with the birth of the new foal that morning. “White ash shnow, I tell ya’!” he said more loudly than needed even in the crowded saloon, his slurred voice betraying his condition. “Never had one like that on the shpread ‘fore. Be the fashtest in the county, I reckon’!”

A tall, thin man in a worn drover coat to his right turned to Billy and tipped his hat. “’Scuse me…” the man said. “Did I hear you say you got a pure white foal?” Billy suddenly turned to the man and eyed him up.

“Yeah, yeah I did mishter… but I don’t shee where it’sh any buishness a yersh’…” Billy said.

“Don’t mean no trouble, just askin’ is all.” The stranger flagged down the bartender and laid a silver dollar on the bar with his gloved hand. “Drinks for me and my friend, here.” He turned to Billy and tipped his hat again. “Please. For my speakin’ out of turn.” He offered the drink to Billy and saluted with his own glass. Billy eyed him warily, but only for a moment. A free drink was a free drink, after all.

“Thanksh…” Billy said and downed the rye. “You from around here?” Billy asked as he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

“Me? No. But I do have reason for askin’ about your foal, though.” He waved to the bartender again and overpaid for another drink for Billy.

“Whatsh that?” Billy asked, the distrust back in his slurred voice.

“See, I work for a man that collects horses. Has a big spread out in Colorado, a real gentleman rancher. He collects odd horses, don’t have a pure white one yet. I bet he’d pay handsome for yours. If it really is pure white though. Not a fleck of color on it?”

“You callin’ me a liar, mishter?” Billy shot back even as he took the second drink from the stranger’s money.

“Nothin’ of the sort!” the stranger shot back. “I don’t buy drinks for liars. Just that my boss’d want me to make sure before I wired him for several thousand dollars.”

“Thoushansh?” Billy mumbled.

“He pays top dollar, ‘specially for somethin’ he don’t have one of yet.” the stranger answered simply. “If you’d be interested in sellin’ such an animal, that is.”

Billy thought for a moment. They could make the mortgage without selling a single head, leaving him free to work on the Spokane deal. He smiled and extended his drinking hand. “William Shinclair…”

“Edgar Barnhart…” the stranger returned as he gripped Billy’s hand. There was strength in the stranger’s grip that belied his thin stature. Billy paid it no mind, though. His head was firmly on the topic of money. “Think I could see this horse of yours? You know, just so’s I could tell my boss what I seen with my own eyes?”

“Why, sure! You jusht come on over tomorrow mornin’ and…”

“I got business in the morning. How ‘bout tomorrow evenin’?”

Billy took a piece of scrap paper from his shirt pocket and scrawled some directions on it and handed it to Barnhart. “If ya’ can’t find it, jusht ashk around for the Shinclair place, besht damn shpread in the whole county!”

“I’m sure it is.” Barnhart answered and shoved the paper into his coat. “Tomorrow evenin’, then.” He tipped his hat once more and walked out of the saloon. A ranch hand from one of the corporate spreads took the stranger’s place and hailed the bartender.

“I sure hope that foal’s all you said it was. You know they can change color on ya’, don’t ya’? We had one was born white like that a few years ago, turned paint ‘fore its first month.” he cautioned Billy. Billy turned quickly, nearly knocking the whore down as he went.

“And just what would you know ‘bout it, mishter? Huh? Or are you callin’ me a liar, too?”

“Easy there, son. Just tryin’ ta’ help, that’s all. Wouldn’t want you to get shamed or nothin’ if the man comes back in a few months with a paint and wantin’ his money back.” The corporate hand had a few years and several pounds of muscle on Billy, but rye has a way of making a man see past these minor differences.

“Why you sonofa…” Billy pulled back and struck the man with a rabbit punch to the side of his head. He stumbled into the man beside him, a hand from the Warner family spread a few places over from the Sinclair’s. The corporate hand turned back to Billy and swung a hard right hand without so much as a word. The bartender yelled at them, but it was too late. Though they couldn’t have heard the exchange, many had seen them trade blows. With tensions high and booze flowing free, the testosterone in the room built to a fever pitch as everyone in the place thought that a row was starting up again between the corporate hands and the family ranches. As soon as Jeb Warner turned the corporate hand around and clouted him across the jaw, the place erupted into a brawl.

Glass broke across the room as tables splintered and waitresses and whores ran for cover. The bartender pulled out a sawed–off shotgun from under the bar and fired into the air, but even that noise didn’t quell the violence. He roared a few times and let the second barrel go with the same effect. Not wanting more holes in his roof he threw down the empty shotgun and grabbed a baseball bat from its accustomed place behind the bar. He’d worked and owned saloons all his life, and if there was one thing the old man knew it was how to stop a brawl. He waded out into the bar and started taking shots at anyone that wouldn’t break up their battles. A few of the older hands had taken his meaning and had backed out of the fray, retreating to the tables that lined the far wall to watch the young ones. Being nearer the door, they were the first to see him come in.

Paul was well better than a foot taller than any man in the room, and probably two feet wider. He waded into the press of bodies easily, and those that wouldn’t get out of his way required only a gentle hand that covered their entire shoulder to guide them from his path. He scanned the room and found Billy, held by one man and being worked over by another. He took three long strides and knocked several dueling men out of the way as the combat in the bar died away. Most had seen the giant now and were licking their wounds, waiting to see what would happen next. The bartender had gotten into the spirit of the battle royal and was doing far more damage than a sensible man should. It served them right, though. Who was going to pay for all this damage? Who was it that was going to be up until dawn cleaning up the mess? Not the drunken bastards wreaking havoc on his place, that was for sure.

The man holding Billy saw the bartender coming, bat swinging all the way. But he also saw Paul coming up behind the bartender. He paused a moment and slacked his grip on the young man, giving Billy the chance to push off and get free. Billy swung a haymaker at his surprised assailant. The swing, driven by fear and pain and booze dropped the man to the floor just as the bartender brought his Louisville Slugger around in a wide arc. Billy registered the bat and knew there was no way to avoid the blow headed for his temple. He closed his eyes and waited, but the shock never came. The bar grew eerily quiet as he opened his eyes and saw the bartender stopped in mid–swing like he was posing for a baseball card. There was no mistaking the massive hand that held the bloodied business end. Paul’s fingers were so large they actually came back to touch his palm around the bat.

“Sorry, friend. But what kind a’ man would I be if I let you do that to my boss? Not much of one, I’d wager.” Paul said in his easy, friendly manner. The bartender, still fueled by blind rage, struggled with the bat. He spun in a circle and tugged, expecting it to break free of whoever held it. He stopped cold and stared. Where a man’s face should've been was a broad, flannel–clad chest. He stared ever upward until he had to crane his neck to look Paul in the eye. “Now why don’t you all just settle down and get back to what it was you were doing before all this nonsense, eh?”

The bartender stammered for a few moments, then pulled his bat free with a violent jerk. He brought it back around in the highest arc he could against the giant. No man, no matter how big, could take a beating from a Louisville Slugger. It was a motto he'd lived by, and one that got disproved with harsh clarity that night in the Mustang. The bat struck Paul across the face with an audible crack, a blow that would have easily sent a ball sailing out of the park. The giant swung his head to the side from the force of the impact, but his feet never moved from the spot. He put the fingers of his left hand up to his cheek and touched it gently as the bartender rallied for another blow.

“Mister, you ought not do that again…” Paul warned him quietly. His voice was even, and though it lacked a bit of the buoyant quality it normally had it still held no sign of anger or malice. “Just came to pick up my boss is all. I don’t want any trouble…”

The bat swung again, this time accompanied by a war cry and coming from the opposite side. It struck this time on the right but with much the same result. Paul wiped at his right cheek with the back of his left hand and looked at the tiny smear of blood across his knuckles. The bartender staggered back a step and stared at Paul. His face had gone white as his knuckles as he stared up into great, narrowing eyes.

“The Good Lord said I should turn the other cheek, but I guess some people just see that as another thing to aim at.” Paul said softly. The saloon had turned quiet as a funeral as everyone held their breath. “Mister, I like to think I follow His word best I can. And I think He tests us every day. Guess you’re my test for today.” His right hand shot out, grabbing the end of the bat firmly and lifting it up. The bartender tightened his two–handed grip out of reflex and found himself suspended off the ground several feet so he could stare into the giant’s eyes. “And, Mister, you’re gonna’ need a new bat when you wake up.”

Paul squeezed the fire–hardened ash in his grip and was rewarded with a satisfying crack as the wood snapped and oozed out from between his fingers. Shattered as it was, the bat couldn’t hold he bartender’s considerable girth and he plummeted towards the floor. But before he could land Paul’s left hand snaked out and grabbed the man by the leg. With a swing of his arm, the bartender sailed across the room and crashed into the large mirror behind the bar. More than one hardened ranch hand cried out as the sound cut through the silence like a knife. A few of the regular patrons and hired help ran behind the counter to check out the old man.

“Mr. Sinclair, you ready to go?” Paul asked as his smile returned. Billy looked up at him and staggered a bit from the rye and the beating, then back to one of his friends as they nursed his own blackened eyes.

“Billy? Who the hell is that?”

“That? That’s my new hand…” Billy said more easily than he thought he could.

“He got a brother?” the man asked enviously.

Paul waited for Billy to walk past then fell in step behind him. The crowd parted easily for the pair as they crossed the shredded tavern and made for the door. Billy walked out the door as Paul stopped short and motioned for one of the barmaids. The girl was understandably reluctant but was drawn by the big man’s warm smile. Hesitantly, she came over within a few feet of him. He dug around in his pocket, pulled out two golden coins and placed them in her hand. “One’s for your boss to help fix the mirror and the place, and the other’s for you ladies to divvy up how you see fit. Never let it be said Mr. Sinclair don’t pay his own way. Now there’s a good girl.” He winked a huge, bright blue eye at her and continued out the door.

###

“What the hell are you doin’ here?” Billy yelled.

“Your ma’ was worried ‘bout you. I was getting’ a bit thirsty myself, so I thought I’d come down for a drink.”

“I can handle myself just fine, Paul…you didn’t need to come in there, throwin’ your weight around.”

“Truth to tell, Mr. Sinclair, I just couldn’t see lettin’ the proprietor clout you like that. Wouldn’t be real honorable–like of me to let somethin’ like that happen to the man that pays my wages, now would it?”

Billy stared at the man for a moment then almost laughed despite himself. “The look on old man Ferguson’s face was pretty funny when you grabbed that bat like that…”

“Well, been my experience that some men just don’t know when to leave well enough alone.” Paul responded simply. “With your permission, Mr. Sinclair, it’s getting’ late. I really need to be headin’ back to the spread and check on things. I still get the feelin’ somethin’ ain’t right.”
Billy silently agreed with the hand. But he wasn’t sure if they were referring to the same thing. He looked at the hitching post and didn’t see the big draft he’d given Paul permission to use.

“You walk here?”

“Beautiful night out, thought the exercise would do me some good, walk off some of your ma’s fine cookin’.”

“Well, hop in the back, I’ll give you a ride.”

Paul stepped up easily into the bed of the truck and leaned against the cab. Billy wasn’t being impolite. They both knew that there was no way he could fit comfortably in the cab of the truck. Billy got in and started up the old truck in a haze of blue smoke and eased it into gear and down the road away from town. Paul felt around his palm and picked a few errant, blooded splinters from it. He smiled and tossed them out the side as the truck picked up speed and sped along the dirt road into the moonlit night.

###

Billy opened his eyes and immediately cursed the effort. Bright sunlight spilled into the room and assaulted his senses as he tried to pull the blanket up over his head. The movement produced pain that threatened to black him out. The events of the night before filtered slowly back to him. His ribs would be incredibly bruised right now, if not a few broken ones. His head pounded and his mouth tasted like cotton as he rolled over on his side and gingerly stood up. He paused once he got to his feet and swayed unsteadily as he made sure his legs wouldn’t betray him. From the sunlight in the room, he knew it to be well past dawn. He looked down and saw someone had bandaged his battered ribs. Seemed he owed a debt of thanks to Paul for that. His mother would have let him bear the pain before she would have done such a thing over a barroom brawl. Of course, he couldn’t just thank Paul. After all, that wouldn’t be the proper thing for a man in his position. He slowly, carefully put on his shirt and buttoned it, neglecting to tuck in the tails. The pain would have been more bother than it was worth.

He remembered clearly his meeting with Barnhart and his offer for the foal, though. The thought brightened his mood a bit as he went downstairs a step at a time. If everything went according to plan, he will have saved the farm and still left their options open. He found his mother in the kitchen washing the breakfast dishes and sat down at the table. Without a word between them, she set down a cup of lukewarm coffee and a few aspirin and continued with her chores. He sipped then winced at the tepid coffee and took the aspirin dry. “Don’t do nothin’ with that check Reynolds gave you last night, ma’. I’ve got a better deal in the works.”

“A deal is a deal, Billy.” she said without turning away from the sink. “If we go back on our word, what are we then?”

“Smart is what we are, ma’. I met a man last night that’s interested in buying the new foal. Works for a collector out of Colorado and pays good hard cash for odd ones. Seems he doesn’t have a pure white horse yet, and I aim to provide him one for a healthy sum. Enough to take care of the mortgage and leave the herd out of it.”

“Pure white horses ain’t that rare, Billy. And I’m certainly not going to stake the ranch on some drunken deal you cooked up at the saloon. Man was probably just pulling your leg.”

“I don’t think so, ma’. He was a stranger and pretty free with his money. I’ve heard tell of men that has more money than they know what to do with, and I think I’ve just found one.”

“Well, I’m not ready to put the future of the ranch in those kind of hands.” she said sternly, still with her back to him. He slapped the table and instantly regretted it as waves of pain rippled across his gut.

“Damn it, ma’! You go around behind me and do this, and then when I do have the chance to make everything work out you still want to treat me like I’m a kid!” Billy said.

“If you acted the part of a man, I’d be more inclined to treat you like one.”

Billy felt like his mother had slapped him across the face. He stood up and ignored the pain from his ribs as he charged for the back door. Mabel stopped what she was doing and stared down into the sink. She hadn’t meant to say it that way, but she was never known for holding back when it came to the important matters in life. The sooner her eldest son realized that he didn’t know everything there was to know, the sooner he might actually learn nothing came as easy as he thought, and for the ranch to grow would take far more elbow grease and far less dreaming. Of course, that didn’t stop her from going to the back door and watching him cover the ground to the barn. She shook her head and sighed, hoping that one day he might realize that she was only trying to do what was best for everyone.

Billy stormed through the barn door and found the mare’s birthing stall empty. He went out the other side and crossed to the horse pasture and found mare and foal standing at the fence facing Paul and Everett. Paul had his massive hand extended and seemed to be rubbing the foal’s head while the mare looked on. Billy had been around horses his entire life, and he couldn’t remember ever seeing a foal so fearless so soon after birth. He closed with them and watched as Everett extended his hand slowly to the foal. It shied a bit, but Paul seemed to be talking to it, calming it. He was too far away to hear what Paul was saying, but he had already been regaled with the tale of the foal’s birth and Paul’s seeming ability to calm the mare. Maybe there was some meat to the story after all. He approached the gathering slowly out of reflex, not wanting to spook the animals.

“See? As long as you show ‘em you’re a friend, they’ll come to you every time.” Paul said to Everett. His large thumb was rubbing the center of the foal’s forehead and it didn’t seem to mind the attention. Everett had cupped the foal’s chin and was speaking to it in his best Paul–voice, telling it how beautiful it was. As soon as Billy came to stand behind Everett though, the foal ran off as if stung followed by Granny.

“Billy! Did ya’ see? Did ya’ see that? He let me touch his head and everything!” Everett beamed at his brother and turned back to watch the foal run and jump around its mother. The mare cast a baleful glance at Billy and went back to watching her foal. The look almost gave Billy the shivers. He shook off the feeling and stared at Paul for a moment. With the giant still kneeling, they were as near to eye to eye as they had ever been.

“Everett, go see if ma’ needs any help.”

“Aww! Do I have ta’? Me and Paul was going to go out and work on the fence some more.”

“Do what I tell ya’ Everett.” Billy answered harshly. Everett stared at him for a moment, cast a fleeting look to Paul and headed off for the house at a run. Billy leaned against the fence and watched as the foal cavorted around the pasture. It was truly amazing how strong the foal was. He was acting weeks older than he was. “You the one that wrapped me up?”

“Yup.” Paul said.

The pair watched in silence while the foal explored his new world and the mare looked on. “I don’t ever want to see you do that again.” Billy said quietly, his voice shaking slightly. “I can handle myself, don’t need no one playin’ mother hen on my behalf. We clear, Paul?”

“Not a problem, Mr. Sinclair. Just thought your ma’d been through enough what with losin’ your pa’ and all.”

“And what would you know ‘bout that, huh?” Billy suddenly turned on him. “You been snoopin’, huh?”

“Nope.” Paul said simply as he lit his pipe. “But it don’t take a dogs ears to hear all the way down to the barn, neither.”

“You just mind your own business, Paul. It’s got nothin’ to do with you. I’d let you go but ma’ and Everett seem to take a liking to you. That don’t mean I won’t, though.”

“Mr. Sinclair… a wise man once told me that you learn more by watchin’ and listenin’ than you do by talkin’. Words I’ve always tried to live by.” Paul said.

“And what’s that supposed to mean?” Billy asked.

“Nuthin’, I guess.” Paul stared out into the pasture and watched the foal. “He’s gonna’ make a right fine friend for you, Mr. Sinclair.”

“Might be a friend, but no friend of mine. Got a buyer comin’ out to look at him this evenin’.” Billy said.

“You selling him? You can’t sell him!” Paul said suddenly, then “He’s far too young yet, have to wait at least a year or so.”

“He’ll stay on till he’s off his mother, but no longer.”

“Mr. Sinclair, with all due respect, I think you’re makin’ a mistake in sellin’ him…”

“Well then… that’s my mistake ta’ make, now ain’t it? Make sure he looks presentable before supper. Seems he’s taken a liking to you, too.” Billy walked away, leaving Paul to stare after him. Laughing eyes narrowed ever so slightly. He needed more time; it was too early for this now. He put two fingers in his mouth and whistled low. The horses immediately turned their ears then came back to the fence. He rubbed the foal’s head again and stared hard into its eyes. It was still too early to tell. The moon would show tonight, if his hunch was right. But he still couldn’t shake the feeling that the moon would tell something else, too; something far more dangerous than a man–child in the throes of growing pains.
###

The day passed uneventfully. Mabel and Billy had reached an agreement that they would put the check in an escrow account at the bank, with Morganstern knowing full well its intent to stave off any issues with the bank. That done, the house seemed to fall into more of a peaceful nature for the rest of the day. Everett spent his time with Paul working on an oft–patched section of the horse pasture fence to make it more presentable for the company they expected later that evening. Billy spent the bulk of his day out on the range with Surefoot. He hid the pain from his bruised body and tried to use it to create a stoic and wise air about him. Barnhart seemed a decent enough sort, but if his boss trusted him with his purse strings, it was obvious that the man would come from shrewd stock.

After lunch Everett lost track of the giant, a feat odd enough in itself. He searched for him high and low and finally found him outside the old equipment shed out behind the barn. A pile of tangled chains and other bits of steel was at his feet as he mumbled about his thick fingers and the comparatively small links he was trying to untangle. Everett came up behind him and stared around his thigh at the rusted, wickedly–barbed steel jaws in his hands. “What’s these for?”

“There’s still a wolf about. Thought I’d oil these up and see about putting ‘em out around the scrub near the chicken coop and the outside of the fence around the horse pasture. Can’t be too careful with the curs.” Paul said.

“Need some help?” Everett asked hopefully.

“Well, I don’t want you handlin’ the traps. Those teeth’re sharp and full a’ the lockjaw. But I bet those fingers of yours would do a fine job on separating these chains.” He smiled at the boy and handed him a mass of rusty links almost as big as he was. Everett sat down on the ground and started worrying at the lengths while Paul doused the jaws with bar oil. With his strength, even the most stubborn of them soon swung free and easy. Paul disliked working with metal. It was a cold, dead thing with no real life of its own. Not like wood or animals or stone. Those had a true personality and didn’t need man to be complete.

“I heard ma’ say that Billy wants to sell the foal.” Everett said quietly. “Wish he wouldn’t. He’s one of the prettiest things I’ve ever seen on the ranch.” Paul stopped for a moment and looked down at the boy. He could tell that the boy was upset by his brother’s plans. But you didn’t make it on any kind of farm by wearing your attachments on your sleeve. What was a pet today could be food or in an auction tomorrow.

“Your brother’s just doin’ what he thinks is best. Not for us to say one way or the other, though just between you, me and the foal, I agree with you.” He opened one of the freshly–oiled traps and slipped the catch over the mechanism. He laid it down on the ground and stepped back, dropping a thick stick on the pressure plate as he went. The old jaws still had some life and snapped together almost instantly, burying the teeth almost completely through the green wood with an audible crack. Satisfied, Paul threaded a bit of the chain through the catch and set it off to the side. Everett suddenly stood up and laid the chain down on the ground.

“Shoot! I clean forgot ma’ wanted me to help her with the chicken for dinner tonight. I better go and find her. Sorry, Paul.”

“That’s okay Everett. You just make sure you wash up good, get all that rust off of ya’.” He tousled the boy’s hair and watched as he ran away. Times like these Paul wished for even a small sliver of such youthful, na├»ve energy. He’d never actually had a childhood for himself, and deep down he almost envied them. But then, he’d never really had to experience the pain of having childhood dreams and absolute truths shattered, either. He sighed and went back to work. Within a few moments, he had arrayed the half–dozen jaw traps around him and had enough chain to anchor each wherever he would. He went to the small pump behind the shed and washed the oil and rust from his hands before reaching into an old wooden toolbox. He wiped the pliers on his flannel and examined the jaws. A bit worn, but they would do. He clucked his tongue a few times and looked up to the sun. He only had a few more hours of good light left.
###

The last hours of the afternoon had turned hot and muggy. Billy wiped the sweat from his forehead and hung his hat on a hook by the back door. Despite being early in the season, the spring grasses were starting to shoot up. Better for the heard and far better for their feed and hay budgets. The streams they depended on to water the herd were high and clear, fed by runoff from the winter snows. He couldn’t ask for a better start to a season, and each of these factors would play heavily on the success he was planning for the ranch this year. But it all hinged on Barnhart and his eccentric employer buying the colt. True, he would have to wait till it was old enough to be taken from his mother, but business etiquette would demand at least half the agreed–upon amount as a down payment. He looked out and saw Paul washing his hands at the old well–pump at the edge of the yard. He shook his head slowly as he watched. It was a good thing the giant was as well–natured as he was. He vividly remembered the events at the saloon and shuddered inwardly at the broken bat and fat old Ferguson sailing through the air. Ferguson had to go better than 300 pounds, and Paul had thrown him with only one arm nearly twenty feet. But the man seemingly knew his place, and aside from a scant few instances he’d done nothing to indicate he was anything more than what he seemed.

Mabel came out on the porch and struggled with the legs of a large, folding card table. Billy helped her set it up and stood back while she threw a clean, checkered table cloth over it.
“What’s this?” Billy asked.

“Too hot to eat in the kitchen, what with the weather and the cooking. I made extra. I suspect Paul’s been eatin’ less than his fill, what with his size and all. Man that works as hard as him shouldn’t be keepin’ modest when it comes to the dinner table.”

“You tryin’ to say somethin’, ma’?” Billy asked.

“What I’m sayin’ is that no man should go away from the table hungry when that’s what he’s workin’ for. That means you and Everett, too. Sakes, that boy’s eatin’ everything I put in front of him now. Even carrots.”

“Everett hates carrots, ma’. Always has.”

“More of Paul’s doin’ I figure. Told the boy that if he wanted to get big and strong, he needed to do like he did and eat all his ma’s cookin’.” She finished straightening the cloth and watched Paul come up the yard towards them. “Strikes me as a man that’s been ‘round children before, the way he is with Everett.”

“And by the looks of him, he probably ate ‘em, too.” Billy joked. Mabel slapped the back of his head playfully and went back into the kitchen as Paul stepped up onto the porch.

“Need to be mindful ‘round the coop and out past the horse pasture fence, Mr. Sinclair. I set some of those old foot traps you had back in the shed.” Paul said.

“Still have wolves on your mind, Paul?” Billy asked.

“Yup.” Paul caught site of the table and removed his ever–present knit cap. “Oh! Didn’t know I was in the dinin’ hall.”

“Ma’s idea. Said it was too hot to eat at the kitchen table tonight. Though I suspect it’s as much for your benefit as for anything else.” Billy said.

“Shoot! That ain’t a necessary thing, Mr. Sinclair. Ain’t too many cook shacks and long houses built for a man of my girth. I’m well–used ta’ takin’ my meals outdoors. Fact, I’ve come ta’ prefer it in a way.”

Mabel interrupted them with a platter holding all the best parts of four fried chickens and hefted it onto the table. “Everett!” she called out, “supper’s ready!”

“That sure is a lot of chicken, ma’.” Billy commented.

“And a lot of other fixins’ inside. Why don’t you help me bring the rest out?” Billy followed her back into the kitchen as Paul looked down at the mass of chicken on the platter. He’d been eating somewhat sparsely since he arrived, making sure that he wasn’t placing an undue burden on the family. Truth be told, he could probably polish off the platter by himself. He could fool a lot of people, but apparently a woman and mother always knew when a man was hungry. He smiled and went about collecting chairs and moving his stump around to the table.

Mabel had outdone herself. When the ranch was running strong, they had more than a dozen hands to feed. Mabel had done the cooking chores along with the book keeping to save money on hiring a cook. One of the things that any man that ever worked the Sinclair spread during the heyday could be counted on to recollect was the three squares a day. There wasn’t a woman alive in the county that could cook as well and in such quantity. The men of the Sinclair Ranch dug in with fervor, and even Billy was in better than usual spirits. They talked about the work they’d been doing and what was still to be done and how they would do it. But the mood darkened somewhat when the subject of the newest horse came around.

“I wonder if the man that wants to buy Drahkshin is with the circus. He sure would make a pretty horse for those acrobats like we saw at the state fair last year.” Everett said excitedly over his second helping of carrots.

“Drakh what?” Billy asked.

“Drahkshin. I heard Paul calling him that this afternoon out at the pasture fence. Is that a foreign name, Paul?” Everett asked innocently.

“It’s Dutch…” Paul responded before he filled his mouth with mashed potatoes.

“Don’t matter what it is. You all shouldn’t be namin’ it anything. It ain’t gonna’ be here long enough for that. His new owner can name him.” Billy said, irritated enough to put down his fork.
“Now, Billy. Everything needs a name. Don’t seem right to just call it horse, now does it? ‘Sides, you don’t even know that this Colorado man is going to buy it. Just don’t see the big fuss, anyway. No dime a dozen, but a white horse ain’t exactly rare, either.”
“Well, apparently in Colorado they are. And an all-white horse, without a speck or mark on it, is pretty far between.” Billy said, his agitation growing. “You all just do what I tell you to do tonight and I’m sure it’ll all go right.”

“Mr. Sinclair, beggin’ your pardon, but I still think it’s a bad idea to be lookin’ to sell that colt right now. It’s still way too early. Besides, it could get spots tomorrow mornin’. Those things take time to really show. Wouldn’t want the ranch to get a name for sellin’ what it don’t have.”

“Well, Paul… I really don’t see it as your place to worry ‘bout the reputation of the Sinclair Ranch. You let the Sinclairs worry ‘bout that.” Billy said.

“Just sayin’ is all.” Paul said. He swallowed the potatoes and looked at Mabel. “Mrs. Sinclair, this is one of the finest meals I’ve ever had the pleasure to sit down to.” Paul said to change the subject.

“Why, thank you, Paul. It’s nothing, really. Just wanted to make sure all my boys were fed right.”

“And how!” Everett remarked. At first, the boy had tried to keep up with Paul, but by the giant’s third helping of potatoes and beans all he could do was clear his plate and watch in awe as the big man devastated the table. The man was no messy eater though, just fast and hungry.

After dinner was cleared away, Billy paced the length of the front porch and smoked, waiting nervously for Barnhart to show. The sun was ready to set before the man came down the drive in a pick-up with a small trailer attached to it. Paul came out of the barn and stood waiting while Billy met the man at the drive and walked him over to the horse pasture. Mabel came out of the house and joined them as they stood at the pasture fence.

“It’s too soon to tell…” Paul mumbled to himself as he cast a glance at the setting sun. He strode over to the group with Everett in tow.

“Oh, this here’s Paul, Mr. Barnhart.” Billy said as the giant towered over them. Paul stared hard at Barnhart. The man stared back at him, eyes narrowed slightly. Paul sniffed the air and kept a stern look on his face, disconcerting for more than just his size. “He’s one of our hands.”

“Paul…” Barnhart acknowledged and tipped his hat.

“Barnhart…” Paul returned his nod and folded his massive arms across his keg–barrel chest.

“There they are!” Everett exclaimed and pointed out into the pasture. The mare and colt had come to investigate the humans to see if they’d brought the customary carrots or sugar. They came across the pasture at a gallop, then stopped short as the mare cut slightly into the foal’s path to stop it a dozen yards from the fence. The mare’s nostrils flared a few times as it regarded the group and turned to conceal the foal even more.

“Now what do you suppose has got into ‘em?” Billy wondered aloud. “Granny ain’t usually like that.”

“More like as not me.” Barnhart said easily without taking his eyes off Paul. “Bein’ a stranger and all.”

“Could be.” Paul said simply. Billy was too busy to notice, but Mabel and Everett could sense the tension between Paul and this stranger Barnhart.

“Paul… you seem to have a way with Granny… see if you can get her to come over so Mr. Barnhart can get a look at the young’un.” Billy said.

Paul looked out into the pasture and shook his head slowly. “’Fraid I can’t do that, Mr. Sinclair.”

“What? Paul, I ain’t askin, I’m tellin. Now get that foal over here.” Billy said sternly as if he were talking to Everett.

“She don’t want to come over here, Mr. Sinclair. If I make her, she ain’t gonna’ trust me again.”

“Paul…” Billy started. Barnhart put the back if his hand to Billy’s chest, interrupting him.

“Don’t worry about it, Mr. Sinclair. I’ll get ‘em over here.” He hopped the fence as if it weren’t there and walked slowly towards the pair of horses. He spoke softly to them and finally got the mare and foal to look into his eyes. They continued to stare as if frozen in place as he approached them slowly. Though they didn’t move, Granny’s nostrils continued to flare and her chest had started to heave from her heavy breathing. She obviously wanted to move but didn’t seem able. The rest of them couldn’t see the foal for the mare from this angle. When Barnhart got within a few feet of the horses, Granny could take no more and suddenly leaped from her place towards Barnhart. Billy shouted out a warning as the terrified horse bolted for the man. With unnatural speed, Barnhart sidestepped the mare’s charge and lashed out with his right hand. He hit the mare in the side of the neck, the blow stunning her and dropping her to the ground.

The foal still seemed transfixed and rooted to the spot. Everett cried out for Granny and started to mount the fence. Paul reached out and snatched the boy up by his shirt collar and set him down gently at his mother’s feet. Billy stood and stared at the downed Granny, then at Barnhart as he kneeled before the colt and started rubbing its forehead as he had seen Paul do.

“Mrs. Sinclair, Mr. Sinclair…I thank ya’ for the best grub I’ve had in a long time and the chance to see your beautiful spread, but I’m afraid I have to give you my notice. It’s been a pleasure workin’ for you.” He looked down at Everett, then to Mabel. “Everett, son… you stay here with your ma’. Mr. Sinclair? You, too. This ain’t for you now.”

The sun finished its descent quickly and had cast the world into dusk as Paul stepped over the fence. Everett made to run to him but Mabel grabbed his shoulders and quieted him. “What the hell is going on here?” Billy managed to gasp as the mare twitched and jerked on the ground. The clear day had left a cloudless night, letting the moon take the sun’s place in rapid succession.

“This ain’t no horse, and that ain’t no man.” Paul said without looking back at the group. The colt suddenly spasmed and bleated as it reared back away from Barnhart’s touch. It bucked and started to run in tight circles, first around Barnhart then its mother. It suddenly broke from its path and ran to one of the fence posts, slamming its head against it and rubbing vigorously. Chunks of fur and flesh tore away as it frantically butted the post, spurting blood across the rough wood.
Everett screamed and nearly broke free of his mother’s grasp. Mabel’s maternal instincts were on overdrive now, making her nearly as strong in body as she was in will. She restrained Everett with a single arm and reached out, dragging Billy toward her as well. Paul changed his course and went to the foal, turning his back on the oddly–smiling Barnhart. Paul kneeled and tried to calm the young horse. It took several seconds before the colt could recognize him through its blood–filled eyes. Paul ran his thumb over the spot and nodded in satisfaction at the small protrusion that had just crested the flesh. He could feel it elongate under his thumb, growing several inches long in the space of a few moments. The horn was twisted in a tight spiral that shimmered like wet porcelain and seemed to glow with an inner light in the growing dusk.

“I been lookin’ for you everywhere!” Paul said to the unicorn.

“And so have I.” Barnhart said as he started to walk towards the giant. “This is not your matter, Green Man. You have no jurisdiction here.” The man’s voice had changed considerably as he walked, losing its homey accent and becoming far more powerful and low.

“Aye, and that’s where you are wrong.” Paul said as he stood to his full height and turned to face Barnhart. “One got loose and came to the World. Had a bit of a dalliance with yon dame… Drahkshin here was the result. The sire is from the Realm, hence the foal is under my protection and will return with me. Do not toy with my patience, Wolf. Be on your way and trouble these good people no more.”

“Hmmm…” Barnhart growled low in his throat as the full body of the moon came into view. “I think not.”

“Do not violate the Pact in my presence, Wolf, else I’ll have the skin of yet another of your kind to lie before my hearth.” Paul warned.

“You are in the mortal world, Green Man… you do not know how truly limited your power is here. I will take the bastard offspring with me now. My master has use for it.” Barnhart stopped and threw back his head as his skin started to bubble and change. The Sinclairs watched, transfixed by fear as Barnhart’s arms and legs elongated. His entire body gained thickness and mass as his clothes shredded off his body, unable to contain the growing ferocity within. Claws nearly a foot long sprouted in great gouts of blood and ruined flesh from Barnhart’s fingers as his face grew and stretched into a muzzle full of impossibly sharp, jagged teeth. Long, pointed ears sprouted from his head, knocking his hat to the ground as a thick coat of ragged, gray fur erupted like a spreading fire across his body. What had been Barnhart dropped to the ground and lifted his head, howling to the moon.
Later, everyone in the county would claim to have heard the horrible sound... and the answer to the call.
###
I invite you to stop back again next week for the 3rd and final part of Rural Legend. Until then, just write, damn it. - Author

Monday, November 8, 2010

Rural Legend, Part I - Fiction

This novella, the award-nominated Rural Legend by Eric R. Lowther, first appeared a few years ago in Theaker's Quarterly, an anthology magazine that is actually not truly quarterly but is in fact a fantastic regular anthology put out by Stephen Theaker et al about once every six weeks or so. The stories there run the gamut from horror to straight sci-fi and back again, with liberal doses of high fantasy and speculative fiction, and I highly recommend that you check out the publication.

Considering it's size as a novella, I've decided to break this tale into three parts. Parts II and III will be posted on Monday, 11/15/10 and Monday, 11/22/10 respectively. This story was quite well-received when it was published, and to date is the one I've received the most feedback from. I hope you'll like it, too. - Author



Mabel wiped her hands while she stood looking at her kitchen door. Everything was big in Montana. Big land, big sky, and the men tended to follow suit. But this one… Billy had gone to town earlier that morning to talk to the bank about the mortgage and her younger son Everett should be out in the barn. That left her and the man on her back porch. She had left the door open to let in the early–morning spring breeze, leaving only the thin screen door between her and the stranger. She wished not for the first time that her husband, Bill, had come back from the war. Bill knew how to deal with big men. But Germany had needed his blood more than the ranch, she’d oft been told. She took a deep breath, squared her shoulders and walked to the door.

She stared at the mass of flannel in the tiny grid pattern of the screen for a moment then tried to peer up past the door frame. The most she could see was a thickly-bearded chin. The man’s chest had to be three feet wide if it was an inch, and his wide leather belt was nearly even with her breast. He held his massive hands folded before him and stood, patiently waiting for her to acknwledge him. “Yes?” she asked quietly. The man’s size was truly intimidating.

“’Mornin, ma’am!” an impossibly deep voice boomed from somewhere above the door. “Beautiful mornin, isn’t it, ma’am?”

“I… yes… can I… help you?” Mabel asked out of reflex. For some reason she hadn’t expected him to be so cordial.

“Actually, ma’am, I was hopin I could help you. Oh, where’s my manners got to?” he suddenly said and stepped back several paces from the door so that she could see his face. “Sorry, ma’am.”

Mabel could see his whole body from this perspective. The man had to be more than seven feet tall. His shoulder-length black hair and close–trimmed beard were liberally sprinkled with bright silver. His smile was an easy, carefree gesture, as if it was the expression he was most used to wearing. He wore a plaid flannel shirt rolled up at the cuffs with both wide suspenders and a belt to hold up his brown work trousers, the cuffs of which had been carelessly stuck into a pair of high and impossibly large leather work boots. The picture of a logger, albeit the biggest she had ever seen. “Name’s Paul, ma’am… and the puns don’t bother me a bit.” he said easily. Mabel smiled at the joke on his obvious stature and name and found she wasn’t nearly as afraid of the man as she had been only moments ago.

“Well… Paul… what brings you about?”

“Well, ma’am, I’m ‘fraid to say I’m a bit of a drifter right now. Just lookin for a bit o work to keep my belly from rumblin and my hands from becoming the devil’s, if you catch my meanin. I saw this spread from the road, thought you might be in need of some help around the place. Good with my hands and never walked away from a day’s work.” Mabel stared at the man for a long time. No one had come looking for work since before the war. It had been hard when Bill senior went to away, harder still when most of the boys and men that worked the ranch answered the call. Hardest of all was none of them coming back. She had her sons, but Bill Jr. was still cutting his teeth in the family trade and little Everett just didn’t have the size and experience to tackle the big jobs. It was all she could do to get enough cattle to market to keep the place and themselves alive. But still, he was obviously a worker and if his size were any indication, there weren’t too many labors he couldn’t handle.

“How about we start with some wood, then some breakfast. We can see about any other chores after that.” Mabel said. The big man nodded and swept his knit cap from his head with a flourish.

“Thank you, ma’am. Saw the pile ‘round back. Have that done up in a blink.” He turned and went off the porch, not bothering to use the steps. With his incredible size the few feet from the porch to the ground made for hardly a step itself. She waited until he was out of sight then went to the sitting room where she could see him from the side window. Paul wielded the axe in one hand, cutting through the big, rough logs like a hot knife through butter. The tool looked like a child’s plaything in his massive grip as he quickly, methodically went through nearly two cords’ worth of rough logs. At this rate, they’d have enough cut wood to last till Christmas. Mabel remembered herself and Paul’s payment for his services and hurried into the kitchen. She made a rough mental calculation of the man’s size relative to that of her late husband, then doubled what she would have made for him. By the time he had finished with the wood and had come back to the porch, she had a half dozen eggs, a half pound of bacon and some biscuits left over from yesterday’s baking waiting for him.

###

Paul remained on the porch as she handed him the plate and a large tumbler of buttermilk. “Whoo! Thank you, ma’am! I’m not sure I can eat all this, but I’ll surely try!” Paul sat down by the steps, his feet firmly planted on the ground. In less than two minutes the plate was as clean as it had been before she'd loaded it down with the last drop of sweetmilk stuck in his thick moustache. He set the plate and glass down then let out a belch that shook the windows in their casings. He turned his head sheepishly and found her staring open–mouthed through the screen door. “Oh, sorry ma’am. Keep forgettin I’m not in the bunk house. But oh! That was the best breakfast I’ve had in a long time! Thanks again, ma’am.”

“You’re welcome…” was all she could say as he got up and brought her his plate and glass.

“You know somethin, ma’am? That was so good I think I still owe you a chore. Noticed you got a loose step there. Let me fix that for ya?”

“Well… yes, I guess so… if you’re inclined to…”

“It’d be my pleasure, ma’am…” The exchange was cut short by a shrill yell from the barn below the house.

“Everett!” Mabel cried out and came out the door. She joined Paul on the porch and looked down towards the barn. A straw–haired boy of no more than ten summers ran out of the barn, waving excitedly.

“It’s time!” then, “Who’s that?” Everett called out.

“Never you mind! You just get in there with her!” Mabel answered.

“Problem, ma’am?” Paul asked as they came off the porch and towards the barn.

“Got a mare going into labor. Shouldn’t happen for another two weeks yet.” she replied breathlessly as she hurried to the barn. Paul tried to match his excessive gait to the small woman’s steps and nearly tripped over his own boots. He resisted the temptation to carry her bodily to the barn and slowed his pace to stay even with her.

They ran inside the barn with Paul having to duck to get through the doorway. The warm smell of livestock and old hay enveloped them in the cool darkness as they made their way to the end of the barn. They found the boy with a large mare lying on the floor of a stall. The mare’s breath was labored, her nostrils flared from the strain. Everett looked up at Paul for a moment, but the excitement turned his attentions back to the mare, Granny, and his mother. “She just lay down and started breathin’ like this, ma’.” Everett said. “I thought you said she wasn’t going to do this yet…”

“Sometimes the good Lord keeps his own watch, Everett.” she answered as she kneeled on the hay and lifted the mare’s tail. A tiny pair of hooves protruded from the laboring horse. “Everett, go fetch some water and rags from the tack.” The boy nodded then stood and started running in the same motion, a feat that only young children seem capable of without injury.

“Anything I can do, ma’am?” Paul offered quietly from high above her.

“You can say a prayer or two, Paul. I’m sure Granny won’t mind.” came her breathless reply. She laid a hand on the mare’s swollen belly and tried to speak soothingly to her. The mare pushed involuntarily, further proving the foal was securely lodged. Granny bleated and looked back at Mabel with wide eyes. “It’ll be okay, girl. You just hang in there.” Everett ran back into the stall, water sloshing from the wooden pail and down Paul’s boot.
“Is she gonna be okay, ma?” he whispered.

“It’s in God’s hands.” She dipped a rag in the pail and wiped off the small hooves. Grabbing one in each hand, she felt the feeble movement of the foal in response. At least it was still alive. She waited a moment, felt Granny push and tried to pull on the foal at the same time. It was no use. The foal was wedged far too tightly. Paul stepped past mother and son and kneeled down at the animal’s head.
“With your pardons, ma’am…” he said to Mabel in an apologetic tone. He stroked the horse's mane with his powerful hand and started whispering softly and so close to the animal's ear that his beard tickled the hairs in her ear. Mother and son couldn’t hear what Paul shared with the mare, but whatever he said seemed to have an effect. The horse relaxed almost instantly, its breathing slowing considerably as it laid its head down. Without moving from the spot, Paul reached down across the mare’s body and felt for the tiny hooves of the failing life within her. The hooves disappeared in his grip as he leaned down and again whispered to Granny. Mabel and Everett could see the horse’s muscles ripple along its ribs as another contraction washed over her. Paul tugged once at the hooves and nodded approvingly as the foal started to slide easily from the birth canal. Before the contraction was done, the foal was out and suspended from his strong yet gentle grasp. He laid the foal down gently and backed away as the mare swung her head around to it.
###

Half an hour later mother and newborn son stood, both on wobbly legs. Granny swung her head down and nuzzled the foal, removing much of the detritus of birth from his coat and sniffing at him. The foal was as white as snow. Only its hooves had any color, and they were as shiny and black as a new Ford. Paul smiled broadly then scrubbed his hands in the remaining water.
“Sorry for being so forward, ma’am. But people say I’ve got a way with animals, and she seemed to be in trouble.”

“No need for that, Paul…” Mabel said, still gaping back and forth between the foal and the giant in her barn. “But I’d say you just earned your lunch.” she added with a smile. “Come on, men. Let’s leave these two alone.”

“Ma’, who’s that?” Everett asked in a loud whisper as the odd trio walked back towards the house.

“That’s Paul, Everett. He’s a handyman that stopped by this morning. Just in time, too, it seems.” Mabel looked up at him. The morning sun rode just over his shoulder, casting his head in cameo and casting her fully in his shadow.

“You sure are big, mister…” Everett said from the safety of his mother’s skirt. “How’d you get to be so big?” he asked with childhood innocence.

“Everett Sinclair! Don’t you be rude!” his mother admonished him.

“Aw, ain’t no harm ma’am." Paul said. "See Everett, I got so big ‘cause I ate my momma’s cookin… every day and every bit of it! Vegetables, too. Then I did all my chores and got all that good air and sweat out of it. That’s how you get big an strong.”

“Really?” Everett said in awe.

“Why, sure! Just somethin ‘bout a mother’s cookin just seems to stick to your ribs.”

“Wow!” Everett exclaimed as they neared the house, then “Ma’? What’s for lunch?”

###

The 20 year old truck flew down the dirt road far faster than Mabel liked to see. By the way he drove and the way he skidded to a stop by the barn though, she knew her eldest son didn’t bring good news with him. The balloon payment was due on the ranch next month, and they had tried unsuccessfully to get an extension. If they couldn’t come up with it in a few weeks, they would lose the ranch.

Billy had been all of eighteen when his father died. Everett had wanted more than anything to enlist and exact vengeance for his father's death, but the army had refused him. The war had already taken Bill Sr. and Everett had only been in diapers then, and it bothered Billy to no end that he couldn't serve. All his friends went off to serve their country and fight the Nazis while he was left working the farm. Mabel knew Billy resented it, but she wouldn’t have had it any other way. They took her husband, but at least they left her sons. In deference to not going off to war, Mabel taught him all she knew about the ranch. With his father gone, Billy had taken over the reigns with a tight grip and was determined to make something of the ranch to prove he was just as valuable as his friends that had went off to fight the Japs and the Gerrys. They had had a few bad years recently, though, and the payment coming due seemed to grow larger each day.

William Sinclair Jr. took after his father in many ways. He had his father’s honey–colored hair and dark brown eyes, as well his cleft chin. He also shared his father’s temper, a fact that Mabel could've done without. The one thing he hadn’t inherited from his father was his size. Billy was closer to his mother’s modest 5’6”. Large in temper and small in stature, Billy had gained a reputation around town as a “one–punch drunk”. Most of the locals simply let him be, but that didn’t stop travelers from giving him a sound thrashing when he crossed the line after one too many at the town’s only tavern. Bill Jr. was becoming a bitter young man, and the only thing that grew was bitter old men, and only if they made it that far.

Mabel watched through the window as Billy got out of the old truck. The late morning sun had grown warm and the young man had rolled up his shirt sleeves and loosened his tie for the long, dusty ride in from town. Bill Sr. never gave the bank the satisfaction of putting on airs for them. They would accept him into their cozy offices in his over–alls and boots or they wouldn’t accept him at all. Bill Jr., though, tried hard as he could to broadcast the image of a gentleman rancher. But he was young, and though he could tell you the in’s and out’s of ranching he lacked the polish he so desperately craved. Mabel let him go, partly for the guilt he couldn’t go to war and partly because she didn’t want to crush his spirit. Sometimes the urge to correct what he did was overwhelming and she found herself going behind his back, altering decisions and agreements he made in the best interests of the ranch. They would sometimes go for weeks without talking over it.

Billy stumped up the walk and through the front door. Mabel stared at him for a moment and marveled at how old her son looked. Only 28, he looked 20 years older in the light of the sun–dappled kitchen. He sat down at the table and rubbed his temples as she put down a cup of coffee. “Didn’t go well?” Mabel asked without having to.

“Morganstern picked my plan apart like he was looking for a needle. Fat old bastard…”

“William Sinclair! You watch your mouth. There’s no call for talk like that in this house.”

“Can’t help what he is, ma. I got the deal in Spokane provided I could transport ‘em out there. Can’t do that without the bank financing the move.” he said dejectedly.

“Did he say why he wouldn’t?”

“He says he sees a drop in the cattle futures in the next two weeks. He says by the time we get ‘em out there they’ll drop fifteen cents on the hoof. Wouldn’t be able to pay the bank back on that note and on the mortgage, too. Says we’d be over-extended. What the hell does he know about ranchin, anyway?”

“He’s doing his job, Billy. We’ll just have to find some other way.” Mabel knew the bank was their last chance at the money to move better than 600 head all the way to Spokane. And as much as she hated to say it, she’d also heard from the other spreads around the county that prices were going to drop. They could have easily made enough to pay off the loan for transporting the cattle and make the mortgage payment at the current price. But the bank president was right. They would have to find another way to make the mortgage.

“There ain’t no other way, ma’. Not unless we sell off some of the spread. Hell, we wouldn’t have a buyer in time for that even.” Billy said and sipped his coffee. The sound of a saw in wood roused him up out of his seat. “Everett! If you’re playin’ with those tools again…” Billy called out. The bad news had made Mabel temporarily forget about their handyman.

“That’s not Everett. Just a man looking for some work.” Mabel told him.

“Aw, ma’! We can’t afford to pay a man! We been through this…”

“He works for food in his belly, William.”

“Oh! So he’s a bum, then? Well, I’ll take care of that!” he barked and went to the kitchen door. Mabel stopped him with a hand on his forearm.

“Now you listen to me, William Sinclair… never let it be said that a man willing to work for his supper was ever turned away from this house. That’s the way your grandfather and your father pulled this spread out after the Dust. He does good work. And if it weren’t for him, Granny would be dead right now.”

“She went?” Billy asked. “But that shouldn’t have…”

“I know, but she did. I could never have gotten her through it, but he did.”

“Well… still don’t make for much of a man, having to go around workin for food.”

“Oh, I think there’s plenty of man in him, probably two or three, truth be told.” Mabel smiled at her private joke.

“Well, I’m goin’ out there and make sure he knows who’s boss here.”

“Don’t let me stop you.” Mabel relented and took her hand away. “You just remember he ain’t done anything but good.”

Billy snorted, pushed through the screen door then stopped midway through. He found Paul on his knees at the foot of the stairs, readying a new board to replace one of the rotted treads. Even with Billy standing on the porch and Paul kneeling on the ground below it, the giant’s eyes were level to his own. “Morgnnin, msstr…” Paul said, his words garbled. What Billy had first thought were toothpicks he now realized were ten–penny nails stuck between his lips. The giant pulled the nails out of his mouth and spit off to the side. “Your pardon. Meant to say mornin, mister.” Paul’s smile beamed with teeth nearly as wide as a man’s finger, his eyes laughing along. Billy stood and stared at the man then stepped back slowly and calmly into the kitchen.

“What… the hell… is that… why didn’t you tell me?”

“Tell you what?” Mabel asked with an innocent air.

“That he was as big as a damn barn!” he hissed at her.

“Billy! Language!” she shot back. “And you didn’t ask.”

“The man’s a freak…”

“I’ll bet he’s a freak with good ears, though.” Mabel said quietly. Billy shot a look outside and saw Paul raise a fist into the air and bring it downward, out of his view. The floor under their feet trembled with the blow. The giant didn’t seem to notice Billy’s remark and kept about his work.

“Where’s Everett?” Billy asked with a quiver in his voice.

“He’s outside helping Paul.”

“Helping? You let Everett alone with that… that…”

“Big ears, too.” she reminded him gently. “He’s doing the work you don’t have time to do and Everett and I don’t have the size or know–how to do. He chopped up better than two cords of wood before he had a bite of breakfast, and he nearly finished in the time it took me to get a plate for him.”

Billy nodded once and went back outside. The giant wasn’t even using a hammer. Billy watched in awe as Paul jammed a nail into the board, sinking it nearly a quarter of the way in with only two fingers. The man made an impossibly large fist and let it fall on the nail, driving it through the board and the riser beneath in one, bare–handed strike and watched him repeat the process several times. Satisfied the tread wouldn’t budge, the giant wiped his hands on his shirt and stood up, dwarfing the young rancher. He extended his meaty hand and smiled down at Billy.
“Name’s Paul. You must be Mr. Sinclair. Your ma told me ‘bout you.” With nothing else to do about it, Billy extended his hand and waited for the crushing grip that would certainly come. But even though his own hand disappeared in the bigger man’s paw, it felt no different than any of a number of good, solid handshakes he’d performed over the years. “You got a beautiful spread here, Mr. Sinclair. Any man would be proud with a patch of heaven like this.”

“We’re proud of it.” Billy said with a forced bravado. Everett came around the side of the house with a few short boards in his arms. The boy hurried over as soon as he saw his brother and dropped the wood beside Paul.

“Billy! You should have seen it. Granny was in trouble! But then Mr. Oaks just talked to her and reached back there and there was the foal! You should have seen it!”

“Wasn’t nothin, Mr. Sinclair. Really. And it’s Paul. Not Mr. Oaks.”

“Paul, that’s just my brother Billy, not Mr. Sinclair.” Everett said dismissively.

“Now Everett, your ma told me that your brother’s the man of the house. That makes him Mr. Sinclair to the likes of those that work for him.” He glanced first at Everett then at Billy. “Or do you prefer William?”

“Mr. Sinclair’ll do for now.” Billy said, his chest a bit more puffed than it had been.

“As you will.” the big man said as he picked through the boards Everett had brought. Billy watched him work for a moment and couldn’t help but notice Everett’s rapt attention on the new hired man. He selected a board and put the handsaw to it. The tool passed clean through the board in two passes.

“I’ve never seen you ‘round here.” Billy said as Paul grabbed the next tread and pulled it free as if it were a toothpick. Billy paused as the giant gripped each of the old nails with the tips of his fingers and shoved them back out the board as straight as the day his father had hammered then in some 20 years ago. Paul eyed each nail to make sure they were straight then used them to install the new step. Billy had seen big men in his day, but never one so strong. But he couldn’t help respect the man. It wasn’t many hired men that would go so far as to reuse nails.

“Oh, I been here and there and a few places in–between.” Paul said offhandedly. He stepped back and checked his work with one eye closed and the other staring down across his thumb. “Yup. Straight as an arrow. Would you like to inspect the work, Mr. Sinclair?” Billy went down the steps slowly, bouncing his weight on each one. The only sound from the steps were from his footfalls. He went back up them in an unconscious desire to try and keep as eye to eye with Paul as he could.

“Fair bit of mending.” Billy commented.

“Got to see to that creakin barn door now. Unless you got somethin else you need for me to do, Mr. Sinclair?”

“Ah… no, no that’ll be fine.” Billy said as dismissively as he could. Paul nodded and gathered up the unused wood.

“Can I help, Paul?” Everett asked Paul.

“Ask your brother. If’n it’s alright by him, it’s alright by me.” Paul said with a smile. The gesture caught both Everett and Billy by surprise. Everett had never needed his brother’s permission for most anything before; he’d always asked his mother when needed. He paused a moment with the foreign concept then looked to his brother.

“Is it okay for me to help Paul, Billy?”

“Sure… sure, Everett.” Billy said. The boy’s face it up and he fell into step behind the giant as they headed for the barn. When they were out of sight, Billy kneeled down and inspected the stairs more closely. The nail heads had actually been sunk past the top of the board, like a screw that had been counter–sunk. He shook his head slowly in disbelief and went back inside.
###

Billy and his mother saw little of Everett and the big man for the rest of the day, at least officially. William made a point to check in on them from a distance. The only time he didn’t see them working was when they took a few minutes to watch Granny and the new foal out in the pasture. The foal seemed exceptionally healthy and strong, and mother and babe both seemed in excellent spirits. The foal was already running around the pasture at breakneck speed. Though he’d seen them before in other places, Billy had never seen a pure–white horse on their spread. They still used horses for the ranch work, and he’d make a fine addition. By the time his own horse, Surefoot, was ready for pasture the foal would be grown into an animal that any man would be proud to own.

Mabel had packed a basket and taken lunch out to the largest and smallest men on the spread. She’d found them in the horse pasture, mending a gate that they had been holding together with a few bits of twine. Luckily the horses were well-trained and never strayed too far when the wind or rain would open the gate. They’d fixed that though, and by the looks of it the gate was stronger than the day that Bill Sr.’s father had hung it. She’d fixed half a roast, biscuits and corn on the cob for the hungry pair and watched as they devoured everything but bones and basket. Everett had never liked corn much, but he made a point of devouring three ears himself. The wink she got from Paul when the boy reached for his third ear of corn told her all she need know about the giant’s character.

Later in the evening, Billy saddled Surefoot and guided Paul out to the old bunkhouse. It was a long row house that could easily sleep and house twelve men, built back in the days when the Sinclair ranch was a much larger and more prosperous affair. Billy tried to offer Paul a large draft horse they used to plow the family gardens, but he declined and kept up easily with Surefoot’s steady gait across the south range. By the time they returned to the house, Mabel had dinner on the table. Paul took his dinner on the porch as was his place as hired help, much to Mabel’s dismay. Billy had started to warm to the giant somewhat, but he insisted they keep things professional with the new hand. Paul didn’t seem to mind though and doubted they would have a piece of furniture appropriate for his stature for the dinner table.

“Ma’, can you pass the carrots?” Everett asked. She looked at him oddly then handed him the bowl.

“I didn’t think you liked carrots.” Billy commented around a mouthful of liver.

“It’s like Paul said… I ain’t never seen a rabbit wearin glasses.” The last he delivered in his best deep, manly tone in respectful aping of the big man. Mabel suppressed a laugh while the boy shoveled a spoonful of the orange bits onto his plate. “Hey, Billy! Did you see the pasture gate? We fixed it up real good!”

“Yeah, I saw it. It’ll do, I suppose.” Billy answered flatly as he wiped his mouth got up from the table. He snatched up his tobacco pouch from the top of the icebox and walked out onto the back porch without another word.

“Ma’? Why doesn’t Billy like Paul?”

“Oh, I think he likes him all right. He just takes a while to warm up to people is all.” his mother assured him, though she wasn’t so sure herself. Billy’s ego was a bit fragile right now, especially with his Spokane plans falling apart. “I’m sure it’ll be fine.”

Billy found Paul sitting on a stool made from an old oak stump. They usually used it as a table, but it seemed the only seat the man could use and not look ridiculous or uncomfortable. Billy sat down a few feet away and rolled a cigarette in the dark. He sealed it and started to pat his pockets for a match when a sudden spark flashed in front of him. Paul held out the wooden match and waited patiently for the young man to light his cigarette before bringing it up to his pipe bowl. They sat in silence for a few minutes and smoked, each with their own thoughts.
“Paul? Why are you really here? There’s plenty of farms that would pay good money for a man like you.” Paul remained quiet for several moments, then pulled his pipe away from his mouth and examined the rim of the bowl with a critical eye.
“More to life than money, Mr. Sinclair.” They fell silent for awhile before Billy spoke again.
“Were you in the war?” he asked.

“Oh, I’ve fought a time or two, but I missed this last row. Don’t think they had uniforms my size.” Paul chuckled at his own joke, a deep, warm sound.

“Where’d you work last?”

“Great North. Did a bit of loggin’, some ranchin’.”

“And now you’re here? Seems a bit of a stretch. You know a trade?”

“Loggin’ and ranchin’. Ain’t that enough for a man to know?”

Billy knew it wasn’t enough. In his grandfather’s day, even in his father’s, that might have been enough. But the war seemed to change everything. A man’s word and handshake just weren’t enough anymore. The lawyers and the government had decided they needed more and more. It was so a man couldn’t even build a barn on his spread without a permit and new taxes. It was clear that Paul was from a bygone era. That or an impressive liar. Men of his size couldn’t live in anonymity, even if they wanted. Stories of the giant would have spread from the ranches or the forests he’d worked. He should be in a circus or Hollywood right now, not here, eating his mother’s cooking and mending gates.

“Don’t take it personal, Paul, but as your boss I need to ask ya’ how long you plan to stay on.”

“Oh, I don’t take nothin personal Mr. Sinclair. Truth to tell, I don’t rightly know yet.” He put the pipe back in his mouth and took a deep pull. The air around the porch took on the smell of deep woods after a rain, a cloying yet endearing scent as the tobacco smoldered.

“So you’re not lookin to settle in somewheres then?”

“I go where my path takes me.” Paul responded simply. “Same as we all do, I reckon.” He stood and stretched, his arms bent at the elbow to avoid hitting the porch ceiling. Billy winced as several bones and joints popped and creaked, sounding for all the world like fireworks. “If you got nothing else for me this evening, Mr. Sinclair, I’d like to make sure that mother and babe are doing okay and close up the stable for the night. I smell somethin on the wind… wolf, maybe. Might even bed down in the barn just in case. With your permission, of course.” he said deferentially.

“What makes you think there’s a wolf about?” Billy said, suddenly alarmed.

“Just the way the rabbits was acting on the south range this afternoon. They don’t usually move around in the mid–day sun without reason, and that reason is usually ‘cause somethin’s about that wants to have ‘em over for dinner if you catch my meanin.”

Billy nodded in the darkness and stared at the massive ranch hand. With only a few slivers of light from the windows facing the porch, he actually looked somehow bigger, if that were even possible. “I guess that’d be all right. If something does happen, there’s an old bell on a pole out there. Ring it and I’ll come runnin’ with the scattergun…”

“Oh, I don’t take to guns Mr. Sinclair. Never liked the feel of ‘em, or the smell. Just not… natural, if you take my meanin. If’n it’s an animal that troubles ya’, you just have ta’ think like one and you’ll keep ‘em away every time. You’ll thank your ma for me, won’t you? She’s one of the best cooks I’ve seen, and I’ve ate from the wagons a some of the best.”

“Yeah. Sure Paul.”

“Well then, g’night Mr. Sinclair.” Paul stepped off the porch and strode across the yard down to the barn. It was no secret to either his brother or his mother that Billy didn’t fully trust the man. And if Billy were any judge, Paul was probably even more keenly aware of Billy’s distrust than any of the rest. Something just didn’t seem right about him, the obvious not withstanding. He went inside, picked up a stack of plates his mother had just dried and put them in the cupboard above the sink.

“Paul’s staying in the barn. Seems to think there’s a wolf or something running around. Best to lock the doors tonight.”

“Billy Sinclair! We haven’t had need to lock a door on this ranch in the space of your life. No need to start now. Besides, if there is a wolf out there, Paul may need to come inside for his own sake. Now, are you worried about a wolf gettin in, or is it Paul you’re worried over?”

“Look! You don’t know the man from Adam and he’s sleepin not more than a few hundred feet from our front door. Times have changed, ma. We need to change with ‘em. I’m just lookin out for our best interests is all.” The sound of a truck coming down the drive outside pulled both their attentions to the front of the house. Billy went out to the front porch with his mother behind him. A new pick–up truck came to a gentle stop near the base of the front steps. “Must be Reynolds. Heard he got a new truck. Must be comin’ by to show it off.”

“I’ve already got coffee on. Have him come on into the kitchen.” Mabel said as she went back inside. Reynolds was an older man and had grown up with Billy’s father. Their ranches had never been direct competitors, something Billy always assumed could only be a byproduct of the two men’s upbringing. He could still remember Reynolds and his father sitting up till late at night, right on that very porch, talking about their spreads and the government. Reynolds had been 4F on account of his feet and hadn’t gone off to war, something that had been of obvious benefit to his spread. But he’d certainly helped the effort by keeping the wives of his hands that went off on a stipend and donating cattle to the war effort.

“Evening, Mr. Reynolds.”

“Evening, Billy.” he returned as he climbed the steps and shook the younger man’s hand. “Beautiful night, ain’t it? Moon’ll be full tomorrow night, first pretty moon we’ll have of the season.”

“Seems likely.” Billy returned. “Ma’s got some coffee on.” He opened the screen door for the rancher and followed him through the house to the kitchen. The men sat down as Mabel poured coffee for the three of them and sat down herself.

“I know I’m a day early, Mabel, but I got business in Billings tomorrow mornin, and tomorrow bein Friday and all I figured you’d want to take care of this so’s you could get it to Morganstern on tomorrow’s business.” Reynolds said as he sipped on his coffee. “Always did make the best coffee, even better than my Jeanie’s. You just don’t be tellin her I said that, though.” He chuckled and pulled a long envelope out of his coat pocket.

“What’re you talking about, Mr. Reynolds?” Billy shot dark looks at both the old rancher and his mother. “What’s he talkin about, ma?”

“I set up a deal with Mr. Reynolds, Billy. He’s buyin’ out 300 head.” Mabel said simply as she took the envelope and pulled out the contract within.

“Ya can’t do that, ma! That’ll take us down too low! I can’t do nothin with that in Spokane!” Billy nearly yelled as he pounded the table.

“Now, Billy…” Reynolds soothed. “Don’t you think that they offered the Spokane deal to me, too? The futures just ain’t there, and anybody that takes that deal now is gonna lose big. Why do you think they’re offerin in the first place? They know most ranches ain’t gonna bite on the deal, so the futures price won’t go up in anticipation of it. But the few that do’ll make them a tidy profit. Man’d have to be desperate to move that many head then. Best to move ‘em now when you can get a better price.”

“But that’s gonna leave us nothin!” Billy argued as he snatched the contract away from his mother. He scanned it quickly and threw it down on the table. “That price ain’t much better than what the futures are sayin! You trying to rob us, Reynolds?”

“Now slow down, son. Times ain’t the greatest right now. Your ma said you needed to make a quick and fair sale to help out with the bank, and I’m bein more than fair.”

Billy seethed as the mood in the room darkened to match the storm behind his eyes. “Ma! You’re makin me look the fool! No! We ain’t doin this!” he shouted as he pushed away from the table and stood quickly. “No way in hell you’re doin this!”

“You watch your mouth William.” Mabel said, her words as rich in quiet dignity as his were in passion. “And I’m still responsible for this ranch. I still say what happens and what doesn’t. The day I die is the day your say is all that’s needed, not before. We can make the mortgage and have enough to tend the rest through the summer. It’ll take a year or two, but we still have breedin stock, and the markets won’t stay down forever. If we time it right, we’ll be back on top in a few years. We’ll be out from under the mortgage then and running in the black…”

“I can’t believe you’d do this behind my back, Ma’! Fine! Sell our lives away! Paul was right… there is a wolf around. But he drives a new truck, and the rabbits ain’t got nothin to worry about unless they have a few pennies!” Billy stormed from the kitchen and out the door. Moments later their old truck and was tearing down the drive.

“I’m sure sorry about this, Mabel.” Reynolds said into the silence. “I didn’t know the boy didn’t know about the deal.”

“He ain’t a boy anymore, Harry. Just wish he’d realize that. It’s just been hard on him is all. He’ll calm down in a day or two. Got the makings of a good man, if he’d just let it happen.” Mabel said.

“I sure hope so, Mabel.” Reynolds said.
###
Look for Rural Legend, Part II, on Monday, 11/15/10. Or, better yet, subscribe to this blog so you don't miss an installment. Your computer still has a better memory than you do. So, until next time,
Just write, damn it.