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.

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