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.
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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

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