Bad mojo, a curse of unimaginable strength released to ravage the earth. That was how Nanette explained it in a rather impassioned speech: “It attacked your father straight away. I reckon it’ll leave me alone due to the fact I been destined for hell a dozen times over. But John has a good soul, something da devil can’t stand.”
I sipped my coffee and stepped off the porch to soak in another dazzling night sky. I’d napped during the afternoon so I could keep first watch. The old maid wouldn’t say, but I suspected she hadn’t slept a night through for weeks.
Superstition aside, something had gripped my father in its teeth and torn him up bad. We spoke two other times in broken spurts. Come to find out, that same something had killed the entire herd of cattle. Dad suspected the spring to be the source, said he’d ridden along the seep expecting to find a dead animal or something of the sort. Instead he found dozens.
Holding the tin cup in both hands, I puffed a cloud of breath into the air. Pestilence or curse. Hell, who was I to judge. At the mention of the dead animals—something about the way they’d died—the old man stiffened, shook his fists at the ceiling and shut his eyes. I choked, thinking at first he’d died. But Nanette shuffled in, rolled him over and replaced his bedpan, mumbling all the while. In exchange for me refilling her shells she filled some gaps in my timeline.
I drank the rest of the coffee and left the cup on the porch before heading to the stable to check on Chester. The pair of us had made the rounds before dark to confirm the whole story. A phone had been put in on the edge of the property two years ago, but recently the pole had been cut down. Picked-over carcasses of cattle and wildlife littered the place, but concentrated around the water. Maybe too much oil and gas had leaked into it.
A covey of quail flushed from the rafters as I reached the stable. Maybe the ranch’s overall state of disrepair had set me on edge, or maybe it was the curse, but all the same, I jerked my Colts from their holsters and slid into the moon shadow of the building. After taking a deep breath, the disconnect hit me. What the hell were quail doing in the rafters like a brood of hens? Ground nesters, bobwhite quail only took flight when encouraged to do so.
But who, or what, had done the encouraging? The night held its breath. So did I. Slipping into the stable, I finally exhaled. Whatever flushed the quail to the rafters had stopped short of coming inside. The birds had told me that much. Could have been a coon, or an armadillo. Real trouble would have come most likely with all the subtly of combustion engines and Thompson submachine guns, like it had off and on over the last two weeks.
“Chester.” He stamped the dirt twice in response. But a strange whinny followed. “Goody? That you?” My father kept a range horse and two mules. Goody was so damn old he’d been around since before I left. But this didn’t sound like any of my father’s animals.
“Ranger McCutchen, you’re a hard man to find. Well, not really.”
I swore. “Son of a—”
“Maybe so, but she died when I was little. Something else we’ve got in common.”
“If you’ve got anything to do with this, Lipscomb, I’ll add killing a lawman to my growing list of sins.”
“Nonsense. I’m here on business, same as you. And who says you could kill me if you tried, old man?”
I spun a Colt in my hand, closed my eyes and listened for clues the darkness couldn’t tell me. A weighted belt dropped to the floor with a double thud.
“I stole the double piece idea from you, but the Flat Top is a bit out-dated and cumbersome, don’t you think?”
I didn’t budge.
“Look, I’m in a hurry, but if you want to play for a bit, put down the irons. I’ve heard some good things about your recent efforts at self-improvement. Or was it just about the opium after all?”
“You steaming pile of—”
“Consider it a training session, a chance to put a pup in his place.”
I trusted Sheriff Lipscomb about eight feet less than I could throw him, assuming I could still throw a grown man around seven-and-a-half feet. But he hadn’t come here to kill me, or he would have put a bullet in my back, the same way I would have done him.
Don’t get me wrong, I make it a general rule to kill a man face to face. But a cold-hearted bastard with a taste for blood, you kill him any way you can. With gentlemen like us, any way was the only way. “Alright, but I’m not dropping my cumbersome Flat Tops in the dirt like trail turds. I’m hanging ‘em on a hook as I speak.”
Lipscomb’s movements must have been masked by my own, because the moment I let go of my belt I felt the air in front of me swell. Bull rush. Too dark to land a punch with accuracy, he’d try for a take down, probably high rather than low. Too late to block, I sagged, relaxing every muscle simultaneously.
The hit came more playful than malicious. He didn’t want to break me, a qualm I didn’t return. Rather than resisting, I embraced gravity and the momentum of the other man, waiting to regain connection to the ground. In a fight, the laws of physics are a friend. You can’t beat ‘em, so the only choice is to join ‘em.
Angling so my shoulders absorbed the blow, we struck the ground and slid. The moment my limp back and buttocks contacted the dirt, I surged with my hips and feet, allowing all the force of his assault to rebound from the unforgiving earth, through me and back into him.
Together we bounced and began to flip, boots overhead. But the separation between us indicated he’d gathered a quicker spin than I. With no connection to the ground, he had no center from which to attack. Arching backwards, I planted my palms in the dirt and threw my feet the rest of the way over to complete the flip. Now I held the high ground, and unlike Lipscomb I didn’t believe in mixing play with work.
But I didn’t want to kill him either, which from here would have been pretty easy. A crushed larynx or shattered solar plexus would have done the trick. A sound like a tearing sack of feed indicated he’d struck the ground. At the last moment, I opted for an improvised blunt chop to his chest with the back of my elbow—just enough to knock the breath out of him.
Instantly, I popped up and hovered over him until he expected another impending blow. “No one’s saying I could kill you. I said I would. Now why don’t I dust your irons off for you while you catch your breath.”