McCutchen’s Bones: p.1

Rule number one while working security in a boomtown: a living roughneck does more work than a dead one. Rule number two: there’s plenty more waiting to take his place.

Eight saloons-turned-speakeasies flecked a slapdash shanty town as it, in turn, choked the muddy streets of Breckenridge, TX. Born from the roughnecks’ constant efforts to hold back mud while bringing forth oil, the bars aggravated the once quaint cattle village like horse flies on a dead calm day. Save it was night, and the last of the biting flies had stiffened and dropped in a hard frost around Thanksgiving. Prohibition had failed even a piss poor semblance of the cold’s effectiveness.

Then again, I reckon public drunkenness and the nitro-blasting of liquid gold from the begrudging Cambrian limestone of Texas’ underbelly rightly go hand in hand. That’s where I come in.

The Bloody Bucket had served as purveyor of intoxicating lubricants to a majority of the J&J Company men for most of the winter. Entering through the back, I had just closed my eyes to begin my mantra when the flap-trapping commenced between an Irishman and a yokel.

“If ya hadn’t a dropped the hammer less than tree seconds after giving ‘er the soup we hadn’t a blown out over two hundred feet a casing, ya flat-headed idgit.”

It hadn’t taken sixteen years experience as a Ranger to know the explosion at Edelstein #6 earlier that day would leave pockets of bitterness and blame only liquor could light off.

“If your foul-smelling excuse for a mother had ever learned you to count higher than the remaining fingers on your left hand, you’d knowed I cleared the torpedo by a full seven ticks.”

The threat of mortality and the loss of pay had drained their tanks of all save the liquor’s fumes. A well-placed insult had sparked ‘em off, and three dozen onlookers served as backdraft, sucking the fetid air from the room. I opened my eyes as a mug full of beer struck the hastily-milled floorboards still dripping with pitch.

“Saint Patrick as my witness, I got a fistful of knuckles on me right, you noodle-armed bastard.”

Striding toward the ruffians, I registered the nature and range of their motions. Irish led with a predictably slow haymaker, wheeling from too far outside his core. Yokel threw up a block with his left, uppercut with his right. Without focus or force, the blow glanced off both chest and chin.

Having lost his center, Irish stumbled. Flailing his left, he caught an onlooker in the nose, inviting a plus-one to the party. Three strides away a metallic flick honed my senses as Yokel drew a knife. Closing my eyes, I used the back of my lids as photo paper to sear Yokel’s four strike points into my consciousness.

 

Before me I see a wooden dummy, two dirty bands of cloth wrapped around its top and middle. Opium smoke clings to the walls of my throat and lungs while chirruping Mandarin Chinese packs my ears like molasses and gauze.

Elbows in and muscles relaxed, I focus my forty-year-old frame. Eyes open, the saloon returns. Strike one hyperextends Yokel’s thrusting elbow. He drops the knife. Before it falls six inches, strike two, a vertical-fist straight punch to the solar plexus, stuns him. As the knife hits the floor, strike three, a finger punch to the throat, drops him faster than the knife.

Upset at the intrusion, Irish announces his intentions with an ejaculation of inane banter. Lunging with a left at the back of my head, he barely ducks a wild right from Plus One who cracks his knuckles across the jaw of Plus Two. Invitations are flying faster than I can seat the guests.

I dip and spin, letting Irish’s blow whiff over me while sweeping his feet. Catching him, I bury my knee in his groin before hurling him backwards. He strikes Plus Two, a burly roughneck with tightly wound hair bursting from his neck and sleeves, and bowls him over.

Finally, I charge Plus One, a lanky chap in a butcher’s apron. Temporarily frozen, he fails to utilize his extra reach. With three quick chain-punches, two to his chest and one to his already bloodied nose, the fight’s over. I blink until time resumes its normal pace, filling the room with sound.

 

That was that. Another normal evening in Breckenridge, another training session.

Scene Two

McCutchen’s Bones: p.2

I bound the wrists of Yokel and Irish with leather straps, indicating they’d be spending the night in jail. Yokel looked to weigh more, so I heaved him onto my shoulder first and left out the front. After returning seconds later, no one had mussed with Irish.

I suspected no one would have, even if I left him there all night. Not that he wasn’t chummy enough, but the tense stances around me conveyed that my reputation communicated what my battered, old body failed to. I yanked Irish up by the armpits and lugged him over my left shoulder just to spread the wear and tear evenly.

With a nod I shoved past the swinging doors. After depositing Irish into the back of the buckboard, I huffed a cloud of breath into the frail night air. The teeth of a norther nipped at hem and collar.

Grateful the fight hadn’t lasted long enough to cause a sweat, I fastened two buttons and lurched up onto the seat. The combination of quick motion and tightening muscles caught me like an electric poke in the eye, flashing a jolt from stem to stern until focusing along the jagged scar under the brim of my grandpappy’s hat, where the pain continued to smolder.

Soothing it through several rounds of mantra, the pain subsided as Irish began to moan from the back. I shook out the numbness and lashed the company mules. Discipline couldn’t keep the devils in the chute forever, but I was determined not to crack just yet.

~~~

Trip Jones, of J&J Southern Oil and Gas Company, had served as my boss for the previous eight weeks. Currently, he whistled through his teeth while clenching a cigar stub I figure he’s held there for the greater part of the day. It seemed like an occupational hazard for an oil man, but he bore the daily burnt nub as a matter of pride or a gesture of scorn. Which, I never could be sure.

He removed it to eject a bit of sodden paper, before lodging it back in place. “You sure know how to frack skulls, McCutchen. And not even a scratch on ya.” Reclining in his chair, he thumped the brim of his hat. “How many does that make this week?”

I cracked the vertebra at the base of my neck and made an effort to smile. “I reckon the same number that deserved it.” My smile may have lacked verve, so I added, “Just doing my job” and crinkled my left eye. The right one didn’t function properly anymore.

Hooting in delight, he swatted his thigh with his ten-gallon hat before flopping it down on his desk. “And a damn fine job you’re doing, I might add. But,” he dropped the cheesy grin, “you might a guessed I ain’t invited you to the office to chat over mundane niceties.”

“Yessir.” I leaned forward, glad to be getting to the point.

“J.T. McCutchen III.”

I nodded and scowled.

“If I ain’t missed my guess, the J stands for John.” He raised a brow, waiting for me to acknowledge, but I didn’t. “Son of John T. McCutchen II of Ranger, Texas?”

The mention of the old man together with the town named after my grandpappy tilled my dirt. “I’ve been known as such.”

“Hey, a man’s family is his own business, and I don’t mean nothing personal by it.” Trip tugged at the loose flap of skin above his Adam’s apple. “I just needed to know if you were him.”

“I am.”

“Alright, then you deserve to know trouble’s coming the way of your old man worse than a tornado in a tent town.”

I didn’t like his smugness—like he was doing me a favor. “You know this?”

He nodded. “I like you, McCutchen. So I’ll cut the crap.”

“Why don’t you.”

He grinned. “I want the leases to your father’s land.” He sat up. “I’m sure you know it’s dead center of the richest oil in Ranger. Hell, anyone with his head halfway out his butt knows that field’s running dry, but there’s still several million in the ground resting right underneath the McCutchen ranch.”

I adjusted my hat and made to stand.

“Now hold on, lest you get the wrong idea.” He narrowed his eyes until I settled back in. “This ain’t about acquiring those leases, not entirely.” His smug look returned for a flash. “I know for a fact that some of my, shall we say, less savory competitors, have been making runs on your family land already. And let me be crystal clear.”

He drummed his fingers on the desk. “When I say I want those leases, I’m being gentlemanly. The competitors I’m referring to are as subtle as a prickly pear up your britches leg. They’d just as well drill 3,000 feet after burying your father six. The word in the wind is they done already tried, but he’s burrowed in like a tick with teeth.” He looked me in the eye, sincere about what he was saying.

“I thank you for the heads up.” I stood.

“Like I said, a man’s family is his own business.” He stood as well. “You done right by mine, so now I’m giving you space to take care of yours. Take as much time as you need.” He stuck out his hand and I shook it. “But you heed my words.” He squeezed hard, displaying the iron grip of a man who hadn’t always sat behind a desk. “These competitors are nasty folk with a taste for blood. It’ll take more than a few fractured skulls to back ‘em off.”

I rubbed the scar under the brim of my grandpappy’s Stetson, reliving the moment the business end of a shovel had left it there. “Same’s been said about me.” I turned to go.

Trip Jones, always the business man, restated his interest as I hit the front door. “If you could talk some sense into your father while you were at it… Some of them millions should rightfully be yours, is all I’m saying. Take care, McCutchen.”

I nodded before shutting the door and turning to face the starlit sky of what would be a sleepless night. But a ride over rough country in the dark would be a cakewalk compared to seeing my old man.

Scene Three

McCutchen’s Bones: p.3

Night hadn’t gotten any darker, nor winter any colder. I’d gotten older. Sleeplessness and I had been acquainted my whole life, but now it took more work to overcome its toll. The first leg of the ride unfolded across flat land via a rutted dirt road, so I gave Chester the reins and focused my mind and body with exercises.

It felt good to be riding somewhere with purpose, even if I didn’t want to think about the confrontation waiting at the end. Instead I tested the balance of my Colts, spinning them palms up then down, forward and back. Elbows in, I closed my eyes and imagined the spinning barrels as extensions of my strikes, until the time came to leave the road west of Caddo. With a sigh, I cut a straight path south.

A man can kill the past and bury it. But time turns everything to oil, and sooner or later, circumstance brings it bubbling to the surface. While the chill of the norther lashed my back, bitter memories stung my eyes. Ranger lay at the end of the trail. Home.

The town had been named after a camp of Texas Rangers, my grandpappy chief among them. While the area was still a village, he’d bought the land surrounding the old campsite. After retiring, he settled there to finish raising his family.

Slowly, Chester picked his way through mesquite and prickly pear. The invasive species had invaded swaths of rolling hills that used to be covered in hard woods and stirrup high grasses. It was exactly the kind of bull plop my father preached on; overgrazing, over-logging. It didn’t surprise me in the least he’d refused the wildcatters, millions be damned.

I’d forsaken Ranger to follow in my grandpappy’s footsteps, but then the Rangers had forsaken me. Now I was coming full circle, and for what? To convince an old bastard who quit everything he ever started, save the damn ranch, to quit that too? I had no choice. He was my father.

~~~

Chester and I peaked Ranger Hill as lavender and gunmetal-pink streaked the eastern horizon a half hour before the sun would pull back the covers on a Texas encased in hoarfrost. Two hours earlier the winds had died without delivering a single puff of cloud. Instead the stars bled into the stillness until the back of my duster crackled with it.

Of course God would take the old man’s side, conspiring against me. The stark contrast between the silhouettes of clanking derricks and the crystalline skeletons of oak choked the bitterness in me. The constant popping of the two-stroke pump jacks, shattered what should have been a quiet thick enough to drown a man.

But I still had nagging questions. Questions God wouldn’t, or couldn’t answer, and that my old man sure as hell better. After sixteen years, he was about to get his chance.

Suddenly, instinct took over. The perimeter fence to the family ranch had been cut and rolled back. Dismounting, I slapped Chester twice on the neck, instructing him to get out of sight but stay alert. I shifted my bandana over my nose and mouth while making my way to a juvenile stand of live oak growing in the fence. Normally my father would never allow anything to clutter his fence line.

With no pump jacks nearby, the early morning fell quiet. Whoever had cut the fence had gone through it. Not expecting anyone else from the outside—they’d be more worried about their fronts than their backs. Good news for me.

Seconds later I stooped to inspect tire tracks left in the mud. Two distinct vehicle treads, weighted down with either men or equipment, had been in and out more than once. That changed things, a little. I whistled for Chester, who loped into view instantly.

“Time to go to work, boy.” He snorted his readiness. A blind New Yorker couldn’t have lost the tracks, but I knew where they were headed anyway. We loped as quickly and silently as we could toward the house, not knowing whether the men in the autos had just come or already gone.

Five minutes later the old home station, a half dozen buildings, corals and a large garden plot, sprouted out of a stand of stately pecan trees. Without pause, we loped straight for the house. I stroked Chester’s mane before gripping the horn and making a running dismount. Two targets were better than one when charging an unknown enemy.

Stiff and old, I fumbled the landing and rolled once before regaining my feet. A quick glance right showed no movement. On the left Chester continued his stride, fading wide in order to circle the structures before finding me, hopefully still in one piece. Not knowing whether the enemy was in front, behind or both could make things a mite tricky.

So far so good. The lack of autos, no doubt my father still relied on the same ancient tractor and buckboard, started me thinking the coast might be clear—unless they’d stashed them in the barn.

Just like that, the morning’s first powder ignited the chill air at the same moment the sun ignited the sky. A flash and roar burst from a window in the main house. It’s immediate and hollow echo indicated I’d been the target, and it hadn’t been a warning shot. With a sharper jolt than I would have liked, I dove shoulder-first and rolled into a hedge of mountain juniper my father had trained two decades ago.

No idea of the shooters’ numbers or their arms, very few options readily presented themselves. The sun sparked the eastern horizon behind me—the thin, yellow-gold orb still tangled in brush. Maybe using the rising sun to blind anyone trying to shoot me was a brilliant idea. Or maybe I was just pissed off.

Holstering both Colt .45 Flat Tops, I hurdled the hedge and made for the clapboard garden shed at a full sprint.

Scene Four