McCutchen’s Bones: p.1

McCutchen's BonesRule 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

McCutchen’s Bones: p.4

On the evenly packed soil of the garden path, I prepared this time for a more graceful landing. Five feet from the shed, I threw my leg out like a ball player sliding into first. The moment my backside struck the dirt, the corner of the shed exploded into splinters above me. I shielded my face as my foot struck the clapboard base and popped me upright behind a structure in which I was rapidly losing confidence to sufficiently slow lead projectiles.

Then the truth struck. The shooter had waited patiently for me to reach my destination, targeting the shed rather than a moving object. He knew his surroundings and had been watching for intruders.

“Dammit, Dad! It’s me,” I swallowed hard. “Junior!”

No response. If I was wrong, I had just given ‘the competition’ both additional leverage and inclination to kill me. I vaguely recalled one of my father’s sermons from my childhood. Something to do with killing the landowner’s son, who was supposed to represent Jesus, in order to lay claim to the land. But Jesus was a quitter, like my old man.

“It’s J.T.! You already know I’m alone and came on horse.” I took a deep breath. “But hear this. If you ain’t my old man, alone or no, I’m sending you to hell at the count of three. One!”

Okay, so telling the enemy exactly what you plan on doing and when may not sound like the best of plans, but in situations like this it’s all about projection and fulfillment. “Two!” Some might call it a self-fulfilling prophecy. I call it desperate. But deliver on your promise just once and the payoffs keep coming.

I opened my mouth to shout out the number three, mentally preparing to round the same exploded corner of the shed I had just ducked behind. Hell, I’d been shot over a dozen times. But I was willing to bet whoever held the piece inside my daddy’s house hadn’t been shot once, and didn’t want to be. “Three—”

“Hold your horses, young’un.”

At the sound of a thickly accented woman’s voice, I tumble from behind the shed. In an effort to redirect my aborted charge, I rolled into a furrow and stared up at a sky lit more brightly than my surroundings. “So you know who I am…” I waited for more information.

“I reckon I do! Jer daddy been sick, just a bubblin’ away about dis prodigal son whose comin’ home. I reckon you done be dat son, so git your raggedy ass in here, young man, before I come on out there and drag it in.” Then as an afterthought, “Don’t you think nothing about da gunfire. I done put the guns away da moment you declared all dramatic-like who you was. I swear on a bowl of gumbo, young men and their guns.”

I’d been away, this last time, for sixteen years. A dozen house maids could have come and gone. Her use of the words “prodigal son” rang true enough, and there was no way my father would allow a woman to do his shooting unless he was indeed sick or dead. It made sense. And as a ruse, it was simply too bizarre. Criminals and thugs are generally speaking, stupid.

I got up slowly, dusted myself off and whistled for Chester. He loped in from the north. “It’s alright, boy. We’re home.” He tossed his head while I loosened the girth and slid the saddle to the ground. I stroked my hand over his rump and gave him a good slap, indicating he could take his leave. It was December and cold, but there was still grass to be had. He knew I’d whistle for him if I found some molasses and grain.

As I made for the front porch with saddle in hand, Chester trotted toward a cement tank beneath a windmill. I hoped to find some strong, black coffee for myself.

With the threat to life and limb gone, I felt the anxiety of the moment with sudden force. Now it seemed even sickness had colluded to smother my vindictive gall. For over twenty years I’d envisioned putting my old man in his place, but none of those scenarios involved me riding home, pistols drawn, to help a sick and embattled man protected only by a maid. And where the hell were the hands?

I dropped the saddle on the porch loudly and threw open the door.

Scene Five

McCutchen’s Bones: p.5

“Take your sweet time. I swear, young’uns these days. No respect for their elders. Just a boilin’ away with a fever, no hurry.”

A woman not quite as old as my father and darker skinned than a moonless night shooed me into the middle of the room. After shutting the front door, she barred it. Somehow, without changing the identity or ethos of the three-room house, almost every item in it had been rearranged. It smelled different, better.

I turned to face the rather large woman, more a mound of rolling hills than a mountain, and certainly more of a babbling brook than still waters. “You still haven’t answered my question.”

“You still ain’t asked it, Mr. Smarty-Pants.” She stopped for nothing. Brushing past me, she tutted before continuing, “I swear, young’uns these days.”

“Well pardon my prodigal manners—”

“Junior? Son?”

The maid threw back the bedroom door and disappeared inside. “He sure ain’t much to look at, fer all your fussin’. Calm yourself. He’s a tad on da slow side, but he’s a comin’.”

Bracing myself and half-expecting to see an emaciated madman, I strode into the room.

“What the hell are you doing here?”

Damn it all. I gritted my teeth. “Nice to see you too, old man.” Physically, he didn’t look too bad—an older, smaller version of myself. Less scars. Then again, some of mine were his fault. He was too pale, his eyes bloodshot.

He started mumbling, maybe to me, maybe to himself. “Not that, not that. That’s not what I meant.”

“I never could figure what you meant. Why should now be any different? I swear, for a man practiced in preaching you ain’t for shit at simple conversation.”

He burst upright, scattering his sweat-soaked covers. A buck-naked, crazy-eyed specter, he screamed at the top of his voice, “And what’s so simple about this! This isn’t right, none of it!” His face spasmed and he blinked faster than a machine gun for a full eight seconds.

“Son? J.T. I knew you’d make it. I knew God wouldn’t let me die yet, not yet.”

I looked from my father to the maid, one eyebrow raised. She shook her head and went about fluffing the pillow. “Some how they both your father, da angry one and da calm one. But they ain’t lived together for these last few weeks. You gonna have to talk to one or da other at da very least. I like me da angry one personally, ain’t quite so mushy as da other.”

I breathed deep. “Dad, I came ‘cause you’ve got trouble. I reckon more than you can handle. Word on the wind—”

He leapt out of bed altogether, naked as the day God made him. “I’ve had more trouble than you could know for these last sixteen years. But that’s over now, ‘cause you’ve come home.” With that he embraced me in the full-on, without a stitch from his Canada to his Mexico. He started to cry, and it was too much.

The whole damn experience felt like opening a dozen-year-old bottle of Lenoir, expecting an explosion of black currant and licorice but getting a mouthful of vinegar and dirt instead. I bolted.

Snatching up my saddle, the natural course of things found me rummaging around in the barn. If any place on the ranch had felt the least bit mine, it had been the barn. The exact opposite of the house, nothing had been moved—every dusty, old farm tool in the same damn spot. Just the way I’d organized it. The fingers of my left hand curled and twitched. I needed a dadgum cup of coffee.

The work bench was strewn with an assortment of leathers and check valves. Face muscles twitching, I swept them to the ground. Hefting a post driver, I smashed the bench I’d built when I was twelve—the year we relocated to the ranch and crushed my mother’s spirit. “I was just a boy, dammit!”

I clutched the driver with white knuckles, delivering another splintering blow to the brittle lumber. “You were her almighty, self-righteous husband. You selfish piece a…” My right eye twitched out of control. Lightning pulsed through my face and neck until the seizure forced me to drop the pipe and stumble to my knees, drunk and blind.

Helpless as a baby, I laid there in the dirt and writhed for untold minutes. When I came to, the air above me sparkled with motes as daylight sliced through unshuttered windows and two dozen jagged holes the size of rifle slugs. The truth burned the back of my eyes worse than any grand mal seizure. Not only had my piss poor father preserved the whole barn as a shrine to his failures, but he’d left off his maintenance weeks ago—before winter hit, and the war began.

Scene Six

McCutchen’s Bones: p.6

I’d been able to decrease the frequency of the treatments, but I doubted I’d ever stop smoking all together. If I wasn’t just a bundle of complexities.

Response still sluggish and muscles working like they were submerged in butter, I pulled myself onto the hay loft and dangled my legs over the edge. After popping open a crusty metal tin and retuning it to the inside pocket of my duster, I lit the marihuana cigarette and held the smoke in my lungs. Exhaling through my nose with my eyes closed, I began to drift. This time I relied on discipline and clarity rather than chaos and weakness.

Trip Jones floated by, dead cigar stub clenched in his teeth, with a smug look on his face. You sure know how to frack skulls. The opium den dojo replaced the front office of J&J. Its toothless proprietor grinned—an Asian man whose body had lost to time and intoxicants, the same skills he imparted to me. Next, the burning timbers of a Mexican medicine woman’s jakal, a searing pain in my hand, an Aztec amulet. Good medicine.

Elizabeth. I fluttered midstream, struggled against the current, before relenting. Elizabeth hovered over me, laughing. Her golden hair sparked and popped like embers before drifting into darkness—the last fireflies of the season. Mother. I whisked my eyes open, cigarette still hanging from my lips. My mother had finally died when I was twenty-one, a year before I finished my schooling at University of Texas.

“Never did take you for da smokin’ type.”

My cheeks puckered, as I reached for my Colt.

“Uh-uh, not dat it bother me none. I used to take a good chew ever now and den, lady-like or no. But John always have a hissy on da matter, yammerin’ on about how there taint no way someone under his employ gonna smoke nor chew. So I gived it up right then and there.”

I quickly overrode my first instinct. Releasing the grip of my .45, I pinched the cigarette and held it out of sight. I could count the number of people who knew I smoked and were still alive on one finger. I never liked big numbers.

She scanned the barn with keen eye before shuffling toward the sideboard with the kettle in her hands. Placing it on the grease and sawdust-laden boards, she sniffed the air. Her eyes bulged slightly, a tell that she recognized the tang distinguishing marihuana smoke from tobacco. “But I suppose dat’s why you smokin’. Young’uns these days.”

“I don’t smoke.” I pocketed the remainder of the cigarette. What was I afraid of? That this old maid would tell my father? “Is that coffee?”

“I figured a young smarty-pants might need a slug after his all-night ride. And since you don’t smoke maybe dis can wash out da taste of dat cigarette you ain’t just smoked. Now git your raggedy, lying ass down here before I drink all dis coffee myself.” I obeyed as she poured two steaming cups and continued the one-sided conversation. “No good, lying, disrespectin’ smarty-pants drinking my coffee with out even a thanks.”

“I apologize, ma’am.” I tipped my hat before placing it on the sideboard. “You’re right. Bullets is no excuse for one to forget his manners. I’m J.T. McCutchen III. And I’d be grateful if you could spare a cup of that fine smelling coffee.”

“Well ain’t you proper when you get thirsty?” Hands on her ample hips, she scanned me from head to toe before riveting me straight in the eyes. Finally, she softened. “You’re John’s boy sure enough, uh-huh. Stubborn, self-righteous, persuasive and good lookin’.”

She raised her hand surprisingly fast, in what I figure was an attempt to swat my behind. I blocked it on instinct. “Sassy too. Help yourself, Mr. J.T. Smarty-Pants. I made da coffee for you, so you might as well drink it. But don’t go getting offended if I don’t hang around sipping it with ya like some gun slinging young’un with nothing better to do at nine in da morning. I got a sick one to tend to, shells to reload, and beans that are burning, so you might as well tell me if I gotta get another bed ready.”

I took her gently by the wrist. “I’m staying.”

She sipped from her coffee before nodding. “Good. John needs you.”

I still had no idea who this lady was or how she’d gotten elected for the role she’d taken, but I owed her. “Look, I… thank you. Thank you, Miss—”

“Bougere. Nanette Bougere. But I ain’t no miss. Call me Nannie.”

I nodded. “Nannie. Last thing I want is the beans to burn, but I need to know—”

“Oh, never you mind. I ain’t even started them beans to cooking.”

“Where are the hands?”

“Gone.”

“Who’s been shooting the place up?”

“Other than me?”

“What’s wrong with my father?”

She shook her head. “You wanna know what, or why? As to why, I’ll tell ya, but you ain’t gonna like it. Nobody ever does.”

“I don’t have to like it to do something about it.”

“No, I suppose you don’t. Might make it easier dat way. But I’ll tell ya, it don’t make a lick a sense dat man curse the earth and wonder why the devil comes out to play. But they do it all da same.”

“The drilling? So this is about the oil rights?”

“Rights or wrongs, it ain’t just about da oil no more. Uh-uh. It’s about da curse.”

Scene Seven

McCutchen’s Bones: p.7

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.”

Scene Eight