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.”
“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.