Read an Excerpt
By Barry Andrew Chambers
PINNACLE BOOKSCopyright © 2010 Barry Andrew Chambers
All right reserved.
Chapter OneI fell in love with Wilma Ducette the moment I saw her. She was a real firecracker with a wicked glint in her eye to boot. Of course she was now in jail, but my fantasies had been fueled just the same.
My name is Randall "Rattler" Foster. "Randy" to my friends, "Mr. Foster" to anyone under twelve and "Rattler" ... well, no one knows that name. It's an exclusive code name known to very few people in The Service, which is an offshoot of the U.S. Marshal's Service. My job entails duties such as bringing in escaped prisoners, investigating rustlers and something my boss calls "undercover." I get involved with outlaw gangs as an inside man and send information to my boss.
Harlon Shanks runs the regional office of The Service. It's located in Dodge City, Kansas and our territory goes as far east as St. Louis, as far west as Denver. Wyoming forms the north boundary and New Mexico Territory forms the south.
For a man of fifty-eight years old, Harlon looks a lot younger. His brown hair is grey at the sideburns, and his craggy face could be a lot craggier. At six feet four inches and a lean, muscular, two hundred pounds, Harlon could still hold his own out in the field. The problem is, while he was on a job in the Dakotas, he got shot. In fact, it was thefifteenth time he'd been shot in the line of duty. But the Dakota bullet lodged near his heart. Even though it was small caliber, it couldn't be cut out of him without causing major damage or death.
So Harlon handed in his gun for a desk. To tell you the truth, I think the inactivity and paperwork will do him in sooner.
I came to the attention of The Service when I was just past the age of twenty-one. I lived in Pleasant Valley, Colorado. Both my parents were teachers and like a dutiful son, I trekked to the nearest town that had a school without a teacher and took up the title.
One day in late spring, one of my students, Treva Spurlock, approached me after school.
"Mr. Foster?" she said in a timid voice.
Treva was fifteen, but looked younger. She was a small girl with a big brain. At times, I let her take the younger children out back and teach them their basic ABCs.
"What is it Treva?" She walked toward me slowly.
"Mr. Foster, I have a question." For a terrifying moment, I thought she was about to ask me about the birds and the bees.
"Well sir, you're really smart. Probably the smartest person in eastern Colorado."
I doubted this, but accepted the compliment with a smile.
"What can I do for you, Treva?"
On those two words, I totally understood. The Spurlocks had been in a famous feud with the McMahons for years. No one knew who started the animosity, but these folks just plain didn't like each other.
Bruce McMahon, the grandfather, was said to have stolen a Spurlock pig. David Spurlock, Treva's grandfather, was accused of burning the McMahon's crops in retaliation. Their sons continued the rivalry with petty squabbles to bloody bar fights.
One of the classic bar fights ever, occurred in a skirmish between Spurlocks and McMahons. The Blue Hog was the only bar in Pleasant Valley. Since there were no other watering holes, it was inevitable that a Spurlock and McMahon would meet up and lock horns.
After seeing his place torn up numerous times, the owner of The Blue Hog painted a line right down the middle of his bar. One side was for the McMahons and the other side was for the Spurlocks. For a while, both families respected the boundary.
The trouble started on a lazy Saturday morning in May. Buck Spurlock walked wearily through the swinging doors. He'd been up all night setting fence posts for the northern boundary of the Spurlock property. He sat heavily at the bar and tapped the counter with his dirty fingernails.
"Let's have a whiskey, Sam."
The bartender eyed him in judgment. "A little early, isn't it Buck?"
With bleary eyes, Spurlock slowly held up a silver dollar. "Whiskey," he repeated.
Sam shrugged and poured Buck a shot. He downed the drink and sat at the counter in a stupor. He lowered his head and was soon sound asleep.
What Sam didn't notice and Buck was unaware of, was Buck's elbow had slid over to the McMahon half of the bar. Any neutral stranger who could sit where he wanted, would have gently nudged the elbow away to give himself room. But a neutral person did not show up.
Around noon, Buck was snoring loudly as his body listed to the right, into McMahon territory. Two McMahons, Asa and Creighton, came through the swinging doors. They'd been to town to buy feed. When they saw the slumbering Buck leaning on their side of the bar, their tempers were pricked.
"Lookee here, Creighton. We've got ourselves a trespasser." Sam came in from the back, polishing a glass. His face went white when he took in the situation. He held his hands up at the two McMahons.
"Now wait a minute fellas. I don't want any trouble. Buck here fell asleep. He didn't mean no harm." Sam made a move to pull Buck back over to the Spurlock side of the counter.
"Leave him be," growled Asa. "This piece of Spurlock cow patty needs a lesson in geography." Asa's leg reared back to kick the stool out from under Buck. At that moment, a voice came from the bar's entrance.
"Better not, lessin' you intend to take us all on."
Standing in the doorway were Elmer and Keenan Spurlock and their cousin, Odie. They had come to town to look for Buck since he had not come home the night before. The three men came through the wide swinging doors, shoulder to shoulder.
Asa, who was the biggest man in the room, withdrew his foot and met Elmer halfway.
"Look at him!" shouted Asa. "He's on our side of the bar!"
Creighton joined his brother. "He ain't got no right to be lying on our counter, droolin' all over it."
Sam was in a quandary. He stood there like a statue, trying to figure out what to do. The sheriff was out of town. That meant that Deputy Lawson was in charge. And if things hung true to form, when the sheriff was out of town, Deputy Lawson was most likely up at Beggerman's Creek, fishing. Sam calculated the possible damage and decided on a plan that would save money.
"Drinks are on the house," squeaked Sam, "if you men promise not to squabble." All five men turned their heads to Sam. Buck mumbled something in his peaceful bliss. Creighton licked his lips and rubbed his chin. Free drinks. It was a powerful argument against fighting. Elmer took off his hat and fanned his face. Asa had a tense smile on his face.
"Well ... maybe we could see our way to let you slide on this one. But you'd better remove that Spurlock from our spot." Odie and Keenan looked at each other and nodded. They warily walked past Asa and Creighton and went over to Buck. Keenan tapped Buck on the shoulder.
"Buck. Time to get up," he said softly.
Buck mumbled again and started to move away from Keenan, which put him farther on the McMahon side. Quickly, Keenan and Odie pulled Buck over to their end of the bar. "Come on Buck, wake up."
Buck opened one eye and spoke in a husky voice, "What are you doing here Keenie?"
With shaking hands, Sam poured whiskey into a glass. The light brown liquid corkscrewed out of the bottle into the tumbler. Keenan took it and held it in front of Buck's opened eye.
"Free whiskey, Buck."
With that, Buck opened his other eye. "Is it Christmas?" he asked.
"No, free whiskey," said Odie.
Buck snatched the glass and took it in one gulp. At that, the Spurlocks and McMahons took their respective sides of the bar as Sam poured glass after glass.
Within half an hour, the piano player showed up and began playing a rousing medley of bawdy songs. The bar was filling up with regular clientele. Katie, the hostess, entered from her upstairs parlor and filtered in and out among the customers. Every Spurlock and McMahon in the place was drunk.
Just as the church bells chimed one o'clock, more Spurlocks and McMahons showed up, looking for their brothers who had not returned from town.
Buddy McMahon, a hot tempered man known for his knee-jerk reactions, was told by a drunk Asa about Buck Spurlock's "crossing the line".
"I'm going to beat Buck to a pulp," threatened Buddy. "We can't let them hornswoggle us."
Asa tried to hold Buddy back. "Wait ... wait ... we got free drinks."
Thinking he had diverted disaster, Sam had started charging for drinks after the feuding families had gotten drunk. This made a very sober Buddy McMahon extra angry.
"Free drinks, huh? I'll get my own free drink." Truth be known, Buddy was more upset that his brothers got free drinks than of Buck Spurlock's indiscretion. He brushed off the drunk Asa and walked over into Spurlock Territory. He stopped at a table where Elmer and his brothers were playing poker. Before anyone knew it, Buddy grabbed the whiskey bottle off the table and took two generous gulps.
The piano player took his hands off the keyboard. Katie, the hostess, stopped in mid-giggle at Odie's dirty joke about a nearsighted donkey. The whole place was suddenly a tomb.
Buddy slammed the bottle back down on the table and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "Even the liquor tastes rancid on this side of the room," he declared.
Elmer glowered at him. Buck, who was snoozing over in the corner, woke up and looked around. "Wha's matter?" he slurred.
Sam sighed. He pulled out the ledger that was used for recording damages. He licked the lead tip of his pencil and held it poised over the DAMAGE column.
Buddy folded his arms and stood there, challenging everyone at the table. Eight Spurlocks locked eyes on seven McMahons.
Outside The Blue Hog, Minnie Haskell and her twelve-year-old daughter, Nina, were passing by. They heard the explosion of wood on wood. They stopped short of the swinging doors. It probably saved their lives as a forty pound keg of beer flew out, missing them by inches.
"My lands!" shrieked Minnie. Shouts and cursing mixed with banging and crashing assaulted the woman's ears.
"Look, Ma!" cried Nina. Nineteen-year-old Herbie Spurlock crashed through the window and rolled out onto the street. His face, arms and legs were scratched as he lay stunned.
Nina waved. "Hi Herbie!"
"It's those Spurlocks and McMahons," said Minnie. "Let's go dear." She pulled her reluctant daughter away from the roiling Blue Hog.
Katie ran out with her dress torn down the front. "They're killing each other!"
A curious crowd was gathering in front of the noisy bar. Reverend Madison, Bible in hand, started toward the swinging doors. "This is unseemly," he said. "I will play the role of peacemaker."
Katie put both her hands on the Reverend's shoulders. "It's the McMahons and Spurlocks!"
Without hesitating, Reverend Madison turned and headed up the street. "I'll be in my office," he muttered over his shoulder.
A chair with one leg missing was thrown out the door, followed by Buddy, who was pushing Keenan and Buck. They fell into a tangle of arms and legs. In the confusion, Keenan kicked his brother Buck in the face, leaving a dusty print of his boot. Buddy hammered Keenan in his left eye, accompanied by colorful insults regarding his family.
Trudy 'O Dell held her hands over her ten-year-old son's ears.
A loud clang echoed from inside. Still holding the ledger and pencil Sam the bartender backpedaled out of the swinging doors and hit a support beam. "Oof!" He fell on his butt and groaned. He put his hand to the bump that was swelling on his forehead and scrawled out something with the pencil. "That's one bent spittoon"-he looked down at his torn apron-"and one work vest."
A spine chilling shatter of glass erupted from The Blue Hog. Creighton McMahon staggered out of the bar with shards of glass buried in his bleeding face. "My eye! My eye!" he cried.
Sam wrote furiously into the ledger. "And one very expensive bar mirror."
Ben Carrier, a dry goods clerk, got one good look at Creighton and fainted into the arms of Louise Hampton, the church organist.
Buck lay unconscious in the street. Buddy continued to pound Keenan, who had since rolled himself into a ball. Katie was on Buddy's back, trying to pull him off.
Muted punches of fists on flesh could be heard amidst the crashes and screams. A chair could be heard splintering against the wall. A Spurlock was shouting about "losing his future family", except not in those words. There was a loud bang and whoosh which brought a gasp from the crowd. A flame flickered inside. "Fire!" yelled a McMahon.
An explosion of flames spit another Spurlock out of the bar. His face was black. Smoke billowed from his hair.
Sam scribbled and mumbled to himself, "One gas heater." He looked up and peered into the bar. Then he went back to his ledger. "One mahogany stairwell."
The piano let out one final wail of protest telling everyone that a body had been thrown on top of the keys. Then, all went quiet.
Outside, a tired Buddy fell away from the beaten up Keenan. The people stood in the middle of the street, listening for one last punch. A hand appeared on the floor just under the swinging doors. It made a fist and pounded the wooden floor. A soft moan was heard. The fight was over.
Later, Sam the bartender figured damages to be around seven hundred dollars. Two tables were totally destroyed, seven chairs were beyond repair. Numerous glass objects had been broken and the stairwell was suspect because of the fire. The bar itself had deep scratches and several dented places that contained blood and hair.
In the end, the McMahons and Spurlocks grudgingly split the expense. The "fight of the century" became another chapter in the feud. No actual deaths had occurred, but the blood between them remained as bad as a rabid wolf.
The feud had come to a boil again when part of Spurlock's livestock had been rustled. Spurlock sent three of his sons to go shoot up the McMahon's henhouse and burn their stable. If they could recover the stolen cattle, even better.
Treva's voice brought me out of my nightmarish thoughts of the Spurlock-McMahon feud. "You want me to help."
The young girl's voice trembled. "We have no sheriff, no law of any kind. I'm afraid my daddy will kill a McMahon, or get himself killed."
She continued, "I thought I could rely on your wisdom to settle this problem."
Yes, I thought. Solomon was my middle name. I had his wisdom. And any man who would get in between the Spurlocks and McMahons was a fool. I knew that much.
"Mr. Foster, could you talk to Daddy? He respects you and so does Mr. McMahon. I know it."
She knew it all right. The fact was, Treva Spurlock was head over heels in love with Danny McMahon. Their generation was longing for peace between the families. This quickened in my mind as I spied a head ducking in the side window. No one could mistake the red hair of a McMahon.
"Danny, come in here," I called out.
Danny McMahon slowly made his way through the front door. At fifteen, he was six feet tall and dwarfed little Treva as he stood by her.
"Hello Mr. Foster."
I looked at both kids with my stern, schoolmaster glare. "What do you propose I do, other than talking to your fathers?"
Danny took Treva's hand in his. His voice was as quiet as hers. "We want you to stop this silly behavior between our families. My brothers did not rustle cattle."
I took my knife out and whittled the wood around the lead point of a pencil. "I understand what you want, but you still haven't told me how."
They looked at each other. Their faces had no answer. Treva spoke. "We thought you might know what to do."
I sharpened the pencil to a fine point and blew the dust off. For a long moment I was quiet. Both young Spurlock and McMahon stayed as still as stagnant water, watching me with wide eyes. "I'll put a study to your problem. That's all I can promise. If a solution can be found, I'll let you know."
They both gave me sober nods and slowly headed out of the room. Watching them, I was reminded of a Shakespeare play called Romeo and Juliet. Centuries after it was written, the play still related to modern times. I also remembered it did not end well.
I rode up to see Jed Spurlock that afternoon. He was not happy that a wet-behind-the-ears teacher was sticking his nose into his ranching business.
"You learned Treva pretty good, Teacher. But you don't know nothing about running cattle."
Excerpted from Rattler by Barry Andrew Chambers Copyright © 2010 by Barry Andrew Chambers. Excerpted by permission.
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