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The hostler at the Two Forks Livery & Grain paused in his listless pitching of hay as he saw two riders move down from the crest of the limestone hill. Harley Mills rubbed a sleeve over his sweat-streaked face and speculated as to whether he was fixing to get some customers. Hot as it was, and seeing as the stable didn't belong to him, he had as soon not have business get out of hand. It hadn't lately. With this drought on, people were playing it close to their belts. They weren't coming to town when they didn't have to, because money was tight. He went back to his halfhearted efforts until one of the horses in the corral thrust its head over the top plank and nickered. An answer came from out on the road. Mills put the hayfork aside and stepped through the gate.
The two men were strangers to him. "Mornin'," he said. "From the looks of the dust on you, you've come a ways. I expect them horses could stand a feed."
No one replied. The hostler stared a moment at a rust-bearded man hunched on a streak-faced bay, then his reddish eyes were drawn to the taller rider, a gaunt, sallow-faced man who studied him in dark distrust. The hostler felt a sudden misgiving and wished they had passed him by.
The man said, "You're Harley Mills."
The hostler swallowed, puzzled. "That's right. But I don't know you. Or do I?"
The rider said, "You didn't used to swamp stables. Time I remember you, you was cowboyin' for old man Blair Bishop."
"Used to. He fired—we come to a partin', years ago." Harley Mills searched the seldom-explored recesses of his whiskey-dimmed memory. Something in those deep-set black eyes reached him. His jaw dropped.
The rider responded with a hard grin. "Know me now, don't you?"
Mills nodded, dry-mouthed and nervous.
The tall man said evenly, "Then I reckon we'll leave these horses with you. Me and Owen, we're goin' to go wash some of the dust down. You take good care of them now, Harley, you hear? Good care." Mills could only nod. The tall rider swung to the hoof-scuffed ground and shoved the leather reins into Mills' numb hands. He reached back to his warbag tied behind the saddle and fetched out a cartridge belt. He took his time putting it on while the hostler stared at the .45 in fearful fascination.
The man asked, "Things ain't changed much in ten years, have they?" Mills shook his head, a knot in his throat. The rider queried, "Blair Bishop still figurin' hisself the big he-coon?" The hostler's eyes gave him the answer and he added, "Well, things can't stay the same forever. Come on, Owen, we're past due for that drink."
Harley Mills barely glanced at the red-bearded Owen as he took the second set of reins. He watched the tall man stride up the street, looking at first one side of it, then the other. Mills led the horses into the corral, slipped the saddles and bridles off and gave the mounts a good bait of oats. His fingers touched a saddlegun in a scabbard as he swung the tall man's saddle onto a rack, and he jerked his hand back as if he had touched a hot stove.
Done, he shut the corral gate behind him and struck a stiff trot up the street to the court house. He almost ran down the county clerk as he rushed through the hall and into the door of the sheriff's office. He gestured excitedly at the graying ex-cowboy who looked up startled from his paperwork.
"It's Macy Modock," he blurted, gasping for breath. "Macy Modock is back in town."
The sheriff poked his head through the door of the Two Forks Bar & Billiard Emporium. Looking around quickly, he spotted the two men seated at a small table. He stared a moment, his heavy fingers gripping the doorjamb. At length the tall man spoke to him. "Come on in, Erly. Wondered how long it would take you."
Sheriff Erly Greenwood moved solemnly, his sun-browned face pinched into a frown. He halted two paces from the table, gave the red-bearded man a quick glance, then gazed at the other. "What you doin' here, Macy?"
"Havin' a drink. Share a little sunshine with us?"
"You was in the pen, Macy. How come you out?"
"I was turned out. Got all the proper papers right here in my pocket." He tapped his shirt. "Care to look?"
The sheriff nodded. "Maybe I better." His frown deepened, and his moustache worked a little as he read. "You didn't serve out all the term they gave you."
"Good behavior, Erly. Surprise you I could behave myself?"
"Damn sure does. I figured you'd get in a fight and some other prisoner would stomp your brains out. Hoped so, as a matter of fact."
"But here I am back in Two Forks, like a bad penny."
"I want you out, Macy. Have your drink, get your horses fed, then ride on out. I don't want to ever see you again . . . not in this town, not in this country."
Macy Modock studied his half-finished drink, a little anger flaring before he quickly forced it back. "Erly, if you'll read that paper a little closer you'll see it says I done paid up all I owe. I can come and go as I please, here or anywhere else. And after all, I'm a property owner in Two Forks. I come to see about my property."
"After ten years? That old saloon you had is half fallen in. Kids broke out all the windowlights the first week you was gone. Wind took off most of the shingles, and rain has done the rest."
"The land it sets on is mine. I come to see after my property. There can't nobody quarrel over that."
Erly Greenwood shifted his weight from one foot to the other. His jaw worked, but it was a while before any words came out. "Macy, we've had a nice quiet town here the last few years."
Modock nodded. "You're puttin' on some belly."
"Just you listen to what I tell you. If you've come to settle up any old scores, I won't have it."
A hard smile came to Macy Modock's thin, cheek-sunken face. "I got no grudge against you, Erly. You just done what you was told. The boss man snapped his fingers and you jumped. That's how it always was, them days. He still snappin' his fingers, Erly?"
Anger leaped into Erly Greenwood's face. "He's a good man, Macy. Anything he done to you, he done for good cause. If you've come back to raise hell . . ."
Macy Modock glanced at his red-whiskered companion. "Like I told you, Owen, things ain't really changed. The years go by, people get older, but everything else stays the same."
The sheriff's voice carried an edge. "I want you out of here."
"When I get ready. Who knows? I might take a notion to rebuild."
Conviction came to Erly Greenwood. "You've come to get even with him, Macy. Don't you try."
Modock grunted. "You was just a cowboy when Blair Bishop had that badge pinned on you. You're still just a cowboy."
"That's a matter of opinion. Don't you crowd me."
Modock stared at him coldly. "If there's trouble between me and Blair Bishop, it'll be when he comes huntin' me, not me huntin' him."
Macy Modock turned away from the sheriff. He poured himself a fresh drink and held it in his hand, admiring the amber color as if he had dismissed the sheriff from his mind. Greenwood turned on his heel and left.
The smile came back slowly to Modock's line-creased mouth. "And Blair Bishop will come huntin' me, Owen. I'll make him hunt me. And when I shoot him in self-defense, not even a Two Forks jury can touch me."
Excerpted from Shotgun by Elmer Kelton
Copyright © 1969 by Coronet Communications, Inc.
Published in June 2009 by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.