Kenny Blacklaws returned to the East Texas town of Copper Bluffs nine years after the brutal murder of his stepfather, only to find himself smack dab in the middle of a war with cutthroat rustlers. But that wasn’t his only problem. His return also awakened the feelings of Corsica, the beautiful woman his stepbrother had claimed as his own. It’s not long at all before just about everyone in Copper Bluffs is itching to see Kenny dead—just like his stepfather.
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.60(d)|
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Kenny Blacklaws found the dead steer about four in the afternoon. It lay in a thick patch of winter-stripped brush about a mile from the Sabine River on the Texas side. Jefferson County was near enough to the Gulf to get its wind a biting wind that whipped the brim of Blacklaws's hat against his face and made his black mare fiddlefoot nervously beneath him. When he swung off Tar Baby. she started to spook.
He checked the mare and stood against her with his hand on her neck, talking in a crooning voice. It was the habit of a lonely life and of a man who had a way with animals. The gentleness of it was in strange contrast to all the rough, masculine strength of his face and body. It soon quieted the mare, as it always did, and he hitched her to the brush down wind from the dead steer so the smell of blood would not excite her once more. Then he pulled his Bowie knife and walked over to the steer, grimacing faintly with his distaste for the job as he hunkered down to start skinning the carcass.
Doubled over that way, the tall length of him took on a heavier shape. Most of his weight was really in his chest and shoulders a quilting of heavy muscles which filled his faded ducking jacket so completely that the seams spread whenever a turning motion put any strain on them. The bones of his face bore that heavy-framed strength, but they were set obliquely together, lending his cheeks and jaws a keen, sharpened look. There was a fine sculpturing to his mouth, with a latent humor curling at its tips. But that was spoiled by his eyes. They were recessed deeply beneath a sharply jutting brow. With his face in repose, they were filled with a darkness that seemed to come from a long time ago. It subdued the youth and humor of him, till he looked older than his twenty-six years.
His attention seemed to be on his job, but he remained acutely aware of each small sound that filled the desolate thickets about him. He let the corner of a glance now and then cross to the bindweed and agrito that lay in a matted tangle all about him. It gave a sense of spreading away from this clearing into an infinity, standing as high as a horse's withers in many places, broken on the horizon by small green islands of post oaks.
The black mare fretted restlessly, eyes rolling like white china toward the surrounding thickets as they rattled their winter skeletons in the wind. Blacklaws was about half way through his job when Tar Baby tossed her head and whinnied. He stopped working till he heard the distant popping crash, different from the rattle of wind. He felt the impulse to rise and stopped himself with difficulty. This was what he wanted, wasn't it? I've skinned enough animals now, he thought. I've left my trail open for whoever wants to follow. It's about time somebody came.
He was still peeling off the tough hide when the three horsemen threaded their way from the thicket. The man in the lead sat his short-coupled billy horse in the ostentatious seat a heavy-gutted man so often adopted.
The immense girth of him made Blacklaws's big frame look small. He was hatless, his bald head shaped like a bullet, the flesh turned a luminous yellow in the pearly light of the sunless afternoon. His eyelids were merely creases in the pawky pouches of fat that contained his eyes. He reined in his billy horse and sat, leaning heavily into the cantle, stirrups flapped out wide, staring with that carnal grin Blacklaws remembered so well.
"Heard you was back, Kenny," he said at last. "Wouldn't have recognized you. They must feed well up north. You've filled out as all hell."
Blacklaws had come to his feet, and he returned the man's grin. It spread outward into his face, deepening the wind tracks in his bronze cheeks and drawing together the fine-grained network of wrinkles about his faintly squinting eyes. On the surface, it gave his face all the youth and humor it should show. Yet there was still something reserved about his eyes, holding all the humor of his grin ironically within himself, projecting none of it to the heavy man.
"Nine years changes a man, Roman," he said.
John Roman's grin broadened. "It does, Kenny. It does. Folks wondered why you left. Now they'll be wondering why you came back."
Blacklaws was still smiling. "Do you wonder, Roman?"
The other man stared at him a moment longer then threw his head back in a surprising burst of laughter guttural and explosive with all the untrammeled forces of him. "I never wondered why you lit a shuck, Kenny. I would have run away long before you did. I never saw a man treat his boy the way your father treated you."
At last the smile fled Blacklaws's face. "Not my father."
Roman sobered abruptly too. "My apologies, Kenny. Your stepfather. I guess you would be touchy about that. You picked a poor time to leave the country, though, Kenny, the same day he was killed. There was a lot of talk."
Something dogged entered the shape of Blacklaws's mouth. "Did it come to anything?"
Roman shrugged. "Most folks wouldn't have blamed you if you had killed Martin Garland." He paused, studying Blacklaws. "Did you... Kenny?"
Blacklaws's face had been young there for a space, while he was smiling, but now his eyes held that somber darkness once more. "Do you think I'd come back if I had?"
Roman's chuckle was the scrape of a rusty saw. "I guess not, Kenny."
The other two men had not spoken, holding their fiddling horses in subservient silence to John Roman. Blacklaws's attention came momentarily to them now. He knew Agate Ayers, a tall alley cat of a man, with hemp for hair and saddle leather for skin. His narrow shoulders were carried in a perpetual stoop, lending a deep concavity to his chest, giving accent to the pearshaped curve of his little potbelly that thrust itself against the beltless waistband of his Levi's.
The other man was new to Blacklaws. He rode a black horse with a coat so slick the dampness of this fog lent it a glossy sheen. His clothes, too, were an unrelieved black. There was something Creole to the way he clubbed his long hair at the base of his neck and to his depthless black eyes, holding Blacklaws in an unwinking stare.
"That's Gauche Sallier, Kenny," Roman said. "He used to punch cattle on the Louisiana side."
Blacklaws looked at the man's feminine hands, the flesh unmarred by any rope scars. "That must have been a long time ago," he said.
Sallier made some sharp movement in the saddle, but Roman's voice halted it.
"Take it easy, Gauche. Kenny's a man who can read sign like an Indian. It was just an observation." He looked down at Blacklaws. "You don't want to aggravate Gauche, Kenny. He's touchy as a steer with heel flies." There was another pause and then Roman asked: "Why did you come back, Kenny?"
"Man's rope frays out sometimes, Roman."
"You would have done better to let it fray out up north," Roman said. "Didn't they tell you about the skinning war that's going on down here? Meat don't bring enough money in the northern markets to make a drive worth-while, and nobody's buying cattle in Texas. All a steer's good for is its hide and horns. The only big operators that have managed to keep their heads above water are the ones that sell the hides and pack their own meat."
"They told me all about that," Blacklaws answered. "They told me hides down here are just like mavericks used to be. The skin of a dead cow belongs to whoever finds it."
"Only hide rustlers have been taking advantage of that custom and killing any cow they come across for its hide," Roman said. "Everybody who don't own any beef is out slaughtering somebody else's for the hides. It's driving out what big operators are left." He grasped the horn of his saddle, squeezing it till the great cords in his wrist popped faintly. "It isn't driving me out, Kenny. Nobody's taking the hides off my cattle, dead or alive. You must have known this was one of my Double Sickle steers, but I'll let it pass this time. You're fresh back and didn't know how things stood. I'll give you this warning now. Don't ever let me catch you taking a Double Sickle hide again."
"I always observe the customs of the country, Roman."
Roman's eyes squinted almost shut. "What does that mean?"
Blacklaws made a solid figure there, with the wind ruffling the edges of his ducking jacket against his big torso. "I came back looking to keep from starving to death, Roman. I was willing to work at anything I knew. But there wasn't anything. A little man's got to exist. same as a big one. Hides are selling for fifty cents apiece in Galveston, and King Wallace told me he'd haul whatever hides I got whenever he went down there. I'll leave your live steers alone. But it's still not thought dishonest to take a hide off a dead steer."
Roman reacted with some vicious shift in the saddle. Then he halted that, as if restraining himself, and settled heavily back into leather.
"Not my hides, Kenny. Hand this one up."
The wind caught Blacklaws's hat in a new blast, whipping the brim against his face. "No, Roman. I skinned this hide. I'll keep it."
Roman spoke heavily. "Gauche, climb down and get that hide."
The Creole slid off his horse without any lost effort. He dropped the reins over the black's head and then handed them back up to Agate without looking at the man. His eyes were turgid as ink, holding Blacklaws's gaze. The dim illumination filling the brush cast little shadow, leaving only a faint stain in the waxen texture of flesh beneath Sallier's sharp cheekbones.
"Will you give me the hide, m'sieu?" he asked.
"No," Blacklaws said.
"Will you step back, then, and let me pick it up?"
There was another moment drained of sound and movement. Without taking his gaze from the Creole, Blacklaws saw how avid the light in Roman's eyes had become. He knew Roman and Agate meant to back up Sallier, if the Creole could not do it alone.
"Very well, m'sieu," said Sallier.
He moved forward, bending casually to reach for the hide. Blacklaws lunged at him. The Creole's instant reaction revealed he had been expecting this. But he had not counted on so much speed from such a heavy man and did not jump far or fast enough.
Blacklaws caught the left-handed man before his gun was completely out. He clutched Sallier's free right arm and swung him off balance and then pulled him around in a whipping half circle. When the arc was completed, Sallier stood with his back in against Blacklaws and his freed gun pointed helplessly at Roman.
At the same time Agate Avers dropped the reins of the black and Roman tugged his bearskin coat aside to go for his own gun. With Sallier against him, Blacklaws caught that gun arm down at the wrist. Sallier gave a vicious heave, trying to tear loose, but Blacklaws twisted his arm so hard he dropped the gun with a cry of pain. Then Blacklaws put the flat of his hand against the Creole's back and gave him a heaving shove.
The man staggered heavily forward to keep from falling and could not help plunging into Roman's horse. The beast whinnied shrilly and reared up. Roman had to forget about his gun to fight the animal. His reining pirouetted the beast around to smash against Agate's horse.
Before they got control of their animals, Blacklaws picked up Sallier's gun. Roman finally got his billy horse back down, and Agate managed to quiet his dun. His gun was out, and he wheeled the animal back but, when he saw the weapon in Blacklaws's hand, he stopped. He had a twangy, nasal voice.
"Ain't that a sack of hell," he said.
Blacklaws said nothing, standing heavily there until Agate slipped his gun back into its holster. Sallier wheeled to face Blacklaws, rage making its whitened stamp on his face and causing his voice to tremble.
"You should not have done that, m'sieu," he barely whispered.
Blacklaws ignored him, watching Roman. "Don't ever put your heel-dogs on me that way again," he told the man.
Roman's own anger mottled his face with diffused blood. He settled his weight in the saddle like a sulking steer, the breath leaving his nostrils with a wheezing sound. Finally he got himself under control. Puzzlement robbed him of some of the anger.
"You don't seem very mad, Kenny," he frowned.
Blacklaws laughed suddenly. It made his face look young again. He tossed Sallier's gun to the man's feet.
"You'll never make me mad, Roman," he said. "But you'll never do anything like this again and get off so easy, either. Now go on back to your hide factory. This skin's mine, and I'm keeping it."
Excerpted from Copper Bluffs by Les Savage Jr.. Copyright © 1996 by Marian R. Savage. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.