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By Elmer Kelton
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 1991 Elmer Kelton
All rights reserved.
Some men seem blessed with a jovial nature, an even humor that lets them take reversal and insult in stride without losing their smile or clenching a fist.
Dundee was not one of these. His temper was like a hammer cocked back over forty grains of black powder. The echo racketed for miles when Old Man Farraday brought a new son-in-law out to the ranch and handed him Dundee's job as foreman. A man with any self-respect couldn't just stand there like a sheep and abjectly accept demotion to cowhand that away. So after the discussion was over, Dundee painfully rubbed his bruised knuckles and asked for his time.
He had stopped in a ragtag shipping-pen settlement later to wash away the indignities and suffered one more: he lost most of his payoff money over a whiskey-splashed card table.
He had no clear idea where he was riding to. In the Texas free-range days of the '80s, a man seeking fresh grass usually drifted in a westerly direction. He might veer a little northward, or southward, but the main direction was always west, for that was where the "new" was, where a man could cut a fresh deck and hope for a new deal all around. Dundee had ridden several days. Now darkness was about to catch him as his half-Thoroughbred bay splashed across a narrow creek toward a dusty little cowtown which the sign said was Titusville. His outlook hadn't improved much as the bay had slowly put the long miles behind him. Dundee was tired, hungry, near broke, and ringy enough to do bare-handed battle with a bobcat.
The two-rut wagon road widened into a many-rutted street. At the head of it Dundee passed a set of horse corrals and a big barn that said "Titus Livery." He thought how much the bay would like a clean stall and a good bait of oats. A little way down the hoof-softened street he saw a thin little man lighting a lantern on the front gallery of a long frame building. The sign by the front door said "Titus Hotel." Dundee looked with appreciation at the deep, narrow windows and imagined how soft the mattresses were, how pleasant must be the bright colors of the wallpaper. But he jingled the few coins left in his pockets and knew mat after a drink and a meal, he'd retrace his steps down to the creekbank, stake the bay on grass and stretch his own frame on a blanket, looking up at stars instead of wallpaper.
Slim pickings, sure enough, but there wasn't any use a man biting himself like a stirred-up rattler. If he was strong he took the hand which was dealt him and played it through, even when it was all jokers. Tomorrow he'd scout around and try to find him a ranch job. Tonight, the hell with it.
He saw the words "Titus Mercantile" on a big, false fronted building, and "Titus Saloon" on still another. Ain't there nobody here but Titus? he asked himself irritably.
Across the street lay a narrow, deep building which he took to be a second saloon, and he angled the bay toward it. On the porch, a lanky man sat rocked back in a rawhide chair, balanced against the clapboard wall. The sign over his head read: "Texas Bar." Since it didn't say anything about Titus, Dundee decided to give the place a try. That Titus is already rich enough, he thought. No use giving him my business. He stepped off of the horse and dropped the reins through a ring in a cedar post, taking a hitch to be sure the bay didn't get a fool notion to wander off in search of Titus, whoever the Samhill that was.
Dundee stretched himself. He dusted his felt hat across his leg, raising a small cloud. He glanced at the stubbled oldtimer in the chair and found the man sitting motionless, watching him. The man finally spoke: "Evenin'." Saloon bum, Dundee judged him by his look, by the dusty, threadbare clothes he wore, the runover old boots. If he was figuring on Dundee buying him a drink, he was out of luck. But it didn't cost anything to be civil. "Evenin'."
The tail of his eye caught a movement, and he turned. From around the side of the building three young men came ambling along as if they had all night to do whatever it might be that they had in mind. Cowboys, Dundee figured. Boil them all down and you wouldn't have fifty cents worth of tallow, or anything else. They paused at the edge of the low porch and eyed Dundee like they were appraising a bronc at a first-Monday horse sale. One of them looked at the bay, finally, and foolishly asked, "That your horse, friend?"
Dundee's voice was sharply impatient. "I ain't had a friend since a year ago last March. And you just try riding him off. You'll find out right quick whose horse he is."
His voice was rougher than he meant it to be. Damn Old Man Farraday and his flat-chested daughter and his ignorant new son-in-law, anyway! He saw a flash of anger in the young man's eyes. I'm too touchy, he thought. I cut him off a little quick. But when a man asks a foolish question, he ought to expect an answer in kind.
He went into the saloon and leaned his elbows heavily on the dark-stained bar. "A drink," he said. He glanced at his own scowling face in the cracked mirror behind the bar and quickly looked away, for he didn't like what he saw. Even as a baby, he hadn't been called pretty by anybody but his mother, and thirty years hadn't improved the situation. Right now he looked forty, face dusty and bewhiskered, brown eyes hostile, when deep down he knew he didn't have anybody to be mad at, really, except Old Man Farraday, who was a long way behind him.
The heavy-jowled bartender studied him as if trying to decide whether Dundee could pay. "Good whiskey or cheap whisky?"
"It better not cost much. I'm almost as broke as I look."
The bartender's heavy moustache tugged with the beginnings of a grin. "That don't leave a man but little choice." He brought up a plain bottle from beneath the bar. "The quality ain't much, but it sure does carry authority."
Dundee choked on the first swallow and cut a hard glance at the bartender. But he couldn't say he'd been lied to. He poured himself a second glass and lifted it. "Here's to truth."
"I told you the truth."
"That is purely a fact."
He heard a commotion outside, and a stirring of hoofs. It struck him that that crazy cowboy just might be taking him up on his dare. In three long strides he reached the door and stopped. One cowboy was holding the bay's reins up close to the bit, trying to make the horse stand still. Behind, a second cowboy had hold of the bay's tail, stretching it taut. The third — the one who had asked the question — was using a pocket-knife in an attempt to bob the tail off short.
Roaring, Dundee left the porch like a firebrand flung in fury. He barreled into the man who was holding the horse's tail and sent him staggering. The cowboy with the knife stared in disbelief at the speed of Dundee's fist streaking toward his eyes. The cowboy reeled backward and fell in the dust, a believer.
The third man turned loose of the reins and trudged forward, his fists up in a bare-knuckle boxer stance. Dundee didn't know the rules. He just went under and caught him in the belly. The cowboy buckled, gasping for breath. He went to his knees, out of the fight.
The first cowboy charged back into the fray. Dundee turned to meet him, his fists doubled hard as a sledge. Of a sudden this wasn't just any cowboy; he was Old Man Farraday, young enough to hit. Dundee thought the man got in a lick or two, but he didn't feel them. In a moment the cowboy was on the ground, out of it.
Only the pocketknife man was left. His nose was bleeding, his eyes wild, and somehow he looked a little like Old Man Farraday's son-in-law. Dundee gathered the pent-up anger of many days and delivered it into the cowboy's ribs. It was a considerable load. The cowboy cried out in pain, but he didn't stop coming. He swung fists awkwardly, trying for any kind of contact he could make. Dundee fetched him a hard lick on the chin, and another in the belly. They hurt; he could tell. But the cowboy stayed. He got his arms around Dundee and wrestled until Dundee lost his footing. Falling, he managed to twist so that the cowboy didn't land on top of him. The instant he hit the dirt he was pushing himself up again. He dropped the cowboy onto his back and straddled him, grabbing at the swinging fists.
"Boy," he gritted, "you better give up. I got you by the short hair."
Raging, the cowboy continued his struggle. Somehow now he didn't look quite so much like Farraday's son-in-law, who hadn't fought this hard. But Dundee thought of the pocketknife and the bay horse's tail, and his conscience didn't twinge as he swung at the jutting jaw. The cowboy stiffened, then went to struggling again. He was game, anyway.
"Boy," Dundee warned, "I tell you, I'm fixing to get out of sorts with you."
The struggling went on, so Dundee fetched him another lick.
The nondescript old man on the porch slowly let his chair away from the wall and pushed himself to his feet. He looked down calmly at the cowboy pinned to the ground. "Son Titus, I believe you've caused this stranger trouble enough. You better let him go."
The cowboy twisted and fought beneath Dundee's weight.
The man on the porch said a little firmer, "Son Titus, you get up and leave that stranger alone."
The cowboy relaxed. "All right, Pa. But I could've whipped him."
The older man snorted. "The day we have six inches of snow here in July, maybe you can whip him. Git up from there and dust yourself off."
Dundee pushed away from the cowboy but kept his fists clenched. That crazy button might decide to try just one more spin of the wheel. Dundee's knuckles were bruised, his breath short. He couldn't rightly remember when he'd had so satisfying a little fight.
The young cowboy's face was red-smeared. From his eyes, Dundee judged he hadn't had quite enough yet. But the older man's voice was strong with authority. "Son Titus, go wash yourself."
Son Titus turned away, looking back over his shoulder at Dundee. The look spoke of things unfinished, and things to come.
The other two cowboys got shakily to their feet, but they didn't seem much inclined to continue what they had started. Some people, Dundee thought, just can't stay interested in one thing very long at a time.
He turned back to check his horse. Wonder the bay hadn't jerked loose and run off, all that scuffling going on around him. Dundee patted the horse reassuringly. He took hold of the tail, stretching it out to see how much damage the cowboy had done, while at the same time he warily watched the bay's hind feet It would be just like a horse to kick now that the trouble was over.
He couldn't see they had cut much hair. Dull boy, dull knife.
The man on the porch said, "Stranger, I apologize for my boy. He was just by way of having a little fun."
"It wasn't very funny to my horse."
"Little town like this, there ain't much for a young man to do to entertain himself. So it's natural they turn their hand to mischief when they see a stranger. Hope they didn't spoil the looks of your horse."
"They didn't, but it's no thanks to you. You sat right there and let them do it."
"I was curious to see if I'd judged you right."
"Well, did you?'
"Sized you up when you first come. You did just about what I expected you would. A little quicker, even. Nice job you done on them three buttons."
"If one of them was your son, you take it awful calm."
The man shrugged. "Does a boy good to get himself whipped once in a while. Teaches him humility. Come on back in. I'll stand you to a drink."
The heavy-jawed barkeep with the smiling moustache reached beneath the bar and came up with a bottle that even looked better than the one Dundee had tried. He poured two glasses.
The man from the porch said, "I didn't hear your name."
"No, I don't reckon you did."
"It's none of my business, but I got to call you something."
"Dundee will do. I answer to that."
"I doubt that you answer to anybody. I'm John Titus."
Dundee nodded. "I gathered that when the boy called you Pa. You the Titus that owns everything in town?"
"Most of it. Which away did you ride in from?"
"You been on my ranch the last twenty ... twenty-five miles."
"You don't look like a big rancher."
"Meaning my clothes?" Titus shook his head. "Hell, everybody here knows me. I don't have to impress anybody."
"You dress up different when you go away from home?"
Titus shook his head again. "Why should I? Nobody would know me anyhow."
Dundee mulled that a while and finished his drink. He glanced at the big barkeep and back at Titus. "This saloon ain't got your name on it. How come you're in here buying whisky from the competition?"
"It's better than the kind I sell. Anyhow, the people who work in my saloon wear the knees out of their britches trying to please me. I get tired of being 'Mistered' all over the place. Badger here, he's so independent that even his mother hates him. I like a man who's a little contrary. Shows he's got character." His eyes narrowed. "You're a contrary man, Dundee."
Dundee didn't reply, for this was no news to him. He'd been only about fourteen when his brothers had decided they couldn't stand him any more. They had ganged up and run him off from home.
Titus picked up the bottle and his glass and carried it to a small round table. Dundee followed suit. Titus said, "You look tired. I hope you're figuring on spending the night in my hotel"
"I expect I'll sleep out on the creekbank."
Titus gazed at him intently. "That's what I thought. Broke, ain't you?"
"What gives you that kind of a notion?"
"The look of you. It's all over you, like dark skin on a Comanche. Anyway, you're a cowboy. Cowboys are stone broke nine-tenths of the time."
"I won't go hungry."
"You don't have to. You need a job, I need a man. I bet we could work up a deal." Titus passed. "I seen a carbine on your saddle. You know how to use it, I expect."
"I generally hit what I aim at."
"How about a pistol?"
"Got one in my saddlebag. Always liked a carbine better."
"Ever hire your guns out?"
Dundee scowled. "You got somebody you want killed, you just go and shoot him yourself. I do honest work."
He thought he saw a flicker of a smile across Titus' face, and a look of satisfaction. "I'm sure you do, Dundee. What I had in mind would be honest. I wouldn't lie to you, though. It's so damned honest it just could get you killed."
"Where I want you to go, honest men are as rare as fresh peaches in January. They're in open season the year around."
"If somebody was to shoot me, I don't see where that money of yours would do me any good."
"I got a notion you can take care of yourself. Anyway, man, think of the challenge."
"I'm not a schoolboy. A challenge don't stir me anymore."
"But I'll bet money does."
Dundee took the bottle and poured himself a fresh drink. "You got the money; I got the time. Long as your whiskey holds out, I'll at least listen. What's your problem?"
"Cowthieves. Hideburners. They're after me like heel-flies after an old bull. I need them stopped."
"Why don't you just call in the Texas Rangers? That's their line of work."
"It's my cattle; I'll pay for my own remedies. Man runs to the government with all his trouble, it's a sign of weakness. When I itch, I scratch for myself."
Or hire somebody to do the scratching for you, Dundee thought. "How come you think I'm the man to do it for you? You don't know me. For all you know, I could be a cow thief." He grunted. "For all I know, I could be one, if the profit looked big enough."
Titus shook his head. "You're not one of that kind. Some people are easy to read, minute you set eyes on them. I got a strong notion you could go down into that den of snakes and bite as hard as they do."
"Where is this snake den?"
"You ever been down in the Llano River country, south of here?"
Dundee said he hadn't. Titus said, "It's rough country, lots of brush and timber. A regular outlaw paradise. They even got a town of their own, if you'd call it a town ... a place by the name of 'Runaway.' Ever hear of it?"
Dundee shook his head. "Never even heard of Titusville till I rode in here."
"Runaway's not on any map. It's just down there, like a boil on a man's backside. It's outside of this county. Local sheriff's got no jurisdiction down there, and what's more, he don't want any. Runaway's a far piece from its own county seat, and they don't even keep a deputy there. Bad climate, hard on your health."
Excerpted from Llano River by Elmer Kelton. Copyright © 1991 Elmer Kelton. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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