DELFINO PRIZE FINALIST!
FULL STORY TO APPEAR IN THE JANUARY 2010 ISSUE!
He’d come around the ranch the next day looking for this kid, because that’s what he sounded like, a kid. What he found was a bunch of cowboys hunkered around a corral, looking on while a pied mustang bucked around inside, mad as sin at the rider sitting solid on his back. The horse gave it his all, even got down on his side and rolled in the dirt to get the guy off him. All the man did was hop off, give him space until he got up again, then he vaulted back into the saddle. Desperate, the horse made a run at the fence, trying to scrape him off that way. The boards bowed instead and the man stayed put. Horse and rider shot by them and Abe got a glimpse of tan skin, sharp jaw and dark eyes. Long black hair flooded out from under his hat. The mustang came around again, slowing to a canter. He shook out his mane and mouthed at the bit like he was considering it. His ears were still back, but he followed his rider’s lead.
The owner had grinned next to Abe and said, “Cole’s the finest around these parts. Best I got.” Abe was plenty sure he wasn’t talking about the horse.
Horse and rider pulled up in front of them, pretty as you please. Cole tipped his hat up a little with one gloved hand and smiled real wide. “I do believe y’all owe me ten dollars,” he said.
Grumbling and cussing, the cowboys dug around in their pockets for the money. A couple of them left little bill folds on the fence post and they walked away, kicking at nothing. The one fella left was gangly with a crooked nose, still glaring for all he was worth. He got it in his mind to pull his gun and aim at Cole on the horse, saying he was a cheat, calling the owner an old coot for having some redskin mutt on his payroll.
The man on the horse didn’t lose his smile and, hell, it got wider. “C’mon, Randy. Fair’s fair. You cheat a deal and it’s gonna come slitherin’ back to ya.”
Abe felt this wasn’t much of a fair fight and he’d seen no cheating. The grip of his Colt was solid and worn under his hand and he drew, settling his sights on Randy’s sweaty temple. “Pay up or walk away,” he said, prairie grit in his voice. “Elsewise I’ll turn your head into a feed bag.”
The man looked around and the whites of his eyes started to show. No way in hell Abe could miss from a new paces away and he knew it. The man put his gun up and backed away without leaving the money he owed.
Cole had swung down off the horse then and strode to the fence. He swiped the cash off the pole and tucked it away into his pocket. He tipped his head at Abe like he was noticing him for the first time, then put out his hand. “Much obliged,” he said when Abe shook it. Cole was a little shorter than Abe expected, but with the dark hair and the shape of his features, he saw how people might call him “Apache bastard”. His eyes were a little too wide, his skin a little too olive under the tan to be any part Indian.
A ruckus went up behind them and they all turned in time to see Randy jumping around in the dirt like the devil was biting his heels. He kicked off his boots, fell over in the dust, struggling with his pants and until he had them pulled clear off. He hot-footed it back to town, pale ass wagging like white rabbit tail.
Cole shook his head with a lopsided smirk. “I told him. They never listen.” He clicked his tongue and the mustang picked his head up, following him out of the corral back to the stable.
Unsatisfied, Abe had slid his rifle off his horse and walked the few hundred feet to the pile of Randy’s pants. He lifted the waist with the end of the muzzle and jerked when a rattler lunged out, trying to make a meal of his gun. He shook the thing off and let well enough alone.
Abe’s eyes went to the whiskey bottle standing half-empty on the rickety table beside the bed. He popped the cork back in and settled back, rolling a cigarette. Cole had been one of the smart ones. Abe usually shot those kind and brought them back to the law offices over his saddle like a sack of potatoes. Unfortunately they wanted this horse-thief alive. Too much to pay him back for, they said.
Abe shot the shit with Cole for a while about horses, faking interest in buying while putting a plan together.
“Don’t know why you’re in for another ride. That roan out front is mighty fine.” Cole hung up the tack he’d been carrying and turned, tipping his hat back to look up at the mercenary. “What exactly would you be lookin’ for?”
Abe shifted in his duster. “Something that can take the desert. Big with a sensible temper.”
Cole’s brown eyes drifted yonder, thinking. Behind the pleasant “how do you do”s was a brain going a mile a minute. Then Cole smiled real friendly. “I think I got one you might like.”
The horse he brought around was a tall chestnut with white socks on his back feet. The gelding wasn’t particularly kind, but once they had him saddled and Abe put him through his paces around one of the corrals, he loosened up and followed where Abe’s knees nudged him. Cole leaned against the fence, watching, the hot breeze tugging at his hair. He was rolling a cigarette as Abe swung down from the saddle. “Like ‘im?”
Abe patted the gelding’s thick neck. “I surely do. What’re the damages?”
Cole smiled. “Hundred ‘n twenty. For you, a hundred ‘n ten.” He stuck the cigarette in his mouth and struck a match. Long shadows grew on the ground and light from the setting sun caught in his eyes, turning them the color of good whiskey.
“What say I buy you a drink while I think on it some?”
Cole’s lips pulled back from his teeth, grin splitting his face. He looked down and tapped ash from his cigarette. “Won’t get the horse any cheaper that way, amigo.”
“Wasn’t expecting to,” Abe had answered with a half-smile of his own.