Thursday, February 27, 2014

Excerpt: A Lesson for Us All.

A Lesson for Us All

Zach Neal

Mike Baxter sat with his chair tipped up and his feet on the end of the desk.
His battered Stetson hung on the rack and a lone fly buzzed in the front window, ignoring the fact that the door was propped wide open to encourage trade and let a little air in.
He wiggled a bit, settling deeper into the hard maple spindles of the back-rest.
His eyes opened and Mike blinked.
“Yeah.” His eye slid to the bottom drawer on the left side of the desk. “What?”
“What time is it?” Dude Jeffries was locked up in the back room, the result of an inability to take a hint more than anything else.
He’d gotten into a bar fight and had it pretty fairly won when Mike told him to stop. When Mike said it was over, then it was over, but Dude was a bit drunk and out of his head and wasn’t listening fast enough.
“What difference does that make to you?”
“I’m sorry, Marshall. Sincerely. But my guts is gnawing at my backbone.”
Baxter grinned slightly in spite of his better nature.
“That’ll teach you.”
“I can pay the fine, Marshall.”
Well, that seemed awful formal all of a sudden.
“Yeah. Ah, I’ll be ordering down there as soon as the kid arrives.” Mike firmly closed his eyes, crossed his arms across his chest, and his mouth worked in a pattern familiar enough to any drowsy person.
Some interval of time passed.
Mike made some kind of noise, which he’d been noticing more lately.
It was like you heard something out of the corner of your ear. You woke with a start and there was nothing there—just that snork sound that woke you up. The quacks had a name for it, but he hadn’t really been paying attention. He had a medical book in his collection and had tried to read it once. Much of it made perfect sense to him, and so he read that part real good.
A lot of it was nonsense, of course.
That wasn’t nearly so much fun.
As for the kid, that would be Norman, age thirteen, as for the food, that would be coming from Corbett’s down, or up the street, whichever one might prefer.
“Well, I’m awake now.” Mike Baxter dropped his feet and turned the chair slightly.
Any day where nothing happened was a good day in this business, he told himself. It gave you a minute to dwell on past errors.
“You knew Lambert pretty well, didn’t you?”
“Huh? Yeah. I guess so.”
This was Baxter’s third county in three years, and while he knew Lambert by sight, he really didn’t know too much about him.
The man had been found dead, shot to death with his own shotgun, and while there was certainly going to be talk, it looked like he’d managed to do it accidentally. People did it all the time. But there was so much more to it. There were questions.
“What do you know about this gun-trap of his?”
Baxter reached down, pulled out the drawer and took out the bottle. There was a pair of glasses in there too, not shot glasses but real glasses, the kind some folks drink water out of. He did it himself from time to time. More importantly, Dude would have some swell hangover right about now. They called him Dude because he was always so nicely dressed when he came to town to get drunk.
The floorboards echoed to the sound of his boot-steps and Dude’s eyes lit up.
“On second thought, breakfast can wait.”
Baxter poured him a couple of fingers and took one himself. There was another chair there so he set the bottle down and took up his favourite position. It was near the top of the list anyways.
“Did you know about it?”
Dude gulped appreciatively.
“No. Not really, not in the way that you mean. But some of these old-timers—they’re just plain nuts, Marshall. It doesn’t surprise me. There are a million reasons to leave people’s places alone. Lynching’s only one of them. Thank you for the drink, incidentally. How much is my fine?”
“Never mind that. So a man like that, he goes away for a day or two. He comes back, and forgets about his own trap?”
“Doesn’t seem very much like him.”
That was Baxter’s impression exactly. The gun was clamped into the mount, and had to be loaded before being dropped into the hole. The gun broke at the breech and the table-top was right there. Lambert had put some thought into it. Cocking the hammers would be the last thing to do. After that…it was foolproof.
Only Lambert got caught in it.
Dude rubbed the swelling on his jaw. He eyed the Marshall up with more curiosity than resentment. He was taking another look at their new Marshall, a recent replacement for the old Marshall. He didn’t seem like such a bad sort, all things considered, which weren’t very many things as no one seemed to know much about him. He reviewed what he’d heard.
Still not much, to begin with.
He caught the Marshall’s eye.
“What did you hit me with, anyways?”
“That don’t seem very likely.” He was going onwards, but a lifted hand from Mike drew him up short.
“I subdued you with sufficient force—and nothing more.”
“Oh, well, then.” I guess that’s different, his tone implied.
There was a noise in the other room.
Nothing. I don’t believe it.
Clearly not all of the pain was from his hangover. The Marshall’s ham-sized fist had addled his brains some as well.
Some kind of short, sharp blow to the head, he reckoned.
“Mister Baxter?”
“In here.”
The lad entered, and pulled a grubby pad of paper out of his pocket. He fished around and came up with the stub of a yellow pencil, the tip of which he gave a quick lick.
“What’s your pleasure, Dude?”
“Well, hello, Norman.”
“Hi, Mister Jeffries. What are you-all havin’?”
“Hmn.” Dude proceeded to order sixteen slices of bacon, fourteen eggs, nine biscuits, three orders of fried potatoes, six milks, eight coffees, any juice or fruit if they had it, grits if they had it, ham, beef or fish if they had it.
“I think he’s got the idea, Dude.”
Norman had pointedly stopped scribbling about halfway through that little spiel, a fact which Dude had just as pointedly ignored.
“And the usual for Marshall Baxter.”
“Ah. Yes, Norman. Thank you.”
With a sharp nod at Mike and a longer look at Dude, who wasn’t all that much older than him and yet he had a proper mount and they let him wear a gun and everything, the young fellow departed.
“That could be a while.” Mike sipped his liquor.
“At least it will be something what’s worth waiting for.” Dude eyed what was left in the bottom of the glass but let discretion be the better part of valor.
In ten or fifteen minutes the hair of the dog would be in full swing, but what he probably needed more would be water, cold, clear, crystalline water from a mountain stream, preferably one as far as possible from this very cell.


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