The barman stood behind the highly polished countertop of the saloon bar, rubbing a glass with a chequered tea towel, when the stranger pushed through the slatted swing doors. He was tall, at least six foot three, and lean. The covering of fine, red dust, which coated his clothes, indicated that he had been riding for a while. His leather Stetson hat was pulled low over his eyes, obscuring his face in shadow, although close scrutiny showed that his chin was covered in several days’ worth of dark stubble. He wore fringed leather chaps, and the black and silver handle of a gun was clearly visible hanging from the holster at his waist. He swaggered across the small room, kicking a chair to one side with a heeled boot, and slouched across the bar, elbows leaning on it, one foot on the brass rail, which ran around the bar’s outer perimeter at floor level, tilting his hips backwards out towards the seating area.
‘What’ll it be, stranger?’ The cowboy touched the brim of his hat in greeting, before answering.
‘Beer.’ The barman reached below the counter, pulled out a brown bottle and opened it, before sliding it across the polished surface towards his customer. The cowboy caught it in one hand, and in one fluid movement raised it to his mouth, and swigged thirstily.
‘Been riding a couple of days.’
‘What brings you to these parts?’
‘Looking for work.’
In the corner, a man sat listening to this conversation. He owned the largest ranch in the area, and was enjoying a quiet drink, whilst his wife and daughters were doing a few errands about town. He slid his chair back, its legs scrapping noisily on the stone floor, got to his feet and came to join the stranger at the bar. He extended his hand in greeting saying.
‘Howdy. Name’s Pitney, Thad Pitney. Couldn’t help overhearing that you’re looking for work.’ There was a few seconds uncomfortable pause, as the cowboy appeared to be appraising Pitney, before he took and shook the proffered hand, answering.
‘Luke, Luke Minter.’
‘Pleased to meet you, Luke. I’m hiring if you’re interested.’
‘What’s the rates?’
‘First week’s a trial, board and lodging only. After that, if you’re any good we discuss pay.’
‘I’m good, never doubt it.’
The two men continued to stand side by side at the bar, drinking, and neither seeming to want to attempt further conversation. Eventually, there was the sound of footsteps on the wooden decking outside, and womens’ voices approaching.
‘That’ll be my wife and girls. If you come out, you can follow my wagon to the ranch.’ Taking a final swig of their drinks, the men left. Outside, stood Mrs Pitney, sixteen year old Isabelle and her younger sister, Mary-Lou. Pitney made the introductions, adding.
‘And my two boys are at home.’ Minter politely removed his hat, as he nodded to the women, saying. ‘Pleased to make your acquaintance, ladies’, before unlooping the reins of a chestnut mare from the nearby handrail. Foot in stirrup, he athletically swung his other leg over the saddle, and kicked his horse on. Isabelle was ‘all of a flutter’, she the age where any man is of interest, and this stranger was undoubtedly attractive. She kept looking back at him from her high seat on the wagon, fluttering her eyelashes and adjusting her bonnet. When they drew up outside, the Pitney’s ranch, the new cowboy leapt from his horse, and offered his hand to help Mrs Pitney down from the wagon, before doing the same to the two daughters. After, he let the back of the wagon down, removed their baskets, and carried them to the front porch, where he deposited them on the first step.
‘Come with me, I’ll take you round to the bunkhouse, and introduce you to the men.’ Luke took up the reins of his horse and followed Thad to the rear of the house, where there was another large building, not nearly as grand as the family home. Pitney threw open the door, and inside were seven cowboys. They immediately stopped their conversations and said, almost in unison. ‘Afternoon Mr Pitney.’
‘Afternoon boys. This is our new hand, Luke. I want you to make him welcome, show him the ropes.’ With that he left, leaving the men curiously appraising the newcomer. One broke the spell, indicating a top bunk ‘This ‘un is yours.’ The cowpokes slept and ate together in this oversized shed. They attempted conversation with the new cowboy, but he was uncommunicative, giving monosyllabic answers to their friendly enquiries. When they set up a game of cards, he was invited to join in, but he politely refused, preferring to recline on his top bunk, smoking and dozing. The men soon accepted that, he was not one for making conversation, and left him alone.
He was however a hard worker. He was a capable horseman, who could herd and lasso cattle. He was practical, when fencing needed erecting or mending, he knew what to do without instruction. Strong too, he could lift a heifer, and shattered rocks with a pick axe without hardly breaking a sweat. He effortlessly passed his week’s trial, and the other cowboys, whilst not liking him, respected him for his abilities. The group formed and settled.
The men were having rifle practice, supervised by nineteen year old Dell. He was Pitney’s eldest child, and fancied himself as a bit of a hard man. In truth, he was a swaggering bully, who only got away with it because he was the boss’ son. Empty cans were lined up on a horizontal wooden fence, and the cowboys were taking it in turns to fire at them. If a man hit a target, he would take a step back, and then fire from this further distance next time round. Luke was not with them. He had taken the opportunity of the empty bunkhouse to rinse some shirts, and then stand outside in the huge wooden barrel, provided for the purpose of hosing the farmhands down. It was here that Dell found him, when he had noticed his absence from the group, and come looking for him.
‘Think you’re too good for target practice?’ Luke covered in lather, did not pause in rinsing himself, as he answered. ‘I know I am.’
‘Well, if you value your position here, I suggest you get your arse out of there and come join us - pronto.’
A few minutes later, he joined the group. He was bare chested, evidently having got straight out of the make shift bath and pulled on jeans, in his left hand he carried his Winchester rifle. Barely breaking stride, he cocked the gun, raised the sight to his eye, and pulled the trigger. There was the resounding bang of a shot being fired and a crow, which had been perching in a dead tree some 100 yards away exploded in a flurry of black feathers. Luke broke the bridge of the gun and with an insolent nod in Dell’s direction, turned on heel and strode back to the bunk house.
A few months later, it was time for Pitney to sell some of his stock at the Abilene cattle market. He, his men and Dell assembled on horseback at dawn, ready for the two hour trek, driving a large herd of longhorns across rough terrain. The sale went well, and at the end of the day Thad took the men to the local saloon bar to ‘wet their whistles’ before making the long ride home. They were in high spirits, particularly Pitney who had a sackful to money, and the group raucously celebrated their successful day. As the sun began to sink low in the sky, he ushered his cowpokes out to their horses.
‘Don’t want to be riding across the plain in the dark.’ was his comment. In fact, as the posse began to ride across the deserted scrubland, dusk was beginning to fall. They were about an hour into their ride, when they were suddenly surrounded by a gang of gun wielding bandits, who singled out Thad, and demanded that he handed over his bag of cash. There was a sudden volley of shots and three of the outlaws fell to the ground from their horses, dead. The remaining brigands panicked and began to turn tail and flee, but not before another two were also felled by gunshot wounds. Pitney’s party were momentarily confused, until they saw Minter calmly blowing smoke from the barrel of his pistol, before carefully replacing it into its holster. He had drawn, rapidly fired three shots before the enemy had time to even consider taking aim. That’s how quick he was.
Several weeks passed, before one morning Miss Isabelle excitedly approached the corral where the men were branding calves. It was a hectic scene, the cattle were shoving and mooing in distress, throwing up clouds of red dust, as they tried to avoid the hollering men, who were shouting instructions at each other, as they separated each individual beast, before one cowboy would grasp it firmly round the neck, whilst another would thrust a red hot iron onto its hind quarters. There would be the sizzle of burning, a scream of pain, followed by the stench of burnt hide, and then the unfortunate animal would be released into the adjoining enclosure, complete with a large, black P scorched onto its rump. Miss Isabelle’s presence was not entirely welcome, pretty though she was. This was gruelling, unpleasant work and the men needed to concentrate to avoid being injured by the terrified cattle. Nonetheless, they paused in their task, and respectfully tipped their hats.
‘Boys, boys. The Bosserman’s are having a barn dance, and you’re all invited.’ There were answers along the lines of. ‘That’s just swell’ and ‘Ain’t been to a shindig in a while.’
Later, in the bunkhouse, as the men relaxed, some lying, fully clothed on their beds, others smoking, slouching on chairs with their feet propped up barrels, they discussed the invite. Some were enthusiastic citing the inducements of dancing, drinking and female company, others less so, saying only ‘It’ll make a change.’ Luke lay on his top bunk, legs outstretched, booted feet crossed in front of him, one arm curved behind his head, pillowing it, Stetson pulled fully down over his face.
‘You gonna come, Luke?’ enquired young Linton. Luke pushed his hat back up, lazily turned his head towards his colleagues, before drawling.
‘Ain’t much of a one for socialising.’ There were several half-hearted attempts at persuading him, but overall the men were not bothered whether or not Luke accompanied them. He was a hard worker, who always pulled his weight, but was not known for his friendliness. It turned out that, attendance at the Bosserman’s party was not a matter for individual choice. A few days later, when Thad Pitney and his men were gathered in the yard, discussing digging a trench to bring additional water into the ranch, he announced.
‘I expect you all to be on your best behaviour at the Bosserman’s on Saturday. We need to show him that we’re a force to be reckoned with. So I want you all spruced up, no drunken behaviour, have fun but be mindful that he’ll be watching us.’ So that was it, it was not merely a social event; it was also a demonstration of local power.
The day of the party dawned. In the ranch house, the women had spent hours bathing; brushing each other’s hair and adorning their Sunday best frocks with the few pieces of jewellery in their possession. In the bunk house, the men polished boots, shaved and put on newly washed shirts. At exactly 7.00 pm, everyone assembled in the yard. The Pitney family sat on their wagon, Thad driving, his wife beside him, Isabelle the other side. Mary-Lou, Dell and youngest son, Billy riding in the back. The cowboys followed behind on their horses, with a creaking of saddles, jingling of harnesses and occasional neighing. Led by the wagon, they rode in procession to the Brosserman’s spread. As they rode, there was chatter and banter amongst the men. Overall, they were looking forward to an opportunity to let off some steam. Minter rode beside them, maintaining his habitual silence, his expression unreadable.
The party was held in Bosserman’s wooden barn. There was a small quartet of musicians including a fiddle and piano player. Wooden tables were laden with food, there was a glass bowl filled with fruit punch and several barrels of beer. Straw bales had been placed around the barn’s perimeter for seating, leaving a good area in the centre for dancing. Thad Pitney led his party in and greeted his host, Rudy Bosserman, who invited his guests to ‘help yourselves to a drink, don’t stand on ceremony’. The barn was already filling with a cross section of the locality’s residents. Alongside the ranchers, the parson, the schoolmarm, the blacksmith and various shopkeepers were arriving. There was a hum of conversation, as people exchanged news, which gradually increased in volume until it was a full on boom.
Luke helped himself to a beer and took a seat in an unobtrusive position. Mrs Pitney soon separated from her husband and found a group of gossiping women friends. Some of Luke’s workmates followed his example, found a drink and settled themselves onto a straw bale. Others wandered off to talk to acquaintances from other farms. The band struck up, initially playing some old style ballads, providing background noise. Gradually, they upped the tempo, until feet began to tap and eventually a few couples took to the dance floor. More and more people began to dance. They linked arms and spun each other around, formed lines, clapping hands whilst couples joined hands and skipped between them, and formed circles, holding hands, periodically changing the directions they whirled in. All the time, Luke sat, observing them and taking the occasional drink from his tankard, until Isabelle approached him.
‘Would you care to join me, Luke?’
‘I’m not right into dancing, Miss Isabelle.’ She pulled a moue, saying. ‘I’d take it as a personal insult if you don’t.’ Reluctantly, he got to his feet and joined the throng. It was clear to anyone watching that he had been telling the truth. He had no sense of rhythm, and appeared to be unable to control his long limbs. Whilst Isabelle pranced around him in time to the music, clapping and laughing, Luke scowled and moved but with no real semblance to dancing. When the number finished, he gallantly removed his hat, bowed to Isabelle and gratefully returned to his seat.
Time passed, the party was in full swing, the music was loud, the dancing energetic and the laughter and conversation noisy. Fourteen year old Mary-Lou had received and accepted several polite invitations to dance, but in reality she was too young to attract serious suitors. She had joined a group of her young friends, and these girls stood watching and giggling their elders’ performances on the dance floor. It was as she stood here that she noticed Dell leave the barn. In the past, she had been with him when he had played drunken pranks at similar gatherings. Anxious not to be left out, she left her friends, and slipped out of the barn. It was a clear, starry night, and the farm yard was lit by a waxing moon. Mary-Lou silently followed her brother as he walked towards some out buildings. She thought that he staggered slightly, and wondered if he was the worse for wear. He disappeared behind a shed, and she quickened her step so as not to lose him. Rounding the corner, she saw Luke leaning casually back against the building’s wall. She stopped and remained, unseen in shadows, watching as her brother approached him. Dell fell into Luke’s arms, and the two men embraced, kissing passionately. Their faces were locked together, almost as though they were devouring each other. She watched in horror, as Luke reached down to Dell’s crotch area, and released his erect cock from his trousers. He held her brother’s member in his large hand, slowly moving it backwards and forwards, as Dell quietly moaned. Mary-Lou had seen enough, she turned tail and fled back into the barn, the two men remaining oblivious to the fact that they had been seen.
The next day, Mr Pitney put his head around the bunk house door and asked Luke to step outside. Within minutes he returned and the cowpokes watched as he silently packed up his few belongings, saddled his horse and rode away. No explanation was given, and they knew better than to ask.
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Decent story, the twist at the end of the story is what got me in shock. Luke seems like a legitimate character who quiet, strong, and is mysterious.
Thank you Matthew, I like to put something a bit unexpected in. At present, I am trying writing different genres. This week, I've submitted a science fiction, but not so happy with it. I'm always grateful for constructive criticism. Good luck. Sharon