“I hear one of you boys got a talent for calling names out here. Who was it? Was it you?” Ford said, steely eyed, but with an arrogant smirk on his face. It seemed like everybody in the middle of town got stuck in their positions immediately. The very presence of him could just be felt all through the entirety of the place. From one end of the road, clear down to the other. It was a menace of a feeling. Like that sensation you get when you approach a wild horse that ain’t been tamed yet.
“What’s going on?” Came a female voice from over my shoulder...and I turned my head to see one of Sarah Cutler’s friends standing there behind me. Dangit! What’s she doing out here, all up under me?
But before I even had a chance to shoo her away, I noticed Sarah and some of her other friends approaching to join her. And it was much too late for me to try to make a quick escape now. “Hey, Deke...” She said softly...smiling and cuttin’ her eyes at me like we been wed since our first steps as babies.
With a sigh that I tried to hide close, I said, “Hi, Ms. Cutler.” Taking my hat off and attempting to flash her a smile of my own.
“Ain’t no need to be so formal, Mr. Porter.” She grinned, but I’ve got to be honest when I tell you that I felt the pressure of shame and confusion washing itself all over me again the moment she was in my presence. Can’t say that I like it much. “I missed you today. I was askin’ round about ya...”
“Shhh!” I said abruptly. I wasn’t trying to be short on my manners, but I was really curious to see what was going to happen with Ford and some of the other men in the road. Besides...monster or no monster...I think I might have promised that part of my yearning heart to Colby already without even fully knowing about it yet.
Felt a bit awkward...committing myself to the embrace of another boy like me when I know beyond everything that I’ve ever been taught, and every scripture I ever read, and every example that my dear mama and daddy set by me...that I didn’t want nothing else. Colby didn’t lead me astray, or simply come sniffing around until I felt to pressured or too tempted to turn him away. He didn’t change who I was...he just brought it out of me. And you know what? I took it as a sigh of relief to know that he felt the same about me.
So...as much as it pains me to think it in my head...I don’t want Sarah Cutler trying to nail me back up in a box where I don’t belong. It ain’t that she wasn’t nice and sweet and everything a good gal should be to catch somebody’s eye...she just wasn’t for me. I don’t reckon she ever will be. I’d rather have the kiss of my Colby’s tender lips over the affections of any lady in town. I s’pose I just got weary from thinking about it so much.
Seems silly to fret over it anymore, my mind being made up and all. I always was a stubborn one when I felt the need to be.
“You ain’t no commoner in this here town!” Th man from the saloon said, his pals climbing down from their horses to move over and step behind him. “One of them boys you ridin’ with came in that there saloon to cheat me out of my coin. And I ain’t the first one today.”
Ford’s hat brim was so low, I don’t know how he was able to see anything much at all. I certainly couldn’t see his eyes from where I was standing, and neither could the fella he was fussin’ with. Ford told him, “You’re mad because he just happens to have a lucky streak going at the tables in there? Is that it?”
“Ain’t nobody that lucky.”
“I am.” Ford told him.
“This ain’t got nothing to do with you, boy. You tell your friend back there to quit being a coward and come speak for hisself.” He said. “Not only did he cheat at the card game, but he brought the Chinaan in as a goddamn jinx! Maybe you don’t know how we do things in these parts, but this won’t stand!”
“Maybe you could teach me...” Ford’s voice never raised itself above the kind of soft talk you use when you walk in late for church. Calm. Collected. With a level of unemotional steadiness that a tarantula uses to sneak up on his meal for the evening. “Y’all listen here...if you want us to depart from your local establishment here, all you got to do is ask nice. That’s all. You took a shot in the teeth today. Nurture your wounds and let it go. Hear? We won’t come back. At least, not till the ‘morrow.” He said, smiling back at his posse.
It wasn’t too hard to see that the man was a bit shaken, but was too angry to let a stranger embarrass him the way Ford had done, out here in front of everybody watching like this. Sometimes...pride’s fire can’t be extinguished quite so easy. He hesitated to keep arguing, but with a bit of a rattle in his hand...he lowered his arm down until his thumb brushed over the tip of his firearm. An act that got all feeling a bit shaky on the inside. A few people even made sure to back up and get their children out of the road, sending the back home to make sure they didn’t get caught up in any of this madness.
“Something on your mind, boy?” Ford asked him, not flinching a bit. In fact, he reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a cigarette...lighting it with a match that he struck on the wooden railing of the porch behind him. “Speak up now. You’re cutting into my drinking time.”
The man was now timidly gripping the handle of his pistol with the tips of his fingers, but he didn’t seem to be quite so bold about it. Especially once he saw Ford drop his lit match down into the dust and step on it. The cigarette hang loosely on his bottom lip as he blew out a small puff of smoke. A faint cloud that collected up under his hat before rolling off to the side and floating up into the air. Everybody was holding their breath. Even the men standing behind him, just as shaken by Ford as the fella he was staring at.
“I ain’t got no quarrel with the likes of you.” He said.
But Ford told him, “I beg to differ. Me and my brothers here? We ride as one. You got business with one of us, then you’ve got business with all of us. So I just want you to know...if you’re planning to get up on your hind legs around us...you’d better be sure. Because that might be the wrong road for you to travel, son. It ain’t going to go too good for ya.”
“All I want is what he owe. Nothin’ more than that.”
“Sounds to me like he won those hands fair and square. You calling him a liar?” Ford asked him, and the man’s hand slid down just a few inches further so he’d be able to grab his gun in a pinch if he needed to. “CAREFUL!!!” Ford warned him, this time raising his voice to a level of urgency. At the same time, his own hand shot down to his firearm so quick that I barely saw it move at all.
Now it was time for the other men standing behind his number one target to reach down and get a grip of their own. Tensions was rising mighty fast.
I felt a tug on the back of my shirt, and Sarah whispered, “Let’s get going, Deke. This can’t end well for either one of them...”
“I wanna see what happens.”
I flashed her an evil look. “HUSH, now!” I didn’t mean for my attitude to turn so foul on her, I just...I wanted her to stop tugging at me so much. It was beginning to bother me now. But...still...I didn’t man to hurt her none. I swear I didn’t. I looked into her eyes as they got all glossy and wet, and I felt bad for striking out at her in such a way. “I’m sorry, Sarah. Honest, I am.”
But she just turned me loose and backed away from me, with the rest of her friends flashing me dirty looks of their own while rubbing her back and trying to console her as they moved to get out of harm’s way. Probably for the best...but I didn’t have to be an ass about it.
Willie just shook his head in disappointment and disbelief. “I really really don’t understand you no more, Deke. Not a lick.”
“You hear that, boys?” Ford asked, looking at all four of them getting rady to try their chances with him. Ford just smiled wide and made sure to keep them all in sight. “Well, I believe that’s glory calling for you to come home. Trumpets and all. Is that what you were waiting for?” He asked them. “Are you waiting to go home...once and for all?”
“Not without taking you with us.” One of them said, feeling emboldened by the fact that the numbers were in their favor.
“Doubt they’ll let me in.” Ford replied. Then he looked down at one of the men’s feet. “What size boots are those? I might be able to use me a new pair.”
I couldn’t quite tell if they were shaking from the anger, or trembling with fear. Or maybe it was a fierce combination of the two. But this little standoff wasn’t going to be still for much longer. I could tell them other fellas was about to snap. “Self righteous son of a bitch...”
“You let me know when you’re ready, eh?” The men were getting itchy now, but Ford seemed just as cool and collected as ever. “Last chance. You can walk away from this like gentlemen...or you can not walk away at all. I’m sure the undertaker ain’t gonna fuss too much about the extra business this weekend.”
“Why you…!!!” One of the men actually got the guts to pull his gun out of its holster, and let me tell you...had he been struck by a bolt of lightning from the SKY, he would have had twice as long to react as he did when Ford skinned his piece and shot a bloody hole right through that fellas arm! Had I blinked just once, I would have missed it!
“Whoooo! You lookin’ a little slow there son!” Ford hollered out as he watched him bleed and get so weak that he couldn’t even lift his arm if he wanted to. People standing around started to ducking and dodging to make sure they were clear out of the way, but neither one of them four men was able to get a shot off. It wasn’t just the speed that caused my jaw to drop neither...it was the accuracy that he brought to every shot. Just one for each of them. He couldn’t miss. He blazed a bullet straight through the hand of another fella, caught one right in the left eye, and when it came to the fella that started all of this ruckus, he spun his pistol around is finger and shot the hat clean off the top of his head. He didn’t even kill him. I reckon is was meant to be a warning. He didn’t heed it as such though, so this time, Ford popped him twice behind his back, left handed...putting holes in both of his shoes until blood came bubbling up like a freshly discovered pocket of oil in the dirt. He hollered something awful, falling down and reaching down to his bleeding feet as Ford blew some of the excess smoke away from his heated weapons. “You’re gettin’ the message NOW, ain’t ya son?” He said, turning around to face the rest of the crowd. “Anybody else wanna get burned down today? I got hot lead to spare! You hear me?” As everybody else shied away from any further confrontations with him, Ford walked over to the man and used his foot to roll him over onto his back. “Next time you put your hand on your piece...you’d better be ready to pop off. You hear me, boy?”
“Who are you???” He cried out, twitching in pain beneath his boot.
“I’m your savior for the day. I let y’all live because I figure God’s grace can afford you one mistake each. I won’t be doing it again. Do yourselves a favor, and tell your brother to get that eye looked at.” He said. “And when you hobble your sorry ass around that corner, I want you to say, ‘Thank you, Ford’ before you leave. Trust me...this could have been a lot worse. I got a quick hand and a sharp eye. And I’m usually aiming straight for the heart of creatures that move a hell of a lot faster than the likes of you sorry, raggedy asses! So, next time...I suggest you mind your manners and keep moving.”
It was at that moment that I happened to notice my daddy riding his horse into the center of town to see what all the fuss was about. There was blood in the sand, four men laid out, side by side...and Gideon standing there on the porch grinning like the devil himself as Ford went back to join the rest of his crew.
I have to admit...that was the part of the whole mess that had me all turned around. I love my daddy, but after what my eyes had just seen...or really hadn’t seen fully...I don’t know if I wanted him to get tangled up in the middle of it. Ain’t no way that he could be as fast as Ford was with those pistols. As strong as Buck was with that stone hard fist of his. Or able to scrap with the likes of Feng Li or even his son...as sneaky as they moved about. I don’t know a single person in town that could really cause them a lick of trouble, sheriff or no sheriff. Hell...if they wanted to take over everything and run this town as their very own...who could stand up to them? What man among us has the kind of skills that they’re bringing to the table?
These are the brutes that came way out here in the middle of nowhere to go hunting for my sweet and beautiful Colby and his friends? Do they even stand a chance if Gideon gets a scent on where they might be hiding out in those woods?
“What the hell is going on here?” My daddy asked, halting and climbing down from his horse to see what kind of damage been done. “Baker? What’s wrong? Who did this to you?” He asked, seeing the blood gush out of his feet. Two of his friends tried to help him stand, but it was so painful that he just cried out in agony and fell right back down into the dust again.
“Lord bless, Deke!” Willie said, nudging me in the side with his elbow. “Have you ever seen such a thing?”
I didn’t answer. I was too busy watching my daddy get back up on his feet and approaching Gideon on the porch. It made me more nervous than ever to even see him get that close to the likes of the others. “I’ve got a whole mess of questions to ask you about this...but I reckon that shooting my townspeople up the way you done has anything to do with your ‘peaceful stay’ here in my town.”
“Ease up, Sheriff. We didn’t want to cause no kind of trouble. It was you friend over there that ran up on us looking to scrap over a couple games of cards. We were simply minding our business. Taking in the sights...enjoying a few drinks...”
“Don’t you bullshit me, Gideon!” Daddy said, stepping up on the porch and getting closer to his face. “This wasn’t a part of our agreement. Don’t you play me for an odd one. You get to doing what you came here to do and you find a way to get back to passing on through the way you said you were. Your grinding on my last nerve, now.”
“What happens if we don’t? Eh, Sheriff?” Gideon said, using his good eye to stare my daddy in the face. “I told you...we ain’t looking for trouble. Not from the likes of you or the people in your town. But you might want to tell them to behave better when we come ‘round. Because I promise you...we really can be a problem if they come looking for one.”
My daddy said, “And I promise you...you wouldn’t be the first group of travelers to make that mistake when they came riding through here. We’ve got no room for outlaws in the town. You keep that in mind.”
Gideon simply smiled. “Far be it from me to challenge the word of a lawman.” Then he turned to the rest of his crew and said, “We’ve had enough excitement for one day. Get some drink with Buck’s winnings and let’s turn in for the night. Deal?” They nodded, and all of them filed back into the saloon as though nothing had happened at all. “You see, Sheriff? Sweet as altar boys. Every last one of us.”
Ford peeked back and smiled. “You boys take car of them wounds now, ya hear. The doc will have y’all patched up nice and easy in no time.”
I didn’t like this. Not at all. This wasn’t just a ride through...it was practically an invasion. And as my daddy tried to get everybody in the streets to get back to their daily business...his eyes meeting mine briefly before he got back on his horse and got ready to ride back to the station...I could tll that he didn’t like it much either.
Something was going sour with whatever arrangement the two of them made together to keep the town safe...and it was like watching a wave of storm clouds roll in over the mountains. I believe things are going to get much much worse before they get better. And there may not be anything much that we can do about it.