Buck rode slowly up from the creek towards the clump of oak trees, There was no discernible path, but Buck had ridden it enough to know what he was looking at. Miles from the nearest road, mules were the only good way to get here. And he would be walking back, leading, so he enjoyed the last few moments of the animal doing the work.
As he came closer to his destination, Buck began making out the form of a man, sitting on a stump. Doc Miller, pipe in hand, stared down at what had been a campfire and was now a circle of rocks and black dirt. Overly worn straw cattleman hat high on his brow, he sat legs crossed tightly, work pants hanging loosely over brown boots.
Buck tied the mule, fed him, and called out. “Doc?”
“Buck Anson, I hope,” came the reply. Both men smiled at the joke. No one else would know where this was, or have any reason to come there.
“You got coffee,” Buck asked, coming closer.
“No, I never lit the fire. Never know who might be watching.”
Buck found a stump and sat. “Well, shit.” Both men were silent. Buck started rolling a cigarette. He lit it, took a drag, absentmindedly picked tobacco from his tongue. He too stared at the ring of rocks where a fire should be. Finishing his cigarette, he finally looked up. “Well,’ he asked, “where am I going?”
Doc also looked up at the other man for the first time. “First barrel will go to Five-Mile Draw. Be there at sun-up, somebody in a red Plymouth will be at the bridge.” Doc looked away quickly, coughed, turned back. “Second is the Cedar Creek bridge at sunset. Phillips boy will be there.”
Both men retreated into their thoughts, both knowing the question Buck would ask next. A minute passed.. Two.
Buck Anson took his tobacco pouch and rolling paper out again. “Since when does Bill Ratliff drive a red plymouth?”
Doc crossed his arms across his chest, chewed at the end of the pipe, said nothing.
“Less it ain’t Bill driving,” Buck said, licking the paper.
Crickets chirped endlessly in the nearby pasture as a scrub-jay called out and was answered sharply by a rival. The little creek, some fifty yards away, gurgled and somewhere off in the distance a coyote cried. Doc Miller reached into his pocket, pulled a small pocket knife out, and began cleaning the bowl of his pipe.
“Bill left out for California,” he finally said.
Buck looked up quickly, his jaw unconsciously set. “The hell you say.”
Doc continued with his pipe, carefully making sure the bowl was free of burnt ash. “He did.”
Buck stood, dropping his tobacco as his hands formed fists. “The hell you say,” he repeated through clenched teeth.
Doc finally looked up and met Buck’s gaze with defiance. “He left yesterday. And be glad, boy, goddamnit, that you haven’t both been hung from one of these oaks. It’s unnatural.” He spoke calmly, assuredly.
Doc didn’t look away, and finally the younger man sat back, slumped, and ran his fingers through his hair, dragging his hat off the back of his head in the process. He began collecting his tobacco pouch and rolling papers, rolled one, lit it, and smoked. “I better get going. Help me load will you.”
Doc nodded and stood as Buck took a final drag and flicked the burning ember into the charred earth where a fire had once burned.
Travis Cravey is a maintenance mechanic in Southeastern Pennsylvania. He is an editor with Malarkey Books. He is friendly and docile and would make a great addition to any family. He is on twitter @traviscravey.
image: Lindsay Hargrave