Jack Barclay, foreman from Jell’s Hill Ranch, was still in command of the crew at The Devil Crow’s Saloon in the makeshift town of Porter Hill, Texas and they were talking about the only missing member of the outfit, Shag Hannah. Jack had offered his bit in the conversation: “That birthmark on Shag’s face is so ugly spit won’t hurt it, but makes ladies weak and plain sorrowful, not just the ones working here, but all over, ladies be damned. It ain’t that he cries about it messing him up but wears it like a damned badge of honor. I guess, when you get right down to it, that’s what it is, a badge of honor for lady counting, but still ugly as sin.”
The crew of riders from Jell’s Hill ranch were celebrating the last drive for a while, some of them surely to be let go until the next ride, a few held over for general work, and a few of them ready to ride over the horizon and never be seen again, just the way Texas was exploding under their hooves, cattle carrying the territory on its back nearly half a century after the savage Alamo loss at the hands of the eventual leg man himself, Santa Anna, Mexico’s part-time savior, politician, general, the Napoleon wanna-be of those times.
One cowpoke, sombrero at an odd angle on his head, already leaning against the wall in one corner, yelled out, “Where’s Shag now, Jack? He still at the ranch?” Innuendo leaped across the room from a slurred mouth.
Shag Hannah, the ladies man, was the only one of the crew who hadn’t shown up at the saloon.
The question from the corner might well have said, “Is he still back there with the boss?” who was the widow, Sarah Jell, 30 ought-something nobody knew for certain, gorgeous from sun-up to sun-down, and then more perfect than any of them could imagine, including Jack Barclay himself. He was at least two years in love with her, or dreaming about her, if he bothered counting the days, the weeks, the months of a one-sided entanglement with a gifted horse rider, a beauty in the saddle the way her golden hair grabbed more than a fair share of the sun, starter and closer of dozens of dreams on a daily or nightly occurrence.
“He waiting for nighttime, Jack?” came from the end of the bar, which could have come from any one of the crew.
“Shag don’t wait nothing, including dark of night,” came another herder volunteer, third or fourth or fifth beer in a hurry jumping ahead of himself, the way some men can pass a whole day in one short afternoon at the rail or close enough to it.
“Wish I had some more of him in me, or on me,” said a mostly quiet cowpoke in one corner, who was almost jumped on immediately by a cohort clear across the room, waving his hand in the air, as if he had to make known to all parties his own grasp of the last comment.
“You got one o’ them birthmarks on you, Kurt, that you never showed us. Not even at the river washing off the long ride we took on our time getting here?” He looked around the room as though he was expecting the women to pop up. His laughter at himself caught up the whole saloon full of cowpokes, and the laughter grew into a huge ball sounding like a giant at his joy.
Another ranch hand, after a sudden silence, added his bit of quandary; “What I want to know is it mush, mash or magic old Shag’s toting around? I can’t see none of it, so I don’t know what to believe. Are you gents just egging on some of us dumbbells in the crowd? Appears to me we’re building somethin’ out of nothin’.” He drained off his half glass of beer and shot the empty down along the bar to the barkeep, all hands of the rail-benders raised in salute.
Jack Barclay whispered to a confidante at his table, “All of them, they’re all in the dark about what Shag really is, and you can take it from me that he’s one helluva ranch hand, knows the trail’s do’s and don’ts and all the other stuff as well as me and I’d put him up against anybody in this room,” he paused to accentuate anybody, “including you and me, in a gunfight, quick draw and straight on face to face.”
“Hell, Jack,” came the reply also in a whisper, “I ain’t ever seen him shoot a damned gun for all that’s worth. But I wouldn’t doubt a word you can say in the matter, not a single word. I been ridin’ with you seems forever and never heard you tell a lie. You never steered me wrong even once that I know of, old straight arrow himself.”
At that same moment the good words were being spread around The Devil Crow’s Saloon, Shag Hannah and Sarah Jell were bound with ropes and were lying side by side in a small room at the Jell’s Hill ranch house after being surprised, having coffee in the kitchen, by four masked bandits, each one of the bandits taking turns yelling loudly, screaming orders, binding and knotting ropes in place on their hands and feet, and shoving them into the small utility room, wooded plugs knocked into rows along two walls and used for visitors’ duds, and odd lots of odds and ends..
“You recognize any of them, Shag?” Sarah Jell was still the boss, and glad they hadn’t tied a bandana over her mouth. “One voice I know I heard before, but I just can’t find a face for it. I’ll kick myself once I find out and we certainly will get out of this scrape one way or another. The others have never been here. I’ve never heard their voices before and I’m positive of that.”
The nod of her heard was affirmation he had seen before, as it seemed to say, “Now you’ve heard me, so we understand each other.” She was still the boss, her husband, Harland Jell, gone almost five years, her never losing stride while running the ranch. Not for a second.
“They’re new to me, at least I think they are,” Shag said, as he tussled with the ropes on his wrists first, then at his ankles. He winked at Sarah, smiled, felt a crease on the birthmark exaggerate its presence, widen. It always happened when he smiled, like odds were being deployed, brought into the argument, arrangements on the make. Early on he had learned the differences brought into play.
A loud yell came from somewhere in the house, “Look what the hell I found in here! Place must be loaded with it. Let’s get her out here and drag it out of her. Could be a damned goldmine on our hands.”
Another voice, thicker, deeper, trying to be muffled thought Shag, said, “Keep quiet. I told you a dozen times, keep your mouth shut.” An immediate silence sat motionless, breathless.
Shag nodded at Sarah again. “Most likely that bigmouth has been here before, but it must have been before I came here.”
“I still can’t find a face to go with any including the last two voices. It’s obvious they’ve taken off the masks or at least loosened them up while out of our sight, which means they’re afraid of being recognized later on if there is a later on, or we can identify them to the law sooner than later.”
Shag shuffled his hands, squirmed and wiggled around in a search for a rough edge, found it, and began working a wrist knot against a bumpy knot on a rough wall log, smiled at her again, came taut as he heard steps outside the room. He was still, silent, his eyes shut resisting a reaction, his chin resting on his chest in a defeated manner, when the door was snapped open.
A masked man looked in, his eyes showing an aqua shade through the mask eye slits, and closed the door quickly.
“That was damned quick of you, Shag. Fooled me like it did him.” Sarah’s head swayed. ” At least, I hope it did. I’ll be owing you if it turns out well.”
Shag, knowing change even before it happened, added, “I can feel the goodness already, I swear.” The knot on his wrist was looser and he worked slowly, surely against a selected edge, thinking of a knife being at work. To get his feet free, he had to free his hands.
He asked Sarah, “Say, girl, you think you got any guns in here?” He almost kissed her when she nodded, smiled, and replied, “Harland was a stickler for protection. I thought when one of them out there screamed that he’d found one of the guns. Harland hid them around the house, on top of beams, in tight spaces no one’d check out in a hundred years, like in that corner behind you, right behind that old wooden carving of the ranch brand, a pistol’s stuck in the hollow backside, primed and loaded.
Her smile was a yard wide and her lips pursed with a quick promise. “Have at ‘em when you get ready, and we’ll talk turkey later.” She hadn’t once looked at the birthmark sitting on his face bold as some wounds appear from old near soul-deep damage.
One word came from Shag’s mouth as he said, “Ah,” as resolute as a salute, and he swung free one hand and then his other hand, then undid the knots at his ankles, put his fingers across his lips to ensure silence from Sarah, and found the pistol behind the old brand carving. It looked, to Sarah, mighty comfortable in his hand.
When the door opened, a masked bandit stepped in and saw Sarah still bound on the floor and felt a pistol horseshoe-hard against his neck. His mouth dropped open at the lower part of the mask, but not a word escaped him. In one swipe, Shag ripped the mask off, didn’t recognize him, but pointed down to Sarah and whispered, “Untie her or you’re dead.” His tone was harsh, and loaded with evil at the ready, a finger taut at the trigger, the pistol steady as a ramrod.
And Shag Hannah soon had two pistols in his hands as he heard heavy steps coming across the outer room, and a voice saying, “What the hell’s going on in there?”
In one quick move, Shag dove into the outer room and from a horizontal position on the floor shot dead the heavy man who fell in a heap mere feet away from him, a single gurgle leaking from his mouth.
Scrambling sounds emanated from elsewhere in the house, accompanied by a shout, “Shag’s loose. Let’s get the hell outta here.”
“Let ‘em go,” Shag said to Sarah, her eyes wide and blue in wonder and surprise, “we can nab them easy later on. We better clean up in here and get down to the real important stuff.”
Sarah Jell, widow, ranch owner, felt warm for the first time in hours, in years.