Now Available at Amazon.
The stranger was tall and rangy. He looked like he spent his days astride a horse. The brim of his brown, sweat-stained hat was pulled low, obscuring all but the hard jaw, which was unshaven. The stranger’s lips were drawn into a thin line, almost like a grimace. His clothes had seen better days as well. Sweat stained his armpits, chest, and collar. His pants had patches mending the frayed fabric. His boots were well worn. A pistol, a Colt by the look of the worn handle, was slung low on his right leg, held in place by a leather thong around his thigh.
Hector recognized the type. He stood behind the bar, polishing glasses and cleaning up from the lunch crowd. The ranch hands were the only customers remaining. From the back came the sounds of pots being scrubbed and readied for the evening. The late afternoon sun slanted into the saloon from dusty windows, giving the interior a muted glow.
The stranger paused just inside the batwing doors. He turned his head long and slow, taking in the saloon. His scan paused a moment to inspect the poker tables, empty and waiting for the evening’s patrons. His eyes followed the stairs up to the second floor with the rooms that featured Hector’s other business offerings. The stranger’s mouth twitched. Finally, his eyes met Hector’s. Even though this was his place, Hector inwardly shrank a little under the steady gaze.
As the stranger entered the Lampasas Saloon, a gust of wind followed him, bringing with it the scent of horse manure, dust, and grime. He wore no spurs. The only sound he made was the soft clomping of worn heels.
“I’m lookin’ for Pete Davidson.” The stranger’s voice was old, aged with smoke, and hardened by time out on the range.
Hector knew Davidson. Everyone in town did. Hector only wondered what fresh hell Davidson had cooked up to get another man to come looking for him.
To the stranger, Hector said, “He ain’t here.”
“I can see that.”
Slowly, the stranger walked to the bar. Outside, passersby went about the business of Junction City. The courthouse lawn was free of people on this Saturday afternoon. The Gilmour children walked with their mother across the street, a rangy dog followed them. The clip-clop of hooves and a squeaky wagon wheel pierced the stillness of a late summer’s afternoon.
The stranger reached the bar and leaned on it. “Can I get a beer, please?” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a coin. He laid it on the wood pockmarked with knife marks and carvings.
Hector retrieved a fresh glass and filled it. He slid the coin into his hands and stepped back, putting his butt against the far wall. “Why’re you looking for Pete?”
The stranger removed his hat and set it on the bar. His matted hair was predominantly gray. What color remained was brown.
“That’s between me and him.” He downed half the brew in a single gulp. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and stared at himself in the mirror behind the bar.
Hector had the impression the stranger had forgotten all about him. It wasn’t until Hector fidgeted that the stranger again took notice of him.
“You ever know you have to do something but don’t know if you’ve got it in you?” the stranger asked.
Hector was used to men talking to him, giving up their secrets. But that was from men he knew. “I reckon.”
The stranger shook his head. “Bet you have more than one cuss saying something like this?”
Hector nodded. He spoke when he realized the stranger wasn’t looking at him. “Yes.”
The stranger took another swallow. He drew his attention to the bar top and the gouges in it. Knife cuts and initials coated most of the surface. Some men carved their entire names. The stranger traced his hands over one name, his fingers caressing each letter of the name. His beer forgotten, he studied each of the names carved into the wood.
Hector said, “A few boys carved their names into the wood. I used to get after them, made them fix up what they did. But as you can see”—he indicated a place nearer him—“the fix looks worse’n the carvin’. Pretty soon, I kinda liked having the names in the wood. Became kinda like a rite of passage. New man in town ain’t accepted into town lessen’ he puts his name on my bar.”
The stranger wasn’t listening. He went up one side of the bar then returned to his spot. He moved his beer glass and started reading the names and initials on the other side of the bar.
His fingers stopped on a name. A little gasp of recognition escaped his lips.
Hector moved to see the name that had stopped the stranger. “Luke.” Hector’s blood froze in his veins. He remembered the man who belonged to that name. He remembered how he died.
Realization dawned on Hector. “You kin to Luke?”
The stranger didn’t answer. “You knew him?”
“A little.” Hector shrugged. “He was new in town, got shown the ropes by the other cow punchers up on the Alistair ranch. He was a little wet behind the ears, but he learned fast.”
The stranger kept staring at the name. “How did he die?”
Hector hesitated. “Look, mister, I don’t…”
“How did he die?” the stranger repeated, this time in a forceful voice.
For the rest of the story, A Father's Justice is available at Amazon.