"I don’t know about you fellows, but I’m getting kind of old for this,” advised Jeb Snead, circling warily to the left with his dukes raised.
It never hurt to try, but this wasn’t a talking matter.
Neither one said anything. They spread out and then came at him. Two other weather-beaten and dust-covered men sat astride their horses, not reaching for their guns just yet.
The one on the right jabbed, and Jeb snagged him a nice fast one right on the kisser.
He stood there flatfooted, staring at the sight of fresh blood on his black rawhide gloves in disbelief. Jeb socked him again and he went straight down and laid flat on his back.
“We’re looking for someone, mister,” said the tall, bearded man still confronting him.
Telegraphing every move, the bruiser, all of two hundred eighty pounds, came in dead straight and Jeb laid him out flat on his back with one punch to the solar plexus, a foot-plant behind the ankles, and a quick push on the shoulders.
“Keep looking,” advised Jeb.
The men on horses reached for their guns, but Jeb held up a hand.
“No need for that,” he assured them. “You gentlemen probably just want to borrow a rope, or something.”
The two looked at each other for a moment. Jeb focused on the eyes of the older one, sitting with an air of quiet authority upon a fine bay gelding. The man regarded him soberly.
“No, sir,” said the young one, avoiding his eyes. “No. We don’t want to borrow no rope.”
“Do you mind if we help our friends back onto their horses, sir?” the older one inquired politely.
“Not at all,” said Jeb, standing clear.
His own gun-belt hung on Rooster’s pommel, as he was just shaving and washing up.
“Was there something I could help you gentlemen with?” he asked as they dismounted, noting an air of gratitude upon the older one’s face.
“We’re looking for a special sort of a man, sir,” said the younger.
He was about twenty-five years old and had some resemblance in the set of the shoulders and neck to his father.
It took a moment or two, but the other members of the little posse were soon remounted. They were dazed, and hurting, and sullen to some degree, but under the older man’s authority.
They kept their mouths shut, but their eyes spoke volumes.
“You’re Jeb,” said the man. “Jeb Snead!”
“Yeah!” he agreed.
“Our apologies, we should have known right off,” said the gentleman. “Sheriff
Ackroyd, in La Pierre, has been getting a little too big for his britches these days.”
“We’re the RB ranch,” he added after a quick spit to the side.
“No fighting for money prizes within the town limits, without his written permit,” said Jeb. “He waited until I could actually pay the fine…or buy a permit, then arrested me and seized all the winnings!”
The other three sat up a little straighter upon hearing it.
“He earned his money,” admitted Snead.
“Sooner or later, he will pull that stunt on the wrong fellow,” said the mounted stranger with a strange, small grin. “They say you smashed a hole in the wall and just walked out…heh!”
“Ackroyd sittin’ in the saloon braggin’,” noted the son.
The younger went silent upon a slight move of his father’s shoulders.
The gentleman thought for a moment.
“The county line is about four miles due west of here,” he advised, as a visible shock went over the faces of his crew. “The sheriff of Mule Creek, south about two miles, is probably sitting in his office in town right about now. It is dinnertime, after all. If you run across any mysterious strangers, travelling alone, maybe with some kind of a strange story to tell…I would imagine it’s a different story every time…well, you watch yourself, Mister Snead. Listen…listen very well to what he…or she, or it, has to say, Mister Snead.”
He tipped his hat and then they all spurred up, and continued on up the hill. No one looked back. The sounds of their hooves quickly faded from his ken. Jeb listened well for a few minutes, still shaking his head. He planned on a few hours of hard travel. Jeb tucked in his shirt and put away the shaving tackle.
Clearly their business was none of his business, and he was glad enough for it.
“Come on, Rooster,” he said.
The horse tipped him a wink.
Mounting up, he carefully walked the big black Antarean barb into the water and down the river for about a mile and a half, then turned up the right bank and picked his way across a stony plain.
It was a good idea to make some ground before nightfall. His own belly rumbled, but the horse had plenty of grass and the water was good. Jeb pulled the brim of his hat down low and rode into the sunset. While the broken hills, winding watercourses and scattered brush gave good cover, he knew enough to listen as well. He made a conscious point of stopping, and waiting, to check the back trail after crossing any big open spaces. He was smart enough not to ride directly over the top of any big hills.
A couple of hours later, Jeb relaxed, riding a little easier in the saddle. He was poor but free, and for the time being, that would have to do.
The gentle tug of Rooster’s heartstrings indicated to the intuitive Jeb that the barb was in perfect agreement with these sentiments.
Ever since bringing the wet, suckling colt into the world in an impromptu Caesarian, with a Bowie knife and his own hands, Rooster’s dam mortally wounded by a neo-Blackfoot arrow, there was this special bond…indescribable to the normally taciturn Jeb. Gifted with his fists and in the use of his iron-hard noggin, although not the most erudite of men, Jeb Snead knew he was lucky to have Rooster.
In this life, if you made one good friend and died with your boots on and no big debts, you were doing all right.
In this weird, half-lit and artificial world, a completely plastic planet, illuminated only by the sick and perverted science of the evil Doctor Schmitt-Rottluff, he would need all the help he could get to save the buxom but leggy Miss Kitty from the clutches of pure and unadulterated greed. There might be some element of lust involved as well, he reckoned, and not just on the part of Doctor S, as he and Rooster had taken to calling him in their unique, telempathic lingua equus.
Rooster sighed, blowing big shots of air out through his lips in a language known ever since the Dawn of Time to horses across this fair Galaxy.
The mournful sentiments coming from the horse confirmed that the barb really liked Miss Kitty, however futile that must ultimately be.
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