It Was Murder, Part II

Read Part I before Part II.

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Calloused fingers guide the knife blade in a precise semicircle.  Holding the strap to the stove’s eye, the artisan studies his work.

“I seen Peter French get killed.”

The figure on the oat bin stiffens; shoulders square.

“December twenty-six, eighteen ninety-seven, twenty-five years today.”  The old man looked to the boy.  “Cold,” knife pointing to the window, “like now.”  Almost imperceptibly the head moved side to side.  Almost a whisper, “Too damn cold.”

Hidden in shadow his audience remains still as a fawn in sparse over.  The old vaquero goes a full day saying less than in the past minute.

Buck closes his knife, places it on the workbench.  From under his chair the old Mexican retrieves a braided wool cinch, steel rings at either end.

“Bunch of us left the ol’ Sod House Ranch,” smoothing the cinch across his thighs, “Comin’ on daylight.”

He reaches for a leather-punch on the workbench.  Folding an end of the strap over a steel cinch ring, the craftsman positions the punch, grips with both hands, squeezes.  An organic crunch; the leather yields.  An inch to the left the process repeats.  By firelight he inspects the holes in the leather.

The figure in darkness waits.

“Hay almost gone; a dry summer.”  With both hands the old cowboy eases his bum leg from its keg.  ”Peter decided to push a hundred head a them red cows and a half-dozen bulls down to the big sagebrush field by the marsh.”

As the storyteller moves to the end of his workbench, the boy’s gaze follows the familiar hitching gate.

Buck fishes copper rivets and washers from a paper box on the bench.  “Chino—Pete’s reg’lar trail boss—got hisself a Christmas bellyache.  Peter told ‘im,” glancing to the silhouette, “told Chino, take the buckboard to the bunkhouse, get a dose a salts, go to bed.  Pete’d ramrod hisself, ridin’ that little roan gelding Chino’d raised from a colt.  Spoiled ‘im.  Called ‘im Pedro.”

Calloused fingers pressed a rivet through matched holes in the leather strap.  “Peter was like that.  Just another hand.  Treated us that rode with ‘im straight.”

The storyteller paused, gaze resting on his work.  Slowly his head shifted, side to side.  “Sodbusters didn’t like ‘im.”

Placing a copper washer over the tip of a rivet, the artisan holds his leather strap on an anvil at the end of the workbench.  Using a ball-peen hammer with a jeweler’s touch, calloused hands flatten the rivet over the washer.

His audience waits, motionless.

The craftsman studies his work.  “Peter weren’t but a little fella.  Guess that’s why he liked a lot a animal under ‘im.”  He presses a second rivet through a matched hole in the leather, slips a washer over its tip, taps.

The stove sputters.  The isinglass eye flares, turns yellow, amber.

Right hand grasping the cinch, left on the workbench, as if bending an iron rod, a will long-since steeled to protest of muscle and joint forces the aging spine erect.

“The little gelding, Pedro, was kind-a sleepy, babied as he was.”  A bent thumb and forefinger toys with the hammer, places it on the bench.  “At the creek Peter got off, cut his-self a willow branch.”  Crevices beside the old man’s mouth and eyes deepen.  Corners of his lips raise.  He looks to the boy.  “To get ol’ Pedro’s attention.”

The shadow audience smiles.

Back in his chair, a callused forefinger lifts a coiled chrome handle to open the stove door.  From a wood-box—on its marred exterior, “Atlas Dynamite – Moves the Earth”, a palm-size giant with planet Earth on his shoulders—the old vaquero eases a bread-loaf-size piece of pinion onto the coals.  The door closes.   The isinglass eye winks.  The flame sputters, pops, turns buttercup yellow, the workbench and shelves quaver.

Using both hands the old vaquero hoists his bum leg to its keg.  “Cold,” glancing again to the frosted window, “too damn cold.”  He smoothes the cinch across his thighs.

“Them beeves weren’t interested in leavin’ that corral.  Fed ever’ day.  Hay wouldn’t last ‘til spring.  They was still some pickin’ at the edge of the marsh, Bunch grass.  They’d et worse.”

The storyteller leans back, strokes his cinch.  “Ol’ Pete was always in a hurry.  Borrowed a buckskin thong Carlos used to tie his bedroll.  Knotted it to the end a his willow branch.  Made ‘im a little bullwhip .  .  . to wake up them cows, like he done ol’ Pedro.”

Weathered fingers drum on the cinch.  “Comin’ to the fence at the marsh Peter loped ahead to open the gate.”

As if viewing a magic lantern show, the old man’s gaze rests on the wall over the workbench.  “I was  .  .  .  maybe a hundred paces back.”

Right hand stroking the stiff knee.  “I seen it” pointing, “plain as that wall.”

The voice trails off.  The stove sputters.

“Just as Peter gets to the gate, from a gully off to the west we see this hombre ridin’ like a wild man.  At first I figure he’s from the ranch; maybe there’s trouble.  Maybe Chino’s took bad.

“Fella digs in his spurs, comes straight at Peter.”

The narrator looks to his audience.  “Some said—them as weren’t there—we didn’t reco’nize ‘im, didn’t know who the fella was.  When I seen that buckskin Ed Oliver dragged out’a the Kieger a couple a years back, I knew.  And I knew we got trouble!”

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