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Authors: Reavis Wortham

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Chapter Eleven

Ned left Chisum and drove across the Red River to Juarez. The people who tried to kill Cody nearly three full months ago were still running loose, and Ned intended to find out who they were and why they wanted him dead. Nothing happens in small country communities without someone knowing about it. He learned long ago there's always a leak, and all it takes to find that leak is to poke around for a while until someone says something of interest or lets something slip.

A word or two might lead to another source, an individual with a small scrap of information that led to still another scrap until he was able to piece together a complete quilt. He'd done so over a hundred times throughout his long career as constable of Precinct 3.

Juarez, nicknamed after the border town south of the Rio Grande, was a scattered settlement of stark cinder-block honky-tonks on the north bank of the river in Oklahoma, only five miles from Center Springs. Positioned to the right of the highway, across the bridge that marked the state line, Cody's squatty joint was smack in the middle of several dives with sawdust floors, financed by generations of hard-drinking, hard-fighting men who worked a variety of jobs twenty-five miles along either side of the river bottoms.

The rough joints were magnets for trouble. Men were beaten or sometimes killed in the dirt parking lots amid haphazardly-parked cars, or inside the ugly buildings themselves, where sawdust covered the filthy floors and soaked up the blood spilled in fights and cuttings that happened nearly every weekend.

Of course Ned was out of his jurisdiction in Oklahoma, but it wasn't the first time he'd crossed over to investigate Texas crimes. A river dividing the states didn't do a thing to keep criminals on one side or the other. Ned was seven years of age when Oklahoma was still considered Indian Territory, and a lawman uncle told him it was a well-known fact that a man could get killed quick as lightning once he crossed the river.

Lamar Country residents cut their teeth on stories of outlaws and Indians who fought, hid out, and died up in the rough, lawless territories. Ned, whose family ties reached back to Cynthia Ann and Quanah Parker, the famous Comanche warrior, had long ago lost count of the men he helped arrest in Oklahoma towns as far north as Tulsa.

He killed the engine in front of The Sportsman's Lounge and listened to the sedan's hood tick as it cooled. Against the advice of his family, Cody bought the bar right after he came home from Vietnam only eighteen months earlier, but kept it after he was elected constable.

Few constables could live on what the county paid.

Ned farmed. Cody ran a joint.

He considered taking his shotgun in, but since he wasn't after any specific person and it was full daylight, Ned settled for the .38 on his hip and the little star pinned onto his shirt pocket. The pump twelve meant business, and he wasn't in that particular mood right then.

The jukebox was blaring a new Buck Owens song about having a tiger by the tail when Ned stepped through the metal door into the dim, smoky interior. He moved to the right so he wouldn't be silhouetted in the bright doorway.

Ned waited as his eyes adjusted to the darkness.

A dozen men were scattered in the smoke-filled room that reeked of spilled beer, stale cigarettes, and unwashed bodies. One was so drunk he could barely lift his head.

Low-wattage fixtures and colorful neon lights advertising Jax, Hamms, and Miller Highlife flickered behind the bar and on the walls.

Bar hounds were always easy to identify, in Ned's opinion. Greasy hair, khaki pants, cigarettes rolled into t-shirt sleeves or bulging the pockets of western snap shirts, and scuffed brogans were common.

Faces always registered their time spent drinking. Eyes wrinkled and squinted by cigarette smoke gave them a sorry look that said they had no use for anything or anyone outside the joint.

Nothing felt right from the moment Ned walked in, and it raised goose bumps on the back of his neck.

The bartender glanced at the Texas constable, and then cut his eyes to the only guy in the honky-tonk wearing a flattop.

Bulging with muscles, the man wore a tight western shirt with the sleeves rolled over thick forearms. He slipped on a pair of dark shades before crossing his arms over a massive chest in both a challenge and a show of indifference to the constable's presence.

Two customers at the bar watched the mirror behind the bartender to check who was coming in. Recognizing Ned, they returned to their half-finished beers. Leaning back in a chair behind them was Philip Fuller, a no'count who lived in Garrett's Bluff, west of Center Springs. At least four times in the past two years, Ned had arrested Philip for drunk driving, trying to get home through Center Springs after spending all his money there in Juarez.

Philip glared at the constable for a long moment before thumping his chair down on all four legs and wrapping both hands around a sweating can of beer. He ran shaky fingers through black Vitalis-slick hair before breaking eye contact.

Ned didn't recognize Philip's companion, or most of the other men sprinkled around the tables. They watched Ned from the corners of their eyes.

The slim bartender in a faded shirt moved down toward Ned's end of the room. “Mr. Parker, haven't seen you in a long time. How's Cody?”

By then Ned's eyes were accustomed to the room's dim light. He crossed to the empty end of the bar and rested his left elbow on the worn mahogany surface to face outward. “I'm fine, D.A., Cody's better. I reckon he'll go back to work before long. Has he been in since the…accident?”

“Nossir. He's called a couple of times, but that's all. He's letting me keep the place open while he heals up.”

“He oughta shut it down and sell this stink hole. It's a nervous place for any decent man. You don't look too steady yourself. Anything wrong?”

“Nossir.” D.A. glanced at the liquor bottles behind the bar. “Can I do anything for you Mister Ned? Get you anything? I mean, how about an RC or a Co-cola?”

“Naw. I ain't thirsty and unless you can tell me who ambushed Cody, I don't know what else to ask you for.”

“I wish I knew. I truly do, but I don't have any idy.”

“Has anyone talked about it in here?”

D.A.'s eyes flicked again toward the customer wearing shades, and he swallowed loudly. “Why sure. That's pretty much all these boys have talked about, except for baseball and pus…uh…poontang, Mr. Ned, but it don't look like anyone knows who done it.”

“Umm hum. Howdy, boys.” Ned's voice carried over the jukebox. “Y'all heard anything about Cody's ambush?”

The barfly nearest Ned shrugged. “Naw, just he was shot at and missed.” His partner mimicked the shrug and stared into his beer.

The jukebox went silent as the song ended. The beer cooler hummed in the background.

“That's better,” Ned said. “Now I can hear without all that noise.”

With a snicker, Flattop stood and dug in his pocket for change. He smirked at Ned from behind his shades, and then sauntered to the jukebox to feed a handful of coins into the slot. He punched several buttons. The selection lever grabbed a record and flipped it onto the spindle. The player arm lowered the needle. It hissed and popped for a moment before settling into the grooves. Music again filled the bar.

“That's better.” Flattop rolled his thick shoulders. “I'd rather hear Whispering Bill Anderson than a lawman, any time.” He sauntered back to his table, grinning all the way.

“Who is he?” Ned felt the early edge of heat rising in his face.

D.A. absently pointed with a beer opener in his hand. “Name's Vince Whitlatch, Mr. Ned. Ain't from around here. Showed up a couple of months ago with money in his pocket and a chip on his shoulder. Says he works for Red River Freight, but he's in here a lot of the time and he's whipped everybody who stood up to him and…”

“I don't like people talking about me.” Whitlatch returned to his table and dropped heavily into a chair. “It ain't nobody's business who I am and what I done, especially not from Texas law standing behind a little bitty badge.”

“I believe I've heard about you.” Ned was glad Whitlatch had chosen “Still,” a relatively quiet song. It wasn't as loud as the one playing when he entered. “I'm asking around, that's all.”

“Ask on your side of the river.”

Ned's face flushed, but something about the man's attitude, and something else he couldn't put his finger on, made him cautious. “No need to get all riled up, buddy.”

“I'm not
riled
, yet,
buddy
.”

Their exchange crackled in the smoky air.

“Well, don't let yourself get that way.”

“I'll damn sure get any way I want to.”

“You
better
cool off. I was talking to D.A. here.”

Whitlatch suddenly slid his chair away from the table and hung his arm over the back in an attitude of feigned relaxation. “I'm cool.”

Behind him, two wiry men in the corner stood and drifted toward the bar. Philip Fuller and his friend caught the movement. They threw several bills on the bar, jumped to their feet, and hurried out the door.

The oldest of the two with Whitlatch settled onto one of the recently vacated stools. His younger friend eased down the bar to stand closer to Ned and pushed a pair of horn-rimmed glasses up onto his nose. Others at the scattered, scuffed, and heavily varnished tables watched the scene play out. Ned wasn't sure if they were with Whitlatch, or merely interested in the show.

Whitlatch grinned. “You're losing business since this law blew through the door, D.A.”

D.A. nodded quickly. He roughly polished a glass with a stained cloth. “That's all right. Ned's kin to Cody. He won't care.”

“I know who he is, and I don't give a shit.”

Virtually on his own, Ned was more and more concerned, but he knew better than to show it. He should have told someone where he was going. The constable felt too old for these kinds of throw downs, and he'd noticed over the last year that his nerves were getting the best of him. He controlled his breathing to slow the anger pulsing in his temple.

The first to lose his temper lost the battle.

Ned didn't intend to lose.

Instead of being pulled, he pushed. “Hey Flattop, what have you heard about Cody nearly getting killed? I got a sneaking suspicion you know something.”

Whitlatch's smirk faded. “I ain't even met the guy. It sounds to me like he was messin' around in somebody else's business, like you. Whyn't you go somewheres else?”

“I like it right here.”

“I don't. Leave.”

The order triggered the man in glasses to push away from the bar toward Ned. “You stay right there, feller.”

The man nervously adjusted his glasses again. “You can't tell me where I can go.”

D.A. picked up a bottle of vodka and tilted it toward the glass already in his hand. “Hatch, why don't you stay right there with Dean? That way I won't have to walk up and down behind this bar to serve you boys. It'll save me a few steps.”

Events were quickly spinning out of control, as they do in dark bars among rough men. Tension raised a new coppery odor in the room and Ned wondered what he'd stumbled into. He intended to visit with a few people in Cody's bar, hoping to gain a lead or two. Now here he was in the middle of a rising storm.

It made no sense.

The room went silent again as the record changed. The opening rift of “Secret Agent Man” blared from the speaker.

Whitlatch chuckled and stood. Feet planted in the sawdust, he was solid as an oak. “Old man, it's time for you to get back across the river where you belong.”

“Sit down, feller!” Fist fighting was out of the question with a man his size, despite the heavy sap in Ned's back pocket. He rested his hand on the polished wooden butt of his .38.

Both Hatch and Dean shifted uncertainly at the bar, then decided. Dean pushed at his glasses and they started toward Ned. To his dismay, three others stood and watched Whitlatch, apparently waiting for orders.

D.A. reached under the bar for the sawed-off ball bat lying next to a .38 and the door opened, spilling an intense shaft of sunlight into the dim room. Not taking his eyes off of Whitlatch, Ned was peripherally aware of the man who entered the bar.

Backlit, dust rose from the sawdust floor under the boots of a lean and slightly bowlegged figure wearing a wide cowboy hat. “Well, howdy, Ned. I'm surprised to find you in such a place.”

Ned instantly recognized the raspy voice.

With the stranger's arrival, the tension stabilized. He stepped inside as the door slammed shut. Without taking his eyes off the room, he smoothly bent and unplugged the jukebox. The colored lights went out. Inside, the vacuum tubes quickly faded and the song dragged to a stop.

The newcomer hooked a chair with the toe of his boot and pulled it away from the table between himself and the customers. “There. That's better. I can't stand that noise. Hurts my ears.” His raspy voice was clear and sharp in the sudden silence. “My word. I've walked into a…situation here.”

Whitlatch used his index finger and pulled the shades down on his nose to glare over the top, noting the stranger's black Stetson, and most interestingly, two belts disappearing under a sport coat, the lower one thicker and hand tooled. “Who are
you
, pops?”

“Tom Bell.”

Chapter Twelve

Ned's momentary relief drained away, leaving him empty. Instead of being in charge of his own situation and safety, he found himself worrying about the much older man.

Tom Bell glanced around the room. “I dropped by for a beer, but it looks like I've interrupted you boys in a serious discussion.”

“This ain't none of your bidness.”

Tom appeared to grow six inches in response to Whitlatch's challenge. His unusual eyes widened even more, as if gathering light in the shadowy honky-tonk. “I don't know who you are, son, but I'm not accustomed to being talked to in such a rude fashion. Where I come from, men treat each other with respect.”

“Tom…” Ned warned.

“This don't look quite right.” Bell moved a little closer to the middle of the room, slightly behind Whitlatch, who didn't like the realignment one little bit. “It's unsettling to see men squared off against one another, especially if one of them is an officer of the law, as Ned is, right? But it is a bar, ain't it, where if memory serves, there's always a certain amount of
discomfort
between drinkers and the law. I guess that's the nature of things, right?”

Whitlatch straightened and again flexed his shoulders to make himself more antagonistic. It had always worked before and people quickly backed down. “Get back over there, or better yet, get the hell on out of here before you get hurt, pops.”

Somehow, the power had shifted and Ned couldn't figure out why. Tom should have been nervous, but he seemed
energized
by the standoff. “I told you my name, Mr. Shades. What's yours?”

“Name's Whitlatch, and I'm your worst nightmare, you son of a bitch!”

Bell didn't change expression and his voice remained strong. “Oh no, son. I have a lot of years behind me and nightmares are an old friend. I doubt yours is even a
chigger
on my ass, son. Now, you listen, because I'm sure Ned there is tired of talking to men who are wearisome as a horsefly.

“I don't like to come into a bar with the intention of having a cool beer, and instead find a pissant like you giving lip to an officer of the law. That don't set right with me.” Tom moved again. Ned realized he intended for the men to turn, putting them off balance because now Tom had created the same pincer maneuver they'd planned for Ned.

But then Tom actually stepped
toward
Whitlatch. Despite his admiration, Ned's unease doubled and he kept an eye on Whitlatch's friends.

Don't he know those other guys are with him?

“Now Ned is doing what I'd be doing if a family member of mine was shot and left for dead, right? He's looking for answers, and I am too, 'cause I'm the one that found Cody that night and I knew something smelled wrong from the get-go. Cowards ambushing a lawman gets stuck in my craw and I don't like it one little bit, right?

“When I walked in here Ned had his hand on his gun, and that means he feels threatened. Well, that ain't right, son. It don't hardly seem fair, either, six against one, so now I figure to even things up a mite for my new friend here.”

Whitlatch forced a snicker. His toadies chuckled along with their boss.

Tom advanced again, still addressing Whitlatch as if he was in a classroom instead of a dingy cinder-block Oklahoma bar. “Oh, I wouldn't take this situation lightly, son. You don't know what I'm capable of. Ned doesn't even know yet. We only met a short while back, so let me tell you a little something. I'm from down on the Rio Grande, and this crummy little
Juarez
of yours here ain't even the tiny white dot on chicken shit for mean. Those Meskin towns have the corner on mean, let me tell you. Some of the locals kill for a livin'.

“Anyway, I don't like the odds in here one little bit, so here's what I'm gonna do. I'll step outside with your friends over there and leave you and Ned to talk it out, and when he's done, y'all can go on about your bidness, if you can, while I get that cold beer I came in here for.”

With the deftness of a magician, Whitlatch produced a switchblade and snapped it open. “That won't be no match. He's nothing without that big nigger of his to back either one of you up.”

The air in the smoky room thickened. At the same time Ned unsnapped the strap on his holster. For the first time in his life, he cocked the pistol before drawing it.

It seemed impossible, but Tom Bell's eyes widened further than his usual large stare. He suddenly
radiated
menace. “Oh, no, son. Now you've changed the game.”

Tom slowly raised his left hand to smooth his well-trimmed mustache. With the other, he pulled his coat back a bit and rested his palm on the hand tooled gun belt just above a well-oiled pistol. “Put that knife away and let's be done with this little discussion.”

Whitlatch's own eyes narrowed at the sight of the automatic in the holster. The odds in the deadly game had changed.

Tom waited, whip thin and coiled. “This little showdown is over, son.”

Whitlatch licked his lips and lowered the knife in his hand.

The sport coat returned to cover Tom's pistol. “I'm through talking, and I'm tired of looking at this little gang of half-assed bad guys. Y'all get out of here, and when we get ready to leave, I don't want you in the parking lot a-waitin' on us, neither, right?”

Whitlatch did his best to stare the man down, but those wide eyes looked insane to him, and he knew insanity very, very well. Tom Bell wasn't wearing a badge, and to wear a pistol outright was a shock. He'd bet a dollar to a donut that he was half a second away from getting shot.

Three heartbeats later he held up his free hand, carefully folded the knife, and slipped it into his back pocket. “All right, Tom Bell. We'll leave, but you understand it'll be me and you one of these days.”

Ned spoke up. “That sounds like a threat to me, Whitlatch. I intend to tell Sheriff Clayton Matthews what I heard in here, so he'll be watching on this side of the river. I'll be waiting for you on my side. If anything happens to this man, even if he falls off his porch and it's his fault, I'm coming after you.”

Whitlatch slowly settled his shades back into place and built a thin grin. “You two old men watch yourselves.”

Tom met his gaze. “Always do. That's how we got to be old.”

With practiced insolence, Whitlatch motioned to his men. Bright light flooded in as they opened the steel door and left. Whitlatch stopped at the threshold. “I'll see y'all some other time.”

The door banged shut.

Tom joined Ned at the bar. On the other side, D.A. straightened up and rolled his head to pop his neck. He took a deep breath and smiled. “What'll y'all have?”

Tom appeared to be surprised at the question. “Well, that beer I came in for, of course.”

Ned carefully uncocked his revolver and snapped the leather strap back into place over the hammer. He wanted to ask Tom about what was under his jacket, but changed his mind for the time being.

“I'll have that Co-cola now, too.”

He was mighty thirsty. His questions could wait until they were back across the river.

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