TRAVELING MEN

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A short story by Richard Balthazar

            The partners camped along a stream among dark trees south of Abilene.  Haskell Hayes, a graying cowhand with a beer belly, and Buck Sanders, much younger with, as the saloon gals would say, a good-looking mug, had stuck together a couple years now through ranch-hand jobs, sidekicks punching steers and such all the way from Laramie to Omaha.  Traveling men they were, some said drifters, working a spell here and there, and seeing a lot of country.

Haskell was pretty familiar with ranches as far away as California in his time, which ran into a heap of years.  A kid in Missouri, he’d left no more than fifteen, tired of slopping hogs, chopping cornrows, fighting with all them brothers – and mean old Pap.  Since hitting the road, he’d been fair content with all the jobs and places he’d saw.   Haskell laid back feeling peaceable and listening to the fire crackle.

Young Buck hailed from near Cheyenne, mostly working on one spread, the Lazy K Ranch of an uncle who took him in when his folks both died of the typhoid.  Buck was a good hand on the ranch, damn good at bronc-busting in the rodeos, winning himself a passle of prizes and picking up a bit with singing and playing his guitar at shindigs.  He was near twenty when he met up with Haskell late April when he got hired on at the spread.  Then come that August, when Haskell got a hankering to head down Colorado way, Buck was plumb ready to see some of the world outside the same old Cheyenne saloons.

Sitting round the guttering cookfire, Haskell rolled hisself a smoke and contemplated the shadows down by the crick, and Buck sprawled out, propped against his saddle.  “Y’know,” the older man remarked thoughtfully, running his fingers through his thick beard, “Here we are heading for San Antone – but I already done been there – twicet.”

Figuring old Hask must of been traveling now twenty-some years, Buck rolled over.  There were a few stars through the branches, stray sparks dancing upwards and blinking out.  He rumpled his long curly hair, yawned, pulled his hat over his face, and fell asleep.

#

            Haskell was disinclined to laying in past daylight.  He stoked the fire again and started some java.  Buck would be doing the real cooking oncet he dragged his lazy ass awake.  Washing up in the still dim light down by the crick, he checked out the hilly country, good and green.  Might be closer to San Antone than he’d thought, maybe already in the valley of the San Saba.  Later he sipped his steaming coffee and watched the tongues of fire, paler in the daylight.

Suddenly Haskell recollected how it was somewhere hereabouts maybe ten year ago, back in ’89, his old partner Tom Jeffries got him a spread and hauled his wife and kids down from St. Louis.  Course, he changed their name since the dough was Tom’s share of a bank job up in Utah.  Got clean away.  Never crossed the law hisself, Haskell didn’t – Maybe that was why he didn’t have much of a roll stashed away.   Traveling men didn’t get rich easy, and if they did, most times they had to keep on traveling.  Or hole up real good like old Tom Jeffries.  Haskell creaked up from his squat by the fire and shoved Bucko on the butt with his boot.  “Roll out, Buck-aroo!  We going visiting on Mr. Jeff Thomas today!”

Down the river a piece, they come up on a farmstead, a pitiful shack of a barn, an old geezer out in the yard greeting them with a shotgun.  Poor old fart hardly knew which way was up, but said there was some Thomases twelve mile maybe down the San Saba.  Passing no more’n four-five other homesteads on the way, and not riding very hard at all, the partners got to the Thomas ranch.  The house backed up against the woods on a hillside, a good-size log cabin in a web of fences and corrals.

Smoke was coming out of the chimney, causing Haskell to rub his belly and remark, “Looks like suppertime, partner.”

Buck fancied some fried chicken about then too.  A ways further on he saw a woman come out on the porch – big woman in long skirts cradling a shotgun on her arm.  Folks were real hospitable in these parts, Buck reckoned and hauled out his banjo.  While they rode up toward the gate, he plucked out something cheery, and she lowered her shooting iron.

“G’day, ma’m,” Haskell called, tipping his hat.  “This here Jeff Thomas’s place?”

The woman shifted her stance.  “What’s it t’you?”  The shotgun lifted perceptibly.

“Me and old Tom…”  Haskell hesitated, confused.  “I mean, me and old Jeff go way back.  Matter fact, we was sidekicks maybe fifteen year back.  Haskell, Haskell Hayes, ma’m.”  He took his hat off.  “This here’s my partner, ma’m, Bucko Sanders.”  Buck tipped his hat too.

The woman finally smiled almost.  “Yes, Mr. Hayes, I heared tell o’you.  This Tom Jeffries’ homestead alright,” she said, her voice deep, almost like a man’s.  Course, she was a biggish woman anyways, full-bodied, the kind Haskell really cottoned to.  She parked the iron against the porch rail and motioned for them to ride on in.  “Why don’t you fellers come on in for a bite of supper?  Mr. Hayes… Mr. O’Sanders.”  While they hitched the horses, the woman said her name was Martha.  “Round here we still Thomas,” she explained, “but now it don’t matter nohow.”

Inside the front door, Haskell looked around the dim room at all the elegant parlor furniture, too flimsy ever really to sit on – woman stuff.  “Beg pardon, Miz Thomas,” he finally said, “but why don’t it matter no more?”

“Cause Tom’s dead ‘bout five years now,” Martha said, pausing in the doorway to the kitchen.  Tucking up a stray piece of her light hair, she hollered off towards the side room, “Helen!  Lizabeth!  You come on out now.  It’s old friends o’your Paw!”  Two pretty young things, girls just turning women, showed up in the doorway.  Haskell and Buck tipped their hats again, then remembered to take them off inside the house.

“So come and have some eats, Mr. Hayes.”  Martha motioned them on into the big kitchen.  She seated the partners across from each other at a long oak table, brought some hot cups of coffee, and set the girls to dishing up some plates.

Haskell saw his partner eyeing that lass with the yellowing braids.  No more’n fourteen, judging from her chest.  “I bet you Helen,” he remarked as the girl set down a big plate of cornbread with gravy and some fat sausages.

“No, sir, I’m Lizabeth.”

“So you must be Helen,” Buck said to the other sister bringing him his supper plate.  The younger girl twisted a brown curl round her finger and blushed.

“Pardon, Miz Jeffries,” Haskell called over to Martha at the cookstove, “but don’t I recall old Tom having him a son too, ma’m?”

Serving up beans from a big pot, Martha said proudly, “That’d be my Grayson.  He be in from the fields pretty quick.”  Having set out their bowls, she pulled up a chair and motioned Lizabeth to bring more coffee.  “Now y’all just eat all you want.”  She sipped at her coffee a couple times.  “Yeh, Mr. Hayes, me and Tom had it good for a while, we did.  Got all used to being Thomases.  Gray going to the schoolhouse.  Real fine, I tell you, Mr. Hayes.”

“Call me Haskell, ma’m,” he eased the moment for her a mite.

“One day, July the 26th, Tuesday,” she went on softly, “in the evening right round suppertime – like this – some fellers a-coming up the road.  My Tom goes out on the porch with the iron, and these two looking like cowpokes, same as you boys, I saw from the parlor winder.  They pull up at the gate, and one hollers, ‘You Jeff Thomas?’  Course my Tom just give a little nod.  The other feller pulls out a piece of paper, give it a look over, eyeballs Tom and says – I could hear him even – says, ‘That’s him, okay!’  Before Tom can even move, the first one pulls his six-gun and shoots him right straight between the eyes.”  She looked down at her cup.  “Bounty hunters!  They showed me the big wanted poster, ‘dead or alive!’  We never knowed it was that way…  You know, dead or alive.”

“I’m real sorry for your loss, ma’m,” Haskell said and wiped his beard on his sleeve.  “Them Mormons can get right mean ‘bout money.”  Damn shame, old Tom getting plugged.  But leastways he had him a few fine years.  But you been getting on okay?” he asked clumsily.

“We been doing fine,” Martha said with a proud smile.  “Grayson, he been doing a man’s work ever since.  We got vittles, good stock.  We making it.  But Lord Almighty, I still miss Tom.”  She wiped her pale blue eyes with the apron corner.  “Lizabeth, go get the gentlemen some pie.  Helen – some more coffee!”  She turned to the men again.  “Have some dewberry pie!  Fresh picked this morning.”

Buck savored the sweet berries slowly, off and on stealing a swift glance over at Lizabeth and Helen sitting on a long wooden bench.  The older wouldn’t look, and the younger just stared.  Old Hask got to running on to Miz Thomas – or was it Jeffries? – about their travels the past year.  The old guy always enjoyed telling tales of his travels.  Buck caught Lizabeth’s eye for an instant.  She took to fiddling with her long skirts, and Helen glared at her.

When Haskell started in on something about when him and Tom rode together, Martha gently interrupted, “Please, no, Mr. Hayes – Haskell.  Not till Grayson get home for supper.  I want them all to hear about their Paw.”  She looked over at Buck.  “And Mr. O’Sanders, I didn’t never get to say how nice you was playing while ago when y’all coming up the road.”

“Thank you kindly, Miz Thomas,” Buck replied, “but I ain’t Irish that I know of.  Name’s Buckram Sanders, ma’m.”  Out of the corner of his eye, he caught Lizabeth looking up at him.  “And I do say, them eats was real fine.”  Before he knew it, Martha got him to talking about Cheyenne, his folks dying, the Lazy K, and all that.  The girls took the plates away, hanging on Buck’s every word.  In the middle of him telling about the big rodeo prize he won back a couple years ago, the back door flung open.

Home from the fields, Grayson was a real tall, broad youth with curly corn-silk hair and blue eyes that got wide when he saw strangers in the kitchen.  Martha introduced them.  “So you traveling men, huh?” the big kid asked excitedly, “Like my Paw was?”

“Sort of,” Haskell answered as he licked the roll on his smoke.

“You, young man,” Martha broke in, “you wash up now!”  Grayson headed for the sink.  At another signal, Lizabeth and Helen made off to dish up supper for their brother.  Martha turned back to Haskell.  “He got a lot of Tom to him, don’t you think?”

“Real strong likeness, but young Grayson, he a durn sight handsomer,” Haskell chuckled, stretching out his legs and smoothing his bushy beard.  “Right good-looking brood, Miz Jeffries.  And them two little chickadees.”  Both girls blushed wildly.

From the sink Grayson called, “Where you fellers off to anyhow?”

“We heading for San Antone,” Buck volunteered.

“Well,” Grayson said as he sat down next to Buck, “if you cowpokes fancy a mite of work, I’m haying and need a couple hands.”  He took a big mouthful of cornbread and gravy.

“I thank you for the offer.”  Haskell almost added, “sir.”  This kid Grayson – sixteen maybe – was talking business like a full-growed man.  Course he was already bigger’n most.  “My partner here and me,” Haskell tarried, “we talk it over.”

“What’s to talk over?” Grayson asked around sausage. “Put you up in the barn, feed you Maw’s cooking, do in two days what’d take me a week alone.  And we pay some.”

Buck was inclined.  “Sounds fine, long as there’s more o’that pie.”

“Deal!” the boy exclaimed and shoveled in another spoonful of gravy-thick cornbread.

After a spell watching Grayson eat, Haskell asked, “How big’s your spread here, ma’m?”

“About 200 acres,” Martha replied, dispatching Lizabeth to refill Grayson’s plate.

Her son looked up from his beans and said, “Got 67 head, with eight steers ready to sell.  Fifteen horses, two mules, and… and…  How many hogs we running right now, Maw?”

“Eight I guess it is.”

Haskell was right impressed.  “You doing real fine, boy.  Your Paw’d be proud o’you!”

Grayson mumbled, “Well, it do take a heap of work feeding all these hungry women.”

Martha set the girls to clearing up whilst Grayson took the guests’ horses out to the corral.  When everyone gathered on the porch in the gathering dark, Buck was persuaded to do some more picking on his banjo.  He sat on the stoop in a trail of lamplight from the kitchen, singing.  The girls listened from the doorway, casting long shadows over him.  Martha applauded from the glider, and Grayson too.

“Say,” the boy asked, “you play on the gee-tar, Mr. Sanders?”

“Some,” Buck laughed, “but I lost my guitar in a poker game up in Kansas.”

“Gray,” Martha spoke up from the swing, “go get Paw’s.  It’s up on top o’that arm-war.”

While Buck tuned the old guitar – Luckily the strings were still in good condition – the girls came out onto the porch.  When he started in on a favorite ballad, Grayson sat down on the steps across the way, half out of the lamplight, and promptly fell asleep.  After the song, Martha said, “We always have to wake him up to go to bed.”  She prodded her son in the ribs, and the huge boy slowly rose up from the step and stumbled through the door, apparently sound asleep.

“That boy,” Haskell grunted, “he must be doing some work, ma’m.  I’m plumb glad we showed up to help out on the haying.”  He got up from his rocker and added, “I spect it’s time for Bucko and me to go find the barn too, ma’m – if we forking hay in the morning.”

#

            In the morning Haskell got up with a painful crick in his neck, but he insisted it’d pass.  Martha had breakfast waiting on them in the kitchen, and the girls filled a big iron cauldron in the backyard to do the wash for these two traveling men.  After breakfast, dressed in old Tom’s clothes, they set off for the hayfields in the wagon with Grayson.  Buck’s shirt was tight around the chest.  Grayson laughed, flicking the mules’ rumps.  “I outgrew that one a couple years ago.”

Haskell lit a smoke and looked thoughtfully at old Tom’s son.  “Well, I reck-mend maybe you stop growing now, boy.  Any bigger, you won’t never find no shoes to fit.”  He turned to his partner.  “I bet this kid could whup your butt like butter, Bucko!”

“I’m not much of a one for fighting,” Grayson objected.

Haskell chucked.  “Good thing – don’t want to mess up that pretty puss!”

Buck punched his partner.  “That’s what you used to say about me!”

“Long time ago, before you turned old and ugly,” Haskell explained.

Out in the mown fields, they set to baling whilst it was still fresh and cool.  Buck and Haskell’s joshing and poking fun kept the boy entertained.  He wasn’t too used to company, so when they included him in the jokes, he just giggled.  He was amazed to see how hard old man Haskell could work, even with that crick still hurting in his neck, all morning and through the hot afternoon.  By the time the sun was lowering, throwing golden streaks through the trees along the fencerow, they’d gotten more hay stacked in the barn than Grayson even planned for that day.

Weary and hungry, the three stumbled in the back door of the house to a supper of ham, greens, and biscuits.  Afterwards Martha brought out some hot rhubarb pie that put Buck in hog heaven.  The girls daintily picked at their food across the table and stole glances.  Haskell saw they were mad jealous of how Buck and Grayson mostly talked to each other.

Later on, stuffed to the gullet, Haskell asked Martha for the borrow of her scissors to whack off some of his thick beard.  She offered to shear off his head-straw too and moved a lamp out onto the porch.  Buck picked out some songs on the guitar while she clipped at Haskell’s mane.  Once he let out a yelp from his crick, so Martha told Grayson to leave his bed for Mr. Hayes and sleep out in the barn with Buck.  She touched up on Haskell’s beard.  Grayson got in the chair for a trim too, and Martha suggested Buck teach her son how to play his Paw’s guitar.

“Sure, I’ll teach you some picking, kid,” Buck agreed.

Shortly, Martha invited Buck into the barber’s chair.  He passed the guitar to Grayson who proceeded to pluck and strum at random. Haskell winced.  “I’ll spect him leastways to know a couple chords by morning, Bucko.”  Grayson stopped his noises and stroked the varnished wood, probably recalling his Paw.

Rocking in the rocker with a new smoke, Haskell began, “I remember back when old Tom and me…”  Martha just concentrated hard on Buck’s unruly curls, so Haskell went on about being in a barbershop in Kansas City and bullets start flying from a robbery across the street.  Winders and mirrers got busted out all over the place.  The girls paid attention, but each still managed to snatch up a lock of Buck’s falling curls from the porch floor.

#

            Down in the barn, Buck sat Grayson down on a milking stool and showed him how to hold the instrument.  The kid listened carefully to all about the alphabet notes and “do-re-mi.”  He managed to pick up the C and A chords and then, pulling off his shirt and boots, flopped down on the blanket with a weary sigh.  The August moon washed in the open door, all silvery on the hay.  Grayson lay in shadow.

Buck hung the guitar on the post, stripped off his own boots and shirt, and looked Grayson over.  “I wonder if I could whup you, big guy.”

Grayson grunted, half asleep.  “I could break your puny bones just like snap-beans.”  He reached out a powerful arm and pulled Buck up so close they almost bumped foreheads.  “But I’d ruther not fight.”

#

            Inside, comfortable in Grayson’s soft featherbed, Haskell lay awake, his cricked neck easier on the big pillow.  Plain old common horse-sense said he didn’t have near big enough bankroll for a decent spread – but here was a good widder-woman, old Tom’s woman at that, with a real fine stake and good kids to boot.  Martha wasn’t bad looking, being in her thirties, kind of fulsome.  He thought on her female softness in one of these great featherbeds.  Course she’d have to take a shine to him some too.

Before going to bed, he’d checked hisself out in the fancy mirrer on the dresser and who he seen could of been a storeowner or banker standing there in long white drawers with moonlight streaming in through the lace curtains.  A quiet giggle, almost like mice, came from behind the door connecting to the girls’ room – going on about Bucko, Haskell reckoned.  Them sweet little gals sure needed a Paw at this age, specially with cowboys like the Buck-aroo getting them going.  And him out there in the barn right now with that young bull Grayson.

Seemed like Haskell only just fell asleep when he woke up to some serious rattling out in the kitchen.  Out the winder he saw the gals toting a bucket down to the barn where a lantern glowed.  Looked like it was under control, and Haskell fell right back to sleep in two winks.

#

            In the bright morning kitchen, Martha dished the men up some fried eggs and bacon for breakfast.  One of the mares had foaled during the night.  She’d not wanted to wake him for something so routine.  Buck and Grayson hunched over their coffee cups looking bleary-eyed.  “So what you learn on that guitar, son?” Haskell asked.

“I can play A and C,” Grayson answered proudly, “and I’ll learn me some more tonight.”

“If he can stay awake,” Buck remarked as he crunched his crisp bacon.

Out in the field again, the younger two started off pretty slow on the hoist and toss, but they did a lot of grinning, punching and teasing just like kids.  Coming up on lunchtime, they revived some.  It set Haskell to thinking, and when they stopped for lunch, he borrowed a mule to run an errand back to the house.  The other two took it easy in the cool shade of a cottonwood.

#

Later when Haskell came back with the mule, they were stretched out on the trampled grass, sound asleep.  He nudged Buck with his boot and asked, “Y’all been rassling again?”

Buck grinned and poked Grayson in the ribs.  “We got wore out waiting.”

Haskell took a chaw of cold cornbread.  “Well, I rode on back to the house,” he said, giving Grayson a look, “…and I asked your Maw to marry up with me!”  The boy stared.  “She say only if I swear on a stack of Bibles I ain’t wanted for nothing nowhere.”

“That sure ain’t no problem!” Buck laughed.

“That’s great!” Grayson exclaimed, scrambling up from the ground.  “You’ll be my stepfather!  I’m real proud, Mr. Hayes, cause you’re a good man!”

“Oh?” Haskell laughed, “and how you knowing that?”

“Why…” Grayson mumbled, “…cause you’re Buck’s partner, ain’t you?”

“That ain’t no reck-mendation, son—so was your Paw,” Haskell teased.  He rolled hisself a smoke.  “We going to see the preacher tomorrow.”

They finished the last wagonload of bales into the barn about six, even earlier than expected, and while the boys ran on down to a swimming hole on the San Saba, Haskell returned to his future family in the kitchen.  When he walked in the back door, it smelled just like home.

Martha glowed.  “Let’s sit in the parlor and celebrate with some peach brandy.”  She sent the girls to the cupboard for glasses.

The parlor looked a heap fancier in the daylight with all its little curlicues and flowery furniture.  Heavy curtains drawn back from the winders, like on a stage in a dancehall.  Haskell felt about as comfy as a frog on a hot skillet sitting there on a straight-backed chair all carved up on the arms and legs.  The peach brandy was passable after a hard day’s work in the field.  Before long he commenced to telling the girls some tales about their Paw.  Martha listened for a while, but soon sent them off to chores.  Pouring Haskell a bit more brandy, she reminded him that today being Saturday, tomorrow was the Sabbath.

Frankly, he hadn’t been worried much about what day it was for a long time.  “But I got no go-to-meeting clothes.”

Martha disappeared into the bedroom and returned with a dark suit that was Tom’s.  She held up the coat on him.  “Tomorrow I’ll be Mrs. H. A. Hayes!” She laughed at the strange sound.  “Well, I got to see to supper.”   Alone in the ornate, shadowy parlor, Haskell poured a third glass of the sweet brandy and before long dozed off.  He woke up to Buck and Grayson slamming the back door, back from the river.

After a fine supper of porkchops with applesauce, squash, and black-eyed peas, Grayson dragged a big tub out of the shed into the kitchen.  He and Buck hauled water from the pump which Martha heated up in pots on the woodstove.  They took turns, Martha first, and then the girls, at the bath.  Waiting out on the porch, Haskell rocked, and Buck helped the boy with some chords on the guitar.  Grayson was learning fast.

Soon as Buck had his turn in the tub, Grayson and him took off, claiming they was wore out.  Haskell went into the kitchen to wash last.  He scrubbed contentedly in the long tub while Martha used the pressing iron on the old suit.  Afterwards, she took Haskell’s hand and led him through the sleeping house to her room and featherbed.

#

            Next morning, all slicked up in that dark suit, Haskell rode alongside the wagon while Grayson drove.  The mother and sisters sure looked pretty in their Sunday getups.  Haskell recalled he still hadn’t talked with the Buck-aroo yet.  He trotted up beside his partner who’d been riding out front.  “Get any shut-eye last night, Bucko, boy?”

“Now and then,” Buck laughed.

“Well,” Haskell drawled as he rolled up a smoke, reins around the saddle horn, “both of y’all been looking real tuckered out.”  They rode down the rutted road listening to the chirping birds flitting by and the giggles of the girls in the wagon.  “You know, Bucko,” Haskell remarked without looking at him, “I’m right sorry about pulling out on you this way.”

Buck shrugged and lifting his hat, ran his fingers through his remaining curls.  “No call to be sorry, old partner.  I’ll get on fine—head on down to San Antone.”

“Thinking of taking the kid along?”

“Yep,” Buck sighed, “but we ain’t talked.”

“Hard-down stupid!” Haskell spat off into a bush.  “Grayson there don’t know how to ask for what he wants.  If you want him along, Buckle-boy, you best speak up.  That’s my advice.”  They rode along a ways, and then Haskell suggested, “First thing you get that youngun down to San Antone, you find him some pretty senorita to learn him how to make babies.”

“He already got the idea down pretty good.”

Haskell chuckled.  “Likely so.  Now why don’t you drop back and drive for Grayson so as him and me can talk a spell?”

Grayson rode up, a giant of a lad, so like Tom it woke Haskell’s memories.  The boy reined up longside with a nervous grin.  “Buck said you want to tell me something.”

“Can’t think what that’d be,” Haskell snorted.  “I only said we could talk a spell.  Got anything in particular to say?”

“Well,” Grayson mumbled, “I’m thinking how it’s a good thing for my Maw.  She was getting right lonesome.”

“Not no more she won’t be, son,” Haskell laughed and scratched his short beard.  “You don’t worry, Grayson, I care for them good, your Maw and them little chickadees.”

Grayson smiled broadly.  “I trust you for that, Mr. Hayes.”

Haskell saw Grayson look back at the wagon.  “Say, you ain’t thinking about riding off with the Buck-aroo, are you, son?”

The boy was surprised.  “Yeh, I been thinking on it—but I can’t leave Maw and…”

“Why not?  Now don’t get me wrong.  I ain’t trying to get shut of you, son.  I be working right smart without you—but you know that.  Just I know boys your age get the itch to travel, ain’t so?”  Nodding his head, Grayson watched his fingers tangle in the reins.  “And I can see you and Bucko hitting it off fine.  You never talk about going along?”

“Naw,” Grayson said, “I figure if he wants me to come along, he sure ask.”

“You’d think so,” Haskell said.  “That what you want?”

“I sure enough do, Mr. Hayes!  I want to see San Francisco – and Denver – and…  But how I tell Maw?”

“No trouble, Grayson, boy.  I already done tole her you most likely be lighting out…”

“You did?  And Buck wants me along?”  Grayson was excited as a pup-dog and looked back at his new friend in the wagon.

“Ask him.  First time I lay eyes on you, I know you a traveling man.  You and Bucko make you a real good pair.”  Grayson beamed.  “But…” Haskell added ominously, “you ride with the Buck-aroo—no matter how big you are—you the chief cook and bottle-washer!”

“But I can’t cook no good.”

“Them’s the rules, Gray.  Youngest does it.  I done it for your Paw, like Bucko for me.  Besides, he’s an awful cook.”

Grayson looked back at Buck.  “I guess it’ll be bacon and flapjacks.”

Haskell added, “And when you ready to settle down with a wife, we build you a house here on the spread.”  He gave the kid a pat on his huge shoulder.  “Now I’ll drop back and ride with my bride to be.  Buck’ll be along so as y’all can settle things up.”

“Thank you, Mr. Hayes.”  Grayson looked at him with wide, excited eyes.

Bouncing along on the buckboard, Haskell chuckled at the girls squabbling and their mother calling not to dirty up their dresses by rassling around.  Up front Buck and Grayson rode side by side, talking up a storm.  “Well, Martha,” Haskell said, “your boy’s riding on out with Bucko—just like I thought.”

Quiet a minute, Martha smoothed her big skirts on the wooden seat.  “I kind of knew, even before,” she sighed.  “I thank the Lord it with young Buckram.”

“He take good care of your boy.  And they be back to visit.”

“Well, they ain’t leaving yet,” Martha stated flatly.  “Not till they fix the barn roof they don’t go nowhere!”

Haskell drove on quietly—toward the church and wedding, toward settling down as a rancher—and after the barn roof, them two traveling men be heading off for San Antone…

* * *

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