The bullocks form a seething prairie. Safe, every one, excepting the two lost to the river. Caleb tries not to dwell on the loss to his pocket. He’ll make it up. Somehow.
Mr. Tucker leans against the porch rail, shirt sleeves rolled. “You done good, Caleb. You reckon you’ll be a rancher one day?”
Caleb turns the horse a little. “No sir.”
"Why’s that, son?"
"I seen what a ranch done to my sister." Bankers asking for money. More than the dusty earth can pay.
"How is your sister, son? Pretty as ever?"
Caleb pushes his hat down hard. He can’t think of his sister as pretty.
"You riding out to Dallas with the rest o’ them boys?"
Caleb shakes his head.
The foreman, Tyler, rides out of the rumbling herd. “Six short, boss.”
Caleb scowls. “It ain’t six.” Still paying for them teeth he knocked from Tyler’s mouth last year.
Tyler spits. “You sayin yer eyes’re better’n mine?”
Mr. Tucker chuckles. “Easy, Tyler.” He turns to Caleb. “Son, you still shoot as good as your Pa?” It is Mr. Tucker’s joke. Pa shot nothing.
Caleb draws his pistol.
Mr. Tucker takes a penny from his pocket. “Fifty dollars to hit it. Before it hits dirt.” The game is played year on year. Every time the coin is smaller. The stake higher.
Caleb backs his horse a little from the porch, pistol raised. Ready for the streak of copper against the sky.
Mr. Tucker places the coin against his heart. “Whachou waitin for, son?” The coin is like an eye between Mr. Tucker’s fingers. “You want the dollar you gotta shoot.”
"Fifty dollars, you say?"
Caleb cocks the pistol.
Tyler starts forward. “You cain’t shoot the boss.”
Caleb keeps his eyes fixed on the coin. Wise to Mr. Tucker’s tricks.
Mr. Tucker polishes the coin against his chest. “Your Pa took up a shotgun when he caught me with your sister.”
Tyler grins. “I could get me some of that.”
The pistol shakes in Caleb’s hand. Tyler lost them teeth for less. Caleb nudges the horse forward, pistol ready. "Fifty bucks?"
"He ain’t my Pa."
After the fever took Pa, Ella told. Weeping by the home dug grave. "Says my sister."
The penny wavers is Mr. Tucker’s hand. Drops.
Caleb splinters the porch. Misses the coin.
Mr. Tucker drops to his knees.
"You gone an’ shot him." Tyler takes the steps two at a time, spurs clinking. "Boss?"
Mr. Tucker pulls himself up on the checked sleeve of Tyler’s shirt. “I ain’t shot.” His face is in pain. “All them years. She lied.” Tyler supports Mr. Tucker inside the ranch house. ”You wait out here.”
Caleb waits in the sun. The pay will be short. Maybe it won’t matter. Maybe the farm is foreclosed already. His sister said she’d hide a note in the dogwood tree if it happened. Ella and her letters. She wrote them all the time.
The sun begins to dip. Mr. Tucker returns. The pay is short. Caleb stuffs it into his saddle bag. Turns his horse from Tyler’s gap tooth merriment.
Mr. Tucker calls him back. “Son, you want to earn that fifty?”
Caleb touches his holster.
"Not for shootin, son. Carrying a letter."
The letter is addressed to Ella. Crisp paper same as the bank’s. Caleb opens his satchel.
"Not there, son. Here." Mr. Tucker presses his hand to his heart.
Caleb stuffs the letter inside his undershirt. He holds out his hand for the fifty. He will carry that next to his heart.
A smile crinkles Mr. Tucker’s face. “Ask Ella. After she reads the letter.”
That night Caleb shelters from the moaning wind. The letter feels brittle between his fingers. He breaks the seal. There is no money, just words. He bites his lip, reading hard:
My darling Ella,
All them years you never told. Why did you keep our son from me? Caleb is my boy. I seen it today.
There is more. Caleb does not read it.
All them years you never told. Was it true? Only Ella can tell. He folds the letter. Carefully placing it next to his heart.
Inspired by entermontana’s piece Facebook Crack