Luke & JJ
by Greg Bowden
Chapter Twenty Six
They were having champagne at supper again, a gift from Rusty in honor of Luke's twentieth birthday. Luke had been toasted several times through the meal but at the end, when Ah Man placed the frosted cake in front of him, he was the first to rise and hold up his glass.
"A toast to the baker; without him we'd still be eating raisin pie."
A general groan went up around the table and everyone drank to J.J.
"And a further toast to the cook." He bowed to
"To Ah Man," they said, almost as one, and drank.
"And to Rusty, who so kindly provided this fine wine."
The men drank to Rusty who blushed a deep red.
Luke nodded to Ah Man to refill the glasses that needed it. "And one final toast. To my birthday, because if not for my birthday we wouldn't be having this fine champagne and a frosted cake." He winked at J.J. and sat down to cut the cake.
J.J. had long ago discovered that Luke shared Eliot's passion for chocolate cake so that's what they had: chocolate cake with bitter-sweet chocolate icing.
Catlan came in with the coffee, pouring Luke's first and making sure a substantial piece of the cake was saved for him. J.J. had let him clean the last of the frosting out of the bowl so he knew just how rich it was.
supper, as they were leaving the dining room, Burt put his hand on Luke's
shoulder. "Hey, Luke boy, so it's your birthday again. Remember
last year? Down to the
Luke smiled at him. "No sir, not me. You only have to look at ol' Rusty to know it's not too healthy foolin' around with those girls down there."
"Aw, come on, Luke. Me an' Dodge'll stand you for one, just like last year. A man can't turn down an offer like that now can he? 'Specially as it's his birthday."
man can," Luke said firmly. "Besides, J.J. already said he was going
to buy me a drink down at the Devil's Heart where I can show off my new
boots." He raised one leg in demonstration. "Can't
do that at the
Burt shook his head and went off down the hall, mumbling to himself. Luke breathed a sigh of relief and went into the kitchen to find J.J.
Once the supper things were cleaned up and the dishes washed and dried, Luke and J.J. left Ah Man and Catlan to look after the bath room and walked down to the Devil's Heart. Luke felt good wearing his new boots, J.J.'s birthday present, and the pale brown felt hat J.J. had given him the year before, and which he fully intended to hang onto this year. In honor of the new boots, Luke had put on a brand new pair of dark brown twill trousers and an almost new shirt of light brown chambray. J.J. thought he was the handsomest man he had ever seen.
They sat at a table in the back of the saloon, with Will and a couple of other men Luke knew from the mine. Burt and Dodge had been in before them and told Phil, the bartender, that it was Luke's birthday so drinks, on the house, were served to them almost immediately.
Luke had shown his new boots to everyone at the table, J.J. turned to Will and
where do you think he might be on a Saturday night? He's down at your place, of
course, where he'll be until he's wrinkled as a prune and waterlogged to
boot." Will shook his head. "I swear, I
don't understand that man. But, when he's through, maybe we'll go over to the
Luke had heard gossip, up at the mine, that Clark and Will often shared a girl between them. When he shared this with J.J., J.J. had thought it sounded silly but now he wasn't so sure. Not that it mattered; what he and Luke did would probably sound silly to Clark and Will, too.
"How's that claim that
now that the snow's gone and I can see what's there, I think he got took.
There's no gold there, least not that I can see. But what the
hell? I guess I'll dig around on it for a while, just to make
One of the other men at the table, an old prospector everyone called Thirsty, interrupted. "You talkin' about that claim where I seen you a couple days ago? Out East, up on the hill?"
"There's gold there. Take some diggin' to get to it but it's there all right. I tell you, if that was my place I'd be out there right now, digging up nuggets to buy me another beer with."
Wil knew the game. "Why another beer, old man? You thirsty?"
The old man's face split into a grin, showing off yellowed, broken teeth. "Well now, how'd you come to know that? That's my name, all right, Thirsty McTavish." He pushed his glass over to Will. "Seems if you know a man's name, you might like to buy him a beer in greeting, now doesn't it?"
J.J. got up, laughing to himself. "Here, let me." He went over to Phil at the bar and bought beer for the table.
"Has Rusty heard anything from that woman, Maybell?" Phil asked him as he filled the glasses. "Sheriff Cain says she never did take anything out of that cabin of hers."
"Not a word, Phil. And I don't think he cares to, after what happened."
"That so? I thought she'd put some sort of spell on him, the way he used to follow her around, all bruised and beaten up." He put the glasses on a tray and J.J. dug in his jeans for money. "Haven't seen him in here for a while so I figured he was either out lookin' for her or just pining away for her."
J.J. put the money on the bar. "No, he's fine. Spends a lot of time with Mr. Guill, learning how to run the business. You know," he put out his hand as Phil counted out change, "he never did take much to drink. I think the only reason he ever was in here was because of her, because she was here or he hoped she'd be."
"Funny, ain't it, how a man can get caught up in a woman, especially a woman like that. Well, I'm glad to hear he's over her. I always figured she'd kill him before the year was out."
J.J. picked up the tray and went back to the table where Thirsty was earnestly telling Will how to find gold on his claim.
After another beer or two J.J. thought he ought to go back to the boarding house and lend a hand with cleaning up the bath room. Luke, who was playing checkers with Will, said he'd go too, and help out but J.J. wouldn't hear of it. "It's your birthday. Stay and have another beer. Just be sure you stay out of trouble."
J.J. left, Burt and Dodge came in, full of stories about the evening over at
"What was that all about?" Dodge asked, signaling for another beer.
"Oh, you know about them," Burt said with a sneer. "They like to do it together, just the two of them and one girl. One of the girls next door told me about it. She wouldn't do it with them, said it was nasty." He burst out laughing. "That's a good one. She thought it was nasty."
A little later, when Luke was winning his third game of checkers from Dodge, Burt said to him, "You know that guy at the bar? He's been watching you real close ever since he came in."
"Yeah," Dodge chimed in, "I noticed it too."
Luke twisted around in his chair and looked at the men standing along the bar. "No, I don't know anyone..." He suddenly turned cold and the hair on the back of his neck began to rise. Standing at the bar, staring directly at him, was Hiram Rodale.
Luke turned his back to the bar and cursed.
"So, you do know him, huh? Who is he?"
Luke strained to keep himself under control. "Man I once had a run in with," he said in a low, steady voice. "Man I hoped I'd never see again."
"Well, you're gonna see him now," Dodge said quietly.
Luke felt a sudden pressure on his shoulder.
"Well, well, if it isn't my sweet boy Luke, the one who makes them cry out for more." Hiram squeezed Luke's shoulder until it hurt. "Fancy meeting up with you in a rough little town like this."
Luke jerked his shoulder, knocking Hiram's hand away. "Get away, Hiram. I've nothing to say to you."
"Well, maybe not. You never were much for talk." Hiram flashed an evil grin at the others, "but tell me, my sweet boy, where is that beautiful brother of yours, the one with the pretty little ass who so likes..."
Luke leaped out of his chair and whirled around, grabbing Hiram by the throat. "You go near him and I'll kill you, you son-of-a-bitch. You hear me?" he shouted, "I'll kill you." Hiram's face began to turn red and he seemed to be choking.
Burt jumped up and pried Luke's hands off Hiram's throat. "Hey, don't kill him right here." He pushed Luke back into his chair.
Hiram had a fit of coughing before he finally managed to catch his breath. When he did he picked up Luke's glass of beer and drained it. Then he bent down until his face was level with Luke's and said very quietly, "No man lays a hand on Hiram Rodale with impunity." He then straightened up, pulled a pair of leather gloves out of his back pocket and slapped Luke across the face with them just as hard as he could. Luke sat in his chair, stunned.
"That, gentlemen," Hiram said to the rest of the men at the table, "in case my pretty little friend here doesn't know it, is a challenge of honor. Not that he has much of that to challenge."
Luke tried to rise but Hiram shoved him back, hard, and then gently touched the angry red welt raised by the force of the leather gloves. "I've always disliked killing anyone so pretty as you are, boy, but I shall. Oh, not tomorrow, for that is the Sabbath and we must pray on that day," his voice grew harsh, "pray for the souls of perverts like you and that sweet little brother of yours. Perhaps," his voice lost its edge and he began to croon his words, "perhaps when you're dead, your brother will turn to me for the solace so rightfully his. You may be sure I will give him all he wants." The voice turned hard again. "And I know his wants."
Luke broke free of Hiram's grasp and slowly stood, facing him with great calm. "When?"
"Monday morning, behind the stables. Pistols. And now," he gave a mock bow to the men crowded around, "good night to all of you." He turned on his heel and walked out.
To be continued.
Comments, suggestions or criticisms always appreciated and always answered.