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Published on Thursday, August 19, 2010

Druthers

By Elmer Fralick Jr.

 

On the porch swing at the front of her house, Ella-Louise picked a bean from the pouch of her apron, snapped it and dropped it into the bowl on her lap. A late afternoon breeze, bringing the first evening coolness, tickled at the red-brown hair that'd escaped her bow and scarf. She smiled, dance-night shy. Her hazel eyes glittered as her mind wandered. When would the first beau come to court? She had her druthers. Other than him, the rest were like snap-beans; if you've seen one- she picked one from her apron and held it up to the sun - you've seen them all. She split it and put the halves with the rest. Yes, she had her druthers. She'd wait for him to come to her.

   

*         *        *

Through the field-glasses Lucky'd taken from his father's saddle, he watched. Her porch swing moved easily. He squinted his dark eyes. How would he win her over? What would it take to appease her father? Lucky shifted in the saddle. The things he would do with her. He adjusted his six-shooter. He'd have what it took to woo her, soon enough. His father had promised he'd only have to be the ramrod for just so long. Whoever heard of a son being a ramrod at his father's cattle ranch anyway? The place wasn't that big, yet. But with him in the old-man's rocking chair running things, Ella beside him, it wouldn't take long, not-too-big would become large. Til then, he simply had to bide his time and wait. Luck would turn his way; she would be his.

*         *        *

One street over at the edge of town, Joel's blue eyes flashed as he hammered the hot steel into a useful thing. He thought about Ella-Louise. His arm muscles flexed when he held the blackened metal up to gauge progress. He nodded. Despite the grime of the work-long day, the sun glinted on his blond hair. His skills as a blacksmith were coming along rather well. His apprenticeship would be done in a couple years. By then, Gray, the town an hour's ride southwest, at the rate it was growing now, ought to be ready for a blacksmith of its own. Saving his money at a decent enough pace, he will have the funds to set himself up in business. Mr. Smith wouldn't mind. Between the two, they barely kept up with the work as it was now. As a shop owner he could have the stature to convince Ella-Louise's father he was a decent suitor. He'd work and wait.

*         *        *

Two years pass slowly for young men and women in the outlands of Texas, especially so for those in want of someone close by. This was the day Ella-Louise turned fourteen. Her father kept his eye on her. On the swing, she sat, talked with the callers for short lengths of time, and waited. There'd been enough visitors to keep papa from accomplishing any real work in his tinker's shop. She smiled bravely, swinging to match the near-calm of the day. She waited for her druthers.

Down the street, though not a street, really just a place behind town to plop down one poor-mans tinker shop amongst the town's outhouses, not one inclined to draw much attention, Lucky rounded the corner. The same where, before, he'd leaned back in his saddle, field glasses in hand, spied on her, and thought. Now, bent forward and pressing on toward her, he was in a position to act on those desires. Most people believed it was just more of Arthur Wheel Jr.'s luck that had him in the position to be headed toward her, now, ready. As far as he was concerned, self made or not, the effect of the turn of events was the same. Snug in his vest pocket a ring of fine gold and diamonds that only a ranch owner could afford. He put on a grin, fixed his vest and spurred his stallion.

At the same time, up the street, Joel crested the hill in the opposite direction. Ella-Louise was glorious looking, lovely. As a successful, self-starting blacksmith, he had a lot to offer. He hoped her father would let him talk to her for than a short spell. He'd like for her to understand how much love he felt for her. The flowers he clutched would only be the start of his kindnesses. He spotted Lucky, as unobservant as ever. Joel spurred his horse to go a bit faster, but not so as to draw Lucky's attention.

Ella-Louise stopped the swing's motion. "Papa." Lucky, spying Joel, jabbed his spurs into his horse's sides. "Gid'yup!" The two met in front of Ella-Louise's home. Lucky spoke first, "Smithie, you don't clean up so well. You're still a working man under them new duds."

Joel pushed his hat back on his head. He drew his thoughts from Lucky to Ella-Louise and back.

Deciding to proceed, he removed his custom-made, Robert Heath hat. "Happy Birthday, Miss Hart."

She nodded.

He replaced his cover and dismounted as a courting gentleman should.

Not to be beat to the draw, Lucky swung his leg over the saddle. His spur caught the horse's neck. When it reared, off came Lucky, hard on the ground. "Gosh-darned animal. You'll be somebody's meal tomorrow."

Ella-Louise took the flowers.

"Excuse me, Ma'am." Joel went into the street and offered Lucky help up.

Lucky knock the gesture away and jumped to his feet. He dusted him off as if there'd been no indignity in the situation: chin firm, easy flicks at the debris, with just his fingers, not the whole hand. Finished he said, "Flowers?" He lightly lifted Joel's jacket lapel and rubbed the fabric with his thumb and forefinger. Lucky shrugged. "Nice try." With two fingers he pulled the ring box from his pocket enough for only Joel to eyeball it. "A gal, such as she, deserves more. Apparently you aren't doing as well as what word has it."

Joel made his move to approach Ella-Louise. Lucky shoved him in the chest. It would have put another man to the ground. But being a man of constant physical exertion, it did little to him. Joel checked the front of his seer-sucker jacket and dusted off nothing. He stood on his toes, looked over Lucky's shoulder and said, "Miss Hart, if it acceptable to your father, I'd like to sit with you awhile, even if to just admire the evenin'."

Lucky whirled about, blocking Joel's advance, and offered that he himself had arrived first. "I'll talk at ya for a bit, Pretty Thing." He smiled.

Ella-Louise's eyes darted from suitor to suitor. Where was Papa? She took in Lucky. His clothes, though finely made, were, perhaps, gotten from a corner pile. His dark hair, appealing as it was, reminded her of that of some atop a 10 year old a week before the start of school in the fall. His eyes burned, it was not from love.

Before she could object, Lucky was on the swing beside her, where the flowers had been. Not over-taken with his brazenness, she slid further to the end, stood and turned sideways to him. "Papa," she said a little louder than a few minutes ago.

  

Joel stepped up and held his hand out, prepared to escort her to wherever she wished. "I apologize for the mess the flowers are now in." They looked down at them on the scuffed wood of the porch.

She examined Joel. He was not well attired, yet appeared sharper than Lucky. Only the shape of his body showed his hard-work. His grain colored hair framed his face so it put a tinge in her own. His eyes sparkled, but they did not hold the fireworks she sought.

Lucky leapt to his feet. "Go on back to Gray, Smithie." He reached around him for Ella's hand. He wasn't able to touch it as he'd hoped.

Her mind's thoughts spun like cotton around a spinning wheel. They were useless as if the cotton was blood tainted. She acted on the prevalent one. She turned her head toward the front door: "Papa, please!" Hopefully he heard her urgency.

Lucky's eyes directed Joel's attention down. His foot twisted the flowers. "Oh dear," Lucky groaned.

"Mr. Wheel," Joel straightened himself. "Are you spoiling for a fight over Miss Hart? If you are, I'd be obliged. We can go somewhere, out of her sight, rest our jackets on our horses and work this like gentlemen. If you are able to."

Lucky laughed. "I ain't no fool. I'm not as muscled as you. I'm not too proud to admit that. A man like me doesn't have to exert himself to earn his life's keep. You'd put me down with the first catch of my face. No. We'll do this so it's final." He patted his six-shooter. "The loser goes with the undertaker."

Ella-Louise's eyes widened. "The Undertaker?" She flushed.

To her, Joel asked, "Miss Hart, have you a say?"

"PAPA."

Lucky pushed the smithie, hoping to move the interloper aside. Unsuccessful, he rounded him and strode away. The wind-sprung dust settled around his snake-skin boots when he turned and faced down the empty evening street. "Let her see which of us has the most gravel in their gizzard: who's the better."

Joel waited for Ella-Louise to decide. The delay was over when Lucky uttered "You no-good, scurrilous, low-account, coward."

Ella-Louise clasped her hands together. She wrung them and glanced to the front door. After consideration, did not call for Papa. She'd wait. He could not stop this. Her hands quit shaking. She stepped to the porch railing and leaned against the cover support.

Sure of his reflexes, Lucky insisted on the starting the duel back to back. "Ten paces, pull the trigger and you drop- dead. I'll let you count to three to start us off. We both step off the ten. Go. Peckerhead." He checked the tightness of his holster's leg-string.

Joel tucked the bottom of his jacket in his trouser waistband, uncovering his Colt. "One." He glanced at Ella-Louise. She was beautiful with the evening breeze whispering over her. "Two." Lucky had insulted her, if not directly, simply by actions alone. He lost the feel of Lucky against his back. Joel whirled, stuck his gun between Lucky's shoulder blades and cocked his Colt.

"Consider yourself lucky you aren't dead, for cheating."

"What? I leaned forward. I had a cough in my throat."

"The next time-"

"I don't need to cheat on you. Commence to counting."

"One," Joel said.

The wind was gone, as if hiding.

"Two."

All three could barely hear over the beat of their hearts.

"Three."

Joel and Lucky stepped off at the same time. The moon was rising in Joel's horizon. Ella-Louise was to be his bride. In Lucky's view: the North Star glistened like Ella's eyes, a star to wish upon.

Though the sun hung low, the edge of its heat was back. The air sported the crispness, clarity and purpose of a fresh day.

At the fall of the tenth step, Ella-Louise's father came to the door from his trip to the outhouse out back.

The two suitors whirled.

Mr. Hart shouted, "No."

The guns jerked. Both shouted their anger.

Too late.

Ella-Louise flinched at the shots. She clutched her hands to her bosom. "Oh, Papa."

"You stay here, Daughter." He went out to the street and put his hand over the first's mouth. Ella-Louise counted out her father's 20 paces to the next.

Papa put his hand over the second's heart. He shook his head.

She bowed hers.

Papa said, "I shall fetch the sheriff. And the undertaker, so he can get to the burial preparations."

Ella-Louise straightened the wrinkles from her gingham dress, sat up proper, prim. It was time for her Druthers.

THE END

 

Elmer Fralick. Jr. writes out of Orlando, Fl. He's been published on the web many times. He is now working on a book based on an idea which brought him to begin taking writing seriously. Upon his mothers challenge wrote a western short story which he completed as a 135,000 word book. His westerns tend to be a slightly off-beat western genre, but all the same grounded in old-west reality.

 

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