The noisy, drunken fatnecks in the corner are an annoyance, but Raylan’s letting it go, focused enough on his fourth shot not to be bothered by anything else, even their obnoxious braying.
The smooth, smoky burn of bourbon drafts up ghosts as it goes down, mountain hollers and barefoot girls and a hell of a lot of other shit he’s drinking not to think about. The pretty blonde waitress, bedraggled from a long Friday night shift full of idiots, reminds him a little of someone he’d as soon forget, and he’s just thinking about getting himself off the stool and out the door when he hears her indignant squeal.
He knows before he turns what he’s going to find.
A grabbing hand moving back from her ass. Four big red faces about busting with filthy laughter. The girl’s own expression a study in bitter resignation. She probably needs the tips, isn’t paid to sass the customers.
Well, hell, Raylan’s flush right now, and he could probably stand to work off the whiskey a little before driving.
Moving the girl aside with gentle hands on her narrow shoulders, he steps up to the table and tips his hat.
“Evenin’, boys. I couldn’t help but notice that the young lady’s been having some trouble with you. Now, I’m not from around here, but I’ve heard it said that everything’s bigger in Texas.” He pauses, watches the nearest two puff up their chests. “Guess that’s about true of assholes, too.”
It takes them a minute. He can practically watch the comprehension as it crawls up their faces in a deeper shade of scarlet that has to be bad for their over-taxed hearts.
Not that he cares much about their collective health.
The first two wrangle their way out of the gut-busting confines of the booth and come for him with beefy arms swinging. He almost laughs at how easy it is to dodge them, does laugh when he drops the first with a kick to the back of his knee. The guy goes down with a bellow like a bull surprised by the clippers.
The second guy is joined by Assholes Three and Four, who make a ragged arc around him. He guesses geometry wasn’t their strong suit in high school. Still, they’re formidable, if only for sheer size. They must outweigh him altogether by a quarter ton.
Maybe it’s a whisper of air or the shifting of the light to his left, but Raylan sidesteps and spins, careful to avoid the still-hollering form of the first fatneck. There’s a kid standing where he was a second ago, eyes a little amused, a little cautious, hands down at his sides like he’s just wandered through on his way to the bathroom.
Except that’s a lie. Raylan can read trouble in the set of the kid’s shoulders and the way his eyes have already taken in everything—likely avenues of attack, easy paths for retreat and regrouping, exits.
Without anything except a sparing tilt of his chin toward the floor, the kid indicates he’s in. Not sure he should trust him, but fairly certain he’s got no choice, Raylan says What the hell? to himself and shoulders up.
The three rush them in a predictable clump, and the kid clocks the one on the left with an admirable accuracy. Bell rung, the guy drops, out cold before his head grazes the edge of the table he’d made the mistake of getting up from.
Raylan doesn’t see much after that because he’s too busy fending off his own opponent, a greasy-haired, bearded roughneck with a belly that challenges even Raylan’s considerable reach and breath so rank he has to swallow a gag when he closes on the guy.
He knows better than to get in too close, avoids the guy’s clumsy grab, ducks under a wild swing, and rabbit punches him once, hard, low on the ribs, feels something pop under his fist, shifts away as the guy sways, dumbfounded expression chased from his face by the agony close on its heels.
Raylan hears the kid grunt, looks for him, regrets the moment of distraction when blood thunder drowns out his hearing and searing pain bursts across the right side of his face. Ears ringing, eyes crossed, he takes a blind step back, hopes he doesn’t go down while his sight is clearing. He must imagine the whistling as a second blow just misses him, and when he’s able to focus, Raylan sees his assailant is the first guy he’d taken down, somehow up on his feet, favoring his bad leg but game for giving hell.
Smiling around the blood he can feel dribbling from the corner of his mouth, Raylan says, “Well, shoot, if you’d wanted to dance, all you had to do was ask,” and skips in—or rather, tries to. His balance is off, right ear still pealing with the pounding it took, so instead of delivering his full weight, Raylan gets in only a glancing blow to the guy’s shoulder.
It’s enough to unbalance him, though, lame as he is, and in cartoon slow-motion the guy pinwheels his arms, desperate to stay upright, slewing to his right toward a table full of truckers who up until then had been more or less minding their own business, minus a few shouted words of encouragement.
Gimpy crashes onto their table like felled timber and three guys are on their feet, hands already up, by the time Raylan decides he’s done enough to defend the barmaid’s honor. Looking for his erstwhile partner, he sees the kid edging away from the chaos even as the first trucker drags a fatneck up from the floor and starts to shake him by his flannel collar.
The girl is standing at the corner of the bar nearest the door. He sees the kid shoot her a wide grin and a wicked wink, watches her eyes widen and her lips quirk up despite herself. Snorting at the misguided intentions of young lust, he detours long enough to hand her a wad of uncounted bills. “For your trouble,” he explains, tipping his hat, leaving her with an even wider look that makes him smile a little wickedly himself.
The kid’s already out the door, Raylan almost to it, when the sharp report of a shotgun breaks the fight up into dying shouts of outrage and a few muffled moans. Neither of them so much as pause, Raylan on the kid’s heels as he hits the gravel, cool air stinging his cut lip.
They pause a dozen yards out, where the bug-stained light over the door and the frazzled neon in the windows can’t color their faces.
The kid’s a suggestion of more solid shadow to his right. “Shouldn’t you go back in, keep the peace?”
He’s not surprised the kid’s pegged him for a cop; he’s just the kind to have had plenty of experience with the law. Especially given the probably illegal piece Raylan had noted as the other had stopped to flirt before yielding the field to the truckers.
“Out of my jurisdiction,” Raylan explains, wiping blood from his chin and wincing at the soreness in his jaw. “You okay?” He didn’t get much of a look, but it didn’t seem like the kid was much the worse for wear.
“Hell yeah. Nothing like a good brawl to get the blood going.” A shifting of gravel suggests the kid’s impatient for a getaway, and while Raylan’s not looking for a date, doesn’t swing that way at all, something about the guy makes him ask, “You got a name?”
“You askin’ as a lawman?” The question’s all hearty hail-fellow-well-met, but behind it, Raylan hears suspicion and behind that, buried deep, anxiety.
Raylan laughs, shakes his head. “No.”
“I’m Dean.” He doesn’t offer to shake, and neither does Raylan.
He settles instead on words that surprise him even as he says, “Well, Dean, I guess I owe you a drink.”
There’s a pause while the kid—Dean—considers, and Raylan takes time to look up at the stars, a pale streak of pimply yellow light here, washed out by the city that waits for him just a few miles up the road. He misses the stars sometimes, the way they are back home, clear and fixed, keeping him pinned in the green bowl of a river valley while the earth spins beneath his feet.
Whatever spinning’s happening now, it’s all down to whiskey and concussion.
Shaking it off, Raylan hears, “Nah, that’s alright. Like I said, it was a good fight.”
He hadn’t expected a yes.
Raylan squints off into the darkness, listening to the distant strain of a big engine and hearing, somewhere past that, a siren stuttering through an invisible intersection. “Okay. I guess I’ll owe you, then. I appreciate the help, Dean, and if you ever need me to return the favor, you can look me up.” He produces a card from his wallet and offers it to the kid, who comes far enough out of the shadows to take it.
Dean doesn’t look at the card, Raylan notes. Even if it is too dark to read it, most people would have looked. And while Raylan’s wondering what that means, the card disappears—into his leather jacket or back pocket or under the rear bumper of the nearest truck, he doesn’t know—and the kid turns away, heading for a yellow wash of light out near the road, beneath which he sees a gleaming black classic muscled up against the grass at the edge of the lot.
He watches Dean get in, waits until he hears the engine growl to life and the crunch of gravel, until he sees the car’s taillights diminish to red pinpricks at the very edge of sight.
Something about the kid bothers him, but he can’t put his finger on it. Maybe it’s the way Dean seems as alone as Raylan is, like home’s just a place to put behind him. Or maybe it’s some residual chivalry left over from back when men who fought for a woman’s honor were always virtuous, even when they weren’t really all that good.
His musing is broken by a sudden spill of light and noise as the door to the bar flies open and the first of the brawlers sprawls ungainly in the gravel behind him. Without looking back, he makes his way to his own car, slides into her shuttered silence and turns the key automatically, steering to the driveway, looking both ways, tempted for a barest second to turn right, follow Dean out into the vast flat stretch of ranchland and see what he’s all about.
Instead, of course, Raylan turns left, toward the city lights that make a mess of the night sky. Copper smudges his tongue, taking away the last taste of home, and he lets out a weary sigh as he makes his way back to the life he’s got now.
If he thinks now and then of Dean, it’s only because Raylan hates mysteries, especially the kind he’s not invited to solve. And now and again when his cell phone rings in the middle of the night, he thinks first of Dean, wonders what the kid is up to, before recognizing the call of duty and answering, gruffly, “Yeah?”