By Jim Thompson
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Lord’s got one ace-in-the-hole — the land deed that makes him the biggest landowner in the county, just as the oil companies have started to move in.
When Tom’s approached by Aaron McBride of Highlands Oil and Gas with a contract to set up pipelines on his property, he’s more than happy to sign on the dotted line with barely more than a cursory glance at the paperwork — it just might be Lord’s way out of a life he never wanted in the first place. But when Lord finds out just what that contract entailed, things start to go sour for Aaron McBride — and fast. Because in this Texas town, Lord’s the law — and there’s nothing more dangerous than a cop with nothing left to lose.
Under the far-west Texas sky, a pale, wind-swept blue in the late August afternoon, the big convertible swayed and swung lazily, jouncing its two occupants—a prostitute and a deputy sheriff—into brief contact; it seemed to crawl toward the horizon like a large black bug, caught inside an up-ended, transparent bowl.
The wind was almost constant, something that one was aware of only when it ceased. The sparse stalks of burned-dry Johnson grass lay almost prone from its pressure, and the giant cacti, the tree-tall Spanish bayonet, leaned warily away from it. It seemed bent on driving everything before it, unwilling to rest until the desolation was absolute.
For the past two-odd hours, ever since they had left the town of Big Sands, the woman had turned in her seat occasionally to look at the man; hopefully at first, then with a kind of frustrated bafflement, and finally with snapping-eyed, tight-lipped fury. Now, at last, she swung abruptly around to stare at him, hiking her skirt high on her thighs, her breasts swelling angrily against her blouse.
The man appeared not to notice. He was, in fact, squinting off to his left, trying to locate the spirelike speck amidst a cluster of lesser specks which, ten miles nearer, would prove to be the derrick and accouterments of a wildcat drilling well.
"Tom…" the woman said. "Tom."
The man saw what he was looking for at last. The woman didn't. She was a relative newcomer to the area, still a stranger after almost three years. And strangers here had died of thirst and hunger, of heat or cold, because they accepted the apparent emptiness as real; because, unable to survive themselves, they could not see how others might. They had done it four hundred years ago. They would be doing it four thousand years hence. For the land was unchanging—did not have the necessary elements for change. Men changed it briefly, and then it went back to what it had been.
"Tom! Tom Lord!"
Deputy Sheriff Tom Lord turned away from the landscape; smiled pleasurably as he noted the hiked-up skirt and the area beneath it. "Oh, gonna take my picture, huh? Want me to say cheese?"
"Stop it! You know what I want!"
"Mmm, let's see," Lord mused—then brightened exaggeratedly. "Why, sure. Ought to've known right away. Well, you just hop in the back seat and get yourself fixed, an'—"
He broke off abruptly as Joyce Lakewood swung at him. She swung again, began to pound, claw, and slap at him. His hat, a sixty-dollar ranch-style Stetson fell into the rear of the car. His neat, black bow tie was knocked askew. He ducked and dodged as he drove, sheltering himself with one arm, laughing uproariously and so contagiously that the woman at last joined in. But unwillingly, and not without a trace of bitterness.
"Ah, Tom," she said. "What can I do with you, anyway?"
"Why, now, you've been doing right fine so far," Lord said. "I ain't got a complaint in the world, and that's a fact."
"But what about me? Why did you bring me out here today?"
"You've been saying we needed to have a good long talk," the deputy pointed out. "Can't remember how many times you've said it. Thought we ought to get off some place where we wouldn't be disturbed."
"We wouldn't have been disturbed at my place."
"We-el, maybe not," Lord said. "But I don't reckon we'd have done much talkin'. Seems like we always think of somethin' more interesting to do."
He reached down behind the seat, winking at her slyly as he recovered his hat. Joyce reddened, feeling a mixture of anger and shame.
She was used to vulgarity, to lewdness, to downright filthiness. She had become quite used to it by the time she was fourteen, and she was thirty now. Yet quite often with this man—more and more often, of late—she had found herself blushing at his smallest indelicacy; had been offended and angered and hurt by language which, coming from another man—from any of the hundreds of men before him—would have seemed almost prim.
And she didn't know how to object to it, how to explain why, being what she was, she did object to it. Her only recourse, as now, was to pass over the issue and strike back at a tangent. It would give her no satisfaction, only rebound with more hurt, but still she did it.
"Why do you use that cornball talk?" she snapped. "You're no rube! You're probably the best educated man in the county, practically a medical-school graduate, but you sound like some character in a third-rate movie!"
Lord's delicately arched eyebrows went up. "You mean," he said, "you don't think it's fittin'?"
"Of course it's not! A man who's had your advantages…"
"Well, now, looky," Lord cut in, drawling. "Turn it around t'other way, and the same boot fits your foot."
"What—how do you mean?"
"I mean, I'm a heap and I talk like nothin'. You're nothing, and you talk like a heap. Why, y'know," he smiled at her, smiled with his lips and his even white teeth, dark eyes cold and humorless, "as long as you keep a rein on yourself, you could fool almost anyone. Even me, now, I have to keep remindin' myself that you ain't a real honest-to-Gawd lady."
Invariably, when she had tried to pry behind his surface, he had been quick to repel her, but never with such cruelty. She almost gasped with the pain of it, was far too hurt and humbled to be angry.
"D-do you have to"—she averted her head momentarily, blinking back the sudden tears—"do you have to keep reminding yourself, Tom? Couldn't you just—"
"Well, I guess I don't have to do that," Lord said agreeably. "Not with you always remindin' me yourself."
"I…I love you so much, Tom I—I just—"
"An' I think quite a bit of you, too, Joyce. Must've told you so a thousand times."
"But you won't marry me."
"No, ma'am, I sure won't."
"I'm not good enough to marry, but I'm good enough to sleep with. You don't mind sleeping with me, do you?"
Lord said that he didn't mind a-tall. He couldn't think of anything he minded less, and that was a fact. Then, as her face crumbled abruptly, and she burst into helpless, childlike sobs, he dropped his mask for a moment.
"You wouldn't be happy married to me, Joyce. I'm old family. I was reared in a certain way, in a tradition. I couldn't forget it—God knows I've tried to in the past—and I'd never let you forget it."
Joyce raised her head hopefully, all her hurt expunged by this unprecedented gentleness. "Maybe you didn't try hard enough, Tom! You have no real reason to forget, so—"
"Would you say my mother was a real enough reason?"
"What? I don't understand."
"When I was seven years old," Lord said, "she left my father. Skipped town with another man. Neither Dad nor I ever spoke of her again. As far as we and our friends were concerned, she ceased to exist."
Joyce looked at him, frowning, an unconscious shiver running down her spine. "But—but that's terrible! Didn't you ever hear from her?"
"We received a number of letters from her." Lord took a thin, black cigar from his pocket and ignited the tip. "We destroyed them, unopened."
"But"—the girl fluttered her hands—"she might have been sick, dying! Your own mother dying, for all you know, and…and…how could you do such a terrible thing?"
"It wasn't easy," Lord said. And then dropping back into his drawl, again sliding behind his mask, "No, sir, it sure wasn't easy, and that's a fact."
He stepped down hard on the accelerator. The big convertible leaped forward, throwing Joyce back against the seat, holding her there with its gathering speed. Faster and faster they sped down the rutted road, bouncing and careening and weaving. She looked at Lord anxiously, started to remonstrate. Then, hesitating, fearful of one of his hide-peeling retorts, she lost the opportunity.
The left front wheel struck a dust-filled chuckhole. The car twisted and jerked, bounced high into the air, and came down with a riflelike cr-aack. It whipped sideways, appeared, for a moment, on the verge of flipping over, and then Lord brought it to a stop.
Completely unruffled, he turned and grinned at the white-faced girl.
"Okay, honey? Didn't shake you up none, did I?"
Joyce looked at him wordlessly. She sucked in her breath, sought for some suitable remark—something so cutting and withering that for a time, at least, he would be knocked out of his cocksureness and feel some of the fear and uncertainty that were her own constant companions.
Miraculously, she found exactly the right statement. She began it deliberately, so that none of her words would be lost on him.
"I want to tell you something Thomas DeMontez Lord. I'm well aware that you've got a pedigree as long as my leg, and that I don't amount to anything. But—"
"But it don't matter a-tall," Lord supplied fondly. "To me you'll always be the girl o' my dreams, an' the sweetest flower that grows."
Beaming idiotically, he pooched out his lips and attempted to kiss her. She yanked away from him furiously.
"You shut up! shu-tt up-pp! I've got something to say to you, and by God you're going to listen. Do you hear me? You're going to listen!"
Lord nodded agreeably. He said he wanted very much to listen. He knew that anything a brainy little lady like her had to say would be plumb important, as well as pleasin' to the ear, and he didn't want to miss a word of it. So would she mind speaking a little louder?
"I think you stink, Tom Lord! I think you're mean and hateful and stupid, and—louder?" said Joyce.
"Uh-huh. So I can hear you while I'm checkin' the car. Looks like we might be in for a speck of trouble."
He opened the door and got out. He waited at the car side for a moment, looking down at her expectantly.
"Well? Wasn't you goin' to say somethin'?" Then, helpfully, as she merely stared at him in weary silence, "Maybe you could write it down for me, huh? Print it in real big letters, an' I can cipher it out later."
"Aah, go on," she said. "Just go the hell on."
He grinned, nodded, and walked around to the front of the car. Lips pursed mournfully, he stared down at its crazily sagging left side. Then he hunkered down on the heels of his handmade boots, peered into the orderly chaos of axle, shock absorber, and spring.
He went prone on his stomach, the better to pursue his examination. After a time, he straightened again, brushing the red Permian dust from his hands, slapping it from his six-dollar levis and his tailored, twenty-five-dollar shirt.
He wore no gun—a strange omission for a peace officer in this country. Never, he'd once told Joyce, had he encountered any man or situation that called for a gun. And he really feels that way, she thought. That's really all he's got, all he is. Just a big pile of self-confidence in an almost teensy package. If I could make myself feel the same way…
She studied him hopefully, yearningly; against the limitless background of sky and wasteland it was easy to confirm her analysis. Here in this God-forsaken place, the westerly end of nowhere, Tom Lord looked almost insignificant, almost contemptible.
He was handsome, with his coal-black hair and eyes, his fine-chiseled features. But she'd known plenty of handsomer guys, and, conceding his good looks, what was there left? He wasn't a big man; rather on the medium side. Neither was he very powerful of build. He could move very quickly, she knew (although he seldom found occasion to do so), but he was more wiry than truly strong. And his relatively small hands and feet gave him an almost delicate appearance.
Just nothing, she told herself. Just so darned sure of himself that he puts the Indian sign on everyone. But, by gosh, I want him and I'm going to have him!
He caught her eye, came back around the car with the boot-wearer's teetering, half-mincing walk. Why did these yokels still wear boots, anyway, when most had scarcely sat a horse in years? He slid in at her side, tucked a cigar into his mouth, and politely proffered one to her.
"Oh, cut it out, Tom!" she snapped. "Can't you stop that stupid clowning for even a minute?"
"This ain't your brand, maybe," Lord suggested. "Or maybe you just don't feel like a cigar?"
"I feel like getting back to town, that's what I feel like! Now, are you going to take me or am I supposed to walk?"
"Might get there faster walkin'," Lord drawled, "seein' as how I got a busted front spring. On the other hand, howsomever, maybe you wouldn't either. I figger it's probl'y a sixty-five-mile walk, and I c'n maybe get this spring patched up in a couple of hours."
"How—with what? There's nothing out here but rattlesnakes."
"Now, ain't it the truth?" Lord laughed with secret amusement. "Not a danged thing but rattlesnakes, so I reckon I'll get the boss rattler to help me."
"Tom! For God's sake!"
"Looky." He pointed, cutting her off. "See that wildcat?"
She saw it then, the distant derrick of the wildcat—a test well in unexplored country. And even with her limited knowledge of such things, she knew that the car could be repaired there; sufficiently, at least, to get them back into town. A wildcatter had to be prepared for almost any emergency. He had to depend on himself, since he was invariably miles and hours away from others.
"Well, let's get going," she said impatiently. "I—" She broke off, frowning. "What did you mean by that rattlesnake gag? Getting the boss rattlesnake to help you?"
"Why, I meant what I said," Lord declared. "What else would I mean, anyways?"
She looked at him, lips compressed. Then, with a shrug of pretended indifference, she took a compact from her purse and went through the motions of fixing her makeup. In his mood, it was the best way to handle him; that is, to show no curiosity whatsoever. Otherwise, she would be baited into a tantrum—teased and provoked until she lost control of herself, and thus lost still another battle in the maddening struggle of Tom Lord vs Joyce Lakewood.
The car lurched along at a snail's crawl, the left-front mudguard banging and scraping against the tire, occasionally scraping against the road itself. Lord whistled tunelessly as he fought the steering wheel. He seemed very pleased with himself, as though some intricate scheme was working out exactly as he had planned. Along with this self-satisfaction, however, Joyce sensed a growing tension. It poured out of him like an electric current, a feeling that the muscles and nerves of his fine-drawn body were coiling for action, and that that action would be all that he anticipated.
Joyce had seen him like this once before—more than once, actually, but on one particularly memorable occasion. That was the day that he had practically mopped up the main street of Big Sands with Aaron McBride, field boss for the Highlands Oil & Gas Company.
Tom had been laying for Aaron McBride for a long time, just waiting to catch him out of line. McBride gave him his opportunity when he showed up in town with a pistol on his hip. He had a legitimate reason for wearing it. It was payday for Highlands, and he was packing a lot of money back into the oil fields. Moreover, as long as the weapon was carried openly, the sheriff's office had made no previous issue of it.
"So what's this all about?" he demanded, when Lord confronted him. "I'm not the only man in town with a gun, or the only one without a permit."
It was the wrong thing to say. By failing to do as he was told instantly—to take out a permit or return the gun to his car—he had played into Lord's hands.
The trouble was that he had virtually had to protest. The deputy had forced him to by his manner of accosting him.
So, "How about it?" he said. "Why single me out on this permit deal?"
"Well, I'll tell you about that," Lord told him. "We aim t' be see-lective, y'know? Don't like to bother no one unless we have to, which I figger we do, in your case. Figger we got to be plumb careful with any of you Highlands big shots."
McBride reddened. He himself had heard that there was gangster money in the company, but that had nothing to do with him. He was an honest man doing a hard job, and the implication that he was anything else was unbearable.
"Look, Lord," he said hoarsely. "I know you've got a grudge against me, and maybe I can't blame you. You think that Highlands swindled you and I helped 'em do it. But you're all wrong, man! I'm no lawyer. I just do what I'm told, and—"
"Uh-huh. An' that could mean trouble with a fella that's workin' for crooks. So you get rid of that pistol right now, Mis-ter McBride. You do that or take you out a permit right now."
McBride couldn't do either, of course. Not immediately, as the deputy demanded. Not without a face-saving respite of at least a few minutes. To do so would make his job well-nigh impossible. Oil-field workers were a rough-tough lot. How could he exert authority over them—make them toe the line, as he had to—if he knuckled under to this small-town clown?
"I'll get around to it a little later," he mumbled desperately. "Just as soon as I go back to the bank, and—"
"Huh-uh. Now, Mis-ter McBride," said Lord, and he laid a firmly restraining hand on the field boss's arm.
It was strictly the deputy's game, but McBride had gone too far to throw in. Now, he could only play the last card in what was probably the world's coldest deck.
He flung off Lord's hand and attempted to push past him, inadvertently shoving him into a storefront.
It was practically the last move that McBride made of his own volition.
Lord slugged him in the stomach, so hard that the organ almost pressed against his spine. Then, as he doubled, gasping, vomiting the breakfast he had so lately eaten, Lord straightened him with an uppercut. A rabbit punch redoubled him. And then there was a numbing blow to the heart, and another gut-flattening blow to the stomach…
But he couldn't keep up with them. No more could he defend himself against them. He seemed to be fighting not one man but a dozen. And he could no longer think of face-saving, of honor, but only of escape.
Why, he's going to kill me, he thought wildly. I meant him no harm. I've given willful hurt to no man. I was just doing my job, just following orders, and for that he's going to kill me. Beat me to death in front of a hundred people.
Somehow more terrible than the certainty that he was about to die was the knowledge that Lord would probably not suffer for it: the murder would go unpunished. He, McBride, would be cited as in the wrong, and he, Lord, would go scot-free, an officer who had only done his duty, though perhaps too energetically.
McBride staggered into the street, flopped sprawling in the stinging dust. Fear-maddened, fleeing the lengthening shadow of death, he scrambled to his feet again. He couldn't see; he was long past the point of coherent thinking. Dimly, he heard laughter, hoots of derision, but he could not read the racket properly. He could not grasp that Lord had withdrawn from the fight minutes ago, and that his leaden arms were flailing at nothing but the air.
He hated them too much to understand—the people of this isolated law-unto-itself world that was Lord's world. This, he was sure, was the way they would act; laughing at a dying man, laughing as a man was beaten to death. And nothing would be done about it. Nothing unless…
Donna! Donna, his young wife, the girl who was both daughter and wife to him. Donna was like he was. She lived by the rules, never compromising, never blinded or diverted by circumstance. And Donna would—
When he regained consciousness he was in Lord's house, in the office of Doctor Lord, the deputy's deceased father. Lord had been ministering to him, bathing his face, treating his many cuts and bruises with a variety of medicines.
"Don't worry," Lord grinned at him genially as he opened his eyes. "I won't mess you up none. Never got a degree, but I probably know more medicine than my Dad did."
McBride tried to get up. Lord pressed his chest gently, holding him on the lounge.
"Right sorry about our little scuffle," he went on. "Just couldn't see no way out of it, y'know? Had to show you that if one fella starts misusin' the law, another'n can do the same thing."
"So it was strictly a personal matter!" McBride said bitterly. "You didn't care whether I had a gun permit or not! You—"
"Ain't everything personal?" Lord asked. "Any way of doin' somethin' that isn't? You pulled this swindle on me, and it's just business with you. There's nothing personal in it. But—"
"I negotiated an agreement with you for my company! An entirely legal agreement!"
"Uh-huh. An' I give you a beating in the interests of this county—an entirely legal beating. But it don't make you feel no better, does it?" The deputy leaned forward earnestly. "Now, looky, McBride. I didn't make any deal with your company. I made it with you, and it's your responsibility to straighten it out—to try to anyways. If you'd just try, it…"
McBride wasn't listening to him. It would have made no difference if he had. In his struggle upward through the ranks, he had never belonged to a union. Insofar as he had a viewpoint, it was always identical with his employer's. He was rigidly honest; that is, he had never broken a law. It was no concern of his if, as the instrument of his company, he perverted the law. There was a loser and a winner in every transaction. It was McBride's job—his creed, his religion—to see that his employers were not the losers.
Now, with Lord in midsentence, he arose determinedly and announced that he was leaving. "Unless you plan on giving me another beating. You've proved that you can do it."
"But—but wait a minute," Lord frowned. "We can't just leave things like this."
"That depends on you. I'll never show my face in Big Sands again; I couldn't after today. I'll keep out of your way, you keep out of mine. Because if you don't, Lord, if you ever stick your nose into my business without proper authority…"
"Yeah? If I ever stick my nose into your business?"
"I'll blow it for you. Right through the back of your head."
Lord laughed softly. "Now, maybe I'll give you a crack at doin' that," he said. "Yes, sir, I just may do that."
McBride did not appear in Big Sands again, going instead to another town that was twenty miles farther away. As far as his job was concerned, he was never able to completely reassert his authority. He fired a dozen men. He whipped as many others. But something had died inside of him, and he could not revive it. He went nowhere unless he had to. He talked to no one unless he had to. He withdrew deeper and deeper into himself. And he brooded.
Joyce Lakewood looked up from her compact as the convertible swung bumpily to the right. They were turning into the prairie, multitracked at this point by the treads of tractors, trucks, and other vehicles. Ahead of them, perhaps a mile, were the derrick and outbuildings of the drilling well. Here at roadside was a sign.
To the uninitiated, it might have seemed ludicrously prolix. But in oil country it was commonplace, differing only in its details and their arrangement from innumerable thousands of such signs.
T. DeM. Lord Survey
Pardee Co., Elsin Township
So. 160, N.E. Sect., Lots 16–30
Test No. 1
- On Sale
- Aug 5, 2014
- Page Count
- 256 pages
- Mulholland Books