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Cletus Rawlins - A Will Starr Short Story


Cletus Rawlins

He hadn’t shaved in a month because he saw no need. Nobody ever visited except the occasional cowhand looking for a meal, so what the hell did it matter? When it got too itchy, he stropped his razor, heated some water, and laboriously scraped it off. He smiled ruefully at the thought. Julie would have made him shave every day, but that was a long time ago, and Julie was now only a distant memory.

Cletus Rawlins sat on his front porch in a rough chair he made himself, idly watching the valley floor far below in the mid-afternoon. His cabin was twenty miles from the nearest town, and he liked it that way. Once every six months, he saddled up and took two pack horses to the crossing to put in supplies. Otherwise, he cherished his isolated loneliness, and the remoteness of the two hundred deeded acres of timber he called home.

He often saw deer and elk because he never hunted within ten miles of the cabin. He liked watching the wildlife, and even saw a black bear now and then. He fed a covey of quail just down the slope, and squirrels fearlessly came right up on the porch looking for a handout. They were never disappointed.

Finally, he rose and caught up his Winchester. His headache was at last receding, and the queasiness that went with it. Glancing around one last time, he was about to go feed the livestock when something caught his eye. It was a small figure slowly leading a horse along the valley trail below, and even at this distance, he could see that the horse was lame. Sighing, he went to the corral and saddled his horse. Then he roped a second horse, and headed down the hill.

The forest floor was heavy in pine needles, so he rode almost silently and was nearly on top of the stranger leading the limping horse before he was seen. The startled cry made Cletus Rawlins’ jaw drop, because the figure leading the horse was a young woman. He drew up and tipped his hat.

“Beggin’ your pardon, ma’am. Didn’t mean to sneak up on you like that, but horses don’t make much commotion on them soft pine needles. I seen you from my cabin up yonder, and that your horse was lamed up, so I come to help.”

The young woman nodded. She looked to be about twenty.

“I should not have cried out like that, but I was lost in my own thoughts when I should have been paying attention. You could just as easily have been a bear or a mountain lion.”

“Bear maybe, but not likely a lion. I’ve lived up there nigh on to ten years, and I’ve yet to see a catamount.”

He spat over his shoulder and indicated the spare horse.

“Brought you a mount. We’d best take the saddle off your mare, put it on my gelding, and head up to the cabin. You hungry Miss…?”

“It’s Miss Hungerford, and yes, I could eat.” She looked down at her feet.

“I’m afraid I left the ranch in anger, and did not prepare properly. Then Molly lamed herself, and I was in a real pickle until you came along. I thank you for coming to my aid, Mister…I’m afraid I don’t know your name either.”

She smiled, and he realized for the first time that she was a beautiful young woman.

“Yes ma’am. Name’s Rawlins. Cletus Rawlins.”

“Then I’m thanking you, Mister Cletus Rawlins.” She walked back to Molly and started removing her saddle. Cletus nodded in appreciation. She was a western woman, no doubt about that. He dismounted and went to help.

The cabin was a surprise to her. The old man was unshaven and a little unkempt, but the cabin was neat and clean, as was the small barn and corral. He had already apologized for his appearance, mumbling something about seeing no need until now. She found herself liking him more and more, as he talked. He was obviously lonely, and felt the need to talk now that he had a listener, but she found his stories to be fascinating, so listening was easy. Finally, the talk got around to her.

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“My father is not an easy man, Mister Rawlins. Oh, I love him I suppose, but I’m not sure that I like him very much. My mother died bearing me, so maybe he’s bitter about that and blames me. I don’t know. All I know is that he treats me more like a maid than a daughter. In fact, as soon as I was old enough to clean house and cook, he fired old Mary, the woman he hired to raise me and keep house. She was the only mother I ever had, and he just fired her one day. I never saw her again.”

Cletus handed her a plate of beef and beans, along with a loaf of fresh baked bread. She was surprised at how good it tasted. The old man could cook.

He sat down across from her and absentmindedly rubbed his beard as he listened to her talk about her life on the Hungerford ranch. He’d heard talk himself about the Rafter H and the hard man who owned it, but it was none of his concern…until now.

She finished talking, and they sat silently, sipping their coffee. Finally, Cletus Rawlins cleared his throat.

“I always figured that the best way to work a problem is to face it head on. I’m thinking that we ought to ride to the Rafter H in a few days, and have a talk with Hungerford…”

“Bob. His name is Bob Hungerford.“

“Yes ma’am…have a talk with Bob Hungerford, and see what comes of it. Then you can decide what you want to do.

He peered at her from under bushy brows.

"I'll back whatever you decide, young lady.”