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Rat Killer
About the Author: Mark Mellon has four novels and over eighty short stories (many as reprints) published in the USA, UK, Ireland, and Denmark. His short fiction has recently appeared in Cirsova, Savage Realms, Swords And Sorcery, and Weird Mask. A novella, Escape From Byzantium, won the 2010 Independent Publisher Silver Prize for SF/Fantasy.

Eliano was eleven when the stranger came to Matalo, a complete rarity in that tiny pueblo. Guzman had him sweep the porch while he washed glasses and mopped down the bar. He awkwardly swung the broom, taller than himself. Trotting hooves distracted him.

A man rode down the single dirt road, past the two dozen or so adobe huts and brush jacals that made up the Coahuilan hamlet. Mestizo dark, he dressed like a gringo in a sweat stained Stetson and denim brush jacket and pants. He rode a big stallion, a white and brown paint with a blond-black mane. Horse and man were dusty from long riding.

He halted before the tavern. “Hello, chico. Will you unsaddle my horse and brush him down for fifty centavos?”

Eliano grinned. “Certainly, Señor. Right away.”

“Hold on. He works for me. You can’t just take him away from his chores.”

Guzman stood on the porch, walrus mustached, hands on hips, dirty white apron to his knees. The man dismounted.

“That’s no way to talk to a customer.”

“I’m not open until noon.”

“You’re open when I say you are.”

Big, broad shouldered, his eyes were like black obsidian chips, a Colt ’73 Peacemaker on his left hip, a bowie knife on his right. Guzman visibly withered under his glare. He bowed and gestured to the batwing doors.

“I’m always open to a gentleman.”

The stranger handed the reins to Eliano along with fifty centavos.

“Feed him too.”

Clutching the coins in his free hand, Eliano led the horse to the stables in back. The man stepped onto the porch.

“I smell coffee. Any chance of eggs with it?”

Guzman smiled and nodded. “Of course, Señor. I cater to hungry travelers. Step into my establishment.”

The tavern was a long, low ceilinged, narrow room, furnished with a half dozen deal tables and handmade chairs. Boards set on empty whiskey barrels served as a bar. Stone jugs of mezcal, tequila, and rotgut whiskey were set on shelves behind the bar. Coffee boiled in a pot atop the wood stove in the kitchen.

The man sat at a table in a corner, facing the door. He took off his hat and put a silver five-peso piece on the table.

“I want bacon and tortillas too. I had a long ride from Piedras Negras.”

Guzman scooped up the coin and eagerly nodded. “Yes, Señor. I have a nice, fresh fletch and corn tortillas made by the woman next door.”

He served coffee in a clay mug that the man sweetened with molasses. Done with the horse, Eliano fetched his food. He ate quickly, but carefully, mopping his mustache clean with his kerchief edges.

“You must know the ranchers here. Do any have cattle for sale?”

Guzman smiled broadly, reassured now he knew the man’s business. “I know every rancher for a hundred kilometers around Matalo. What kind of stock are you looking for?”

He sipped coffee. “I work for a Yankee syndicate with land in North Texas. They want local animals to breed with their Herefords so their offspring can endure life on the plains. I need strong stock, close to longhorns.”

Guzman nodded sagely. “You want the Ortega brothers. They run at least ten thousand head at their ranch, all half wild.”

The stranger pushed aside his tin plate. “Where’s their ranch? I’ll ride there.”

“No need, Señor. They come every Saturday for my roast cabrito. All three brothers should arrive soon. I’ll introduce you.”

“You’ll get a commission if things go well. A hundred pesos.”

Guzman’s small eyes widened at the prospect of such a large, completely unexpected profit.

“I see you’re an experienced businessman, Señor. Would you like more eggs and bacon? Perhaps a complimentary shot of my best whiskey?”

“I’m full and it’s too early to drink, but you should make more coffee. I like it.”

“Immediately, Señor.”

Guzman hurried to the kitchen. He took Eliano by an elbow and whispered. “You know where the Ortega ranch is, right?”

“Sure. Out past the Cerro Gordo, down a draw.”

This story appears in our AUG 2022 Issue
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