Rule of Thumb
Michael W. Cho
In those days, a man could ride for a thousand miles on the infinite, oceanic grassland that stretched from the Danal River on the east to the low range of hills that traced the western coast of the continent. The half-orc tribes that had dominated the steppes for centuries had been defeated by the combined armies of the southern countries of Gurian, Khavalia, Istaru, and Cadis. The decimated half-orcs scattered across the plains and looked for work as hired hands or trackers. The result of the war opened up caravan trade routes and led to prosperity—for some. The limitless steppes provided good grazing, now free for the taking. Well-heeled landowners acquired great herds of goats, sheep, and aurochs. They hired men to move these herds to pasture and then drive them to market.
This story is about some of those men.
Ramiro and the boys rode slowly under the faded sign. Bantam squinted at it from under his flat-brimmed hat as he mouthed the syllables.
“Says ‘Byder’,” said Ramiro, thumping him on the back as his chestnut eased past Bantam’s bay. “We used to call it a one-horse town, but I think they sold it.”
The little man from Cadis smirked, irritated. He hated when someone helped him with the letters, but Ramiro hadn’t exactly helped him, had he? No one was in a great mood after spending most of the last three months on horseback, getting the herd nice and fat on the endless Western Arapieth, then turning it over to the factor in Kel. From steppe to desert to here, it had been a long, dry haul.
The horse’s hooves rang in the noticeable quiet of the town. No one was about. Half of the false-front stores looked to be closed for good. Pastel pink dust coated fence posts, warped boardwalks, clouded windows; a dust devil rolled through, adding layer to the boys’ horses and clothes. Ramiro squeezed the chestnut and the horse cantered clear.
At least the saloon looked to be open; raised voices and the clinks of glasses came from the entrance. The men dismounted and Ramiro handed Bantam the reigns. He was low man on the totem pole since Kunbish the half-orc and his cousin, Mastiff, were in camp a few miles out of town. Someone had to watch over the gear, and bringing them here would only cause trouble.
So Ramiro, Warn, and Kep stepped onto the boardwalk, boots loud on the hollow structure, and pushed through the door into a dim room. Things had surely gone downhill, but the bar was a tremendous specimen of elaborately carved wood, though dusty; and behind it was a real mirror. The mirror could use a good wiping-down. The patrons turned to look, men at the bar or at the tables. Just a cool appraisal for the most part, and then a turning back to business. Ramiro leaned next to one and winked.
“You shouldn’t do that,” said the man, fiftyish, losing his hair, but sporting a good prickly white shadow on his jaw. He slouched and was soft around the middle, but had the air of a reformed brawler. “Shows your wrinkles.”
Ramiro snorted as they shook hands. “It’s copacetic, Armstead. My mom broke it to me I was ugly when I was six. How’s times?”
The man shrugged, eying light-haired, light-eyed Warn as he removed his hat and perched on a barstool, and glancing at the always-quiet Kep, one of the most non-descript men ever seen, as he called for rum.
“’Bout the same as last time. Won’t ever be like it used to, but the stagecoach biz and a trickle of settlers keep things going.”
Ramiro downed his glass and took in the room. There were a good dozen men here, probably the entire working population of the town. A generation ago, Byder had been prosperous. The surrounding lands had been thronged with auroch herds owned by the town fathers. He never had gotten the story as to what had happened, and it wasn’t polite to ask.
An older man in a fine black vest, built like a scarecrow, leaned out and raised a mug to him. “Drover, what’s your business in Byder?”
“Just passing through,” said Ramiro, raising his newly-filled glass in return. The first shot of rum rolled warmly around his belly. Fatigue from the trail seeped down his legs. “Me and the boys just drove a line for the Double-O brand. We’ll be heading back to Amlok to see what else’s cooking.”
The man’s eyes widened, giving his bony, narrow face a hawkish look. “I’m Elward Racine; my family owns this town. You might tell your employers we’ve got plenty of good grazing land around these parts. Reasonable prices, as well.”
Armstead shot a hidden look to the tin-plated ceiling to show Ramiro what he thought of that. “I’ll pass that on, Mr. Racine.”
Meanwhile, Bantam found a place to leave the horses. The rate was reasonable; the man who took the horses had bleary eyes and smelled of liquor, but was friendly enough. That was no sure thing, for as a Cadisian vaquero, he was used to ill-treatment from Guranians. Even Ramiro and the rest looked down on him sometimes. And not just because he was short. Or because he had tan skin and black hair and struggled with certain words. Guranians had been hiring his people to do the dirty work for years now, and now they thought it was their birthright.
As he returned along the main street to seek the saloon, he spied a man in a good black suit and a bowler doing what appeared to be yardwork. A tamarisk bush had colonized the alley between two buildings. The useless things were about the only thing that would grow out here, and would take over a town unless measures were taken to prevent it.
The man searched carefully through feathery foliage speckled with pink flowers. After finding what he wanted, he reached deep into the base and sawed through a branch with a wide-bladed knife. Bantam crossed paths with the man once he’d finished the extraction. He avoided eye contact, not looking for trouble, but the man greeted him politely and insisted on shaking hands.
“BF Racine,” said the man. His suit showed him to be a man of some means. A gold chain glinted from his pocket. “You be needing any supplies, my shop’s two stores down from the saloon. Good prices for canned goods, blankets, rope, lanterns, etc.”
Bantam tipped his hat to him clumsily. “Thank you, Mr. Racine. We intend to make a stop.”
“Very well, sir. I’ll see you then.”
After receiving a courteous tip of the hat in return, Bantam resumed his journey. Some people treated Cadisians as animals, others like human beings. You just never did know. He pushed into the run-down saloon, located the boys at the bar, and was about to join them, when a scream ripped through the air. From across the room, Ramiro’s eyes sought his.
“What’d you do out there, boy?” growled the boss, rising from his stool. One of the town citizens, grizzled but burly, grabbed Ramiro’s arm like he knew him, and whispered something.
Bantam spread his hands. What was he getting blamed for now?
Another cry rang out. It was a female voice, someone being hurt. Bantam burst outside, and scanned the street from the vantage of the boardwalk. It was utterly deserted. Footsteps vibrated the deck as someone else joined him. Ramiro took him by the arm.
“Come on back in,” he said, hardly moving his mouth. They returned to the dimness of the saloon, drawing the attention of most of its inhabitants. Ramiro steered him to the bar and nearly shoved him between Kep and Warn. He settled on a barstool in confusion, when a shriek pierced the air, and he leapt out of the stool.
“Stay put,” said Ramiro in a low voice.
“But—“ Ramiro glared at him intensely.
“It ain’t our business, Bantam. Get yourself a drink and simmer down. You cause any trouble; I’ll put you back on KP. Can’t stand Mastiff’s cooking anyway.”
Another sharp cry broke the silence. Warn’s arm settled heavily around his shoulders. The light-eyed Guranian fixed him with the flat stare he sometimes used on unruly horses.
Bantam knew he couldn’t escape, but there was no law against talking. “What’s going on out there?”
At first, no one answered.
“Goddamn cowardice, that’s what,” said a bitter, deep voice. It came from a strongly-built young man at the end of the bar. A clutch of used glasses rested carelessly on the dull wooden counter in front of him.
The young man turned in his seat to face the drovers. His dark mood gave him a brutal look. “This is what it’s like every Friday afternoon, without fail.”
“Sounds like someone’s in pain,” said Bantam, ignoring Ramiro’s warning glare.
“Damned right. You can ask his kin about it, he’s standing right there.”
The man he indicated was actually sitting, in a barstool at the other end of the bulky, many-layered monument to alcohol. He was tall, gaunt, and well-dressed, and was the spitting image of the man Bantam had met in the street, only older.
This one slowly turned their way. He wore an unpleasant smile. “The topic is tiresome. A man does with his property what he wishes.”
Another scream rang out, and Bantam stiffened and stifled a curse. Warn’s arm still lay around him, the hand patting his shoulder to remind him of the fact.
“Someone’s beating a woman,” Bantam said. “Ain’t anybody gonna do anything?”
“Nothing we can do,” said the middle-aged man sitting at the bar.
“Shit, why not?” Bantam shook in frustration. If someone had laid a hand on his mother, or one of his sisters, that man would be dead.
The tall man in the vest strolled their way. “It’s the law. As the gentleman over there intimated, a woman is indeed being beaten. Why my brother chooses to do so, is his own business. How he does so, is in fact, regulated by law. Isn’t that right, sheriff?”
The man with a grizzled white five o’clock shadow, who sat next to Ramiro, grunted. “Correct. BF can beat on my sister as much as he pleases, as long as the switch is no wider than his thumb.”
“Aren’t you going to go measure it?” demanded Bantam.
The sheriff shrugged. “I’ve done so many times. He knows his business. Lord knows, he’s had plenty of practice.”
“My brother is a creature of habit,” remarked the tall man, and then he threw back his drink and laid it with a thump on the counter next to Bantam. “And he and all our family are law-abiding men. Wouldn’t you agree, sheriff?”
He got a disgusted look in return, and sniffed. “This place stinks, and it isn’t ‘cause the cowboys. See you boys later.”
The man in the black vest stalked out through the front door.
The sheriff sighed and seemed to shrink. He had the sad look of a bloodhound about him. His jaw clenched at the next cry, this one softer and muffled.
The husky man at the end of the bar came to join them, swaying slightly. “Tell him how it is, Marlon.”
The sheriff shook his head with a distant gaze. “This drunk fool here’s my brother Jaeze. Seems every Friday, he forgets that our family and the Racines used to feud something fierce. Blood would be shed just about every week or two. I’d bore you to death if I listed all my kin got cut up. That hasn’t happened since Camille married BF Racine.”
A tense expectancy hung in the air. “’Spect he’s about through for tonight,” said the sheriff. “That one is a man with a distinct routine.”
“Who?” asked Ramiro. Boss had got a mean glint in his eye.
“BF Racine. He owns the dry goods shop here.” Bantam cursed, realizing now the man he’d seen cutting a branch from the tamarisk bush had been the perpetrator of the beating.
“Every Friday,” continued the sheriff, “about this time, he tidies up his shop, turns over the sign, and locks the front door. In a clean suit, he walks to the alley near where the hotel used to be. He finds himself a suitable switch, cuts it right at the base of the bush, and returns to the store. He goes up the back steps to their apartment on the second floor. He then proceeds to beat the living daylights out of my sister with that switch.”
Bantam burst through Warn’s grasp. He seized Jaeze’s meaty arm. “I’ll help you kill this bastard!”
“The next thing that would happen is I’d throw the both of you in jail and in a few days, you’d be swinging from the gallows,” said the sheriff.
“My man’s excitable about these things,” said Ramiro. “What’s the story with the bush?”
“I’ll tell you,” said Jaeze, speaking slowly because of the liquor, yet wanting to be understood. “When they were younger, BF and my sister were in that alley, behind that bush. He was trying to take more than she was willing to give. Papa caught him, threw his no-good ass on the ground, and gave him a hundred lashes with a switch cut from that very bush. Now that BF’s got her, he returns the favor every week like clockwork. Going on two years.”
“Camille married that bastard so there’d be peace between the families, but look where that got her,” said the sheriff.
“Stubborn wench!” spat Jaeze. He drew his sleeve across his eyes.
“She never thought to get divorced?” asked Ramiro.
“No cause,” said the sheriff. “Same deal.”
The conversation carried on in this way for another desultory hour. Thankfully, no further cries of pain split the air. Bantam felt Ramiro’s and Warn’s eyes on him, watching his every move. Still, they let him come back into town the next day to pay a visit to BF Racine’s dry goods store. Although light on stock, every sack of flour, every can of prairie strawberries, every jar of oil, lay in its place, clear of dust and neatly ordered. Bantam’s heart leapt at the sight of the woman behind the counter. Slim and severe, her features bore an affinity to those of the sheriff and Jaeze. No marks marred her pretty, sad face. However, she moved stiffly, and Bantam knew she concealed pain.
She added up their purchases efficiently and courteously. As the transaction came to an end, BF came from the back room and made sure to shake hands with Ramiro. He even sought out Bantam to thank him for the business. It took all of the Cadisian’s self-control to smile back at the earnest face, to stifle the urge to knock him to the ground. But he had promised Ramiro he’d do nothing. As much as the situation rankled him, he trusted his boss more.
As they headed out of town, Warn rejoined them, trotting on foot, sheathed machete in hand. Bantam thought nothing of it, stewing as he was in rage and regret. Later, he recalled the meaningful glance Ramiro and Warn exchanged before turning back to the trail.
It was six months later that Ramiro and the boys were again in that part of the country, this time with three hundred head of particularly frisky aurochs. It was a strange route to take, since the dying town of Byder was out of their way, but Ramiro steered them in that direction and expressed a desire to wet his whistle and pick up supplies. Near as Bantam could tell, nothing about the place had changed. But then they dropped off their horses and went back into the saloon. The glass windows near sparkled. The magnificent carved bar gleamed with polish. A beautiful lady—but then, one must make allowances for the opinion of men who’d been on the trail for months at a time—stood behind the counter, chatting amiably with the youth named Jaeze.
No, she truly was beautiful. The others in the saloon turned and they received more than a couple tips of the hats. Ramiro led them to the big counter and shook the sheriff’s hand. Before anyone could say anything, four sparkling glasses thumped on the bar and were filled with rum.
The sheriff chuckled as he toasted each of the drovers in turn. He resumed their conversation almost as if there hadn’t been an interval of half a year.
“Your trick worked,” he said to Ramiro casually. “We owe you big time.”
Boots thumped on the floorboards. Jaeze ran across the room, athletic and poised, and surprised Bantam with a giant bear hug. He left the ground and he nearly lost his wind before being released, and then the big man had his hand on his shoulder companionably. His eyes were clear and he looked neater than before.
“Tell me the story, then!” said Ramiro as he drained his first glass. The lady, changed so much as to be almost unrecognizable, filled it almost before it had touched the wood. Bantam couldn’t help but gawk. It was BF Racine’s wife. He couldn’t place what was so different about her. Her clothes were about the same. She’d let her hair down.
The sheriff said, “Well, everything went on as usual the next week after you left. And I guess what happened is, good ol’ BF went back to his favorite bush. It discomfited him that he could find no branch on it narrower than his thumb—thanks to your trim job—except for maybe some new growth that’d do him no good. But he was dead-set on his damned vengeance so…”
“He took the bait,” broke in Jaeze. “He took a rage for not finding the right kind of switch. So he cut off a big one. He went back to his place. He chased around Camille and started in on her. But we were waiting for him.”
“We paid him a visit,” agreed the sheriff, sipping his rum. “Turned out, his switch was bigger than his thumb. Broke the rule, you see. So he spent the weekend in jail, and that Monday, Camille got her divorce. She married Doc Amis, whose place this is. He treats her right.”
“The Racines howled that it was all on a technicality. Seems they didn’t notice BF’d been skirting by on his own technicality.”
“A mite hypocritical,” suggested Ramiro.
The sheriff shrugged. “Makes me a little angry I never thought of it. You were on the outside, so you came at it with fresh eyes. And big hearts. But we were locked into this cycle, you see. Letting Camille fight our granddaddy’s war for us.”
There was a sudden feminine presence, and the lady leaned over the counter and into their circle of conversation. The thing that was different, Bantam realized, was simply that she was happy.
“Goes without saying,” she drawled “that you boys’ll never pay for a drink here again. And we opened up our kitchen, too. So you let me know and I’ll fix you something to eat.”
Ramiro and the others tipped their hats to her. The boss’s glance passed over the boys, lingering with a knowing smile on Bantam.
Lord knew, Mastiff was about the worst cook’d they had. “Ma’am, we’ve been eating burnt beans and dried out cornbread for the last half-year, so we would be thrilled to take you up on that offer.”