Rivulets of sweat turn to droplets that seem to freeze before hitting the hoof held between Burl Branchwater’s knees. He makes the finishing touches with his rasp, bends his neck up to check the curvature of the hoof and shoe for proper alignment and fit. Perfect. He drops the hoof and stretches, his forty-five-year-old back hurting.
He hears the pickup and trailer rattling and knows who it is without looking. Burl groans. He has already shod six horses since daylight and is looking forward to a few beers by a warm fire. He is definitely not in the mood for Weldon Welch. Weldon, sometime cowboy, sometime gravel-hauler, full time trouble, is probably bringing more horses just when Burl thinks he is through for the day. Burl is relieved to see that the trailer is empty and even more relieved to see best friend Clayton Hall riding shotgun for Weldon. Weldon’s four-year-old daughter stands in the seat between them.
He can tell they are in a Lone Star mood before they reach the horse lot. Burl wipes his face with a dirty handkerchief, feeling like a sober man about to converse with two old boys with a buzz on. Weldon waves his arms in his usual disjointed manner. “Godamighty, Burl. You the only man I know can sweat when it’s freezin.”
Burl’s wife Lillie keeps two of Weldon’s hot checks under the salt and peppershakers on the kitchen table, a constant reminder to Burl of money his family needs. He thinks of the checks as he ignores Weldon and looks to Clayton to explain why the two are traveling together and why they stopped here. They are not exactly running buddies, and Clayton knows about the hot checks.
Clayton lets Weldon ramble on, enjoying Burl’s curiosity and aggravation before finally speaking. “Weldon’s on his way down the other side of Emory to pick up some hogs from a feller. I thought you might want to come along. Looks like you done shod all the horses here.”
It is true. Burl is done for the day. But he smiles at Weldon’s pretty young daughter Tess as he shakes his head. “Guess not. Don’t reckon I need no hogs.”
Clayton eases a little closer to Burl, his back to Weldon. “Come on, Burl. This boy got two cases of beer iced down in the back of that pickup. How else you gonna get any of your money back?”
Burl is not an educated man, but he knows horses and he knows people. He is like a bartender for cowboys. People come to him with their own troubles and their horses’ troubles because he has a knack for getting to the heart of problems. “How the hell is goin’ off with you boys gonna get any of my money back? He wantin’ me to take it out in hogs?”
Clayton lowers his voice as Weldon eases closer, figuring he is being discussed. “Naw. But he’s got to be carrying a little cash if he means to buy hogs. Either way, you can at least drink up some of his beer. Come on. It’ll be like old times.”
Burl recognizes the familiar glint in his old friend’s eyes. There had been some good times in the old days. Clayton is a single man again, and Burl feels a short burst of the type of anticipation he has not felt in years. “I’ll have to see what Lillie says.”
Weldon hears and laughs. “Hell, Burl. You got to ask your old lady ‘fore you take a little trip down the road?”
Burl shoots him a look that says to leave mention of Lillie alone. The sainted woman has stood by him during his and Clayton’s drinking and hell-raising days. Burl has seventy-five pounds on Weldon and most folks accept that he and Clayton are not to be riled at any time, any place, by anyone. The only speculation concerns who is meaner in a fight, Burl or Clayton. Weldon once tried to cover bets on a match between Burl and Clayton, but he could never get the two friends mad enough to go at each other, though he had tried more than once.