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Friday Evening

      AS LUCY climbed out of the pickup, a gust of bitter wind set her hair flying around her. She grabbed at it, wrapping the long strands around her hand as she hurried for the cafe.

      Closeby, a dust-devil sprang up and began rustling a load of tumbleweed along the dirt track that led to the dump. It lifted the dry basket-like skeletons into the air, dropped them again, and then sent them rolling into the darkness, scattering the tiny thorns of their seeds. Lucy stood at the door and watched them disappear, her face bathed in the blue neon light from the sign above her head. Cowboy Bob's the sign read, but the "'S'" had gone dark years before and never been repaired.

      Indoors, the kitchen smelled agreeably of chili. Lucy said, "Hey Gene, everything under control?" and her voice was unexpectedly beautiful, with the golden texture of raw honey.

      Eugenio Sanchez, the cook, looked up from scraping the grill. "Almost done here. I made enough of everything to last you the weekend. And tomorrow I'll clean up everything real good before I go."

      She finished tying back her hair and took a clean apron off the shelf. "You sure you want to run off tonight and endanger your life with that bunch of rowdies?"

      "We'll be safe," he grinned. "Melida said we couldn't have any ladies at this bachelor party. Just food and booze."

      She grinned back, "You enjoy yourself while you can, cowboy. Once you're married, she'll make you behave."

      Opening the walk-in cooler, she peered inside. "Did you leave any salsa for the paying customers?" And then, "Is Bobby holding up okay?"

      The young man shrugged. "He was watching for you all afternoon, but a while ago he went someplace with Tagg."

      "And left nobody out front but the new server?" Lucy frowned. She'd come as early as she could. All afternoon she'd been typing letters to the State Tax Commission, with her uncle, Cowboy Bob himself, right beside her in his wheeled chair, dictating at full tilt. And after the last letter was signed and finished, he'd come up with several more cutting things to say, and she'd had to do the whole thing over again. Tying her apron strings, she pushed through the swinging door and emerged behind the bar.

      Clive Watkins was sitting halfway down the bar, and seeing Lucy come in, he drained the last of his beer, leaving drops of foam on his sandy mustache. "Evening, Luce." He held out his glass for a refill. "Bobby was looking for you before."

      As Lucy filled his glass, she glanced around the room. It was almost empty. Two other regular customers were nursing beers at the counter, and beyond them a youngster with a big beard was hunched over what looked like a soda. At one of the tables, a couple was staring resentfully across their empty dishes at the new waitress, Elena, who was sitting next to the juke box, reading a magazine.

      Lucy felt a wave of irritation. Customers waiting, an uncleared table by the window, and the bar was littered with empty glasses. Bobby should not have left; it was clear that Elena didn't know what was expected of her.

      She went briskly to the unhappy customers. "Can I get you some dessert, Mr. Romero? More coffee, maybe?"

      "Just the check."

      "Right away." She gave them a smile and went over to Elena. Bending close she said, "Take the check to table seven and then clear those dishes and put them in the kitchen, please."

      Elena looked up coolly. "I'm on a break."

      "I'm sorry, but we can't take breaks when our customers need service. Next time, wait till there's somebody here to take over for you." Lucy said softly.

      Elena looked offended, but she got up and moved slowly toward the occupied table. Lucy went back to the bar and cleared off the empties. Then she began to wipe it clean. It was a beautiful piece of wood, smooth as glass and inset with Mexican silver coins — except for one place where somebody had pried out a silver peso and replaced it with a brown Mexican penny that didn't quite fit. Made to order in Mexico, years ago, it had been shipped up all the way from Matamoros.

      In those long-ago days, Lucy's uncle, Bob Vance, had been locally famous as the original Cowboy Bob of Cowboy Bob's TV Ranch on K-W-S-T in El Paso, Texas. The knotty-pine walls of the room were lined with his framed memorabilia. One picture showed him shaking hands with cowboy star Rex Allen, both of them wearing ten-gallon hats and furry chaps. There were pictures of Cowboy Bob arm-in-arm with a then-mayor of El Paso, of him sharing a big three-way hug with the station manager and Miss Rodeo America, of him shaking hands with various small children who had been Little Buckaroos on his show.

      Next to the doorway hung a copy the Cafe's menu. It included a printed history of Cowboy Bob's professional life, written by himself. The last paragraph read:

". . . After many years, Bob Vance grew tired of his glamorous life of TV stardom, and he decided to return to Los Nietos and open a fine restaurant in the town where he'd been born. He hopes you'll enjoy his hospitality and sample his Famous Texas Hot-Dog Chili, served with pride here at Cowboy Bob's End Of The Trail Cafe. Please dine with us often."

      As Lucy worked, putting the bar to rights, the room began filling up. Just before seven, Bobby came in, followed by Tom Tagg, both of them laughing like a couple of kids. They sat down on the customer side of the bar, and Tagg said, "Well Luce, we're all ready for Gene's party. You want to come with us, just say the word."

      She shook her head brusquely, not answering. She was chronically irritated with Tagg, a rangy fellow with a face full of freckles and a big grin. True, he'd done a sound job of operating the feed store ever since his dad died, but he was always acting like life was one big joke. He was nothing but a grown-up Huck Finn, and she had no patience with him.

      "Could be tough tonight," Tagg suggested. "Nobody but you and a new waitress. Dishing out food, tending bar, serving, cleaning up. And it's a Friday night, too. If you want me to, I could stop back later to give you a hand and . . . "

      "Don't be foolish." She barely gave him a glance. But in her heart she half-wished he really would come by. And she realized that her impatience was partly because he and Bobby were going off together to enjoy themselves without her. There had been a time when she had Tagg had been good friends, with little Bobby tagging behind. Now they were two guys together and she was left out.

      Of course, there was a reason for that, but Lucy chose not to remember it.

      Bobby came around the bar and put his arms around her. "Listen, Sis, while Gene's off honeymooning, why don't we get somebody to give you a hand in the kitchen — part-time maybe, for next weekend. What do you say?"

      Lucy sighed. He was trying to get around her, she knew, and she was so fond of him that he would probably succeed. But she wanted to resist. She knew that what he wanted her to say was that no, she could handle everything. But what Tagg had said was right; there was really too much to do without somebody working in the kitchen. "We'll talk about it tomorrow. Right now, you better get Gene and go on."

      "Great. You'll take care of things then." Beaming, he gave her another hug. Then he and Tagg left, taking Eugenio with them — leaving Lucy to take care of whatever came up.

      And of course, something did come up.

      The something was Chuckie and Bub Brewster who came in to eat soon after Bobby and Tagg had left, and who stayed to drink more beer than was good for them.

      There was not much harm to the Brewsters, Lucy thought, other than the fact that they were not overburdened with brains. And at the start of the evening, they just sat in a far corner of the room, drinking with Cletis Martine. Cletis was harmless enough. He's always worked at the feed store, first for Tagg's dad and now for Tagg. He came in every evening to eat supper, and after that, he usually he went quietly home.

      Tonight, however, Cletis stayed to visit with Chuckie and Bub, and along about ten, they were joined by a young man Lucy didn't know, an oil field worker to judge by his clothes. And at about ten-thirty, they began to get noisy. A few minutes later, Elena got Lucy away from what she was doing and said, "Do I have to keep serving those men?"

      "What's the matter?"

      "They been calling people names."

      Lucy sighed. "What kind of names?"

      Elena's face closed down. "What people call Mexicans. Greaser. Chili belly. I don't have to listen to that!"

      Lucy took the easy way out. "All right, I'll take that table, along with the kitchen and the bar. Just be sure you take good care of the rest of the tables."

      At that moment, Bub Brewster's voice rose, ". . . Burn the fuzz off'n your Goddam hairy ass if you — " But at once the others shushed him and the sound dropped again.

      Behind the bar, Lucy talked to the customers while she opened bottles and filled beer glasses with practiced ease. She poured the golden liquid along the side of the glass, then foamed it up. Chuckie and Bub ordered another small pitcher and she took it to the table with some misgivings, along with refresher bowls of chips and salsa. Then she slipped into the kitchen to pile dishes into the dishwasher and to ladle out chili for hungry customers. Carrying a tray of food, she hurried back to the bar to take money and make change and clear off empty glasses.

      Just after eleven, it was Chuckie Brewster's voice that became audible. "Fu-u-uk yoooo, summabitch!" he snarled, coming half out of his chair, glass in hand. Then Cletis and Bub sat him down again and the argument subsided, so Lucy stayed out of it. But by now, she was thoroughly uneasy. She wished Bobby was there. Or even Gene. And she was sorry she'd turned down Tagg's offer.

      At eleven-forty, the situation came to a head. Both brothers were on their feet at once, leaning over the table and glaring at the man from the oil field. Bub was jutting his chin and Chuckie was leading with his belly, shouting, "She never did that, Goddam your soul!"

      The other man cried, "You say! Well Scroo-oo you — you're BOTH sonsabishes!" And with a swipe of his arm he sent the remains of the salsa skidding across the table and scattering chips far and wide.

      Lucy took off for their table, still with a half-full glass in one hand and a half-empty bottle in the other. Spilled chips crunched under her feet.

      "Everything okay here, fellas? How about you, Cletis, ready for another bowl of chili?" Lucy made a point of speaking to the older man, because he seemed uninvolved with the quarrel. Cletis, hearing his name, turned his head and smiled vaguely in her direction. But his eyes were glassy and she could see he was too far gone to be any help.

      Bub half rose. "She-it! That summabitch said . . ." Then he reconsidered. "Naw, everythin's fine."

      "Fine." Chuckie agreed, glaring.

      The fourth man glared back.

      "Can I get you guys your check?"

      Chuckie gave her a cross look. "Whassa matter, you tryin' t' run us off?" His face was red, he was sweating hard, and his thin, graying hair hung down in his eyes.

      "It's getting on to closing time."

      Chuckie stuck out a pugnacious jaw. "Think we're drunk?"

      Once again Lucy wished that Bobby was standing there behind the bar. "Fellas, it's been a long week, and everybody's tired. Let's call it a day."

      "You think we're drunk?" Chuckie repeated truculently. "You think we're drunk!"

      "Listen, Chuckie, we've got no problems with you being here. People come and buy a drink — we serve them. But like I said, it's getting late and I'm ready to close."

      "Well then, you're off duty. So why'nt you siddown here a minute an' les' talk about it." With that Chuckie leaned back in his chair and began leering up at her as if he'd said something clever.

      Lucy began, "I don't . . ."

      But she never finished her sentence, because Chuckie suddenly swept both his hands up under her denim skirt and grabbed the smooth curve of her upper thigh, encircling it with his big rough hands and giving it an affectionate squeeze, saying, "Girl, you're one hellova gorgeous piece of ass — c'mon, let's you and me go someplace and fuck!"

      In all the ten or eleven years Lucy had been working at her Uncle's bar, she'd worked all kinds of hours, and served all kinds of cowboys and roughnecks — but nobody had ever put his hands on her like that before. Never. She hadn't expected it, and wasn't prepared for it, and she acted purely from instinct: Without thinking, she turned over the glass in her hand and poured beer all over Chuckie Brewster's red, sweating, upturned face!

      He let go of her with a howl. Bub guffawed and the oil field worker began cackling, "Yey Chuckie, looks like she just about said no. Turned you down flat!" Even Cletis Martine grinned vaguely at the ceiling.

      Affronted and ashamed, Lucy turned away. "All right, that's all. I'm closing, and it's time you men called it a day."

      But Chuckie was not done with her. He came up out of his chair with a roar, his hand shot out to catch her wrist, and he spun her around. "Goddam fuckin' BITCH!" he snarled.

      He was so close that she could smell the sweat on him, and a shudder of rage and fear went through her. It was the stomach-shaking lurch that comes when the tires lose hold, and a heavy machine slides out of control.

      Grabbing her waist, Chuckie clutched her towards him, bending her backward over the table, grinding his crotch against hers until . . . his grip loosened abruptly, and he began shaking. Or — no, after a second's confusion, Lucy realized that somebody else was shaking him. Somebody had Chuckie by the shoulders and was shaking him violently back and forth to make him let go of Lucy.

      And Chuckie did let go. He was no longer cursing, just being shaken and making a dull sound: "Uh! Uh!"

      Lucy now recognized that the aggressor was the bearded man who had been sitting at the bar all evening, and she cried out, "That's enough. Stop. You'll hurt him!"

      Instantly, the young man stopped shaking Chuckie. But he pulled him backward and then continued to hold him in a firm grip. He might well have been holding him up, because Chuckie now looked as if he might fall if his attacker let him go.

      The young man looked at Bub Brewster and said, "This dude with you?"

      Bub nodded.

      "Then take him home. He's had enough." He gave Chuckie another shake. "You had enough — right?"

      Chuckie nodded. He might have been unclear if he was being asked whether he'd had enough shaking or enough beer, but either way, Chuckie was not prepared to argue.

      "Then settle up and go home. The party's over."

      Bub threw some money on the table and grabbed his brother's arm saying, "All right, come on, Stupid." And they shuffled out. The oil field worker had already disappeared.

      By now Lucy had recovered herself and could speak more calmly. "Well, thank you." she said. "I really do thank you."

      The young man nodded and ducked his head as he mumbled something inaudible and went back to the bar where he sat down again behind his half-empty glass.

      After that, closing went smoothly. Nobody seemed alarmed, and the stragglers took about the same amount of time as usual to clear out.

      Lucy set Elena to clearing tables while she cleaned up the mess the Brewsters had made. Then she went to the kitchen to pile dishes into the washer and put away the food. When she returned through the swinging door, the tables were clear but Elena was gone.

      Had she left for the evening, or had she just . . . left?


      Lucy jumped; she'd thought she was alone, but the young bearded man was still there. "Yes? Oh, I'm glad you're here. I want to thank you again. Those boys could have given me some real trouble if you hadn't helped me."

      "I didn't do much. People generally quit making a fuss when I show up." He said no more, just sat there, hanging his head, as if waiting for something. Then it dawned on Lucy what it was, and she reached down and took the tin box from under the counter. It was the box where they kept the cash.

      "Well, I really appreciate what you did. Let me offer you something, Mister," she said, wondering how much would be enough. It had been a really slow night, and there was Elena to pay, too.

      "No. No." But his voice was hesitant.

      She looked. There was one twenty-dollar bill and the rest were ones and fives. She took out the twenty and offered it to him. "Nonsense. I'm really grateful to you for helping me with those two drunks."

      He looked longingly at the twenty and put his hands behind him. "I better not."

      "Take it. You earned it."

      Now his eyes left the twenty and met hers. "Ma'am, I didn't earn it. But I'd be real grateful if you'd give me chance to let me work here, just for a while. We really do need some money, and I'm a hard worker. I really am."

      "Well I . . ."

      "See Ma'am, Brother and me been traveling, but then the truck broke down out on the highway — or maybe she's just out of gas — so now we're really stuck. Cause we're fresh out of money. So we thought if we could find some kind of work, we could get the truck fixed. And buy gas. So we can move on."

      "How long did you want to stay?"

      "Well, if I can find something here, we'd maybe wait to get the truck fixed up, if we can. But right now we — " He hung his head again. "Right now, we don't even have eating money."

      "Then take this." Lucy said immediately. "And sit down and let me feed you. You and your brother both. There's plenty in the kitchen. And an apple pie already cut in the cooler."

      He licked his lips. "That would be real nice. Real nice, Ma'am, and I'd be grateful. But Brother, he got a lift and went on to the next town up the road, hoping for something there. So right now, it's just me here."

      "All right then, you just wait a minute," she said. He stayed at the bar, while Lucy went back to the kitchen and heated chili. She also made him several ham sandwiches, and poured him a big glass of milk, and brought it out and set it before him on the bar with a big slice of pie for desert. He ate it all, nodding at her happily, glancing up at her from time to time over his busy fork and spoon.

      When he had finished everything, she went back and brought him another slice of pie. He took it eagerly, saying, "Thank you ma'am. That's good of you. It's all real good."

      Lucy put down the plate. "Now that you feel better, tell me your name."

      He hesitated. "Shark."

      "And your first name?"

      "That's all I use. See, Brother and me are kind of entertainers," he said confidingly, "Or at least Brother is, and I thought our real name (that's Grullo) didn't sound too much like a star, so maybe we'd call ourselves the Shark Brothers. Sounds cool, don't you think?"

      Lucy didn't offer her opinion of that. "I don't have a job for any entertainers, but if you really want work . . . what else can you do?"

      "Anything you need. Sweep, help out in the kitchen. I could be a waiter if you need one."

      Lucy thought that over. "What about your brother?"

      "He plays the guitar."

      ". . . plays the guitar? For a living?"

      He nodded, eyes shining. "Me too, a little. But it's mostly Brother. He plays and sings, too. And he's really good. 'Course, we know there's not much call for professional musicians in little towns out here. But he did pretty good in Helena and Cheyenne, up north. And so good in Colorado that we saved some up and started working our way east, thinking maybe Brother could make a record or something, so he could break out. But things were kind of thin in up there in Albuquerque and by the time we got down here we'd run right out — and now we got to work at anything we can get, so as to get the truck fixed."

      Lucy said slowly. "Well, I don't know for sure, but it's possible we could have you for a week, maybe, while our cook is out on vacation. But I'd have to talk to my uncle before we could hire anybody."

      Shark hung his head. "Well, I'd be real grateful. You think maybe you'd know by tomorrow?"

      Lucy began gathering up the plates. "I'll ask him in the morning. You come in tomorrow about noon, and I'll know by then."

      "Anything you say, Ma'am."

      "Well then, good night."

      He nodded and took himself away, disappointed. Maybe I should have just done it, Lucy thought. Then she shook her head. If she'd gone out on a limb, Uncle Bob would probably have refused, just out of irritation. Better to wait and be sure.

      She sighed. Just as Tagg had predicted, it had been a tough night. She was glad it was over.


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