"I was from up North," the constable said, turning to give a brief look at the commotion and then swinging back.
Jules noted how he stood, hands in pockets and thumbs flicking like a horse's ears. "The hell you say. What you doing down among the alligators?"
On the porch of the saloon, two men were tying the other's hands behind his back, one making the knot, the other kneeling on his shoulders.
"The mill manager's office is through that red door over there in the main building," the constable said.
"Say, why don't"
"Excuse me." He began walking toward the fight, taking his time going around a broad mud hole, and Jules followed for over a hundred yards, stopping in a plinth of shade cast by the commissary. At the saloon, two men, wearing dark wool caps and suits that fit like a hound's skin, hauled the squalling man off the high porch and over toward the millpond, and the constable caught up with them as they mounted the levee. Jules barely heard him say, "Stop."
One of the men, barrel-shaped, his bare chest visible under his suit coat, motioned toward the water. "We gonna give the sonamabitch a swimming lesson," he called. "He owe the house fifty dollar he don't got."
The bound man, a big sawyer in overalls, bent his knees and sat on the ground. "Mr. Byron, these Eyetalians is tryin' to drown my ass."
"Aw, naw," the fat man said. "We just gonna watch him blow bubbles, then we gonna fish him out. That right, Angelo?"
His partner was slim, with a face full of splayed teeth; his response was to tighten his grip on the sawyer's denim collar.
"Cut him loose."
"I don't think so," the fat one told him, and in a single motion the constable reached under his vest, pulled out a big Colt pistol, and swung it like a hatchet down onto the man's head, putting his shoulder and back into it. Jules stepped closer to the commissary wall, even at this distance seeing the brassy jet pulsing through the dark pants as the man fell sideways and rolled like an oil drum down the levee. The skinny fellow stepped away from the sawyer, showing his empty palms.
Above Jules, on the commissary porch, a clerk began sweeping boot clods to the ground. He glanced over toward the pond. "Well," he said, as though he'd spotted a small, unexpected rain cloud.
"A little trouble."
The broom did not break its rhythm. "He ought to know better than to hammer them dagos," he said, turning and working the front edge of the gallery.
Jules put a hand to his chin and watched the sawyer stand up and offer his bindings to the constable's knife. He was thinking of letters he'd exchanged over the years with a man he'd never seen, the absentee owner of his now defunct Texas mill. "What's that lawman's last name?"
"Who wants to know?"
"The man who decides whether this mill gets bought."
The broom ceased its whispery talk. "You the evaluation man they said was coming? Well, you can look around and see the timber, but these fellows running things can't sell it. They poke around sending telegraphs all over but they couldn't sell harp strings in heaven."
Jules looked directly at the clerk, a pale man with skeletal arms. "Tell me his last name."
The clerk plucked a wad of chewing gum from his broom bristles. "Aldridge."
Jules glanced back at the millpond, where the smaller man, Angelo, was crouched next to his partner, slapping his bloody jowls. "You think your manager's in his office about now?"
"That's the only place he can be. Fell off his horse and broke his foot last week." The clerk made a final pass with his broom and stepped inside the commissary's syrupy darkness while Jules walked off toward the grinding thunder that was the mill.
At dusk, after examining the sales accounts, maps, invoices, payroll, pending orders, and the living mill itself, Jules put on his hat and walked toward the constable's house, glad he'd worn his old scuffed riding boots. A late-afternoon thundershower had turned the mill yard into a muddy reflecting pond where the images of herons and crows skated at cross- purposes. The mill was losing money, but only because it was operated by an Alabama drunkard; it was a financial plum, heavy and ready to be picked.
Excerpted from The Clearing by Tim Gautreaux. Copyright© 2003 by Tim Gautreaux. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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