Stutter Hawks walked toward the broken-down log building that sat in a grove of ash trees. His stomach was in knots and sweat beaded out on his forehead and upper lip. He hated confrontation, but it had to be done. He pushed back his black, wide-brimmed hat and ran his hand through thick, blond hair. He stomped up the steps and when he reached the door, it flew open and a young woman dashed out, blonde hair flying, tears streaming.
“Mazzie? Where you going? What’s wrong?”
She stumbled and fell face first in a pile of corn stalks. Stutter ran to pick her up but stopped when he heard someone shout his name. He knew without turning it was Luther Biggs.
He had a history with Luther. As boys, they had been best friends. Together they’d learned to ride, rope, hunt, swim, and shoot. They shared a love for horses and a love for the range. The problem came when they grew up and shared a love for the same woman.
“Leave her be, Stutter. She deserved what she got.”
Stutter looked from Luther to Mazzie. Her red, swollen face distorted as she looked up at him. Red marks covered her neck and one eye was swollen. She covered her face and sobbed.
“What’d she do, Luther? Did you hit her?’
“It’s nothin’ to you. You’d best leave. I’ll take care of her.”
Stutter leaned over and lifted Mazzie to her feet. She leaned against him to keep from falling. He put an arm around her shoulders and led her to the house as Luther stood watching with a grin on his face.
“Too bad she chose me, huh?” Luther’s laugh was more of a sneer, and Stutter grimaced.
“I came after my saddle. I’m going on a trip and I need it.”
“Your saddle? You gave me that saddle.”
“No, I loaned it to you. I want it back.”
Ever since his ma, pa, and little sister died in a house fire, Luther had changed. He started visiting the saloon much too often and had become a mean drunk.
“He did loan it to you, Luther.” Mazzie's voice was low, but Luther turned and slapped her hard.
“Shut up, you fool. Go inside the house and make me some food.”
Stutter gasped and stepped forward, but Luther straightened and narrowed his eyes. “Don’t even think about it, friend.” He jumped off the steps. “You want your saddle, you’ll get it.”
Stutter followed him to a small shed behind the house where the saddle leaned against a log. Luther picked it up and threw it towards Stutter.
“Take the blamed thing. Next time you give something, don’t ask for it back.”
“Luther, you know my dad gave this to me when I turned eighteen. You were there. I wouldn’t just give it away.”
Luther’s face turned red as he whirled and started toward the house. Stutter carried the saddle to his buckboard and left. He glanced back to see Mazzie standing at the door.
When Mazzie chose to marry Luther, Stutter was heartbroken. He had worked for three years erecting a homely cabin and a nice-sized barn. He furnished the cabin with handcrafted furniture. A heavy oak table surrounded by hand-carved chairs set near a matching buffet. Inside he displayed a set of fine china he’d purchased on a recent trip east. A comfortable living area featured a settee and chair, both with cushions covered with soft cowhide. A four-poster bed set in the center of a bedroom and a heavy chest held his few rancher clothes. Another chest set empty like a question mark, or perhaps a dash, wondering what comes next. It all needed only a woman’s touch.
Fences marked the boundaries of Hawks ranch, and a sign bearing the letters SS Hawks stretched over a large gate which opened to a narrow lane leading to the cabin. Crops of corn and wheat grew in fields on the east and south sides, and a herd of the best stock around grazed on the north and west sides. His talent and hard work had earned him the admiration and respect of surrounding ranchers, and available young ladies vied for his attention at community events. The dream of making a life with Mazzie floated like a misty presence over the place, but it wasn’t to be. He had to accept that and move forward.
His older sister Janette’s pleasant plump frame stood in the door of his cabin. She came once a week to check on him and fix him a good meal. His cooking ability was limited, and time prevented him from maintaining a healthy diet. She worried his taunt physique bordered on skinny and felt responsible for keeping him fed.
He unloaded the saddle and strode to the house to find a rag and saddle soap. He habitually kept his tack immaculate and the condition of the saddle saddened him. Before now, Luther never would have allowed a saddle to deteriorate in such a manner.
“How’s Mazzie?” Janette and Mazzie had been best friends, and Janette knew she was in trouble. “Is he still abusing her?”
“Yeah. She isn’t too good.”
Janette bristled. “Why didn’t you bring her here? You can’t leave her there to get beat up.”
Stutter slumped in a chair at the kitchen table. “Janette, I can’t just take a man’s wife. That’s her choice.”
“No, it isn’t. He isn’t giving her that choice. If she tries to leave him, he’ll beat her. What can she do? She’s held captive in her own home by her own husband.”
Stutter sighed and rubbed the back of his neck.
“You go get her, Stutter Hawks. You bring her here to me. I won’t allow him to hurt her anymore.” Janette jerked her long skirt up and kicked her foot. “I’ll boot him right out the door.”
“I know you would.” A corner of his mouth lifted. “I’ll think it over. I could get shot, you know.”
Janette bit her lip as she lit an oil lamp. “But she’s getting beat up. What about that?”
“Sis, I’m fully aware of that. But I can’t help her if I’m dead.”
“Men! Guess I’ll have to go get her myself.” She flounced out the door and headed toward the barn.
“Where you going? You can’t go over there. He wouldn’t think twice about shooting you either.”
“I’m going home. What do you think? It’ll be dark soon.” She led her horse out and mounted. “But tomorrow is another day.”
He watched her ride to her house a short distance away, knowing she was apt to pay a visit to Mazzie the next day. Was he a coward? He knew Luther could whip him. He was bigger and carried more weight. Shooting was another matter. In competitions, their shooting skills were about even. But that wasn’t shooting at each other. How could he possibly hurt his friend? He had to do something, or Janette would.
The next day, he rode to the Biggs place and knocked on the door. Luther looked sober when he answered, but it was hard to tell.
“Why you here? You already got your saddle. Did you think of something else you gave me and want back?”
Stutter shook his head. “I came for Mazzie.”
Luther snickered. “You came for Mazzie? Ha! You didn’t give Mazzie to me, she chose me.” His head tilted back as he laughed.
“Luther, I’m here to get her. I aim to take her whether you like it or not. This abuse is gonna stop.”
Mazzie stood in the door with her hand over her mouth. Fear filled her eyes, and she shook her head.
“No, Stutter. No. Just leave me be. He’ll kill you. And he’ll kill me.”
Stutter reached his hand out toward her, but Luther slapped it down.
“Go on home now, Stutter. Leave it be.’
“Come on, Mazzie. You’re going with me.”
Mazzie sniffed. “But Luther …”
“I don’t care what Luther said. I’m gittin’ you outa here now.”
He jerked her from the doorway and shoved her toward his buggy. He turned, expecting to be knocked to the ground, but Luther slouched against the door frame and made no move to stop them.
“Luther, why don’t you get yourself together? Isn’t Mazzie worth it to you?”
“Stutter, why don’t you realize you lost and get over it? Don’t you realize I always come out on top? All our lives, I’ve beat you. Riding, hunting, wrestling—and love. You always come out on the short end.” He reared his head back and laughed. “Maybe you’re short on brains, too.”
Luther had always beat Stutter when they competed in outdoor activities. Stutter excelled in academics, and Luther resented his ability to make better grades.
Stutter narrowed his eyes and clamped his lips together to keep harsh words inside. He boarded the buggy beside Mazzie and flicked the reins.
He tilted his head and looked at her. He reached over to touch her red face. One eye was black, and a cut bled on her chin. Purple blotches covered her arms and neck. He gritted his teeth. “I’d like to …”
She sniffled. “No, please. I’m all right.” She leaned against his shoulder. “Thank you for wanting to take care of me.”
The buggy bounced along, jostling the two against each other. Mazzie had to hang on to keep from being thrown over the side.
“Mazzie, you are married to Luther. Our job is to get this thing fixed so you two can be happy together.”
“But Stutter, I don’t know if I want to fix it.” A huge sigh escaped her lips. “We were so happy at the beginning, but when he started drinking, my life became miserable. I don’t know if we can ever go back to the way it was. I’m scared of him.”
Another bump jolted the buggy hard, and Stutter stopped to examine the wheels. One of them was loose and had to be fixed. He pulled a toolbox from under the seat and started working on it while Mazzie sat on a rock and watched. The sound of an approaching rider drew his attention away from the buggy wheel.
“Mazzie, get inside.” He leaned against the buggy as Luther dismounted his horse. The two men stood looking at each other. Finally, Luther spoke.
“Look, Stutter, we’ve been friends a long time. I know you love Mazzie as much as I do, but she’s my wife. Now she’s going back with me.”
“You drunken bully. Look what you did to her.” He took steps toward Luther. “I ought to do to you what you did to her.”
Luther staggered backward and laid his hand on his saddle.
“For her sake, I won’t, but I’m taking care of her until you fix your problem. You've become nothing but a drunken bully.”
Luther balled his fists and narrowed his eyes. “You don’t have a right to take her. She belongs to me.”
“She doesn’t belong to you, my friend. She may be your wife, but you don’t own her.”
“I never figured you to be a man who would interfere in another man’s marriage. I thought you to be a good, honest man.”
Stutter nodded. “You can think what you want about me, but I won’t allow this lady to be hurt, even by her husband. At one time, you would have agreed with me and helped me fight for her. What’s happened to you, Luther?”
Luther’s jaw tightened, and he jumped on his horse and dug his heels in its side. Stutter’s face clouded with sadness as he and Mazzie bounced down the trail.
“Mazzie, I’m taking you to Janette’s. You can stay with her until we get this mess straightened out.” He watched her face. “I’m just trying to protect you.”
She sighed and nodded.
Janette waited at the door of her cabin and welcomed Mazzie with open arms. Stutter knew she would have her fixed up in no time.
The next day while Stutter was mending a fence, he saw a rider coming fast down his lane. He knew who it was. Not surprised, he moved to his horse and buckled his gun around his waist, hoping he wouldn’t have to use it.
Luther slid off the horse and almost fell to the ground. He reeked of whiskey, and his words slurred. “Where is she? Where’s my wife?”
“Luther, you’re drunk. Go home and sober up, then we can talk.”
“Talk? Huh." He patted his holster and glared at Stutter. "This’ll do my talking.”
Stutter held his hands up. A fight was the last thing he wanted. Not with his best friend.
The sound of horse hooves caused both men to turn around. Stutter recognized Janette’s bay mare, but the rider wasn’t familiar at first. As it drew close, he recognized the flying blonde hair.
Mazzie slid off the horse and ran to Luther. Pulling on his arm, she pleaded with him.
“Luther, come on. Let’s go home now. It’ll be all right.”
He didn’t seem to recognize her at first, then he shoved her away. “No. You’ve done enough.”
Stutter rubbed the back of his hand across his face. What was he talking about? He watched the two before him--Mazzie pleading and pulling, and Luther shaking his head and resisting.
“Mazzie, you’re going to get hurt. Let him be.” Stutter pulled the distraught woman away from Luther. She stood by the bay mare, crying.
The two men faced each other. Their hands stretched out, ready to snatch the gun from its holster. They were boys again with their wooden guns, having a shootout. They circled, their eyes never leaving the face of the opponent. As little boys, they would have shot each other, fell to the ground, then returned to their play. They were not little boys now. The sun bore down, but wide-brimmed hats shaded their narrowed eyes. They circled once more, waiting, watching.
A shot rang out. A second one followed. Blood appeared on Luther’s shirt and he collapsed.
Stutter whirled around in time to see Mazzie topple forward, dropping a gun to the ground. Behind her, a white-faced Janette stood holding a smoking gun.
“S..s..she said she was going to k...k...kill him.” Janette dropped the gun and fell to her knees with her hands over her face.
Stutter rushed to Luther who panted and held his side. It was a flesh wound. He would be fine. Mazzie wouldn’t. Stutter leaned over her.
“Mazzie, what did you do?”
“I couldn’t stay with him anymore,” she gasped. “I want you.” Her eyes closed. “I changed my mind. I wanted you.” She lay still on the ground.
Tears flowed down Luther’s face. He nodded. “From the time we wed, she told me every day she wished she had chosen you.”