Pecker heard a noise behind him and turned swiftly, bringing his Henry to bear. He was fairly certain he'd racked a cartridge in the chamber earlier, and without looking let his thumb drift to suss out whether the hammer was back. The edge of a torn callus caught on the corner of the cold iron, and Pecker resisted the urge to react. He ended up gritting his teeth and narrowing his eyes some, which he hoped made him look tough and ready, and not like some tenderfoot who'd just got stuck with a thorn in the chaparral. The hammer was in fact back, though that didn't relax him none, given that he was staring at a vaquero who had brought his six gun to bear in Pecker's direction, not a dozen feet away.
Pecker had found himself opposing the business end of a six gun more than once, and always marveled at how big the hole in its end looked from that position. Rifles, the business end of which he was also familiar with, looked less imposing, even in the same caliber. As he stared at the end of the Mexican's hog leg, he felt that familiar and unwanted falling sensation in his gut and forcibly drew his attention to the face of the man instead.
That face, Pecker noted, was clean-shaven. The man's skin tone was lighter than most residing in the north reaches of Mexico, and his features were more slight. The eyes staring back from beneath a broad-brimmed hat were curious, steady, and didn't show the slightest bit of fear. Those eyes were also bright blue, putting finality to Pecker's conclusion that his opponent was high-born, by blood at least, if not by station.
Pecker adjusted his grip on the Henry slightly, more to assure himself that he hadn't become lax during his moments of musing. "We seem to have found ourselves in a situation," he said. He squinted one eye slightly to indicate his study of their standoff.
"Indeed we do," said the man in clear, though accented English. Pecker understood enough Mexican to hold simple conversations, mostly about food, sex, and working cattle, a list of subjects that took up most of Pecker's world. He could have come up with enough words to distract the average peasant sufficient to gain the upper hand and shoot without getting shot himself. This Mexican, however, was not that sort of man, and Pecker found himself re-calculating his odds of getting home.
"What're you thinkin'?" asked Pecker. He liked the direct approach to most things. It took less effort in deciding options.
"I am thinking," said the man, "that if I shoot you, you will get a shot off before dying and likely kill me as well. Your people will hear the shots and come to see what has happened, as will mine. Seeing the two of us dead, they will start shooting at each other. Anyone who survives will return home to gather more men, and there will be more shooting. Eventually soldiers will be involved, and a war will start. Many will die."
Pecker allowed as how the man had done a fair bit of thinking in the short period of time they'd been pointing guns at one another. More for sure than Pecker had done himself. "You got any other ideas?" he asked.
"Perhaps," the man said, which Pecker knew to mean maybe. He tipped his head slightly to indicate interest and reaffirmed his grip on the Henry. This was a lot of talking for a gunfight. "Can you tell me why you and your men are stealing our cattle?"
"We ain't got none on our own spread, on acount of a bunch of you Mexicans come up and stole 'em." Pecker was pleased to have a ready answer to the question at hand.
This appeared to bring the man up short. He cocked his head slightly and pressed his lips together, then pooched them out some like he was going to kiss a whore, then drew them back and pressed them together again. Pecker didn't know what to think about this level of animation.
During the silence, he thought about introducing himself, perhaps as a way to soften the situation some. But he wasn't sure he wanted to explain how he'd come by his nickname, which he'd had so long he hardly remembered what his mama had called him. Secretly he hated the name, because of its obvious association with his private parts. It got the ladies interested, sure, but then there was disappointment when they discovered that he weren't nothing special, 'least not in that way. He'd come by the name partly for the size and shape of his nose, and partly for a habit, since broken, of bobbing his head when he walked. Folks said it made him look like a cockerel scratching for gravel in the yard.
Finally the Mexican spoke. "So you think everyone in Mexico is a cattle thief that you can steal from because they stole from you?" The man sounded genuinely curious, not indignant at all. If he was calling Pecker stupid, he hid it well in the even tone of his words.
Pecker thought a moment before answering, an uncommon thing for him to do that belied the gravity of the situation. "I don't suppose e'ryone down there is a cattle thief, no. But outside of a couple a' ladies an' a cook we had once, e'ry Mexican I e'er met was shifty in one manner or 'nother."
"I see," said the man, and then stopped talking. Pecker didn't know how to respond, so stood there staring. He noted that, during the whole exchange, the man's gun hadn't moved an inch. Pecker flexed his fingers, which were gripping the Henry too tight for comfort. He'd never had to point a rifle in one direction this long before.
In desperation to fill the silence, Pecker blurted out, "We stole some cattle once from some Mexicans that had our neighbor's brand on them, and had been stole the year prior." In the echoes of his hurried statement, Pecker heard the confession of a regular cattle rustler and wished he'd said things different. Regret was another thing uncommon for him.
"I suppose," said the man after an intolerable long time, "that I could be generous and send you home with a few heifers and a bull calf with which to re-start your herd. We could spare a few cattle more than we could spare men."
Pecker paused for a moment himself, partly to think, but partly to show that he was thinking, so's to let the Mexican know he weren't no pup too stupid to do more'n chase sticks. "But that don't exactly make a herd," he said. "An' we'd have to kill one to get through the winter, cuttin' into the number of calves in the spring. And a bull calf ain't gonna be ready to do his thing until next winter, meanin' we won't have new calves until the following spring. Do y'see my struggle?" Pecker wasn't confident in his knowledge of the world, but he did know ranching, particularly cattle. He felt good about being able to make his case to this man who asked more questions than he should.
The man nodded, as if understanding. "I see. Well, that does present a problem." He paused again, then said, "Perhaps we could—"
Pecker shot him, having figured that to be the most direct way to resolve the issue, and having arrived at the limits of his tolerance and boredom. Well, maybe "figured" was a strong term. Thing was, Pecker wasn't much for problem solving, which earned him whacks in all three years of his schooling. And it's not like he planned to shoot the man, but he didn't know what else to do. The Mexican kept talking, like doing that would somehow resolve the situation. Talking just led to more talking, and Pecker didn't care for any of it. Pecker didn't solve all his problems with shooting, but a far sight more than he did by talking for sure.
A shocked look appeared on the man's previously placid face, then a grimace. Before Pecker could move, the man squeezed off a shot of his own. Pecker felt something hit him in the chest like a boulder as he registered the cloud of smoke that rushed out of the gun pointed in his direction. He lost his breath and fell to the ground—watched the man who'd shot him fall at the same time. Pecker laid on the ground with darkness closing about him. As it did, he heard voices grow louder, some in English, others in Mexican. The last thing he heard was gunfire, shot after shot as the two groups killed each other. Turned out, Pecker thought his last thought, that dern Mexican had been right.