Noah and Kara walked into Ray’s Tavern. Her arm rested easily in the crook of his elbow. “Table or booth?” he asked.
“Booth,” she said, walking to a corner under pictures and posters on the wall near the back pool room. She waited so he could choose where to sit. He appreciated that. Like Wyatt Earp did once too often, he sat with his back to the door. Kara, a semi-committed vegetarian in a cheeseburger bar, ordered a cheese omelet with bean sprouts. The waitress, a woman in her 40s with leathery skin and a slight stoop, stared at Kara blankly. No bean sprouts, Kara was told.
“Really?” she said.
“Kara,” whispered Noah, “this isn’t Seattle.”
“Whoa. I’ll say,” she muttered.
Noah asked for a cheeseburger. Kara complained her plain cheese omelet was too well done; Noah just ate without comment. Apple pie followed for both.
“Do you bitch about everything?” Noah asked.
“I only bitch when things aren’t right.”
“What makes things right?”
Kara put her fork down and rested her arms beside the plate.
“Attention to detail does. Disciplined effort does. Commitment does.”
Noah nodded. “I agree.”
“Yep. You ought to be committed.”
Kara threw a french fry at him. It bounced off his forehead onto his plate. He speared it and ostentatiously placed it into his mouth.
“Thus do I refute you.”
Shaking her head, she resumed eating. “Noah, you’re really weird,” she said, slipping her fork into another bite of omelet. Noah started to reply, reaching for his mug of coffee. “It takes one—”
A large, hairy hand reached over Noah’s shoulder, picked up his mug, and poured the steaming coffee onto his plate, turning his supper into a dark brown sea with a large bun island and little french fry canoes.
“You prick,” said someone behind him.
Noah turned slowly, his face expressionless. A tall, ugly man, burly, head topped with unkempt dark hair, his body thicker around the middle than the chest, stood beside the booth. Behind the man stood others. One had hooded eyes that darted furtively around the diner. The other wore a Stetson too big for his thin, short body. Furtive Eyes and Little Man were good soldiers, standing behind their man — but safely behind. They knew Noah. Most folks ‘round these parts did.
The big man held Noah’s mug in his hand and glowered at him. Noah knew the type well. The high school graduate who never left town. Working at odd jobs. Getting fired when the boss couldn’t put up with the buried anger over life’s real or imagined insults. The guy in his thirties who used to be a defensive tackle on his high-school football team because he was too bloody slow to play anywhere else. The guy who’d let his 220 pounds of hard muscle run to seed as a decade of too many nights at the tavern bloated him, leaving him far too heavy but with the lingering illusion of his past fitness.
On one side of the man’s stained denim shirt was a patch that read “Xperience Offroad Xtreme.” On the other side, a matching patch offered identity, but a grease stain muddled the lettering: “B-t-h.” Around his fat waist was a belt adorned with a silver buckle bearing the logo of a local off-road vehicle club.
“And your problem is?” Noah said softly.
“You dumped black paint on me last week in the Book Cliffs, asshole.”
Noah glanced at his soiled supper and looked at Kara.
“I think he owes me $8.95, don’t you?”
Shock owned Kara. She just nodded, staring at the threesome.
“You owe me a paint job, you fucking bastard.”
Behind him, the two sycophants nodded vigorously. Noah said nothing. He picked at his fries, ignoring B-t-h. “And why is that?”
B-t-h put both hands on the table. Thick, black hair coated his forearms.
“Because you’re the dumb fuck who dropped it from your goddamned pissant airplane.”
“So. You drive a blue Blazer? With that cute pyrotechnic detailing?”
“It’s ain’t cute, asswipe. It was fucking expensive and you ruined it.”
“And you drive your cute little Chevy into roadless wilderness areas where it’s against the law to do so?”
“I drive any fucking where I want, asshole.”
“How unfortunate. Got proof that will stand up in court?”
The other two guys, as if rehearsed, said, in unison, “We saw you do it.”
Noah nodded slowly. “So the three of you will testify that while driving illegally in a roadless wilderness area, some apparition pisses black paint all over this Blazer? Damn. I’ll have to invite the BLM guys to hear you say that. Lessee, what’s the fine for that? Kara, remind me to check—”
B-t-h’s right hand left the table and flashed through the air, striking Noah on the left temple. A ring on B-t-h’s hand sliced a deep, two-inch gash on Noah’s cheekbone. He did not flinch. He sat immobile, looking at Kara.
The smack of fist against flesh froze the other patrons and servers. Noah’s silence eroded the confidence of the sycophants. They backed up, a baby step at a time. Without looking away from Kara, Noah spoke. Kara couldn’t reconcile the softness of his voice with the fury in his eyes.
“You have two choices. The first is simple. Be gone before I count to ten and turn so I can see you. The second is—”
B-t-h telegraphed his punch. “Why you fucking sonuva—”
He pulled his arm back too far; his fist took too long to arrive. Noah’s hand met his fist and closed around it. His eyes never left Kara’s. B-t-h moaned as Noah’s fingers dug deeply and painfully into the back of the bully’s fleshy hand as Noah twisted his wrist. B-t-h sank to his knees and desperately tried to tear his fist away. Furtive Eyes and Little Man retreated again. Noah looked toward a tall, thin man, dressed in black slacks and a black shirt with pearl-white snaps, foot on the bar rail, a beer in his hand. The man’s face boiled with hate. Noah squeezed harder as he matched the man’s glare. He dropped B-t-h’s hand, but not his stare.
B-t-h clamored to his feet. “This ain’t over, asshole,” he screamed.
Noah looked at him, almost sympathetically. “You guys always say that,” he said quietly. “The only part of you that’s in shape is your mouth.”
B-t-h glared and motioned to his cronies. The three strode to the door past people who until now had feared them. Noah had wounded them. He should have known better, he thought. Beckoning to Kara, he slid out of the booth and put a twenty on the table. She hurried to the door, then stopped. Noah had walked to the bar to face the thin man, whose lips moved malevolently as he uttered words she could not hear. Noah shook his head, adamant about something, and turned away.
As Noah walked back toward her, Kara saw the tall man raise his hand, point his index finger at Noah’s back and mouth, “Bang.”