Tex had lost the youthful swagger of his apprentice at least twenty years ago. Pneumonia and a couple of decades of pushing thirsty cows across scorching plains had taken a lot from him, but much of it had been replaced with savvy and patience. Thomas was likely to require the use of both tonight.
Thomas paused at the batwing doors of the saloon and grinned at Tex. "How many beers do you think it would take me to get drunk?"
Tex eyed him thoughtfully. "You're a sizable lad, but don't let that fool you. I've seen some big men get drunk on a few drinks." "Not me," Thomas said confidently as he puffed his chest out. Tex shrugged. Nothing he could say would have as much influence as that first hangover. Thomas ceremoniously swung the batwing doors open and stepped into the bar. There he stood for a moment, drinking in the scene before him. Three cowpunchers sat at a table playing cards.
"Evenin' Tex," the tall skinny one drawled as he eyed Thomas. "You and yer partner celebratin'?"
Thomas gave the man a hard stare and Tex nudged his arm. "Our business is over there at the bar," he said gently. To the cowpuncher he only nodded. "Nice night for a drink, Miller. Enjoy your card game."
Miller grunted and turned back to the game. He couldn't resist poking fun at a sodbuster, but he wasn't fool enough to start trouble with his foreman, either. The men could understand his debt to the McKinzey family, regardless of their feelings toward the range gobbling sodbusters.
Thomas sauntered over to the bar and flipped a coin on the table. "Two beers, Lefty," he said. "One for my friend here." He jabbed a thumb at Tex.
Lefty lifted a brow at Tex and Tex nodded.
Thomas glanced quickly from Lefty to Tex. "I don't need his permission," he said to the bartender. "I'm sixteen now."
Lefty managed to contain the smile to his eyes. "Sixteen, eh?" He said as he poured a beer with his left hand. His right sleeve was folded neatly and tucked into his jeans. "I remember when I turned sixteen."
"Oh yeah?" Thomas responded with obvious interest. "What did you do?"
"Shot a man," Lefty said flatly. "I'll never forget that day."
Thomas stared at him, his mouth hanging open.
"Yeah," Lefty continued. "I was sixteen and the Johnny Reb I killed couldn't have been much older."
Thomas let out his breath in a relieved sigh. "You mean during the War Between the States. That's different."
Lefty eyed him distastefully. "Different than what? He was just as dead."
Thomas sipped on his beer and involuntarily made a face. "Different than a gunfight."
Lefty sat the bottle on the table. "What do you think we was fightin' with - sticks?"
Thomas grinned. "I mean, you didn't get no reputation or nothin'."
Lefty shrugged his right shoulder. "No. He said sourly. I just got this."
Tex leaned an arm on the table and cupped his hand around his mug of beer. "Reputation?" he asked softly. "Is that what you're looking for?"
Thomas glanced sharply at him. "Sure, but a good one - one that will get me a name like yours." He saluted Tex with his mug of beer. "Texas Sam."
Tex shook his head. "What's wrong with the name you have? Your father is an honorable man. You should be proud to carry on his name."
Thomas gave Tex a sour look and took a gulp of his beer. "Don't start that again today. I'm not ashamed of my Father. I know he's honest, but he's still just another sodbuster to everyone else. I don't want to have people say: There goes another one of them sodbusters, when I go by." He paused and took another swig of his beer. "They don't dare say nothing like that when you ride by."
Tex lifted a brow, his beer still untouched. "And what do they say about me?"
Thomas frowned into his beer. "I don't know, but they respect you."
Tex finally lifted his beer. "Because my name is Tex?" he asked with a wry smile.
Thomas sucked the last of his beer down and shoved the empty mug at Lefty. "Fill it again." He leaned against the counter, his shoulders slumping. "You don't know how it is to have people makin' fun of you all the time."
"I know one thing," Tex said, nodding at Lefty's unspoken question as he held the bottle over Thomas' mug. "I know everyone gets made fun of at one time or another. And I know the more you act like it bothers you, the more they're going to make fun of you."
Thomas drug the refilled mug back and lifted it. "It don't matter what we do or how hard we work. We're still goin' to be nothin' but sod-busters; nesters...."
"It isn't always going to be like this," Tex interrupted the bitter names. "Wait until the potatoes your father grows wind up on the plate beside a slab of beef. Right now all the ranchers see is open range being fenced off. You can't blame them for fighting to save their livelihood, can you?" He sighed. "What do you plan to do, join the troublemakers and shame your family?"
Thomas stared hard at him. "I didn't say nothin' about bein' a troublemaker."
"No," Tex said. "You said you wanted a reputation. I hope it's an honest one. Maybe a doctor or lawyer. I hope it's a name your children can wear with pride."
Thomas turned to the bar and downed the rest of his beer. He shoved the mug at Lefty again. One more. I'm gettin' full."
Tex escorted Thomas home and turned him over to his relieved parents. Thomas was staggering and slurring his speech, but he could hardly be drunk on the watered-down beer Lefty had been serving him all evening.
When Tex returned to his hotel room, he kicked his boots off and stretched out on the bed. It was a rare luxury. Tomorrow he'd head back to the circle O and take his usual razzing about being a nester lover. Most of the cowhands had grown accustomed to the intrusion on the wide plains. Some had even developed relationships with daughters of the intruders. There was room for all of them right now, but more were coming all the time. Sooner or later the ranchers would have to stake claims on their own land if they wanted to keep it. Old man Tipton was savvy enough to see it coming, though. The sheriff had his hands full right now with fistfights and occasional knifings. If the immigrants continued to move in, things would get worse.
The cattlemen called them sodbusters and nesters. They made fun of the way they dressed and lived. The real issue wasn't in how they dressed or spoke, though. It was much deeper. The issue was culture. People felt threatened by anything different. They detested changes, especially when they would be forced to change. The cattlemen said they were there first, but they weren't. They took the land from the Indians, who had taken it from other Indians. The immigrants were merely trying to make a living. In doing so, they were changing the culture of the cattleman. It wouldn't be an easy change - or a quick one.
His thoughts drifted to Thomas and his desire for a respectable name. His father was an honest man. Would the name McKinzey always be associated with immigrant? Would it one day be simply another name? He could understand Thomas' concern, yet did it ever do any good to run from a name - manufacture a new one? It was something he hadn't thought about in years. Those years had brought him no closer to answers.
In the morning, Tex had breakfast and saddled up the big bay. As he led his horse from the corral, a familiar figure strode toward him. Stone Kelly was named for his heart, not his nerve. The big man staggered to a stop as he stared at Tex. Only one word emerged from his startled features, and that word twisted at Tex's insides.
From the corner of his eye, Tex saw Thomas stop and stare at the stranger.
"Tex is the name," Tex said evenly.
The man's jowls flapped as he shook his head. "Quantrell. I'd know you anywhere."
Tex let his hand rest on the gun but at his hip. "My friends call me Texas Sam. I'd appreciate it if you'd do the same."
Kelly's beady gaze dropped to the gun and then back to Tex's face. He chewed for a minute and then spit a brown stream at the ground in front of Tex. Without another word, he turned and walked away. Oh, Kelly was scared all right. He'd always been easy to scare, but that wouldn't stop him from talking to anyone who would listen. Tex couldn't hide behind his gun any more than he could hide behind a name. Sooner or later people would know the truth.
Thomas took a hesitant step toward Tex, his expression a mixture of disbelief and anger. When he finally spoke, his voice had the sting of a raging blizzard.
"You're always tellin' me to be proud of my name, and now I find out that you don't even use yours!" Tex stared at the boy. Betrayal was an ugly thing and he wasn't proud. Still, it wasn't something he had planned. He'd been Tex for several decades now. It had been a long time since he had run from that horrible name. It was nothing unusual in the west. There were plenty of Smith's and Jones'. Yet, hadn't he been preaching to the boy only last night about pride in a name? He sighed.
"I've been telling you to DO proud by your name," he defended lamely
"What about you?" Thomas asked, his voice almost a hiss. His brows crouched over eyes that could have fired icy slivers. "Quantrell!"
People were watching. Tex felt the color rising in his neck. He shrugged. "I've done proud by the name Texas Sam. That's who I've been for years."
"You were Quantrell. You are Quantrell. At least the name McKinney is an honorable one." He stopped, apparently confused by his own logic.
"That's right," Tex said. You've inherited a good name, I had to build my own. Everyone knows me as Texas Sam now. That's who I am, not the son of Quantrell the raider."
Thomas stared at him for a long time, obviously digesting the information. Finally he shrugged. "He was your father, all the same."
Simple words, simple thought. "No." Tex said. "He's not my father. I'm not even related to the Quantrel the raider. My father died of cholera when I was only three. I never knew him. That didn't mater to some people, though. I had trouble getting a job and keeping it. I got tired of the association and changed my name. I should know how important it is to do proud by your name. Remember, it's never really completely yours. Some day you may have a son. What you do is going to be tied to him by your name. Maybe even the children of someone you don't know."
Tex mounted and glanced around at the faces. They were listening now, but the word would spread and he'd be Quantrell again. He swung his mount around. He could find another place to live - to work. Maybe he could invent another name.
"Quantrell?" The word was soft - even respectful. He stopped and glanced down at the solemn features of Thomas as he took a step toward Tex.
"Do proud by your name," he quoted.
Tex frowned. Do proud by his name? Had others actually trashed the name, or had he thrown it away without any attempt to save it? It wasn't likely that he'd ever have children at this point, but if he did, would he leave them with the legacy of a fictitious name? Would his son one day discover his real name and know only shame? What about all the other children who bore that fearful name?
He smiled down at Thomas and lifted his hat in salute. "I'll give honor back to the name my father gave me."
He kicked the bay into a trot. He had a lot of fences to mend. Nobody trusts a liar. He'd brought that shame on himself. He'd been living a lie for years. Now it was time to grow up and take ownership of his deeds - good and bad.