Buck Dusty was ringing up a sale in the power tool section when his trigger finger started to itch. He looked up at the time. The hour hand on the clock behind the key cutting counter pointed straight up. The minute hand was off by maybe twenty degrees. Three minutes to High Noon. He knew what was coming.
He wanted to hitch up his belt, spit on the floor and moseyed out to the stand in front of Mailboxes and Doormats, but the last time he'd done that he'd been given an official warning. Instead, he fought down the squirming in his gut and finished the transaction he was processing.
"Afraid we don't take AmEx, suh," he said to the man in the expensive shirt who was buying an overpriced biscuit joiner.
"No one takes AmEx!" the customer whinged, and produced another credit card.
His duty done, Buck gestured to Christian to take the counter. Then he hitched up his belt, but refrained from spitting at the floor.
Immediately outside of the power tool section, Laura Cho was arguing with a lumpy looking man. "Seriously? You still don't have any pulleys in stock?"
Ordinarily, this conversation would have interested Buck, who'd been wondering himself where the pulleys kept vanishing to. But he didn't have the time now. It was necessary, he thought, for a male person to do that which the world required of them, or else lose some quintessential element of masculinity.
But there had to be a pithier way of saying that.
Just as the tip of the key cutters' clock hit twelve, into the store strode a tall woman. She wore a long black coat reached that reached down past her knees and seemed much too warm for the mild day. On her head was a hat with a broad, flat brim and decorated with a large brown feather in the band. Grey hair fell from the hat in a long plait that reached halfway down her back. Her eyes -- barely visible in the shadow of her hat brim – were hard, promising swift judgement and little mercy. She stood in the middle of the front aisle by a stack of paint cans, ten yards from Buck, staring intensely.
"Buck," she said.
"Mom," Buck replied.
Tense seconds ticked by before she spoke again.
"Stopped by your place," she said, her voice low and raspy. "Saw that housemate of yours. He said you forgot your lunch. Again."
"Reckon," Buck said.
A hand emerged from underneath her long coat, holding a hessian bag. Buck's eyes flicked to the bag for just a second. He knew that it held a can of pork-and-beans, a fifth of whiskey, a plug of chewing tobacco and a vanilla slice for dessert.
"Got a minute to talk?" Mrs Dusty said.
Buck turned to Marlon who was hurrying past, shaking his head over some malarkey or other.
"Hey, Marlon," he called. "It ain't busy or nothin'. Can I take my break early?"
"You know the rules. There's to be no…" Marlon glanced up and found himself straight into the eyes of Buck's mom. Recoiling a little, he stammered, "Go. Just go, go."
Buck and his mother slipped out the back. Fiona and Nalda were working the box crusher, but otherwise the loading dock was empty. Buck opened his beans with his Bowie knife.
"So you ain't wearing that serape I made you," Mrs Dusty said.
Buck ate his beans with a wooden spoon. They were good. Good beans.
"The High Sheriff is a'worried," Mrs Dusty said.
"He oughta be," Buck said. "There are more things goin' on as meets the eye. This here hardware centre ain't just on a mystical nexus, there's extradimensional, trans-temporal, transhuman and spiritual issues all a'swirlin' about this here store, to say nothin' of mundane political/economic…"
"How did I raise you, boy?" Mrs Dusty said. "Tell me more terse, like."
"Uh…" Buck scratched at his moustache as he sought for the words. "Storm's a brewin'?"
Mrs Dusty nodded and cut herself a plug of tobacco. She slipped it into her mouth and began chewing. "Is it time to move yet?"
Buck took a swig of whiskey and shook his head. "Nope. But tell the High Sheriff. When the time comes, I'm gonna need all the help The Grey Barn can spare."
Fiona and Nalda went back inside, nodding as they went. Buck and his mom both touched the brims of their hats in reply.
"So how come they let you wear the hat?" Mrs Dusty said.
A mouse crept out from a pile of broken pallets. With a smooth motion, Mrs Dusty shook a knife from her sleeve and threw it, pinning the helpless rodent against the crumbling pine. She spat on the ground and adjusted her hat.
"Ain't lost your aim none," Buck said.
"They can lay me in the cold, cold ground the day I do," Mrs Dusty said. "'Kay, boy. You keep watch. I'll take your report to the High Sheriff."
"Tell him it ain't urgent yet," Buck said. "But when it does, it's gonna get urgent quick. And then he's gonna have to mobilse the whole Covert Order, Western Battle Operations… Uh… Did he ever figure out how to end that thar acronym?"
"Has to be a 'Y', I figure."
"How about yokel?"
Mys Dusty frowned beneath her flat-brimmed hat. "You know I don't like them thar steereo-types." She spat again. "Your paw says 'hey.'"
"Tell him 'hey' back."
With that, Mrs Dusty turned and walked away. It was barely past midday and the sun was barely a shade to the west, but nonetheless she walked into the sun.