Wilson courted Rita Pilar. He bragged about 50,000 head of cattle on the way up from Texas. He bilked immigrants. And he dealt out his own brand of justice - with a quirt and a bullwhip. He was unstoppable, until Ness Havelock rode in to Saint Johns.
Ruel Gatlin wanted Havelock dead for killing his brothers, never mind it was three against one. He followed Havelock out of Colorado, across the bridge at Mexican Hat, through Canyon de Chelly, and into the high country of the Great Colorado Plateau. Then Harlow Wilson offered to pay for what Gatlin wanted anyway. Kill Ness Havelock!
A novel by Chuck Tyrell
Ein CassiopeiaPress Buch: CASSIOPEIAPRESS, UKSAK E-Books und BEKKERpublishing sind Imprints von Alfred Bekker
© by Author/ Titelbild: Emma Whipple, 2016
© dieser Ausgabe 2016 by AlfredBekker/CassiopeiaPress, Lengerich/Westfalen in Arrangement mit der Edition Bärenklau, herausgegeben von Jörg Martin Munsonius.
Ness Havelock rode the Outlaw Trail, partly because he was a loner and partly because he was running away from Rita Pilar. But now an old friend called for help, and Havelock could not refuse. When he got to Saint Johns, the Pitchfork Outfit was getting ready to take over the town, the county, and the state, if Judge Harlow Wilson got his way.
Wilson courted Rita Pilar. He bragged about 50,000 head of cattle on the way up from Texas. He bilked immigrants. And he dealt out his own brand of justice - with a quirt and a bullwhip. He was unstoppable, until Ness Havelock rode in to Saint Johns.
Ruel Gatlin wanted Havelock dead for killing his brothers, never mind it was three against one. He followed Havelock out of Colorado, across the bridge at Mexican Hat, through Canyon de Chelly, and into the high country of the Great Colorado Plateau. Then Harlow Wilson offered to pay for what Gatlin wanted anyway. Kill Ness Havelock!
I'm known as a hard man. But even hard men ride careful on the Outlaw Trail. Not that I'm on the wrong side of John Law, though some say I am. And, not being prone to talk a lot, I never claimed any different.
Maybe I got that outlaw-like image because I am hard. Never take guff from any man. I don't look for trouble, it just seems to come my way naturally.
A man don't have to be wanted to drift over the Outlaw Trail, which stretches from Canada to Mexico, with stops at places like Hole-in-the-Wall, Brown's Hole, Robber's Roost, Round Valley, Alma, and Colonial Juarez. And right at the edge of the San Juan range there's a little two-bit Utah town called Moab. Before midnight that night, that's where I planned to be.
I felt pretty good, and decided to sing a little. But the minute I started, my buckskin horse laid back his ears and I felt a hump come up along his spine. I quit singing then and there.
We'd come a far piece together, that buckskin and me, so I figured I'd better show some respect for his feelings. Soon as I stopped warbling, he settled right down into that ground-eating single-foot pace of his and hied us on towards Moab. I could almost taste the peaches already. Mormons planted those Moab orchards back in the '50s. Them trees grow the best-tasting peaches anywhere, big as Jem Mace's right fist, fair as a maiden's first blush, and sugary enough to cure the sweet tooth of every rider between Moab and the Big Muddy.
The sun painted its version of heaven's glory across the clear Utah sky. Then I was riding in the dark. The night was black as a Ute warrior’s innards, too. No moon.
I felt the weight of those big natural arches over me. In daylight, they looked like bridges to nowhere, scooped out of red and yellow sandstone by some giant's hand. They're a sight a man's not likely to forget.
My buckskin slowed to a careful walk after sundown. He naturally stepped quiet, being wild born and mountain bred.
I smelled the Colorado River first, a fragrance of wet earth and green leaves that don’t come in the desert. A little later, I could hear the water moving along with the full-throated chuckle of a grown river.
Then the buckskin stopped.
I froze, breathing shallow. The horse pricked his ears toward the mountain side of the trail. I shucked my Winchester and piled off his far side. I liked that horse, but few weapons—not even big Sharps buffalo guns—could shoot clear through a big horse like my buckskin.
I could hear only silence, like nothing breathed. So I just stood there, rifle ready.
"That you, Ness?"
I'd heard that calm, low-pitched voice before, but I couldn't place it so I didn't answer. A man can get shot in the dark by speaking up too soon.
"Guess it must be you," the voice continued. "You ain't shooting, and you ain't running. It’s Isom Dart. I got coffee on."
Isom Dart. He was a long way from Brown's Hole, but Isom was the outlaw mail. If a body wants to talk to anyone on the Outlaw Trail, he just tells Isom Dart and the message gets delivered. Ol' Isom Dart had a mighty good reputation. I led the buckskin in the direction of Isom’s receding footsteps.
That black man sure knew how to pick a camp. He’d chosen a spot in an arroyo that took water into the Colorado after a rain. Right now, the bottom was bone dry. The slight breeze wafted the fragrance of coffee up the cut and into the mountains. A rider on the Trail wouldn't be able to smell it. In fact, I didn't get a whiff until after I'd tied the buckskin to the picket rope and walked right up to the fire. I could’ve covered the whole thing with my broad-brimmed gray felt hat. From thirty feet away, no one could see the flames.
Dart held up the pot and I stuck out my tin mug to let him fill it up.
We sat drinking coffee and savoring the night for a while. Isom Dart don’t rush. When Isom wants to talk, he'll speak up.
"They's trouble abrew down in Little Colorado country," he finally said.
I took another sip of coffee and waited. Trouble brewed all over the country, one place or another. Why would Isom Dart call me off the Trail just to tell me there was trouble on the Little Colorado?
"Word come over the line that Roland Prince's looking for you. Says he needs help."
I was already headed in that direction, but not to see Roland Prince. I had my thoughts fixed on a pretty Mexican girl I couldn't forget. Margarita San Antonio Pilar y Guerrero. Rita for short. But I couldn't ignore Prince.
"Owe that man a lot," I said.
"Heard about that affair in Sonora. I know you don't need no advice, Ness, but ride wide awake. Something about this don't set right. Can't put a finger on it, but something's out of kilter."
"Thanks for the coffee, Isom. And the message. You know me, I ride with both eyes open. I'd stay for breakfast but I've got a feather bed waiting in Moab. Once in a while a man's got to sleep in a good feather bed."
Isom looked at me with those sad brown eyes of his. "The word's out, Ness. Everyone on the Trail knows Prince has sent for you. And it smells like someone don't want you to make it to the Little Colorado. A feather bed's as good a place to bushwhack a man as any."
Isom was an hour behind me when I topped the bluff above Moab. The lights of that town sure looked good. Now, I like the trail and sleeping out where no one can creep up on me, but I still get a longing for folks. Like I said, Moab looked good.
The Mormon side of the river was quiet. Few windows showed lights. Mormons believe heartily in hard work, going to sleep with the chickens and getting up with the sun.
On the heathen side of the river, things were just getting warmed up. Whoops and hollers drifted to me on the still night air while I was still a good mile off. I couldn't help but grin. I rubbed a hand through a two-day growth of beard. A beer and a shave, that's what I needed. Still, I slipped the thong off the hammer of my six-gun as I rode across the wooden bridge that spanned the Colorado River.
Some folks thought I wore my gun peculiar, high on my left hip, butt forward. I got that style from my brother, Garet Havelock, a man with a reputation as a no-give lawman. Wearing my Colt like that, all I had to do was slip my hand around that walnut grip, yank the gun out, and start shooting. Sitting down, I just kept my right hand in my lap, about two inches from that butt.
Lots of men known as fast guns kept them in peculiar places. Cullen Baker was called the first fast draw, and he just stuck his gun in his waistband. Hickok shoved his two Dragoons into a bright red sash. Luke Short, the gambler, wore a shoulder holster. And last I heard of Buckskin Frank Leslie, he was still sporting a long-barreled Colt Peacemaker hanging by a stud slotted into a plate on his gun belt. He'd just swivel the gun up and fire. No draw to it.
A lantern burned in front of the livery barn. In its pool of light sat an old man with eyes like two pieces of coal and a red plum of a nose set into a bunch of whiskers that looked like the pelt of an albino wolf. He closed the book as I rode up.
"One stall left. Back one on the right. Hay's in the loft and oats in the bin in the corner. Fifty cents."
I put four bits on the upturned palm and led the buckskin to the last open stall. I rubbed him down, forked his hay, and put two quarts of oats in his feed box. When I got back to the door, the old timer was still reading his book, mouthing each word through his white beard.
"Always did like a good book," I said to make conversation. "Makes a man consider some."
He put a finger on a word and squinted at me. "You got something to say, stranger? If you do, get it said. If you don't, just amble along, so's I can get on with my Blackstone."
"Blackstone, is it? Writes a good book on law. Tell me, is there anyone in town I should watch out for?"
"Jigger Baines is here. And J.T. Carr is down from Wyoming."
"What's a lawman doing here?"
"Ain't heard. Mebbe he's after Ruel Gatlin. The boy shot a bartender up to Casper the other day."
At the name Gatlin, my scars itched and burned. I had three, one for each of the Gatlin boys, though Lawrence Gatlin put two of them in me while I was killing his brothers.
Telluride's a big town now, with whitewashed false-front buildings all up and down the main street. They've even got a brass band to march in Fourth of July parades. Back then, when I met up with the Gatlins, the town was just a swarm of canvas and clapboard shacks and miners' tents with a long line of saloons.
My Gatlin trouble started in the Lucky Seven. While I'm not a hard drinker, I like to cut the dust of a long ride with a glass of good rye. And the ride through the high Colorado mountains from Ouray to Telluride was a long one.
Now the Gatlins and their compadres had the town pretty well buffaloed, but I never have been one to move just because someone leaned on me.
The main street boasted one two-story frame building, the Watson House. The bottom floor was a saloon called Lucky Seven, and the upper one was full of rooms with women's names on them.
From the outset, the ore was good in Telluride, so the Lucky Seven had a good bar of deep brown mahogany, backed by the biggest plate glass mirror this side of Denver City. I'd no more than bellied up against the smooth wood of that beautiful bar, gotten a glass of good rye, and started to salute myself in the mirror, than I seen this big muscle of a man come in the front door. I push at six feet, but he stood a good two inches over me, and he went a good fifty pounds over my one eighty.
He was dressed fine, but his bloodshot eyes didn't have the look of a dandy. He reminded me of a big old longhorn bull I flushed one day popping brush for Charlie Goodnight down in Texas. That old bull's red eyes had that same wild go-to-hell look in them. I just left that bull there, pawing in the brush. I'd a done the same with the man, too, if I’d’ve had a chance. I don't walk away from trouble, but I don't go hunting none either.
I turned my back to the door, putting my left hip against the bar so the butt of my Colt was only an inch away from my right hand. In the mirror I could see that big man coming. He wanted me and no one else.
The tough came to a wide-legged stop about five feet behind me. "Hey, you," he growled.
I turned a little to look at him.
"Telluride don't have no room for drifting riders. Have your drink and ride on." He balanced on his toes and glared at me.
"I don't see a badge on you, mister," I said gently. His face went red.
"Gatlins are law here. I'm Mort Gatlin. I say you leave. And do it now. You had your chance for that drink. Now you’ve lost it. Ride."
With my left hand, I flicked that good rye whiskey into Mort Gatlin's eyes. With my right, I plucked out my Colt and laid its seven and a half inch barrel to the side of his head just above the ear. He went down and stayed there.
"You'd better ride, mister." The bartender's voice was low and not unfriendly. "Mort Gatlin's got two brothers, and one of them's bigger than him. All three are hellraisers with a gun."
"Thanks, but I've got a hankering to sleep in a good bed. Know where I could get a little rest?"
"Ma Blaisdell's got a boarding house down the street about half a mile. Just a simple house, but it's first rate."
"Obliged." I tossed him a coin for the rye and the conversation. He tossed it back.
"Keep your money. ‘Twas worth the whiskey to see Mort Gatlin hit the floor."
"Well, once he wakes up, he'll be wanting to know who buffaloed him. Tell him Johannes Havelock's gone to Ma Blaisdell's for a rest. Tell him it would be healthy to let Mister Havelock ride out peaceful."
The bartender grinned. "I'll tell him, but I don't think he'll listen."
"Then I'll just have to read him some of the gospel according to Sam Colt." I stepped around the inert body on the floor and walked out.
Two hours later, Mort Gatlin's bull voice brought me out of my sleep. I was wide awake, gun in hand, by the time his shout died away.
"Havelock," the roar came again. "You've lived too long."
By that time, I was dressed and catfooting down the hallway to the back door, my boots in my left hand and my gun in my right. I pulled the boots on and stepped out into the bright Colorado day. I slipped around behind the line of buildings, coming out on the main street about a hundred feet away from the three big men standing in front of Ma Blaisdell's.
Holstering my six-gun, I said, "You boys looking for me?"
Mort went for his gun. I plucked my Frontier Colt out, took a quick step to my right, and shot Mort through the left shirt pocket. The other Gatlin boys were no more'n a split second behind Mort, but I still managed to get a bullet into big Steve Gatlin before the smaller one, Lawrence, put lead in me.
The force of his bullet turned me around and I fell down. I scrambled across the hard ground, Gatlin bullets kicking chunks of dirt at me. I fetched up against the hitching post, gun aimed at Lawrence Gatlin's head. Then I shifted and shot him in the stomach. The biggest Gatlin sprawled at the edge of the porch. He lay still.
I caught a movement from the corner of my eye. I was already rolling when the bullet plowed into me. I was hit and hit bad. I'd mistaken Mort Gatlin for dead. I could barely see Mort through the red haze that settled over my eyes. Instinctively, I triggered off a round that tore a chunk from Mort Gatlin's head.
I wiped my face, trying to get the blood out of my eyes. In the distance, I heard a gun firing and felt the burn of a bullet across my shoulder. Squinting, I made out Lawrence Gatlin, one hand on his perforated stomach, trying to thumb back the hammer of his Colt for another shot. My bullet caught him in the throat, slamming him against Ma Blaisdell's. His hands clawed at the wall as he slipped to the porch, leaving streaks of red on the white clapboards.
The silence was deafening. Smoke drifted down the street. I heaved myself to my feet, automatically reloading my gun. I scooped my gray hat from the ground and staggered to my horse. I could hear a murmur, then a roar, behind me as I rode out of Telluride toward Utah.
I made it to Moab, just barely. But two weeks in a feather bed with plenty of care got me back on my feet. Now, Ruel Gatlin was in town . . . the youngest Gatlin . . . the fourth Gatlin. Suddenly those old wounds started hurting again.
I stood in the dark in front of the livery stable a few moments longer. The old man didn't speak. So I made my way toward the sounds of revelry coming from the three saloons in the heathen part of Moab.
Jigger Baines I knew. Me and him had hoisted a few. Still, there was no telling with a man like Baines. One minute he's friendly as a new puppy, the next he's second cousin to a timber wolf.
J.T. Carr was a good lawman. No nonsense, but reasonable. I often heard, on the Outlaw Trail, that if a man were to get caught, he was better off if J.T. Carr did the catching.
Three lighted saloons stood out among the darkened buildings lining the street: two on the south side, one on the north. At the door of the Lamplight, I turned to look across the street at The Pig's Ear and the Buckhorn. Tinny tunes from pianos mixed until I couldn't tell which sound came from which saloon. Once in a while, a wild whoop or a shrill laugh wafted across the street as the girls and their customers sparred in the yellow light of coal oil lamps.
Comparatively speaking, the Lamplight was a genteel place. The inside was dark so a man's eyes didn't have to adjust much coming in out of the night. A woman tickled the piano in a far corner, playing something soothing and quiet. The music made a man want to sit down, take off his boots, and relax.
A few well-dressed men played quietly at roulette. The click of the ball against the wheel's dividers was the loudest sound in the room. Two card games were in progress, but the betting was done in low voices.
Ed Snedeker was behind his bar, a contented look on his round, red face. His hair was parted precisely in the middle and greased down to cling to his round skull. Everything about Ed was round, even his mouth. Behind all that roundness lurked a mind of steel. Ed Snedeker knew more about what was going on up and down the Trail than anyone, save Isom Dart, perhaps.
I walked to the far end of the bar. With one side against the wall, I had only to watch in two directions—left, and behind, through the mirror. Ed moved down in front of me.
"J.T. Carr's been asking around town about you."
Ed slid a shot glass full of good rye down the bar. It stopped in front of me without a drop spilled. I picked up the glass and Carr walked through the door.
He paused a moment when he got inside, then sauntered over to stand beside me. He put both hands on the bar so I could see he didn't want no misunderstandings.
"Hear you're headed south."
"Mind if I ride along?"
"Suit yourself," I said, but I knew that there were worse trail partners than J.T. Carr. "I'll be leaving first light. Right now, I'm having a drink or two, then I'm headed for a good night's rest in a feather bed."
"I'd sleep lightly, was I you. Some'd feel better if you never made the Arizona border. Ever hear of Sid Lyle?"
"El Paso gunman?"
"The same. He's talking about dealing with Ness Havelock. Permanent. And he's gathered a crew to help."
"Junior Willis, Kid Kilgallen, Nate Blackthorn, and Carl Jaeger. Been some talk about Tom Horn coming up from Fort Apache, too."
"Quite a crew." I hoped I sounded more confident than I felt. I’d heard of that bunch. Some said every one of those gunmen would shoot his own mother for the gold in her teeth. Except maybe Tom Horn. Horn was tough, but people said he never killed a man who didn't deserve it. And no one deserved killing less than me.
"Jigger Baines is over in The Pig's Ear," Carr said. "He's ugly tonight. I'd steer clear of him if I was you." He turned to go, then looked back. "Oh, and Ruel Gatlin is in town somewhere, too. So keep your eyes peeled."
After Carr left, I got to thinking. The more I thought, the less I liked the situation. Roland Prince wanted my help, and I owed him my life. I had to go, if for that alone. But I wanted to see Rita Pilar, too. And any trouble in Little Colorado River country might well involve the Pilars. I had to go, but I had a bad feeling about the whole deal.
I paid for the rye and left. Myra Beck's place was just down the road. And I do like a good feather bed. Myra was a widow. Her man was killed by Utes about fifteen years ago. She’d pulled me through after my battle with the Gatlins. I guess she's as close to a mother as I ever had. Mine died in the Indian Nations while I was being born.
A flicker in the shadows caught my eye, but I didn't think much of it at the time. Later, as I was settling down into that soft feather tick, I remembered that movement. Whoever was out there had been sidling toward the rear of Myra's house. Moonlight streamed in the window, falling across the bed.
Out of caution, I bunched up the bedclothes to look something like a body, took my Colt in hand, and settled down in the far corner of the room with a blanket.
The crash of a shotgun and the sound of shattering glass brought me awake in an instant. I started to shoot back... then stopped. After a moment, I chuckled under my breath. Someone had just shot Ness Havelock to death.
Ruel Gatlin didn't join the little group of mourners as the undertaker's helpers lowered the pine casket into the ground. Shotgun blast had taken away his face, they said, so they never had a showing of the deceased. Ruel Gatlin didn't even get the satisfaction of seeing the dead body of Ness Havelock, the man who killed his three brothers in Telluride.
Taking a swig from the long-necked brown whisky bottle in his left hand, Gatlin eyed the mourners. One woman, one lawman, and five hard men, from the looks of their weaponry. The five men stood on the opposite side of the grave from the woman and the lawman. The preacher at the head of the grave got ready to say some words over the body before the undertaker's men started shoveling clods into the hole.
"Good Lord," the black-clad reverend intoned, "our friend is no longer with us. He was a good man, though hard, and he always rode a straight trail. Wherever he has gone, we trust in your mercy. Watch over the departed always." And then he started reading from a big bible held propped open in his left hand. He followed the words with his right index finger as he slowly read them.
The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
Gatlin took another swig as the preacher droned on.
When the preacher said “Amen,” the men replaced the hats they’d removed when he started. Gatlin watched the five hard men. The tall blond was the leader. Sid Lyle, the barkeep had said. Gunman from El Paso. Gatlin didn’t agree with his shotgun through the window method of getting rid of Havelock, though. When ya gotta kill someone, ya oughta face them yourself. Gatlin had killed more than once. But there was one exception—Ness Havelock. The man had stood up in the street and shot Gatlin's three brothers down, and Gatlin by God swore he'd do the same to Havelock . . . except now Havelock was dead. And good riddance. Gatlin took another swallow from the bottle.
The mourners broke up. The five gunmen swung up on good horseflesh, heading back to town now that Havelock was buried. The lawman and the woman took a buggy. Gatlin mounted his piebald roan and followed.
"Just when I was getting close, Buster," he said to the horse, "someone else had to get him. Seems I always come out on the short end." Gatlin scratched his butt through his wool trousers. One of these days he'd have to take a bath. The cooties were getting too thick. He followed the five men with his eyes as they rode their good horses toward Moab's saloons. They were much better horses than the average cowpoke's, but then so was Gatlin's roan. Sometimes a good horse was the only thing between life and death. Gatlin knew it, and he figured the hard men knew it.
Four of the riders dismounted in front of the Pig's Ear. Gatlin watched them through the swinging doors. The tall blond one rode on down the street and across the bridge into Mormon town. Gatlin followed, holding the whisky bottle by the neck, bottom on his left thigh. Lyle stopped in front of ZCMI. Gonna get supplies, no doubt. He tied Buster next to Lyle's horse and walked into the general store, whisky bottle in hand.
The storekeeper looked up when Gatlin came in, and his eyes narrowed at the sight of the bottle. He nodded at three young farmers and turned his eyes back to Gatlin. Gatlin felt the animosity so he limbered the fingers of his right hand just in case there'd be shooting. The storekeeper spoke first.
"Howdy, neighbor." The voice was friendly enough.
"Wonder if you'd do me a favor?" the storekeeper asked.
"Well, this here's a family establishment, sir, and lots of women and children come in. So I was wondering if you wouldn't mind leaving your bottle outside. Ain't proper that they should see a man drinking. Would you mind?"
Put that way, Gatlin couldn't say "No" without looking like he was against women and children. And no one had greater respect for women than Ruel Gatlin. Why, he'd no more think of going into one of those houses of ill repute where the doves got soiled than he'd spit on his own mother's grave.
"Sorry, he mumbled and turned to leave.
The three farmers had moved in behind him and stood two on one side and one on the other, making an alleyway he had to go through to get to the door. Gatlin turned back to the storekeeper, keeping careful hold on the neck of the whisky bottle.
"I was going peaceful," he said, slurring his words slightly. "What're the strongarms for?"
The bearded storekeeper stood spraddle-legged with his arms folded, a frown on his face. Gatlin felt a hand on his shoulder, and his body reacted. As he spun around, the bottle of whisky shattered against the side of one farmer's head, only an instant before the barrel of Gatlin's Remington .45 bashed the nearer of the two farmers across the forehead. Both collapsed as Gatlin eared back the hammer of the Remington and shoved its muzzle into the soft flesh under the chin of the third strongarm. Again he looked at the storekeeper.
"That was good whiskey," he said. "I oughta pull this trigger for having to break it."
He pushed the farmer backward through the door. The man stumbled back and barely caught the hitching rail in time to keep from falling. Gatlin kept the Remington jammed under his jaw.
"Mister," a soft voice said from inside the store. A bonneted young woman stepped out to stand before him. "That's my brother. Would you please not hurt him?"
Gatlin blinked. Then he released the hammer of the Remington and let the gun fall to his side.
"Didn't mean to offend you, ma'am. I don't think your brother's hurt none. But you tell him he should let folks go peaceful when they're of a mind to. Saves folks a lotta pain."
Sid Lyle stepped out of the store carrying a sack of provisions. "We're riding south," he said. "Maybe you'd like to come along. I like the way you handle yourself."
A long-eared mule is a sizeable chunk of Hell after a few hours in the saddle. Especially as I was used to the easy gait of that buckskin of mine.
I'd said I would never ride a mule, but there I was. I was dead and buried with two days and nearly eighty miles behind me. The only ones who knew any different were Myra Beck, J.T. Carr, and me.
Folks on the Trail will tell you I'm taken with gray clothes. Well, I do fancy gray. Not because I'm a dandy, it's just that gray blends with about any country you're riding through. I had to leave my good gray duds in Moab, though. Had to be buried in them.
Now, instead of my long-striding buckskin, I rode this motherless mule. And instead of my straight-brimmed gray Stetson, I wore a floppy excuse for a hat that’d probably marched to Mexico with the Mormon Battalion. Nor were my clothes gray. My shirt had once been maroon. Now the cloth had hardly any color. I was accustomed to gray whipcord trousers. I wore faded brown corduroy ones. Nor were my boots black and shiny. They were scuffed cavalry castoffs that came almost to my knees. I tucked the corduroy pant legs inside them.
I still had my Colt, which was tucked into my waistband beneath the tail of that once-maroon shirt. I kept the last button of the shirt open, and the butt of that pistol not three inches from my right hand, which rested on my thigh. The reins of that pesky mule I held in my left.
I was a different man. I usually set straight in the saddle, as Southerners are like to do. But on this old mule, I slouched and bobbed, swaying with his gait. And with a five-day growth of beard on my face, I doubt if two people in the entire territory of Arizona would’ve known me.
Tomorrow would put me in Mexican Hat, about ten miles from the Arizona border. From there, I'd go south across the border and through Navajo country. I know folks say Colonel Kit Carson trounced the Navajos back in '64, but them that believe Carson made the Navajos peaceful ain’t never ridden Black Mesa. Or Chinle Wash. Or Canyon del Muerte, the canyon of death.
That's where I was headed, too. Right up Chinle River, though that's a big name for such a small stream. Any other route would take me through high waterless tableland. Navajos knew the water holes, but I didn't. I'd stay out of sight, but I wasn't gonna get far from that river.
I made a dry camp under a crystal-clear sky. Every star stood out, twinkling up a storm, each one trying to out shine the next. Off a ways, I could hear the mule cropping at stubble. He was a trail-wise booger and he'd let me know if anything unusual came along.
Dawn was just around the corner when the mule's snort brought me out of my dreams. My hand went to my Colt, thumb cocking the hammer. But no sound escaped my bedroll. The mule was standing at full attention, jackrabbit ears pointing off to the south towards Mexican Hat. Seconds later, I heard pounding hoofs. Someone had come far and fast. The horse’s stride rough and uneven, a sign it was on its last legs.
I faced the rider, gun in hand, when he topped the rise south of me. The little grulla mustang labored, foam dripping from the corners of an open mouth. Sweat darkened the pony’s color to gunmetal, and lather dropped to the ground with each uneven stride. The youngster riding the mouse-colored horse looked over his shoulder more than he looked at me. His eyes showed the whites like a frightened colt. His cotton hair whipped in the wind. His hat hung by the chinstrap, flapping against his back.
I put the Colt away and picked up my Winchester. I automatically checked it to see that there was a cartridge in the chamber, and eared the hammer back to half-cock safety.
The boy held onto the saddle horn with both hands, flailing his skinny legs against the barrel of the grulla. Then I noticed a dark stain running from beneath the boy's right arm down his flimsy shirt and onto his pants.
Three steps past the mule, the grulla stopped. He stood spraddle-legged, head between his legs, heaving great draughts of air in and out of his starving lungs.
"Howdy, mister," the boy said. He tried to look calm, but his hands trembled and his voice shook. "Sure could use a little help."
His eyes turned up in his head and he toppled off that horse. I just barely had time to get a hand on him to break his fall before he hit the ground.
What I saw disgusted me and made me more than a little mad. That youngster'd been whipped. No amateur job either. His back would carry the scars to his grave. Under his right arm, the tip of a bullwhip had torn the flesh right from his ribs. It needed sewing, but that had to wait.
Riders came boiling over the same rise as the tow-headed kid had come over. The man out front rode a big bay, thick through the shoulders and hindquarters. The man was big, too, an ax handle and a half across the shoulders with thickness of chest to match. And around his left shoulder coiled the black snake of a bullwhip.
I walked forward to meet the riders, pulling the hammer of my Winchester to full cock.
The bay came plunging at me full stride. I stood my ground, the muzzle of my rifle following the big man's belly. He hung back on the reins, bringing the bay to a sliding stop. The horse braced its front legs, haunches near dragging the ground. Its mouth was wide open, tongue worrying at the spade bit. The froth at the corners of the bay's mouth was pink. Looked like the man abused horses like he did boys.
"Thanks for catching that runaway, stranger," the big man said. "Peterson," he called. A skinny rider with his hat pulled down around his jug ears broke out of the pack and raced his mount up to the man. "Load that kid on the spare horse. We won't bother this gentleman any longer."
"Peterson," I said, keeping my voice pleasant like. He turned. "You lay one hand on that boy and you'll have a dead boss."
That confused the rider somewhat, and made the big man mad. "I hope you know who you're threatening. I'm Judge Harlow Wilson."
"Would that be judge by election?" I could see I'd hit a sore spot. "If that boy's back and your horse's mouth show the likes of your judgment, I want nothing to do with it. Leave the boy be."
"Listen here. We've got you outnumbered. There’s only one of you. Don't be a fool."
"Now Mister Wilson, you're the one that's thinking foolish. No matter how many men you’ve got, there's only one of you. And that one of you will be very dead if you or any of your men touch that boy."
He wanted to give the word. He dearly wanted to. But the black hole in the muzzle of my Winchester took big bites out of his courage. He could tell I wasn't bluffing. He opened his mouth twice, but no sound came out. Finally he wrenched the bay around and took off back down the trail to Mexican Hat with his men tailing along behind. He went, but I had a feeling I'd not seen the last of him.
The boy lay as he'd fallen. His breathing was shallow. But any kid who rode ten miles with a back like that, and calmly said "Sure could use a little help" before passing out, had pluck.
I put him face down on my bedroll and went to work. It took the better part of an hour to get the blood-crusted shirt out of the slashes in his back and to sew the flap of flesh hanging from under his arm. I used a lot of whiskey, hoping the wounds wouldn't fester. I got my only clean shirt from my saddlebags for the boy to wear, big though it was. He stayed unconscious through the whole thing, which was better in a way, but still, I didn't like the shallow way he breathed. And his color wasn't good either. Along about evening, he opened his eyes.
"Thanks mister," he said, almost in a whisper. "Sure feels good to get some help. Ain't had none for a long time."
"Where's your folks?"
"Ain't got none."
"What's Wilson to you?"
The boy's face went white and he bit his lip. When he got control of himself, he said, "After my folks died of diphtheria, Judge Wilson kinda took me in. He does that, takes in kids that ain't got no folks. But he don't do it from kindness. It's just that he wants extra help that don't cost nothing. And he's got five kids right now, 'cept I run off.
"He sure does like to hurt things. They ain't a horse on the place but what ain't scared of him. And the kids are, too."
The boy's face was getting red and sweat beaded his brow. I felt his forehead. Fever was burning the kid up.
His talking got wild after that. He shouted and pleaded. Then, about midnight, he settled down into a sleep, or maybe he lost consciousness, I couldn't tell which. The fever still burned, but he lay peaceful.
There was nothing I could do for him, so I decided to sleep a while. The stars were still out when I woke, but something was wrong. I could feel it. I looked at the boy. His white face was turned to the sky. I knew before I put a hand to his cold forehead that Harlow Wilson would never whip this boy again. He was dead.
Deep down inside, I felt the fury building. Here was the kind of a lad I dreamed of calling "son" one day. Scrappy and tough, a survivor. And some big man named Harlow Wilson had gone and killed him. Well, he was going to pay. I swore to it.
I didn't look like much as I rode into Mexican Hat. But the town wasn't much either. The boy's body was tied across his old saddle. And that grulla pony bore the body like it was an honor, stepping high and proud and bobbing his head up and down.
There was no undertaker in town, so I borrowed a pick and shovel and took the body to the cemetery myself. Two hours of work scraped a grave in the hard-pan soil. I gently lowered the boy in, wrapped in the cover tarp of my bedroll. I built a little fire and heated the running iron I carry. On a slab of old wagon tailgate, I wrote with the hot iron:
Whipped to death
June 12, 1884
I jabbed that slab down into the head of the grave so just the part I'd burned was above the ground. Then I shoveled the dirt back into the grave. I felt almighty bitter by the time I threw the last shovel full of clods on that boy's grave. Bile was eating at the back of my throat; bile that wouldn't go down without Harlow Wilson paying for what he'd done.
Now I rarely go by the book, though I like to read. When I get a notion, I get it done. And usually, Hell's own fire can't stop me.
I squinted up at the pale blue sky. "Good Lord," I said, "He was a good lad, and he got whipped to death by a grown man. Now you take care of the soul of this boy, Lord, and I'll go take care of the man."
Suddenly I found that I could say no more. Something had tightened up the muscles of my throat and my voice couldn't get through. Then damned if some sand didn't get in my eyes and make 'em water.
Right there in the cemetery, I pulled out my Colt and checked it over. The action was smooth. I wiped a mite of dust from the cold blued steel of the barrel, then put the gun back into my waistband behind the tail of my faded maroon shirt. I took out my Winchester, a .44-40 like my Colt, and jacked all fifteen shells into my floppy old hat. The lever felt right and the hammer pulled back smooth. I wiped each bullet and fed them back into the magazine. I dug into my saddlebags for a Green River knife. I hung that long slim toadsticker down the back of my neck on a thong where it would be in easy reach. I knew the kind of man Harlow Wilson was, and I knew he was better than average with a bullwhip. But a bullet or a knife can reach a sight farther than a whip.
I pulled the floppy brim of that old hat down over my eyes and climbed aboard that rangy old mule. Going down the hundred-yard main street of Mexican Hat, I must have looked like the tail end of hard times. But let me tell you, I was loaded, primed and ready. I coulda gone toe-to-toe with a female grizzly and given her a good fight. And if I’da found Harlow Wilson, only one of us would have survived.
I returned the pick and shovel, then walked into the Desert Rose, the only saloon in Mexican Hat. "Looking for Harlow Wilson," I said, damned if I'd say "judge."
"You won't find him here, mister. He lit out last night. Headed for a town on the Little Colorado called Saint Johns. Hear there's trouble brewing down there."
"Trouble?" Maybe I could learn more about why Roland Prince wanted me in Saint Johns.
"I'll say. Seems that some Mexicans claim land between Saint Johns and Concho. Say it was granted to them by the Spanish king."
"The United States recognized those grants in '67," I said. I knew those Mexicans. Don Fernando Pilar was the third and Miguel was the fourth generation of Pilars to occupy that land grant. And I knew the grant was legal.
The bartender raised an eyebrow. "Is that right. I thought all them Spanish land grants were no good now."
"Some ain’t. Some are."
"Anyways," the barkeep continued, "there's a big outfit called the Pitchfork, that's supposed to bring fifty thousand head of cattle from Texas like the Hashknife did. The outfit’s got a deal with the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad for land, I hear. Only now, I guess the Pitchfork wants them Spanish land grants too.
"What's Harlow Wilson got to do with it?"
"Seems he owns the Pitchfork."
"What was he doing in Mexican Hat?"
"He came after that kid you buried."
The bartender shrugged. He looked like he didn’t want to talk, so I didn’t push it. Finally he spoke.
"That boy came riding in on a grulla mustang straight and proud. He wasn't much to look at, but he had a way about him. Pride, I guess you could say. It made people take to him right away. „I'm on the run,' he says, and climbs down off that horse. 'After my folks died, this man, Harlow Wilson, he took me in, like he done for other orphan boys. But if I get another of his whippings, I might not make it through.'"
The barkeep took a swipe at the water in his eyes with the back of his hand. „That little shaver showed me his back," he said, "and it was crissed and crossed with the kind of marks a man only gets from the wrong end of a bullwhip. I don't know what Wilson had against that kid, but there musta been something. And the boy knew that if he didn't get away, Wilson would kill him." The bartender's voice broke a little.
"How did Wilson find him?"
"It was almost an accident. The boy was crossing over from the trading post. . . . Well, he was right in the middle of the street when Wilson and them galloped into town. He broke for his pony, but he’d no more than got in the saddle when one of Wilson's men roped him.
"Wilson had the boy tied to a wagon wheel to be whipped before any of us thought to try and stop him. And every time that whip landed, a new line of blood came up on the boy's shirt. Pretty soon it was all bloody.
"That kid was some tough. He never made a sound. He lasted about three minutes before he fainted. Wilson just kept whipping, then left the boy hanging there by the wrists, with his face against the hub of that wagon wheel.
"I don't know how he got loose, but while those rowdies were in . . . here . . . having a . . . drink." The barkeep had a hard time admitting he'd served the men who'd whipped the boy. He swallowed, took a deep breath, and continued.
"First thing I knew, the mustang was gone. And the kid with it. I guess you know the rest."
I knew the story all right. Men like Harlow Wilson didn't deserve to live. I swore I'd find that man. I'd make sure he remembered the boy he’d whipped to death. And I'd make Wilson pay.
I didn't say anything. I just left two-bits on the bar, walked through the door, mounted that spiny-backed mule, and turned his head toward Saint Johns. The grulla mustang fell in behind of its own accord.
Harlow Wilson sat hunkered down on his heels, staring into the campfire. Damn that drifter. And damn that Ronnie Dunne. Why had that boy run away? Hadn't he been provided with a roof over his head and food to eat? So he'd been disciplined a time or two. Any child needs disciplining if he is to become a responsible adult. Wilson grimaced at the memory of the discipline he'd received at the hand of his preacher father. But then, that pain had made him what he was now—a man respected in the community, with even better things to come.
He tossed the coffee grounds in the bottom of his cup into the fire, making it hiss and flare. His mind went back to the drifter. He didn't like backing down from anyone, but there had been death in that man's black eyes. Wilson shivered as he reached for the coffee pot.
Two days would put the Pitchfork bunch in Holbrook, and then Saint Johns would be only a long day's ride away, two at the most. Wilson wished he were already there. He smiled as he thought of what he planned to do in Saint Johns. He held a note on the RP Connected, so he'd soon have that spread. And things would work out so the Pilar land grant would be his, too. Wilson chuckled aloud, causing Pete Peterson to look up at him. Wilson didn't notice the rider's stare.
Baldy Fontelle assigned the watches for the night. Wilson let the big man run things on the trail. Things were different back at Pitchfork headquarters, where Wilson had moved in with his riders and his boys less than two months ago. Fontelle was rawhide tough and took care of expeditions like this one. So all Wilson had to do was ride. He slept well with Fontelle in charge.
Fontelle placed the camp deep in Canyon de Chelly, so the rising sun painted the sides of the canyon crimson long before it ever touched the sandy bottom. Breakfast of sow belly and frybread was over soon after the sky turned blue with the dawn. The Pitchfork men had just mounted when shots rang out.
Pitchfork eyes searched the heights for a sign of gunsmoke. There was none. Then more shots—six, evenly spaced and deliberate. Echoes made it hard to tell what direction the shooting came from, but Fontelle nodded south, upstream.
The group moved slowly down the trail, Winchesters across the bows of their saddles. A third volley of shots came. Then a fourth.
But when the Pitchfork men reached the cold camp, no one was there. The fire was scattered, stomped dead and covered with sand. The tracks said six horses had left not long before. And down by the river, a tin can full of holes said the shots had been someone practicing.
Half an hour up the canyon, the horse tracks veered toward a trail that led to the rim.
"Reckon they're riding the mesa to Holbrook," Fontelle said. He led Wilson's men up the same trail. By noon the riders topped out and saw the other party’s dust, a good hour ahead.
The Pitchfork men camped dry that night, but Wilson knew that next day they'd be in Holbrook where he could get a decent meal at Aunt Hattie's and a good drink at the Bucket of Blood. Shortly after they'd saddled up, the men heard another series of shots up ahead. Later they found another can, this one so shattered by bullets that it hardly looked like a can at all.
"We've gained a few minutes on them," Fontelle said. "Likely they'll be in Holbrook when we get there."
When the sun was high, Fontelle had the riders dismount, wet their bandannas with water from their canteens, and wipe their horses' mouths out. Holbrook and the Little Colorado River were still four or five hours away.
They tromped across the red clay and broken sandstone for nearly an hour before Fontelle let them mount. Even then, they kept the horses at a walk. Still, the sun was almost down when the riders topped the bluff north of Holbrook. The Hashknife ranch house stood slightly back from the lip of the bluff, whitewashed and fronted by plank-fenced paddocks. Wilson noticed that everything was in perfect repair. This is how the Pitchfork will look when I get the land I need, he thought. And that will be soon.
Fontelle took the group to Horsehead Crossing on the Little Colorado to water the horses. Then they rode single file up Main Street to Brown & Kinder's Livery.
"Howdy, Baldy," said Sam Brown. "Staying long?"
Fontelle shot a quick glance at Wilson, then shook his head. "We'll be headed for Saint Johns in the morning," he said. "Anyone in town?"
"Sid Lyle and his bunch came in about an hour ago. They’re going to Saint Johns, too. Lyle had an extra man with him. Don't know for sure, but the way he wears his gun back behind his right hip makes me think he might be Ruel Gatlin."
"Who's Ruel Gatlin?" Wilson asked.
"He's the youngest of four Gatlin brothers. The other three caught lead in Telluride, what was it, four or five years ago. Ness Havelock shot 'em. Heard Gatlin was gunning for Havelock," Brown said.
"Well, I think that was him."
"He's one to steer clear of, boss," said Fontelle. "He's quick. Quick to pull his hogleg. Quick to pull the trigger. And I ain't heard nothing about him missing what he shoots at."
Horses stabled and cared for, Wilson gave each man a gold eagle, but warned them of an early morning start. He knew Fontelle would rouse them, because the big bald man was a teetotaler, though he wasn't a Mormon.
After venison, beans, and sourdough bread at Aunt Hattie's, Wilson pushed through the swinging doors of the Bucket of Blood. Taking a place at the middle of the bar, Wilson ordered a whiskey and a cigar. Tipping his white hat back on his head, the big man tossed back the whiskey, smiling as the warmth spread through his body. He cut the end of the cigar off with his pocketknife. He licked the body of the cigar well, and commenced lighting it with a lucifer from a box on the bar. As Wilson lit the stogie, his eyes swept the bar's patrons.
A blond man dressed in black played poker with three cowboys. He was completely deadpan and almost motionless. But Wilson got the impression he was tight-wound as any steel spring.
Another man at the end of the bar caught Wilson's attention. He stood belly up with his left arm on the bar. He wore his gun almost in the small of his back, tilted so the grip was exactly where his hand would be if he swept it back, palm open and thumb to the body.
Wilson puffed his cigar, tossed down a second drink, and walked over to the man. He watched Wilson come with a raised eyebrow, curiosity on his face.
"My name is Harlow Wilson. I own the Pitchfork ranch in Saint Johns. I assume you are Ruel Gatlin."
What would have taken me five days on my buckskin, took a week on the mule. But he was just as fresh when we rode into Saint Johns as he'd been when we left Mexican Hat. The mule thrived on sand and scrub brush and three sips of water. I didn't.
Me, the mule, and the grulla mustang sported a layer of trail dust nearly an inch thick, including on the inside of my throat. It was a toss-up whether I'd take a bath to get the dust off my body or a drink to get it outta my throat. I settled on a bath.
I walked into the barbershop that flanked Solomon's Mercantile.
"Bath?" the aproned barber asked.
I paid, took the scrawny towel and cake of yellow lye soap from him, and headed for the barrels of hot water out back. Thirty minutes of scrubbing and rinsing, along with beating the dust out of my faded clothes, made me feel like a new man. Now, I was ready to try to find out what the fuss was about. Roland Prince would never send for me without good reason. But first, I like to get a good look the lay of the land.
I stepped out of the barbershop and up to the mule. The livery was back down the street a hundred yards or so. I pulled my Winchester from the saddle scabbard and mounted the mule to make the ride.
As I rode, I got uneasy prickles on the back of my neck. Saint Johns was a pretty good-sized town, yet there was hardly anyone on the street. Even the windows gave off uneasy glares as I passed. I found no one at the livery stable, so I helped myself to the fodder and oats. After giving the mule and the grulla both at rubdown, I checked my Colt and Winchester and started back up the street.
Saint Johns is divided in three. The Mormons on the hill, the Mexicans down by the river, and everybody else over here. The town boasted only two saloons, catty-corner across the street from each other. One bore the probable name of Longhorn. The other wore the improbable name of Fox and Hounds. Saloons mean information. I decided to try the Fox and Hounds first.
Inside, the saloon was like any other: bar along the right-hand wall, four tables down the left. Two cowboys quietly played cards in the back of the room. The barkeep stood stolidly behind a two-inch plank of oak, his expression carefully neutral.
I held my long-barrel Winchester .44-40 in my left hand, while my right swung casual and free, never far from the butt of the Colt in my waistband.
I took a nice spot right down at the end of the bar where I could lean a shoulder against the far wall. I stood my Winchester against the wall, barrel to hand.
"What'll it be?" Even the bartender's voice sounded neutral.
The barkeep slid the brew down the bar, foam slopping over the brim. It stopped in front of me. He followed with a cloth, wiping the flecks of beer head from the polished oak plank.
"Passing through?" he asked.
"Looks like a friendly town. I may stay a while."
"Preston Hanks's looking for men. You might give him a try."
"What kind of spread does he run?"
"He runs about fifteen thousand head up toward the Blues, him and two Englishmen."
The bartender took another swipe at the oak plank. He sidled a little closer and put his elbows on the bar in front of me, speaking in a low, confidential tone. "Hanks's had him some trouble lately," he said. "So now he prefers men who can handle their guns better than most."
I lifted my beer mug to him in a salute, chugged down the beer, plonked a nickel on the bar, and left him standing there polishing oak. It's hard to feel comfortable at a spotless bar. That one didn't even have a bullet hole in it.
I mulled what I knew. Hanks had trouble. Roland Prince had trouble. And Harlow Wilson's Pitchfork meant trouble, especially if it was bringing in fifty thousand cows. Was all this trouble coming from the same place? Maybe someone at the Longhorn could add to what I knew.
Outside, the weather was hot, but that didn't account for the lack of movement. I could feel tension in the air. Made my hair stand up and prickle. Ness Havelock—and him a dead man—was the only thing moving on Saint Johns's Commerce Street.
All I did was walk out the front door of the Fox and Hounds, cross the street, and go in through the front door of the Longhorn. But from the reaction, you'da thought I'd committed some awful crime.
I'm peaceful. But I'm hard. I don't push worth a damn. And them in the Longhorn were fixed to push.
I took two steps into the room and a big voice boomed. "If you want to drink at the Fox and Hounds, cowboy, then just trot yourself right back over there. The Longhorn's where decent people drink.”
I turned slow, and looked at the owner of that voice.
"You talking to me?" I walked straight at the man, though he stood three or four inches taller than me.
"That's right. Get out."
"Well now," I said, leaning the Winchester against a table. "Why don't you just throw me out?"
With that, I put my weight behind a stiff right that splatted against the big man’s face with the sound of a mallet striking a side of beef. He didn't even blink. But his eyes got kinda red, and I could see that he was a brawler. So if I could keep his hands off me, the boxing that Sergeant Kelly taught me and Garet might even the odds a mite.
"Go get him, Jerry," shouted a bystander. And on he came, arms pumping like pistons. I stepped out of his way and mashed his ear with a solid left. He lost his balance and plowed through two tables, breaking the legs off one and cracking the other with the crown of his head.
"Jerry," I said. "You quiet down, and I'll let you off."
I shoulda been fighting, not talking, because Jerry came off the floor and hit me flush in the cheekbone with a huge right fist. The inside of my mouth crushed against my teeth and I tasted the coppery salt of my own blood.
He was swinging at me again, but my body wouldn't move. The big fist clobbered me right in the middle of the forehead. My neck felt like rubber, and my head went whipping back and forth.
The man called Jerry reached out and gathered me into a bear hug. I forced my elbows against that thick chest, trying to make breathing room.
Now I'm no kid. At one-eighty, with most of my weight in my arms and shoulders, I can lift and pull with the best of them. But this Jerry was handling me like I was a child.
Jerry shifted his grip a little lower, tightening it at the same time. My head had cleared, but I had to do something quick, else I’d suffocate or my ribs would crack.
I couldn't get a knee in Jerry’s crotch, he was wise to that. So I raised a leg and scraped the sole of that old cavalry boot all the way down the big man’s shin and stomped as hard as I could on his left instep.
The bear hug loosened a little, and I got an arm out. I raked my hooked fingers across Jerry’s eyes. He hollered and clapped a hand to his eyes where my fingers had scraped across his eyeballs.
Then we got knee-deep into a free-for-all, gut-split fight. No finesse at all. I slugged Jerry in the back of the neck with both hands clasped together. He went to his knees, a hand still covering his eyes.
I brought a knee into the middle of those hands and he bellered again as his nose broke. Blood splattered.
With every ounce of my strength, I hooked a right to Jerry’s head, right behind the ear. He dropped like a pole-axed steer.
As Jerry went down, I pulled my Colt from my waistband with a sore right hand.
"Now, if you men would just back up against that wall, we'll get to the bottom of this misunderstanding." I motioned big Jerry's buddies over to the side of the room.
"I hope you know who you just clobbered," said a lean sour-looking cowboy.
"Can't say as I do."
"That's Jerry Simpson. Nobody's ever bested him. He's going to be some kind of mad."
"Can't say as I blame him. Still, he shouldn't pick on strangers just because they drank at another bar."
Simpson struggled up onto all fours. Blood dripped from the end of his broken nose to puddle on the floor. He swiped at his nose with the back of a big hand. Then somehow he got to his feet.
Simpson just stood there, swaying back and forth like a mad grizzly, taking it all in—me with my Colt in my hand, and his friends against the wall with their hands clasped behind their heads.
Jerry Simpson slowly turned until he faced me straight on. For a full minute he just stood there, glaring. A mouse running across the floor woulda sounded like a moose. Tension crackled, and I figured the fight was still on.
Then Simpson swiped his nose again, and grinned. He stuck out a big hand.
"You'll do," he said. "Put 'er there."
Suddenly the place was a bedlam. Everyone bought drinks for everybody else. The house even bought a round. When things quieted down, I found myself in a dark corner with Simpson.
"If you're a mind, I'd like to hear your moniker," he said.
"I've been called Troy," I said, using a name I'd hatched one time down in Ciudad Juarez.
Simpson grinned. "Troy it is. Tell me now, you planning to stick around long? Or just passing through?"
"A man I met on the Trail told me that the Blues had some good places where a man could settle down, kind of out and away from everything. I thought I'd drift over this side of Escudilla and have a look."
"It's might pretty country up there all right. The winters are a bit rough at times, though."
"When you've wintered in Jackson Hole, the cold in Arizona ain't much."
"You may be right," Simpson said, "Wyoming's got tough winters. Still, that Blues country is upwards to eight thousand feet. After early November, nothing moves much until April. You ready for that?"
"I reckon I'm ready for about anything that comes along."
Simpson rubbed the back of his neck. "Yeah. I reckon you are."
I figured now was the time to press for information.
"On the other hand, I don't want trouble, either. Is anyone fighting over that land?"
"Not exactly." Simpson's face got serious. "But there's trouble around."
"Yeah. All around.
"From the south and east there's a big outfit called the Pitchfork that's herding fifty thousand head of rangy Texas cattle this way, they say."
"Who's that gonna hurt?"
"Preston Hanks, for one. He runs all them white-faced cattle over toward the Blues, and he says he's not gonna let no Texas range cattle mix with them. Can't say's I blame him, even if he and my boss don't agree on things much."
"Yeah. My boss is Roland Prince."
"What's his problem?"
Simpson looked at me for a moment as if he wasn't sure if he should be telling me all of this, me being a stranger. But he went on.
"The boss has a couple or three problems. Hanks pushes his cattle onto our grazing land south of here. Some of the land our dogies graze on is part of a Spanish grant held by Mexes in Concho named Pilar. And God knows what's gonna happen when Pitchfork cows get here."
"Is the Mexican pushing?"
"No, can't say that he is. Runs sheep on that range, though, in the wintertime."
"I heard he had some sheep trouble a year or so ago."
"Loren Buchard's boy Rafe done that. He shot Garet Havelock, that ex-lawman who raises horses over on Silver Creek. Rafe's in Yuma prison now."
"Prince gonna push the Mexicans?"
"I think his main worry's Hanks. 'Cause Hanks started hiring gun hands about a month ago. He's got Sid Lyle working for him. And Lyle brought four of his own rannies."
"Any talk of Tom Horn?"
"He come up from the reservation, but he rode out a couple of days later. Guess he didn't like what he saw."
That made me even more wary. If Tom Horn didn't like things, it was a cinch I wouldn't either. Folks say he can track a shadow across solid rock. I dunno if that's true, but I’ve heard that he's got judgment. And that’s what counts.
"You were telling me what your boss was gonna do."
Simpson nodded. "He sent to El Paso for Garet Havelock's younger brother Ness. Says he's a hard man. But now talk has it that Havelock got himself killed up to Moab."
"I know the place."
"Anyways, there's been no word from him. The boss is fit to be tied. But he keeps saying that Ness'll come. Hell or high water, he says, Ness'll come."
I got that prickly feeling again. Something wasn't right. My hand went to the butt of the Colt in my belt. I let my glance flick around the room. Nothing had changed.
Simpson kept talking. "The boss would sure take to someone like you. Why don't you drop over to the ranch? I'll vouch for you."
I smiled. "Thanks. I may do that." But, at that moment, all I wanted to do was get out of that saloon. I needed some time to think.
"Thanks again for the conversation and the drink." I stood up, shook Simpson's big paw, and strode toward the door of the Longhorn, picking up my rifle on the way. I paused for a moment at the door to let my eyes adjust, then stepped quickly through it and off to one side. Nothing stirred on Commerce Street in Saint Johns.
Down at the end of the street, a wooden bridge spanned the Little Colorado. On the far side lay Mexican town. I'd always found Mexicans to be good people. So I headed for that bridge and the Mexican part of Saint Johns.
I was no more than halfway across the bridge, when I saw dust. It boiled up as horses raced toward town from the west. The dust said there was at least one vehicle, probably a buckboard at that speed. I hung my elbows over the bridge railing and waited to see who was in such an all-fired hurry to get to this baked-mud town.
From under the brim of my hat, I could see four riders flanking a buckboard pulled by a pair of sweating lathered horses. Two men sat in the buckboard, one urging the team to greater speed, the other sitting stolidly, a hand clutching the back of the swaying buckboard’s seat.
I pulled that floppy hat down over my eyes and leaned against the bridge railing to let the buckboard and its flankers roar by. I only recognized only one of the riders, Ace Cruger. Ace was a tough man, and a good one to have on your side in a fight. He also never questioned orders. He rode strictly for the brand.
The other men I recognized were in the buckboard. Roland Prince was one. But not the Roland Prince I knew. I remembered a big hearty man, burned by the sun, hard and fit from countless hours in the saddle. This Roland Prince was pale and drawn, jaw set as he clung as if for his life to the back of the seat.
Harlow Wilson drove the buckboard. But he didn't seem to recognize me.
When the buckboard pulled up in front of the Longhorn, I saw why Prince was different. Two men helped him from the buckboard. Another handed him a pair of crutches. Through narrowed eyes, I watched him struggle through the door, followed by Wilson. I had some thinking to do. Things weren't what I'd figured at all.
The Mexican side of Saint Johns had more signs of life. Kids hollered somewhere out behind the adobe buildings that lined the street. Chickens scratched in the dust for some sprig of green or unwary bug. Mongrel dogs shaded up wherever they could find a comfortable spot. But not one horse stood at any of the hitching rails along the street.
Only one sign graced the street, so I had no trouble finding what I was looking for. Someone had whitewashed CANTINA on the wall of one low building. The letters drooped where the whitewash had run, and the weather had nearly taken the word from the adobe. I could barely read it.
Inside, the cantina was dark and musty. A wooden table with a stack of empty bottles stood off to one side with a case behind it.
Only one drink served here—mescal.
Shriveled limes squatted on the table's corner next to a lovingly honed butcher knife. A pottery bowl of salt sat in the middle of the table, indentations in the surface showing where drinkers had taken pinches. If the glasses had been any cloudier, the room would have housed a rainstorm. On the other hand, I reckon mescal kills about anything that might be left on the glasses.
A man stepped in from behind the serape hanging in the back door and stared at me in silence.
"Mescal, por favor," I said.
The bottle the Mexican poured from wasn't in the case. That should have warned me.
He filled a large glass about half full of clear liquor and pushed it across the table to me. With a swift chop of the butcher knife, he bisected a lime, shoving one half at me and keeping the other.
I licked the knuckle of my left hand and dipped it into the bowl of salt. I knocked back a good half of the mescal and squeezed lime juice into my mouth. Then I sucked the salt off my hand, and drank the rest of the mescal.
The Mexican smiled.
I smiled back.
That’s the last thing I remember before I came to, with a razor-sharp blade pricking the base of my neck.
Ruel Gatlin stayed in Holbrook when Sid Lyle and his men rode on to Saint Johns. He liked the Bucket of Blood, and Holbrook seemed an interesting town. True, he'd shot that kid in Jackson Hole, but the cheater deserved it, even though Gatlin did have to ride out three steps ahead of the law. Gatlin had seen the marshal Tom Stark in Holbrook and he didn't seem to be looking for anyone of Ruel Gatlin's description.
Gatlin stood at the bar in his usual position and watched a card game being played quietly at the back table. His empty whiskey glass stood at his elbow.
"Will ye be wanting another, sor?" The barman had the appearance of an old soldier: back straight as a board, despite his generous belly, and keen ice-blue eyes that could twinkle at a good joke or spark with indignation when cowboys went beyond common sense in drunken revelry. Gatlin knew of the sawed-off shotgun behind the counter and had no doubt but that Delaney could use the weapon well.
Gatlin nodded for another drink.
Delaney poured him a generous two fingers from the good whiskey bottle below the counter.
With Ness Havelock dead and buried, Gatlin was without a goal in life. The job Harlow Wilson offered held no appeal. Still, he'd have to do something soon. He wasn’t about to live on free lunch or ride the grub line.
Gatlin preferred towns. He'd been born in Silver City, and he'd gone from one town to the next until Telluride.
Even with Havelock dead and gone, he couldn't forget that day in Telluride. Back then, he was the littlest Gatlin . . . a pink-tailed kid, hanging on the coattails of his big brothers.
Actually, in those days, Ruel Gatlin had been deeply in love. His brothers insisted that he go to school, where he was the oldest student, if not the biggest.
But that didn't matter. Young Ruel was in love with Rebecca Shoemeister and his adoring eyes followed her as she taught sums to the younger students. He dwelt on every word she spoke and he did every homework assignment with complete diligence.
Lawrence and Mort, older than Ruel by a dozen years, saw his infatuation and teased him unmercifully.
"But she's only nineteen," Ruel argued, "and I'm almost fifteen. Lots a guys got wives as older than them. Just look at the Swensens at the bakery. I bet you a dime to a dollar that the Dane's younger than his stringbean wife. So what's wrong if I'm a little sweet on Miss Shoemeister?"
His brothers laughed.
Ruel liked story time best of all, because Miss Shoemeister read aloud to the students in her melodic contralto voice. And Ruel learned of knights and chivalry and how a man is supposed to throw his coat in the mud so a lady can step on it and not dirty her slippers.
He sometimes saw himself as the knightly gentleman and Rebecca as the maidenly but noble lady. And he wished for a puddle to throw his coat into so she could step on it.
Sometimes when Miss Shoemeister bent over a young scholar to guide a hand or give a word of encouragement, the sun would catch the stray hairs at the nape of her neck and turn them into burnished gold. In those moments, Ruel Gatlin loved Rebecca Shoemeister so much it felt like his heart might just melt.
Then one day Marshal Flint came looking for Ruel long before time for school to end. He stuck his grizzled gray head through the door and stood there until Miss Shoemeister noticed him.
"I come for Ruel Gatlin, Miss."
"Mister Gatlin is at his studies."
"Sorry, Miss. This is important. Could I see you for a moment outside?"
Miss Shoemeister stepped out to converse with the marshal for a moment, then came back in. She walked to Gatlin's seat on the back row and laid her hand gently on his shoulder. He found it very hard to breathe.
"Mister Gatlin. Something important has happened down town in front of Ma Blaisdell's place. Could you go with the marshal? Please." Her eyes looked very sad and Gatlin wondered why. But he couldn't refuse this woman he loved.
"Yes, Miss Shoemeister," he said properly. "I'll go with him right away." How he'd practiced so he could speak to her correctly when spoken to.
Gatlin grabbed his hat and rushed outside. The marshal fidgeted.
"Come on, son," he said gruffly. "This ain't gonna be pleasant for you or me." The marshal swung up on his big bay horse and waited for Gatlin to come with his mouse-colored pony.
"What's happened, marshal?" Gatlin could not contain his curiosity.
"You'll find out soon enough." The marshal turned his horse toward Ma Blaisdell's. Gatlin followed.
When they got there, Gatlin and the marshal had to use their horses to shoulder through the crowd. Once through, Gatlin saw the still forms of his three brothers.
"Mort! Steve! Larry!" Gatlin piled off his pony and ran to Steve, big Steve, giant Steve, now just a lump of dead flesh lying in a pool of blood on Ma Blaisdell's porch.
Strangely, Gatlin's eyes were dry. Next, he inspected Lawrence. Then Mort. Dead. Both of them.
Gatlin turned to the marshal. "My brothers are the only ones lying here dead, marshal. Who did it? Who killed my kin?"
"Mort had a run-in with a drifter earlier, son. Told him to get outta town. The man buffaloed Mort, then went to get some sleep at Ma Blaisdell's. Your brothers came after him and got the raw end of the deal, though it looks like he caught lead."
"Does that drifter have a name?"
"Barkeep said the name was Johannes Havelock."
Gatlin tried the name on his tongue. "Johannes Havelock." To him, the name had a bitter taste.
The undertaker came. "Want I should take care of the deceased?" he asked.
Gatlin stared at him for a moment. Then nodded. "See they're done for proper, if you would."
The youngest Gatlin walked over to Lawrence, the skinny brother, and carefully removed his gunbelt. Lawrence's Remington lay in the dirt of the street. The dead man's bloody prints covered the grip and hammer. Gatlin cinched the belt around his waist, retrieved the Remington, and shoved the pistol in its holster. He'd clean the gun later.
"You can take their six-guns and stuff to the house, marshal. We'll bury my brothers in the morning."
Ruel Gatlin cleaned the Remington .45 carefully that night. And he rolled the killer's name over and over in his mind. Johannes Havelock.
"It'll be a year or two or five, who knows," he said aloud. "But some day you'll turn around, Johannes Havelock, and I'll be standing there with this gun in my hand, I promise."
Gatlin tossed back his drink. Johannes Havelock is dead, he thought. Somehow Havelock’s death left Ruel Gatlin feeling hollow inside.
"Gently, señor, gently."
The big Mexican on the other end of the knife didn't have to warn me. The well-honed blade was warning enough.
"I believe you are the man they call Troy in Ciudad Juarez. Is that not right?"
I nodded, but not enough to cut myself.
"As I thought." The Mexican removed the knife from my throat and whipped off the black kerchief that covered the lower half of his face, revealing a wide grin. He thrust a big hand out to me, but I ignored it. After a moment, he withdrew the hand.
"Perdon for the little extra in your mescal, amigo. But it was necessary that I talk to you."
"You use that word 'amigo' pretty lightly," I said.
"Just let me say that Ricardo sends his greetings."
"By me, Raoul Velasquez." The hand extended again. I reached up and grabbed it, hauling myself upright with a good tug. The pull didn't faze Velasquez.
I had to catch myself on the wall or I'd have tumbled right over, dizzy as I was. But after a moment, the dizziness went away.
"Ricardo Rodriguez, eh? Come to think of it, he told me about you." My words still didn't come out of my mouth right. "Said you were a good man in a fight. Whose side are you on now?"
"Don Fernando Alfonso de Pilar y Aquilar is a friend of my sainted father—God rest his soul. I cannot stand by and see the Pilars pushed from their land grant, which was recognized by the government of the United States and the Territory of New Mexico."
Velasquez looked at me with hard eyes. "Will you ride with me?"
"I will," I answered.
A ride to Rancho Pilar would put me face to face with Rita. I didn't know if I was ready for that, but there was little else I could do.
"My mule is in the livery stable," I said.
"I have a horse for you," the Mexican replied.
I nodded, and we left through the rear entrance. Outside, there was a small pole corral with two horses in it, saddled and bridled. One of them was my buckskin.
"Nice looking buckskin you got there," I said.
Velasquez again showed his broad grin. "He came down the Trail from Utah. I got him in Alma. Someone there said you would be wanting him."
I whistled and the buckskin came at a run, showering clods and dirt in a stiff-legged sliding halt, his nose flat up against my chest. Guess he missed me as much as I missed him.
My gunbelt was hanging from the saddle horn, so I took it off and cinched it around my hips. With my Colt riding in its familiar spot high on my left hip under the edge of that faded old shirt, I shoved my Winchester into its scabbard and mounted the buckskin.
The two of us rode out—me in my faded clothes, floppy hat, and hand-me-down cavalry boots, and Velasquez in his black leather breeches and short black Mexican jacket that gleamed with silver conchas.
Concho's inhabitants were Mexican. The town lies due west of Saint Johns. Mostly, it survives because of Rancho Pilar. We passed the hamlet at sunset, and reached the main gate to the rancho after dark.
My hand went to the butt of my Colt as the click-click of cocking shotgun hammers reached my ears. Velasquez put a hand on my arm.
"Soy Raoul Velasquez," he said to the guard. "Mi compañero es Señor Troy. El es muy conocido en Ciudad Juarez."
"Welcome, senor," the voice said. "My name is Jaime Roca. Salvador Espanza is my mother's cousin."
"Salvador's a good man, the best." That was true. Salvador had stood by me in the deserts of Sonora, along with Roland Prince. Luckily, we made it.
"Thank you, señor. Come in, Don Fernando awaits."
A shadow in the dark opened the gate in the ten-foot-high adobe and malpais wall that surrounded the hacienda grounds and waited silently as we passed through. Behind us, I heard a bar clunk down, locking the heavy gate again. With such as Jaime Roca on watch, shotgun in hand, the rancho was safer. Few fighting men could match these tough vaqueros. I'd fought with them before.
The hacienda was long and low, made of adobe and pine poles. A shaft of light spread across the beaten earth that was the front yard. Outlined in the glow was a girl, ready to turn my world upside down again. My breath caught in my throat.
"Welcome, Raoul." Her voice was low, with timbre, like the soft sound of a good bronze bell. "Father awaits you in the study." She ignored me.
When I'd rode out of this rancho a year and a half ago, I'd vowed to forget this girl. I couldn’t.
Now she looked regal, as if she’d just stepped from one of those paintings you see in New Orleans. Her eyes were wide, big and brown. But they turned hard as agate when they swept over me. Still, I drank in the face that I'd seen in my dreams so many times over the past months. Her skin glowed gold in the light of the lamps and her raven hair cascaded from a high Spanish comb to slightly below her waist. But she noticed only Raoul.
I stared. I couldn't help it.
Her eyes glistened, then she gave her head a sharp shake and lifted her chin. She wore a mocking half smile on her face as Raoul Velasquez took me by the arm and led me down the hallway to the room where Don Fernando waited.
"Señor . . . Troy. It has been too long since we have seen you." The Don extended a slim, fine-boned hand. I took it and found surprising strength in the grip.
"Don Fernando," I said. "I see time has treated you well."
"Will you join me in a glass of Jerez, the wine the English call sherry."
"Thank you, Don Fernando. I will."
The Mexican gunfighter nodded his assent.
The wine was bold and sweet, with the full flavor of grape carefully preserved. Wine was a good way to start a serious conversation, and I had no doubt that the talk this night would be very serious.
The massive door opened and the girl swept into the room carrying a tray piled high with delicacies. Deep fried tortillas, steamed jalapeno peppers, little dishes of chili and beef, mounds of pinto beans—boiled and mashed and refried with plenty of lard, the tastiest way to fix beans I ever knew—and sourdough biscuits with sweet desert honey, something you don't usually find amidst Mexican food.
"Sourdough biscuits?" I asked.
"Si," she said. "I learned to make them from my very good friend Laura Havelock, who lives on Rancho H-Cross on Silver Creek. Perhaps you know her?"
"And you remember my daughter Margarita," said Don Fernando with a chuckle in his voice. “Señor Troy has returned to us, querida,” he said to Rita.
“I’m sorry but I do not remember you, señor. We have so many visitors at the hacienda.” Her voice was rimmed with ice.
I fumbled with my floppy hat and said nothing.
"The señor is blushing," she said, mocking me yet again.
"Rita, you must not taunt our guest," said Don Fernando.
Laughing her tinkling laugh, she swept from the room, and my heart went with her. I just couldn't help it.
Ordinarily, I steer shy of women, but this girl had something different when I first met her, and she still had it now. A spirit that glowed as if from an internal fire, that’s what she had. But Rita Pilar was the daughter of a Spanish Don, and I was the son of a Texas ranger and his Cherokee wife. She was so far out of reach . . . .
Don Fernando refilled our glasses from a ceramic decanter.
"Perhaps you wonder why I had Don Raoul find you and bring you here," he said, looking at me. "Let me tell you the situation as well as I can. The rest, I'm afraid you must discover for yourself. But I know you are capable of that." The silver-haired Don settled himself into his well-stuffed leather chair.
"It was peaceful most of the year," said Don Fernando. "We had our grants of land, the Mormonas were settled and farming, the lawless kept mostly to the foothills of the Blues. And when they came to town, it was to Round Valley, where Gus Snyder ruled.
"Good men like Loren Buchard, Preston Hanks, and Roland Prince ran cattle together on public land, separating their stock at roundup time. But trouble seemed to start when Hanks bought in a herd of whiteface cattle, Herefords, I think they are called."
Velasquez broke in. "Perdon, Don Fernando. But there was a rumor in Ciudad Juarez late last year. It was just a whisper, gone almost before it began, but I heard it. The rumor spoke of gold in the White Mountains. That whisper came to my ears as trouble began here."
Velasquez had my full attention. Where there's gold, men go crazy.
"Raw gold or hidden gold?"
"Quien sabe? It was only a rumor.”
I remembered another rumor of Pilar gold. That rumor had very nearly started a war.
I turned to the Don. "Did anyone new show up around these parts just before the trouble started?"
Don Fernando furrowed his brow. "Many drift in. Few stay. Many make trouble. Harlow Wilson, for example, came with his riders. Wilson claimed they were the Pitchfork outfit, that they would bring fifty thousand cows into Apache County. Wilson said the Pitchfork would be good for this area." The Don paused for a moment. "But if what he says is true, why do his riders have so many fights? One was killed with a knife by one of my people."
Mention of Harlow Wilson brought bitter bile to the back of my throat again. "Was there a young kid with Wilson's bunch? A blond boy, twelve, thirteen years old?"
I could tell from the look in Don Fernando's eyes that he knew of the youngster.
"I saw such a boy, but he was only one of several," he said. "We heard that Wilson beat him with a bullwhip, and the boy fell unconscious. After some weeks of recuperacion, one day the boy was gone. Wilson and his riders pursued the boy, but they returned without him. I supposed that the youngster finally escaped that cruel man."
"He got away all right," I said through clenched teeth. "Forever."
Bitterness tightened my throat, making it hard to talk. "Wilson caught the boy in Mexican Hat," I said after a moment. "Whipped him again right in the street. Left him tied to a wagon wheel. The boy got loose somehow and bolted. He rode as far as my camp, about ten miles. That's where he died. I buried him in Mexican Hat. His mustang is in the livery stable. It wears a Pitchfork brand."
Velasquez put a hand on my arm. "I saw the boy, too, amigo. He was a good boy. He shall not go unavenged. You have my word. As long as Harlow Wilson walks God's earth, Raoul Velasquez walks on his shadow. If, perhaps, you cannot root out this evil, then I shall do it myself. In your place, of course."
I knew Raoul Velasquez would do to ride the trail with. And we’d do a lot of riding before this thing was over.
Don Fernando brought us back to the subject at hand. "One more thing happened," he said. "Shortly before trouble came to our land, Roland Prince was shot from ambush. No one knows who did it. Luckily, or unluckily, he was not killed. But he cannot use his legs well now. The ambush was on our land, and perhaps he thinks one of our vaqueros did it. Of course, that is not true."
"But he blames Rancho Pilar," I said, "and sometimes that's just as bad."
"And you, señor. Prince sent for you. Surely he will have a different story for your ears."
I changed the subject. "Have you talked to Garet yet?"
"Miguel has been to Silver Creek several times, and so has Rita. Garet knows of our trouble. In fact, he suggested we send for you. But when we got word to Don Raoul, we found that someone else, Roland Prince, had already requested your help.
"Garet and Laura have a fine son. They named him Beowulf. With his family . . ." the Don lost words for a moment. "Be that as it may, we need your help as you have helped us in the past. May we rely upon you once more, Mr. Troy?"
I still had unanswered questions on my mind. "Why do you suppose Preston Hanks is hiring gunhands?" I wondered aloud. "Why is there a no-man's land between the Fox and Hounds and the Longhorn? I can see your problem with Roland Prince, but why's Preston Hanks on his back?"
"I think Prince and Wilson have some kind of an understanding. Wilson's riders drink at the Longhorn. So do Prince's," the Don said.
"Drinking at the same place don't add up to an agreement."
"True. But I have never heard of a Pitchfork rider quarreling with an RP Connected one. It always seems to be Cross men who get hurt," said Don Fernando.
"Yes. That is the Hanks brand."
"Cross. A Pitchfork fits right over a Cross. Are you sure fifty thousand cattle're on the trail?" I asked.
"No one knows," said Velasquez. "I think no one has seen them. And I agree that the Pitchfork fits perfectly over a Cross."
The whole situation puzzled me. Too many possibilities. I had to sort them out. I needed to ruminate for a while. My confusion must have shown.
"There are many ways of looking at the same problem, amigo," said Velasquez. "But justice, I think, should serve them all. Would you not agree?"
The old Don smiled, nodding. "We know you, Mr. Troy, and we think that you are a man who seeks to do the right thing."
"Thank you, Don Fernando. I will try to live up to your opinion." This time I offered my hand first.
"I will be staying the night," said Velasquez.
"I need to do some solitary riding anyway."
"You are welcome here," said Don Fernando.
I refused, liking the genuine warmth of the offer, but not wanting to be cooped up inside four walls on that particular night.
The buckskin stepped out smartly in the blue-black of the diamond-studded Arizona night. I let him have his head. I wanted to study things out in my mind as we rode.
About ten minutes later, I realized someone was on my back trail. I lifted the buckskin into a lazy-looking lope that fooled a lot of people. That horse could cover a lot more ground than a body'd think just watching him run.
The country kinda rolls between Saint Johns and Concho, and the hills are rounded and covered with grass and a few juniper trees. Once in a while, a cliff of malpais volcanic rock juts from one side of a hill. And sometimes those cliffs are split with cracks big enough to back a horse into.
I'd marked one of those cracks on my way in, and the hill was not more than a quarter of a mile away. The buckskin plunged around the edge of the cliff and then stopped short at the touch of my knee. Seconds later, he was backed into that crack out of sight. I piled off the horse and held my hand to his nose. Whoever it was would soon come along.
We waited, hardly breathing, for the man on my back trail to make his play.
We hadn’t sat long when the buckskin pricked his ears. But he wasn't nervous. That meant no Indian. Indians, he's afraid of. He'd have been trembling all over if the rider on my trail had been an Apache.
At a suggestion of sound in the night, I gathered myself, raising my right foot to an outcropping in the wall of the crack. A horseshoe clinked in the night. A shadow came. I jumped, clapping my hand over the rider’s mouth as I shouldered him off the horse. But the squeak that escaped my hand didn’t come from a man. I was lying on top a woman, pinning her to the ground with my weight.
“Don’t make a sound,” I growled, keeping my hand clamped over the woman’s mouth. She nodded, so I let go and stood up. Rita Pilar got to her feet and brushed the dust from her riding skirt. She tossed her head, sending a black cloud of hair swirling back over her shoulders.
“You’re as good as my people say you are,” she said.
"You shouldn't be following a cowboy around in the dark, Rita. You never can tell who you'll meet that way." Margarita San Antonio de Pilar y Guerrero. I'd have recognized her voice in a blizzard, for I'd heard it in my sleep for nearly two years.
"You are still on our rancho, Ness Havelock. I am quite safe here. My father's vaqueros are never far away. Would you like for me to cry out and see how long it takes someone to come to my aid?" I heard anger in her voice. She moved away from me, out of reach.
"I find the one man with whom I would spend my whole life, Ness Havelock, and he rides away without so much as a word of explanation. Do you think I could let him ride away again without speaking to him?"
I held my tongue.
"Garet told me you would return. He promised in your stead. He said I should believe in you. And now you have come back to step into danger. So be it. I know that is your way. But this time, do not ride away from me. Por favor."
"Rita. Look. I'm just a wandering half-Cherokee cowboy. I work for a dollar a day and found, when I can find a job. I got no right to court a girl like you. None."
"Ness Havelock. I will decide whether or not you deserve me. Is that clear."
I chuckled again.
She turned serious again. "I wish to add my words to those of my father," she said. "This trouble has taxed him greatly. He is not as strong since he was wounded during the fight with Jake Buchard’s men. You remember. Now I fear for his life."
"His heart is not strong. And he finds strange notes in unusual places around the hacienda. Threatening notes."
"Do you have any of them?"
"No, Ness. Surely, he thinks no one else knows."
"Rita, you've called me Ness. Ness Havelock is dead and buried in Moab, Utah. My name is Troy."
"I'm sorry. I thought . . ."
"Don't. Now, if you can get me one of those notes, it might help clear up this bag of wildcats. Can you do that?"
"But how can I find you?"
"Raoul Velasquez will know. Trust him."
"Thank you," she said, standing close and smelling like a field of roses.
"Gracias." She stood on tiptoes and kissed me on the mouth. The feather-light touch of her lips burned on mine long after she’d mounted her little paint horse. She gigged the pony down the hill, and she turned to wave once, though I could barely make her out. Then she spurred the paint into a canter. As I watched, dark figures came out of a stand of junipers to fall in on each side of her galloping horse. Don Fernando's vaqueros were on the job.
I turned the buckskin's head toward Silver Creek. I needed to talk to my brother.
Ruel Gatlin mounted Buster with his fresh-cleaned Remington in its holster and a box of .45 cartridges in his saddlebags. Every day, he rode out to Lithodendron Wash east of Holbrook to practice drawing and shooting. In the past five years, he’d fired more than a hundred . . . maybe two hundred boxes of shells through that walnut-handled Remington he took from his brother’s body.
While practicing, Gatlin had fiddled with the positioning of his holster. Tried it on the left, and found he didn't like the forward position on the left hip. And carrying the gun on his right thigh was a bother.
Finally he arrived at a system where the gun fit in a holster that rode aslant the cartridge belt just to the right the small of his back.
Putting his thumb on his hipbone with the hand open to the rear brought the grip to hand. The rest was pulling the Remington while thumbing back the hammer, pointing the pistol like a finger, and gently squeezing the trigger until the gun exploded. These days, Gatlin usually hit what he was looking at.
Down in the bottom of the wash, he dismounted Buster and tied him to a nearby willow. He pulled a bottle from the saddlebags and drained the last two swallows of whiskey from it. He took fifty long strides along the sandy bottom of the wash and set the bottle on a waist-high outcropping.
Gatlin went back and fished the box of cartridges from his saddlebags and walked across the wash to put them on a large rock near the far bank.
For nearly half an hour, Gatlin practiced sweeping his hand back, grasping the Remington, and bringing it into line. Somewhere he'd heard that the body remembers moves that are repeated the same way time after time. So Gatlin was careful, making sure he drew the weapon with the same smooth movement every time.
Ruel Gatlin did not consider himself a gunfighter or a shootist. But five years ago, he'd sworn revenge. He'd vowed to kill the man who'd taken his family away. And when he made that vow, he knew the time would come when he'd need to get that gun out fast and shoot straight.
Gatlin pulled the .45 smoothly, thumbing back the hammer as the gun came up, and squeezing off a shot as it came into line. The neck of the whiskey bottle disappeared.
He replaced the weapon and repeated the draw and fire sequence. When the bottle was completely shattered, Gatlin stood a piece of wood up against the outcropping and kept at his practice. Fifty times he pulled the trigger. Fifty times the bullet hit the target. He used the last five cartridges in the box to reload the Remington. He'd clean it back in Holbrook.
When Gatlin mounted Buster, he noticed a man on a dark brown horse watching from the lip of a mesa nearly half a mile away. The stranger sat with both hands on the saddle horn. He had long blondish hair and wore an unusual Buscadero gunbelt with the pistol on his left side, butt forward.
The man took his horse over the edge of the mesa in a skittering slide to the bank of the wash. But somehow the brown horse seemed in perfect control of the wild descent. Gatlin waited quietly for the man to approach.
He pulled up far enough away from Gatlin not to be threatening, but close enough to talk.
"You're right handy with that weapon, son." The long-haired man spoke first.
"I practice some."
The two men sat their horses in silence. Then the stranger spoke again.
"I'll be Commodore Perry Owens," he said. "Got me a bit of a horse ranch over to Cottonwood Seep. I do enjoy good shooting, son, and you're better'n most."
Owens nodded gravely. "Any relation to the Gatlins of Telluride, Colorado?"
The long-haired man nodded again. "Heard about that," he said in a soft drawl. "I was punching cows for the Rodgers spread in Oklahoma at the time. Didn't come to Arizona 'til '81. Come to think of it, I seen Ness Havelock two days ago."
Gatlin's head came up and his eyes focused intently on Owens's face. The horse rancher continued as if he didn't notice.
"Almost didn't recognize Havelock. He was all dressed out in rags like a scarecrow, riding a long-legged mule and leading a grulla pony."
Gatlin's blood raced. Ness Havelock wasn't dead. He'd fooled Sid Lyle and them in Moab. Suddenly Gatlin's mouth was full of saliva. His eyes glinted.
"Where d'ya think he was headed?"
"Well. His brother's got a spread on Silver Creek and I’ve heard he’s sweet on a girl who lives at Rancho Pilar near Concho. Reckon he's going south. Was I him, I'd go to Saint Johns and work from there, but then again, I ain't him."
Gatlin nodded grimly. Maybe he'd take that job Wilson offered after all. Though he didn't like the man.
"Mind if I take a pot at your target?" Owens snaked the Colt from his Buscadero and fired one shot at the wood. Then another. Both tore chunks from the already battered target.
"Like to keep my hand in," Owens said with a tight smile. He slid the pistol back into its accustomed place.
"I know youngsters like you don't want advice, but I suggest you think twice about hunting for Ness Havelock. First off, he's a hairy wolf from the high country. He won't kill easy. Second thing, he's a good man. And no good man deserves to die."
"Ness Havelock killed my brothers," Gatlin said, his voice a cold monotone.
Owens stared at him. Then he nodded. "Way I heard it, the fight was between three Gatlins and one Havelock—."
Owens reined his horse toward Holbrook and left young Ruel Gatlin to think about what he'd said.
Owens's parting words were still echoing in Gatlin's mind when he gathered up his few belongings and rode for Saint Johns, his .45 newly cleaned and loaded.
Rita Pilar's kiss burned on my lips long into the night. I was supposed to figure out some way to defuse the powder keg in Saint Johns and all I could think about was that girl.
I shook my head, and tried to get rid of her, but she wouldn't go. I surrendered, and let the buckskin have his head, caring only that we were going westward. I knew the likes of me wasn't fit for her, but I guessed it wouldn't harm to dream. Maybe I even slept a little.
When we hit the wagon road to Show Low, I reined the buckskin so he'd follow it, and went back to noodling. Only this time, my head wasn't full of Rita Pilar. Instead, I thought about that tow-headed boy Harlow Wilson had whipped to death in Mexican Hat. Don Fernando'd said other boys lived at Pitchfork headquarters. I knew I had to break up Wilson's game fast, or more boys would die by his lash.
The buckskin passed the Forty-Four ranch when the moon was about halfway to the western horizon. The clop of his shod feet was the only sound. It was too early in the year for the crickets to sing and we were too far from Ortega Lake to hear the frogs. But the night carried the fragrance of one-seed junipers and Ponderosa pine.
Me and the buckskin hit Silver Creek in the gray of the dawn and turned northwest towards my brother Garet's H-Cross horse ranch. About three miles from the house, the valley spread out and flattened and Silver Creek slowed down and widened, feeding meadowland on either side. It was a sight to see.
The house my cousins Willem and Wylan Havelock built for Laura, Garet's wife, stood on high ground at the northwest end of the flats. Smoke from the chimney caught the first rays of the sun, and I heard a tin bucket clang. Then a calf bawled. Milking time, I guessed.
The house was solid, built of squared Ponderosa logs with oak doors and shutters. Not a fancy house, but one large enough for a ranching family.
I heard the click of a hammer being eared back as I walked the buckskin into the front yard.
"Just keep your hands on the saddle horn, stranger."
I recognized the voice of Judd Travis, Garet's segundo. "I'm friendly, Judd. Just let me take this hat off."
"Do it slow and easy."
"Ness!" Garet's voice came from the corner of the house. Judd lowered his shotgun. I piled off the buckskin and met my big brother with a bear hug. After the back-pounding and hollering was over, Laura Havelock spoke from the doorway.
"Look at you, Ness Havelock. You'd do for a scarecrow in our corn patch. A body would think you could dress proper when you come calling." Laura’s smile took away any sting from her words as it stretched the scars on her cheeks.
Then I noticed the little fist clutching her skirts. The youngster's face was hidden behind his mother's skirt.
"And who's that hiding behind you?" I asked.
Laura lifted the tyke and set him on her left hip. "Meet your nephew, Ness. This is Beowulf Havelock."
The boy stared at me through unblinking yellow-hazel eyes. His shock of red hair was the same color as his mother's.
"Shake, Beowulf," I said, holding out a finger. That boy grabbed hold of my finger with a fierce grip, but his eyes still didn’t blink. Guess he didn't know where to place me among the adults in his short life.
"Pleezed ta meecha," I said, moving my finger up and down. The boy grinned but no mirth reached his eyes.
"Cool little feller, ain't he?"
"Bo takes a while to get used to folks," Laura said.
Garet's dog Brindle came sniffing at my boots, his tail wagging. I scratched him behind the ears.
"Looks like that killer dog of yours grew up to be a house pet," I said.
Garet laughed. "Him and Wolf are great partners," he said.
"Laura calls our son Bo. I call him Wolf. Doesn't seem to bother the boy one way or the other." Garet chuckled again.
The boy reached his arms out for Garet, who took him and immediately put him on the ground. Brindle sidled up to the child, offering a handhold of neck ruff to help him steady himself. The two walked off, the infant with uncertain steps and the dog patiently pacing himself to the toddler.
"I reckon they're off to watch the chickens," Garet said, pride in his eyes. He had a fine son.
"You must be famished, Ness. Come in. Breakfast is almost ready and the coffee's hot." Laura stepped back into the house so I could enter.
The kitchen was a lean-to room attached to the rear of the main log structure. It had a long table that would seat at least a dozen people and a big Franklin stove at the north end. Laura pulled a spider full of biscuits from the oven and the aroma of hot bread filled the room. She put the spider on top of the stove, picked up the big pot standing back on the stove's warmer plate, and poured me a cup of coffee from it.
"Here. The food will be ready in a minute," Laura said.
Garet had stayed outside to keep an eye on the boy.
"You hurt Rita badly, you know. Have you seen her?" Laura asked suddenly.
I gulped and nodded, not knowing what to say.
"Well, at least you’ve seen her." She stirred the pebble-dash gravy.
Bacon sizzled in a cast-iron skillet, mixing its smoky odor with that of the hot biscuits. After forking the bacon onto a plate, Laura broke half a dozen eggs into the skillet.
"Chickens and milk cows," she said. "They make the difference between living and just getting by. Skunks keep trying to get into the coop, though. Garet gets one in his traps about once a week. The stink is awful, but it's better than losing hens and eggs."
Laura rambled on, filling the silence as I sipped my coffee. She had her red hair clasped at the nape of her neck, but a few wisps hung wetly around her face as she worked at the stove, frying the eggs.
She poured the gravy into a big boat and set it on the table, followed by a platter of biscuits and bacon. Places were set for four, and Laura added another for me. A high chair stood at the end of the table, made to put young Beowulf at just the right height to eat from the table with everybody else.
Laura stepped to the back door and struck a hanging triangle with an iron bar. Breakfast was ready.
Minutes later, Garet, Judd Travis, and a young fellow I didn't know were seated at the table with their faces and hands freshly washed. Beowulf banged on the table with his spoon. Laura gave Garet a look and bowed her head. The rest of us did the same. Garet said, "Thank you, God, for the food we eat this day. Bless it to our good we pray. Amen."
Laura smiled. Beowulf took up his banging again, keeping it up until Laura took the spoon and replaced it with half a buttered biscuit.
Garet introduced the new hand as Willy Bainbridge from New Mexico. He was a wiry lad and he didn't say much, which spoke well for him in my book.
Breakfast went down good, and the extra cup of coffee afterward even better. The hands excused themselves and went back to their work. Laura cleared the table, and Beowulf smeared gravy in his hair.
"Well, Ness," Garet said. "You never came here dressed like that just to be visiting relatives. What's on your mind?"
"When I left, I thought things in this neck of the woods would settle down with Rafe Buchard and Dick Blasingame out of the picture. No such luck.
"You know Roland Prince? Well, he sent word through Isom Dart that he needed my help. And after that time in the Sonora desert, I couldn’t say no."
Laura refilled out cups. The scars on her cheeks were more noticeable when her expression was serious.
Garet said, "Miguel said Rancho Pilar was getting wind of trouble, too. I suggested he send for you. Everyone knows me and I got a horse ranch to run. Besides, you're better'n me at sneaking around." Garet grinned, stretching the zigzag knife scar that ran from nostril to earlobe across the left side of his face. He and Laura had been through a lot and fully deserved to be left out of this trouble. But I had a feeling it was gonna blow up and hit everyone anyway.
So I told them everything that had happened from the time I got the word from Isom 'til I rode onto the H-Cross spread at Silver Creek.
We sat silent for a moment when I finished. Beowulf arched his back and shouted, pointing down. Getting the message, Laura wiped his hands and face with a wet cloth and turned him loose on the wooden floor.
"I got a feeling Harlow Wilson is behind a lot of this. 'Course there's Hanks's whiteface cattle to reckon with, and his hiring Sid Lyle don't make things any simpler," I said.
"Don't know what to say, Ness. You know Prince. He's a straight shooter. And I'd have to say my opinion of Hanks would be much the same. But after Dick Blasingame, I know a man can trust the past too much. Things could be different now. And something might be making them different."
Garet looked me in the eye. "And there’s something else you'd better keep in mind. Ruel Gatlin's after your hide. Sooner or later, he'll find out you're not dead, and he'll come with his gun in his hand."
He was right, no getting around it. Blood feuds have a way of going way past reason, though I never thought to start a feud when I traded shots with those big Gatlin boys.
"Ruel Gatlin's not why Roland Prince asked me for help. He's dealing with that man Harlow Wilson, and I can't help thinking that may be his problem."
I took a gulp of Laura's good coffee and continued. "Roland Prince is not the kind of man to give in without a fight. I saw him a couple of days ago and I have to admit he looked kinda peaked. But he's not a man to let a shot in the back kill his spirit along with his legs."
Garet said nothing, waiting to set me figure things out my own way. He was like that, even when we were kids. He'd make me do it myself. "That way you'll know how if you ever have to do it again," he'd say.
He sent me out in the hills back of our house in Coody's Bluff in the Indian Nations when the Kansas Redlegs raided our place near the end of the war. Those renegades didn't find me, but their dandy of a captain shot my brother in the knee. He made me help him take care of the wound and sent me after the Cherokee medicine man. Even though it was a glancing shot, it boogered that knee up to where Garet still has to wear a brace to keep it from buckling on him. But even with a bum knee, he's made his way as a lawman and now as a horse rancher.
"Something don't set right," I said.
"You gotta just keep working at it," Garet said. "Keep running things over in your mind. Do that, and ever once in a while you'll get a flash . . . an inspiration, and you'll see where all the pieces fit."
He fell silent for a moment. Then he fixed those black eyes of his on me and said, "But the time comes when you gotta shake the tree and see what falls out. Sometimes, that's the best you can do. You ratchet up the tension on someone that's sneaking around and trying to outsmart folks, and that’ll make them do something they hadn't planned on, and they'll make a mistake.
"When people try to get rich by breaking the law, most of them can only see the way they want things to be. They figure nothing’ll go wrong, and they keep thinking that way even when all those careful plans are coming down around their ears."
I grinned at him. "Shake the trees, eh? Maybe that's what I should do."
"Just you be careful, Ness Havelock," Laura said from where she was wiping the dishes. "A very good friend of mine is in love with you and she would hurt terribly if you were to be wounded or—God forbid—killed."
Her talking about Rita was embarrassing. I knew well that I was just a shiftless rider of the Trail without a copper cent to my name. And Rita was a landed lady, a woman reared where the fruits of a family's labors were already being harvested. We were like black and white, me and Rita, and no amount of mixing would make either of us gray. While I loved Rita fiercely, I also knew I had to stay out of her life. But I wasn't going to argue about it with Laura.
"No, ma'am," I said with what I hoped was the proper amount of deference. But Laura gave me a sharp look. Sometimes a woman can see right through a man, no matter what he does.
"I know you want to get back to Saint Johns," Garet said, "but why not stay the night? Extra bunks in the bunkhouse, and you need a good night's sleep. Besides, I've got some young stock I think you'll be interested in. Appaloosa."
So I turned off my Saint Johns problems and enjoyed a day at the H-Cross ranch. Beowulf and me got well acquainted and Brindle watched over the two of us as I fished for trout in Silver Creek and Beowulf played in the mud.
The appaloosa colts were fine animals and I could see Garet was proud of what his work had produced since I rode away a year and a half ago.
For supper, Laura had a pot roast of venison with new potatoes and green onions from her garden. Life at H-Cross was good. But the situation in Saint Johns kept intruding on my thoughts like storm clouds moving into a sunny sky. Wilson's pleasure in hurting children just kept eating at me. Somewhere, sometime, he'd have a reckoning, I vowed to myself. Yet despite my crowded mind, I went to sleep in the bunkhouse right after supper and didn't stir a muscle until daybreak.
Breakfast was flapjacks, butter, honey, and sausage, and plenty of it. But no sooner had I finished than Raoul Velasquez rode in and brought me back to reality.
"Rider coming," Travis called out from down near the creek. Garet took his Winchester off the wall rack and stepped out the front door. I followed, carrying my own rifle.
Velasquez came with his hands shoulder high and a big grin on his face. "Is this any way to greet a friend of your brother's Garet Havelock?" he asked. "I am Raoul Velasquez from Ciudad Juarez, where we are quite fond of Mister Troy."
"Yeah. That's a name I used down in Mexico for a while."
Garet gave me a raised eyebrow, then invited Raoul to get down and come in.
"Gracias, Señor. Con mucho gusto." Velasquez looped his horse's reins over the hitching rail and came in to join us for some of Laura's good coffee.
"Señora," he said gallantly. "This coffee must have grown with direct blessings from God himself or else it would not have been worthy of being brewed by such an angel as yourself."
Laura actually giggled. Beowulf, still in his high chair, threw half a flapjack down the length of the table. Laura wiped his face and hands and hauled him into the other room, leaving the three of us at the table.
"As I said, Señor," Velasquez spoke to Garet. "In Ciudad Juarez, your brother Ness has more than once come to the aid of poor people when they were at the mercy of tyrants."