SHOOT HIM ON SIGHT
by William Colt MacDonald
Ace Books 1966
Only a stupid fool would have allowed himself to be trapped in such fashion. It wasn't entirely my fault, at that. My horse had picked up a chunk of rock in his right hoof and gone lame, which slowed me up all to hell, before I could pry it loose. Meanwhile, the posse had gained on me and the trail had got too hot for comfort. I'd headed for the river bottoms hoping to shake them off, when one jasper with a faster pony than the others had forged ahead and with a lot of luck managed to down my horse with a long rifle shot. I'd hit the ground running, just before my pony crashed down. There was no doubt about it, I was set afoot muy pronto, and there behind me, closing in fast with wild yells of triumph, was the bustard who was responsible for my downfall. I saw him lift his rifle for a second shot and caught the vicious whine of the slug as it nipped a chunk out of my bandanna, below one ear. Close, that one!
I stooped to my dead horse, jerked the rifle from its boot and triggered a fast shot in the hombre's direction. No one was more surprised than I was when the bullet found a mark. I saw the fellow go toppling from his saddle, roll over a moment with the dust billowing up behind him, then climb slowly to his feet and start limping back toward his pals who were coming a hundred yards to the rear, shouting like a tribe of mad Comanches.
Even then I had a moment of satisfaction in the fact I had stopped him, without having another killing laid at my door. Momentarily my luck took a turn for the better when I saw that the fellow's horse had continued running in my direction, slowing to a trot as it came near me, its reins dangling. I expected it would shy away when I reached for the reins, but it didn't. Maybe after the long chase it welcomed a bit of a breather.
The next instant I was in the saddle and on my way again. I cast one reluctant backward glance at my dead pony. My coat was rolled behind the saddle, but I had my Winchester and the .44 in my holster. Digging in my spurs I began to gain on the yelling horde at my rear. They'd started unleashing lead now, but I was moving too fast to provide a good target; the slugs were flying high overhead, but their nasty bee-like humming only made me dig in the spurs harder. Actually, spurring wasn't necessary. I'd inherited a good horse that needed but little urging, a lean chestnut with good wind.
Hoping to shake off my pursuers, I headed away from the river again, the late afternoon sun shining brightly in my face now. Again, I was headed west, always west, in my effort to shake off what seemed a never-ending chase. No sooner had one pursuit dropped off, it seemed, than another was on my trail.
And no wonder, what with the number of "wanted" bills offering a reward for my scalp. Mister, I'm telling you, I was scared most of the time, night and day.
The wind whipped into my face as the chestnut thundered on. The yells of the posse sounded fainter now. I glanced back once when their shooting stopped. I'd out-distanced them considerable by this time.
Ahead lay a line of hills, rocky bluffs beyond and what looked like a series of broken canyons. With the sun lower now, perhaps I could cut through a canyon and shake off the posse. It was worth trying.
I cut around one of the lower hills. There wasn't much growth here. Almost what you'd call semi-desert country. A few cactus and cat-claw lifted heads from the sparse grass; here and there a mesquite tree waved lacy foliage in the breeze. And, over all, the darkening sky with the sun still closer to the horizon.
I pounded on. The horse was tiring, slowing down now. Now and then flecks of foam blew back on me. Trouble was, my tracks were plain to follow, so long as daylight lasted. The way grew steeper. Finally, between two rugged sandstone bluffs I spied a break in the rocks—the canyon I'd been looking for. Once through, and on the other side, I'd have a good chance of slipping away again. I reined the pony around a huge rock the size of a small house and headed for the narrow rift in the sandstone bluffs. Their steep ochre sides hemmed me in as I proceeded, more slowly now. There was a slow gradual incline, the floor of the canyon littered with loose rocks. Once the chestnut stumbled and I slowed some more, not liking the idea a-tall, but finding some satisfaction in the fact that neither could the posse make good time, once they'd located the hoofprints leading into the canyon.
The way twisted and turned, and glancing overhead I saw the sky had darkened considerable. Bits of plant life clung precariously to some crack in the rock. There was little to be seen but sand and loose chunks and stone and the towering bluffs overhead, my pony's hoofs on the rocks echoing from the canyon walls.
Once I thought I heard a yell far to the rear, and I swiveled in the saddle, glancing back, but I saw no one. Well, it was to be expected that they'd gained on me by this time, but they'd be coming as slowly as I'd been traveling. Once through this canyon and I'd be in open country where I could once more start to make time. The chestnut was tiring, but so were the mounts of the posse by this time. Yep, I'd make a clean getaway.
And then I was caught up short. My lousy luck abruptly turned against me. Rounding another bend in the canyon, I saw what lay ahead, and a sort of groan parted my lips.
"Blast and damn the luck!" I swore.
Now I was really blocked! Ahead were no more turns with openings ahead. It had been my damnable luck to choose a box canyon with no way through. My heart must have dropped to my boot-tops as I studied the furrowed sandstone wall ahead of me. A man on foot might make it to the top, though it would be right steep climbing, but a horse-never.
Even while I was studying the situation, trying to figure a way out of the trap, I caught the faint sound of horses' hoofs and voices echoing along the canyon walls. My heart started going pumpety-pump and my breath came faster. I was really in for it this time, and there seemed no way of dodging the outcome.
What to do? Try to rush the gang coming through the canyon? Somehow, that didn't make prime sense. I was outnumbered. I might make to get one or two, but I hated killing, even when forced on me. In the long run they'd get me if I tried to turn back. With all those reward bills out for my arrest—"Dead or Alive"—I wouldn't have a cow's chance against a pack of coyotes—not with that gang on my trail, eager for blood money.
Abruptly I saw the only way open. I slipped down from the saddle with a "S'long, hawss, and thanks a lot." I patted the animal quickly on the neck, dropped reins over its head and then, rifle in hand, scrutinized the furrowed cliff ahead, seeking the best path to the top. Path, there wasn't any; I'd have to make my own.
I started to climb, clutching knobby protrusions in the rock, getting risky footholds on bits of stone imbedded in the canyon wall. A stunted bit of mesquite growing from a crack in the rock provided something to grip hold of. Gradually I made my way to the top, nearly falling a couple of times when sandstone or earth crumbled beneath my feet or handhold. Carrying the Winchester didn't make it any easier, either. Several times I had to pause to catch my breath. I glanced down once, just once, and saw I had proceeded quite a way, too far to risk any falling now. I didn't feel like looking down again.
A withered-looking yucca near the top gave me the handhold I wanted and I hoped it wouldn't come out by the roots when I seized it. Thank God it held firm and a moment later I lay gasping at the top, flat on my back.
And not a moment too soon!
From far below there came a sudden triumphant yell: "There's Tiger-Eye's hawss!"
I rolled on my stomach and peered cautiously through some scanty grass to the canyon floor below, then drew stealthily back as I figured they'd be glancing up in a minute. The voices came clearly from below. In a brief glance I'd seen only a half dozen riders. Where were the rest? There must have been twenty or so on my track earlier in the day. The voices again:
"But where'd Cardinal get to?"
"Climbed up that wall, likely."
"Uh-uh!" Another voice: "He'd have to be a humming fly to make a climb o' that sort—"
"Too damn' steep for climbin'," someone said.
"You know what, pards," someone else cut in, "I figure Cardinal realized he was trapped and he's hid up in some cave along this canyon. I noted several likely openin's as we come through."
"That's right likely," a rough voice agreed. "Let's track back and see what we can turn up."
"Hell's-bells," a man grumbled. "With just the few of us, that's a-goin' to take time. I don't see why so many had to go back to town, leavin' us to do the trailin'. Didn't take no dozen galoots to get Tiger-Eye to the Doc—not for no measly scratch in the laig—"
"They'll be back," a rider explained. "Some of 'em swore they had to get somethin' to eat in town. And Zeke figgers to get old man Berry and his hounds. Zeke allows them hounds can track anythin'. Let's start lookin' for caves. We'll get that Cardinal killer yet."
To my ear came the creaking of saddle leather as the men remounted, turning their ponies. Their voices began to die away. I'd heard enough, as I edged back from the brink and, somewhat stiffly, rose to my feet. What next? My eyes sought the surrounding country, as though the solution lay there, as it probably did, one way or another. What I'd heard I didn't like. Hounds to track me down. Nice thought. Anyway, that fellow I'd hit—Tiger-Eye—had had only a scratch, though if I were ever captured, I'd likely be charged with attempted killing and seriously wounding. Give a dog a bad name and so on.
The sun was below the horizon by this time, only a faint orange light lingering in the lower sky, but I could see ahead of me a dwindling off of the bluffs as they flattened out to more level terrain. Then I noticed something else: the river farther along swung in a sharp bend to reach the flatter country. On this side there was relatively little vegetation, sprouting from the sandy, rocky soil, but across the river, there were trees and brush where a man might hide out for a time. That offered some slight hope. Then I thought of the tracking hounds again. At any rate I'd never get far afoot, so the river and hide-out looked like the best chance. I started out.
I made my way along the top of the bluffs, until I'd come to a narrow declivity that in a short time carried me to the level. Awhile later, peering through the dark gloom, I found myself on the low banks of the river and heard the soft gurgling in the silence. River? That was scarcely the name for it—just a slow sluggish stream, some twenty or twenty-five yards wide. I doubted it was very deep at this time of year, though when the rains came it was doubtless transformed to a raging torrent.
Making my way along the bank for another ten minutes, I came to a narrow plank bridge and started to cross over, then paused. It was possible that wading across might throw tracking hounds off the scent. There'd be footprints left near the bridge if I crossed that way, but similar sign would be easily seen where I entered the water. Anyway, that was my only hope—to get across and hide in the brush.
I made my way from the bank and stepped into the stream, immediately sinking over one boot-top in the muck. My second step brought a similar result, but I kept on, each step being heavier than the last. I found firm footing, but as I'd guessed, the stream at its deepest came only slightly above the knees. Progressing halfway I found myself pretty well soaked, though I'd managed to keep guns and cartridge belt dry. Shortly, I found the way a trifle firmer and a few minutes later I had mounted the sandy bank and was making my way into thick brush.
Somewhat shaky from weariness, I sank down to a sitting position, drew off my boots and emptied them of water and sand. For the moment I left them off until I could catch my breath, while I reached to one shirt pocket for Durham and papers. I rolled a cigarette and found matches in one hip pocket which were slightly moist. After several tries I managed to light one and drew gratefully on the smoke. Then it dawned on me that there was a sort of vacant spot in my middle; I'd had nothing to eat since breakfast. Well, I'd just have to pull my belt a little tighter, until the present problem was solved.
Abruptly, I stiffened. From downstream a way came the sounds of approaching riders and the barking of hounds. Hurriedly I stubbed out my cigarette and drew on my boots. The posse had returned sooner than I'd expected. I edged back deeper into the brush and got to my feet, then peering through some gnarled branches I saw lights. Some of the riders were bearing lighted lanterns. They drew closer. I caught the sounds of horses' hoofs clumping across the plank bridge, though some of the men and dogs remained on the opposite bank. Through the thick gloom I caught shadowy glimpses of moving figures. A voice spoke grumpily to the hounds.
Whether they found my tracks where I'd entered the water or not, I never knew. But I reckon they did, as within a short time, the riders and dogs on the opposite side of the stream made their way across the bridge. My ears caught the gradually approaching sounds. They were closing in on me. Fast!
Momentarily, terror overtook me. I had but one frantic thought, to dig deeper into the brush which proved to be a veritable jungle of spiny growth and twisted mesquite, yucca and cat-claw, creosote bush and prickly pear cactus. Branches and spines caught at my clothing, though even in my fear I'd retained sense enough to move as stealthily as possible.
I was twenty-five yards from the stream bank now. Ahead of me loomed a huge clump of prickly pear cactus, though it was too dark now for me to distinguish outlines. I only knew it seemed to offer shelter for the time being. Sharp spines caught at my face and hands as I burrowed in toward the bottom where there was a shallow depression. Several of the huge flat prickly pads were snapped off in my frantic digging in. Finally, I could go no farther and sank down on the earth, the huge plant surrounding me, covering me, sheltering my exhausted, shaking form.
I lay there shivering, wet and cold while voices and dogs came nearer. I could hear them crashing through the brush, breaking off small limbs and crushing the growth, and the hounds were making the night hideous with their barking. Sheer terror obsessed me.
I heard the grumpy voice again, after some argument with two others: "Wal, if ye'd only had some article of his clothing so my dawgs would have the scent. Ye can't expect 'em to know for sure what we're after—"
My spirits rose. Maybe my luck had changed slightly, unless some hound came too close and got inquisitive. I heard one go pushing through the brush a short distance away. Abruptly a gleam of light struck my eyes. There was the crunching of plant growth, and the lantern was swung from side to side. Then a voice: "Well, he ain't 'round here no place, that's for certain."
"Howcome you're so sure?"
"Cripes A'mighty, look at the size of that prickly pear clump. Ain't no human man a-goin' to make his way through that, 'thout tearin' his carcass all to hell. And I already searched to both sides—no broken branches nor nothin'."
Almost I chuckled at that point. Both sides and the front, but not on the river side, where I must have left damaging "sign." The voices, the lantern, moved away. Cautiously I lifted a hand to my jammed-down sombrero and felt hundreds of spiny needles sticking in the crown where I'd plunged to hiding. My shirt was also covered as I learned later.
For a short time anyway, I was safe. Voices, dogs, men moved farther up the stream. I could hear the hounds baying from time to time. Two or three times riders loped along the more open stretch beyond the brush and mesquite bordering the stream, then returned. The dogs sounded farther away now. Suddenly the noises became louder. I could hear men cursing angrily. Some sort of tumult arose, and I wondered what had happened. The grumpy voice of the old owner of the hounds was cursing louder than the rest.
Five, ten, fifteen minutes passed, while the angry sounds went on. While I was considering what my next move would be, I caught the sound of someone pushing toward the brush in my direction. I tensed, one hand slipping toward my Colt butt. Then a voice came softly through the night: "Johnny —Johnny Cardinal. Where—?"
I knew that voice! Miguel Serrano! Where in God's name did he come from? I replied cautiously, "That you, Mike?"
"Come on out, Johnny, and make the hurry. Not much time."
With some difficulty I extricated myself from the tearing cactus spines and clambered erect. Mike's shadowy figure confronted me in the gloom. Our hands met, clutched hard. "Mike, how in the devil—?"
"You are one damn hard man to trail, Johnny. How long-nearly a year now—no, wait, not much of time. Let me talk. For most a year I have try to make the catch-up, but always you are ahead. From time to time I catch rumors. I push on. Today, when I pass through that town, they are making up a posse. I am ask to join. I agree, thinking I will be led to you and may help. Of all I am the only one to examine the stream bank where you left the water, so I know you are someplace near. I pretend to hear a noise farther on. I lead those men away—"
"But what in hell is all the noise about farther on?"
"The men make a cursing of the hounds. They can do nothing but sneeze."
"Sneeze?" I didn't catch on.
"Before I leave with the posse I go to the abarrotero— grocery store—and make the buy of a large sack of chili powder. In my so careless manner I manage to drop some. The hounds are overtaken with a sneezing, and will be no much good now. Some of the powder I have save to make of the sneezing 'round here if they show a curiosity—which I do not think. But, Johnny, we waste of time. The horse waits—"
"Hell, Mike, I can't take your pony—"
"That not of the necessary. I have two caballos—"
"How in the devil—?"
"Always since I follow you, I have the extra pony. It is for sale, you see, but the price is always too elevated. I bring him tonight in case we have the long chase. That posse, they think me a fool—but hurry!"
We made our way out of the brush and mesquite, where a sort of roadway ran. In the starlight I saw two ponies tethered nearby. I could still hear cursing voices some distance off. Mike handed me the reins of one pony. It looked like a muscular buckskin in the gloom. I hesitated a moment longer. "But, Mike, how are you going to explain the disappearance of this horse?"
"That posse, already it judges me a kind of idiot. When I tell how I left it and forgot to drop reins, they will just think me a bigger fool when I say that it ran off."
"Damned if you don't think of everything—"
"I think only you must make the get-going, before I am missed." He crawled up to the saddle while I mounted, and handed me a paper-wrapped package. "Biscuits and the beef. One pickle—"
"Damned if you don't think of everything."
"I remember to think only what you have done for the padre."
"He is well?"
"Yes, and also the mama. They feel for you. Where will I find you next, Johnny?"
"I'm heading for a town named Onyxton—clear out of Texas—where law is scanty, I'm told. I just have to continue running, running, running—"
"Make the start, now, Johnny. There's not much time."
I started slowly after we'd clasped hands once more, then gradually increased the pace. At my rear I heard Mike loping his pony back toward the posse and hounds, already bewailing in a loud voice the loss of his pony that had ran off.
Once more I had escaped the noose or a killing slug of lead.
Two days passed before I made much of a stop anyplace, as I continued to head west. At one small burg where I halted to grab a bite, I'd also bought a leather jacket. The nights were still cool in the higher elevations, though the days were hot. It had been when buying the jacket that I noticed the bills in my wallet were still damp. Out in open country again I stopped and spread the money on a rock to dry. It was then I unfolded from my wallet one of the reward bills I had picked up—offering a reward for my apprehension.
My blood boiled as I read through it again. The yellowed bill gave the usual details, offering one thousand dollars reward for the capture of one John Cardinal, "Dead or Alive," wanted for the cold-blooded killing of Deputy U.S. Marshal Webb Jordan, in addition to various other crimes. A description followed: gray eyes, six feet tall, weight—175, red hair, wearing such-and-such clothing when last seen, and so on and so on. At the bottom of the bill a note to the effect that I was fast with a gun and for officers to take no chances, as "Cardinal is known to be vicious with a fast gun."
My God! I hope nothing could be farther from the truth. As to being fast with a gun, that was a joke. No better than average, I'd say. Vicious? Hell's-bells! That was just plain lying. Hot-tempered, yes. Yeah, I'll admit that, though I always tried to hold my temper in check, knowing it's a bad fault and a temper is a good thing to sit tight on when a man's blood begins to boil. As to being a gunfighter, that was sheer nonsense. I never considered myself better than average with a hawg-laig; there'd never been any reason for going into gun-slinging. But I do admit that it was a hot-temper accountable for my having spent the past year of my life on the dodge.
I'd been raised and brought up by old Pablo Serrano, Miguel's father; my own parents had been killed when their team and buggy went over a cut-bank, leaving me an orphan as a baby. It was Pablo and his wife, Josefa, who took me in and raised me as their own, back in Tenango County, where they ran the Star-S Ranch. Miguel—Mike—and I were about the same age. My parents and Mike's had been friends. I guess my dad had owned some property in the county, though after he died, according to the bank, it was washed out by debt. There was a rumor that he owned property in one of the territories farther west, but I was told later that that was just rumor with no foundation. But, as I say, it was old Pablo and Josefa who took me in, and Mike and I grew up together, as close as two fingers on a hand.
We were both sent to school, though Mike had small desire for that sort of learning. He was more interested in stock raising and hunting, and skipped a great many of his classes. When I grew older, Pablo Serrano taught me all he knew about stock raising, also making certain I knew Spanish as well as English. Between Mike and me there was never any partiality shown by the Serranos. They were mighty good to me, and I felt I owed them plenty. I loved them as I would have my own parents; they were the only mother and father I had any memory of.
So I grew to manhood and found myself working cows with the rest of the Star-S crew, with little thought of what lay ahead. Then there came a couple of years of drought, resulting in damn poor feeding for the cows. That meant Dad Pablo had to buy feed for the critters. As he lacked money, that also meant slapping a mortgage on his spread. Oh, the bank was more than willing to lend, so things picked up after a time and more seasonal rains produced all the feed necessary. Meanwhile Old Pablo had reduced his debt to something over five hundred dollars. Perhaps he got careless and forgot the date, I don't know. Anyway, the next thing I learned was that the bank was going to foreclose because of non-payment, as Pablo lacked the five-hundred plus at the moment.
It didn't seem to worry him too much at first, not until he had gone into Tenango City to see old skinflint Banker Clarence Kirby. Then he returned downcast, telling us in Spanish:
"Banker Kirby insists on foreclosing. Almost I begged him on my knees to give me a few more days until I raise the dinero, but he was like a rock. No and no, he said. If I could not pay, then we must leave—"
I started to swear, but Dad Pablo cut me short. "Enough, Juan," he said sternly. "This is no time for a display of temper. I will have the handling of this problem. I have the cows. In the adjoining county I have a man who will buy. If I only had a little more time."
"How much more time?" I asked.
"Until noon tomorrow," the old man answered somberly. "If the money is not paid then, we shall have to make plans to move."
"The dirty damn robbin' old miserly skinflint—" I burst out. "He knows right well you can't raise that much, not around here. Practically everybody around here owes the bank money, just like you, and greedy Clarence Kirby would bop down on anybody who tried to help you. So help me—"
But again the old man shut me up, saying again something about a hot temper being a bad thing to have but a good thing to keep.
"By the hornswoggled steers I'll do something about it. Wait until I see Miguel. Where'd he go?"
"Miguel has gone hunting again. He promises to bring back a splendid buck," Mama Josefa replied. Her eyes were teary. "He should return in two-three days."
"And neither Miguel nor you will intrude in my problems," Papa Pablo stated determinedly.
I shrugged shortly and went up to our bedroom in the old ranch house. I knew Miguel didn't have any money, to speak of, but searching through his bureau drawer, I found something under fifty dollars. I'd been saving more of the money Dad Pablo paid us for working the cows. By the time I'd added my money to Mike's I was still three hundred dollars short.
I came back downstairs and found Mama Josefa placing supper dishes on the table. The beef and onions cooking in the kitchen smelled good. We ate supper in silence, though none of us put away much. Down in the bunkhouse the crew was making the usual noises, little realizing they'd probably be out of a job this time tomorrow. Skinflint Kirby would never keep 'em on; he hated Mexicans and most of our crew were Mexicans, and better rope-men I've never seen anyplace. And the same goes for riding.
After supper I helped Mama Josefa with the dishes, then dropped into a chair to glance at some old newspapers. There was something in one paper that had something to do with some big politico from the East who was some sort of do-gooder. Senator Cyrus Whitlock, it appeared, was interested in doing something to help the poorer class of Mexicans along the border, as well as other folks. He was donating money, while out here on one of his frequent trips. Being interested in the Southwest country, stating he wanted to see it built up. He'd already bought various parcels of property near the Border and spoke of plans tending toward a better living for the poorer classes. Right then Senator Cyrus Whitlock rose a heap in my estimation, but I couldn't keep my mind on what I was reading. I tossed down the paper, rose and reached for my gray Stetson. I kept hearing Mama Josefa's muffled sobs from another room, and I couldn't stand it any longer.
Old Pablo was slumped hopelessly in a rocking chair, gazing blankly into space, forehead creased in a frown. He glanced up at my movement. "You plan to go out, Juan?" he asked.
"I'm aiming to see if I can catch up with Miguel. I'm right sure I know where he's heading for that prime buck." I buckled on my cartridge belt and .44, snatched my Winchester from a stand in one corner.
Pablo Serrano nodded and I detected a certain sigh of relief in his voice. "Perhaps it is better so that you are not here to lose more of the so hot temper and make of bad trouble. Vaya con Dios—go with God—Juan, my son."
"Hasta luego—until I see you," I jerked out, called an "Adios!" to Mama Josefa, seized my coat and slammed out the door.
Down at the corral I slapped a saddle on my pony, led him outside and closed the gate. The moon was still low and there were a few stars riding herd on some drifting clouds. From the bunkhouse came the plunking of a guitar. I wanted to say good-bye to the crew, knowing with what I planned it would be long before I saw them again, but decided against it. The fewer who knew of my actions, the better. I touched spurs to my horse and moved out to the trail running to Tenango City.
The town was less than ten miles, so there was no hurry. A mile out of town I pulled rein, unsaddled and, rolling myself in the saddle blanket, stretched out beneath the spreading branches of an old live oak tree. I fell asleep.
The sun was already high when I awakened. I didn't carry a watch, but guessed it must have been around six-thirty. For a moment I felt fine, rested, ready to enjoy the coming day, then I remembered what had happened and what I intended to do and I could feel the indignation boiling up within me again. Damn and blast Banker Kirby for the grasping skinflint he was! I could feel the hair rising at the back of my neck the instant I thought of him.
Well, it looked like I'd have a long hard day ahead, so I'd better get started. Resaddling and shoving the Winchester into my saddle boot, I climbed up and reined the pony in the direction of town. It was only a short time later I was loping into Tenango City.
City? That was an exaggeration if I'd ever heard one. There was just a single winding street, twisting between rows of high false-fronts and adobe buildings, a street dusty in the hot seasons and muddy in the rainy periods. A couple of cross streets. Two restaurants, three saloons, a general store, livery and so on. Oh, yes, and Kirby's bank. Some plank sidewalks or uneven paths on either side of the road. There weren't many people abroad. A few loungers were already seeking the shade between buildings. Three chickens picked at the rutted roadway, and a mongrel dog hurried along sniffing and catching up on the news regarding previous canines. Three men, clumping along on high-heeled boots, nodded and I gave them a civil "Good mornin'" before pushing on to the livery stable.
At the livery I stopped and told the man in charge to give my bronc such water as needed, and a good-sized feed of oats. Then I made my way to the general store, where I got a box of forty-four cartridges, stuffed enough in my belt loops to fill it, then jammed the rest of the box in one coat pocket. Leaving the general store, I headed for the first restaurant I came to and stowed away a breakfast of ham, eggs and fried potatoes, rice pudding and two cups of coffee completing the meal. While I was eating I had the counterman wrap me up some slices of beef and tortillas. He asked if I expected to be away for a time. I explained briefly I was heading north to the Sawtooth Range to join Mike in some deer hunting.
The horse was ready for me when I got back. I tossed a half dollar to the livery man and led the pony outside. He followed me out with some idea of talking a minute. I answered in monosyllables. The sun was commencing to pour down heat by this time. I stripped off my coat and wrapped the beef and tortillas package inside, then rolled the whole and tied it behind my saddle.
"Looks like a lunch you was packin'," the livery man said.
"You guessed right," I answered shortly. "I'm heading up to the Sawtooths to see if I can get me a buck."
A buck? Hell, it was three hundred bucks I was after. I climbed back to the saddle, reined the horse in the direction of the bank. Here, I again halted and tossed reins over the hitchin' pole. I checked my saddle cinch and made certain everything was ready. While I was busy, Banker Kirby mounted the steps to the single doorway of his edifice of usury. He was a wizened mean-looking cuss with squinty eyes and a mouth that reminded me of a rat trap, dressed in shiny black, celluloid collar and a derby hat. He shot a sour glance in my direction and passed on inside.
I waited five minutes, then followed. There were no customers in the bank when I entered. At one side were two grilled windows; at the other a flat desk for clients. No chair there. A chair might have been an expense. The cashier stood at his window; another man worked at a ledger behind him. At the rear was a small room with a small door marked, "Private".
The cashier said, "Morning, Johnny."
I moved easily toward his window. "I got a date to see Mr. Kirby. He said shortly after eight. Is he in yet?"
"Just came in a minute ago." He smiled wanly. "Usual dill pickle disposition. If you want a loan, I'll warn you his humor is bad."
I laughed easily. "When was it good? Well, I'm not asking much, but I got a chance to pick up some beef steers at a bargain."
The cashier nodded. "Better give him a minute or so, until he recovers from his usual morning indigestion belches."
Wait a minute or so? And me tenser than a drum-head inside. I could feel that boiling indignation coming up again, but I only gave a short laugh and we fanned the air for a couple of minutes. I handed out that line about heading north for deer, again. That was three folks I'd told. Maybe they'd take stock in that "north" guff when the law got on my trail. After a minute I took off in the direction of Kirby's office.
I paused an instant at the door, knocked once, then turned the knob and pushed inside, closing the door behind me. Kirby's head shot up. "You, Cardinal, don't you know enough to wait for an invitation to enter?"
"I know enough, but time is short," I said briefly. "I've got a couple of things to say to you—" He had started to rise from his chair.
I slapped one hand sharply to my Colt butt. "Sit down," I snapped.
His face went a dirty-gray color and he dropped back in the chair. He didn't know I was damn' near as scared as he was, but I kept up the bluff. "Wha—wha—what do you want?" he stammered.
"First, I've wanted to tell you for a long time that you're a low-down, greedy, penny-pinching scoundrel and lower than a rattler's belly. Everybody in town hates you—in town and out. Once you get your talons in a man you never let up, and it's time you was taught a lesson. Is that clear?"
He gulped hard, tried to answer, but couldn't. I went on in a snarly tone of voice. "More than once I've been ready to throw a chunk of lead through your worthless guts. Now I think the time is prime for just that."
"You—you wouldn't dare," he quavered. "You'd swing for murder—"
"But you'd be dead," I laughed coldly. "I'd have the thanks of every man in Tenango City. You ready for it? No!"—as he opened his mouth—"Don't yell for help." Again I reached toward my gun-butt.
Only a half groan issued from his white lips. He half stumbled up then went down on his knees and began to plead for mercy. Slobber ran from his mouth. It was disgusting. Now he was pleading for mercy, tears running down his cheeks, offering to do anything. He started to sob in broken tones and I was afraid he'd be heard in the outer bank.
Again, I touched my gun-butt and told him to tone down. He quieted, but still remained on his knees, body shaking like a calf being branded. "All right," I growled at last. "You've got just one chance—"
"Any—anything you say, Mister Cardinal," he gasped.
"You get a chance to prove just that," I said tersely. "I need three hundred dollars. That's a cheap price for your life. So, it's up to you."
The thought of losing money stiffened his spine a mite. He clambered back in his chair, still shaking though. "Now, look here, if you think you can cover the Serrano mortgage in such fashion—"
"Old Pablo? I don't have anything to do with his business. Hell, no! I've got to have three hundred to get some cows at a bargain price, from a feller up north. But I got to act quick. Now, shake your hoofs!"
"I got to have security," he whined. "Why can't you come here decent and do business? You'll have to sign—"
"Goddamit, I'll sign your death warrant in a minute. Move pronto!"
I jerked out my .44 and that caved him. Shoulders slumped, he stumbled toward the safe in one corner, fumbled at the combination and reluctantly drew open the door. I snapped menacingly, "No double-crossing, now. Bring the cash here and count it before my eyes."
It didn't take long. He spread bills, gold and silver on his desk. I scooped it up, cramming it into pockets. I was shaky as hell, thinking how time was passing. "Thanks," I told him sarcastically, as he drooped back limply in his chair, sweat beading his forehead. "Now you just stay that way for fifteen minutes. I'll be waiting that long at the front of the bank, and if you let one peep out of that rat-trap mouth, you can count on a date with a .44 slug. You mind! I'll take no chances."
I whirled to the door, stepped outside, then immediately reopened it. He hadn't made a move, and I knew I'd made my bluff stick. He seemed half paralyzed with fright, his eyes looked slightly glazed, vacant, as though he were about to faint, his jaw was slack. I nodded hard-faced, again slapped hand to gun-butt, and closed the door quietly.
Outside there were a couple of customers at the grill windows. The cashier hailed me as I passed. "Hope you had some luck, Johnny."
"That's to be seen," I laughed, and passed through to the sidewalk.
The clock ticking on the wall had said eight-thirty as I left, and I knew there was no time to lose. Stepping back to the saddle, I glanced along the street and saw the town deputy standing in conversation with the livery stable man, a block distant. Then I wheeled the pony and started to make time to the ranch.
Fortunately, Dad Pablo was in sight when I loped down near the corral, looking the picture of despondency, as he sat alone on a bench in front of the bunkhouse. I pulled my horse to a halt in a scattering of gravel and dust as he slid to a halt.
"Juan, what is it? Why are you back—"
"I forgot something. Dad. You saddle up the fastest bronc you got and get to town. There's not much time." I cut short his questions, explaining, "We'll beat the old skinflint banker yet. I got the money for you. I was a fool not to think of it before. Now, pronto, get that horse. I'll be back in a minute."
He was still looking bewildered when I left but I saw him heading for the corral gate, and yelling at a hand who stood near. I dashed into the house and entered my bedroom, then out again. That, all bluff, of course. Mama Josefa met me near the outer door and started a question. I interrupted, smacked a kiss on her cheek and whirled outside.
A cowhand was just pulling tight the cinch on the horse, with old Pablo, mouth agape, standing nearby. I started to cram the money into his hands. "Don't stop to count it now. It's all there. Just get going." I helped him stuff the money into his pockets.
"But, Juan, I do not understand. This money—"
"It's dinero we've saved—Miguel and I—from wages you paid us. I'm loco for not thinking of it until this morning." I didn't feel too good about that lie either.
"You saved so much?"
"Sure, sure—" I started to push him toward the horse, and he lifted one foot to a stirrup. "Just one thing, Dad, don't tell Banker Kirby where you got the money. Keep me—and Miguel—out of it. We'd look like ungrateful sons for not giving it to you before. Town folks would look down on us. Another thing,"—forcing a laugh I was far from feeling—"think how it will drive the old skinflint crazy trying to figure out where you got the money. He won't be able to sleep nights." I laughed some more.
Old Pablo chuckled and then he too saw the joke and burst into loud guffaws. "It will make his mind leap about like a jumping bean—"
"Will you for the sake of the buen Dios get started? Remember, there is not much time left."
He wheeled his big gray and took off, gaining speed at every jump. I let out a long weary sigh and turned back to my own horse. The cowhand had been walking it, and now led it to the watering trough. I waited impatiently until the pony was satisfied, then climbed back in my rig. Saying "S'long" to the cowhand, I once more got under way. The horse had taken a beating on the way from town and wasn't too eager to show speed, but once away from the ranch, I knew a hidden gully where we could hide out until rested.
It wasn't until I'd holed up in my hide-out that evening and my weary bronc was cropping some sparse grass nearby that I commenced to realize what a stupid fool I'd been. It hadn't occurred to me before, but now I was what is called an outlaw from justice; I'd become a hunted man. Three hundred dollars wasn't a big theft, but a charge of extortion would be added to the crime. A kind of reaction set in and I commenced to shake, as I realized what I'd let myself in for.
That story I'd spread of going north wouldn't fool anyone for long, and soon, no doubt, Banker Kirby would insist on the law really tracking me down.
Mentally I cursed the hot temper, the unreasoning anger, that had led me into this fix. I'd shown about as much foresight as a skunk-blinded mule—and as little sense. So there I was in a trap that was due to tighten more and more during the year to come. And yet, as I sat staring into a small campfire that night and reviewed my actions, I was forced to admit, finally, that I shouldn't have so much regret. After all, I'd maneuvered the whole business on Dad Pablo's account —and Mama Josefa's. In the last analysis I owed them that much, and a great deal more. So gradually my mind became easier, and my only worry now was whether old Pablo had got to the bank in time and paid over the money. He was so easy-going and disinclined to haste as a rule.
It was two months later that I learned he had. In an old newspaper I found in a bar I read an account of the business, hitched in with a story about my activities. Skinflint Kirby had insisted the law get on my trail, which the deputy did, but, I gathered, with small enthusiasm, where doing Kirby's bidding was concerned. There'd been something of a row at the bank when old Pablo showed up with the money. Dad had had sense enough to pick up a crony in town to take along as a witness to prove he had offered the money before the time due. Kirby had at first refused payment on the grounds that the money had been stolen from him, but having no actual proof, had angrily agreed to let Dad Pablo off the hook. I breathed easier when I read that. By now, of course, Dad realized I had lied to him about the source of the money, but at least he and Mama Josefa were safe. That was what mattered most.
When I left my hide-out, I swung south and east; my biggest worry at the time was money for food. I'd had only a few bucks in my pocket when I took off. In one small town I got a job as a swamper in a saloon for a few days, mopping and sweeping out and washing glasses. That gave me a small stake. A cowhand job showed up next when I swung my trail to the north. I kept that only a short time until the boss's daughter got too friendly. She was a nice kid, but I wasn't ready to tie myself up with any one woman. So I pulled out of that job and took another, never staying long in one place and always keeping on the move.
I suppose I could have returned and faced the music, but knowing how vindictive Banker Kirby could be, I knew it would mean some sort of jail sentence to clear things up. And I certainly didn't like the thought of bars and stone walls. You see, it was still pretty hard for me to think of myself as a crook, though when I faced facts I had to admit I wasn't lilywhite.
And so I kept traveling, taking a small job here, another job there, back and forth across central and western Texas, but always swinging wide from the vicinity of Tenango City. I'd changed my name, of course, and traveled under an alias, and I tell you I was getting damn' tired of always being on the move and not staying long enough in one place to make any real friends.
And then when about the time I thought everything had quieted down, I began to see "wanted bills" with my name on 'em, at various points around Texas. I'd see 'em in saloons and posted on telegraph poles. It was bewildering, and I couldn't understand it. Apparently I was wanted in a number of counties in various parts of west and central Texas. I thought for a moment I must be dreaming, when the damn yellow bills started to increase. And the number of crimes of which I was unjustly accused—it was amazing! Bank robbery, cattle rustling, stage hold-ups. I just couldn't understand it. It was as though some vindictive spirit was hounding me, determined to wipe me out.
No getting away from it, I was a marked man, and I'd just have to run a little faster, and run I did, with fear shadowing me at every step of the way. So now I was a cow-thief and bank robber and stage bandit, eh? Like I say, I couldn't understand it. One solution did occur to me: that all law officers aren't industrious. Some would sooner blame a crooked job on a known wanted man, than saddle up and get on the trail of the real law-breaker. But all deputies and sheriffs aren't lazy, that's a cinch; mostly they're pretty honest men trying to do the job they are paid for doing.
Oh, it kept me moving, all right. I never kept a job long, and I changed clothing frequently and let my beard sprout, getting only an occasional shave. I'd discarded my Oregon breeches for denim, bibless overalls, traded horses every chance I could make a decent deal. I knew there'd be plenty men out to pick up the increasing rewards for my scalp. There'd be more who wouldn't want any part of me, as by now the reward bills were warning of my killer instincts and my speed with a six-shooter. That would have been laughable if it hadn't been so damn' serious. And now I'd have to be on the look-out for the type of gunman who was always ready to add another notch to his gun-butt.
It got so I was afraid to take a job, anywhere, for fear someone would guess at my identity, so I kept on the move. I'd always been pretty lucky with cards and dice, so now and then I'd drop into a bar where a game was starting and take a hand. My winnings were never big, but I managed to keep ahead of the game and always had more than enough to eat on and take care of my horse, before I'd pull out for some other town. Just a saddle-tramp, that's all I was really. One thing I did learn, and that was to hold my temper. Any time any sort of argument arose, I steered clear.
While I didn't want to admit it, I always felt that eventually some law officer would catch up and capture me. Capture or worse. And I'd wonder how Papa and Mama Serrano were getting on and wish that I had Mike to side with me. And what was happening to Mike these days? About that time I read in a newspaper that Deputy U.S. Marshal Webb Jordan had taken my trail. Now I knew I was in for tall dodging. He had a real rep as a man-hunter and I'd have to keep on my toes.
Hoping to shake him off, I headed down into the Big Bend Country, heading for the Rio Grande, where, if worse came to worst, I figured I could ford the river and make a getaway into Mexico. Here the going was slower through mountainous terrain. I didn't like the thought of leaving Texas, but if worse came to worst, I'd do it. For three days I headed straight south, as straight as possible that is, through rugged canyons and up steep inclines. Not too much stuff growing, cactus, creosote, stunted mesquite, sparse juniper.
For the first two days I had an uneasy feeling of being followed. I'd stop from time to time, behind a big rock, to see if anyone showed up, but no one ever did. Then, on the third day when I was nearing the Rio, I got over that feeling. Some extra sense a man has sometimes warns him when he is being trailed. I began to breathe easier and continued on, toward a point where the Rio Grande rushes between high escarpments. I'd be glad to see that river, too, as my canteen was empty, though I still had some biscuits and other food with me. There wasn't too much foliage around for the horse, and I knew he'd be glad of water too.
After a time as I gradually made a descent down a canyon the air grew fresher and I began to hear the sounds of running water. With the sun on them, the rocks looked colorful as the deuce. I guessed the river was just around the next bend too. I was breathing easy, my gaze ahead on the trail I was taking, when I saw something that pulled me up short.
A sandy declivity on the canyon floor showed a fresh hoof track. Farther on were a few scattered droppings. Someone was ahead of me.
It was the only warning I had! I jerked my pony around on two hind hoofs and reined him back of a high cluster of rocks. Then I dropped from the saddle. Fast! And crouched down, reaching behind to jerk the Winchester from its boot.
I waited, not daring to lift my head too high above the rocks as I tried to see what lay ahead. Damn'd if I wasn't trapped. Or maybe the rider ahead was friendly, and no law officer. My heart was going like a trip hammer.
Hell! It was a law officer all right. Deputy U.S. Marshal Webb Jordan, though I didn't know that right at first. Then his voice came to me from another clump of rocks, fifty or sixty yards farther on:
"Better surrender, Cardinal. You ain't got a chance."
"Try and make me." I shouted back. Lord, I was scared. I couldn't see him and he couldn't see me—I hoped. Cripes, for all I knew, he might be sneaking up on me. I just had to take a look.
I raised my head cautiously above the rock barrier. Wham! A rifle bullet spatflattened against the rock wall at my back. It was well above my head, though.
"You'll have to do better than that, Lawman," I yelled.
A taunting laugh came from the other pile of broken rock. "I can, Cardinal. That was just a warning. Want to try another look?"
I got smart then. Removing my sombrero I stuck it on the end of my rifle barrel and raised it slowly above the edge of the rocks.
Wham! Wham! My sombrero spun crazily on the end of the gun barrel.
"That suit you, Cardinal?"
"It proves something," I called back, voice not quite steady. I crouched down, examined my hat. There were four holes in the crown of the sombrero where Jordan's slugs had passed straight through. God! The man could shoot.
His voice reached me again: "That'll teach you not to try that stale stunt of a Stet-hat on the end of a rifle barrel," Jordan jeered, and I began to feel foolish. He'd outfoxed me, just as he'd outfoxed me by guessing I was heading for the Rio Grande, following two days to make sure, then swinging wide to cut me off before I got there. A smart outlaw I'd turned out to be.
Anyway, there was a chance of keeping him from closing in on me now. I found a small crevice between two chunks of rock, and sent a fast Winchester slug toward the wall at his back, when I couldn't see sight of him.
"Better lower your sights, fellow," he called with a cool laugh.
Jeepers! I hadn't been trying to hit him, but so long as there was a chance of keeping him from closing in it was a worthwhile game. He fired again, and again the shot was wide. Well, maybe he thought he was keeping me from closing in too. Hell's-bells on a tomcat, I didn't want to get any closer to him, but of course he didn't know that.
For an hour we kept up a desultory sort of fire, with me not trying to hit him, and knowing what I already did of his aiming, he didn't seem to want to hit me either. I didn't quite figure it out. Once he yelled out something about getting together and having a talk, but I was afraid to chance that.
We each levered a few more cartridges into our barrels and fired some more shots at random. I was getting worried, wondering how much longer I could hold out. Powdersmoke drifted in the air. The sun had dropped low to the west by this time. Maybe if I could hold out until darkness came, I might be able to retreat back up the canyon. I threw another random shot in his direction, and he replied instantly. I heard the whine of the bullet as it passed overhead, and then it happened:
Something hit me a tremendous wallop back of the ear, high on my head. A million lights exploded inside my cranium and then a ton of blackness hit me. I felt myself falling sidewise and then a great ebony curtain descended to carry me into oblivion…
I awakened slowly. The moon was high overhead, shining directly down on the river. My head ached terrifically. Through almost closed eyes I gazed about. I didn't see anything of Jordan, but a brief glimpse showed me a small fire with a coffeepot resting on the coals. I moved my hands slightly and felt a rough blanket beneath my body. Anyway, I wasn't handcuffed. Despondency swept over me. Caught at last! Now I'd have to face—what?
I shifted my eyes and saw at the other side of the fire my saddle, and resting against it my Winchester, holstered belt and .44 Colt. A prisoner, just a lousy prisoner, that's what I was. I'd been out-foxed again. But how in the devil had Jordan got around behind me? I'd been so sure…
At that moment I heard his voice from the rear: "How about sitting up and taking a little nourishment, Cardinal? I know you've come to, and I figure I've waited supper long enough. Got a headache, I'll bet. Mebbe some hot coffee will fix that."
I realized now that he had a rather pleasant voice, nothing antagonistic in it; there hadn't been from the first. I came to a sitting position. A wave of dizziness swept over me and a thousand imps within my skull were using sledge hammers. After a minute my head cleared and I mumbled something about my horse.
"I took care of your hawss. It's just around that next bend of rock, where there's some grass for the animals to crop. Look here, I don't want to put the cuffs on you. Can you act sensible for a spell, until we have a mite of habla?"
"Anyway, I'll try," I smiled weakly. He walked around in front of me then, and I saw a tall man with good features and iron-gray hair, puffing a briar. A Colt was strapped at one hip and he wore a black Stetson and flat-heeled boots, checked shirt and corduroys cuffed at the ankles. "Right now," I continued, "I'm too achy to do anything but act sensible. So I reckon you can feel sure of collecting the reward."
He directed a sharp look at me from steely eyes. "Reward?" he growled. "You think I'm after those piddlin' rewards. Ain't I told you—aw, hell, forget it."
He got tin dishes from a burlap sack, produced a cup and poured coffee which he handed me. "Watch your lip, it's boiling hot. Sugar?"
I said, "No, thanks," and raised the cup to my mouth. Lord, such Java! My head began to feel better almost immediately. Jordan crouched near the fire, produced a frying pan and soon frying odors mingled with that of coffee in the air.
I finished the coffee and gingerly got to my feet. Jordan's head came sharply up; he eyed me a moment, then resumed his cooking. Things were coming clearer now, and I saw he had made camp on a large flat rock overhanging the river. I glanced over the edge and spied the water swirling just below. That accounted for the rushing sounds I'd heard, which I'd blamed on my head. The moon on the leaping waters sparkled like a million diamonds. Across the Rio Grande rose high jagged bluffs. It was beautiful and for a moment I forgot the fix I was in.
"Right pretty, ain't it?" Jordan said. I agreed. He went on, "Come time for me to retire I aim to get me a little cabin down here, this being my favorite spot. If you've guessed that I've been here before, you're right. There's almost a clear line through some of these canyons, to the river, and outlaws just naturally seem to follow 'em. It's an old trail to me."
"I can understand that now," I replied dryly. He chuckled and went on with his cooking. Right soon he dished it up on tin plates, fried beans, bacon, biscuits. "Set to, Cardinal. We'll talk later."
Lord, that food was good, tasty as the deuce. I commented on that. Jordan laughed shortly. "I believe in traveling in comfort. Never did hold with these hombres who take pride in travelin' rough and eating cold fodder." He reached for the coffeepot and filled my cup again.
When we had finished he scoured the dishes with a rag and loose sand, then asked me to rinse 'em off. By stretching prone on the flat rock I could just reach the water. Coming down from an elevation it was, naturally, cold as ice. More and more the moon glints reminded me of sparkling diamonds. The water looked deep at this point too. I came back with the dishes and remarked that I almost felt like taking a swim.
"Go ahead, if you like, but that current runs swift. But not for me."
I decided against it too, thinking of how cold it was. Moonlight glinted on the gold badge on Jordan's vest as he stuffed a briar with tobacco. He waited until I had rolled a cigarette and then held the match flame for me. We puffed in silence for a few minutes, seated cross-legged on either side of the fire. He reached nearby and tossed some dried mesquite branches on the flames. They flared for a moment and then settled to a slow steady burning.
"We can have some habla, now," Jordan said. "I want to know a few things before I take you in."
"I reckon so," I gulped, jerking back to a realization that a lot of trouble lay before me. "There's just one thing I want to know—how did you manage to work around behind me this afternoon?"
"Didn't," he said shortly. "Didn't dast try after hearing about you being such a fast hand with weapons." I gave a short jeering laugh. He said, looking surprised, "Not true?"
"Not true," I told him.
A scowl crossed his face. He continued, "Anyway, I wanted you alive. I don't take to killin', less'n it's real necessary. I kept shooting high all the time—high or to one side—just to keep you from closing in on me. Nope, I never did get near you for a shot. Way I figure it, one of my slugs ricocheted off that big rock behind you and came flying back at an angle toward your head, just missing a solid hit. If you'd had your hat on it might have been deflected some, but it just managed to strike enough to knock you out, without really hitting square which would sure as hell finished you. All you lost is a mite of hair and a thin slice of skin. It'll be healed in a week. I looked around and found a flattened fragment of lead, so mebbe that was the chunk after it bounced back from your barrier."
"That clears things up—" I commenced.
"I'd waited a spell and when you didn't answer none of my yells, I took a chance. You were sprawled flat when I found you, dead to the world. I brought you back here, washed the cut and stuck on some court plaster. The whole business was just damn' convenient for me. I just never could get used to some feller throwing lead my direction. I always tote a mite of court plaster with me. It's handy for such wounds."
"I reckon I had a close call."
"I reckon," Jordan said bluntly. His manner changed somewhat. "I want to know a few things. What in the devil set you off on an outlaw trail?"
I told him the whole story, about old Pablo and Miguel and Mama Josefa, how they'd brought me up and were just like real parents and about Banker Kirby trying to practically steal their outfit. "It was the only way I could think of to get the money," I explained earnestly. "I owed 'em any help I could give—"
"I know all that," he cut in, "but—"
"You do?" I was surprised.
"I paid a visit to the Star-Cross, talked to old Pablo and his wife. Miguel was away someplace at the time. I talked to folks in Tenango City. You got a lot of friends there. Old Pablo finally understood where you got the money. He sold some cows and took it to Banker Kirby to pay him back. Kirby took the money, but refused to withdraw charges against you, claiming robbery, extortion and bodily harm—"
"Damn it," I half shouted, "I never harmed a hair of his head. Didn't even touch him. I'll admit I threatened him, sure—"
"That was enough. He claims that the fright has affected his heart and he hasn't been well since."
"A heart the size of a mustard seed—" I said furiously. "I can't believe my actions affected his health."
"Neither do I." Jordan laughed shortly. "I talked to him, you'll remember. A nasty old bastard, I'd call him."
"He's all of that," I said hotly. "It wouldn't bother me much if I had—"
"Oh, yes, it would," Jordan interrupted. "Now you just cool down. Sure, I heard all about your hot temper. Keep a clam on it for a spell. So, we've settled that part. Now, how about all these other jobs you've been pulling—bank robbery,- stage hold-ups, cattle rustlin'—Lord only knows what else."
"Not a damn word of truth in it," I stated earnestly. "I don't know what's got into law officers these days. Seems like they've taken to blaming me for every job pulled in their territories. I swear the only bad step I've made is that job at Kirby's bank."
"You certain?" Jordan said sharply. "I don't want to hear any lies."
"I sure as hell am. I'm just being blamed for a lot of jobs somebody else pulls. You know, give a dog a bad name—"
"I know how that goes," he growled an interruption. "Such things have happened before. For the present I'll take your word for it. But that don't clear you of the Banker Kirby business."
"I reckon not," I conceded glumly.
"Get yourself a good lawyer when we get back. A smart man could, maybe, get your sentence reduced a heap." I didn't have any answer to that, only a queer sinking feeling. Bars of steel, stone walls. A shudder coursed along my spine. Jordan glanced narrowly at me, saying, "You cold?" He tossed another mesquite branch on the fire. I started to roll a cigarette while he refilled his smelly briar pipe.
"Y'know," he went on, "I've wondered about those reward bills. Couldn't figure out how you could hit so many places so fast, unless your hawss had wings to speed you up. Thought there might be something fishy about those bills. It was like somebody had a grudge against you and was out to put you away for good, or get you killed. What's back of it, Cardinal?"
"You got me. I just never could understand it."
"You got any enemies in high places, men with influence?"
"The only enemy I can think of is Skinflint Kirby."
"Pshaw! Kirby wouldn't pay out the cash required for all those wanted bills. He'd do anything else to put you behind bars, though."
"That's as I see it, but I can't put a finger on anything else."
We chewed the rag a while longer and eventually got to calling each other by first names. Even if he was taking me in for trial, I couldn't help liking him. I said finally, "Anyway, thanks a lot."
"For not putting a slug through my carcass when you had the chance, as some law officers might have done."
He glared at me a moment. "Some law officers. Hell, they don't deserve the name—dirty, lazy, grafting—shucks! let's forget it."
"I could forget it easier than I could some other things," I answered glumly.
"Yeah, I reckon so," he agreed. "Well, if we're to get a good start back, in the morning, I reckon we'd better turn in. I note you didn't have a bedroll with you."
"Me, I'm forced to travel light," I said bitterly, "light and fast and always glancing back over my shoulder. My saddle blanket serves when it's chilly."
"Yeah, I know how it is," he said shortly. "I got jammed up once myself, when I was a button, but it all passed over. You can roll into one of my blankets."
He rose and stretched, yawned. I got to my feet and sauntered out to the edge of the big flat rock, with the rushing water, foaming and swirling, just below me. The moon was lower now, but it was still tossing diamonds about on the surface of the river.
Webb Jordan had followed me out to the edge of the rock. He drew a long satisfied breath and sniffed the clear cool air. "It sure is real pretty tonight, ain't it?" he commented.
I agreed that it sure was. Low as I was feeling at that moment I could still appreciate the beauty of the night. We hesitated a moment longer, drinking it in, and then as we started to turn back he said, almost apologetically, "Johnny, I hate to say this, but I'm going to have to put the bracelets on you while we get our shut-eye. Got to be legal and all that, should anything happen—"
And then something happened:
As we turned back he put one foot down on a weathered pebble, or something of the sort, that rolled under his boot-sole, causing him to lose his balance. He staggered back, arms waving wildly in the air. Impulsively, I put out one hand to catch him, but my movement came too late.
The next instant he plunged backward from the edge of the rock, striking the swirling depths below with a splash that sent water cascading down my face and shirt front.
I gave a startled yell and could only stare dumbly for a moment at the spot where Jordan had disappeared. I hadn't heard a sound from him since he hit the water. Peering over the edge I saw his head come up once and then disappear again as his arms flailed helplessly against the tossing waters.
The first thought that occurred to me was that here was my chance for escape. Abruptly I started to hate myself for the thought, and then it was borne in on me that Jordan hadn't acted, in the brief moment I saw him, like a man accustomed to water. The sudden truth hit me like a ton of rock:
Webb Jordan couldn't swim a stroke!
Moving frantically, I whipped off my boots, then dived in. The current whirled me dizzily around for a moment before I came up, head above water. Now I was thankful for such light as the moon gave, throwing as well into some relief the shadows along the rocky banks. Whipping water out of my eyes, I tried to raise my head above water. There was no sight of Jordan and I wondered if he'd gone down for good.
Then farther on in a shadow, I thought I saw him trying to hold to a projecting rock at one side. The place was in shadow, and I couldn't be certain, but I struck out in that direction anyway, the current carrying me along swifter than I could have managed to swim in those chilling depths. God, it was cold, like something that had just come from an Arctic iceberg, almost paralyzing to the arms and leg muscles.
I had almost reached the spot for which I was headed when I managed to make out his struggling figure, hands scrabbling at slippery rock. Then he lost the battle and went under again, carried farther away from me. So far I'd not heard one word from him. Undoubtedly he was already half unconscious.
I stroked as strongly as possible toward the spot where he had last disappeared, then veered more to the right. Not a sign of him, now, and I wondered if he was already drowned. Taking a deep breath, I plunged below the surface, unable to see anything now, but feeling wildly about on the chance that I might locate his body.
An undercurrent dragged me down and down, then just as I thought I must be close to the bottom, one hand touched something that felt like clothing. Already I was being whipped to the surface again, and I made a frantic grab for Jordan, if it was Jordan I had felt. My hand touched human hair, and I tightened my grip, hauling him to the surface, fighting to swim with one hand, while the other towed Jordan, by the head, at my side.
Then a bit of luck overtook us. A swirl of the current carried us near the bank and an instant later I felt the rocky and sandy bottom under foot. A few moments later I had dropped, exhausted, on a small stretch of sand, Jordan prone beside me.
For a moment I couldn't move, or speak, then I got my breath back and rolled over to look at him. He lay on his side as I had dropped him, legs slightly curled. In the light from the moon I could see blood flowing from a nasty cut on his forehead, where he had probably struck a rock someplace. A sort of choked gurgling came from his throat, though his eyes were closed. His features were ashy, except where blood mingled with the water dripping from his head.
I didn't like his looks one bit, and that snapped me into action. Though I'd learned to swim when I was a youngster, no one had ever taught me what to do in a case of this sort. A few things I'd heard of life-saving filtered into my mind. Hell! I had to try something.
I straightened his legs, turned him face down, seized him by the middle and lifted, with a sort of joggling movement. I heard water dripping but couldn't tell if I was doing any good. Then I straightened him out again, rested his head sidewise on one bent arm. Knelt with a knee on either side of his body and pressed down on his back in the lung region, with easy rhythmic movements. Finally I heard a sort of gasp, a quick sudden intake of breath, and then another. I kept working on him, I don't know how long, until he seemed to be breathing better, though still unconscious. I still didn't like the feel of his skin; it was too cold to suit me. I'd have to get him back to the camp.
I still don't know how I made it, half-carrying and half-dragging Jordan back, with big rocks impeding the way, while the canyon walls towered high overhead. At the camp, I threw some loose blankets on the fire, then got Jordan's blankets. I stripped every bit of clothing from his body, rubbed him down with my saddle blanket, and then got him rolled into his own blankets. The next thing was to build up the fire. I scuttled around finding loose bits of wood that had washed down the canyon, and soon had a roaring blaze going. Right then, despite the heat at which I'd been working, I commenced to feel chilly. After washing the cut on his forehead, I rummaged through his dunnage until I'd found his court plaster and did what I could about bandaging the wound. It was nasty, but not too deep, and once dry the blood had started to congeal.
Now I stripped off my own clothing and did what I could to get dry. After that, I propped up some dried sticks near the fire and placed our clothing across them to dry. After a time they began to steam. The moon dropped as the night passed. From time to time I'd take a look at Jordan to see if he was all right. So far as I could tell, he was. He was plenty warm and breathing easily now, though I couldn't be certain whether he was still unconscious, or just sleeping a sleep of exhaustion.
Toward dawn I got back into my clothing, which was still pretty damp, and I was thankful for my dry boots. I inspected Jordan again. His forehead was cool, so I knew there was no temperature rising. He seemed to be sleeping easily and this time I was sure it was sleep. I considered a moment and then moved saddle and blanket, rifle and holstered cartridge belt around the corner of the rock where my horse was tethered. I saddled up and got ready to leave.
The sky was graying in the east when I got back from a final inspection of my patient. All seemed to be well. I rummaged in his things and found a short length of pencil and some paper. My short note would explain, I hoped. Just: "Sorry to do it this way, but others might not he as understanding as you. Thanks. Regret I can't stay for breakfast. John Cardinal." I placed a rock on the paper near where he lay. I placed some more wood on the fire. Then I went to my horse and got into the saddle. I walked him easily until well away from the camp.
Sure, my conscience was hurting a little, leaving in such fashion. Webb Jordan had treated me decently. However, I figured we stood Even-Steven: he hadn't blown my head off when he'd had the chance; and as I saw it I'd saved his life, though with a lot of luck, probably. Still, I'd hated like the devil to leave that way, and I wouldn't have, except that I'd felt certain he'd be as healthy as ever when he woke up. So once again I was headed north, out of the Big Bend country and its tall mountains.
Two months passed while I continued my aimless wanderings, and I tell you I was getting damn' sick of always having to be looking back over my shoulder, or getting that sort of tightened up, tense feeling every time some hombre happened to give me a second glance when we passed. It was getting so I was a bundle of nerves, never feeling safe unless I was riding in open country with not a soul in sight. If I'd had my way I'd have steered clear of towns all the time, but somehow I just couldn't get away from a craving for companionship now and then, even feeling as I did. And there was the matter of picking up food in stores that was plumb necessary. I was commencing to think that I might feel safer if I left Texas altogether, and practised my merry-go-round existence on some other range. So I headed west again.
Deosso Springs was my next stop. It was there that Lady Luck smiled and then turned against me. Something about the place reminded me of my home town—just in appearance, that's all. I grabbed a bite of food in a Chinese restaurant, then headed for a bar to get a beer before pushing on. I got my beer. Two or three cowhands at the bar seemed friendly and introduced themselves. We shook hands and I gave them the name I was using at the time: Joe Willits. We had another round of drinks. Somebody suggested poker, and a couple more men were drawn into a game. A few questions were asked, at least hinted at. I told 'em I was from near Oklahoma City, riding through on the way to do some visiting with El Paso friends. The game started, and Lady Luck sure smiled for a time. We were playing for just small stakes, but the first few hands I couldn't seem to lose. As I was running low on funds that sort of situation was welcome. When I was some forty-odd dollars ahead, I began to worry. I didn't want to be remembered as the stranger who had such a run of luck.
Not that there was any resentment, only congrats on the way the cards were falling for me. Just the same I was glad when the game broke up, and three of the men had to leave to get back to their outfit. The other fellow, Cal Somebody, suggested we have another beer. I was getting hungry and said so. It was already getting dark outside, and past my supper time. Cal spoke to the barkeep, who produced some beef sandwiches to go with our beer. We retired to a corner table and chewed the fat for a spell.
The bartender had lighted the lamps above the bar by this time, and more customers filtered into the saloon, among them were some rather tough-looking men. I noticed Cal frown at their entrance, and asked who they were.
He shrugged, frown deepening. "I ain't certain. One of 'em is called Hondo by his pals. I don't know the other names. They don't punch for nobody around here. Dropped off the T.N. & A.S. a few days ago, but don't seem to do anything but hang around town, inspectin' the bars. I don't like their looks nohow, but I got to admit they ain't made no trouble."
Neither did I like their looks, but it was none of my business. The man, Hondo, was a big brutish type, with a scarred holster and a weather-beaten sombrero, who looked as though he hadn't shaved in a month. For that matter, I reflected, I hadn't had a razor to my face in a week, and the whiskers were beginning to itch, though sometimes I let 'em go longer as a sort of disguise.
I didn't know it right then, but Lady Luck was getting ready to turn her smile into a frown. I knew I should be shoving on, but I was comfortable, the beer was good and Cal was satisfactory company. He said: "My turn to buy," grabbed our empty bottles and went to the bar. In a moment he returned, bearing two fresh bottles, and a saucer of pinon nuts, which went well with the brew.
Customers passed in and out. There were probably a dozen men at the bar, while Cal and I sat and drank. Cigar and cigarette smoke floated lazily near the ceiling. Hub, the fat bartender, seemed to run a quiet, orderly saloon.
The swinging doors at the entrance parted, and a middle-aged man in what is known as a Prince Albert coat entered. He was wearing one of these flat-topped derby hats and carrying a cane. A gold watch chain stretched across his vest, and his hair was white.
"Evenin', Senator," Hub addressed him. "What's your pleasure?" Several other men spoke to him also and each got a courteous reply in a pleasant voice.
I said to Cal, "Looks like polite society has invaded Deosso Springs. That the mayor of your town?"
"Cripes, no," Cal replied. "That's Senator Cyrus Whitlock, from Washington, Dee See. Hell of a nice hombre. Nothing high-toned about him."
"Seems like I've heard the name someplace."
"That's probable. He's that big what-you-call a philanthropist. Says there's nothing like this country out west. I guess he's bought up land here and there, and says he'd like to do something for poor people—"
"Sure, I remember reading something about him a a newspaper one time."
I studied the Senator a few moments. He was a little on the plump side, and wore fuzzy sideburns that were joined by a full white mustache. He was nursing a small drink of whisky while he carried on some sort of chit-chat with the bartender and the men at either side. I noticed when he finished his drink he took out a white silk handkerchief and carefully wiped his lips and mustache. There was something kindly, benevolent, in the old cuss's appearance. He laughed easily at something that had been said, then turned, his back to the bar, and surveyed the room at large. The bartender extended a box of cigars over the Senator's shoulder. Whitlock accepted one and waited while somebody scratched a match for him. He puffed meditatively a moment and then nodded at the men seated at tables along the wall, including Cal and me in the greeting. We both replied to the nods.
I'd seen Hondo and his pals leave the bar some time before, and I was glad they'd gone. Senator Cyrus Whitlock was just the sort of man Hondo and his pals might have started poking fun at. For the Hondo type, a man like the Senator would be a likely butt of some joke.
Cal and I had just resumed our conversation when the swinging doors at the entrance swung open. Then I got a shock I wasn't likely to forget for some time.
The man who had entered was U.S. Deputy Marshal Webb Jordan!
You could have knocked me over with a feather. Good Lord! Couldn't I ever shake the man off? He was like a bull-terrier, the way he hung on.
I'd been watching Senator Whitlock, admiring the way he mixed easily with the others, as he stood, back to bar, idly surveying the room and drawing on his cigar, but when I caught sight of Webb Jordan I wanted to slide suddenly under the table at which Cal and I were sitting.
Cal said, "Huh—a lawman. Wonder what brings him here?"
I scarcely heard him. I slid down in my seat and, without thinking, my hand went fast to my Colt butt.
Cal didn't miss the movement. He said sharply, suspiciously, "What's up? You mixed in some trouble with the law?" He started to rise from the table, as though not wanting any part of me. My hand was still on my gun-butt, and I was shaking all over.
Jordan paused just within the swinging doors, steely glance sweeping around the room. I'd pulled my hat low on my forehead. Had Jordan spotted me, recognized me?
Then his gaze swept on past, and for the moment I breathed easier. His head came back to the center of the room, eyes now on the Senator as he advanced, manner easy and confident. Well, maybe there'd be no trouble. Cautiously, Cal had resumed his seat at my side. "You looked damn' queer for a minute there—" he started.
His words scarcely registered. I was still eying Webb Jordan, wondering how I could get out of the saloon without being noticed.
"Senator Cyrus Whitlock, I believe," Jordan was saying.
And that was as far as he got.
There came the sudden explosive roar of a six-shooter, a sound I couldn't quite place for a moment. The dawning smile on the Senator's face vanished and was replaced by a look of alarm as he took one step forward. Jordan swerved violently to one side, then crashed to the floor and lay without movement. Black powdersmoke swirled through the room. There was just an instant's silence, then voices broke loose, excitedly asking who'd done the shooting. Everyone was talking at once. Sudden yells sounded outside, along the street.
Without thinking, I had leaped from my chair and knelt at Webb Jordan's side. He was sprawled partly on his side and I could see the dark spreading stain between his shoulder-blades. His eyes were closed.
I yelled to somebody to get water, whisky. A glass was thrust into my hand. I held Jordan's head on my lap trying to get a few drops between his lips. Momentarily, his eyes fluttered open, and he recognized me. "So I do—get to thank —you—" he began, then became unconscious.
I glanced up. Heads were crowded all around above me. Somebody said excitedly, "What did he say—?"
I ignored that and snapped the usual plea to get back and give the man air. "And for God's sake, send for a doctor—fast!"
"I already sent a man for Doc." It was Hub, the fat bartender speaking.
"What in hell's going on here?" a new voice cut in.
I glanced up. A tall, bearded, deputy-sheriff pushed in when the crowd moved back. Someone brought a folded blanket to place beneath Jordan's head. I didn't like Jordan's looks. All the color was drained from his face and his breath was coming with difficulty. I got slowly to my feet and faced the deputy.
"Some—somebody shot Webb Jordan," I stammered.
"Friend of yours," the deputy snapped.
"Sort of—I just met him once before, sometime back, and—"
"But who did it?" the deputy demanded impatiently.
A dozen voices tried to reply at once, but no one seemed to know. The deputy frowned with exasperation. I said, "Sounded to me like the shot come from near the doorway."
That raised another clamor. Various men had various ideas of the source of the shooting—all different.
Hub, the barkeep, cut in. "It come from beyond those swinging doors—" he commenced.
Then the Senator's voice, quiet and even, interrupted, and the rest of the room quieted. "If you'll allow me to speak a minute, Mr. Deputy, I believe I can clear up a few details. Deputy U.S. Marshal Jordan had just entered through the doorway—"
"Deputy U.S. Marshal Jordan?" the deputy cut in. "Is that who he is?— Oh, yeah, I didn't notice his badge right to first. Friend of yours, Senator?"
"We've met on a few occasions. That's neither here nor there. As I started to say, Jordan had just entered, when I saw this man"—and he pointed to me—"reach to his holster. Then Jordan spoke to me and an instant later came the shot."
I was stunned. "You claiming I shot Jordan?" I demanded, after a moment.
"What else can I believe?" the Senator said. "I saw you reach for your six-shooter—"
"That's no sign I shot him," I snapped angrily. "And how do you know I was reaching for my holster? My hand was below the table—"
"You admit that, eh?" the deputy scowled. "Lemme see that hawg-laig of yours."
He reached over and jerked my forty-four from its holster, without waiting for me to hand it to him, and thrust the end of one little finger into the gun barrel. The finger emerged powder-grimed. He examined the cylinder.
"Four loads and two empties," he announced. He shoved my gun into the waistband of his pants. "All right, explain, feller."
"I always carry my hammer on an empty shell—" I started.
"So do a lot of other fellers. Now how about that other empty?"
I was bewildered, couldn't think for a moment, then I remembered. "Oh, yes, on the way here today, I took a shot at a rattler—"
"Expect us to believe that?"
"—and I reckon I just forgot to reload."
"Naturally," the deputy said sarcastically. "Did you get the rattler?"
"No—missed him, complete."
"You're thinking fast, feller," the deputy said nastily. "Now we won't have to go out looking for a dead rattler to make an alibi for you. By the way, what's your name?"
"Willets, Joe Willets," I lied and on further questioning gave him the story I concocted to cover my presence in Deosso Springs.
The deputy nodded shortly. "I'll have to place you under arrest, Willets," the deputy said. "If you're smart, you'll come quiet—"
"Just a minute, Larry." It was the bartender's slow, heavy voice. "I've been trying to get a word in edgewise, but everybody gabs so much I can't get to be heard. Larry,"—to the deputy—"you got no call to arrest Willets. He didn't do the shooting—"
Cal put in, "I was sitting right next to Willets. I know damn' well he didn't shoot the marshal."
I shot him a grateful glance. Hub and the deputy were both trying to speak, when the doctor arrived, a spare elderly man with rimless glasses. Silence fell while the doctor made an examination of the unconscious Jordan. Finally, he rose, wiping his hands on a bandanna.
"Looks pretty hopeless," he announced, "but get him down to my office and I'll see what can be done when the slug is probed out. I don't figure there's much hope, though."
He beckoned to a couple of men, who picked up Jordan's body and carried it out the doorway, the doctor following.
Immediately the babel of voices recommenced and again Hub's slow heavy tones cut through. "Larry, you're just a-wastin' time here. If you got the sense Gawd give you you'll get after that Hondo hombre—y'know, Hondo Crowell, he calls hisself—"
"What's Crowell got to do with this?" Larry, the deputy demanded. "I ain't even seen him around here—"
"You'd best keep your eyes open, then," Hub said, exasperated. "He was in here before supper time with them two pals of his. They left, but I seen Hondo again, all right, all right. It was him that fired the shot that downed Jordan."
"You sure of that, Hub?" the deputy asked.
"Certain, I'm sure," Hub growled. "Wouldn't go to the trouble of talkin' 'bout it, if I wa'n't. I'd looked up when Jordan came in, had my eyes on one of them bat-wing doors at the doorway. One of them doors has been sort of stickin' lately and don't swing complete closed as it should, on occasion. Reckon some oil is needed. Anyway, I was watching that door and it closed all right, and then I see a Colt barrel shoved over the top. Before I could do anythin', it was fired."
Again came the hubbub of voices. Men had crowded in from the street. Someone stated that he'd seen Hondo and his two pals down near the T.N. & A.S. railroad station a short time before, but the words were lost in the noise.
The deputy finally managed to make himself heard. "So, what are you proving, Hub?" he asked caustically. "You saw a gun barrel shoved over the top of your swingin' doors. Are you telling me that you recognized Hondo's gun?"
"Didn't have to," Hub grunted disdainfully. "When the flash of the explosion come it lighted up Hondo's ugly features. Now, is that good enough for you, Larry?"
"You could have been mistook, Hub," the deputy commenced lamely.
The Senator cleared his throat. "Mr. Hub may be right," he said quietly, when the voices had died down. "Though it is easy to make an error of recognition in the brief flash of a gunshot, as I think well all concede. On the other hand, on my part, I saw Mr. Willets reach for his gun the instant he saw the Deputy U.S. Marshal come in—"
Hub demanded, "Senator, did you see him draw the gun?"
Whitlock hesitated. "No, I can't say that I did. I'd turned toward Marshal Jordan when he spoke my name and started to reach out to shake hands with him." He turned to Cal who stood near. "You saw Mr. Willets reach for his gun, didn't you?"
"Well, er-" Cal stalled.
"I know you did," the Senator stated. "You saw his movement and looked surprised. There was a suspicious look on your features as you asked him some question. Surely, you won't deny that."
Cal shrugged. "I don't remember," he said lamely. Then added, "But I do know damn' well Willets didn't fire his gun."
"And can you be certain?" the Senator asked. "You looked away a moment later. A fast man with a gun could fire and reholster in mighty swift time—"
"I'm not that fast," I put in. "Anyway, look here, why don't you consider the angle from which the shot came? Jordan was plugged right between the shoulderblades and from where I was sitting—"
"Yeah, yeah," Hub nodded, "Willet's has got a point there. And I know what I seen."
"And I know what I saw," the Senator said. "I've witnessed enough court trials in my time to know that the unexperienced—you'll note, gentlemen, that I say unexperienced-witness is always prone to error. A dozen men witness to a calamity will provide a dozen different stories. I think you all know me well enough, know my reputation, to be convinced that I never judge a man unfairly. I'm always ready to go to extremes in the other direction."
Several men nodded agreement to that. The deputy said finally, "Hub, I'll keep what you say in mind. Meanwhile, I'll just have to take Willets along for further questioning. I want to look into his story a mite." My heart sank as he added, "Is it going to be necessary to put the cuffs on you, Willets?"
"I'll come along peaceful," I told him hopelessly.
We stepped out to the street, followed by a crowd. Cal walked next to me. "Look here, Joe, if you'll point out your hawss, I'll lead him down to the jail for you and tether him at the hitch-rack."
I said, "Thanks, Cal," and indicated my pony in the line of broncs at the pole-rack before the saloon.
The crowd following us fell off as we entered the office of the jail. "Y'know, Willets, that story of Hub's won't stand up. Everybody knows he's got a grudge against that Hondo hombre. Oh, sure, Hub's honest as the day is long, but he's biased in his judgment, ever since he and Hondo had an argument a few days back. Hondo was drunk and had broken a bottle of liquor—in here," indicating a dark passageway leading from the deputy's office.
In the gloom I couldn't be sure where I was going, and before I could realize what was happening he'd shoved me into a cell and clanged the door shut behind me.
I said, "What the hell—!"
"Take it easy now, Willets. No use you gettin' riled. My night-man will be around shortly and bring you some supper—"
"But you said you were just bringing me here for questioning."
"I've had a long day. Too doggone weary to start that now. In the mornin', mebbe. For sure at your trial, anyway."
He left me in darkness, after slamming shut the door that led to his office.
I yelled after him, but he paid no attention. Then I indulged in a fit of useless imprecations. Realizing that wasn't doing any good, I finally calmed down. Fortunately, the deputy hadn't made me empty my pockets. I scratched a match and found an oil lamp on a shelf in one corner. Now I could have some light. The cell was the usual type. A bunk and straw mattress at one side. Two buckets in a corner, one filled with drinking water. A door of strong steel bars. In the outer wall, high up, an open barred window. For the rest, walls, ceiling and floor of cement and rock. It all looked escape-proof.
I rolled and lighted a cigarette, and dropped wearily on the cot to think things over. Now I was really in a hell of a mess. Any story I told wouldn't stand up under investigation, even if Hub and Cal did back up my story that I'd done no shooting at Jordan. And I wondered about Jordan's condition too. Had he died yet? That and a thousand other thoughts passed through my mind, as I paced back and forth in my cell. Once I reached up and grasped the bars at the window, tried to shake them. No dice. They were imbedded solidly in a rock foundation.
I returned to my cot and sat down. I had to admit that Hub had done his best for me, but I was afraid it wouldn't go far, that "best," when stacked up against the prestige carried by the word of Senator Cyrus Whitlock. Whitlock, the great philanthropist. I uttered a short bitter laugh. Whitlock called it as he figured was correct, so perhaps I couldn't blame him for that. Just the same this was one time when I was wishing he'd stayed in Washington and minded his politics, instead of dashing all around the country trying to help the little man.
And right now I felt they didn't come any littler than one Johnny Cardinal. Hell and blast! I just had to get out of this place. But how? I was on my feet again, pacing back and forth. The rest of the cells were empty, I guessed. Leastwise I hadn't heard any signs of life. It was all dark along the corridor fronting them.
Then an angle of light appeared, as the office door opened. I waited, expecting to see the deputy. Instead a middle-aged, brown-haired man appeared at my cell door, bearing a small bucket of coffee and a plate. He didn't seem too steady on his feet, and I guessed he'd been drinking.
"You want some fodder, Willets?" he asked in a complaining sort of voice.
"Sure, bring it on in."
"Uh-uh!" A negative shaking of the head accompanied the words. "You don't catch Hoot-Owl Tanner on that old trick. You go on back to the far corner of your cell, then I'll set this food inside. I been night-man here too long to be fooled. Go on, get back now."
I stayed where I was. "Where's your deputy?"
" 'Round town someplace I reckon, or maybe he's gone home to bed. Larry's had a long day. Ain't no use askin' for him. He won't be back here tonight. Allus leaves early, Larry does, less'n he's got a immediate job in hand. Now, you want this food or don't you? Well, get on back there then, y'hear?"
I still hesitated. "What's the news on that marshal who was shot?"
"Dead, I reckon. Ain't heard nothin' to the contrary. You goin' to get back, or ain't you?"
I moved to the back of the cell. Tanner placed the bucket and plate on the floor, near the door. He was pretty bulky about the middle and his six-shooter hung sloppily low against the right leg. A bit tipsy as he was, there was a mean look in his pale eyes, and I wasn't yet ready to take any chances.
From one pocket he produced a big key and inserted it in the lock. Then he drew his six-shooter and kept it leveled on me, while he edged the door inward about a foot and with the toe of one scuffed boot shoved the bucket and plate within the cell. Then he closed the door again and turned the key. I hadn't dared to make a move with that gun bearing on me.
I crossed the cell floor and started for the food. "Hey, you forgot to bring a knife and fork."
"Didn't forget. You think you're at some swell hotel? I'll get 'em for you, but we don't furnish 'em regular. It'll cost you extra, though. Say, half a dollar. How 'bout it?" I told him to go to hell and he snickered, "Eat hearty, Willets. You might not get too many more meals, remember. There's them 'round town is already thinkin' up a necktie party." He snickered some more and returned to the office.
I picked up the plate and bucket and returned to my cot. Well, fingers were invented before knives and forks anyway. The fried potatoes were greasy, the beef tough, the slice of bread dry and the coffee only lukewarm. Half-way through the meal I paused. The sudden impact of a prospective necktie party struck me. Had Tanner been speaking truth, or was it just his type of humor? And if a gang did raid the jail I couldn't see Tanner standing it off long—if any. My appetite suddenly disappeared. With the deputy home sleeping, perhaps, I wouldn't have much chance. I could feel the beads of sweat starting out on my forehead.
I commenced to pace the cell again. Once I stopped at the bucket of drinking water to moisten my suddenly dry and parched lips. The stuff was undrinkable, having probably been standing in the cell since the last prisoner left.
I stretched out on the cot, hands folded beneath my head, trying to figure some solution that would get me out of this fix. Some time passed, my ears alert for the noises of an approaching mob, but nothing of that sort could be heard. Instead, the sounds of the town were quieting down and I judged it must be getting along toward midnight. Well, perhaps they wouldn't lynch me tonight, after all. I forced a short laugh at the thought. There wasn't any humor in it. I was damn thirsty by this time but couldn't bring myself to go to the bucket again. I thought, suddenly, if he was willing to get me a knife and fork for half a buck, he might bring me some fresh water for the same.
It was an idea that got me thinking. Dammit, if I only had a gun. The deputy had left me my cartridge belt, but cartridges were no good without something to shoot 'em. Nor had he made me empty my pockets. I did some more mental planning, probably all useless, but I'd gone crazy if I didn't have something to try. I was about to shout for the night-man, when the office door swung open and he approached my cell door. He stood looking through the bars at me a minute.
"I was just going to yell for you," I told him.
He didn't reply at once, just looked at me, eyes narrowed. I began to feel uneasy. I said, "Hope you know me the next time we meet."
He laughed slyly. "Oh, I know you all right. Now."
I didn't like his tone of voice. "What do you mean— now?"
He shrugged fat shoulders. "Nothing special. Say, I been lookin' over that .44 hawg-laig Larry took offen you. Right nice gun. I been needin' a new gun, too. Trigger in my old .45 has worked sort of loose. Thanks for the gift, Cardinal."
Even in my swelling anger I managed to keep my head. "You thieving cow-thief," I snapped. "You steal my gun and —" I stopped, assuming a sort of blank expression. "What did you say?"
"What's that mean?" I said dumbly.
"Aw, you know what it means, all right. That Willets name don't go down, Cardinal. There's a nice reward—"
"What the hell are you talking about?" I demanded impatiently. "What's all this slop about Cardinal? I know it's a color, or a sort of churchman—look here, why don't you try to make sense? You been hitting the bottle?"
"Not so much that I can't use my head." At that he did seem more sober than when I'd first seen him. That was disappointing too. He seemed somewhat taken aback, but persisted, "Come on, you're John Cardinal. Own up. It'll go easier on you in the long run."
I laughed shortly. "Never heard of anybody of that moniker. I think you must have gone loco. Yes, sir, Tanner, you sure better lay off the red-eye. You'll be seeing snakes, next. Got me all mixed up with some former prisoner I'll bet. Why don't you take a good nap and sleep it off."
Uncertainty, edged with anger, crept into his tones. "I don't believe you. Hell, I can read, and when a pal o' mine come to the office a spell back and told me he'd seen a reward bill that fitted your description, I dug out one of them bills and it fits you to a T. Yessiree! I don't fool easy. You're Cardinal, or I'm a splay-hoofed mule."
"Then you are said mule." I tried to sound bored with the whole business. "The longer you keep pushing that story at me the longer your ears are getting too. You better watch out, come morning, somebody don't throw a harness on you."
"You deny you're John Cardinal?"
"Hell's-bells," I snapped impatiently, "if you feel so sure I'm this Cardinal hombre you're spouting about, why don't you get the deputy in here and—"
"Larry's gone to his roomin' house—to bed. He'd be mad if I wuk him up."
"Not only that," I laughed carelessly, "but you're afraid he wouldn't let you in on some reward you keep dreaming about."
I saw that my chance shot had gone home. His jaw dropped open, then he closed it. "You'll see, come mornin'," he growled disgruntledly, but he couldn't resist needling me some more. "I'm going back to the office and cut my initials in your .44 gun-butt."
"You do, and I'll cut your throat when I get out, and I'll be out tomorrow. Want to bet on it?"
He looked a bit shaken at my confident manner. "I ain't a bettin' man."
"Look, Tanner, there's no use of you and me arguing. We might as well be friendly until tomorrow, when everything will be cleared up. Right now, I'm planning to start a suit for false arrest, and it rests with you whether I give a good report on you or not."
He pondered that a moment. "What do you want?" he asked grumpily.
"Fresh water. The stuff in my water bucket is plumb scummy. I got half a buck that says you can't get me a decent drink."
"I told you I wasn't a bettin' man," he said hesitantly.
"I'll bet you a dollar you can't bring me some fresh water."
Cupidity got the better of his principles. "That's different," he stated sourly. "Wait right there and I'll get some for you."
"Where do you think I'd be going?" I jeered. "With me due to be released, come morning, would I be fool enough to try anything when you're holding a gun on me, after opening this cell door."
He moved away from the cell and went back to the office. I drew a long breath. The fish had taken the bait. The question was, would I be able to land it?
I moved fast, placed the bucket of scummy water and the plate and cup just within the cell, near the edge of the cell door, stood well back and waited.
The office door opened again, sending light along the corridor, and Tanner appeared carrying a bucket. "You lose your bet," he snickered. "Now let's see that dollar."
I produced a silver dollar from a pants' pocket and tossed it between the bars of the door. It struck the floor, rolled, and he scrambled after it. He came erect, grunting, and shoved the coin in his greasy pants.
He came back to the cell door. "All right, go on back to that far wall, now. And don't try no tricks, mind."
"Why the devil should I try tricks?" I said incredulously. "I'm not running chances against that hawg-laig of yours." I went back to the wall, tense, waiting.
He set down the bucket, produced his gun and then the big lock-key. With the gun boring on me, he thrust the key into the lock and turned it, leaving it in the lock. He picked up the bucket again and shoved open the door until it reached the dishes and bucket I'd set there. The door struck the bucket, but the bucket stuck against a small corner of rock imbedded in the floor, and refused to slide back out of the way.
"Dammit," he snarled, "what'd you want to put them things right there for? I can't open the door wide enough to get this bucket through."
"I thought you'd want to take them back with you. Figured to save you an extra trip," I said apologetically. "Just a sec and I'll move 'em out of your way—"
"You stay right where you are," he snapped, his gun again tilting in my direction.
Eyes half on me, half on the door, he put the bucket down again, then knelt down to reach around the edge of the door and move the other bucket and dishes to one side. The gun was still pointing in my direction, but I knew he couldn't watch me and the dishes at the same time. There was bound to be an instant when his gaze left me.
And in that instant, I leaped! I still don't know how I cleared the distance across that cell floor in so brief a flash of time, aiming for his body in that narrow opening between door and jamb.
I heard his gun roar, even as I moved, but on his knees, as he was, off balance, and with me closing in fast, his aim was erratic. That much I'd been counting on.
I hit him with one shoulder, just as he was struggling to his feet, trying to level the gun for a second shot, and he went sprawling back, head over heels, cursing and grunting, the gun flying from his grasp as he crashed.
I scrambled over him, reaching for the gun, got it in my grip, then just as he was trying to rise, I struck him a short wallop with the gun barrel, across the side of the head.
He went down without a sound and lay quiet, one leg twitching a little. I paused, knowing he'd be out only a short time, listening. Surely, there'd be someone on the street to hear the sound of the explosion. How long before the alarm would be raised? Time was passing fast. I'd have to get going.
Tanner's gun still clutched in one hand, I leaped for the lighted doorway to the office. Here, I again paused, listening, every nerve tense. There didn't seem to be an unusual noises. The street door leading into the office was closed. I started in that direction, then paused. On the desk lay my .44 Colt gun. I thrust it into my holster, replacing it with the gun I'd taken from Tanner. I wouldn't be accused of stealing that, anyway. Or would I? Besides, a forty-five Colt was no good to a man who used forty-four cartridges.
The street door was locked on the inside, but the key was in its lock. It required but an instant to turn it and step outside. I wondered if Cal had brought my horse and left it where he said. That was my first interest. Sure enough, the pony was tethered at the tie-rack, waiting patiently. I moved out to the sidewalk. There wasn't a soul to be seen on either side of the street. A few lights from saloons were to be seen, scattered along the way. It all looked pretty peaceful, and I was thankful for that. Perhaps the noise of Tanner's shot hadn't been noticed after all.
I got into the saddle and moved out of town, as quietly as possible.
Sure, I knew it would make it look like I'd shot Webb Jordan, making an escape like that. On the other hand, I didn't see where I'd have a ghost of a chance if I'd stayed in Deosso Springs. I was still damn thirsty too; I figured my pony was in the same condition. But I had to keep going. Tanner wouldn't stay unconscious too long, then the alarm would be raised and there'd be men on my trail. Unconsciously, I touched spurs to my horse's belly, and we loped on, always figuring to keep away from towns on the railroad right-of-way, where telegrams could be flashed through the country.
I hit a water hole at dawn, then pushed on. Later in the day I managed to shoot a prairie hen, built a small fire of twigs and ate it half-raw. But that helped and I let out my belt a notch.
The following day I came up with a Mexican sheepherder, tending his flocks. He had a small lean-to nearby and he fed me beans and tortillas, refusing to take any money. We sat cross-legged on the ground and over bitter black coffee, he told me about his brother who lay on blankets inside the lean-to. I knew the man looked sick, but I didn't ask any questions. The Mexican didn't ask me any questions, either. To him I was just a passing guest who deserved to be fed.
It was then I first heard about Onyxton, which apparently was the hardest town along the border. "It is a sink-hole, señor," the Mexican stated earnestly. "A refuge for outlaws where the law dares not enter. Si, si, Onyxton has a law of sort, a deputy, who does always the bidding of a man who operates for his own profit, by name of Webster—Sheldon Webster. You have heard of this man?"
I shook my head. "Never heard of him in Texas."
"This Señor Sheldon is not of Texas. Onyxton is miles and miles to the west. I cannot say how far. My brother, he of the illness, can say. He has been there—to his sorrow. From San Diego he comes on the way to join me and passed through this Onyxton on his journey. He sees the town is of a most wildness, but lingers a day. A quarrel was forced on him. He tried to avoid it by mounting his horse. Shots were fired. He was struck in the leg. Fortunately he escaped, but the leg was in malo—bad—condition, when he arrived. There existed a high fever. Now, the fever is gone, but it will be two weeks before I can have help with my flock."
"It is a thing to be regretted," I said. I glanced overhead, considering, to a clear blue sky, flecked with fleecy white. It was peaceful here, and who would ever think of a cowman working sheep, though I've never liked the bleating, silly animals. "Perhaps, until your brother has recovered, I may aid you with the sheep, señor."
"Your assistance would be of the most valuable, señor," he replied simply.
I stayed two weeks until the brother was able to get around. The Mexican couldn't understand it when I refused to take the money he offered for such work as I had done. We swore eternal friendship. I mounted and rode on, this time with a destination in view, Onyxton, though if I'd known what lay ahead, I might not have been so definite.
By this time I figured the chase would have died down. I pulled rein one afternoon at a small hamlet called Burro Tanks, just another cowtown. The sign Deputy Sheriff on a building didn't bother me any. I stopped at a bar, figuring to get a beer, while my horse worked on the water tank in front of the adobe saloon. I had my beer and left, figuring to get a few groceries. I saw my pony had drunk his fill, and I started along the street, looking for a shop.
Abruptly, a voice hailed me. "Hey, Johnny—Johnny Cardinal!"
I pretended I didn't hear and walked faster. Running steps caught up with me. A hand seized my arm.
"Johnny, don't you speak to old friends?"
Old friends! God Almighty! I turned, intending to tell the fellow he was making a mistake, then I nearly gagged when I saw who it was. Oh, he knew me, all right, a sneaky so-and-so who had worked for practically every outfit around Tenango City, a few years before. He was just no good, that's all, and not to be trusted.
Reluctantly, I accepted his out-stretched hand. "Well, Dade Messer, what you doing in these parts?" He was a skinny individual with not much chin and eyes placed too close together.
"I might ask you the same," and he gave me a sly wink. "I'm punchin' for the Flyin'-R. north of here. Johnny, looks like you been right busy of late. I've noted a heap of reward bills, and now this new one. What the hell, you joined the wild bunch, or somethin'?"
"Not me," I said lamely. "You got somebody else in mind."
"Now, Johnny, you know you can trust an old friend. Mum's the word. Should anybody ask, I'll deny ever seein' you. But all the reward money." He smiled nastily. "You must be worth more dead than alive."
I tried to laugh it off. "Like's not, I always was."
"Don't say that, Johnny pal. But you got to admit, murder is serious."
"What in the devil you talking about?"
He jabbed one thumb into my ribs, laughing. "Don't stall. I got this reward bill at the deppity's office this mawnin'." He unfolded a yellow bill. I scanned the printing, eyes blurring a bit as I learned I was now wanted for the murder of Deputy U.S. Marshal Webb Jordan. My heart dropped to my boots. They'd checked with Tanner and realized who I was. Dade Messer was still gabbling: "What happened, Johnny? Did Jordan have you cornered? Not that I'll let on I saw you. I'm no double crosser."
"Look, Dade. This is a mistake. I'm not the Cardinal they want. I could clear things up, if I had the time, but I'm in a sort of rush. I'll see you again someday—"
"That I can understand," Messer grinned. Keeping the reward bill in my hand, I strode out and climbed into my saddle. "S'long, Johnny. You can count on me to keep quiet," he added in an extra loud voice.
I didn't bother to reply but kept a wary eye on him as I backed my pony to the center of the road. His hand had dropped to gun-butt, but he raised it quickly when he saw me watching him. He was backing away now, looking scared. I wheeled my horse and made time out of Burro Tanks. Glancing back once, I saw that Messer had stopped a couple of men, talking excitedly, then all three started at a run in the direction of the deputy-sheriff's office. I rode hard, cursing one Dade Messer as a double-crossing son! Behind me I could hear a lot of yelling along the street, and someone sent a long shot that flew high overhead.
A final over-shoulder glance as I struck the curving roadway out of Burro Tanks revealed riders climbing into saddles on either side of the long dusty roadway. A posse had got started a hell of a lot quicker than I'd figured on, and this time they were close behind. I gained on 'em for a couple of miles, until my pony went lame, but managed to stay ahead.
A couple of miles farther on a long line of buttes followed the curve of a river and that's where I was heading, hoping there'd be canyons there where I could lose the pursuit.
Well, as I said before, I ended up, wet and shivering, beneath a wide spreading clump of prickly pear cactus, with men and baying hounds doing their damndest to smoke me out of hiding, until Miguel Serrano arrived to pull me out of a mean jam.
Two days later, steering a wide course around El Paso, I crossed the Texas line, hoping to find safety in Onyxton, farther to the west—Onyxton, the place so tough that even lawmen stayed clear of it.
It REQUIRED longer to arrive there than I'd figured on, but now I felt a greater degree of safety when passing through an occasional small town. No one asked me any questions, and I offered no explanations. I'd pick up such food as I needed and ride on. I began to like the look of this new country I'd entered. There were grasslands and various trees. The mountains seemed to mount higher, the air was clear.
I still didn't know what I intended. The only thing I had clear in mind was to land someplace where I could think things out, free of some lawman on my trail, until I could map out something that would clear off the all-too-many charges against me.
I rode through some passes in the mountains and found myself descending into a wide valley with more mountains, a great ridge of serrated peaks, which I later learned were called the Doladera Mountains, and crossing the Mexican Border in a series of crazily-tumbled rock buttes, known as Buzzard Buttes. It was almost in the shadow of that western range that Onyxton was situated. Now, I began to see a sort of trail leading to the town. Here and there it swerved to one side to curve around a big cottonwood tree or screw-bean mesquite. The grama grass looked full and juicy; it all looked like good grazing country to me, though as yet I'd spied no cows. Which, after all, was rather strange when I came to think of it. For the moment I just came to the conclusion that the country was as yet unsettled. Overhead, the sky was so blue it was nearly black.
Right soon I commenced to see some small houses and adobe huts along the way, and almost before I realized it I was following the trail into Onyxton. I rode through to the far end of the town and then turned back. It was larger than I'd expected: a long main street with four or five cross streets. Tough-looking? That was hard to see to a newcomer. There did seem to be an unusual number of men about, just lounging. All wore guns. I caught sharp glances from some of them as I walked my pony down the middle of the street. From one end of the town to the other, I saw only three older women, making their way along the sidewalk.
Saloons were more frequent than usual. There was an Onyx General Store and another general store, on opposite sides of the street, which was lined almost solidly with hitch-racks and ponies. I passed an Onyxton Bank, and Onyxton Livery Stable. Situated at the middle of the town was a two-storied frame building with a high false-front with painted wide letters across the top: ONYX SALOON & GAMBLING PARLORS. They sure overplayed that word, Onyx. Probably mined the stuff in the nearby mountains.
I swung down a cross street and saw railroad tracks. A block farther on, on a piled dirt foundation was a frame building, painted red, which bore a sign: T.N. & A.S. R.R. There were loading pens a mite farther on, so I figured somebody must ship cows from here. I turned my pony back toward the Main Street, and passed a small building and jail. There was a sign there too, bearing two words: TOWN MARSHAL. They looked freshly painted.
I finally pulled up before a barber shop, tossed reins over the hitchrail, between two other mounts, and entered the place, not knowing whether I'd get my throat cut or not. The barber was a skinny geek, just waiting for a customer. He nodded and I nodded and dropped into a chair. "Shave and crop the mattress a mite," I told him.
He said "Yessir," and got to work with his scissors and comb, working faster than I expected. Finally he lowered me back in the chair, and started to lather my face. I didn't go for all the silence. Usually barbers are talky. This one didn't have a word to say.
He'd lathered one side of my face when I said, "Onyxton doesn't look as tough to me as I've heard. I thought—"
Swush! A brushful of lather filled my mouth. The barber said, "Sorry sir," and with a towel started to swab out my mouth. I sputtered some but didn't say anything. I could take a hint.
The razor blade commenced to ring across my bristles. The barber finally broke the silence. "This used to be a nice little town, sir."
"It did? What happened?"
His voice was low when he replied, "Somehow, I don't feel much like talking today, sir."
So, that was that. He'd said too much or too little. Not knowing where I stood, I don't suppose I could blame him. He gave me the usual bay-rum treatment and after paying him two-bits, I stepped out of the chair. He said, "Thank you, and drop in again—if you stay."
I didn't miss that, either. It sounded like he was giving me some sort of warning, if I were running on the straight side of the trail.
I stepped outside, half expecting to find my pony, saddle and rifle had disappeared. The sun was hot along the street. I glanced up against the blinding rays a moment. It must be close to eleven o'clock. I mounted and cut diagonally across the street to a livery stable, then dismounted. A man in overalls showed up. "Rub-down, feed and water," I told him. "I'll be back later."
On foot I started a saunter along the sidewalk, choosing the shady side. A few people nodded as I passed; the rest just looked me over. I could fairly feel the sharp glances that followed my progress. After a time I crossed over and entered one of the cleaner restaurants I'd noticed. Just a small place, with a few tables and a counter along one wall. I was, apparently, the only customer. I dropped down on a counter stool and a tired-looking individual took an order for steak, fried potatoes, tomatoes, pie and coffee, with various fixings.
While I ate he lounged wearily against his back counter and gazed out the window.
I ventured cautiously, "Mite too early for business, I suppose."
He looked at me a long minute, then, "It's always too early for business in my place—nowdays," he said sourly.
"Yeah? Your fodder's good. I don't see why—"
"It needs more than good fodder to stay in business in this town, mister. I'd sell out if I could, but I keep hangin' on at a loss. I won't sell at a thievin' price."
"I don't get that."
His resentment burst forth. "A pack of wolves is runnin' this town—driving all decent people out. That goddam Sheldon Webster—and he should be called Shell-game Webster —won't be satisfied until every business in this town is run by his men, and—" He stopped suddenly, grew wary. "Some-times I talk too much for my own good. Forget I said anything, will you?"
I nodded. "If you want it that way. But if this town is being run by crooks—"
"Crooks?" he burst out. "Hell, mister, step out on the sidewalk, spit in any direction and you're almost certain to hit one." He paused, "You just ridin' through?"
"Could be. Maybe not."
"The more fool you, if you stay," he said bitterly. Then, cautiously, "There's a hell of a lot of strangers arrive hereto stay. They all take Shel Webster's orders, if they remain."
"Who is this Webster?"
"Owns the Onyx Saloon, dance hall and gambling parlors. Buys up other businesses, cheap, puts his own men in to run 'em. Shelters men who oughter be hung or in the pen—oh, hell!"
"A Mexican friend of mine come through here some time back and was shot at before he left. He said there was a deputy here—"
"Mexican? I ain't surprised. Webster is runnin' 'em out of Onyxton, fast as he can. He don't like 'em. Claims the U.S. Government should go right down and take over the hull country. Damn fool talk! If he only knowed it, he'd realize that Mexicans is part of the backbone of this hull range."
"But the deputy—"
"Deputy? Phaugh!"—disgustedly. "That yellow-spined jellyfish. County sheriff sent him down here to take control. Webster and his bullies had the feller skeered out in two weeks. He never did come back, nor did anybody to take his place. Finally, Webster pulls a real pious face and insists we must have some law here. And he appoints one of his own crew as marshal. The hull business was a farce."
"I should think you'd think twice before making accusations to a stranger."
"Yeah, I probably should, but I reached the point where I just don't give a damn what happens. Sure, I been expectin' trouble, but I ain't a big enough chunk of sand in Webster's ointment to have him set his top men on me—and the lower scuts know I keep my double-barl'd scatter-gun handy. But I ain't no doubt they'll get me in time, if I don't leave. And I'm dam'd if I'll be druv out."
He filled me a second cup of coffee without being asked. We talked a few minutes more, then I paid for my meal and stepped out to the street once more.
Again, I felt the sharp glances as I headed toward the livery stable, not antagonistic—not yet. More like men were wondering just which direction this strange cat intended to jump. It gave me a queer feeling between the shoulderblades, and I began to feel that slow blanket of fear enshrouding me again.
. But what was I to do? I'd come here to avoid the law. I'd have to stay for a spell. I'd be sure to be recognized eventually with all those yellow reward bills fanned out for my scalp. And then I had another thought. The bills had termed me fast with a gun, vicious, a killer. There was a chance I could turn them to my advantage. The average gunman, crook, isn't too smart. Was there any reason why he shouldn't believe all the things said about me? I thought not. So the best thing to do was appear to live up to the reputation I'd been given. So long as I was thought really bad, it might save me a lot of trouble, if I staged some sort of tough act.
I smiled to myself, thinking, can I run a bluff of that sort, bluff others into thinking I'm as bad and gun-fast as my rep? Well, it was worth trying, anyway. In a town like Onyxton, I didn't know what else I could do. But if I were forced into a showdown against some fast gun, it would soon be realized what a sham I was. I made up my mind: until someone stopped me, I was Cardinal—gunslinger!
I reached the livery and looked over my pony. I hadn't any kick on his treatment. I adjusted the stirrup straps, checked the cinch, and tossed a buck to the liveryman.
"Glad to take care of you anytime, Mister—Mister—" he said, as I stepped up to the saddle.
"Name's Cardinal," I said carelessly.
"You expecting to stay with us a spell?"
"I reckon." I'd started to move out of the stable.
"Got a job, eh?"
I checked my pony a moment. "There's always an opening for my kind of work."
"The same bein'?"
I laughed softly. "Where can I find Shel Webster?"
"Down at his place, mebbe. Or mebbe you'll find him lally-gaggin' in the dance hall with Topaz."
Who the devil was Topaz? I wondered. Oh, well, I'd learn in time. I touched spurs to the horse and moved out.
"Say," the livery man called, "What did you say your name was? Cardinal? Is that right? John Cardinal?"
"My friends call me Johnny," I told him.
A broad smile crossed his features. "By Gawd, I allus said you'd be showin' up here, sooner or later. Welcome to Onyxton, Johnny. We've heard a lot about you."
I allowed a certain coldness to enter my voice. "You'll probably hear a lot more before I leave too. I didn't come here to sit on my hands and loaf."
I moved on, out to the street.
Walking the pony along the street, I stopped next at the tierail of the Onyx bar, dropped reins over the rack and stepped up to the sidewalk. I pushed through the batwing doors of the saloon and paused inside a moment to adjust my eyes to the dimmer light. It was a good-sized room, larger than the majority of saloons. There were windows at one wall; a window and door at the back. I glanced toward the long bar. Only a few men were there, all wearing guns. Then I got a shock. Standing at the far end was a girl, all alone. Before her on the bar was a tall glass containing a brown liquid. It wasn't whisky. Looked more like sarsaparilla. For some reason I hoped it was, I don't know why. But, in the brief glance I had, she looked like a nice girl, a beauty in fact. Our eyes didn't even meet and I didn't want to appear too inquisitive. I continued up to the bar and asked the bartender for a bottle of beer. He was a beetle-browed individual with a nasty scar along one cheek. A white apron was tied about his bulging middle. He looked narrowly at me as he set out a bottle and glass.
"Glad to make your acquaintance, stranger," he said, proffering one hairy paw across the bar.
My right hand was on the bottle, so I failed to see his paw.
After a moment he withdrew it, saying, "I'm Turk Hofer."
"That so," I said idly. "When did that happen?"
He stared dumbly. "When did what happen?"
"When did you take over?"
"Wha-what-? I said I'm Turk Hofer."
"Oh, what did you take cover from?"
The barkeep's face grew red. From the far end of the bar I caught what sounded like a giggle. Then he realized he was being kidded. "It's my name. Turk Hofer. Funny, ain't you?" Other men along the bar were snickering now.
"I don't feel funny when I get a bottle of beer warm enough to take a bath in."
Turk Hofer bristled. "Don't you know ice is expensive?"
"So is warm beer, if I pay for it. Which same I don't intend. I like my beer chilled—but not frozen. Understand?"
He glared at me a moment, then removed the warm bottle and replaced it with one dewy on the sides. I could have laughed in his face, but didn't dare, having to maintain the cold, stern attitude. I poured the beer. It was just right.
After a moment, Hofer said, "You didn't give me your name, mister."
I eyed him a moment. "Why waste time telling me what I already know?"
"Well, we like to know who comes here."
I set my bottle on the bar. "Who in hell is 'we'?" I snapped.
He moved back a pace. "Well, we is—well, you see, gents—"
"Never heard of him," I said shortly. "What do you figure you're doing, taking the census?"
Again that giggle from the far end of the bar. I glanced around, but she had her head bent over her drink. Hofer's face was almost purple. "I ain't tryin' to start no argument, but if I don't know your name how can I interduce you to the boys at the bar, so's you can all have a drink friendly-like?"
I fixed him with an icy stare. "What gives you an idea I want to meet any boys—or men, either?"
He started to splutter and a couple of men farther along the bar began to look belligerent. At that moment the livery stable man came slithering in, hurried up to one of the "boys" at the bar, and went scurrying out again, nodded to me as he passed. The men at the bar gathered closer, and I noted that the belligerent looks had disappeared. Well, the town was beginning to learn who I was, anyway.
I turned my back on Hofer and strode across the room to a big blackboard nailed to the wall. On it were fixed hundreds of "Wanted" bills, offering rewards for outlaws, some tacked over others, many fly-specked, tattered and soiled. I mused it was only natural that Onyxton would want to keep track of wanted men. My gaze ran quickly over the collection, seeing several bearing my own name. Spotting the one offering the reward for the capture of John Cardinal, for the murdering of Deputy U.S. Marshal Webb Jordan, I reached up and tore it from its fastenings.
Then I sauntered easily back toward the bar, spur rowels ringing on the wood floor. I knew every eye was on me now. I was beginning to feel so tough I almost scared myself, and I hoped the trembling in my knees wasn't noticeable. I ordered another beer. Hofer set it out with dispatch. I tossed a silver dollar on the bar, saying, "Take a cigar out of that for yourself, and"—tossing the reward bill on the bar—"light it with that. Where's Shel?"
Hofer had been looking from me to the bill and back again. Now he said, "Who?"
"Shel—Sheldon Webster. Your boss. You not only don't hear good, you don't speak plain either."
"Oh, sure, Shel—Mr. Webster. I dunno for sure. He should be around." He raised his voice to the girl at the end. "Miss Topaz, you know where Shel—Mr. Webster is?"
"Not right now, Turk. He should be around soon." That voice reminded me of tinkling bells in cool rippling water. She glanced at me, then looked away.
I said, "Thank you, miss," and touched the brim of my sombrero. She didn't reply.
"I'll wait at a table," I told Turk, and picked up my bottle of beer and glass. At a table of squared pine, across the room, I took a chair where I could get a good look at the girl, without appearing to be too nosy. She was standing sort of sidewise at the bar, a tall girl, with a flowing skirt, just above her ankles, and high-heeled slippers. She had all the right curves in the right places, and appeared to be one-hundred percent feminine. I liked everything I saw. Probably about my own age. Hair, well, a sort of golden bronze, with thick braids coiled about a shapely head. Nice straight nose and skin like ivory with a flush of rose brushed high on the wide cheekbones. Lips full, mouth a bit wide, perhaps. That was all right with me. Without being able to get a good look, I knew she'd have white even teeth. I wondered about her eyes, which I was unable to see well. Topaz. Topaz who?
I saw Turk Hofer walk to the end of the bar and show her the reward bill I'd given him. She just glanced at it, then looked away. Turk resumed his former position to take care of the orders of more men who had drifted in and lined the bar. A hard-bitten group with scarred holsters, unshaven faces and battered sombreros. I was conscious of stealthy glances directed at me, considerable respect in those looks too. Perhaps the vicious gunman's bluff was making good. Once one of the men turned away as if to approach, but Turk spoke to him and the man returned to the bar. I gathered that Turk was telling him I wasn't the friendly type. That was okay as far as I was concerned.
I had resumed casting covert glances at the girl, when I heard a voice I recognized. I glanced toward the bar and felt my spine stiffen. The man who had entered was Hondo Crowell—the man who had shot Webb Jordan—I'd have recognized those brutal features anywhere. And I shouldn't have been surprised to see him here: that type would naturally gravitate to Onyxton. For a brief moment I had an idea of, somehow, forcing him to confess Jordan's murder, then and there. Then I sank back in my chair. That sort of act wouldn't be in character a-tall. Hondo pushed roughly between a couple of other men at the bar. They didn't say anything, just drew aside as though fearing any sort of argument with him. At that, he'd be a mean customer to cross. I could feel myself hating him with every fibre in my body. For a moment, I could just sit and glare.
"Yes, he affects me that way too," a voice said at my shoulder. Her voice! I'd never forget it.
I got to my feet fast, doffing my sombrero. She smiled and I could feel shivers running up and down my back. I indicated a chair across the table and she sat down. Then I knew why she was called Topaz. Her eyes. What were they, yellow? Gold? No, topaz was the correct description. I couldn't find my tongue for a moment.
"You know, Red-Head," she said easily, "you shouldn't allow your feelings to show in your face that way." Adding, "You might as well sit down too."
I stumbled down in my chair, leaving my sombrero on the table, gradually getting over my embarrassment. "Who you calling Red-Head?" I said, still somewhat flustered. "Bit on that shade yourself, aren't you?"
"If you like it that way."
"Lady, if I told you how much I liked it—"
"Don't start on that, please. In a minute you'll be asking me what a nice girl like myself is doing in this place." I protested, but she cut me off, "Don't deny it. I've already heard that line so often that—well, just say too often, and let it go at that."
I felt humbled beneath the cool serenity of her voice, but tried again, "My name's—"
"I know your name, Johnny Cardinal. Turk showed me a reward bill—you probably saw him do it."
I nodded. "And it doesn't make any difference to you?"
She shrugged nice shoulders. "Why should it? All sorts of queer characters come to Onyxton—usually on the run."
"And you're not going to ask what a nice man like myself is doing in this place?" I was beginning to find myself again.
She showed dimples and the nice even teeth I'd expected. "Lord knows, I don't have to ask, what with all the reward bills floating around with your name on them. You know something, I don't think you're the desperate character you're trying to make out."
"Certainly not," I laughed. "I'm pure as the lily in the dell."
That's the way it was; she always had a comeback. I asked if I could get her a drink, and she declined, giving me the old never-touch-the-stuff habla. "Besides," she added, "Shel doesn't like me to do any hard drinking in here."
That caught me up short. Shel! Like the so-and-so owned her or something. Well… A jealous twinge hit me, and I could feel myself beginning to boil. I caught myself before I said something I'd be sorry for later. I reached for my Durham and papers to cover my feelings, then stopped. I said, "You haven't told me your name, yet. Besides Topaz I don't know—"
"Fiddlesticks!" she said impatiently. "If you must know, it is Topaz Teresa O'Flannigan, and let's not have any joke about the name sounding German. I've been through all that."
"I'm beginning to think you've been through a lot," I blurted and then, to cover my confusion, reached for my Durham and cigarette papers, not missing the slow flush that crept into her cheeks. She didn't say anything though, just reached across and took the tobacco and papers from my hand.
Sifting tobacco flakes into a paper, she rolled a cigarette —one-handed!—with the deftness of an expert. I'd never been able to do that as many years as I'd tried, until I gave it up. Placing the cigarette on the table, she rolled a second smoke. I scratched a match and lighted her cigarette and mine.
Through a wave of smoke drifting between us, I heard her say, "My friends call me Topaz."
"And is it okay for me to do the same?"
She dropped her cigarette on the floor, rose and stepped on it. "I'll go see if I can find Shel," she said, turned and crossed the floor, disappearing through a doorway to an adjoining building, which I had guessed was the gambling parlors.
I glanced toward the bar in time to catch the customers looking in my direction. Hondo Crowell said something, but there wasn't any laughter. I heard Turk Hofer growl, "Hondo, you'd best button your lip. Shel don't like remarks of that kind."
What the remark was, I didn't know, but figured it was some snide joke concerning Topaz and me. Whoever she was, the men seemed to treat Topaz with respect, I had to admit that. This Sheldon Webster hombre must run things with an iron rein in Onyxton. And what was back of it all? Why had the girl approached me in such fashion? Was her friendliness just assumed? Maybe it was some sort of recruiting act to make sure I stayed in Onyxton and joined up with the Shel Webster faction. That thought made me damn uncomfortable.
I noticed that I hadn't yet finished my bottle of beer, and while it was warm, I didn't feel like going to the bar where I'd have to mix with the other customers. Then I had an idea.
I raised my voice: "Turk! My beer's gone warm."
Turk nodded. "Be right with you, Mister Cardinal." He dropped what he was doing, and hurried around the end of the bar and placed a cool bottle on my table, removing the other bottle. "That's on the house," he told me with an ingratiating smile.
I said, "Thanks, Turk. You're a real friend."
His smile widened and he seemed to waggle all over like a small puppy getting petted. I laughed inwardly, thinking, a desperate man will try anything sometimes. Now, Turk would boost my stock higher than ever.
I nursed the bottle along, waiting to see if Webster would show up. The batwing entrance doors parted and a man in puncher togs pushed in. Levis, flannel shirt, high-heeled boots. He removed a worn gray sombrero and mopped his forehead before walking farther. Then he donned the hat again and proceeded to the bar, taking a position farther on, away from the other customers. He was a lean, clean-cut looking hombre, around thirty, with dark hair. A Durham tag dangled from a pocket of his open vest. There was a Colt-gun holstered at his right hip. I sort of liked his looks.
He stood waiting at the bar a moment, Turk paying him no attention. Finally he rapped sharply on the counter with a two-bit piece. Turk looked slowly around. "I'll be there in a minute, Tawney," Turk growled. "Hold your hawsses, can't you?"
The man's face flushed, but he just said curtly, "Bring a bottle of beer, when you come."
I knew just how he felt, coming in hot and dusty like that, sweat running down his face. Impulsively, I called to the bartender, "Make sure it's a cold one, Turk."
The men at the bar swung around, jaws agape. Turk shot me a resentful glance, then grunted a short, "Yessir."
I probably should have kept my mouth shut; people would think I was trying to run the Onyx, or something. I noted the bottle was cold-beaded when Turk carried it down to the stranger. The man didn't bother with a glass, but uptilted the bottle to his lips. Three long swallows, then he put down the bottle, turned to me and nodded, briefly. "Thanks, cowboy."
"Don't mention it," I answered just as short.
I switched around in my chair, back to the man, and paid no more attention, until argumentive voices reached my ear. I turned to see what was going on. Three of the customers were gathered close to the stranger, and I could see—Tawney, was it?—getting red in the face, but trying to avoid a quarrel the other three seemed intent on picking. It looked as though Tawney had finished his drink, and was on the point of leaving when the three stopped him.
One of the men was saying, "Aw, hell, why don't you just get out? You ain't wanted in these parts. Use your head, or you'll be sorry, Tawney."
I saw Hondo Crowell edging along to get in on the argument. That didn't look good to me, though the whole business had probably been arranged for him to do just that.
"He'll be sorry if he lives that long," Crowell said nastily.
Tawney pretended not to hear. I could see he was anxious just to leave, without trouble, but by this time he was ringed in.
Another man said, "Look here, Tawney, get smart. Mr. Webster offered to buy your spread. Take your money and git while the gittin's safe."
Tawney ignored that too, and started to push past. Hondo Crowell shifted his big bulk in front of Tawney. "Aw, you're just a goddam Mexican lover, Tawney."
"The Mexicans are my friends," Tawney said curtly. "And better men than you'll ever be."
"By Gawd!" Hondo was working himself into a rage. "You can't say that to me, Hondo Crowell," he roared, "you—" And he called Tawney a name that no man likes to take.
It came then, almost faster'n than I could follow the movement of Tawney's clenched fist. The blow struck Crowell squarely below the eyes, a mite too high to be effective, but hard enough to send Crowell sprawling to his haunches on the floor.
Now, I knew trouble couldn't be avoided any longer.
I tensed, waiting for what would come next. Cursing like a madman, Crowell was scrambling up from the pine floor. For an instant he stood swaying unsteadily, shaking his head to clear it. His nose looked as though it had been pushed to one side and I saw blood running down his chin.
Another man jumped in with a loud, "You ain't going to hit no friend of mine, Tawney, and think you can get away with it—"
"That's right," another chimed in. "You been lookin' for trouble, Tawney. Now you're goin' to get it."
The men remaining at the bar looked interested, nothing more. Turk was leaning on one hand, elbow on bar, a nasty grin on his face, so there went that damned temper of mine again.
I rapped sharply on the table and got to my feet. "Cut it out!" I snarled, Inwardly quaking.
Crowell had staggered back to the bar, bracing himself, still somewhat groggy, but already I saw his right hand sneaking down to his gun-butt. The others spun around, eyes darting questioning looks at me. My voice had seemed to clear the air slightly. There was a short silence, with all but Crowell looking a trifle uncertain.
His hand had ceased to move toward his gun. Now he bellowed hotly, "What's your gripe, mister?"
I drew my six-shooter and placed it on the table in front of me, close to hand. "Two things," I snapped. "You're one of 'em. I don't like you and I don't like anybody that does." Sure, I knew I was making a deadly enemy, but I didn't want him for a friend. Anyway, I'd gone too far to stop now. "The second, only rats gang up on a victim. I don't like that either. Now, anybody got any objections to my remarks?" I waited. No one said anything. "All right," I continued, "let's have a little quiet around here."
I replaced my gun in holster, thinking, Migawd, what a bluff! And I was making it stick. I spoke curtly to Tawney: "All right, mister, you'd best slope out of here, while the going is good."
Tawney pushed past the others and started for the exit. As he passed my table he said, "Much obliged."
"Por nada," I replied, "for nothing."
He passed through to the street. My heart was going bangety-bang and I could feel the hot sweat running down from my armpits, as reaction set in. But so far, I had it made. One of the men returned to the bar. Crowell and another left the barroom for the outside. Neither looked at me as they went by, though I'd been expecting threats. Probably now I'd have to be on the outlook for some back-shooting skunk. It wasn't a healthy prospect.
A clock ticking above the wall said two-thirty and I wondered if no one had located Shel Webster. I was still half hoping that Topaz might return, but she didn't show. I didn't want any more beer and I figured I might as well go out and navigate around town some more.
At that moment there was a movement at the doorway leading into the gambling parlors, and a tall, wide-shouldered blond man entered the barroom. His hair was so blond it appeared white, though his face was deeply tanned. His woolen trousers came down to highly polished boots. It was his coat that interested me: from a slight bulge over the left breast I guessed he was packing an underarm-gun. He wasn't wearing a hat. His nose was straight above a clean-shaven chin, his mouth a thin straight line. Eyes pale blue.
I guessed who he was even before I heard the servile greetings of Turk and other men at the bar. He scarcely noticed them while he conversed low-voiced with Turk a few minutes, then wheeled and came straight to my table, dropping into a chair across from me.
"I'm Sheldon Webster," he said quietly.
"So I heard. That gang at the bar sounded like they'd rehearsed the act—"
I smiled thinly. "Do you have to ask?"
He eyed me narrowly. "Maybe not, Cardinal. All right, you said you wanted to see me. What's on your mind?"
"I was told to get in touch with you if I ever get down this way."
"Who told you that?"
"Friend of yours—so he said." I picked a name out of thin air. "Feller named Jim Flecker. He said you could take care of me if I got jammed up."
Webster scowled. "Flecker? Flecker? I can't seem to remember the name."
I hadn't expected him to, of course. "Maybe it's convenient to forget some names."
"Maybe," he conceded. "But I still don't recollect—"
"Forget it," I yawned. "Mebbe I came to the wrong place."
"Now don't jump to conclusions," he said. "If I can, I'll help you in any way. What's on your mind? I can generally arrange things for friends in Onyxton. What do you want?"
"I figure to stay a spell. Where's the best place to sleep?"
His jaw dropped. "Is that all you wanted to speak to me about?"
"I can think of a lot of things," he said disgustedly.
"Meaning what?" I snapped.
"For one thing you want protection. The law is hot on your trail for the murder of Deputy U.S. Marshal Webb Jordan. You'd like me to cover for you—"
"You're wrong, Webster," I stated coldly. "I didn't kill Jordan."
He sneered. "You'll be telling me next who did?"
"That's easy. Hondo Crowell killed him—your jackal, Crowell."
His thin lips tightened to a fine slit. "You're certain of that?"
He said wrathfully, "You know too goddam much."
I laughed insolently. "Let's just say you've misjudged me so far. Furthermore, while I realize there are rewards on my scalp, I don't want any of your cheap gun-slingers trying to collect. I'll expect you to give orders to that effect. I don't like back-shooters."
I'd expected him to get mad, but he didn't. He looked steadily at me a minute, then he nodded, "I'll do that. You look to me like too smart to lose. I think I can use you."
"I'll think it over. I need men of your ability. Too many dumb lunkheads on my payroll."
"Have I asked for a job?" I scoffed. "I'm not interested in going around bullying Mexes and running small-time hombres out of town—"
"That's a job for the lunkheads," he said absently. "There's tougher competition if you work for me. There's a hombre named Tawney, got a spread over the line—"
"He was in here a spell ago," I said.
"Yeah, I know. Turk told me. You interfered in what was none of your business—"
"T'hell I did," I snapped brazenly. "Certain, I interfered. My God, I never saw such a crude frame-up. I came here with the understanding you had brains, and what do I see? A damned clumsy attack by a rat-pack to down one man. Jesus! Can't you figure out a better plan than that? It all looked so blasted clumsy I just had to interfere. Any respect for you was vanishing fast. And I'd heard you were smart."
A slow flush crept through his features. "You could map out a better way, I suppose?"
"If I couldn't, I'd get out of Onyxton fast, figuring this was a hick-town with a numbskull running things."
His flush deepened; anger tinged his tones. "And just how would you do it, Mister Wise Hombre?"
"I don't have to tell you my methods, but I'd get acquainted with Tawney, learn his habits. Something smart could be worked out, to pull the wool over the eyes of any law that might try to interfere."
"I'm the law here," he interposed.
I said disgustedly, "Oh, my God! Show some sense. Here, maybe, but you raise a stink and you'll have government law on your tail. If Tawney gets snuffed out sudden and it's learned he was shot down in cold blood, how do you know what relations he may have who may demand an investigation? You say his spread is over the line, in Mexico. His sudden killing might bring the Mexican government into the business, asking questions and stirring up Washington. Do you want that?"
He didn't reply at once. His forehead was creased with frowns. "How would you do it?"
"Accidents happen," I said coolly. "How much you offering?"
He considered, then said, "Five hundred dollars."
"You're asking me to risk my neck for peanuts," I jeered.
"It's a lot of money—"
"It's a lot of buffalo chips," I snapped. "You expect me to run risks and plan a job so no one will suspect, for five hundred bucks? Well, I guess I'd best ride on. Onyxton isn't for me." I started to rise from the table, but he put out a detaining hand and I dropped back, as he said, "Don't be in a rush."
I waited. "Could be you're right," he conceded, thoughtfully. "Perhaps the ante could be raised. I'll have to think. You mustn't be in too much of a hurry. I don't mind telling you that scheme of Hondo Crowell's wasn't my doing. He knows that Tawney is a bother to me, so he took it on himself-"
"Why you so anxious to get rid of Tawney?"
His lips tightened. "That's neither here nor there. As to raising the ante, I can see your point, but I'll have to consult with—with somebody else."
I made my voice as insulting as possible. "Oh, so you're not the big boss in Onyxton—"
"Now, wait a minute,"—he sounded a trifle flustered—"I'm boss here, all right, but—but—we-ell, there's things to be considered." Abruptly, he changed the subject. "Exactly what did you come here for, asking for me?"
"I already told you." I laughed. "I just wanted advice as to where to get a place to sleep."
"For cripe's sake, is that all?"
"What else would there be?" I asked mockingly.
He stared steadily at me and I looked him straight in the eye.
"I think you're stalling," he said bluntly at last, "but we'll let it go at that. Well, there's rooms where the girls stay—"
"I got a dance hall in my gambling parlors, and they have rooms upstairs—"
"Not interested," I told him. "Though there was one girl in here a spell ago. What's her name? Topaz?"
His face clouded up like a thunderstorm. "Cut it," he growled savagely, and I realized I'd bored into a nerve. "Topaz is—is a friend of mine. Let's keep her name out of it."
I took a warning. "Just as you say," I said carelessly.
He calmed down. "So, if you're not interested in any of my girls, you can go to a hotel. There's two. One's a flea-bag. The other, the Onyx House, isn't bad, probably suit you best. It's crowded, though. If they haven't a room, tell 'em I said to throw out somebody."
I said "Thanks," and rose from the table. He also got up. "When will I see you again?"
"I'll like's not be around town. Suppose I drop in tomorrow and see if you can raise the ante?"
"A mite soon," he admitted, "but drop around anyway." Neither of us shook hands. I nodded to him and walked from the barroom.
I stepped out to the plank sidewalk; The sun was lower in the west. Time had passed more quickly than I'd thought. My pony was still at the hitch-rail, slumped on three legs. If man, I thought, had only the patience of a horse, he wouldn't blow wide-open so often. I rounded the end of the hitch-rack, intending to ride down to the Onyx House and get a room, and then head for the restaurant I'd patronized earlier, catch a bait and see what further information I could pick up. Oh, I was a fool for trouble, all right. Here I'd hoped to land in some spot where the law wouldn't bother me, and already I was getting mixed into something else with Shel Webster and his gang. If it hadn't been for that girl Topaz, I'd been inclined to ride on. Something about her made me want to stay—and a curiosity as to why Webster wanted Tawney snuffed out. I wondered too, who was over Webster and back of the skulduggery that appeared to be going on. What in hell was going on here, anyway?
I was about to climb into my saddle, when I heard a voice. Tawney's. He'd apparently been leaning against a front wall of the bar, waiting for me to emerge. Now he rounded the hitch-rack and stood at the side of my horse, looking at me. A rather pleasant-looking cuss, with very white teeth, black hair and a skin tanned almost as dark as an Apache's.
I said, "What's on your mind?"
"You've been a long time coming out," he laughed, a bit uneasily as though not exactly knowing my attitude.
"You've been waiting all this time?"
"I didn't have much else to do."
"Hondo Crowell and his pals might have made more trouble. You should have got out of town—"
"I saw 'em when they came out. Crowell looked pretty ugly, but he didn't offer to start anything. Just gave me a dirty look. But my back was to the wall, and he'd have to face me head on. Maybe he didn't feel like starting anything. He looked like I'd messed his nose some."
"It needed it," I said shortly, adding, again, "What's on your mind?"
"I just wanted to say thanks for cutting in, a spell back. Figured to leave while I could, so's to avoid more trouble. Still, I didn't feel I'd made you know how grateful I was. They could have finished me—"
"And still you stuck around, knowing that—"
"I wasn't bothered, once I had a wall at my back. I didn't figure they'd try again, so soon. That's not the first time they've tried to work me into a fight, but I always managed to slip out of it somehow. I knew I shouldn't have entered the Onyx, but they keep the only good beer in town, and I was so damned hot after my ride in."
I was liking him better all the time. "No thanks necessary," I told him. "Glad to help out."
"Thanks are necessary," he protested earnestly. "I—I never expected anybody to side me in this town. Oh, yes, my name's Tawney—Jeff Tawney. I run the Box-CT spread over the border."
"Cardinal," I said, and put out my hand.
He started to shake, then drew back, eyes widening, then went through with the gesture. "Did you say, Cardinal?"
I nodded. "Yeah—Johnny Cardinal."
His eyes narrowed. "Unusual name, isn't it?"
I shrugged. "Don't hear it too often," I admitted, "but there's a few of us around." I knew what he was thinking.
"Yeah," he said slowly, "I've heard of it."
"Don't be so bashful, Tawney," I laughed shortly. "You've seen a reward bill, or two."
"Just one," he admitted. "Oh, I've heard of you, all right, even if I don't get to Onyxton often." He backed a pace, considering me, eyes sharp, as though he were pondering something.
I told him bluntly, "Don't get any ideas of collecting a reward for my scalp—"
He shook his head, forcing a laugh. "It—it wasn't exactly that I had in mind."
"A damn good thing too," I growled, reassuming my tough act. I was wondering right then if I was due to have both Shel Webster and Tawney after my skin. What was going on? And I wondered why Webster was so anxious to have Tawney bumped off. Perhaps I could pick his brains a mite with some talk.
"I guess," Tawney said somewhat lamely, "you might be getting me wrong. What you've done is your business. I hadn't any ideas about rewards. Just want to give you a decent 'much obliged,' and ride out. That's all I had in mind."
"I've told you once to forget the thanks," I told him roughly. "Look here, I was just headed for the Onyx House to get a room. Then I planned to head for a restaurant down the street and catch a bait. The food isn't bad. The sun's lower-in' fast. I can eat now. Do you feel like coming along? I'll be frank, I'm curious as to why Webster is after your scalp. Feel like talking a mite?"
I liked his smile when it came. "For one thing, I hire all vaqueros—Mexicans—on my spread. And Webster hates Mexicans."
"Enough to get you killed?"
"Apparently. As to having supper with you, I got a better idea—leastwise, I hope you'll think so. Why not ride out to the Box-CT with me. I can promise you good food, and if you want to stay, there's extra beds."
"I never use more than one bed," I laughed, "and I think you have a hell of a good idea."
He said, "Fine. I'll get my pony. It's just a short ride. We'll be across the Mexican border in ten minutes or so, then out through the canyon that runs through Buzzard Buttes and we're there."
I mounted and backed my pony. In a minute he joined me on a big bay gelding. We walked the horses along the street, then he led the way down a cross street and past the T.N. & A.S. depot, on the platform of which was a high stack of shipping crates, of new lumber.
"Freight must have come in this afternoon," Tawney commented.
"Isn't it a regular?"
He shook his head. "Just stops here when there's freight to be put off. The Limited passenger train stops only when there's somebody to get off, or when flagged for a passenger."
"I noticed some crates like that when I was down this way earlier," I mentioned. "Now, there's more. What's in 'em?"
He didn't answer right away, then, "They're stenciled ploughs, or sewing machines or coal-stoves, as a rule," he said noncommittedly. "Shipped here from back east by some politician—Senator Whitlock is the name, I think. One of these hombres who wants to help poor folks. These crates are destined to be delivered at Heraldica to aid poor Mexican families."
"Sounds like a worthwhile idea. Where's Heraldica?"
"Lies ten-twelve miles south of my spread."
"Never heard of it. Big town?"
He shrugged. "Lot of people there." He acted as if he didn't want to talk about the place, and that aroused my curiosity too, but I didn't ask any questions.
We speeded the ponies to an easy lope and struck rolling country beyond town. It was good grazing terrain and I mentioned it was queer we didn't see any cows.
"Time was, when you could see 'em," Tawny said shortly. "There's a good scattering of spreads north of here, but they keep their cows well away from Onyxton."
"Right. Mostly owners and crews stay away from Onyxton, except to come in for supplies and mail. Honest cowmen aren't welcome there. Of course, we use the railroad shipping pens after beef round-up, but all of us keep our guns handy. Lord, if we could only band together, we'd clean out that town in nothing flat, but everybody is too busy, it seems—" He broke off. "I reckon I'd best not talk that way to you, you being a friend of Webster's—"
"I didn't say that," I said sharply.
He didn't reply, acted as though lost in deep thought. We surmounted some low foothills and swung south into a low canyon, between buttes that rose higher as we progressed. The going was narrow, with precipitous bluffs on either side. Once in the canyon the sun was mostly lost, though high overhead the sky was still a clear blue. It wasn't steep going, fairly level, bit of broken rock here and there. Now and then there'd be a spot of brush or Spanish bayonet, ocatillo and mesquite. I could see clusters of peyote cactus, with tiny pink flowers, forcing their way toward light, from between cracked rock formations.
Tawney's silence bothered me. He rode at my side, head sort of down as though thinking deeply, features creased with a heavy frown. Now and then he'd give me a quick puzzled look, as though he couldn't decide where to place me in some pigeonhole in his mind. It bothered me. I said, finally, "Look here, Jeff, something is needling you. If you've got something to say, spit it out. If you don't like my looks, just say so, before we go any farther. A while back, you said something about me being a friend of Shel Webster's. Hell, we're far from friends. I never saw the man until today, and I'm frank to admit I wouldn't trust him any farther than I could throw a steer by the tail."
He shot me a sharp glance. "You tossing a straight loop?"
"Believe me or not as you like," I said stiffly. "It's no skin off my teeth, anymore than I give a damn whether or not you take stock in a lot of lies about me spread around on reward bills." I was growing a bit huffy.
"All right, all right," he said hurriedly. "You needn't to get mad at me. I'm just trying to figure out something."
I cooled down. "I don't say I'm not interested in what makes Onyxton tick. For your information, all I've got to do right now is drop behind you a few paces, put a slug between your shoulderblades, and collect five hundred bucks."
"What are you saying?" he exclaimed, reining in fast, one hand going to gun-butt.
"Now it's your turn to cool down," I laughed. I told him briefly of my conversation with Webster and some of the color left his face.
"You've had plenty chance," he blurted. "Why didn't you do it?"
I told him, grave-faced, "I think I can get Webster to raise the price to a thousand."
He looked shocked, and then realized I was joking. "You had me stopped for a minute," he said with a sort of relieved sigh. "I'm no gun-fighter—"
"Neither am I," I admitted, "but I do get curious about a lot of things. Why does Webster want you out of the way? What about a girl I met this afternoon, called Topaz? And a nice girl, she seemed."
"Oh, yes, Topaz. She does seem like a nice girl—"
"What about her, Jeff?"
"Just don't get too interested in that direction. I can't tell you much about her. First time I saw her, I spotted her as a lady—"
"So what is she doing in Onyxton, mixed in with Shel Webster?"
"As I get it she came here a year back, figuring to teach school. There was a school in Onyxton, then, but when things got bad, teachers quit. Nobody wanted the job. She took it and rented a small house in town. But by that time, decent folks with kids started to move away. The school closed down. Shel Webster offered her a job, sort of overseeing his dance-hall girls—"
"That sort doesn't generally need overseeing."
"I agree, but I suppose Webster had to have some excuse for keeping her close to him. Any overseeing needed he could have done himself, or delegated the job to one of the girls."
"Does she live at the Onyx dance hall?"
"Maybe now, for all I know. Couldn't say. I don't come to town often. Now and then I hear a few things, such as Webster warning any other man not to come near her. Anyway, she's got enough of the lady left, so everybody respects her, what with Webster's attitude. She acts pretty free, too, hangs around the bar when she feels like it. I've heard that Webster objects to that, but so far she seems to do as she likes."
That part I liked. So far, at least, Topaz didn't appear to be completely dominated by Webster.
Tawney went on. "From what I hear, Webster is completely off his nut about Topaz. I see 'em riding together now and then. They use to cut through my place, to visit Heraldica. She always nodded pleasantly, if I happened to be riding near. Anyway, I reckon there's no doubt about it—Topaz is Webster's doxy."
I winced. That I didn't like. But I guessed I'd have to face facts.
We rode in silence for a time, our mounts' hoof-beats echoing back from the canyon walls, not moving fast. Too much broken rock scattered along the canyon floor to make safe footing for fast going. Here and there, at sandy spots, I saw wheel ruts, but mostly the footing was rock, spaced here and there with sparse growth of cacti, or choya, or some other southwest growth, rather stunted for lack of the sunlight which came but briefly between the deep canyon walls. Again, Tawney seemed to be lost in deep thought, wondering, I suppose, just how far I was to be trusted. On the one hand, there was my reward-bill-fabricated reputation. That, I knew he didn't like. On the other, I had, perhaps, saved his life, back there in the Onyx Saloon. I wasn't surprised that he had his doubts about me, though.
He said once, "We just crossed the boundary line of the Box-CT holdings, fifty yards back."
"That the Mexican line?" I asked.
He shook his head. "We crossed that quite a spell back. But we're on Box-CT land now."
The way was widening out now, the canyon walls lower, the buttes of granite, conglomerate and sandstone weren't so steep. Then the walls seemed to fall away all at once and we were emerging on rich grasslands, the trail dropping somewhat. By this time the sun was below the horizon, though it wasn't yet dark. By now we were heading down a long slope into a fertile valley and I expected him to speed up the progress. But he continued the same slow space, still lost in deep thought.
"There it is," he said suddenly and raised a pointing arm. "The Box-CT spread."
My gaze followed the indicating finger, and then I saw the buildings, all built of adobe. There was a wide ranchhouse with a tile roof and corrals, also, what I took from this distance to be a bunkhouse, blacksmith shop, windmill and the usual other structures. The ranchhouse was surrounded by ancient cottonwoods. Off to the left I could see a bunch of cows, already bedding down for the night. Lord, it looked peaceful. I began to envy Tawney his place.
"It looks like a honey of an outfit," I said impulsively.
He smiled. "It is. I think you'll enjoy it."
We'd ridden on a little farther, when he said suddenly, "You ever been in a Texas town called Tenango City?"
"Have I?" I grinned. "I wish I was back there right now— or maybe I don't, come to think of it. Hell, man, I was raised in that country, on a ranch nearby—the Star-S, run by Pablo Serrano. He and his wife brought me up. My folks died when I was just a baby. The Serranos were my foster parents."
"Had your parents lived there too?"
"Yes, until they were killed in an accident."
"Ever know a man there named Clarence Kirby? He ran the bank—"
I exploded an oath. "I know him all right. A greater skinflint never lived. Back there they call him Skinflint Kirby. I doubt he's got a friend in the world. You know him?"
"Just heard of him. Didn't know anything about him."
"You're lucky you never had any dealings with him."
"Your name's John, I understand." The horses were just walking side by side, by this time.
I nodded. "My friends call me Johnny. Hell's-bells, it was Skinflint Kirby who got me into trouble in the first place, or perhaps that part was my fault, to be truthful, but old Skinflint started the trouble."
"Oh?" He looked quizzically at me in the fading light. "Maybe that might explain—" He broke off. "What was your father's name?"
I figured he was getting damn inquisitive for no particular reason, but thought little of it. I answered, "Ethan—Ethan Damaris Cardinal."
He said thoughtfully, "That checks—"
"What checks?" I frowned, not seeing what he was getting at.
He paid no attention to my question. "And your mother's name?"
"Damned if I see—" I commenced, puzzled, then stopped. "My mother's name was Clarinda Hepsabeth Cardinal. So what—?"
"Double-check!" he exclaimed.
Puzzled, I said, "What the hell is all this?"
"Take a look around," he smiled, "let your eyes run over all that lies before us."
I looked, saw the rolling grasslands under the fading light, the ranch buildings, with only a thin orange streak in the west, above the rugged mountains. I saw the yellow lights in the ranchhouse and bunkhouse, soft gray smoke curling from chimneys. I drew a long deep breath. "It's—it's beautiful." I half-breathed the words and I meant every syllable.
"It's all that, Johnny," he said softly. "I'm sure you'll like it." And then, "Welcome home, Johnny Cardinal."
I laughed. "You've sure gone all Mexican, with that courtesy business, like, Enter, your casa, señor, and my-house is-your-house line of habla."
"It's not all courtesy, Johnny, though I mean that part too. What I'm trying to tell you is that everything you see before you is half yours. Whether you like it or not, Johnny, and I hope you'll like it, you're half-owner of the Box-CT. You and I are pardners!"
I half reined my pony, bewildered. "What in hell do you mean?"
But he had already put his pony into a lope. "Come on, pardner, we'll talk after supper," he yelled back over his shoulder, "and clear a few things in your mind."
I raced my horse down the long gradual slope after him, my mind churning with crazy speculations.
This, I thought later, is some sort of dream, and for a time I suspected Tawney's sanity. Good Lord, what a spread! The huge livingroom of the house was furnished with old Spanish furniture, animal-skin rugs, a few trophies of the hunt on the walls. There was a large dining room, with a long heavy oak table, presided over by Mama (as Tawney called her) Benita Vinando, wife of Mateo Vinanda, Tawney's mayordomo— foreman—a grizzled, wiry, weather-beaten Mexican of probably sixty years. Mama Benita was fat and comforting, always ready with a soft laugh. I loved them both on sight, reminding me as they did of Old Pablo and Mama Josefa. Mama Benita was housekeeper and head cook for Tawney with a slim Mexican girl, Chepa, as assistant.
Both Mama and Mateo Vinanda ate supper with us at the long table. Everything tasty, spicy and piping hot—frijoles, enchilladas, huevos, tortillas, and later strong coffee.
And apologies from Mama Benita for the meal. If she had only known there was to be a guest, and so on. I limbered up my Spanish and made it clear that I'd not feasted so since I'd left home. I could see they appreciated my speaking Spanish, too, even though she and her husband, Mateo, both had a good command of English. With the meal finished I sat back like a stuffed hawg, my mind still going around in circles. Mama Benita and Chepa cleared the table and I could hear the sounds of dishes being washed in the kitchen. Mateo produced long slim cigars and passed them around. Smoke swirled through the air above the table, while we lingered over tiny glasses of aguardiente, with a mild pineapple flavor permeating the smooth liquor.
Tawney smiled across the table. "How's your place look, Johnny?"
"I'm still dizzy, without understanding the setup."
A deep laugh rumbled in Mateo's chest. "We try to live well, Señor Cardinal."
"Not 'señor', please," I told him, "Just Johnny."
Mateo nodded. Then he turned to Tawney. "You are certain?"
"I'm certain," Jeff nodded.
"That is excellent, then," old Mateo said, grizzled head nodding. "An obligation too long unfulfilled is not as God wishes, and I am grateful." He extended his hand to me. "It is good to have you here, at last."
I'd shaken hands with him when we first met and liked the feel of his grip. Now he seemed to put even more into it. It was the sort of thing that almost brings tears to a man's eyes, and for a few minutes I couldn't speak. Then I managed, "For the love of God, Jeff, what is this all about?"
He grinned widely. "If you're through, let's go to the bunkhouse and say hello to the crew."
I followed him out, across the ranch yard, not missing as we passed, a corralful of mighty good-looking horses. Even in the night gloom, with only light shining from the bunkhouse, I could see that much.
Smoke still curled from a chimney at the end of the cookhouse, adjoining the bunkhouse, when we entered the long room, with double bunks at one wall and a long table at the center. There were about a dozen vaqueros—buckaroos, cowhands—seated about the room. One man strummed a guitar, a few played cards. One was plaiting a horsehair throw rope. Oil lamps, suspended to the wall, gave light. All talking ceased when we entered and the men, after speaking courteously to Tawney, looked curiously at me.
"Amigos—friends," Tawney introduced me. "My amigo, Juan Cardinal, who has required all too long to arrive. But now he is here, he will share our work and our pleasures. Give him the loyalty you have given me. That is a request, not an order. Also, it is my hope, as it is the hope of Mateo Vinanda."
I said in an aside to Tawney, "Good Lord, Jeff, I hope you know what you are doing."
"I know what I'm doing. It's okay," he replied. "I'll explain, later, and you'll see I'm right."
I found it hard to face the white-toothed smiles directed my way, embarrassed as I was, and unable to figure out the business. Well, for the moment, I'd play along with Jeff's idea, until things came clearer. Me, half-owner of the Box-CT. The whole business was crazy, as I saw it. For an instant I got to thinking I was the sucker in some sort of come-on swindle, then I banished that thought. Tawney appeared to be too sincere, as were the others. I circulated through the bunkhouse, shaking hands, catching names, here and there. From everyone's attitude I suspected that old Mateo had already prepared them for some sort of partial change of ownership, but it still didn't make sense to me.
About that time old Mateo entered, laughing, bearing a gallon jug of wine, to celebrate my arrival, as he put it. The jug circulated the room. We didn't bother with glasses, and it was soon finished. I could see they were all pleased I could speak Spanish. It sort of helped things, as if I were a blood brother, or something. And then I began to get the queerest sensation as though I'd come home. Home? Hell, I couldn't figure it out.
I said to Tawney, at last, "C'mon, let's get out of here and get some place where we can talk, Jeff. This suspense is driving me loco."
We said good-night and adios and I finally escaped, much as I'd have enjoyed staying and getting better acquainted with my crew. My crew? That too sounded crazy to me.
We returned to the big living-room with the easy chairs before a wide stone fireplace where mesquite roots burned. There was a small table between the chairs and a bottle of Old Crow and glasses stood waiting where Mama Benita had put them. Jeff Tawney filled the glasses as we settled down. We both rolled cigarettes.
"Now, dammit, out with it," I laughed.
"In a minute. But first, satisfy my curiosity."
So I had to hold a tight rein on my feelings, while I told him the whole story and the reason why I'd been forced to leave Tenango City after extorting the money from old Skinflint Kirby. Jeff listened in silence, while the mesquite roots snapped and flared in the fireplace. "And that," I concluded, "believe it or not, is my only crime. Nor am I a tough gun-fighter. Nor did I ever kill anyone. Matter of fact, my knees start quaking every time I get in a jam, and I dread the day when I'm forced to fire in self-defense, because I haven't any speed on the draw. Never before had any reason to work up speed."
"Johnny," Jeff laughed softly, "you've got a whale of a nerve coming to Onyxton, then. But I never saw a better act than you staged in the Onyx this afternoon. You really had that place bluffed."
"Sure, it was an act," I said earnestly, "an act prompted by fear. It was just that I've run long enough, and I'm tired of running, and that was the only way I knew to hide my fear."
"Pretty damn successful, I'd say," he chuckled. He sat staring into the fireplace. I judged him five or six years older than I was, and I was ready to accept his more mature judgment.
"Do you know of anything else I could have done?" I asked.
"I'd state here and now you've done plumb elegant. Y'know, when I saw that reward bill, with the name Cardinal on it, I wondered if it could be the same man. Then I decided against it, though it's an unusual surname. Why did I decide against it? Well, because of what I knew, I couldn't see any son of Ethan Dameris Cardinal going bad and becoming a gunman wanted by the law."
"What do you know about my father?" I demanded.
"I saw him once, though I've not much memory of him, being just a small younker at the time. He was a very good friend of my father. My mother had died and to forget his grief my father had headed down into Mexico to prospect for gold, with Mateo Vinanda. Likely he didn't look in the right places; anyway, he didn't have any luck. So there I was, being dragged around the country by Dad, and when he couldn't find anybody to take care of a small child, he finally hired Mateo to take care of me, and Mateo has been like a father to me since my own dad died. And—"
"But where did you ever see my father?" Excitement was mounting.
"Hold your hawsses a mite. I'll get to it. Eventually, the three of us—Dad, Mateo and me—worked up Mexico until we neared the U.S. line. Dad and Mateo both knew cattle, and they decided the best thing to do would be to go back punching. This country hereabouts looked likely to 'em, but there weren't any ranches here then, so they were casting around, figuring where they could get some money to buy a handful of cows for a start."
Jeff paused to roll another cigarette. "Just about that time they were jumped by about a dozen Mescalero Apaches. Mateo got a scratch from an arrow, but we managed, with Dad toting me, to hole up behind a mound of rocks. I don't remember all this, of course, but I do have a sort of memory of my Dad and Mateo shooting guns, and the sweat running down their faces, getting grimier and grimier from powder-smoke, and a lot of crazy yelling and hoofbeats from beyond our rock-shelter. I don't remember being scared or anything. Too young to realize, I suppose. Worst of it was, Dad and Mateo were running shy on lead and powder, and one of our hawsses had been killed."
Jeff paused a moment. "Y'understand, I got all this from my Dad in later years. Things were looking right bad for us, though Dad and Mateo had managed to kill three of the Apaches. About that time your father was riding through the country looking for likely land buys. He'd come down this way and stumbled on the small war taking place between us and the Indians. It didn't take him long to size up the situation and he unloaded some rifle shots so fast that he killed two Apaches and wounded a third. So, the Apaches, deciding this wasn't their day to take scalps, took off in a hurry. I just have a faint memory of your Dad, a tall man with hair like yours, and a big booming laugh. Once he picked me up and carried me on his shoulders, and I remember the ground below looked miles away—"
He broke off. "I reckon I'm not getting to the point very fast, am I? Anyway, your father and my dad and Mateo— and me—drifted around this country a couple of weeks, getting acquainted and looking at likely acreage. Our fathers became right friendly. When Dad brought your father here, they figured this was a place to start an outfit. Dad had been hoping to get a job rodding the spread when it was set up. Instead, your father took them up to Albuquerque, shot off a few telegrams. The upshot was—"
Tawney paused. "I suppose you know your dad was right well fixed."
"Huh?" My jaw dropped. "That's news to me."
"Yeah? Well, it's so—or was then. Like I say, telegrams from Albuquerque produced credit at an Albuquerque bank. Your dad turned sufficient cash over to my dad to buy land from the Mexican government, erect buildings and buy cattle. It was a pardnership, and they decided on the brand, Box-CT."
"I'll be damned!"
"Maybe you will," Jeff grinned. "Anyway, your dad left everything to my father to get things started, then announced he was going to return to Tenango City to take care of some odds and ends, dispose of some holdings he had, before returning here. My dad expected him within six months, but he never showed up—"
"Now, wait," I cut in. "All this doesn't necessarily mean that I've inherited half the Box-CT."
"As I see it, it sure does. Remember, I had the whole story from my father. One of the things your dad planned was to make out a will and deposit it with a banker named Clarence Kirby, naming you his heir, when he got back to Tenango City."
"My God, I never heard that!" I was stunned. "Skinflint Kirby told old Pablo Serrano that my dad only left a couple of hundred dollars, which same he turned over to Pablo. That lying, cheating—"
"Hold your temper, Johnny," Jeff smiled. "Looks like skulduggery, all right, but that can be taken care of later. Let me go on. When your father didn't show up, my dad wrote to Kirby. An answer came a month later, and it was then that Dad learned your folks had been killed in an accident. Dad wrote again, asking what had become of you. Kirby replied he had no idea and that some relative from the East had arrived and taken you back to Kansas City. For a couple of years, Dad tried to trace you, with no luck, and Kirby was no help, of course. So time drifted, and we've all hoped you'd show up someday. And you have."
"That crooked, lying Kirby!" I exclaimed. "You're sure of all this, Jeff?"
"Certain! My dad not only told me the story, and Mateo backs it up, but he also had papers drawn up, signed, witnessed and notarized, telling of the whole business. That was done about a year before he died, and Mateo had instructions to always be on the look-out for you. Dad always felt he owed a lot to your father, and Mateo does, too. I'll show you a copy of the papers later. There is also a copy deposited with the Bank of Mexico City."
I felt numb all over. It didn't seem believable. "Maybe," I said slowly, "I should split my half with Mateo—"
"He wouldn't take it. Both our fathers offered to make him a pardner, but all he asks is a home for himself and Mama Benita."
"What's the trouble between you and Shel Webster, Jeff?" Jeff frowned. "Maybe you noticed the high mountains rising either side of that canyon that runs through Buzzard Buttes—the trail we took to get here." I nodded and he went on, "For over fifty miles either way, that's the only road through into Mexico, and a town called Heraldica. To get there, it's necessary to cross my—our—holdings. Those crates of sewing machines, ploughs, or whatever, that Senator Whitlock is sending out, are being delivered to Heraldica, The T.N. & A.S. railroad depot is convenient to the canyon, for delivering the crates. Otherwise, it would mean a nasty trek over mountains, which I don't think a team and wagon could make. So, when Shel Webster came here and asked permission to cross Box-CT range, I gave it of course, and wagons came through every time a delivery was made by the railroad."
I scowled. "Exactly how does Webster happen to be mixed up in the senator's business?"
"I wondered about that too. Webster explained that he was just handling the crates as a favor to Whitlock. I got a hunch he's getting well paid by the senator."
"So where's all the difficulty with Webster come on?"
"They always manage to freight those crates through during the night. One night, toward dawn, I heard a heavy crash on the road that passes the house and a lot of cursing, and so on. I wondered what the rumpus was, so I got up and dressed. There were about a dozen of Webster's hoodlums, besides the team and wagon, when I arrived on the scene. Seems they'd had the wagon piled high and heavy. One of the big wheels had come off, and a couple of the boxes and crates had toppled off to the roadway. They were just lifting them back on, with the wheel being replaced. No one appeared ready to talk much. Then I noted that the end of two of the boxes had splintered open. That started me thinking."
"The largest box was stenciled 'Sewing Machines'. However, I recognize guns—carbines—when I see 'em. The small box contained ammunition."
"The hell you say!" I sat straighter. "What goes on?"
"That I don't know," Jeff frowned. "I didn't like it."
"And the stuff was being freighted to Heraldica? What sort of place is Heraldica?"
"It's about ten miles below our southern boundary line. Used to be a quiet little village, but the past year it has grown, driving most of the Mexican residents out, to be replaced by a large number of men from the U.S. side. Funny thing is, they pretend to be Mexicans, dress as they do, steeple-crowned hats and so on. They seem to be the dark swarthy type, and those who didn't speak Spanish are picking it up fast. Mostly they raise a lot of hell, drinking and wenching, in new places that have started up."
"After the wagonwheel had been replaced and the boxes reloaded, the wagon continued on. I thought about the business a couple of days, then I sent Mateo down to see what he could pick up from the few former residents left in Heraldica."
Jeff tossed a cigarette butt into the glowing embers in the fireplace, and continued, "Mateo didn't learn much. There seemed to be a feeling that, perhaps, some sort of revolution against the Mexican Government was being planned, but that was rumor. He could get no proof. Anyway, I didn't like the looks of things and I rode into Onyxton one morning and told Webster he'd have to find some other method of delivering his crates and boxes to Heraldica. I didn't say why, but maybe he guessed I had a hunch about something. We argued some, but I held firm. He got damn mad and I walked out on him. That afternoon he rode out here and asked what I'd take for my outfit. I told him I refused to sell. Two days later he was back with an offer. I gave the same answer. He's made three offers since, damn good ones too, so there's money back of him, I reckon. To get rid of him, I finally explained I couldn't give clear title, until I could locate a pardner whose whereabouts were unknown to me. I didn't get any more offers from him, but each time I go to Onyxton now, I feel lucky to leave without getting shot. One night they tried to smuggle a wagon through, but one of the boys, up late, heard 'em coming. That roused us and we grabbed rifles and made the wagon turn back."
"You've cleared up your end of the deal," I frowned, "but damned if I can see how Webster switches those crates—sending munitions instead of Senator Whitlock's sewing machines and ploughs and so on."
"It's got me beat," Jeff admitted.
We spent an hour speculating on what was going on, but couldn't arrive at any answer to the problem. Finally, Jeff suggested bed, and I was ready to agree. Mister, I hadn't slept in a bed like that for a year, and for the first time in many a night, I slept like a log in a room of my own. On my own spread! I still couldn't believe it.
Early next morning, right after breakfast, Jeff insisted we ride out and look over the spread I'd fallen heir to. I was high as a drunk with delight, as we rode over rolling grasslands, with live oak trees and mesquite dotting the terrain. Not far from the house there was a meandering stream which Jeff said had never run dry, regardless how high the temperature. The white-faced cows looked sleek and in prime condition. I tried to tell Jeff that after all the care he and his father had put into the place, the building up of herds and so on, it didn't seem right I should have a half-share in the Box-CT, but he wouldn't listen.
He protested earnestly for five minutes, ending, "Put it this way, Johnny. My family owed your father a very great deal, and you've inherited. And it's about time you got a break, anyway." He smiled. "And I'm going to be damn disappointed if you won't have me for a pardner."
Hell, what can you do with an hombre like that?
We returned to the house and after dinner I announced my intentions of riding into Onyxton. Jeff and I were standing on the wide gallery that fronted the house. He said, "Do you think it's necessary?"
I nodded. "I want to see what's going on. Anyway, maybe I can get Shel Webster to raise the ante for your head. I might work him up to a thousand."
Jeff laughed. "If you insist, okay. I'll split with you if you can make it." Then he frowned. "That Topaz girl hasn't anything to do with the ride, has she?"
I could feel my face getting hot. "We-ell, not exactly—"
"Dammit, Johnny," he protested. "Leave it alone. You're just flirting with dynamite—"
"Jeepers!" I stated a trifle hotly, "I've been taking care of myself for a long time now, Jeff—"
"Okay, of course you have," he said quickly. "I'm sorry I spoke."
"I'm sorry too, if I sounded a mite proddy for a minute, Jeff. I'll stay, if you'll feel better about it."
He grinned and shook his head. "You'll be safe enough, I reckon, so long as Webster thinks you're on his side. By all means, ride. Maybe you can learn something I don't know about—a planned revolution in Mexico, for instance."
So that breech was healed before it had a chance to open far. We were even better friends after that; I felt he was really concerned about my welfare, as I was about his.
"Your pony looked sort of fagged, ribs beginning to show a mite," he said next. I mentioned the horse had covered a lot of territory for me. "He needs a long rest," Jeff went on. "Mateo and I were talking about it, and he's picked out a nice gelding for you to try out. Call it a sort of coming-home present."
At that moment, Mateo came around the corner of the house leading a trim buckskin pony. Lord, it looked good. It was already saddled. I thanked them both, and leaving my rifle at home, climbed up and kicked the pony in the ribs. "Adios," I called over my shoulder.
We just got acquainted for a couple of miles as I tried out his gaits. Damned if that pony didn't seem to have everything. I was in love with it before we'd gone a mile. We made good time through the canyon and emerged into open country once more. Mounting the first rise of ground, I could see the roofs of Onyxton, not too far distant.
I entered town by way of the railroad tracks. I could see three more pine crates stacked on the platform. The T.N. & A.S. freight must have come through that morning. Farther along there was a frame freight-shed, and I could see several men moving a big box inside.
I drew rein and dismounted. A worried looking station man stood staring at one of the crates, chewing moodily on a straw. I said "Howdy," and he gave me a civil "Day to you." I said, "Looks like the train dumped off some freight?"
"When doesn't it?" he scowled.
"Receiving quite a lot, eh?"
"Too much for me to handle," he grouched. "I don't know what I'm going to do."
While I talked I took a squinney at the label on the nearest box. The label, as well as stenciling, told me it contained sewing machines and had been consigned to Heraldica; consignor, some manufacturing company in Connecticut.
"Used to get rid of these things right prompt," the station man grumbled, "and they could be loaded and took'n straight through the canyon, but some trouble has come up about a right-of-way through, and now this stuff just piles up here. My freight shed's nigh to overflowin' full."
At that moment several men approached from the freight-shed. One of them in overalls, pushing a hand-truck, growled at the station man, "Plumb full, mister. Can't get no more in. What do we do?"
"You go back and tell Shel Webster he better damn quick rent somebody's barn, then. I can't take no more. Cripes A'mighty—sewing machines—ploughs! What's the fool Senator Whitlock tryin' to do, figure he can get votes from all Mexico. Somebody should tell him Mexes don't do electin' in this country. And him havin' to pay storage rates too on everythin' that ain't moved prompt." He didn't wait for a reply, but entered the depot, slamming the door behind him.
The overalled men looked at each other, shrugged and began to head back toward the main street of the town. One of them joined a man leaning against a telegraph pole, farther on. I saw only the man's back, but for a moment it looked like Hondo Crowell. I figured he'd been sent down here to boss the laborers, then the matter slipped from my mind.
I followed the station man into the depot. He glanced up from behind a small ticket window with a grilled front. "You, again," he grunted. "Whatcha want?"
I made up a phony story. "Did a valise arrive for me? I had it shipped through from El Paso."
"Ain't no valise been shipped through for nobody," he snapped irritably. "Most folks come here don't have no valises nowdays. Whatcha name?"
His eyes widened. "You that gun-fighter I been hearin' 'bout all over town."
"I haven't been all over town yet," I said shortly.
"I'll look, Mister Cardinal, yessir I'll look." He seized a bunch of bills, riffled 'em through. "No, sir. Ain't nothing here. When'd you send it?"
"It was supposed to have been sent last week."
His face cleared. "Wouldn't have time to get here yet, then." Then clouded again. "Anyway, nothing much comes 'ceptin' booze for Shel Webster's place. That and sewing machines and ploughs, ploughs and sewin' machines. It's enough to drive a man crazy! I wisht ter Gawd, just once, somebody would consign a nice shiny buckboard, or a new saddle. T'would lighten my day, I swear it would."
"How long all these sewing machines been coming here now?" I asked idly.
"Nine-ten months, anyway."
"Must be nigh enough to equip an army."
"Army?" He looked startled.
"Army of dressmakers," I finished smoothly.
He scratched his head. "Sewin' shirts for soldiers, mebbe?"
"I hadn't figured that. Doesn't seem that sort of thing would fit into Senator Whitlock's idea. Forget it."
"Yeah, yeah," he said, not quite understanding. "You mentionin' an army, made me remember somethin'." I asked a question and he went on to explain, "'Bout eight months back, one of them boxes arrived, with a board comin' loose at one end. I tooken my hammer and tried to fix it, but the nails was bent, so I took the board off, so's I could do a complete job. What do you think I found inside?"
"Naw." He looked disgustedly at me. "Boxes of ca'tridges. Now what do you figure Senator Whitlock was sendin' them to Mexico for?"
I shrugged. "The Senator like's not figures that the Mexicans can do some hunting, bring home meat for their families. That reasonable?"
"Yeah, that could be it." He looked as though some weighty problem had been solved. I could have told him it hadn't.
I said "S'long," and started for the door. He called after me, "I'll keep a look-out for that valise of your'n."
"Thanks," I called back. "I'd hate to lose it. It holds a collection of my guns, and a pack of those reward bills, which same I keep for souvenirs."
His jaw dropped so far, I expected to hear it strike the ticket window counter. Idiot that I was, I had to admit I was getting a big thrill out of this tough-gunman bluff I was running—instead of doing all the running in another way.
I opened the door and stepped out of the station, glancing both ways along the T.N. & A.S. tracks. My new buckskin was standing at the edge of the raised-dirt station platform, nibbling at a weed sprouting from the earth. I noticed a few men standing fifty yards away, to my left, but thought nothing of it. I crossed the platform and was preparing to swing a leg over my saddle when I heard a sudden wild yell:
"John-n-ee! Look out!"
I had no chance to look out or in any other direction, for in the next instant I heard two sharp gun explosions, coming practically together, and I caught the nasty whine of a slug as it flashed a few feet from my body.
My hand shot swiftly to my .44 Colt, as my gaze searched ahead for the direction from which the shots had come. Several men were yelling excitedly and heading in the direction of one of the telegraph poles, where Hondo Crowell was cursing and clutching frantically at his forearm, near a pole behind which he'd been hiding, waiting for my appearance from the station.
And a short distance beyond Hondo Crowell, now surrounded by a half dozen men, was—Great Guns!—Miguel Serrano, six-shooter still in hand! Where had he come from?
"Mike!" I exclaimed loudly and broke into a sprint to meet him.
We arrived at about the same instant where Hondo Crowell was sagging back against the telegraph pole, blood soaking one shirt sleeve, and moaning for somebody to get a doctor before he bled to death.
"Ain't no doc here, as you well know, Hondo," one of his pals was saying. "Just that drunken vet."
The men were looking warily at Mike and me. A couple of them slunk away. Mike and I exchanged quick greetings. We didn't dare let go our guns long enough for more than that. Powdersmoke still drifted in the air. Crowell's six-shooter lay on the earth, where he'd been forced to drop it when Miguel's shot tore into his arm.
I turned to Crowell. "What in hell did you think you were doing, Crowell? If you crave to draw on me, let's do it in the open, with fair warning to both sides."
"Wa'n't shootin' at you," Crowell groaned. "Just doin' some target practice, when—"
"He lies, Johnny," Miguel interrupted. He switched to Spanish: "I had been seeking you, when I saw this cabrone leveling his gun in your direction, just as I saw you. I called a warning, but it came of a tardiness. I could not stop this hombre's firing, but my shot made a distraction of his aiming. And so he missed."
So now I had to run a bluff for Mike, too. "But you just struck his gun-arm, Miguel. Never have I seen you do such poor shooting." I switched to English for the benefit of the others. "Mike, that's the worst shot you ever made. I'm surprised when you throw down on a man and can't come closer than that to wiping him out. Probably you're using some defective ca'tridges."
Mike's jaw dropped. "But, Johnny, I aimed—"
"At his body, sure," I cut in. "I've never known you to do anything else. Just say that Crowell's lucky. If he lives long enough, he'll be able to boast to his grandchildren that he was once thrown down on by the famous Fanner Serrano, and lived to tell the tale."
Mike looked bewildered, but before he had a chance to talk further, a fat man with a marshal's badge pinned to his shirt came waddling up. "What's the trouble here?" he demanded pompously.
"No trouble for my pal," I stated easily. "He just shot the gun out of Hondo Crowell's fist, when he saw Crowell trying to pot-shoot me from behind a telegraph pole. You'd best run Crowell in, Marshal."
"Who are you?" the marshal asked.
"Name's Cardinal. This is my friend, Fanner Serrano. The famous gun-slinger from Texas. You've heard of his speed."
Mike blinked puzzledly, but didn't say anything. The fat marshal drew back a little. "Heard of you, too, Mister Cardinal," he said respectfully, nodding. He swung on Crowell. "This true, Hondo?" he demanded sternly.
But Crowell could only groan. "Get me to the Doc. I'm bleedin' to death."
Grunting, the fat marshal stooped, retrieved Crowell's gun and stuck it in holster. He acted as though he didn't know what to do next. "Shel—Mister Webster, ain't goin' to like this a bit. He wants a peaceful town and I'm supposed to—"
"Slam Crowell in a cell, if you know your duty," I snapped tersely. "I don't figure he's as bad hit as he makes out—"
"I dunno—" The marshal shoved the sombrero to the back of his head and scratched uncertainly. "Hondo is supposed to be Mister Webster's—that is, he's on Mister Webster's payroll—"
"You any proof I'm not?" I snapped.
At that moment I saw Shel Webster striding toward us. Somebody must have carried news to him of what had happened. He was wearing a black, flat-crowned sombrero now, and beneath his unbuttoned jacket I spied the bulge caused by his under-arm gun. He looked hot, angry.
I got his ear before the others saw him. "Dammit, Webster," I snapped, "I thought you were going to give orders your jackals were to lay off and not try to collect rewards on my scalp."
"I've done that," he stated coldly. "What's gone wrong?" I started to tell him, so did three other men, besides the fat marshal. "I can't hear everything at once," Webster scowled. "Marshal, you stay. The rest of you loafers get the hell out of here." The on-lookers started to slink away. "Now, what happened?"
I told him, ending, "My pal, here, shot the gun out of Crowell's hand, just as Crowell was about to plug me."
Webster swung on the groaning Crowell. "That right, Hondo?"
Feebly Crowell shook his head. "All—a mistake," he moaned.
"Christ!" Webster snapped. "I know you and your mistakes. One of these days you'll make one too many." Brutally, he seized Crowell's wounded arm, disregarding the man's sudden yelp of pain, and ripped back the shirt sleeve. There was a lot of blood all right, but it had started to congeal. Webster looked disgusted. "Hondo, you've got nothing to cry about. Just a mite of skin lost." He turned to the marshal. "Take Hondo down to that horse doctor, tell him to spit some tobacco juice on that wound. Hondo'll be hunky-dory, come morning. I'll talk to you then, Hondo. Now, get going!"
The tubby marshal took Crowell by the arm and led him in the direction of the main street. Webster gazed after them a moment, contempt in his features. He swung suddenly back to me. "So Crowell took a shot at you, and you think it was on my orders."
"You got any proof it wasn't?"
"You can ask Crowell when he's able to talk." I jeered at that. "Now you know better than to say that, Shel."
A thin smile touched his lips. "Perhaps you're right. And your friend shot the gun out of Crowell's hand—"
"If Mike hadn't been using some defective ca'tridges, Crowell would have been a deader by this time."
"So?"—disbelievingly. So far Webster had ignored Mike. Now he turned and stared at him a moment, then swung back to me. "Who is he?"
I looked as though I couldn't believe my ears, "Shel Webster! Do you mean to tell me you've never heard of Fanner Serrano? I just can't believe it. Hell, man, there's not a faster gun in the whole southwest country. You think I'm fast. Fanner's speed makes me look like I was slowed down by paralysis. I figure he'll fit in here. That's why I hired him as my body-guard—"
"Body-guard?" Webster looked startled.
"Naturally. He's kept out of sight, but had his eye on me ever since I hit town. Y'know, I couldn't be sure you were throwing a straight rope when you said you'd order your men to lay off me. And lucky for me I wasn't sure."
Mike wore a poker-face, but I knew damn well he was puzzled as the devil about what I'd said. Mike still had his six-shooter in his hand, apparently having forgotten to put it away. Now he holstered it.
"And you ought to see Mike handle two guns at once," I went on glibly. "Right now he's under-armed, if anything. You catch what I mean by 'under-arm', don't you Mike?"
Mike nodded soberly, and I caught the quick flash of his gaze toward the bulge in Webster's jacket. So he was warned, anyway.
"For God's sake, Cardinal," Webster said coldly, "quit throwing buffalo-chips around. I refuse to swallow such a tale. Never yet have I seen any reward bills with Fanner Serrano's name on 'em."
"Proving how smart he is," I laughed. "That's Fanner's method. He hits and makes his getaway before anybody can get any proof who's done the killing. That's why I figure he'd work in here."
"In what way?" Webster scowled.
"Yesterday, we talked over a certain price on that man, Tawney—"
"That's something else," Webster burst in. "You rode out of town with Tawney, yesterday, real friendly-like—"
"So you had me spied on," I protested.
"I'd be a fool if I didn't. What was back of that?"
"Dammit, Webster, I told you you'd gone about that business wrong. You asked me what I'd do. I told you I'd get acquainted with the hombre, first, and then make plans."
"Have you made plans, yet?"
"Have you decided to raise the ante yet?"
Webster swore. "Something's got to be done about Tawney right soon. We've got to have a free route through that canyon. Senator Whitlock's boxes are piling up here. I can't let him down."
"Raise the ante. Won't the Senator pay your expenses?"
Webster shot me a quick penetrating look, then said, "I'll think about it." He swung suddenly on Mike. "You're a Mex, aren't you?"
I could sense Mike's spine stiffening. He stood very straight as he replied, "I am most proud to be a Mexican, with United States citizenship."
"We don't like Mexes in Onyxton," Webster stated bluntly. "You'll have to ride on, Serrano, before nightfall."
"Oh, no, he won't," I exclaimed hotly. "If he leaves, I leave."
"I wouldn't consider that any loss, either," Webster sneered.
I laughed contemptuously. "You'd best think that statement over, Shel. If Hondo Crowell is the best you can find to do jobs around here, I'd say your outfit is pretty low. Tell me, exactly what is your opinion of the gang in Onyxton?"
"A bunch of lunkheads," he said impulsively. "Gun-slingers without brains. I wish to God some good men would drift in here."
"Two of 'em have," I pointed out, "and you're trying to get rid of us. You—"
"I wish I could trust you, Cardinal, but I keep wondering what your game is."
"That makes it mutual," I pointed out.
He eyed me belligerently for a moment, then, "Maybe you're right, Cardinal. I'll think it over."
"We stay then?"
"You do. Your Mex pard will have to get out."
I turned to Mike. "Come on, Fanner, we'll get our horses and slope out of this cheap burg."
We'd both turned away when Webster said, "Just a minute." We came back. He continued, "Look here, Cardinal, put yourself in my place a minute. We've been running the Mexicans out of town right along. I don't like 'em. They should stay in their own country—"
"Señor Webster," Mike interrupted hotly. "If you have any wish to prove—"
"Hold it, Fanner!" I grabbed Mike's arm. "Cool down. Maybe Shel doesn't mean anything personal. Let's hear what he says."
Mike fell silent. Webster went on, "What I've said, I've said, so let it lay. But everybody in town knows I've ordered Mexes out. Now, Cardinal, if I let your pard stay, it will seem damn odd. Can't you see, you're making me look bad?"
"I'm not making you look bad," I told him insolently. "I've a hunch you always looked that way."
He glared at me, face reddening, and started to swing angrily away. Then abruptly, he turned back. "All right. Serrano can stay."
I said, "Thanks. I didn't want any trouble. And I figured you'd see the light and not miss getting a couple of good men."
"But I'm damned if I know how I'm going to explain it." He really looked troubled.
"Are you the big boss in Onyxton, or aren't you?" I asked mockingly. "You called your men 'lunkheads'. Are you going to let a gang of lunkheads tell you what to do?"
"Maybe you've got something," he concluded. "There should be exceptions to every rule—"
"And if any man objects," I added, "send him to me. Or direct to Fanner. But don't expect to see him again. This running out of town might work both ways."
"I may do just that." Webster gave me a thin smile. I didn't like it at all. Then he spun on his heel and headed back toward the center of town.
We stood looking after him until he had disappeared, then Mike drew a long breath of relief and mopped his forehead with a bandanna. "Buen Díos!" he exclaimed. "I think for the minute we shall have much of trouble. Johnny, what is this all about—all this of a Fanner who is the fastest gun in the whole of the southwest country? You know I have not the ability of such shooting. I came here looking for you. Then I saw that Hondo hombre leveling his gun in your direction. I called to you and pulled my six-shooter. Truly, I aimed for his body. You saw what happened. I came close to the miss, hitting only his arm by an accident. And then I found I shook like the leaf on a cottonwood tree. This shooting a man, it is not familiar to me."
I laughed. "So now you're pulled into the same sort of bluff I've been running. I'm finding it not too hard. Very few crooks have brains. Let's get our horses and I'll give you the whole story when we get some place to sit down."
I picked up my buckskin and led him over to Main Street where Mike had left his bronc. Now, people nodded to me, with a certain respect in their manner. Nor did they show any animosity to Mike now that he was with me, though many of them looked puzzled. Mike mentioned when he'd first arrived, he'd received nothing but nasty looks.
"You know why, now," I told him. "Mexicans aren't welcome in Onyxton, and maybe we'd better not press our luck too far. Eventually someone will try to call my bluff, but mostly I figure you're safe while I'm siding you."
Mike mentioned that he was hungry and as it was getting along toward supper-time, I led the way to the restaurant where I'd eaten the previous day and we found a corner table, some distance from the proprietor behind his counter. He looked askance at Mike, but didn't say anything. There weren't any other customers.
Once we tied into our food I related the story of what had happened to me, since I'd last seen Mike. His eyes widened when I told him that I was now half owner of the Box-CT spread, but I cut his exclamations short and went on to detail the whole setup in Onyxton, the shipment of boxes and crates, what Jeff Tawney had discovered and all the rest. I ended up by telling him how glad I was that he'd finally caught up with me.
He shook his head unbelievingly at the story. "Events have of a surety taken place with much rapidity," he commented in Spanish, then lapsed into English: "But it is the big bluff you have run—no? Never again will I feel safe to play the poker game with you."
I hadn't mentioned Topaz. I don't know why. Maybe I wasn't ready to talk until I knew more about her. We drained our coffee cups and stepped out to the street again. Night had commenced to settle in.
Mike asked, "What do we do now, Johnny?"
"I've been thinking it over. Like I said, I don't want to push our luck too far. It may yet be too soon to reach every man in town that you have Webster's permission to stay. I figure you're safe as long as I'm with you, but you never know. The night could hide a dry-gulcher mighty easy. So, while I figure to look around town a mite, you're going to ride to the Box-CT, I'll give you directions and you can't miss it—"
He started a protest, but I cut him short. "I want you to take a message to Jeff Tawney. Tell him what's happened today, and what the station man told me he'd discovered in one of the boxes. It's your chance to get acquainted too. I've told them all about you. No doubt of your welcome. They're our kind of people."
He gave in finally and after seeing him mount and ride safely out of town I turned back and strolled the sidewalks for an hour, my contempt for conditions in Onyxton rising every step of the way.
A BRAWLING town if I ever saw one. Saloons—and drunks too—were plentiful. Lights shone from windows all along the street, as though the town never closed for the night. There were two or three dance halls making the night hideous with noises. I dropped into one such joint, took a brief glance at the painted, short-skirted hussies, and lost no time leaving. A saloon, five minutes later, offered rotgut whisky and thin beer. I didn't even finish my drink before departing. Onyxton, a town without law, it was said, but I saw no one who looked really dangerous from one end of the burg to the other. Sure, a number of cheap gun-toters, and their greetings to me carried only respect and admiration, but I figured 'em as the type who'd sooner shoot from ambush than face a gun in fair fight. The more I saw of the place, the more it reminded me of some sort of rat nest, and I gained more confidence in the bluff I was running. So far, only Shel Webster looked dangerous to me, and he apparently lacked the crew to carry out his ideas.
Eventually, I dropped into Webster's dance hall and gambling parlor, as he termed it. It was the usual thing: a lot of games—chuck-a-luck, faro, dice, the wheel—all running full force, and suckers dropping their cash. At one end, a cleared space with a waxed floor, where a number of girls whirled in the embraces of heavy-booted pardners, to the accompaniment of a nearby piano, violin and banjo. The girls were a shade above the dancers in the place I'd visited previously, younger, better featured, dresses not quite so short and higher in the neck. Halfway to the ceiling a railed balcony ran three-quarters of the way around the big room, with closed doors beyond.
The noise was deafening: the music, the stamping of heavy feet on the dance floor, whirring of the wheel, click of poker chips and everybody talking at once. Cigar and cigarette stubs littered the floor, waves of tobacco smoke drifted through the room. I glanced through the room and finally spied Topaz, seated alone at a corner table. She was dressed about as I'd seen her yesterday, though the dress was of a different pattern, some sort of green and white figured material. Draped loosely about her shoulders was a white, fringed Spanish shawl. God, she was beautiful, her shining red-gold hair looking as though every hair lay in place. Sleek, was the word for it. Then I thought of Shel Webster, and I scowled. I glanced around, but didn't see anything of him; probably he was in the adjoining barroom. Not that it made any difference. He couldn't have stopped me going to her. I was like one of those big moths attracted by a shining flame.
Even before I arrived at her table, wending my way through boisterous men and dance-hall girls, I spied some rough-looking character approach Topaz. Probably asking her for a dance. Smiling, she shook her head in a way that the refusal wouldn't be resented. I heard her add something to the effect that "Shel wouldn't like it, Stud." Stud, whoever he was (and I was ready to swing one on his jaw), nodded understandingly and continued on his way, to be picked up by a chemical blonde. I saw them hit the dance floor when the music resumed.
A moment later I dropped into a chair across from Topaz, saying, "Could be that Shel won't like this, either."
She said, "Hello, Johnny," in that low, husky voice that did things to me. "Would it matter much if he did?"
"Not to me, it wouldn't. But how about you?"
She shrugged nice shoulders. "Shel doesn't completely control me, you know."
"No, I didn't know. I'd gathered otherwise," I said quietly. A slow flush mounted to her cheek-bones. I added, "I'm sorry."
"Nothing to be sorry for, if you believe in appearances. Maybe I can't blame you. Were you going to ask me to dance?"
I shook my head. "I don't rate high as a dancer."
"I've found no one around here who does. To tell the truth"—she smiled—"I don't think you're as bad as your reputation, either."
"Who is?" She didn't reply. I asked her if I could get her a drink of sarsaparilla, but she refused. There was a sort of weary note in her voice, and I wondered if I were making a nuisance of myself. I said, "If I'm bothering you, I'll shove on."
Her long-lashed eyes widened. "Heavens, whatever gave you that idea, Johnny? No, stay. I enjoy talking to you. My mind was wandering, I guess. I was thinking of arranging one of the rooms in my place, but uncertain what I'd do."
"Do you think I slept here? Not a chance of that, Johnny. I have a nice little house, Red-Head. Over on Emilitas Street. You know where that is?"
I shook my head, grinning. "No, but I bet I could find it, if I had an invitation."
"Even that might be possible," she said carelessly. "Sometime. It's really a nice little place. Only two rooms. Adobe, whitewashed. With a white picket fence in front and a huge old cottonwood tree. And a big lot at the back where I've planted rosebushes and carnations and—oh, a lot of plants." She went on, telling me where Emilitas Street was located, and giving such directions as I could almost see the place before I got there—if I ever got there. I began to feel a mite wary, wondering what all this was leading to.
She glanced up suddenly, saying, "Hello, Shel. Business looks good tonight." Webster had arrived at the table.
I tensed, wondering how he'd take to my being with Topaz, wondering what chance I'd have against his underarm gun, if the worst came. I had half started to rise from my chair, but he put one hand on my shoulder. "Sit easy, Cardinal. I'm just passing by." Even so, I caught the brief scowl that flitted across his face, then he forced one of his thin-lipped smiles, saying to Topaz, "Yes, I can't kick on the money rolling in. The bar is jammed. I had to get another barkeep to help Turk."
Topaz said quietly, "I think I'll leave early tonight. Things are running all right. I'll tell Doris to take over for me. Is that okay with you?"
"Anything you say, Topaz," he replied genially. "Not off your feed, are you?"
She shook her head. "A bit tired, that's all." A sort of meaningful glance passed between them. I didn't miss that, and it started me wondering.
"I'll see you in the morning then," Webster said. He patted my shoulder. "Enjoy yourself, Cardinal."
"How could I do otherwise—here?"
He caught my meaning all right, and his lips tightened. Then he laughed shortly and turned away. I twisted in my chair and saw he had returned to the barroom.
I turned back to Topaz. "Danged if he wasn't almost friendly for a minute."
"Don't think he trusts you though, Johnny, not for a second," she said surprisingly. "He doesn't like you bringing some Mexican into town—Serrano, is it?" I nodded. She continued, "He may appear to be playing along with you —but—" She broke off. "I understand you and Shel are dickering over some matter regarding Tawney, the man who runs the Box-CT Ranch."
"We've mentioned him a couple of times," I said cautiously. "What do you know about it?"
"Shel can't believe you're on the square with him, despite your talk."
"Maybe he's smarter than I think," I laughed. "I don't sell my gun for peanuts."
"Johnny, don't try to pull the wool over my eyes," she smiled. Then abruptly changed the subject. "I can make a fairly decent cup of coffee. I'm going home to make one now."
"Is that an invitation?" I grinned.
"If you like," she said carelessly.
"I like! Jeepers, how I like!" I started to rise from my chair.
Topaz said, "Please don't follow me too closely. Give me time to leave."
On my feet, I said "Good-night," and watched her while she circled the room and stopped long enough to talk a minute with one of the girls. Then she pushed through the big double-doored entrance of the gambling parlors and disappeared to the street.
I waited ten minutes that seemed like an hour, then took my departure by way of the bar, where two perspiring bartenders were serving the needs of thirsty customers. I looked around for Webster. He stood at the far end of the bar conversing with three hard-looking characters. He glanced up, saw me taking my departure and nodded pleasantly enough. Somehow, that didn't seem natural, and it got me to wondering.
On the street, I headed for Topaz's house, slowing my step a mite. I was still doing some wondering. Webster's unusually pleasant manner was making me suspicious. This whole thing could be some sort of frame-up to get me out of Webster's hair. That, of course, involved Topaz. I didn't like that thought a-tall. Regardless, I couldn't figure her as a double-crosser. Anyway, I refused to. Well, as the poet said, nothing ventured, nothing gained.
The directions Topaz had given were simple to follow; I couldn't miss. I left the main drag, turned a block along one street, then turned again. There was the house all right. Whitewashed adobe, white picket fence, big cottonwood. I slowed step a moment, to look over the terrain. There were but few houses along here, all of them dark. There was a light at the back of Topaz's house, but no light shone at the front. Nor were any houses near at the rear. There wasn't too much light from the moon—too many clouds drifting overhead—but I could see the wide open space at the rear of the house where Topaz had her garden.
I pushed through a low gate in the white picket fence, closed it softly behind me, then approached the door. I didn't knock too loud, but I guessed she'd been waiting for me, as the door opened almost at once. She stood framed a moment in the doorway, filtered moonlight on her face, and my knees began to shake a little. Lord, I was tense.
Then she stood back, drawing the door wider, saying in Spanish, "Enter your house, Señor." And there was a nervous little laugh that started my blood coursing hotly. Words wouldn't come. I stepped inside and she closed the door. In a brief glance I caught sight of the kitchen beyond, where an oil lamp burned. Here, where we stood facing each other, it was in semi-gloom. I caught sight of a bed with a white covering at one side, a chest of drawers. I sort of mumbled, "Nice little place you have here…" And then I could resist no longer.
We were standing so close I could hear her soft breath, feel it on my face. If she'd moved back, I'd have kept my head, but she didn't. My arms whipped hungrily around her, drawing her close, and I felt her soft lips under mine. I was sure acting crazy, but I'd gone beyond the point of caring whether this was some sort of frame-up or not.
I felt her arms start to move up about my shoulders, then stop, and her head jerked away. I heard her say with a soft nervous laugh, "You certainly are impulsive, Johnny Cardinal," as she moved back. "Remember, I promised a cup of coffee, nothing more." And then in a steadier voice, "Come on through to the kitchen. This is my bedroom, and I think you'd better come to your senses."
I followed her to the other room, where a fire flamed in an iron stove and a kettle of water was slowly steaming. I glanced around, trying to think of something to say. At one side was a deal table, with a straight-backed wooden chair at either end. The stove was across the room. At the rear was a closed door with a key in the lock, and to the left of the door was a double window, nearly head high. There were curtains at the window, made of some heavy flowered material.
I finally found my voice. "Topaz, I hope you'll accept my apologies. I just sort of lost my head for a moment. I—"
"Maybe I did too," she said shortly. She laughed, but it sounded rather forced. "I'd just hate to think what a fight I'd have on my hands if anybody else in this town had got that far—"
"Including Shel Webster?"
Her face hardened. "Johnny, you ask too many questions." Then she showed her dimples again. "But you're the safe sort, courteous, a regular Sir Walter Raleigh. Bad man? I can't believe it. Why, I'll bet if a lady dropped her handkerchief, you'd hurry to pick it up."
"Could you really act fast if I dropped my handkerchief?"
Topaz laughed softly. "All right, I'll remember that. You remember it too."
She turned to a small cupboard against the wall near the stove and procured a coffeepot and cups. A sack of coffee appeared next. She sifted coffee into the pot, poured water from the kettle, then set the pot on the stove. "That will take a spell before it's ready," she said, placing cups, saucers and spoons on the table. She added a sack of gingersnaps, then paused, as though suddenly remembering something.
"Now that I've a man to help maybe you can help me," I said sure, and she continued, "I've a mirror I want placed on this wall. Sometimes I eat alone here, and if there's a mirror directly opposite where I sit, I'll feel as though I wasn't quite alone."
She went to the bedroom and came back lugging a Big plate-glass mirror, about five feet long, indicating a place on the inner wall, next to the door to the bedroom, where she wanted it hung. There was a nail already there but when I placed the mirror by its hanging-wire, it wasn't right to suit her. She got a hammer and I yanked out the nail and tried again where she told me to put it. There were a few more tries until we got it right. Then she had me sit at the end of the table, my back to the rear wall of the house. It all sounded sort of crazy to me, but I was at the stage where I'd done anything she asked, even to picking up handkerchiefs in a hurry.
She surveyed the mirror, and then me. "Can you see yourself in the glass?"
I eyed my reflection. "Sure, I can even see the end of the table. It's just like there are two of me here. Trouble is, I can't see you—"
"That'll do, Johnny Cardinal," she said tartly. Maybe she was speaking in time too. I'll swear I just wanted to hold her in my arms again and—and—well, anyway, I decided I'd better shut up.
She kept glancing at an old clock ticking on the wall. There was something nervous in her manner that puzzled me. She moved on past me and locked the back door, then drew the curtains until they were almost closed, probably within six inches of coming together, maybe a mite more. I'd settled back in my chair, the back of my head just below the window ledge.
She glanced at the clock again, lifted the coffeepot and filled the cups, placed a bowl of sugar on the table. "Sit in," she invited and took a seat at my left hand. We sugared the coffee and I accepted a cookie. She didn't seem to hear me, but kept glancing up at the clock. I followed her glance and saw it was close to nine-thirty.
Presently she drew a small lace handkerchief from within her dress and I caught a subtle aroma of some faint scent. "Getting ready to play drop-the-handkerchief?" I asked, grinning.
"Quién sabe—who knows?" she replied in Spanish.
She didn't put the handkerchief away again, but kept fussing with it in her hand. I noticed her fingers trembled slightly, and wondered what was bothering her. Was she afraid Webster would learn of my visit? Perhaps I'd better leave and set her mind at rest. I mentioned as much, but she protested, "No, stay. Don't go—out there."
Something damnably funny was going on. I was commencing to feel nervous too. Involuntarily, my right hand slipped down to gun-butt, then I remembered where I was and relaxed momentarily. I took another drink of coffee and tried to make conversation about Tawney and Webster, but it was no use. She only gave a short nod, still fumbling with her handkerchief, eyes lifting to the clock about once every minute. What in the devil was she expecting? The hands of the clock were almost on nine-thirty, I noticed. Then her voice came faster'n I expected:
"Johnny, my handkerchief. Quick!"
Things happened fast then. I saw her toss her handkerchief to the floor at my feet. It flashed through my mind that I'd told her how fast I could pick it up if she happened to drop it. This was like some sort of game—I stooped down to get the handkerchief.
Then all hell broke loose in the thundering detonations of six-shooters, and broken glass from the shattered pane above my head crashed down. I heard the thud! thud! thud! of slugs as they found a resting place across from where I'd been sitting a moment before.
I remember coming up with the handkerchief in my hand, tossing it on the table. Topaz's chair crashed backward as she came to her feet. She was pale as death, one hand to her mouth as though smothering a scream. Then I wheeled, pulling my .44 Colt, and grabbed the knob of the back door.
"Don't go out there!" And then Topaz' scream really came.
I was too mad to pay attention, struggling as I was to get the door open. I tugged and jerked, but it resisted my efforts. Then I remembered the key. It turned easily in my hand, and I flung the door wide, fool that I was, in my haste. There were trees around, but in the light through them from the moon, I caught sight of three shadowy forms making a getaway, running hard.
I lifted my Colt, felt the .44 jerk in my hand, the orange flash of the detonated shell throwing a brief hard light. I cocked again, released a second slug. I saw one of the shadowy forms throw up his arms and then pitch down, out of sight in the long grass. I fired a third shot and missed. Two men were still running, but in a moment they were lost in the shadows.
I started to follow, then used my head. I could have run right into an ambush. I swung back into the house to see if Topaz was all right, plugging out empty shells and reloading as I moved. I slammed the door and relocked it. Topaz was standing as I'd left her, all color drained from her face. She stared at me, trying to speak, eyes wide.
She finally found her voice. "Oh, Johnny"—it was almost a sob—"it worked, it worked."
I said dumbly, "What worked?"
"The—the mirror. They shot at your reflection, through the window. I assumed they wouldn't come too close to the house for fear you'd hear them, and I left the curtains open only a narrow bit—"
"Topaz—you planned so—?"
She nodded, lips quivering. "And the handkerchief. I was so afraid a bullet might come through the wall, or—or—I had to get you close to the floor—fast. I knew they'd be here at nine-thirty—"
"But why didn't you explain?"
"I couldn't—I was under orders to get you here, and then—"
"Whose orders?" I snapped.
I stared at her. "Couldn't you have refused?"
"No, under the circumstances—"
I felt my blood rising to a boiling point. "Good God, Topaz, do you have to do everything he tells you to?"
She looked steadily at me, her eyes moist. She didn't say anything. Something in that look slowed me down. I drew a long breath, then I noticed that shattered mirror on the wall, the glass ruined by bullet holes and cracks radiating in all directions. That hit me hard, as I realized how closely the leaden slugs must have passed by her head, knowing bullets were coming and still having the guts to sit there and pull that handkerchief stunt for my safety. Good God! I felt like a worm and very humble, faced with such courage as she had shown. She knew the bullets wouldn't miss her by much. And a poorly aimed shot could have struck her. I knew than she had a hell of a lot more nerve than I had.
"Topaz," I started, "I've talked like a damned fool. I'm sorry, but if you'd—"
That was as far as I got. There came a loud knocking at Topaz's front door, and then a voice: "Topaz, are you all right?"
It struck me right then Webster had got here awfully fast. He must have been waiting in the vicinity.
Topaz brushed past me, passed through her bedroom and opened the front door. I heard low voices, then certain words came to me, "Shel, it didn't work." I heard his low voice reply angrily, but couldn't catch what he answered. Then Topaz: "I don't know why. It was all set. The curtains were drawn back. Maybe you'd better find somebody with a steadier aim."
The curtains were all drawn back? Topaz had lied on that point. The curtains hadn't been drawn far back. I heard the front door close, then Topaz, followed by Shel Webster, came into the kitchen. He looked at me a minute, hard-eyed. "What you doing here, Cardinal?"
"Just paying a social call," I said easily. "I might ask the same of you."
That stopped him for a minute, then he said, "I was walking out for a breath of air. I heard the shots in this direction. Came to see if Miss Topaz was all right."
"Right thoughtful of you," I sneered. "It's just luck she is all right—"
"What do you mean by that?" he demanded, harshly.
"Some of your lunkheads got to playing with guns. Their shots didn't miss Miss Topaz by much—"
"What do you mean my lunkheads?" he snapped.
"Who else would be trying to collect the rewards on my head?"
"It wasn't on my orders," he blustered.
I could only jeer at that.
He glared at me, then subsided. "Believe what you want," he growled.
"I intend to. Either the shots came at your orders, or you don't have any control over your men, Webster. Which is it?"
"If you'll tell me who they are," he said, voice calming some, "I'll look into it."
"How should I know who they are? There were three of them. Two of them got away in the shadows."
He stiffened. "You mean you shot one?"
"If I didn't, I scared the daylights out of him. He dropped mighty fast."
Webster looked troubled. "Who was he?"
"Haven't any idea. Just saw him drop, that's all."
"And you didn't go looking—"
I laughed shortly. "Like you, I was interested in Miss Topaz' welfare. And I didn't want to run into an ambush."
His color mounted, then he got hold of himself. "We'd best go out and look around a bit. I've told my men to lay off you. If you've wounded one of them, he's going to pay for this night's work. I'll have no insubordination in my camp. C'mon, let's get out there."
I opened the door and let him pass through to the rear of the house. I pointed out the direction where I'd seen the man drop, always managing to keep slightly behind Webster as we started out, keeping my hand close to gun-butt. Moonlight filtered down through the leaves of surrounding cottonwood trees.
Stretched prone in the long grass about forty yards from the house was the figure of a man. I caught labored breathing from whoever it was, mingled with an occasional groan. "I'll scratch a match," Webster said, "while you take a look at the scut."
"Uh-uh," I refused, "I'll do the match scratching."
"Don't you trust me?" Webster snarled.
"No more than you do me. Besides, I like to scratch matches."
Webster swore an oath. I scratched a match, while Webster roughly turned the man flat on his back. In the flare of the match we saw it was Hondo Crowell. The man breathed with difficulty, his eyes closed. A stain of crimson ran from his mouth.
Roughly, Webster called him a blundering son-of-a-bitch. I said quietly, "I reckon Fanner Serrano's slug didn't hurt his arm much, though it might have spoiled his aim."
Webster didn't reply. Kneeling at Crowell's side, Webster produced a flask of whisky from his pocket, uncorked it, and forced a drink down Crowell's throat.
The match flame had burned to my fingers. I dropped it and scratched a second flare. Now Crowell's eyes were gazing vacantly around. He coughed and I saw more blood issue from between his lips. Webster gave him a second drink. More coughing and more blood. Then I caught Crowell's voice, speaking with difficulty:
"You, eh, Shel? I reckon—Cardinal—got me. Goddamned —if I know—how I missed. I had a direct—beam on—him —plain as—"
"Shut up, you fool!" Webster cursed, and rapped the man across the mouth with the whisky bottle. Spilled liquor and blood made a splash across Crowell's chest. My match went out and I got a third one flaming. I looked at Crowell. The man had slumped back, eyes still open, but wide, unseeing.
Webster rose from the body, calling Crowell a name and adding, "The bastard is dead. Good riddance."
"I can see why you'd feel that way," I said shortly. "Now all you got to do is send somebody to bury him."
"I was hoping to learn who his pals were," Webster said.
"Don't you know?"
Webster said impatiently, "For God's sakes, Cardinal, you got me all wrong."
"How else could I get you?" I snapped.
He didn't answer that, but walked with long strides back to the house. I followed slightly behind, hand still close to my gun-butt. I wasn't forgetting, for one minute, his underarm gun.
We reentered the kitchen. Topaz was sitting at the table, seemingly lost in thought. After a minute she glanced up and I noticed some of the color had come back to her face. I re-closed and locked the door.
Webster said bluntly, "It was that no-good Crowell. I know who he pals with. If I don't lay down the law to those scuts, come morning! I'll—"
"If you know who they are, Webster," I asked, "why don't you have your pot-bellied marshal take 'em in for questioning?"
He darted a quick glance at me. "I intend to do just that, Cardinal. I don't need you to tell me my business."
"I'm not so sure of that," I said shortly. "It's up to you if you don't want to take my advice."
He was about to say something, then checked the words. I looked at the scattered bits of broken glass on the floor, then, with a wary eye on Webster, started to clean up some of the debris.
Topaz said wearily, "Let it go, Cardinal. I'll clean up in the morning. Now, if you'll both go—"
"You're sure you're all right, Topaz?" Webster asked solicitously. "Maybe you'd like someone to stay with you."
"That's the last thing I want—now," she said shortly. "I just want to be left alone. I don't like being shot at."
"But they weren't shooting at you," Webster said impulsively.
"How do you know who they were shooting at?" I snapped. "You've already stated they weren't operating under your orders."
Before Webster could think up an answer for that one, Topaz rose from her chair, passed through the bedroom and opened the front door. "Good night, gentlemen," she said briefly.
Webster and I got the idea. We both said good-night and passed through to the street. I heard the door close behind us.
Side by side, Webster and I both made our way back to the main street of Onyxton, though I was still walking slightly to his rear. Neither of us spoke and I could sense he was boiling within at the turn the night's events had taken.
Just before we parted at the Onyxton Saloon and Gambling Parlors, he paused a moment. "Cardinal," he said coldly, "I've stood just about enough of your stalling. It's none of your business, but I don't mind telling you that I've got to be allowed to cross my wagons over Box-CT holdings. So it's up to you. Either you're with me or against me."
"Meaning what?" I asked quietly.
"I'll be frank. I'm not sure you're to be trusted—"
"So you tried to get Hondo Crowell and his pals to rub me out tonight—"
He swore harshly. "That's not true. I don't understand Hondo's actions, after I gave orders. But he must have thought he could collect the rewards on your scalp and was acting on his own. I assure you he wasn't acting on my say-so."
I thought, You blasted liar! But I didn't put it into words. I said, "So what do you expect of me?"
"You can prove yourself to me by getting rid of Tawney."
"You mean killing him?"
"Do you know of any better way?" he asked cruelly.
"I can think of a better price than five hundred for the job."
"I'll give it some thought," he said briefly.
"Don't bother. A thousand, or nothing."
"You're pretty damn cocky, Cardinal. We'd better come to some sort of terms, or you'll be sorry."
"Meaning just what?"
"I'll make other arrangements—and they'll include you as well as Tawney."
"That sounds like a threat, Webster."
He laughed harshly. "It was meant to be, Cardinal. Now you'd better do some damn fast thinking toward your own interests."
"You're laying it on the line. You mean, if I don't kill Tawney, you'll arrange to have us both bumped off."
"What do you think? I've given you a chance to prove your loyalty to me. I'm losing patience. Think fast, Cardinal, think fast." He turned away and started for the entrance of the Onyx Bar. At the doorway he stopped, turned back a minute. "It's just a matter of whether you value your life more than the extra five hundred you're asking." He said again, "Think fast, Cardinal," and disappeared into the saloon.
I drew a long breath. It was like associating with a rattler to have anything to do with that bustard. Well, he'd certainly made it clear that I'd better cook or get out of the kitchen—before the kitchen collapsed on me.
I gazed along the street. It was some quieter than what it had been earlier in the evening. Probably a large portion of the population was sleeping off its drunks by this time. A lot of noise was still emanating from the Onyx dance hall, though.
I strolled thoughtfully along the street, considering whether or not to return to Topaz' house for some serious talk. Then I cancelled that idea. Webster might have thoughts along the same line; for the present I didn't want to stir up any more trouble.
Finally, I made up my mind. I continued on until I found my buckskin pony, waiting at the hitch-rack, mounted and turned my head out of town. I wasn't pushing hard as I rode through the canyon, cutting through Buzzard Buttes; puzzled thoughts were churning through my mind. If I understood the setup correctly, why had Topaz acted to save my life, when she was supposed to be Shel Webster's woman? I winced, as that thought entered my mind. I hated the idea of her having anything a-tall to do with Webster. And how much longer could I carry out the bluff I was pushing? Eventually, Webster would realize what a fake I was. No doubt about it: a showdown was certain to come before much longer.
It was late when I reached the Box-CT, but there were lights in the ranchhouse, as well as in the bunkhouse. I rode down to the corral and found a vaquero lounging there to take care of my horse. That surprised me and I commented on it. He replied he'd had orders to await my return and unsaddle for me, adding, "We had something of worry, Señor Cardinal."
I told him, "Forget the 'Señor', Manuel. I'm Johnny to my friends. But why the worry?"
"There is much to worry over, when a friend stays late in Onyxton."
"I'll try not to let it happen again," I laughed, and thanked him.
A minute later in the living room of the house, I found Mike, Jeff and Mateo sitting before the fireplace. Mama Benita was still up too and hurried to bring coffee.
"We were beginning to fret a mite, when you didn't show up," Jeff smiled, though he still looked a bit uneasy. "Mike wanted to ride in and see what was keeping you— we all did for that matter—but decided to wait an hour longer. Thank God, you got here."
I explained what had detained me. The features of the others were grave by the time I'd finished.
"Good God!" Jeff exclaimed. "You might have been killed."
"I should have stayed with you," Mike scowled. "Of chances, you run too many, Johnny."
"Remember," I told them, "it was Topaz figured out a way so I wouldn't be hit. That mirror stunt was smart. I still can't figure why she double-crossed Webster. I'm certain he ordered that shooting."
Mateo nodded wisely. "Who can say in what direction a woman's heart may turn?"
"I'd feel a hell of a lot safer, Johnny, if you'd stay away from that Topaz girl," Jeff frowned.
"Sure, it might be safer," I conceded, "but I'm playing my hand the same as I've been doing, until I learn what's going on. If Webster is planning a revolution in Mexico, with that gang he has down in Heraldica, maybe I can learn things fast enough to stop it. So I intend to see Topaz every chance I get."
Mateo laughed softly. "Love is an abcess that forms in a man's heart and bursts in his head," he stated.
"Who said anything about love?" I bridled.
Mike grinned. "It is not much of the necessary, Johnny, for you to put it into words. We see, without you putting it into words."
I growled, somewhat abashed, "Oh, hell, let's forget that subject. Mike, what do you think of the lay-out?"
"Wonderful, Johnny. And to think you are the half-owner, and you didn't know it. Such good fortune. You are like the man who fell into a sewer and came up with a bouquet of violets in his hand."
We talked a while longer, then when somebody mentioned it was time to turn in, I realized I was, suddenly, desperately weary. So much, so much, had developed in the past few hours. Anyway, I wasn't running anymore. It was time I'd started to fight back.
I was awake much of the night, thinking over developments. By the time we were up and had breakfast, I knew what I intended. I was going to Onyxton again. Jeff, Mateo, and Mike all objected, then when they saw I'd made up my mind, they insisted on accompanying me. That I vetoed as too dangerous for them, pointing out that I was safe, so long as Webster thought he had a chance of using me to get rid of Jeff, despite his attempt on my life the previous night. There might be another attempt on my life, but now, seeing how the first project had come out, Webster, I figured, would do a lot of thinking.
I suggested that Jeff take Mike for a ride over the spread, let him get acquainted with the outfit. If I could prevent it, Mike would never leave my side again, and maybe, eventually, I could persuade Old Pablo and Mama Josefa to move their interests to this part of the country. Mike and Jeff finally fell in with my idea and I saw them ride off. Already they were getting along like brothers. Once they were out of sight, I asked Mama Benita to make up some sandwiches in a basket for me. I saw old Mateo look queerly at me, then smile and leave. Within a short time he was back with a bottle of wine to place in the basket.
I said, "What the hell?"
Mateo chuckled. "No vaquero carries a lunch basket to ride to Onyxton, unless he is planning what—how you say? A picnic? Si, that is the word. And it is said that wine will loosen a woman's lips and soften her heart."
I looked curiously at the old Mexican. He was shrewd, all right, guessing what I had in mind. I said, "Apparently, you do not take the same view of Miss Topaz as does Jeff."
Mateo shrugged. "Who am I to judge anyone? If the Señorita Topaz has strayed from the path of righteousness for a time, what matters? Always there is someone to show the right way, if she cares to listen. I, too, in my youth had a boiling of the hot blood, and knew many women. When came a time to settle, it made no difference to Mama Benita. Why should it not be what is right for a man, is also right for the woman? Vaya con Diós, my son."
I felt warm all over. What a man was old Mateo, generous, understanding. When I left on my buckskin, I led behind me a second horse, and roped to the saddle was the picnic basket.
It was nearing ten when I struck Onyxton. Instead of riding into town, I tethered the ponies down near the T.N. & A.S. station, then started on foot for Topaz' house. It was only about five minutes walk distant. When I arrived at the whitewashed adobe, her shades were drawn and I wondered if she had already left for the Onyx Bar. I glanced either way along the street, but there was no one to be seen, except a couple of kids playing in the road, a block distant. I entered the gate, passed through, closed it behind me, then approached the door and knocked.
I heard steps within, then Topaz opened the door. "Johnny!" she exclaimed. "You shouldn't be here—"
"What I should be doing and what I'm doing are two different things," I told her. "May I come in?"
She shook her head. "It wouldn't be wise, Johnny. Why did you come?"
"Topaz, you and I have to have a talk. It can't be delayed longer. I've brought an extra horse in with me. I hoped I could persuade you to take a ride—"
"No, Johnny. It wouldn't be safe for you. Or me."
"Say yes, Topaz. The horses are down by the depot. I can bring them here—"
"Johnny, we'd be crazy—"
"It might be fun, too," I grinned. I could see she was slipping. "How about it?"
"Don't bring the horses here. Some of Shel's men might see us. Look here, I'm a fool, but I'll go. I'll meet you at the depot at noon."
"Topaz—" I had no time to say more, as the door closed quickly in my face.
Mister, I was riding on clouds when I left her house, practically bursting into song. I slowed down after a minute and walked over toward Main Street. There were the usual collections of hoodlums scattered along the thoroughfare, and I received the usual respectful nods. I entered the Onyx bar. There were several men there, imbibing some of the hair of the dog that bit them to banish their hangovers. Shel Webster, face dark under his very whitish-blond hair, was talking to Turk Hofer at the far end of the bar. I sauntered up and joined them. Instantly, they stopped talking.
I said cheerfully, "Morning, gents."
They both frowned at me. Webster said, "Give him a drink, Turk. On me. He may not have another chance."
I didn't like the sound of that, but I laughed and told Turk, "Beer—not warm, and not frozen." Turk moved down the bar.
Webster scowled. "What you doing in town, Cardinal?"
I appeared surprised. "Came in for the obsequies, of course. Tried to buy flowers, but—"
"What obsequies you talking about?"
"Are we not about to say a fond farewell to our dear departed brother—Hondo Crowell?"
Webster looked disgusted. "Of all the buffalo-chips I ever heard! Pretty damn cocky, aren't you, Cardinal?"
I laughed in his face. "That's my natural act, Shel. Don't tell me you're not going to have proper services for your murderin' jackal."
Webster swore. "There's a dump heap out beyond town. I give orders to have him planted there."
"Seems right appropriate," I nodded. Turk brought my bottle of beer and a glass. It was just right. I wiped foam from my lips. "Actually, I rode in to see if there was any mail for the Box-CT. There wasn't. So now I'll be riding back."
"You staying out there?"
"I slept there last night."
"What's back of it?"
"Hell, do you have to ask? Didn't I tell you I was going to get acquainted with Tawney? Anything wrong in that? You know what we talked about."
He frowned uncertainly. "Look here, Cardinal, I've decided to raise my price to seven-fifty—"
"My price is a thousand, as I told you."
"Seven-fifty, and that only on condition Tawney is rubbed out within the next two-three days."
I put down my glass, turned and started off.
Shelby rasped, "Where you going?"
I paused. "I can't waste more time discussing chicken-feed with a cheap-jack."
"Come back a minute," he scowled.
I returned to the bar. Finished off my beer, then, "What's on your mind?"
"Cardinal," he stated venomously, "I think you've stalled long enough. I'm beginning to think you're all bluff—"
"You're just thinking that—you're not sure," I said brazenly, though my heart started to beat faster. Maybe this was that showdown I'd been thinking of. "You'd like to hire my gun, but you're not sure where I stand, whether you can trust me to keep my mouth shut. Isn't that it?"
He looked a bit startled and I knew I'd hit the target.
"We-ell," he started uncertainly. "I—"
"Meanwhile," I cut in, "you go on putting your trust in a bunch of lunkheads, as you called them. Now, I ask you, is that good sense?"
"I use the material at hand," he growled. "I'm not sure but what if you're one of the same lunkheads. I was a fool to trust you—"
"Of course you were," I laughed. "This is a town of lunkheads, and I'm not making any exceptions."
A flush rose to his cheeks, then he forced a thin smile, in an attempt to be affable and prolong the conversation. "Now look," he protested, "there's no use you and me making war-talk. But confess, you're not as fast with your gun as you claim. Sure, you got Hondo Crowell last night, but you say there were two others. A fast man would have had all three."
"With the start they had?" I guffawed. "Hell, Webster, I'm the only gun-slinger in town who could've got one of those skunks."
He stiffened. "I'm not so sure of that," he muttered.
"Want to try proving it?" I sneered.
"How? What do you mean?"
"Get out that hide-out gun of yours, and we'll go to work." I started to back off a step. So there it was—a challenge. I waited, tense, for him to make a move, while my knees were practically knocking together. But he wasn't up to it. He shook his head, trying to speak words that wouldn't come, and placed both hands on the bar in front of him. I could almost hear the sudden silence from the other men at the bar behind us.
Finally he drew a long breath of suppressed anger. "Now, look, Cardinal, there's no use you and me—"
"Now, who's been running a bluff?" I jeered.
"Cut out that bluff talk," he snarled. "Can't you realize it's more profitable for both of us, if we pull together?"
"Sure, but you can't seem to." I was relaxed, feeling good again, and I decided to bait the animal a little more. "Where's Topaz this morning?"
For a moment his face went fiery red, then he regained control. "Miss Topaz, to you," he growled nastily. "And her whereabouts is no business of yours."
"Don't get proddy with me," I said mildly. "I was only interested after what happened last night. Isn't that natural? You act like I was trying to beat your time. Why so huffy?"
He simmered down after a moment. "I just don't like fellers getting too familiar with Topaz. For your information, she won't be in today. Sent a message just a minute before you come in. She's still pretty well shook up, after that experience last night. Has a bad headache and said her nerves were shot. Can't say I blame her. One of those damn fool lunkheads might have hit her."
"That's possible," I nodded seriously. "Hadn't thought of that. Give her my sympathy when you see her. By the way, did you discover who the other two lunkheads were?"
He shook his head. "Not yet, but I've got men working on it. They'll get turned up." He shot the next question fast, almost catching me off guard. "Where's that Mexican, Serrano, this morning?"
"Mister Serrano," I laughed and he got the point. "He's here, only you probably won't get to see him. As a bodyguard, he can't be beat, can Fanner. I feel safe with him around to see I don't get shot in the back. Or spied on. I don't like my actions watched." He didn't have a reply for that. I said, "Well, I'd best get back to the Box-CT. Maybe we can talk another time, Shel."
"Yeah, maybe so," he agreed absently.
I nodded and left the barroom. On the street I walked aimlessly about for a time, then headed down toward the railroad station. The horses were there, but no sign of Topaz. Well, it wasn't quite noon yet. And then, suddenly, my heart gave a jump that almost carried it into my mouth, and I realized it wasn't only fight talk that made my heart beat so fast. She was coming at a fast walk with long even strides. Riding boots, divided skirt, mannish flannel shirt and the glorious red-gold hair tucked beneath a cream-colored sombrero. Beautiful! I hadn't felt this way since I was a kid, gazing up at the top ornament on the Christmas tree. I hurried to meet her and tell her how wonderful she looked.
That, she disregarded. "Johnny," she said soberly, "there'll be hell to pay if this gets found out."
Her hand was still in mine and I was ready to pay any price that happened to become due. After a moment she released her hand, and we neared the horses. She didn't need any help mounting, and I saw at once she was a rider. I adjusted the stirrup straps, then mounted, with me carrying the basket, and turned out horses. I'd been hoping the station-master wouldn't pop out of his door to get nosy, but he didn't show. Hoof beats in the vicinity of his station weren't noticeable to him, I suppose.
"Johnny, where are we going?"
"Figured we might head over toward the Doladera foothills." I gestured toward the basket. "I brought some fodder."
"That was a good idea." She didn't say anything for a time, until we were well clear of the town, though I'd noticed her cast an uneasy glance over her shoulder from time to time. Finally she said, "This is a dandy pony. Yours or did you hire it?"
"It's half mine."
"It's branded Box-CT. Half the outfit belongs to me." Hell, I had to boast a mite.
"It does?" Her eyes widened under the cream sombrero.
"That's not news for the world, yet," I told her. "I'll explain some other time." I tried to press further talk, but she didn't appear to want any. We loped easily along with the bright blue sky overhead, and a cool breeze whipping into our faces. Lord, I felt proud to have her riding at my side and I felt as though I could go on and on, without ever stopping.
We did stop eventually, beneath the shade of a clump of mesquite trees, the feathery foliage undulating in the soft wind.
Once dismounted, Topaz took charge of the lunch basket and spread things on a cloth Mama Benita had provided. Within a few minutes we were working at sandwiches and taking alternate sips from the wine bottle. Wise Mama Benita: she hadn't provided any glasses.
"This," Topaz laughed delightedly, "is fun—such fun as I've not had since I was a kid. Where'd all this food come from? Nobody in Onyxton—"
"From the Box-CT." I told her about Mama Benita and Mateo and Jeff and Mike. Once started I really ran off at the head. She seemed to catch some of my enthusiasm and I told her a lot more about myself.
Finally, her eyes wide, she exclaimed, "Then you're not —not what all those reward bills call you, not a killer and gun-fighter?"
I almost rolled on the ground, laughing, at her surprise. "My career has been a trifle exaggerated," I grinned.
She didn't laugh as much as I'd expected. Her face sobered. "Johnny, if Shel Webster ever learns—golly!—he's already suspicious of you—"
"Webster can go fall off a mountain," I told her. "I've bluffed him so far and—"
"He's already furious with you—"
"Topaz, what's Webster to you?"
Startled, she cast a swift look at me. "Would I be here, if he meant anything to me, Johnny?"
"I guess not," I said, abashed. "I shouldn't have said that."
She shrugged. "Everybody else says it, even if they don't put it into words. Many—all too many—feel they know, and don't feel it necessary to ask—"
Topaz started to speak, then checked the words. After a moment: "Johnny, please don't question me. We've been having such a pleasant time and—and—well, I don't want things spoiled. Let's not talk about my relationship with Shel Webster. At best, it is an unpleasant subject—"
Slowly she shook her head. "Johnny, please don't persist. It is all something I don't want to talk about. Someday, I hope to forget all that's happened between Shel Webster— and me. Lately, it has been horrible—"
"Topaz, it's all unnecessary—"
"Please, Johnny," she pleaded. "I just can't talk about it. If you insist on questioning me, I'll just have to ask you to take me back. Please, get it through your head, I can't— I won't—answer any questions."
Well, I couldn't buck that attitude. Anger welled hotly within me, then I subsided. We talked of other things, but everything was different now. Our conversation seemed confined to monosyllables, and I was hurting a lot. She was, too, I gathered. She said finally, "Johnny, can't we forget the past and just look at things from today onward? It'll be more pleasant for both of us."
I reckon she had more sense than I did. Then I got an idea. "Look here," I suggested, "why don't we ride out to the Box-CT. I'd like to show you my—our—spread."
"Jeff's and mine." I added boldly, "And yours, if you'd see things my way."
"Why, Johnny," she laughed, "that sounded like a proposal."
"It was meant to be," I said earnestly, "if you'd see it that way. But how about riding out there with me?"
I expected her to refuse. She considered a moment. "And how will I be accepted out there?"
"As my friend, at least," I told her.
She got to her feet. "Come on, the day is passing. I mustn't be too late getting back. Should Shel Webster ever discover—fiddlesticks! Come on, let's go."
We arrived at the ranch about an hour and a half later, and though Jeff was a bit stand-offish at first, he came around in time. Mateo, Mama Benita and Mike warmed to Topaz at once. Before we knew it, the sun had commenced to drop and Mama Benita insisted Topaz be our guest for dinner. Diplomatically, no one mentioned Onyxton or Shel Webster.
Eventually, Topaz reminded me she had to get back to town. The horses were saddled and we started back, with the others reminding Topaz she should come visiting again.
Mostly, we rode in silence through the canyon, then cut over toward Onyxton. We swung wide of the town and entered by a roundabout route, finally dismounting before her gate. Neither of us said much. From the vicinity of Main Street came the usual boisterous noises. Along Topaz' street all was dark and silent. I accompanied her to the door, took her key and opened it. Within the doorway she hesitated a moment. "Johnny, it's been a lovely day."
"For me, too. When can we do it again?"
"I don't know, Johnny. It's too risky to—" She swayed toward me, and my arms whipped around her, holding her close. After a moment she pushed me away. She wouldn't let me come in. I kissed her again, heard the door shut behind me and went out to the horses. I left Onyxton, riding, not on my buckskin, but on a wild delicious trail of pure rainbow fantasy, my head high in the clouds of illusion and love.
The following morning, after breakfast had completed the morning preliminaries, I announced I was heading for Onyxton. Lord knows what I had in mind. I was crazy to see Topaz some more, knowing that she'd object, but I reckon I wasn't thinking straight. If I couldn't see her, then, at least, I figured I could talk to Shel Webster and needle him some more. Common sense should have warned me away from that angle, but, as I say, I was beyond thinking straight anymore. Mateo didn't say anything, but Jeff and Mike raised a vigorous protest.
"Damn it," Jeff snapped, "you can push your luck just so far. For cripes' sake, Johnny, use your head, will you?"
"I've lost my head, long ago," I grinned carelessly.
"That's plain to see," Jeff said disgustedly. "Damn it, Johnny, I'm talking for your own good."
"Maybe I know, better than you, what I consider my own good," I laughed.
Mike put in, "Señor Jeff, you are talking against the wind. I understand this loco Johnny better than you. With his mind set on a situation, it is useless to sway him. He is stubborn, determined, hot-headed. You may as well save your breath. All right, to Onyxton we will make the journey, Johnny."
I shook my head. "Not 'we', Mike. I'm riding alone. I won't be running near the risk you would. Hell's-bells! There's all too many hombres just waiting a chance to plug a Mexican in Onyxton. Shel Webster says he has ordered his guns to lay off me—so he says. Anyway, I feel safe, so long as I can out-bluff him, keep him off balance. With you it's different—"
"I'd be safe enough, if I kept close to you," Mike persisted.
"With what I've got in mind," I said, and I could feel my face reddening, "maybe I don't want you close to me."
Jeff swore and Mike looked hurt. That made me feel bad too. No one spoke for a minute. Finally I forced a laugh, rose and saying, "Adiós, mi companeros," I left and headed out to the corral, where I saddled up my buckskin, climbed on deck and headed toward the canyon through Buzzard Buttes. I didn't feel too good about leaving things as I had, but what else could I do? I rode slowly through the canyon, pondering that question.
The sky overhead was fleckless blue. There was a faint breeze blowing. I was wishing now I'd brought another basket of lunch, wishing I'd brought an extra pony for Topaz, though I'd felt certain we couldn't pull the same stunt two days in a row. That sort of thing was too risky for Topaz, and if Webster ever learned about that—well, I didn't like to think what he'd do. I pushed on. By now the canyon was widening out. A moment more and I'd be in open country again.
About the time I was emerging from the canyon to grassy terrain I spied two riders approaching from Onyxton. I checked the buckskin fast and drew him back behind a gigantic boulder until I could identify the riders. Within five minutes they were close enough for me to recognize them and my heart took a sudden slump.
Topaz and Shel Webster, riding side by side, laughing and talking, out for one of their morning canters. I drooped in the saddle, and backed my pony farther behind the big rock. Right then, I was sure sunk. How in God's name could she… ? After the things she'd said? I watched as they drew past the canyon and continued on up toward the foothills. I could feel the hot blood of anger mounting to my head and a savage anger coursed through my veins. I muttered hopelessly, "Oh, hell," and was about to turn back toward the Box-CT, then I changed my mind. Sure, looking back on it now, I could realize it was a childish stunt, but I just couldn't leave now. I had to see where they were going, what they intended.
I waited five minutes after their ponies had passed the first rise of ground and dropped out of sight, then I jabbed spurs against the buckskin's ribs and fell in behind them, swearing tonelessly as I rode. When I mounted the next rise, I drew to a halt and dismounted, then crept on hands and knees to peer over the top of the rise. There they were, half a mile distant, horses close together, loping easily along. Pangs of jealousy stabbed through me as I watched until they had dismounted behind the next hill. It appeared they were headed for the same spot Topaz and I had picnicked yesterday.
I swung to one side when I had remounted, heading for a thick clump of mesquite, with two great cottonwoods growing nearby, figuring to do some more spying, and hating myself every minute for such procedure. But somehow I couldn't help myself. Once out of sight, I spurred my pony to a faster gait, circled wide and finally drew to a halt beneath the trees. Here I could watch, I figured, without being seen. I dismounted, dropping reins over the buckskin's head, and squatted in the thick shade. I waited.
I hadn't long to wait. Within a few moments their horses drifted over a hilly crest and continued at right angle to my range of vision. Some mesquites grew not much farther on, then I saw them draw their horses to a halt. Webster stepped down, then walked around, one arm raised, to assist Topaz dismount. I saw her lift one leg in her riding skirt, over and past the saddle. As she alighted, Webster caught her closely in his arms. I saw their heads draw together a moment, before she placed both hands on his chest and pressed him back. The whole business was damn agonizing, but I couldn't resist looking, despite what it was all doing to me.
All kinds of thoughts coursed through my mind: the deceit of women, double-crosser, teaser, careless flirt—God knows what my thoughts were. Oh, I knew when I was licked all right. I saw them drop to a sitting position on the earth, the grass moving slightly in the breeze around them. Webster's back was to me. Topaz was facing me and I could see the bright sun picking highlights in her red-gold hair when she removed her sombrero and tossed it on the earth at her side.
Oh, yes, she's enjoying herself, I told myself bitterly. She'd made a fool of me—or maybe I'd always been a fool—probably told Shel Webster all about me and the bluff I'd been running. Well, my game was up at last. Webster would know for certain now that I wasn't as black as the reward bills had pictured me. Anger mounted in me until I was wishing I'd brought my Winchester and concluded things once and for all. Or I might even ride in on their cozy little chit-chat and put him to the test, see if he was faster'n me. And I knew in my heart that he was. He wasn't packing that under-arm gun for nothing. But it wasn't fear that stopped me. It was a sort of disgust with the whole business. Fear? Hell, right then I didn't give a damn if I lived or not.
No, it wasn't fear. It was just that I wanted to get away from the vicinity as soon as possible and forget all that had happened and what a silly fool I was. I mounted my horse, not giving a damn whether I was seen or not. They were too far off for hoofbeats on grass-padded earth to be heard, but if either had gazed in my direction, they'd seen me leaving. Fast!
I didn't give a damn about that either. I was even hoping Webster would see me leaving and come after me. But I reckon he didn't. I pushed my pony hard, back toward Buzzard Buttes and through the canyon. When I arrived at the house, Mateo and Jeff and Mike were seated on the broad front gallery fronting the building. As I rode on down toward the corral, without speaking, I noted they had a bottle and glasses. They all called greetings, but I didn't reply. I unsaddled, turned the buckskin into the corral and walked slowly back toward the house-On the gallery they all greeted me with relieved smiles. For a moment I felt like a heel for worrying them the way I had. Jeff gestured toward the bottle on the floor. "Wash the dust from your gullet, Johnny."
I shook my head and, without answering, dropped into a chair.
The three looked curiously at me a moment. Mateo said, "What is new in Onyxton, Johnny? You did not remain long."
"Didn't go to Onyxton," I replied gruffly.
"You change the mind, eh?" from Mateo.
"I've changed my mind about a lot of things," I growled shortly.
Silence fell. The three stirred uncomfortably. Mateo rose finally and said something about an order he wanted to give one of the hands. I sat glowering at nothing in particular, not talking. I didn't feel ready to make any explanations. A few minutes later, Jeff announced that he'd forgotten something or other, and he, too, left the gallery for the interior of the house.
Mike eyed me, puzzledly, for a few minutes. "Something has gone very malo—bad—, Johnny?"
"Mucho malo, Mike," I grunted, disheartened.
Mike nodded. "Miss Topaz—?" he queried tentatively.
"Is it any of your business?" I snarled.
He rose, crossed to my chair, placed one hand on my shoulder.
"Sí, what is bad for you makes it my affair, Johnny," he said gently.
I felt lower'n a rundown boot-heel. "I'm sorry, Mike, I— well—I just don't feel like talking now."
"Of course not," he said understandingly. "For a man there are just three consolations—a woman, talk, or whisky. You do not feel like the conversation, about woman or otherwise. Remains only the whisky." He nudged the bottle standing on the gallery floor with his booted toe. I glanced up at him, caught the sympathetic flash of very white teeth in his dark face. Again, he patted my shoulder. "Get drunk in peace, Johnny. It will help you forget—her." He turned without further talk and disappeared in the direction of the bunkhouse.
Mike knew me like the brother he was. He'd sensed my trouble had to do with Topaz. Maybe he made sense. I reached down and seized the bottle. It was about half full of bourbon. It burned my throat as it went down but I kept swallowing. Only a fit of choking forced me to replace the bottle on the gallery floor. I sat waiting for the liquor to take hold and benumb what was left of my senses. After five minutes nothing had happened. I waited another five. Hell, I must have gone dead inside. I've felt more on a couple of bottles of beer. I sat glaring off across the range. The sun was dropping now, making purple shadows in the hollows, drawing dark lines on the spikes of ocotillo, subduing the earlier lights on prickly pear pads.
I thought, Oh, hell, what's the difference if the sun sets or not, or ever rises again? That's just how low I was. I reached for the bottle again, deciding to finish it off, then stopped. The first drink hadn't helped any, so why shoe a dead horse? I decided whisky wasn't the answer—not right then, anyway. So I just sat and watched the shadows deepen a little more. I could hear voices at the back of the house and near the bunkhouse as the vaqueros came riding in, one or two at a time, but nothing that was said was intelligible to me.
I was roused from a sort of numb stupor by the sound of hoofbeats. Glancing up, I saw a rider on a big gray horse just turning in to the ranch yard. He pulled to a walk, then dismounted a few yards from the gallery. He nodded curtly and said "Howdy," and I gave him a short "Howdy," in return.
I sized him up as he approached. A big man with a thin, highly-arched nose, tight lips and penetrating gray eyes. Probably in the vicinity of forty years, I judged. He wore a flimsy vest and flannel shirt, brown corduroys tucked into knee-length boots, a big-buckled belt about a slim middle. The dark hair above his ears had touches of gray beneath the somewhat battered low-crowned black sombrero. I noted the holster, with its big Colt's six-shooter, was bound to his thigh with buckskin thongs, often the sign of a gun-fighter. He looked hard as nails and I figured him right then as a hard customer to deal with. I had a hunch right then that he was looking for me.
Warily, I got to my feet, my own right hand straying down toward my .44 Colt. I noted the corners of his lips twitch a little. He hadn't missed my movement. My heart began to beat a little faster. I didn't think I was going to like this.
He wasn't waiting for an invitation to "Sit and rest your saddle a mite," either, but came steadily on, full of confidence, his gray eyes boring into mine. Steady as hell they were too, and my heart began to pump a little. He said quietly enough, "I'm Trent Taggert."
I answered rather coldly, sounding inhospitable as the devil, "So?"
"So," he replied, "I'm looking for John Cardinal." That threw a jolt into me, particularly when I caught the gleam of a gold badge on his vest. Now I knew where I'd heard the name. Trent Taggert. Probably the greatest man-hunter in the country of that day. U.S. Marshal Trent Taggert.
Oh, I knew what was coming, I figured. After running and running, the minute I found a place to stay, I'd been caught. Well, feeling as I did right then, it didn't matter.
I was sunk, anyway. No use putting up a fight now. I didn't feel like fighting any more.
I held my voice steady as possible. I said, "I'm John Cardinal. So it looks as if the law had caught up with me at last."
U.S. Marshal Trent Taggert eyed me steadily a minute. "The law has caught up with you for the second time," he replied.
"How do you mean?"
"Deputy U.S. Marshal Webb Jordan had you once, but you ducked out on him."
I said a bit hotly, "Would you expect me to stay?"
"Now, cool down, Cardinal. I'm not holding that against you. It was natural under the circumstances. Neither does Webb Jordan hold it against you—"
"How do you know? Webb Jordan's dead."
He shook his head. "Just say he had a narrow escape, though it was mighty close. He's still in the hospital."
"That's the best news I've had today," I burst out. Then stopped. "Here's something that may be news to you, Marshal Taggert. I finished off the scut who shot Jordan in the back."
"So?" he said. "I heard that, too. It's something—a great deal in your favor, I'd say."
I shrugged. It hadn't occurred to me to ask where Taggert had heard I'd killed Hondo Crowell. I was just so damn glad to hear Webb Jordan still lived, that I felt a sudden lift. Some of my fight was returning.
"You're needed back across the border, Cardinal," he said next.
"And that's not news." I forced a laugh.
"I reckon not, but—"
"I suppose, Marshal, you realize this is Mexico."
He looked steadily at me a moment, his penetrating eyes boring deep. "Cripes A'mighty!" he smiled thinly. "Border lines never made any difference to me."
"So you've got extradition papers, I suppose."
Again that steady look from gray eyes. Now, he almost smiled. "I don't reckon extradition papers will be necessary, Cardinal."
"I suppose not," I conceded. Hell, why fight any further? I said, "Look, I'll go with you. There won't be any trouble. But let's do it quietly, eh? I've got friends in the house. I don't want to get them upset."
"That's all right with me," he nodded, then, "Say, don't you ever ask a man to sit in this country?"
I hadn't thought. We were both still on our feet. I apologized and shoved a chair in his direction. "There's what's left of a bottle, too," I told him. "I'll get a glass if you'll let me out of your sight, and tell the folks we have a guest for supper. Okay?"
"Okay," he responded. He was lifting the bottle to his lips as I turned toward the door. Then I caught his voice, "Oh, Cardinal, don't get any ideas about slipping out the back door. It wouldn't be very smart on your part."
"Hadn't even thought of it," I answered, wondering at the same moment if that was entirely true. A sort of mocking laugh followed me.
Halfway across the big room I encountered Jeff. "Somebody out front?" he asked.
I nodded and told him what had happened. "Where's Mike?"
"Down at the corral with Mateo. Look here, that marshal hombre can't take you back. This is Mexico, not the States. We'll get Mike and Mateo and the rest—" His face was darkening as he talked.
I cut him short. "I've said I'd go without trouble, Jeff. I didn't want to upset Mama Benita. We'll let him pose as an extra hand at supper."
We argued about that for a time, but Jeff finally gave in. "All right, I'll find Mateo and Mike, and explain things, but I still don't like it."
"Neither do I, but I guess it had to happen sooner or later. Maybe it's best." Jeff left the room. I hurried to get a clean glass, and returned to the gallery. By this time the bottle was empty. I offered to get another quart, but Taggert just laughed. "I see you used sense."
"Maybe I got smart for once. Come on in and shake hands with my friends."
Well, we got through supper somehow. Nobody talked much. Taggert complimented Mama Benita on her food. Always liking company, Mama had done herself proud and couldn't understand why no one, except Taggert, had asked for second helpings. Taggert could really stow away food. Once he'd learned that his pony was being taken care of, he really sailed into the fodder. I judged he was the sort of individual who took his eating seriously, and didn't want to have any talk intruding on his nourishment.
Supper finished and Mama Benita departed for her kitchen, I said, "How soon you want to start back, Taggert?"
He replied lazily, "I'm in no particular rush. If there happened to be any bourbon around here, I'd like to talk a mite and get things squared around."
That gave me another idea. Apparently, the man liked to stow away his red-eye. Perhaps, if he took too much, I'd be able on the way back to the border to, once more, show a clean pair of heels to the pursuit. I could see that Mateo and Mike and Jeff also caught something of the same idea, as Mateo instantly produced two bottles when we pushed back chairs from the dining table and got seated before the big fireplace taking the chill from the evening air.
There wasn't much talk at first. Lord, how that man Taggert could put away liquor. He had a bottle to himself and drank three to our one. My heart dropped a little when I realized the whisky wasn't having any adverse effect on him. So there any ideas I'd had of making an escape went glimmering.
I finally grew impatient. "Look here," I said, "Marshal Taggert says I'm needed back in the States. So long as I'm under arrest, we might as well get started back."
No one said anything for a moment. Smoke from cigarettes and Mateo's pipe swirled lazily in the room. Mesquite roots cracked and blazed in the fireplace. My heart dropped a little lower; I was going to miss all this.
Trent Taggert chuckled. "Who said anything about arrest, Cardinal? Looks like you jumped to conclusions."
"You said I was needed back in the States—" I began.
"Right. In Tenango City. We need some sworn statements from you and you'll need to sign some papers. If it will relieve your mind any, Banker Clarence Kirby has been more than glad to drop charges against you for that extortion caper you pulled on him—"
I sat straighter, as did Mateo and Jeff and Mike, their jaws dropping. I guess my eyes were wide and round like silver dollars. I exclaimed, "What the devil you talking about?"
"Also," Taggert put in, "there's a sizable chunk of money waiting in the bank for you—your father's money left to you. You'll have to sign for that, of course, and witness certain statements. You see, Kirby never did reveal your father's will—had some sort of idea of keeping the wealth for himself—"
"Great Jehovah on the mountain!" I exclaimed. "What is all this?"
Taggert poured himself a half-tumbler of whisky and eyed me with sober eyes in which there was a certain twinkle of amusement. He said, "Figured this might come as a surprise. Maybe I'd better clear things up a mite. Things really broke wide open when Senator Cyrus Whitlock was placed under arrest. His confession involved Banker Kirby and several other scuts of equal skulduggery tendencies along the border states. You see, Washington has had an eye on Whitlock for some time."
"Senator Cyrus Whitlock—the great philanthropist!" I yelled.
"The same," Taggert said grimly. "Whitlock, the great scoundrel, with his mealy-mouthed line about helping the poor of Mexico. What a liar. Shipping over guns and munitions, labeled sewing machines and ploughs. Oh, Washington got him dead to rights, and he caved complete once he saw they had the deadwood on him—"
There were surprised questions on the part of the others. "But, why, why?" I demanded, still stunned from the news of my good fortune, and capable only of stammering practically incoherent queries.
Taggert laughed shortly, swallowed half his whisky at a gulp. "Maybe I'd better start farther back. You see, ever since the Civil War—or War between the States, or War of the Rebellion—whatever you like to call it, there's been a certain faction in Washington and New York, that wanted to declare war on Mexico and take over the country. We still had a huge army in the north, so why not? There's much wealth in Mexico—minerals and so on. Why shouldn't the United States take it over? It would be simple. And there were men in Congress who were more than willing to push the idea, as well as big financial men in the east."
We listened wide-eyed as Taggert explained things. "When France put the Emperor Maximilian on the throne in Mexico, these men wanted to use that against Mexico, with the claim Mexico had violated the Monroe Doctrine. Well, that idea didn't hold water. Mexico had captured and executed Maximilian, proving Mexico was blameless. And we didn't want to get involved in a war with France. So another scheme was tried. If it could be made to look as though Mexico had committed an overt antagonist act against this country, Congress would have an excuse to declare war on Mexico. So it was planned that an army would be set up in Heraldica, south of here, and men trained in the pretense of being Mexicans. Arms and munitions were shipped there, under the guise of sewing machines. Once the fake Mexican army was ready, it was to make raids along the border on U.S. towns, killing, stealing, and raping, and so on. Once that happened, Congress would be fooled into declaring war. Various financiers along the southwest country subscribed to the idea—Banker Kirby was one of them—oh, we got names from Senator Whitlock and made arrests right and left." He looked rather grim. "Once we had them in jail, they all talked freely, whining that the Senator had misled them. Rats!"
"God Almighty!" Jeff exclaimed.
"He still is, I reckon," Taggert said tersely. "Mr. Pinkerton's Secret Service in Washington has had operatives scattered throughout the Southwest. U.S. Marshals and Deputy Marshals were appointed to help out." Taggert turned to me. "When Webb Jordan was shot by Hondo Crowell, up in Deosso Springs, he wasn't after you, Cardinal. He was about to arrest the Senator then, but Whitlock suspected something of the sort and had a bodyguard with him. So it was necessary that Jordan be killed—and he almost was. Oh, yes, Jordan has told us how you saved his life down on the Rio Grande, Cardinal. He's eager to see you again. He was able to learn much about you."
Taggert drained his whisky glass and continued. "It was you, Jeff Tawney, who threw a monkey wrench in Whitlock's plans when you refused to allow his crates and boxes to cross your holdings. You'll remember that Shel Webster tried to buy you out and you refused under the plea you couldn't give clear title, as you had a pardner, whereabouts unknown. Webster was under Whitlock's orders, of course. So then, it became necessary to learn the name of the pardner. A search of the records, witnessed by Jeff's father, revealed that Cardinal was the unknown owner. Cardinal, of Tenango City. At Tenango City, Whitlock's agents learned that John Cardinal was a fugitive from justice. That fitted right in with Whitlock's plans. He finagled around and had further reward bills printed for Cardinal's arrest, dead or alive, claiming all sorts of crimes in various parts of Texas—"
"But, why?" I asked, bewildered.
"Simple enough, Johnny. The more reward bills, the more men seeking the rewards. Sooner or later, the Senator figured someone would kill you, probably by back-shooting, and thus dispose of your ownership in the Box-CT. Had Shel Webster known all this, he'd probably have shot you himself, but Whitlock had never explained. As I understand it, Webster actually believed what those bills stated, and figured to get you on his payroll."
"He won't anymore," I said despondently. "By this time he likely knows what a fake I am."
Mateo had stepped out of the room for a minute. Now he returned with a fresh bottle of whisky and filled our glasses. Taggert swallowed a long draught that emptied his glass and reached for the bottle. "Anyway, Johnny," he said a minute later, "you'll not have to worry about Shel Webster, or Onyxton, any longer, after tonight."
"Howcome?" I asked.
"By this time," Taggert explained confidently, "a regiment of U.S. cavalry, aided by some hundred-fifty riders we've deputized, have swooped down on Onyxton and made arrests, busting up the whole scheme—made arrests or otherwise have disposed of that's rattler's nest. They were due to strike without warning, at seven this evening."
My first thought was of Topaz, and my heart dropped. What would happen to her? I was so miserable I could scarcely find words to speak. I didn't mention Topaz, though. Instead: "There's that gang at Heraldica. Your men will move down there after taking over Onyxton?"
Taggert shook his head. "Crossing the border might lead to some sort of international complications, interfering in Mexico's internal affairs, and so on. But the Mexican Government has been alerted by Washington. Two days from now, a detachment of the Mexican Army will swoop down on Heraldica and wipe out that nest of skunks."
Taggert poured himself a drink, put it away. "So you can now understand, Johnny, why I came here this afternoon. Webb Jordan wanted you to know, as soon as possible, you are in the clear. And now, I reckon, I'd best get back to Onyxton and see how things have gone."
I said, "Damn nice of you to come, Marshal Taggert, though I admit I was mighty scared for a time. This business of juggling a bad record, a bluff and Shel Webster had me a mite nervous."
"Understandable," Taggert laughed. "You'll not have to bother about Webster. By this time he's under arrest—or dead." He turned to Mateo. "Would you please have one of your men bring my hawss around? I've already wasted enough time—" He stopped short, then, "I shouldn't say waste—not with this kind of bourbon to drink—"
We all stopped, listening. From outside came the rapid beating of horse's hoofs, coming fast. The sounds approached nearer. I could almost visualize the scattering of dust and gravel as the rider jerked the horse back into a long sliding halt before the house gallery. There were quick footsteps outside. There came a pounding on the door, even before Jeff could reach it. He flung back the door and Topaz stepped inside. Lord, the sudden feelings that engulfed me. Almost instantly I banished all thought of the scene I'd witnessed earlier that day. I could see she'd been riding hard: wisps of that red-gold hair hung untidily from beneath her sombrero brim. Her divided skirt was foam-flecked from her pony's jaws. She half staggered into the room as Jeff closed the door.
"Is—is Johnny here?" she panted, then she spied me and hurried across the room.
I didn't give a damn who was watching and I guess she didn't either. My arms whipped around her, holding her close. For a full minute neither of us could speak. Finally, Taggert's voice, holding a chuckle, brought us to our senses.
We heard him say, "Well, this is a new development."
We parted suddenly, flushing. Topaz spoke in surprise: "Marshal Taggert, what are you—well, I thought—"
Mama Benita must have been listening in her kitchen. Now she came bustling in, carrying the coffeepot and cups. I guided Topaz to a chair and she settled tiredly into it, saying something about coffee being welcome. We let her rest a minute.
I could hold in no longer. "Marshal Taggert, since when do you know Miss Topaz?"
His eyes twinkled. "For a long time. Hasn't Miss Topaz told you that she is one of Mr. Pinkerton's best operatives?"
"I couldn't, Johnny." Topaz set down her coffee cup. "I was sworn to an oath of secrecy—"
I let out a yell: "You're—you're a secret service agent, from Washington?"
She nodded and there was that beautiful smile again. Marshal Taggert said, "Topaz has been keeping tabs on Shel Webster and his doings for months now—"
"That and fighting him off," Topaz put in a bit grimly, "that and pretending to be what I wasn't. I hope, Johnny, that clears things up for you." I could only nod dumbly, as she went on, "Did you have a nice ride today, Johnny?" A smile went with that.
I could feel color climbing into my face. "Did you see me?" She nodded. "Webster didn't though—" Taggert broke in, "Now that various friendly relations have been put through"—he cleared his throat—"I'm waiting to hear about Onyxton, Topaz."
Topaz nodded. "Our men dropped in on schedule, Marshal. There was very little trouble and not a great deal of shooting. Onyxton was completely taken over. A great many prisoners were taken. There'd likely been more opposition if Webster had been there to lead, but as it was—"
"Where was Webster?" My voice was unusually loud in my excitement.
"That's what I've come to tell you," Topaz explained, "and warn you—"
Taggert swore. "Damn and blast! Orders from headquarters were to get Webster first of all, if possible. He was a key man—"
"He wasn't in Onyxton," Topaz explained and there was a sort of hopeless note in her voice. "I went riding with him, this morning—as Johnny knows—and immediately we returned to town he told me he was heading for Heraldica. Had he known his town was to be hit tonight, undoubtedly he would have stayed, but of course he didn't. He didn't even wait to get a fresh horse, but immediately left—"
"I doubt very much he came past here," Jeff frowned. "Somebody would have been sure to spot him—"
"He planned to ride wide of the Box-CT," Topaz explained, "taking a route over Buzzard Buttes, until he was clear of the ranch, then swing toward Heraldica—"
"Why?" Taggert demanded tersely.
"Webster lost his patience. One way or another he had to have a clear road for munitions through here. He's going to round up that gang of phony Mexicans and raid the Box-CT tonight—"
"How many men has he got over there?" Taggert snapped.
"About fifteen-hundred," Topaz replied.
Jeff exclaimed, "Good God! And we're practically defenseless against a gang that size!"
"When's he due to hit here?" I asked.
"By midnight, at least," Topaz said tiredly.
No one spoke. I reckon we were all too stunned to find utterance for the myriad thoughts coursing through our minds.
It was Taggert who first found his voice, and it was almost a groan. "And the soldiers being sent by the Mexican Government to Heraldica not due for two days." He swung on Jeff: "How many men you got here?"
Jeff's face was white. I reckon mine was too, as I thought: Now that I've really found Topaz, it looks like we'll all be finished. Numbly, I heard Jeff reply, "A couple of the boys are home on a visit. We can round up about a dozen. There's five of us here—"
"Six," Topaz corrected. "I know how to handle a gun." She seemed cooler than any of us.
Mateo put in, "Mama Benita is ver' good at the reload for us, an' we have plenty of rifles and six-shooters."
"But against fifteen-hundred raiders," Jeff said, "what chance will we have?"
Mama Benita came waddling into the room. "Also, I can make the fine coffee which fighters require," she announced coolly in Spanish. "What is this business that requires so much of excitement, like a running around by a chicken with the head separated from the body? Mateo! A warning to the vaqueros! Why delay?"
Mateo nodded and rushed from the house. I reckon we were all too stunned to think straight, but some preparations were made for a defense. Furniture was moved against doors and below windows. Half-shutters were raised, and windows lifted part way. Mateo returned to the house followed by the vaqueros, all bearing guns. From an inner room, Jeff produced more rifles and six-shooters, plus boxes of ammunition. Everyone pitched in to help and there was a continual chatter of Spanish and English. I glanced around. Everyone seemed to have his nerve with him. I looked at Topaz. She had again settled to the chair, eyes half-closed, weary almost to death, now that reaction had set in. Chepa, Mama's assistant, was rolling preparatory bandages.
Marshal Taggert spoke suddenly. "I reckon we're all a bunch of knuckle-heads, not thinking straight. Only a fool could think of fighting off a force of that size. We're doomed before we start. It would be only a question of time before we were overpowered."
"What's the alternative?" Jeff asked.
"We'd better saddle up and get out, while we've got a chance, through the canyon to Onyxton—"
"And bring back the cavalry from there?" Jeff asked.
Taggert shook his head. "Governmental regulations are pretty strict. I doubt the colonel in charge of the soldiers would cross the border without orders. He looked like a stickler for duty to me. Oh, the men deputized, non-soldiers, would come, but any way you look at it, we'd be outnumbered. It's just common sense for us all to get out."
I could feel my temper rising. I snapped, "Look, I never before owned a ranch in my life. I'm damned if I'm going to be run out now!"
There were protests from the others. Looking back, I can see where Taggert made sense, but my blood was close to the boiling point. I made a counter-proposal: "Marshal, my idea is that you head for Onyxton, pronto!" I saw the color rise in his face. "Don't get me wrong. I'm not suspecting your courage. But you're the only one who might be able to persuade the military and the others to come. And take Topaz and Mama Benita with you—"
Mama wasn't in the room, but Topaz cut in on my idea, "Johnny, if you stay, I stay."
Lord, I was proud of her when she said that. I started to object.
Marshal Taggert cut in, "There's a good deal in what you say, Johnny Cardinal, and if you don't think I'd be running out, I might try. Maybe you could hold the scuts off until I got back with riders—if they'd come—" And that was as far as he got.
From outside came the sound of galloping hoofbeats, wild yells. Jeff rushed to the window, then turned hopelessly back. "They didn't even wait until midnight. The house is surrounded—"
A volley of wild shots struck our thick adobe walls. A window crashed.
"So, the argument is settled," Topaz said coolly, getting to her feet.
Taggert swore. "We wasted too much time arguing in the first place. We're in for it."
There hadn't been any need of orders as lights were quickly doused all over the house. Men were taking places at windows, guns at ready. There came another burst of gunfire against the walls, more wild yelling. Horsemen loped their horses around the house and down near the corral, discharging firearms wildly.
Outside the country was bathed in moonlight, making everything as plain as day, which gave us some advantage.
Taggert said once, "They sound like they're all drunker'n hoot-owls. If everyone is set, unload your fire, but make sure of your mark."
From within the house came the sudden rattle of rifle shots and six-shooters. I don't know what luck the others had, but I know I dropped one rider as he started around the side of the house. I was crouched low at the window ledge, Topaz kneeling by my side.
Someone outside yelled an order. Topaz said, "That's Webster's voice. And I was hoping I'd never hear it again."
The firing of the Webster forces suddenly ceased, the riders drawing to one side. Webster's voice came again:
"You hombres within the house, can you hear me?"
None of us replied.
Webster's voice again, pitched louder. "You know by this time you haven't a chance, so give up. I give you my word if you'll come out, you may leave in safety."
"Liar!" Taggert yelled back. "A rat doesn't have any decent word to give. If you want a fight, we aim to give it to you!"
Kneeling at his window, he snapped three fast shots from his six-shooter. Someone let out a yell, but it wasn't Webster's voice. "Missed, dammit!" Taggert growled disgustedly. "There was four or five skunks bunched there. I wa'n't sure which was him, but—"
He had no time to say more as a rattle of gunfire flattened against walls. We could hear windows being shattered at the front of the house. Three slugs whined harmlessly through the room. The crazy yells increased, as riders coursed 'round and 'round the house.
There were half a dozen windows on each side of the house, four in front and three at the rear. I was at a side window, Topaz with me. Both of us, as were the rest, were keeping heads down, raising only to shoot from time to time.
At least we had moonlight to spot the enemy by, and from various agonized cries I judged we were all making our shots count. From a front window I heard Jeff say, "Maybe there were fifteen-hundred of those coyotes due here, but I got a hunch Webster couldn't round up that many."
"How many you figure?" Mike asked.
"I don't reckon Webster has more than three hundred riders with him."
"That's a big relief," Topaz said dryly at my side. "Only three hundred against us." She lifted a rifle, tightened finger on trigger. I spied a man go sprawling from his saddle, and a shot of mine knocked over a horse.
"What's out there sounds drunk," Marshal Taggert said, above the drumming of firearms. "Could be the rest of the fifteen-hundred were too soused to sit a horse."
One of the vaqueros at a rear window called, "Those cabrones—they try to set the fire to the bunkhouse."
There came more crazy yelling. Jeff said, "Luckily, adobe doesn't burn easily."
Glancing around, I caught a brief flash of ragged, crimson streaks at the windows. I could feel the perspiration pouring down from my forehead. My eyes and throat and nostrils burned from the acrid fumes of burned gunpowder. Smoke swirled through the room. I felt Topaz give my arm a squeeze. "Nice shindig, eh?" she laughed coolly.
I stared at her through the gloom. "Good Lord, you must have steel nerves."
"Something very necessary in the life I've been leading—" She broke off, lifting her gun for another shot.
The din was terrific, guns and galloping hoofs, as some of the bandits coursed round and round the house, like a gang of wild Comanches, encircling a wagon-train.
From time to time, I'd catch news of one of our men being hit, but apparently no one had been wounded seriously. Mama Benita bustled about, bringing steaming cups of coffee and helping bind up wounds.
Mateo, at a front window, called suddenly, "They have brought that big timber from the rear. They intend a battering ram against the front door." Now we could hear Webster shouting harsh orders.
"Hold your fire until they get close," Taggert yelled. We all listened. Then there came running, stumbling steps on the gallery, sounds of men grunting under a heavy load.
"Now!" Taggert shouted.
Gunfire and powdersmoke spurted at the front of the house. We caught the sounds of agonized cries and then a heavy thud on the gallery as the battering-timber was dropped. There were quick, retreating footsteps. Taggert reported a moment later, "We stopped that, anyway. Four of the scuts are sprawled out on the gallery. The rest got off—" Again he snapped two quick shots. "Got one of them."
I could hear Webster's cursing voice above the terrific booming of guns. Leaden slugs continued to spatter against the adobe walls on all sides. Somewhere outside a horse screamed and went down.
Abruptly, the wild yelling was redoubled as were the sounds of guns. There was a sudden rush of horses' hoofs. "Por Diós!" Mike groaned. "That must be the rest of the fifteen-hundred arriving!"
My heart sank, then I paused, scarcely able to believe my ears, at what I was hearing. Surely, those must be military commands! A bugle call split the night air. Someone was yelling for Marshal Taggert.
From the raiders there came sudden frantic yells. There were renewed hoofbeats, vanishing toward the south, as the raiders retreated in wild confusion, with pursuing hoofs running fast at their rear.
"It's Mackley—Colonel Mackley!" Taggert yelled triumphantly. "How in the devil—?" He didn't wait to say more, but started to tug at the front door.
Several of us followed him through the doorway. Outside, a large number of riders, civilian and cavalry, sat horses. To the south, more men were on the trail of the raiders.
Taggert was glancing up at a tall rider in blue. "Welcome, Colonel," he was yelling triumphantly. "But how did you happen to cross the line? I never expected—"
"One of the prisoners we took in Onyxton knew what Webster intended. He wanted to save his own skin. So I gambled," the colonel explained stiffly, "that Washington and the Mexican Government will give their approval to my operating without orders. We started as soon as the prisoner confessed what was under way."
"God, I'm glad to see you—we all are."
I glanced around. Dead men and horses were scattered everywhere, it seemed. I asked if Webster had been captured. The colonel didn't know yet. I began to search among the bodies, but couldn't find trace of Webster. I went farther afield, and was just passing a tall cottonwood when I heard a voice:
"Cardinal, you bastard, I'll get you anyway!" Webster's voice! The tones were shaking with rage, as he stepped from behind the tree-trunk, an orange stream of powder and flame spurting from his gun-barrel.
It was his voice that saved me. At the sound, I swung around, causing him to miss his intended aim. The slug caught me in the shoulder, spinning me off balance, causing him to miss a second shot.
Even as I went down, I was reaching for my .44, my first shot thrown almost at random. I missed, but it caused him to hesitate just long enough for me to roll over and trigger another shot from the ground. I saw him stagger back, clutching his stomach as the gun slipped from nerveless fingers. As he struck the earth, I fired again. I saw his body twitch as the bullet sent up a puff of dust from his vest, but that was the only movement he made.
Struggling for breath, I tried to get to my feet, made it halfway and suddenly dropped again. I guess I passed out for a minute or so, before Mike found me. And Topaz was at his side. Through a haze of blood and sweat I felt Mike fumbling around my shoulder. He muttered something about a nice clean wound that would heal fast. Then men were lifting me to carry me to the house, and I felt Topaz's cool fingers holding my hand. I muttered, "Keep on doing that. It feels wonderful."
And then her soft voice: "I have no intention of doing otherwise, Johnny—for all the rest of our lives…"