South of Rio Chama By Lyn McConchie
Chaco Canyon Books
Published by Chaco Canyon Books Imprint of Cyberwizard Productions 1205 N. Saginaw Boulevard #D PMB 224 Saginaw, Texas 76179 South of Rio Chama by Lyn McConchie Edited by Rob Mancebo Cover art and illustrations by Judy Giddens Copyright © 2009 Cyberwizard Productions ISBN: 978-1-936021-04-8 Library of Congress Control Number: 2009924753 First Edition All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, includin’ photocopying, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher and the individual authors, exceptin’ brief quotes used in connection with reviews. Printed in the USA South of Rio Chama is set in a fictional area in New Mexico. Any resemblance between places or people depicted in this book and real places or people is purely accidental.
Forward I’ve always liked westerns - both books and movies - for one of the reasons that a lot of people like them. The issues are mostly clear-cut. There are the villains, and the heroes and heroines are ordinary people. They do the best they can with what they have and are, and in a western sometimes they fail. A western can encompass almost any character, any plot, any motive, and while, with some of the odder ones, it can be difficult to describe just how they are genuinely within that category, and you know when you read them, that they’re really westerns too. An old friend of mine wrote a number of SF/F books in the 1950s and 1960s, and while that’s how the publisher described them, she once told me that she thought of them as “her space westerns.” America created the “wild west” and the western, and somethin’ in the western speaks to most of us at some time in our life. Since I was about eighteen it’s spoken to me on the other side of the world. Why shouldn’t it? I have my own small farm, and while the terms I use in farming (beast instead of beeve,) may differ, here on a sheep or cattle farm more things are still alike than are different. The oldest portion of my farmhouse dates back to 1872 and you can still see where the old farm well was. Up to five years ago I had a house-cow and hand-milked her. My hens, bantams, and geese are free-range. (Geese are wonderful guard dogs.) The house is warmed by a large, free-standing, enclosed fire for which I haul in wood every day as required. And, oh yes, my water comes from the roofs of my house and barns, into large tanks from which it gravity-feeds around the water troughs. My farming life is similar to that of many of those who lived in the “wild west” - if you add in that we have no predators, and no snakes or scorpions in my country. I already write a series of humorous books about my farm and the animals there. The “Daze” books are very true to my life, but one day I sat down to write an article about the hens - and found that I had started writing a western instead. (Look, my sub-conscious leads its own life!) It was all about two young people who were ordinary enough; they had problems - who hasn’t? They suffered from misunderstandings - who doesn’t? They had dangerous events to face, a bad man to beat, and friends who came unexpectedly to their aid - and they had their own lives to live - as do we all.
I was swept up in the story and the characters. I liked them and I enjoyed writin’ about them. All that’s left to do now is to hope that you enjoy reading about them and to note that if enough of you do - then Illy and Johnny’s tale may not be over.
Table of contents
Chapter 1 _________________________________________ 1
Chapter 2 ________________________________________15
Chapter 3 ________________________________________27
Chapter 4 ________________________________________39
Chapter 5 ________________________________________50
Chapter 6 ________________________________________62
Chapter 7 ________________________________________76
Chapter 8 ________________________________________90
Chapter 9 ______________________________________ 102
Chapter 10 ____________________________________ 116
Chapter 11 ____________________________________ 129
Chapter 12 ____________________________________ 143
Chapter 13 ____________________________________ 157
Chapter 14 ____________________________________ 171
To May Marsden and her husband Charles (Chuck) who love a good western, and to their son Rod, an old friend and fellow writer who likes westerns too. May you enjoy this one
Chapter 1 I stayed almost flat to the ground after I shot, waitin’ for another target. The man who sticks his head up in a gunfight is likely to get it blown off and I had a use for my head. A branch in the sagebrush below stirred slightly. I raised up a fraction, centered my aim there and held my fire. A shadow moved and I swung the rifle muzzle, placing three shots spaced around that movement. A scream said I’d scored a hit but the continued groans told me it weren’t a killer, not yet anyway. Bullets slashed my position, but I was already belly-down and crawlin’ for a new one. I smiled grimly. For ‘bad men’, they sure had a lot to learn about fightin’. The jackals down there had asked for it, and I weren’t the man to hold back. I lined my rifle on another shadow and fired again to hold their attention. In the distance I could hear a slow, growin’ thunder. Below me where the land flattened out was where our enemies had made camp to gather and steal our cattle. Bein’ higher up, I caught a glimpse of the dust before them below me could. I felt a rush of excitement that lit a fire in my belly. I levered three fast shots, spreadin’ their fire with the first bullet, then puttin’ a hole through the coffee pot, and upendin’ the bacon skillet. I heard outraged yells, but I gave ‘em no mind. They’d begun this war, let ‘em make the payment. I had no wish to kill the men, but they’d come huntin’ us with guns, and any man who takes up a gun has to abide by that. My pap had always told me that a man shouldn’t start a fight, but if it was started for him, then let him be the one standin’ when it was done. I shot a final time, then eeled backwards past the line of scrub, stood up and ran for my waitin’ horse. They didn’t need no more trouble from me. Illy an’ the old man were about to bring ‘em all the trouble they could handle and then some. I topped the rise behind the trees and walked my horse forward slowly. From there I could see most of the basin plain. The cattle were comin’ all right. About nine hundred head in a stampede that weren’t goin’ t’ care about what - nor who - was in front of ‘em. Behind, half-hidden in the dust, I could see Illy whoopin’ ‘em on. My lips drew back in a grin that was half snarl. Them down there were goin’ t’ be real sorry they’d started fussin’ with Illy McLeod. The cattle 1
Chapter 1 kept a runnin’ and I could hear sudden shouts from down in the basin as some of them got that message. A man popped up from a patch of long grass, divin’ for his horse. It was a long shot but I took a chance and burned him. He yelled, shied sideways, and the horse he was tryin’ to grab started jumpin’ around in fright. Two other men come out of the long grass like their pants was on fire. One was yellin’ something. I couldn’t hear what, but I guessed he was tellin’ ‘em what they already knew. If they didn’t get out of there fast, they’d be stamped flatter’n a bearskin without a bear inside. They was tryin’, but what with the noise the cattle was makin’ and the men bein’ naturally nervous, their horses was backin’ and jumpin’ all over. One man made it into his saddle, dragged his partner up behind him, an’ they took off out of there. The third man was screamin’ after ‘em, hangin’ onto his horse what was crow hoppin’ every which way. He was the one I’d burned and I guess bein’ winged was hamperin’ him some. Them cow-critters come a boilin’ over the edge of the small rise, and his horse started fightin’ for real. He seemed to have one arm that weren’t workin’, and he couldn’t hang on. His horse must’ve felt that down there was no place to be. It dumped him hard and was runnin’ before its rider hit the ground. He staggered up an’ started runnin’ too, but no man afoot can out-run a steer. I saw the lead steer reach him and sort of hook sideways. There was a half-scream and then nothin’ but the thunder of hooves and the heavin’ backs of the cattle. That was two down of those who’d come to drive Illy out of what was rightfully hers. I hadn’t seen the other body but the first man I shot never came out of the grass down there. An’ after them steers had gone through where he’d been it weren’t likely he ever would. I knew he’d been hit hard, and there hadn’t been a rider like that leaving. I shrugged; I was sorry for any man dying but better him than me. Pap may have died when I was five but I remembered many of his sayin’s - ma had used ‘em often after his going. He used to say that the coyote that steals eggs should look to be shot for it. Looked like I’d left a stack of hurtin’ coyotes down there and that was okay by me. They’d come askin’ for trouble an’ I’d leave no man sayin’ I was miserly. I walked my horse away quietly, holdin’ to the trail along the lower hillside. I rode casual but kept my eyes open. I hadn’t but a couple of friends around those parts, and a man who doesn’t watch where he’s 2
Lyn McConchie ridin’ is liable to get hisself shot. Far over in the distance I could hear shots crackin’ in a faint echo. That would be old Mace down t’ the ranch. Shots from a buffalo gun can echo seven or eight miles up in the hills where the air is clear. Guess Mace felt the same way about sharin’ trouble an’ was real intent on givin’ ‘em some more of what they’d come wanting. I headed for the mountains where they rose tall an’ rugged back of the basin. Mace an’ Illy would meet me up there.
I reached the cave high up on Stony Ridge, staked out my horse, and started a fire. Hot coffee would taste mighty good at the end of a fine day. It was gettin’ towards dark, so I put on canned beans and sliced bacon into the old skillet, added more water to the pot and brought in another stack of firewood. Just as I sat down again, I heard horses on the lower trail. I faded back into the dark. One of the riders started whistlin’ softly, an’ I grinned, steppin’ out towards the fire. “Coffee’s hot.” Illy moaned, “You’re a life saver, Johnny. I’ve eaten so much dust, my mouth’s gone to desert.” I handed her a cup as she dismounted and I started unsaddlin’ her horse. Mace stepped up to the fire, poured hisself some coffee then started in complaining. “Comes hard on an ole man like me when he has to go ridin’ about like a fool when he should be bellyin’ up to the table of an evening. I see you don’t have no cup to hand me right off, an’ you ain’t takin’ care a my chores.” Illy put her coffee cup down, stepped to Mace’s horse and reached for the saddle. “Now what you be a doing, girl? Leave that horse be. A man can’t say anythin’ right around here. It wus young Johnny I wus talkin’ to. You set ‘n eat them bacon ‘n’ beans. All that ridin’ and hollerin’ you done, you need hot food an’ a good night’s rest.” “You’re an old fraud,” Illy told him. “The day you want to be waited on by anyone will be the day you die.” “Mebbe so, mebbe so. You just git that food inside you.” 3
Chapter 1 Mace moved to his mount, rubbed the ugly roman nose that swung towards him, and then unsaddled the beast. He removed the bridle, fixed hobbles and returned to the fire leavin’ the horse to join ours. There was a bench with good grass there where the land flattened out, with a stand of Aspen curvin’ in almost a full circle around it. I’d been workin’ while they sparred, leadin’ mine and Illy’s mounts up from the cave a little to picket ‘em there. Even if anyone did come up the trail, they couldn’t see the horses grazin’. From the lee of a large boulder at one side of the cave a man could see for miles down the trail. In daylight, we kept a good lookout from there if we was in the area. It was a hidden place. You had t’ be right by the cave t’ realize that it was there, and in my estimation it had been a generation or more since it had been used afore Illy and I had found it. Whoever had lived there then had helped the natural camouflage, and time and weather had continued his work. Or perhaps other men even before him had worked to conceal it. A place like this would’ve been useful in the days of the mountain men. If someone found the cave they wouldn’t find much neither, not unless they was better at trackin’ than any of us. All our supplies was in caches around the mountains. Coffeepot an’ skillet we kept in a hole by the boulder with a couple of stones over the entrance. There was other gear in the caches too, just in case. Pap used to say that a man should plan for the worst an’ hope for the best. Illy’s Pa had favored that idea too, an’ he’d taught Illy. So when it looked as if things were goin’ to get a mite rough, she’d planned ahead. I could see the other two was pretty tired so I took first watch. I hadn’t ridden as far nor done as much roustin’ around. I woke Mace at midnight and sat with him over coffee. Illy was asleep, rolled in her bedding, her saddle under her head. “Mace?” “Yeah, Johnny.” “You reckon we can win this?” I saw the old man shrug in the moonlight. “Mebbe so, lad, but mebbe not. They’ll know they bin in a fight. How’d you hear about all this anyways? It’s bin a long time since you wus back here or so Illy telled me.” That was the truth. I’d been fifteen when I left. Now and then, Illy’d heard where I was and got a letter to me. But it’d been more’n 4
Lyn McConchie three years since I’d heard from her last an’ five since I’d seen her. I’d come back when I was just shy of seventeen, an’ again when I was nineteen, but her father was still as hard. It had been nine years since I’d ridden away. Illy’d been ten, and the Circle M had been prosperous with four fulltime hands and a cook. The ranch’d been my home for a long time, but when I left the third time I planned never to return. John McLeod’s words was still ringin’ in my ears as I rode off. He’d wanted no gunslingers around the Circle M, he’d said. He had no time for killers. I’d tried to explain and he’d out-shouted me. Illy’d spoken up for me, and been ignored. He was a good man, McLeod, but a stubborn one. Once he’d made up his mind he was like rock. You can shatter rock into tiny bits but that don’t change its nature. “Johnny?” “Uh? Oh, yeah. I was punchin’ on the Sweetwater when word come up the trail. You know how it is.” Mace nodded. He’d been a western man all his life. In the west, people talked. Maybe it was bein’ so often alone but when they met up, they talked. Gossiped about people an’ places: that mad bronc what the Double D had, the Indian trouble over t’ Brownsville. I’d been in town escortin’ the boss’s wife, Miz Elman, to pick up an order for the ranch. It had been several weeks since I’d been in, so I headed for the saloon thinkin’ that a whiskey or two would taste mighty good. I tossed one back to cut the dust then sat down to take my time with a second. After that, I planned on a shave an’ a haircut before meetin’ Miz Elman at the store. I was relaxin’ and feelin’ good when the stranger come in. He wore a town suit, his collar was none too clean, an’ he looked weary, old, and down in the mouth. I guessed him to have come in off the stage. He started talkin’ t’ the bartender and I listened without takin’ too much notice. Until I heard a name. “Buy you a drink, friend?” He weren’t sayin’ no to that, so I waited until he’d had half of it then spoke up again. “You said there was trouble south of Rio Chama?” “There sure is. You’ll have heard of Cinch Jackson?” I nodded slow. That I had. Jackson’s version of his name was that he was a cinch to win in any fight. Everyone else’s version was that he was an artist at changin’ brands with a cinch ring. Jackson was that 5
Chapter 1 interestin’ type that was rare out west: a man who rarely carried a gun or at least, he rarely carried one obviously. He was rarer still in that he was big and powerful enough to rule by the fist, but his brains was good enough to persuade men that he should be listened to. I had my doubts about how smart he really was. From what I’d heard, I figured he ruled with cunning over men who were mostly stupid. I’d seen him once. A big man, wearin’ black like a preacher. Wide shoulders strainin’ the tailored broadcloth, wool vest spanned by a gold watch an’ chain. A man who was goin’ to seed a little: neck startin’ to overlap his collar an’ his waist thickening. A man walkin’ on his heels, expectin’ others to get out of his way. Lately he’d run an outlaw bunch that was all gun-handy hard-cases, always eager for trouble. But they’d taken on a bit too much of it where they’d been an’ I’d heard that Jackson, his men, and his stolen cattle had moved out just ahead of a town comin’ with rifles, ropes and talk of a Federal Marshall on the way to ask questions. “Yeah, last I heard he was lookin’ for another place to light.” “He found it. Some man called McLeod south of the Chama. Seems this McLeod didn’t have many riders, but he’d got him some real good land. Jackson moved right in, pushin’ his cattle up onto grazin’ land an’ offerin’ to buy McLeod’s place. McLeod ran him off, an’ after that it was Sally bar the door! His riders all quit, his winter hay was burned, and then McLeod got shot.” I felt a sudden pang. “Dead?” “He is now. Jackson moved right in an’ took over soon’s they planted the old feller. The place is so far back in the hills he’s like to get away with it, too.” His lips twisted into an evil grin. “He never counted on McLeod’s daughter puttin’ up such a fight, though.” “What happened?” “Jackson rode in with twenty men. The girl was gone. In town they said McLeod’ old cowhands all died the last few years - or retired and went somewheres else. The new ones didn’t stick against Jackson, an’ I can’t say as I blame ‘em. I did hear that her cook would’ve stayed but the girl said “no” an’ paid him off.” He finished his whisky and I bought him another. He took a gulp and grinned again. “Jackson looked all over. He couldn’t find the girl, but two weeks later two of his men went missing. A week later, another one gone. Dunno if they was killed or run off. Then she come ridin’ down to the 6
Lyn McConchie house when all the cowhands was out on the range and Jackson had no one there but me, an’ I wasn’t startin’ nothing. That girl faced down Jackson with a scattergun in her hands and a hard old codger with a buffalo gun watchin’ her back. Don’t know who he was, nor Jackson neither since he asked me later.” “You had my father killed,” she says. Jackson faced up to her. “Your father had his troubles. Maybe he came across rustlers, you don’t know. Could have been almost any man with a grudge, an’ you’ve got nothin’ to say different.” “This was his land. It’s mine now. Get off it and take your killers with you or we’ll bury you here.” “Come on, girl, I’ll marry you. I could make you a pretty good husband, I reckon.” He leered at her. “I know what a girl likes.” “She cut him off real fast with a look on her face I wouldn’t want no pretty girl givin’ me. “I’d rather lose everythin’ I have and starve in the hills. Maybe where you come from they marry murderers. Not in my family,” she says an’ she turns to go with that old man watchful beside her. “You’ve been told. Get out or die here.” “What’d Jackson do?” “Told me to ride out to the herd to get the men there, then go into town to get the foreman. I packed my bag quiet an’ dropped it behind the stables, went out to the herd and done what he told me. Then I picked up my bag, rode into town and told the foreman to git back to the ranch. After that I bought a ticket on the stage and kept going. There was a devil in that girl’s eyes and I didn’t have to know the old man personal to know the kind. Neither of them’ll quit and a lot of men’ll die. I weren’t goin’ to be one of ‘em. But mebbe she’ll lose and Jackson’ll marry her. She’s a good looker.” Despite everythin’ he was sayin’, I grinned. “She is or she ain’t, won’t make no never mind. If Jackson shot McLeod or if she even thinks he did, she wouldn’t marry him if he was gold-plated. She’ll fight an’ I wouldn’t take no bets on Jackson winning.” “Won’t nobody fight for her, bar that old man. Not against Cinch Jackson.” “You’re wrong about that too. I will. I grew up on that ranch and no highbinder like Jackson’s gonna take it from her without I’m dead.” I stood up, settlin’ my hat. I figured to see Miz Elman home with her 7
Chapter 1 stores, and then I’d draw my time and ride. Behind me I heard a lowvoiced question from the stranger. “What good’s he think he’s gonna do against Jackson?” It was the bartender who answered him as I flipped the batwings open. “That’s Johnny Calder. I reckon he’ll think of something.” I sure hoped I could. I knew when he’d looked at me he hadn’t seen much. Just a cowhand in his mid-twenties with no great looks. In fact, I was sort of medium all around. You could more easily tell folks what I was like by sayin’ what I wasn’t. I wasn’t really fair nor dark, my hair was middlin’ dark brown an’ thick but not really straight or curly. My nose was just a nose, not a proud beak that stood out or the sort of snub nose that women often think looks cute on a man. I wore standard cowhand gear: gray wool trousers, a blue flannel shirt, and boots a bit run-over at the heels. Sure my gun was clean an’ the gunbelt polished, an’ I had me a nice pair of spurs I’d swapped off another puncher a couple of years back. Big jinglin’ spurs - that’d be the first thin’ I took off afore I got where I was goin’. I wasn’t anyone to look at twice. I didn’t waste money on flashy gear, but I’d learned more than showed outwardly. This past couple of years I’d been drawin’ fightin’ pay. The first time I taken gun wages I’d been a shotgun guard on a stage. I’d twice had to kill men, and I’d learned a lot from the driver, Ben Ames. He was an old dried up, pint-sized part-Mex who’d been up the creek and over the mountain. Bein’ at least half-smart, I listened to him talk, askin’ questions now an’ again, an’ rememberin’ what he said. He was shot in a holdup about the time I’d been workin’ with him for nearly a year. I got the man who done it then got down to see to Ben. “Take my gear, kid. An’ take Belle, m’ mule. She don’t look like much but she can go steady all day. She kin climb where you wouldn’t think she could go, and she’s a fighter.” His voice was weakening. “You lie quiet,” I told him. “We’ll patch you up…” “Don’t waste your breath, kid. I ain’t gonna make it this time. Now you listen. Belle, she loves a smidgen of salt. Make friends with her and she’ll do anythin’ for you. I got no family, an’ no one else I’d trust with Belle. An’ kid?” “Yeah, Ben?” 8
Lyn McConchie “Make something’ of yourself. Boy like you... good boy... you should have a ranch one day. Place where you can grow old watchin’ the sunsets over the peaks. Take my gear, boy, ‘n Belle. Look in the bottom of m’ war-bag too. That’ll give you a start.” I watched the last breath go out of him and felt a sting back of my eyes. He’d been a game old man and I’d liked him. I took the stage in, saw Ben was buried decent, and then collected his gear as he’d said findin’ a stash of five double eagles in the bottom linin’ of his war-bag. Then I quit. I had a fair amount of money comin’ an’ like always I managed to save some of it. I only spent enough for new shirt and good trousers, a few drinks, an’ travelin’ money. ‘A course, I couldn’t have the clothes ‘til the next day. Small towns don’t sell ready-mades, but the dry goods store sold the material an’ there was a widow an’ her two daughters. Pay them an’ they’d sit up all night - if’n you paid double - an’ sew. So come morning I’d be able to ride out looking a lot more prosperous than I rid in. I walked off to the bank once I’d had a drink, an’ dumped everythin’ else includin’ Ben’s cash. I had me a fair amount what with savin’ reasonable the last few years. McLeod always said a man was a fool to waste his cash too free. I’d seen enough old stove-up cowhands sittin’ around wonderin’ what happened to their summer wages. I didn’t plan to be one of ‘em. Two weeks later I hired on with Mister Elman. I ended the job workin’ as a hand, but only the last few months. Before that we’d been in a real knockdown drag-out brawl with another ranch. They was bigger and wanted all the land. Elman fought back. He warned me when I hired on, “Son, I fought Indians, rustlers, outlaws, and drought - and Ma was beside me all the way. We just ain’t gonna lie down for no range-hog to walk over us. You’ll punch cattle, but you get fightin’ wages — sixty a month and found, and all the shells you need. Are you up for that?” I was. Seemed a cryin’ shame to me that a good old couple couldn’t sit quiet on a ranch they’d built from nothing. I kept savin’ too. Mister Elman banked half my pay for me each month, an’ I figured I weren’t losin’ nothin’. Normal wages was thirty a month and that was what I ended up with, but that there cash, she just kept on growin’ an’ I felt pretty good about it. I kept Ben’s gear too, like he’d asked. He’d 9
Chapter 1 had a Sharps buffalo gun, an ancient colt dragoon, his saddle, bridle an’ a few odds and ends - an’ Belle. Belle was a sort of rusty black an’ big for a mule. I got to know her and she was everythin’ Ben’d claimed. Somewhere along the line she’d decided that she could fight and nobody’d ever managed to convince her she was wrong. Put her in a corral with anythin’ at all, and she’d be rulin’ that corral in an hour. She weren’t too fussy what she fought nor how she did it, neither. When I moved into Elman’s bunkhouse, one of the hands thought it’d be funny to ride Belle. He changed his mind right quick about that and he survived - just. One of the hands from the ranch we was fussin’ with didn’t. He lost his horse in a raid and so far as we could tell, he found Belle out grazin’ when he was headin’ home afoot an’ reckoned she’d do to ride home on. She did for him instead and we came across the remains the next day. After that she was somethin’ of a mascot, but I was still the only one she allowed ride her. I used her when we had to move at night over rough ground. Darned if she couldn’t move faster than any horse at such times, just like she could see in the dark. I got real fond of her after a while and I didn’t figure to leave her behind when I went. By then I had a real good horse, too. He was a line-back dun, black mane, tail, and legs. And a black temper most times too... but him and Belle got on fine. I reckoned he had him some Appaloosa blood because there was darker dun spots across his rump shadin’ almost into black. I called him Beau, not for his looks but after Jim Beauton, the man I’d bought him from. When I got Miz Elman back to the ranch, I went straight in to talk to my boss. “There’s no way I can talk you out of leaving, lad?” I had to shake my head. “Mister Elman, I owe them. I weren’t kin, I had no claim, but McLeod fed me an’ put a roof over my head for five years. Sure I left, but I went out ridin’ a horse of his and Illy gave me her money so I’d make out ‘til I got work. I paid her back, but the debt’s there. They took us in when Ma an’ me was in trouble, now they need me an’ I got it to do.” He nodded. “If you want to leave that mule behind here, we’ve got grass. You could send for her?” 10
Lyn McConchie “Nope. I’m travelin’ steady with Beau, an’ Belle’ll keep up if she isn’t packing. Where I’m goin’ I reckon a cat-footed fightin’ mule might come in right handy.” “All right, Johnny. You know if you can transfer your money where you’re going? You don’t have to carry it?” “Yep. I already talked to Banker Swensen.” “Then I’ll say good-bye an’ good luck, son. Just remember, there’s a place here for you any time you want to come back.” Well, I shook his hand at that and went out feelin’ sad. I liked the Elmans, but I had to ride.
I left early next morning. Beau stepped right out with Belle trottin’ alongside. Ben had trained her to follow without a lead rope and that was how she liked it. I kept goin’ every day. Nights I unrolled my blankets well off any trail unless I was close to a town. As I got closer to Rio Chama I heard more. Seemed that nobody much liked Jackson or what he was doing, but then again interferin’ with him was known to be mighty unhealthy. I rode into Chama Flats, left Beau and Belle in the livery stable, and headed for the saloon. It weren’t much of a town, less’n a dozen buildings along one short, deep-rutted street, with the sheriff’s office standin’ off center at one end. The street was deep mud in the winter since the town was in a shallow dip, so they’d built the boardwalks extra high and had a couple of steps in two ‘r three places for the ladies. The people livin’ here had seen me only a few times and that was nine years back. I sat quiet in the saloon for two hours, listenin’ to all the gossip an’ makin’ a single whiskey last. Amongst other things, I learned that Sheriff Malton had been killed in a fall a couple of years back. That was useful. He’d been the one bound and determined to hang me for a fair shoot-out, and the family of the boy I’d shot wasn’t around any longer, neither. They’d gone to live with a sister back east a while before. Still, it might be safer if I used another name. Johnny Calder was becomin’ a known man. Not that I hunted trouble exactly, but if it came huntin’ me I stood up to it. I kept listenin’ and I didn’t like a lot of what I was hearin’. Most of the people in Chama Flats didn’t exactly side with Cinch Jackson but 11
Chapter 1 they weren’t against him either. He was spendin’ free in town, keepin’ his riders under control, and many of ‘em had never liked John McLeod anyway. He’d come into the country early. Like the Elmans, he’d fought everythin’ an’ beat it. He earned his land with blood and sweat but them as come after him seemed to think it had all been given him for nothing. They didn’t see why he shouldn’t give some of it to them either, and McLeod wasn’t the man to do that. A prissy, loud-mouthed gent was doin’ a lot of talkin’ an’ I yearned to stand up an’ slap his ears down, but I made myself sit quiet an’ draw no attention. The years had taught me there was a time to fight… and a time to shut up an’ learn about your enemy. “There just isn’t any proof Jackson had anythin’ to do with McLeod’s misfortunes. I say in rough country like that there’s plenty of things that can go wrong for a man without someone is attackin’ him. As for the girl, I hear Jackson’s offered to marry up with her all fair and honest. A woman can’t hold range, it ain’t right. And look at her claim! That basin must be ten thousand acres or more, and then there’s all those high valleys behind it.” “What about that old man who’s still sidin’ her?” someone broke in to ask. “Him? He’s about due for a buryin’ if he don’t walk softer.” I wondered who the old man was and why he was sidin’ Illy? Loudmouth was still talking. “He isn’t kin so the land isn’t his, neither. Maybe Jackson will give him a place by the fire when he marries the McLeod girl.” He snickered. “She should think herself lucky that Jackson is offerin’ a weddin’ what with her bein’ part-injun from her ma.” I held my temper in just long enough to get out of the saloon without jumpin’ the idiot and beatin’ the tar out of him. I went down to the store, bought supplies, got Belle and Beau from the livery stable, paid the man there and mounted up. If I stayed in town one minute longer, I was afraid I’d kill a man again - and for exactly the same reason as the boy who’d died by my gun here in an alleyway nine years back. He’d said somethin’ similar. He’d called Illy an Indian and made some filthy comment on what she and I probably did up there on the ranch. I’d knocked him down, bloodied his nose, and would have kept 12
Lyn McConchie fighting, but he went for his gun. Maybe he only meant to back me off, to scare me, but at the time all I knew was that he was reaching. My gun had slid into my hand, and I’d shot. He’d fallen back dead and there wasn’t a thing I could do to change it. Sheriff Malton had come running but he'd only heard the gunshot, an I was out of sight. I slipped between the buildings and headed out for home, and he come right after me the next day once he'd discovered that I was the killer. When he arrived an’ said what I’d done, McLeod had handed me over ‘to the due processes of the law,’ not realizin’ that the Sheriff didn’t like any of us. I’d have hung but for a couple of cowhands passin’ through who’d been by the alley and seen the fight. They stood up for me in court, swore the other boy had drawn first, and I was freed. But after I was let go they went down to the saloon and bragged on about how good I’d been. They cleared me of the killing, but it did for me with McLeod who’d come into town and heard what they said. Once we was back at the ranch he gave me an outfit and told me to keep riding. Circle M had no place for a gunslinger. Now I was ridin’ back and maybe the only hope Circle M had left was my gun. McLeod had died from his wound six weeks before I arrived and I didn’t know this old man with Illy. He might stick... or he might not.
Once it was full dark I switched to ridin’ Belle and continued. I knew every foot of the thread-like hidden trail through Wolf canyon, up across the aspen benches, and over the high valley towards the back of the basin. As I rode, I whistled softly... a monotonous little up and down Comanche love song that only Illy and I were likely to know. I smiled, rememberin’ as I whistled. Rightly her name was Lilly, but when she was tiny she’d named herself Illy, unable to handle the L. She’d been Illy ever since to those of us who knew her on the Circle M. I wondered how much she’d have changed. She’d been twelve the last time I waved good-bye. A skinny little kid whose ma had been quarter-Indian. She’d waved back at me, her long black plaits stirrin’ in the wind, her gray eyes filled with tears. It was likely she’d have grown up to be handsome. Her Ma had been a real looker from the tintype John McLeod had in his room. I’d kept on whistlin’ that old song over 13
Chapter 1 anâ€™ over. Then there come a soft whistlinâ€™ in answer to it, and Illy was there.
Chapter 2 McLeod Basin was all of the ten thousand acres that loudmouth in town had claimed, an’ much more. Runnin’ up behind it like fingers from a palm were a lot of long narrow valleys which topped out in real high country. But down inside they was sheltered so you could run cattle up in those canyons right into early winter. After that, you moved ‘em down into the lower basin before the snowdrifts got too deep. Streams ran into the basin from two of the valleys, and in the others McLeod had put up dams of one kind or another. On a lot of the basin slopes there were long spreader dams. Out back of the main house there was a big hay barn an’ that was always full by winter. McLeod had hay cut from a couple of good upper valleys every year. Time or two it had been all that saved his breeding’ stock but he’d always made out. I’d learned from him that a man who thinks ahead mostly does get by. There was always a big stack of cut wood right to hand as well. It took a heap a work to run a big ranch, an’ run it right, but McLeod he was a hard worker an’ a smart man. Trouble is others often see the results a man like that produces an’ they envy him. But they don’t see the hard work that went into the place to make things that way. They want a piece of the pie without doin’ the work. After all, why should they work if they can take the place away after the job’s been done? Now it looked as if Cinch Jackson had those ideas. His kind want to swallow everythin’ in sight, but I’d give him somethin’ that weren’t so digestible. Lead can lie mighty heavy in the stomach. We laid up in the cave that day after our raid, Illy an’ me, catchin’ up some more on what each other had been doing. She hadn’t really changed any. She was still skinny with her long black hair in plaits an’ gray eyes that could be warm with laughter or colder ‘n winter in the mountains. Come just after dusk, ole Mace went weaselin’ down to check on things. He came back chucklin’ to himself. “We surely played hell down there, boy. Four men dead, another one bad off and a couple more moanin’ about losin’ blood. Them beeves they gathered to sell kept on runnin’ fer miles clear back into the canyons. It’ll take weeks to gather ‘em up again!” He grinned. “An’ Jackson’s cussin’ like a mule-skinner. Somewhere in the middle of all 15
Chapter 2 that shootin’, his woodpile went up. Burned itself out it did, so they ain’t got no more wood for the cook. Ole Jackson now, he’s got a couple of the cowhands cuttin’ wood quick and they don’t like it nohow.” Illy and I were grinnin’ like idiots. Back in her Pa’s time, they’d had them a hand from the mountains. It was him who cut the wood an’ the hay mostly, although I done some of it when McLeod weren’t pleased with me for somethin’. After McLeod died it was harder to get it done. A good cowhand hates anythin’ he can’t do from the back of a horse, and a man drawin’ gun wages feels even stronger about it. The nearest place to cut good wood was a couple of miles away, so McLeod had the habit of havin’ a proper woodpile cut an’ stacked to dry out near to the house at the start of decent weather each year. Somethin’ occurred to Illy about then. “Mace, just how did that woodpile catch fire?” He sat back, a twinkle in his eye as he looked at her. “Well, a body has to do somethin’ when he’s awaiting. There was I, jest a waitin’ for you to get them critters moving. Jest there to see all them gun-handy varmints didn’t come aboilin’ down on you when they heard the cattle go. ‘Cept you’d been takin’ a while to git that done an’ I was down there watchin’ the place early. So I looked ‘round to see what I could see. And I’d be sugared if there wasn’t this whole heap o’ wood all alone, an’ a big ole can o’ lamp oil just sittin’ there doin’ nothin’ in the barn. So I thunk that if I brought ‘em together it might be nice. Sort of warmin’ for everyone.” By now Illy and I were both laughin’ like kids bein’ told a bedtime story. “Well, I made me a torch out of a long dry branch, sloshed some a’ that lamp oil over it and stuck it in back o’ the woodpile. Then I dumped the rest of the can all around that side o’ the wood. I lit the top ‘o the branch and skedaddled out ‘o there. Illy was gigglin’ helplessly, an’ you’d have had to move my ears back to get my grin any wider. “What happened?” I could see by the gleam in Mace’s eyes just how much he’d enjoyed the scene. An’ how much he was likin’ bein’ able to make Illy laugh like that. “Nothin’ much. I jest sat there waitin’ an’ presently I heard them beeves leavin’ real fast. Them in the bunkhouse did too, an’ they came 16
Lyn McConchie runnin’ out. I showed t’em a few reasons why they should stay right where they was, an’ they tossed a few back. Then that there woodpile went up. Pretty as a picture an’ bright as a fourth of July. I could hear ole Jackson yellin’ his fool head off inside the house.” Mace was grinnin’ happily as he remembered. “Somethin’ about them all bein’ canned if they didn’t get out there an’ put out that fire an get his beeves back. An’ a couple o’ them yellin’ right back that they was paid to fight not cut their own throats. Jackson, he got to yellin’ louder, so I put a few through the doors an’ winders and he shut up real sudden.” Mace snickered. “Guess he realized that I weren’t usin’ no Springfield.” Illy and I started to laughin’ again. As Ben’d told me when we was workin’ together, there were times when a man wanted somethin’ that’d shoot through a bull buffalo - or six inches of solid wood. A Sharps Old Reliable would do that all right, and make an awful big hole in whatever it hit. An’ that was why I’d brought it with me. “I were shooting,” Mace went on, “an’ I seen Jackson hunt a hole the minute thet ole gun spoke and there’s lead flyin’ through the door. However much chance he might ‘a had of gettin’ them fellers a’ his out before, he didn’t have no chance after that. There ain’t no gettin’ up smilin’ if’n you’re hit by a Sharps.” I wholly agreed with him on that. A man hit by a Sharps in the body was dead, an’ real messy dead at that. A bullet would tear off an arm or a leg if it hit there. No man who’d seen such was wishful to have it happen to him. Gun hands may take fightin’ pay but most of ‘em want to stay alive to spend it, an’ they don’t want to be cripples neither. Sure they’ll take some big chances, but gettin’ hit with a Sharps ain’t takin’ any chance. It’s a sure bet. Illy wanted to drive Jackson out of her home an’ she was in the right too. If a Federal Marshall came around lookin’ to see what was goin’ on, Jackson would likely end up in the pen. That made me think harder. I stood up. “Mace? Whyn’t you an’ me do a little scouting? Maybe find us another target? “Why not, boy?” He followed me outside, waited until we were well away from the cave then looked at me from under his eyebrows as we mounted and started ridin’ down the trail. “Reckon you got somethin’ in mind to say, boy?” 17
Chapter 2 “Mace, what happens if we get a Marshall here?” “Jackson’s in a whole heap o’ trouble. McLeod was smart. Since we been up here Illy’s been readin’ her father’s papers and diaries. She says her pa was first in the area to find out that the Gov’mint weren’t just offerin’ homesteadin’ sections to the men who staked them, they was sellin’ land out here if’n a man had the money to buy. “McLeod took ever’ penny he had an’ bought the whole basin, an’ pretty much all them valleys runnin’ from it. That ain’t no squatted land, nor homesteaded neither. Sure he only paid a cent on the acre, but he paid down good cash money. That land’s deeded an’ titled, an’ the deeds is filed on record. An’ Illy thinks she can prove it. “Do you think Jackson knows?” “Ain’t likely. McLeod must’ve been the only one out here to bother payin’ for land that others saw as free. You knew him better, boy. Would he go runnin’ into town to tell ever’one?” I shook my head slowly. No, the man I’d known was a man who kept his mouth shut about his affairs, reckonin’ them as no one’s business but his own. “Illy knew?” I said. “Why didn’t she tell Jackson?” “Because she didn’t know it ‘til a few days ago, just before you got here. She done took her Pa’s deed box with her when she left the house an’ come up here. But it weren’t ‘til then that she sat down an’ read all them papers, an’ his diaries, an’ recalled him talkin’ about it when she was a little girl.” It fitted. She’d have been no more than a baby when McLeod had paid for that land - if it hadn’t been earlier still. But somehow I had the feelin’ that Jackson could know somethin’ even if he didn’t know all of it. “Mace, if he married Illy, he’d own the basin, deeded land or not.” “Reckon so.” “So maybe he guesses that there’s somethin’ he don’t know. I heard about Jackson. He doesn’t much like Indians and Illy’s ma was quarter Comanche. Why’d he want to marry Illy?” Mace looked at me. “You damn fool. That’s a right pretty girl there. An’ if he don’t marry her, she has to die. He cain’t afford to have her runnin’ about askin’ folks to help. But if she dies too soon there just might be some one who don’t like him enough to start askin’ questions 18
Lyn McConchie about how. See? Unless he can make it out to have been a real, believable accident. “O’ course, mebbe he does guess about the deeds. That’d make Illy like a honey tree to a bear. But one way or another, boy, he’s got to get his hands on her, dead or wed. He cain’t waste time neither. You heard about this fussin’ he run into up to Sweetwater? If’n he don’t get it done quick here, there might be somebody askin’ questions in both places before it’s settled.” Someone askin’ questions... like maybe a Federal Marshall I was thinking. Chama Flats didn’t have no telegraph but Española over the hills from here sure did. Mace hefted the Sharps. “What say you ‘n me go down an’ reason a whiles with that Jackson. I’d dearly love to have him in my sights.” I snorted. “Jackson doesn’t normally carry a gun. The amount of people he rides over, it’s safer to have other people do his killing. He’s killed a couple of men bare-handed. That’s his style.” I looked at him. “God help Illy if he ever catches her. The man’s a brute, an’ there was some funny tales around a few years ago when he was over on the Sweetwater.” We’d been ridin’ on as we talked. I nudged Beau through a screen of brush and in the distance we could see the ranch buildings. From nearby there came a sudden yell. I jerked my head around to see eight riders comin’ our way in an awful hurry. Mace hadn’t cleared the brush behind me so they didn’t know he was there. I turned and spoke softly to him. “Eight men coming. Stay put. Beau’ll run the legs off ‘em. Start firin’ into the house once I’ve had got clear with them after me.” I had time to see Mace draw his horse aside into thick cover. With luck they’d all follow me, too hot for a kill to guess there was another one of us right there. They came on whooping, and then the one in front got his gun out and started slingin’ lead. I hunched down in the saddle and Beau lit a shuck. He was layin’ ‘em down like he’d rather be any place than where we was, and since I agreed, I was encouragin’ him all the way. Them riders kept comin’ and I knew they hadn’t seen ole Mace. At that range, from fast movin’ horses, they was just wastin’ their lead. As for catchin’ me, I’d lived in the basin more’n five years, an’ me’n Illy had ridden or scrambled over every yard of it. 19
Chapter 2 I galloped off up Indian canyon with them hangin’ onto my trail like wolves. Then I hit the track up the canyon side. It starts between two big rocks and ain’t easy to see without you know where it is. It switch-backed up an’ across, an’ then back again an’ I had enough of a lead to be well up the trail before they come into view. I dismounted and tucked Beau back around a boulder, signaled him to keep quiet, an’ sat there where they couldn’t see either of us. Then I waited for ‘em to ride on by. They went chargin’ on past toward the end of the side canyon and I took the opportunity to mount up and make another couple of stretches up before they was back. I dismounted again, dropped into the brush at the edge of the trail, and watched, listenin’ as they returned. They come back cussing’ like crazy men. With it bein’ so quiet an all I could hear just about every word, an’ what I was hearin’ I didn’t much like. “Where’n blazes could he have gone?” one of them was snarlin’ and sounded right irritable. “How do I know,” one of the others growled back. “ Mebbe he never came up here at all.” “Sure he did, I saw him plain.” One of them spat. “Well, he’s gone now.” “Yeah, and our two hundred and fifty bucks with him. I almost had that money spent when I saw him ridin’ out ‘o those bushes.” “Me too. The boss wants him dead, same as any man sidin’ that girl. I reckon we wouldn’t even have to pack a body back. Just take the head an’ dump the rest over a cliff.” A big man with a hard face and dirty checked shirt seemed to be in charge. He shrugged. “That’s the way it goes, boys. Mebbe next time. Me, I’d like to get my hands on the girl. The boss’ll pay a thousand for her in one piece.” “I ain’t sure I like that.” I marked down the speaker. He was younger than the others, a blonde headed, decent-lookin’ hand without the hard-bitten look to him. His pants and red shirt were clean, and he wore Spanish spurs. I’d have disliked him for that, they cut a horse up if they’re used wrong, but as his mount moved sideways I could see that the rowels had been taken out and replaced with silver dollars. 20
Lyn McConchie “Don’t be a fool. He aims to marry her okay. That way there won’t be no talk.” One of the others, a dirty-lookin’ man with small weasely eyes, laughed raucously, “Yeah? The boss don’t like women. Wonder how long she’ll be around after that? None of the others were.” The leader reached out and backhanded him out of the saddle. His victim came off the ground with a yell of rage to face a gun held steady on him. “You talk too much, Murchison. The boss likes that a lot less. You just get back up in your saddle and ride out - and I’ll be watchin’ you.” He might be watchin’ Murchison, but I was watchin’ the young man. His blue eyes had hardened briefly at the first comments, and then smoothed out into blankness as the talk had continued. I saw him nod slowly, as if he’d had somethin’ confirmed he’d been wonderin’ about. I had the feelin’ he wouldn’t be stayin’ with this bunch long but was smart enough to keep his mouth shut while he was there. They rode off still mutterin’ about where I could have gone and I mounted up. The top of the trail would be safer than goin’ back down again. I’d just started on up the last section of the trail when far in the distance I heard a gun start talking. I knew if that was a fight, one of the fighters had to be Mace. That was Ben’s old buffalo gun I could hear. Mace really favored that gun an’ he’d taken to carryin’ it in a riflebucket on his saddle when he wanted a long gun handy. But the men I’d lost had been ridin’ back and they’d move out fast when they heard the sounds. I swung Beau around and headed back down the trail. He loved to run an’ he took out after them others like his tail was afire. I knew a couple of short cuts I could use an’ I circled around the fight.
They’d got behind Mace and commenced to shooting. But I was right there and before they knew it, they was between the devil an’ a mighty hot fire. Mace turned and sent a shot at ‘em. A man went down with his arm blown clean off at the elbow, an’ makin’ the sorts of sounds that take the fight out of a man who doesn’t want that to happen to him. I felt sick, though I guessed that in my place he wouldn’t have been bothered. 21
Chapter 2 I left Beau standin’ an’ bellied down, lookin’ over the edge of the ridge. I lined up my rifle an’ shot real careful twice. With their man screaming, they couldn’t tell where I was shootin’ from an’ I got two of ‘em with two shots. I tried for the leader first and got him a good one right through the belly. Then I switched and shot the one who’d been clobbered. He was turnin’ as I shot so the bullet took him square in the throat. He did some thrashin’ around tryin’ to breathe but then he just gave up and died. Right around then the others cottoned on to it that there was someone else around who had ‘em bracketed. They all dived into what cover they could find an’ for a while there weren’t anythin’ to see. But there’s always someone who gets careless. I was above ‘em so I could see the boy who’d spoken up for Illy was easin’ over to one side. After a few minutes he was a couple yards away. Mace fired off a few more rounds, and then stopped. I knew that old buzzard; He was just like Ben. If I’d been told once how to handle this here kind of situation, Ben had told me a dozen times. I sat tight and waited as Mace went quiet. After ten minutes or so with no shootin’ I guess they figured we’d pulled our freight. The man who’d been their leader might’ve told ‘em different but he weren’t in no shape to start jawing. So they did the natural thin’ for that type when they’re losin’ and the boss ain’t there t’ see. They decided to mount up and get for home. They could always tell Jackson how they’d killed a couple of us. They could explain a lack of bodies by sayin’ we must’a come back later for those. The blonde-headed young man was lyin’ off from them, curled and sort of sprawled at the same time. With half of ‘em already down I guess they thought he was dead too an’ they couldn’t care less. They didn’t even wait to look him over or grab his mount. His horse hadn’t gone far anyhow, it was just standin’ there backed partway into the brush, reins trailing. Mace had moved around the curve of his hill an’ was sittin’ there, right where the trail went. I held fire until they was all mounted, then I started in to shootin’ again. I got one clean. He dropped like a stone and his horse took off. I got a shot into a second and then they was gone, runnin’ like all get out. They went ‘round the side of that hill an’ down the trail an’ then it was Mace’s turn to shoot. The Sharps bellowed 22
Lyn McConchie twice and then a third time. I’d guess he’d hung on that last shot makin’ it careful before they was out of range. The boy was still lyin’ quiet an’ his horse standin’ there. I didn’t figure him for no coward an’ he sure hadn’t liked what the others was sayin’ about Illy an’ Jackson’s other disappearin’ women. Right about then I gambled that this was one man I didn’t need to kill. I backed up through the bushes to where Beau was standing, leavin’ the boy there. I could always kill him another time if he stayed. Mace would be movin’ out to meet me where we’d agreed. He was there when I arrived and lookin’ mighty smug. “How’d you do, boy?” “The one you got first, I finished him. I got three more, an’ another one’s packin’ lead but still moving.” “Not any more he ain’t. None of ‘em ain’t.” For a moment I felt sick again. Eight men had come against us and seven had died by our guns. But this was war. They’d started it, tryin’ to take everythin’ Illy had. Someone somewhere said that for evil to win, all it takes is for good men to do nothin’. I wasn’t goin’ to do that. I didn’t know that I was a good man exactly but I sure wasn’t gonna stand by an’ see Illy lose everything, and to Cinch Jackson at that. Mace an’ me started back an’ he was countin’ on his fingers. “Seems we missed one, boy. I counted eight men took off chasin’ you an’ we only got seven.” I explained about the last man. Then remembered somethin’ else. “Seems we’re worth a fair bit. I heard ‘em talkin’ when they lost me in the canyon. Jackson’s payin’ two hundred and fifty to whoever kills anyone sidin’ with Illy, an’ a thousand for her alive an’ in marryin’ shape.” I recalled other gossip I’d heard from the cook. “You know,” I started in on somethin’ else as we rode along. “That feller I heard about this fracas from said as how some of Jackson’s riders up and disappeared. You wouldn’t know anythin’ about that, now would you?” “Illy’s idea. She told me her pa allus said people are more scared by what they don’t understand than by what they do. So we took those boys quiet an’ dropped the bodies into places they won’t never be found. It had that Jackson roustin’ around for a while, but then he figured out he could allus get more men. Cost him though. The men 23
Chapter 2 was spooked an’ he ended up havin’ to pay higher. Why? You think we should do that agin?” “Why not? That bunch is so money-hungry they’ll sneak off alone if they think they can get a bounty on one of us.” “Humph.” I could see he was thinkin’ so I kept quiet. When Mace spoke up again it was about somethin’ different. “That young feller you let slip away, how old do you reckon he was?” “Oh, mebbe nineteen or so.” “Must’ve been a good fighter or he wouldn’t have been hired,” Mace said with a nod. “Sounds as if he’s a mite like you, boy. You’ve hired on to fight a couple of times but would you have hired on to Jackson if you knew the whole story?” “Nope.” “So mebbe this kid didn’t get told. Jackson was offerin’ high pay an’ the kid could’ve got roped in. But mebbe he didn’t hear the whole story until he got up to the ranch.” Mace looked hard at me, “An’ mebbe he didn’t much like what he heard. There’s plenty of men who’ll sell their guns, but not for a steal as raw as this. An’ likely with a decent girl dead at the end of it.” That was true enough. Sure I guessed that Jackson intended to keep his doings all quiet, but things had a habit of gettin’ out regardless. Some one always gets drunk and talks. Maybe he wouldn’t know it all, but between guessin’ and gossip there’d be talk travelin’ up the trail that Jackson wouldn’t want heard. Right about there I had an idea. “Mace? Some of those men that hired on to Jackson aren’t the kind that do much considering. But they’re sure the type that’s suspicious of everythin’. What if we talk to ‘em, tell them what we’re thinking. Some of ‘em may quit, others’ll be so busy watchin’ Jackson they’ll be less busy after us. What do you reckon?” “Do we talk to a bunch if we can, or take ‘em one by one?” “We do both. Talk to some of ‘em first, an’ vanish a couple after that if there’s a chance. An’ it’s about time we hit the house again.” “I was thinkin’ about that. You know that Illy, she’s the best thin’ I ever did see for sneakin’ up on places.” My voice was harsh. “That’s why they call her an Indian in town. Her ma was quarter Comanche an’ the rest was French an’ Irish. The Apache and Comanche raided through the area for years; half the older 24
Lyn McConchie families in town lost kin to war parties one time or another. I think McLeod figured that he lived so isolated it wouldn’t matter, an’ he loved her ma.” I shrugged. “It didn’t help that he’s always let Illy ride with him, right from when she was hardly big enough to straddle her pony. McLeod didn’t have no son. I reckon Illy was the next best thin’ an’ they liked it that way. Both things mattered to folks, but he didn’t want to see or hear it. That’s why he sent me away. I killed a boy who spoke bad about Illy. The sheriff lost his family to Comanche an’ he hated us all. He’d ‘a hung me but for a couple of travelin’ cowhands speakin’ up to say it was a fair fight. Don’t say nothin’ about it to Illy,” I added, “she don’t know.” “She do. She’s the one what told me about it. See, boy, I had an Indian wife my ownself. Buffalo hunters killed her one day when I was gone. After that I went on the outlaw trail. Robbed stages an’ banks, and the last time ‘bout four years back I got shot up. I made it away but I was packin’ lead and mighty sick. “I just kept goin’ until I lost the posse an’ ended up in the mountains back of this here basin. Illy found me. She hauled me home like a stray dog an’ doctored me up ‘til I could ride ag’in. Her Pa, he didn’t like it much. He’d guessed what I was but that Illy, she weren’t listening. After that I come back ever’ so often jest to see her. I ain’t never had no daughter but if I had, I’d like to think she’d of been like Illy. Least wise, McLeod never tried to stop me visitin’. I come back three months ago just about the time this here Jackson come pushin’ into the basin. I reckoned he was real bad medicine, so I stayed on a while.” We rode in silence after that. In some ways the story didn’t surprise me. Illy hated seein’ things hurt. I’d seen her bring home a lot of sick or injured beasts over the years. But at the same time, she was born and bred a fighter from both sides of her kin. Jackson didn’t know what he started when he killed McLeod and figured Illy would stand by. She had me ‘n Mace sidin’ her, but I knew her. If we hadn’t been there she’d have done just the same. Maybe it was the Indian in her, or mebbe the Irish, but she’d keep coming. I’ve heard some fools say that women won’t fight if the odds are against ‘em or if they don’t have a man to back ‘em, but whoever said that had never met Illy. 25
Chapter 2 I guess I was some surprised that McLeod had let Mace keep turnin’ up. McLeod had been a hard man, but his wife had been his soft spot first, an’ then Illy. He’d loved ‘em both and they loved him. Illy’d ridden with him from the time she could stick on a pony, an’ the only real dispute they ever had was over me. Well, McLeod was gone now an’ it was up to me ‘n Mace. A lot of men would die before Jackson owned the basin or laid hands on Illy. I was just wonderin’ if that blonde-haired boy I’d watched had been smart enough to pack up an’ get clear when our horses walked around a bend an’ there he was. Just sittin’ his horse with his hands in the air and a grin on his face. There are times when I gots to say that events do beat all.
Chapter 3 That blond-haired kid sat there studyin’ us while we thought for a bit, then he spoke. “Reckoned I was on the wrong side. Jackson’s segundo said there was a fight. Us against a family who’d moved in an’ claimed the Jackson ranch while he was away on a cattle-drive. Jackson got back, an’ the family wouldn’t move, wouldn’t talk. Said they’d found the ranch abandoned and they were staying.” I looked at him; “Didn’t you wonder when you found out who the boss was?” “I did, but I’d taken his money. An’ no one said who it was ‘til I was here. The segundo called him Will. There’s a lot of Jacksons an’ I had no way of knowin’ it was Cinch. Once I’d had a chance to look around I got to wonderin’ though. Cinch Jackson’s lot is a rawhide outfit. They didn’t fit with the buildings all bein’ so nice.” Mace eyed him shrewdly. “So what made you switch, boy?” The kid flushed. “Murchison.” I remembered the talk I’d overheard. That’d been the name of the one the boss man had hit for talkin’ too much. Looked as if Murchison might have done some talkin’ at other times too and mebbe that was why their leader had clobbered him so quick. The kid was still talking. “That Murchison, he said his pa had known them and he used to go on about Jackson. He figured Jackson was a big man nowadays. He said Jackson’s mother might ‘a been a whore on the line but she was married an’ she had cash money when she died. He figured that Jackson’d own half the state sooner or later, an’ all Murchison had to do was stick with him to be rich. After a while, I made sure the two of us rode together a few times an’ I got him talkin’. He made it plenty plain in the end that this whole thing was a steal, and that weren’t all by no means.” He straightened, starin’ at us both. “Look, I done some things here an’ there. But I never set out to commit no murders, nor drive a decent family off their land. An’ besides,” his eyes slid away mine for a moment, “I heard them talkin’ about Jackson’s women.” I nodded, “I heard some of that from a friend who has a ranch up on the Sweetwater. I heard he bought Indian girls twice as wives. Funny thing, since they say he don’t like Indians. The girls disappeared pretty quick an’ he gave out that they’d run off. Then one of the saloon 27
Chapter 3 girls went missing. She’d been seein’ somethin’ of Jackson an’ she told one of her friends that she was thinkin’ of marryin’ up with a man what had money. It was right after that they couldn’t find her.” “That’d a’ made talk,” Mace commented. “It surely did, but they never found nothin’ an’ it wasn’t too healthy to talk out loud.” “But you reckon Jackson done it?” “I do. That last girl, I heard tell she left most of her clothes in her room at the Saloon. Woman doesn’t do that if she’s plannin’ on goin’ for good. I think Jackson got her away quiet somehow.” The boy was lookin’ miserable. “Yeah. Murchison talked to me about all of them. I got the idea that Jackson killed the Indian girls for sure. Not on purpose, just beatin’ them too hard when he got mad about something, but dead is dead. But that saloon girl, Murchison just laughed about her. Said the boss had been gone on her for a few months but he wasn’t gonna wed up with no saloon girl. Murchison said she gave herself airs and mebbe the Boss had told her too much besides.” “Murchison say what happened to her?” I asked. “Nope. He just shrugged an’ said no one would be findin’ her an’ it didn’t pay to cross Jackson.” He looked up at us. “I don’t want no decent girl in his hands. My ma would come out’a her grave to haunt me did I do that. Murchison was makin’ it real plain that Jackson would marry up okay, but then that girl would die an’ leave the whole place to him. It ain’t right an’ I ain’t gonna be part of it. You can believe me an’ I’ll side you or I’ll ride if you don’t want me. I sure ain’t sidin’ with them no more, and that’s a fact.” I waited for Mace to decide. He didn’t have book learning, but he hadn’t lived his years without bein’ able to judge a man quick an’ sure. He nodded at me so I spoke up. “We’re for it, but Illy’s the boss. Ride with us an’ we’ll put it to her.” I led off with Mace followin’ the kid. I was pretty sure myself that he was straight, but it never hurts to take care. If either of us thought the kid would betray us, well, we both had guns. One or the other of us would be watching the kid until we was sure he was straight. We made the cave, but Illy weren’t there. I guessed she was off settin’ rabbit an’ wood hen snares. 28
Lyn McConchie The kid was all pop-eyed when he saw the cave. “You can’t a’ done all this since we came?” “Nope. This here’s bin ‘round a long time.” McLeod had always reckoned one of them mountain men had fixed it up but it could be a lot older still. Maybe some Spanish explorer lived here a while an’ began the fixin’. The boy was lookin’ about at the fireplace and chimney. “Where’s the smoke go?” “Up a long crack in the rock,” Mace told him. “It comes out on top ‘a the cliff through a bunch of young aspen. Long as we use good dry wood durin’ the day there ain’t no smoke to show by the time it gets past there. Illy’s Pa figured whoever lived here just kept on whittlin’ at the rock for years. Left the entrance small but opened things out where he could inside.” To myself I was thinkin’ what I’d thought when we first found the place — that it must have been a fair-sized cave long before anyone started in on that. There was a bench below the cave where you could always snare something, an’ mebbe that was how the cave had been found in the first place. Some lost man comin’ onto the bench, snarin’ or shootin’ food an’ then lookin’ about, desperate for shelter. There was boulders in a heap stickin’ out past one side of the mouth, an’ another thin screen of aspen along the front. It was Illy’s pup that’d found the place fer us. He’d gone yelpin’ and chasin’ after somethin’ with me an’ Illy runnin’ after. I’d been near thirteen an’ Illy just seven when we found it. We’d ridden up to check on stock in one of the high valleys, an’ we weren’t in no hurry so the pup had been allowed along. He kept tearin’ off after his imagination an’ us trailin’ him. We come scramblin’ up through the aspens after him. He been chasin’ a young rabbit an’ it ran the only way he’d left it to go - an’ there was the cave. We kept it a secret all that summer, fixin’ it up with firewood an’ stuff, and havin’ picnics there when ever we come up to check the cattle. I was too old for picnics but Illy loved ‘em, so I went along. McLeod had been told about it after that first summer. He hadn’t made no fuss about us usin’ it but later on he’d cached supplies there in a rock niche high in the wall right down the back. When McLeod was shot, an’ as soon as she saw he weren’t goin’ to die right off, Illy’d acted. She’d loaded packhorses, an’ she an’ Mace had started haulin’ 29
Chapter 3 supplies to the cave an’ half a dozen other places besides. By the time her Pa died an’ Cinch moved in, she’d cleared out food, weapons, an’ ammunition. There was packs of beddin’ an’ cookin’ gear, and medical supplies, all stashed where only she an’ Mace could find ‘em. We made sure to come through the Aspens different ways, brushing out any obvious sign, an’ keeping a close eye on any riders that got near. So far no one had guessed at the cave’s existence, but that could change any time someone got careless. The kid was still gapin’ around. “Man, this here’s a real hidey hole.” Mace grunted. “Likely whoever lived here had enemies. Indians for a start. There’ll allus be someone who’d be happier stealin’ from you than working.” I knew he hadn’t been thinkin’ of Jackson but the kid went all quiet on us, lookin’ guilty. Just then I heard Illy on the path an’ went out to meet her. “We got company.” “Who?” I talked fast, givin’ her a picture of what Mace an’ I had done all day. Illy listened. “You both think he’s honest about not knowing what he was getting into and then wanting to quit once he did?” “I really do believe it,” I told her. “But I’m not always right, Illy. Nor is Mace. Kid could be a plant from Jackson; it’s the sort of thing he’d think of. This kid lookin’ all young an’ innocent like he does is no guarantee. There’s killers who’ve looked just like that an’ fooled everyone.” I didn’t say that if I had been fooled, I didn’t plan for the boy to be talkin’ to anyone else. “I’ll talk to him. Maybe I’ll know.” That was likely. Illy could look at most men an’ sum ‘em up as if she was readin’ a book, so I figured she could read that boy well enough. She went strollin’ in, an’ I noticed the kid got to his feet real fast when he saw her. Manners. I liked that. Least sometime his Ma had taught him to be polite to a lady. He was lookin’ down towards his boots, but he took the hand she held out. “I’m Rad, miss. Rad Towsell.” 30
Lyn McConchie “Lilly McLeod, Call me Illy.” She grinned at him. “Everyone else does.” He looked at Illy an’ his eyes went round. For a minute there I was puzzled. Then it was like I was seein’ her through new eyes myself. She was tall an’ slender but she had a woman’s shape where it counted. Her hair hung in long black plaits over her shoulders and you just knew that when it was let down it would ripple in a curtain of midnight almost to her knees. Her eyes were the same storm gray McLeod’s had been. Here in the mountains she was wearin’ the same as us. Buckskin pants an’ jacket with a black an’ red checked wool shirt, an’ mebbe they fitted a mite snug. Since she hadn’t been doin’ any riding, she was wearin’ knee-high moccasins for scramblin’ up an’ down that bench while she set the snares. She had a gun-belt ‘round her hips an’ that wasn’t anythin’ to take lightly either. Despite her small hands an’ feet, she had wrists like steel. She could draw darn near as fast as I could and shoot every bit as good. As kids we’d pretended to be gunslingers, and practiced for hours although I had a good head start on that. McLeod never knew about the fast draws, but he encouraged us to shoot. Meanwhile, Illy was chattin’ with the kid an’ he was listenin’ with a look on his face like someone’d hit him from behind. Sort of stunned an’ surprised as all get out. But it weren’t long before he was chatterin’ back to her with us listenin’ as we got food heated. Seemed like Illy reckoned him okay an’ that was almost good enough for me, although Mace an’ me would still watch him any time someone else was about. I weren’t takin’ no chances. Anyway, from his talk I gathered that he was eighteen, an’ his Ma and Pa were dead. He’d been alone since he was fourteen, lookin’ out for hisself an’ rustlin’ a living, and he hadn’t but one widowed sister left as kin. She was six years older and she’d been married to a storekeeper over in Arizona. Rad hadn’t seen her in more’n a year. “She’s got two girls, Miss Illy. Her man died an’ it ain’t easy on her, managin’ the store and takin’ care of the kids. They’d have taken me in when Ma died, but they wasn’t makin’ much, an’ I could manage. Then her man died so I send money to her when I can to help out. Fact is, I ain’t sent some in a while. I drew my pay last week an’ I ain’t spent none of it yet. I need to get down to town so as I can send some to Sis an’ the kids.” 31
Chapter 3 We looked at each other. The truth was, we all needed to get into town. Mace had come up with an idea about Jackson not gettin’ his hands too easy on the basin. If Illy made a proper legal will, then so long as she hadn’t married Jackson he still couldn’t take her land. It’d go to who ever she’d left it. An’ who ever that was could start a pretty good fire under Jackson if he was still on McLeod land. Jackson was like to have trouble marryin’ Illy anyway. She weren’t goin’ to stand there and say ‘I do’ all quiet an’ obedient no matter what he did. With the ruckus she’d raise, there were few parsons around who’d take the risk. If one did risk it, there’d likely be people at the weddin’ who’d talk long ‘n loud about her not bein’ willin’ anyhow. If Jackson married Illy without no one around, then where was his proof he’d wed her all legal if an heir come sniffin’ around an’ askin’ questions? An’ Illy wanted to write to a couple of men who’d been friends to her Pa. They owed McLeod, and she hoped they’d remember that an’ stand for her in any legal dispute over the basin bein’ deeded an’ hers. Me, I wanted to scratch out a few lines to a friend of mine. I ain’t much of a hand to write but I can manage if I have to. I’d worked with Apache Pete on an’ off while I was at the Elman ranch. As a boy he’d lived with the Apache for several years, his father tradin’ with them, and he dearly loved a good fight. If there was one thing as put up Pete’s back, it was someone pickin’ on womenfolk. Mace didn’t have anyone to write to, an’ so far as I knew he couldn’t have written if he had. But there was that will idea an’ he was almost out of tobacco. It comes hard on a man who’s used to rollin’ a smoke when he wants. I wasn’t sure I liked the chance we’d be taking, but havin’ them letters in the mail could help, so we talked it over some and decided to ride out next morning. “Not Chama,” I said. “Mace an’ me might be okay there, but what if Jackson or any of his lot are in town? They’d recognize Rad here, an’ there’s too many in town who could guess who Illy might be.” Mace glanced out at the sky. “Be a fine day. What about cuttin’ over to Española? Take us a day over an’ another one back but they ain’t any of Jackson’s bunch likely to show there. Not with Chama bein’ only half the distance.” I nodded. “So we’ll ride for Española come sunup. It’s a fair-sized place, thirty, forty buildings on four streets last I heard. An’ a saloon 32
Lyn McConchie that’s usually busy. I got somethin’ else in mind on that. There’s a ranch we’ll pass about an hour before the town. They’re honest folk an’ they ain’t likely to be friendly with Jackson. They knew Illy’s Pa and I reckon they won’t talk even if they don’t want to buy into no fight. We can borrow different horses there to ride in on.” Rad looked puzzled and I explained. “People talk in small towns. The people that live in Española most probably won’t know us but if we come in ridin’ Circle M horses, word’s likely t’ get around. Once it gets to Jackson, he’d have a man in town from then on. He might not risk attackin’ us in town in front of witnesses, but the trip home could be a horse of a different color.” Mace sat up and added to that. “I’ll tell you, son, it’s purely amazin’ how many folks can vanish in rough country. It don’t take much, you just ain’t around no more. Mebbe you’ve gone south for the winter, who knows? Ridin’ in on horses showin’ other brands like Johnny says could be a way to make it safer for all of us. So that’s what we done the next day. We arrived after dusk and Illy, dressed in Rad’s spare loose clothin’ with her hair tucked up inside a too-big stetson, made a fair boy. Early mornin’ before full light she went off on her own for a whole day to see friends, an’ came back after dark again lookin’ smug with somethin’ rolled up in a blanket. I knew that look. It meant she had an idea, an’ right now all our ideas were against Cinch. I annoyed her by sayin’ nothin’ about the parcel. Mace an’ the kid took that idea from me an’ kept quiet too. We ended up stayin’ two nights and, so far as any of us knew, we made it into town and out again without bein’ noticed.
Once we hit the cave again and coffee was on, Illy unrolled the blanket and smirked at us. I couldn’t help grinnin’ back. That was the darndest idea, an’ what with Cinch’s lot bein’ from a fair distance away, they could fall for it. Indians did raid through the area. Just two years back they’d clobbered a ranch and a wagon with a family goin’ off to some hoe-down. Caught ‘em in the open and massacred the lot of ‘em, took all the stock, an’ burned the buildin’s. The basin had never had much trouble that way. McLeod got on real well with the local 33
Chapter 3 tribe, an’ apart from that, the basin was a long way from the path raiders usually took. Illy’d gone and got herself a pair of bows. They was Comanche make but the arrows she’d got were Apache. I weren’t much of a shot but Illy was, and like a lot of men his age this far West, Mace had lived with the Indians a while an’ used their weapons. Illy had her a good bundle of arrows an’ they was the real Apache man-killers. Rad was big-eyed. “We gonna shoot somethin’ with those?” Mace looked at him. “A few dead men turn up with Apache arrows in ‘em, an’ Jackson’s men’ll get mighty spooked.”
We took time for a good night’s rest, an’ then a day to drift down towards the ranch real careful, an’ took up a position to see everythin’ they did. I’d loaned Rad Ben’s old pistol. No cowhand was like to use one of them any more, there was better, newer, guns available, but to an Indian they was good medicine. We weren’t goin’ t’ shoot guns if we could help it though. A hand or two dead an’ no one knowin’ ‘til mornin’ would spook ‘em far more. They’d made another gather of Illy’s cattle, an’ two men were on night duty over to the West of the basin. We’d strike there first an’ then move back past the ranch. Dependin’ on what we found, we might start somethin’ there or give it the go by. Mace was out front an’ come driftin’ back without any noise. “Jest the two guards, an’ I’d say they changed over not long ago. Bein’ so close to the ranch the guards’ll likely be ridin’ out an’ back from the bunkhouse. Leastwise, that’s my guess. Illy, you an’ Rad circle around an’ take the man on the far side. Me’n Johnny’ll take this one. Rad, don’t you go shootin’ off that cannon ‘less you have to.” We split up and I cat-footed it into the dark behind Mace.
The man on night watch was singin’. That ain’t done because night watch likes to sing, but so’s the cattle know who’s ridin’ around. Come sneakin’ up on any animal in the dark an’ you’re likely to spook ‘em. If you’ve just spent four or five days gatherin’ ‘em into a herd, the last 34
Lyn McConchie thing you want is to scatter ‘em again. One of the other reasons a night watch can be singin’ is so as his partner knows where he is, an’ that he’s okay. We all knew that, so we waited ‘til the song was finished. Just about the time the night watch on our side of the herd took breath to start again, Mace had him sky-lined and let fly. There was a gurglin’ moan, then a thump an’ the sound of a horse shyin’ away. I slipped forward and got hold of the loose reins. We’d rather there weren’t no announcement of what was goin’ on out here, an’ a loose horse comin’ back to the ranch like the devil was after him would give the game away. The song on the other side of the herd slowed down an’ went quiet. The second man would be wonderin’ if somethin’ was wrong or if his partner just couldn’t think of a song. Before he got to wonderin’ too hard, Illy must have sighted him an’ shot. We couldn’t hear nothing, just that he wasn’t startin’ up no song again either, an’ a few minutes later there was Illy an’ Rad with a third horse. The cattle was startin’ to stand up and look bothered. We didn’t want no noisy stampede so we moved in an’ split the herd into four. Then we just drifted each section of ‘em away, allowed ‘em to spread out and keep walking. After that, we done some whisperin’ and the upshot was all of us headin’ down to the ranch buildings. Jackson had set a couple of the boys cuttin’ more wood after we’d burned the woodpile for him. It hadn’t gone down too well with those boys, seein’ as they was fighters an’ not woodcutters, but Cinch had made it stick. So now there was another big stack ‘o wood cut for the cook fire an’ we just knew how happy them boys would be to do that all over again. Mace chose a good spot t’ wait, an’ Illy shifted so as there’d be a crossfire. Then Rad and I got a fire goin’ in all those wood chips at the bottom of the stack. Bein’ as how it was close to midnight, it took a while for the boys to wake up, but when they did they come out whoopin’ an’ wavin’ buckets. Illy picked off one to her side an’ the others was all too busy to notice. Then Mace started lettin’ fly. He had three arrows away before the boys saw that they was bein’ shot at, an’ by then Illy was shootin’ again as well. They mostly weren’t killin’ anyone. What with the firelight flickerin’ against the dark, an’ the boys tearin’ around, it was hard to hit 35
Chapter 3 a man square. But then we weren’t necessarily aimin’ to kill noone, jest scare ‘em all and make them boys real miserable. That we was doin’ pretty good. I guess it weren’t fun for Jackson’s boys, but for us out there it was as funny as a pig at a political meetin’. Two of them hands was down and it didn’t look like they’d be gettin’ back up.
Illy’s second shot’d taken one of the boys across the back of his shoulder. It was only a cut, but it must’ve stung. He spun real fast, lost 36
Lyn McConchie his balance and landed sittin’ in the fringe of the coals. He come out of that hollerin’ and slappin’ at his pants with a friend helpin’ put the fire out. Illy must have thought she’d liven things up a mite more because her next shot took his friend square in the seat of his pants. He let out a scream that brought Jackson runnin’ in his long johns, commencin’ to bawl orders to all and sundry as he come through the doorway. I guess by that time Rad was feelin’ out of it an’ started shootin’ with that ole gun. He was fannin’ it, which don’t gave much of an aim but it sure makes the lead fly an’ a real storm of it come howlin’ at Jackson who took a leap backwards. He’d got past the door post though, and he wasn’t quite clear where it was behind him. He bounced off that post, fell over, an’ the last we saw was the seat of his long johns vanishin’ through the door as he scrambled for cover on his knees. All of Jackson’s boys were under cover in different places by now, an’ shootin’ back. I dunno what they was aimin’ for, but they was slingin’ an awful lot of lead in all directions while they whooped and hollered. About then I had an idea too an’ drifted off round the ranch house corner. I shot twice at the bunkhouse an’ them boys still inside was so jumpy, they started slingin’ lead back. It was hittin’ the ranch house, smashin’ the windows, an’ Jackson was screamin’ for them to stop. I whistled up the others, an’ we scrammed out of there, headin’ back to where the cattle was still driftin’ along to join their friends. A couple of whoops and every critter on that side of the basin decided to be somewhere else. It’d take Jackson another week to gather a herd again, and some poor fool would have to cut more wood. We made for the cave an’ every so often Illy would start giggling. If it weren’t a girl’s trick I’d have been gigglin’ myself, an’ I got the impression even old Mace found it all pretty funny.
Jackson’d never found the hidden trail what ran into the basin from outside, so the kid an’ I rode down it the next day. We picketed our horses and injuned down to lie up in cover by the main trail out of the ranch. 37
Chapter 3 It sure was interestin’ to look at things down there. We’d done more damage than I’d believed: two men were bad hurt, six more with flesh wounds of some kind, and two of the boys was quitting. From what we could hear, they couldn’t seem to decide if it’d been real Indians or us, and from what they said at least two of the injured boys had bin shot by their own side. The two who was quittin’ was the ones that’d cut the last woodpile. Jackson had told ‘em to cut more, an’ they done told him they didn’t hire on to be woodcutters. He’d said they could draw their time and it seemed that was fine by them. Mace was back to countin’ on his fingers. “We just about got ‘em on the run, Johnny. There’s the three me ‘n Illy took quiet afore you come here. Four we got with that first stampede an shooting. We took seven o’ em that time they chased you, and Rad done quit. Two we got with them arrows at the herd. There’s others quit too now, an’ a bunch too hurt to earn their keep for a bit. They’ll ride. Jackson won’t pay an’ feed ‘em for nothing, an’ that won’t sit well with his hands neither.” He was right. I could only figure that with the way we were whittlin’ Jackson’s men down, in another few days he’d be there alone. Exceptin’ knowin’ Jackson, he wouldn’t set by an’ wait for that. He’d be hirin’ again real soon, and I figured I knew what kind of men. That was sure a worryin’ thought. They’d made a mistake takin’ on young Rad an’ a couple of other decent hands who’d quit once they knew the score, but Cinch wouldn’t make the same mistake twice. Next time, he’d make sure that all ‘a them he hired was real hard-cases. Killers. The sort who wouldn’t care what they did just so long as they was paid well. And if Jackson offered enough, they’d take a lot of chances an’ do most anything. Looked like we’d better be see’n if we could lay hands on some answer to that. It was for sure that we had to do something.
Chapter 4 Three days later, Mace an’ I were ridin’ the high country. We’d promised Illy that we’d check on the horses an’ see if we could get us a deer to help out supplies. I was half-dreamin’ when Mace spoke. “Johnny?” It took me a moment to answer, then I said, “Yeah?” “I never did hear how you ended up in the basin.” It wasn’t a question, just a fact an’ a suggestion that he wouldn’t mind hearin’ if I didn’t mind telling. It ain’t safe to ask questions out West. It’s too likely the man you ask won’t like it. But it’s all right ta make a statement an’ wait, an’ that was what Mace done. I didn’t mind answering. There wasn’t anythin’ to be ashamed of... so I thought, and then started in to talkin’ half to myself an’ rememberin’ as I went. “I don’t recall much of the wagon train West. My pa was Dave Calder, a good hard-workin’ man who’ saved a bit of cash and took Ma an’ me West where land was free. We settled on our homestead piece an’ it was fine for a couple of years. Ma was young an’ pretty, always laughing. But I’d have to say - lookin’ back on what I remember of her - she wasn’t geared for the long haul. I loved her but she liked towns an’ pretty things an’ there weren’t none of that where Pa settled. “When I was seven, Pa died. I dunno what it was. He come home with a fever, took to his bed, an’ he was dead two days later. We kept workin’ the place but then Peso come by about a year later, just when Ma was over her grief and gettin’ quick sick of bein’ alone. He was tall an’ good lookin’, an’ Ma fell for him. She sold the farm, all but Pa’s horse an’ my pony, and we pulled out with her new man. I can’t say he wasn’t good to us. He was always gentle with Ma an’ he used to talk to me. I was old enough to know we could’ve done worse. “But he was a gunslinger, Mace. Lookin’ back, I know now that he took on jobs that was just murders dressed up. He’d ride into a new town an’ pick a fight, often usin’ Ma as an excuse, an’ gun the man down. Then he’d collect his pay an’ we’d ride out for the next place. Ma liked it. The moving, the towns, the fancy clothes he bought her. And I think she liked bein’ the excuse an’ seein’ men die over her. “I never did know his real name. He was called Peso because in town he always wore a hat with a ring of polished pesos around the 39
Chapter 4 brim. I think mebbe he’d come from a good family because he spoke like a gentleman. Ma called him Peso mostly but once or twice she called him James. He made sure I got some schoolin’ along the way too. He read well an’ some nights by a fire along the trail he’d read to Ma an’ me. I got pretty fond of ‘em an’ I think he liked me. Leastwise I know he never tried to get Ma to leave me behind. “We were with him for nigh on two years. I learned to handle a gun pretty slick durin’ that time. He taught me to watch my back trail, an’ how to tell somethin’ about people — the way they thought and how they might act — and the two ain’t always the same thing. But there’s an old cowhand saying: There ain’t a horse that can’t be rode an’ a rider that can’t be throwed. “One day Peso walked out into the street to meet his man like he’d done a dozen times. He won as he always did an’ we stopped the night an’ collected his fee, but as we rode out of town next mornin’ with him leadin’ us there was a single rifle shot. Peso went down an’ stayed there. Ma an’ me was holdin’ his hands but I could see there weren’t nothin’ more we could do. He was going. “Peso, he looked up at Ma an’ said, ‘It’s been good, Laura. Take the money I was paid, and my horse and gear, and get out of here. Settle down with the boy somewhere and be happy.’“ “I was fond of him an’ I was tryin’ to keep from bawling. He knew it an’ he squeezed my hand. “Don’t cry for me, son. I’m not worth it. You’re a good lad and I’m glad to have had you along. Don’t pick up a gun too quickly, you’ll be good the way you’re going but there’s always someone better or a back-shooter like that one out there.” “He gasped for breath but his hands tightened on ours an’ his face twisted into a regretful smile. ‘Live by the gun, die by the gun. I should never have shot that first man when I was sixteen. He was only a fool and a man shouldn’t die for that. Take care of your mother, Johnny.’ I saw the life go out of his face then as he gave a sort of sigh, and that was it. “It weren’t easy but Ma an’ me got Peso’s body back up on his horse. Ma said that considerin’ events, it weren’t likely the last town would let us bury him there so we rode on to the next. We gave him a decent funeral there an’ I took the hatband to remember him by. We sold his gear an’ my pony an’ I took Peso’s horse. Then we kept going. 40
Lyn McConchie “But ma wasn’t the kind of woman who was cut out to be left alone without a man. Three months later, she picked up with a real tinhorn gambler. I wasn’t happy about that. I didn’t like the man nor trust him, an’ I was right. We got to Chama an’ that night he had a run of bad luck. He’d had ‘em before, I don’t think he was much of a gambler, but this time he blamed ma. “We was on the boardwalk an’ he started in to cussin’ her. A big gray-eyed man came walkin’ by an’ told him to mind his manners, no woman should be spoken to that way. The gambler told him to mind his business and belted ma. I went for him an’ the next thin’ I knew I was sittin’ in the road seein’ all them pretty stars. A few seconds later the gambler was down there with me an’ the big man was standin’ over him.” “I’ll not stand by to see a woman and a boy abused,” he said. “We can continue this if you’d like.” “I’d always knowed the gambler was a coward, an’ it was plain he weren’t gonna start nothing. He picked himself up and went off lookin’ ugly, and the man helped me up.” “You all right, boy?” he asked me. “Yes, sir. Thank you.” I said. I dunno what made me say it then but I looked up at him an’ blurted it out, “He ain’t my father. He’s a mean man, mister. You watch your back.” He nodded, “I will, lad. Don’t worry. You take your mother back to the hotel.” “I did, an’ when we got there the gambler was packing. Ma started in with our gear and he sneered at her.” “Don’t bother. You ain’t comin’ with me. I got a couple more things to do, and then I’m gone. You can stay here, or go to hell. But you’re trouble, and I’m leavin’ you an’ that bad luck brat behind.” “He picked up his bag an’ walked out. I didn’t say anythin’ to ma. She was standin’ there lookin’ upset but not surprised. I wasn’t surprised neither but I had a few ideas an’ I ran for the livery stable to check. I got there in time to get our horses an’ gear out. I run the horses around back and tied’em in the middle of a clump of trees. Right after I got around the corner again to listen, the gambler come towards the front door talkin’ to the hostler. I figured his horse would be close by an’ I went looking. 41
Chapter 4 “It was there with his valise aboard. I opened that up quick and sure enough, there was Peso’s hatband an’ ma’s little doeskin purse with all our money. Beside them was the bits of jewelry Peso’d bought ma a time or two. I snatched ‘em up, stickin’ ‘em in my pocket and fadin’ back into the shadows. The gambler come out of the stable lookin’ mad and the hostler hidin’ a smile. They couldn’t see me so I didn’t bother to hide my grin. That was two horses the gambler weren’t sellin’. “He went stampin’ off an’ I noticed he had his rifle with him. It made sense against what I was fearin’ so I followed along. Up ahead, the man who’d helped ma an’ me came out of the freight office and the gambler lifted his rifle. I picked up a pebble an’ threw it at him an’ yelled a warning. The gambler shot too quick an’ missed. The big man didn’t. “The sheriff come to see ma right after. They shut the door on me an’ I heard ma’s voice go up in anger and refusal. There was some more yelling, then the sheriff come slammin’ out, a scratch down one cheek and the meanest look I ever seen in anyone’s eyes. I heard him say somethin’ about seein’ ma never got a job anywhere around decent folk. Then he pushed past the big gray-eyed man who was comin’ up the stairs, an’ went stampin’ out the hotel door. The big man looked me over then spoke up thoughtful. “Your mother in, boy?” “Yes, sir.” I called ma and she showed him into her room an’ shut the door. Seemed to me like an awful lot of shut doors lately with me on the other side, but they both come out real soon an’ ma was smiling. A day after that, I found we was ridin’ back to the basin. The gambler was buried an’ ma had hired on with the big man to look after his little girl. I gave ma her things back quiet when we nooned for somethin’ to eat, but I saw the man lookin’ at me. He come over and shook my hand then. “I owe you, boy. I’m John McLeod. You say that man wasn’t your father?” “I done me some talkin’ until he understood. Then he said, “Well, you have a home now. Just so long as you know, boy: I have no time for killers, gamblers, gunslingers and drunks. A man should be able to take a drink without gettin’ drunk. He should be able to play cards for what he can afford and no more, and a man kills only when he has to -42
Lyn McConchie to stay alive -- be it animals or men he’s shooting at. And he doesn’t ask for trouble.” “Then he walked away, leavin’ me standin’ there. That was John McLeod. He was a good man but he was always sure of what was right and wrong, an’ there was no give in him once his mind was made up.” I shut up for a while after that. I was rememberin’ how it had gone. Ma had been hired to housekeep, to do everythin’ a woman did what wasn’t cookin’, and maybe John McLeod hoped that a woman would be a good example for Illy. Illy’d been asleep when we arrived at the ranch. I tumbled into bed an’ slept, an’ when I sat up to breakfast she was there. McLeod introduced us. “Johnny, this is my daughter, Illy. Illy, this is Johnny Calder. His mother has come to work for us. When you’re both finished eating, you can show him the ranch.” She must have been five an’ some months at that time. I was eleven. In hours we knew we liked each other, an’ in days we were friends, an’ that was that. She must have been lonely on the ranch. There weren’t no other children within a day’s ride. No other ranches for that matter. Her mother’d died a year earlier and her father, while he adored her, was always busy. Illy was still too small to ride with him when he would be gone the entire day so sometimes she was alone in the house, apart from the cook, from dawn ‘til dusk. “She wasn’t unhappy.” I said to Mace. “Illy was always independent. But the two of us together had something. We thought the same way, and after I arrived there was no more loneliness for either of us.” Mace had been listening. “Do you think of her as a sister, boy?” “Not really. More like a friend. Peso once said that a man likes someone to protect. That it’s a warm feelin’ knowin’ that someone trusts and relies on you.” It’d been that way with me ‘n Illy. By the time she was seven an’ I was twelve it was like we’d known each other all our lives. She was big enough then to start ridin’ a lot further. McLeod could have made me do more on the ranch, but I think he saw how happy she was with me an’ let it be. We rode or scrambled over every yard of the basin before movin’ out into high valleys an’ mountains behind. 43
Chapter 4 It was me that found Illy her pup. Lord knows what breed he was, but whatever it was, it was big. He’d come in as one of a litter to his ma on a freight wagon. The owner dumped ‘em in a sack, an’ the sack into the stream back of Chama. We was in town for once and saw the pup tear open the sack an’ crawl out. One of the town boys started pushin’ him back under, proddin’ him with a sharp stick until he whimpered an’ Illy screamed at me. “Johnny! Johnny, stop him!” I couldn’t stand to hear her so upset so I dived in. Long an’ short of it was that I got the pup - an’ a black eye. McLeod said nothin’ when we turned up. Me with my face turnin’ all shades, an’ Illy cryin’ and cuddlin’ a soaked, filthy, shiverin’ pup. He rang the hotel bell, sent the clerk for a basin of warm water, soap, a towel, an’ milk. Then he cleaned the pup and fed it. Once it had fallen asleep in Illy’s arms again he sat back. “All right, daughter, stop cryin’ and tell me what happened.” She did. “An’ Johnny was wonderful, honest. That boy hit him an’ hit him but Johnny wouldn’t let go of the puppy. I can keep him, can’t I, daddy?” McLeod’s face softened as it always did when he looked at her. “I see no reason why not. Now go to your room and get ready for dinner. I want to talk to Johnny.” He waited until the door was shut. “That was a brave thing, rescuing the dog. I do wish you hadn’t hit the boy though.” “I’m sorry, Sir. He tried to stop me gettin’ the pup out of the water so I hit him. Then when I had my hands full, he hit me several more times, the last time in the face.” “A coward’s way. But cowards can sometimes be more dangerous than a brave man. Try to stay away from him in future. Go and clean up, we’ll eat in half an hour.” I grinned, remembering. “Illy named the puppy Bigfoot. He had the biggest paws you ever did see. He went everywhere with us by the time he was six months, and in a year he could keep up with the horses on an all day ride. He obeyed McLeod, seemin’ to understand that that’d be smart an’ he liked me but he worshipped Illy. Full grown he stood three feet at the shoulder. McLeod said he might be part Mastiff mixed with some sort of hound. 44
Lyn McConchie “It was almost a year before we rode into town again. Illy and I took our pennies off to the store to argue over candy. Then, with our mouths full, we headed back to the hotel. In the distance, I spotted the boy I’d fought over Bigfoot. I steered Illy another way. I’d promised McLeod that I’d avoid trouble but that boy, Billy Bascombe was his name, had seen me too. He must have run along the back of several buildings because he appeared sudden like in front of us just as we reached the hotel door. “Well, if it ain’t the dirty Injun brat an’ the whore’s son.” “I tell you, for a moment I stood there too stunned to move. I should’ve guessed that with my ma and McLeod livin’ in the same house there’d be gossip. Everyone in town would remember she’d come in with a gambler, that McLeod had killed him, and then ridden off with us and no weddin’. To their narrow minds it made sense, but it never occurred to me that people would think that way. McLeod treated ma with a quiet, almost cold politeness, an’ no more. “But if I was too stunned to move, Illy wasn’t, an’ Billy had a wildcat at his throat. I’d learned some wrestlin’ an’ choke holds from Peso, an’ for fun I’d taught Illy all I knew. Billy was taken by surprise and I guess he was expectin’ trouble from the wrong quarter, so he was howlin’ on the ground before he understood the danger. He staggered to his feet and I would have moved in but for McLeod’s arrival. “John, what is happening here?” Billy began to accuse me furiously even as he sniveled. It was all my fault. I thought I was superior. I’d sneered at him. Illy rounded on him. “You tell lies.” She faced her father. “It was me that hit him. He said bad things about Johnny’s mother an’ he called me names.” By now Mister Bascombe had arrived and was backin’ his son. “If my boy says that kid hit him then that’s the truth.” He turned to a late arrival. “I want this boy arrested for assault, Sheriff. Bad blood always tells. That’s the second time my son’s been assaulted by this - “ McLeod leaned forward and spoke quietly. “Better be careful what that next word’s goin’ to be, Bascombe. As I recall, the first time your son was struck he was torturing a puppy. He waited to strike back until the boy had picked up the dog and couldn’t defend himself. If my daughter says that this time it was she who hurt your boy, then I believe 45
Chapter 4 her.” His voice dropped dangerously. “And I’d also like to know just what names he called my daughter and the boy’s mother.” Mister Bascombe backed up and grabbed Billy. “You haven’t heard the last of this. I reckon you bein’ a big rancher, you think you can come into town an’ intim- ,” he groped for the word and found it, “ Intimidate us smaller people.” He dragged Billy away as the sheriff stepped forward. He looked almost pleased to be able to speak up. “McLeod, we don’t like people who come into town to make trouble. I suggest you take the kids an’ ride out.” “When I have completed my business Sheriff, which will be very shortly, I will.” “See that it is.” The Sheriff’s face was smug with meanness. “I tell you, I could see that John McLeod was angry but he nodded politely and guided us both in front of him into the hotel. “Stay up in my room,” he said when we reached it. “I’ll be back for you in an hour or so, and we can go home.” I don’t know what Illy told him. They talked alone briefly before he left again, and after that he said nothin’ to me. I guessed she’d repeated the words used and he’d considered them sufficient provocation. “I went to town only once more before I met Billy that last time. It was for ma’s funeral and I was fourteen, Illy was nine. Afterwards, McLeod had a headstone put up. It had ma’s names, the dates of her birth and death, and underneath those, a single phrase, “A Decent Woman.” “The sheriff was there as the stone was put in place and I saw his eyes. By now I understood why he was our enemy. Ma had turned him down, made him feel small, and he was the kind of man who couldn’t live with that. There wasn’t much he could do in front of everyone at her funeral. Even the worst of the townspeople would protest if he tried. But he and the Bascombes were my enemies. I should have remembered that the next time I went to town. But I didn’t. “It was all an accident. It was Illy’s tenth birthday that day, an’ McLeod asked me to ride in an’ pick up her present from the freight station. I’d saved a dollar an’ meant to buy her ribbons at the store an’ a box of candy.” It came back to me then: the hot, dry day, the dust in the street. It was true I wore a gun, but I had no thought of trouble. Sometimes a 46
Lyn McConchie gun was all that stood between a man and a painful death bein’ thrown and dragged with a boot trapped in a stirrup or head down over an Indian fire. I got in without seein’ anyone much, stabled my horse, and walked down to buy the candy an’ ribbons. Billy Bascombe was there in back of the store. I never saw him. Not until I’d been served. I hurried from the store hopin’ there’d be no trouble. It was Illy’s birthday. How could I bring trouble to her as a gift? But if wishes were horses, beggars would ride. Billy found me as I left the freight station. A distant relative of his father’s, a Mr. Janson, was nearby with his back to us. I thought later that he might have heard what was said to me, but he never spoke up nor would I foul my mouth in court by repeatin’ it. Rage flared so strong in me that I gasped as though I’d been burned. Then I let fall Illy’s presents and struck Billy with all my strength. Even as he was fallin’ I struck again and again. He sprawled in the dirt; his nose broken, face bloodied... and then his eyes warned me. I swear he meant to kill me, so savage was the look on his face as his hand stabbed downwards. He drew the gun at his side, began to raise it - I had my own out in one flickerin’ movement and shot twice. Billy Bascombe sprawled dead in the Chama street. Dead at sixteen and by my hand. “I’ll never be sure if I killed him because he’d have killed me if I hadn’t shot first or because of the filthy things he said about Illy.” Numbly, I’d stooped to gather Illy’s gifts, and then walked to the stable, mounted my horse and rode home. We had time to celebrate Illy’s birthday, an’ then the next day they came for me. I was tried, the cowhands who’d seen what happened spoke up, and I was free. I think John McLeod knew that if I stayed the Sheriff would have found some other opportunity to use against me, but whether he did or not, he was angry about what I’d done. I tried to explain I’d been given no choice in the matter, but I couldn’t bring myself to repeat the words used, and he seemed not to understand. John McLeod had loved his wife and he loved Illy, but for years he’d refused to see how the town felt about them. Now was no exception. Once I was free again, I rode back to the ranch with McLeod and Illy, and slept the night in peace. But with first light McLeod came to my bedside to wake me. He led me outside to where 47
Chapter 4 my horse waited, bridled and saddled, a slicker-wrapped blanket-roll tied on behind. “When I took you in I warned you I would have killers or gunslingers here. Ride out and keep going.” I was stunned but I think he took it for defiance. “I’ll not tell you twice, boy. Ride out. If you wish to write to Illy you may, but I will not have you here.” Under his eyes I had no choice. I made only one plea.”Can I say good-bye to Illy?” “No. She’ll get over it, and a clean, fast break is the best.” John McLeod had stood there waiting, immovable, like the mountains. Bigfoot was whinin’ beside us. I laid one hand on his head in farewell, and then swung up feelin’ a bitter betrayal. I’d fought for Illy an’ this was my reward - to be driven away like some unwanted stray. I said no more though; I’d not let him hear me beg twice. So I straightened my back and rode out down the pass from the basin. Behind me I heard the dog start to howl but I refused to turn around. I knew trails in and out of the basin that McLeod had never found, as did Illy. Once through the pass I circled, picked up a faint trail up the mountain and followed it. I would wait in our cave. I knew she would come there as soon as she could get away. I wasn’t quite sixteen and, boy-like, I hoped that once I’d seen Illy an’ told her what her father had done, she’d be able to talk him around. Apart from that, there were other ways to say good-bye despite John McLeod. I’d not leave Illy thinkin’ I’d gone without caring. I knew her. At ten no one bows easily to fate, Illy less than most. It would hurt her far more to believe I’d simply ridden away forgettin’ our friendship than to know I went unwilling. It took three days but at last she came, Bigfoot with her. She wasn’t cryin’ but I could see from her eyes she had been. She did cry a little as she told me of her father’s refusal to reconsider. “I tried, Johnny. He won’t listen.” “Mebbe he’s right, Illy. It’s likely the sheriff will cause trouble for both of you if I stay.” “But that boy would have killed you! Those men said so at the trial. They said you didn’t want to shoot. That you waited until the last moment. Johnny, please don’t go.” She was cryin’ harder and I hugged her gently. 48
Lyn McConchie “I have to, Illy. I’ll write you. Your Pa said I could. I’ll travel the World an’ send you presents from all the seven seas. Don’t cry. Look, mebbe he’ll change his mind in a year or so. I’ll come back then an’ see.” “You will, promise?” I promised, then she handed me a package. “Don’t open it until you’re far away. You’ll need to eat.” She hugged me an’ then she was runnin’ back to her pony. I knew she was cryin’ again an’ I felt bad about it. I opened the package next morning. I’d been too miserable to eat that night. It was food but right at the bottom was a small flat packet. I opened that to find Illy’s hoard. She’d been savin’ I knew but I’d had no idea she had so much. There was an eagle an’ five silver dollars. Fifteen dollars in all. Wages for a hand for half a month. With that in my pockets I wouldn’t starve ‘til I could find work. I couldn’t take it back. McLeod had sent me away. If I sent it to her he’d know we’d seen each other an’ I had no wish to bring his anger down on her. I’d keep the money, use every cent with care. An’ I’d keep my promise. I’d send her gifts on her birthday when I could, an’ I’d write regular. I’d save my money when I had wages, an’ I’d work to make somethin’ of myself. I figured that one day I’d ride back to the basin an’ show McLeod I wasn’t just a fool kid with a too-fast gun. But the truth is none of us know the future - an’ how was I to know mine?
Chapter 5 I woke up the next mornin’ thinkin’ about Jackson. Murchison had told Rad that Cinch’s ma was a whore off the line. Maybe seein’ all he’d seen, he’d come to hate her, an’ ended up thinkin’ bad about all women. I suppose I could understand that, but it didn’t mean I wanted Illy in his hands. John McLeod had been in town with me an’ ma once when another man come past, walkin’ heavy-heeled. Mebbe I’d looked after him admiringly because McLeod had dropped a hand to my shoulder. “It isn’t how expensively a man dresses or what he looks like that counts, boy. It’s what’s inside. Even the best lookin’ apple can have a worm. And a man like that, a man who expects other men to step aside for him, usually inside he feels less than they are and he’s actin’ that way to see that they don’t guess it’s so.” I remembered that day as I thought about Cinch, an’ I wondered if it was somethin’ like that with him. Maybe havin’ grown up with his ma a whore meant he was always tryin’ to look better than a whore’s son? But whether it was or not, we’d have to do something. It was Rad who gave me the next idea. We was all talkin’ about Cinch’s hands an’ his havin’ to gather the herd a third time an’ just how happy that’d make the boys, when it come to me. “So why’s he gatherin’ that herd?” Illy looked at me as if I was soft in the head. “So he can sell it of course.” Then her face went thoughtful. “Oh, I see what you mean. They’re all branded. Who’s he going to sell Circle M cattle to who won’t ask awkward questions. A small herd, too. He’s never put together more than five - six hundred. The basin has three times that number.” Mace was sittin’ whittlin’ at a piece of wood. He grunted, “He could sell to the army, mebbe. With no one in town to say different, the army would take ‘em an’ pay cash on the barrelhead. If’n anythin’ goes wrong later on, it’s Jackson they’d be lookin’ for. Townsfolk just has to say they didn’t know nothing. That they thought he’d bought the basin because they knowed he was trying.” He spat an’ looked across at me. “Johnny, you know the town. Where’d the army cattle-buyers be camped, if’n there’s any around?” 50
Lyn McConchie “Over back of the stream I reckon. There’s a good flat area there with a big stack a deadfalls. Pull ‘em around an’ you’ve got you a corral for the horses, and the cattle can graze on that river flat right by.” “That’d be my guess too,” Illy put in. “But if it is the army, Jackson may have more problems that he’s expecting. The buyer is Major Henderson and he’s been coming by these past eight years. Dad usually invited him to stop over, and they often stayed up half the night talking. Jackson’s holding the cattle in Aspen springs valley, but they aren’t in any hurry. Just drifting a few in here and there as they spot good ones.” I thought about that. From what I could recall, the army usually turned up in late summer. The beeves were summer fat then, their calves weaned if they was cows, an’ there was time to get the herd moved east before winter. If the army held to the times they’d come when I was a boy, there could be another couple of weeks before they were here. Likely Jackson had planned to gather Illy’s cattle, blot the brands an’ forge up a bill of sale before drivin’ ‘em down to offer ‘em for sale. I found I was grinnin’ like a fool. Two could play at that game. Sides’ if we made it to this here Major Henderson first an’ he knew Illy an’ her pa, there was a lot we could tell him an’ have a good chance to be believed. We wouldn’t even have to alter the brands of any cattle we gathered ourselves.
The next day we started in. Nothin’ big. Just a few cattle here an’ there as we come across really good ones. Illy knew a couple of the high valleys where the big steers tended to hole up. With one of us always on the lookout, we rousted ‘em out of the brush an’ deadwood, sendin’ ‘em along the trails. It took us ten days but we wound up with about five hundred. They was mostly big steers, fat and prime, an’ I figured the army would take ‘em. This early in the season even the highest valleys wouldn’t start to snow for a fair while. That was just as well since the trail we was goin’ to use took off from the top of one valley an’ down through the mountains around back of the Rio Chama. The army would be comin’ up the river, stoppin’ at Española to see what the locals had to sell. If we got to them before they left town, we 51
Chapter 5 could make our deal there. If Jackson made another gather, he’d be left sittin’ in Chama with a stolen herd an’ no buyer. I’d met a few army men here an’ there, an’ I reckoned they weren’t likely to cotton to Jackson none anyways. Once Illy’d had her a chat with this Major, it weren’t likely old Cinch would be sellin’ some of her herd to any army buyer - whether they knew the Circle M or not. An’ word like that travels. It’d make it likely that even if ordinary buyers got to Chama they wouldn’t be keen to buy no Circle M cattle. Leastwise, not if they was honest men. As we worked, I surely wished we still had Bigfoot around to help. Illy said he’d ended up a livin’ wonder at roustin’ cow-critters out of thick brush. Mebbe when all this was over I’d look out for another pup. I knew Illy missed him still, even though he’d died quiet a year back. I hated brush-popping, and havin’ to keep a lookout at the same time just purely fried my britches. But we had it to do an’ we done it.
Illy an’ Mace had gone ahead with around four hundred head as we’d gathered ‘em. Rad an’ me was followin’ with the last hundred or so. With a lot of the trail over mountain, the herd would stick together just because there weren’t no place else to go but down the trail. Illy’d push her herd hard enough that all they’d be wantin’ to do would be graze an’ lie down once they got to where they was going. There was a good spot just inside the mountains only a day’s drive from Española if we started real early. I reckoned we’d make the place in two days, lie up there a day, and push straight on to the town come sunup. Illy an’ I’d ride ahead an’ talk with the soldier boys around midday. If luck held, the herd would come in just before dusk; we’d be paid an’ away by dark. We’d been careful about leavin’ tracks, too. Jackson’s warriors weren’t any keener on hard ridin’ than they had to be, an’ mostly they’d gathered cattle from the main basin. Still, we’d been careful. I grinned as I pushed a big steer back in line. I’d ridden Belle a lot of the time. That mule was a wonder how she could scat up a trail no wider ’n an eyebrow. It was like she had glue on her hooves an’ she surely enjoyed the high country. She weren’t fast, but she could go all day, an’ for ridin’ trails that were only a hoof wide, she was the best. 52
Lyn McConchie She didn’t panic at anythin’ and she’d come to like Illy, too. Twice I’d let Illy ride her an’ that mule took real good care of her. I was ridin’ Belle an’ leadin’ our bunch. Behind us a steer slipped, an’ with a bellow of terror he was gone. No use to check for him, it was nigh six hundred feet to the bottom. Belle flicked an ear and plodded on, placin’ her hooves real careful. We lost a couple more steers before we come down off that part of the trail. But I caught up to Illy an’ Mace the next night at the valley before Española. We lit a fire behind a big rock an’ backed it with reflectors made of woven brush. They’d keep us warmer an’ help hide the fire in case anyone was ridin’ over this way. No sense in comin’ this far an’ gettin’ careless. The night before we left the camp ground, Illy sat up by the fire writin’ letters. By the time she finished she must’ve had a dozen of ‘em. All to men who’d been friends of her Pa. I’d make sure one of us got ‘em to the mail office before we left Española. Them as got the letters might come runnin’ - or they might not. But in a fight, it’s smart to do whatever can give you an edge. I aimed to get away a bunch a’ telegrams myself. I’d wire to Arizona an’ Texas as to how Cinch was here now. I also planned to wire for a Federal Marshall. He might not get here until it was all over, but at least if we lost he’d be here askin’ questions. It weren’t likely, but if most of us was dead an’ Cinch had Illy, then the Marshall might be in time to save her life. I didn’t like thinkin’ about that though, so I went to sleep. That way I didn’t have to, an’ I’d be too busy in the mornin’ to go broodin’ over what might be if I weren’t around no more. We moved the herd out as soon as it was light enough to see the trail to town. We pushed ‘em good an’ when it come noon, Illy and I took off ahead. With the ginger taken out, the herd would come on along with Rad an’ old Mace, givin’ ‘em no trouble - or so we hoped.
We got to Española an’ rode our horses around the edge of town. We hadn’t had any time to switch mounts, so I was ridin’ Beau with Belle left back at the valley camp. Illy was ridin’ Cactus Boy; named because he was mighty prickly about anyone but Illy ridin’ him. Her 53
Chapter 5 horse was Circle M branded, so I wanted us to get in an’ out of town without no one noticin’ us if ‘n we could avoid it. With boy’s clothin’ an’ her gun belt, from anywhere but real close up Illy looked just like any other young cowhand. She knew the town an’ could guide us around by back areas where no one paid us much attention. We come out the other side of town, and there was the army. They was camped out with an officer, a couple of noncoms, an’ around twenty soldiers. The officer was in clean, well-brushed army clothin’ for all he’d likely been workin’ half the day. He was a good-lookin’ man, with a ginger moustache and the air of a man who could handle any trouble that might come. “You hang back a mite,” I told Illy. “I’ll signal if I need to prove anything.” She smiled. “We don’t need worry, Johnny. That’s Major Henderson.” An’ before I could say anythin’ more she was ridin’ up to him. “Major Henderson, you remember me? Lilly McLeod?” The Major beamed. “Sure do, ma’am. Nice to see you here. We’d been intendin’ to call at the basin once we arrived in Chama. How’s your father?” “Dead, Major. And the man who hired it done is sittin’ on my ranch, tryin’ to sell my cattle to the army.” I saw the Major’s face go hard. Looked like he wasn’t too pleased to hear that, so I stepped down an’ walked over. Illy introduced us an’ next thing we was sittin’ by their fire makin’ war talk. “You’ve heard of Cinch Jackson?” I asked. The Major nodded. “And I can’t say I like anythin’ I’ve heard. Isn’t he the man they’re lookin’ for on the Sweetwater?” “Yup, he is. But right now they aren’t lookin’ too hard. Jackson rides with a tough lot, an’ the sheriff up there don’t have any real proof Jackson did anything.” The Major raised an eyebrow and I answered that question. “Ole Cinch don’t like witnesses; he don’t leave any. His men won’t talk, an’ anyway, those what knew anythin’ are probably dead by now. We’ve been cuttin’ the herd for ‘em and that’s the trouble. We’re killin’ off those who do know what he did up there.” The Major was practical. “Very well, so right now there isn’t much you can do about whatever he did a while back. What’s he been doing here in New Mexico?” 54
Lyn McConchie Illy took over the answer to that. “He moved in on our ranch. My father was shot and I know Jackson hired it done, but we have no proof. I moved out my gear and holed up in the hills with a friend before Jackson could take me along with the house and land. He has possession of the ranch, his men are gatherin’ my cattle for sale, and shootin’ at my friends whenever they see them.” The Major didn’t look any too happy. “I can’t move on any of this right now. My orders are to gather cattle for the reservations and return. But I liked your father and he had some other good friends who won’t like what’s being done. But what about Chama Flats? Surely the sheriff there knows what’s going on. Western men are decent by and large. Why are they standing by and letting this happen?” I shrugged. “Jackson has money. People are scared of him, and people there never much liked John McLeod anyway. The sheriff only has jurisdiction in town, and he isn’t about to go against Jackson’s hard-cases. Jackson’s put it about that Illy’s playin’ coy, an’ that she’ll end by agreein’ to marry him. There might be questions asked if she just goes missing, but even then people might not ask too hard.” The Major looked thoughtful. “Isn’t Jackson a wanted man in other places?” “Down to Texas he’s wanted for murder I think. But he ain’t wanted here in New Mexico, and I reckon he aims to stay.” “Maybe.” The Major nodded thoughtful like. “But if some people knew where he was they might come looking, mightn’t they?” “I’ll just amble on over to the telegraph office,” I said to Illy. “You sit an’ chat to the Major here.” The Major glanced at me. “Hold up a minute. You came in to sell cattle. How many do you have?” “A couple of head over five hundred by my count. All good big steers.” “My orders are to buy such. Sit down, Calder, and we’ll agree on a price. Once you’ve been paid, the steers become the responsibility of the army.” I grinned and sat down again fast, but let Illy do the bargaining. This would leave us free of the herd an’ I could send my telegrams, then we could all get for the hills, our pockets full of cash for the war chest. After that, if Jackson tried anythin’ with the herd he was goin’ up against the army - and they had ways of takin’ care of what was theirs. 55
Illy an’ the Major come to an agreement after a while, and shook hands on it. The price sounded all right to me too, so I said nothing, I just watched as the gold was counted out and Illy stowed it in her saddlebags. After that, we mounted up: Illy an’ me, the Major, his sergeant, and ten of the men. We dusted down the road an’ we was barely five miles out of town when we heard gunshots. Out there, someone had started a nice little war an’ I had me the notion our beeves was right in the middle of it. So did Illy. She looked over at the Major. “Those are your cattle someone is trying to steal.” But he was already barkin’ orders. Two of the soldiers had taken point an’ them soldier boys advanced in as pretty a skirmish line as I never did see. Illy had her gun out but I waved her to stay back until we saw what was what. It don’t do to go chargin’ into things, an’ many a man who did has been shot by his own side. The Major was signalin’ his men to close in an’ I wasn’t plannin’ on gettin’ left behind, neither. Then I had me a thought. “Major, whoever’s doin’ this don’t know those cattle belong to the army. Why don’t you just let them know.” He grinned at me over his shoulder. “Good idea. Bugler, sound the advance good and loud.” Well, the bugle rang out soundin’ sweet in the air. The shootin’ started to die away an’ the Major nodded. “Bugler, sound ‘close ranks’.” The Major started his horse walkin’ forward and his men fell in behind. Illy an’ I tacked ourselves onto the last pair of riders, but hangin’ back a bit. I wanted to see what old Cinch would say without him knowin’ we was around. Even if he’d seen Mace or Rad, he wouldn’t know but what they was genuinely stealin’ the herd. The Major weren’t no fool, an’ I was guessin’ he’d let Cinch’s big mouth dig him a mighty deep hole before the Major said much about anything. From the rocks, men were startin’ to stand up. I could see a glimpse of that red shirt Rad had been wearing, but there weren’t no sign of Mace. That old man was an Injun fighter from way back. It taught you not to make a target of yourself, ever. He’d be hunkered down 56
Lyn McConchie somewhere, just waitin’ with his sights set. Couple a the opposition had bloody shirts, and one looked like he’d got him a busted wing to boot, so it looked like our side hadn’t been exactly losin’ even if it had been eight to two. Jackson was there lookin’ mighty mad about havin’ the soldiers bust in on his private fight. But no man in his right mind tangles with the army. There might only be a few, but they can call up a mighty lot of reinforcements an’ it surely don’t pay to start anythin’ with ‘em. The Major rode his horse up to Jackson and looked him over. “Those are army cattle, Sir.” Jackson went red in the face. “They’re my cattle, stolen from me an’ I want payin’ for them if the army’s takin’ them.” The Major didn’t turn a hair. “Really, Sir? How very interesting, considerin’ that I’ve been buyin’ cattle from the Circle M every year for almost a decade. I am well acquainted with John McLeod - and I do not know you, sir.” “I’m McLeod’s segundo. A couple of men drove off this here herd an’ McLeod told me to follow.” “From his grave, Sir?” “What?” “John McLeod died several months ago. If he told you to do anything at all, it must have been his ghost talking.” Jackson was gettin’ madder than a hornet by now an’ bright red around the gills. But he took a look at the Major an’ I saw him settle back a mite. The soldiers were all spread about the place with their guns across the saddles, most of them pointin’ at Jackson. If he started anything, they was surely goin’ to finish it. Old Cinch had been in fights before an’ he wasn’t so mad he didn’t see the risks here. He must have decided that even if talkin’ hadn’t done him much good so far, he’d give it another whirl. He was doin’ his best to look sort of humble an’ reliable. It was like watchin’ a rat tryin’ not to be noticed as it sneaked up on a side of bacon. “I wasn’t thinking, Major. Of course Mister McLeod is dead. But it was him hired me an’ I still think of it as him givin’ the orders. It was his daughter told me to chase down the rustlers and get her herd back.” He smirked an’ the Major nodded.
Chapter 5 “I see. Then you can stop worrying, Mister. Miss McLeod has sold me the cattle, signed a bill of sale for the army, and been paid. We can manage things from here.” I’d kept Illy an’ me back behind the army boys an’ Cinch still hadn’t seen us. I wanted to keep it that way unless the Major needed us for any reason. Cinch was in a bind about now. He had no idea if what the Major was sayin’ was true but it wouldn’t be healthy to suggest that it weren’t. There was eight of his men here but twelve of the army, an’ at least two more out there behind the rocks with him not knowin’ which way they’d jump. He an’ his men was all out in the open under army guns. If he was dumb enough to start anything, his side’d be massacred. Cinch mostly wasn’t a coward but buckin’ the army was a guaranteed loser. Kill any one of them an’ they’d keep comin’ until they found you an’ dragged you back for a burying. A trial beforehand if you didn’t fight but a buryin’ either way. As for the sale, if Illy had made it to the army, then the Major knew her - an’ he knew more than Cinch wanted him to know. Startin’ a fight could be just what the army wanted an’ then they could wipe out Cinch an’ his men without comeback. I saw him settle back further in his saddle, and drag up a sort of agreeable grin. It was real painful to see an’ I’d bet it hurt Cinch a sight more. “Then I’ll be gettin’ back to the ranch, Major. Looks as if you got everythin’ sorted out.” “That I have. Good-bye, and since there seems to have been an attempt to steal the army’s cattle, I’ll have four of my men ride along with you for a while. Just in case you see these rustlers. If so, then my men can apprehend them for trial.” Cinch went the sort of shade a man might turn just before he had him a heart attack. I heard a muffled snort from Illy an’ I have to say I was grinnin’ like a fool myself. I liked this Major. When he had an enemy down, he was all for givin’ the knife a last twist to make sure. Cinch didn’t have any choices left an’ he knew it. He rode off, still purple in the face from keepin’ his mouth shut and, sure enough, four of the soldier boys lined out along with Cinch an’ his men. One of ‘em was the Sergeant, so I guessed he had his own orders an’ knew what was what. 58
Lyn McConchie I waited until the cattle were movin’ and Cinch an’ his boys was well down the road. Then I gave a whistle. Rad come poppin’ out from the rocks like a groundhog, and Mace drifted out from somewhere in the brush a minute or two later. They was both lookin’ right pleased with themselves, so I shook my head at them. “Cowhands,” I said. “Tell ‘em to bring a herd in an find ‘em layin’ out in the sunshine talkin’ with the neighbors and not gettin’ any o’ the work done at all.” Rad grinned at me. “We’d a’ come on along like you said, but them neighbors would have it that we should set a spell an’ chat.” “An’ you was real happy to do it.” “They had some good arguments but we knew you’d be back soon an’ we could get along.” Illy was laughin’ behind me. I put on a frown an’ nudged my horse up alongside the Major leavin’ her to hear all about the fight. “Where do we go from here, Major?” He glanced at me. “My job’s to gather cattle for the army, not to get involved in civilian matters but if you’re askin’ for a suggestion...?” “Be glad to hear any.” “My men will ride along with Jackson as far as they can go and still be back before dark. But if it occurs to him, he could split up his own men and my men won’t be able to follow them all. My advice would be that you ride in with me to the telegraph office and let Miss McLeod start back with your men to guard her and the money.” He was makin’ sense, so I had a few words with the others and watched as they rode back. Mace would scout ahead and swing them around Cinch. The Major looked after Illy. “I wish I could do more, but I have my orders and I’m on a schedule.” “That’s all right, Major. You done plenty.” He shook his head. “I liked John McLeod. He was a good man and a friend of mine. You know... once when we needed cattle to feed some of the Apache who’d come in unexpectedly, he let us have them before we could pay. He said he knew we would so there was no problem, and it was important that the Apache see we kept our promises.” The Major’s tone was a mite sarcastic on that last. There’s been prescious few promises kept to the Indians over the years. He looked at me thoughtfully. 59
Chapter 5 “His daughter says Jackson hired him killed but there’s no proof. Exactly how did it happen?” “No proof, Major, like she says. A man rode into Chama. McLeod was in town with Illy. The man approached him and spoke. No one was close enough to hear what was said. All Illy saw was that her Pa suddenly went for his gun. The man drew faster and shot first.” “Was McLeod killed outright?” “No, Illy screamed just as the man shot so he didn’t hit dead center. The Doc patched McLeod up an’ he insisted on bein’ taken back to the ranch. He got weaker over the next few days, though, an’ died.” The Major thought about that a while. “So why doesn’t the town support Miss McLeod over some newcomer? I got the feeling you were hedging there.” “Greed’s one reason. There’s a feelin’ in Chama that a woman can’t handle a ranch the size of the basin. It’s rich land now the McLeod’s have held it so long, never over-grazed, an’ put in dams an’ all. With Indian raids slowin’ down, an’ it bein’ safer to live out there, the place could be cut up into mebbe ten or even twenty smaller ranches.” “I see. A lot of families could take up a ranch and grow rich.” I nodded, “That ain’t all, Major. There’s Illy’s Ma.” I hesitated but it weren’t no secret, an’ somehow I didn’t think the Major would care. “Illy’s Ma was quarter Comanche. McLeod married up with her all legal ‘n proper, but there’s lots in town don’t hold with it. They remember kinfolk killed by the Comanche, an’ they think about the ranch an’ they reckon no Injun girl should have land, let alone that much.” “By what right does Jackson claim it though?” “He says that McLeod never wed Illy’s Ma. He says she’s a woman anyway an’ couldn’t run a ranch like that. He reckons land belongs to them as uses it an Illy’s got no men workin’ there. He’s livin’ in the ranch house with hands in the bunkhouse - an’ Illy ain’t. He came South with a thousand scrawny head that’s now mixed in with Circle M stock, an’ he had twenty hands ridin’ for him when he come in.” The Major was quick, “Had?” “Had, yeah! We whittled ‘em down some. I don’t figure to stop neither, an’ nor do Mace or Rad. The ranch an’ the basin belong to Illy, 60
Lyn McConchie an’ Jackson takes ‘em over our dead bodies. He’d like to marry her, Major, and then I reckon she’d have a nasty accident and he’d have it all.” “Illy’s certain sure that Jackson hired that man to kill her Pa. Jackson arrived only five days later. The day after her Pa died. An’ he didn’t even stop in Chama. Funny thing, Major. All the hands she had left were taken on over the last year, and soon as Jackson showed up, they all quit in a bunch. The old hands she’d had up to that last year some got stove up over the years, some died - an’ a couple more just vanished.” “So you think it may have been planned for a while? “It could’ve been. It was sure convenient for Jackson that Illy had no one much left to side her, an’ from what I hear he’d have known he was runnin’ out of rope where he was. He’d have guessed that just about a year ago - same time as the first of the new hands showed up in the basin askin’ for work.” We reached Española and the herd swung around the edge headin’ for the army holdin’ ground. “Calder? Who killed McLeod?” “From the description, I’d say it was Archie Waye.” The Major blinked. “Someone hired it done then. I know the man. Waye only works for money.” He jerked upright speakin’ sharply as somethin’ else occurred to him. “Calder, you ride very carefully. Waye’s in Española right now. If he’s workin’ for Jackson still, he could have been sent back. He may already know who you are.” “I hope he does. I’ve seen him work before, although he don’t know it. I’ve been away a while, Major. How’s the town likely to take it if we go to shooting?” “They’ve got a good sheriff, a man named Latimer, who keeps the town clear of troublemakers. But he’ll stand for a fair fight. I believe I’ll take a ride into town myself and have a word with him. You get those telegrams sent, and those letters posted for Miss McLeod. Then I’ll maybe see you in the bar.” We parted then an’ I rode into Española alone.
Chapter 6 I’d told the Major I’d seen Archie Waye fight once. I had, too, almost eight years before. It was surprisin’ the man had lived that long but he was a sure-thin’ killer. Fast, an’ he didn’t take chances. He’d make his kill legally, then be gone before anyone had time to stir up public opinion or talk of a hanging. It helped too that he was a nondescript sort of man. He was usually dressed in a clean town suit, clean shirt with a new collar, an’ polished boots, but none of ‘em looked expensive. The time I saw him, he was ridin’ a good horse, but you’d have had to look twice to see that. He wore only one gun, an’ it was nothin’ fancy so mostly people didn’t know him for what he was until he’d done what he was paid to do and gone - an’ he’d leave right after. It was stayin’ in town that extra night to be comfortable in a real bed that had gotten Peso killed. I was only fifteen when I’d killed Billy Bascombe and I hadn’t gone far that first year. Just to the Graham ranch up on the Cimmaron where they wanted horses broke gentle. My own was a good example, and they’d taken me on. The Boss had bought ten mustangs from a wild-horse hunter and they was good animals. They wasn’t for the hands but for him an’ his family. The herd stallion must’ve been a big blue roan, because most of the bunch he’d bought favored that look. I was to break the two matched three-year-old mares to harness as a pair for the go-to-town buggy. They was good, solid, strong horses even if they were young, an’ so long as they worked the mares light, I reckoned they’d be all right to use once they was broke in. I worked hard on them horses. McLeod’d always insisted horses on the Circle M be gentle broke, an’ I approved of that. Fact was, the horse I was ridin’ was one I’d broke myself, an’ I’d really liked him. McLeod might have been a hard man, but even as he tossed me out, he’d seen to it that I had the horse I’d wanted. I was on that first ranch almost a year. After I broke the horses they had, it was roundup time an’ they asked me to stay on to help with that. Then a mustanger the boss knew come by with another good bunch of mostly young mares, an’ the Boss bought ‘em with a profit in mind. “Figured you could break this lot too, Calder,” he told me, lightin’ his pipe an’ puffin’ away. “Couple of people in town were impressed 62
Lyn McConchie with those mares you broke for the buggy. They’d pay a fair price for a good pair. Livery stable would like another pair for letting out to women. Broke so as they go in single or double harness. All right with you, lad?” “Sure, Mister Graham.” I hesitated a mite an’ he saw I was thinkin’ of sayin’ more. “Go on, boy.” “Well, sir, the way the mustanger is going, it won’t be long before all the good stuff is gone. They keep takin’ the best mares, shootin’ the stallion often enough, an’ in a few years there won’t be many good animals left. You got a dozen in this lot, eight of ‘em good mares around three - four. I reckon if you was to get you a good stallion, you could raise a nice little lot of quality foals every year. Take what you need for the ranch, and break the others for sale. They eat about the same as cattle and sell for more cash right around here without any drive. A good Morgan stallion across these mustangs an’ you’d have you some real top stock.” Graham looked thoughtful. “That’d be a smart idea I reckon, Johnny. We’ll have six mares left over from this bunch and we’ll keep them. I know a man who has a four-year-old Morgan stallion for sale up to San Luis. You ride there, have a look at the stud, an’ if the horse is right, you buy him and bring him back. Keep an eye open on the way. I’d go for another five - six mares as well, if they’re the right ones.” Long an’ the short of that was me ridin’ out early next mornin’ with the Boss’s say so for the stallion an’ up to six mares. I got the stallion an’ he was a good beast. Gentle, smart, an’ only four years old as warranted. He’d been a pet of the owner an’ really liked bein’ around people. I never saw any good mares for sale up that way, but the boss didn’t mind. Him an’ the family was pleased with the stallion, an’ the stallion, he was right pleased with the mares we already had for him. I checked around, pickin’ up another mare here ‘n there, until we had us a herd of around a dozen. All good young stuff, an’ crossed with that Morgan they’d sure enough throw some good ridin’ an’ drivin’ stock. It was comin’ up to time I left an’ I was plannin’ to head for the basin. I was hopin’ McLeod might have got over his mad, an’ I wanted to see Illy again. I’d gotten her a couple of gewgaws I knew she’d like, 63
Chapter 6 too. I kept thinkin’ of her and when there was somethin’ I saw an’ wanted to share. I’d turn to say somethin’ and there she wasn’t. I just purely missed her. But before I left, there was rustler trouble. I come out one morning, rode over to where the breedin’ horses should have been grazin’ an’ they was gone. The Morgan stallion, an’ all the mares with him. I didn’t start in to yellin’ an’ runnin’ about. I just looked for sign an’ there it was. Three men who hadn’t wasted time. They’d rounded up our breedin’ stock and started makin’ tracks. I followed ‘em about twothree miles until I was sure I had the tracks of each horse an’ their direction fixed in my mind. Then I went back to tell Graham. He was a mild-mannered man, didn’t usually drink much nor cuss, but he sure cussed that time. “All of them?” He roared. “Yes, sir.” “Three men took them, you say? How do we follow them? Horse thieves like that, they’ll be taking care once they see someone’s behind them.” “Unless I miss my guess, sir, they’re makin’ for the border. They’re movin’ fast an’ they got them horses without a body seein’ ‘em. Mebbe they won’t be lookin’ along their back trail for a day or so. It’s likely our horses won’t be the only ones they’ve taken, neither. But I can track an’ I’ll follow ‘em to Texas - or to hell if they go that way.” Graham grinned coldly. “Good. You roust out the boys; I’ll get Ma to put us up some food. Be quicker if we don’t have to stop.” We rode out less than a half-hour later. Me, Mister Graham, an’ two hands. Another hand was makin’ his way to town fast to tell the sheriff. That way if any other horses turned up missin’ he’d know where we was headed an’ could send the owners after us. Anyone followin’ us could ride faster. We might be slowed at some stage by the thieves bein’ careful about tracks, but we wasn’t doin’ the same an’ our path would be plain to see. I made sure of that by swingin’ out past the trail and makin’ clear tracks wherever there was a chance any posse followin’ might lose us. We kept goin’ all day, and while a couple of times I had to get down an’ search out the trail where they’d taken to rock, we kept going. It impressed the hands Graham’d bought along. Shorty mentioned it once when we stopped to water the horses. “You can track pretty good, kid.” 64
Lyn McConchie “Not as good as the man who taught me. John McLeod could track fish up river. But I get by.” Shorty nodded. “Hope you shoot as well as you track. No horse thieves are gonna give up good stock by us askin’ them all polite like if we can have our property back.” For the first time I started thinkin’ of that. There was three of them thieves, an’ four of us. If they realized we was comin, and they picked the right place to wait, they could make a pretty good fight of it with those odds. I weren’t scared and I’d surely hate to see them keep those horses, but the odds didn’t stay that way long. Once it got too dark to track we made camp. I looked at the sky a while then hunted up the boss. “Sir, it’s gonna be a clear night an’ a full moon. If we rest now, we could ride on again in a few hours.” “How far behind them are we, Calder?” We’d ridden steady an’ even though those thieves had begun with a full day’s start we’d cut it down some. “Mebbe five - six hours. At night we can’t go at more ‘n a walk but we could cut their lead in half.” Graham smiled grimly. “I’ll tell the boys. You roll into your bedding an’ get some sleep. Rest of us are just riding, you’re doin’ the work.” I didn’t argue. But I was awake once the moon was up, kickin’ on my boots, settlin’ my hat and drinkin’ the good coffee Shorty made us. We was all mountin’ up when someone hailed the camp. Next thing we knew, there was a couple of Graham’s neighbors ridin’ in lookin’ some pleased with themselves. They wasn’t so happy to find we was movin’ right out again, but they come along. Joe Banks had lost him a good harness pair, an’ Big Hank Plexen had found he was missin’ a dozen head of saddle stock. Big Hank was still talkin’ as we got back on the trail. “…an’ we reckoned we’d make camp on the top of the slope back there. Then Joe says he can see a fire right down here so we kept coming, figurin’ it’d most likely be you all. Joe reckoned no horse thieves’d be that foolish. That kid can sure track!” After that I stopped listening. It ain’t easy trackin’ in moonlight but it was full moon an’ I was managing. By the time we made camp again, the thieves weren’t more ‘n three hours ahead. They still didn’t 65
Chapter 6 know we was followin’ but by mornin’ they would. Any smart thief keeps one eye on his back trail an’ now that we was close they’d see us easy. They could run, fight, or try to lose us, an’ I was guessin’ they’d try that last one first. But I wasn’t takin’ any bets. If one of ‘em circled back, he could have him a nice little ambush. Wound a couple of us an’ we might have to turn back to care for the injured ones. I’d met Joe Banks before an’ I’d heard some about him besides. He hadn’t got to be old without bein’ mighty canny, an’ he knew this country, so I waited until we took a break to rest the horses then I sidled up to him an’ the Boss where they were talkin’. “Boss, if any of those men ahead come back on us, there could be a difficulty.” Graham glanced at Joe. “You were saying the same thing a minute ago, Banks. What do you think we should be doing?” “I’d say it’d be a good thing to spread out, keep cover between them and us where we can, an’ watch Johnny.”
We spread out like he said. I kept trackin’ but the others were off in the distance just keepin’ an eye on me. Joe said he had an idea an’ he went off ahead, swingin’ far out an’ usin’ cover to keep out of sight. The horse thieves might a thought about an ambush, but once they seen we was ready they just kept moving. Finally Joe rode back, comin’ up a small gully to one side of us so’s the rustlers didn’t see him. He looked pleased about something. “I know somethin’ that bunch don’t seem to, boys. If they did, they have trailed them horses a lot further around to the west. Up ahead there’s a canyon. She’s deep an’ only about two horses wide some places. But if you know where to look you can get down into it. You ride along there for a couple of hours and you’ll find you’ve cut off a fair length of the trail. That’d put us right in front of them thievin’ varmints just when they ain’t expectin’ nothing.” “They’ll know there’s somethin’ wrong if half of us disappear,” Plexen said, considerin’ like. I looked at Joe. “Not if they think we lost the trail. They’ve been tryin’ to make us do that. Next time there’s some place that looks 66
Lyn McConchie likely; two of us could take the canyon while the others make a lot of dust pretendin’ to be lookin’ for signs.” Old Joe nodded an’ looked at the others. They were all in agreement until it come to decidin’ who went up the canyon. Graham spoke up then. “You an’ Hank go, Joe. We’ll hang back until the guns start talkin’. Let them watch us and figure they don’t have to hurry yet.” That’s just what they did. Of course we made sure they never got a clear look at us from then on. We milled about, me down on foot as if I was tryin’ to puzzle out their tracks and not seein’ anything. After a while, we allowed as how we’d found tracks again, pretendin’ to be leavin’ signs for the other two to find us, and we come on fast. We could see the horse thieves now, just glimpses as we twisted an’ turned through the trees an’ rough land. One of ‘em was pushin’ the stolen horses ahead while two men hung back waitin’ for our rush. They may’ve thought that the other two of us was back aways scoutin’ for the trail or even that they’d quit. But Joe was right, they didn’t know nothin’ about the canyon, and they was most surprised when him and Big Hank hailed ‘em. From where we’d been hangin’ back, we heard the first shot. After that, there was a regular volley as we rode hard for the fight. By the time we got there two of the thieves was already down. I couldn’t get a sight of the other but just as we come up, he showed a rifle muzzle. I fetched out my gun an’ shot quick, an’ his rifle come clatterin’ down the rocks with him behind it. I covered ‘em with my gun, but he was dead. So was the one Joe had shot, but Big Hank’s target was just wounded. I went to gather up our horses an’ see how badly off they might be. When I come back Joe was puttin’ a rope around the man’s neck. “Be there anythin’ you was wantin’ to say afore we hang you?” Joe asked him. The horse thief was lookin’ glum. “Guess there ain’t nothing. I stole them horses an’ you catched me fair ‘n square.” He turned his eyes to me. “You got a sister, kid?” I thought of Illy. She weren’t my sister but mebbe she’d do for one right now. “I do,” I told him. “Her name’s Lilly and she’s got long black hair an’ gray eyes.” 67
Chapter 6 “Then you reach into my pocket an’ take the pendant I got there. I ain’t got no family left since the influenza, but that pendant belonged to my Ma, and her Ma afore her. Ma’s gone, but she set a real store by it an’ I don’t want to go to no hangin’ with it. Give it ter your sis’ an’ mebbe she’ll remember me kindly once in a while. My name’s Tom. Tom Leslie. That’s all I got ta say. You can git on with the hangin’ now.” Joe nodded to me an’ I took the pendant Leslie offered. It was like a spider-web of twisted gold wire with little red stones around the edge, an’ one big bright one in the middle. It was hung on a long goldcolored chain made like a braided rope an’ real pretty. I was admirin’ it an’ thinkin’ about how Illy would like it when Joe gave the horse a whack. I put the pendant in my pocket an’ went to help with the stolen horses. Behind us, Tom was danglin’, but Joe had caught up his horse again.
That was the first time I seen a man hung an’ while I knew it was justice, I didn’t eat much of my dinner that night. He went out like a 68
Lyn McConchie man though, without whinin’ or beggin’. On the way back it was agreed that them what killed the riders should have the thieves’ horses and all their gear, an’ anythin’ they’d had in their pockets. I got a good horse out of that, an’ a better saddle, along with the money from Tom’s pockets and other gear. When I left the Graham’s ranch a week later, I was settin’ in that saddle on my own horse. I’d kept the horse thief’s Winchester, but I sold his horse and the rest of his gear. He’d had near twenty dollars as well. So in addition to my wages which I hadn’t spent hardly any of, I had the money for that horse an’ gear. I was feelin’ rich. I’d sworn I’d make somethin’ of myself when McLeod sent me packing. So I took all that money to the bank, an’ talked to the banker there. He was a friend of my boss an’ talked me through settin’ up an account. He seemed mighty impressed with me thinkin’ of savin’ the way I did an’ me so young. That made me feel good. If it impressed him so well, then likely John McLeod would think well of it too. The end of it was, I put half my money in the bank an’ took the rest in double an’ single eagles, stashed in my gun-belt. I couldn’t think of no better place to go than home to give Illy her pendant an’ the other things I’d bought her, so I took off for the basin then. It’d sure be good to see Illy again. I figured I wouldn’t arrive like some sort of sneak so I rode right up to the front door. John McLeod come out an’ stood there lookin’ at me. “Get down, boy. Come in and eat.” I’d have walked right in, but he held up his hand to stop me a moment. “You’re welcome here for tonight. Tomorrow you ride on.” Looked as if he was as hard as ever. I might have said somethin’ I’d have been sorry for, but just then Bigfoot come around the house and started jumpin’ up at me with Illy right behind him. She was halfcrying, and the dog was barking, an’ McLeod left us to it. I gave her the shawl I bought her and the collar I’d made for Bigfoot. Then I fetched out the pendant. Nothin’ would do for her but that she had to wear the shawl an’ pendant to dinner. Bigfoot was wearin’ his collar too an’ lookin’ pleased with the attention. Well, Illy come down to set at the table an’ right off McLeod saw the pendant. His face went hard. “Where’d you get that from, daughter?” he asked Illy. She gave it to him an’ he turned it over an’ over in his fingers studyin’ it. 69
Chapter 6 I talked up an’ told him the story, wonderin’ all the whiles why he looked so bothered about it. It weren’t nothin’ but a pretty gewgaw. When I was done an’ Illy had finished swearin’ she’d think kindly of Tom Leslie as he’d asked, McLeod spoke up, kind of thinkin’ aloud. “There’s many a man who comes West, leavin’ a good name an’ a fine family behind him. Sometimes their children or their grandchildren may know nothin’ of that. They treasure somethin’ because it was from kin, not for the value.” I was startin’ to understand. “It’s valuable then?” “The small stones are rubies; the one in the center is a diamond. Both the pendant and the chain are hallmarked as real gold. In a big city somethin’ like this could sell for thousands of dollars.” In all my life I’d never seen real stones before. How’d I have known? An’ it seemed none of the others had, neither. Not the horse thief who’d owned it, nor the men who’d ridden with me. But I suddenly understood the rest. McLeod had feared I’d stolen it. No way a boy like me could have bought somethin’ like that fair an’ square. I’d lived in his house all those years, an’ he’d believed me a thief. Not just that, he’d thought I’d give Illy somethin’ I’d stole an’ mebbe cause her trouble too. I was only sixteen an’ a half. At that age the blood runs hot. I met his gaze and I stood up from the table without a word, leavin’ McLeod lookin’ half ashamed. Illy was askin’ me what was wrong. “Ask that of your Pa,” I told her. “Your Pa who thinks I’d steal an’ then put shame on you by givin’ what I stole to you to wear.” I was tired, but I wasn’t goin’ to sleep under the roof of John McLeod. I walked out an’ saddled up my weary horse. I patted Bigfoot and gave Illy a hug. “I’ll write. You wear that pendant an’ shawl. They was come by honest an’ every time you wear ‘em, your Pa will remember he misjudged me. Mebbe if I come back again he won’t be so quick to figure I wasn’t square.” Illy had tears in her eyes but I kicked the bay into a canter an’ left. I didn’t look back. I couldn’t, I had tears in my eyes myself. That was the first time I went back. After that, I had a few months on a coastal tradin’ ship an’ rode with a small herd bein’ sold down on the coast. It was there I got a telescope an’ sent it to Illy for her next birthday. A week after I was paid off, I went on another cattle drive. It was in a small town on the 70
Lyn McConchie way back that I saw Archie Waye kill a man. I’d ridden in with a couple of the boys to have a drink an’ sleep in a real bed for the night. I never did take much to hard drinkin’, so I strolled down the street alone, enjoyin’ the air an’ liftin’ my hat to the occasional lady. Then all of a sudden I got this feeling. It’s a sort of crawlin’ down the spine feelin’ that says trouble is right behind you, an’ I’d learned to listen to it while travelin’ Indian country. I drifted sideways to where I had my back against a buildin’ and took me a long slow look around. I didn’t know who he was, but by then I’d been a heap of places, an’ I remembered that time with Peso too, so I knew what he was. He walked past me an’ up to a man just comin’ down the street. I couldn’t get all that was said, but I heard some. It was somethin’ about the man’s wife an’ it was said in the kind of tone that made me want to knock someone down myself - an’ I didn’t know any of ‘em. The man made a noise like he was kind of choking. Then he went for his gun. It was pitiful. The sun was in his eyes an’ he couldn’t see nothing. Waye waited until the gun cleared leather an’ then shot. Just that once, and the bullet took his target right between the eyes. I hadn’t been raised foolish. I slipped backwards between the two buildings and went around back to the hotel. If I stayed, someone was bound to ask if it’d been a fair shootin’ and I’d have surely hated to tell them that it was. I sat in my room an’ thought about it. Peso’d given them that he shot a fair deal. No tricks, just them goin’ up against a man who was better. This gunslinger was good, but he still didn’t take chances. He’d waited until his target had the sun straight in his eyes and riled him so that he didn’t care. That smelled of a hired killin’ to me. I wondered who the gunslinger was? That kind don’t usually live long. Either they meet someone faster or someone trickier. Or like Peso, they meet someone who don’t care about bein’ fair an’ just wants ‘em dead - even if it’s from an ambush and in the back. This man weren’t that old. I’d of put him about twenty, mebbe a year or two older. But his tracks read that he was experienced. He hadn’t blinked when he shot, an’ he hadn’t bothered to shoot again. He knew where the first one went an’ it was all that was needed. I was ridin’ on next day, but before I left I made some casual talk with the desk clerk. The gunman was Archie Waye. I heard a fair bit 71
Chapter 6 about the way he worked, but no one knew anythin’ about the man himself exceptin’ that where he went, someone usually died. One day it’d be him an’ no one would care. I went up the trail with a herd twice more before wanderin’ back into New Mexico while helpin’ guard a small herd of breedin’ cows on its way to a ranch. Once I was there, I found that all of a sudden I was homesick for the basin, for Illy’s teasing, and Bigfoot slobberin’ over me. I was nineteen that year, and I hoped McLeod might let me stay, but nothin’ had changed. Not even when I told him how I was savin’ my money. I gave Illy my presents an’ made a fuss of Bigfoot, rode out to admire the new dam McLeod had put in up one of the canyons, and then let him nudge me on my way. I wrote to Illy a few times, but I moved a lot. Most times I got a birthday present to her too. But that was the last time I went home or heard back until a whisper come up the trail four an’ a half years later. I’d come over a lot of trail since then. I’d heard of Waye more than once. He was a known man these days: a paid killer but his killin’s was always just lawful enough that no one could move against him legally. He was good, of that there weren’t no doubt. Still, I remembered the man I’d seen who made sure he had all the advantages even against a man who wasn’t better than real average with a gun. I was thinkin’ about that an’ wonderin’ as I rode into Española. How keen would Waye be to fight if he had none of the advantages? Jackson would have told him my name an’ what I looked like. I’d bet a good horse that Waye was there in town havin’ taken pay for my death. I’d learned somethin’ else about Archie Waye over my travels too. He liked to find out all about his targets in advance. But what could he know about me? The townsfolk of Chama knew little that would be of use to him, an’ Jackson knew even less. The death of Billy was nothin’ to worry Archie Waye, even if someone told him about it. So I’d been fast in comparison to some kid who used his hands more than his gun. I was a cowhand, not a gunfighter so far as he knew. None of that would bother Waye. He didn’t know of Peso and how he’d taught me to shoot or of the years in the basin when fast draw had been a game for me ‘n Illy. Not just fast draw, but an accurate first shot even if fallin’ or twistin’ as we fired. For us two kids it had been nothin’ more’n a game, but after I left 72
Lyn McConchie I’d learned how good those years of practice on top of natural ability had made me. I hadn’t lost that edge since. Maybe McLeod had been right to send me away.
I sent telegrams to places in Texas that I’d heard would be interested to know where Jackson was. A couple more went up to Sweetwater, an’ to another place where I’d been told Jackson had once lived. I left off any signature. No sense in them lookin’ for me, an’ if they came lookin’ for Jackson he was easy enough to find. The sun was pleasant so once I had the telegrams sent I strolled along the Española streets watchin’ the people. It was then that I saw Waye headin’ towards me on the other side. He was as unnoticeable as ever in his off-the-shelf clothing, respectable to the eye. Just an ordinary man strollin’ down the boardwalk - but then, so was I. He’d have no idea that I knew who he was or why he could be here. I saw a cowboy I knew slightly from a trail drive, and nodded across the street to him, catchin’ his attention as Waye passed by. My acquaintance called back as I’d hoped, “Johnny! Johnny Calder, where’ve you been?” “Here an’ there. How’s the cattle business?” I could see that Waye had halted an’ was listening. I watched as he stepped off the boardwalk an’ turned to cross the street, walkin’ back towards us. If I moved to face him now the sun would strike me full in the eyes. “Good. Been a good year,” was the reply. “I’ll be in the hotel later, Come an’ have a drink with me?” “I’ll do that.” Waye was tensed up ‘n ready. But before he could speak, I turned on my heel an’ was gone. I raced around the back of the store, dodged down an alley an’ waited where it opened into the main street. From where I stood in the building’s shadow, I saw him pass the alleyway. On this street we’d be crossways to the sun. I padded down behind him an’ spoke up loud an’ clear so folks nearby could hear every word. “Lookin’ for me, Waye?” He spun; his face givin’ away his surprise that I knew him and a tinge of annoyance that perhaps he’d have to make a fair fight of it. “What’s the matter, Waye. Sun not in my 73
Chapter 6 eyes? Of course I’m not an old man either, or a drunken storekeeper somebody’s paid you to murder.” His eyes were deadly but he was bothered. I didn’t seem afraid of him. That meant either I had an edge, or I was a fool. I knew who he was; I kept usin’ his name loud an’ clear. He didn’t like that. For a man in his line of business it was always safer not to have too many who recognized him. “Well, Mister Waye? Gun stuck in your holster? Or do you want me to turn my back for you?” That was the insult that did it. He was proud of his kills. They were fair fights by his reckonin’ an’ if he backed up now in front of those who’d talk of it all over, there’d be no more well-paid contracts offered him. His hand slashed down, his gun came up an’ leveled, and I shot. Twice! Once for John McLeod, an’ once for a decent man that I’d seen die in the dusty street of a small town whose name I no longer remembered. Archie Waye went down on his face in the dirt. His hand twitched a couple of times and was still.
Behind me I heard footsteps. I turned, gun still in my hand to face Sheriff Latimer an’ the Major. It was the sheriff who spoke. “No need for that, Calder. We both saw the fight and it was a fair shooting. You get on about your business. We’ll see to Waye here.” I tipped my hat to them both as I headed for my mount. If I hurried a mite I’d catch up to my friends by nightfall. Meanwhile that was one 74
Lyn McConchie more enemy down an’ Illy would be happy to hear about this one. Cinch wouldn’t be quite so pleased but somehow that didn’t bother me at all. He’d be a lot more unhappy before we were through. It was a fine day an’ I rode out of town singin’.
Chapter 7 I met up with Illy, Rad, an’ Mace where we’d camped just out of the mountains. Belle was there grazin’ peacefully an’ I was glad to see her. They were all callin’ questions at me as soon as I came into camp, so I told them: yes, I’d sent the telegrams. Yes, Illy’s letters had gone. No, there hadn’t been trouble, not real trouble. Illy pounced on that at once. “I know you, Johnny Calder. No real trouble means there was but you didn’t get killed. What happened?” I found I was smilin’ at her. “Met a man called Archie Waye.” Her look was a brace an’ bit drillin’ into me. “And?” “They should have just about finished buryin’ him by now.” I saw the breath go out of her in a long slow contented sigh. Rad looked at me sharply. “That Waye wasn’t no pilgrim.” I snorted, makin’ my voice soft and sort of smooth like a preacher. “We’re all on the way, son. We’re all pilgrims on the road.” I switched back to my normal tones, “I reckon Mister Waye reached the end of his road before he expected it, an’ that’s just too bad. My heart grieves for him.” It was old Mace who had the last word on that. “Mine don’t. Are we gonna get some sleep or stay up all night whittle-wanging?” Illy laughed, finishin’ her coffee and sittin’ back against a log. “I’ll take the first watch, then you Johnny, then Rad, and Mace gets the last one.”
But I had a bad feeling. Jackson wasn’t any tenderfoot an’ those boys of his could have picked up reinforcements. If they guessed where we were life could get hot for us anytime. 76
Lyn McConchie “Jackson would dearly love to hang up the scalp of any of us, and with you killin’ Waye, he’d like yours the most right now,” Rad said. Mace agreed. End of it was that we doused the fire, turnin’ the coals over, stirrin’ ‘em up and dumpin’ on more water to make sure. That way, even if someone came checkin’ the ashes, they was gonna to be stone cold an’ givin’ nothin’ away. Then we all pulled back into the brush an’ made a cold camp. Mace made a chance to talk to me while we was doin’ that an’ I was happy to hear his views. “I give the kid a shot at m’ back when that lot came boilin’ up on us, an’ he didn’t take it. Could’a gone over to Jackson’s men any time and he stuck with me. Guess we’ve got us an honest man, Johnny.” I’d been thinking that was so an’ I was some glad to hear that Mace agreed. I went off to lay out my bedding feeling a lot easier about things.
Come the early hours I was checkin’ my pocket watch in the moonlight as Illy came out to take over an’ I mentioned how cold it was gettin’ some nights. “It’ll be into fall shortly,” she agreed. “In the mountains it’s still warm enough to manage outside at nights, but that won’t last much longer. It’ll be cold every night by sundown soon, and we’ll need a fire for more than cooking “We’ve got supplies and other good camps besides the cave, but once the real winter starts we’ll need more. The snow in some of these valleys drifts twenty - thirty feet deep. That was why my father always swept them clean of cattle before the first snowstorms arrived.” For the first time it occurred to me that we had to win this fight before winter set in. She considered briefly “The older, smarter stock know to leave an’ come down on their own. The young stuff don’t, an’ if they aren’t pushed out, they’ll stay there and die when the heavier snowfalls begin.” That was all too true. Other people who never lived here might think that New Mexico is always hot everywhere. It can be some warm in summer but a lot depends on the place. A desert can be bakin’ durin’ 77
Chapter 7 the day but at night the temperature can get below freezin’ awful quick. I’d been on the fringes of the Llano Estacado, the Staked Plains, and I knew. In the shelter of the basin, the snow never drifted too deep nor stayed too long. It wasn’t so in the high valleys that run up into the mountains. Some of them top out around seven thousand feet, an’ brother, they get right chilly come full winter. “You’n, me an’ Mace know about makin’ do in that kind of weather, an’ we can teach Rad,” I told her. “But we still ain’t likely to make it through the whole winter up there without trouble some time. Nor’s Cinch down there in the basin. He don’t know how to handle cattle up here. The problem is he’ll likely kill off a lot young stock learning.” “I know. Go to bed, Johnny. We’ll talk about it in the morning.” I did, but I woke early and lay there listenin’ to the birds beginnin’ to stir around as the sun come up. I was thinkin’ about what time we had left and what we had to do. Thinkin’ about it gave me an idea, though. It’d be somethin’ we could salvage if Jackson stayed ignorant. I ate breakfast then saddled Beau an’ rode back to Española to have me a chat with the Major. After that I hunted up a lawyer. The Major said he knew one, Preston, who was a good man an’ who’d keep his mouth shut on anythin’ we said.
Lawyer Preston wasn’t what I’d always thought of as a lawyer. He was a solid, thickset man, dressed in a town suit but wearin’ a gun that’d seen use. He had a steady gaze and he used plain words. I did some talkin’ to him then a lot more listening, and I found that I agreed with Major Henderson. Some of the second part of what the lawyer said was mighty interestin’ an’ I’d enjoy tellin’ Illy about it. It seemed as though there was a lot Cinch could get away with - if he could see to it that none of us was around to complain once the fightin’ was over and done with. I went back to find the others once I was finished with the lawyer. The boys an’ Illy had scatted up the mountains an’ started in before I returned. After ten days of hard work, we had us over a thousand head of cattle gathered back on the Española side of the mountain. 78
Lyn McConchie I went down to meet the army - seemed like all this last few weeks I was forever runnin’ between the town and the basin or somewhere an’ The Major come back with me, bringin’ the same men as he’d had before. We watched the cattle ploddin’ off down the trail an’ he looked worried. “I can take one more small herd, Calder. I have some latitude in buyin’ an’ these are all fine animals. But another five hundred is all we need.” “I know that, Major. But every animal we sell you is one that won’t die when winter comes. We’re cuttin’ hard and deep into the older steers that’re in good shape. Cinch don’t know the weather in these mountains. It’s likely he’ll lose any stock we leave him to fuss with. Better to sell off than let ‘em die. I figure that if we sell all the beeves we can round up, at least Illy’s got herself money to restock if worst comes to worst. “You’re buyin’ prime steers, all four-to-seven years old. You’re payin’ sixteen dollars a head for ‘em. Now if we scouted around, I bet we could find yearlin’ stock we could buy next spring for six-seven dollars a head. Even if we had to go to eight dollars, that’s four thousand head of young breedin’ stock. A few years an’ the basin could be back in business. Henderson looked at me. “What if you don’t win?” “Then the money will give Illy a start somewhere else again - if she’ll go there.” “But you don’t think she will?” “No, Major. I don’t. If she decided to pack up an’ ride out, I’d help her with anythin’ she wanted. But she won’t be driven out, an’ I won’t stand by an’ see it.” “Hummm. I sent some telegrams myself. You may get no reply, or none in time to be of much help, but they’re sent.” He dug in his saddlebag and pulled out a padded leather pouch. “These may help. As I told you, McLeod was a friend, I can’t do anything officially, but as the army says, time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted - and these will make that reconnaissance a lot easier. Give them to Miss McLeod and tell her Jackson won’t have anythin’ of this quality.” I opened the pouch and looked at a pair of mighty fine binoculars. I’d seen telescopes, and while I hadn’t seen binoculars before I knew what they were. I put them to my eyes and gasped. “Major, these are... 79
Chapter 7 well, they could make a mighty big difference. I thank you, an’ I know Illy will.” The Major changed the subject with a wave of his hand. “I hear that there is a considerable amount of local talk about this war of yours with Jackson. Chama Flats may be doing and sayin’g nothing, but Española was buzzing with it after Waye was buried. A good many of the townsfolk may be on your side. At least they aren’t on Jackson’s. Few of them like what they’ve heard about him, although there’ll always be men who’ll side with the man who looks to have the money or power. “I suggest that we chose a different place for me to take the last herd from you. I should think that that one more bunch of cattle will be the last that you may get through from the basin without a fight. Perhaps you should give thought to selling others elsewhere at the same time?” Now that was somethin’ I hadn’t thought about. Mebbe I’d have come to it if the Major had said nothing, but likely it would have been too late. What with McLeod not havin’ been well a while before he was murdered, an’ then the trouble with Jackson, it’d been three years since there’d been a real gather in the basin. We could sell two thousand head of cattle to the army but there was mebbe another two thousand head of stock ready to go. I recalled somethin’ I’d heard talked of in Española. Now there was a possible chance to do somethin’ about the extra cattle - an’ with an honest man - but we’d need more hands. We had us the money to hire now an’ I was all for it. Illy trusted me an’ there weren’t time to discuss it. I called Rad over. “Take the money an’ this pouch - an’ treat it gentle. Break those things an’ Illy will have your ears. Get back to the cave. Tell Illy I’m goin’ into town to see about sellin’ cattle someplace else, an’ see if I can find us some fightin’ men.” “Will there be any around?” I grinned. “People talk. They talk loudest about trouble brewing, an’ with Cinch here they’ll talk about him and what’s happening. It takes a while for the gossip to pass along, but I’d say by now men could be startin’ to wander in. You go tell Illy I’ll be back when she sees me.” “Sure.” 80
Lyn McConchie I saw him on the trail towards the basin before I rode back to Española and bellied up to the bar. There I listened, takin’ a drink now an’ then so as not to look as if I was too interested. After that I took a ride down to the next town an’ did some more drinkin’ and listening. Here an’ there I talked to a man. I knew my own kind. Western men had a sense of fair play an’ rough justice. There weren’t a man who wouldn’t grin over what we was doin’ if they heard about it. And there was plenty of men who’d have just about helped out for free. I chose hard men, but men who’d ride for the brand once they taken the money. I wanted men who knew cattle but who’d not hesitate to fight if they had to. An’ that was what I got. Was I glad to see Apache Pete! I didn’t know if he’d show up or not.
I’d ridden with him a couple of years before and he was solid. Lean, middle-aged, coiled springs and rawhide, an’ no back-up in him. And with all that, he was cold-eyed and savvy. An honest man and 81
Chapter 7 nobody better ever try to say different. He had a friend with him. A quiet, wiry-lookin’ man in his thirties and I took to him right off. “Johnny, this here’s Dan Mull. He’s an honest man, good with cattle, an’ he can hold up his end of a fight.” “You’re both in,” I said and they grinned at me. I sent the others to have a couple of drinks in the bar while, with Pete an’ Dan flankin’ me, I rode out to talk with a busy rancher named Kilran. He eyed me an’ the waitin’ men. “Light an’ set.” “Sorry, Mister Kilran, I’m in a hurry. Is it true you an’ a couple of your neighbors are gatherin’ cattle for a trail drive?” “It is. How did you hear of that?” “It’s bein’ talked about in town,” I told him “Would you take another herd? Around fifteen hundred to two thousand head? I’d send a couple of men with it an’ they’d have the right to hire up to six more. We’d pay our share of the costs in cash, and in advance. He thought about it, but I already knew what he’d say. He’d know about the fight with Jackson. But from what I’d heard there was already goin’ to be about five thousand head, an’ some sixteen riders from four spreads on this drive. If we added eight more riders, the drive would be easier an’ safer. Jackson wasn’t enough of a fool to buck two dozen salty riders an’ start a war with four more spreads to boot. “What do I do with your share if we make it there an’ back?” “Pete here is a top hand. I trust him to Rep for our brand and pay off the crew when you get there. He’ll send the rest of the money on to us here in Española.” “All right. We’ll have the gather completed in around another two weeks. We’re drivin’ hard an’ fast after that. We aim to be the last herd up the trail before winter closes in.” He held up a hand before I could protest. “I know it’s the wrong time of year to be doin’ it, but there here’s a special deal. It ain’t just a drive. I got kin where we’re goin’ who bought a good-sized ranch this past spring. It’s been under-stocked for years an’ there’s more grass ‘n you can shake a stick at, but it took ever’ penny they had to buy it. The old owner sold off most of his stock before he sold the land. “With cattle fetchin’ the kind of price they are up there, my kinfolk ain’t got no money for restocking. If you throw in with us, you bring two hundred head of good young breedin’ cows. Those are payment for 82
Lyn McConchie the grass. We winter the herd over an’ then we can be the first to sell come spring. I reckon we’ll make out all right on the price.” He’d be right about that. He’d have the herd in to the railhead a couple of months before anyone else, an’ the cattle buyers would go mad payin’ out. His kin would do well with a thousand head of new stock for free. Whoever thought that one up, it was a mighty slick scheme. “We’ll be back.” I told him. Then I forked my horse for the saloon, collected the others I’d hired, an’ led them down the trail. We had two weeks to gather every sellable head of cattle we could. By now Rad knew a lot of the valleys an’ could be sent to ride with a couple of the new hands. I’d split us up into groups of three an’ comb out the highest areas again first. In a week the Major’d be waitin’ for the last bunch in Española. He’d have cash money for them an’ that’d help. Even if we lost the whole herd we sent North, Illy wouldn’t be left with nothing.
We camped in the lower hills, an’ while we drank coffee around the fire I filled the boys in on the whole deal. All the stuff I hadn’t had time to tell them when they was hired. The other half dozen men I’d picked from things I’d heard and from their looks once we met. There was Spanish Joe, a black-eyed, black-haired man who I knew to be half Mexican, half Texan, an’ all bad medicine to tangle with. He favored buckskins an’ a red sash with long tassels. It may have looked fancy to some people but if they were smart no one would say anythin’ about that. I’d also hired Laredo, who’d been a gunman in some of the wrong wars, and his partner Faneris, who’d sometimes been in the right ones. They wore army greatcoats an’ both of them liked two guns an’ bay horses. I’d found Abe Falconer and an’ his brother Luke as well. They came from lean, blue-eyed mountain stock an’ understood feuding. They carried pistols but in times of trouble they’d most likely reach for the long guns they carried. With those their kind don’t miss often. They also knew Indian sign language, plus a bit of several Indian tongues. An’ lastly there was a slender, cold-faced fellow who’d found me. His horse had done some fast travelin’ recently, but I weren’t worried 83
Published on Aug 26, 2009
"South of Rio Chama by Lyn McConchie embodies the virtues that attract us to the Western story. Its main action, defending, or more precise...