There were other Range forts, smaller, but as stoutly and ingeniously designed, each built beside a water source on Rennie land—defense points for Don Cazar's riders, their garrisons rotated at monthly intervals. And Drew had to thank that system for having taken Johnny Shannon away from the Stronghold before the Kentuckian arrived. Rennie's foster son was now riding inspection between one water-hole fortification and another. But Drew was uncertain just how he would rub along with Shannon in the future.
"Senor Kirby, Don Cazar—he would speak with you in the Casa Grande," Leon Rivas called through one of the patio side windows.
"Coming." Drew left the huddle of his possessions on the bunk.
The Casa Grande of the Stronghold was a high-ceilinged, five-room building about sixty feet long, the kitchen making a right angle to the other rooms and joining the smoke house to form part of another wall for the patio. Mesquite logs, adze-hewn and only partially smoothed, were placed over the doorways, and the plank doors themselves were slung on hand-wrought iron hinges or on leather straps, from oak turning-posts. Drew knocked on the age-darkened surface of the big door.
"Kirby? Come in."
Here in contrast to the brilliant sunlight of the patio was a dusky coolness. There were no glass panes in the windows. Manta, the unbleached muslin which served to cover such openings in the frontier ranches, was tacked taut, allowing in air but only subdued light. The walls had been smoothly plastered, and as in Topham's office, lengths of colorful woven materials and a couple of Navajo blankets served as hangings. Rugs of cougar and wolf skin were scattered on the beaten earth of the floor. There was a tall carved cupboard with a grilled door, a bookcase, and two massive chests shoved back against the walls. And over the stone mantel of the fireplace hung a picture of a morose-looking, bearded man wearing a steel breastplate, the canvas dim and dark with age and smoke.
Don Cazar was seated at a table as massive as the chests, a pile of papers before him flanked by two four-branch candelabra of native silver. Bartolome Rivas' more substantial bulk weighed down the rawhide seat of another chair more to one side.
"Sit down—" Rennie nodded to the seat in front of the table. "Smoke?" He pushed forward a silver box holding the long cigarillos of the border country. Drew shook his head.
"Whisky? Wine?" He gestured to a tray with waiting glasses.
"Sherry." Drew automatically answered without thought.
"What do you think of the stock you saw down in the corral?" Don Cazar poured a honey-colored liquid from the decanter into a small glass.
As the Kentuckian raised it to sip, the scent of the wine quirked time for him, making this for a fleeting moment the dining room at Red Springs during a customary after-dinner gathering of the men of the household. The talk there, too, had been of horses—always horses. Then Drew came back in a twitch of eyelid to the here and now, to Hunt Rennie watching him with a measuring he did not relish, to Bartolome's round face with its close-to-hostile expression. Deliberately Drew sipped again before answering the question.
"I'd say, suh, if they're but a sample of Range stock, the breed is excellent. However——"
"However what, senor?" Bartolome's eyes challenged Drew. "In this territory, even in Sonora, there are none to compare with the horses of this hacienda."
"That is not what I was about to say, Senor Rivas. But if Don Cazar wishes to try the eastern methods of training, these horses are too old. You begin with a yearling colt, not three-year-olds."
"To break a foal! What madness!" Now Bartolome's face expressed shock.
"Not breaking," Drew corrected, "training. It is another method altogether. One puts a weanling on a rope halter, accustoms him to the feel of the hackamore, of being with men. Then he grows older knowing no fear or strangeness."
The Mexican looked from Drew to Don Cazar, his shock fading to puzzlement. Rennie nodded.
"Si, amigo, so it is done—in Kentucky and Virginia. But this time we must deal with the older ones. Can you modify those methods, gentle without breaking? A colt with the fire still in him, but saddle-broke, is worth much more—"
"I can try. But you have already said, suh, that you don't allow rough breakin' here." Drew's half suspicion crystallized into belief. Don Cazar had not really wanted another wrangler at all; he had wanted Shiloh—and his foals. Well, perhaps he would find he did have a wrangler who could deliver the goods into the bargain.
"No, but it is always well to learn new ways. I have been in Kentucky, Kirby. Perhaps some of their methods would not work on the Range. On the other hand, others might. As you have said—we can but try." He picked up the top sheet of paper and began to read:
"Bayos-blancos—light duns—two. Bayos-azafranados—saffrons—one. Bayos-narajados—orange duns—none——"
"There was one," Bartolome interrupted. "The mare, she was lost at Canon del Palomas."
Rennie frowned, "Si, the mare. Bayos-tigres—striped ones —three. Bayos-cebrunos—smoked duns—two. Grullas—blues—four. Roans—six. Blacks—three. Bays—four. Twenty-five three-year-olds. You won't be expected to take on the whole remuda, Kirby. Select any six of your own choosing and use your methods of gentling on them. We'll make a test this way."
Bartolome uttered a sound closer to a snort than anything else. And Drew guessed how he stood with the Mexican foreman. Rennie might have faith, or pretend to have faith, in some new method of training, but Rivas was a conservative who preferred the tried and true and undoubtedly considered the Kentuckian an interloper.
"Now, the matter of Shiloh..."
Drew finished the sherry with appreciation. He was beginning to see the amusing side of this conference. Drew's work on the Range settled, Rennie was about to get to what he really wanted. But Don Cazar's first words were a little startling.
"We'll keep him close-in the water corral. To turn a stud of eastern breeding loose is dangerous——"
"You mean he might be stolen, suh?" Drew clicked his empty glass down on the table.
"No, he might be killed!" And Rennie's tone indicated he meant just that.
"There are wild-horse bands out there, though we're trying to capture or run them off the Range. And a wild stud will always try to add mares to his band. Because he has fought many times to keep or take mares, he is a formidable and vicious opponent, one that an imported, tamed stud can rarely best. Right now, coming into Big Rock well for water is a pinto that has killed three other stallions—including a black I imported back in '60—and two of them were larger, heavier animals than he.
"The Trinfans are moving down into that section this week. I hope they can break up that band, run down the stud anyway. He has courage and cunning, but his blood is not a line we want for foals on this range. So Shiloh stays here at the Stronghold; don't risk him loose."
"Yes, suh. What about these wild ones—they worth huntin'?"
"They're mixed; some are scrubs, inbred, poor stuff. But a few fine ones turn up. Mostly when they do they're strays or bred from strays—escaped from horse thieves or Indians. If the mustangers here pick up any branded ones, they're returned to the owners, if possible, or sold at a yearly auction. By the old Mexican law the hunting season for horses runs from October to March. Foals are old enough then to be branded. Speaking of foals, you left your mare and the filly in town?"
"Kells'll give them stable room till next month. I can bring them out then."
"We'll have a delivery of remounts to make to the camp about then. You can help haze those in and pick up your own stock on return."
Leon appeared in the doorway. "Don Cazar, the mesteneoes—they arrive."
"Good. These people are the real wild-horse experts, Kirby. Not much the Trinfans don't know about horses." Don Cazar was already on his way to the door and Drew fell in behind Bartolome.
The Trinfan outfit was small, considering the job they intended, Drew thought. A cart pulled by two mules, lightly made and packed high, was the nucleus of their small caravan. Burros—two of them—were roped behind and, to Drew's surprise, a cow, bawling fretfully and intended, he later learned, to play foster mother to any unweaned foals which might be picked up. The cart was driven by a Mexican in leather breeches and jacket over a red shirt. Behind him rode the boy and girl Drew had seen in the Tubacca alley, mounted on rangy, nervous horses that had speed in every line of their under-fleshed bodies. Each rider trailed four spare mounts roped nose to tail.
"Buenos dias, Don Cazar." For so small a man the Mexican on the cart seat produced a trumpet-sized voice. He touched the roll-edged brim of his sombrero, and Drew noted that his arm was crooked as if in the past it had been broken and poorly set.
"Buenos dias, Senor Trinfan. This house is yours." Rennie went to the side of the cart. "The west corral is ready for your use as always. Draw on the stores for any need you may have—"
"Gracias, Don Cazar." It was the thanks of equal to equal. "You have some late news of the wild ones?"
"Only that the pinto still runs near the well."
"That spotted one—si, he is an Apache for cunning, for deviltry of spirit. It may be that this time he will not be the lucky one. There is in him a demon. Did I not see him, with my own eyes, kill a foal, tear flesh from the flanks of its dam when she tried to drop out of the run? Si—a real diablo, that one!"
"Get rid of him one way or another, Trinfan. He is a danger to the Range. He killed another stud this season. I am as sure of that as if I had seen him in action."
"Ah, the blue one you thought might be a runner to match Oro. Si, that was a great pity, Don Cazar. Well, we shall try, we shall try this time to put that diablo under!"
An hour later Drew was facing a diablo of his own, with far less confidence than Hilario Trinfan had voiced. Just how stupid could one be? Around him now were men trained from early childhood to this life, and he could show no skill at their employment. All the way out from Texas he had practiced doggedly with the lariat, and his best fell far short of what a range-bred child could do.
Yet he had an audience waiting down at the corral. Drew's mouth was a straight line. He would soon confirm their belief that Don Cazar had in truth hired Shiloh instead of his owner. But there was no use trying to duck the ordeal, and the Kentuckian had never been one to put off the inevitable with a pallid hope that something would turn up to save him.
Only this time, apparently, fortune was going to favor him.
"Which one you wish, senor?" Teodoro Trinfan, rope in hand, stood there ready to cast for one of the milling colts. Why the boy was making that offer of assistance Drew had no inkling. But to accept would give him a slight chance to prove he could do part of the work.
He had already made his selection in the corral, though he had despaired of ever getting that animal at rope's end.
He worked in the dust of the smaller corral, with Croaker's help, adapting his knowledge of eastern gentling the way he had mentally planned it during the days since he had accepted the job. With the excited and frightened colt roped to the steady mule Drew tried to think horse, feel horse, even be horse, shutting out all the rest of the world just as he had on the day of the race. He must sense the colt's terror of the rope, his horror of the strange human smell—the man odor which was so frightening that a blanket hung up at a water hole could keep wild horses away from the liquid they craved.
Drew talked as he had to Shiloh, as if this black could understand every word. He twitched the lead rope, and Croaker paced sedately about in a wide circle, dragging the colt with him. Drew then reached across the bony back of the mule, pressed his hand up and down the sweaty, shivering hide of the black. No hurry, must not rush the steady, mild gesture to the horse that here was a friend.
The Kentuckian had no idea of the passing of time; it was all part of the knowledge that slow movements, not swift ones, would prevent new panic. The blanket was shown, allowing the black to sniff down its surface, before it was flapped back and forth across the colt's back, and finally left there. Now the saddle. And with that cinched into place, the black stood quietly beside Croaker.
Drew mounted the mule and rode. The saddled black, loosened from the twin tie, followed the mule twice around the corral. The rider dismounted from Croaker, was up on the black. For perilous seconds he felt flesh and muscles tense under his weight; then the body relaxed.
His hand went up. "Open the gate!" he called softly.
Seeming to realize he was free of the pole walls, the black exploded in a burst of speed which was close to Shiloh's racing spurt. Drew let him go. Three-quarters of an hour later he rode back, the black blowing foam, but answering the rein.
He found Don Cazar, Bartolome, and Hilario Trinfan waiting for him by the corral. The mustanger walked forward with a lurch, his head thrown far back so he could look up at Drew from under the wide brim of his sombrero.
"This you could not do with a true wild one," he commented.
"I know that, senor. This colt was not an enemy, one who has already been hunted by man. He was only afraid...."
"But you have the gift. It is born in one—the gift. A man has it, and the horse always knows, answers to it. Ride with me, senor, and try that gift on the wild ones!"
"Someday—" That was true. Someday Drew did want to ride after the wild ones. Anse's stories of horse hunting on the Texas plains had first stirred that desire. Now it was fully awake in him.
Don Cazar inspected the black closely. "Well, Bartolome, what have you to say now?"
"Senor Kirby knows his business," the Mexican admitted. "Though I think also that this was no true wild one. He will make a good remount, but he is no fighter such as others I have seen here."
Drew unsaddled and left the black in with Croaker; he fed both animals a bait of oats. In the morning he would be at this again. And he still had not solved the problem of roping. He could not expect Teodoro to come to his aid a second time. He started slowly back to the bunkhouse.
Drew raised his wet head from the bunkhouse basin and reached out for a sacking towel. "Yes?"
Leon sat on a near-by bunk. "I have thought of something—"
"Sounds as if it might be important," Drew commented.
"Don Cazar, he has offered money—a hundred dollars in gold—to have off the Range that killer pinto stud. But that one, he is like the Apache; he is not to be caught."
"Can't someone pick him off with a rifle?"
"Perhaps. Only that has also been tried several times, senor. My father, he thought he had killed him only two months ago. But the very next week did not the pinto come to steal mares from the bay manada? It must have been that he was only creased. No, he is a diablo, and he hides in the rocks where he cannot easily be seen. But there is a plan I have thought of—" Leon hesitated, and Drew guessed he was about to make a suggestion which he believed might meet with disapproval.
"And this plan of yours?" Why had Leon come to him with it? Surely young Rivas had better and closer friends at the Stronghold. Why approach a newcomer?
"That pinto—he is a fighter; he likes to fight. He will not allow another stud on the ground he claims."
Drew was beginning to understand. Wild ones were sometimes trapped by a belled mare staked out to draw them in. But a stud to catch a fighting stud was another plan altogether.
"You would offer him a fight?"
"Si, but not a real fight. Just allow him to believe that there would be one. Pull him so out of hiding in the rocks—"
"Using what stud for bait?"
"Senor Juanito—he said a stud that would fight too, like Shiloh."
"Shiloh!" Drew wadded the towel in his fist and pitched it across the room. "Shiloh!"
Leon must have read something of Drew's blazing anger in his face, for the Mexican's mouth went a little slack and his hand came up in an involuntary gesture as if to ward off a blow.
"It is a good plan!" His boy's voice was thin in protest against Drew's expression.
"It is a harebrained, dangerous scheme," began Drew; then he switched to a question. "Did Johnny Shannon suggest using Shiloh for bait, or was that your idea?"
"Senor Juanito—he said one must have a good horse, a fighter. But such a horse would not be hurt. We would wait with rifles and shoot the pinto quickly before he attacked. There would be no harm to Shiloh, none at all. Senor Juanito said that. Only a trick to get the diablo where we could shoot. Maybe—" Leon's eyes dropped, a flush rose slowly on his brown cheeks—"maybe it was very foolish. But when Senor Juanito told it, it sounded well."
"Did he tell you to ask me about it?"
The flush darkened. "He did not say so, senor. But one would not do such a thing without permission. Also, you should be one of the hunters, no? How else could we go?"
"Well, there won't be any huntin' of that kind, Leon. Trinfan knows what he's doin', and I don't think that pinto is goin' to be runnin' loose—or alive—much longer."
Drew pulled a clean shirt over his head. What kind of game was Johnny Shannon trying to play? Apparently he had almost talked Leon into using Shiloh as bait in this fool stunt. Had he expected the kid to take the horse without Drew's knowledge? Or for some reason had he wanted Leon to spill this? A trick to get Shiloh out of the Stronghold? But why?
He buckled on his gun belt, settled the twin holsters comfortably. Shannon—what and why, he repeated silently. Nothing sorted out in his mind. Drew only felt a prickle of uneasiness which began between his shoulder blades and ran a chill down his spine, as if rifle sights were on him.
But Shannon did not return to the Stronghold, and Drew was kept busy at the corrals from dawn to dusk. In a month of hard work it was easy to forget what might only be fancies.
There was an invigorating crispness in the air, and the dun gelding the Kentuckian rode savored the breeze as a desert dweller savors water. Drew was indulgent with his mount's skittishness as they pounded along at the tail of the horse herd bound for Tubacca.
From a rocky point well before them there was a flash of light. Jared Nye, on Drew's left, took off his hat and waved a wide-armed signal to answer Greyfeather's mirror. Two of the Pimas were scouting ahead on this two-day drive, and the Anglo riders were keeping the herd to a trot. Apaches, Kitchell, even bandidos from over the border, could be sniffing about the Range, eyeing its riches, ready to pick up anything left unprotected. The men rode with their rifles free of the boot, fastened by a loop of rawhide to the saddle horn, the old Texas precaution which allowed for instant action. And at each halt the six-shooter Colts' loading was checked.
Nye swerved, sending a lagger on with a sharp crack of quirt in the air. He pulled up to match Drew's sobered trot.
"That's the last bad stretch; now it'll be downhill an' green fields all th' way." Nye nodded at the narrow opening between two hills lying ahead. "Glad to get this band in on all four legs an' runnin' easy."
"You expected trouble?"
"Kid, in this here country you don't expect nothin' else but. Last time we brought hosses up th' trail they jumped us four, five miles back—right close to where we saw that pile of bones this mornin'. 'Fore he knew what hit us Jim Berry was face down an' never got up again. An' th' Old Man took him a crease 'crost th' ribs that made him bleed like a stuck pig. Got him patched up an' into town; then he keeled over when he tried to git down off his hoss an' was in bed a week."
"Naw, we figured it was Kitchell. Couldn't prove it though, an' after that th' Old Man made a rule we take Pimas every drive. Ain't nothin' able to surprise them. I never had no use for Injuns, but these here are peaceful cusses—iffen they don't smell an Apache. With them ridin' point we're sure slidin' th' groove. Me, I'll be glad to hit town. I'd shore like to keep th' barkeep busier than a beaver buildin' hisself a new dam. Though with th' Old Man off reppin' for th' law down along the border and needin' hands back on the Range, we swallows down th' dust nice an' easy an' takes it slow. Anyway, this far from payday I kin count up mosta m' roll without takin' it outta m' pocket."
"This Kitchell...think it's true that some of the ranchers are really helpin' him?"
"Don't know. Might be he's tryin' to play th' deuce against th' whole deck. Lessen he lives on th' kind of whisky as would make a rabbit up an' spit in a grizzly's eye hole, he's got somethin'—or someone—to back him. Me...were th' Old Man poundin' th' hills flat lookin' for me, I'd crawl th' nearest bronc an' make myself as scarce as a snake's two ears." Nye shrugged. "Kitchell's got some powerful reason for squattin' out in th' brush playin' cat-eyed with most of th' territory. Maybe so there're some as will sit in on his side, but they've sure got their jaws in a sling an' ain't bawlin' about it none. 'Course lotsa people were red-hot Rebs back in '61 till they saw as how white men fightin' each other jus' naturally gave th' Apaches an' some of th' border riffraff idears 'bout takin' over. But mosta us now ain't wavin' no flag. Iffen Kitchell has got him some diehards backin' him—" Nye shrugged again. "Git 'long there, you knock-kneed, goat-headed wagon-loafer!" He pushed on to haze another slacker.
They were dusty and dry when they dropped the corral gate in place and watched the horses mill around. Drew headed for Kells' stable. Shadow nickered a greeting and turned around as if to purposefully edge her daughter forward for his inspection.
"Pretty, ma'am," he told her. "Very pretty. She's goin' to be as fine a lady as her ma—I'm willin' to swear to that."
The filly lipped Drew's fingers experimentally and then snorted and did a frisky little dance with her tiny hoofs rustling in the straw. Kells had been as good as his promise, Drew noted. Mother and child had had expert attention, and Shadow's coat had been groomed to a glossy silk; her black mane and tail were rippling satin ribbons.
"Gonna take 'em back to th' Range with you, Mister Kirby?" Callie came down from the loft.
"Yes. I'll need a cart and driver though. We'll have to give the foal a lift. Know anyone for hire, Callie?"
"I'll ask around. Have any trouble comin' up?"
"No. Greyfeather and Runnin' Fox were scoutin' for us."
"Stage was jumped yesterday on th' Sonora road," Callie volunteered. "One men got him a bullet in th' shoulder, but they got away clean. It was Kitchell, th' driver thought. Captain Bayliss took out a patrol right away. You plannin' on goin' back with Kitchell out?"
"Don't know," Drew replied absently. Better leave that decision to Nye; he knew the country and the situation. "You ask about the cart, Callie, but don't make it definite. Have to see how things turn out."
Drew started for the Four Jacks to meet Nye. Back here in Tubacca he was conscious how much he had allowed his personal affairs to drift from day to day. Of course he had seen very little of Hunt Rennie at the Stronghold; his father had ridden south on patrol with his own private posse shortly after his own arrival there. But whenever Drew thought seriously of the future he had that odd sense of dislocation and loss which he had first known on the night he had seen Don Cazar arrive at the cantina. Don Cazar—Hunt Rennie. Drew Kirby—Drew Rennie. A seesaw to make a man dizzy, or maybe the vertigo he felt was the product of too much sun, dust, and riding.
There was someone at a far table in the cantina, but otherwise the dusky room was empty. Drew went directly to the bar. "Got any coffee, Fowler?"
"Sure thing. Nye was in here 'bout five minutes ago. Said for you to wait here for him. You hear 'bout Kitchell holdin' up th' stage?"
"Callie told me. Said the army patrol went out after him."
"Yeah, don't mean they'll nail him though. He's as good as an Apache 'bout keepin' undercover. Here's your coffee. Want some grub, too?"
The smell of coffee revived Drew's hunger. "Sure could use some. Haven't eaten since we broke camp at sunup."
"Sing's in th' kitchen. I'll give him th' sign to rattle th' pans. Say—been racin' that Shiloh of yours lately? Sure am glad I played a hunch an' backed him against Oro." Fowler's red forelock bobbed over his high forehead as he nodded vigorously.
"No racin' on the Range."
"Hope you're keepin' him closer. That border crew'd sure like to git a rope on him! Down Sonora way one of them Mexes would dig right down to th' bottom of his money chest to buy a hoss like that. I'll go an' tell Sing."
Drew, coffee mug in hand, sat down at a table where some of the breeze beat in the door now and then. Lord, he was really tired. He stretched out his legs, and the sun made twinkly points of light on the rowels of the Mexican spurs. Sipping the coffee, he allowed himself the luxury of not doing any thinking at all.
Fowler brought a heaping plate and Drew began to eat.
"Oh, there you are!" Nye slammed in, swung one of the chairs about, and sat on it back to front, his arms folded across the back.
"You ridin' out to tell the army we're here—with the horses?" Drew asked.
"Nope, caught sight of them ridin' in. Looked like Sergeant Muller was in command—he'll come in here. Hey, Fowler, how's about another plate of fodder?"
"Steady on, fella. Make it straight ahead now!"
Both of them looked up. A burly man wearing sergeant's stripes steered a slighter figure before him through the open door. Johnny Shannon, a bandage about his uncovered head, lurched as if trying to free himself from the other's grip and caught at a chair back. Nye and Drew jumped up to ease him into a seat.
"What's—?" began Nye.
Muller interrupted. "Found him crawlin' along right near town. Says as how he was took by Kitchell 'n' got away, but he ain't too clear 'bout what happened or where. Wearin' a crease 'longside his skull; maybe that scrambled up his thinkin' some."
"Better get Doc Matthews. I think he's in town." Fowler came from the bar, a glass in hand.
"Right. I'll go." Nye started out.
Johnny had slumped forward, his head on the table encircled by his limp arms. Drew was puzzled. Shannon was supposed to have ridden south on the Range, not north. What was he doing this far away from the water-hole route? Had he found a trail which led him in this direction? Or had he been jumped somewhere by Kitchell's pack of wolves and forced along for some purpose of their own?
"Was he ridin', Sergeant?" Drew asked, hardly knowing why.
"No—footin' it. Said somethin' about Long Canyon after we gave him a pull at a canteen. Sure came a long way if that's where he started."
"I'll go get Hamilcar. He knows somethin' 'bout doctorin'," Fowler cut in. "Maybe Doc Matthews ain't here, after all."
"Hey, Sarge, can I see you a minute?" came a hail from without.
"You manage." Muller made it more order than request as he left.
Drew sat alone with Shannon, one hand on the boy's shoulder to steady him. He was aware of movement behind him. If the fellow at the back table had been dozing earlier, he was roused now.
"Where did you git them spurs?"
Drew turned, his lips shaped a name, tried again, and got it out as a hoarse whisper. "Anse! Don't you know me, Anse?"
He saw eyes lift from the floor level, the scarred cheek under a ragged fringe of beard; and then astonishment in the other's expression became a flashing grin.
"Drew—Drew Rennie! Lordy, it's sure enough Drew Rennie!"
Drew was on his feet. His hands on the other's shoulders pulled him forward into a rough half embrace. "Anse!" He swayed to the joyous pounding of a fist between his shoulder blades. "I thought you were dead!" he somehow gasped.
"An' I seen you go down; a slug got you plumb center!" the Texan sputtered. "Rolled 'round a bush an' saw you git it! But for a ghost you're sure lively!"
"Caught me in the belt buckle," Drew recounted that miracle of the war. "Knocked me out; didn't really touch to matter, though."
Anse pushed away a little, still holding Drew tightly by the upper arms. "Anybody told me I'd see Drew Rennie live an' kickin', I'd said straight to his face he was a fork-tongued liar!"
Drew came partly to his senses and the present. Fowler ... Nye ... either one of them could come back on this reunion. "Anse—listen! This is important. I ain't Drew Rennie—not here, not now—"
"Had to draw a new name outta th' deck?" Anse's grin faded; his eyes narrowed. "All right, what's the goin' handle?"
"Kirby, Drew Kirby ... I'll explain later." He had given the warning only just in time. Fowler and Hamilcar were coming from the back room of the cantina, and there was a stir at the table.
Johnny was sitting up, his head swaying from side to side, his eyes on Drew and Anse. But the stare was unfocused; he must still be only half conscious. Drew had a fleeting prick of worry. Had Shannon heard anything he would remember? There was nothing to be done about that now.
" ... and that's the way it is." Drew sat on the stool which was the only other furnishing in the bath cubicle while Anse splashed and wallowed in the slab tub.
The Texan swiped soap from his cheek. "An' ain't you gonna tell?"
"I don't know. Would you?"
"Go with m' hat in hand an' say, 'Well, Pa, here's your wanderin' boy'? No, I dunno as how I'd be makin' that kinda play neither. Never was one to unspool th' bedroll till I was sure o' th' brand I was ridin' for. An' you an' me's kinda hide-matched there. Glad you wised me up in time."
"Maybe I didn't," Drew admitted.
"You mean that Shannon? I know you think he's filin' his teeth for you, but I'd say he was too busy countin' stars from that skull beltin' to make sense out of our hurrawin'. I'll give him th' eye though. Lissen now, you're Kirby—so am I called for a rebrandin', too? Seems like two Kirbys turnin' up in a town this size is gonna make a few people ask some questions."
"You're my cousin—Anson Kirby." Drew had already thought that out. "Now, you've some tall talkin' to do your ownself. I saw you roll out of your saddle back in Tennessee. How come you turn up here and now?"
Anse sluiced water over his head and shoulders with cupped hands.
"Do I tell it jus' like it happened, you'll think I'm callin' up mountains outta prairie-dog hills, it's that crazy. But it's range truth. Yeah, I landed outta that saddle on some mighty hard ground. If you'll remember, I had me a hole in the shoulder big enough to let th' wind whistle through. I rolled between th' bushes jus' in time to see you get it—plumb center an' final, so I thought. Then ... well, I don't remember too good for a while. Next time I was able to take a real interest I was lyin' on a bed with about a mountain of quilts on top me, weaker'n a yearlin' what's jus' been dragged outta a bog hole. Seems like them Yankees gathered me up with th' rest of them bushwacker scrubs, but when they got me a mile or so down th' road they decided as how I'd had it good an' there was no use wastin' wagon room on me. So they let me lie....
"Only," the Texan paused and then continued more soberly, "Drew, sometimes—sometimes it seems like a hombre can have a mite more'n his share of luck; or else he's got him Someone as is line ridin' for him. We had us friends in Tennessee, an' it jus' happened as how I was dropped where one of them families found me. They sure was good folks; patched me up an' saw me through like I was their close kin. Hid me out by sayin' as how I had th' cholera.
"An' most of th' time I didn't know a rope from a saddle—outta my head complete. First there was that shoulder hole; then I got me a good case of lung fever. It was two months 'fore I could crawl round better'n a sick calf what lost its ma too early. Then, jus' as I got so I could stamp m' boots on th' ground an' expect to stand straight up in 'em, this here Yankee patrol came 'long an' dogged me right into a bunch o' our boys they had rounded up. I had me some weeks in a prison stockade, which ain't, I'm tellin' you, no way for to spend any livin' time. Then this here war was over, an' I was loose. No hoss, no nothin'. Some of th' boys got to talkin' 'bout trailin' back to Texas, tryin' out some ranchin' in the bush country. A lotta wild stuff down there—nobody's been runnin' brands on anythin' much since '61. We planned to get a herd of mavericks, drive up into Kansas or Missouri, an' sell. A couple of th' boys had run stuff in that way for th' army, even swum 'em across the Mississippi. It would maybe give us a start. An'—well, there weren't nothin' else to do. So we tried it." Anse sat staring down at the water lapping at his lean middle. His was a very thin body, the ribs standing out beneath the skin almost as harshly as did the weal of the scar on his shoulder.
"And it didn't work?"
"Well, it might've. I ain't sayin' it won't for some hombres. Only we run into trouble. Texas ain't Texas no more; it's th' Fifth Military District. Any man what fought for th' Confederacy ain't got any rights. It's worse'n an Injun war. We got us our herd, leastwise th' beginnin' of one. An' that was back-breakin' work—we was feelin' as beat as when we run out of Tennessee after Franklin. Only we kept to it, 'cause it would give us a stake. So we started drivin' north, an' they jumped us."
"Yankees—th' brand what probably set at home an' let others do th' real fightin'—ready to come in an' take over once th' shootin' was done with. They grabbed th' herd. Shot Will Bachus when he stood up to 'em, an' made it all legal 'cause they had a tin-horn deputy ridin' with 'em. Well, we got him anyway an' two or three of th' others. But then they called in th' army, an' we had to ride for it. Scattered so they had more'n one trail to follow. But they posted us as 'wanted' back there. So I come whippin' a mighty tired hoss outta Texas, an' I ain't plannin' on goin' back to any Fifth Military District!"
"Any chance they'll push a star after you here?"
"No. I'm jus' small stuff, not worth botherin' 'bout by their reckonin', now I ain't got anythin' left them buzzards can pick offen m' bones. They's sittin' tight an' gittin' fat right there."
"Then it's all set." Drew tossed Anse a towel. "Climb out and we'll get started!"
"You've worked horses, and they can use another wrangler on the Range. Right now they've a lot to be topped—want to gentle 'em some and trade 'em south into Mexico. If you ride for Don Cazar, nobody's goin' to ask too many questions."
"How d'you know he'll sign me on?" Anse studied his own unkempt if now clean reflection in the shaving mirror on the wall. "I sure don't look like no bargain."
"You will when we're through with you," Drew began. The Texan swung around.
"Looky here, you thinkin' of grub stakin'? I ain't gonna—"
"Suppose you had yourself a stack of cart wheels and my pockets were to let?" Drew retorted. "I think I remember me some times when we had one blanket and a hunk of hardtack between us, and there weren't any 'yours' or 'mine' about it! Or don't you think back that far?"
Anse laughed. "All right, compadre, pretty me up like a new stake rope on a thirty-dollar pony. If I don't agree, likely you'll trip up m' foreleg an' reshoe me anyway. Right now—I'll say it out good'n clear—I'm so pore m' backbone rattles when I cough."
"Mistuh Kirby—" Hamilcar came in. "Mistuh Nye says to tell you he'll be back. Mistuh Shannon's in bed at th' doctuh's; he's gonna be all right soon's he gets ovah a mighty big headache."
He had actually forgotten Shannon! Hastily Drew expressed his satisfaction at the news and added:
"This is my cousin from Texas, Hamilcar. He hit town ridin' light. I'm goin' over to pick him up a new outfit at Stein's. You give him all the rest, will you?"
Blue blouses—a corporal's guard of troopers—were pulling up by the cantina hitch rail as Drew came out into the plaza. Muller's men probably, he thought. But now he was more intent on Anse's needs.
Few people had ever broken through the crust of self-sufficiency the Kentuckian had begun to grow in early childhood. His grandfather's bitter hatred of his father had made Drew an outsider at Red Springs from birth and had finally driven him away to join General Morgan in '62. Those he had ever cared about he could list on the fingers of one sun-browned, rein-hardened hand: Cousin Meredith; her son Shelly—he had died at Chickamauga between one short breath and the next—Shelly's younger brother Boyd, who had run away to join Morgan, too, in the sunset of the raider's career; and Anse, whom he had believed dead until this past hour.
Drew was breathing as fast as if he had charged across the sun-baked plaza at a run, when he came into the general store which supplied Tubacca with nine-tenths of the materials necessary for frontier living. He made his selection with care.
"You planning a trip, Mister Kirby?" Stein peered at him over a pair of old-fashioned, steel-bowed spectacles which perched on his sharp parrot's beak of a nose.
"No. My cousin just rode in; he lost his gear on the road and needs a new outfit complete."
Stein nodded, patted smooth the top shirt on a growing pile. "Anything else?"
"Add those up. I'll look around." Drew paused to glance into the single small, glass-fronted case which was Stein's claim to fame in the surrounding territory. The exotic wares on display were a strange mixture: a few pieces of jewelry, heavy Spanish things which might be a century or more old, several six-guns—one with an ornate ivory handle.... Drew stopped and pulled a finger across the dusty surface of the glass case. Spurs—silver spurs—not quite so elaborate as those he now wore, but of the same general workmanship.
"I'd like to look at those spurs."
Stein unlocked the case and took them out. As Drew unstrapped those he wore and fitted the new pair to his boots, a brown, calf-bound book thudded to the floor. Books—here in Stein's?
Weighing the volume in his hand, the Kentuckian straightened up. There were two more books lying on the top of the case. The leather bindings were scuffed and one was scored clear across the back, yet they had been handsome, undoubtedly treasured. Drew turned them up to read the scrolled gold titles on their spines.
"_History of the Conquest of Mexico_, _The Three Musketeers,_ The Count of Monte Cristo_ ... Where'd these come from, Mister Stein?" Drew's curiosity was aroused.
"That is a story almost as fanciful as the ones inside them." Stein rested his bony elbows on the counter as he talked. "Would you believe, Mister Kirby, these were brought to me by Amos Lutterfield?"
"Lutterfield? Who's he?"
"I forget, you have not been in Tubacca long. Amos Lutterfield—he is what one might term a character, a strange one. He goes out into the wilds alone, seeking always the gold."
"In Apache country?" Drew demanded.
"The Apaches, they do not touch a man they believe insane, and Amos has many peculiarities: peculiarities of dress, of speech, of action. He roams undisturbed, sometimes coming in with relics from the old cliff houses to trade for supplies. Last month he told me a story of a cave where he found a trunk. Where it had come from or why it was hidden he did not know, but these books were in it. Like some men who have no formal education, Amos is highly respectful of the printed word. He thought the books of great value and so brought them here."
Drew opened the top volume. Back home books as well bound as these would have carried a personal bookplate or at least the written name of the owner, but the fly leaf was bare. They had the look of well-read, cherished volumes but no mark of possession.
"You have perhaps read these?" Stein asked.
Drew picked up The Three Musketeers. "Not likely to forget this one," he said, grinning. "Earned me a good ten with the cane when I read it instead of dealing faithfully with Caesar's campaigns in Gaul. I did get to finish it before I was caught out." The pages separated stiffly under his exploring fingers as if the volume had not been opened for a long time. He did not notice that Stein was eyeing him with new appraisal.
"These for sale?"
"In Stein's everything is for sale." The storekeeper named a price, and Drew bargained. When he left, the three books reposed on the top of his armload of clothing, and a half hour later he dropped them down on a cantina table. Anse came from the bathhouse and sat down in the opposite chair. His booted foot moved, but now rowel points flashed in the sun. The Texan regarded the Mexican spurs joyfully, stooped to jingle them with his finger tip.
"Can't believe it ... how they came back to you," he marveled. "One of them Yankees musta took 'em off me, thinkin' I was cashin' in m' chips. Sure feels good to git 'em back on my heels agin, sorta like they was m' luck. Pa, he set a right lot by them spurs. Gave 'em to me when I gentle broke a wild one none o' th' other boys could back. Was I turkey-cock proud th' first day I rode into town with 'em playin' pretty tunes, even though I strapped 'em on over boots as was only three pieces of leather hangin' to each other restless like. Yeah, Pa, he got 'em in the Mexican War, an' me, I wore 'em mostly through this past ruckus. They's sure seen a lotta history bein' made by men climbin' up an' down from saddles!"
"Let's hope ... no more wars." Drew set the three books in a pile and regarded them attentively. Stein's story of their origin—out of a trunk hidden in a desert cave—was most intriguing. What else had been in that trunk?
"Anse," he asked, "why would anyone hide a trunk in a cave?" "Might depend on what was in it," the Texan replied promptly.
"Well, these were—"
Anse took up the top book. His finger traced each word as he read. "The Three Mus—Musketeers. Whatever kinda critter is that?"
"A soldier. They used to have them over in France a long time ago."
"Army manual, eh? Maybe so the trunk was an army cache—"
Drew shook his head. "No, this is just a story. A good one with lots of prime fightin' in it. This one's a story, too. I've heard about it ... never got a chance to read it though." He set The Count of Monte Cristo upright on the table. Anse took the third volume.
"... Con—Conquest of Mexico. Hey, conquest means winnin' th' country, don't it? This about the Mex War which our pa's fought?" He flicked open the pages eagerly.
"No, the earlier one—when the Spanish came in under Cortes and broke up the Aztec empire ... back in the 1500's."
"Kinda stiff readin' ... looks interestin' though." Anse gave his verdict. "We had us two books. Pa learned us to read outta them. One was th' Bible Ma brought long when she was married. T'other—that sure was kinda queer how we got that. Pa was in th' Rangers, an' he had this run-in with some Comanches—" Anse's eyes were suddenly bleak, and Drew remembered the few stark sentences the Texan had once spoken to explain his reason for being in the army—a return to a frontier ranch to find nothing left, nothing he wanted to remember, after the Comanches had swept across the countryside.
"Well," Anse broke that short pause, "Pa shot him one big buck as was ridin' straight into th' Ranger line, wantin' to count one o' them coups by whangin' some white man personal with his lance, or some such foolishness. This buck had him a war shield an' Pa picked it up when all th' smoke blew away. What'd' you think that there shield was packed with? Well, this one had a book all tore apart an' stuffed in between th' front an' back layers of hide. Th' boys in th' company, they got right interested in sortin' out all them pages an' puttin' 'em in order agin, kinda like a game, Pa said. Pa, he never had much schoolin', but he could read good an' write an' figger. He sure liked to read, so he claimed that there book when it was all tied up together agin—'cause he shot th' buck as was carryin' th' shield. So he made a buckskin case and kept all th' pages together. That was 'bout soldiers of th' old time, too—parts of it. Romans they was called. Wonder now—did it maybe go back into a shield agin afterward?" He gazed beyond Drew's shoulder into the world outside the cantina door.
"Why would anyone want to store books in a trunk in a cave?" Drew changed the subject quickly to break that unseeing stare. He outlined what Stein had told him, and Anse's attention was all his again.
"Might catch up with this Lutterfield an' ask a few questions—"
"Stein couldn't get anythin' out of him. Guess the old man is a little addled. Maybe someone was storin' stuff, hopin' to come back when the war was over. Anyway, there's no way to identify the owner or owners—"
Anse picked up The Three Musketeers. "You say this is good—'bout fightin' an' such?"
Drew nodded. "Try it ..."
"Somethin' like this is good t' have. A hombre gits tired readin' labels on cans. I'd like to see how much Pa pushed into m' thick head. Good coverin' this book has. Wouldn't you say as th' hombre that had it was kinda heavy in th' pocket?"
"Yes. In fact, these were bound to order."
"How can you tell that?"
"These two might have come bound alike." Drew pointed to the book Anse held and The Count of Monte Cristo. "They were written by the same author and could have been part of a matched set. But this one is on a totally different subject and by another writer—Prescott. Yet it is uniformly bound to match the others. I'd say they came from the personal library of a man able to indulge himself in pretty expensive tastes."
"Makes you think," Anse agreed. "Wonder what else was in that trunk."
"Looky what we've got us here! Regular li'l schoolhouse right in this cantina!"
The table moved an inch or so as a thick body brought up with a rush against it. A hand, matted with sun-bleached hair, made a grab for the book Drew had just laid down. Before the startled Kentuckian could pull it back from that grasp, hand and book were gone, and the trooper who had taken it was reeling back to the bar, waving the trophy over his head.
"Schoolhouse ... right here ..." he mouthed. "Sittin' there ... two li'l boys, studyin' their lessons. Now, ain't that somethin'?"
A chair went over with a crash. Anse was on his feet, had taken two steps in the direction of the soldier. Drew jumped after him, trying to assess the situation even as his hand closed restrainingly on the Texan's shoulder.
There were four troopers. Wide grins on the faces of the three still against the bar suggested they were ready to back their companion in any form of horseplay he intended to try.
"Sam, one o' them thar schoolboys is breathin' down yore neck kinda hot like," the tallest of the bar row observed.
Anse jerked against Drew's hold. There was no expression on his thin face, but the old saber scar from lip to eye on his left cheek was suddenly twice as noticeable.
Sam reached up against the bar, squirmed around, the book still in his hand.
"Wal, now, sonny, you ain't really wantin' this here book back? Never knowed any li'l boy what warn't glad to see th' last o' a book. Better git away from a real man 'fore you gits yore backside warmed. That's what th' teacher does to smarty kids, ain't it?"
"You'd better watch out, Sam." Again the tall man cut in. Sam was still grinning, but there was a curve of lip which was far from any real humor, even that provoked by the practical jokes of a barracks bully. "One of them kids had been sayin' as how he rode with Forrest, regular li'l red-hot Reb, he is. Stomp all over us ... that's what you Rebs has been promisin' to do, ain't it? Gonna stomp all over any Blue Bellies as comes into this town? Well, we ain't bein' booted—not easy—an' not by you, Reb!"
A second, perhaps more—that much warning Drew had before the speaker lurched from the bar straight for him. What had happened, how this had sprung up out of nothing, the Kentuckian could not understand. But he knew well that he was under an attack delivered with a purpose, and with all the dirty tricks of a no-rules, back-alley fighter.
Only once before, when some river toughs had ganged up on the scouts, had Drew had to use fists to beat his way out of an argument. But that had been a round dance at Court House Day compared to this. Within moments the Kentuckian knew that he was no match for the trooper, that he would be lucky if he could get out of this unmaimed. The fellow knew every dirty trick and was eager to use them all. Drew tried only to keep on his feet and out of the other's grip. Once down, he knew he would have no chance at all.
Then he was jerked back, off balance, staggering on to bring up against the wall. He caught at the solid backing and somehow remained upright, seeing hazily through one eye. The other was puffing closed, and his lip was torn, a trickle of blood rising there to drip down his chin. He put both hands to his middle where more than one of the pile-driver knocks had landed, and tried to understand what was happening.
Sergeant Muller ... that was Muller standing over the man on the floor. And Nye ... Reese Topham ... suddenly the cantina was very well populated. Drew turned his head cautiously to see on his blind side. Anse was down! The Kentuckian stood away from the wall, lurched out to fall to his knees. He rolled the Texan over on his back. Anse's eyes fluttered open, and he looked up dazedly. There was an angry red mark on his chin just an inch or so away from the point of his jaw.
"Now, just what devil's business is goin' on here?" The sergeant's voice was a roar to hurt the ears. Somehow Drew got an arm under Anse's shoulders and tried to hoist him up. The Kentuckian swallowed blood from his lip and glared at Muller.
"Suppose you ask those high-binders of yours!" he snapped. And once more it was Sergeant Rennie who spoke.
Other hands joined his to boost Anse. With Topham's aid Drew regained his feet and got the staggering Texan, still half unconscious, onto a chair.
"I'm interested, too." The cantina owner's drawl was as slow as ever, but it held a note of a whiplash.
"Them soldiers...." Fowler appeared, the bar-side shotgun across his arm—"they jumped th' boys. I saw it, myself."
"Yeah, told yuh these town buzzards're all th' same. Stick together an' have it in for th' army!"
Drew could not see which of the troopers had burst out with that, but in his present mood all bluecoats were the enemy.
"Dirty Yanks!" Anse's eyes were fully focused now—right on the sergeant. Anse struggled to get up, but Topham's hands on his shoulders held him down. His hand went to his holster, and Drew's fist came down on the Texan's wrist, hard.
"See that thar, Sarge! Th' stinkin' polecat of a Reb was gonna draw on you! Told you, they's all alike. Th' war ain't over; we jus' gotta keep on lickin' 'em. Give us room, an' we'll do it again—now!"
Anse's face was green-white under the weathering, save for the wound on his jaw. He was watching Muller as if the sergeant, rather than his men, was the focal point of any future attack.
"You—Stevens—shut your trap!" Muller's roar brought silence. Drew could actually hear the panting breaths of the men now.
"Mitchell, what happened here?" Muller turned to the man at his far right.
The trooper was younger than the rest, his face still holding something of a boyish roundness. His eyes shifted under the sergeant's steady, boring stare, and he glanced at the rest of his companions, the two disheveled fighters, the lanky man picking up a forage cap and handing it to one of them.
"I dunno, Sergeant. Th' boys ... they was jus' funnin'. They didn't meant nothin', jus' funnin'. Then these here Rebs, they come right after Helms, was gonna jump him from behind. An' Danny waded in jus' to keep that one"—the boy pointed straight at Drew—"offa Helms. That's what happened. Th' boys didn't mean no harm—jus' havin' a little fun—when these Rebs jumped 'em!"
Drew pulled up his neckerchief and dabbed at his cut lip. Anse had subsided, though he was still watching the sergeant with an unrelenting gaze. The Kentuckian tried to remember where Fowler had been during the fracas. He had spoken up for them already, but would Muller accept his testimony over that of his own men? There was already ill feeling between the army and the town. Drew remembered Don Cazar's encounter with Bayliss at Kells' stable. What had Reese Topham said then? That the captain was only waiting to make trouble for Rennie. And now here he was himself—one of Rennie's riders—involved in a saloon fight with troopers. Drew began to realize that this could be even worse than the physical punishment he and Anse had suffered.
"You ... bartender—" The sergeant now looked to Fowler. "What'd you see?"
"You ain't gonna take his word for it, for anythin' in this mudhole of a town, are you, Sarge? They'd all lie their heads off to git a trooper into trouble. Wouldn't you now?" The lanky man sidled along the bar to snarl at Fowler.
"Stevens, shut that big mouth of yours, an' I ain't gonna say that agin! All right, Fowler, tell me what you saw!"
Fowler slid the shotgun out of sight, apparently sure that an armistice, at least, was assured.
"Th' boys"—he nodded at Drew and Anse—"were sittin' at that table, mindin' their own business. Helms, he went over an' picked up a book——"
"A book!" Muller's craggy features mirrored astonishment. "What book? Why?"
Topham moved and suddenly they were all watching him. He stooped, picked up the dark-brown volume, and a torn page fluttered to the floor. He gathered that up, too, and tucked it back in the proper place.
"It would seem, Sergeant," he remarked, "that there was a book involved. And if your men didn't bring it in here, then Kirby or his friend must have. This is certainly not a cantina fixture. Hmm, History of the Conquest of Mexico," he read the title on the cracked spine. "There are more books, I see." He stepped to the side of the overturned table, gathered the other two volumes, and placed them together in a neat pile on the bar. All of the men continued to watch him as if his actions were highly significant.
"So—" he turned to face Muller. "We have established that there was a book, in fact, three books."
"What'd you want with that book, Helms?" Muller demanded.
He was met by a scowl. "Nothin'. I was jus' funnin'—like Ben said. Then them Rebs started playin' rough, an' we jus' gave 'em a lesson."
Fowler snorted. "I say Helms started it, an' th' jumpin' went th' other way 'round, Sergeant. An' that's all I got to say."
"Well, it isn't all I have to say! Sergeant, just what is going on here?"
Whoever, having once heard that turkey cock crow, could ever forget it, thought Drew. Captain Bayliss strode in, powdery white dust graying his blue blouse, his face redder and more sun peeled than ever. The troopers behind Muller stiffened into wooden soldiers, all expression vanishing from their features until they matched each other in exact anonymity.
"Sergeant, take those two men into custody." A jerk of the head indicated Drew and Anse. The Kentuckian straightened.
"On what charge, Captain?" he got out.
"Attacking a United States soldier."
"In performance of his duty, Captain?" Reese Topham cut in. "I hardly think you can say that. Your men were apparently off duty. At least they were in here, drinking, too. You did serve them, Fowler?"
"Sure did, boss! Let's see now ... Helms, he had whisky; so did Stevens. Mitchell, now, he had a beer——"
"It remains that they were attacked while wearing the uniform!" Bayliss' glare now included the full company before him.
"From what I've heard, they did the attacking," Topham pointed out. "At least Helms seems to have given provocation. No, Captain Bayliss, your men were in here drinking. They started a brawl. Your sergeant very rightly broke it up. That's the sum of the matter!"
Bayliss' high color was fading. "You want it left that way, Topham?" he asked icily. "This only confirms my contention that matters in Tubacca are completely out of control, that the Rebel element has the backing of the citizens. I shall so report it."
"That is your privilege." Topham nodded. "But this is still Tubacca and not your camp, Captain. And my cantina. If you want to declare my establishment out of bounds for your men, that is also your privilege."
"I do so—immediately! Sergeant, get these men out of here!"
"What about the prisoners, sir?"
"I think the captain will agree there are no prisoners," Topham said. "We would be obliged to give evidence at any army hearing, Captain. Kirby here is not a troublemaker. I would unhesitatingly vouch for him."
Bayliss looked directly at Drew.
"You have a job? A reason for being in town?" He shot the questions as he might have shot slugs from his Colt. Nye answered before Drew could.
"He sure has a job, Cap'n. He's ridin' th' rough string for Rennie. An' he came to town with them remounts you're buyin'. An' what Topham says is true, th' kid ain't no troublemaker. He's 'bout th' most peaceful hombre I ever rode with."
"Rider for Rennie, eh? I might have known!" Bayliss snapped. "And what about this one—he riding for Rennie, too?" He pointed to Anse.
"He's my cousin," Drew returned. "He just got into town."
Anse stood up. "If you mean was I with th' Confederate army, Yankee—I sure was, from Shiloh clean through. Got me this to prove it. Do you want to see?" From the inner band of his hat he brought out a much creased paper. "No, you don't!" He twitched the sheet away when Bayliss reached for it. "I'll jus' let Mister Topham read it. I want to keep it safe." He handed the paper to the gambler.
"Parole, Captain, signed and made out properly," Topham reported. "Dated in Tennessee for a prisoner of war—June, 1865. I hardly think you can claim this is one of Kitchell's men, if that is what you have in mind."
"No, but he'll be out of this town or he'll answer to me. Both of you—next time you step over the line, I'm taking you both in!" Bayliss spoke now to Nye. "I heard young Shannon was here, that you had him in tow and that he's seen Kitchell. I want to talk to him."
"He's over to th' doc's, an' Doc'll have th' say 'bout that, Cap'n," Nye replied. "Johnny took a pretty bad crease 'longside his skull."
"He'll answer a few questions that badly need answering." Bayliss was already on his way to the door. Nye stepped back and let him pass. He grinned.
"Let him have it out with Doc. Ain't nobody runnin' a stampede over Doc Matthews, not even th' cap'n when he's got his tail up an' ready to hook sod with both horns. Only, lissen here, kid, maybe you'd better keep outta sight. Seems like a man who's waitin' to catch a fella makin' his boot mark in th' wrong pasture can sometimes do it."
"Nye's right," Topham agreed. "Bayliss can either catch you off guard or see you're provoked again into doing something he can rope you in for. I'd get back to the Range and stay there until things settle down a little and someone else takes the good captain's mind off you."
"What about Anse? You take him on, Nye?" Drew asked.
"I ain't got th' authority to hire, Kirby. But no reason why he can't go down th' trail with us. Old Man is always on lookout for a good rider. Soon as we see how Johnny's doin', we'll head south. I already sent Greyfeather back to tell the Old Man th' kid's hurt an' up here. Reese, what'd you think 'bout Bayliss? That he'll try to take over runnin' the town?"
"Might just," the gambler replied.
"Could he do it?"
"I hardly think so. What he's really out for is Hunt's hide. He doesn't want a powerful civilian ready to face up to him all the time. If he can discredit Don Cazar in this country, he figures he has it made."
Nye laughed shortly. "Lordy, what bottle did he suck out a dream like that? A lizard might jus' as well try to fight it out with a cougar an' think he hadda chance of winnin'. This here's th' Range, an' ain't nobody but th' Old Man runs th' Range! Bayliss, he's ridin' for a fall as will jar them big grinnin' teeth of his right outta his jaws!"
"Maybe, only there can be upsets." Topham looked thoughtful.
"What kind—and how?" Drew asked quickly.
Topham was playing with the three books, setting them up, putting them flat again. "Hunt didn't take sides during the war, but he did have Southern sympathies in part. After all, he was Texas-born. And Johnny joined Howard when they raised that Confederate troop here. He retreated with Sibley's force back east and fought through the rest of the war on the Southern side. Yes, Bayliss, given the right circumstances and a sympathetic listening ear in high circles, could make trouble for Rennie. Especially if the good captain had an incident on which to hang such a report."
"You kinda shoved him into that out-of-bounds order for th' Jacks, didn't you now?" Nye pushed his hat to the back of his head and lit a cigarillo.
"Muller and most of the boys can be counted on not to cause any more than the normal pay-night disturbances. But there're some.... What did happen here today, Kirby?"
Drew told it straight and flat in as few words as possible. And Topham's face was sober when he had finished. The gambler brought the top book of the pile down on the bar with a thud.
"I don't like it!"
"Jus' ornery meanness, warn't it? There's always a few hombres in any outfit as tries to push when they gits a slug or two under their belts," Nye observed.
"True. Only Helms went out of his way this time. And I'd like to know what triggered him into it. I can understand some roughhousing on his part—Stevens, too—providing these boys were on the prod in the beginning. But this book business was too deliberate. Books—" He held up the volume he was still fingering. "Where'd these come from anyway, Kirby?"
Drew retailed the story he had heard from Stein. Nye walked over to look at the display of reading matter, his interest plainly aroused.
"Lutterfield brought 'em in, eh? Now that's somethin'. Trunk in a cave ... Sounds like these might belong to one of them mine men—a super, maybe. They pulled out fast in '61, right after th' army left. Except for Hodges, an' th' Rebs threw him in jail after they took his business an' what cash he had on hand."
"Could be," Topham agreed. "But where they came from doesn't matter as much as why Helms chose to use them the way he did. However—and now I'm giving it to you straight, Kirby—this is once I'd follow Bayliss' orders. You and your cousin here had better make yourselves scarce."
"An' jus' why?" Anse demanded. "We ain't givin' you any double-tongue wag over this——"
"I'm not saying you are. I'm just saying that Bayliss and probably Helms—maybe others—will be waiting, just as the captain promised. You can be easily suckered into just such another fight. And they'd be smarter about it next time, so you won't have anyone to call their bluff in your favor. Once they get you into the camp stockade, it might be difficult to get you out. And this is something else, stranger, you went for your gun a few minutes ago. Kirby stopped you, but next time that could lead to real trouble."
"I can't see why—" Drew began.
"Well"—Anse was on the defensive—"a man can take jus' so much pushin', an' we had more'n that! Next time anybody lays his dirty hands on me, he's gonna know he's had him trouble, all right!"
"I don't mean that." Drew waved Anse's retort aside. "I don't see why we were jumped in the first place. Unless it was because we happened to be here at a time when they wanted to start trouble?" He made that into a question and looked to Topham for the answer.
"Could be," the gambler admitted.
"Only you're not sure?" Drew persisted.
"Could be you were handy and they had some kind of a hint to start a ruckus just to show there ain't any proper law here. Could be that they knew you ride for Hunt and that made you just the game they wanted."
"Helms's kinda dumb to play any cute game," Nye protested. "An' th' sarge, he's always been a good guy, I don't see him bitin' happy on any such backhand orders."
"Not orders, no. Captain Bayliss is still too army to give any such orders. Helms's always been a troublemaker; he wouldn't need much more than a suggestion or two of the right sort. Helms, Stevens, Danny Birke, and that kid Mitchell. You're right so far, Nye." Topham grinned. "Like as not, I'm imaginin' things—a greenhorn huntin' Apaches behind every bush. None of that crew has the brains to see anything beyond the tip of his nose. No, I guess we can take it that you were handy and they had too much red-eye on empty stomachs. Only, I mean it, Kirby, you walk soft and get back to the Range as quick as you can."
"That suits me," Drew agreed.
"Come on over an' let Doc take a look at that face of yours," Nye ordered. "You look like you came up behind a mule an' the critter did a mite of dancin' backwards! You come 'long, too," he extended the invitation to include Anse.
His face patched up after a fashion, Drew lay full length on the hay in his old place over Shadow's stall back at Kells' stable. Anse sat crosslegged beside him, the bruise now a black shadow on his jaw.
"Somethin' 'bout this show's bad, plain as a black saddle on a white hoss. Nobody could be fannin' a six-gun for you personal, Drew, 'less you had a run-in before with one of them Blue Bellies." The Texan paused and Drew shook his head, wincing at the pain from his numerous cuts and bruises.
Anse went on. "Some hombres are always on th' peck once they get likkered up, but them troopers weren't that deep. Looks to me now, thinkin' it over, they was out to make sod fly. Could be as they had trouble with some other riders an' we was handy an' looked peaceable enough to take easy. But I dunno. You know, a fella who's scouted an' hunted Injuns an' popped bush cattle, to say nothin' of toppin' wild ones what can look like a nice quiet little pony one minute an' have a belly full of bedsprings an' a sky touchin' back th' next—a fella who's had him all that kinda experience an' a saddlebag full of surprises in his time gits so he can smell a storm comin' 'fore th' first cloud shows. If we had the sense we shoulda been born with, we'd ride hell-to-thunder outta here now!"
"Anse"—Drew wriggled up on one elbow—"you do that. I ain't going to pull you into anything—"
"So," the Texan said, nodding, "you've been swallowin' down a whim-wham or two your ownself?"
"Yes, but every one of them could be only a shadow to scare a jackrabbit."
"Only you plan to go out an' spit in th' shadow's eye?"
"Then there'll be two of us. Providin' Rennie can use him 'nother hand. You know, this might be interestin'. 'Member what they used to say in the army? Don't go borrowin' trouble nor try to cross a river till you git th' water lappin' at your boots."
"Times is gittin' better." Crow Fenner rode with one knee cocked up over the horn of his saddle, allowing Tar to drop into a pace at which he seemed to be actually sleep-walking. The wagon train was traveling slow, the wagons riding heavy in the ruts with their burden of northern goods heading south. But they were strung in good order and Drew, having seen the screen of outriders and Pima Scouts, thought that though they offered temptation, they were not to be easily taken by anything less than a small troop, very well armed and reckless.
"Yes, siree, this here's th' second time we made th' trip through without havin' to burn up a sight of gunpowder! Guess them army boys millin' around back an' forth across th' territory do some good, after all. Pretty soon there won't be no need for wearin' guns loose an' tryin' to grow eyes in th' back of yore skull!" But Fenner's own rifle still rode on guard across his knees, and Drew noted that the scout never broke a searching survey of the countryside.
"Gittin' downright civilized, eh?" Anse brought his mount up equal with the other two.
Fenner spat. "Now that thar I ain't cottonin' to none. Ride 'long without some Injun or bandido poppin' lead at m'back. Yep, that's what a man kin enjoy. But I ain't takin' to have maybe one o' them thar engine trains snortin' out dirty smoke an' sparks hereabouts. Took me a ride on one of them things onct—never agin! Why a man wants to git hisself all stuck up with cinders an' cover territory faster than th' Good Lord ever intended him to travel—that's some stupid thinkin' I can't take to. A good hoss, maybe a wagon, does a man want to do some tradin' like Don Cazar—that's right enough. But them trains, they's pure pizen an' a full soppin' keg o' it!"
Drew looked about him. The road, rutted deep by the heavy wagons, curled southward. Those wheel tracks had first been cut almost a hundred years earlier when the Spaniards had set up their southwestern outposts. This country was far older than Kentucky, and with just as bloody a history of wars, raids, and battles. Kentucky had been tamed; trains did puff along through the Blue Grass and the mountains there. But here—he shook his head in answer to his own thoughts.
"Ain't nobody gonna try to run a railroad through here," Anse replied promptly. "First place, they're gonna be busy for a while back east puttin' up new ones for all them what were busted up in th' war. Our boys an' theirs, too, got real expert toward th' end—could heat up a rail an' tie a regular noose in it, were some tree handy to rope it 'round. Gonna take th' Yankees some doin' to git all them back into place." He laughed. "Drew, 'member that time we took them river steamers an' had us a real feed? Times when I was in that Yankee stockade eatin' th' swill they called rations I used to dream 'bout them pickles an' canned peaches an' crackers with long sweetin' poured on 'em!"
"Heard tell as you boys don't think th' war's clear over yet," Fenner observed. "Didn't you have yoreselves a ruckus with th' soldiers at th' Four Jacks?"
Drew's reminiscent smile faded. But he was not going to keep on protesting about the right or wrong of what happened back in town. The way Nye and Topham had hustled Anse and him out with the wagon train had made it seem as if they were in disgrace, and that rankled a lot. What was expected of them—that they should have let Helms pour it on—maybe serve as butts for a series of practical jokes without raising a finger in their own defense? On the other hand, the Kentuckian could see the sense behind Topham's arguments. If Bayliss wanted to use Drew's connection with the Range as a weapon in some scheme against Hunt Rennie, then Hunt Rennie's son was only too willing to clear out. Perhaps he should clear out even farther and head for California. Drew began to think about that. There was Sage. She couldn't hope to make such a trip for maybe six months. That would mean putting off traveling until next spring or early summer. But six months ... Of course, he could go now. Don Cazar would buy the foal and Shadow, too, and give him a fair price. That would be relinquishing a dream. No Spur R brand would ever be established here in Arizona. But sometimes dreams were priced too high....
"You're mighty grim-mouthed," Anse commented, glancing at Drew sideways. "Thinkin' of trains runnin' through here git you down that far? Or else that roughenin' up you took in town still sit sour on your stomach?"
"Sits sour all right," Drew admitted. "Sits sourer to think we were suckered into it."
The scout glanced from one to the other of the young men.
"You think there's somethin' in all that talk Topham was givin' lip to?" Anse asked.
"Could be. Can't say as how I'd like to find out the truth. Look here, Fenner, we've heard a lot about Captain Bayliss wantin' to make trouble for Don Cazar. Does everybody believe that?"
"Everybody wot ain't blind, deef, or outta their natural-born wits," Fenner replied. "Bayliss come out here two years ago. 'Fore that, Major Kenny, he was in command between here an' Tucson. Had him an outpost right on th' edge o' th' Range. Him an' Don Cazar, they never talked no war, 'cept 'gainst Apaches an' th' bandidos. Was there a raid, th' major, he took out th' troops; and Don Cazar, he took out his riders an' th' Pimas. 'Tween 'em they give everybody wot wanted a spot of trouble all they could chew off an' a lot more'n they could swallow. Kept things quiet even if a man hadda rest his hand on his rifle 'bout twenty-four hours outta every day.
"But this here Bayliss—he's been like a mule with a burr under his tail ever since he hit th' territory. Wants to have th' say 'bout everything—includin' wot goes on at th' Range—which he ain't never goin' t' have as long as Don Cazar kin sit th' saddle an' ride. Back in '62 when th' Rebs came poundin' in here, they spoke soft an' nice to Don Cazar. They wanted him to back their play an' see 'em straight on to Californy. He was from Texas an' them Texas boys jus' naturally thought as how he'd saddle up an' ride right 'long wi' 'em. Only he said it loud an' clear—that such ruckusin' round only meant th' whole country here'd go to pot. When th' army pulled out, th' Apaches got it into their heads as how they finally licked us good an' proper an' this here was their country fur th' takin'. Nearly was, too.
"Then th' Rebs got up on their high horse an' said as how iffen Don Cazar warn't with 'em, then he was agin 'em, an' they would jus' move in on him. He tol' 'em to go ahead an' try. An' seem' as how they was only one company hereabouts—Howard's Rangers—they didn't try. That's when Johnny Shannon had his big bust-up with his pa an'—"
"His father!" Drew could not help that exclamation.
"Wal, Don Cazar ain't Johnny's real pa, o' course. But he shore thinks th' world an' all of Johnny, raising him up from a li'l cub. Johnny warn't more'n four o' thereabouts when Don Cazar went back to Texas an' got him. Don Cazar's been like a pa to Johnny since, an' a mighty good one, too. But when th' Rangers was round here in '62 Johnny—he had a big row an' run off to join 'em. Jus' a half-growed kid, not big 'nough to raise a good brush o' hair on his chin yet. When th' Yankee boys from Californy came marchin' in an' th' Rebs had to skedaddle—Johnny, he went with 'em. Didn't see Johnny round here agin till last fall when he came ridin' in lookin' mighty beat out an' down in th' mouth. But when th' Union men came, they was thinkin' th' same 'bout Don Cazar. Wanted him to jump right in an' swim 'longside o' them. But he said as how th' safety of his people was what was important. He was fightin' Apaches an' holdin' th' land, an' that was what meant th' most to his thinkin'. Then the Yankees did a lot of fancy cussin' out 'bout him, trying to make out that he was a Reb' cause Johnny lit off with th' Southerners.
"Till they began to discover nothin' much goes on round here lessen Don Cazar has a finger in th' pot. An' they had to swaller a lotta them hot an' hasty words—stuck heavy in quite a few craws, I reckon." Fenner grinned. "Only, th' Don, he's got agin him now a big list of little men who'd like to be big chiefs. Every once in a while they gits together an' makes war talk. Never quite got up guts 'nough to paint their faces an' hit th' trail, not yet. But did somebody like Bayliss look like he was beginnin' to make things move, then he'd have a lotta willin' hands to help him shove. Up to now Johnny's been their best bet at gittin' th' Range into trouble."
Drew turned his head to look Fenner in the eye. "Now you think we are!" He did not know why he uttered that as a challenge; the words just came out that way.
"Not any more'n any of us wot can be drawed into a fight in town. You keep away from Bayliss. He can't come huntin' you without tippin' his hand so wide he'd never be able to play agin. Hey, here comes somebody poundin' leather so hard he's gonna beat it right intuh th' ground!" Fenner pulled up Tar, flung up his hand to signal the wagons to a halt.
Dust rolled in a cloud with two or three riders at its center. They were pushing the pace all right. Drew jerked his carbine from its saddle boot, saw Anse beat him to that action by a scant second or two. But the newcomers were already drawing rein, bringing their foam-lathered horses to a pawing stop. A buckskin-clad man mounted on a powerful grulla gelding faced Fenner, his whole tense body and snapping eyes backing the demand he made:
"Back at town, Rennie, at Doc's. He ain't bad. Got him a head crease wot knocked him silly for a bit. Doc says a day o' two in bed and then he kin come home."
"How did it happen?" That second question was as sharp as the first.
"Nobody's got it straight outta him yet. Army patrol picked him up on th' road close to town—looked like he'd been footin' it quite a spell. An' by that time he didn't know wot he was doin'. Nye got him to Doc's an' they put him to bed. He ain't said much, 'cept Kitchell jumped him down Long Canyon way——"
"Kitchell!" Hunt Rennie repeated the name and nodded. "But ... Long Canyon ..." There was a shade of puzzlement in his voice. "All right, carry on, Crow. I'll try to get back to the Stronghold before you pull south—if Johnny's all right. Maybe I can bring him back with me."
The grulla made what was close to a standing leap into a gallop and Rennie flashed along the line of wagons in the opposite direction toward Tubacca. Fenner signaled once more and the train began the slower trip southward.
Drew sat watching the dust arise again as the trio of riders pounded away. He could no longer make out individual riders, just the rising dust. Rennie on his way to Johnny Shannon ... What had Fenner said-"li'l cub ... warn't more 'n four." Drew Rennie at four—hard to sort out one very early memory from another. There had been that time Uncle Murray had caught him down at the creek, making paper boats. How could a child that young know one kind of paper from another? But Hunt Rennie's son was judged to have torn up a letter with deliberate malice, not just taken paper found conveniently on the veranda. Was he four then, or even younger? But he could remember the punishment very vividly. And the time he'd run off to see the circus come into town, he and Shelly ... Cousin Jeff, Cousin Merry, they had tried to beg him off from Grandfather's punishment that time, not that they had succeeded. Drew Rennie at four, at six, at twelve, at sixteen—riding out at night with Castleman's Company, weaving a path south through enemy-occupied territory to join General Morgan—few of those would-be cavalrymen over twenty-one. Yes, he could remember for Drew Rennie all the way back.
"Hey, you plannin' to claim this here range?" Anse's horse trotted up, and Drew was suddenly aware that the trailer of the last wagon had already pulled past him. He tightened rein, and the well-trained horse broke into a canter.
"Not hardly." He tried to meet Anse's attempt at humor halfway. "Don't look too promisin'."
"Lissen here"—Anse rode so close their spurs were near to hitting—"you sure you got hold of th' right end of th' runnin' iron now?"
"What do you mean?"
"Well, 'bout Shannon. You heard what Fenner said—Rennie's like a pa to him. An' maybe ..." His voice died away.
"And maybe that's that? He has my place, and it's really his now?" Drew asked bleakly. "Could be."
Yes, it could well be that this was a good time to bow out. Maybe he should not have ridden out of Tubacca at all. Maybe he should have cut out of the game yesterday.... Or never come down into the valley weeks ago ... or left Red Springs.... Those "maybes" stretched as far back and as neatly in line as the railroad tracks they had been talking about earlier, one slipping smoothly into another as if cast in one strong string of doubts. Just as he had had that moment of disappointment the first time he had seen Hunt Rennie, so he felt that identical void now, only twice as wide and deep.
What had he expected, anyway? Some kind of instant recognition on his father's part? That all the welcoming would be on the other side, breaking right through the barrier he had been building for years? His feelings were so illogical he could have laughed at them, only he had no laughter left. He had not tried to open the door, so why did he care that it remained firmly shut?
"Did you ever think about California, Anse? Sounds like a place a man would like to see."
He was conscious that the Texan's horse quickened pace, only to be reined in again.
"You thinkin' about cuttin' out? Yesterday——"
"Yesterday——" Drew tried to think back to how he had felt yesterday about Topham's warning and how he himself had held the absurd belief that if Don Cazar was going to be in trouble, Drew himself wanted to be there. That was yesterday. But still he pointed his horse south—to the place where Hunt Rennie would return, bringing Johnny Shannon.
The Kentuckian fell back on the old "wait and see." He had learned long since that time took care of a lot of worries. Now he made himself grin at Anse.
"Was worryin' about wet feet before my boots were in the river again," he confessed.
"Don't let it git to be no habit," the Texan warned. "You try ridin' with th' bumps awhile, not agin them!"
"Agreed." Drew urged his horse on toward the front of the train where they wouldn't have to breathe the dust.
"... m' cousin, Anson Kirby ..." Drew made, the introduction to Bartolome Rivas. The wagons were forted up outside the Stronghold, a second square, smaller but almost as easily defended as the adobe walls. In two or three days the train would pull out again, starting the long trip down into Sonora.
Rivas surveyed Anse none too amicably, his gaze going from man to horse and its gear, then back to the Texan once more.
"You are Tejano," he said flatly. "From the Neusca——"
Anse showed no surpise at being so accurately identified.
"Been bush poppin'," he agreed, smiling.
"Not much cattle here," Rivas returned.
"Run hosses in th' San Sabe 'fore th' war." Anse's tone was offhand, he might have been discussing the weather.
"Don Cazar decides," Bartolome said. "There is work at the corrals, but he will decide."
"Fair enough," Anse agreed. When Bartolome had moved out of hearing, he added for Drew's benefit:
"I think it'd be 'no' if that hombre had th' sayin'. He plumb don't like my style."
"But Rennie does need men—guards for the wagon trains, riders——"
Anse shrugged as he off-saddled. "Will he want one as got into a brawl about his third day in town? Anyway, maybe I've a day or so to breathe full before he tells me to roll m' bed again, if he's goin' to."
During the next three days Drew made a new discovery. Just as he had fallen into an easy, working rhythm with Anse back in the army—so that on occasion their thoughts and actions matched without the need for speech—now they combined operations in the corrals. Drew's bare and painfully acquired competence with the rope was paired to the Texan's range training, while Anse's cruder and faster methods of "toppin' a wild one" were smoothed by Drew's more patient gentling process. Both of them were so absorbed by what they were doing that Tubacca and what might be going on there had no more immediate meaning than the words in the books which had ridden to the Stronghold in Drew's saddlebags.
In the late afternoon of the third day the Kentuckian was walking a long-legged bay on a lead when Leon climbed to the top pole of the corral.
"The patron comes," he announced.
Drew faced about. Two riders escorted at hardly more than a fast walk a buckboard in which were two other men. Drew caught a glimpse of a white bandage under the brim of the passenger's hat and knew that Johnny Shannon was coming home.
"Anse!" Drew raised a hand, suddenly knowing that his fingers were moving in the old scout signal of trouble ahead.
The Texan came across the corral. Drew's bay snorted, took a dance step or two to the right as if it had picked up sudden tension from the men.
"What's up?" Anse pushed back his hat, turned up a corner of his neckerchief, and swabbed the lower half of his sweating face.
Drew watched Leon hurry to take the buckboard reins, watched Hunt Rennie give a hand to Johnny. Then he saw Shannon jerk away from that aid, walking stiffly toward Casa Grande while Rennie stood for an instant looking after the younger man before following him.
Croaker tossed his head so high his limber ear bobbed in the murky air. He brayed mournfully. Anse glanced at the mule's long melancholy face.
"That's th' way you think it's gonna be, Croaker? Well, maybe so ... maybe so."
"This waitin'—" Anse sat cross-legged on the bunk next to Drew's, his thumb spinning the rowel of one spur. "I never did take kindly to waitin'. Is he or ain't he gonna sign me on?"
Drew, lying flat, stared up at the muslin-covered ceiling which years of dust had turned to yellow-brown. "You ought to be used to it by now—waitin', I mean. We had us plenty of it in the army."
"Only that was sorta different, not kinda personal like this here. We was sittin' round on our heels then, waitin' for some general to make up his mind as to where he was gonna throw some lead fast. This is waitin' to know if we're goin' to be throwed—out!"
"I heard California——" Drew began again.
"You've sure taken a shine to Californy lately," Anse commented. Under his fingers the rowel whirred. "At least you talk about it enough." He sounded irritated. "Looky here, Drew, if that's the way you really feel, why don't you go? I'm sayin' you don't feel that way, not by a long sight."
What if Drew answered with the exact truth, that he did not know how he felt?
Nye came in, trailed by three of the other Rennie riders.
"Johnny's got him a hoss-size headache an' maybe so a pair of burnt ears. Th' Old Man musta lit into him hot an' heavy, chewed him out good. I'd say they warn't even talkin' by th' time they pulled up here. Seems like th' kid got an idear to scout north, struck trace near th' Long Canyon, rode th' sign on his own an' was bushwacked. Guess whoever did it thought Johnny was wolf meat, jus' took his hoss an' left him there. You gotta give th' kid credit for havin' it in him. He kept on goin' after he came to some——Walked till that patrol picked him up. I'd say he sure had him a run of pure solid luck! There wasn't much pawin' an' bellerin' left in him when Muller's boys brought him to town. Been gittin' a little of it back, though, seems like. But maybe this here will learn him a little hoss sense—"
"It was Kitchell's men who shot him?" Leon wanted to know.
"Could be. Warn't no Apaches, that's for certain. No Injun would have jus' shot him down an' not made sure he was crow bait. Sure a fool thing to do, ridin' there alone. Anyway, th' Old Man'll stick him into bed here, an' I'll bet you Johnny ain't gonna ride out anywhere without an eye on him—not for a good long while."
"Long Canyon—" Perse Donally, one of the other Anglo riders, paused in shucking his shirt to look inquiringly over his shoulder. "That sure is off th' trail th' kid was supposed to be followin'. How come he ever drifted that far north from th' wells round, anyway?"
"You ask him." Nye sat down on a bunk, flipped his hat away, and lay back. "Sure feels good jus' to stretch out a mite," he observed. "Th' Old Man, he was movin' like he warn't on speakin' terms with th' law an' there was a sheriff behind every rock. Usually he's calm as a hoss trough on a mild day. Johnny gittin' his hair cut with a slug sure shook Rennie up some, almost as much as it shook Johnny. As for th' kid ridin' north—well, I'd say that was some more of his tryin' to make a real big brag. Maybe he thought he could run down Kitchell all by hisself. Which is jus' about as straight thinkin' as kickin' a loaded polecat on th' tail end. But Johnny's always been like that. Do it now, think 'bout it later. Got him into more scrapes 'n I can count me on both hands. Hope th' Old Man gives it to him this time, hot an' heavy, both barrels plumb center!"
"Si, it is true that Juanito looks for trouble." Chino Herrera rolled a cornshuck cigarette with precise, delicate twists of his fingers. "He is el chivato—the young billy goat—that one. Ready to take on el toro himself and lock horns. Such a one learns from knocks, not from warning words. But he is yet a boy. Give him time."
"He'd better give himself some time," Nye announced. "Next time it may be in th' head, not 'longside it, that he gits his lead. See you got back in one piece, you two fightin' wildcats," Nye said, grinning at Drew and Anse. "Nothin' like tryin' to take on th' army—two to one—with th' army havin' th' advantage. That eye's fadin' good, Drew, only two colors now, ain't it?"
Drew grunted and Nye laughed. "Bet th' captain is as techy as a teased snake every time he thinks 'bout you two. Wanted to have you all corralled nice an' neat out to th' camp where he could use his hooks an' make at least three ride mounts outta you. I'd walk soft near him for a while, or you'll have about as much chance as hens amblin' into a coyote powwow."
"Don't look like they was so tough they had to sneak up on th' dipper to take a drink, do they now?" Donally asked of the room at large.
"Don't never judge no hoss by his coat an' curryin'," Anse retorted.
"I don't, son. I never do," Nye replied. "As far as I'm concerned, you're both so wild they have to tie a foot up when they give you a haircut. Only, that sort of rep don't go down good with th' Old Man."
"We figured it might not," Drew agreed. Nye's warning was only another confirmation of Drew's fears. Topham, Nye, all the rest, had made it only too plain: no trouble on the Range and no troublemakers.
He gathered up clean underrigging, another shirt. If Rennie did order him up to the big house for firing, Drew was not going to meet him stinking of horse and sweat. In the stream back of the water corral there was a bathing place, and chilly as it was, Drew intended to take advantage of it.
"A mite cold, ain't it?" Anse demanded from the bank as Drew splashed vigorously to offset the chill. But the Texan was shucking boots and clothing in turn.
There were a lot of shadows this close to twilight. Lamps twinkled in the Stronghold. A horse nickered from the corrals, was answered from the barn. Then a bray—Croaker sounding off. From the hills came the far-off yip-yip-yip of a coyote.
"Hey!" Anse stood up knee-high in the water.
"What's the matter?" Drew called.
"Thought I saw somethin' movin' over there!"
Drew took a scrambling leap out of the water to their tangle of clothing, his hand reaching for one of the Colts in the belt he had left carefully on top of the pile. All those stories of Apaches weaseling into touching distance of the guard at the Stronghold.... Why, only last year the younger Rivas boy had had his throat slit out in the hay field within sight of his home!
The Kentuckian crouched, alert, Anse beside him now, both listening for any suspicious sound. At last they huddled into their clothes, hurried back to the bunkhouse. Bartolome was there waiting for them.
"You Tejanos—" There was no pretense of friendliness in his hail. "The patron will see you, pronto!"
They went, tugging their clothing into order as they paused outside the door. Drew rapped, took the sound from within as an invitation, and pushed aside the heavy oak planks.
Outwardly the room was unchanged. No one had moved those old Spanish chests, the skin rugs, the table, since his last visit there. But he had the feeling that it was chill now, cold, as if a hearth fire had been allowed to die into ashes. Perhaps that thought crossed his mind because Hunt Rennie stood by the fireplace moving the toe of his boot back and forth across a smear of gray powder. His back greeted them unwelcomingly, and the silence lengthened uncomfortably until Drew did as he always had and met the unpleasant head-on.
"You wanted us, suh?" It was like being back in the army. Even his arm twitched as if some muscle was activated by memory to make one of those informal military salutes the scouts favored.
Hunt Rennie did turn now. His eyes leveled on them. In the light of the candles his cheeks looked even more hollow tonight, and he moved stiffly as might a man who was not only bone-tired in body, thought Drew, but weary in mind as well.
"You are Anson Kirby?" he addressed the Texan first.
"Yes, suh." Anse, too, must be caught up in the same web of memory. That was his old report-to-the-commanding-officer voice.
"I understand you two thought it necessary to take on some troopers in the Jacks."
What was the proper reply to that? Drew wondered. Probably it was best to follow the old army rule of keep the mouth shut, never volunteer, no explanations. If Hunt Rennie had had the story from Topham or Nye, he already knew how the fight began.
"I won't have troublemakers on the Range." Now the voice, too, was tired. The youthfulness which had impressed Drew on their initial meeting had drained from this man tonight. He was taut as if pulled harp-string tight inside. Drew knew that feeling also. But what battle had Rennie emerged from—some struggle with Shannon or Bayliss?
Then the words made sense, penetrating his concern for the man who had said them. Well, this dismissal only matched his gloomiest expectations.
"Can't any of you young fools get it through your thick heads that the war's over? Saloon brawling with the army ain't going to change that. It'll only get you into worse difficulties around here."
A spark of protest awoke inside Drew. Rennie was reading this all wrong. He and Anse certainly hadn't been trying to wipe away the bitter taste of Gainesville by jumping some blue coats in a cantina hundreds of miles and more than a year away from where they had been forced to admit, at last, that bulletless carbines and bare feet could not keep on shooting and marching.
"Must have been mistaken about you, Kirby." Now Rennie looked at Drew.
The Kentuckian met those dark eyes squarely, his first unvoiced protest stiffening into defiance. But he faced the older man steadily. Anse, watching them both, drew a small, fast breath. Good thing for Drew there were no other witnesses now; the likeness between the two Rennies was unmistakable at this moment.
Hunt Rennie did not follow up his half accusation. He appeared to be expecting some reply. What? A childish promise to be a good boy, not to do it again? Drew's half-unconscious concern for this man burned away speedily, ignited by what he deemed injustice.
Anse broke the too long silence. "I don't know what you heard 'bout that there fight, suh," he drawled. "Can't see as how we could have done no different nohow. But that's no call to saddle it all on Drew. Me, I had a hand—two fists—in it, too. An' if that's what's th' matter, I can pull out——"
"No!" Drew's hand came up in the old gesture to stop the line of march. "We'll both ride, Mr. Rennie. We don't aim to argue the matter any. Only—there's one thing—I brought Shadow and the filly down with the wagon train. The foal's too young to trail on now. They're blooded stock. I've papers for them. I'll sell...."
He loathed saying every word of that. It was not only the thought of giving up Shadow and the foal, though he knew that would cut with a deeper hurt every day. It was having to ask any kind of favor from this man. Not that such a sale was a favor; Rennie ought to be glad to get such blood for the Range.
"You ain't goin' to do that!" Anse was stung into angry protest.
But Drew was unaware of the Texan's outburst, his entire attention for Hunt Rennie. The tall man came over to the table, moved one of the candelabra forward as if to throw more light on Drew.
"That your choice of solutions, boy—to run?"
Drew flushed. The unfairness of that jab pushed him off balance. What did this man want of him anyway? Rennie had said it plain that he did not want Drew and Anse on the Range.
"Running never settled anything." Rennie's fingers traced the spread of the candelabra's arms. "Neither does jumping to conclusions. Has anyone said you were through here, unless by your own choice?"
Drew was jarred into an answer. "You said——"
Rennie sighed. "Do any of you young fire-eaters ever listen to more than one tenth of what any of your elders say? I am saying and making it plain: If you make a steady practice of trading punches with a trooper or with any one else because you take a dislike to his face, the way his ears stick out, how he walks or talks, or what color coat he wore in the war, then you can roll your beds and ride out—the sooner the better.