"Reese Topham tells me that he explained the local situation to you, and you appeared to understand it then. Any difficulty with the army could have serious consequences, not just for you, but for the Range as well. This time you were not the aggressors. But after being forewarned, if it happens again, I'll be hard to convince that you were in the right. The war's over—keep on remembering that. This is new country where it doesn't, or shouldn't, matter whether a man wore a blue coat or marched under the Stars and Bars. You're far too young to let the past cut off the future. Wars can finish a whole way of life for a man...." His eyes no longer held Drew's; he was looking beyond toward the half-open door or perhaps at something that he alone could see. "You have to learn to throw away broken things, not cherish them. Never look back!" That dry, tired voice took on a fierce intensity. Then he was back with them again.
"Two Kirbys riding for the same spread is going to be rather confusing. You are Drew, and you are Anson—Anson—" He repeated the name. "What part of Texas are you from?"
"Pa had him a spread down near th' San Sabe 'fore th' Comanches came. He was Anson, too—in th' Rangers for a while, Pa was."
"Tall man, with a lot of freckles and red hair? Best rider in Miggs' Company——" It was half question, half assertion.
"You knew Pa!" Anse shouldered past Drew. "That was Pa right enough. He rode with Lieutenant Miggs in the Mex War."
Hunt Rennie was smiling. Once more years spun away from him. "I ought to know him, son. He toted me across his saddle for a mighty long five miles on a blistering hot day, I having as much to say about the matter as a sack of corn, and being three times as heavy in spite of a starvation diet. Yes, I'll remember Anson Kirby. He and his squad were the first Americans I ran into after I broke out of a filthy prison. Funny though"—he glanced at Drew—"I don't remember his mentioning a brother. You are his nephew?"
Anse was quick to the rescue. "Pa—he an' Drew's Pa—they weren't too close. Drew's Pa was town folks. He sent Drew to Kaintuck for schoolin'. Pa, he favored th' range an' th' free land west—"
Rennie nodded. "Well, Anson, if you're as good a rider as your father, we can use you here. Horse knowledge seems to run in your family. Now, shortly we are expecting a Coronel Luis Oliveri who's to buy horses for the Juarez forces. He may need some assistance in driving them as far as the border. If he does, both of you'll go."
Drew's agreement was drowned out by a harsh cry from overhead. Rennie went into action, so swiftly that for a startled moment Drew was left gaping at empty space. Don Cazar had caught up one of the rifles from under a window and had crossed the doorway to look back at the roof of the Casa Grande, calling out an inquiry in another language.
"Apaches don't attack at night!" Drew was heading for the door in turn.
"Outlaws do, when it pays," Anse shot out grimly.
But on a second hail from the rooftop sentry post Rennie swung the rifle over his arm and faced the outer gate of the patio.
"Unbar, Francisco!" he called in Spanish.
One leaf of the massive door folded back to allow in a small party of horsemen. One saddled but riderless mount galloped along with the rest. Another man held to the high horn with both hands and weaved back and forth while a comrade riding beside him strove to keep him from toppling to the ground. Drew had an impression of bright, almost gaudy uniforms. The men of the Stronghold poured out to take the horses, helping down more than one blood-stained soldier. Their leader, a slender man with dusty gold lace banding his high collar, came directly to Rennie.
"Don Cazar." His Spanish was a flood in which Drew was lost almost immediately, but Anse listened with parted lips and then translated a quick account.
"This here's th' Coronel. He an' his men was bushwhacked. Got away 'cause they met th' wagon train goin' south an' whoever was eatin' their dust huntin' them didn't seem to like the odds. Not Apaches, probably bandidos——"
"Kitchell?" Drew asked.
"My guess is they ain't sure. Got hit quick an' had to stampede to save their skins."
Oliveri's men were taken in and Drew saw Rennie himself going from one of the wounded to another, applying bandages and once probing skillfully for a bullet. Drew commented on that, and Nye answered:
"Old Man knows what's he's doin'. He ain't no real doc, of course, but was I totin' me a hunka lead in some serious part, I'd rather have him diggin' for it than a lotta docs I've seen out here. Heard tell as how once he was plannin' to be a real doc hisself. He sure can take care of a fella good. What I'd like to know is how them bushwhackers knew jus' where to lay down an' wait for Oliveri."
"What do you mean?"
"This here Coronel, he was comin' to buy hosses an' so he was carryin' money or else somethin' as could pass for money. We all knowed he was comin'. But we didn't know when or what road, an' he wasn't tellin' that his side of th' border neither. Only some jasper had such a good idea as to that what an' where, he an' some amigos was squattin' back of rocks jus' waitin' for th' Coronel to ride into their little pocket of fire."
"Mexicans could have trailed them up, cut ahead and waited——"
"Sure. Only this operation was too slick for most bandidos. They don't go in for timed, planned things; they jus' cut loose when they see a chance. This was different. Only Fenner an' some of the train guards ridin' in spoiled their game."
"Sounds more like. Don't think Kitchell's some common ridge-ridin' bad man. He'd never've lasted this long was that so—not with th' Old Man an' th' army an' what law there is in th' territory all gunnin' for him. Plans things, Kitchell does, an' so far his plannin' has always paid off.
"There's something else true now, too. Was Kitchell plannin' to make a break south, he'd want him a good big stake to cover him on cold nights an' winter days. I jus' wonder if this here ain't th' first of a lot of fancy raidin' jobs. Could be he'll hit fast an' hard, gather up all th' sweepin's an' light out. Could jus' be...."
"Don't promise us much shadin' times, does it?" Anse remarked. "Sounds like everybody's goin' to have to set up a string an' ride hosses in rotation. That is, always supposin' your supposin' is right."
"Yeah, always supposin' that," Nye agreed.
Drew glanced over Shiloh's back to the speaker. Coronel Oliveri paused in the doorway of the stable to study the stallion with almost exuberant admiration mirrored on his dark and mobile features.
"Don Cazar"—the Mexican officer raised a gloved hand in a beckoning gesture—"por favor, Excellency ... this one, he is of the Blood?"
Hunt Rennie joined Oliveri. "You are right. He is indeed of the Blood," he assented.
"It is past all hope then to offer for him?" Oliveri was smiling, but his eyes held a greedy glint Drew had seen before. Shiloh was apt to produce that reaction in any horseman.
"He is not mine to sell, Coronel. He belongs to Senor Kirby who stands there with him."
"So?" Oliveri's open astonishment irritated Drew. Maybe he did have on rough work clothes and look the part of a range drifter. But then when the Coronel had arrived here last night, he had not been too neat either.
"A fine horse, senor." Oliveri came on in, now including Drew in his gaze.
"I think so, Coronel," Drew returned shortly. He gave a last brush to flank and smoothed the saddle blanket.
"From a distance you have brought him, senor?" Oliveri walked about the stud as Drew went to fetch his saddle.
"From Kentucky." Was he unduly suspicious or was there a challenge in the Mexican officer's voice—a faint suggestion that the antecedents of both horse and owner were in question?
"Kentucky ..." Oliveri stumbled in his repetition of the word. "I have heard of Kentucky horses."
"Most people have." Drew tightened the cinch. Then his pride in Shiloh banished some of his stiffness. "He is of the line of Eclipse." Maybe that would not mean much to a Mexican, though. The breeding of eastern American horses probably did not register south of the border.
"Senor—such a one—he is not for sale?"
"No." Drew knew that sounded curt, but Oliveri ruffled him. He added, "One does not sell a friend."
Oliveri gave what sounded to Drew like an exaggerated sigh. "Senor, you have spoiled my day. How can one look at lesser animals when one has seen such a treasure? Don Cazar, the Range harbors so many treasures—Oro, and now this one. How is he named, senor?"
"Shiloh ..." The Coronel made a sibilant hiss of the word. "An Indio name?"
"No, a battle." Drew prepared to lead out. "In the war."
"So. And this one is a fighter, too. I think. Senor, should you ever wish to sell, por favor, remember one Luis Oliveri! For such a horse as this—si, a man might give a fortune! Ah, to ride into camp before that puffed-up gamecock of a Merinda on such a horse!" Oliveri closed his eyes as if better to imagine the triumph.
"Shiloh's not for sale, Coronel," Drew replied.
Oliveri shrugged. "Perhaps now, no. But time changes and chance changes, senor. So remember Luis Oliveri will give a fortune—and this is the truth, senor!"
"Hunt!" Drew was forced to halt as Johnny Shannon stood straight ahead of him in the stable entrance. "Teodoro Trinfan's come in with some news you oughta hear."
"So? Well. I'm coming. Coronel, Johnny can show you the stock we have ready. I will be back as soon as I can."
"Still I say"—Oliveri shook his head as Rennie pushed past Drew and Shiloh and went out—"that after seeing this one, all others will be as pale shadows of nothingness. But since I must have horses, Senor Shannon, I will look at horses. Buenos dias, senor." He raised a hand to Drew and the Kentuckian nodded.
But Shannon still stood in the doorway, and short of walking straight into him there was no way for Drew to leave. Johnny was smiling a little—just as he had back in Tubacca in Topham's office before the race.
"Seems like you've got you a four-legged gold mine there, Kirby," he said. "Better keep your eyes peeled—gold claims have been jumped before in this country. Kitchell'd give a lot to git a hoss like that to run south."
"He'd have to," Drew said grimly. "In lead—if he wanted it that way."
"Kinda sure of that, ain't you?" The smile had not cracked, nor had it reached those shuttered blue eyes. Why did everyone say Johnny Shannon was a boy? Inside he was older than most of the men Drew had known—as old and cold as the desert rocks in nighttime. Again the Kentuckian was teased by a scrap of memory. Once before he had seen old eyes in a boy's face, when it had meant deadly danger for him.
"When a man has somethin' as belongs to him, he doesn't step aside easy if another makes a play to grab it," he said.
For the first time then he did see a flicker in Shannon's eyes. And his hand tightened so on the reins that some fraction of his reaction must have reached Shiloh. The horse neighed, pawed with a forefoot.
"Just what I've always thought, too, Kirby." Shannon's voice was softer, more drawling than ever. And there was menace in it—but why? What did Shannon have against him? This was more now than the fact that they had both bristled, incompatible, at their first meeting. It was more than just instinctive dislike. No, Johnny Shannon was not a reckless boy; Drew Kirby knew that, if no one else on the Range did.
"Coronel"—Shannon stepped aside from the door—"we may not be able to git you somethin' as fine as this here prancer, but we ain't altogether lackin' in mighty good hosses. Come 'long an' look 'em over...."
Drew rode off, out of the patio gate, giving Shiloh his daily workout, trying to guess what Johnny Shannon had against him. Had he been right in his fear that Johnny had not been unconscious back in Tubacca, that he had caught Anse's greeting? Rennie was not too common a name, but he did not see how Johnny could possibly have hit upon the truth.
What if he had, though? To Johnny, Drew could loom as a threat. He might be baffled as to why the Kentuckian had not made a move to claim kinship with Hunt. How much of Rennie's own past history was known to the people here? His escape from prison during the Mexican War was common knowledge. But, come to think of it, no one had mentioned his youthful marriage or the fact that he was a widower. Perhaps even Johnny had never heard that story, close to Hunt as he was. But Drew dared ask no questions.
He was still puzzling over the situation when he returned an hour later. Nye, Anse, and a couple of the other riders had some of the recently broken mounts out, showing them off to Oliveri. There was shouting, noise, and confusion around the corrals and Drew slipped past without pausing. He had finished with Shiloh and was on his way to the bunkhouse when Hunt Rennie hailed him.
"Drew!" An imperative wave of the hand brought him to join Don Cazar and to discover Anse already there, rolling his bed. For a second or two Drew blinked—the occupation fitted in too well with their worries of the night before. But Hunt Rennie was already explaining.
"Teodoro tells me that they've found traces of shod horses being driven back in the canyons. This late the grass is beginning to brown, but there are still some sections where stock can be wintered. I want to know more about this. Since both of you are newcomers—" Rennie paused and then added: "Your riding away from here might appear to others that you had quit, were joining up with the mustangers on your own."
"To hunt horses?" Drew asked.
"Not wild ones."
"Sounds like trouble." Anse tied his bedroll.
"In this country we expect trouble, from any direction—including up and down!" Rennie returned. "But I find it disturbing that broken stock is being herded back there. Such maneuvers can mean only one thing—stolen animals are being gathered for a run to the border. And some of them could be army owned; a remount corral was raided just before I left town. I would not care, just now, to have any army mounts located on this Range—no matter where they were hidden or by whom. If they are there, I want to be the one to find them and return them to the proper owners. It would please certain parties to find stolen stock hereabouts—particularly army.
"Now"—he gave an order he obviously expected to be obeyed—"if you do find anything, don't try to take over yourselves. That's final. This is nothing to rush into just to burn powder. And above all I want no mixing it up with any army patrol riding south. Do you both understand?"
"Yes, suh," Anse replied promptly. "We jus' git high behind an' take care. What the mustangers got to do with this?"
"Nothing. Except they can show you the tracks, and with them you can cover a good part of the country in question. There's been no Apache sign down there, and Running Fox will accompany you—only not so openly as to be noticed."
"You think someone may be watchin' the Stronghold?" Drew asked as he buckled his saddlebags.
"I don't know anything for sure. But a couple of incidents lately have suggested that someone knows a lot more about what's going on here than I like. It would be easy enough to lie out in the hills and keep field glasses on us down here. And when a man is familiar with the general routine of a place, he can guess a sight too much and too close just by watching the comings and goings. So—you're going to ride out within the hour and be well along before you camp tonight. We can't waste time."
The nights were chill and the cold made them huddle turtle fashion into the upturned collars of their short riding coats and jam their hats down as far as possible on their heads. Winter breathed across the land now with the coming of dark.
They traveled at an angle, the pace set by Teodoro who led a pack mule. Somewhere out there in the dark the Pima Scout was prowling. But he had had his orders: no contact with the three travelers unless there was fear of attack. And both Anse and Drew were alert, knowing that the farther one went from the Stronghold the less one relaxed guard.
"Kinda nippy, ain't it?" Anse said. In the very dim light Drew could just make out that the Texan was holding his gloved hand to his mouth, puffing at the crooked fingers. "Ain't as bad as ridin' out a norther, though. I 'mind me how jus' 'fore th' war—I was ridin' for wages for Old Man Shaw then—we had a norther hit. I'm tellin' you, it was so cold th' ramrod came out to give th' mornin' orders an' his words, they jus' naturally froze up solid. Us boys, we hadda go git th' wood ax an' chop 'em apart 'fore we knew what we was all to do. Now that's what I call bein' cold!"
Drew laughed. "Don't think it ever gets quite that cold hereabouts."
It was good being away from the Stronghold, out here with Anse. It was as if he had been let out of lessons, or freed from a sense of duty and responsibility which was a growing burden.
"Nope. Texas sure is a lotta country, a whole bag with odds an' ends stuffed in any which way. 'Course this is new range to me. But what I've seen of it, were you jus' able to run off th' bandidos an' git th' Apaches offen it for good—why, it might be a right respectable sorta territory. A man could carve hisself out a spread as he could brag on."
"You'd like it?"
Anse blew on his fingers again. "Maybe—all things bein' considered, as they say. I've heard tell as how all a man needs to start his own brand is a loose rope, a runnin' iron, an' th' guts to use them. It's been done, an' is bein' done all th' time. Only I don't think as how th' Old Man would take to havin' any such big-ideared neighbor here. Not much cattle, though, to interest a wide loop man. Now hosses—everyone says as how they's plenty of wild stuff. You got you Shiloh, Drew, an' you said you made a foal deal with th' Old Man. Git some more good-lookin' an' actin' wild ones an' you're in business—runnin' your Spur R brand. Three-four years, an' th' luck a man has always got to hope for, an' you've more'n jus' a stake—you've got roots an' a spread!"
"We have," Drew corrected. "Why'd you suppose I wanted that foal deal? There's free land to be had in the valley. Some of the ranchers cleared out when the Apaches started raidin' and they're not comin' back. We might look over what Trinfan has picked up as long as we are out here. I know the Old Man hasn't contracted for anything but gettin' rid of that Pinto stud. We could make an offer for any good slicks—put the Spur R on them and run them in on the Range. Rennie has already said that's all right with him."
"Whoee!" Anse muffled one of the old spirited war yells into a husky whisper. "You an' me, we're goin' to do it! Ain't nobody can put hobbles on a pair of Tejanos as has their chewin' teeth fast on th' bit!"
It was something to think about, all right. But future chances should not take a man's mind off the job immediately ahead. Only tonight, out here, Drew had a feeling of being able to do anything—from touching the sky with his uplifted hand to fighting Kitchell man to man. That, however, was just what Hunt Rennie did not want and what Drew had promised not to do.
Horses to be found back in the rough country, hidden away in the maze of pocket canyons where there was water and enough browning grass to keep them from straying. There must be hundreds of places ready to be used that way. But how come Kitchell could hide out in Apache country? Nothing Drew knew of that tribe fitted in with the idea of a white outlaw band sharing their hunting ground unmolested. It had never mattered to an Apache whether a man rode on the north or south side of the law—if his skin was white, that automatically made him prey. Drew said so now.
Teodoro answered that. "Apaches want guns, senor. Their arrows are deadly, but guns are always better."
"I'd think," Anse cut in, "that any guns Kitchell'd have he'd be hangin' on to—needin' them his ownself. Can't be easy for him to git them, neither."
"Not here, no," Teodoro agreed. "But south, that is different. There is big trouble in Mexico—this French emperor fights Juarez, so there is much confusion. In wartime guns can be lost. A party of soldiers are cut off, as was Coronel Oliveri almost—men can be killed. But a gun—it is not buried with a man. A gun is still useful, worth money, if he who picks it up from beside the dead does not want it for himself. So—such a bandido as this Kitchell, he could take horses, good, trained horses—maybe from the army—and he would run them south. He would sell them for money, si, probably much money. But also he could trade for guns—two, three, five guns at a time. Not as good as those his own men carry—old ones maybe, but good enough for Apaches. He would then bring these north, give them as payment for being left alone."
"Why wouldn't the Apaches just kill him and his men and grab what they have?" Drew pointed out what seemed to him the obvious flaw in the system.
"Apaches, they are not stupid. Guns they could take. But once such a gun is broken, where can they get another? They cannot walk into Tubacca or Tucson to buy what they need. Kitchell's men do, perhaps—it is thought that they do so. Also when he trades at the border it is with men who would meet the Apaches with fire and bullets. Apache war parties are never large. Perhaps in all this part of the country there are not more than half a hundred warriors—and those scattered in small bands. I do not say that this is truth, Senor Kirby. I only say that it would explain many things—such as why Kitchell has not been caught."
"Makes sense," Anse commented. "Always did hear as how Apaches were meaner'n snakes but they wasn't stupid. Keep a tame gunrunner to work for 'em—that sounds like th' tricky sorta play they cotton to. If it is so, th' man who gits Kitchell may jus' rid this country of some of them two-legged wolves into th' bargain."
"According to what I've heard," Drew said, "this Kitchell claims to lead a regular Confederate force that hasn't surrendered. If he wants to make that valid, he wouldn't dare any such deal!"
"I'll bet you without waitin' to see a hole card," Anse replied, "that if that coyote was ever ridin' on our side—which I don't stretch ear to—he cut loose them traces long ago. There were them buzzards we had us a coupla run-ins with back in Tennessee, 'member? Scum ... some of 'em wearin' blue coats, some gray, but they was all jus' murderin' outlaws. What did they whine when they was caught? Did th' Yankees run 'em in, then they was unlucky Reb scouts. An' when our boys licked up a nest of th' varmints—why, we'd taken us a mess o' respectable Yank 'Irregulars,' 'cordin' to their story. 'Course none of their protestin' kept 'em from stretched necks." His hand went to his own. "I oughta know, seem' as how I was picked up with a parcel of 'em an' was close 'nough to feel th' wind when a noose swung by.
"This here Kitchell—I'm takin' Bible oath he's th' same mangy breed. Maybe so he started out to be Reb, but that was a long time ago an' he crossed over th' river long since. An' some of them beauties back east, they'da lapped muddy water outta an Apache's boot tracks, did it mean savin' their dirty hides. Sounds to me, Teodoro, like you've some plain, straightforward thinkin' there—a mighty interestin' idea. An' maybe we're jus' goin' to attend to th' provin' of it!"
"Not by ourselves," Drew corrected. "We have our orders."
"Sure. But there ain't no order ever given what says a man has to stand up an' be shot at an' he don't shoot back. No, I ain't sniffin' up trouble's hot trail like a bush hound. But neither am I goin' t' sit down an' fold my two hands together when trouble hits as it's like to do out here."
Drew agreed with that, though he did not say so. Rennie must know the circumstances. They would have to defend themselves if it came to a fight. But he could hope that, if Kitchell had stocked some hidden canyons with stolen horses, the outlaw leader had left no guards on duty thereabouts. With Running Fox prowling ahead and with him and Anse using all the scout tricks they had learned in war-time, they should be able to learn just how correct Teodoro's suspicions were.
"See, senores, the land lies so...." Hilario Trinfan's crooked body pulled together in a lopsided perch as he squatted range fashion beside the morning campfire. He had smoothed a space of ground the width of his two hands and was setting out twigs and stones to create a miniature relief map of the countryside. "Here is the water hole to which the Pinto comes. Above that we were—moving in from this side. To do so we crossed here." A black-rimmed nail stabbed into the dust.
"It is then we see the tracks—five ahead—all shod horses, but not ridden, save for one."
"Apaches could have been running them," Drew commented.
"No." Trinfan shook his head. "This far from pursuit the Apaches would not have moved so. The Indio, he eats horseflesh. There would have been signs of a fire. Or one of the animals cut down. These horses were being moved with care—not pushed too hard. We trailed them on to here." Hilario stabbed his finger into the dust again. "Then—Teodoro, now tell them what you saw."
The younger mustanger hung over the crude map. "I climbed, senores, up over the rocks. It is bad, that ground, high, steep—but with care one can reach a ledge. And along that one can go to look down into the next canyon. A good place for horses—there is water and grass. I stayed there watching with the glasses Don Cazar gave my father, the glasses which bring the far close. There were poles set up in the rocks through which they brought those horses—making it like a pen we build for wild ones. But those in it were not wild."
"How many—an' what brands?" Anse wanted to know.
Teodoro shrugged. "There are many trees, rocks; one can not see everywhere. I counted twenty head—there is room for more. As to brands, even the glasses could not make those plain to the eyes of one lying above. But there is no other ranchero who would run horses on the Range and Don Cazar's manadas are not driven in here—does he want the wild ones to run off his mares? Horses would be kept so for only one reason, that they must be hidden. And in such a place as we found they could be left for maybe a month, or more. Don Cazar's riders do not patrol this far away from the Stronghold. Had it not been that the Pinto causes so much trouble, even we would not be here."
"What about the Pinto? If he's all you say, wouldn't he try to get at this band?" asked Drew.
"No reason if they are saddle stock—no mares among them," Anse said thoughtfully. "But would those hombres who put 'em there jus' leave—no guards or nothin'?"
"That is what we do not know," Hilario replied. "We took every precaution against being seen when Teodoro climbed to look into the canyon. And—this I believe—we were not suspected if there was any watcher. Otherwise, otherwise, senores, we would not have been alive to greet you when you rode in last night! This Kitchell, he is like an Apache—here, there, everywhere. Today I am easier because you have brought the Pima, because we have two more guns in this camp."
"Why didn't you pull out yourselves?" Anse asked curiously.
"Because, were we watched, that would have made our discovery as plain as if we stood out in the open and shouted it to the winds. For three days before we found that trail we had been building a pen for wild ones, casting about for the tracks and runs of the Pinto's band. Having done so, we would not leave without completing our drive. And, should those out there suspect"—Trinfan shook his head—"we would not have lived to reach the Stronghold, and that is the truth."
"This is also truth, padre." Faquita came to the fire and picked up the coffeepot, pouring the thick black liquid into the waiting line of tin cups. "It is time for us to finish and be on the move—not to just talk of what must be done."
Drew looked up in surprise. The girl was wearing breeches, ready to ride. In addition, instead of the gunbelts which all the men wore as a matter of course, Faquita had tucked a pair of derringers in the front of her sash belt. Their small grips showed above the faded silk folds.
"She goin' with us?" the Kentuckian asked, as the girl kicked dust over the campfire and stowed the empty pot in the cart. "Ain't that dangerous—for her?"
Hilario got to his feet with a lurch that made his crippled state only too plain. "Senor, to hunt the wild ones is dangerous. You see me, twisted like a root, no? Not tall and straight as a man should be. This was done by the wild ones—in one small moment when I was not quick enough. Among us—the mustangers—it is often the daughters who are the best riders. They are quick, eager, riding lighter than their brothers or their fathers. And to some it is a loved life. With Faquita that is true. As for danger—is that not always with us?
"In war danger is a thing which one man makes for another. In this country the land itself fights man—war or no war. A cloudburst fills an arroyo with a flood without warning, and a man is drowned amidst desert sand where only hours before he could have died for lack of that same water. There is a fall of rocks, a fall of horse, a stampede of cattle, sickness which strikes at a lone traveler out of nowhere. Yet have you not ridden to war, and come now to live on this land? Si, we have danger—but a man can also die in his bed in the midst of a village with strong walls. And to everyone his own way of life. Now we ride...."
They did indeed ride, following a trail which, as far as Drew could see, existed only in the minds of the mustangers. But the three Mexicans swung along so confidently that he and Anse joined without question or argument.
At a distance they circled the waiting pen with walls of entwined brush and sapling, ready to funnel driven horses into a blind canyon. The Pinto's band must be located, somehow shaken out of the rocky territory their wily leader favored, before that drive could begin. Water, Trinfan said, would be the key. Horses must drink and they were creatures of habit, never ranging far from some one hole they had made their own. Trinfan blankets already flapped about the Pinto's chosen spring. They had seen the horses approach several times in the past two days and shy away from those flapping things with the fearsome man scent.
"As long as La Bruja is with them," Faquita said, coming up beside Drew, "they will not come."
"The Witch, as Anglos would say. We call her so because of her cunning. She is the wise one who keeps lookout. I say she is possessed by the Evil One. It is possible the Pinto is her son. Together they have always outwitted the hunters. But La Bruja is old—she runs more stiffly. Last time in the chase she began to drop behind. She is of no use, only a nuisance. It is the White One I wish to drop rope over!"
"The White One?"
"Si. She is Nieve—the snow of the upper mountains. Among our people you will hear many tales of white ones, without a dark spot on them—the Ghost Stallions that run the plains and no man may lay rope over. But this mare is the truth! And someday—" Her eyes shone and she seemed to be making some vow Drew would be called to bear witness to. "Someday she will be mine! Not to trail south and sell—no—but to keep, always!"
"She must be very beautiful," he commented.
"It is not only that, senor. You have a fine horse, one which beat Don Cazar's Oro, is that not so?"
"Yes. Shiloh ..."
"And to you that one is above all other horses. If you lost him, you would be—like hungry ... inside you, is that not also so?"
"Yes!" Her earnestness triggered that instant response from him.
"So it is with me since I have seen Nieve. Men find such a horse; for years they follow the band in which it runs to snare it. They will suffer broken bones, as did my father, and hunger, and thirst, because there is one tossing head, one set of flying heels before them. Sometimes they are lucky and they catch that one. If they do not, there is in them a pinch of winter even when the desert sun is hot. Once I loved all horses—now there is this one which I must have!"
"I hope you get her!"
"Senor, last season I hoped. This season—this season I have belief that my hopes will come true. Ah, look, the Indio!"
She pointed with quirt and Drew glanced left. He saw what appeared to be an outcrop of rock among many others move, then rise on sturdy legs to meet them.
Running Fox, a brown blanket twisted over one shoulder, the rest of him stripped down to breechclout and moccasins, padded up to Hilario Trinfan and spoke in the guttural Pima. The mustanger translated.
"The horses are still there. But there is a camp of two men on the north slope above the canyon. Both men are Anglos. They are armed with rifles and take turns watching."
"Can we reach a place from where we can read the brands on the horses?" Drew asked.
Trinfan questioned the Pima.
"Si. But you can not go there by day. You must go in at dusk, wait out the night, and then see what you could in the early morning. Leave before sunup. Otherwise the watchers may be able to locate you. He says"—Trinfan smiled—"that he could go at high noon and would not be seen. But for a white man is a different matter."
"Waste a whole day jus' waitin'!" Anse protested.
"Senor, when one balances time against death, then I would say time is the better choice," Hilario replied. "But this day will not be wasted. If any watch us—as well as those horses—they will see us about our business and will have no doubt that we hunt wild horses, not stolen ones."
So Drew and Anse joined the mustangers' hunting. To Anse this was something he had done before. Drew remembered that the Texan had been working with just such a hunting party when his family had been wiped out by the Comanches in '59. But to Drew it was a new experience and he was deeply intrigued by what he saw and the reasons for such action.
All they sighted of the Pinto's now thoroughly thirsty band was the stud himself and a black mare—La Bruja—looking down from a vantage point high on a rocky rim. And the hunters did not try to reach them, knowing that all the wild ones would be long gone before they could reach that lookout.
"This is the fourth day." Hilario Trinfan sat his buckskin at the water hole, watched Teodoro make careful adjustment of the blankets tied on the bushes. "They will be wild with thirst. Tomorrow the blankets will be taken down. There will be no sign of man here. By mid-afternoon the mares will be ready to fight past the Pinto for water. He can not hold them away. So, they will come and drink—too much. Perhaps he will come, too. If he does"—Trinfan snapped his fingers—"I shall be waiting with a rifle. We take no more chances with that one! Anyway, the mares will be heavy and slow with all the water in their bellies. They can be herded into our trap. Then he will come, si, that one will come—no one can take his mares from him! He will be mad with rage, too angry to be any longer so cunning. We shall have him then. And there will be no more killings of studs here."
At dusk Running Fox slipped down to the camp, but not far enough into the circle of firelight to be sighted by any watcher in the night. Then with Drew and Anse he was off again.
Within less than a quarter-hour Drew could have laughed wryly at his past satisfaction in his prowess as a scout. Compared to this flitting shadow he was a bush bull crashing through the brush. Anse was better, much better, but even he was far below the standard set by the Pima. The trio climbed, crept, crouched for long moments waiting for Drew knew not what—some sound, some scent, some sight in the night which Running Fox would accept as assurance of temporary safety.
The Kentuckian had no idea of how long it took them to reach the perch into which they at last pushed. A breastwork of rock was before him; the half circle of a shallow cave cut off a portion of the star-pointed sky above. "Stay—here." The two words were grunted at them out of the dark. Then nothing ... Running Fox had vanished in a way which could make a man believe they had been escorted not by a living Pima, but by a ghost from that long-forgotten race which had left their houses scattered in canyon niches up and down this country.
It was cold, even though the half cave shielded most of the wind. Drew unrolled the blanket he had carried tied about him, and he squeezed down beside Anse. Their combined body warmth ought to keep them fairly comfortable. Drew doubled his hands inside his coat, wriggling his gloved fingers to keep them from stiffening.
"Sure do wish there was some way a fella could bring him a little invisible fire along on a trip like this," Anse commented. "Ain't goin' to be what I'd name right out as a comfortable night."
"Never seems to be any easy way to do a hard thing," Drew assented. He hugged himself, his hands slipped back and forth about his waist. Under his two shirts—he had added the second before he left the Stronghold—the band of his money belt made a lump and now his hands ran along it.
He had had no occasion to open any of those pockets since he had left Tubacca the first time. Now, to take his mind off immediate discomfort, he tried to estimate by touch alone how many coins still remained in the two pockets. The middle section of the three divisions held his papers. There were those for the horses, the parole he had brought from Gainesville, the two letters he had not been able to bring himself to deliver to Hunt Rennie. One was from Cousin Merry, and the other was a formal, close-to-legal statement drawn up by Uncle Forbes' attorney. Both were intended to prove the identity of one Drew Rennie beyond any reasonable doubt.
Drew's fingers stilled above that pocket. It felt too thick, bunchy under his pinching. Whatever—? He squirmed around, free of the blanket, and began to pull off his gloves.
"What's th' matter?" the Texan began in a whisper.
"Just a minute!" It was a clumsy business, pulling the belt free from under his layers of heavy clothing. But Drew got it across his knee. His chilled fingers picked at the fastening of the pocket. There was no packet of papers there—neither the sheets for the horse, nor the much-creased strip of the parole, nor the sealed envelope which had held both letters. Instead he plucked out what felt like shreds of grass and leaves, dry and crackling.
"What is it?" Anse leaned forward.
"My papers—they're gone!" Drew rummaged frantically, turning the pocket inside out. When—who?
"What papers, compadre?"
"You've been wearin' that there belt constantly, ain't you?"
"Yes. Except—" He suddenly tensed. "That night, down by the swimmin' hole, when you thought you saw somethin' in the bushes ... remember?"
"I remember. Looky here, who'd want 'em—an' why?"
"Shannon!" And in that moment Drew was as certain of that as if he had actually seen Johnny stripping them out of the belt.
"How'd he know you were carryin' anythin'?"
"He knew I had the belt. I left it with Topham when I raced Shiloh, and he saw me give it to him. And, Anse, he must have heard you call me 'Rennie' in the Jacks! If he did, he'd want to find out more—Rennie's not a common name. And Shannon's not stupid. He'd figure anything valuable I'd be carryin' would be in this belt."
"How come you didn't know it was gone?"
"I don't know. Seemed just as heavy and that pocket didn't ride any different when I had it on. No reason to open it lately."
"So—what's he got? Your hoss papers, your parole outta th' army, an' them two letters. Yeah, he's got jus' 'bout all he needs to make one big war smoke for you."
"And I can't prove he has them," Drew said bleakly.
"Jus' by makin' him one little private fire," Anse went on, "he could about put you outta business, compadre. There's only one thing to do."
"Johnny Shannon has got to do some talkin' his ownself. An' we can't wait too long to invite him to a chin-waggin' party, neither!"
Anse was right. Shannon had only to slip that collection of papers into the nearest fire and he would put an end to Drew Rennie. Of course Drew could obtain duplicates of the letters and horse papers from Kentucky, but that might take months. And he did not know whether the parole could be reissued from army records. Why, at this moment he could not prove that he had served in the east with the Army of Tennessee. Let Bayliss come down on him now and he was defenseless....
"We can't ride tonight," Anse added. "But come first light we give a look-see here an' then we move—straight back to th' Stronghold an' Shannon. Also—I'm sayin' this 'cause I think it's good advice, Drew. Now's th' time you've got to go to th' Old Man an' tell him th' truth, quick as you can. Sure, I know why you didn't want to claim kin before, but now you'll have to."
Drew shook his head. "Not now—not with nothing to back up my story. Shannon could give me the lie direct."
"I'm thinkin' you're showin' less brains than a dumb cow-critter, amigo. But, lissen—I'm backin' your play. Does Shannon cut up rough, he's got two of us hitchin' a holster steady an' gittin' ready to loose lead."
"No, I'm not goin' to drag you in."
"Yeah—an' I mean yeah! We joined trails a long time back, by that there mill pond in Kentucky, and we ain't splittin' now. If a storm's walkin' up on us slow—or comin' fast with its tail up—it's goin' to be both of us gittin' under or out together."
Drew put on the belt again. His impatience bit at him, but what Anse said made sense. They had been sent here to do a job and in the morning they would do it. Then they could ride back to the Stronghold. How he was going to handle Shannon he had no idea, but that he would have to he was sure.
The first light was a gray rim around the world as they lay flat, training the glasses Hilario had loaned them on two horses grazing not too far below.
"Well, that's it. U.S. As big an' plain as th' paint on a Comanche face an' almost as ugly. Them's army mounts an' I don't see no troopers hereabouts," Anse said.
Running Fox materialized in his ghostly fashion, and they retraced at a better speed and less effort the path which had brought them to the canyon perch. Just as they were about to top the ridge behind the mustanger camp, the Pima held up a warning hand.
"Troopers?" They went to their knees and made a stealthy crawl to the crest of the ridge.
There were troopers down there, all right. The Trinfans sat on their saddles while an officer walked up and down before them. Running Fox put a finger on Drew's arm and motioned to the left. The horses of the mustangers were browsing in a small dell, their night hobbles unloosed. Together the trio moved in that direction.
The Pima slipped ahead with a speed and efficiency of motion his companions envied. He had the two nearest horses in hand, leading them toward the bushes.
"Looks like we ride bareback." Anse caught at a hackamore, then mounted.
"Move!" Drew waved Running Fox to the other horse. "We can't wait to get another horse. You ride for the Stronghold, make it straight to Rennie and report. I'm stayin' here. I can say we were fired and Trinfan took me on as a hand."
Anse was the better rider under these circumstances, and the better scout. To wait to pick up a third horse was folly.
"What about Shannon?"
"Shannon'll have to wait!" Drew slapped the Texan's horse. It reared and then pounded off. Drew turned to walk back to the camp. He rounded the end of the ridge and stopped short. The round and deadly mouth of an Army Colt was pointed straight at his middle, covering the disastrously empty pocket of his money belt.
A lantern provided a very small and smoky light on a table of three boards mounted on boxes. If the furniture was makeshift, the walls of the room were not. Logs and adobe were just as effective for the purpose of confinement as stone blocks. Drew sat up on a bunk shell of board holding straw, and rested his head between his hands. He could follow the action which had brought him here, trace it back almost minute by minute over the past three days. How he had come here was plain enough; why was another matter.
Lieutenant Spath, back in the mustangers' camp, might have accepted the Kentuckian's story. Or he might at least have been uncertain enough not to arrest him, if only Trooper Stevens had not been one of the patrol. Once before Stevens had been most vocal about Rebs who were too free with their fists. Spath's trooper guard, reporting the escape of Running Fox and Anse, had condemned his captive fully as far as the lieutenant was concerned. The troopers had then searched their prisoner and to them a loaded money belt worn by a drifter did not make good sense, either—unless too much sense on the wrong side of the ledger. Drearily Drew had to admit that had he stood in the lieutenant's boots, he would have made exactly the same decision and brought his prisoner back to the camp.
So here he was now—just where Bayliss had promised to see him—in an army detention cell, with no proof of identity and the circumstantial evidence against him piling up by the minute. All they needed was some definite proof to tie him to Kitchell and he was lost. He had to pin his hopes on Anse—and Don Cazar.
Drew ground his boot heel into the dirt floor. That was just what he had sworn he would never do—call upon Hunt Rennie for help. Especially now, since the troopers had discovered those army-branded horses back in the canyon and Bayliss would try to use that against Rennie. Anse's escape had been a short-sighted solution, Drew knew. To the captain such action only tied the Range in deeper. The Kentuckian ran his fingers through his hair, trying to think of something which had not gone wrong.
The plank door banged open and Drew's head came up with a snap. No use letting these Yankees think they had him worried. The lantern, feeble as it was, picked out the stripes on the blouse of the first man, the tin plate in the hands of the second.
Drew looked down at the plate as it was slid under the bars and across the floor of his cell.
"Stew, Sergeant? Ain't that overfeedin'? Thought bread and water was more the captain's style for Reb prisoners." Drew was pleased that he was able to sound unconcerned.
"Cocky one, ain't you?" asked the man who had brought in the plate. "All you Rebs is alike—never know when you're licked—"
"Get along, Farley, that's enough," Muller broke in.
Drew picked up the plate and forced himself to spoon up its contents. The stuff was still warm and not too bad. After the second spoonful he discovered that he was hungry—that much he would not have to pretend.
Sergeant Muller's bulk shut most of the lantern glow out of the cell.
"You young squirts're all alike—never take no advice. But I'm gonna give it, anyway. When th' cap'n sees you, you button your lip! He ain't one as takes kindly to no smart talkin', 'specially not from a prisoner. As far as he's concerned he's got you about dead to rights—hoss thievin' from th' army."
"I'd like to know what proof he has," Drew returned sharply. "Your patrol picked me up well away from those horses—in the mustanger camp where I was workin'—and Captain Bayliss can't prove that's not true, either. Anyway, what difference does it make to you, Sergeant?"
"Since you ask, I don't rightly know, kid. Maybe you was spoilin' for a fight in th' Jacks an' did push our boys—"
"But you don't think so, Sergeant." Drew put the plate on the bunk and stood up to approach the bars. Muller was the taller; the Kentuckian had to raise his eyes to meet the sergeant's. The trooper's face was mostly in the shadow, but it was plain the man did not mean him any ill.
"I got m' reasons." Muller did not make any straighter answer. "But you think o' what th' cap'n does know about you, kid. You go ridin' 'round with gold on you—more money than any drifter ever sees in ten years or more. You're caught near where some stolen army stock is stashed away, an' your partner lights out hell-for-leather, breaking through army lines. An' we only got your story as to who you really are. I ask you—does that read good in the lieutenant's report when th' cap'n gets it?"
"No," Drew answered. "But what do you suggest doin' about it, Sergeant?"
"Got anybody in town as will speak up for you, Kirby? Reese Topham? He did before."
"He doesn't know any more than what he said right then. Trouble is, Sergeant, anybody I could ask to back me up I'd have to bring out from Kentucky—and I don't believe Captain Bayliss would wait for that."
"You work for Rennie, don't you?"
"Hunt Rennie has nothing to do with this. He didn't know those horses were on the Range——"
"Because you put them there, Kirby?"
Muller made a lightning about-face. He snapped to attention facing the captain.
"And what are you doing here, Sergeant?"
"Prisoner bein' fed, sir!" Muller reported stolidly.
"And there is no need for conversation. Dismissed, Sergeant!"
The captain watched Muller leave before he turned once more to Drew. "Kirby, do you know the penalty for horse stealing in this country?" he snapped.
"Then you must know just what you have to face."
"Captain ..." Drew began slowly, wanting to make his words just right. There was no reason to let Bayliss think he could simply ride right over his prisoner. On the other hand Muller's advice had been good; it would be dangerous to antagonize the officer. "I had nothing to do with those stolen horses. We found them, yes, but they were already in the canyon. And there were two men guardin' them—up on the ridge. They must have cleared out when your patrol rode in, but they were there the night before."
"You saw them?"
"No, our scout did."
"What scout—that Indian who got away with your partner? I heard rumors that Kitchell had links with bronco Apaches, but I didn't believe any white man could stoop so low."
"That Indian"—Drew felt as if he were walking a very narrow mountain ledge in the dark, with a drop straight down to the middle of the world on one side—"was a Pima, one of the Stronghold scouts."
"So—Hunt Rennie did know about those horses!" Bayliss pounced.
"He did not! He sent us to the mustanger camp with a message, and the Pima rode scout for us. It's a regular order on the Range—take one of the Pimas if you are goin' any distance from where you can fort up. You can find out that's true easily enough." Drew was striving to keep a reasonable tone, to find an answer which must pierce through Bayliss' rancor. After all, Bayliss could not have held his present rank and station so long and been all hot-headed plunger.
"What was this so-important message Rennie had to have delivered to a camp of Mex mustangers?" Bayliss bored in. Even in the lantern's restricted light Drew could see the flush darkening the other's face.
"They are havin' trouble with a wild stud—a killer. Mr. Rennie wants him killed, quick. He sent the two of us out to help—thought with more hands it could be done."
"Kirby!" Bayliss' fists were on his hips, his head pushed forward from his shoulders until his sun-peeled face was only inches away from the bars between them. "Do I look like a stupid man, a man to be fed stories? You ride into town on a blooded stud, with a mare of like breeding, and a belt loaded down with gold. You give out that you served with Forrest—Forrest, a looting guerrilla and a murdering butcher! You've heard of Fort Pillow, Kirby? That's what decent men remember when anyone says 'Forrest' in their hearing! Only you can't even prove you were one of that gang of raiders, either, can you? Now I'll tell you just who and what you are.
"You're one of Kitchell's scavengers, come into town with gold for supplies and a chance to contact the people you want to meet. I've known for a long time that Topham, Rennie, and probably a dozen other so-called citizens of that miserable outlaws' roost are backing Kitchell. Now here's a chance to prove it!"
"Not through me, you don't," Drew cut in. "I'm just what I said I was from the beginnin', Captain. And you can't prove anything different."
"I don't have to prove it; you've convicted yourself, Kirby. You can't account for the gold you're carrying. And, if you rode with Forrest, where's your parole? You know you were told to carry it. I can deal with you just as any horse thief is dealt with. Why, I'll wager you can't even prove ownership of those horses you brought with you. Where're your sale papers? On the other hand, Kirby, if you do give us the evidence we need against Kitchell and those who are helping him, then the court might be moved to leniency. How old are you? Nineteen—twenty—? Rather young to hang."
"Captain, I can prove everything I've told you. In Kentucky I have kin. They can——"
"Kentucky!" Bayliss snorted. "Kentucky is far away, Kirby. Do you expect us to sit around waiting for some mythical kin of yours to appear from Kentucky with another set of lies to open this door?" He pounded with one fist against the cell portal. "I'm a reasonable man, Kirby, and I'm not asking too much—you know that. What're Kitchell, Rennie, Topham to you that you're willing to face a noose for them?"
"Kitchell I know nothin' about—except what I've heard and that's not good." Drew sat down on the bunk, partly because the chill which had crept down his back had poured into his legs and they felt oddly weak under him. "Reese Topham and Mr. Rennie—as far as I'm concerned they're honest men. I don't think, Captain, that you can prove I'm not, either."
"There is such a thing as over-confidence, Kirby, and it always comes to the fore in your kind!" Bayliss returned. "But after you do some serious thinking I believe you'll begin to see that this is one time you're not going to be able to lie or ride yourself out!"
He left without a backward glance. Drew picked up the plate, pushed the spoon back and forth through the congealing mess left on it. He could not choke down another mouthful. Just how much power did Bayliss have? Could he try a civilian by court-martial and get away with it? And to whom could Drew possibly appeal? Topham? Rennie? Apparently Bayliss wanted them enough to suggest Drew testify against them. Did he actually believe Drew guilty, or had that been a subtle invitation to perjury? The Kentuckian set the plate on the floor and got up again to make a minute study of the cell. His thought now was that maybe his only chance would be to break out.
But his first appraisal of the detention quarters had been the right one. Given a pickax and a shovel, and an uninterrupted period of, say, a week, he might be able to tunnel under one of the log walls. But otherwise he could not see any other way of getting free—save to walk out through the cell door. Drew threw himself on the bunk and tried to think logically and clearly, but his tired body won over his mind and he slept.
"Hey, you! Kirby, wake up! There's someone here to see you!"
Drew reached for a Colt which was no longer under his pillow and then rolled over and sat up groggily, rubbing one hand across his smarting eyes. The lantern light had given way to dusty sunshine, one bar of which now caught him straight across the face.
"All right, Kirby, suppose you tell me what this is all about!"
Drew's head came up, his hand fell. Hunt Rennie and Lieutenant Spath stood side by side beyond the bars. Or rather, not Hunt Rennie, but Don Cazar was there—for the owner of the Range was wearing the formal Spanish dress in which Drew had first seen him. And his expression was one of withdrawal.
"They think that I'm one of Kitchell's men and that I had something to do with those stolen horses we found on the Range." He blurted it out badly.
"They also showed me about six hundred dollars in gold found on you," Rennie returned. "I thought you needed a job. You told Topham that, didn't you?"
"Yes, suh." Drew's bewilderment grew stronger. Hunt Rennie sounded as if he believed part of Bayliss' accusation!
"That money's rightfully mine," Drew added.
"You can prove it?"
"Sure. Back in Kentucky...." Drew paused. Back-in-Kentucky proof would not help him here and now in Arizona.
"Kentucky?" Rennie's withdrawal appeared to increase by a score of miles. "I understood you were from Texas."
"Told you, Rennie," the lieutenant said, "his story doesn't hold together at all. A couple of really good questions and it falls right apart."
"I came here from Texas." Drew took stiff hold of himself. He was walking that narrow ledge again, and with a wind ready to push him off into a bottomless gulf. "Rode with a wagon train as far as Santa Fe—from there on with military supply wagons to Tucson. I was in Kentucky after the war; went home with a boy from my scout company...."
"Who gave you two blooded horses and a belt full of gold for a good-by present?" scoffed Spath.
"Have you any proof of what you say closer than Kentucky?" Rennie ignored the lieutenant's aside. "I can account for your time on the Range, or most of it. But you'll have to answer for this money and where you came from originally. What about your surrender parole? I know you did have papers for the horses—Callie saw them. Produce those...."
"I can't." Drew's hands balled into fists where they rested on his knees.
"Sure you can't—you never had any!" Spath returned.
"I had them. I don't have them now." What was the use of trying to tell Rennie about his suspicions of Shannon? And if Johnny had destroyed the papers as well he might have, Drew could never make them believe him, anyway.
"Kirby, this is serious!" said Rennie. "You ride in from nowhere with two fine horses wearing a brand you say is your own. You have more money than any drifter ever carries. You claim to be a Texan, and yet now you say all the proof of your identity is in Kentucky. And—you are not Anson Kirby's cousin, are you?" That last question was shot out so suddenly that Drew answered before he thought.
"I thought so." Hunt Rennie nodded. "Education is a polisher, but I don't think three or four years' schooling would have made a Texas range rider ask for sherry over whisky—except to experiment with an exotic beverage. There were other things, too, which did not fit with the Kirby background once Anson turned up. Just who are you?"
Drew shrugged. "That doesn't matter now—as the lieutenant and Captain Bayliss have pointed out—if my only proof is in Kentucky and out of reach."
"I suppose you have heard of telegraphs?" Rennie's sarcasm was cold. "Communication with Kentucky is not so impossible as you appear to think. You give me a name and address—or names and addresses—and I'll do the rest. All you have to do is substantiate background and your army service, proving no possible contact with Kitchell. Then the captain will be forced to admit a mistake."
Give Hunt Rennie the name of Cousin Meredith Barrett, of Aunt Marianna's husband, Major Forbes—the addresses of Red Springs or Oak Hill? Drew could not while there was a chance that Anse might find the papers or make Johnny Shannon admit taking them. The Kentuckian could not tell Hunt Rennie who he was here and now.
"I want to talk to Anse," he said out of his own thoughts. "I've got to talk to Anse!"
"He's gone." Rennie's two words did not make sense at first. When they did, Drew jumped up and caught at the bars.
"Cleared out—got clean away." Again Spath supplied the information. "Or so they tell us. He went back to the Stronghold after he broke through our lines. But when a patrol rode down to get him, he was gone."
"Why?" Drew asked. "Why pick him up?"
"Why? Because he's in this, too!" Spath retorted. "Probably rode straight to Kitchell's hideout. Now, Mr. Rennie, time's up. The captain authorized this visit because he thought you might just get something out of the prisoner. Well, you did: an admission he's been passing under a false name. We know what he is—a renegade horse thief."
Drew was no longer completely aware of either man. But, as Rennie turned away, he broke through the mist of confusion which seemed to be enclosing him more tightly than the walls of the cell.
"Shannon. Where's Shannon?"
Hunt Rennie's head swung around. "What about Johnny?" he demanded.
"He took my papers—out of my belt!" This was probably the worst thing he could do, to accuse Johnny Shannon without proof.
"What papers, and why should he want them?" If Rennie had been remote before, now he was as chill as the Texas northers Anse had joked about.
"The parole, the horse papers, some letters...."
"You saw him take them? You know why he should want them?"
Drew shook his head once. He could not answer the second question now.
"Then how do you know Johnny took them?"
How did he know? Drew could give no sane reason for his conviction that it had been Johnny's fingers which had looted the pocket of papers and stuffed leaves and grass in their place.
"You'll have to do better than that, kid!" Spath laughed. "You must have known Shannon was gone, too. By the time he's back from Mexico he won't need to prove that's a lie."
Drew disregarded the lieutenant's comments—Rennie was the one who mattered. And in that moment the Kentuckian knew that he had made a fatal mistake. Why hadn't he agreed to telegraph Kentucky? Now there was no hope. As far as Don Cazar was concerned, one Drew Kirby could be written off the list. Drew had made an enemy of the very person he most wanted to convince. The Kentuckian swung around and walked to the one small, barred window through which he could see the sun. He walked blindly, trying not to hear those spurred boots moving out of the door ... going away....
Three good strides one way, four another to measure the cell. Morning sun, gone by noon, daylight outside the window becoming dusk in turn. They fed him army rations, delivered under guard. And the guard never spoke. There was no use asking questions, and Drew had none left to ask, anyway. Except, by the morning of the second day after Rennie's visit, his wonder grew. Why was Bayliss delaying a formal charge against him? This wait could mean that the captain was not finding it so easy to prove he really did have a "renegade horse thief" in custody. But Drew knew he must pin no hopes on a thread that fine.
What had happened to Anse? And Shannon—gone to Mexico? He must have ridden back with the Coronel. Drew could expect nothing more from Rennie, or Topham. The Trinfans? Spath had marched them back, too, along with his prisoner, but the lieutenant had not had them under arrest. The mustangers were well known in this district and could prove their reason for being where they were found. And Kitchell had raided one of their corrals last season, so they had no possible tie with the elusive outlaw. Probably by now the Trinfans had returned to their hunt for the Pinto.
No, there was no use thinking that anyone was going to get him out of this—no one but himself, and he had bungled badly so far. Drew, his body tired with pacing the small cell, flung himself down on the bunk and listened to the sounds of the camp. He had pretty well worked out the routine by those sounds. The camp itself was a makeshift affair. Its core, of which this cell was a part, was an old ranch building. There were tents and a few lean-tos, on a plateau bounded on the east by a ravine, on the west by a creek bottom. Huts of stone, rawhide, and planks served as officers' quarters. In fact it was no more a fort than the bivouacs he had known during the war. Unfortunately this room was the most substantial part.
If he could only get out, and pick up his horses, then perhaps he could head for Mexico. There was a war on down there; a soldier could find an anonymous refuge in a foreign army. Shelby's whole Confederate command had crossed the Rio Grande to do just that. That part was easy. To get out of here—that was what he could not accomplish.
Two men always came together when they fed him, and they didn't open the cell door, but just pushed the plate through. A sentry was on duty outside. Drew could beat time to the sound of those footfalls day and night. And suppose he did get free of the cell; he would have to have a horse, supplies, arms....
Drew rolled over on the cot and buried his face on his folded arms. He might as well try to get out of here by using will power alone to turn locks! They left the lantern burning all night to keep a light on him, and the sentry looked in the peephole every time he passed.
The Kentuckian did not know just when it was that he became conscious of the noise overhead. Lizards—maybe even rats—could move about the beams, hidden by the age-browned manta strips. But surely this was too late in the season for a lizard to be so lively by night when the temperature dropped with the rapidity of a weight plunging earth-ward. And rats aloft....
Drew did not change his position on the bunk, but his body tensed. No rat would stay in one place, gnawing with such purpose and concentration at a spot in the darkest corner of the cell roof. Anse? How or why the Texan could be at work there, Drew did not know. But that there was a stealthy attempt being made to reach him from above he was now sure.
His teeth closed on his wrist as he lay listening, to that scratching above, to the regular advance and retreat of the sentry. He heard the man pause by the door and knew he was under inspection. Well, let the Yankee look! He would see his prisoner peacefully sleeping.
Now the trooper was moving on, the noise above became sharper. There was a slight crackle. The linen roofing sagged under a burden, and Drew caught his breath in a gasp. Miraculously the yellow cloth supported the object—a bulge as big as a saddlebag. A portion of the roof which had given way?
The scratching, which had stilled, began again. Then the bulge was gone, pulled away from above. Dust sprinkled down from the disturbed manta. In the next instant Drew moved.
Using his hands on either side of his body, he raked up the straw which filled the box bunk. In a swift moment, timed to the sentry's passing to the farthest point from the spy hole, the Kentuckian rolled to the floor, slapped and pulled the blanket into place over the mounded straw. Not too good—it certainly would not fool any inspection within the room. But in the lantern light and this far from the door, the improvised dummy might satisfy the glance of the sentry for some precious seconds.
Drew was across the cell, flattened against the wall under the still quivering strip of material. More bulges appeared and disappeared, fragments fallen and retrieved. Then a sharp point pierced downward, the tip of a knife slitting the tough stuff. A slash, and the manta peeled back against the wall of the cell.
"Senor—?" It was so faint a whisper Drew hardly caught it.
"Yes!" He looked up with desperate eagerness into what he had hoped to see—the dark splotch of a hole.
A rawhide lariat smoothly braided, oiled into supple silkiness, dangled through. Drew got his hands on it, pulled it back against the wall as the sentry returned. He held his breath during that pause beside the spy hole, a pause which lengthened alarmingly. Then his body jerked in answer to a sound a half second before he realized what manner of sound. The sentry had sneezed. He sniffled, too, loudly; then he went on to complete his beat. The blanket and the straw—they had worked!
Drew pulled at the lariat, was answered by a return jerk. He jumped and began to climb. Then, with a wrench he was through the hole, other hands helping to pull.
"Come—pronto!" The hands were pushing, urging. He wriggled forward. Teodoro Trinfan! But why?
There was no time to ask; Drew could only obey directions. They made a worm's progress along the full length of the old ranch building, and dropped the lariat for a ladder to the ground. They crossed the small part of the camp near the ravine with the same caution they had used on the roof.
"Senor..." Teodoro's lips were at Drew's ear as the boy pressed against him in a thin cover of shadow. "Left—a big stone—put your hands on it—swing about and down."
Drew had to take that on blind trust. He had no idea what kind of a drop waited below, and only by firm will power did he follow orders. But his boot soles met a solid surface. Then he was caught about the waist and Hilario's voice whispered to him.
"Senor, you stand—so." Hands fumbled about him, looping him with a supporting lariat. "Now—we go! Your hand, senor." Drew's left hand was caught in a tight grip which pulled him to the right, face to the wall. So secured, he inched along what he knew must be the face of the ravine, his toes on some small ledge midway between lip and foot.
Somehow the three of them reached ground level, their diagonal course of descent putting some distance between them and the camp. In spite of the cold of the night, Drew was wet with sweat as they threaded through heady sage brush. Now came the scent of horses, the sound of a hoof stamped impatiently on gravel.
At Hilario's hissed assent, a figure detached itself from the utter black of the bushes and moved forward into a sliver of moonlight.
"You got him?"
"I'm here, if that's what you mean!" Drew answered for himself.
"And you'll be gone, soon," the gambler replied. "But there's one thing I have to know, Kirby. Were you telling the truth to Rennie—do you believe Johnny took your papers?"
What had that to do with the matter at hand? Drew wondered. But from the urgency of the demand he knew it did mean a great deal to Topham.
"Yes, I'm sure. But I can't prove it—unless I find them with him. He may have destroyed them already." Drew put into words the black foreboding which had ridden him for days.
"Why? What do they mean to him?"
Evasions and lies had gotten him into this mess; now he would see what stark truth would do.
"Because there were two letters—proof I'm Drew Rennie."
"Rennie?" Topham repeated. In the light Drew could not see his expression, but his voice was that of a completely baffled man. "Rennie?"
"I'm Hunt Rennie's son." There, he had said it—and nothing startling happened. Well, what had he expected—a clap of thunder, a bolt of lightning, the sudden appearance of a cavalry patrol across the nearest hilltop?
"So that's it!" Topham said slowly. "And Shannon suspected? But why the mystery? And——"
Drew took the questions in turn. "Shannon was at the Jacks when I met Anse. I thought he was unconscious, but he probably wasn't. Anse called me by my right name. As for why—my father doesn't know I'm alive. He was told I died at birth, along with my mother. They told me he was killed in the Mexican War before I was born. It was all because of an old family feud—too long a story to tell now. I've only known for about a year I had a father here in Arizona ... but to make a claim on him, after all these years.... Maybe you don't understand why I didn't want to." He was telling it badly, but he'd been a fool about this from the start.
"Understand ... yes, I think I can. There's a certain strain of bull-headed independence common to Rennies—I've met it head-on several times myself. And your choice was your own to make. But this ... yes, it is just the move Shannon would make, given suspicion to push him into action. And now it may be pushing him even farther."
Drew was a little bewildered by Topham's ready acceptance of his story without any proof. But the tone of the last remark caught his full attention.
"What d' you mean? What's happened now?"
"I've had suspicions, pretty nasty ones, for some time. But I had your trouble—no proof. In the last three days I've picked up and sorted out a few very wild cards, and now they make a pat hand. Kitchell has had his contact here-abouts, all right, just as Bayliss has always insisted."
"You can't mean Shannon!"
"Johnny Shannon. And if he's doing what I think he is...." Topham paused. When he continued he had changed the subject. "Last night Nye rode up from the Range. Said that Kitchell made a raid, almost a clean sweep. Among other stock he gathered up was that prize stud of yours."
And Shannon had the horse papers! The Kentuckian was thinking fast now.
"Yes, if Shannon is riding with Kitchell, now he can prove ownership of that stud and sell him anywhere without trouble." Topham could have been reading Drew's mind. "But that's not as important as something else. Hunt went hell-bent-for-leather out of here. He'll gather up that private army of his and try to trail the raiders. Maybe Kitchell will ride south, or maybe he'll head directly back into Apache country. Either way that trail's going to be as easy for anyone after him as walking barefoot through a good roaring fire! Hunt still has blind faith in Johnny.... I was hoping you could help break that."
"That why you got me out of the camp?" Drew asked.
"Partly. Hunt told me what you said about Johnny taking your papers. I had you sized up as being too smart to make a claim like that unless you really believed it. And I thought maybe you could prove it, given a chance. If you can get to Hunt now ... tell him the real truth before Johnny rigs something of a double-cross...."
"Would he believe me any more than he did when I accused Shannon?" Drew asked bleakly. "I'll head south, all right. Nobody's goin' to lift Shiloh and get away with it as long as I'm able to fork a saddle and push. But if you're countin' on my bein' able to influence my—my father"—he stumbled over the word awkwardly—"don't!"
"I'm counting on nothing," Topham returned. "Just hoping now. For a long time we've heard about Johnny Shannon being a young hothead who found it hard to settle down after the war. I think there are two Johnnys and we are just beginning to know the real one. You could be his prime target now."
"Fair of you to point that out." Drew thought that at last he had found a real motive for Topham's services. "I'm likely to be bait, ain't that the truth of it?"
"If you are, the trap is going to be there. But now ... get away from here. Teodoro will ride with you as guide."
"And the army after me. That's it!" Drew had mounted. "That's what you want, isn't it? Me to pull the troops south? Huntin' down an escaped horse thief they might slam into Kitchell...."
What a trick! Topham had planned it without asking Drew's support. But it called for enough audacity, luck, and nerve to be appealing. During the war the Kentuckian had seen such schemes win out time and time again.
"Why ain't Bayliss already ridin'?" he asked. "Hasn't he heard about the raid?"
"He's been heard to say a man can raid his own stock as a cover-up."
"What's wrong with him? Is he deaf, dumb, and blind!"
"No, just prejudiced and ridden by envy until he's not able to think straight any more. But he'll track you and follow quick enough!"
"He sure will. All right ... we ride."
They did, Drew depending on the younger Trinfan's guidance. And, while Teodoro set a meandering trail, it was not one which a determined pursuer would have too much trouble following, come sunup or whenever that sentry discovered he was guarding a straw prisoner.
Once when they pulled up to breathe their horses, dismounting to loose cinches and cool the backs of the mounts, Drew indulged his curiosity further.
"How come you knew just where to make that hole to let me out?"
Teodoro laughed. "That was easy, senor. That was the Garza Rancho—only six months has the army been there. Many times we have camped within its walls when we brought in the best of the wild catch for sale. I know those buildings very well. When Senor Topham tells my father what must be done, we could plan well and quickly. I have heard what you said to Senor Topham, that you are the son of Don Cazar. Why did he not know of this? Why have you never lived here with him?"
"He didn't know I was alive, and I didn't know that he was. My grandfather—my mother's father—he hated Don Cazar very much, because of a duel and other things. So my father took my mother away secretly, brought her to Texas when they were both very young. Then Don Cazar went to war and the news came that he had been killed. My grandfather went to Texas and took my mother home with him. She died a few months later, when I was born.
"It was only after my grandfather died, two years ago, that letters from my father were found among his private papers. These I discovered when I came home from the war, learning that my father was alive and here in Arizona. Only we were strangers ... I did not know whether he would like me for a son, or whether I wanted a stranger for a father. So, when I came here I took the name of my compadre, my friend from the war, Anse Kirby. I wanted to know my father before I made my claims."
"And Senor Juanito—for this he will hate you!"
"Because I did not tell who I was at the start?" Drew asked.
"No—because you are truly Don Cazar's son. Always Don Cazar, he treated Senor Juanito as a son, but I do not think that was enough. Senor Juanito, he is one who must have everything, all. Even when he was a boy, he was like that. Bartolome Rivas, he braids beautiful ropes, and he made one for Juanito. Always I wanted a rope like that. I would watch Juanito use it and wish. Then once we spend Christmas at the Stronghold ... it was after my father was hurt and Don Cazar had us to stay there so he could tend my father's wounds. Had he been with us when the wild ones stampeded, my father would not walk crooked, but we got him back to the ranch too late. But that is not what I would say. It was Christmas and Don Cazar gave to me a rope like that of Juanito, a fine rope which felt as if it was a part of a man's own arm when he swung it. Two days later, that rope, it was gone, never did I find it. But I knew—I had seen Juanito watching me when I tried that fine rope. And I knew his thoughts: no one must have a rope as good as Juanito's! Not long after that he ran away, to join the army. But really that was because Don Cazar caught him beating one of the Indios. Only that is not generally known. The Indio was being taught by Don Cazar to have charge of the grain storage, and Juanito thought that Indios are as dirt—should have no place among Anglos. Senor Juanito would hate with a black hate anyone who had a right to be a son at the Stronghold, a better right than he could claim. He must always be on top, at the head. Sometimes it would seem that he would, if he could, push aside Don Cazar himself.... Now I think we should ride again."
By dawn Drew had no idea where they were except that they pushed south. Whether they were now on the Range he did not know. And how in the immensity of this hostile country, they could fulfill Topham's hopes and lead the troop patrol to Rennie's posse, was something the Kentuckian did not even try to answer. The border lay south. If Kitchell had made such a sweeping raid, he would be certain to run the animals in that direction, for the outlaw was fully aware of Rennie's reputation and temper, and knew that Don Cazar would trail him with set determination.
This meant the outlaw must have set up some plan for avoiding pursuit. Rouse the Apaches? Or prepare an ambush? Either could work. Then Bayliss' men could be a saving factor. If the Kentuckian could locate Rennie, and ride in to his camp—or skulk close enough to it—that should bring the troops down.
But where was Anse? The Texan had not simply cleared out because of imminent trouble, Drew was sure of that. Had he followed Shannon to Mexico? This was one time when Drew could well understand the exasperation and frustration felt by an officer whose scouts did not report in as ordered and who had no idea of the disposition of reinforcements. Talk about going into something blind! But still he rode at a steady, mile-covering pace southward.
"Still south...." Teodoro pointed out the hoof prints deep in the soft earth beside the water hole. Drew steadied himself with one hand on the stirrup leathers as he stooped to see more clearly. He was groggy with lack of sleep and felt that if he once allowed himself to slip completely to ground level, he would not get up again.
Teodoro was on one knee, conning the mass of tracks as if they were a printed page. "Si—there is the mark of Bartolome Rivas' horse. It has a misshapen hoof; the shoe must always be well fitted."
"How far are they ahead now?" Drew had come to depend upon the young mustanger's judgment. Teodoro apparently was close to a Pima in his ability to read trace.
"Two hours—maybe three. But they will be at the pass and there they will stay."
"I think they will lay a trap for the raiders. There has been no sign that they trail now behind driven horses. Don Cazar does not pursue; he rides to cut off the road to Mexico. Kitchell's men, they would not take the open Sonora trail, that is folly for them. So they travel one ridden by men with a price on their heads. If Kitchell now moves south to stay, he will have with him all that he can carry, and he must come this way."
"If he hasn't gone already!"
"There is no sign," Teodoro repeated stubbornly.
"So we keep on ahead." Drew got down on both knees, splashed the muddy water-hole liquid into his face in an effort to clear his head.
They had changed mounts twice since leaving the camp, both times at the water forts on the Range. And the second time they had chanced three hours' sleep and a hot meal. But the rest of the time it was ride, chew on jerky and cold tortillas, and depend on Teodoro's sense of direction to take them eventually to their goal—the outlaws' gate into Mexico. Drew had long since stopped looking over his shoulder for any thundering advance of cavalry. If Bayliss was hunting the fugitives, he was not pushing the pace too hard.
"Not ahead, no." Teodoro drank from his cupped hand. "We go so...." He sketched a gesture east.
"It is never well to be shot by one's friends." The mustanger achieved a half smile, stretching the skin of his gaunt young face. "Always it is better to see before being seen."
When they started he led the way to the left at a walk. Drew, aroused now, looked about him carefully. This was rough country cut by pinnacles of red and yellow rock, backed by the purple ridges of the greater heights. It was desert land, too. They had long since left the abundance of the valley behind them. Here was the stiff angularity of cactus, the twisted vegetation of an arid land.
The crack of a carbine shattered the empty silence. Drew pulled on reins as a second shot dug up a spurt of dust just beyond Teodoro's mount.
"Hold it! Right there."
That disembodied voice could have come from anywhere, but Drew thought it was from above and behind. Someone, holed up in the rocks, had them as perfect targets. The Kentuckian did not try to turn his head; there was no use giving the sharpshooter an excuse.
"All right, you...." The voice was hollow, its timbre distorted by echo. "Throw off your guns an' git down ... one at a time ... th' Mex first."
Drew watched Teodoro slide out of the saddle.
"Stand away from that hoss ... easy now."
The mustanger obeyed.
"Now you ... do jus' like him."
Drew followed instructions carefully.
"Hands up—high! Now turn around."
They turned. A figure had detached itself from among the rocks they had passed moments earlier and came down toward them carbine ready.
"Anse!" Drew stumbled toward the Texan. The other's hat was gone. A torn shirt sleeve flapped about his left arm, allowing sight of a neckerchief knotted about his forearm. His coat trailed from one shoulder. "What in the world happened to you?"
Anse sat down suddenly on one of the boulders, his gaze on Drew. He shook his head slowly.
"I ain't sein' things," he said. "That's you, ain't it? Say—got any water?" His tongue curled over cracked lips.
Drew snatched the canteen from his saddle and hurried forward. More than a bloodstained bandage marked Anse, he could see now. He waited while the other seized the canteen avidly and drank. Then the Texan was smiling at him.
"Seems as how we's always meetin' up, don't it now? Likewise it's always to m' benefit, too. Only this time I've got me somethin' to trade. You keep on goin' down this trail, compadre, an' maybe you'll wind up with a spade pattin' you down nice an' smooth."
Anse drank again with the discipline of a plains rider, a mouthful at a time.
"What didn't would be more like it, amigo. Yesterday, well, they got m' hoss—tried to git me. Only left their mark, though," Anse said, regarding his arm ruefully. "I've been wearin' off boot heels hoofin' it ever since. Tryin' to make it back to that there water hole."
"Who shot your horse?"
"I didn't see no name printed big 'cross his jacket, but I'm thinkin' it was Shannon."
"You were in Mexico?"
Anse shook his head. "No, an' Shannon ain't there, neither. I trailed along—ridin' th' high lines careful—when he went with that there Mex Coronel an' his men. Stayed with him 'bout a day, Shannon did. Then another man, Anglo, rode into their camp—had him a chin fest with Shannon, an' Johnny saddled up pronto, beat it with th' stranger. Thought he might be headin' home, but he weren't. So I kept on ridin' into their dust an' waitin' to find out what it was all 'bout.
"Shannon an' this hombre, they hit it up a pretty good lick till they got well away from th' Sonora trail. Then they skimmed it down till you'd think they had all month an' a handful of extra Sundays to git wherever they was goin'. Plumb wore me down amblin' 'long th' way they did. I sure 'nough 'bout scraped off my hoss's hoofs cuttin' down his speed.
"Spent a whole day jus' loungin' 'round in one camp. I'd say they was waitin' for someone—only nobody ever showed. So they went on, me followin'. I'll tell you one thing. This new hombre Shannon took up with, he was a real hard case. A short trigger man if I ever laid eye on one. Anyway we jus' kept on, with me tryin' to think iffen I should Injun up to git th' drop on 'em or not. Seemed to me, though, as how it might be brighter to kinda jus' drift their way an' see what's makin' 'em rattle their hocks out in th' middle of nowhere.
"Guess I weren't as smart as I thought I was. As I said, yesterday suddenly they give th' spurs an' lit out. Me, guess I got kinda upset 'bout losin' 'em an' followed a bit too hasty. Hoss came down with a hole in him. Me, I took another. Gave 'em a good sight of a man plugged where it means th' most an' that musta convinced 'em I wasn't no problem no more. So—that was what happened. I jus' pulled as green a trick as a sod-buster tryin' to crawl a wild one! An' where Shannon is now I don't know—only I don't think it's in Mexico."
"Probably with Kitchell." Hurriedly Drew filled in his own experiences and what he had learned from Topham.
Anse looked about him. "For territory what looks so bare," he commented, "this stretch of country sure must have a sight of population wanderin' 'round in it. Th' Old Man an' his posse somewheres up ahead, an' Shannon an' that side-kick of his, an' Kitchell maybe, as well as th' Yankees hotfootin' it behind you—or so you hope. Lordy, this's gonna be th' Battle of Nashville over again' do they all meet up! All we need is a coupla bull pups up on one of them ridges an' we could blow 'em all to hell-an'-gone! Jus' which bunch is goin' to claim us first?"
"Senores, that is already decided," Teodoro said quietly.
Drew looked up. Where had they come from, those four? Out of the rocks themselves? He only knew that now they were there, rifles over their forearms, ready to swing sights on the three below. His heart gave a lurch—Apaches? And then on the far right he recognized Greyfeather, Rennie's chief scout. And it was Greyfeather who pointed to them and to the way ahead, who gave an emphatic wave of the hand which was an order. Leading their horses, they obeyed, the Pimas falling in behind.
The back-door route to the pass was a rough one. They had to leave the horses and climb, two of the Pimas always in sight behind, guns ready. Anse sighed.
"Seems like we have lots of luck—all of it plain bad. These Injuns run us in an' as far as th' Old Man's concerned we're jus' what everybody claims we is. We're a coupla saddle bums as is only on th' loose 'cause we got up earlier an' owned faster hosses than th' sheriff! How'd we ever git our saddles slipped 'round so wrong, anyway?"
"I did it," Drew said bitterly. "It's not any of your doin', Anse. Tied myself up in a string of lies and now they have me tight. So help me, Anse, if I ever get this unsnarled, I'm never goin' to open my mouth again to say more'n 'yes' or 'no'!"
The Texan laughed. "You ain't never been one to color up a story redder'n a Navajo blanket! An' don't take on th' whole pack of this when only 'bout th' salt bag is of your buyin'. You ain't responsible for Kitchell, nor Johnny Shannon, nor Bayliss' wantin' to down th' Old Man. Can't see as how much of this is your doin', after all."
Rennie had set his ambush at the pass with care. At first sight there was no evidence of men lying in wait, but from the heights over which the Pimas brought their charges, Drew caught glimpses of men crouched behind sheltering rocks. The bulk of the Range posse was gathered in a hollow on the south side of the pass and it was there that Greyfeather delivered his catch.
Don Cazar surveyed them almost without interest. "Bayliss released you then," he said to Drew.
"No. Reese Topham and the Trinfans broke me out." Drew kept to his recent vow of truth-telling. And, he noticed with a spark of something approaching satisfaction, the truth seemed able to shake Rennie a little.
"Reese Topham broke you out! Why?" The demand was quick and to the point.
"He wanted me to play fox for the army's hounds ... bring the troopers south ... here," Drew replied. "Bayliss wouldn't march out and Topham thought that you needed some support—with Kitchell apparently on the move." Telling the truth did not mean you had to tell all of it. There was no reason to bring Shannon into this now and antagonize Rennie all over again.
"He what—?" His father was staring at him now with pure amazement. "But that doesn't make sense," he added as if to himself.
"No? I think it does, suh. Kitchell wouldn't have dared to raid the Range if he were goin' to stay in this country, would he? And after such a raid he'd head south. You believe that much or you wouldn't be here waitin' for him now. Nobody knows how many men ride with that gang—and maybe he can pull in the Apaches, too. They wouldn't pass up a good chance to get back at you. You have the reputation of being about the only white man in this territory to make them turn tail and give up a fight. Now—supposin' you do get Kitchell stopped here at the pass—and the army patrol comes in behind him. Then together you can finish him, and perhaps some bronco Apaches into the bargain. It could work."
Drew paused and then went on. "Of course, I have a good reason of my own for being here, apart from not wantin' to swallow Captain Bayliss' brand of justice. Kitchell's men took Shiloh. And nobody, nobody at all, suh, is goin' to run off that horse—not while I'm able to do something about it!"
"Seems to me, suh," Anse cut in now, "that three more guns is gonna be healthy for you to have 'round here, does th' fight work out th' way it can. Me, I don't make no big brag on my shootin'—but I never did wear no six-gun, nor tote no carbine, jus' for show."
"Of course, if you think we're Kitchell's plants," Drew added, "then keep us under guard. Only we're not and never were."
"Topham, Topham planned this?" Rennie still showed surprise. "I don't—"
A bird called flutingly. Rennie stiffened. Men moved, up slope, into cover, without direction.
"You two ... get up there, behind those pointed rocks," Don Cazar directed with a stab of his finger. "I'll be right behind you."
"We ain't about to give you no trouble," Anse said as he obeyed, and Drew agreed as he followed the Texan into hiding.
"I'd like a rifle jus' 'bout now," Anse remarked. "Only thing I've ever held 'gainst a six-gun is that it don't throw lead as far as a fella could sometimes want it to. But I think we've sorta been ruled outta this here fight—'less th' enemy gits close 'nough to spit at."
Now they could see down the cut of the pass. The narrow passage wound between rocks and Drew, though he could not spot them, did not doubt that Rennie's forces were snuggled in where a surprise volley could do the most good.
"Somethin' sure is comin'." Anse had one hand flat on the ground. "Feels like th' whole danged army hoofin' it an' fast!"
Drew was aware of it, too—the vibration carrying through stone and soil. The drumming of hoofs, horses coming at a run. Now it was more than vibration, a distinct roll of sound magnified and echoed. And he caught a shout or two, the cries of men hazing on laggers. It must be Kitchell on his way through to the border!
A dust haze, rising like smoke. Then the foremost runner of the band appeared in the cut, the whites of its eyes showing, patches of foam sticky on chest and shoulder. Five ... ten ... an even dozen—but not a gray coat among them. One light buckskin had almost startled Drew into rising until he caught a second and clearer look.
The leaders were through and a second wave was coming. Drew counted twenty more horses before the first rider appeared. His face was masked against the dust by a neckerchief drawn up to eye level. But, unlike the ordinary range rider, he wore an army forage cap in place of the wide-brimmed hat of the plains. As he spurred by below Drew's perch he glanced up but seemed to have no suspicion that he was under observation.
There came more horses, and Drew stopped counting. But the gray he sought was not among them. The shouts of the drivers were louder. And then, as three men appeared bunched, there was a crackle of shots. Two of the riders fell, one leaning slowly from the saddle, the other diving into the dust. The third tried to turn but did not get his horse around before a mule pushed into him, followed by another and another. The horse thieves were trapped. Drew could hear the sharp snap of shots along the pass. More than those three must have been caught in the ambush.
The mules, braying and running wild, thundered on south after the horses. Then a saddled horse, riderless, galloped by with a second at its heels. Confused shouting rang out, without any meaningful words. This was as much a muddle, Drew thought, as any battle. You never saw any action except that immediately about you—mostly you were too busy trying to keep alive to care about incidentals. Come to think of it, this was about the first time he had ever sat out a fight, watching it as a spectator.
The roll of firing was dying down. Anse grinned at him.
"Takes you right back, don't it now?" he asked when he could be heard. "Th' Old Man, he's got him some of th' Gineral's idears—work good, too!"
"I didn't see Shiloh in that band." Drew stood up. "Couple of duns ... no grays."
"Come to think of it," Anse agreed, "that's right! But lookit that bay down there." He pointed to one of the saddled horses that had a dragging rein caught in a dead juniper stump and was trying to pull loose. "Got th' RR brand! Some of these must be from th' Range raid."
"Hey—down here—!" The hail broke down the pass from the north. Rennie climbed over his rock barricade, and other men came out of cover to move up the cut. Since no one tried to stop them, Drew and Anse went along.
"Got us two of 'em ready to talk!" Jared Nye strode to meet his employer. "They're Kitchell's gang, all right. Only he ain't with 'em."
"Patron—" For the first time since he had known him Drew saw Bartolome Rivas run. He was weaving in and out among the fallen men in the pass. "They ride." He was half choked by the effort to force his message past heavy gulps for breath.
"Who rides?" Rennie demanded.
"Three—four men ... that way." He waved a plump hand to the east. "They go like the wind, Don Cazar. And one—he rides the big gray!"
Drew whirled. The big gray—there was only one horse to be named so on the Range. Some of the outlaws had escaped the trap and one was riding Shiloh! Drew found the horse with the tangled rein, jerked and tore at the leather strap, and was in the saddle when a hand caught at the rein he had just freed.