Tom Grigsby urged his horse into the dark shadows of the cottonwoods along the creek bank. Cattle lowed restlessly as dark figures ushered them through the moonlit valley that flanked the creek. Honest men didn't usually move cattle at night. Nothing he had been told about this part of the New Mexico Territory encouraged his trust.
The mustang tensed between his knees. They had experienced more than their share of moments like this - and there were bound to be more in the future. It was something he had accepted years ago. Yet the wild beauty of those high meadows he had crossed lately had awakened a restlessness he hadn't felt since he was a teenager. It was a feeling that trapped a clambering heart. Behind that restlessness was a desire to set down roots - build a ranch and maybe raise some kids. Utterly ridiculous. Here he was, loping down the trail to 30. His weather worn features were something no woman ever gave a second glance - maybe a long scrutinizing first look. His tall lean frame could consume more vittles than any woman wanted to bother cooking. Combine all that with feet that spent most of their time in run down boots treading over endless miles of uncivilized territory. No, he was born a bachelor and there wasn't any point considering anything else.
The cattle had drifted on and the dark forms that herded them were all facing away from him now. Still, he waited. He wasn't in any hurry. Patience had brought him this far in life. There could be a straggler, or....
A match flashed less than thirty feet away and hands cupped the flame, guiding it to a cigar. The face was rugged, with a long hooked nose and thin lips. An angry red scar slashed its way across the dark features from the right side of the man's upper lip to the tip of one prominent cheekbone. A face that wouldn't be hard to remember, but was the man with the herd?
The man inhaled and shook out the match. The glowing end of his cigar was visible for a few seconds before it abruptly disappeared. Leather creaked and the click of harness metal announced that the man was moving away.
Grigsby slowly let out his breath. He waited a few more minutes before nudging the mustang into motion. He walked the horse through the soft grass, hugging the deep shadows along the creek bank. Normally he didn't travel at night, but darkness had found him only a couple of hours out of Clay Creek. He was getting tired of beans and bacon and the hard ground wasn't doing his back any good, either.
"Gettin' too old to be traipsin' around like this all the time," he muttered to himself. The mustang tossed his head, as if in agreement.
After another thirty minutes or so, he spotted the lights of town. He angled the mustang away from the creek and found the road, following it into Clay Creek. Most of the town lay quiet, with supper sounds and smells issuing an empty invitation. A small dog sniffed at the mustang's feet and growled hesitantly. It broke into a throaty bark only after left behind.
Grigsby drew up at the hitch rail under a black and yellow sign that read, "Turner's Bar and Chuck". He swung down and gave the reins a few turns around the hitch rail as he surveyed the tiny town. A general store, a hotel and a few other buildings - a few alleys where a body could lay an ambush, but nobody was expecting him here. He stepped up to the boardwalk and lifted the pistol from its holster, letting it fall back freely before he stopped at the batwing doors. There he stood for a moment, letting his eyes adjust to the lamp light inside.
Two men were seated at a table, playing cards. Neither wore a gun. A third man stood at the bar. That man drew Grigsby's close attention. He was a tall man with the look of a dandy, but the gun he wore low on one hip suggested he might be something else. The man lounged casually against the bar, his back to the wall, facing the only entrance. He held his drink with his right hand, and when Grigsby pushed through the doors, cold gray eyes belied the smile that failed to warm the dandy's rugged features.
The dandy canted his head in Grigsby's direction and spoke over his shoulder to the bartender.
"Looks like you've got another customer, Turner."
Turner slid a shot glass down the bar to Grigsby. His round face molded into a friendly smile. "What'll it be, sir?"
Grigsby returned the smile. "My bellybutton is stuck to my backbone." He jabbed a thumb at the door. "Sign out there says you serve grub."
Turner nodded, a twinkle in his eyes. "Steak and taters, or taters and steak. What's your pleasure?"
Grigsby gave the question due consideration and replied instantly. "Make it steak and tatters." He tossed a coin on the counter, "And a beer."
The two men at the table glanced up as Grigsby crossed the room.
"Wanna play a hand with us?" the skinny one asked, one gray brow arching.
The fat one eyed Grigsby's threadbare clothes doubtfully, but the invitation was in his somber gaze.
Grigsby shook his head. "Never played anything but solitaire. Wasn't any good at that."
He pulled out a chair and sat at a table against the wall. Tilting the chair back on two legs, he surveyed the room while he waited on his food. The position gave him unrestricted access to his gun.
There was only one back door - plus the entrance to the kitchen. No doubt there was another exit in there as well. A mirror hung on the wall behind the bar. The dandy was using it to watch the room.
The dandy turned from the bar and strolled across the room to Grigsby's table. "Mind if I join you?"
Grigsby let his chair down on all fours and kicked out a chair opposite his. "Suit yourself."
The dandy glanced down at the chair and smiled wryly. "Name's Tatum. Roy Tatum." He paused, as if the name should mean something to Grigsby. When Grigsby didn't respond, he shrugged. "I own the Triple B."
Grigsby nodded. That would brand over the Double Spur real nice. "New to this area, aren't you?"
Tatum gave Grigsby a hard look and shrugged again. "Been here a few years." He settled his big frame into the chair and stretched out his legs. "I didn't catch your name."
Grigsby gave him a level look. "Not surprising. I didn't say."
Tatum's neck darkened and his eyes flashed a warning. "I guess a name don't mean much anyway. A person needs to remember faces, they never change."
Grigsby nodded amiably. "Yep." He let a few minutes pass before he continued. "Name's Tom Grigsby."
Tatum eyed him suspiciously. "You must have been before my time, because I don't remember the face - and I never forget a face."
Turner arrived with a steaming platter of food and a tall mug of beer. He leaned across the table, careful not to get between the two men, and placed it in front of Grigsby. He smiled nervously and beat a hasty retreat.
Grigsby scooted his chair under the table and picked up the fork with his left hand. "Haven't lived here for over ten years," he said, plunging the fork into the potatoes.
"But you knew I hadn't been here long," Turner persisted.
Grigsby took his time chewing a mouthful of food and washed it down with some beer before he spoke. "I was through here a couple of years ago. Don't remember a Triple B outfit then."
Tatum seemed to relax a little. "You looking for work?"
Grigsby glanced up at him. "What kind of work?"
Tatum glanced back at the two men playing cards and then shrugged. "Oh, punching cows, repairing fences, stuff like that."
Grigsby couldn't resist. "Day or night?"
Tatum sat up straight in his chair, eyeing Grigsby suspiciously. "What's that supposed to mean?"
Grigsby shrugged. "I'm not as young as I used to be. I like to get my sleep at night," he replied innocently. "It's way past my bedtime now. I like to go to bed with the chickens."
Tatum stared at him for a few minutes, probably wondering how much to believe. Finally he rose from the chair. "If you like to get up with the chickens, you can come out to my place. I'm running short handed lately."
He offered no explanation, and Grigsby wasn't about to ask why. Maybe he was running short of day time help because his men were herding cattle all night. If Tatum was hiring saddle bum drifters out of the saloon, he must be getting desperate - unless, of course, he was hiring a gun.
Tatum had already turned toward the door when Grigsby responded.
"I was thinking about heading out to the Double Spur tomorrow."
Tatum swung around, his cold gaze falling sharply on Grigsby. "Why?" The single word was as sharp as a spur.
Grigsby's knife cut through the silence in the room as it hit the plate. He forked a piece of steak into his mouth and savored the flavor as Tatum waited impatiently. Finally he swallowed.
"I've got some business with Jim Dugan."
Tatum turned and strode back to Grigsby. He planted his big hands on the table and glared into Grigsby's eyes.
"I'll better anything he's offering," he said brusquely.
Grigsby lifted his brows. "Just like that?"
"Just like that," Tatum growled.
Tatum probably thought he was being taken for a fool. Far from it. Grigsby took a swig of the beer and wiped his mouth with the back of his left hand. He met Tatum's glowering stare nonchalantly. "Well, I'll sleep on that offer. Right now all I want is to finish my meal in peace and get some shuteye."
Tatum straightened and stared down at him thoughtfully.
"I'll be around in the morning," he finally answered in a crisp tone. He left the saloon.
Peace had no place in Grigsby's meal that night, nor in his sleep at the hotel. He was under no false illusions about the trouble brewing in and around Clay Creek. That trouble had brought him here, and it wasn't likely to leave before he did. As always, he would soon be deeply involved with the conflict. Once again his life would be in constant peril.
Tatum had sized Grigsby up the minute he had walked into the saloon, and that was a troubling thought. Even the businessmen playing cards at the table had recognized trouble when they saw him. The wary look he had seen in their eyes tonight was becoming all too familiar. They saw it in the way he wore his gun low and tied down, and they saw it in the way he walked. It wasn't the swagger of insolent youth, but the stealth born of experience. No doubt they saw steel in his eyes as well. It wasn't exactly a flattering thought. Sooner or later he was going to run up against someone who knew his name as well as his reputation - someone who was faster on the draw, and more cunning. Then he would be finished. How many times had it been said? Any man who lived by the gun was bound to die by it as well.
He rolled over in bed and thought of the high meadows on the Double Spur. If he didn't change his profession, he might soon be six feet under some meadow.
It wasn't as if he had started off to be this way. When he was seventeen, this kind of life had sounded adventurous - almost noble. In the last ten years, he'd learned better, though. There was nothing noble or adventurous about snuffing out a life. He could remember every face that fell before his gun - especially the first. That was the day he fully understood the consequences of using a gun to control an angry mob. That was the first time he'd thought of doing something else with his life. And yet, here he was, ten years down the road of life and nothing had changed. Yes, he still remembered that first face - and wished he could forget.
But all this was something he had hashed over a hundred times in a hundred places. What he needed to be thinking about now was the Double Spur, and Dugan's disturbing letter. If Dugan was right, a range war was brewing, and if Tatum's offer was all it seemed, it wasn't far off. How many gunmen had Tatum hired? Was Tatum responsible for the night riders? And who was the man with the scar? After talking to Tatum tonight, it looked like some of the answers might be found at the Triple B. In the morning he'd make a trip out there. Dugan could wait.
Somewhere between coherent planning and oblivion, he fell asleep. He woke the next morning to the persistent crowing of a Bantam rooster. He shaved and stomped into his boots. Strapping his gun belt on, he headed for the stable. Time was wasting.
An hour later he drew his horse to a halt and surveyed the Triple B ranch below. It was situated in a large basin that held enough water to keep grass year round. The cattle were fat and healthy - and plentiful. He eyed some of the brands as he rode toward the ranch buildings. If the brands had been altered, someone was doing a mighty good job of it.
As he entered the ranch yard, a big man stepped out of the main house. Tatum. He eyed Grigsby with a smug expression.
"Thought you might change your mind about Dugan. He's getting a little old to run that ranch and his only heir is one daughter. She's too picky to get married, and he's too stubborn to let his foreman work the ranch for him."
Grigsby nodded. There wasn't much point in starting an argument. He'd seen more than one woman running a ranch - and well, at that. Tatum might be right about Sarah Dugan being too picky, but she deserved better than she'd likely find around here. Dugan was certainly a stubborn man, though Grigsby had never known him to be unwilling to listen to Shelton about how the ranch was run.
Grigsby dismounted. "I gave your offer some consideration last night and I thought I'd drop by and look your spread over."
"You'll find everything in order." Tatum waved a hand at a man chopping wood outside the bunkhouse. The man joined them, eyeing Grigsby critically.
"This is one of my best hands, Niel Sarney." Tatum turned to Sarney. "Show Grigsby around the place."
Grigsby held out his hand, but Sarney offered only a sour expression. He spit a brown stream of tobacco on the ground beside Grigsby's boot and grunted. Turning on one heel, he headed for the bunk house. "Come on," he muttered over his shoulder, as if hoping Grigsby wouldn't hear. "I'll show you the bunk house first." He spit again. "I'm sure you'll be spending a lot of time there."
Tatum shook his head and headed back to the house. Grigsby strode after Sarney.
"Do the Triple B hands spend a lot of time in the bunk house?"
Sarney threw him another sour look and spit again. "Not the old hands. They're busy running the ranch."
"Are there a lot of new hands?"
Sarney's expression became guarded, but he was obviously a man who spoke his mind - regardless of the consequences. "Two. Men like you."
It wasn't simply the coldness with which the words were spoken that left a chunk of ice in Grigsby's stomach. "People like me?" he echoed, steeling himself for the answer.
Sarney opened the door to the bunk house. "Yeah," he answered dryly, "Top hands...as long as they're filled with guns."
Grigsby ducked into the bunk house and stepped to one side of the door, standing in the shadows while his eyes adjusted to the dim light.
"You can come out of your lairs now," Sarney called out glumly, "Tatum bought another wolf for your pack."
Grigsby pulled his hat low over his eyes while two figures materialized from the shadows. He waited in the shadows while he studied each face carefully. No one he had ever seen - which didn't necessarily mean they hadn't seen him.
Sarney spoke in a low tone beside Grigsby. "The tall gangly kid on the right is Joe Berry. The stocky one on the left calls himself Jones." Sarney stepped forward as the two men approached, jabbing a thumb in Grigsby's direction. "This here is Grigsby."
Grigsby stepped out of the shadows and offered his left hand. Berry instinctively offered his right hand. He looked startled and quickly withdrew it, offering his left hand instead. He looked embarrassed. He couldn't have been much over seventeen - obviously new to the profession.
Jones was another story. He merely offered Grigsby a wry smile. The position of the gun on his hip proclaimed him a southpaw, but it was doubtful that either fear or caution made him refuse to shake hands. In the pale blue eyes of Jones lay the makings of a truly dangerous man; cold and calculating. His feet were planted soundly in a good position for a fast draw and his icy gaze never strayed from Grigsby's eyes.
Grigsby stepped back. "I haven't accepted Tatum's offer. I'm just looking things over."
That icy gaze sharpened and Jones' body froze. "Riding the fence ain't healthy," he said in a surly nasal tone.
Grigsby kept his voice casual. "Neither is jumping into the river before you know where the bottom is." He let his gaze drift to the kid. "And it's not too late to give that idea some consideration."
Jones shifted slightly, his eyes narrowing to slits as his left hand hovered over his gun. "Are you recruiting for Dugan? Cause if you are, you'd better ride on out of here now - while you still can."
Grigsby ignored the threat. A gun battle here in the bunkhouse wasn't going to solve anything, and it might get the wrong people hurt. He shrugged. "I didn't know Dugan was hiring gun hands."
Jones snorted. "He'd better be, or stop rustling Triple B Cattle. He started this whole thing."
"Is that what Tatum told you?" Grigsby asked casually. Jones was ready for a fight. He’d probably been lying around here for a few weeks with nothing to do.
The kid was watching the exchange, his eyes wide and intent. Grigsby could feel Sarney's intent gaze as well, but he dared not shift his attention from Jones. That would be all the gunman needed.
Jones leaned forward slightly, his eyes glittering. "Everyone around here knows the Double Spur is the only ranch that hasn't lost cattle. How much more proof do you need?" His tone was indignant.
Jones wanted to draw. He was poised - almost ready. He didn't want to draw first, though, and only a fool would press so small an issue with an unfamiliar foe. He was testing his opponent.
"I wouldn't know," Grigsby answered amiably. "I just rode into Clay Creek last night. I'd heard there was trouble, and then Tatum offered me a job."
Jones looked uncertain for a minute. He relaxed a little. "Well, I reckon you'd better do some more checking around - before you wind up on the wrong side."
Grigsby tipped his hat in a curt salute. "Well, I'm glad I rode out this way before I talked to Dugan. I have a better feel for things now." He glanced at the kid. "If a person was smart, he'd ride out of this valley and let the law handle this fight."
Jones’ laugh was short and humorless. "The law," he said with obvious disdain. "Sheriff Bailey don't handle anything that don't happen right under his nose. Anyways, if you're scared, you'd better move on. This ain't no place for a greenhorn."
Grigsby rubbed his jaw as if considering the idea. "Maybe so," he finally said. He turned to the door and left the three men staring after him.
Sarney followed him outside and squinted up at him. He spit at the parched ground and shook his head. "I don't figure you, mister. You weren't afraid of him, but you backed down."
Grigsby frowned. "Jones isn't fighting for Tatum or against rustlers. Jones is fighting for the fun of it. He'll stick with who ever offers the best money for the least work. He won't ride the fence - he'll jump it like a rogue stallion. I wouldn't want to work alongside a snake like that." He glanced around the tidy ranch yard. “Range wars don't settle things, they just cause more problems." He took the reins of his horse. "Innocent people suffer, and impressionable young boys become experienced gunmen - if they live long enough."
Sarney glanced back at the bunk house and rubbed his jaw. He eyed Grigsby thoughtfully. "Maybe I figured you wrong."
Grigsby smiled wryly. "Maybe." He put a boot in the stirrup and swung up. "I figure that kid isn't sure which way to go. Maybe you could point him in the right direction."
Sarney's gaze became wary again. "And which way might that be?"
"Out of the valley. Like I said. Let the law handle it."
Grigsby touched his hat and turned his mount. There wasn't any point wasting more time out here. He found what he came for. Tatum was hiring gunmen. What he needed now was a few answers from Dugan - like why wasn't he losing cattle? Dugan was no thief, but were his own hands rustling cattle? If so, surely they would be smart enough to steal some from Dugan - to throw off suspicion, if nothing else. Why be so obvious? Unless a range war was the objective. So who would stand to gain from a range war? Tatum? Was he rustling his own cattle? Who was the man in the match light, and was he one of the rustlers? Grigsby was sure he would know the man if he saw him again. Maybe the man could answer a few of the questions that rattled around in Grigsby's brain. If the man was unwilling, maybe he could be convinced to talk.
Such thoughts filled Grigsby's head until he was less than a quarter of a mile from town. There he altered his course and headed for the Double Spur. From there on he was going to have to watch his back. Once Tatum knew he had been to the Double Spur, he would assume Grigsby had made his choice. Grigsby would no longer be a prospective employee, but a dangerous foe to eliminate.
Again he thought of making this his last job. Why should he spend his entire life fighting for everyone else? Wouldn't it be nice to find some little ranch and fight nothing but the weather? He let out a heavy sigh.
Who was he fooling? How many times had he considered giving it up - only to ride out to another job? No one could deny he was good at what he did - or that he had gained a certain degree of admiration from his colleagues. That used to be enough, but things had changed - he had changed. He didn't much like the haunted face that gazed back at him from the mirror lately - didn't like the idea of being shot down in some pointless gun battle by some young kid trying to prove he was faster. He'd like to stroll down the boardwalk sometime without having women give him anxious looks and whisk their children away. He'd like to lay down at night and sleep without a chair under the doorknob.
But right now there was a range war brewing, and a friend on the Double Spur who needed him. That's all he should be thinking about - right now.