Clay Evans tossed off his drink and ignored the gouging elbow of the tall lanky kid beside him. King Talon owned half of Black Rock and laid claim to most of the range surrounding it. If his son thought he owned the bar, it was no surprise. He could have the bar, and the entire town, for that matter - all except for one bed.
Kid Talon gave Evans a bleary-eyed once-over, noting the dusty clothes and worn boots with obvious distaste. He planted a bony elbow on the bar for support and leaned toward Evans.
“You’re takin’ up a lot of room for a shorty.” He spit out the word shorty as if it were an obscenity.
Evans slid over a little, giving the kid and his combustible breath more room. He’d long ago learned that there were worse things than being called shorty - like spending his life fighting every smart-mouthed cowboy on the range. Kid Talon was obviously looking for trouble and Evans had no intention of being the delivery boy.
Evans rubbed his bristly jaw. He needed a shave, a bath and some sleep...not necessarily in that order. He still had 40 miles of Apache country to cover, and night travel was his preference. Snakes and scorpions would be out, but not Apaches...or the blistering hot New Mexico sun. He flipped a coin on the counter and turned to leave the saloon.
The kid took a staggering step away from the bar. “Where ya goin’, shorty? Is that a yeller stripe I see running down yer back?”
A chorus of laughter backed up his taunt, but Evans stepped around him without commenting. The kid might not be so bad if he'd steer clear of that gunslinger he called a friend. Sooner or later, Red was going to get the kid into something King Talon wouldn’t be able to get him out of - like a grave.
Red lounged with one elbow on the bar and bared big yellow teeth in a smile that never reached his eyes. "What you doin' up this way, Evans? You lookin' for some more Circle T cattle? Is that why your Pa cooked up the Circle E brand?"
Although each brand had been created years ago without knowledge of the other, it was an undeniable fact that the Circle T brand could be easily altered to create a Circle E. The fact that it had never happened in the twenty-three years that Rafe Evans and King Talon had been ranching seemed to mean nothing to the new generation. Rafe had passed on two years ago, leaving the ranch to his only son. The brand issue had died once, but it had recently been resurrected. The Circle T was losing cattle, and the Circle E was a handy explanation.
Evans ignored Red and continued toward the door. Two other Circle T riders, Joe Lane and Pete Webster, were playing cards at a table beside the door. Webster had his back to Evans, but Lane studied Evans calmly while he shuffled the cards. His gray eyes were the color of stone, and nearly as expressive. Of all the Circle T riders, Lane was the one that Evans considered the most dangerous. The stocky foreman would make a loyal friend or a powerful enemy, and there wasn't much in between. Where he stood with Lane, Evans couldn't say, but there was one thing for sure. Lane had no use for Red, and that made him a sight smarter than the Kid.
“Hey!” the Kid barked. “I’m talkin’ to you, shorty. Don’t you walk away from me when I’m talking to you!”
Evans paused with one hand on the batwing doors and loosed a weary sigh. Apparently this was going to be one of those times when a fight was inevitable. He turned slowly, keeping his hand clear of his gun, and met the bloodshot gaze of Kid Talon.
“Sorry," he said without conviction. "Were you talking to me?”
The kid snorted and cast an evil grin to Red. “Right proper, ain’t he?” His voice lowered to a growl, “and yeller as an old alley cat.” His eyes narrowed. “You figger yer too good to drink with me?”
One by one, Kid Talon's friends backed away. They hadn't downed as many glasses of courage as the kid. Talking a fight was one thing. Dodging lead was another.
Red still lounged against the bar, but he had shifted around to where he faced Evans. His left arm rested on the bar, his hand only inches from his gun.
Lane spoke in a calm voice. "Red, stay out of it." He dealt Webster a card, and never looked up as he spoke to Talon. "Kid, you're cutting off a big chew."
The kid’s hand hung ominously over his gun and his black eyes glittered with malignant anticipation. He wore a single pearl-handled 44 low and tied down - too low for a fast and accurate draw. Maybe the kid was fast, maybe not, but a gun battle was hardly necessary.
Evans slowly unbuckled his gun belt. German heritage had given him a sturdy physique, and hard work had taken it from there. On those few occasions when he couldn’t talk himself out of a fight, his stature had given him the element of surprise - his unusual strength the remaining edge. His belt hit the floor with a heavy thud and he met Kid Talon’s disgusted stare in silent anticipation.
Kid Talon stared at him for a moment, no doubt unsure how to continue his aggression without losing face. His sharp features went from perplexed to anger and then on to disgust. His hand dropped unsteadily to his gun butt. “You chicken-livered coward,” he slurred. “I figgered you were too yeller to fight. I oughta...” His fingers made a clumsy grasp at the gun butt, half lifting it from the holster.
Time had run out. Evans covered the distance to Kid Talon in a few quick steps. Before the Kid had time to react, Evans swung first with a right, catching the boy square on the nose. Bone and cartilage gave way to his fist in an eye-watering crunch. He immediately followed with a left to the abdomen, sending the breath from the Kid in a whistling groan. Kid Talon dropped limply to the floor. The fight was over.
Evans glanced around the room. "Anyone want to take up for him?"
Red glared at him. He'd like to take up the fight all right, but not with fists. His pale eyes shifted to Lane and then back to Evans. "Ain't none of my concern," he said, moving away from the bar. "But if I was you, I'd clear out before his old man finds out about this." He stepped around the Kid without even looking at him and left the saloon.
Lane continued dealing the cards. "Porter," he said to a hefty looking lad. "Put the Kid on that cot in the back room. Let him sleep it off." He glanced up at Evans. "You'd better ride on, Evans. The Kid started it, and he deserved what he got, but King hasn't been in a good mood lately. Seeing the owner of the Circle E ain't likely to improve things much."
Evans frowned. "Instead of making wild accusations about the Circle E, maybe he ought to look a little closer to home for the answer to his cattle losses."
Lane eyed him suspiciously. "What's that supposed to mean?"
Evans shrugged. "Maybe nothing, but has it occurred to you that he started losing cattle about the time Red drifted in?"
Lane picked up his cards and studied them. "You got something to back that up?"
Webster half turned and gave Evans a sour look. "You ain't never liked Red."
Evans nodded. "No, I ain't." He retrieved his gun belt, buckling it around his hips as he pushed through the doors. There was no point in pursuing the issue. The idea had been placed in their heads. Maybe they'd consider it, or maybe they'd figure it was a smoke screen. In any case, Lane was right. He might as well get out of town. He wasn't going to get any sleep today; that was for sure. He might as well be getting closer to the ranch.
His spurs jingled as he crossed the boardwalk to the hitch rail. There he paused, squinting into the bright sunlight. The Appaloosa shifted his feet, creating a cloud of acrid dust. Evans grumbled under his breath. He ought to be over at the hotel now, soaking off the first layer of dust. He might be there too, if he hadn't decided to take a layer of dust off the inside of his mouth first. Evans tightened the cinch and swung into the saddle, pointing the horse west. At least he'd been considerate enough to water and feed his horse before he decided on that fateful drink.
Loos didn't like town any more than he did, and the gelding was ready to make tracks again. Right now, the only thing Evans wanted was to get back to the ranch. He wasn’t late and they could work without his direction, but they would be expecting him any day now. The truth of it was, he enjoyed their company, and three weeks was a long time to be away from the ranch. He was ready to kick his chair back on the porch, put his boots on the rail, and enjoy the view of the distant mountains. In the evenings, Jacob Holt usually played his Langeleik. The tall lanky Norwegian was an accomplished musician and had an endless collection of tunes from his homeland. Miles Lewis, the stout German, usually accompanied him with a mouth organ. Yes, evenings were mighty pleasant on his ranch.
The meeting at Magdalena had gone well, and Tindle had offered nearly a dollar a head more than he'd expected. Now all he had left to do was get his beef across 200 miles of semi-arid plains and mountains...in prime condition. He planned to do that by following the Gila River, taking advantage of the grass that was available. It had been a wet year for the southwest, which translated not only into abundant grass, but dangerous river crossings as well.
A door slammed somewhere behind him, and Loos jerked his head up, dancing to one side. Something whined past Evans’ ear, chased by the sharp report of a pistol. He jerked Loos around, instinctively palming his pistol.
Gus Wilkins, one of the Circle T riders, stood outside the saloon, his shoulders slumped, a gun hanging in his limp hand. He staggered a few steps and then fell to the ground, rolling over and dragging one arm over his face.
Evans shook his head and holstered his gun. The man was so drunk he didn’t even know what he was shooting at. The Circle T crew was getting an early start to a boisterous night.
Evans pointed Loos toward the open country and kept him at a lope for a few miles before he finally stopped for a breather. He removed his hat and beat some of the dust from his sleeve before mopping his forehead. A hot breeze gave his short blond hair a playful tug as he squinted into the heat waves ahead. It wasn't as though he hadn't ever crossed that stretch by daylight. Of course, that was back when he was a reckless kid. At twenty-eight, mortality had become reality.
About ten miles ahead, the flat plains dropped abruptly into a narrow canyon. Carved to bed rock in the sandy soil by centuries of flash floods, the canyon hosted a year-round stream. That was where he planned to camp. If he started out before dawn the following morning, he'd be at the ranch by sunset - if nothing went wrong. The next water lay twenty miles to the southwest - smack in the middle of Apache hunting grounds. He'd have to stop there; and hope no Apache warriors chose that time to stop as well.
Bordering the hunting grounds to the southwest was the Circle E Ranch, sprawling out to the base of Winchester Mountains. Rafe Evans had found that valley when he returned from the war. He was settled with his wife, raising two children and a small herd of longhorns before Goodnight ran across Palo Duro Canyon.
Rafe had passed on to a better life along with his wife and daughter, but the ranch had prospered under the guidance of his only son. Occasionally they had a run-in with the Apaches, but for the most part, they got along. That fact was surely due to no small degree because the ranch provided food for the migrating encampments. It was an ironic twist of fate that the white man had brought smallpox to the Apache, and it was the Apache who brought it to the Circle E, leaving Evans an orphan at age fifteen. He carried a few scars on his face and body, but he had survived.
Loos stomped a foot nervously and tossed his head, as if to say, "What are we waiting for? Let's get it over with."
Evans gave Loos the lead. To the casual observer, it might appear that the flat semi-arid plains offered no place to hide, but that wasn’t the case. Arroyos penetrated the landscape like veins, branching and carrying the lifeblood of water to parched soil during rainstorms. Greasewood thickets, Mesquite trees, prickly pare and even patches of yucca offered concealment for the hunter and hunted alike. If a man wanted to stay alive, he'd best keep his eyes wide open and his ears tuned to anything out of the ordinary. The open plains were as dangerous as any jungle.
It was because Evans rode alert that he noticed the hoof print. A twisted juniper tree sheltered it from the hot wind, keeping the form sharp. Evans dismounted and examined the print. Not more than an hour old and made by an unshod hoof. Apache, no doubt. Evans searched around and found more prints of an unshod horse - and a ghost of a footprint. He'd seen that kind of sign many times - left by moccasins. But it wasn't the presence of an Apache that made the hair stand up on the back of his neck. It wasn't even the quantity of hoof prints. It was the fact that they all came from the same horse. The horse had been standing in one spot for a long time. Only one reason came to mind. Its rider had been watching Evans.
He glanced around nervously. Where was the Apache now? He mounted and studied his back trail. The land had been gradually rising, and the place he now stood offered an excellent vantage point. A thin cloud of dust hung in the distance. The remains of a whirlwind; or was it riders?
He reined Loos around and guided him with his spurs. Sitting still like that was offering a target. If a hunting party had caused the dust, he'd best put some distance between it and himself. It was hard to tell about an Apache - or any man, for that matter. Whether or not he decided to make an issue of the situation depended on how he felt at the moment. Maybe the lone rider thought it was too hot to fight, or maybe he merely felt generous at the moment.
The sun was making a last feeble effort at lighting the canyon when Evans reached the stream. That patch of dust had remained far behind, but never disappeared. Evans made his approach to the water over solid rock. He knelt upstream of Loos and tanked up on his share of the cool water. Then he filled both his canteens. If trouble was close behind, there wasn't much sense in going away thirsty or with empty canteens. Careful not to overturn any small rocks that would reveal his route, he led Loos to a campsite he'd discovered years ago. Raging water had carved a small cave in the rocks. It wasn't much, but it offered shelter as well as excellent defense. He fed Loos some grain he always carried for emergencies and munched on some jerky. For a while he listened to the night sounds, and once he climbed to the top of the canyon to look around. Off to the north, something winked faintly in the night. A falling star, or a campfire? It could have been either. If it was a campfire, he could sleep for a few hours. The long trip had taken its toll, so he opted for the sleep. With his rifle loaded and ready at his side, he stretched out on the sand floor and fell asleep.
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