A Coffin for Santa Rosa (10 page)

The next morning dawned clear and bright. Gabriel stood in the mouth of the cave and inhaled a great lungful of fresh, crisp, sweet air. The sky was already aflame with color, mauves, pinks, blues and yellows so vivid they would look unreal on a canvas, the distant mountains so sharply defined they seemed touchable, while the desert stretching flatly to the horizon had a sparkling scrubbed-clean look to it.

Scrubbed clean? The thought jolted Gabriel out of his revelry. He hurried down the slope and looked about him. The damp sandy soil was so smooth it could have been ironed. No tracks of any kind scarred the surface.

Christ on the cross, he thought. How could he hope to find Brandy when the rain had washed away all trace of the stallion’s hoofprints?

 

The two of them rode in glum silence in the direction of Santa Rosa. Earlier, the leopard mustang had fought the rope when Gabriel tried to lead it behind his horse. But now, a mile or two from the cave, it seemed to have resigned itself to capture and gave him no more trouble. Gabriel didn’t trust it however. From his experiences with the Morgan, he knew horses never forgot a slight and though they may act meekly, they were merely biding their time until they could seek revenge.

‘Gabe … what’s a cayuse?’

Her voice came out of nowhere, interrupting his thoughts so that he had to think a moment before answering. ‘Indian pony, why?’

‘Never heard the word.’

‘Comes from the Cayuse Indians, a tribe in the north-west. Heard of that, haven’t you?’

‘Canada, you mean?’

‘Close enough. A long time ago the Cayuse bred their ponies with huge French horses called Percherons. Their neighbors, the Nez Perce—’

‘The who?’

‘Nez Perce – means “pierced nose” – liked the spotted horses so much they started breedin’ their own. Folks ended up callin’ ’em Appaloosas, supposedly after the Palouse River near where they lived.’

Raven looked at Gabriel in awe. ‘How come you know so much?’

‘I don’t,’ he said. ‘Reckon you could fit everythin’ I know in a thimble and still have room for a gallon of coffee.’

‘I’m serious. Where’d you learn so much?’

‘Mostly from Pa. Used to read to me every night ’tween
supper an’ prayers. Said ignorance was a sin, an’ it was his duty to keep me from burnin’ in the fires of hell.’

Raven thought a moment before saying, ‘He must’ve loved you very much.’

Gabriel gave a grunt that could have meant yes or no.

‘I wish I’d met your pa,’ she said wistfully. ‘I bet I would have liked him. He sounds like my dad. Always wanting me to get smarter.’

‘Brains is the way,’ said Gabriel and he winked.

By mid-morning the adobe buildings of Santa Rosa could be seen peeking through the distant shimmering heat waves. Knowing they only had a mile to go, Raven reined up and begged Gabriel to find some shade and take a nap till she returned. By riding into town he was risking his neck for no reason. She didn’t need his help to turn the leopard mustang over to Dr Pritchard, and if he rode in with her someone was bound to see him and tell Sheriff Forbes or one of his deputies, who’d arrest him.

Gabriel disagreed. The last time he was in Santa Rosa, he said, the sheriff and his deputies went into hiding until he left.

‘That was a long time ago,’ Raven reminded. ‘Now there’s two thousand dollars on your head. An’ even if the law don’t want to collect it, there are plenty of others who do, including bounty hunters. Rats like them are willing to hide in an alley somewhere an’ pick you off as you ride by.’

Gabriel knew she was right, but he stubbornly refused to listen. First off, he explained, the reward was no longer two thousand. That extra thousand was Stadtlander’s money and now he was dead. Raven didn’t care. A thousand dollars was more than most folks in Santa Rosa made in a year. On top of that, she argued, there was border trash that would kill for a dollar, much less a thousand. When he didn’t answer, she added, ‘What happened to “caution’s the way”? Or don’t you listen to your own advice?’

He had no comeback. Before the argument could continue, they saw a group of riders approaching from town. Gabriel shaded his eyes with his old campaign hat and tried to make out who they were. When that didn’t work he took out his field glasses and focused them on the party. He recognized their leader right away.

‘Posse?’ Raven asked.

‘Nope. A horse-rancher I used to know.’ Returning the glasses to his saddle-bag, he gave her the rope holding the leopard mustang and rode ahead to meet the riders.

One-Arm Charley Devlin, on recognizing Gabriel, signaled for his men to halt, warned them to keep their hands away from their guns, and then rode forward to greet him. ‘’Morning, Gabe,’ he said cordially. ‘Been a spell.’

‘An’ then some.’ Gabriel shook the tough, stocky, ex-Union cavalry officer’s one good hand. ‘How’s life treatin’ you, Mr Devlin?’

‘No complaints. Well, maybe just one. Last night a wild mustang raided my ranch an’ stole a bunch broodmares—’ He broke off, shocked, as he saw Raven riding up with the leopard stallion in tow. ‘Jesus in a hand-basket,’ he exclaimed. ‘
El Tigre
! If that ain’t a sight for sore eyes!’

‘You know this horse, Mr Devlin?’

‘Damn right I do. Me an’ just about every other rancher in these parts. How’d you throw a rope on him, little lady?’

‘I didn’t,’ Raven said. ‘Gabe did. Is that his name, sir,
El Tigre
?’

‘That’s what some call him,’ Devlin said. ‘Though
El Diablo
would suit him better. Mind if I take a closer look?’ he asked Gabriel.

‘Help yourself.’ Gabriel half-turned in the saddle, his right hand never straying far from his Colt, and watched as Devlin rode alongside the white mustang. Instantly,
El Tigre
flattened his ears, bared his teeth and tried to cow-kick Devlin’s horse.

Devlin danced his mount backward out of range, and sat
there shaking his head as if he still couldn’t believe his eyes. ‘Know how long I’ve been after this fella?’ he said to Gabriel. ‘Must be two years, maybe longer.’

‘He’s not the one who stole your mares,’ Raven said. ‘He was with us all night through the storm.’

‘Wouldn’t matter even if he wasn’t, little lady. Stallion I’m looking for is all black. And powerful mean.’

Gabriel and Raven swapped uneasy glances.

‘You got a good look at him then?’

‘My night-watch, Smoky Forster, did. Came close to being stomped by him. Said the horse actually tried to run him down. Damnedest thing he ever saw. Stallion then somehow got the corral gate open and ran off with my mares. Whole thing only took a few seconds. Then he was gone like a shadow.’

Gabriel again exchanged looks with Raven.

‘Any idea where he is now, Mr Devlin?’

‘Not after the storm hit, no. Rain washed the desert clean. But we’ll find him, believe me. Tall Tree, here’ – he thumbed at a sturdy young Mescalero in a white breech-clout, an old navy-blue flannel Army shirt and a red turban who was riding a paint – ‘he can track a snake over rocks.’

Gabriel, who’d heard of Tall Tree, didn’t doubt it. ‘What happens after you find him?’

‘I’ll make sure that black devil don’t steal any more mares, not from me or anyone else. Ever.’

There was an uneasy silence.

‘Your night-watch,’ Gabriel said finally, ‘was he sure the horse was a broomtail or could it have been a purebred?’

Devlin, who’d seen the looks passing between Gabriel and Raven, wheeled around and reined up beside them. ‘A purebred, you say?’

‘A Morgan,’ said Raven. ‘Black as my hair an’ not a speck of white on him.’

Devlin looked from Raven to Gabriel, saw how uneasy they
were and said, ‘All right, you two. What’s going on? Tell me straight. Do you know something I don’t?’

‘Rustlers,’ Gabriel said. ‘They stole my horse, a purebred Morgan, an’ somehow it got away from ’em. We been trackin’ him since early yesterday.’

‘And you think he’s the one who ran off my mares?’

‘Just a hunch.’

‘Based on what?’

‘How we found him,’ Gabriel indicated
El Tigre
. ‘He was wanderin’ around in the desert, all cut up like he was in a fight, an’ it’s possible that—’

‘The horse he fought was Brandy,’ put in Raven.

Devlin snorted. ‘That ain’t likely, little lady. Horse raised in a barn hasn’t been born yet could whip a wild mustang, especially one the likes of
El Tigre.
He’s maimed or killed half a dozen rivals. Seen their carcasses myself, rottin’ in the sun after the buzzards got their fill.’

‘Not sayin’ it is Brandy,’ Gabriel said. ‘Just that it could be.’

‘What’s your point?’ Devlin said, frowning.

‘I’d like to ride along with you. Make sure it ain’t my horse ’fore you get around to shootin’ him.’

‘I’ll go with you,’ Raven said.

‘Not this time, scout. I mean it,’ Gabriel said firmly when she began to protest. ‘You got your job. Get your horse to Doc Pritchard. Have him take care of those wounds before they get infected.’

‘Then, what? Sit around waitin’ for you to get back?’

Gabriel answered by handing her money from his money belt. ‘Here, take this. Get a room at the Carlisle Hotel. I’ll be back ’fore you know it.’

Raven took the money but didn’t say anything.

Devlin stood up in his stirrups and signaled to one of his hands. ‘Go with her, Jensen. Make sure she’s taken care of.’

‘I don’t need nobody to take care of me,’ Raven said angrily.
‘I grew up around here for God’s sake!’ She spurred her horse toward town,
El Tigre
grudgingly loping along behind her.

Gabriel grinned ruefully at Devlin. ‘She has a sweet side, too.’

Devlin chuckled. ‘So did her pa. But the rest of him was pure down-home stubborn. How’s
Mrs
Bjorkman?’ he added as he and Gabriel rode back to the riders. ‘Pulled up stakes and moved to California, I heard.’

Gabriel nodded. ‘We lost her to typhoid,’ he said grimly. ‘That’s why I’m ridin’ herd on Raven.’

Dr Ezra Pritchard’s office was on the corner of Front and Oak Streets. Behind his office was a stable in which he examined and housed his four-legged patients, and next door, facing Lee’s Food and Grain Store, was a rooming house run by Carlotta, his Mexican-born wife of forty-one years.

Doctor P, as his friends called him, was a small,
mild-mannered
, congenial man in his sixty-third year, with merry blue eyes, a bulbous nose kept red by constant tippling, and wisps of straggly brown hair that grew around his bald dome like a horseshoe. As Santa Rosa’s only veterinarian, he was busy day and night, especially during spring foaling and, but for an addiction to poker, he would have been a rich man.

Now, as he examined a leggy, sleek sorrel gelding that had a stone bruise on its sole, he happened to glance up, and under the belly of the horse saw Raven standing in the open doorway. Taking a second look to make sure it was really her, he turned
the sorrel over to his helper, a gimpy former buffalo soldier named Jesse Philo, and hurried out to greet her.

He was full of cheerful questions until he learned Raven’s mother had passed away; then, as if her loss made him aware of his own mortality, he lost his exuberance, excused himself long enough to take a nip from his pocket flask, then returned and asked Raven what she wanted. She led him outside where the leopard stallion was tied up beside her horse.

Dr Pritchard’s bushy eyebrows arched with surprise. ‘My goodness, an Appaloosa! How on earth did you come by him?’

Raven quickly explained everything. Dr Pritchard listened without interrupting her, nodding occasionally, grunting ‘
uh-huh
, uh-huh,’ eyes fixed on
El Tigre
, until Raven concluded by asking if she could leave the injured stallion with him until it was healed and Gabriel returned.

‘Of course, my dear. It’s the least I can do, considering the number of fine meals your dear departed mother cooked for me over the years.’

As he spoke, Raven noticed a small, curious crowd gathering around the leopard mustang. Their chattering agitated
El Tigre.
He fought the rope, twisting his head and rearing up as high as the rope would let him, kicking and whinnying, until Raven lost her temper and shouted at them to go away.

‘Never mind them,’ Dr Pritchard told her. ‘Let’s bring him inside. Hopefully, he’ll calm down enough to let me examine him.’

Untying the mustang from the hitch-rack, Raven spoke soothingly to him. He made no attempt to bite or kick her. But his pink eyes remained wild and fierce, and, ready to dodge any lunge he made at her, she gently led him into the stable. There, roping him to a post, she explained to Dr Pritchard that while she was waiting for Gabriel she was staying at the Carlisle Hotel. If he needed her for anything, he could reach her there.

Thanking her, Dr Pritchard had only one question: ‘This
Gabriel you refer to, who is he? I don’t think I’ve made his acquaintance.’

‘He’s a friend of my mother’s. They were going to get married, but then she got sick and … an’ … now he’s my guardian.’ Beating the doctor to his next question, she added: ‘Gabe’s gone with Mr Devlin to hunt down a stallion that stole some of his mares.’

‘Yes, yes, Shadow Horse, I heard,’ Dr Pritchard said. ‘Mr Devlin was here earlier, telling everyone what happened. Of course, it’s not really that unusual, you know – wild stallions running off mares, I mean. Why, when I first came here in ’77, ranchers were always complaining about—’ He stopped as someone entered and came up to them.

He was a small, slim, handsome man who moved like a cougar on the prowl. Despite the heat he wore a black silk vest over his white shirt, string tie, gray corduroy pants and a black Plains hat set squarely on his head. He had two ivory-handled Colt .44s in low-slung, tied-down holsters and carried a new, expensive repeating rifle.

Raven recognized him immediately. And by his warm charming smile, she knew he recognized her.

‘Why, Miss Bjorkman.’ He doffed his hat revealing curly hair the color of pale ale. ‘What a fine surprise. Last time I saw you, you were—’

‘In Old Calico, I know,’ she replied. ‘How are you, Mr Rawlins?’

‘Fair to middlin’, thank you.’ Latigo Rawlins replaced his hat and glanced about him. ‘Yourself?’

‘I’m fine. Gabe’s not here,’ she said as Latigo continued to look around. ‘He’s off in the desert somewhere with Mr Devlin.’

‘I see.’ The small, neat gunman studied her as if trying to read her mind. He had beautiful eyes, too beautiful for a man, with long fair lashes, but they were hard as marbles and the color of amber. They darted about, forever restless, and few
could look into them without feeling threatened. ‘Any idea when he might be back?’

‘None,’ Raven said. ‘Like I was tellin’ Dr Pritchard, here, he may be gone for days. Weeks even. But if you want, I’ll give him a message when I next see him.’

Latigo chuckled, as if amused by her suggestion. ‘Thank you, no,’ he said politely. ‘I always deliver my messages personally.’ He turned to Dr Pritchard, adding: ‘Did you figure out why my sorrel went lame?’

‘I did indeed, sir. He has a mild stone bruise on his left front sole. I recommend you leave the animal with me for a few days. I can’t guarantee I can cure him but I can definitely relieve some of the tenderness.’

Latigo nodded, satisfied. Politely tipping his hat to Raven, he left. He walked, she thought, like a coiled spring ready to uncoil at any second.

Dr Pritchard sighed as if an evil presence had departed.

‘Is that man a friend of yours by any chance, my dear?’

‘Uh-uh. He’s a gunman, you know.’

‘Yes, I guessed as much.’

‘Gabe says he’s the fastest he’s ever seen.’

‘Wouldn’t doubt it … wouldn’t doubt it for a second.’ Dr Pritchard shuddered. ‘He makes me feel like someone’s walking on my grave.’

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