Authors: Luke Short
NEW YORK CITY
It was the uneasy nicker of a horse that wakened him. Jim raised up on an elbow and peered out into the night, senses alert. It was late, for the fire was dead, the camp silent with a winter stillness. He listened until he heard his own blood pounding in his ears and then he came silently out of his blankets, silently drew on his boots.
He rose, standing beside his blankets, back to the ledge. And at that moment a force drove into his back with a ton weight, driving him to his knees. A bare arm lashed around his throat from behind, and then the other arm drove down over his right shoulder across his chest. When it hit, Jim felt an agonizing pain under his ribs as a knife tore into his chest, seared along a rib and then buried itself in his flesh.
It was a sorry camp, a misery camp, that Jim Garry made at dusk up in the rain-pelted aspens. He couldn’t help it because he and his two horses were too tired to make it down to real timber.
He thought he’d fall on his face before he got a fire started on the short strip of grass beside the stream. The aspens that mounted steeply out of sight on either side of the creek gave him some shelter, but not enough. When he’d staked out his horses downstream on the only grass he could find he plodded back to fix his camp. As he was rigging his tarp lean-to as shelter for himself and his gear a blob of wet snow fell from the crease of his sodden, dun Stetson.
He pulled his boots off, sticking them upside down on sticks in front of the fire, and then warmed his half-frozen feet. The aspen branches clashed in the wind, and cold rain was runneling down his back inside his sheepskin, and still he sat there, stupid, tired.
He heard it before his horses did. It was a sound he knew and couldn’t believe—a kind of clattering, thick-muted earth trembling. He rose, stood motionless a second to confirm it and then lunged for the slope. He had pulled himself into the first aspens when they hit—about a hundred mad, stampeding cattle. They boiled out of the dusk down the creek
bed and funneled through his camp with the annihilating force of an avalanche.
They were gone in about twenty seconds, taking, Jim knew, his two horses with them. With the dismal, uncursing despair of a man whose present misfortune is past immediate calculating, Jim slid down into his camp.
His fire was gone, of course, and while his eyes were focusing in the dusk he felt his sock feet sinking in the churned mud left by the cattle. Nothing was left of his camp except the muddy hump of his saddle. His tarp and blankets were sodden tatters; his boots had disappeared, and perversely enough, there was the smell of fresh coffee in the air.
Jim heard a horse coming toward him from upstream. It hove into sight, snorting, and its thickbodied rider was outlined against the lowering night sky.
For a few seconds neither man spoke, and then the rider said cautiously, “Who’s that?”
Jim didn’t answer.
“Put a match on yourself!” the rider ordered curtly.
Jim looked toward him and said in weary and savage disgust, “The hell with it. The hell with you too.”
For some reason the rider seemed mollified by the retort. He rode closer and dismounted, his half-frozen slicker creaking like tar paper in the cold rain and smothering the sound of his rifle leaving its saddle scabbard. When he saw the remains of the camp in the half dusk he said softly, “Man, man. I didn’t know that.”
“I had a fire,” Jim said bitterly.
“I couldn’t have stopped ’em if I’d seen it,” the
rider said in a matter-of-fact voice. “Let’s build up another.”
By the time Jim, still in his sock feet, had rounded up some wood the rider had a fire going. He kept his rifle by him. When the fire had started enough so that its light was a help he rose and confronted Jim.
Jim Garry was a sight that might have made the man smile at another time and place. It was the sock feet, deep in mud, that were so out of place. But even without boots Jim Garry was a head taller than the other. There was a taciturn unfriendliness in his bleak eyes that warned a man he seldom smiled. A week’s growth of dark beard stubble softened the sharp planes of his weather-browned face, giving him a tough look the rider thought rightly was not wholly spurious. The rider wasn’t sure, but he didn’t think he liked Jim Garry.
“Come over the pass today?” he asked.
“With an outfit.”
The puncher flushed a little. He was not such a wide man, now that there was firelight to see him by. His thickness of body was due to a blanket wrapped around him under his worn slicker. He had a weathered, sober, faintly overworked look about him that men who work cattle for wages always have.
“Let’s find your boots,” he said. Without speaking Jim turned and began the search for his boots outside the circle of firelight. He was wearily aware that the puncher was examining what was left of his outfit under-the pretense of helping in the search. He was also aware that the man carried his rifle and was careful not to let Jim near him. The rain pelted down, and Jim began to shiver.
The search didn’t take long. Jim found one boot buried in the mud; the other, with its top cut to ribbons, was half lying in the stream some thirty feet below his camp.
He went back to the fire, sat down, clawed the mud off his boots and put them on. When he looked up he found the puncher watching him, an expression of bafflement in his face.
“I wisht I knew who you was,” the puncher said, his tone not unkindly.
“You don’t though.”
“Come in with one of the reservation trail herds?” the puncher asked shrewdly.
“What are you doin’ over here? This ain’t the way back to Texas.”
Jim said with an expressionless face, “I’m waitin’ till you get out of camp. Then I’ll roll in—if I can find my blankets.”
The puncher didn’t smile. He said doggedly, “It’s a dirty cold night. Let’s see how much clothes you got on under your sheepskin.”
Jim didn’t move, only said, “No gun.”
They watched each other a long ten seconds, Jim with hostility and stubbornness in his tough face, the puncher with indecision in his. Finally the puncher seemed to come to a judgment.
“You can’t stay here without horses or grub or blankets. Our camp’s down in the pine timber. We can make it double that far.”
A kind of stiff pride kept Jim silent a moment. He didn’t like it but, after all, he had no choice.
He rose and said surlily, “Whatever you say.”
When they mounted Jim noticed the puncher was
careful to give him the saddle, mounting behind him. He was also careful to keep his hand on the butt of the carbine in the saddle scabbard.
Jim thought, “Then the trouble has broken wide open.”
They followed the stream down into pine timber, and the rain still held on. There was no sign of his two horses, and he knew tomorrow’s hunt for them would be a dreary job.
A half-hour later, where the timber broke away for a mountain meadow, they saw the light of a fire, and Jim heard his companion grunt with satisfaction. A half-dozen horses grazing out in the meadow’s darkness snorted at their approach.
It was this that sent one of the men around the fire out into the dark trees, a rifle in his hands. Jim noted it idly, thinking how trouble always ran to the same pattern.
His companion gave a shout, and the rifleman stepped back into the firelight. They dismounted, and Jim was the first to walk toward the fire, a tall, tired man with a quiet arrogance that ignored these men and their puzzled, hostile glances.
Against the cold drizzle a big slanting tarp had been rigged between two trees, facing the fire. Under it three other men were now coming to their feet, their movements made awkward by the clutter of gear and bedrolls around them.
Jim held his hands out to the fire for warmth and then regarded these men with a kind of brash curiosity. Two of them he pegged as punchers, like his friend of the aspens. They were ragged, unshaven, alert men. The third was a camp cook and poacher. The fourth man was not of their kind, and it was he
who stepped out into the slow rain now, inquisitive glance on Jim’s companion.
“I dunno,” Jim’s companion said in answer to an unasked question. “I was shoving my gather down the creek, and they cleaned out his camp, outfit, horses and all. I brung him along.”
“Good,” the fourth man said. His voice was lowpitched, quick. He turned his head and coolly regarded Jim. There were many things Jim could read in those dark eyes—implacability, a swift, hard judgment and little patience. The man was about fifty, spare and of medium height, with a skin weather-blackened to swarthiness. His thin saber of a nose was high bridged; his mouth was hidden by a sootblack mustache, although his hair was turning white at the temples. His clothes were even more careless and shoddy than those of his men, and yet he contrived to look like their leader.
He stared at Jim with an insolence that wasn’t aware of itself.
“Come over the peaks?” he asked.
“But not the pass. Why?”
“There’s no law says a man has to stick to a wagon road, is there?”
The older man didn’t answer for a moment, as if adjusting his judgment.
Then he said, “Your horse is branded Flying W. I don’t know it.”
So they’d caught his horses. They’d probably broken away from the herd at the meadow.
Jim said, “Don’t you?”
One of the punchers made a low noise in his throat and stepped toward Jim.
“Wait, Ferg,” the older man said.
The puncher stopped just outside of the tarp’s shelter. The other puncher walked around him to the other side of the fire. They regarded Jim watchfully, fight in their eyes. It was up to Jim to talk or be made to talk.
Jim looked at the older man. “You go to hell,” he said quietly.
The punchers started for him, but they stopped as the older man waved them back.
He said, “All right. My name’s John Lufton. That’s a fair exchange. A month ago nobody would have asked you any questions. It’s different now. Who are you?”
Lufton had provided a graceful exit, Jim saw, and he considered it. His name would mean nothing. None of these men could know that a letter written two months ago and read five hundred miles south of these mountains had summoned him here. And his ignorance of what this reception meant wasn’t put on.
“Jim Garry,” he said. “Flying W is a Nations’ brand.”
“Come up with one of the reservation trail herds?”
Lufton hesitated and then said, “This isn’t the way back to Texas.”
“I’m fiddle footed,” Jim drawled. “I don’t like wagon roads either. A Ute told me there was a town called Sun Dust over the mountains. I was on my way to it and through it. What else?”
“Know anybody in Sun Dust or the Basin?”
“No,” Jim lied.
“I apologize,” Lufton said curtly. “We’ve got your
horses. We can outfit you with blankets and grub too. Step in out of the rain.” To the cook he said, “Joe, rustle up some grub for them.”
Jim went to the far side of the tarp and gratefully sank down on a bedroll. He took off his sodden hat and with his neckerchief he scrubbed the water off his face. His black hair, ragged at the neckline and temples and lying in a crooked, awry part, was the only wholly dry part of his body.
The cook raked the Dutch oven out of the coals and served him biscuits and meat and coffee. Jim wolfed them down, staring at his plate. The talk of the men was constrained at first, but soon the crew was questioning the slickered cowboy. Jim was ignored. This, too, was the pattern of a thousand campfires, and Jim seemed to expect it.
The talk was cattle talk, and Jim was able to piece together only a little of it, for it was guarded and wary. John Lufton was the owner, and his beef was being pushed down out of the mountains and off the reservation, he gathered.
Jim finished his meal and leaned back on the bedroll, a frugal cigarette pasted in his lips. Nobody paid him attention. He stared at the fire, out of the conversation, an aloof man whose face, now that he was left alone, settled into a taciturn melancholy.
Like all shy men to whom friendliness does not come easy, Jim Garry was both aware of his loneliness and powerless to change it. He had been fifteen days alone, and now his first contact with men had been a snarling anger that walled him away from them. It was always thus. Five years ago he wouldn’t have cared, because then he was too absorbed in his life to notice it. Nothing else had mattered then except
the long gamble of the drovers’ game in the Indian Nations. In those days he had driven himself mercilessly, bringing up herds from Texas to stock the leases of the Cheyenne-Arapaho reservation and going back for new herds the day he was paid off. After three years of it he found himself one day with a herd that was his own, representing every dollar he had made. And he had seen this herd two weeks later strung along the bottom lands of the Red River, dead of Texas fever.
He guessed it was after that he began to care about what men thought of him, but it was too late then. He was friendless. What had happened to him in the two years since he didn’t like to think about. The riding jobs and the fights, because nobody liked a sour man. And then the dishonesty, the small brand changing, the whisky to the Indians and, finally, the running of small herds into Kansas through the fever quarantine. Men got the habit of coming to him, always at night, not to hire him for crime, but to pay him for the small dishonesties they themselves were ashamed to commit.
And then the letter that brought him here: the letter from Tate Riling in Sun Dust. He’d been with Tate in running the quarantine until it got so hot for Tate that he had to leave. That was six months ago—no, a year. And now this letter. It was brief, and Jim remembered its wording: “There’s trouble due to break up here, and I need a man I can trust if I’m to make a stake out of it. Drift into this country quiet and look me up. There’s money in it, Jim, for us both—big money.”
Crooked money, Jim knew, and he didn’t care. He was here, and the trouble was here, and he was
alone, watching a fire not his own and sleeping in the blankets of men who would like to fight him.
“A rotten night.”
Jim glanced up to see John Lufton kneeling beside him, peering out into the slow rain.
“Yeah,” Jim agreed. Lufton had seen his loneliness, wanted to be friendly.
Lufton glanced at him, and his eyes were kindly. “I’m sorry we had to be so rough with you, Garry. But you’re a loose rider, and we’ve got to watch them.”
“Why?” Jim asked.
Lufton paused to consider his answer, regarding Jim thoughtfully.
“It’s pretty easy said,” Lufton said softly. “If you came from the agency you likely heard of me.”
“I was paid off and rode out. No.”
Lufton said wryly, “I’ve contracted beef for the agency for five years and never had a complaint. This year they’ve got a new agent. He didn’t like the weight of my beef or its count after I’d brought my herds up from Dodge. He refused acceptance.”