Authors: Louis L'Amour
By nightfall Dan Shute heard that Caradec had moved into the Rodney house on Crazy Man, and an hour later he stormed furiously into his bunkhouse and gave Bonaro a tongue-lashing that turned the gunman livid with anger.
Bruce Barkow was worried, and he made no pretense of not being so in his conference with Shute. The only hopeful note was that Caradec had said that Rodney was dead.
ENE BAKER, SITTING in his easy chair in his living quarters behind the store, was uneasy. He was aware that his silence was worrying his wife. He was also aware that Ann was silent herself, an unusual thing, for the girl was usually gay and full of fun and laughter.
The idea that there could have been anything wrong about the story told by Barkow and Bonaro had never entered the storekeeper’s head. He had accepted the story as others had, for many men had been killed along the trails or had died in fights with Indians. It was another tragedy of the westward march, and he had done what he could—he and his wife had taken Ann Rodney into their home and loved her as their own child.
Now this stranger had come with his questions. Despite Baker’s irritation that the matter had come up at all, and despite his outward denials of truth in what Caradec had said, he was aware of an inner doubt that gnawed at the walls of his confidence in Bruce Barkow.
Whatever else he might be, Gene Baker was a fair man. He was forced to admit that Bonaro was not a man in whom reliance could be placed. He was a known gunman and a suspected outlaw. That Shute had hired him was bad enough in itself, yet when he thought of Shute, Baker was again uneasy. The twin ranches of Barkow and Shute surrounded the town on three sides. Their purchases represented no less than fifty percent of the storekeeper’s business, and that did not include what the hands bought on their own.
The drinking of the hands from the ranches supported the National Saloon, too, and Gene Baker, who for all his willingness to live and let live was a good citizen, or believed himself to be, found himself examining a situation he did not like. It was not a new situation in Painted Rock, and he had been unconsciously aware of it for some time, yet while aware of it he had tacitly accepted it. Now there seemed to be a larger rat in the woodpile, or several of them.
As Baker smoked his pipe, he found himself realizing with some discomfort and growing doubt that Painted Rock was completely subservient to Barkow and Shute. Pod Gomer, who was town marshal, had been nominated for the job by Barkow at the council meeting. Joe Benson of the National had seconded the motion, and Dan Shute had calmly suggested that the nomination be closed, and Gomer was voted in.
Gene Baker had never liked Gomer, but the man was a good gunhand and certainly unafraid. Baker had voted with the others, as had Pat Higley, another responsible citizen of the town.
In the same manner, Benson had been elected mayor of the town, and Roy Gargan had been made judge.
Remembering that the town was actually in the hands of Barkow and Shute, Baker also recalled that at first the tactics of the two big ranchers had caused grumbling among the smaller holders of land. Nothing had ever been done, largely because one of them. Stu Martin, who talked the loudest, had been killed in a fall from a cliff. A few weeks later another small rancher, Al Chase, had mistakenly tried to draw against Bonaro and had died.
Looked at in that light, the situation made Baker uneasy. Little things began to occur to him that had remained unconsidered, and he began to wonder just what could be done about it even if he knew for sure the way Rodney had been killed. Not only was he dependent on Shute and Barkow for business, but Benson, their partner and friend, owned the freight line that brought in his supplies.
Law was still largely a local matter. The Army maintained a fort not too far away, but the soldiers were busy keeping an eye on the Sioux and their allies, who were becoming increasingly restive, what with the booming gold camps at Bannack and Alder Gulch, Custer’s invasion of the Black Hills, and the steady roll of wagon trains over the Bozeman and Laramie trails.
If there was trouble here, Baker realized with a sudden sickening fear, it would be settled locally. And that meant it would be settled by Dan Shute and Bruce Barkow.
Yet even as he thought of that, Baker recalled the tall man in the black, flat-crowned hat and buckskin jacket. There was something about Rafe Caradec that was convincing, something that made a man doubt he would be controlled by anybody or anything, anytime or anywhere.
Rafe rode silently alongside Johnny Gill when they moved out of Painted Rock, trailing the two packhorses. The trail turned west by south and crossed the north fork of Clear Creek. They turned then along a narrow path that skirted the huge boulders fringing the mountains.
Gill turned his head slightly. “Might not be a bad idea to take to the hills, Boss,” he said carelessly. “There’s a trail up thataway—ain’t much used, either.”
Caradec glanced quickly at the little puncher and then nodded. “All right,” he said. “Lead off, if you want.”
Johnny was riding with his rifle across his saddle, and his eyes were alert. That, Rafe decided, was not a bad idea. He jerked his head back toward Painted Rock.
“What you think Barkow will do?”
Gill shrugged. “No tellin’, but Dan Shute will know what to do. He’ll be gunnin’ for you if you’ve sure enough got the straight of this. What you figger happened?”
Rafe hesitated, and then he said carefully, “What happened to Charles Rodney wasn’t any accident. It was planned and carried out mighty smooth.” He waited while the horse took a half dozen steps and then looked up suddenly. “Gill, you size up like a man to ride the river with. Here’s the story, and if you ever tell it, you’ll hang four good men.”
Briefly and concisely, he outlined the shanghaiing of Rodney and himself, the events aboard ship, and the escape.
“See?” he added. “It must have looked foolproof to them. Rodney goes away to sea and never comes back. Nobody but Barkow knows that mortgage was paid, and what did happen was somethin’ they couldn’t plan for and probably didn’t even think about.”
Gill nodded. “Rodney must have been tougher than anybody figgered,” he said admiringly. “He never quit tryin, you say?”
“Right. He had only one idea, it looked like, and that was to live to get home to his wife and daughter. If,” Rafe added, “the wife was anything like the daughter, I don’t blame him!”
The cowhand chuckled. “Yeah, I know what you mean. She’s pretty as a baby in a red hat.”
“You know, Gill,” Rafe said speculatively, “there’s one thing that bothers me. Why do they want that ranch so bad?”
“That’s got me wonderin’, too,” Gill agreed. “It’s a good ranch, mostly, except for that land at the mouth of the valley. Rises there to a sort of a dome, and the Crazy Man swings around it. Nothin’ much grows there. The rest of it’s a good ranch.”
“Say anything about Tex or Bo?” Caradec asked.
“No,” Gill said. “It figgers like war, now. No use lettin’ the enemy know what you’re holdin’.”
The trail they followed left the grasslands of the creek bottom and turned back up into the hills to a long plateau. They rode on among the tall pines, scattered here and there with birch and aspen along the slopes.
A cool breeze stirred among the pines, and the horses walked along slowly, taking their time, their hoofbeats soundless on the cushion of pine needles. Once the trail wound down the steep side of a shadowy canyon, weaving back and forth, finally reaching bottom in a brawling, swift-running stream. Willows skirted the banks, and while the horses were drinking, Rafe saw a trout leap in a pool above the rapids. A brown thrasher swept a darting red-brown arrow past his head, and he could hear yellow warblers gossiping among the willows.
He himself was drinking when he saw the sand crumble from a spot on the bank and fall with a tiny splash into the creek.
Carefully, he got to his feet. His rifle was in his saddle boot, but his pistols were good enough for anything he could see in this narrow place. He glanced casually at Gill, and the cowhand was tightening his cinch, all unaware.
Caradec drew a long breath and hitched up his trousers. Then he hooked his thumbs in his belt near the gun butts. He had no idea who was there, but that sand had not fallen without a reason. In his own mind he was sure that someone was standing in the willow thicket across and downstream, above where the sand had fallen.
Someone was watching them.
“Ready?” Johnny suggested, looking at him curiously.
“Almost,” Rafe drawled casually. “Sort of like this little place. It’s cool and pleasant. Sort of place a man might like to rest a while, and where a body could watch his back trail, too.” He was talking at random, hoping Gill would catch on. The puncher was looking at him intently, now. “At least,” Rafe added, “it would be nice here if a man
alone. He could think better.”
T WAS THEN his eye caught the color in the willows. It was a tiny corner of red, a bright, flaming crimson, and it lay where no such color should be.
That was not likely to be a cowhand, unless he was a Mexican or a dude, and they were scarce in this country. It could be an Indian.
If whoever it was had planned to fire, a good chance had been missed while he and Gill drank. Two well-placed shots would have done for them both. Therefore it was logical to discount the person in the willows as an enemy. Or if so, it was a patient enemy.
To all appearances, whoever lay in the willows preferred to remain unseen. It had all the earmarks of being someone or something trying to avoid trouble.
Gill was quiet and puzzled. Catlike, he watched Rafe for some sign to indicate what the trouble was. A quick scanning of the brush had revealed nothing, but Caradec was not a man to be spooked by a shadow.
“You speak Sioux?” Rafe asked casually.
Gill’s mouth tightened. “A mite. Not so good, maybe.”
“Speak loud and say we are friends.”
Johnny Gill’s eyes were wary as he spoke. There was no sound, no reply.
“Try it again,” Rafe suggested. “Tell him we want to talk. Tell him we want to talk to Red Cloud, the great chief.”
Gill complied, and there was still no sound. Rafe looked up at him.
“I’m goin’ to go over into those willows,” he said softly. “Something’s wrong.”
“You watch yourself!” Gill warned. “The Sioux are plenty smart.”
Moving slowly, so as to excite no hostility, Rafe Caradec walked his horse across the stream and then swung down. There was neither sound nor movement from the willows. He walked back among the slender trees, glancing around. Yet even then, close as he was, he might not have seen her had it not been for the red stripes. Her clothing blended perfectly with the willows and flowers along the stream bank.
She was a young squaw, slender and dark, with large intelligent eyes. One look told Rafe that she was frightened speechless, and knowing what had happened to squaws found by some of the white men, he could understand.
Her legs were outstretched, and from the marks on the grass and the bank of the stream, he could see she had been dragging herself. The reason was plain to see. One leg was broken just below the knee.
“Johnny,” he said, not too loud, “here’s a young squaw. She’s got a busted leg.”
“Better get away quick!” Gill advised. “The Sioux are plenty mean where squaws are concerned.”
“Not till I set that leg,” Rafe said.
“Boss,” Gill advised worriedly, “don’t do it. She’s liable to yell like blazes if you lay a hand on her. Our lives won’t be worth a nickel. We’ve got troubles enough without askin’ for more.”
Rafe walked a step nearer and smiled at the girl. “I want to fix your leg,” he said gently, motioning to it. “Don’t be afraid.”
She said nothing, staring at him as he walked up and knelt down. She drew back from his touch, and he saw then she had a knife. He smiled and touched the break with gentle fingers.
“Better cut some splints, Gill,” he said. “She’s got a bad break. Just a little jolt and it might pop right through the skin.”
Working carefully, he set the leg. There was no sound from the girl, no sign of pain. Gill shook his head wonderingly.
“Nervy, ain’t she?” Rafe suggested.
Taking the splints Gill had cut, he bound them on her leg.
“Better take the pack off that paint and split it between the two of us and the other horse,” he said. “We’ll put her up on the horse.”
When they had her on the paint’s back, Gill asked her, in Sioux:
“How far to Indian camp?”
She looked at him and then at Rafe. Then she spoke quickly to him.
Gill grinned. “She says she talks to the chief. That means you. Her camp is about an hour south and west; in the hills.”
“Tell her we’ll take her most of the way.”
AFE SWUNG INTO the saddle, and they turned their horses back into the trail. Rafe rode ahead, the squaw and the packhorse following and Johnny Gill, rifle still across the saddle bows, bringing up the rear.
They had gone no more than a mile when they heard voices. Then three riders swung around a bend in the trail, reining in sharply. Tough-looking, bearded men, they stared from Rafe to the Indian girl. She gasped suddenly, and Rafe’s eyes narrowed a little.
“See you got our pigeon!” A red-bearded man rode toward them, grinning. “We been a-chasin’ her for a couple of hours. Pretty thing, ain’t she?”
“Yeah.” A slim, wiry man with a hatchet face and a cigarette dangling from his lips was speaking. “Glad you found her. We’ll take her off your hands now.”
“That’s all right,” Rafe said quietly. “We’re taking her back to her village. She’s got a broken leg.”
“Takin’ her back to the village?” Red exclaimed. “Why, we cut that squaw out for ourselves and we’re slappin’ our own brand on her. You get your own squaws.” He nodded toward the hatchet-faced man. “Get that lead rope, Boyne.”