Authors: Van Holt
Parson had two voices. A weak one and a strong one. He used the weak one most of the time, especially when he was feeling poorly. But sometimes when he forgot his troubles, or remembered them with too much anger, his voice came out like the roar of a lion.
Now he raised his sad dark eyes without much interest to watch Curly ride into the yard. He was so used to the dogs trying to tear every living thing to bits that he didn’t even seem to notice them roaring to the attack and trying to pull the big rustler out of the saddle before he could dismount.
Curly raised his feet up out of the stirrups and his face became swollen and almost black with anger as he looked down at the dogs swarming around the frightened horse and leaping up at him. He had come to hate those dogs almost as much as they seemed to hate him, and evidently he feared them a great deal more than they feared him. Maybe that was why he hated them.
He looked at Parson with the storm darkening his face. He felt like a fool sitting there in the saddle holding his booted feet up like that. But he managed with some effort to keep his voice soft and polite. “Morning, Parson. Mind calling off these curs?”
Parson did not shake off his lethargy or use his strong angry voice on the dogs in Curly’s behalf. He remained seated in his old rocker and said in his weak, lackluster voice, “You know they don’t pay no attention to me, Curly. They don’t pay no attention to anyone except Cash. But Cash ain’t never here.”
It was true. Cash had a way with dogs, just as Comanche Joe did with horses. Curly did all right with most horses and most dogs, but he had no use for a really vicious animal of any kind, and these curs seemed to smell his dislike and fear like a bad odor that drove them into a wild frenzy of hate.
His legs were getting tired from holding his feet up above their snapping teeth. He suddenly spun the horse in a tight circle that made the dogs leap back out of the way, and jumped off on the other side of the horse with the grub sack in his hand. But they swarmed under and around the horse and renewed their attack on Curly. For a moment he was almost numbed by the sight of all those wolflike dogs barking and snapping at him. Then one of them sank his teeth through the leather of his boot and into the flesh of his leg, and something exploded inside him. “Sons of bitches!” he roared, and suddenly dogs were flying in every direction as he attacked them with his boots and the sack of grub, which he swung at their heads with all his strength.
Then old Parson got into the act. He hadn’t shown any particular concern for Curly’s health, but he became downright alarmed when the big rustler started swinging the grub sack. No doubt he was afraid the sack would burst open or that the grub would be damaged. Anyway, he let out a roar and the next moment he was beside Curly swinging his heavy Bible at the old bitch, the meanest one of the pack. Then Ma Hatcher ran out with her broom and the dogs scattered whining with their tails between their legs. They had felt the painful effects of her broom before.
“Thanks, Ma,” Curly said, handing her the sack and dusting himself off, “I was getting worried there for a minute.”
Curly didn’t look at Ma Hatcher much, because she wasn’t much to look at. Time had done its work on her face and figure, and it seemed unlikely that she had ever been a raving beauty to begin with, judging by what was left. But it was her sharp tongue that Curly dreaded. He always hated to come around there because he was afraid she’d say something he wouldn’t like, and since she was a woman he couldn’t bust her jaw or even cuss her out, at least not to her face.
Her greedy fingers were working at the knot he had tied in the flour sack, and he watched with one eye closed, not much wanting to see the condition the grub was in. Parson suddenly started coughing and headed for the outhouse, taking his Bible along to read. That made Curly even more uneasy, for when Parson took refuge in the outhouse, there was cause for concern.
Ma got the sack open and looked inside. “Good Lord!” she cried. “Everything’s all busted open and mixed together!”
Curly winced. “Sorry, Ma. I was fighting for my life. I don’t know why them dogs don’t like me.”
“Ah, they don’t like anyone except Cash,” Ma said. “If he don’t start staying around here more I’m going to tell him to move them into town with him. They’re eating us out of house and home and they keep me awake every night barking. I never know whether it’s them Apaches sneaking around or just a jackrabbit they’re too lazy to chase.”
“That reminds me, Ma. Pike Lefferts said he saw Injun sign. It’s prob’ly just Big Nose and the ones who came with him before, back for another try at my horse. But you and Parson better keep a eye peeled, just in case. There’s talk the Apaches are restless.”
“They come sneaking around here, I’ll give them a good dusting with my broom, then plaster their hindsides with buckshot when they try to get away.”
“That I’d like to see,” Curly said. But he knew Big Nose wasn’t crazy enough to tangle with Ma Hatcher. Besides the lethal broom and a double barrel shotgun, she had a trusty Sharps and an old horse pistol almost as long as her arm. Not even to mention the noisy dogs that would give the alarm and the loopholes in the thick adobe walls that made the house a virtual fortress. As far as he knew the Apaches always gave the place a wide berth, even though it was situated in a canyon they had once used as a road to Mexico. If they still used it they slipped by in the night and left no trace of their passage.
From the direction of the outhouse he heard a violent little fit of sneezing.
“Old Parson’s hay fever acting up on him again?”
“Oh, I don’t know what I’m going to do with him,” Ma said. “It’s been like this ever since he got kicked out of the pulpit for trying to preach when he was drunk. Before that I never knew there was anything wrong with him. But to hear him tell it he ain’t been well a day since he lost his church.”
Curly figured she would set in on him next about something, and he shifted his feet toward the Appaloosa. It was Ma Hatcher who did most of the preaching around there.
“When do you boys aim to go back to work?” she asked.
He looked uncertainly at her hard wrinkled face. “You mean back to stealing Uncle Willy’s cows?”
She nodded. “What else do you ever do?”
He went toward the ground-tied Appaloosa, saying over his shoulder, “I thought we’d give them poor cows a few days off. They’ve been rustled so much they’re plumb wore down.”
“Parson can’t round up no cows by hisself,” Ma said. “And he gets funny notions when he’s idle too long. He’s started talking again about preaching a Sunday service in one of the saloons in town, if they’ll let him.”
“I don’t think that would be such a good idea,” Curly said. “Everybody in Boot Hill has considered both sides of the question and decided they’d rather be miserable in the next life instead of this one, and they want to do their drinking and fighting in peace. They wouldn’t take kindly to Parson coming in there and trying to spoil their fun. Besides, if he got near all that booze, the old thirst might come back on him. He’d be the one who got converted, like as not.”
“That’s what I told him,” Ma said, going into the house to sort out the groceries.
That was just what the dogs had been waiting for. The moment she was in the house, they came slinking and snarling at Curly from five different directions. He cursed them softly and viciously, then quickly swung astride the Appaloosa and outran them. He heard Parson yelling something and looked back to see him standing in front of the outhouse in his old black coat and stovepipe hat, holding his Bible in his hand and watching Curly ride off. Curly didn’t know whether he was yelling at the dogs or at him and he wasn’t going back to find out.
The trail climbed the steep slope out of the canyon and then followed the rim north toward the main road. But he suddenly remembered Big Nose and his scalp-hungry pals and decided to take a shortcut back to town.
The man known as Johnny Ringo cleaned up in his room and hung his spare clothes in the closet. His favorite colors were dark, and he liked his clothes tailored to fit.
He also liked women who were dark or at least dark-haired, and tall and slender, but rounded in the right places. Like the one he had seen downstairs. He thought about her as he put everything back in his saddlebags and blanket roll except for the extra clothes that could be left behind in an emergency. He liked to be ready to grab his essential gear and go at any moment if necessary.
That was one result of never being able to see eye to eye with the law. Somewhat to his surprise, he had discovered that the law was not necessarily his worst enemy, but he had never run from anyone not representing the law, and even then it was not the representative but the law itself that he ran from.
He had come west because he had little patience with the conventions of the East and the rules other men had made for him to live by. But there were rules everywhere and very few of them to his liking. Yet he was gradually coming around to the realization that men could not live without some sort of rules. When they made their own rules or disregarded all rules, somebody always got hurt. Yet here he was, past thirty and still trying to live by his own rules as if the rest of the world didn’t matter. Bad habits, he had found, were a lot harder to break than good ones.
He stepped to the window and parted the curtain when he heard the riders thundering into town. His pale blue eyes turned to ice when he saw who they were and his hard jaw knotted in anger. They wheeled in before the hotel and he could hear Pike cussing someone on the veranda. He heard Pike say his own name in a loud threatening voice.
Stepping away from the window, he drew his gun, checked it and slipped it back into the holster. He glanced at his blanket roll and saddlebags on the floor, then left the room and went quietly down the carpeted stairs.
As he was on his way out through the lobby, the dark-haired young woman suddenly appeared at the dining room door and looked at him with wide frightened eyes. She looked pale and breathless. He merely glanced at her and went on out to the veranda, stopping near the sour-faced old rancher with the long yellow teeth and the whine in his voice.
Pike Lefferts had just been saying what he was going to do to Ringo, and suddenly Ringo was standing there watching him through those icy blue eyes, his hard jaw swelled out in murderous hatred.
Pike’s good eye darted at Ringo’s gun hand, while the big round eye almost rolled out of his head in stark terror as if he had seen a ghost. But even if his eyes were not the best, in his mind Pike could see very clearly what was going to happen. Ringo would kill him as surely as he was sitting there in his saddle, and then it would not do him much good if the others got Ringo. He, Pike, would still be dead. He saw it all with sudden clarity, and just as suddenly he knew he wasn’t going to sit there like a fool and let it happen.
Not when he had a good fast horse to get away on. Ringo would not shoot him in the back, at least not in front of witnesses.
Curly was almost out of the hills when he spotted Ringo. The gunfighter was riding his tired black horse east along the road at an unhurried trot, going the way Curly had gone earlier. Curly was making his way through some brush and rocks three hundred yards off the road and Ringo didn’t see him. But Curly figured Ringo had seen him leave town and had decided to follow him, so they could talk over old times away from the Hatcher boys and the nosy people of Boot Hill. Ringo had never liked to talk where he felt crowded. Unlike Curly, he didn’t care for an audience.
With a wide grin Curly put the Appaloosa down through the rocks and brush to the road and went after Ringo. Figuring Ringo wouldn’t leave the road before he could overtake him, Curly didn’t pay any attention to the tracks on the ground. So he didn’t know Ringo was following the trail of the Lefferts gang. The Lefferts gang was the farthest thing from Curly’s mind, and if Ringo was in any danger at the moment Curly figured it was from the Apaches, who might still be around and in a mood to grab any white scalp that came along, to make up for not getting Curly’s. That was one reason he was in such a hurry to overtake Ringo. He wanted to warn him.
Curly rode around a big rock in a curve of the road, and that was when he saw Ringo. The gunfighter sat his black horse in the shadow of the rock, facing the road. He was leaning a little forward in the saddle with his hands folded on the horn, watching Curly with a cold gleam of amusement in his blue eyes. The rustler halted in surprise and Ringo said, “You wouldn’t be following me, would you, Curly?”
“Hell, I thought you were following me!”
Ringo sat up a little straighter in the saddle and his jaw got harder. But whether he actually took exception to the remark or just pretended to, Curly couldn’t tell. Yet he had the feeling that behind the hard surface of his face, Ringo was as pleased as a cat with a canary. “Don’t flatter yourself, Curly,” he said.
“Now why didn’t I think of that.”
“If I was following you,” Ringo said, “what were you doing back there behind me?”
‘’I thought you might want to talk.”
Ringo raised his brows and there was a slightly glazed look in his eyes. “When did you ever give anyone a chance to talk?”
“And I wanted to warn you that you could be riding into an ambush,” Curly added.
Ringo considered that for a moment, watching Curly thoughtfully. “You mean the Lefferts boys?”
“I wouldn’t put it past them. But it was Apaches I had in mind.”
The blank look of surprise on Ringo’s face made Curly feel mighty important. For once he knew about something before Ringo did. But he said with elaborate casualness, “There’s a young buck with a big nose who figgers he should be the one riding this here Appaloosa, not me.”
Ringo gave him a closer look, then scanned the rocks and brush. “So that’s why they’re sneaking around here. You stole a horse from them.”
Curly shrugged. “They stole a pinto from me. I went to the agency to complain about it, but they said there wasn’t anything they could do about it without getting the Apaches all stirred up, when they were already stirred up enough. So I waited till dark, then went to the Apache horse herd and cut out the best one I could find. I would of run off the whole bunch, but I didn’t want the army blaming me for the next Indian war.”
Ringo looked at him in amazement. “You actually went to the agency to complain about the Apaches stealing a horse from you? You, the biggest horse thief in Arizona. That took confidence, Curly, it really did. No wonder they laughed in your face.”