Authors: Van Holt
“They didn’t exactly laugh in my face,” Curly said. “I don’t think they even knew who I was. That young lieutenant I talked to was new out here. And I didn’t mention being Curly Bill Brocius. I ain’t used that name since old Wyatt emptied his scattergun at me.”
Ringo reined his black alongside Curly’s Appaloosa and they trotted along the winding trail, just like in the old days, when they had ridden together through Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and on into bloody Arizona. They both sat straight and tall in the saddle and though Curly didn’t know how Ringo felt, he himself was mighty proud to be riding beside the gunfighter again, even if it was only for a short distance.
“So you’re calling yourself Curly Bill Graham now?” Ringo said idly, while his sharp blue eyes searched the rocks and brush on either side of the road.
“Graham’s my real name,” Curly said.
The glazed look was back in Ringo’s eyes. “You told me your real name was Brocius.”
“It is,” Curly said. “William Brocius Graham.”
Ringo thought that over in silence. He didn’t seem to know what to make of it.
“Ringo ain’t your real name, is it?” Curly asked.
“Ringgold, John Ringgold.”
“Ringo ain’t much of a alias then,” Curly said. “Looks like a bright boy like you could of at least come up with something like Smith or Jones or Brown.”
Ringo gave him a cold look. “It beats using another part of your own name, the way you’re doing. Who do you think you’re going to fool, calling yourself Curly Bill Graham?”
Curly shrugged. “Everybody around here knows who I am. They just pretend like they don’t.”
“What about old Wyatt? Aren’t you afraid he might come back and kill you?”
“I don’t think so,” Curly said. “That would be the same as admitting he didn’t kill me the first time, and he don’t want to do that. He’d rather pretend it’s somebody else using a similar name, if he hears about me.”
Ringo was silent. He seemed more interested in the rocks and brush and cactus than in Curly. Curly glanced at his bronzed handsome face, and he was suddenly angered by the hardness and indifference of that face.
“You bastard! Why didn’t you let me know you were still alive? There I was getting all choked up over your grave and you weren’t even in it!”
“I didn’t know you cared that much, Curly.”
“The hell you didn’t.”
After a moment Ringo said, “I wanted to let you know I was still alive. But I didn’t want everyone else to know it.”
“You trying to say I can’t keep a secret?”
“Sure you can,” Ringo said. “For about five minutes. I needed a little longer than that. I didn’t want certain parties to try to finish what they started, at least not till I had time to recover from some lead they put in me.”
“I noticed you were favoring your left arm,” Curly said. “If it ain’t well by now it never will be.”
“Don’t let it worry you, Curly,” Ringo said in the quiet, hard, remote way he had at times.
“I also noticed you’re only carrying one gun,” Curly added, glancing at the smooth walnut butt of the .45 in Ringo’s holster. “You used to carry two.”
“I figure one’s enough for anything I’m liable to run into around here,” Ringo said, giving him a hard look.
“Where’ve you been all this time?” Curly asked, figuring their past friendship gave him certain rights.
“A lot of places where I didn’t belong,” Ringo said as if to himself. “But let’s not talk about me, Curly. Let’s discuss a subject closer to your heart. Let’s talk about you. What have you been doing since I left? Rustling cows, as usual?”
“Didn’t you know I would be?”
“I thought you might have seen the handwriting on the wall.”
“The only handwriting I’ve seen on any walls lately was some four-letter words,” Curly said. “And I couldn’t read some of them, the spelling was so bad.”
“I didn’t even know you could read,” Ringo said. Then he asked, “What’s the setup here, Curly? What’s going on?”
Curly rubbed a hand along his bristly jaw. “Well, I already gave you some idea back in town. Me and the Hatcher boys have been stealing Uncle Willy Gibson’s cows and selling them to some Mexicans below the border. Then we steal them back from the Mexicans and sell them back to him.”
“Sounds like a nice arrangement.”
“It has its drawbacks. We keep the cows so busy they don’t get a chance to put on no fat or increase in numbers the way they should. They get thinner and fewer all the time. Me and the Hatchers ain’t the only ones who’re doing it.”
Ringo turned those cold blue eyes on him. “The Lefferts boys?”
Curly nodded. “Them, and a gang of Mexicans below the border has been causing us a lot of trouble. Pedro Badilla and his bunch. We’ve come to a sort of arrangement with the Mexicans, though.”
“What sort of arrangement?”
“We sell the cows to them for a few dollars a head and they sell them to the Mexican ranchers, then steal them back and sell them back to us or trade them for a new bunch that’s still wearing Uncle Willy’s brand. We let the Mexicans do all the brand-changing for us. Ain’t nobody getting rich that way, but I figger it beats fighting. Seeing as how they outnumber us about three to one.”
“What’s this Uncle Willy having to say about it?” Ringo asked.
“He ain’t had much of anything to say about it until right here lately,” Curly said. “But lately his attitude has caused us and the Lefferts boys some concern. I think they warned him not to try to send for any outside help or anything, and that was probably the worst thing they could of done. For all I know they even gave him the idea when they warned him not to do it.”
The sun was very bright. Curly closed one eye against the glare and watched Ringo out of the other eye. But Ringo had played too much poker to show what he was thinking on his face.
“Well, along about the time we heard about that gunfight over in New Mexico, Uncle Willy sent a letter off to someone. Nobody knows what was in the letter, but a lot of folks around here seem to think he sent for Easter or someone to put a stop to the rustling.”
Ringo turned his pale cold eyes on the rustler. “You mean you knew that and yet you tricked me into using Easter’s name?”
Curly shrugged. “I figgered you and Easter were one and the same. Nobody ever heard of him before, so it prob’ly ain’t his real name. And when I heard how he could shoot, you’re the one I thought of, even though you were supposed to be dead. You’re about the only one I know of who can shoot like that.”
“I hate to disappoint you, Curly,” Ringo said, “but you’re wrong, as usual.”
Curly studied his hard face carefully. “You mean it wasn’t you?”
“That’s exactly what I mean,” Ringo said. “I didn’t even come through Silver City. But it seems you’re not the only one who thinks I’m Easter. When I was passing through Lordsburg I damn near had to kill two or three men to prove I wasn’t him. Seems the men Easter killed were their friends.”
Curly was so used to telling lies himself that it did not immediately occur to him that Ringo might be telling the truth. The big rustler rode in silence, twisting his black mustache and thinking. He’s afraid if he admits killing them men, I’ll tell everybody I see about it. Me and my big mouth.
Ringo gave him an almost injured look and said, “You mean you thought Gibson sent for me, Curly?”
Curly rubbed his big chin uncomfortably. “Well, you remember the old rumors, Ringo.’’
“What old rumors?”
“About you being in with the Earps when we thought you were on our side.”
“It wasn’t me who tried to sell you out, Curly. It was Ike Clanton. I figured everyone knew that by now.”
“Why would Ike try to sell out his own gang?” Curly asked.
“It wasn’t his gang any longer, remember?” Ringo said, “You’d taken over that honor. Talked your way right to the top.”
“I wanted to share the honor with you, Ringo. But you didn’t seem to want to give orders.”
“That’s because I never wanted anyone giving me any, Curly.”
“That’s true,” Curly agreed. “I never could get you to do anything you didn’t want to, and then like as not you’d change your mind just to make me look like a fool in front of the boys. And half of the time you were off in a corner hobnobbing with Uncle Willy Shakespeare or riding off someplace by yourself. You can’t rightly blame the boys for commencing to wonder.”
“I’m not talking about the boys, Curly. I’m talking about you. Did you really believe I was carrying information to the Earps?”
“Let’s put it this way, Ringo,” Curly said. “I damn near shot two or three fellows for even suggesting it.”
“That still doesn’t answer my question. But I think we better let it go at that.”
“I’d like to ask you a question, Ringo, if you don’t mind,” Curly said. “Why did you come back? I get the feeling you didn’t ride a long ways just to see your old friend Curly.”
“You know damn well why I came back,” Ringo said softly.
But there was nothing soft about his face. It was like stone.
Curly studied that bronzed profile carefully. It was quite a face, with the bold aquiline nose, high cheekbones and strong jaw—a remarkably handsome face. “How long have you known it was them?” Curly asked.
“You sure you couldn’t be mistaken?”
“There’s them who think it was your old friend Wyatt.” Curly said, watching Ringo out of the corner of his eye. “They decided the falling-out between you and him was for real after all.”
“It was,’’ Ringo said. “But it’s not his style to bushwhack someone.”
“Then there’s them who believe it was Buckskin Frank Leslie,” Curly said. “Billy Claiborne called Frank out about it.”
“Billy Claiborne was a fool.”
“He sure was,” Curly agreed, “And he died to prove it. Then there’s them who picked Johnny-Behind-the-Deuce for the man behind the gun. One of them killed him. Don’t it make you feel sort of proud, Ringo, so many people trying to kill each other because they couldn’t agree on who killed you? I reckon some of them would of gone hunting old Wyatt, but they didn’t want to add any more notches on his Buntline Special.”
“I don’t think you even know who shot some of those men,” Ringo said. “But you know who shot me.” His eyes were like ice. “You should anyway, I understand you rode with them for a while.”
“You mean Pike and them?”
“You know that’s who I mean,” Ringo grunted.
“Yeah, I reckon I do,” Curly sighed. “That’s why I quit. I heard them talking about what they did to you.”
“You just quit?” Ringo asked, as if he found it hard to believe. “You didn’t do anything else?”
“What would you of done in my place?”
“You know damn well what I would have done,” Ringo said softly.
“Yeah, I reckon I do,” Curly said. “I guess I would of done the same thing once myself. But I don’t know, Ringo. I’ve become a real peace-loving fellow since old Wyatt put all that buckshot in my hide. It ain’t no fun getting shot all to hell.”
“You’re talking to an authority on the subject,” Ringo said.
“I know,” Curly said, wiping sweat from his face. It had become a hot day for so early in the spring, and he had a feeling it would soon get a lot hotter. He managed a crooked grin. “Hell, Ringo, I figgered you’d want to settle with them boys personally. I was just saving them for you.”
“Thanks,” Ringo said, his tone a little dry and sarcastic.
“Think nothing of it,” Curly said with a broad fake smile. “After all, what are friends for?”
“I’ve often wondered,” Ringo said.
Curly shrugged, his smile fading. “You know me, Ringo. I can’t hold a grudge for more than two or three days. Even after old Wyatt put all that buckshot in me, I didn’t feel no call to go gunning for him.”
Ringo suddenly halted and turned his horse to face the rustler. Curly reined in also and felt a strange chill when he looked into those icy blue eyes. Ringo’s jaw had the rock-hard look that always meant trouble wasn’t far away. Aside from that, he seemed like a total stranger who had no desire to get acquainted and preferred to do his talking with a gun.
“There’s just one difference, Curly,” he said flatly. “You had it coming. I didn’t. Not from those bastards. I never did them any harm.”
“Hell, I never did them Earps any harm either,” Curly said. “Sure, I had a little fun at their expense, shooting up saloons and the like, but I never had anything to do with Morgan getting shot. Indian Charlie lied like hell and you know it. He was just trying to save his own skin and my name was the first one he thought of.”
“I know,” Ringo said in a quieter tone. “The bastard even gave Wyatt my name. But I didn’t need to ask anyone who shot me, Curly. I saw them.”
With that Ringo reined the black around and galloped off across the desert where there wasn’t a sign of a trail—at least Curly didn’t think at first that there was a sign of a trail.
“Hey, where you going?” he called.
But Ringo kept going and didn’t answer or look back.
It was then that Curly glanced at the ground and saw the tracks of a half dozen horses that Ringo had been following all the time. While Curly was sitting so tall and proud in the saddle, with his head so high, that he hadn’t even noticed the tracks.
Curly turned the Appaloosa and rode back toward town, telling himself that it was the Lefferts gang that was short-handed, not Ringo.
When Curly got back to town, the eastbound stage stood hitched and ready to go in front of the hotel. Sid Gilstrap, the driver, was in the dining room eating—and Uncle Willy, the only passenger, was just climbing into the coach. Seeing him, Curly reined in beside the stage and peered through the window at him. The old cowman looked a little sheepish, and more than a little scared.
“You pulling out already, Uncle Willy?” Curly asked in surprise. “Hell, I didn’t think you meant today.”
“Well, I never either, Curly,” Uncle Willy said. “But I decided I better git out while I can. I’m afraid if I go back to the ranch, them boys will kill me. They think I sent for that feller Ringo. Curly, why didn’t you tell me it was him?”