Authors: Matt Chisholm
McAllister was at peace with the world. He smoked his pipe and sipped coffee by the fire. The day's riding was done and he relaxed. A dozen yards away his canelo horse munched grass, as contented as its master. Trouble seemed a thousand miles away, belonging to another world; the fire burned brightly in this sheltered spot among the trees, briefly holding back the night, warming the man in this chill night air. Nothing disturbed the serene quiet, yet the Henry rifle was within arm's reach, the Remington revolver was ready at his hip. The six feet of relaxed man was ready to move into violent action.
The man jerked up his head.
The horse had trumpeted softly and McAllister knew it to be more trustworthy than any watchdog. It had smelled or heard something that could mean danger â a wolf, a man â¦
Without rising, McAllister reached out and pulled up a blanket over his gear that lay on the space he had cleared for his bed. On hands and knees, he moved swiftly into the darkness beyond the small circle of light from the fire. He lay still, his ears catching the sound of the canelo moving about with its hobbles. But there was no panic in the animal's movements. So it wasn't a wolf that had disturbed him.
Several minutes passed. McAllister slipped the Remington from its sheath and kept his eyes away from the light of the fire so they would be able to see the better in the dark.
Then he saw the slow-moving bulk of the man on the other side of the fire, waited, watched him move forward till the light struck his face. And McAllister didn't like what he saw. The clothes were those of a man riding the trails, scuffed boots, gun holster, wide-brimmed hat held under the chin with a rawhide thong, worn jacket. The face above had been shaved a week before and was now covered with a fair, gingerish stubble. The firelight, striking up from below, brought out the evil that already showed there and McAllister was satisfied that his caution had not been wasted.
The gun in the man's right hand was cocked and it pointed at McAllister's bedding.
It seemed for a moment that the man would fire at the bedding, but he hesitated, took a cautious step forward and then, realising that a helpless man did not lie before him, looked this way and that
with a sudden show of panic.
âOver here,' McAllister called.
The man's whole body jerked as he swung around.
âDrop your gun,' McAllister ordered.
Prepared as he was, McAllister was taken by surprise. It didn't seem possible that a man would challenge a hidden gun even while he himself held a gun in his hand.
The man fired.
McAllister felt the wind of the bullet, threw himself to one side, hit the ground on his left side and fired.
The man reared back, grabbed at his chest with his left hand and took a staggering step through the fire. Falling forward, he landed across McAllister's bedding.
The gun's still in his hand
, McAllister thought.
Cautiously, he worked his way around to behind the man and stepped from cover, the Remington pointed at the man's head.
âThrow your gun,' McAllister said.
The man's reply to this was to twist himself to one side and swing the gun. Before it lined up, however, McAllister fired. The bullet took the man in the head and killed him outright.
McAllister stayed where he was, inert, suddenly bereft of strength. It was the way killing took him. Most times it was a waste and utterly foolish. What had brought this on? Why had this man stalked him in camp? If the fellow had wanted him dead, why didn't he come in friendly and then pull a gun on him? There just wasn't sense to it. He reloaded the Remington, pushed it away and went to his saddlebags. There he found some whiskey and took a drink. He normally didn't drink on the trail, but now he reckoned he could do with it.
Then he rolled the man onto his back and took a good look at him. This didn't tell him much more than his first look. He saw now that the nose had been broken at one time and never been properly set. The eyes were wide and pale, staring off into eternity. The bullet had caught the side of the head from below and scattered the brains into the fire. Death was seldom noble, but now it was something like shame.
The damn fool
, McAllister thought.
He wondered how many denizens of the hills had heard the shots. The thought made him uneasy. There was danger enough in this country without his attracting it to him.
He looked for the man's horse and found it after a little trouble; a good-looking sorrel standing tied to some brush in the moonlight,
bedroll behind the cantle, a good Remington rifle in the saddleboot. McAllister led it back to camp, took the tarp from around the blankets and rolled the dead man in it, tying it snug. At first he had thought to bury the man here, but changed his mind. If the fellow had folks, they might want to give him a decent burial. This might mean trouble for him, McAllister, but he had met up with that before. A little more wouldn't hurt.
After that, he packed the dead man on the reluctant sorrel, saddled his own horse and moved camp a mile or so, just in case he had attracted attention with the shots. This time he found himself a safe place among rocks and he picketed the two horses close. He wasn't taking any chances. To be left afoot in this country could mean the end.
This camp was a cold one, for he dared not light a fire. His nerves were playing him tricks now. He draped a blanket around his shoulders, sat propped against a rock and catnapped through the night with his Henry rifle across his thighs. He hoped this killing was not an omen for the rest of this trip. So far it had been uneventful enough to be boring.
Sam Spur's letter had reached him in El Paso. He had written Sam he was headed that way. They had kept in touch for some years in the hope that they would run into each other again some day. Why McAllister had headed for El Paso he never really knew, except that he had a hankering to see the country. He had a few dollars in his pocket and a good horse, so he just headed that way.
He had idled a few days away in town, drinking a little and womanising a little, getting the dust from his throat and the burrs from his vest, when he asked at the mail office if there was anything for him. He was given a letter several months old.
âWish you were here. It is fine country here and I have a nice little spread of my own. The Indians aren't too friendly and once in a while they make a try for my horses, but it's a good life. I'm writing to say you would not be wasting your time if you rode this way, Rem. I've found something mighty interesting in the hills around here and need a good partner to make the most of it. So if you don't have anything better to do with your time, saddle
whatever fancy horse you have right now and head this way. I can't think of a better man to quarrel with over a camp-fire.
That was just like old Sam. Never said exactly what he meant. But he sure meant something. You always had to read between the lines with Sam. There were not many men McAllister admired in this vale of tears, but Sam he admired fully and without reservations. He was an educated man was Sam, he could read and write pretty fancy stuff when the mood took him and he could draw a likeness of a man with a pencil that took your breath away. There wasn't much the man couldn't do when he was so inclined and it certainly made a man think when he knew the ins and outs of his life. He was known mostly as being one jump ahead of the law and it was always a puzzle to McAllister how a peaceful man like Sam could unerringly get himself into trouble the way he did.
So Sam had found himself a little
in the hills and kept away from men. Which was the safest thing for him. If he wanted trouble, he would not get it there from his own kind, but from the Apache. And he was getting it from the sound of his letter. Just like Sam, inside the envelope was a beautifully drawn map showing the exact location of his spread. A half-wit could have found his way there. McAllister wondered what he had found in the hills? Gold? Could be. Or maybe silver. That would make a change from cows, any road.
McAllister rose, stiff and cold in the dawn, glad to get on the move. He went and looked at the horses, took a good slow look over the country, took in once more the great vastness of it and packed his gear. It was a sweat getting the dead man onto the sorrel, but he made it and lashed the corpse down tight. The canelo didn't like the smell of death and didn't make any bones about it.
He rode the half-day through, bearing down slowly from the hills onto the plain, riding with thoughts sober enough to match the dead body he rode with, coming down from the high clean air of the hills to the hot close air below. He came within sight of the thin line of water as it cut capriciously through the sand and stone of the country, a life-saver in a hard land. This was the San Pedrito, named half-humorously after the main stream it left some thirty miles back, the San Pedro. Here, coming over the shoulder of the hill, he stopped as he sighted the town below him.
At once, he saw that it was one of those composite towns of the south-west, half-Anglo, half-Mexican, the adobe brick dominating. Away to the right, cutting untidily into the hills he could see the diggings where men had slaved in the heat to wrest silver from the hard earth. Men had died there through violence and starved to get out the precious metal, they had fallen before the guns of white thieves and under the arrows of the Apache. This was a hard land and men died easily and without comment. The diggings had been deserted some three years before, deserted utterly and now stood forlorn and empty, leaving behind but vacant holes in the ground and the graves of several score unknowns.
The full name of the town was Santa Eulalia something or other, a proud and empty Spanish flourish for a wide spreading of flat-roofed adobes that disappeared and reappeared in the undulations of the land, touched only here and there by a faded splash of green. The Anglos called it simply Euly and used it mainly as a place for selling merchandise at a high profit, for finding women and drink for buying supplies for trips into the hills in search of gold and silver. The Apaches used it as a good place to find horses and weapons, to lift cattle and sheep, sometimes to carry off Mexican children as recruits for their dwindling numbers.
As McAllister came off the hill and down onto the Tucson trail, he came abreast of several ox-drawn wagons, the ten yoke of animals straining steadily at their massive loads, the teamsters walking at the heads of their animals, their long whips over their shoulders. Stalwart bearded men, famed for their endurance and their foul tongues. They had walked unblenching right through the heart of Apache country and they had done so for no more than wages or a small interest in their goods. As they plodded through the dust they threw McAllister a greeting, eyed the burden on the sorrel behind him and made no remark. He passed them and went on, heading into town, finding it far more pleasant at close range than he had from the higher country. It was, he saw, a place a man could become attached to; he had lived often in such places and knew that their pace was to his liking. His old man, Chad, had felt the same way about them, liked to sit in the shade of their trees, drink the local liquor and ogle the local women. One way of his telling his story was that McAllister's mother had been Mexican. His other version was that she had been a Cheyenne. It depended on how drunk he was which story he told. Either way, McAllister spoke Mexican and Cheyenne and felt at home with