Authors: Luke; Short
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As the long freight train rolled to a groaning halt, Will Danning stepped out of the caboose door onto the rear platform and sniffed the desert night. A brakeman was framed in the door by the light of the lantern behind him.
Will said in the deep silence, “This is the Long Grade tank, isn't it?”
“And how long have we got?”
Will grunted and swung down onto the roadbed. Beside the red lantern glow, he paused to touch a match to the cigarette he had already rolled. The confusion of lights, with the match flaring suddenly, pointed up his lean, bored face for the brakeman to see. It was the face of just another big puncher, maybe twenty-five, with town clothes and a new shave and haircut, the brakeman thought. He'd got on at Hortense and he'd get off at Yellow Jacket, and now he was sick of the long ride and he'd take a stroll down the long line of cars for the night air, like they all did. The brakeman wasn't surprised to see Will Danning stretch his thick shoulders and long legs, and then, whistling thinly, stroll out of sight forward. The brakeman spat over the rail and forgot him.
Which was what Will Danning hoped he would do. Once out of sight, Will tossed away his cigarette and increased his pace. Far ahead, he could see the high water tank and its skeleton legs against the star-spangled sky, and this side of it there was a tool shed, he remembered.
He was hurrying toward it when he heard a low whistle off in the brush beyond the right of way. He headed for it, his high heels digging into the steep slope of the bank and checking his speed. At the bottom of the slope he paused, and then he heard a low laugh in the night.
“Milt?” he called softly.
The laugh came again, and close to him. A voice said, “You even remembered the name, Will?”
“Just so you do,” Will said gently, and they met and shook hands briefly, in silence.
Will said, “What about it? Have any trouble?”
“You wouldn't call it trouble,” the other voice said. “They spotted us coming in, and they stopped us and asked questions.”
“Their ponies were branded Nine X.”
Will grunted. “That's Case, all right. What did they want?”
“To count the herd. That seemed important to the surly blond devil bossing them. He named our boundaries and asked for you and then warned us to stay close to home until he'd talked with you.”
“But he didn't warn you off?”
“No.” There was a pause, and the voice said with quiet humor, “You picked a lonesome spot, Will. The world ends right there, just forty feet north of the shack.”
“That's what you wanted, wasn't it?”
“Exactly. But will they let us stay?”
“I'll tell you that tomorrow,” Will said. The locomotive ahead began to thrash, and then the long line of cars jerked noisily. Will raised a careless hand in parting and climbed up the bank, swinging on the caboose as it trundled by.
Three hours later and some two thousand feet higher, Will Danning saw the sparse lights of Yellow Jacket blotted out by the stock pens. He threw his sacked saddle off against the pens, shouldered his war bag, and stepped off the moving train, waving to the brakeman when he came to a full stop. The train picked up speed and vanished. Will went back along the right of way, found his saddle, carried it as far as the depot platform where he left it and his war bag, and then surveyed the town. Its principal street held a few lights and a half-dozen hipshot horses at the tie rail of Hal Mohr's saloon.
The depot was at the head of the street. Will cut across the cinder apron and hit the boardwalk by Settlemeir's feed stable on the corner. Nothing had changed in ten years, not even the smell of rotting wood from the horse trough in front of the stable. He tramped on down the street, his footsteps ringing hollowly along the deserted street. As he neared the saloon the ponies lined out there turned their heads and lifted their ears as they watched him.
He didn't pause but shouldered through the swing doors of the saloon and squinted against the bright lamplight. At that moment he wore the face of a truculent man, but that might have been because of the scowl. The two men at the bar, wearing guns, who didn't turn around but observed him in the back mirror, felt a small stir of excitement at sight of him. And then his eyes became accustomed to the light, the truculence disappeared, and he tramped past them. He was a tall man, they saw, big mostly at the shoulders and in his fists, which were scarred and tufted with black hair. His face was faintly hollow-cheeked, burned brown, and his gray eyes were hooded under thick black eyebrows as dark as his hair that was covered by a very worn Stetson. The black suit with the trousers tucked into half boots they recognized as the town-going outfit of any prosperous cattleman.
He tramped past them, heading for a table in the rear that held two men. Behind them, against the back wall, there was another puncher playing solitaire.
Will came up to the table where the two men were and said to the older, “You never take a chance, do you, Case?”
The man addressed thoughtfully played a card, then raised his glance to Will. He might have been sixty, for his hair was plentifully sprinkled with gray. It capped a squarish, stubborn face, seamed and weathered and made alive only by a pair of troubled and suspicious blue eyes. He wore a mussed and careless dark suit, and carried a gun in his outside coat pocket.
He said, “Not very often. Sit down, Danning.”
Will looked around the room, at the two punchers at the bar, at the single man studiously playing solitaire, and finally at the other man at the table. Then he said, “Chase these bums out of here first.”
The man at the table with Case started to rise in anger, when Case shook his head. This man was thick-bodied, blond, and ugly, and the pale skin of his face was burned a deep red instead of tan. The air of iron authority in his pale eyes and the loose set of his lips told Will he was Case's foreman, the man who had questioned Milt.
Case said, “You stay, Pres. Send the boys out.”
Will watched in silence while Pres whistled. The solitaire player looked up, got his boss's nod, rose, and took the other two at the bar out with him. Then Will sat down and rammed his hands deep in his pockets, after thumb-prodding his Stetson to the back of his head. He regarded the two men with taciturn hostility and waited for them to speak.
Case said, “You keep your engagements, anyway.”
Will said dryly, “Don't bother to be polite, because I won't. This isn't any engagement. It's an order from you. The only reason I'm following it is because I figure I'll have to talk to you sooner or later, anyway. We might as well get this settled now.”
Case nodded. “Chap Hale sent you word?”
“He wrote me you wanted to see me the minute I got here.”
“That's right. I wanted to ask you some questions.”
“You've bought the old Harkins place out by the brakes, the Pitchfork brand, Chap said. That right?” When Will nodded, Case said, “I'm wondering why.”
Will smiled faintly. “Maybe I like it.”
“The grass is no good. Water's scarce over there. It's a bad buy, I'd say.”
“Nobody asked you,” Will murmured insolently.
Pres Milo looked at his boss, but Case was not to be prodded. He looked baffled and uncertain, but not angry. He leaned forward now and said earnestly, “Just so we understand each other, let me tell you what we both know. The Pitchfork is against the Sevier Brakes. Nobody knows all those trails through there, but lots of people know that they lead to Sevier Valley on the other side, where a lot of vented beef is shipped. You agree?”
“Now,” Case said slowly, “I had a little experience with that place until I wiped Harkins and his rustlers out.”
“Harkins wasn't a rustler,” Will murmured. “Go on.”
“And you worked for Harkins,” Case finished. “You were fifteen then.”
Again Will nodded. “I even took a couple of pot shots at your Nine X men before they got Harkins,” he said gently. “Go on.”
“That's all there is,” Case said flatly. “You worked for a rustler once. And now you've bought his God-forgotten, dreary place.”
“And I'm wondering why.”
Pres Milo broke in bluntly. “With five hundred head of beef?”
Will regarded him lazily. “You counted 'em?”
“I took your ramrod's word. He said you were bringin' in five hundred. It looked more like two hundred to me, but you can fill out the count with beef you steal.”
Will said gently, “Fella, you're a damn liar. Milt told you two hundred.”
Pres flushed. “That's enough to screen a rustlin' business.”
Will raised a foot under the table and shoved Pres's knee. Pres lost his balance and went over backward in his chair. Slowly, almost indolently, Will came out of his chair and around the table just as Pres crashed onto the floor on his back. Pres clawed for his gun, and Will placed a boot firmly on the wrist of Pres's gun hand and looked up at Case. Will's hands were still rammed in his pockets, and he said mildly to Case, “He's got a pretty big mouth, ain't he?”
Case was looking at his foreman, surprise in his eyes. And then a subtle shift in expression crossed his face, a look of alarm, and Will looked down. Pres had crossed his free arm over his body and drawn his gun. It was just clearing leather as Will looked down. Swiftly, savagely, Will kicked the gun out of Pres's hand, and then leaned down and hauled Pres to his feet. Pres swung wildly, and Will blocked the blow and then drove his fist into Pres's face. The heavy man fell into the next table, its legs gave way, and he crashed to the floor.