Authors: William Colt MacDonald
William Colt MacDonald
Lance heard the bullet thud into the tie rail at his rear. His hand stabbed toward the holster, came up in a swift, eye-defying arc. Lead started to pour from the six-shooter muzzle the instant it left the holster. A leaden slug threw up dust at Kilby's feet. Lance's aim lifted higher. Kilby fired again. Lance thumbed his hammer once, twice, three times.
Kilby was flung violently sideways by the impact of the heavy slugs. For a brief moment he swayed uncertainly; then his right leg buckled, and he pitched to the roadway. For a short interval he struggled to regain the weapon that had fallen from his hand, then, as Lance closed in and kicked the underarm gun out of reach, Kilby shivered and slumped in the dust.
Behind him came Chiricahua Herrick's voice, violent with hate. “Damn you, Tolliver! You can't do this to a friend of mine. Now, by God! We'll see how you like the taste of hot lead!”
Chapter I: Two-Handed Mystery
Chapter II: Evidence
Chapter III: The Cactus Man
Chapter IV: Lance Hits Hard
Chapter V: War Talk!
Chapter VI: Peaceful Yaquentes?
Chapter VII: Guns And Mezcal Buttons
Chapter VIII: Another Clue
Chapter IX: A Fighting Deputy
Chapter X: Hide-Out Weapon
Chapter XI: Powder Smoke
Chapter XII: “You're Covered!”
Chapter XIII: Hot Lead!
Chapter XIV: Manley Disappears
Chapter XV: Traced Shipments
Chapter XVI: Captured!
Chapter XVII: Temple Of The Plumed Serpent
Chapter XVIII: Risky Business!
Chapter XIX: War Drums
Chapter XX: Revolution
Chapter XXI: “Ride Like Hell!”
Chapter XXII: Action In Muletero
Chapter XXIII: Surrender Or Fight!
Chapter XXIV: “Fighting Is A Yaquente's Life”
Chapter XXV: The Battle At Three-Cross
Chapter XXVI: The Dust Settles
Also By William Colt Macdonald:
There were several things about the dead man that interested Tolliver, but mostly it was the cold, stiffened hands that drew his greatest concentration of attention. The right hand, even to the fingernails, had been painted a brownish black as far as the wrist. The left was clutched tightlyâalmost fiercely, as though determined to retain the object at all costsâaround an article of desert plant life known in parts of the Southwest as the “mezcal button.” No doubt about its being a mezcal button; Tolliver could see the thick, carrot-like root with bits of sandy earth still clinging to it protruding from the firmly clenched dead hand. Even a bit of the bluish-green flattened top was visible between the thumb and forefinger.
Tolliver had been in the saddle from early morning, having crossed the Mexican border to return to the States about two o'clock that afternoon. He was a lean, rangy man with good features and gray eyes. A dusty sombrero that had once been fawn colored covered his unruly reddish hair. His denim overalls were clean, though somewhat faded, with wide cuffs just above the ankles of his high-heeled cowman boots. His woolen shirt fitted smoothly across wide shoulders, and there was a blue bandanna knotted at
his throat. A Colt forty-five gun was slung at Tolliver's right hip. He wasn't more than twenty-seven or-eight.
After crossing the border that afternoon Tolliver had headed his roan pony in the direction of Pozo Verde which wasn't more than six or eight miles from the Mexican line. He was still some three miles or so distant from the town, riding along an ancient, rock-littered, sandy dry wash, when he had come upon the body of the dead man, sprawled on its left side, the left arm cramped beneath the body, one leg slightly drawn up. Tolliver had immediately checked his horse, dismounted a short distance away and approached the still form to make a closer survey.
There was an ugly black hole just beneath the dead man's right cheekbone. Dried blood streaked the man's face and had run up into the iron-gray hair. There was no sign of his hat about. Flies buzzed in the afternoon heat. Overhead a buzzard wheeled in a wide circle, dropping lower, then at a movement from Tolliver again lifted toward the higher reaches of the cloudless sky. Tolliver's normally firm lips tightened still more as he studied intently the features of the corpse. After a moment he drew a clean bandanna from a pocket and spread it over the dead face.
Stooping carefully close to the dead man, Tolliver pried open the rigid fingers of the left hand. It was considerable of a job getting possession of the mezcal button, so tightly were the cold fingers clenched about the spongy top of the plant, but Tolliver finally straightened up with the mezcal button in his hand. Root and all, it wasn't more than four inches long. The top of the plant was circular, about an inch thick and two inches across, with tiny lines, or
indentations, running from the top center to the earth line at the sides. Spaced at regular intervals on the segments formed by these lines were tiny woollike tufts. A pinkish cast shoved through the bluish-green surface of the plant.
Tolliver frowned as he studied the object in his hand, looked again at the dead man before thrusting the mezcal button inside his shirt. “Hmmm!” he muttered. “I wonder what
was doing with dry whisky.” There didn't seem to be any immediate reply to that question. The dead man's six-shooter was still in its holster Tolliver noticed next. That made the business look like murder.
There were two buzzards soaring overhead by this time, their wheeling, dipping gyrations forming black patterns against the turquoise sky. To the west rose the high, serrated peaks of the Saddlestring Mountains, their ravines and hollows etched clearly in brilliant desert light. Here in the dry wash the way was littered with boulders of all sizes and shapes. The near-by slopes were covered with brush at some spots, sandy, gravelly soil at others. Here and there among the brush were clumps of cholla and prickly pear. A few yuccas with the stalks of last spring's blossoms showing brown and dry dotted the landscape.
Tolliver spoke his thoughts half aloud: “I'd judge he was killed last night sometime. Now, I wonder â¦”
Without waiting to complete the words, Tolliver stepped back from the corpse and commenced to circle around, scrutinizing closely the earth as he moved. There were prints to be seen in the sandy bed of the dry wash, prints showing that three
riders had arrived at this spotâat least there were the prints of three horses. The sandy soil was too loose to leave definite impressions though to a keen, understanding eye like Tolliver's certain details were clear. Back at the body again, Tolliver found blurry footprints.
“They came out here,” Tolliver muttered, “from the direction of Pozo Verde. When they left they returned the same way. One horse left considerably later than the others, though. Why?”
He knelt near the corpse, closely studying the dead man's formâwoolen shirt, denim overalls, boots and spurs. His gaze returned to that black-painted hand again and again. He stooped close and sniffed the atmosphere in the vicinity of the hand. After a time he went back to the high-heeled boots once more. Several minutes slipped past with Tolliver lost in deep concentration.
So intense were his meditative speculations that the riders were almost upon him before he realized it. Then as his ear caught the thudding of running hoofs and creaking of saddle leather Tolliver straightened up to await the arrival of whoever was coming. A big gray horse with a rider wearing a law officer's star was first to pull to a halt on the edge of the dry wash. Then, in quick succession, five other riders drew alongside the rider with the sheriff's star. A look of surprise swept across six faces as they glanced down into the wash and saw Tolliver and the dead man. Almost immediately the six faces went hard. Certain hands moved toward guns. No one spoke for a moment.
Tolliver broke the silence. “Mister Sheriff, it looks like you'd arrived at a good time.”
The big man with the sheriff's star grunted, “Maybe I didn't arrive soon enough.” He was middle aged, grizzled, sharp eyed, with a close-cropped gray mustache. He pushed back the big black sombrero from his forehead and repeated meaningly, “Maybe I didn't arrive soon enough. That man dead?”
“That's my opinion,” Tolliver said easily. “Maybe you'd better examine him yourself.”
“Exactly what I'm aimin' to do,” the sheriff said, tight lipped.
The other men were talking now, all offering advice to the sheriff. He spoke sharply over one shoulder without removing his eyes from Tolliver and told them to shut up.
Tolliver said, “If you and your riders are coming down into this wash it might be a good idea to come on foot and move careful. You wouldn't want to mess up the sign.”
“That's good advice”âthe sheriff noddedâ“though I don't know as I need it.”
He and the others dismounted and started down into the wash.
A new voice broke in. “I don't reckon we're going to waste time looking for sign. I guess we've got our man.”
The sheriff nodded. “You might be right, Chiricahua.”
Tolliver didn't say anything, though he didn't like the manner in which things were shaping up. He glanced at the man named Chiricahua and saw a well-built individual with a swarthy, hawk-like face and beady eyes. A beaded hatband encircled Chiricahua's flat-topped sombrero, and he wore tight Oregon breeches. His lips were thin and cruel. A braided
horse hair quirt dangled from his left wrist. The six-shooter at his hip looked as though it had received plenty of use. The remaining men, all dressed in cowboy togs, were an unprepossessing lot. All were armed.
Tolliver stepped back as the men approached to gather about the still form on the rock-littered floor of the wash. The sheriff lifted the bandanna from the face of the corpse, then after a moment replaced it and moved back. He seemed to be the only one of the group with sense enough to step carefully so as not to disturb any “sign” that might be present and voiced a warning to the others to walk prudently. “Mind what I'm telling you,” he added.
“Cripes!” one of the men said. “This wash is too sandy to leave much sign anyway. See?” He scuffed one booted toe across the loose, sandy soil. “Sheriff, this won't hardly hold any sign. Hell! There ain't no use trying to read tracksââ”
“I'm the best judge of that,” the peace officer said shortly.
Tolliver put in, “Sheriff, your man has already messed up some sign. Suppose I tell you what I've found outâ¦”
“What you already made up, you mean,” sneered the man who had scraped his foot through the sand. “It don't go down, feller. I reckon we don't need to search any farther for the killer.”
Tolliver ignored the man and continued to the sheriff, “I figure the killing occurred sometime last night. Three horses came out from the direction of Pozo Verde; three returned that way. There were some boot prints around the body, but nothing much could be made of 'em. Howeverââ”
“Exactly the point I'm making,” said the man who had messed up the boot prints. “Sheriff, we've got our man. The two of 'em probably had a fight, and this hombre gunned him outâ¦.”
“Kilby,” the sheriff interrupted sarcastically, “I've made to run Sartoris County a long spell now without any help from you. When I need any assistance or advice I'll let you know.”
The man named Kilby reddened and fell silent.
“Hey,” Chiricahua discovered, “look at Bowman's hand. It's painted black!”
The sheriff grunted. “I already noted that. Don't understand it no more than you do.” He wheeled abruptly on Tolliver. “I figure you'll explain it.”
Tolliver shook his head. “I don't know any more about that painted hand of Bowman'sâif that's the dead man's nameâthan you do.”
“If I'm convinced I ain't saying so,” the sheriff snapped. “You might be speaking truth; again, you might not. Speaking of names, what's yours?” He came a step nearer Tolliver.
“So?” the sheriff jerked out. His eyes hardened a trifle. “I suppose Lance stands for Lancelot.”
There was some laughter from the other men. Tolliver's tanned features flushed a trifle. “You're supposing correct,” he said quietly.
“Cowman, I take it,” the sheriff snapped.
“You're right again.”
The law officer said dryly, “I usually am. Where you heading for?”
“Figured to get a job with some cow outfit.”
The sheriff smiled thinly. “I reckon you might as well postpone that for a spell. What did you kill Frank Bowman for?”
“Now, look here, Sheriff,” Tolliver exclaimed, “if you think I had anything to do with this killing you're mistakenââ”
“What say we string the coyote up?” Kilby interrupted.
The sheriff nodded. “Maybe that's a suggestion, but it will have to be done legal. Kilby, I told you once to keep out of my affairs. If you want to be useful you might remove this Tolliver'sâif that's his nameâbelt and gun.”
Kilby jerked his own six-shooter and approached Tolliver. “Stick 'em high, hombre,” he growled. “I'm relieving you of your hardware.”
There was no use resisting. Fighting down the indignant words that rose to his lips, Tolliver remained silent. He didn't put his arms in the air, merely held them well out from his sides, while Kilby unbuckled his cartridge belt, then, at the sheriff's order, buckled it again and hung it over the sheriff's shoulder.
The sheriff's eyes were boring into Tolliver's. “Where you been all day?” the sheriff demanded.
“On the trail, heading for Pozo Verde,” Tolliver replied. “If you want the whole story, I've been down in Mexico andââ”
“What were you doing in Mexico?” the sheriff snapped.
“Just riding around, looking at country I've never seen before.”
“Humph!” The sheriff's short grunt sounded skeptical. “I'd bet dollars to doughnuts you won't be able to prove that.”
The sheriff's manner was commencing to get under Tolliver's skin. “Maybe I'll do more than that when the right time comes,” he asserted coldly.
“Hah!” the sheriff jerked out. “Tough hombre, eh? I reckon we'll have to take that out of you.”
“You'll live to regret it if you try to take anything out of me,” Lance Tolliver said, steady voiced. “I've told you my business, given you my name. That's more than you've done.”
The sheriff laughed sarcastically. “Asking for an introduction, are you? Well, Mister Tough Hombre, if you must know, I'm Ethan Lockwood, Sheriff of Sartoris County. These fellers with me are known as Chiricahua Herrick, George Kilby, Bert Ridge, Larry Johnson and Luke Ordway. Don't expect 'em to shake hands with you. They don't like murderersââ”
“I tell you I didn't kill Bowmanââ” Tolliver protested.
“Don't lie to me,” Lockwood said savagely. “I want the truth. What was the idea? Did Bowman have some money you wanted? Come across. What was the quarrel between you two?”
“Hey, Sheriff,” Kilby suggested, “supposin' I search him?”
“I'll 'tend to that myself, later.” Lockwood scowled. “And I'll do all the talking, too, so keep shut. One way or t'other we're going to make this Lance Tolliver tell why he killed Frank Bowman. C'mon, fellerâspeak up!”
Lance smiled coldly. “I thought you were going to do
the talking, Sheriff.”
Lockwood's features crimsoned. “Now don't get too smart for your own good, Tolliver,” he advised ominously.
“A six-gun barrel bent over his conk,” Chiricahua
Herrick growled, “might act as a primer on his talk. What say, Sheriff?”
Lockwood shook his head. “If there's to be any gun whuppings handed out, I'll do it myself. I just reckon we'll take this murderin' sidewinder into my jail and prefer the usual chargesââ”