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Authors: Brett Halliday

The Smoking Iron

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The Smoking Iron

A Powder Valley Western

Brett Halliday writing as Peter Field

1

Pat Stevens hooked the last trace on the double-tree of the buckboard and stepped back from the team of matched bays. He brushed the dust from his hands with a bandanna and thrust it back into the left hip pocket of his blue jeans, and then turned to look up the slope toward the door of the Lazy Mare ranch house.

The door was still closed and there wasn't any sign of Sally. Pat shook his head and sighed ruefully while he tried to keep the feeling of irritation down. It was the middle of the afternoon and Sally wasn't yet ready for the weekly trip into Dutch Springs for supplies.

He'd purposely taken his time about harnessing the team, doing a lot of little things that didn't really need doing just to give her more leeway so she'd be ready to leave by the time he was finished. But she was probably inside primping. Trying to decide which sunbonnet to wear into Dutch Springs, he reckoned.

A slow grin replaced the beginning of a scowl on Pat's sun-bronzed face. It was like this every week, by golly. They'd been married a dozen years now, but Sally still felt she had to primp like a bride just for the weekly ride into town. A man would think she wasn't satisfied with him for a husband: that she hoped to make another conquest every time she rode into town. He'd have to josh her about that while they were riding in. And then she'd blush, and …

He heard the door of the ranch house open hurriedly behind him and then close with a little bang. He picked up the lines and turned the bays to cramp a front wheel so his wife could get in without dirtying her skirt, then turned with a wide grin as she ran lightly down the path toward the buckboard.

She had chosen the pink sunbonnet. For a moment he was ready to admit that maybe the primping had been worth while. She looked, by golly,
like
a bride. Only, prettier than most of the young girls around Powder Valley. He decided he wouldn't josh her about looking for another husband. Might give her an idea. And she was too durned pretty …

As she came up to the buckboard, Sally Stevens asked breathlessly, “Are you all ready? My, but you got hitched up fast.”

Pat got rid of the grin and said gravely, “I've got to be fast to keep up with you. Most wives, I've heard tell, are likely to keep their men waitin' while they primp for a trip into town, but danged if you don't just thrown on any old thing like that pink sunbonnet an' you're all ready.”

Sally looked at him searchingly and then touched the bonnet with anxious fingers. “Doesn't it look all right? I could go back and get the blue one.…”

“You don't need to bother,” Pat told her hastily. He took her hand to help her into the seat. “For an old woman you do right well.” He tightened the lines and stepped up on the hub to slide onto the seat beside her.

Sally Stevens turned her head to listen as the sound of a trotting horse came from behind them. She put her hand on his arm and said, “Wait a minute, Pat. Someone's riding up from the south.”

Pat said, “Probably just one of the boys,” but turned to look behind them also. He pushed his hat back and grunted his surprise as he recognized the figure of the approaching rider. “Looks like Tom Thurston's boy.”

“It is, Pat. And he's spurring his horse up now that he sees us waiting. He's probably got a grocery list from Mrs. Thurston for us to get in town.”

“An' he's rode his hawse down to a frazzle gettin' here,” muttered Pat disapprovingly. He scowled darkly but held the team of bays up and waited while the young man approached on a badly winded black gelding.

Ben Thurston was twenty years old, but he looked much younger with an unshaven fuzz on his pimply cheeks and with his slight figure sitting awkwardly in the big stock saddle. He had been back East to college for two years and had absorbed a lot of city ways while away from Colorado. Instead of the conventional range attire of any other youth in the valley, he wore tight-waisted city pants, a pink and white striped shirt with a yellow silk bandanna knotted loosely about his neck, and a narrow-brimmed white Panama hat on his head. The fancy headgear wasn't very effective in keeping the western sun from his face, and there were ugly red patches of blistered skin between the pimples on his thin cheeks.

He jerked his tired mount up roughly as he came to the side of the buckboard and panted, “Hello, Mr. and Mrs. Stevens,” out of cracked lips.

Pat said, “Hello, Ben. Goin' to college ain't taught you much about takin' care of a saddle hawse on a hot day like this.”

Ben Thurston shrugged his thin shoulders and snorted thinly. “What's a horse for but to ride? I was hurrying to catch you before you started out to town.”

“I suppose your mother sent a grocery list?” Sally leaned past Pat with a smile that was designed to take some of the sting from her husband's gruff manner. “We'll be glad to get whatever she wants, Ben.”

“It's more important than that, Mrs. Stevens. A lot more important.” The youth twisted sideways in the saddle and reached in his hip pocket to pull out a white envelope. “I got a letter here I'd sure like for you to mail in time to catch the Pony Express.”

Pat reached for the letter and Sally laughed softly and asked, “A letter to your sweetheart back East, Ben?”

He flushed painfully and shook his head and tried to look important. “No, Ma'm. It's to a girl all right. But not back East.” He hesitated, then went on boastfully. “She's depending on me, you see, and she'll be waiting mighty anxious until that letter comes telling her I'm coming to help her.”

Pat Stevens shrugged impatiently and said, “All right, Ben. We'll see that …” but Sally nudged him and interrupted. “It sounds awfully interesting, Ben. Are you going on a trip?”

“It sure is interesting. Just like a story out of a book.” It was clear that Ben Thurston was dying to tell them all about the mysterious letter and the girl. He leaned forward over the saddle horn and explained confidentially, “She's in mighty terrible trouble, and she figures I'm the only one that can help her out. Naturally, a man can't turn down an appeal like that.”

Pat snorted over the boy's use of the word “man,” but Sally nudged him indignantly again and urged Ben on with an eager question, “Who
is
the girl and what sort of trouble is she in?”

“Her name's Katie Rollins. It's written right there on the envelope. I guess maybe you've heard of the K T ranch … down on the Mexican border?” He looked at Pat for confirmation.

Pat grunted, “Yeh. I've heard of the Katie spread all right. What's she writin' to
you
for?”

“That's where the storybook part of it comes in,” Ben told them eagerly. “My Pa and Jim Rollins used to be partners way back forty or fifty years ago.” He waved his hand vaguely. “They wrote letters back and forth every three-four years until maybe ten years ago. And they had a joke between them that when Katie Rollins and I got old enough—why, we'd get married. That was just a sort of joke, of course,” he went on hastily, blushing again. “But when Katie's Pa died last year the last thing he told her was if she ever got up against anything she couldn't handle herself that she was to write to my Pa for help. And that's what she did last week,” he ended triumphantly.

“That is like a storybook,” Sally agreed excitedly. “It's as romantic as everything. I suppose she's awfully pretty, and she's a rich heiress, and you'll fall in love with her at first sight and get married just like your fathers planned.”

“Well, she's pretty, all right.” The bright red blush stayed on Ben Thurston's face as he dug in his shirt pocket for a small photograph. “She sent this along in her letter.” He offered them the picture.

Pat took it from Ben's hand and held it for Sally to see. The girl was pretty, though more than mere facial prettiness looked up at Pat and his wife from Katie Rollins' picture. She had a firm chin and a wide mouth with just the faintest hint of a smile turning up the outer corners of her lips. Her eyes were wide-spaced and very grave, with a sort of breathless appeal about them. A look of expectancy; of serene belief that the world was good and that life held much in store for her.

Pat Stevens felt his thumb and forefinger tighten on the tiny bit of cardboard between them. The girl was looking directly up into his eyes, and a queer pain of remembering tugged at his heart as he stared back. He turned his head slowly and saw that the laughter had gone out of Sally's face close to his. Pat looked at Sally as though he hadn't seen her for a long time, then turned back to the young man on horseback.

“What kinda trouble did you say this girl has got, Ben?”

“I don't know. It must be something pretty bad. She said she couldn't write it all in a letter, but she's terribly afraid of something and doesn't know where else to get help but from her father's old partner. So Pa said I'd better get on the stage and go right down there to see about it. And I'm going to take his old gun with me because it may be rustlers or something there on the border,” he added importantly.

“You goin' on the stage?” Pat asked in surprise.

“Sure. That letter you've got tells her I'll get to Marfa next Friday. Marfa's where I get off the stage from El Paso and catch another one to Hermosa. That's where she lives.”

“You could ride it in less'n a week, 'stead of goin' all the way around by stage,” Pat muttered.

The young man shrugged and said petulantly, “It's a mighty hard ride on horseback. I figure I'll save my strength by riding on stagecoach and I'll be in better shape to cope with danger when I get there.”

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