Read The Smoking Iron Online

Authors: Brett Halliday

The Smoking Iron (2 page)

Pat snorted something indistinguishable and handed the photograph back to Ben Thurston. He said shortly, “We'll mail yore letter in Dutch Springs,” and shook the lines out over the backs of the impatient team. They swung away in an eager trot, then into a lope as they felt no restraining hand on the lines.

Sally relaxed against her husband and began laughing softly. “You look so stern and grim-faced, Pat. What's the matter?”

“Ridin' by stagecoach,” he muttered. “If that gal's in real trouble, God pity her … dependin' on a sissy like Ben Thurston. Him an' his daddy's old gun! I betcha he don't know which end shoots.”

Sally stopped laughing and snuggled against him. “These are different times from when you were young, Pat. Like enough the girl's trouble isn't anything that requires gun-play. Maybe she's got mice in her bureau drawers.”

“Not that gal,” Pat muttered. “She wouldn't be writin' letters for any man to help her get rid of mice.”

“I know,” Sally said instantly. “I didn't really mean that, Pat.” She hesitated. “She … is awfully pretty.”

“She's more'n pretty, an' you know it,” Pat told her angrily. “That gal's got plenty of nerve. If she says she's in trouble, I betcha it's real trouble.” He tightened his grip on the lines, spoke soothingly to the bays and slowly brought them down from a gallop to a fast trot.

Sally sat up and nodded thoughtfully. “I had the queerest feeling when I looked at her picture. As if I ought to recognize it. As if I'd known her some place.”

“You know why?” Pat didn't look at his wife.

“No, I can't imagine, Pat. We certainly never met her.” Sally looked at him in surprise.

“She looks like you, Sally. Like you looked twelve years ago.”

“Oh, no. You're imagining things, Pat. Why, that girl is a brunette. Her eyes are brown.”

“No matter about that,” he insisted stubbornly. “It was like I was looking at you again, Sally. It's not the color of her eyes that counts,” he went on slowly. “It's what she says with 'em. What shows through from the inside … from the kinda person she is. That's what I'm talkin' about. I'm thinkin' about that first time I saw you … at Hopewell Junction. When you were expectin' to be met by a man you were married to but didn't hardly know. You were scared, but … you wouldn't let yoreself be scared. Remember that day, Miz Stevens?”

“As though I'd ever forget it, Pat.” Sally put one hand on his hard forearm and her fingers tightened there. She was silent for a moment, then she recalled dreamily, “And as soon as I saw you I knew I'd never be frightened again, Pat. I
knew
everything would be all right.”

“An'
this
gal is waitin' for Ben Thurston to get off the stage,” Pat muttered. “You reckon she's gonna feel that way as soon as she sees
him?

Sally puckered up her lips to laugh, but no laughter came forth. She sighed instead. A sadly rueful sigh. “You're making me feel sorry for her … depending on Ben for help. But that's silly,” she went on brightly. “Katie Rollins won't be needing the kind of man I needed. Things have changed in the last twelve years. She can't be in any real danger.”

“The Katie ranch lies in the Big Bend of the Rio Grande,” Pat told her quietly.

“But that's still the United States. There's law there.”

“You don't know much about the Big Bend,” Pat said harshly.

“What about it?”

“The more civilized the rest of the country has got in the last few years, the worse the Big Bend has got. It's right there handy to the Border … the real owlhoot trail leadin' south. The Mex town of Boracho ain't far from Hermosa where this letter's addressed to. An' Boracho is a hangout for outlaws an' killers. The only law in the Big Bend,” he ended grimly, “is what a man carries on his own hip.”

Sally shrank away from him on the buckboard seat with a little cry of dismay. “Ben Thurston won't be much good in a place like that.”

“That,” agreed Pat quietly, “is what I was thinkin'.”

The team of bays went on toward Dutch Springs at a fast trot. Sitting safe and secure beside her husband in the rocking buckboard, Sally Stevens' thoughts went back over the turbulent decade that was behind them. Powder Valley had not been a safe nor secure place twelve years before when she first came to live there. Then, the only law in that part of Colorado had been what a man carried in a leather holster. Pat Stevens had had a large part in changing things to what they were now. Pat and his two partners, Sam Sloan and huge, one-eyed Ezra. The guns of those three had built up a real respect for the forces of decency and order in the Valley. Not always legally, but always fighting for the right, the trio had cleaned up the Valley and made it into a safe place for a man to rear his family.

With a little shudder, she realized that this same thing had been going on all over the West at the same time. In countless other communities, other men like Pat and his partners had been making other places safe for law-abiding people. The outlaws and gunmen had been driven to find refuge some place else. Places like the Big Bend of the Rio Grande where the proximity of the Mexican Border offered them refuge.

Without quite realizing the import of her words, Sally said, “It's too bad you and Sam and Ezra have broken up your threesome. Going to the rescue of Katie Rollins in the Big Bend is just the sort of thing you three would have jumped at ten years ago.”

“I was sort of thinkin' the same thing,” he admitted regretfully. “But I'm all settled down here with a wife that's gettin' old an' with a growin' boy.”

“I'm not so old,” Sally flashed at him.

Pat grinned slyly. “Too old to be sending yore husband off on any foolishment like that.”

“Of course,” Sally agreed strongly. “It would be foolishness.”

Pat slapped his lines on the backs of the sleek bays to speed their trot a little. He didn't say anything.

“Besides,” said Sally resentfully, “Sam Sloan is married now and hardly over his honeymoon. And he's got an important job riding the Pony Express.”

“That's right. Pore ol' Sam. He's hawgtied for sure.” Pat shook his head sadly from side to side.

Sally darted him a quick glance, but his face expressed only sorrow for the plight of his one-time gun-partner.

“And Ezra's settled down and working too,” she reminded him. “Taking care of that Pony Express station, he can't go traipsing off on any foolish adventures either.”

“He sure can't. Not 'less he got somebody else to take his place at the station. Makes me feel kinda sorry for Ezra,” Pat went on feelingly. “He ain't never been tied down like that before with a steady job.”

“But it's good for him,” Sally said sternly.

“Sure it is,” Pat agreed in a meek tone. “I reckon.”

Sally didn't say anything for a long time. She sat erect in the seat, tapping her toe against the floor of the buckboard and staring straight ahead, her lips compressed tightly. Glancing aside at her from time to time, Pat couldn't see her face, hidden as it was by the pink sunbonnet. He wondered what she was thinking about.

He found out after a short time. In a curiously muffled voice, she asked hesitantly:

“Do you still plan to pick up some two-year-old heifers to stock the south pasture this fall?”

“I ain't rightly decided. Not at the price a man has to pay hereabouts for heifers.”

Another, shorter pause followed. Then: “Have you thought any more about picking up some cheap Mexican stock … from down on the border?”

“I've been thinkin' about it some,” he replied carefully. “I ain't plumb sure it's worth makin' a trip that far just to see if a man can pick up a bargain.”

“Seems to me,” said Sally strongly, “that it would be well worth it. That south pasture was hardly grazed at all last winter. It's a waste to let the grass lie.”

“That's right. I reckon it is.”

“If you're hesitating about making a buying trip on my account, I wish you wouldn't,” Sally told him primly. Dock and I will get along fine on the ranch without you.”

“I sort of hate to go alone,” Pat confessed. “It's a long ride down into Texas.”

“You could go by stagecoach.”

“Sure. An' a goat could fly … if the Lord had given him wings.”

“How about … Ezra?”

“I dunno as I should mention it to him. Oh, he'd go like a shot. But mebby he shouldn't leave his Pony Express station. It bein' the first steady job he ever held down.”

“But you said he could likely get someone to take care of the station if he went away on a trip.”

“Yeh. I reckon he could.”

“Please, Pat.” Sally's voice throbbed strongly. She laid her hand on his arm. “I think you should.”

“Go on a buyin' trip for heifers?”

“Yes. Down to the Big Bend.”

Pat said wonderingly, “I'll never be able to figure you out, old lady. You're always one jump ahead of me.” He put his arm about her shoulders and his palm against her sunbonneted cheek. He turned her, crushing her against him and forcing the sunbonnet back on her head while his lips sought hers.

2

There were still two hours of early summer sunlight when Sally Stevens finished her weekly shopping. While Mr. Winters was carefully placing the supplies in the back of the buckboard, she sent a boy to the Gold Eagle Saloon to tell Pat she was ready to go.

Pat emerged through the swinging doors almost immediately and sauntered down the boardwalk to the store with a faint look of guilt on his face. Sally noted that look with a little inward smile. Though they'd been married twelve years she had never been able to convince him that she
wanted
him to meet his friends in the saloon and have a few companionable drinks while she was doing her shopping. Other husbands had to sneak into the saloon on like occasions, and Pat had never got rid of the feeling that he ought by rights to sneak in too.

As he came up to her in front of the store, Sally took his arm and said gaily, “Don't look like that, Pat, and don't start telling me how many drinks you haven't had. You ought to know by this time that I don't care.”

The storekeeper glanced over his shoulder at them as he placed the last case of canned goods in the buckboard and said disapprovingly, “I thought you two were married.”

Pat put his arm about Sally's slim waist and grinned at Mr. Winters. “You know we're old married folks.”

“I've been
thinking
that for a lot of years, but dogged if I'm not beginning to wonder but what you're living in sin. No
wife
I ever knew treated a man like Sally treats you, Pat,”

His grin widened and he swung Sally toward the loaded buckboard. “He's just an old man with evil thoughts, Sally. Hop up an' we'll drive off 'fore we get insulted.”

Sally bit her under lip to keep from laughing as Pat sat down beside her. She said, “We're not going to be old married folks, are we? Ever?”

“Not as long as you keep lookin' like a gal that oughtn't to be let out of her mama's sight,” Pat assured her comfortably. “Nor as long as you send me off to help some gal ain't neither of us ever seen.”

“I thought you were going to the Big Bend on a buying trip for Mexican heifers,” Sally countered demurely.

“Oh, sure. I'd mighty near forgot the heifers.” Pat Stevens paused, then added with a pleased smile, “Got to talkin' to ol' Jeff Harkness in the Gold Eagle. He's agreeable to takin' care of the Express Station for Ezra next two or three weeks.”

Sally said, “You're not wasting any time fixing things up.”

“Can't afford to. Not if I'm going to ride into Marfa before that stage gets there next Friday.”

They were approaching a crossroads east of town where the road forked due south into the mountains. Sally turned in the seat to look back at the sun hanging well above the jagged Continental Divide, and suggested, “There's enough time to drive out to the Express station if you want. Then we could take the shortcut direct to the ranch.”

Pat nodded as though no such thought had been in his mind. “All right. If yo're dead-set on it.” He pulled the team of bays into the right-hand fork.

“I'd like to see how Kitty Lane has things fixed up at the station,” Sally murmured.

“Kitty Sloan,” Pat reminded her. “
Mrs
. Kitty Sloan.”

“Is Sam happy with her, Pat?” Sally's voice suddenly became serious.

“As happy as an old prospector that hits it rich after forty years of tryin' an' failin'.”

“It seems so queer. I just can't imagine Sam Sloan married.”

“He's settled down to it like any hawse after he's broke to harness. Kitty's like you, Sally. She's got sense enough to know a man don't change his ways just because he's stood up in front of a preacher. Only thing is, it's sort of tough on Ezra livin' there with 'em.”

“I should think he'd like it. Having a woman to do the cooking and keeping house.”

Pat grinned wryly. “He misses them topheavy flapjacks he used to line his belly with every mornin'. The ones Kitty makes are so light he can't never get filled up. An' she's got a funny idee that a coffeepot had ought to be washed out an' set away ever time it's used. Never does give the coffee a chance to get strong an' bitter like it does after three days of simmering with the old grounds left in.”

Sally laughed musically at Pat's description of the redheaded bachelor's predicament. She knew that what he said was at least partially true. In the past, she had tried to persuade Ezra to come and live with them but had always received some evasive excuse from the one-eyed giant. She had a feeling, though, that it went much deeper than a mere liking for his own peculiar brand of cooking. Though Ezra was outwardly rough and uncouth, Sally knew that he was inwardly very sensitive about the ugly facial deformity that had taken one of his eyes and terribly scarred his face. He was conscious that his ugliness made him repulsive to most women and that he could never hope to have a wife and family of his own, and that very fact, Sally was sure, made it dreadfully hard for him to see his partners happily married. It hadn't been so bad when he and Sam Sloan lived together after Pat's defection; but now that Sam had gone and gotten married too …

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