Authors: Brett Halliday
“What makes you think she'll have you?”
Ben laughed self-consciously. “I guess she will, all right. It was a sort of joke when we were little â¦ between our fathers. They always said we'd get married when we grew up. I guess maybe she's been wondering why I didn't come to see her. Maybe that's the real reason why she wrote the letter, not because of any trouble at all. You know how girls are. Not wanting to come right out and ask a man.”
Dusty was conscious of an intense feeling of dislike for his coach companion. He asked, “Has she seen a picture of you?”
“Not since I was five years old. She'll be surprised, all right, when she sees me tomorrow morning.”
Dusty said, “Yeh. I reckon she will.” It made him sort of sick to think about it: to think about a girl waiting eagerly and hopefully for a man to help herâand then drawing something like Ben Thurston. It was a downright shame. But she was a girl after all. The same sex as Rosa. He was a damn fool to be feeling sorry for her. She probably wasn't any better than Rosa. Writing letters to a man she'd never seen!
But he knew in his heart that she was different from Rosa. No girl could look like the one in the picture without being pretty much all right. He'd bet she was on the square. If he wasn't ridin' for the Border with a posse behind him, by God, he might stop off in Hermosa his ownself to see what kinda fix she was in. If she needed a gun-hand â¦
But it wasn't any good thinking about that. He couldn't stop this side of the Rio Grande. No decent girl like Katie Rollins would ever look at him again. One mistake in Marfa had ended all that for him. Forever. By running away like this he'd practically admitted his guilt.
He began to wish he'd stayed behind. No matter what Pat Stevens said, there were some things worse than just dying. Looking into Katie's eyes had made him realize that. If he'd ever known a girl like Katie he wouldn't have been attracted by Rosa.
But there wasn't any use going back over things. What was done was done. He was a fugitive riding for his life; and a hopeful-eyed Katie Rollins was waiting at Hermosa for a dude from Colorado to come and help her out of trouble.
Dusty grimaced and swallowed down a bad taste in his mouth, then rolled another cigarette. Ben Thurston remained silent. He began to snore softly after a little time. The stagecoach rocked along behind galloping horses, and there was still no sound of pursuit. After a time Dusty nodded and also slept.
He slept fitfully in the bouncing coach, half-rousing now and then to listen for the sound of hoofbeats behind them, dozing off again after convincing himself there was no immediate danger.
He came awake suddenly with the sound of revolver shots ringing in his ears. He heard a hoarse shout of alarm from the driver, and then his gun answering the shots.
Dusty came out of his seat with his gun in hand. He figured that the posse had cut around in front to stop the coach, but he wondered why they were firing on the driver and why the driver was replying.
The driver stopped shooting suddenly, and the coach lurched forward at a mad pace. Ben Thurston awoke and cried out excitedly, “What is it? What's happening?”
“Holdup, I reckon. An' they got the driver. Hawses are runnin' wild.”
Two more shots sounded through the night and there was a shrill scream of agony from one of the horses. The coach tilted up precariously with one wheel on a rock, then overturned and went grinding and sliding down a steep hillside.
Tangled in their harness, the six horses were carried along, kicking and struggling to be free.
Dusty gripped a seat and remained crouched on the floor until the overturned coach reached the bottom of the hill. Ben Thurston began fighting his way toward the double doors which were now overhead, whimpering, “We'll be killed. We've got to get out.”
“Wait,” Dusty said sharply. “Don't open that door. They'll be waitin' outside.”
A bullet crashed through the floor of the coach beside him as he spoke. He fired back, and a heavy voice shouted, “Come out through the door with your hands up an' mebby you won't get hurt. We only want one of you.”
“He's talkin' about me.” Dusty said quietly. “Lemme go â¦”
But Ben was fighting the door latch, tearing at it with his fingernails. He thrust one of the doors open while Dusty was groping his way toward him, pushed his head and shoulders through the aperture and shouted, “I'm coming out. I'm Ben Thurston from Colorado and â¦”
A revolver shot cut him short, the bullet smashing his words back into his mouth. As he sagged back to the floor, another bullet crashed through the top of his head, lifting the upper part away neatly.
Dusty lunged forward to catch him, pushed his body aside, and peered over the edge of the door with his gun balanced in front of him.
In the grim grayness of pre-dawn, he saw two mounted figures galloping away down a narrow draw into which the stage had toppled. He emptied his gun after the killers, but it was too far for accurate shooting. In a moment they were gone. Dead silence blanketed the scene, broken only by the frenzied breathing of trapped horses and their efforts to escape from the tangled harness.
Dusty stood there a moment staring somberly after the fleeing men. They certainly weren't members of the posse. But they didn't act like holdup men either. It didn't make sense. Killing the driver and wrecking the stage and then galloping off without any booty. He broke his gun mechanically and reloaded it from one of his belts, then slid it back in his holster. He was in a hell of a fix now, sure enough. Trapped here in the wrecked stage, and with the posse likely to sweep up any minute. It would be daylight soon. They'd track him down sure if he tried to get away and reach the Border.
After a long moment of sober consideration, Dusty struck a match and bent down to examine the body of Ben Thurston. Most of the Colorado lad's face had been shot away by the two well-aimed bullets, leaving only a smashed and bloody pulp above the collar of his striped shirt.
A small square of white cardboard showed beneath the fingers of Ben's right hand. Dusty stopped to pick it up. It was the picture of Katie Rollins which Ben had showed him so proudly a short time before.
The match burned out in Dusty's fingers while he stared down at the picture. In the resulting darkness, he still saw it plainly. The hopeful eyes and the hint of a smile curving her wide lips. It was almost morning. And she would be waiting for Ben Thurston in Hermosa. A Ben Thurston whom she had never seen, but whom she trusted for help in whatever danger threatened her.
As he thought about it, Dusty decided maybe it was lucky this had happened to Ben Thurston before he reached Hermosa. Lucky for Ben and for Katie Rollins. Ben had died thinking of himself as a sort of hero; he wouldn't have to see the disappointment he would have brought Katie when she saw the ineffectual youth who had answered her call for help.
And it would be easier on Katie too. She wouldn't have any false hopes to get rid of later.
Then he shook his head angrily and turned his thoughts to his own predicament. He had to get out of this deathtrap fast. He knew he must still be fifteen or twenty miles from the Border. If the posse knew he was a passenger on the coach, his position was extremely precarious.
A daring idea came to him as he swiftly considered all possibilities. Why not give the posse a victim? Here at his feet was one made to order. He wasn't well-known in Marfa. He and Ben Thurston were near enough of a size for the dead body to be accepted as his if it was found wearing his clothing. And he could go on to Hermosa as Ben Thurston. No one in Hermosa had ever seen Ben.
He made his decision quickly and knelt beside the corpse. He stripped the boy's pants off and replaced them with his own blue jeans, then twisted the lifeless body to pull off the coat and striped shirt. It was a job getting his faded shirt and leather jacket back onto the lifeless body, but he accomplished the task finally and steeled himself to getting into the dead youth's clothing.
The pants were a trifle long and tight in the hips, the coat bound his shoulders and the cuffs came high up on his wrists, but he reckoned they'd do until he could replace them with new-bought clothing. Ben had a six-gun buckled around his waist, his daddy's old gun, Dusty supposed, and he left it there. He wore his own hat and kept the picture of Katie Rollins and a leather wallet which he found in Ben's coat pocket. He left some papers of his own in his clothes on Ben and a small part of his money, just to make it look all regular to the posse.
It was breaking dawn in the east when he drew in a deep breath and climbed out of the overturned stage. He felt funny constricted in the new clothes, but a driving compulsion to be away from the scene dissipated any feeling of squeamishness about the transaction.
He hesitated outside the stage, listening intently down the road, but could hear nothing as yet to show that pursuers were near.
Some of the horses were still snorting and kicking feebly in their tangled harness. Dusty went around to them and and found that both wheelers and one of the lead team were dead. The leader was shot, and the other two had suffered broken necks in the tumble down the hillside. One of the middle team had a broken leg. Dusty killed him with a bullet through his head. His mate and the other leader struggled frantically to escape, and Dusty quieted them with soothing words while he disentangled the harness and got them free. He turned the leader loose, but kept the bridle on the other unharmed horse, a rangy sorrel who had old saddle marks on his back. He cut the leather lines off short to serve as reins, then lightly vaulted on to the sorrel's bare back.
He snorted and made a half-hearted effort to bow up, but he was broken to ride, and he lunged away at a lope when Dusty roweled him and headed him down the arroyo in the same direction taken by the two holdup men.
A quarter of a mile away, the deep ravine widened out into a greasewood flat and crossed the stage road which angled around from the top of the steep cliff over which the coach had fallen.
The hoofprints of the killers' horses turned out of the arroyo onto the road. Dusty Morgan did likewise, keeping the sorrel at a steady gallop that ate up the miles.
The sun rose behind him, showing a desolate country here as the road neared the Border. The stagecoach had crossed a low range of mountains southwest of Marfa, from which the terrain sloped downward through foothills and badlands into the sweeping valley of the Rio Grande. Beyond the river, the slope rose sharply to the foot of towering snow-capped Mexican peaks.
On the American side the ground was badly cut by small gullies and dry washes, and vegetation consisted of stunted mesquite and greasewood. There was little grass for stock, and Dusty saw few grazing cows as he rode along.
He wondered about that. He'd always heard of the Big Bend as a fine cow country, had envisioned it as rich with grass and running streams. But this part of it was as bad as the alkali flats up on the Pecos where he had been reared; wouldn't support more'n a dozen jack rabbits to the acre, two or three head of stock to every section, maybe.
He began to wonder if the huge and properous Katie ranch was only a myth, or if he'd somehow got turned off in the wrong direction during the night. But the stage driver had said he was headed for Hermosa; and that had been Ben Thurston's destination too.
The country did get a little better, he noticed, as the road veered in toward the river. Not a whole lot better, but there were some good patches of bunch grass and the lacy mesquite bushes were putting out a good crop of beans. There were more cattle too, but none that he saw carried the K T brand. Most of them had an X L on their sides, whitefaces who lifted their heads and stared after him mournfully as he rode by on the road bareback.
He was plenty conscious of the harness bridle and the lack of a saddle as the sun rose higher behind him and he knew he must be getting nearer to Hermosa. It wasn't part of his plan to tell anyone that he'd come from the wrecked stage, and he knew he had to get rid of the sorrel with the tell-tale blinders on his bridle before he met anyone.
But he wanted to ride in as close as possible, not being very partial to foot-walking in his high-heeled boots, so he kept on down the dusty road at a lope, watching ahead and behind him for sight of another rider before he was seen.
He was almost on the village of Hermosa before he realized it. Three miles back the road had turned sharply to the right and followed the slope downward toward what he guessed would be the Rio Grande, though he couldn't see any sign of a river ahead.
Abruptly, the road reached the edge of a sheer limestone cliff where it angled sharply downward.
And there was the river and a town right below him. A bunch of sunbaked adobe houses squatting on a narrow strip of flat land between the base of the cliff and the river. There were giant cottonwoods along the edge of the water, interspersed with clumps of cedar.
He pulled up sharply and slid off the sorrel's back. These must be the rimrocks he'd heard about. Further south they narrowed into a deep gorge cut by the river, but all along here there was a varying expanse between the base of the rimrocks and the placid river.
Dusty led the sorrel back along the road where he couldn't be seen from below and slid the bridle off his head. He said, “Go to it, boy,” and gave him a light whack with the reins. The sorrel snorted and trotted forward down the road, over the rimrocks and down toward the village.
If the people in Hermosa didn't already know about the holdup and stage wreck, Dusty knew they'd do some speculating when the sorrel came trotting in, unharnessed and alone. Even if he wasn't recognized as one of the six-horse team, the collar and harness marks were plain on him and they'd know he was running away from something.
Instead of following the horse down, Dusty turned off the road and went back on foot along the jagged rim, keeping out of sight of the town until a bulge gave him chance to get down undetected.