Authors: J. T. Edson
THE MAN FROM NOWHERE
Tring spurred his horse cruelly. Steel-shod hooves turned up dirt as the horse threw its weight against the taut rope, trying to tear the corral’s gate post from the earth. The man cursed savagely as the post held firm. He raked the struggling horse from neck to rump with sharp-rowelled petmakers, but to no avail.
From behind Freda came the crash of a shot. The rope split and the horse, suddenly relieved of the strain, stumbled forward throwing its rider over its head. Tring’s companions turned to see who had dared to interfere.
A small Texan stood in the doorway of the house, smoke rising lazily from the barrel of the Army Colt in his right hand. He looked at the hostile group of eight hard-case riders.
‘I’m taking cards,’ he said. ‘The name’s Dusty Fog.’
and his hired Double K gunmen had it all made. Mallick wanted all the land around Barlock, which meant buying out all the small ranchers. This was no problem, for if the ranchers were at first reluctant to sell, they soon changed their minds when they saw what would happen to them and their families if they refused.
Yes, everything was going Mallick’s way. It was, that is, until the day his gunmen arrived at the Lasalle ranch, intending to try out their own brand of persuasion, and found three men waiting for them.
The Ysabel Kid was one of the men. Mark Counter was another. The third man was small and insignificant looking . . . His name was Dusty Fog!
A CORGI BOOK 0 552 08139 6
Originally printed in Great Britain by
Brown Watson Ltd.
Brown Watson edition published 1964
Corgi edition published 1969
Corgi edition reprinted 1972
Corgi edition reprinted 1976
Copyright © Transworld Publishers Ltd. 1969
This low-priced Corgi Book has been completely reset in a type face designed for easy reading, and was printed from new plates. It contains the complete text of the original hard-cover edition.
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STANDING waist deep in the cool clear water of the swimming hole Freda Lasalle rubbed soap over her slender, naked young body. Overhead the sun, not yet at noonday height, gave forth enough warmth to make this outdoor bathing both pleasant and possible.
Only rarely these days did Freda, daughter of the ranch’s owner and sole woman of the house since the death of her mother, have a chance to bathe and swim in such complete freedom. The two cowhands her father hired were poor spirited men who would be only too willing to hide and watch her bathe, drooling over the sight of her naked beauty. However, her father took the two men to town with him earlier that morning and she had the ranch to herself.
Freda did not intend to miss such a chance. She had cleaned out the kitchen stove as her first chore after breakfast and wanted to wash the soot and grime from her body. Until her father returned from Barlock with supplies she could do nothing about making a meal so she took the time to bathe, stripping off her clothes in the house and running naked to the water, then plunging in to splash happily around.
The girl made an attractive picture as she stood working the soap lather into her short brown hair, although the only witness appeared to be the redbone hound which lay on the bank and watched her. She stood almost five foot six, a slim, willowy girl in her late teens, blossoming forth into full womanhood. Her face had charm, without being out and out beautiful. It was a warm, friendly face, one a man would not easily forget. Given another couple of years her figure would fully ripen and as yet the Texas Panhandle weather had not made her skin coarse or harshened the texture of her hair.
She looked at the small frame house with some pride, then ducked her head under the water to rinse the soap from her hair. The house might be small, but she kept it spotlessly clean and neat. Between the stream and the house stood a small pole corral, empty now, but large enough to hold the small remuda and harness horses they owned. To one side of the house stood a barn, stable and a couple more small wooden buildings, to the rear was a chicken pen and beyond that a backhouse.
On the side of the river away from her home a bank rose fairly steep in most places, but sloping down more gently to a ford below the swimming hole. Beyond the bank, a mile away, lay the two mile wide strip along which, by convention, the cattle herds stuck as they trailed north by the Lasalle place to the Kansas rail-heads. The passing herds caused little trouble and, as yet, the first of the new season had not come up from southern Texas.
Ever since her father came home from a Yankee prisoner-of-war camp, a sick man whose doctor warned he must get out into the dry plains country or die, this small ranch had been Freda’s home. In the early days their neighbours helped them build the house, showed Lasalle much he needed to know, joined in with such communal tasks as gathering the free-grazing herds of cattle and cutting out each other’s stock. The great trail drives wending their way north proved to be a boon to the small ranchers in this section. To the trail bosses they sold their surplus stocks, thus saving the expense of shipping the cattle north to market. True they might have made more money in Kansas, but the long drive north would eat that same money up, even if a small outfit handling maybe a couple of hundred head could have got through alone. Often too the trail bosses would turn over unwanted calves born on the way north and in that way helped bring new blood to the range.
In many ways it had been a lonely life for Freda, especially since her mother died. She grew up in healthy surroundings, free as a bird. Before her mother died she rode the range like a man, she could handle a horse, use a shotgun well enough and also could cook, mend or make clothes, do the chores a woman in a lonely ranch was expected to do.
Now she wondered how long the happy life might continue. To the north and west ran the great Double K ranch, the Lindon Land Grant, one of the huge open-range outfits for which Texas had long been famous. When Lindon owned and ran it the Double K took its share in the local round-ups, helping out the smaller and less fortunate folk. Then old man Lindon died and his sole kin, back east, sold out the holding to an Englishman called Sir James Keller. At least so rumour had it for nobody had seen the mysterious new owner.
They felt his presence though. Two days before Brent Mallick, the local Land Agent and attorney for the Double K, paid a visit to Lasalle’s and offered to buy them out. Freda remembered how Mallick smiled when her father refused the offer. There had been neither amusement nor friendship in the smile, nor on the faces of the two tough looking men who accompanied Mallick. She shuddered as she thought of Mallick’s smile, with its implied threat—
‘A Yankee rode into West Texas,
A mean kind of cuss and real sly,
He fell in love with sweet Rosemary-Jo,
Then turned and told her goodbye.’
The redbone hound came to his feet even before Freda heard the pleasant tenor voice singing an old cowhand song. She threw a startled glance to where the bank of the stream hid the singer from view. From the sound of his voice he must be coming straight towards the house.
‘So Rosemary-Jo told her tough pappy,
Who said, ‘Why hombre that’s bad,
In tears you done left my Rosemary-Jo,
No Yankee can make my gal sad”.’
The second verse of the Rosemary-Jo Lament came as Freda hurriedly waded out of the water. She grabbed up the towel from the shore and then ran for the house, the redbone following and helping scatter the chickens which scratched and pecked before the house.
‘He whipped out his two trusty hawg-legs,
At which he warn’t never slow,
When that Yankee done saw them a-spitting,
He said, “It is time for to go!” ’
Even as Freda reached the house and dashed inside, slamming the door behind her, she heard another verse of the song. The windows of the room stood open and as she could hear the singer clearly, she knew he must be close. She could hear the sound of more than one horse’s hooves.
‘He jumped on his fast running pinto,
Lit Out like hell for the west,
When Rosemary-Jo got her a fortune,
He come back and said, “I love you best”.’
Still drying herself Freda went to where she could peer out of a window and see the top of the river bank. Three riders came into sight, halting their horses at the head of the slope. Three cowhands from their dress, each astride a big, fine looking horse. The singer led a packpony which looked to be carrying their warbags and bed-rolls.
‘“No no” cried she in a minute,
“I love me a Texan so sweet,
And I’m going down to San Antone town,
My sweet, loving Texan to meet”.’
The singer lounged in his saddle at the left of the party. Sitting his huge white stallion with easy grace, there appeared to be something wild, almost alien about him. His black, low-crowned, wide-brimmed Stetson hat thrust back from curly hair so black it almost shone blue in the light and the face it framed looked to be Indian dark, very handsome, babyishly innocent and young. From hat, down through tight rolled bandana, shirt, gunbelt, levis trousers, to boots he wore but one colour, black. The blackness was relieved only by the white, ivory she guessed, hilt of the bowie knife at his left side and the walnut grips of the old Colt Dragoon revolver hanging at his right.
The young rider’s white horse moved restlessly, allowing her to see the low horned, double girthed Texas rig. That went without saying, a man who dressed in such a manner would use that kind of saddle. She also saw the butt of a rifle under the rider’s left leg.
‘So the Yankee went to the back country,
He met an old pal, Bandy Parr,
Who captained the Davis’ State Police,
And a meeting they held in the bar.
They did not appear to be in any hurry, she thought, finishing drying herself and grabbing up clothing. The rider at the right side took her attention next for she could never recollect seeing a finer figure of a man. He towered over the other two, three inches at least over the six-foot level. For all his great size, the width of his shoulders, the tapering to a slim waist, he sat his seventeen hand bloodbay stallion with easy grace. He looked to be a light rider, the sort of man who took less out of his mount than a smaller, though less skilful person.
His costly white Stetson carried a silver concha decorated band, was on the same pattern as the other two’s. It set on a head of golden blond hair, shading a face which had a classic, handsome cast of feature like those of a Greek god of old. His tan shirt had clearly been made to his measure, the bandana around his throat looked to be pure silk. In his dress he seemed to be something of a dandy, yet he also looked remarkably competent and those matched, ivory butted Army Colts in his holsters did not look like decorations, but hung just right for fast withdrawal.
Rosemary-Jo got word to her pappy,
He fogged on his strawberry roan,
And said, “From that ornery critter,
I’ll save Rosemary who’s my own”.’
By now Freda was struggling into her dress. Her head popped out of the neck like a squirrel peeping from its den-hole in a sycamore tree. She looked at the centre man of the trio. She gave him barely more than a glance for, compared with his friends, he faded into nothing.
He didn’t look tall like the other two, being at least six inches under the wiry six-foot length of the black-dressed, baby-faced boy. If his clothes were of as good quality as those worn by the others he did not have the flair to show them off so well. A costly black Stetson sat on his dusty blond hair. The face under the hat seemed to be handsome, though not as eye-catching as that of either of his friends. His shoulders had a width and appeared to be sturdy enough, but he faded into nothing compared with the giant build of the big blond. Even the brace of white handled 1860 Army Colts which rode butt forwards in his holsters did nothing to make him more noticeable. Freda smiled as she glanced at the gunbelt. The small, insignificant cowhand must badly want everyone to think of him as a real hard
and tried to improve the impression by going armed in the same manner as his friend.
‘Now the Yankee went down to San Antone,
Met the Texas boy out on the square,
But his draw was too slow, and as far as I know,
That Yankee’s still lying out there.’
With the final verse of the song ended the three men rode slowly down the slope. At that moment, for the first time, Freda realized her position, alone in the house and far from any help. Three strangers, gun-hung and handy looking, came riding down towards her. They could be hired hard-cases from Double K for by now all the old cowhands of the spread were gone, being replaced by men whose ability with guns exceeded their skill with cattle.
Freda turned from the window and headed to collect the shotgun which hung with a Le Mat carbine, over the fireplace. She took down the ten gauge, two barrelled gun, checked the percussion caps sat on their nipples and then stood uncertain as to what her next move should be.
‘Hello the house!’ called a voice from outside. ‘Can we ride through the water?’
Which did not seem like the action of a hard-case bunch coming to scare her father into selling the ranch. The girl realized she might be doing her callers less than justice with her suspicions. She crossed the room, leaned the shotgun by the door, opened it and stepped onto the small porch.
‘Come ahead,’ she called.
The Lasalle family might be poor, but they still offered hospitality to any passing stranger.
Slowly the big paint stallion, ridden by the smallest man, moved into the water, followed by the white, bloodbay and pack horse. Freda studied the horse, seeing it to be as fine looking and sizeable as either of his friends’ mounts. It didn’t look like the kind of horse one would expect so small and insignificant a man to be afork. Probably it belonged to that handsome blond giant and he allowed the small cowhand to ride it. Yet at that the small man must be better than fair with horses for the paint stallion did not look like the kind of animal to accept a man on it unless the man be its master.
Just as the men came ashore Freda felt something was wrong. Then she realized what. She had not fastened her dress up the back! The men were ashore now and she needed to think fast, to gain time to make the necessary adjustments. A flash of inspiration came to her.
‘Take the horses around back,’ she told the three men. ‘Let them graze while you come in for a meal.’
Not until the three men rode around the house and out of sight did Freda move. Then she stepped back into the house and began to fumble with the dress fastenings. At the same moment she realized that apart from a few eggs the ranch could offer its guests nothing by way of food.
The front of the house consisted of one big room, serving as both dining and sitting room. The kitchen and three small bedrooms all opened off the front room, a handy arrangement from the girl’s point of view. She entered the kitchen, saw the coffeepot stood ready and looked to her skillet ready to fry eggs. Through the window she saw her guests removing the saddles from their horses.
Freda opened the kitchen door and stepped out, getting her first close-up look of the three men. The blond giant looked even more handsome close up and Freda wished she had donned her best dress instead of this old working gingham. She hardly gave the small man a glance, although his face did seem older and more mature. The dark boy seemed even younger now he was in close. His face looked innocent — until one looked at the eyes. They were red hazel in colour, wild, reckless, savage eyes. They were not the eyes for such an innocent face. If the youngster was, as she had thought at first glance, only sixteen they had been sixteen dangerous and hard-living years to give him such eyes.
‘Howdy ma’am,’ greeted the small man, removing his hat as he saw her and showing he had some strength in his small frame for he held the heavy double girthed saddle in his left hand. ‘Thank you kindly for the offer.’
‘Sure is kind, ma’am,’ agreed the giant, his voice also a Texas drawl, but deep and cultured. ‘Our cooking’s not what it used to be.’
‘And never has been,’ grinned the dark boy, looking even younger and more innocent as he swept off the Stetson hat.
Watching the men walk towards her Freda wished she had taken time out to put on a pair of shoes and tidy her hair which still fluffed out and showed signs of washing. Yet there had been time for none of it and she must make do as she was.