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He rode up to Miller's Crossing just after sundown and stopped at the stage station. Stepping down from the saddle he stood for a moment, taking in the street, the storefronts, and the lighted saloons.
Turning abruptly he crossed the boardwalk into a saloon. The bartender looked up, swallowed hard, and then turned quickly to polishing the back bar. The loafers at the tables glanced at each other, and one picked up a deck of cards and began riffling them nervously.
Bowdrie's question warned them they had not been mistaken. "Where'll I find Noah Whipple?"
The bartender's Adam's apple bobbed. "Hetheythey shot him."
Bowdrie's eyes were cold. The bartender swallowed again and shifted his feet uncomfortably, staring in fascination at the man with the dimplelike scar under the cheekbone below his right eye.
"It was Aaron Fobes done it, Mr. Bowdrie. He's one o' the Ballards."
Bowdrie stood silent, waiting.
"About two this afternoon. They come ridin' in, five of them. Four got down an' come in here. The other'n stayed by the horses. They looked to be a purty salty outfit. They'd been ridin' hard by the look of the horses.
"They took a quick look around when they come in and paid no attention after. They seen everything with that first look. We all knew who they was, even without that holdup over at Benton where they killed the cashier. Everybody knows the Ballards are ridin' again and there ain't two gangs alike.
"The tall one I spotted right off. Had a blaze of white hair over his temple. That would be Clyde Ballard. He's a known man in Texas, from the Rio Grande to the Cimarron.
"The tall gent with the towhead, that would be Cousin Northup, and the slim, dark-faced youngster was Tom Ballard. The other two was Aaron Fobes and Luther Doyle."
"You seem to know them pretty well," Bowdrie commented. "Tell me more."
"Noah, he come in here three or four minutes before the Ballards got here. You maybe know about Noah. He was a good man, no trouble to anybody, but Noah was a talker. He hadn't paid no attention when the Ballards came in, just a glance and he went on talkin'.
" 'Feller come through last night an' said the Ballards was ridin' again. Used to know that Fobes up in the Nation.' We tried to catch his eye but there was no stoppin' him. 'That Fobes,' he says, 'never was no account. Poison mean, he was, even then.
" 'Time's a-comin' when they won't let thieves like that ride around the country robbin' decent people.' Noah was just talkin' like he always done but Fobes was right there to hear him.
Fobes tapped him on the shoulder. 'You talk too much, stranger,' he said, speakin' kind of low and mean."
Chick Bowdrie listened, seeing the scene all too clearly, and the inevitable ending. That was Noah, all right, always talking, meaning no harm to anybody, a decent, hardworking man with a family. At least, there was Joanie. Thinking of her his face tightened and he felt empty and kind of sick inside.
"Fobes, he said to Noah that maybe he'd like to stop the Ballards from ridin' the country? Maybe he'd like to try stoppin' them himself?
"Well, you know Noah. He might have been a talker but he was no coward. 'Maybe I would,' Whipple says. 'This country should be made safe for honest people.'
"Clyde Ballard put in then, 'Forget it, Aaron. He didn't know what he was sayin'. Let's ride.' Tom Ballard, he started for the door, Northup followin'. Noah Whipple thought it was all over, an' he dropped his hand.
"He never should have done it, but Noah was a habity man. He was reachin' for a chaw. He chawed tobacco, an' especially when he was nervous or bothered by somethin'. He reached for his tobacco an' Aaron shot him.
"It happened so quick nobody had time to move or speak. Clyde Ballard swore, and then they made a run for their horses and rode off. Noah was dead on the floor, drilled right through the heart, and him not wearin' no gun."
Chick was silent. He looked at the rye whiskey in his glass and thought of Joanie. Only a few months before he had ridden up to their ranch as close to death as a man is apt to get, with three bullet holes in him and having lost a great deal of blood.
Joanie had helped him from his horse and she and Noah had gotten him inside, then nursed him back to health. When able to ride again he had started helping around the ranch. He had not yet become a Ranger and the Whipples needed help. There was only Noah, his wife, and Joanie. They had two old cowhands but they were not much help with the rough stock.
Ranching folks weren't inclined to ask questions of those who drifted around the country. You took a man for what he was and gave him the benefit of the doubt as long as he did his share and shaped up right. Hard-faced young men wearing two tied-down guns weren't seen around very much, even in that country.
Names didn't count for much and both Whipple and Joanie knew that any man wearing two guns was either a man who needed them or a plain damned fool.
He never told them his name. To them he was simply Chick. Noah and his wife treated him like a son, and Joanie like a brother, most of the time.
It had taken him a while to regain his strength but as soon as he was able to get around he started helping, and he had always been a first-rate cowhand.
Bowdrie walked outside the saloon and stood there on the street. He knew what he had to do, and nobody had to ask his intentions. It was the kind of a country where if you worked with a man and ate his bread, you bought some of his troubles, too. The townspeople remembered him as a young cowhand who had worked for Noah, and they also knew he had come into the country in a dying condition from bullet wounds. Why or how he obtained the wounds, nobody ever asked, although curiosity was a festering thing.
He tightened his cinch, stepped back into the leather, and rode out of town.
Two days later Bowdrie rode back to Miller's Crossing. Folks working around town saw him ride in and they noted the brightness of the new Winchester he was carrying.
Bill Anniston, who ranched a small spread not far from the Whipples', was standing on the steps of the stage station when Bowdrie rode up. He had ridden with Bill on a roundup when the two outfits were gathering cattle.
"Bill, I'd take it as a favor if you'd ride over to the Whipples' an' see if they're all right." Bowdrie paused, rubbing the neck of the hammerhead roan. "I joined up with McNelly. I'm ridin' with the Rangers now."
"You goin' after the Ballards?"
"Time somebody did. McNelly said he'd send some men as soon as they finished what they were doin', but I told him I didn't figure I'd need no help."
As he rode away Bowdrie heard someone say, "I wonder why McNelly would take on a kid like that?"
Bill Anniston replied, "McNelly doesn't make mistakes. He knew what he was doing. Believe me, I've ridden with that boy and he's brush-wise and mountain-smart. He's no flat country yearlin'!"
Bowdrie rode south into the rough country. The wicked-looking hammerhead roan was a good horse on a long trail, a better horse than the Ballards would have. The roan liked to travel and he had a taste for rough country, a hangover from his wild mustang days.
The Ballards had not expected to be followed and their trail was plain enough. Once in a while they made a pass at hiding their trail, but nothing that would even slow Bowdrie's pace.
It was not new country to him although he had ridden it but once before. South and west were some hills known locally as the Highbinders, a rough, broken country loved by Comanches because there was not a trail approaching them that could not be watched and there was ample water if one knew where to look.
Bowdrie thought as he rode. Clyde Ballard would be irritated. Clyde did not hold with killing unless it was in a stand-up fight or in the process of a holdup. An outlaw had to have places to hide and if people were set against you you'd never last long. Often enough they were indifferent, but never if you killed a neighbor or someone they respected.
Aaron Fobes was another type entirely. There was a streak of viciousness in him. Yet Fobes would not want to cross Clyde Ballard. Not even Luther Doyle would consider that, for Clyde was a good man with a gun.
No one of them considered the possibility of pursuit. They had been a long way from Benton when the shooting took place and there was no marshal in Miller's Crossing.
With the shrewdness of a man who had known many trails, Chick Bowdrie could guess their thinking now. Clyde would be inwardly furious because the useless killing would make enemies and Miller's Crossing was a town they must avoid in future rides, and that meant some long, roundabout riding to get in and out of their hideout.
Bowdrie was in no hurry. He knew what awaited him at the ride's end and he was not riding for a record. It was almost ten days after the shooting before he rode up to the Sloacum place.
He drew rein outside the house as Tate Sloacum came striding up from the barn. "How's about some chuck?" Bowdrie suggested. "I've been thirty miles on an empty stomach."
" 'Light an' set," Sloacum said. "Turn your hoss into the corral. There's a bucket there alongside the well if you'd like to wash off some dust."
When he had washed, he ran his fingers through his hair and went up to the house. He had no Indian blood but he looked like an Apache and sometimes there was hesitance from those who did not know him. There was food in plenty but nobody talked during the meal. Eating was a serious business.
Tate Sloacum was the old man of the house, a West Virginia mountaineer by birth. He had two sons and a hawk-faced rider named Crilley. His wife was a slatternly woman with stringy red hair and a querulous voice. A daughter named Sary served them at table. She had red hair and a swish to her hips. With brothers like hers she was a girl who could get men killed.
Bowdrie was uncomfortable around women. He had known few of them well. He took in Sary with a glance and then averted his eyes and kept them averted. He knew trouble when he saw it.
At twenty-one Chick Bowdrie had been doing a man's work since he was twelve, herding cattle, breaking the wild stock, and riding the rough string. There had been little softness in his life and few friends. Once, when he could have been no older than eight, a man had stopped by the house for a meal. It was wild country with Indians about, and few traveled alone. This man did.
When Chick walked out to the corral with him he watched the man saddle up and step into the stirrup. For some reason, he hated to see him go. There had been something about the man that spoke of quiet strength.
Looking down from the saddle, the man had said, "Ride with honor, boy, ride with honor."
He did not know exactly what honor was but he never forgot the man and he was sure what the man had said was important.
A member of the Ballard gang had killed a man who befriended him, and he needed no more reason for hunting him down, and wanted no more. He had enlisted as a Ranger because it was practical. The law was coming to Texas and he preferred to ride with the law. McNelly, a shrewd judge of character, had recognized him for what he was. This young man was destined to be a hunter or one of the hunted, and McNelly reflected dryly that he'd rather hire him than lose men trying to catch him.
"We demand loyalty," he suggested. "Absolute loyalty."
"I ride for the brand," Bowdrie replied. "I never take a man's money without giving him what he's paid for."
"Where is your home?"
"Wherever I hang my hat," Bowdrie said. "I got nothing, nobody." Then he added, "I can read an' write."
"Got no home. I was born near D'Hanis. Folks all gone. Mostly Injuns killed 'em."
"D'Hanis? Are you French?"
"Some. Some other blood, too. I don't know much about it. I growed up where most of the youngsters spoke French an' German as well as English."
"I know the area. Do you speak Spanish?"
"I get by. I worked cows with Mexican riders. We got along."
That was how it began. Bowdrie thought back to it now, thinking he had taken the right turn, on the right side of the law, and he knew how easy it would have been to go the other way. Sooner or later he might have killed the wrong man.
"Need a place to hole up," he told Sloacum, "a quiet place where a man can rest and let his horse eat grass."
Sloacum gestured toward the hills. "We call 'em the Highbinders. Used to be Comanches. Mostly they're gone now." He gestured toward the house. "Come up when you've unsaddled, and we'll have some grub on."
That was before he sat down. He ate well, simple food, well-cooked. The two boys disappeared when supper was over but Crilley lingered, stropping his knife on his boot sole.
"I seen you somewheres afore," he said to Bowdrie.
"I been someplace before, but I never seen you."
He did not remember ever seeing Crilley and did not care if Crilley had seen him. The cowboy might have seen him when he rode for Whipple and could take the information to Ballard if he wished. Bowdrie had to find a trail and Crilley might make it for him. Nor did he care if the Ballards were ready for him. He was ready for them, too.
He got up and Sloacum glanced at him. "You can sleep in the haymow. Ain't got an extry bed."
"I've slept in 'em before. Better'n most."
He left the house and went to the barn, where he found a big hayloft half-filled with fresh-smelling hay. He spread his blankets and bedded down, the big wide hayloft door open to the out-of-doors and showing a wide stretch of starlit sky.