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On a ridge above Texas Flat upon a rock shaped like flame, a hand moved upon the lava. The hand moved and then was still. In all that vast beige-gray silence there was no other movement and no sound.
A buzzard swinging in lazy circles above the serrated ridge had glimpsed that moving hand. Swinging lower, he saw a man who lay among the rocks atop the ridge. He was a long-bodied man in worn boots and jeans, a man with wide shoulders and a lean tough face.
It was the face of a hunter but now of a man hunted. A man who lay with his rifle beside him and who wore a belted gun; but the man still lived and the buzzard could wait.
Below and stretching away from the very foot of the ridge to lose itself in shimmering distance lay the glaring white expanse of the playa. Beyond the playa and even now riding up to draws that would eventually open upon the dry lake were three groups of horsemen who rode with a single thought.
To left and right of the hunted man's position the comb-like ridge stretched away like a great wall dividing the dead white of the playa from the broken lands beyond. Once in those broken lands south of the border, a man might lose himself in any one of a thousand canyons and might himself be lost.
It was a land virtually without water, rarely visited by white men and roved only occasionally by Indians for whom this was a last stronghold and at whose hands no white man could expect mercy.
Great tablelands shouldered against the brassy sky, lofty pinnacles loomed higher still and over all that red and broken land the sun lay hot and dead heat gathered in the sullen canyons.
Far and away, beyond the broken land, some great peaks reached at the clouds, purple with distance, cool, remote and lost. In those mountains there would be water and there would be grass. There a man might find shade; there would be wild game; there would be sanctuary. The hunted man had not turned to look but he knew the mountains were there. He also knew what lay between.
Yet here and there even in that broken desert land between, if one but knew where to look, there would be water.
Northward, not yet within the range of the man's eyes, moved the searching riders. Yet the buzzard had already seen those moving shadows that stirred not with the wind but of their own choice.The buzzard saw them and after a time saw that these were men.
The buzzard could not reason but he knew the patterns that led to food. His entire life was built upon such fragments of knowledge and he knew that where such groups of men rode, death rode with them.
They were hard men bred of a hard and lonely land, men with eyes red-rimmed from sun-glare, faces whitened by alkali and muscles heavy with weariness. Yet they knew the man for whom they searched could not be far ahead and they pushed on, riding steadily into the hot still afternoon.
Trace Jordan could not see the riding men but he knew they were out there and he knew they looked for him. Once, seven hours ago, they believed they had him and his blood-stained shirt revealed how close a thing it had been.
They had caught him in the rocks above Mocking Bird Pass, brought to bay like a lean and hungry wolf pursued by hounds. And he had fought them there, a lean and hungry man, red-eyed and dangerous, a man driven and battered and hammered but a man not beaten, a man who had never been beaten.
A rifle bullet ricocheting from a rock had ripped an ugly tear through the flesh above his hip and he had lost blood.
They had seen him fall and, not yet knowing the manner of man they fought, they had closed in for the kill. They would be more cautious if the chance came again, for upon the rocks they had left more than blood . . . they had left a man dead and another sorely wounded and when finally they closed their trap they found nothing, simply nothing at all.
And then they began to see the fiber of the man they pursued, for he had gone soundlessly from among them, leaving their dead behind. Wounded-for they found his blood upon the rocks-but gone as if he had never been.
Somehow he had stopped the flow of blood; somehow he had left no trail; somehow he had vanished with the desert swallowing him, taking him back as one of her own into the wild loneliness of canyon and playa.
Lean and fierce and lonely, Trace Jordan was a man of wild places and far countries, a man fitted by his experience as a wild horse hunter, cowhand, buffalo hunter and prospector for the task that now lay before him.
His empty canteen rattled upon the rocks when he moved, so he lay still, trying not to think of water, his heart pounding slowly, heavily against the rock upon which he lay. It was time to move . . . they would be coming soon. He could not see them but they would seek him out. And he needed rest-rest and water. He must find a place to hide, to wait them out.
Sliding back on his belly until the ridge covered his rising, he got awkwardly to his feet. He swayed then, trying to focus his eyes, gathering his failing strength. He had taken precious time to climb up here, knowing that if his pursuers happened to swing north or south he could gain distance by riding the other way. And time and distance were now the very stuff of life itself.
When he reached his horse he took time to roll a smoke and while his fingers fumbled at the cigarette he considered his problem.
They knew the country and he did not. They would know the trails and the hiding places and moreover they had with them Jacob Lantz, the best tracker in the southwest.
Jordan knew Lantz by reputation, as such men were always known in the west. Tales were told over the campfire by drifting cowhands and retold at bars and gambling tables, the stories of gunmen and trackers, of tough town marshals and crooked gamblers, until the mind of each western man was a storehouse of such information.
Jacob Lantz was a Dutch Indian-his father a Dutch trader, his mother a Ute squaw. Lantz was a man who tracked with his mind as well as with his senses. Even as his eyes spelled out the meaning of a trail, his mind would be probing far ahead to seek out the direction and destination of the man he trailed.
A plan was a dangerous thing, yet a plan he must have, a plan would give direction and purpose to his riding; and as soon as Lantz had time to solve the plan, he must shift to another. Yet there was a chance he might lead them off his trail by such a plan.
First, he would need to point himself toward an obvious destination, a way out of the country. There was a river crossing, one of the few crossings of the Colorado, far to the northwest. That would seem logical to Lantz and to the others, for the trail would avoid towns and people who might pass along information of his passing to his pursuers. So that could seem to be his destination.
Well along the road, he could turn suddenly at some point where his trail would be hard to find and take an entirely different track. Otherwise, knowing the trails, they might find a way to get on ahead and wait for him.
Stepping into the saddle, he walked the horse down the arroyo. Westward the country was a series of towering mesas split by deep canyons. The canyons were easy of access and easy to travel, yet any one of them might prove to be a trap. He might ride for miles to find himself up against a dead end and with no way out.
He must seek out a trail to the top of the mesa. He must ride up where the wind blew and the Indians traveled.
Jordan slumped in the saddle, his body smelling of stale sweat, his clothes stiff with sweat and dust. Under him the horse plodded wearily and Jordan knew the poor beast was drawing on his last reserves of strength. Even that splendid animal, the last of his captured horses, was being defeated by the killing pace and the rough country. And they had been all night and most of the day without water.
A faint deer trail led out of the wash and he took it, leaving the heavy sand for the easier travel of the mountainside.
For an hour he climbed steadily, riding up a long ridge of gravel and sand sparsely dotted with bear grass and prickly pear. Before him the shoulder of a vast escarpment had broken down and among the talus, some of it huge blocks of solid rock, the deer trail led steadily upward toward the mesa top. Riding among the rocks and favoring his wounded side, he turned in the saddle and glanced back.
He was amazed at the distance he had climbed. The comblike ridge lay some miles behind and for a second time he marveled at the good fortune that enabled him to pick out the one pass through that wall.
Trace Jordan assayed his position and found nothing to like. His mind now worked with startling clarity, yet he distrusted it, knowing this clarity was the beginning of delirium. He felt his weakness, knowing he needed rest, water and time to treat his wound.
He needed no one to tell him the caliber of men who followed. Ruthless and relentless, they would never leave the trail until they had left him dead. In knowledge of the country and in numbers the advantage was all theirs.
His trail across the playa would be obvious to any eye but his direction along the wash would puzzle them for a while and every delay was important.
His head throbbed heavily. His mouth was dry, his lips parched and broken. He had a fever . . . he could feel it. His wound would be dirty and he could feel the gnawing agony of it constantly. His hands felt unnaturally large and his head was heavy and awkward.
When his horse crested the mesa at last, he drew up briefly. He could feel the wind. It was almost cold through his sweat-soaked shirt. He turned in the saddle and looked back again.
Faintly, far away still, a wisp of dust hung against the blue backdrop of the hills. A wisp of dust and then another and still another.
The horse walked on . . . the mesa was flat, stretching away to infinity, broken by few rocks and by a scattering of gnarled and twisted cedars and by a few piñon. Sparse grass, tight-clinging to the sand, showed here and there. At places the rock surface of the mesa had been swept clean by the wind. The horse walked on.
He carried a pebble in his mouth to relieve the thirst. Twice he dismounted and walked to relieve the horse of his weight, to let him rest. There was no telling how soon he might again have to make a break for it and the horse's strength might mean his life.
He walked several miles before he fell . . .
For a long time he lay where he had fallen, unable to summon the strength to rise. The wind stirred a wisp of hair against his forehead and the horse nuzzled him impatiently. His thoughts no longer clear, he got drunkenly to his knees and got hold of the stirrup, pulling himself erect. Somehow he got into the saddle and, of his own volition, the horse began to walk.
Heat waves shimmered their veil across the distance. A few cottony puffballs of cloud hung against the brassy sky . . . perspiration trickled down his body and weird dust-devils played across the mesa before him. Above the mirage of a distant blue lake the heads of the cedars peered like strange beings from some enchanted world.
He worked his jaws, his brain throbbed heavily and when he shifted his gaze his eyeballs grated dryly in their sockets, moving with painful slowness. There were passages of delirium then, through which were woven thin threads of sanity.
He must rest soon. If he fell now he could not get up again but must lie helpless until his enemies came upon him and killed him. Yet he had done nothing but what any man would have done. He had done nothing he did not have to do.
Old Bob Sutton was dead . . . the old bull of the herd shot down in the dusty street, and his sons and nephews would never stop hunting until Trace Jordan had been tracked down and killed.
A few days ago he had been a wild-horse hunter with no troubles. He and Johnny Hendrix had gone broke trying to buck a faro layout and, drifting west, they came upon a herd of wild horses. For a month they lived on the country, finally trapping two dozen horses in a box canyon. One by one they broke them and slapped on their brand, the JH, for Jordan Hendrix. All were good stock, better than they had a right to expect from wild stock. Trace Jordan had gone off to find a market and to buy more grub with their last three dollars, for there were still a few horses they wanted.
A bartender remembered them in Durango and loaned Trace Jordan money for supplies and he returned to camp.
Only there was no camp and there were no horses. All were gone, the camp trampled out by the rush of horses and Johnny lying dead near the water hole with four bullets in him and his gun gone.
The afternoon was still and hot. The sun glared down upon the basin and Johnny lay with his face against the baked earth and two of the bullets in him had been fired into his back while he lay sprawled on the ground. Whoever had done this had wanted to make sure. They wanted to leave nothing behind. Only they hadn't known about Trace Jordan.
There were those back down the trail who knew Trace Jordan as a quiet easy-going man. Hell on wheels with a gun, some said, a man who could follow a trail like an Apache. In the rough-and-tumble brawls of saloon and trail camp he was one of the best. He had killed a man in Tascosa who called him a liar and he killed four Indians who trapped him in a buffalo wallow north of Adobe Walls. And a gun-slinger had died of bad judgment on the Ruidoso. But Trace Jordan was a quiet man.
Slowly, taking infinite pains, he worked out the story of the fight.
Six men had come in from the north. Spotting the horse camp, they had kept back in the brush along the creek and studied the layout.