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When Jim Colburn rode into the hide-out at sundown he was not alone. There was a gangling youngster riding with him, a kid with narrow hips and wide, meatless shoulders and chest. The old Navy .44 looked too big for him, despite his height.
Jim Colburn stepped down from the saddle and looked around at Kehoe, Weaver, and Parrish. He was a tough man with no nonsense about him, and he was their acknowledged leader.
“This here is Gaylord Riley,” he said. “He’s riding with us.”
Parrish was stirring beans, and he merely glanced up and offered no comment. Weaver started to object, but at the expression in Colburn’s eyes he decided against it; but he was angry. From the beginning there had just been the four of them, no outsiders invited. What they had to do they did with four men, or they left it alone. Kehoe dropped his cigarette and toed it into the sand. “Hoddy, boy,” he said.
They ate in silence, but when they had finished eating the kid moved over and helped Parrish clean up. Nobody said anything until Colburn had one boot off and was rubbing his foot, then it was he who spoke.
“I got myself in a corner. He pulled me out of it.”
At daybreak they moved out, taking the trail warily at first. Four hard-bitten, veteran outlaws and a lean, rawboned kid on a crow-bait buckskin. Kehoe was lank and lazy-seeming, Parrish stocky and silent, while Weaver was a brusque man, and this morning an angry one. Jim Colburn, their leader in all things, was a good man with a gun. So were they all.
Weaver’s irritation at the stranger’s presence was obvious, but nothing was said until they paused at the stream on the outskirts of town.
“We’ll handle it the same as always,” Colburn said. “Parrish with the horses, Weaver and Kehoe with me.”
Weaver did not even turn his head. “What does he do?”
“He’ll ride to that big cottonwood and dismount. He will stand right there until we come by, and if there’s shooting, he’ll cover us.”
“That’ll take nerve.”
Gaylord Riley looked at Weaver. “That’s what I got,” he said.
Weaver ignored him. “You ain’t never been wrong yet, Jim,” he said, and they rode on into town.
Riley dismounted and was busy with his cinch, standing behind his horse with a clear view of the street. The bank was two hundred yards off, and the street was empty and the hour early.
When Colburn, Weaver, and Kehoe came out of the bank and stepped into their saddles the street was still empty.
They had covered almost half the distance to the spot where Gaylord Riley waited, when the banker ran from the bank shouting. He carried a rifle, and he swung it up to fire.
Gaylord Riley had his choice and took it. He aimed at the hitch-rail in front of the banker. Splinters flew at his shot, and the banker leaped wildly for the shelter of the doorway.
The gang rode by the kid and he sprang to the saddle and rode off after them just as people rushed into the street.
In the arguments in the town afterward, some said there were three outlaws, some four. Nobody appeared to have noticed the man farther up the street. Had they observed him, they might have suspected him of trying to run down the outlaws.
They rode hard for the first mile, trying for as much distance as possible. Then the kid saw a dozen steers feeding in the grass close by the trail and, cutting out, he drove them in behind the four outlaws, blotting out their tracks.
Something over a mile farther on they came upon a stream and abandoned the cattle, riding upstream in the ankle-deep water. They were able to follow the stream for half a mile and then they left it and turned into the hills. The pursuit never found their trail, never even came close.
Their take was small, and Weaver showed his irritation when an equal share was counted out for Riley.
Kehoe dropped his share into a pocket. “You could have killed that banker,” he commented.
“There was no need.”
The four had been together a long time. They had hunted buffalo together on the Staked Plains of west Texas, and together they had punched cows for Shanghai Pierce, Gabe Slaughter, and Goodnight. Their first step over the line that divides the law-abiding from the lawless was over a matter of wages due them.
Tobe Weston had a handy way with a pen, and a couple of times he saved himself a few dollars by outfiguring his hands, who were notoriously casual about money. The few dollars whetted his appetite until he managed to short every hand who worked for him except Deuces Conron, his strong right arm.
Here and there some cowhand who paid more attention to figures than others would object. When they could not be outtalked they could always be outgunned, and Weston’s greed grew with success.
When Colburn, Kehoe, Weaver, and Parrish came to work for him they had heard none of the stories, and it was four months before they did. They decided at once to quit.
Tobe Weston shorted them two months each, and when they objected Deuces was there to back him up. Kehoe was prepared to argue, as were the others, but not to accept the challenge of the four shotguns peering over window sills at themshotguns in the hands of Weston’s family.
“Forget it,” Colburn advised, and they rode away.
They hid out in the mountains and waited for three weeks, and when Tobe Weston rode to town in his black suit they knew their time had come. He was on his way back when they came down out of the rocks and met him and collected their due. Only at the last minute they decided it would serve
Weston right if they took all he had. And they did.
That had been the beginning. And that had been a good many years ago.
Their strength lay in careful planning, and in their closeness to each other. They did not talk, and they did not separate; and they would have no strangers in their group until Colburn came back with Gaylord Riley.
The Black Canyon stage holdup was typical of their work, and it took place only three weeks after the kid joined them.
That stage had been held up so many times the drivers were accustomed to it and knew all the likely places. Only Jim Colburn did it in another way. He held up the stage out on the open flat, in the area with the least cover, and where a holdup was unlikely.
The driver saw the buckboard coming along the trail, and it was in plain sight for over a mile, coming along at a trot, trailing a little dust. When it drew near the driver saw that a lean, gangling kid in a farmer’s straw hat was driving, with an old man huddled in a blanket beside him on the seat. The kid had one arm around the old man as if to steady him on the seat.
As the stage drew near, slowing to pass the buckboard, the old man raised a feeble hand to signal them to stop.
They did stop, and the tall boy helped the old man down from the buckboard. One of the passengers got down to help, and from under the blanket the old man produced a six-shooter.
From the back of the buckboard, two more men rolled out from under a canvas tarp, and the Black
Canyon stage had been held up once again. Afterward at least two of the people on the stage were sure the boy had himself been a prisoner. He certainly, with that buckboard and hat, could be no outlaw. And he had seemed to be frightened. Or so they thought.
Riley helped around camp, and talked lit-tle, but his presence continued to irritate Weaver. Loafing on the street at Bradshaw, studying the bank there, Weaver said suddenly to Kehoe, “I’ve had about enough of that kid. What did Jim ever bring him along for?”
“He ain’t a bad kid. Leave him alone.”
“Something about him gets on my nerves,” Weaver insisted, “and we don’t need him.”
“Don’t brace him,” Kehoe advised. “You’d get your tail twisted.”
“Huh?” Weaver was contemptuous. “He ain’t dry behind the ears yet.”
Kehoe brushed the ash from his cigarette. “The kid’s a gunfighter.”
“Him? For two bits I’d”
“You’d get killed.”
Weaver was angry, but curious, for Kehoe was no fool. He was cannier than most, when it came to that. “What makes you say that?”
“Watch him. Nobody makes a move that he doesn’t see, and he never gets that right hand tangled up. When he takes hold of anything it’s always with his left. You watch.”
Grudgingly, Weaver accepted him. Parrish sometimes rode beside him, but it was only to Colburn or Kehoe that he talked. When they crossed the border to spend what they had taken, Riley bought drinks but did not drink, and he spent little. Weaver was usually broke within a few days, and Parrish almost as soon. None of them was particularly provident.
One morning, three miles south of Nogales, in Sonora, Weaver crawled out of his blankets with a hangover. Parrish was cooking, Riley was cleaning his rifle. Colburn and Kehoe were not there.
“I took in too much territory,” Weaver said. “You got a drink, Parrish?”
Parrish shook his head, but Riley turned to his blanket roll and fished out a bottle. “Hair of the dog,” he said, and tossed the bottle to Weaver.
Weaver pulled the cork and drank. “Thanks, kid,” he said.
“Keep it,” Riley said. “The way you headed into it last night I figured you could use that today.”
Later, after Riley had ridden off, Weaver said, “Maybe I got that kid wrong.”
“You sure did. He’s all right.” Parrish handed him a cup of coffee. “He’s a good kid.”
Weaver took another drink, then corked the bottle and put it away. He seemed to be considering what Parrish had said.
“That’s it,” he said at last. “That’s just the trouble. He’s a good kid.”
Colburn was shaving, and there was no one else in camp but Weaver.
“What happened that time, Jim, when you picked up the kid?”
Colburn tilted his head slightly and sighted along his jaw. After he had drawn the razor carefully along he rinsed it in the water. “Poker game,” he said, “and they cold-decked me. I caught one of them with an extra card and drew on him . . . and then I saw they had two guns on me. They were all set to let me have it.”
Colburn worked with the razor for a few minutes and then went on. “They laughed at me. You can put up your gun and get out, Colburn. We know who you are, and you can’t complain to the law.”
He lathered his chin again. “That card shark got out his six-shooter, too, and they were boxin’ me. I’d no chance the way things shaped up, and whilst I was sure they were a lot of yellow-bellied tinhorns, nobody but a fool calls a hand like they had against me.
“Well, I’d had a drink and I was sore, and I wasn’t goin’ to take it. Sure, I was a damn fool and they’d have killed me, but I’d have taken them with meor some of them.”
He paused again to shave. After a moment he added, “I told ’em so. I told ’em, ‘All right, you’ve bought it. You pulled iron on me and thought I’d back down. You figure everybody is as yellow-bellied as you are. Well, you’re goin’ to have to fight.’ ”
He chuckled. “Oh, they were scared! I seen that! Never for a minute did they think I’d show fight with those odds again’ me. And then this kid spoke up.
“There were four, five others in the room and the kid was at the bar. He just spoke up real cool-like, and he’d a gun in his fist, an’ he said, ‘Deal me in, too, or give him back his money.’ ”
Colburn shaved, then stropped his razor. “They were sweatin’, you can bet on that. For that matter, so was I. Right then I guess I’d become cold sober, because all of a sudden those three guns looked almighty big.
“The thing was, they knew this kid. What they knew I still don’t know, but they wanted no part of him, and he was more than likely wishin’ a fight with them.
“Then that gambler shoved my money at me. ‘Take it. Take it and get out.’ And then he said to the kid, ‘Riley, you’re fixing to get yourself killed.’
“And the kid says, ‘How about now?’ But nobody taken him up. So when I pulled out, I invited him along. He was footloose, and I couldn’t turn my back on him after that.”
“You sure couldn’t.” Weaver was quiet for a few minutes. “Jim,” he said at last, “you’ve been patient with me. All this time that kid’s been getting at me, and it taken me a while to figure it out. He doesn’t belong with us, Jim.”
Colburn finished his shaving and cleaned his razor and brush.
Weaver got up and walked around the fire. “Jim, none of us was cut out for outlaws. Not you, not me, nor the others. We were cowhands, and we should have stayed with it. We’ve robbed up and down the country, and there’s been times when I was mighty ashamed of it.
“We’ve been at it for years, and what have we got? No home, not a piece of ground anywhere we can call our own. On the dodge most of the time, livin’ like this. When we get a few dollars we blow it in, and we’re back where we started. All rightthat’s us. But it ain’t for this kid.
“He’s right where we were fifteen years ago, and if he keeps on he’ll be right where we are fifteen years from now, unless he catches leadand the chances are good.
“Face up to it, Jim. It’s gettin’ tougher. The telegraph has come west. Not much yet, but it soon will be, and the law is gettin’ organized. That kid should get out whilst he can.”
Weaver lifted a hand. “Don’t say you ain’t thought of it. At first I thought you were playin’ a favorite, then I could see you were deliberately keepin’ the kid from being identified with us . . . at least so’s he’d have an argument.”
“What have you got in mind?”
“Let me talk to him.”
Two days later they were camped on the Sonora in a little grove of cottonwoods and willows, with a scattering of smoke trees farther up the draw.
Weaver was washing a shirt when the kid came down and shucked his own shirt and started washing it. Weaver glanced at the thin brown shoulders. There were three bullet holes in Gaylord Riley’s body.
“You’ve caught some lead,” Weaver commented.
“When I was a kid. Maybe a year or so before I left Texas. Pa an’ me was livin’ on a little two-by-four place down on the Brazos. Pa was gimpy in one leg, caught a bullet fightin’ Comanches the time they killed Ma. We had ourselves a few cows, and we’re makin’ out to have more.