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He was riding southwest in a gathering storm and behind him a lone man clung to his trail.
It was bitter cold...
He came down off the ridge into the shelter of the draw with the wind kicking up snow behind him. The sky was a flat slate gray, unbroken and low. The air grew colder by the minute and there was a savage bite to the wind.
He was a big, wide-shouldered man with a lean, strong-boned face. His black, flat-crowned hat was pulled low, the collar of his sheep-lined coat turned up. Wind-whipped particles of snow rattled off his coat like thrown gravel.
He was two days out of Deadwood and riding for Cheyenne, and the nearest shelter was at Hat Creek Station, probably fifty miles along.
Wind knifed at his exposed cheek. He drew deeply on his cigarette. Whoever followed him had the same problem. Find shelter or die. The wind was a moving wall of snow and the evening was filled with vast sound.
There is something fiercely insensate about a Wyoming or Dakota blizzard, something malevolent and shocking in its brutality. It ripped at him now, smashing him with jarring fists of wind, and raking his face with claws of blown ice.
King Mabry lowered his head to shield his face, breathing with his mouth open. Whenever he lifted his head the wind whipped at him, sucking air from his lungs.
When they came to the creek bottom it was suddenly. The horse plunged belly-deep in the snow and began fighting for a foothold. Forcing the black through a crackle of frozen brush, he let it slide and stumble to the creek bottom.
Here was respite from the wind. The creek was narrow, sheathed in ice, yet the high banks and the trees offered protection. He headed downstream.
It was bitter cold. . . .
When he found what he wanted it was more than he expected. The creek turned a rocky shoulder and had heaved some logs and brush over a triangle of huge boulders. On the downstream side there was an opening. When he had pulled the brush away he had a cave fifteen feet deep and almost seven feet high.
Leading the horse inside, Mabry began to work swiftly. He cut evergreens and made a windbreak that could be shifted if the wind changed, and which would also serve to reflect the heat from his fire back into the cave.
With shredded bark from the underside of a log, some dry leaves from the same place, and some twigs broken from the trunks of trees, he built a fire. He added fuel and the blaze mounted higher.
There was no shortage of fuel, yet he dragged several dead branches closer, and one half-rotted log. Stumbling through deepening snow, he cut evergreen boughs for a bed. Heat from the fire and the warmth of the horse's body would make the shelter warm enough for survival, if no more.
Working slowly, he rubbed the horse down, then hung half his supply of corn over the horse's nose in its feed bag.
The great stones warmed slowly, gathering heat from the fire. Outside the wind howled. His thoughts turned to the man who followed him.
Somehow he must have learned of the money Mabry was carrying. Several hundred dollars of his own money, and a thousand dollars to be returned to the rancher in Cheyenne.
The trouble was that when a man had a reputation as a gun fighter, somebody always believed his gun was for hire.
The trouble was that in a time and area when all men carried guns, and used them on occasion, he used them too well.
He had given it no thought until that bright morning when he was sixteen, and he rode into the Cup on the old XIT with Bent Forrest.
Two rustlers had a steer down and a hot iron. The rustlers saw them first and the nearest man had a gun lifting when Mabry drew. He was sixteen then, and nobody in the outfit knew anything about him except that he worked hard and talked little. A moment later they started to learn.
Bent Forrest was a gun-handy man, but on that morning both men were down and kicking before his gun cleared leather. He looked from them to the kid and his throat worked.
"You ever kill a man before?"
They sat their horses in the morning sunlight while the branding fire smoldered and the steer struggled helplessly. The two rustlers lay sprawled, their guns flung free in that last moment when death came sharply.
"You'll have to take it easy, kid. You're good. Maybe the best I've seen."
King Mabry looked at the dead men on the ground. Wind stirred the handkerchief tied to the nearest man's neck. Mabry felt sick and empty and lost.
"It was them or us, kid. We'll say nothing about this."
Then one night when drinking, Forrest bragged. He knew what a reputation as a gun fighter could do to a man, but he was drinking and he bragged. A tough puncher from down on the Pecos started hunting the kid to prove Forrest wrong.
They buried the tough puncher on a windy hilltop near old Tascosa, where he could lie beside Frank Valley and the boys who died in the Big Fight. And King Mabry drifted.
Fort Stockton, Lampasas, Mobeetie, Uvalde. The Big Bend, El Paso, Lincoln, Cimarron. North and west with trail herds to Kansas, to Nebraska and Wyoming.
From time to time he had to use his gun...
He awakened in the first cold light of dawn. He lunged from his blankets and stirred the remains of his fire. He tossed on some dry leaves, some bark, and a piece of evergreen bough. Then he scrambled back into his bed, shaking with cold.
It was far below zero. He knew by the wind, by the pistol crack of frozen branches, by the crisp sharpness of the air.
After an interminable time a faint tendril of smoke lifted, a tiny flame appeared, and the pine needles flared hotly. He thrust an arm from under the blankets and tossed more fuel into the fire.
When he could feel the warmth in the shelter, he got up and dressed quickly, then shouldered into his sheepskin. He drew one gun from its holster, checked it, and thrust it behind his belt.
With a friendly slap on the black's rump he stepped past the horse and stood beside the windbreak, looking out into the morning.
He faced downstream. Occasionally the white veil of falling or blown snow would break and he could see as far as the point, some thirty yards away. Flakes touched his cheek with damp fingers. He narrowed his eyes, studying what lay outside.
Mabry was not a trusting man. The facts of his life had left no room for trust. In the hard years following that morning on the XIT he learned his lesson well, and learned the hard way. His eyes went to that point of trees around which the stream bent in a slow arc. He studied them, started to step outside, and then he stopped.
Mabry did not know why he hesitated.
A gust whipped snow into the air, lashing at his face, sucking at his lungs. And a man's subconscious can be his best friend.
Mabry stood very still.
He was invisible from the outside. Another step and he would be framed black against the snow.
A hunter can walk in the forest when the wind blows with its many sounds, yet if a rabbit moves in the brush his ears recognize the sound. Upon the vast plain or the desert the flight of a buzzard may pass unnoticed, for the buzzard belongs to the landscape. The cacti form weird shapes, the ocotillo carries a miniature forest of lances, yet if a rider moves upon that desert he will be seen.
The hunter and the hunted . . . these two are kin. Their senses are alert to the same stimuli, awaken to the same far-off sounds. A shadow in the wrong place, a flicker of sun reflection, a creak of leather . . . each may be a warning.
And for these things and a thousand others the senses of hunter and hunted are alert. Often the exact warning is not recognized; it is a subconscious perception.
So King Mabry now waited for the snow veil to break once more. He had learned to trust his instincts. Attention might lag, reason might fail, but the instincts were first born and would be the last to die.
The snow was unbroken. No tracks were anywhere visible. On the point the trees grew close, their boughs interlaced and thickly mingled with a darker bulk of pines. All were heavy with snow.
Mabry rolled a smoke and lighted it. Something was wrong out there and he did not intend to move until he knew what it was. In his lifetime he had known a few reckless men, a few who tried to be daring, who took unnecessary risks to show what they believed to be courage. He had helped to bury them.
He was playing a game where life was the blue chip. A step into the open meant to chuck that blue chip on the table. And he had but one.
His eyes returned to the trees.
He thrust his right hand into the front of his coat to warm his fingers against his body. Stiff fingers might fumble or drop a gun.
Then his eyes saw what his brain knew was there: a spot of darkness in the tops of the trees.
A small thing, a simple thing, yet the price of a man's life. A place in the branches where there was no snow.
Somebody had to be under that spot with a going fire. Rising heat waves had melted the snow above it.
It was all of thirty yards away, but knowing now where he must look, King Mabry found it.
Drifted snow over a pile of debris. Not so large or imposing as his own shelter, but enough to conceal a man who lay in warmth while he waited with a rifle for Mabry to emerge and die.
Mabry possessed one advantage. His pursuer could not be aware that his presence was known. From behind the windbreak Mabry studied the situation with infinite care.
The unknown watcher lay close to the ground, which decreased his field of vision. Without rising from his hiding place that man could see nothing lower than three feet above the ground, and the snow was that deep in the creek bottom.
Dropping to his knees, Mabry dug out snow, working with care to disturb no snow where it might be seen by the watcher. He worked slowly. In that temperature perspiration could easily be fatal, for when one stopped working the moisture would freeze into a thin film of ice inside one's clothing, and death would follow quickly.
There was a huge log, a great snow-covered tree that lay on an angle, its far end almost flanking the hiding place of the watcher. Mabry dug his way to that deadfall, then crawled along the ground behind it. When he reached the upthrust roots at its base, he stood up.
Concealed by the wall of tangled roots and frozen earth embedded around them, he could see behind the shelter, yet at first he saw nothing.
A snowflake touched his cheek with a damp, cold finger. Mabry brushed his coat. Wind picked up a flurry of snow, swept it along, then allowed it to settle down. The wind was not blowing so hard now. A branch cracked in the cold. There was no other sound but the wind.
Smoke rose from his own fire, and a thin tendril of smoke that died quickly from the watcher's shelter.
Mabry kept his right hand under his coat and close to his gun. He was forty yards away. Slow anger was building in him. He did not like to be hunted. Whoever the watcher was, he planned murder.
Mabry's face, darkened by many suns and winds, seemed now to be drawn in hard planes. It was a still face, remote, lonely. It was the face of a hunter.
He did not want to kill, yet he did not want to die. And this man had chosen the field, selected his victim. Yet he did not know the manner of man he hunted. He looked for a fat cat, he found a tiger.
Wind flurried. Behind the shelter there was an indefinite movement.
He felt the cold, knew he could not long remain away from his fire. Yet this was the time for decision.
He was born to the gun. He had lived by the gun. Perhaps someday he would die by the gun. He had not chosen the way, but it was his way and he lived among men who often understood no other.
Mabry could be patient now. He knew what lay ahead, knew what he could do. He had been hunted before, by Kiowas, Comanches, Sioux, and Apaches. He had also been hunted by his own kind.
He took his hand from his coat and rolled a smoke. He put it in his lips and lit up. He squinted his eyes against the first exhalation and looked past the blown smoke at the shelter. He warmed away the momentary chill that had come to his hand.
There was no target, nothing. The man there was warm. He was cold. There was no sense in waiting longer.
A heavy branch of evergreen hung over the other man's shelter, thick with a weight of snow, a bit away from the circle of warmth from the fire . . . but near enough.
Mabry drew his gun, tested the balance in his palm, judged the distance, and fired.
Cut by the bullet, the branch broke and the snow fell, partly outside the shelter, partly inside. And probably on the man's fire.
The sound of the shot racketed down the ravine, and silence followed.
Mabry's feet were icy. The chill was beginning to penetrate. He thrust his gun back inside his coat and watched a little smoke rise, thick smoke.
The hidden man had lost his fire.
The slide of snow from the branch had done what Mabry hoped it would, and now the watcher must lie there in the cold to await death by freezing, or he must come out.
Yet Mabry himself was cold, and the hidden man had shelter from the wind.
A slight movement within the shelter alerted him, but nobody appeared. The watcher's shelter was only a place where a man could keep from the wind. There was no room for fuel, scarcely space for a man and a fire.
Wind whined among the trees. Branches creaked in the cold. Snow flurried, whipped across the point, then died out. The wind was going down, the storm was over. Yet Mabry did not intend to be followed when he moved on again.