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The last thing Cates wanted was to be responsible for the lives of thirteen desperate strangers and...
The last thing Cates wanted was to be responsible for the lives of thirteen desperate strangers and a shipment of gold. But he knew that if they were to survive, he was their last chance. He also knew that some in the party were willing to die—or kill—to get their hands on the money. If he couldn’t get them to work together, it wouldn’t be the desert or even the Apaches that would do them in—it would be the greed of the very people he was trying to save.
HE HAD STOPPED last night in the Gunsight Hills, making dry camp because others had reached the water hole before him and he preferred to avoid other travelers. At daybreak he came down out of the hills and made a little dust as he struck westward with Yuma Crossing in his mind.
Logan Cates had the look of the desert about him, a brown, seasoned man with straight black hair above a triangular face that was all bone and tight-drawn, sun-browned hide. His eyes, narrow from squinting into sun and wind, were a cold green that made a man stop and think before he looked into them a second time.
He was a tall man, wide in the shoulder and lean in waist and hips, an easy-moving man with none of the horseman's awkwardness in walking. He moved like a hunter when on his own feet, and had been a hunter of many things, men not least among them.
His hat was black and flat-crowned and flat-brimmed, held beneath his jaw by a loose thong. His shirt, once red, had faded to an indeterminate rose. His vest was of black cowhide, worn and scratched, and over his black jeans he wore fringed shotgun chaps. He wore a tied-down Smith & Wesson Russian .44 six-shooter, and the Winchester in his saddle-scabbard was the vintage of '73.
The horse he rode, a long-legged zebra dun, had a wicked eye that hinted at the tough, resilient and often vicious nature within. A horse of many brands, he had the speed of a frightened coyote and an ability to go without water equal to any camel or longhorn steer.
Logan Cates was a man without illusions, without wealth, place, or destination. In the eighteen years since his parents died of cholera when he was fourteen he had driven a freight wagon, punched cows, hunted buffalo, twice gone over the trail from Texas to Kansas with cattle, scouted for the Army and had ridden shotgun on many stages. Twice, also, he had been marshal of boomtowns for brief periods. He had lived without plan, following his horse's ears and coping with each day's problems as they arose.
Not an hour out of the Gunsight Hills he drew rein in the bottom of a dry wash and crawled to the lip of the wash to survey the desert. Lifting his head among some small boulders to keep from skylining it, he studied the situation with care, having long ago learned that vigilance was the price of life in Indian country. Far away toward the line that divided Mexico from Arizona was a dust cloud.
"Ten," he judged, "maybe twelve riders."
The knowledge was disturbing, for when so many men came together in this country it spelled trouble, and no news had come his way since riding out of Tucson almost four days before. And he knew enough of the desert to the south to realize no man would ride there without desperate reason.
A dozen men could mean a posse, a band of outlaws, Indians, or an Army patrol out of Fort Yuma. The latter was highly improbable as there had been no trouble in the area for some time, and the Apaches rarely came so far west.
Yet, with Churupati in the field no dependence could be placed on that guess, for his mother had been a Yaqui, giving him ties in western Sonora.
Returning to the saddle, Logan Cates resumed his westward trek, moving more slowly and trying to lift no dust. Considering this group of riders to the south and the three who had last night stopped at Gunsight Wells the country was becoming too busy for comfort. The three at Gunsight had been too far away to distinguish details but their fire had been far larger than any Indian would build.
The trail he followed lay fifty yards off to his right, for Logan Cates had an aversion to leaving his tracks where they might be easily seen. As it was, his trail was unlikely to be found unless by riders coming into the trail from the south.
ALL TRAVEL IN this western Arizona desert was circumscribed by the necessity for water, and the fact that in several hundred square miles there were only a few widely scattered water holes, and none of these reliable in a dry season. No matter what route a man wished to take his trail must at some time touch these water holes, for without them he would die.
Ahead of him and at least twenty miles from his camp of last night lay one of these water holes. It lay in the gap through which went the trail west, but he had been warned in Tucson that the water hole might be empty and it could in no case be depended upon. The nearest water beyond the gap was at Papago Wells on the edge of the lava beds to the south, a good twenty miles further. Unless all signs failed he would find company at one or both water holes, but there was no help for it.
This was a land of little water and less rain, where trails were indicated by the bones of men and animals that had died beside them, and all lines of travel were dictated by the urgency of water. Trails from all directions would converge on the water hole in the gap ahead of him, and if that tank proved dry then he must ride at once for Papago Wells, a grim and lonely place with its three dark pools lying in their basins of bluish-black basaltic rock.
Beyond this place the nearest water was at Tule Tank, thirty miles further on the Yuma trail, although an Indian had once told Cates of a place called Heart Tank in the Sierra Pinta north of Papago Wells. Nobody else he knew had heard of Heart Tank and Cates knew how slight were the chances of finding water without adequate directions. Such a tank might exist high in the rocks as at Tinajas Altas, where men had died within a few feet of water they could not find, or who lacked the strength for the climb to its place among the high rocks.
It was very hot . . . Logan Cates squinted his eyes against the shimmering heat waves and studied the dust of the riders who had camped last night at Gunsight Wells, who were also heading due west . . . a glance to the south indicated the larger group had drawn closer, but were still distant by many miles. It would be well to ride up to Papago with a ready gun, for in this country many a man had been murdered for his horse.
Several times he drew up to study the country, uneasily aware that for this lonely desert there was too much movement.
At this moment, unknown to him, half a dozen parties of horsemen were riding toward an unexpected rendezvous at Papago Wells, and with each rode the shadow of fear, and some had already been brushed by death.
FAR TO THE north, on another trail toward the gap, were two riders. As yet they knew nothing of those who rode south of them, and were concerned with nothing in that direction, but from time to time they turned to look along their back trail, and of the two the man showed the greater apprehension.
Tall and spare, he carried himself in the saddle as a former cavalryman should. His features were clean cut, his mustache trimmed carefully, and under the brim of his white hat his eyes were piercing blue. Unquestionably handsome, he had the appearance of a strong, purposeful man, and despite the powdering of the desert dust the black coat he wore looked trim and neat. He was a man who rode well and went armed, and the horse he rode was a splendid chestnut, bred for the Virginia hills rather than these sandy, rock-strewn wastelands. The man rode with assurance and the girl he rode beside was quick to notice it.
She was tall, her dark hair drawn back and knotted loosely, her eyes blue-gray and large. Her every feature indicated breeding, yet there was something more than breeding or beauty in her face, there was a hint of fine steel not yet honed to a cutting edge.
"Do you think your father will follow us?"
"What will it serve if we are already married?"
"He'll kill you, I think. He's my father, but he's a brute, and I saw him kill a man once. I believe I've hated him ever since."
"Someone you knew?"
"No . . . only by sight. I had seen him around the town, and once he had come to the ranch, but he was young, gay, handsome. I quite lost my heart to him when I was ten or eleven, and then my father killed him. I never knew why."
Dust climbed around them, and the desert offered no sound but the sound of their travel. Despite the heat the girl on the gray horse looked neat, cool, perfectly composed.
She was, Grant Kimbrough decided, the best thing that had happened to him since the Civil War brought his world to an untimely end. His given name had come to him from his father, who'd fought through the Mexican War beside a grim, cigar-chewing soldier he had come to admire, and when that officer led the Union forces against the South, the elder Kimbrough saw no reason for his son to change his name. The blood of the Kimbroughs was good blood, and if there are some who say such blood wears thin with the passing generations, there was no need to say this of Grant Kimbrough at the time the war ended. He had fought well and ended the war with the rank of colonel.
His father died at Missionary Ridge and Grant returned to an impoverished estate it would take years to rebuild. His great-grandfather had begun with a wilderness, and although the land was still rich and fertile, the great-grandson elected to sell out for a song and go west.
He was a man without skills other than those expected of a gentleman. He knew how to ride, to dance, to shoot. He held his liquor well and played an excellent game of cards, yet he had become accustomed to good living, and, feeling nothing could go wrong for a Kimbrough, he spent the money received for the estate freely until one morning he awakened with less than two hundred dollars and no prospects. It was then he became a professional gambler.
He began with the river-boats, then drawn by the irresistible tide that moved all things west, he proceeded from Kansas City to Ellsworth to Abilene to Dodge to Fort Worth, Cimarron and Santa Fe. On the stage to Tucson he met Jennifer Fair.
Jennifer Fair was the only child of Jim Fair, a man who knew how to build an empire on grass, how to handle men, cattle and Apaches, but never learned how to talk to his daughter, and therefore was never able to tell her how much she meant to him. His world had no place for soft words, it was abrupt, hard, dangerous and profane, and he had lived it well enough to be ranked with Pierce, Slaughter, Goodnight and Loving, those kings among cattlemen.
When Jennifer reached her father's ranch, returning from the East, she was accompanied by Grant Kimbrough. The huge, rambling old stone house reminded him of the estates of his boyhood, and he liked the simple good taste of the Spanish furniture. After the gambling halls and river-boats the great old house was subdued, peaceful, lovely.
Day after day he rode with Jennifer, talked to her and danced with her. Compared to the cowhands he was everything to delight a woman, knowing all the little courtesies and the gentleman's manner. Big Jim watched and was not pleased, but Kimbrough was his daughter's guest. And the day came when Grant Kimbrough proposed.
Jennifer had quarreled with her father over some minor subject and Grant sensed a coming break, a break he did not wish to occur. He proposed and was accepted. He approached Jim Fair with a request for his blessing and was given an hour to get off the ranch. Within the hour Grant Kimbrough was gone, but he was joined at daylight by Jennifer and together they rode to Tucson.
No priest or minister of the gospel would marry them in Tucson without Jim Fair's blessing. Coldly furious, she spent the night with a girl friend and at daybreak rode west with Grant Kimbrough and a company of people bound for Ehrenburg. From where the trails divided they would push on southwest to Yuma Crossing.
North of the gap they parted company with their companions and started south at a good clip. Grant Kimbrough knew next to nothing of southern Arizona, but there seemed to be too many moving dust clouds and they worried him. They had been pushing their horses hard when they rode into the gap and stopped at Bates Well.
The two men who lay sprawled in death upon the hard-packed earth had been stripped and horribly mutilated. The cracked earth in the bottom of the dry water hole was dark with their blood. Both men had been shot through with arrows and struck many times, and about their bodies were numerous tracks of the unshod ponies of the Indians.
For the first time since he could remember, Grant Kimbrough knew fear. His soldiering experience told him these men had not long been dead, which meant the Indians might be in the vicinity even now.
"Jennifer, we've got to get away from here."
They did not hear the man who came down from the rocks behind them. He was a tall boy, shyly attractive in manner, but there was no shyness in the way he held his rifle. His clothes were shabby and when he came out of the rocks near the water hole he cleared his throat before speaking. "You folks headed west?"
Kimbrough turned sharply, his hand automatically dropping for his gun, but when he saw the tall, slim boy who faced them he merely said, "Who're you?"
"If you folks are headed west, I'm huntin' company. My name is Lonnie Foreman."
Kimbrough gestured at the dead men. "Did you know them?"
"There were fourteen, maybe fifteen Indians. When we found the water gone I crawled up in the rocks hunting for a rock tank . . . one of these here tinajas. I was up there when the Indians came, and before I could get placed for a shot it was all over.
"We worked on a cattle outfit together, and talked it over about California. Finally we made it up to go west an' we got this far."
Jennifer had kept her eyes averted, but her heart was throbbing heavily and she kept thinking about the Indians. If there was one band out here there might be more, and she remembered stories her father had told of Indian forays. In any event, nothing was to be gained here. "We'd best go on," she said; "they might come back."
"Closest water is twenty miles . . . Papago Wells." Lonnie Foreman turned to Jennifer. "Ma'am, if you'll allow it, I'd ride with you all."
"Of course," she said.
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