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I caught the drift of woodsmoke where the wind walked through the grass.
A welcome sign in wild country . . . or the beginning of trouble.
I was two days out of coffee and one day out of grub, with an empty canteen riding my saddle horn. And I was tired of talking to my horse and getting only a twitch of the ears for answer.
Skylining myself on the rimrock, I looked over the vast sweep of country below, rolling hills with a few dry watercourses and scattered patches of mesquite down one arroyo. In this country, mesquite was nearly always a sign that water was near, for only wild mustangs ate the beans, and if they weren't bothered they'd rarely get more than three miles from water. Mesquite mostly grew from horse droppings, so that green looked almighty good down there.
The smoke was there, pointing a ghost finger at the sky, so I rode the rim looking for a way down. It was forty or fifty feet of sheer rock, and then a steep slope of grass-grown talus, but such rims all had a break somewhere, and I found one used by run-off water and wild animals.
It was steep, but my mustang had run wild until four years old, and for such a horse this was Sunday School stuff. He slid down on his haunches and we reached bottom in our own cloud of dust.
There were three men around the fire, with the smell of coffee and of bacon frying. It was a two-bit camp in mighty rough country, with three saddle-broncs and a packhorse standing under a lightning-struck cottonwood.
"Howdy," I said. "You boys receivin' visitors, or is this a closed meetin'?"
They were all looking me over, but one said, "You're here, mister. Light and set."
He was a long-jawed man with a handlebar mustache and a nose that had been in a disagreement. There was a lean, sallow youngster, and a stocky, strong-looking man with a shirt that showed the muscle beneath it.
The horses were good, solid-fleshed animals, all wearing a Spur brand. A pair of leather chaps lay over a rock near the fire, and a rifle nearby.
"Driftin'?" the stocky fellow asked.
"Huntin' a job. I was headed east, figurin' to latch onto the first cow outfit needin' a hand."
"We're Stirrup-Iron," the older one commented, "an' you might hit the boss. We're comin' up to roundup time and we've just bought the Spur outfit. He's liable to need hands who can work rough country."
Stepping down from the saddle I stripped off my rig. There was a trail of water in the creek, about enough to keep the rocks wet. My horse needed no invitation. He just walked over and pushed his nozzle into the deepest pool.
"Seen any cattle over west?" The handlebar mustache asked.
"Here an' there. Some Stirrup-Irons, HF Connected, Circle B . . . all pretty scattered up there on the caprock."
"I'm Hinge," the handlebar said, "Joe Hinge. That long-legged galoot with the straw-colored hair is
Danny Rolf. Old Muscles here is Ben Roper.
"The boy there," he added, "is all right. Seein's he ain't dry behind the ears yet an' his feet don't track."
Rolf grinned. "Don't let him fool you, mister. That there ol' man's named Josiah . . . not Joe. He's one of them there pate-ree-archs right out of the Good Book."
I collected my horse and walked him back onto the grass and drove in the picket pin, my stomach growling over that smell of bacon. These were cowhands who dressed and looked like cowhands, but I knew they were doing some wondering about me.
My rope was on my saddle and I was wearing fringed shotgun chaps, a sun-faded blue shirt, army-style, and a flat-brimmed hat that was almost new but for the bullet hole. I also wore a six-shooter, just as they did, but mine was tied down.
"Name's Milo Talon," I said, but nobody so much as blinked.
"Set up," Hinge suggested, "we're eatin' light. Just a few biscuits and the bacon."
"Dip it in the creek," I said, "and I'll eat a blanket."
"Start with his," Ben Roper gestured to Rolf. "He's got enough wild life in it to provide you with meat."
"You got comp'ny," I said, "five men, rifles in their hands."
Roper stood up suddenly, and it seemed to me his jaws turned a shade whiter. He rolled a match in his teeth and I saw the muscles bulge in his jaws. He wiped his hands down the side of his pants and let them hang. The kid was up, movin' to one side, and the oldster just sat there, his fork in his left hand, watching them come.
"Balch an' Saddler," Hinge said quietly. "Our outfit an' them don't get along. You better stand aside, Talon."
"I'm eatin' at your fire," I said, "and I'll just stay where I am."
They came on up, five very tough men, judging by their looks—well-mounted and armed.
Hinge looked across the fire at them. " 'Light an' set, Balch," he offered.
Balch ignored him. He was a big man, rawboned and strong with a lantern jaw and high cheekbones.
He looked straight at me. "I don't know you."
"That's right," I said.
His face flushed. Here was a man with a short fuse and no patience. "We don't like strange riders around here," he said flatly.
"I get acquainted real easy," I said.
"Don't waste your time. Just get out."
He was a mighty rough-mannered man. Saddler must be the square-shouldered, round-faced man with the small eyes, and the man beside him had a familiar look, like somebody I might have seen before.
"I never waste time," I said. "I thought I'd try to rustle a job at the Stirrup-Iron."
Balch stared at me, and for a moment there we locked eyes but he turned his away first and that made him mad. "You're a damn fool if you do," he said.
"I've done a lot of damn fool things in my time," I told him, "but I don't have any corner on it."
He had started to turn his attention to Hinge, but his head swung back. "What's that mean?"
"Read it any way you like," I said, beginning not to like him.
He did not like that and he did not like me, but he was not sure of me, either. He was a tough man, a mean man, but no fool. "I'll make up my mind about that and when I do, you'll have my answer."
"Anytime," I said.
He turned away from me. "Hinge, you're too damn far west. You start back come daybreak and don't you stop this side of Alkali Crossing."
"We've got Stirrup-Iron cattle here," Hinge said. "We will be gathering them."
"Like hell! There's none of your cattle here! None at all!"
"I saw some Stirrup-Irons up on the cap-rock," I said.
Balch started to turn back on me, but Ben Roper broke in before he could speak. "He saw some HF Connected, too," Roper said, "and the major will want to know about them. He will want to know about all of them."
Balch reined his horse around. "Come daybreak, you get out of here. I'll have no Stirrup-Iron hand on my ranch."
"Does that go for the major, too?" Roper asked.
Balch's face flamed with anger and for a moment I thought he would turn back, but he just rode away and we watched them go, then sat down.
"You made an enemy," Hinge commented.
"I'm in company," I replied. "You boys were doing pretty well yourselves."
Hinge chuckled. "Ben, when you mentioned the major I thought he'd bust a gut."
"Who," I asked, "is the major?"
"Major Timberly. He was a Confederate cavalry officer in the late difficulty. Runs him some cattle over east of here and he takes no nonsense from anybody."
"He's a fair man," Hinge added, "a decent man . . . and that worries me. Balch an' Saddler aren't decent, not by a damn sight."
"Saddler the fat one?"
"It looks like fat, but he's tough as rubber, and he's mean. Balch is the voice and the muscle, Saddler is the brain and the meanness. They come in here about three, four years ago with a few head of mangy cattle. They bought a homestead off a man who didn't want to sell, and then they both homesteaded on patches of water some distance off.
"They've crowded the range with cattle, and they push . . . they push all the time. They crowd Stirrup-Iron riders and Stirrup-Iron cattle, and they crowded the cattle of some other outfits."
"Like Spur?" I suggested.
They all looked at me. "Like Spur . . . crowded him until he sold his brand to Stirrup-Iron and left the country."
"And the major?"
"They leave him alone. Or they have so far. If they crowd him, he'll crowd back . . . and hard. The major's hands don't scare like some of the others. He's got a half dozen of his old Confederate cavalrymen riding for him."
"What about Stirrup-Iron?"
Hinge glanced at Roper. "Well . . . so far it's been kind of a hands-off policy. We avoid trouble. Just the same, come roundup time we'll ride in there after our cattle, calves and all."
We ate up. The bacon was good and the coffee better. I ate four rolls dipped in bacon grease and felt pretty good after my fifth cup of coffee. I kept thinking about that third man. The others had been cowhands, but the third man . . . I knew him from somewhere.
Most of the last three years I'd been riding the outlaw trail. Not that I was an outlaw. It was just that I liked the backbone of the country, and most of the outfits I'd worked for since leaving the home ranch had been along the outlaw trail. I'd never crossed the law at any point and had no notion of it, but I suspect some of the outlaws thought I was a cattle detective, and more took me for some kind of a lone hand outlaw. It was simply that I had a liking for rough, wild country . . . the high-up and the far-out.
My brother Barnabas . . . named for the first of us ever to come across from England . . . he took to schooling and crossed the ocean to study in England and France. While he learned the words of Rousseau, Voltaire and Spinoza, I was cutting my educational teeth on the plains of the buffalo.
While he courted the girls along the old Boul' Miche, I busted broncs on the Cimarron. He went his way and I mine, but we loved each other none the less.
Maybe there was a wildness in me, for I had a love for the wind in the long grass blowing, or the smell of woodsmoke down some rocky draw. There was a reaching in me for the far plains, and from the first day that I could straddle a bronc it was in me to go off a-seeking.
Ma held me as long as she could, but when she saw what it was that was choking me up with silence she took down a Winchester from the gunrack and handed it to me. Then she taken a six-shooter, holster, belt and all, and she handed them to me.
"Ride, boy. I know it's in you to go. Ride as far as you've a mind to, shoot straight when you must, but lie to no man and let no man doubt your word.
"It is a poor man who has not honor, but before you do a deed, think how you will think back upon it when old age comes. Do nothing that will shame you."
She saw me to the door and when I started to saddle my old roan, she called after me. "No son of mine will go forth upon a horse so old as that. Take the dun . . . it's a wicked one he is, but he'll go until he drops. Take the dun, boy, and ride well.
"Come back when you're of a mind to, for I'll be here. Age can seam my face as it can the bark of an oak, but it can put no seams in my spirit. Go, boy, but remember you are a Sackett as well as a Talon. The blood may run hot, but it runs strong."
They were words I still remembered.
"We'll ride home in the morning," Hinge said. "We will talk to the major, too."
"Who's your boss? Who runs the Stirrup-Iron?"
Danny Rolf started to speak, but shut up at a look from Roper. It was Hinge who replied. "An old man," he said, "and a kid girl."
"She ain't no kid," Danny said, "she's older'n me."
"A girl-kid," Roper added, "and the old man is blind."
"Yeah," Roper said, "you'd better think again, mister. You ain't in this like we are. You can ride on with a clear conscience."
"If a man can ever leave a pair like Balch and Saddler behind and still have a clear conscience. No," I said, "I ate of your salt, and I'll ride for the brand if they'll take me on."
"What's that mean?" Danny asked. "That about the salt?"
"Some folks think if you eat of somebody's bread and salt it leaves you in debt . . . or something like that," said Hinge.
"That's close enough," I said. "Are you boys quitting?"
There was no friendly look in their eyes. "Quittin'? Who said anything about quittin'?"
"Goin' against a tough outfit for a blind man and a girl," I said, "just doesn't make sense."
"We ain't about to quit," Roper said.
I grinned at them. "I'm glad I ate that salt," I said.
The ranch house on the Stirrup-Iron was a low-roofed house of cottonwood logs chinked with adobe, its roof of poles covered with sod where grass had sprouted and some flowers grew.
Nearby were three corrals of peeled poles, and a lean-to barn with an anvil at one end, as well as a forge for blacksmithing.
It was a common enough two-by-twice outfit with nothing special about it. Others of its kind could be found in many parts of Texas and other plains states. Only when we rode down the long, gradual slope toward the house did we see a man standing in the yard with a rifle in the hollow of his arm.
He must have agreed with what he saw, for he turned on his heel, seeming to speak toward the house. Then he walked back to the bunkhouse which lay across the hard-packed yard facing the shed.