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When I came down off the cap rock riding a wind-broken bronc, half of New Mexico must have been trailin' behind me, all ready to shake out a loop for a hanging.
Nobody told me I should wait around and get my neck stretched, so when I'd seen them coming my way I just wrapped myself around the nearest horse and taken off down country. Seemed likely those boys would run out of ambition before long, but they must have been mighty shy of entertainment in that gyp-rock country, because they kept a-coming.
Me, I hightailed it out of there as fast as that bronc would take me, and for a spell that was pretty fast. Only the bronc had run himself out trying to save my bacon and now I needed myself a fresh horse, or else I'd never need another.
About that time I sighted a clump of cottonwoods down on the flat, and cottonwoods spell water in any man's country. Water usually meant there was stock close by, and probably folks. Where there was either there might be a horse.
So right then I began building myself a fresh dust cloud behind me, and when I rode up to those trees I was just a-fogging it. Sure enough, there were horses there, and some mighty fine stock, too. So I shook out a loop and dabbed it on a handsome lineback dun with a black mane and tail.
Snubbing him to a post, I stepped down and unlatched my saddle and threw it on the dun. I cinched up tight, and was about to climb into the leather when I heard the click of a cocked hammer and froze right where I was. That gun was behind me, but judging by the sound the range was no more than twenty feet; and my ma never raised no foolish papooses. Back there in the Clinch Mountains of Tennessee we boys learned to use guns mighty early, but we also learned to hold them in respect. When a man puts a gun on you, you've no cause to believe he won't use it.
"Mister"—the voice was dry and cold—"you sure ain't pa'tic'lar where you put your saddle."
"Figured I was mighty pa'tic'lar. If that ain't the best horse in the lot, you show me a better and I'll switch my saddle."
He chuckled, but I knew that rifle hadn't moved any. This was a hard man there behind me.
"What you figure gives you title to that horse?"
"You keep an eye on the rim of the cap rock yonder, and when you see dust a-fetching up over the rim you'll know what gives me title. Those boys back yonder got themselves a rope, and they figure on making me the belle of the ball."
"What did you do?"
Well, I taken a chance and turned around. That old man held a Sharps .50 buffalo gun on me, a gun that would open a hole in a man as big as your fist. He was slight built, but he had a pair of the coldest eyes you ever did see.
"I fetched my gun a mite faster'n another man; only I was a stranger, and that other man, he owned himself a big outfit and a lot of good friends."
"You got a name? Something folks call you by?"
"Heard of you. Outlaw, the way folks tell it."
"Look at that rim, mister. There's your dust. Now this here ain't no time to start discussin' a man's moral outlook. There's no time to talk about my past, not if I am to have a future."
He stepped around me so's he could look at the rim, and then he said, "What d' you figure to do now, Sackett?"
"Seems to me I've got a choice between a rope and a bullet, or a rope and a chance. Folks consider me a right fast hand with a six-shooter, so I'm likely to take the chance and see if I could beat you to a killing."
"You wouldn't beat me, Sackett, but I like your sand. You get up on that horse and light out. Hold to the bottom yonder and you'll be out of sight. The canyon cuts back toward the Yellow House, and you'll have a fair run down the valley. Give that horse a spell now and again and he'll take you clear of them."
Well, I taken out. But not before I had one long look at that old man. "Thanks," I said; "and you need a friend, you call on Nolan Sackett. Or any Sackett, for that matter, for we run long on kinfolk."
That lineback dun taken out of there like he had a fire under his tail and was tryin' to outrun it. Sure enough, the canyon forked, and I went up the branch called Yellow House. An hour later, when I topped out on the cap rock again, there was no sign of pursuit. So I slowed the dun to a canter, and then to a walk.
That was wide-open country, a vast plain cut by occasional ravines, the rare streams flowing into the Arkansas or the Canadian River, although both rivers lay north of where I was riding, the Arkansas far to the north.
This was buffalo country and Indian country, and a man could lose his hair in one unwary moment anywhere within a thousand square miles. Buffalo hunters had come into it, coming out of Dodge; and here and there a few cattlemen had the idea of moving in, only mostly it was just an idea.
The outlaws had come early. Up north of the Canadian was the stretch of country they called No Man's Land, and east of there was Indian Territory. No man in his right mind rode into that country without a gun ready to hand, and the will to use it. There were canyons like the Palo Duro and the Yellow House, but mostly it was cap-rock country, and water a rare thing unless you knew where to find it.
The buffalo knew. They knew not only the few permanent springs and creeks, but rain-water lakes that sometimes lasted several weeks or even months if the rains had been heavy. Often enough, though, they vanished within a few days, so following buffalo tracks to hunt water was a chancy thing.
Nothing had ever led me to believe that anything would be easy for me. The only trails I knew were long and dusty, blazing hot or freezing cold. The nights I'd slept under a roof these past years were mighty few.
A body can get the name of outlaw sometimes without half trying, and I hadn't tried. I guess I never cared much, either. We Clinch Mountain Sacketts were good enough folk, I guess, but a mite poorer and rougher than those over in the Cumberlands or down on the flatlands.
We sprung from thin soil, and raised more kin than crops, but we were proud folk, too, and in those days a man's pride was defended by a gun. I ain't saying it was right, only that was the way it was, and gun battles were not only a matter of us feuding folks from Tennessee, nor in the West. It was the way things were done all over the country, and in Europe too, they say.
Andrew Jackson himself, him who was president of the United States, engaged in several gun battles, and killed Charles Dickinson in a duel. He got his shoulder shot up in the fight with the Bentons; and it was claimed that he had a hand in a hundred and three duels, as a fighter, a second, or a member of the party.
He was only one of many. Few prominent men avoided duels if they entered public life, where somebody might speak slander of them. Nor could a man continue to live in any community where it was known he had been called a liar and had failed to fight, or, in fact, if he had failed to fight whenever honor demanded it.
But I could lay no claim to dueling or fighting in the way of defending my honor or anybody else's. Soon as I was old enough, I drifted west, living as best I could. There was little enough at home, and when I was gone there was one less to feed. What fights I had, after the Higgins feud, were mostly with rough men who lived in the same way I did.
Now as I rode, the plains stretched wide around me, flat as a floor as far as a man could ride. Not a tree, not a bush, just the low, dusty grass, and the wide milky-blue sky above.
I took off my beat-up old hat and wiped the sweat-band. That hat had never been much account, and the bullet hole left there by a Kiowa brave before he died had done it no good.
Looking at that hat made me feel glum. A man ought to have a few worthwhile things in his life. All my years I'd honed for a store-bought suit, but I'd never managed it yet, nor even a good saddle. It was little enough a man could have unless he got lucky with cards or went west to the goldfields. Some folks had the turn for making money. Seemed to me I never did.
But that was a good horse I rode now. Maybe the best I'd ever had, and I owed that old man a debt. There was something about him I cottoned to, anyway. He was a hard old man, and he would have torn my guts out with that buffalo gun if I'd made a move for my gun; but when the chips were down and I'd been holding no more than a couple of deuces, he had come through.
Of a sudden, I saw the wagon.
For several minutes I'd been watching what looked to be a low white cloud lying off on the horizon, and hoping it was no thunderhead. Thunderstorms can roll up almighty fast out there on the plains, and such lightning as you never saw. A man standing out on the level lands is a natural attraction for lightning, to say nothing of a man on horseback carrying a pistol and a rifle.
Now as I rode on I began to see it was no cloud, but a wagon top, and beside the wagon a woman was standing.
She was a mile or more off, but it was a woman, all right. What set me to fretting was that she was alone—nobody else in sight, and no stock of any kind—no horses, or mules, or oxen. And that worried me. Folks caught up with trouble out on the grasslands would do almost anything for a horse, and I was riding a good one. So I didn't just fetch up to that wagon, I veered wide around it.
That woman, she started to wave at me, but I just waved back and rode wide around her, keeping an eye on her and a hand on my rifle. Only I took time out to glance at the ground from time to time, for I wanted to know where the wagon came from, and what had happened to the horses or oxen that had hauled it there.
Horses . . . six head of horses heavy enough to pull that wagon, and two head of saddle horses, led off by a man afoot.
Circling on around, I came on the tracks of the wagon as it went along to the place where it now stood. The tracks had cut into the turf . . . that wagon was loaded, really loaded.
Right then he made a mistake, and moved. A man lying still is hard to see if his clothes blend into the background, but movement draws the eye. He was bellied down in a slight depression on the cap rock, just a-fixing to take my scalp and my horse when I came riding up.
So I pulled up a good three hundred yards off and shucked my own Winchester. Then I started circling again, and he had to keep moving to keep me in sight. By the time I'd made a complete circle he could see I'd outfoxed him, and he quit on me.
He was smart enough not to risk a bullet unless he could score a kill with the first shot, but with me moving like I was, he couldn't be sure. Even if he got a bullet into me at that distance I might ride away; or if I fell, my horse might be frightened off. Circling as I was, I could bring my rifle to bear at any moment, and I was able to make him move as I wanted.
He spoke to the woman, saying something I could not make out at that distance, and then he stood up, his hands empty. I moved in closer then, keeping them lined up ahead of me. He was surely carrying a hand-gun, and I did not like the way she was keeping one hand hidden in the folds of her skirt. Either or both of them might try a sneak shot at me. Looked to me like I'd ridden into a nest of rattlers.
At fifty yards I drew up once more, taking my time in looking them over. My rifle was held pistol-fashion in my right hand, and I was a fair shot from that position. "You shed that small gun," I told him, "and tell your woman that if she doesn't drop that pistol I'll shoot both of you."
"You'd shoot a woman?"
"If she's holding iron on me," I said, "I'd shoot her as quick as you. You tell her to drop it, mister, if you figure to watch the sunset tonight."
He unlatched his gun belt and let it fall, and that girl, she walked over to a blanket near the fire and dropped her gun. Then I rode up to them, watching like a cougar watches a rattler.
He was a slim, wiry young man, scarcely more than a boy, and he wore city clothes, but they were dusty now. He had a square, pleasant-looking, young boy's face, only when you got close enough you could see his eyes were not pleasant now.
The girl was not more than eighteen, I'd guess, and she was pretty as a white-tailed pony. And the two of them were alike as two could be.
As for me, I knew what they saw, looking at me, and it wasn't much. My jaw was blunt and my nose had been broken, and I carried most of my two hundred and fifteen pounds in my chest and shoulders. I had a fifty-inch chest above a rider's small waist, and biceps and neck that measured seventeen inches around. My fists were big and hard, the kind a man can get from wrestling big steers, wild mustangs, and wilder, rougher men.
The wool shirt I wore had been red at one time, but had faded, and my vest was made from the hide of a black and white cow. Nothing I wore or owned was new, and my outfit was beat-up, rained-on, and sand-weathered, and that included me too. Along with it I had a stubble of beard on a face deep-browned by the sun, and green eyes that showed up lighter than they were, against my dark skin.
I had me a fine-working Winchester and a pair of bone-handled six-shooters, only one of which was carried in sight. In my belt there was a bowie knife, and down the back of my neck a throwing knife, both of them Tinker-made.
This outfit I'd come upon was no rawhide bunch. The wagon showed travel signs, but it had been new not long ago, and both of these folks were dressed mighty well.
I hooked a knee around the pommel of the saddle, rested the muzzle of the Winchester in their general direction across my knee, and started to build myself a smoke.