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The driving rain drew a sullen, metallic curtain across the fading afternoon, and beneath his horse's hoofs the earth was soggy with this rain and that of the rains that had gone before. Hunching his big shoulders under the slicker, Tom Radigan was thinking of the warm cabin and the hot coffee that awaited him when he glimpsed the trail across the meadow.
A walking man will kick the grass down in the direction of travel, but a horse with the swinging movements of its hoofs will knock the grass down so it points in the direction from which it has come. What Tom Radigan saw was the trail of a ridden horse that had come down from the lonely hills to the southwest and headed into even lonelier hills beyond his ranch house.
Squinting from under his dripping hat brim in the direction the trail pointed he saw nothingonly a trail that crossed the knee-high grass of the meadow and disappeared into the hills beyond.
"Now what in thunderation," he said aloud, "would anybody want back in there on a day like this?"
Or on any other day, for that matter.
In a world in which most things have a reason, Radigan was disturbed. Northern New Mexico in the 1870s was not a place where men rode for pleasure, and especially not in a driving rain on the heels of several days of driving rain; nor was there anywhere to go in that direction other than the bluff back of the ranch.
Nor was it a riderless horse, for a wandering horse does not move in a straight line nor at the pace this horse had traveled.
Ordinarily, Radigan would not have seen the trail for this was not a route he usually chose, but for the past months he had been moving stock into a remote area known locally as the Valle de San Antonio, a well-watered valley nearly twenty miles from his home ranch.
Three days ago he had driven a dozen head of cattle to augment the herd already there, and had remained long enough to trap and kill two mountain lions who had begun poaching on his herdand he had also killed a cinnamon bear. There were now three hundred and some head of cattle in the upper valley.
Returning, he found this trail, which could scarcely be more than an hour old.
Whoever had made the trail had chosen a route that could not have been accidental; no casual rider would have come that way, but only someone who did not wish to be seen. There were easier ways and more direct routes.
Tom Radigan's R-Bar outfit was remote, hidden back in the hills far from any accepted route of travel. He worked his range alone but for one hand, a half-breed Delaware who had once scouted for the Army and was known as John Child.
Nothing about that trail or the direction of travel made sense, and Tom Radigan was a man who was disturbed by the illogical.
Coming out of the draw where the meadow lay he looked across the fairly wide sweep of Canyon Guadalupe and over the gradually rising bench beyond it toward the ranch. During a momentary lull in the rain the ranch buildings and the trees around them were plainly visible, for the ranch was almost three miles away but a thousand feet higher than his present position.
Uneasily, he studied the ranch, and then bit by bit he surveyed the intervening country. The route of the strange rider led across the hills to the north and west, but mostly to the west.
Nothing in his life gave him reason for a sense of security, nor had he ever been a reckless man, nor one given to taking unnecessary chances. He had, even as a boy, often been accused by the more foolhardy of being afraid to take chances, and the very idea of taking a risk that was not demanded by circumstances was repugnant to him. Yet much of his life had been lived where caution was the price of survival, and being the man he was, he had survived. He did not take chances, but had helped to bury men who did.
So now he took none. He rode slowly, utilizing every bit of terrain that offered cover or concealment, and avoiding his usual route by swinging south of a rocky promontory by a way that ran parallel to the trail.
The problem of the strange rider was disturbing, yet approaching the ranch with care he saw no one. A thin trail of smoke lifted from the chimney, but there was no other movement, and there should have been. Riding in from behind the stables and corrals, Radigan drew up and surveyed the situation with care.
Behind the ranch house which faced him across the clearing, the mesa towered five hundred feet above the low buildings and their surrounding trees. At the base of the mesa Tom Radigan had found that most precious of ranching commoditieswater. And he had found plenty of it.
A dozen springs flowed from cracks and caves in the lower wall of the mesa to gather in a pool at its base, and from the pool a small stream trickled off down the mountain to lose itself in Vache Creek some distance from the ranch. Before the water left his own immediate ranch yard Radigan turned it aside to irrigate a small home garden as well as several acres of alfalfa, the first planted anywhere around of which he knew. Leaving the garden and the alfalfa the remaining water trickled into a series of small pools where his stock came to water.
A wanderer and a prowler of the back country, Radigan had come upon an ancient Indian trail that led him to this place. There were no signs of life but wild animals, and a few arrowheads of a kind used by no Indians of the time. There had been no tracks, no evidence of any human visit, so here Tom Radigan built his cabin and corrals. Later, he drove in a small herd of cattle, forty head of cows and two good bulls. He brought with him four mules and three saddle ponies, a small remuda which he augmented by capturing wild horses in the breaks of the mountains to the north where all was utter wilderness for many miles.
It was knowledge of that wilderness which now made him cautious. A man on the dodge running to one of the three or four outlaw settlements reported to exist up there would not have chosen this route, either. Nothing about that rider made any kind of senseunless he had an enemy of whom he was not aware.
Tom Radigan was a tall, quiet man who rarely smiled except around the eyes, and who talked little but listened well. His was a disconcertingly direct gaze in times of trouble, and men who faced him at such times found that gaze unnerving and upsetting to sudden action. At least such reports had come from three men . . . two others had been in no condition to volunteer any information.
Under the slicker he wore a blue Army shirt faded from many washings and wool pants tucked into Spanish boots. Belted low he wore a Colt six-shooter, and there was enough ammunition in his belt.
Out of Illinois by way of Texas, Tom Radigan was one with those others from Illinois who were to make their mark in the Western country such as Wild Bill Hickok and Long-Hair Jim Courtright. A man with a liking for solitude and a desire to build something stronger than a stack of chips, Radigan had looked for just such a place as he had found here, and he had been careful to choose an area where he was not likely to be disturbed by neighbors.
In the four years at the ranch under the mesa his herds had increased by breeding and purchase. He sold none of his original stock but managed a living and some buying money by trapping and washing gold. The trapping was good in the winters, and the deposits of gold were thin, but the gold was nearly all pure profit for a man with a rifle and a steady hand could live well on the upper range of the Nacimientos and Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
Tom Radigan was a considering man. He took his time to study things out, and he was never one to come to quick decisions or solutions. He took his time now.
Four years of comparative quiet had not lulled his sharpness of sensehis hunting alone would have kept that alivenor had it made him less wary. There were many reasons why a strange rider might come up the Canyon Guadalupe, but none of which he could think for coming over the rugged mountains to the east of it . . . unless he wanted to approach without being seen. And if he wanted not to be seen he wanted not to be seen by Tom Radigan or his one ranch hand.
A welcoming man, Tom Radigan could think of no reason why anybody should avoid him unless it was an enemy or someone who planned to do him harm.
He sat his saddle for fifteen minutes in partial concealment, his every sense warning him of trouble.
The rain had begun again, but a slower rain now, blotting out the landscape and bringing a chill to the evening. The altitude was 8,700 feet and winter was closing in.
The rain could turn to snow at any time, and the forest to the north would be closed to any traveler. His route to the settlements below was only occasionally closed, and it was downhill all the way, yet most travel would be ended with the first good fall of snow.
He scowled, watching the house, the hills, the forest and the mesa rim.
If an enemy or some chance thief who needed supplies and a fresh horse wanted to kill him that thief would be watching the trail up which he had not come. The yard before the barn was visible only from the rim of the mesa and the talus slope behind the house. But his approach was safe until within a step or two of the barn door, and if he moved with care . . .
The gelding stamped impatiently and Tom Radigan swung down and opened his slicker, moving his Colt into an easier position. Then, remaining on the side of the gelding that kept the horse between himself and any marksman on the talus slope, he went around and into the stable.
His first thought was for the horse. Stripping off the saddle and bridle, he rubbed the animal down with a piece of sacking, his mind turning over all the possible facets of the situation. He was probably being a fool; the rider might have been someone lost and searching for shelter.
Yet there was no sound from the house, and John Child did not appear, as he usually did. It was the half-breed's custom to stroll out from the house, help him with the horse and exchange gossip about the activities of the day.
Through the partly opened door he studied the house. By this time it would be dark inside and John would have lighted a lamp . . . you'd never catch John Child moving around in a dark house of his own free will.
Yet John's horse was in his stall, and his saddle in its proper place. So why had not John come to greet him, and why wasn't the light lit?
He might have walked away afoot, but that was unlike John who never walked farther than from the house to the corral or stable. He might be inside the house and sick or injured . . . the only alternative was that John was trying to warn him of something.
A warning of what?
The situation at the ranch now seemed part of the sequence of affairs begun with the strange trail across the meadow. Never a trusting man, Tom Radigan had lived by taking care, and if someone were in the house waiting for him they would be apt to have the light going to make the situation as normal as possible. And the mud around the door had few tracks . . . he studied those tracks again.
Somebody had come out and gone back. The steps from the house were even and regular until the fourth step which was skidded sharply in the slippery mud, and the returning steps were longer. Whoever had come out of the door had started toward the barn, had wheeled and sprang back for the house.
It was very quiet. There was no sound but the falling rain.
Nothing in the house could have made John Child turn and rush back so suddenly so it had to be something outside.
So then: there was nothing in the barn to frighten John, nor was there cover for an enemy to the east and northeast. There was cover from the southwest, the way Radigan had come, but Radigan had seen no tracks there.
That left two possible places and one so remote as to be out of the question, but the second place tied in with that unknown rider.
Nobody could have shot at John from the rim of the mesa because nobody knew the way up there but John and himself, but a shot fired from the talus slope back of the house would have found a target at just about the point where John had wheeled and dashed back into the house.
All right, that was it, then. Somebody was or had been on that talus slope behind the house, and that somebody might still be there waiting for a shot at John or himself the instant one of them appeared in the open yard. Approaching from the southwest as he had, Radigan would not have been visible from the slope, not until he had been right by the barn door. Nor would he be visible again until his second or third step out of the barn.
Radigan could wait where he was until it was full dark, which might be no more than a half hour, or he could go now and risk a shot.
Whoever had fired that shotif there had been a shotundoubtedly wanted to kill him and not John Child, or he wanted both of them.
Yet this was purely supposition. Nothing at all might be wrong.
Nothing in his life had given him reason to take chances. From Illinois he had gone to Kansas where he served his apprenticeship as a military man with General Lane during the bloody fighting in that border state, and from there he had gone to Sante Fe as a freighter, surviving two savage Indian attacks. For two bloody years he had fought Comanches in Texas. It was the sort of conditioning to make a man careful.