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Red Rock's Secret
By Max Brand
Dorchester PublishingCopyright © 2006 Golden West Literary Agency
All right reserved.
Chapter OneNo doubt there is a more mysterious poetry in the desert of the great Southwest than there is in the northern mountains, but there is nothing in the desert to compare with the brutal force of the mountain winters, and it is in those mountain storms that the friendships of men are discovered and made strong and then, at last, are welded together with a greater power than the power of steel.
Now, Bill Warner and Chick Newton had ridden together through only one season in Montana, but they had done for one another all that men can perform. Cut off from the rest of the world, fenced into a corner of the mountains, they had nothing but their wits and their hands and a small stock of food for themselves and the herd to rely upon. But they had played the game for four months and emerged lean of face, hollow of eye, sick with immense labors, but with a half-starved herd still able to stand and still able to graze. It was a great triumph, particularly keeping in mind that Chick Newton was new to that district and had to be broken in by Warner. However, Bill found an apt pupil. They worked to exhaustion every day; they slept until hunger wakened them in the dark of the winter mornings, and, when the winter was ended, each knew the other better, far better, than he could ever have known a brother.
Chick Newton had wandered south on a newly acquired horse. He got the animal by gift, not by purchase, as Chick sadly used to explain. But, having the luck against him one day, he had lost everything else, even to his watch, and finally he had offered his horse, although it was like parting with a limb. The horse went with the rest, of course, but, when it was discovered that he had no more resources, the winner staked him to a dollar and a horse. No words could describe that animal except the words of Chick Newton, who had just ridden the creature 1,000 miles, or thereabouts, and who therefore could be presumed to know it fairly well.
"They looked over the corral," said Chick in telling the tale, "and you could see 'em figure me down small. Look how I'd just stepped in and dropped eleven hundred in the pot besides a fine new pair of boots, a sombrero all done up in Mexican gold work, a saddle that had more carving on it than there is noise in a terrier pup, and the best steppin', wisest-headed cow hoss that ever made a yearlin' look plumb foolish. I'd dropped all that, and it sure looked like they could afford to stake me to a fair to middlin' hoss. I seen 'em pick over their gang with their eyes. And every one that they picked up to look at was worse'n the last. Finally they come to a yaller-haired, long-headed, short-legged, goat-eyed, Roman-nosed junk heap. And that was what they give me for a hoss! That was the stake that they handed me.
"Man, man, after that I jest nacherally can't help hatin' the whole state of Idaho ... damn their ornery eyes. I climbed aboard that thing they called a hoss and sat down in a saddle that was nothin' but a wood frame ... the rats had ate all the leather offen it a long time before. I sat down in the saddle and jabbed this hoss with my spurs. I call it a hoss, but you can see for yourself that it's a damned sight more like an old mountain goat than it is like any hoss you ever seen before. I thought it would sure bust apart and break down in the middle. But when it got a couple of jabs with the spurs, it begun to come to life and moved off. It had a movement like a grandfather's clock. It rattled all over every time it took a step. But it didn't fall to pieces. No, sir, it kept right on runnin', and it ain't rundown yet. It's a plumb queer hoss. It's got a gait like a rock breaker, and it looks like Methuselah's mule, but it sure don't stop goin'. It'll hit a jog in the morning and keep it up all the day. Don't make no difference how steep the slope is up or down, it keeps right on the same way. It's only got them two gaits. Never moves at no other pace ... just the jog and the slowest damned trot that was ever invented."
It was upon this charger that Chick Newton arrived in the Arizona town in the blue ending of the long twilight, although there still was enough illumination to see and be seen easily across the width of the single street. But had they been half a mile away and that half mile composed of the thickest dark, Chick Newton would have sworn that he could not have failed to sense the nearness of his old bunkie.
He saw Billy Warner coming out of the door of an adobe shack. He saw Billy Warner with the cigarette carelessly in the corner of his mouth, as usual, and the hat upon the back of his head. He saw Billy Warner, long and lean and solemn of face.
Some one else was with Billy. Perhaps it was a woman, perhaps it was a man, but at least Chick did not pause to make sure. He emitted from the deeps of his lungs a yell that rasped the skin from his throat and brought men and women to their feet in every house in the town. Then he plunged across the street, shouting as he came. He had not been drinking, but it was seven years since he had laid eyes on this man to whom he had owed his life half a dozen times and who he had repaid by service in kind. He reached Billy Warner with a final whoop, but he stopped with his hands outstretched. Billy had not recognized him.
There could be no doubt about it. Through the door the light from the interior shone fully into his face. Billy might be a trifle in the shadow, but his own face was certainly well lighted for Billy's examination, and here was Billy Warner looking upon him with a sort of blank curiosity and unconcern.
"Bill," he said, "damn my soul, you ain't goin' to pass me up."
Bill Warner-for surely it was he, for God could not have created two men so like one another-shrugged his shoulders and began to roll another cigarette.
"Partner," he said, "you sure got me down wrong. My name ain't Bill."
Red blood poured through the face of Chick. He had been sure enough before, but he was mortally certain now. Seven years was a long time. They had been youngsters then, and in seven years the face altered, the lines grew deeper, the character was engraved more surely, so that it was barely possible that he could have been wrong about the face. But there was another method of recognizing a man, and that was through his voice. And by the voice, most assuredly, this man was Bill Warner. The fiber had grown a little rougher-otherwise it was identically the same.
"You ain't Bill Warner, then?" Chick said slowly.
"Is it the looks of my outfit that makes you give me the cold shoulder, Bill?" asked Chick sadly. "Have you gone and got stuck-up since you and me bucked the snow in Jackson Cañon that winter?"
He studied the face of the other with the most infinite caution, but there was not a shadow of doubt or of meaning in the eyes of this man who had the face and the voice of Bill Warner. And certainly, thought Chick, if this were indeed his man, such an appeal could not be resisted. A gleam must surely have come in the eye of this man if he were actually Bill Warner.
Yet the other now shook his head. "I dunno who you're drivin' to get at," he said with perfect kindness and good nature. "But the boys around here all know me. My name ain't Bill. My name is Joe Tucker. Come on along, Olivetta, or we'll be late as the deuce."
Chick Newton, falling back in utter bewilderment, saw a slender, olive-skinned, black-eyed girl supple as a whip stalk and light as its lash, and by the way the incarnation of Bill looked down to her, and by the way she looked up to him, with a flush in the hollow of her cheek and a light in her eyes, Chick knew perfectly well that there was something of great importance to these two young people between them. For his own part, he went back to the hotel.
"We got to have advance payment," said the proprietor, scanning the ragged attire of Chick and the absence of baggage.
A bone should not be shown to a hungry dog. Chick was literally starving for anything that would blot from his mind the rebuff that he had received a few moments before. All the devil in him, of which there was an ample measure, came up in his eyes.
"I don't pay in advance in a place like this," said Chick deliberately. "I got to see how I sleep, and from the looks of things I might be bothered here by ... rats!"
The proprietor laid his hand on the gun that was always under the shelf that supported the register. Then he abruptly thought of his family and changed his mind. There was that in the face of Chick which made the proprietor see his own funeral procession with astonishing vividness. So he took Chick to the best room in the house and started to depart when Chick called him back.
"You know Joe Tucker?" asked Chick.
"I know Joe Tucker," said the other. "Everybody does."
"How long has he been around these parts?"
"He come down here the winter that Steve Monigle built his house. That was five years ago."
"Lemme see. Monigle's kid is six ... no, it was seven years back that Joe Tucker come to town."
Chick started. "That's all," he said finally, and, when the proprietor left, he sat down to think matters over.
It was just seven years since he had seen Bill Warner; it was just seven years since this Joe Tucker had arrived in the town. The similarity in date was too great to be idly passed over. Then he remembered a thing for which he should have searched the face of Tucker, if that were indeed his name. There was a little triangular scar on the right side of the jaw, the result of a kick received from a colt, according to Warner. If that scar were on the face of this Tucker, then Chick's mind could be made up.
With that, he turned in, fell instantly asleep, and did not awaken until the sun was high, for he had ridden sixty hard miles the day before. When he had finished his breakfast, he asked for Tucker's location, and he was told that the latter had a small ranch five miles out from the town, on the Middlebury Road.
Out on the Middlebury Road, therefore, he jogged the yellow mustang and came, in the course of an hour, within sight of the shack, a dreary little house put down in the middle of burned desert where only Arizona cattle could possibly find grass enough to make a living. He tapped on the door without dismounting, and the door was instantly opened by Tucker. The keen eyes of Chick fastened upon one thing only-a little triangular scar on the side of Tucker's jaw!
Excerpted from Red Rock's Secret by Max Brand Copyright © 2006 by Golden West Literary Agency. Excerpted by permission.
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