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They had shaken the last sign of pursuit two days ago. Now they had to stop riding, for Curly Jack was dying on their hands.
They eased him to the warm ground beneath the thin shade of a mesquite. Because the sun still came through, Dencil Fox unsaddled Curly Jack's horse and draped the wet saddle blanket across the branches to deepen the shade. Dencil poured water from a canteen into a handkerchief and gently touched it to Jack's fevered face.
"You just need to rest a spell, pardner," he said. "You'll be all right directly."
But he knew he was lying. There was the smell of gangrene about Curly Jack--the smell of death.
He wondered how Jack had managed to stay in the saddle as long as he had. It wasn't such a bad wound, they had thought. A bullet high in the shoulder, nothing fatal. But they hadn't dared hunt for a doctor. And the posse hadn't given them much chance to probe for the bullet the first couple of days. When at last they'd had time for Dencil to try, he hadn't been able to extract the slug. If anything, his efforts had made things worse.
Jack weakly motioned toward the canteen, and Dencil touched it to his lips, lifting Jack's head.
The other three men stood around uncomfortably, a deep weariness in their eyes, the droop of their shoulders. They were dusty and bearded. The oldest two were silent, but the youngest began to complain.
"We could have left him off someplace the first day. They'd have found him and took care of him."
Dencil Fox frowned quickly at his younger brother, then looked back at Curly Jack. "They'd have taken care of him, all right. Jack had rather go this way than at the end of a rope."
"If he was goin' to die anyhow, at least we wouldn't have been saddled down with him."
Sharply Dencil said, "Shut up, Buster!" He knew Curly Jack could still hear all that was said.
Buster kept talking. "If he'd shot that bank teller, he wouldn't have caught a slug himself."
Dencil said, "We didn't go in there to kill anybody."
"You didn't kill anybody. And you didn't get any money, either."
"We didn't figure on that gutty teller. And we never did know where he got that gun so fast."
Buster Fox said bitterly, "Leavin' me outside to hold the horses…If I'd been in there, things would've been a right smart different."
"That's why we left you outside."
"Well, you won't leave me outside next time!"
Curly Jack died without ever speaking a word. Because there was no shovel, they had to carry him to an arroyo, roll him in his saddle blanket, and cave a steep bank in on top of him. This way, at least, no one was likely to find him for a while. Later, if a rise came down the arroyo and washed the body out into the open, the four riders would be so far gone that the discovery would not put them in danger.
Dencil Fox stood with hat in hand, gravely looking down on the pile of fresh-caved earth at the bottom of the arroyo.
"Mighty poor way to leave you, Jack." His voice was sorrowful. "No marker, no preacher to read over you."
Buster spoke dryly, "Jack wasn't exactly the church-goin' kind."
Dencil said, "He was a good man, and don't you forget it."
"Too bad he wasn't a good shot."
They rode on then, leading Jack's horse for an extra, putting miles between them and the place where the fifth outlaw had died.
In time Dencil Fox said, "We got to find us a good spot to lay over. These horses will die under us if we don't rest them a few days."
A tall rider named Hackberry said, "We crossed the railroad tracks late yesterday. I figure we're about halfway between Grafton and Swallowfork. There's a big draw runs through a ways this side of Swallowfork. With the wet spring they had here, there ought to be good grass in it, and plenty of water. We could camp there as long as we wanted. Ain't anybody apt to see us except maybe a stray cowpuncher or two."
Dencil said, "You don't reckon they've heard about that bank job?"
"That was a long ways off. Last time I was in Swallowfork, it didn't have no telegraph or nothin'. Who'd be lookin' for us down here?"
"Nobody, I reckon. And I could sure use me a good rest."
The younger Fox pushed his horse up close to Hackberry's. "What kind of a town is this Swallowfork? Chance a man could find himself a little entertainment?"
Hackberry said, "The kind you're lookin' for?" He shook his head. "Last time I was there it was just a dull lookin' little cowtown. You could get yourself somethin' to drink and maybe a quiet game of cards, low limit. Nothin' fancy. And no wheeligo girls."
Buster was plainly disappointed. "Ain't that a shame!" Then, his face brightened again. "I wonder if they got a bank…"
* * *
A loud clatter was going on at the shack's old cast-iron cookstove.
"If you don't quit polishin' that tin star and go chop some firewood, there won't be any breakfast!"
Sitting on the edge of his cot, Jim-Bob McClain turned about with a youthfully sheepish grin and waved a hand at the young man who had spoken. "Hold your horses, Dan. I'll get to it directly." He pinned the deputy badge on his left shirt pocket, catching the Bull Durham sack with the pin the first time he tried. He reached down and pulled on his long-eared, high-heeled boots. He already had his hat on. It was the first thing he looked for when he got up of a morning: an old cowboy habit he had developed sleeping on the ground in wintertime, dressing from the head downward as he worked up out of the warm blankets.
Dan Singleton stood at the black stove, poking remnant woodchips in on top of the reluctant flame he coaxed out of dry kindling. Ashes filtered out around the sprung door and fell at his feet. "Thought this was your week to chop the wood," Dan prodded Jim-Bob good-naturedly. "Or do I have to call out the law?"
"I meant to do it last night, but with the dance down at Sothera's barn and all, I flat forgot."
"Then you better get at it, or it's goin' to be a long, hungry day."
Jim-Bob walked out of the little frame shack and paused to enjoy the clean freshness of the early morning. This was the summertime's best hour in the West Texas range country, just at sunup. The cool air of a brand new day braced a man and gave him vigor, made him imagine he could ride horseback a hundred miles without his shoulders ever sagging. It gave him all manner of grand ambition, notions the noonday heat would later bake out of him.
Along the wagon road just hollering distance away lay the beginnings of the town of Swallowfork. A scattering of frame and adobe houses first, thickening up and bunching closer together the nearer they lay to the rock courthouse and jail and the dozen or so business buildings that made up the core, it sprawled out haphazardly like a big remuda of horses loose-herded across half of a valley.
Jim-Bob listened. About all he could hear was a couple of roosters crowing the sun up, and a shut-in milkpen calf bawling for its mammy.
Quiet town, most of the time. Sleepy livestock town, drawing its livelihood from the good rolling rangeland that lay about it; from the tall bunch grasses that made the hillsides wave green in the gentle south breeze; from the valley's short, tough curly-mesquite buffalo grass; from the leggy, longhorned cattle that roamed and grazed there; and from the scattering bands of free-ranging sheep that were edging in on the cowman's domain, winning him over by pressure of economics if not from liking for the animal.
Quiet town it was, but one with ambitions, and one with a future. Jim-Bob's town. Like the town, he had ambitions. He could only hope he had a future, too.
He stood with hands shoved deep in his pockets, jingling the coins he carried there. Pay from his first month as a deputy sheriff of Coldridge County. He had hoped and worked and planned for a long time to pin that badge on his shirt. Now he had it.
"Jim-Bob," Dan Singleton's impatient voice insisted through the open door, "how about that wood?"
A big red dog, ugly as a mud fence, sidled around the shack and came up wagging his tail. "Mornin', Ranger," Jim-Bob greeted him, patting his broad head. "Where'd you spend the night? Liable to be a scandal around here if you don't take to stayin' home."
Jim-Bob unwedged the ax from the big mesquite limb that served as a chopping block and pulled a smaller limb down from the woodpile. He and Dan Singleton had taken a couple of Sunday afternoons and a borrowed wagon to haul in this supply of dry wood from a brushy draw a ways out of town. His strong back and hard-muscled arms made short work of the wood. In a few minutes he walked into the shack with a good armload.
"Hope you didn't cut it too long this time," Dan said. He had once accused Jim-Bob of trying to do such a poor job of it that Dan would take over in disgust. He wasn't far wrong. Jim-Bob never did go much for wood-chopping and the like. He preferred something he could do a-horse-back. But a man who made up his mind to live in town and be a deputy sheriff also had to make up his mind to do some menial chores he didn't care for.
Outside for another armload of wood, Jim-Bob paused to squint down the south wagon road that led in from Dry Creek and from ranches like the C Bar. There, in the reddish glow of the sun just up, he saw two riders trotting their horses purposefully toward town. Recognizing them, he waved.
"You-all come on over and have breakfast with us," he called.
They only acknowledged his offer with a quick wave of their hands and rode on. By the rigid way they sat their saddles, Jim-Bob could tell they meant business. He frowned and looked down at rusty-hided old Ranger, who had moved out a little way to size up the pair. "Somethin' the matter, Ranger. They've had to ride half the night to get in from the C Bar. And they're both packin' guns."
The way the country had settled up and closed in, folks weren't wearing their guns much anymore. When they did, it was usually because they felt a genuine need for them.
"Now what would Walter Chapman and Tom Singleton be needin' with guns?" he mused.
Walter Chapman owned the C Bar. Tom Singleton was his foreman and Dan Singleton's older brother.
Jim-Bob had worked on Chapman's ranch for several years after his father had died and left the growing boy to shift for himself. Excepting maybe Sheriff Mont Naylor, there wasn't a better man to work for, anywhere, than Walter Chapman. He was a solid old ranchman of the longhorn school. When he said work, now, he meant work, but he'd be right there beside you, or maybe out in front of you. He paid well and never abused man or horse. Always an easy mark for a hard-luck story, he was forever picking up dogies like the orphaned Singleton boys or Jim-Bob McClain, giving them a chance to work out their own way. But if he ever caught you lying to him or cheating him, there would be hell among the yearlings.
Dan Singleton stood in the door, watching the riders move on toward town. "That looked like Tom," he said, puzzled.
Jim-Bob went on picking up wood. "It was him. Never even stopped to say howdy."
"Awfully early for him to be in town. Must be something wrong out there."
"I reckon we'll hear about it soon enough." Heavily loaded, Jim-Bob strained to pick up the one remaining piece of wood and spilled half of his armload. He muttered something under his breath and made two trips of it.
He had the woodbox half full by the time Dan called him. He brushed the dust and chips away from his clothes and poured fresh water into a basin on the soap-slick washstand. Lathering his hands as best he could in the strong soap, he took a long whiff of the bacon-and-black coffee smell. Dan was a heap sight better cook than Jim-Bob ever even wanted to be.
Jim-Bob liked Dan, and he liked this place they shared here on the edge of town: an ancient shack, a small barn, a couple of corrals and a creaky windmill that needed new leathers and a greasing. The shack wasn't much, as houses go. They had painted it inside and out, but the job had been done several years too late to keep the place from weathering beyond redemption. One corner sagged gently where the cedar-post foundation had sunk. The windows didn't fit well anymore, and the west wind whistled in around them. The roof leaked in a couple of places, but this was a dry country where a leaky roof was only an occasional inconvenience. For two happy young bachelors in the springtime of life and the first glow of real independence, the place was more than adequate.
Dan Singleton was getting a good start as a teller in the bank. He'd always been a good-enough kid cowboy, but it had been easy to tell that he held promise of better things. He liked to read, and he had an unusual aptitude with figures. There wasn't an old-time cowman around who could do a better job of tallying cattle. Dan never dropped a count. Walter Chapman had finally fired him off the C Bar for his own good, forcing him to accept the job which old man True Farrell had been offering him at the bank. Dan Singleton was going to amount to something someday, people said. And everybody knew that one of the things West Texas needed most was more bankers who knew something about the cow business.
They weren't all sure about Jim-Bob McClain. He was a pretty fair cowboy, a little on the wild side. He would ride any horse they led out to him, or at least would try to. He would rope anything that would run from him, and he would stand tied to it. But he would never make a banker, or a storekeeper. Most people figured he would just end up another stove-up cowpuncher.
But old John McClain before him had been sheriff of Coldridge County for many years, and a good one. Sheriff Mont Naylor had the idea that young Jim-Bob McClain might have the makings in him, too, if he had a little of the rashness stomped out of him. Jim-Bob had pestered him long enough about it, anyway.
Jim-Bob's chance came when Mont had to fire Chum Lawton for pistol-whipping a harmless old Mexican sheep-herder whose only crime had been taking on a little too much tequila. Mont rode out to the C Bar and swore Jim-Bob in.
If he lived a hundred years, Jim-Bob would never again know the great swell of pride that came when Mont pinned the deputy's badge on him.
Yesterday was a month he'd worn that badge. "Here's for your first month," Mont had spoken simply as he paid him. And that was all he had said. Not a thank you or a howdydo, just that and nothing more. The young deputy had tried to see something more in the sheriff's eyes, for nothing in the world mattered like pleasing Mont Naylor. He listened to those five words a hundred times in his mind, and still he didn't know. He had done his best. Maybe that hadn't been enough.
Good thing about living close to town this way, they could always buy fresh food like vegetables and eggs, something they had often missed on the ranch. Jim-Bob liked his eggs. He was so busy eating that he didn't pay much attention to Dan Singleton. He finally noticed Dan watching him with humor in his eyes.
"You were sure havin' a good time at the dance," Dan said.
"Had to stay around and be sure things stayed peaceful. It's what I'm hired for."
"I think you were goin' far beyond the call of duty. I noticed you takin' mighty good care of Tina Kendrick. You never gave anybody else much chance to dance with her."
Jim-Bob felt his face coloring. It had never occurred to him that anybody would notice. Looking away from Dan, he dropped a strip of bacon into Ranger's eager jaws.
Dan said, "Chum Lawton was plenty burned up. After all, he brought her, and you danced with her all night."
His dancing with Tina Kendrick wasn't all that had Chum Lawton riled, Jim-Bob thought. There never had been much love lost between them, and especially not since Jim-Bob got Chum's old job. Chum was out breaking tough broncs for a living now. It wasn't something a man enjoyed after soft living around town.
Dan commented, "That little girl, Sue-Ellen Thorn, from up the creek, had her eyes on you a lot. You could have her, I think, if you wanted her."
Jim-Bob grunted. "I was scared to death she was goin' to come right out and ask me to dance. You know, they tell me there's girls that will do things like that."
Dan shook his head, smiling. "Must be awful tough to have so many girls on the string."
Sheriff Mont Naylor rode up as Jim-Bob carried his dirty dishes to the washpan on the kitchen cabinet. Walter Chapman and Tom Singleton sat beside him on their horses, their faces grim.
The sheriff said, "If you've finished breakfast, Jim-Bob, you better go saddle your horse. We got a job to do."
Jim-Bob didn't like the undertone of worry in the sheriff's voice. He looked at Walter and Tom, expecting one of them to offer an explanation. They didn't. Well, they would tell him in their own due time, he figured.
"You fellers get down and come on in," he said. "There's still coffee on the stove."
Dan Singleton stepped to the door, his face brightening as he looked out at his older brother. They quietly shook hands. No words passed between them, for sometimes brothers know little to say to each other. Just being together was enough.
Tom Singleton was tall and stiff-backed, a severe man who looked older than his thirty years. He wore a black vest and a black moustache and a solemn mien that he never relaxed. He wasn't an easy man to get to know, but there was this about him: he was honest and worked hard, and he had little patience with anyone who did not. To him, black was black and white was white. People knew that, and they respected him for it whether they agreed with him or not.
Only one thing ever softened Tom Singleton's eyes. Talk about his younger brother Dan and you could see a glow of pride start there. Tom Singleton had been in his teens when the responsibility for Dan had been thrust upon him. Tom had worked harder than two men, had missed the happy, youthful years to which he himself was entitled. But Dan had borne out all his hope, had justified all his sacrifice. Tom might never speak of his pride, but it showed in his dark eyes.
Jim-Bob walked to the little barn out back, Ranger following along with his stumpy tail twitching. Most of the time they let the horses run free on the town-section grass when they weren't using them. Everybody did. They made it a point to feed a little grain first thing after breakfast every morning, rain or shine. That guaranteed that the mounts would always be up in case they needed them.
The sheriff and Waiter Chapman came around in a minute. Looping his bridle reins over a post, the sheriff felt of the rough bark on a big mesquite tree to be sure there wasn't any sticky sap on it. Then he squatted stiffly and leaned his back against it, grunting with the effort. At his age, and with his growing weight, his knees popped when he bent very far.
People in Coldridge County always said they'd been blessed with good sheriffs. John McClain had set a strong pattern. He had usually found a peaceful way to handle the problems that came up. But when something demanded rough treatment, McClain had been able to administer it.
Mont Naylor was an old-time cowman, like John McClain before him. He had brought his own herd up with him from the brush of southern Texas in the early days and had settled in the upper end of the county. Eventually, drought and low prices got a stranglehold on him and left him flat broke. But people didn't want to see him go. Because Mont Naylor had always been a good horse trader, banker True Farrell lent him money to buy out the Swallowfork livery barn and wagonyard. Later, when John McClain died, folks prevailed on Mont to take over as sheriff on a temporary basis. It was the longest temporary job he'd ever had.
Mont was a broad-shouldered, deep-chested man with a square face hard-bitten by a lifetime in the hot, dry wind and the sullen punishment of the Texas sun. The creases in his face, always deep enough, bit even deeper this morning as he frowned over the trouble that had brought him here.
Jim-Bob itched to ask what they were going to do, but he had learned better years ago as a kid around a cow camp. The button who asked a lot of fool questions would find himself jingling horses, holding the cut or trotting the mountain oysters back to camp for the wagon cook.
Jim-Bob noted that the sheriff had his saddlegun along. It was the first time he had carried it since Jim-Bob had been working for him. Mont sat with his back to the mesquite, his lips puffed out while he worried. He absently sketched cattle brands in the sand and then changed them over the way a rustler would. Mont had seen it all done in his time.
Presently Mont said, "We're goin' out to Jace Dunnigan's. We all know he's been butcherin' C bar beef. This time Walter and Tom think they can prove it on him."
That was no great surprise to Jim-Bob. Jace Dunnigan had a ratty little place some distance from town. He kept a few cattle, bought a few occasionally, and--it was generally believed--stole a lot more than he bought. Jace supplied beef to a good many townspeople. Though it was basic knowledge that there were but four quarters to a beef, it was a common joke around Swallowfork that Dunnigan cattle grew seven or eight apiece.
Mont said, "Tom Singleton spotted him yesterday out on the C Bars, nosin' around just a little before dark. He followed him and saw him pick up a fat heifer yearlin'. He trailed Jace right on to his place. Jace killed the heifer, skinned it and buried the hide a little ways from the house. Tom says he's sure he can find that hide this mornin'."
Jim-Bob pointed his chin at the sheriff's saddlegun. "You don't think you'll need that thing with a man like Jace…"
"You never can tell."
Jim-Bob walked back into the shack and strapped on his gun. It was a single-action Colt Frontier .44 with black rubber grips. John McClain had left his son little but a gold pocketwatch, a fond memory, and this heavy old six-shooter.
Nobody did much talking as they rode out. To Jim-Bob it was as if they were going to a funeral. He tried to make conversation, but he soon realized he was the only one doing any talking. As the youngest, he knew it behooved him to shut up, and he did.
They rode back south down the wagon trail, toward the C Bar. Jim-Bob watched Tom Singleton as they rode. It struck him that Tom would always be the standout in whatever crowd he might ride, his back so rigid that it made anyone else look slovenly beside him. He was a handsome man, even in his severity, with steady brown eyes almost black, a straight nose, and that strong black moustache. He wore a flat-brimmed gray hat, its tall crown barely pinched toward the top. Even in dusty ranch clothes he always seemed better dressed than the others around him.
Tom Singleton had been known to go for days without saying anything other than the bare necessities for getting the work done. On roundup, he usually took the lead and rode a length or two ahead of the other men as he led them around the outer part of the circle to drop them off for the drive. Even now, he rode a little ahead of Mont Naylor and Walter Chapman.
The men's silence was not broken until they happened across a calf that showed a wound infested by screw-worms. The calf carried someone else's brand, but it was unthinkable that it should be left to die untreated simply because it belonged to another man.
Tom Singleton shook down his rope, built a small loop and gently edged toward the calf. He took it slow and easy, easing the calf a little way from its mother. At the crucial moment when the calf suddenly turned to bolt, Tom touched rowels to the horse. The loop swung around his head only once, then dropped like a rock and fitted perfectly over the calf's neck. No sweat, no strain, the way Tom Singleton did things. Jim-Bob watched with admiration. Dan Singleton had always been his pal, but Tom had been his ideal. Tom was a cowboy for you, now. Anything he set out to do, he would do it better than anyone else.
The calf's mammy was bawling and working around with her head low, trying to get up the courage to charge in. Jim-Bob moved to keep her away while Tom was down pouring chloroform into the wound. Freed at last, the calf ran to her. With all the concern a mother can show, the cow sniffed around on it to be sure it was all right. Then she shook her head threateningly at the riders, turned and trotted away with the calf.
Somehow the incident loosened up Tom Singleton a little. He said nothing, but he winked at Jim-Bob as he swung back onto his horse. It loosened Walter Chapman a little, too. He seemed to feel a need to explain the reason for his ride out to Dunnigan's. "It's not as if he was some hungry nester, Mont, butcherin1 a beef once in a while for his young'uns. They've done it many a time, and I've never said a word. But Jace Dunnigan's been killin' our cattle for sale, stickin' the money in his pocket and gettin' drunk on it. He could find him an honest job if he was a mind to. He's just too sorry to do anything but drink and steal."
The sheriff nodded. "The state'll find him a nice permanent job over at Huntsville, I expect. There he'll sweat or go hungry."
There wasn't an adobe hovel in the west end of town that looked half as bad as Jace Dunnigan's place. He lived like a boar hog in a swaying frame shack that had cardboard in place of half the glass windows. A scattering of tin cans and old bottles made a horseshoe-shaped pile out behind the house. The rustiest ones lay the farthest away, indicating that the junkpile was edging closer to the house as the man got lazier.
Tom Singleton reined up. He hadn't spoken since they had left town. Now he said, "Right there, I think it was, Mont. See the dried mud on some of those cans? He buried the hide under there and kicked the cans over to hide the fresh dirt."
Jim-Bob caught a movement at one of the dirty windows. "Somebody in the shack," he said. The head bobbed and was gone. "Looked like a woman."
"Mrs. Dunnigan," Mont replied.
Walter Chapman nodded. "I saw her. Always puzzled me, why a woman would live like this, in the midst of all the filth, with the likes of Jace Dunnigan."
Jim-Bob shook his head. "No woman could love a man like that."
Mont glanced his way. "You're too young to know much about women, son." He paused, then added, "I wonder if any man ever gets old enough."
"Do you really think a woman could love a man who makes her live like this?"
Mont shrugged. "I've seen fine women fall in love with men that weren't fit to breathe the same air. I've seen good men go plumb out of their heads and fall into the mud over some common dancehall floozy. You just take a good look, Jim-Bob, and let it be a lesson to you."
A brown mongrel dog crept out from under the shack and set up a racket. His ribs showed like bed slats through his coarse hide. Sheriff Mont Naylor stepped down out of the saddle, careful to keep his horse between himself and the house as he did so.
"Jace," he called. "Jace Dunnigan."
Jim-Bob stayed in the saddle, hand close to the old gun on his hip. Excitement kindled in him. This was the first time in his month as a deputy that he faced even the remote possibility of using a gun. He watched the front door. Jace Dunnigan might be inside, or he might not. But Mrs. Dunnigan was there. He wondered why she didn't answer.
The dog kept on barking. Presently Jace Dunnigan walked around the corner of the house. He reached down and picked up a rock. "Git!" he shouted at the mongrel. He hurled the stone, striking the dog so hard that Jim-Bob flinched at the fiat whu-u-mp of the rock against bare ribs. Yelping, the dog tucked its tail between its legs and slunk back under the house.
Jace Dunnigan turned then to his visitors. His yellowed teeth--what there were left of them--protruded a little. His lips were perpetually pulled back, his mouth open. He stood slackly, lank shoulders drooping. His clothes were filthy with grease and dried animal blood. Jim-Bob could smell him from six feet away.
Jim-Bob wondered suddenly how many times he had eaten beef butchered by this dirty man. The thought made him a little sick.
"Howdy, Mont," Jace said lazily. His red-veined eyes flicked to the other three men without any particular friendliness, for he knew full well what Walter Chapman and Tom Singleton thought of him, and Jim-Bob was just a big kid who didn't matter. Puzzlement came into Jace's eyes, and a trace of worry. But he tried to cover it up.
"I got a little shot of whisky out at the barn," he said by way of invitation.
Mont replied evenly, "I don't think I'd care for any right now. But I would like to take a look around that barn. I reckon you got some beef hangin' up?"
Suspicion narrowed Jace's eyes. "Matter of fact, I butchered one of my calves last night. Got the beef in the barn, coolin' out. Figured I'd haul it into town this evenin' when the heat of the day was past."
"Mind if we look at it?"
Dunnigan hesitated. Then, voice lower, he said, "I don't see as it would hurt nothin'." He looked uneasily at Walter Chapman. His glance barely touched Tom Singleton, then flicked away. Tom's dark eyes were boring a hole through him, loathing him for the sneak thief that he was.
Dunnigan led the way out to the barn. A couple of thin calves stood waiting pathetically beside an empty feed trough. It would be a long time before these were ever fat enough to butcher.
The beef, sawed down the spine, hung in two halves on rope suspended from a sagging rafter. There was no tarp cover. Flies buzzed around.
Jim-Bob felt his stomach turn over.
Mont Naylor nodded in satisfaction. This carcass was a lot fatter than any cattle Jim-Bob had ever seen wearing Jace's brand. Mont said, "Where's the hide off of this animal, Jace?"
A tremor was beginning in Jace's voice. "Why, I hung it out over a corral fence." He showed them a hide, laid flesh side up. Dry and stiff as a board, it hadn't come from any fresh-killed animal. Jace said, "The brand's right there if you want to turn the hide over and read it. My brand, Mont, you can see for yourself."
Mont paid little attention to him. He poked around a little and found a shovel. He held it out to Tom Singleton. "Go see if you can find that hide you were talkin' about."
Jace Dunnigan seemed to wilt as he watched Tom Singleton walk toward the pile of rusty cans, the shovel in his hand. Sweat popped out on his forehead. His tongue worked constantly back and forth over his lips. His hands shook as he took a tooth-marked cut of plug tobacco out of his pocket and tried to chew it. He spat it out in a moment, still as dry as when he had stuck it in his mouth.
His wife moved out onto the back step of the house, watching. She was a thin, pale woman with hair almost completely gray. Yet she couldn't have been forty years old, Jim-Bob reasoned. He thought he could see a dark bruise marring her face. Life with Jace Dunnigan was far from easy.
Tom Singleton dropped to one knee and began to scoop out dirt with one of the "rusty cans. He stood up again and came back, dragging a dirty hide by the tail. It was still soft and pliable.
"Looks fresh, Jace," Mont commented quietly. "Last night fresh."
Glaring at Dunnigan, Tom dropped the tail and toed the bloody hide over, revealing the brand. "There you are, Mont. C Bar."
Jace Dunnigan trembled. He cleared his throat. "Now looky here, Mont, maybe I made a little mistake."
"I reckon you did."
"It was gettin' dark," Dunnigan argued desperately. "I thought it was mine till I had it shot. It was too late then, and you wouldn't want me to let that meat go to spoil. It's the first time it ever happened."
Seeing Mont didn't accept that, Dunnigan turned to Walter Chapman. "Look, Mr. Chapman, tell you what I'll do. I'll give you one of them calves yonder for it. Fan swap, even up. What you say?"
"I say you're a dirty liar. I say you've killed more C Bar cattle than my whole crew could brand in a day. And now you're fixin' to pay for every one of them."
Sick fear was in Jace Dunnigan's red eyes. Not many years ago, he would probably have been hauled out to the nearest tree, had a rope put around his neck, and a wagon rolled out from under him.
Jim-Bob figured that thought was running through Dunnigan's mind.
Jace's voice quavered. "Mont, what you goin' to do?"
"Goin' to take you in, Jace. Try you, ship you off to Huntsville penitentiary for six or eight years."
"Penitentiary." The word came off Dunnigan's lips in a dreading whisper. "Ohmigod, Mont, no." He was snaking like a thin dog in a cold rain.
Mont Naylor looked levelly at him. "I wish I could say I'm sorry, Jace, but I can't. Fact of the matter, I don't know as I ever enjoyed an arrest more. Jim-Bob, come over here and put your handcuffs on him."
Jim-Bob moved up with the cuffs. He had never seen a man in a spot like this before. For a moment he felt a tug of sympathy, looking into the hopeless eyes of this miserable thief. "Let's see the hands, Jace."
Dunnigan lifted his shaking hands. Jim-Bob got one cuff on him, but he found he was almost as nervous as Dunnigan. He had accidentally locked the other cuff. He looked around, fishing in his pocket for the key. The instant he felt the gun jerked from his holster, he knew he had made a mistake.
Dunnigan pushed him hard. Caught off balance, Jim-Bob landed on his hands and knees and rolled in the dirt.
Dunnigan stepped back, the .44 gripped tightly in both hands, the one loose cuff dangling. "Just you hold still now, Mont," he said excitedly. His eyes were wild. "You ain't sendin' me off to no pen to rot. I never stole enough cattle to break anybody."
Mont Naylor was caught by surprise, but his voice was still even and strong with authority. "You're makin' it harder on yourself, Jace. Be sensible and put that gun down. You let it go off and it won't be just cow stealin' anymore. They'll hang you for murder."
Mont took a step forward. Jace steadied his hands, and for a second it looked as if he was going to fire. Jim-Bob lay frozen in fear for Mont.
Mont said, "I'm givin' you just one more chance, Jace. You can't get away, so don't hurt yourself any more than you already are. Drop the gun."
Dunnigan held it, retreating another step. Mont started to move forward, pressing him. Dunnigan's eyes widened in wild resolution, and his finger went tight on the trigger.
Mont threw himself to the ground, drawing his own gun as he fell. The .44 roared in Dunnigan's hands, but Mont already had dropped beneath the path of the bullet. Mont squeezed his trigger just once.
Dunnigan doubled over as if hit by a sledge. He went to his knees, groaned once, then pitched forward in a loose heap.
Jim-Bob still lay where he had fallen. For a moment all the strength seemed to be drained out of him. He couldn't even get up. In that last instant of life, Jace Dunnigan had looked straight at Jim-Bob. Jim-Bob clenched his fists and squinched his own eyes shut as if the pain had been his. Never, as long as he lived, would he forget the mortal fear and agony he had seen in Jace Dunnigan. And it had been Jim-Bob's fault. Shame flooded him.
Deadly silence followed for a long moment that stretched like eternity. Then a woman's voice lifted in a wail. Mrs. Dunnigan came, screaming as she ran. She threw herself down across the slack body and squalled.
As a precaution, Tom Singleton leaned over and picked up Jim-Bob's gun that Dunnigan had dropped. Then he helped the young deputy to his feet, his dark eyes asking if Jim-Bob was all right. Jim-Bob only nodded. His throat was drawn up in such a tight knot that he couldn't speak. The men stood helplessly watching the woman. They looked at each other, and no man had any suggestion. Mont Naylor tried to put his hand comfortingly on her thin shoulder, but she jerked away from him, eyes ablaze in hatred.
"Murderers!" she screamed. "Murderers!"
Jim-Bob could tell now that he had been right about the bruises on her face. One eye was swollen half shut. How, he asked himself, could a woman carry on so about the death of a husband like that? The wonder was that she hadn't killed him herself.
To Tom Singleton he said tightly, "Looks to me like she's better off with him dead."
Tom told him what he knew he should have seen for himself. "She's simple, Jim-Bob. She's got the mind of a child. He could beat her and starve her, and still she stayed with him because she was afraid to be alone. Now she is alone."
Mont Naylor stood white-faced and shaken. Only then did Jim-Bob fully realize how this had affected him. Mont was the kind of man who would lose many a night's sleep, seeing Jace Dunnigan die again and again.
"I'm sorry, Mont," he said. "It was my fault you had to do it."
Mont looked through him as if he didn't see him. Then he said quietly, "There's a wagon out back of the barn. Go see if you can find his team and catch them up. We'll take him to town."
Copyright © 1959, 1984 by Elmer Kelton