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For seven days in the spring of 1882 the man called Shalako heard no sound but the wind . . .
No sound but the wind, the creak of his saddle, the hoofbeats of his horse.
Seven days riding the ghost trails up out of Sonora, down from the Sierra Madre, through Apache country, keeping off the skylines, and watching the beckoning fingers of the talking smoke.
Lean as a famine wolf but wide and thick in the shoulder, the man called Shalako was a brooding man, a wary man, a man who trusted to no fate, no predicted destiny, nor to any luck. He trusted to nothing but his weapons, his horse, and the caution with which he rode.
His hard-boned face was tanned to saddle leather under the beat-up, black, flat-crowned hat. He wore fringed shotgun chaps, a faded red shirt, a black handkerchief knotted about his throat, and a dozen scars of knife and bullet.
It was a baked and brutal land, this Sonora, sun-blistered and arid, yet as he sifted his way through the stands of organ-pipe cactus, prickly pear and cat's claw, he knew the desert throbbed with its own strange life, and he knew those slim fingers of lifting smoke beckoned death.
He was a lone-riding man in a lonesome country, riding toward a destiny of which he knew nothing, a man who for ten long years had known no other life than this, nor wished for any other.
What else there was he had known before, but now he lived from day to day, watching the lonely sunsets flame and die, bleeding their crimson shadows against the long, serrated ridges. Watching the dawns come, seeing the mornings stir with their first life . . . and the land he rode was a land where each living thing lived by the death of some other thing.
The desert was a school, a school where each day, each hour, a final examination was offered, where failure meant death and the buzzards landed to correct the papers.
For the desert holds no easy deaths . . . hard, bitter, and ugly are the desert deaths . . . and long drawn out.
Merciless were the raw-backed mountains, dreadfully desolate the canyons, the white-faced ancient lakes were dust . . . traps where a man might die, choking horribly upon alkali or the ashen powder of ancient rocks.
For seven days Shalako heard no sound but that of his own passage, and then a gunshot bought space in the silence, a harsh whiplash of sound, followed after an instant by the shattering volley of at least four rifles.
The rifles spoke again from the sounding board of the rocks, racketing away down the canyons to fade at the desert's rim.
Motionless upon a sun-baked slope, he waited while the sweat found thin furrows through the dust on his cheeks, but there was no further sound, no further shot, nor was there movement within the range of his vision . . . merely the lazy circle of a buzzard against the heat-blurred sky.
If they had not seen him already they would not see him if he remained still, and Shalako had learned his patience in a hard school.
Movement attracts the eye, draws the attention, renders visible. A motionless object that blends with the surroundings can long remain invisible even when close by, and Shalako was not moving.
About him lay vast, immeasurable distances, pastel shadings of salmon, pink, and lemon broken by the deeper reds of rock or the darkness of cliff shadow. Overhead the sun was lost in a copper sky above the heat-waved reaches where all sharpness of outline melted in the shimmering movement of the air.
The innocent distance that lay before him was broken by hollows, canyons, folded hills, but it seemed an even, unbroken expanse from where he sat. There were cholla forests out there, scatterings of lava . . . a land where anything might be and something obviously was.
The notch in the hills toward which he was pointing held a pass through the mountains, and within the pass lay a water hole.
His canteen was half-full and if necessity demanded it could be made to last another three days . . . it had done so before. In the desert a man learns to use water sparingly and to make a little cover a lot of distance.
The roan gelding was a mountain-bred horse and could survive on cholla or prickly pear if the spines were burned away, but water and grass lay within that opening in the hills, and Shalako had no intention of skirting the mountain unless circumstances insisted. Yet the sound of shots had come from that direction.
After a while he made, with sparing movements, a cigarette, his eyes holding on the far, blue mountains briefly, then surveying the country while he worked with the small, essential movements. He considered the possibilities, knowing that a desert offers less freedom of movement than at first seems likely. All travel in the desert, of man or animal, is governed by the need for water. Some animals learned to survive for days without water, but man was not one of these.
Four rifles . . . at least four rifles had fired that volley, and four rifles are not fired simultaneously unless fired at another man or men.
Sunset was scarcely an hour away, and the water hole was at least that far distant.
It was unlikely that whoever fired those shots would, at this hour, ride farther than the nearest water. Therefore the chances were that the water toward which he was riding would be occupied by whoever had done that shooting.
On the slope where he had drawn up neither the roan gelding nor himself would be visible at any distance, so he waited a little longer, inhaling deeply of the sharp, strong tobacco.
Four men do not fire in unison unless from ambush, and Shalako had no illusions about the sort of men who attack from concealment, nor what their attitude would be toward a drifting stranger who might have seen too much.
Whatever of gentleness lay within the man called Shalako was hidden behind the cold green eyes. There was no visible softness, no discernible shadow left by illusion. He was a man who looked upon life with a dispassionate, wry realism.
He knew he lived by care and by chance, knowing the next man he met might be the man who would kill him, or the next mile might see his horse down with a broken leg . . . and a man without a horse in this country was two-thirds a dead man.
To his thinking those men who thought their hour was predestined were fools. Whatever else nature was, it was impersonal, inexorable. He had seen too much of death to believe it was important, too much of life to believe that the destiny of any creature was important to any but itself or those dependent upon it.
There was always life. Humans and animals and plants were born and died, they lived their brief hour and went their way, their places filled so quickly they were scarcely missed.
Only the mountains lasted, and even they changed. Their lasting was only an idea in the minds of men because they lasted a little longer than men. Shalako knew he would live as long as he moved with care, considered the possibilities, and kept out of line of any stray bullet. Yet he was without illusions; for all his care, death could come and suddenly.
The margin for error was slight. A dry water hole, a chance fall, a stray bullet . . . or an Apache he missed seeing first.
Those who talked of a bullet with their name on it were fools . . . to a bullet all targets were anonymous.
Behind him to the east lay Mexico, but what trail he left back there only an Apache or a wolf might follow. Deliberately, he had avoided all known water holes, keeping to the roughest country, seeking out the rarely used seeps or tinajas, and avoiding the places an Apache might go in search of food.
He had seen nobody in those seven days, and nobody had seen him. He was quite sure of that for, had he been seen, he would be dead. Yet he knew that the Apaches had come down out of the Sierra Madre and were riding north.
He read the story in those weird hieroglyphics of the desert, the trails of unshod ponies, deserted rancherias, faint dust trails hanging above the desert, and always of course, the talking smoke.
Holding to the seeps and the natural tanks as he had, he had been fairly safe. Such places were rarely used except when the year was far along or it was a dry season. Early in the spring the desert water holes were full and there was no need to stray from them.
Removing his hat, he wiped the sweatband. No further sounds had reached him, nor was there any dust. Around him the desert lay still as on the day the earth was born. Yet he did not move.
Big Hatchet Peak towered more than eight thousand feet just to the south and west. He had crossed the border from Mexico into the States at a point in the foothills of the Sierra Rica, knowing the approximate location of the water hole toward which he was riding.
It lay about two miles up a canyon and two trails led from it. One started south and east, then swung westward toward Whitewater Wells, every inch of it Apache country.
The second trail was dim, scarcely used even by Indians, an ancient trail that dated back to the Mimbres people, long vanished from their old haunts, if not from the face of the earth.
This trail led almost due west from the water hole, was much shorter and less likely to be watched. The mind of the man called Shalako, as of most Western men, was a storehouse of such information. Where guidebooks and maps are not available, every campfire, chuck wagon, and saloon bar becomes a clearing-house for information.
It was hot, and the roan was streaked with sweat and dust. The border country can be cool in April. It can also be an oven, the way it was now.
He started his horse, walking it to keep the dust down. From the shade of a nearby boulder an irritable rattler buzzed unpleasantly, and then for a time a chaparral cock raced ahead of him, enjoying the company.
He paused again by a clump of ironwood, enjoying the fragrance from the yellow blossoms of some nearby cat's claw. Sometimes called "wait-a-minute," it was a low, spreading shrub with peculiar hooklike thorns that had crippled many a horse or other animal.
His eyes studied the desert. The tracks of a small lizard were visible in the sand . . . bees hummed around the cat's-claw blossoms. Shadows were beginning to thicken in some of the far-off canyons, although the sun was still high.
Shalako continued to walk his horse forward, and each time he mounted a slope, he came up easily at the crest until only his head showed above the hill, and there, holding very still to simulate a rock, he allowed only his eyes to move until he had scanned the area within view.
After almost an hour of slow progress, he rode down a draw toward a small playa, or dry lake. It was unlikely the killers had remained in the area but Shalako was not a trusting man.
Within the mouth of the draw he drew rein again. With his first glance he recognized the body for what it was, but only when he was quite sure that he was alone did he approach it. He circled it as warily as a wolf, studying it from all angles, and when finally he stopped within a dozen feet of the dead man he knew much of what had happened at this place.
The dead man had ridden a freshly shod horse into the playa from the north, and when shot he had tumbled from the saddle and the horse had galloped away. Several riders on unshod ponies had then approached the body and one had dismounted to collect the weapons.
The clothing had not been stripped off, nor was the body mutilated. Only when he could learn no more by observation did he dismount and turn the body over. He was already sure of the dead man's identity.
Pete Wells . . .
An occasional scout for the Army, a sometime driver of freight wagons, a former buffalo hunter and lately a hanger-on around Fort Bowie, Fort Grant, or Tucson. A man of no particular quality, honest enough, and not a man likely to make enemies. Yet now he was dead, shot from ambush.
Circling, Shalako discovered where the ambushers had lain in wait.
Four men . . . four Apaches.
He studied the droppings of the horses, kicking them apart with a boot toe. He recognized in those droppings seeds from a plant found in the foothills of the Sierra Madre, but not farther north.
These were not reservation Indians from San Carlos then, they were some of Chato's outfit, just up from below the border.
Their trail when they left Wells's body lay in the direction he himself was taking, and that meant the water hole was off-limits for Shalako unless he wished to fight them for it, and no man in his right mind started a fight with Apaches.
When the time came for fighting, the man Shalako fought with a cold fury that had an utterly impersonal quality about it. He fought to win, fought with deadly efficiency, with no nonsense about him, yet he did not fight needlessly.
Despite his weariness and that of his horse he began backtracking the dead man.
Pete Wells was not likely to be alone, so his presence indicated a camp nearby, and a camp meant water. Yet Shalako puzzled over his presence here at such a time.
The Hatchet Mountains were in a corner of New Mexico that projected somewhat south of the rest of the state line. It was a desert and mountain region, off the main trails and offering no inducements to travel except several routes into Mexico. These were routes used by the Apaches in making their raids, but by no one else.
Unless Wells had been with the Army.
Within a few minutes Shalako knew that was highly unlikely, for Wells had been following another rider or looking for someone whom he did not fear. Wells had mounted every ridge and knoll to survey the surrounding country, and Wells knew better than to take such risks.
Obviously, he knew nothing of the movement of the Apaches, and that implied that nobody else knew as yet. Wells was close to the Army and would be among the first to hear.
Shalako had backtrailed Wells for less than two miles when he came upon the trail Wells had lost.