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Everything was quiet in Mustang. Three whole days had passed without a killing. The townfolk, knowing their community, were not fooled. They had long since resigned themselves to the inevitable. In fact, they would be relieved when the situation was back to normal--a killing every day; more on hot days. Several days without deadly gun play built up a mounting tension that was unbearable. Who would be next?
Moreover, with Clay Allison, who had killed thirty men, playing poker over at the Morrison House, and Black Jack Ketchum, who richly deserved the hanging he was soon to get, sleeping off a drunk at the St. James--trouble could be expected in the very near future.
The walk before the St. James was now cool, and Captain Tom Kedrick, a stranger in town, sat in a well-polished chair and studied the street with interested eyes.
He was a tall young man with rusty brown hair and green eyes, quiet mannered and quick to smile. Women never failed to look twice, and when their eyes met his their hearts pounded, a fact of which Tom Kedrick was totally unaware. He knew women seemed to like him, but it never failed to leave him mildly astonished.
The street he watched was crowded with buckboards, freight wagons, a newly arrived stage and one about to depart. All the hitch-rails were lined with saddled horses wearing a variety of brands.
Kedrick, suddenly aware that a young man stood beside him, glanced up. The fellow was scarcely more than a boy and he had soft brown eyes and hair that needed cutting. "Cap'n Kedrick?" he inquired. "John Gunter sent me. I'm Dornie Shaw."
"Oh, yes!" Kedrick got to his feet, smiling, and thrust out his hand. "Nice to know you, Shaw. Are you working for Gunter?"
Shaw's brown eyes were faintly ironic. "With him," he corrected. "I work for no man."
Kedrick did not see at all, but he was prepared to wait and find out. There was something oddly disturbing about this young man, something that had Kedrick on edge and queerly alert. "Where's Gunter now?"
"Down the street. He asked me to check an' see if you were here, an' if you were, to ask you to stick around close to the hotel. He'll be along soon."
"All right. Sit down, why don't you?"
Shaw glanced briefly at the chairs. "I'll stand. I never sit in no chair with arms on them. Apt to get in the way."
"In the way?" Kedrick glanced up, and then his eyes fell to the two guns Shaw wore, their butts hanging wide. "Oh, yes! I see." He nodded at the guns. "The town marshal doesn't object?"
Dornie Shaw looked at him, smiling slowly. "Not to me, he don't. Wouldn't do him no good if he did."
"Anyway," he added after a minute, "not in Mustang. Too many hard cases. I never seen a marshal could make it stick in this town."
Kedrick smiled. "Hickok? Earp? Masterson?"
"Maybe," Dornie Shaw was openly skeptical, "but I doubt it. Allison's here. So's Ketchum. Billy the Kid's been around, and some of that crowd. A marshal in this town would have to be mighty fast, an' prove it ever' day."
"Maybe you're right." He studied Shaw surreptitiously. What was it about him that was so disturbing? Not the two guns, for he had seen many men who wore guns, had been reared among them, in fact. No, it was something else, some quality he could not define, but it was a sort of lurking menace, an odd feeling about such a calm-eyed young man.
"We've got some good men," Shaw volunteered, after a minute. "Picked up a couple today. Laredo Shad's goin' to be one of the best, I'm thinkin'. He's a tough hand, an' gun wise as all get out. Three more come in today. Fessenden, Poinsett an' Goff."
Obviously, from the manner in which he spoke, the names meant much to Shaw, but they meant exactly nothing to Kedrick. Fessenden seemed to strike some sort of a responsive note but he could not put a finger on it. His eyes strayed down the street, studying the crowd. "You think they'll really fight?" he asked, studying the street. "Are there enough of them?"
"That bunch?" Shaw's voice was dry. "They'll fight, all right. You got some tough boys in that outfit. Injun scrappers, an' such like. They won't scare worth a durn." He glanced curiously at Kedrick. "Gunter says you're a fighter."
Was that doubt in Shaw's voice? Kedrick smiled, then shrugged. "I get along. I was in the Army, if that means anything."
"Been West before?"
"Sure! I was born in California, just before the Rush. When the war broke out I was sixteen, but I went in with a bunch from Nevada. Stayed in a couple of years after the war, fighting Apaches!"
Shaw nodded, as if satisfied. "Gunter thinks well of you, but he's only one of them, an' not the most important one."
A short, thick-set man with a square-cut beard, that made him look enough like General Grant to be his twin, was pushing through the crowd toward them. He even smoked a thick black cigar.
The man walking beside him was tall as Kedrick, who stood an easy inch above six feet. He had a sharply cut face and his eyes were cold, but they were the eyes of a man born to command, a man who could be utterly ruthless. That would be Colonel Loren Keith. That meant there was still one left he had to meet--Burwick. The three were partners, and of the three, only Burwick was from the area.
Gunter smiled quickly, his lips parting over clenched white teeth that gripped his cigar. He thrust out his hand. "Good to see you, Kedrick! Colonel, this is our man! If there ever was a man born to ramrod this thing through, this is the one! I told you of that drive he made for Patterson! Took those cattle through without losing a head, rustlers an' Comanches be danged!"
Keith nodded, his cold eyes taking in Kedrick at a glance. "Captain--that was an army title, Kedrick?"
"Army. The War Between the States."
"I see. There was a Thomas Kedrick who was a sergeant in the fighting against the Apaches."
"That was me. All of us went down some in rank after the troops were discharged."
"How much time in the war?" Keith's eyes still studied him.
"Four years, and two campaigning in the Southwest."
"Not bad. You should know what to expect in a fight." His eyes went to Kedrick's, faintly mocking. "I have twelve years, myself. Regular army."
Kedrick found that Keith's attitude irritated him. He meant to say nothing, but suddenly he was speaking. "My American army experience, Colonel, was only part of the story. I was with Bazaine, at the defense of Metz, in the Franco-Prussian War. I escaped, and was with MacMahon at the Battle of Sedan."
Keith's eyes sharpened and his lips thinned. Kedrick could feel the sharp dislike rising in the man.
"Is that all?" he asked coolly.
"Why, no. Since you ask, it was not. I was with Wolseley, in the Second Ashanti War, in Africa. And I was in the two-year campaign against the Tungans of northern T'ien Shan--with the rank of General."
"You seem to get around a good bit," Keith said dryly, "a genuine mercenary!"
Kedrick smiled, undisturbed. "If you like. That's what you want here, isn't it? Men who can fight? Isn't it customary for some men to hire others to do their fighting for them?"
Colonel Keith's face flamed, then went white, but before he could speak, a big, square-faced man thrust himself through the crowd and stopped to face them.
"You, is it, Gunter?" the man cried. "Well, I've heard tell the reason why you're here, an' if you expect to take from hard-workin' men the land they've slaved for, you better come a-shootin'!"
Before anyone could speak, Dornie slid between Keith and Gunter and fronted the man. "You lookin' for trouble? You want to start your shootin' now?"
His voice was low, almost a purr, but Kedrick was startled by the shocked expression on the man's face. He drew back, holding his hands wide. "I wasn't bracin' you, Dornie! Didn't even know you was around!"
"Then get out!" Dornie Shaw snarled, passion suddenly breaking through his calmness, passion, and something else, something Kedrick spotted with a shock--the driving urge to kill!
"Get out!" Shaw repeated. "An' if you want to live, keep goin'!"
Stumblingly, the man turned and ducked into the hastily assembled crowd, and Tom Kedrick, scanning their faces, found hard indifference there, or hatred. In no face did he see warmth or friendly feeling. He frowned thoughtfully, then turned away.
Gunter caught his arm, eager to take advantage of the break the interruption had made to bring peace between the two. "You see what we're up against?" he began. "Now that was Peters. He's harmless, but there's others would have drawn, and drawn fast! They won't be all like that! Let's go meet Burwick!"
Kedrick fell in beside Gunter, who carefully interposed himself between the two men. Once, Tom glanced back. What had become of Dornie Shaw he did not know, but he did know that Dornie, who was to be his second in command, was a killer. He knew the type from of old.
Yet he was disturbed more than he cared to admit by the man who had challenged them. Peters had the look of an honest man, even if not an intelligent one. Of course, there might be honest men among them, if they were men of Peters' stripe. But Peters seemed to be a follower, and he might follow where the wrong men led.
Certainly, if this land was going to Gunter, Keith and Burwick through a Government bill, there could be nothing wrong with the deal. If the Government sold the land to them, squatters had no rights on it. Still, if there were many like Peters the job was not going to be all he had expected.
Gunter stopped before a square stone house set back from the street. "This here's headquarters," he said. "We hole up here when in town. Come on in."
A wide veranda skirted the house, and as they stepped upon it they saw a girl in a gray skirt and white blouse sitting a few feet away with an open book in her lap. Gunter halted.
"Cap'n Kedrick, my niece, Consuelo Duane."
Their eyes met--and held. For a breathless moment no voice was lifted. Tom Kedrick felt as though his muscles had gone dead, for he could not move. Her own eyes were wide, startled.
Kedrick recovered himself with a start. He bowed.
"Captain Kedrick," somehow she was on her feet and moving toward him, "I hope you'll like it here!"
His eyes had not left hers, and now color was coming into her cheeks. "I shall!" he said gently. "Nothing can prevent me now."
"Don't be too sure of that, Captain!" Keith's voice was sharp and cold. "We are late for our visit. Let's be going. Your pardon, Connie. Burwick is waiting."
Kedrick glanced back as he went through the door, and the girl was still standing there, poised, motionless.
Keith's irritation was obvious, but Gunter seemed to have noticed nothing. Dornie Shaw, who had materialized from somewhere, glanced briefly at Kedrick, but said no word. Coolly, he began to roll a smoke.
Burwick crouched behind a table. He was an incredibly fat man, and unbelievably dirty. A stubble of graying beard covered his jowls and his several chins, yet the eyes that measured Kedrick from beneath the almost hairless brows were sharp, malignant, and set close alongside a nose too small for his face. His shirt was open, and the edge of the collar was greasy. Rims of black marked each fingernail.
He glanced at the others, then back at Kedrick. "Sit down!" he said. "You're late! Business won't wait!" His bulbous head swung from Kedrick to Gunter. "John, this the man who'll ramrod those skunks off that land? This him?"
"Yes, that's Kedrick," Gunter said hastily. Oddly enough, he seemed almost frightened of Burwick. Keith had said nothing since they entered the room. Quietly, he seemed to have withdrawn, stepped momentarily from the picture. It was, Kedrick was to discover, a faculty he had when Burwick was near. "He'll do the job, all right!"
Burwick turned his eyes on Kedrick after a moment. He nodded. "Know a good deal about you, son!" His voice was almost genial. "You'll do if you don't get soft with them! We've no time to waste, you understand! They've had notice to move. Give 'em one more notice, then get 'em off or bury 'em. That's your business, not mine. I'll ask no questions," he added sharply, "an' I'll see nobody else does. What happens here is our business."
He dismissed Kedrick from his mind and turned his attention to Gunter. "You've ordered like I told you? Grub for fifty men for fifty days? Once this situation is cleaned up I want to get busy at once. The sooner we have work started, the sooner we'll be all set. I want no backfiring on this job."
Burwick turned sharply at Tom Kedrick. "Ten days! I give you ten days! If you need more than five I'll be disappointed. If you've not the heart for it, turn Dornie loose. Dornie'll show 'em." He cackled suddenly. "That's right. Dornie'll show 'em!"
He sobered down, glanced at the papers on his desk, then without looking up, "Kedrick, you can go. Dornie, you run along, too!"
Kedrick hesitated, then arose. "How many of these men are there?" he asked suddenly. "Have any of them families?"
Gunter turned on him nervously. "I'll tell you all you need to know, Tom. See you later!"
Kedrick shrugged, and picking up his hat, walked out. Dornie Shaw had already vanished. When he reached the veranda, Connie Duane still sat there. She was staring over the top of her book at the dusty, sun-swept street.
He paused, hat in hand. "Have you been in Mustang long?"
She looked up, studying him for a long minute before she spoke. "Why, no. Not long. Yet long enough to learn to love and hate." She turned her eyes to the hills, then back to him. "I love this country, Captain. Can you understand that?
"I'm a city girl, born and bred in the city, and yet when I first saw those red rock walls, those lonely mesas, the desert, the Indian ponies--why, Captain, I fell in love! This is my country. I could stay here forever."
Surprised, he studied her again, more pleased than he could easily have admitted. "That's the way I feel about it. But you said to love and to hate. You love the country. Now what do you hate?"