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Five deer were feeding on the grass along a mountain stream back of Finger Butte, their coats mottled by the light and shadow of the sun shining through the trees. A vague something moved in the woods behind them, and the five-pronged buck lifted his regal head and stared curiously about. He turned his nose into the wind, reading it cautiously. But his trust was betrayal, for the movement was downwind of him.
The movement came again, and a young man stepped from concealment behind a huge fir not twenty feet from the nearest deer. He was straight and tall in gray, fringed buckskins, and he wore no hat. His hair was thick, black, and wavy, growing fully over the temples, and his face was lean and brown. Smiling, he walked toward the deer with quick, lithe strides, and had taken three full steps before some tiny sound betrayedhim.
The buck's head came up and swung around, and then with a startled snort it sprang away, the others following.
Mike Bastian stood grinning, his hands on his hips.
"Well, what do you think now, Roundy?" he called. "Could your Apache beat that? I could have touched him if I had jumped after him!"
Rance Roundy came out of the trees-a lean, wiry old man with a gray mustache and blue eyes that were still bright with an alert awareness.
"No, I'll be darned if any Apache ever lived as could beat that!" he chortled. "Not a mite of it! An' I never seen the day I could beat it, either. You're a caution, Mike, you sure are. I'm glad you're not sneakin' up after my hair!" He drew his pipe from his pocket and started stoking it with tobacco. "We're goin' back to Toadstool Cañon, Mike. Your dad sent for us."
Bastian looked up quickly. "Is there trouble, is that it?"
"No, only he wants to talk with you. Maybe"-Roundy was cautious-"he figures it's time you went out on a job. On one of those rides."
"I think that's it." Mike nodded. "He said in the spring, and it's about time for the first ride. I wonder where they'll go this time."
"No tellin'. The deal will be well planned, though. That dad of yours would have made a fine general, Mike. He's got the head for it, he sure has. Never forgets a thing, that one."
"You've been with him a long time, haven't you?"
"Sure ... since before he found you. I knowed him in Mexico in the war, and that was longer ago than I like to think. I was a boy then, my own self. Son," Roundy said suddenly, "look!"
He tossed a huge pinecone into the air, a big one at least nine inches long.
With a flash of movement, Mike Bastian palmed his gun, and almost as soon as it hit his hand it belched flame-and again. The second shot spattered the cone into a bunch of flying brown chips.
"Not bad!" Roundy nodded. "You still shoot too quick, though. You got to get over that, Mike. Sometimes, one shot is all you'll ever get."
Side-by-side the two walked through the trees, the earth spongy with a thick blanket of pine needles. Roundy was not as tall as Mike, but he walked with the long, springy stride of the woodsman. He smoked in silence for some distance, and then he spoke up.
"Mike, if Ben's ready for you to go out, what will you do?"
For two steps, Bastian said nothing. Then he spoke slowly. "Why, go, I guess. What else?"
"You're sure? You're sure you want to be an outlaw?"
"That's what I was raised for, isn't it?" There was some bitterness in Mike's voice. "Somebody to take over what Ben Curry started?"
"Yeah, that's what you were raised for, all right. But this you want to remember, Mike. It's your life. Ben Curry, for all his power, can't live it for you. Moreover, times have changed since Ben and me rode into this country. It ain't free and wild like it was, because folks are comin' in, settlin' it up, makin' homes. Gettin' away won't be so easy, and your pards will change, too. In fact, they have already changed. When Ben and me come into this country, it was every man for himself. More than one harum-scarum fella, who was otherwise all right, got himself the name of an outlaw. Nobody figured much about it, then. We rustled cows, but so did half the big ranchers of the West. And if a cowpoke got hard up and stopped a stage, nobody made much fuss unless he killed somebody. They figured it was just high spirits. But the last few years, it ain't like that no more. And it ain't only that the country is growin' up ... it's partly Ben Curry himself."
"You mean he's grown too big?" Mike put in.
"What else? Why, your dad controls more land than there is in New York State. Got it right under his thumb. And he's feared over half the West by those who knows about him, although not many do.
"Outside of this country around us, nobody ain't seen Ben Curry in years, not leastwise to know him. But they've heard his name, and they know that somewhere an outlaw lives who rules a gang of almost a thousand men. That he robs and rustles where he will, and nobody has nerve enough to chase him.
"He's been smart, just plenty smart," old Roundy went on. "Men ride out and they meet at a given point. The whole job is planned in every detail ... it's rehearsed, and then they pull it and scatter and meet again here. For a long time folks laid it to driftin' cowpunchers or to gangs passin' through. The way he's set up, one of the gangs he sends out might pull somethin' anywhere from San Antone to Los Angeles, or from Canada to Mexico, although usually he handles it close around.
"He's been the brains, all right, but don't ever forget it was those guns of his that kept things in line. Lately he hasn't used his guns. Kerb Perrin and Rigger Molina or some of their boys handle the discipline. He's become too big, Ben Curry has. He's like a king, and the king isn't gettin' any younger. How do you suppose Perrin will take it when he hears about you takin' over? You think he'll like it?"
"I don't imagine he will," Mike replied thoughtfully. "He's probably done some figuring of his own."
"You bet he has. So has Molina, and neither of them will stop short of murder to get what they want. Your dad still has them buffaloed, I think, but that isn't going to matter when the showdown comes. And I think it's here."
"You do?" Mike said, surprise in his voice.
"Yeah, I sure do...." Roundy hesitated. "You know, Mike, I never told you this, but Ben Curry has a family."
"A family?" Despite himself, Mike Bastian was startled.
"Yes, he has a wife and two daughters, and they don't have any idea he's an outlaw. They live down near Tucson somewhere. Occasionally they come to a ranch he owns in Red Wall Cañon, a ranch supposedly owned by Voyle Ragan. He visits them there."
"Does anybody else know this?"
"Not a soul. And don't you be tellin' anybody. You see, Ben always wanted a son, and he never had one. When your real dad was killed down in Mesilla, he took you along with him, and later he told me he was goin' to raise you to take over whatever he left. That was a long time ago, and since then he's spent a sight of time and money on you.
"You can track like an Apache," Roundy said, looking at the tall lad beside him. "In the woods you're a ghost, and I doubt if old Ben Curry himself can throw a gun any faster than you. I'd say you could ride anything that wore hair, and what you don't know about cards, dice, and roulette wheels ain't in it. You can handle a knife and fight with your fists, and you can open anything a man ever made in the way of safes and locks. Along with that, you've had a good education, and you could take care of yourself in any company. I don't reckon there ever was a boy had the kind of education you got, and I think Ben's ready to retire."
"You mean ... to join his wife and daughters?" Mike questioned.
"That's it. He's gettin' no younger, and he wants it easy-like for the last years. He was always scared of only one thing, and he had a lot of it as a youngster. That's poverty. Well, he's made his pile, and now he wants to step out. Still and all, he knows he can't get out alive unless he leaves somebody behind him that's strong enough and smart enough to keep things under control. That's where you come in."
"Why don't he let Perrin have it?"
"Mike, you know Perrin. He's dangerous, that one. He's poison mean and power crazy. He'd have gone off the deep end a long time ago if it wasn't for Ben Curry. And Rigger Molina is kill crazy. He would have killed fifty men if it hadn't been that he knew Ben Curry would kill him when he got back. No, neither of them could handle this outfit. The whole shebang would go to pieces in ninety days if they had it."
Mike Bastian walked along in silence. There was little that was new in what Roundy was saying, but he was faintly curious as to the old man's purpose. The pair had been much together, and they knew each other as few men ever did. They had gone through storm and hunger and thirst together, living in the desert, mountains, and forest, only rarely returning to the rendezvous in Toadstool Cañon.
Roundy had a purpose in his talking, and Bastian waited, listening. Yet even as he walked, he was conscious of everything that went on around him. A quail had moved back into the tall grass near the stream, and there was a squirrel up ahead in the crotch of a tree. Not far back a gray wolf had crossed the path only minutes ahead of them.
It was as Roundy had said. Mike was a woodsman, and the thought of taking over the outlaw band filled him with unease. Always, he had been aware this time would come, that he had been schooled for it. But before, it had seemed remote and far off. Now, suddenly, it was at hand; it was facing him.
"Mike," Roundy went on, "the country is growin' up. Last spring some of our raids raised merry hell, and some of the boys had a bad time gettin' away. When they start again, there will be trouble and lots of it. Another thing, folks don't look at an outlaw like they used to. He isn't just a wild young cowhand full of liquor, nor a fellow who needs a poke, nor somebody buildin' a spread of his own. Now, he'll be like a wolf, with every man huntin' him. Before you decide to go into this, you think it over, make up your own mind.
"You know Ben Curry, and I know you like him. Well, you should. Nevertheless, Ben had no right to raise you for an outlaw. He went his way of his own free will, and, if he saw it that way, that was his own doin'. But no man has a right to say to another ... 'This you must do ... this you must be.' No man has a right to train another, startin' before he has a chance to make up his mind, and school him in any particular way."
The old man stopped to relight his pipe, and Mike kept a silence, would let Roundy talk out what seemed to bother him.
"I think every man should have the right to decide his own destiny, insofar as he can," Roundy said, continuing his trend of thought. "That goes for you, Mike, and you've got the decision ahead of you. I don't know which you'll do. But if you decide to step out of this gang, then I don't relish bein' around when it happens, for old Ben will be fit to be tied.
"Right now, you're an honest man. You're clean as a whistle. Once you become an outlaw, a lot of things will change. You'll have to kill, too ... don't forget that. It's one thing to kill in defense of your home, your family, or your country. It's another thing when you kill for money or for power."
"You think I'd have to kill Perrin and Molina?" Mike Bastian asked.
"If they didn't get you first!" Roundy spat. "Don't forget this, Mike, you're fast. You're one of the finest and, aside from Ben Curry, probably the finest shot I ever saw. But that ain't shootin' at a man who's shootin' at you. There's a powerful lot of difference, as you'll see.
"Take Billy the Kid, this Lincoln County gunman we hear about. Frank and George Coe, Dick Brewer, Jesse Evans ... any one of them can shoot as good as him. The difference is that the part down inside of him where the nerves should be was left out. When he starts shootin' and when he's bein' shot at, he's like ice! Kerb Perrin's that way, too. Perrin's the cold type, steady as a rock. Rigger Molina's another kind of cat ... he explodes all over the place. He's white-hot, but he's deadly as a rattler."
Mike was listening intently as Roundy continued his description: "Five of them cornered him one time at a stage station out of Julesburg. When the shootin' was over, four of them were down and the fifth was holdin' a gunshot arm. Molina, he rode off under his own power. He's a shaggy wolf, that one. Wild and uncurried and big as a bear."
Far more than Roundy realized did Mike Bastian know the facts about Ben Curry's empire of crime. For three years now, Curry had been leading his foster son through all the intricate maze of his planning. There were spies and agents in nearly every town in the Southwest, and small groups of outlaws quartered here and there on ranches who could be called upon for help at a moment's notice.
Also, there were ranches where fresh horses could be had, and changes of clothing, and where the horses the band had ridden could be lost. At Toadstool Cañon were less than 200 of the total number of outlaws, and many of those, while living under Curry's protection, were not of his band.
Also, the point Roundy raised had been in Mike's mind, festering there, an abscess of doubt and dismay. The Ben Curry he knew was a huge, kindly man, even if grim and forbidding at times. He had taken the homeless boy and given him kindness and care, had, indeed, trained him as a son. Today, however, was the first inkling Mike had of the existence of that other family. Ben Curry had planned and acted with shrewdness and care.
Mike Bastian had a decision to make, a decision that would change his entire life, whether for better or worse.
Here in the country around the Vermilion Cliffs was the only world he knew. Beyond it? Well, he supposed he could punch cows. He was trained to do many things, and probably there were jobs awaiting such a man as himself.
He could become a gambler, but he had seen and known a good many gamblers and did not relish the idea. Somewhere beyond this wilderness was a larger, newer, wealthier land-a land where honest men lived and reared their families.
Excerpted from Showdown Trail by Louis L'Armour Copyright © 2007 by Golden West Literary Agency. Excerpted by permission.
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