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The winter snows were melting in the forests of the Kaibab, and the red-orange Vermilion Cliffs were streaked with melting frost. Deer were feeding in the forest glades among the stands of ponderosa and fir, and trout were leaping in the sun-sparkled streams. A shadow moved under the ponderosa, then was gone.
Five deer fed on the grass along the bank of a mountain stream back of Finger Butte, their coats mottled with the light and shadow of sunlight through the leaves.
It was very still. Water rippled around the roots of a tree where the soil had washed away, and gurgled cheerfully among the rocks. A buck's tail twitched, twitched again, and the regal head lifted, turning its nostrils to the wind, reading it cautiously, but the reading was betrayal, for the shadow under the pines was downwind of him.
A faint breeze sifted through the grass and stirred the leaves, and with the breeze the shadow moved into the sunlight and became a man, standing motionless not twenty feet from the nearest deer.
Straight and tall he stood in gray buckskins. He wore no hat, and his hair long. Lean and brown, his black hair loose, he waited until the buck's head lifted again, looking right at him.
A startled snort and the buck sprang away. The others followed. Mike Bastian stood with his hands on his hips, watching them go.
Another man came through the trees behind him, a lean, wiry old man with a gray mustache and blue eyes alive with humor.
"What do you think of that, Roundy?" Bastian asked. "Could your Apache beat that? Another step and I could have touched him."
Roundy spat into the grass. "No Apache I ever knowed could do better, son. An' I never seen the day I could do as well. You're good, Mike, really good. I am surely glad you're not huntin' my hair!" He drew his pipe from his pocket and began stoking it. "We're headin' back for Toadstool Canyon, Mike. Your pa sent for us."
"No trouble, is there?"
"None I know of, although things don't look good. They don't look good at all. No, I think your pa figures it's time you rode out with the bunch."
Mike Bastian squatted on his heels, glancing around the glade. This was what he liked, and he did not want to leave. Nor did he like what he was going back to face. "I believe you're right, Roundy. Pa said I was to ride out in the spring when the boys went, and it is about time."
He tugged a blade of grass and chewed on it. "I wonder where they will go this time?"
"Whatever it is, and wherever it is, it will be well planned. Your pa would have made a fine general, boy. He's got the head for it. He never forgets a thing."
"You've been with him a long time, haven't you?"
"Mighty long. I was with him before he found you. I met him in Mexico during the War, longer ago than I care to remember. I was just a youngster then, myself."
From the grass he took up a fallen pine cone. "Son! Look!" He tossed the pine cone into the air.
Mike Bastian palmed his gun and it belched flame, then again. The second shot spattered the pine cone into flying brown chips.
"Not bad," Roundy said, "but you shot too quick. You've got to get over that, Mike. Most times one shot is all you'll get."
Side by side they started back through the woods. The earth was spongy with a thick bed of pine needles. An occcasional break in the trees offered a glimpse of the far-off San Francisco peaks, with clouds shrouding their summits. Roundy was not as tall as the younger man, but he walked with the long, easy stride of the woodsman. Coming to a break in the forest that permitted them a long view of the wild, broken canyon country to the east, Roundy spoke. "Your pa picked mighty well. Nobody in God's world could find him in all that."
"There's Indians," Bastian reminded, "and some of the Mormons know that country."
"He doesn't bother them and they don't bother him," Roundy said. "That's why his outfit needs a tight rein."
They walked on, in silence. Several times Bastian paused to study the ground, reading the tracks to see who or what had passed since they had passed. "This here is somethin' you better not do again," Roundy suggested, "comin' back the way we went out. Somebody could be layin' for us."
"Ah, now. That's the question. Nobody is supposed to know your pa's plans for you, but there's always the chance somebody might. Believe me, son, nothin' is a secret for long, an' you can just bet some of the boys have been doin' some thinkin' about you."
They paused again, studying the country around, and Roundy put the question that had been bothering him for months. "Mike? If Ben's ready for you to go out, what will you do?"
"Go, I guess. What choice do I have?"
"You're sure? You're sure you want to be an outlaw?"
"Wasn't that why he raised me? To take over from him?" There was an edge of bitterness in Mike's tone. "Wasn't I to take over when Ben Curry stepped aside?"
"That's what you were raised for, all right." Roundy poked at the pine needles with his toe. "But it's your life you have to live. Ben Curry can't live it for you, and you can't live his life for him, no matter how much he wants it.
"The thing to remember, Mike, is that things have changed since Ben an' me rode into this country together. It's no longer wild and free like it was. Folks are movin' in, settlin' the country, buildin' homes.
"Getaways won't be so easy no more, and the kind of men you ride with will change. Fact is, they have already changed.
"When Ben an' me rode into this country it was wide open. Most banks had been mighty hard on a poor man, ready to foreclose at the slightest chance, and the railroads gave all the breaks to the big cattle shippers, so nobody cared too much if a train was robbed or a bank. If you killed somebody, especially a man with a wife and kidswell, that was something else. If you just robbed a bank or train the posses would chase you more for fun than actually to catch you. It was a break in the work they were doin'. They'd get out, run an outlaw for a while but not too serious about it.
"Kill a man? That was different. They'd chase you for keeps then, and they'd catch you. That's why Ben Curry wouldn't stand for killin', an' he's been known to personally kill a man who disobeyed that order."
"He actually did?"
"Seen it myself. It was Dan Peeples, and Dan was a high hand with a gun. They'd robbed a bank in Wyoming an' as they were ridin' out of town this young feller came out of an alley, blundered right in the way, and Dan Peeples shot him.
"Folks seen it. Folks knew it was deliberate. Well, we rode on three, four miles an' Ben pulled up. He turned to Dan Peeples an' he said, 'I said no killin', Dan.'
"Dan, he just grinned an' said, 'Well, he got in the way. Anyway, what's one farm kid, more or less?'
"Ben Curry said, 'When I say no killin', I mean it.'
"Dan, he says, 'So?' And Ben shot him. Dan saw it comin' and reached but he was too slow, so Ben left him layin' there for the posse to find."
"What if they got cornered?"
"That was different. If they had to fight their way out, well an' good, an' a time or two that happened. Your pa was against needless killin', an' the word got around. The outlaws knew it, but the townsfolk, ranchers, an' lawmen knew it, too."
"I've heard some of the stories."
"No way you could miss. Ben Curry's kind breed stories. In them old days many a man rustled a few head to get started, and sometimes a broke cowhand would stand up a stage and nobody took it too serious, but it isn't like that anymore. The country is growin' up and changing viewpoints. More than that, it is Ben himself."
"You think he's too big?"
"What else? Your pa controls more country than there is in New York State! Right under his thumb! And he's feared over much of the west by those who really know about him, but not many do.
"Outside of his own crowd nobody has seen Ben Curry in years, at least, not to know who he was. Mighty few know his power, although there's a rumor around that somewhere there lives a man who rides herd on more than a hundred outlaws. Much of his success lies in the fact that nobody believes it.
"His men ride out and meet at a given point. They ride alone or in pairs, never more than three together at a time until the job is pulled, then they break up an' scatter.
"He plans ever' job himself, with maybe one or two settin' in. He's scouted or had the job scouted by somebody he can trust. It is planned, rehearsed, then done.
"Mostly folks lay the robberies to driftin' cowhands, to Jesse James or somebody else. He pulls jobs anywhere from Canada to Mexico, and from San Antone to Los Angeles."
Roundy started off along the trail. "He's been the brains, all right, but don't ever forget it was those guns of his kept things in line. Lately, he hasn't had to use his guns. Kerb Perrin, Rigger Molina, or somebody else will handle discipline. He's become too big, Ben Curry has. He's like a king, and the king isn't gettin' any younger."
He stopped in the trail and turned around. "How d'you suppose Perrin will take it when he hears about you takin' over? You think he'll stand still for that?"
"I doubt if he will," Mike said thoughtfully. "I imagine he's done some planning on his own."
"You can bet he has! So has Molina, and neither one of them will stop at murder to get what they want. Your pa still has them buffaloed, I think, but that won't matter when the showdown comes. And I figure the time has come."
"Now?" Mike was incredulous.
"Mike, I never told you, and I know Ben hasn't, but Ben has a family."
"A family?" Mike Bastian was shocked. "But I!"
"He has a wife and two daughters, and they have no idea he's an outlaw. Wouldn't believe it if you told 'em. Their home is down near Tucson someplace, but occasionally they come to a ranch he owns in Red Wall Canyon, a ranch supposedly owned by Voyle Ragan. Ben visits them there."
"Who else knows this?"
"Nary a soul, and don't you be tellin' anyone. Ben, he always wanted a son, and never had one, so when your real pa was killed down at Mesilla, Ben took you to raise. That was nigh onto eighteen years ago, and since then he's spent a lot of time an' thought on you. A long time later he told me he was going to raise you to take over whatever he left."
"What about my real father? My family?"
Roundy shrugged. "I never did get the straight of that, and there may be other stories. The way I heard, it was your real pa was killed by 'Paches whilst you was off in the brush somewhere. They come down, killed your pa, stole your horses, and looted the wagon. They were bein' chased by soldiers out of El Paso or somewhere an' it was a sort of hit-an'-run thing. The soldiers brought you back to town an' Ben took you to raise."
"Kind of him."
"Yes, it was. Not many men would do such a thing, them days. Most of them just didn't want the responsibility or wouldn't take the time. For several years it was just you an' him, an' he tried to teach you everything he knew.
"Look at it. You can track like an Apache. In the woods you're a ghost, and I doubt if old Ben Curry himself can throw a gun as fast and accurate as you. You can ride anything that wears hair, an' what you don't know about cards, dice, roulette, and all the rest of it, nobody knows. You can handle a knife, fight with your fists, and open anything made in the way of safes and locks.
"Along with that he's seen you got a good education, so's you can handle yourself in any kind of company. I doubt if any boy ever got the education and training you've had, and now Ben is ready to step back an' let you take over."
"So he can join his wife and daughters?"
"Uh-huh. He just wants to step out of the picture, go somewhere far off, and live a quiet life. He's gettin' no younger and he wants to take it easy in his last years. You see, Mike, Ben's been afraid of only one thing. That's poverty. He had a lot of it as a youngster. I reckon that was one reason he taken you to raise, he knowed what you were up against, if you lived at all.
"Now he's made his pile, but he knows he can't get out alive unless he has somebody younger, stronger, and smarter to take control of what he's built. That's where you come in."
"Why not let Perrin have it?"
"You know the answer to that. Perrin is mean and he's dangerous. He'd have gone off the deep end long ago if it hadn't been for Ben Curry. He's a good second man but a damn poor leader. That goes for Molina, too. He'd have killed fifty times if he hadn't known that Ben would kill him when he got back.
"No, neither could handle it, and the whole shootin' match would go to pieces in sixty days left to either of them. More than that, a lot of people would get killed, inside an' outside the gang."
Little of what Roundy was saying was new to Bastian, yet he was curious as to why the old man was saying it. The two had been together a lot and knew each other as few men ever did. They had gone through storm, hunger, and thirst together, living in the desert and mountains, returning only occasionally to the rendezvous in Toadstool Canyon.
Obviously there was purpose in Roundy's bringing up the subject, and Bastian waited, listening. Over the years he had learned that Roundy rarely talked at random. He spoke when he had something to say, something important. Yet even as they talked he was aware of all that was about him. A quail had moved into the tall grass near the stream, and ahead of them a squirrel moved in the crotch of a tree, and only minutes ago a gray wolf had crossed the path where they walked.
Roundy had said he was a woodsman, and it was true that he felt more at home in the woods and wild country than anywhere else. The idea of taking over the leadership of the outlaws filled him with unease. Always he had been aware that this time would come, and he had been schooled for it, but until now it had always been pleasantly remote. Now, suddenly, it was at hand.
Was he afraid of responsibility? Or was he simply afraid? Searching his thoughts he could find no fear. As for responsibility, he had been so prepared and conditioned for his role that it was a natural step.
He thought of Kerb Perrin and Rigger Molina. Was he afraid? No, he was not. Both men had been tolerant and even friendly when he was a boy, Molina especially. Yet as he grew older and became a man they had withdrawn. Did they realize the role that he was being prepared for?
They knew him, but how much did they know? None of them had seen him shoot, for example. At least, none that he knew.
Roundy interrupted his thoughts by stopping to study the country ahead. "Mike," Roundy said, "the country is growing up. Last year some of our raids raised merry hell, and the boys had a hard time getting away. Folks don't like having their lives disrupted, and when the boys ride out this year they will be riding into trouble.
"Folks don't look at an outlaw as they used to. He isn't regarded as some wild youngster full of liquor and excess energy. He's a bad man, dangerous to the community, and he's stealing money folks have saved.
"Now they see an outlaw like a wolf, and every man will be hunting him. Before you go into this you'd better think it over, and think seriously.
"You know Ben Curry, and I know you like him, as well you should. He did a lot for you. At the same time, Ben had no right to raise you to be an outlaw. He chose his own way, of his own free will, but you should be free to do the same.
"No man has a right to say to another, 'This you must be.' Nobody ever asked you did you want to be an outlaw, although as a youngster you might have said yes. Looked at from afar it seems romantic an' excitin'. Well, take it from me, it ain't. It's hard, dirty, and rough. It's hangin' out with mean, bitter people; it's knowin' cheap, tricky women who are just like the outlaws, out to make a fast buck the easiest way they can."
The old man stopped to relight his pipe, and Mike kept silent, waiting for Roundy to continue. "I figure ever' man has a right to choose his own way, and no matter what Ben's done for you, you got that right.
"I don't know what you'll do, but if you decide to step out of the gang I don't want to be around when it happens. Old Ben will be fit to be tied. I don't figure he's ever really thought about how you feel. He's only figuring on gettin' out and havin' somebody to take over.
"He's built somethin' here, and in his way he's proud of it. Ben would have been a builder and an organizer in whatever direction he chose, but he's not thinkin' straight. Moreover, Ben hasn't been on a raid for years. He doesn't know how it is anymore.
"Oh, he plans! He studies the layout of the towns, the banks, and the railroads, but he doesn't see how folks are changin'. He doesn't listen to them talk. It isn't just saloons, corrals, honky-tonks, and gamblin' anymore. Folks have churches an' schools. They don't want lead flyin' whilst their kids are walkin' to school.
"Right now you're an honest man. You're clean as a whistle. Once you become an outlaw a lot will change. You will have to kill, don't forget that. It is one thing to kill in defense of your home, your family, or your country. It is quite another thing when you kill for money or for power."
"Do you think I'll have to kill Perrin an' Molina?"
"Unless they kill you first. You're good with a gun, Mike. Aside from Ben Curry you're the best I ever saw, but shootin' at a target isn't like shootin' at a man who's shootin' back at you.
"Take Billy the Kid, this Lincoln County gunman we've been hearin' about. Frank an' George Coe, Dick Brewer, Jesse Evans, any one of them can probably shoot as good as Ben. The difference is that part down inside where the nerves should be. Well, that was left out. When he starts shootin' or they shoot at him, he's like ice.
"Kerb Perrin is that way, too. He's cold, and steady as a rock. Rigger Molina's another kind of cat. He explodes all over the place. He's white-hot but deadly as a rattler.
"Five men cornered Molina one time out of Julesburg. When the shootin' was over four of them were down and the fifth was holdin' a gunshot arm. Molina, he rode out under his own power. He's a shaggy wolf, that one! Wild, uncurried, an' big as a bear!"
Roundy paused, puffing on his pipe. "Sooner or later, Mike, there'll be a showdown. It will be one or the other, maybe both of them, and God help you!"