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HE WAS ASLEEP and then he was awake. His eyes flared wide and he held himself still, staring into the darkness, his ears reaching for sound.
He could smell the dry grass on which his blankets were spread and he could smell the night. And then he heard again the sound that had awakened him. It was the stir of hoofs on the dusty trail some thirty yards away-not the sound of one horse alone, but of several horses.
Carefully, he lifted himself to one elbow. This was strange country and he was unarmed. What motives might inspire whoever was out there he could not guess, but large groups of riders do not move silently along midnight trails without adequate reason.
This was no celebrating bunch of cowhands headed for the home ranch. These men were quiet, and their very stillness was a warning. No stranger to trouble, he lay perfectly still, feeling the muscles back of his ears tighten with suspense.
They had stopped. A horse moved nervously, and then there was a voice. "Right above your head." There was a pause. "That's it."
Another and deeper voice spoke. "Lead his horse over here." There was movement, a click of hoof on stone. "Hold it."
Saddle leather creaked, easily heard in the still night air. Then that second voice came again. "There!"
The word held satisfaction, a gloating born from some dark well of hatred and rolled on the tongue as if the speaker had waited long for this moment and wished to prolong it.
"Easy with that horse!" There was harsh impatience. "Don't let him drop! Ease him down! I want him to know what he's gettin'!"
"Hurry it up!" The voice held impatience and obvious distaste. "Do it, if you're goin' to, an' let's get out of here!"
"Take it easy!" There was a snarl in the deep voice. "I'm runnin' this show an' I've waited too long for this chance. How d'you like it, Neal?"
The voice that spoke now was that of the man being hanged. He spoke coldly. "You always were a double-crossin' rat, Lud, an' you ain't changed any."
There was the sharp crack of a slap, and then the same voice spoke again. "Lucky my hands are tied, Lud. Old as I am I'd take you apart."
There was another blow, and the sharp creaking of leather that implied more blows. The man in the blankets was sweating. He eased from the blankets and grasped his boots, drawing them on. Then he stood up.
"Hurry it up, Lud! It'll soon be light an' we've miles to go!"
The listener held himself still. To be found here would mean certain death, and he was utterly defenseless. Against one man, or even two, he might have taken a chance, but without a gun he was helpless against this number.
This was no committee of honest citizens but some dark and ugly bunch out to do business that demanded night and secrecy. They could not afford to be seen or known.
"All right," Lud's voice was thick, irritated, "lead his horse out easy. I want this to last."
A horse moved and the listener heard the creak of a rope taking strain; then he heard the jerking of it as the hanged man kicked and struggled. The listener knew. He had seen a lynching before this.
"Never thought I'd live to see the day," the first speaker said. "After Neal the rest of them will be easy. This was the one had me bothered."
"Huh!" Lud grunted. "You leave it to me. This was the one I wanted. Now we'll get the rest. Let's get out of here!"
There was a sudden pound of horses' hoofs and the listener moved swiftly. Yet it was a movement without sound. Like a shadow he slid into the brush, the branches not even whispering on his clothing.
The chance was slight, but there was a chance. The last few feet he ran soundlessly on the thick leaves and grass. He went up the tree with swift agility and with a quick slash, he cut the rope and let the body tumble into the dust. Grasping the branch he swung out and dropped lightly beside the body, then bent swiftly and loosened the noose. Almost at once the man began to gasp hoarsely.
So far as could be seen the trail was empty, but this was no healthy place. Picking up the older man as if he were a child, the rescuer went quickly through the brush to his bed and placed the man on the ground. Then he loosened the man's shirt and got his own canteen. Gasping painfully, his neck raw from the manila rope, the man drank. Then he sank back on the blankets.
Restlessly, the young man paced, staring up the trail through the brush. One of the riders might come back, and the sooner they got away from here, the better. He knew the folly of mixing in other people's business in a strange country.
The old man lay on the ground and stared up at the sky. His fingers fumbled at the raw flesh of his throat and came away bloody. His gray eyes turned toward his rescuer. "Fig . . . figured they . . . had me." His voice was thick and hoarse.
"Save the talk. Only reason you're alive is that Lud hombre. He wanted you to choke slow instead of break your neck with a drop."
The old man rolled over to his elbow and sat up. He stared around, looking at the two worn blankets, then at the canteen. He took it in trembling hands and drank slowly. Then he said, "Where's your horse?"
"Don't have one."
The older man stared at him. The young man's possessions appeared to be nothing but the blankets and canteen. The flannel shirt he wore was ragged and sunfaded, the jeans did not fit him, and he had no hat. His only weapon was a Bowie knife with a bone handle. Yet beneath the ragged shirt the shoulders and chest bulged with raw power and the man's face was hard and brown, his green eyes steady. Moreover there was about him a certain undefined air of command that arrested the older man's curiosity.
"My name's Joe Neal," he volunteered. "Who are you? What are you?"
The big man squatted. He reached for a piece of brown grass and snapped it off. "What's this all about?" he jerked his head at the trail. "Who were they?"
"Vigilantes," Neal's voice was still hoarse. "That's the devil of it, stranger. I helped organize 'em."
He stretched his neck gingerly. His face was brown and seamed with wrinkles. "My brand's the 46 Connected. The country was overrun with rustlers so we got them vigilantes together. Them rustlers was well organized with spies everywhere. Nobody ever knew who was behind 'em until Lud Fuller turned it up that Gid Blake was the man. I'd never have believed it."
"They hung him?"
"Nope. He got him a gun first an' shot it out. Fuller handled it."
"Blake a gambler?"
"Lord, no! He was a rancher. The B-Bar, almost as big as my outfit."
The man got to his feet. "If you're up to it, we better light out. Is there anywhere near we can pick up horses?"
"The nearest is over by the lava beds. The Sostenes's outfit."
"Sostenes? A Mex family?"
"Uh huh. Been here a long time."
They started walking, heading back up a draw. When they reached a ledge of rock the stranger stepped over to it. "Better keep to this. They'll trail us. Sounded like they wanted you mighty bad."
Neal's muscles were still jumping nervously from the shock of hanging. Sweat got into the raw flesh on his throat and smarted painfully.
He scowled as he walked, feeling with his brain for the answer to the problem that confronted him. Why had they done this to him? He had never dreamed that Lud might hate him, although he had always secretly despised the big man. The vigilante notice had come to him shortly before midnight and he had answered it all the more promptly because he felt it was time to disband. He was not at all satisfied about the hanging of Gid Blake and he knew the community had been profoundly shocked. He had joined the riders at their rendezvous and had been promptly struck over the head from behind. By the time he shook himself out of it, he was tied and they were taking him to the tree.
He turned and glanced at the big man who walked behind him with an effortless ease that he could never have hoped to match. Not even, he reflected, as a young man.
Who was the fellow? What was a white man doing with no more outfit than a digger Indian?
After awhile, Neal stopped. "Better take a blow." He grinned wryly. "Never was no hand for foot travel, not even when I felt good. And it's a distance yet."
"Got any plans?"
"No," Neal admitted, "I haven't. This thing has been a shock to me. Can't figure why they did it. One of the men in that outfit was my foreman. Now I don't know who to trust."
"Then don't trust anybody."
"That's easier said than done. I've got to have help."
"Why?" The big man leaned back on the ground. "Folks who want to help mostly just get in the way. This here's a one-man job you got."
Neal felt gingerly of his neck. "I'm not as young as I used to be. I don't want to go back there an' get my neck stretched."
"You aim to quit?"
Neal spat. "Like hell, I'll quit! Everything I've got is back there. You want I should give up thirty thousand head of cattle?"
"Be a fool if you did. I figured you might send me."
"Sure. Give me papers authorizing me as ranch manager, papers the banks will recognize. Let me work it out. You're up against a steal, and a smart one."
"I don't follow you."
"Look, you organized the vigilantes to get rid of some crooks. Then all of a sudden when you aren't with them the vigilantes hang this Gid Blake. He was a big rancher, you said. What happens to his outfit?"
"What happens? His daughter runs it."
"Well, I don't know," Neal admitted. "She's mighty young."
"Was her foreman a vigilante? I'm bettin' he was. I'm bettin' somebody got smart down there and decided to use the vigilantes to get possession of your range and that of Blake. From what they said they have others in mind, too. I'm bettin' none of your range was filed on. I'm bettin' that with you gone they just move in. Is that right?"
"Could be." Neal shook his head. "Man, you've struck it. I'll bet that's just it." He shook his head. "I can't figure who would boss a deal like that."
"Maybe nobody. Maybe just two or three put their heads together and got busy. Maybe when the job is done they'll fight among themselves."
"Who would stop it? Is there anybody down there who might try?"
"Tris Stevens might. Tris was marshal once, years ago, and he's still right salty. Ben Otten might, he's smart enough. Blake, Otten, Nevers and me, we were the big outfits. Lee Fox was strong but not too big. It was us decided on the vigilantes, although I was the ringleader, I expect."
They got up and started on, walking more slowly. "Well, like my proposition? You go back there now they'll kill you sure as shootin'. Send me in an' you'll have 'em worried. They won't know what's become of you, whether you're dead or alive."
"I'd have to be alive to send you down there."
"No, not if you pre-dated the order, say two months or even a couple of weeks. Then I could move in and they would be some worried."
"What's to stop 'em from killin' you?" Neal demanded. "You'd be walkin' right into a trap."
"It wouldn't be the first. I'll make out."
They walked on and the sun came out and it grew hotter, much hotter. Joe Neal turned the idea over in his mind. He was no longer a youngster. Well past sixty, with care he might live for years. But he wasn't up to fighting a lone hand battle. While this fellow-he liked his looks.
"I don't know who you are. Far's I can see you're just a tramp without a saddle."
"That's what I am. I just broke jail."
Neal chuckled. "You got a nerve, stranger. Tellin' me that when you're askin' me to drop my ranch in your lap."
"The jail was in Old Mexico. I was a colonel in the army of the revolution, and the revolution failed. They took me a prisoner and were fixin' to shoot me. The idea didn't appeal very much so I went through the wall one night and headed for Hermosillo, then made it overland to here."
"What's your name? I s'pose you got one?"
The young man paused and mopped the sweat from his face. "I got one. I'm Utah Blaine."
Joe Neal stiffened, looking up with startled realization. "You . . . you're Utah Blaine? The gunfighter?"
Joe Neal considered this in silence. How many stories had he heard of Blaine? The man was ranked for gun skill with Wes Hardin, Clay Allison and Earp. He had, they said, killed twenty men. Yet he was known as a top hand on any ranch.
"You took a herd up the trail for Slaughter, didn't you?"
"Yeah. And I took one up for Pierce."
"All right, Blaine. We'll make a deal. What do you want?"
"A hundred a month and an outfit. A thousand dollars expense money to go in there with. I'll render an account of that. Then if I clear this up, give me five hundred head of young stuff."
Neal spat. "Blaine, you clear this up for me and you can have a thousand! A permanent job, if you want it. I know how to use a good man, Blaine, and if you were good enough for old Shanghai Pierce you are good enough for me. I'll sign the papers, Blaine, makin' you ranch manager and givin' you right to draw on my funds for payrolls or whatever."
They came up to the Sostenes ranch at sundown. For a half hour they lay watching it. There were three men about: tall old Pete Sostenes and his two lanky sons. It was a lonely place to which few people came. Finally, they went down to the ranch.
Pete saw them coming almost at once and stood waiting for them. He glanced from Blaine to Neal. "What has happen'?" he asked. "You are without horses! You have been hurt."
Inside the house, Neal explained briefly, then nodded to Blaine. "He's goin' back there for me. Can you get us out of here to the railroad? In a covered wagon?"
"But surely, Señor! An' if I can help, you have only to ask."
Four days later, in El Paso, they drew up the papers and signed them. Then the two shook hands. "If I had a son, Utah, he might do this for me."