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He lay sprawled upon the concrete pavement of the alley in the darkening stain of his own blood, a man I had never seen before, a man with the face of an Apache warrior, struck down from behind and stabbed repeatedly in the back as he lay there.
Two police cars with flashing lights stood nearby, and a dozen shirt-sleeved or uniformed men stood about, waiting for the ambulance to come. But it was much too late for an ambulance.
"Sorry to get you out of bed at this time of night, Mr. Sheridan."
Detective Sergeant Tom Riley had introduced himself at the door of my motel room a few minutes before. He spoke politely, but I had a feeling he could not have cared less about awakening me. He was a man doing a hard, unpleasant job in the best way he knew how, and my own hunch was that he was pretty good at it.
"We thought you might know something about him."
Riley showed me the newspaper clipping and I recognized it as one that had appeared in the local paper the previous morning. It mentioned the fact that I, Dan Sheridan, author of a dozen volumes of western fiction and history, was in the city doing research.
What it neglected to mention was the slip I'd made during a moment of exuberance on a television interview when I said, "Among other things I want to find out what happened to the Toomey brothers."
The interviewer, with less alertness than usual with his kind, ignored the remark and went on to other things.
As a matter of fact, I had planned to keep the mystery of the vanishing Toomeys as my own private story, to be developed by me in my own good time.
The Toomeys hadleft Texas for Arizona some ninety years before, and up to a point their drive could be documented; beyond that point there was a complete void. Four thousand head of cattle and twenty-seven men had stepped right off into nothingness . . . or so it seemed.
"I can't be of much help, Sergeant," I said. "I never saw the man before."
"It was an outside chance." Riley was still looking at the body. "Can you think of any reason why he might have wanted to contact you?"
"Sure. I hear from all sorts of people. Some of them just want to talk about a story I've written, but most of them want help with a book they're writing themselves. Once in a blue moon somebody comes up with something I can use in a story."
"The name Alvarez means nothing to you?"
"No, it doesn't. Sorry."
That should have been the end of it, and all I could think of was getting back into bed. I'd had a busy day and a long flight, and I was tired.
Only it was not that simple. As I walked past the window of the motel office the clerk tapped on the glass and I went in. "Some calls for you, Mr. Sheridan. I didn't see you come in earlier."
He handed me a small sheaf of papers. A telegram from my publisher reminding me of our appointment in Beverly Hills, just ten days away. A telephone call from a newspaperwoman who wished to do a feature story on me. The last was a scrawled message in an unfamiliar hand:
I have informations. I will come at one o'clock a.m.
I walked back outside. Riley was just getting into a police car, but he stopped when I called. He glanced at the message, and listened to my explanation.
"Why one o'clock in the morning?" he said.
"You've got me. As I said, I never heard of the man. Not that it matters. In my business we meet all kinds."
"Mind if I keep this?"
"Go ahead." Then my curiosity got the better of me. "Sergeant, if you know anything about the man, please tell me. Something might ring a bell."
He considered that for a moment then said, "He was the only honest one of a very disreputable family. His brothers have been in trouble of one kind or another since they were youngsters."
Nothing came of our talk, and I went back to bed Morning came too soon. My first appointment was for nine o'clock, and while I waited for a cab I bought a newspaper.
The item was on the inside of the front page and gave only the bare facts of the story. Yet there was one difference, a difference that began with the headline:
SLAIN IN TWO WEEKS
Pete Alvarez had been shot to death by a deputy sheriff while attempting to escape arrest for stealing cattle.
There was one more thing. The final paragraph stated: The brothers are survived by a third, Pio Alvarez, of the same address. It added the fact that Pio Alvarez had recently been released from prison.
Pio? Pio Alvarez? Sergeant Pio Alvarez?
Unknowingly, then, I had given Riley false information. It was true that I knew nothing of Manuel Alvarez, but I knew a great deal about Pio.
We had served in the same battalion in Korea, where Pio had been court-martialed three times, suffered company punishment too many times to remember, but had proved a first-class fighting man. We had been wounded within hours of each other, been captured at the same time, and together we had escaped. We had fought together in Korea, and having watched him operate, I was glad of it.
Two-thirds of the blood in his veins, he told me proudly, was Apache. One-third was Spanish-Yaqui, from Sonora.
By blood and inclination he knew only one way to fight, and he fought to win. During the long trek of our escape he had chances to fight, and we survived. With any man other than Pio I might not have made it.
My first thought on seeing that article was to reach for a dime and call him. My second was simply to forget it.
Pio and I had fought side by side. We had slept in the rain, hiked through the snow, hunted cover and warmth like wild animals; but that was past, and we lived now in another world. Pio had always been a troublemaker and I had no reason to believe he had changed. The chances were good that Manuel, hearing that I was in town and knowing I had been a friend to Pio, had come to me for aid in getting Pio out of trouble.
We had shared much together in the past, but he had chosen to live outside the law, and I had taken another route that lay well within the lines of public responsibility.
My morning's work at the Historical Society came to nothing. The files of the earliest newspapers held no mention of either Clyde or John Toomey, nor was there a brand registered in either name.
Cattle ranching in Arizona had only just begun when the Toomey brothers arrived. In 1864, a man named Stevens held a few cattle in a valley close to Prescott, and Osborn and Ehle had driven a few hundred head into Yavapai County a year or two later. Stevens managed to hold his cattle by guarding them night and day, but Osborn and Ehle had theirs stampeded by Indians, and lost them all. Henry C. Hooker had been the first real cattleman in the Territory, driving in several herds for sale to the army, and finally had settled with one of them in the Sulphur Springs Valley. That was in 1872.
There was a good deal of information in the old records and newspapers, as well as in Hinton, Lockwood, and others, but no mention of the Toomeys.
At the land office I drew another blank. There was no record of any claims or deeds in the Toomey name, but it was there I saw the fat man for the third time.
He had been reading a newspaper in the lobby of the motel when I picked up my mail, and he had been standing on the curb when I left the Historical Society. Now he was here, chatting with a man in the land office.
It could be coincidence, but I was not prepared to believe that. He could also be a police detective, but I found that hard to believe too.
The only clue Riley had seemed to have in the investigation of the Alvarez killing was the clipping about me and the note Alvarez had left, so it was possible Riley might be having me followed. However, this man had the appearance of a successful businessman, or perhaps a cattleman.
Was he actually following me? For a moment I had an impulse to walk over and ask him, but he had only to deny it to make me look the fool. So I chose the better course, called a cab, and went to a popular cocktail lounge and ordered a drink. Within five minutes he was seated at a table not far from me with a drink of his own.
The hell with it. This looked like trouble, and the last thing I wanted was to get mixed up in something that was no concern of mine. I would buy a ticket for Los Angeles on the evening plane . . . or the next one out.
But by the time my drink was finished the fat man had visited a phone booth, and had also spoken to several people who came into the bar or passed through, and he seemed to be well known to them all.
As I was about to get up from the table a tall man wearing a white western-style hat came into the bar, glanced my way, and came over. He pulled out a chair and sat down.
"Dan Sheridan? I'm Colin Wells . . . own the Strawb'ry outfit over east of here. One of the biggest in the state. When I heard you, a western writer, were in town I decided the least I could do was show some western hospitality. Figured I'd hunt you up an' invite you out to the place. Give you a chance to see what western ranch life is like these days."
He was a big, genial man, and the offer was not unusual. We talked for several minutes about ranching, modern style. Leading him on by discreet questions, I soon had a fairly clear idea of the Wells outfit, the cattle they ran, and conditions generally. And I managed to do this without revealing my own background.
"You ought to get out on the range and get the feel of it. We've got a right nice little place out there, and a pool if you like to swim. You come any time you're of a mind to, and stay as long as you like."
"Where is your place?"
"Over on the Verde . . . that's a river." He paused. "My foreman's in town with the station wagon. Drive you right out there if you want to go."
John Toomey had mentioned the Verde. It was to the valley of the Verde that he had come after that long, dusty drive from Texas.
It was a heaven-sent opportunity to look over the terrain where the Toomeys had settled, and there might even be some clue as to what took place after their arrival, although I knew that after ninety years the chance of that was slight.
But it would get me out of town and away from any further developments in the Alvarez killing. I had nothing to do with it--and I wanted nothing to do with it.
With luck I could look over the terrain, revive my knowledge of that area, and return to town, catch a plane and be in Los Angeles within a matter of forty-eight hours or so.
It looked like a good plan, and if the fat lad over there at the other table wanted to follow me into the mountains, he was welcome to do so.
A good plan . . . only as with so many such plans, there was a joker in the deck.
When the station wagon reached the top of the pass the driver pulled off the road. He was a tall, loose-jointed man with a lantern jaw and piercing eyes of cold gray. He wore badly scuffed boots, blue jeans, and a shirt of a nondescript grayish color. Pushing his hat back on his narrow skull, he indicated the broad sweep of land that lay before us.
"There lies the Strawbr'y. Runs clean to the river."
From my study of aerial photographs, I recognized the two peaks off to the northeast as Squaw Peak and Cedar Bench, neither nearly so imposing as the Four Peaks of the Mazatzals off to the southeast.
"It's big, all right. There must be a hundred thousand acres in there."
"For a greenhorn," the driver admitted grudgingly, "you're a fair judge of country. She'll run a hundred and twenty thousand, and Bent Seward's place is almost as big."
I pointed to a far-off cluster of roofs, glinting in the sunlight. "What's that?"
"The Bar-Bell--Seward's place. They're kinfolk."
To a man pushing a trail herd with more than fifteen hundred miles behind it, this country must have looked like paradise itself.
Such a drive needed men with hair on their chests, men willing to gamble life and limb against thirst, distance, and wandering war parties of Apaches. Only unseasonal rains could have gotten them through, but I had the few pages in John Toomey's own hand to prove that they did get through.
And beyond that . . . nothing.
"Always like to show the place," the driver commented as he swung the car back into the road. "She's a fair piece of country."
We had started down the long, winding hill road before I asked my question. "Where's Lost River from here?"
The driver's head turned sharply. "Lost River? Where'd you ever hear of that?"
"Down around Phoenix, I think. Yes, it was Phoenix. Some old fellow in the hotel lobby. He heard me talking about coming up this way, and mentioned it. Said it was the best water anywhere around." I was lying, and I hoped lying smoothly. "Said he used to punch cows up this way."
The driver was irritated. "Must've been a mighty old man. There's not many know Lost River, and that water hasn't been important for years. Not since we drilled all those wells."
"Must be pretty wild over there."
"It is. Ain't changed a mite in fifty, sixty years. I work this range all the time, and I haven't been over there since year before last." He looked off toward where Lost River must lie. "Only three or four times in the past five years," he added.
It was hot. Looking through the shimmering heat waves at the far-off mountains, I found myself wishing for a long cool drink and a cold shower. The mountains were gathering blue mist in the hollows and canyons.
Copyright 1984 by Louis L'Amour