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It was a sorry way for a cowboy to make a living, Doug Monahan thought disgustedly. Bending his back over a rocky posthole, he plunged the heavy iron crowbar downward, hearing its angry ring and feeling the violent jar of it bruising the stubborn rock bottom. He rubbed sweat from his forehead onto his sleeve and straightened his sore back, pausing to rest a moment and look around.
Across the broad sweep of the gray-grass valley, up the brush-dotted hill and down again on the gentle far slope, new cedar posts stood erect like a long row of silent soldiers. And stretched taut down the length of the line, four strands of red barbed wire gleamed brightly in the late-winter Texas sun.
Doug Monahan had the look of the cowboy about him, the easy, rolling gait, the slack yet somehow right way of wearing his clothes that stamped him as a man of the saddle. But he wasn't riding now, and he hadn't for quite a spell. Sweat darkened his hickory shirt under the arms and down the back, the spots rimmed with white salt and caked with dirt. The knees of his denim pants were worn through and frazzled out. His brush-scarred boots were run over at the heels from a long time of working afoot.
He gripped the crowbar with big, leather-gloved hands, lifting it and driving it down into the narrow posthole. Each strike chipped off rock and caliche. Sulfurous sparks flew angrily against his dusty boots. The rocky ground was fighting him every foot of the way.
At length he went down on his knees with a bent can to scoop dirt and chipped rock out of the hole. Wiping sweat from his stubbled face, he stood up and stretched. His gritty hands pressed against the small of his back, trying to ease the ache that was there. His gaze drifted in satisfaction back down the fenceline, where two other men also were digging postholes. Past them, a dozen cedar posts leaned at crazy angles in unfilled holes an even rod apart. Beyond these stretched the unfinished fence, stout heart-cedar posts hauled up from the river and tamped solid in holes nearly three feet deep.
And on them, the heavy No. 9 wire gleamed with its bright red coat of factory-dipped paint and its wickedly sharp barbs.
The pleasant tang of mesquite smoke drifted to him on the crisp breeze. Monahan looked down toward his chuckwagon. By the sun, which with retreating winter still stood a little to the south, it was almost noon. Paco Sanchez would have dinner ready directly.
Monahan frowned a little, watching his wagon. Gordon Finch sat there with three of his men, sipping coffee. Sat there like a lazy pot hound.
He had a right to, Monahan supposed, for after all, this was Finch's ranch. But nothing ever graveled Monahan quite so much as to have someone sitting around idly on his fat haunches and watching him work.
The easy breeze carried with it a sharp breath from the Panhandle to the north. Monahan shivered as the chill touched him. He picked up the crowbar and began chipping again. Hard muscles swelled tight within the rolled-up sleeves as the bar battered its way downward.
This was a real comedown for Monahan. Once he'd had a ranch of his own down in the South Texas brush country, and there had been a time when he might have been too proud to do this kind of work. But a long, hard drought can make a man do things he never thought he would.
Doug Monahan was young yet, with a glint of red in his hair and whiskers to go with the Irish name. He had blue eyes that could laugh easily, or could strike quick sparks, like the strong iron bar that bruised its way into the resisting earth.
Finishing the hole, measuring it by a ring he had painted thirty inches up on the bar, he walked to a small stack of cedar posts. He picked one and dropped it into the hole. He stood it straight, sighting across its axe-hewn top to hard-set posts which stretched out of view up over the hill. He glanced the other way, where stakes driven in a string-straight line marked the one-rod intervals for more postholes, as far as his eyes could see.
He watched rangy Longhorn cattle plod along in single file down a hoof-worn rut that had had its beginning with the buffalo. Headed for water, they followed an ancient trail that tomorrow would be blocked forever by these shining red strands of wire.
"Company coming yonder, Doug."
Stub Bailey was pointing to four riders who topped the hill and came down in an easy trot, following the new fence. Stub was a short, thickset happy-eyed man Doug had picked up over in Twin Wells and as good a hand as he had ever run across.
Monahan's glance touched the rifle that leaned against the pile of new-cut posts. He hesitated, then moved toward it.
"Reckon it's that trouble Finch hinted about?" Bailey frowned.
"I hope not."
"It's Finch's worry, ain't it?" Bailey asked. "That's what he come for."
Monahan grunted. His own idea was that Finch had come out to feed his men--and himself--at someone else's wagon.
He slipped off the work-stiffened gloves that were worn almost black. Shoving them into a hip pocket, he picked up the rifle and moved unhurriedly toward the wagon.
"May not be trouble atall," he said. "And I sure don't want Finch starting any."
Monahan was sure of only one thing about Gordon Finch, that he didn't like him. He wasn't even sure why. Maybe it wasn't for Monahan to ask questions or pass any judgment. After all, this wasn't his land. He had come here a stranger and contracted to build a fence for Finch--nothing more.
Finch had spotted the riders by the time Monahan reached the wagon. He stood up lazily, squinting, trying to see clearer. He kept sipping the coffee. Monahan suspected he had laced it from a bottle in his coat pocket.
"Couple of my boys," Finch said in a gravelly voice that had a perpetual belligerence about it. He had a way of always sounding angry. "Bringing somebody in."
Finch's shoulders were a little stooped, and a soft paunch was beginning to push out over his belt. He had the florid face of the man who drinks too much and doesn't work enough to stay healthy. He could talk loud and make strong promises, as he had when Monahan agreed to take the fencing job. So far, he hadn't so much as paid for wire and posts, though he knew Monahan was working on a shoestring. He hadn't even furnished grub to the fencing crew.
He had come here yesterday, telling of a rumor that there might be trouble at the fencing camp. Not everybody liked this barbed wire.
"You just go right on putting up fence," Finch had said. "We're here to protect you."
Finch's men had done some scouting around, but all Finch himself had done so far was protect the chuckwagon.
Monahan saw worry in old Paco Sanchez's black eyes. Paco dropped a hot Dutch oven lid back over browning biscuits and wiped his dark, rheumatic hands on a flour-sack apron. His troubled gaze dwelt on the approaching riders.
"Go on with the cooking, Paco," Monahan said quietly. "Stick close to the wagon."
The aging Mexican nodded and eased toward the chuckbox. His eyes, bright as black buttons, flicked from Monahan's rifle to the four riders, then back again. Paco had lived many a long year within gunshot distance of the Rio Grande. He had seen much of violence. Now he was gentled by age, old and weary and dreading.
Monahan sometimes wished he could have left Paco in South Texas, for the old man deserved an easier life than this in his declining years. But nothing had remained to leave him with. The Bar M ranch was lost, and the cattle with it.
Stub Bailey eased and shook his head. "Won't be no trouble out of them two, Doug. That's just old man Noah Wheeler."
"Who's Noah Wheeler?"
Finch growled an answer before Bailey could reply. "A grubby old nester that got hold of four good sections of land that ought to be in somebody's ranch. Raises hay and sells it to some of them two-bit cowmen. He's got chickens, ducks, even some hogs. Rest of the nesters around here went and settled along Oak Crick, but not him. He had to go out and grab ahold of good rangeland. Somebody ought to've run him back with the rest of the dirt farmers a long time ago."
Monahan glanced at Stub Bailey. Stub had been around Twin Wells long enough to know a little about most people here, and Monahan could tell that Bailey disagreed with Finch.
He could see that the old farmer was eyeing the red wire closely as he rode in. Noah Wheeler was a blocky man, solid as a rock fence. He sat his horse firmly, without the cowboy's easy, even lazy way of riding. His battered black hat fit squarely, its brim flat for shade and not for show. He wore a plain woolen coat, frayed with signs of hard work and long use. His heavy mustache, once brown, was now salted with gray.
The rider beside him was a girl. Long skirts all but covered the sidesaddle she rode. She was slender, the man's coat she wore fitting her rather like a collapsed tent. She seemed dwarfed by a wide-brimmed cowboy hat, evidently lined with paper to keep it on tight.
"Morning, Noah," Bailey said pleasantly. "How's the world serving you?"
Wheeler smiled, a pleasant, eye-crinkling smile that held nothing back. "I can't complain about the world, but I sure wish this rheumatism would leave me alone."
Finch glared at the pair. His questioning eyes cut to one of the riders who flanked the old man and the girl.
"Found 'em comin' down the fence," the rider told him. "Noah said he was just lookin' for a way through, and I don't expect he meant any harm. But you said bring anybody we found, so we brung him."
If for no better reason than the contempt he saw in Finch's face, Monahan felt an instinctive liking for the farmer. It rubbed him against the grain when Finch said, "All right, Wheeler, move along."
Firmly Monahan said, "This is my camp. I'll say who goes." He told Wheeler, "Sorry to've bothered you. We been expecting a little trouble. You-all light and rest yourselves. Paco's got chuck about ready."
Wheeler's eyes lighted, and he forced down a smile as Finch sharply turned away. He stepped down from his old high-horned saddle and stamped his heavy boots, trying to restore the circulation in his cold feet. "Thank you, friend. We got food in the saddlebags. We didn't expect to run into anybody."
"Hot meal's a sight better," Monahan replied. He moved toward the girl, hands outstretched, and lifted her down from the saddle. For just a second their eyes met. She gave him a quick smile, then shyly looked away. By her blue eyes, he took her to be Wheeler's daughter. Wheeler confirmed it.
"My name's Noah Wheeler. This is my daughter, Trudy."
Wheeler's giant hand was rough as dried leather and crushing-strong. He had spent his life at hard work.
Monahan bowed toward the girl in the old cowboy manner. She took off her big hat. He saw a fine-featured face, almost a pretty face, and honey-colored hair done up in long braids tied at the back of her neck. Again there was that shy smile. Country girl, right enough.
By way of conversation, Monahan said, "If I'd known we were fixing to have such company, I'd've cleaned up a little. I imagine I look like a prairie dog."
The girl made no reply, only smiled again. Wheeler said, "A working man ought never to apologize for his looks." He eyed the camp curiously. "We been hunting a few head of our stock. We try to keep them at home, but there's always some of these long-legged Texas cattle coming in and leading them off."
He studied the stacks of cedar posts that had been brought in by wagon. He bent over the red spools of barbed wire. He stooped stiffly and picked up a short curl of wire that had been snipped from a spool. He fingered it as if afraid it might bite.
"Bobwire," he said wonderingly. "Heard a right smart about it, but this is the first I ever seen." He touched a thumb to one of the barbs. "Sharp. These things could really rip up an animal."
"They learn in a hurry," Monahan told him. "You can't hardly get one to hit it a second time."
Wheeler smiled indulgently. "You look like a man who'd know horses. Pretty intelligent, a horse is. But about a few things he hasn't got the sense of a jackrabbit. If there's anything in ten miles that'll hurt him, he'll find it. Especially if he's the best horse you got."
He shook his head and dropped the wire. "The stuffs all right, I guess . . . just hate to think what it'd do to a horse."
Monahan washed his face and hands in a basin of cold water. He dug coffee cups out of the chuckbox and poured them full. He handed one to the girl and felt pleasure at her half-concealed smile. She hadn't yet said a word.
He watched for and caught the pleasant surprise in the girl's blue eyes as she first tasted the coffee. Paco Sanchez had the Mexican way of boiling sugar right in with the coffee. It was sweeter that way than if you just spooned sugar into the cup and stirred it.
Monahan handed a second cup to Wheeler and poured one for himself. "Most people think that way about barbed wire, the first time they see it. I did, too. But it isn't like that. I'll admit, it might cut a few at first, but you'd be surprised how fast they learn. They're using a lot of it down in South Texas. It's the answer for the stock men, Mr. Wheeler. Especially a fellow like you, farming and running cattle both. Country's too dry to grow hedges, and it'd bust the back end out of a bank to build a wood fence around a big pasture. But barbed wire is cheap. Most anybody can afford it. A couple of the farmers over on Oak Creek are interested. Soon's I finish this job, I'm going to do a little fencing there."
Wheeler shrugged, deep in thought. "Maybe you're right, but lots of people don't like bobwire. I've heard some bad things."
Monahan frowned into his coffee. "They just don't know. Anything new like this, it takes time."
Paco Sanchez walked up with pothook in hand. He lifted the coal-covered lid off the biscuits and set it down with a clatter, leaning it against the edge of the Dutch oven. In another oven, hanging on a hook suspended from the crossbar over the fire, steaks sizzled in deep grease. Paco poked at them with a long fork. Satisfied, he took the pothook and hoisted them away from the heat.
" 'Stá listo, Doug."
Doug bowed and motioned the girl toward the chuckbox. Paco Sanchez stood beaming as she filled her plate from his ovens. Paco's skin was like fine brown leather, with just a trace of a shine across his high cheekbones, at the upper edge of his coarse gray whiskers. He had come up from the ranchos south of the Rio Grande, way yonder ago, up to the South Texas brush. For more years than Paco could count, he had worked as a vaquero, a brushpopper, his tough skin seared by the sun, scarred by clawing thorns. He had worked cattle for Monahan's father, and he had helped bring up Doug Monahan, had taught him the way of the vaquero.
Now crushed bones and his many years were piling up on him. The old Mexican was finishing out his time over the cookfires. No pensioner, Paco. He wanted only to work--to stay with the Monahans. The aging chuckbox with a Bar M burned deeply into each side was all that was left to show for the ranch. And Doug was the only Monahan.
Eating, Doug found himself watching the girl. These farmer girls were taught to be wary of strangers. Especially a stranger who looked like a cowboy. She and her father ate silently and hungrily. Monahan could tell they had had a long ride. He felt a touch of pity for the girl. Pretty thing, she was, like a wild flower growing up in the middle of nowhere. A girl like this was meant to be seen.
Noah Wheeler pushed to his feet. He took his daughter's empty plate and cup and dropped them into the wreck pan along with his own. "Fine dinner," he said to Paco. "We sure did enjoy it."
"Grácias," smiled Paco, warming to the compliment. "The camp is yours."
Wheeler turned to Monahan. "We'd best get along if we're going to find our cattle. No telling where those Longhorns have led them to."
He looked once again at the barbed wire fence which was edging slowly out across the range. "Going to be a big change. Always been open country. How far do you figure on going with it?"
Monahan replied, "I've contracted to build it all the way around Gordon Finch's range."
Wheeler's thick eyebrows lifted a little. "Finch's range?" He gave the rancher a sharp, questioning glance. "You got more ambition than I thought you had, Mr. Finch."
Finch's eyes flashed anger.
Wheeler walked to his horse and swung heavily into the old saddle. Monahan gave the girl a boost up. She smiled at him, and in a quiet voice she spoke the first words he had heard from her. "Thank you, Mr. Monahan. Maybe someday we can return the favor."
He watched them ride away, his eyes mostly on the girl.
Firing up a fresh cigar, Finch muttered contemptuously, "About time they left. They got the smell of hogs about them."
Flaring, Monahan turned to answer him, then thought better of it. He hadn't been paid yet. But someday someone was going to make Finch eat that cigar, raw, and maybe with the fire still on it.
Monahan knew it was trouble, as soon as he saw the horsemen. He was using a shovel handle to tamp fresh dirt tightly while Stub Bailey held a post straight. Looking up, Bailey stiffened.
"Uh-oh. Look yonder coming."
Doug let the shovel rest against his broad shoulder. He rubbed a sleeve across his forehead and blinked at the burn of sweat that worked into his eyes.
"That ain't Noah Wheeler," Bailey said with tightness in his voice. He suddenly looked as if he needed a drink. "Must be thirty-forty of 'em."
Monahan squinted. Fifteen or twenty, more like it; but that was enough. The riders were moving along the fenceline. As they moved, men stepped down from their saddles, stopping to snip the wire.
"They mean business, looks like," said Bailey. "Cuttin' it between every post."
Down at the chuckwagon, Gordon Finch stood frozen, watching and not making a move. Anger sweeping him like a sudden blaze in dry grass, Monahan dropped the shovel, grabbed his rifle and sprinted down to the wagon.
"Finch," he exploded, "where's that protection? You've sat around here filling your belly and getting in the way! Now what're you going to do?"
Finch's face had paled. "My men," he rasped helplessly, pointing. "They've rounded up all my men and got them along. There ain't a thing I can do."
Monahan's small fencing crew gathered and stood tensely beside the wagon, where Paco Sanchez's cookfire had burned down to a few glowing coals which he was keeping alive for supper.
"You want us to fight, Doug?" asked Stub Bailey, spinning the cylinder of a six-shooter.
"Put it up," Doug said. "We don't have a chance, and there's no use getting somebody killed." He set down his rifle and stood there waiting.
This is an omnibus edition comprising the novels Barbed Wire, copyright © 1957 by Elmer Kelton; renewal copyright © 1985 by Elmer Kelton; and Llano River, copyright © 1966, 1991 by Elmer Kelton; renewal copyright © 1994 by Elmer Kelton.