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Mike Shevlin squatted on his heels in the driving rain and struck a match under the shelter of his slicker. The match flared and he leaned forward, cupping the flame in his hand against the face of the gravestone.
There was no mistake, then; but how in the name of truth could a peace-loving man like old Eli wind up in a grave on Boot Hill?
Eli Patterson had been a Quaker, a man of deep conviction who never touched a gun for his own use and did not approve of those who did. Yet he was dead, shot to death, and buried here among the victims of gun and knife, and if rumor could be credited, he had himself died gun in hand.
The flame flickered out and the dropped match hissed against the sodden earth. "Anybody but him," Shevlin said aloud; "anybody but old Eli."
The splash of a footstep in a pool of water warned him an instant before the voice spoke. "Kind of wet up here, isn't it?"
Mike Shevlin straightened slowly to his feet, glad his slicker was unbuttoned and his gun ready to hand. Enemies he would surely find at Rafter Crossing, but he could expect no friends. He took his time in facing around, careful that his movements be not misunderstood.
Through the pouring rain and the darkness he could see the bulk of a square, powerfully built man. Lightning flared, throwing the grave crosses into sharp relief, lighting the water-soaked earth, and making an occasional gleam on stone, but of the wide face before him he could make out no detail.
The other man would see even less of Shevlin, because of the up-turned collar of his slicker and the pulled-down brim of hisblack hat.
"You make a practice of following people?" Mike Shevlin asked.
"It's a wet night to be on Boot Hill."
"I've buried men here on wetter nights. If need be I can bury more."
"Ah, I was right then. You're no stranger." There was satisfaction in the man's voice. Lightning glinted off the badge on his chest.
Mike Shevlin put a rein to his tongue. This was no bumbling old Sheriff McKown, nor anybody he remembered from the Rafter Crossing he had known. Wanting no trouble, he simply said, "I've been here before, if that's what you mean."
The man with the badge shifted his feet slightly. "Are you Ray Hollister?"
"If you don't know Ray Hollister," Shevlin replied, "you haven't been around long."
"Two years. He left before I came."
Shevlin had an uneasy feeling that had he said he was Ray Hollister, the sheriff would have killed him.
Wind and rain lashed the grave-covered knoll, whipping the branches of the trees. Off to the right were the lights of the town--many more lights than he remembered. Beyond the town was the gallows frame and the huddled buildings of a mine, lighted for a night shift.
"Too wet to talk here," Shevlin said. "What's on your mind?"
"You were looking at Patterson's grave. He was killed in a gun battle two years ago."
Anger flared up in Mike Shevlin. "Whoever told you that," he said roughly, "lied."
"Then the coroner lied, Mason lied, and Gib Gentry lied."
"Who killed him?"
"Gentry--in self-defense. Mason was a witness. Patterson still had a gun in his hand when others came up."
Suddenly Shevlin knew he was not likely to be offered a drink nor a hot meal on this night. Rain slanted across the windows down there in town, windows behind which it would be dry and warm, but where he might be identified before he found out what he had come so far to learn.
Gentry? No, not for a minute. Not Gib. Gib would shoot fast enough, but he would never have shot Eli Patterson.
"No coroner's jury in the old times would believe that story. They knew Eli too well."
Shevlin, who knew most things that might be expected at a time like this, was prepared for the match when it flared in the sheriff's hand, and his own hand was suddenly before his face, pulling down his hat brim. The flare revealed only the sheriff's own tough, weather-beaten features.
Now where had he seen that face before?
"The old-timers are gone, or most of them," the man said. "Times have changed. Why don't you ride on?"
"Why should I?"
There was irritation in the sheriff's response to this. "Because you smell of trouble, and trouble is my business. You start anything and I'll have to come against you."
"Thanks." Shevlin's tone was dry, harsh. "You've warned me, now I'll return the favor. Don't make my trouble your business, and don't come against me."
The sheriff gestured across the valley at the huddle of mine buildings. "They tell me that's where the old Rafter H headquarters used to be. Now they use the old barn as a hoisthouse for the Sun Strike Mine. That's just one indication. This town is no longer cattle, my friend, it's mining. You won't find anybody around who knows you, and nobody who wants you here. Do yourself a favor and ride on."
Mike Shevlin, who had known many men, knew this was a truly dangerous man. He knew it because the sheriff had not tried to force the issue, as a less experienced man might have done; knew it because he was calm, talking quietly, trying to avoid trouble before it arrived, and because he was so obviously one of those who knew when and when not to use a gun.
The two men walked together toward the gate and Shevlin closed it carefully behind him, then swept the water from his saddle with a flick of his palm. He gathered the reins and turned his horse so he could mount without showing his back to the sheriff. The latter noted the move with grim appreciation, and mounted his own horse.
Just as Shevlin had learned much of the sheriff in these few minutes, so the sheriff had learned something of the man who loomed only as a dark figure on a rain-swept hill. There was a hard sureness about this stranger, and he allowed for no chances against him, and there was also a confidence in him that warned the sheriff this man who faced him was no outlaw, that it was even likely he had himself carried a badge.
"I'll tell you something." Mike Shevlin, who normally explained his actions to no man, explained them now in deference to the kind of man this was. "In my lifetime one man gave me a square shake without figuring to get something out of it. That man was Eli Patterson."
There was a pause.
"You'll be staying on, then?" the sheriff asked.
"I'll be staying."
The sheriff tried again. "Look," he said patiently, "you start shaking the brush to find what happened to Eli Patterson and you'll have the whole town on you."
Mike Shevlin turned his horse toward Main Street. Over his shoulder he said, "It's a small town."
As he rode away he told himself he was a fool. He should not have come back. What could any man do to help the dead?
He had returned because a fine old man who had been his friend when he had no friends had been murdered, and his killers had gone unpunished. Nor could that one murder have made an end to it, for the wicked do not cease from wickedness, nor does evil end with one crime.
The rain beat a hard tattoo upon his hat as he walked his black along the street. From the rain-whipped darkness he peered into the lighted windows as he passed, windows of houses where he was a stranger, and past doors where he would not be welcomed. If he slept in a bed this night it would be a bed he paid for, and if he ate at all it would be a meal he bought for cash.
He drew rein in the muddy street, feeling the cold rain hammering his shoulders with cruel fingers. Saddle-worn and weary from the long riding, he stared into the windows and knew again that pang of loneliness with which he always rode.
There was welcome for him nowhere, neither in this place nor anywhere down along the trail. Only that kind old man lying in a shameful grave had been considerate, kind to a skinny, hollow-eyed boy who had walked into his store so long ago, carrying little but a man-sized pride.
Because of this he had ridden a thousand hot, dangerous miles, returning to a town he remembered without pleasure, to seek out the cause of an old man's death and to clear his name so that his spirit might rest easy in the earth.
So Ray Hollister was gone. The town would not be the same without him, but obviously the town did not want him back. Not, at least, that part of the town represented by the sheriff.
That the town of Rafter Crossing did not like Ray Hollister, Mike Shevlin could understand. He himself had never liked the man, for Hollister was a man with a burr under his saddle, a small rancher who wanted to be big, who strode hard-heeled around the town, wanting to be considered one of the big cattlemen who ruled the destinies of the Rafter country. Nothing in Hollister's character nor in the breadth of his acres entitled him to the respect he wanted so desperately, and his envy and irritation became a bitter, gnawing thing within him.
Mike Shevlin turned in his saddle, looking along the wet street. Three blocks long when he had left it, with two saloons, it was seven blocks long now, with at least six saloons on the one street. The old Hooker House had become the Nevada House, and had a fresh coat of paint. There was an assay office where the harness shop had been, and a new general store across from the one Eli Patterson had owned.
Windows threw rectangles of light across the muddy street, and the sound of a tin-panny piano came from the direction of the Nevada House. Thunder rumbled in the mountains. Shevlin started his horse, staring morosely at the lights as he rode on.
His mind went to the past. Everything here had changed, and not even the memory of the way it had been was left to him. It was indeed a mining town now; not a vestige of the old cow town remained.
His thoughts reverted to Eli Patterson. They said Gib Gentry had killed him, but not for an instant did he believe that. The fact that Mason was a witness proved nothing, for Mason had been a liar as well as a petty thief.
Gib Gentry and Shevlin had been friends . . . or what passed as such. They had worked together, ridden into town together, been in trouble together. Despite that, there had been no real affection between them; they had simply been thrown together as two people are, held together by work and mutual associations, and considered by everyone to be friends. And both had done foolish things.
"You should have had your ears slapped down," Shevlin told himself.
The trouble was that nobody around Rafter had wanted to tackle that job, not even then. Now he was thirty years old and the veteran of more gun trouble than he cared to remember.
In the old days Gentry and Shevlin had seemed to be two of a kind, reckless and wild, full of ginger, and homeless as a pair of tumbleweeds. Ready to fight at the drop of a hat, and to drop the hat themselves if need be. And Gentry had been good with a gun.
He had been better with a gun than Shevlin in those days. He was eight years older, and had owned a gun that much longer and had had that much more practice. But a lot of water had flowed under the bridge since then, and a lot had happened to Mike Shevlin that could never happen to Gib Gentry in Rafter Crossing. In the words of the cow country, Mike Shevlin had been up the creek and over the mountain since then.
The rain lashed his face, driven by the rising wind. This was the story of his life, he thought bitterly--hunting a place to hole up for a while. Thirty years old, and nothing to show for it but a horse, a saddle, and a couple of guns.
He was riding past the last of the town's buildings when he remembered the old mill in Brush Canyon. It might have been torn down for the lumber, or burned in some brush fire, but if it was still there it would be shelter from the storm and from observation. The mill had been old, even in his time, mute evidence of a dream that dried up when the water did. It was unlikely that newcomers would know of its existence.
With no better place to go, he turned into the trail around the livery barn and started up the slant of the hill in the driving rain. Brush whipped at his slicker and at his face, but he bowed his head and kept on.
From the crest of the ridge he looked back upon the town's lights. If he had been a smart man, he thought, he would now own a ranch or a business of some kind, but he had never known any way of doing what had to be done than to bull in and start swinging.
At the bottom of Brush Canyon he detected a subtle alteration in the manner of his horse, and like any western rider in wild country he had learned to depend on the instincts as well as on the sight and hearing of his horse, to know its moods, to be aware of every change of muscle or movement. Stepping down now from the saddle, Shevlin explored the muddy trail with careful fingers.
What he found was the indentation of a hoof track so recent as to be easily discernible in spite of the rain. That track had probably been made within the last few minutes.
Wiping the mud from his hand on the horse's mane, he walked the horse past the dark bulk of the old mill and dismounted at the stable. Here he led the horse inside, closed the door behind him, and struck a match.
On each side of the barn there were a dozen stalls, for it was here they had kept the big Clydesdales used to haul logs to the mill, and to haul away the planks. There were four horses in the stable now, and they rolled their eyes around to look at him.
He led his mount to a vacant stall, touching each horse as he passed. Two were dry, one was slightly damp, and the fourth was as wet as his own. Two riders, then, had been here most of the day, the others arriving since the rain began, and one of them only minutes before.
Stripping the rig from his black, he wiped the horse down with a dry sack he found hanging over the side of the stall. Come what might, he was through traveling for tonight. Then he checked the other horses.
Copyright© 1989 by Louis L'Amour