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Even the coming of an autumn dusk could not subdue the color of this land. Shadows here were not gray or black; they were violet and purple. The crumbling adobe walls were laced by strings of crimson peppers, vivid in the torch and lantern light. It had been this way for days, red and yellow, violet — colors he had hardly been aware existed back in the cool green, silver, gray-brown of Kentucky.
So this was Tubacca! The rider shifted his weight in the saddle and gazed about him with watchful interest. Back in '59 this had been a flourishing town, well on its way to prominence in the Southwest. The mines in the hills behind producing wealth, the fact that it was a watering place on two cross-country routes — the one from Tucson down into Sonora of Old Mexico, the other into California — had all fed its growth.
Then the war. ... The withdrawal of the army, the invasion of Sibley's Confederate forces which had reached this far in the persons of Howard's Arizona Rangers — and most of all the raiding, vicious, deadly, and continual, by Apaches and outlaws — had blasted Tubacca. Now, in the fall of 1866, it was a third of what it had been, with a ragged fringe of dilapidated adobes crumbling back into the soil. Only this heart core was still alive in the dusk.
Smell, a myriad of smells, some to tickle a flat stomach, others to wrinkle the nose. Under the rider the big stud moved, tossed his head, drawing the young man's attention from the town back to his own immediate concerns. The animal he rode, the two he led were, at first glance, far more noticeable than the dusty rider himself.
His saddle was cinched about the barrel of a big gray colt, one that could not have been more than five years old but showed enough power and breeding to attract attention in any horse-conscious community. Here was a thoroughbred of the same blood which had pounded race tracks in Virginia and in Kentucky to best all comers. Even now, after weeks on the trail, with a day's burden of alkali dust grimed into his coat, the stud was a beautiful thing. And his match was the mare on the lead rope, plainly a lady of family, perhaps of the same line, since her coat was also silver. She crowded closer, nickered plaintively.
She was answered by an anxious bray from the fourth member of the party. The mule bearing the trail pack was in ludicrous contrast to his own aristocratic companions. His long head, with one entirely limp and flopping ear, was grotesquely ugly, the carcass beneath the pack a bone rack, all sharp angles and dusty hide. Looks, however, as his master could have proven, were deceiving.
"Soooo —" The rider's voice was husky from swallowing trail grit, but it was tuned to the soothing croon of a practiced horse trainer. "Sooo — lady, just a little farther now, girl. ..."
From the one-story building on the rider's right a man emerged. He paused to light a long Mexican cigarillo, and as he held the match to let the sulfur burn away, his eyes fell upon the stallion. A casual interest tightened into open appreciation as he stepped from under the porch-overhang into the street.
"That is some horse, sir." His voice was that of an educated gentleman. The lantern at the end of the porch picked out the fine ruffled linen of his shirt, a vest with a painted design of fighting cocks, and the wink of gold buttons. The rather extravagant color of his clothing matched well with the town.
"I think so." The answer was short and yet not discourteous.
Again the mare voiced her complaint, and the rider turned to the gentleman. "There is a livery stable here, suh?" Unconsciously he reverted in turn to the rather formal speech pattern of another place and time.
The man in the painted vest had transferred his attention from stallion to mare. "Yes. Quickest way is down this alley. Tobe Kells owns it. He's a tolerable vet, too. She's near her time, ain't she?"
"Yes." The rider raised one finger to the straight wide brim of his low-crowned black hat. He was already turning his mount when the townsman added:
"No hotel here, stranger. But the Four Jacks serves a pretty good meal and keeps a couple of beds for overnighters. You're welcome back when you've settled the little lady. She Virginia stock?"
"Kentucky," the rider answered, and then his lips tightened into a compressed line. Was it a mistake to admit even that much? He would have to watch every word he said in this town. He tugged gently at the lead rope and walked Shiloh ahead at a pace which did not urge Shadow to any great effort. The mule, Croaker, fell in behind her so that they were strung out in the familiar pattern which had been theirs clear from Texas.
Minutes later her owner was rubbing down the fretful Shadow, murmuring the soothing words to quiet her. The lean, gray-haired man who had ushered them into the stable stood eyeing the mare's distended sides.
"I'd say, young fellow, you didn't git her here a mite too soon, no, siree. She's due right quick. Carryin' a blood foal, I'm thinkin' —"
"Yes. How soon? Tonight?"
Tobe Kells made a quick examination. The mare, after a first nervous start, stood easy under his sure and gentle hands. "Late, maybe. First foal?"
"Yes." Her owner hesitated and then added, "You give me a hand with her?"
"You bet, son. She's a pretty thing, an' she's been a far piece, I'd say. Now you looky here, boy — you sure look like you could take some curryin' an' corn fodder under your belt too. You git over to th' Four Jacks. Topham's got him a Chinee cookin' there who serves up th' best danged grub in this here town. Fill up your belly an' take some ease. Then if we do have this little lady gittin' us up tonight, you'll be ready for it. I'll see t' th' stud an' th' mule. That colt's not a wild one." Kells surveyed Shiloh knowingly. "No, I seed he was gentle-trained when you come in." He ran his hand down Shiloh's shoulder, touched the brand. "Spur R? That ain't no outfit I heard tell of before."
"From Eastern ... Texas —" That much was true. All three animals had been given the brand in the small Texas town where the wagon train had assembled. And perhaps this was the time when he should begin building up the background one Drew Kirby must present to Tubacca, Arizona Territory. "All right, I'll go eat." He picked up his saddlebags. "You'll call me if —"
"Sure, son. Say, I don't rightly know your name. ..."
"Wal, sure, Kirby, Tobe Kells is a man o' his word. Iffen there's any reason to think you'll be needed, I'll send Callie along for you. Callie!"
At Kells' hail a boy swung down the loft ladder. He was wiry thin, with a thick mop of sun-bleached hair and a flashing grin. At the sight of Shiloh and Shadow he whistled.
"Now ain't they th' purtiest things?" he inquired of the stable at large. "'Bout th' best stock we've had here since th' last time Don Cazar brought in a couple o' hissen. Where'll I put your plunder, mister?" He was already loosing Croaker's pack. "You be stayin' over to th' Jacks?"
Drew glanced up at the haymow from which Callie had just descended. "Any reason why I can't bunk up there?" he asked Kells.
"None 'tall, Kirby, none 'tall. Know you want to be handy like. Stow that there gear up above, Callie, an' don't you drop nothin'. Rest yourself easy, son. These here hosses is goin' to be treated jus' like th' good stuff they is."
"Croaker, also." Drew stopped by the mule, patted the long nose, gave a flip to the limp ear. "He's good stuff, too — served in the cavalry. ..."
Kells studied the young man by the mule. Cavalry saddle on the stud, two Colt pistols belted high and butt forward, and that military cord on his hat — army boots, too. The liveryman knew the signs. This was not the first veteran to drift into Tubacca; he wouldn't be the last either. Seems like half of both them armies back east didn't want to go home an' sit down peaceful like now that they was through wi' shootin' at each other. No, siree, a right big herd o' 'em was trailin' out here. An' he thought he could put name to the color of coat this young'un had had on his back, too. Only askin' more than a man volunteered to tell, that warn't neither manners nor wise.
"He gits th' best, too, Kirby." Kells shifted a well-chewed tobacco cud from one cheek to the other.
He could trust Kells, Drew thought. A little of his concern over Shadow eased. He shouldered the saddlebags and made his way back down the alley, beginning to see the merit in the liveryman's suggestions. Food — and a bath! What he wouldn't give for a bath! Hay to sleep on was fine; he had had far worse beds during the past four years. But a hot bath to be followed by a meal which was not the jerky, corn meal, bitter coffee of trail cooking! His pace quickened into a trot but slackened again as he neared the Four Jacks and remembered all the precautions he must take in Tubacca.
In the big room of the cantina oil lamps made yellow pools of light. The man in the painted vest was seated at a table laying out cards in a complicated pattern of a solitaire game. And at one side a round-faced Mexican in ornate, south-of-the-border clothing held a guitar across one plump knee, now and then plucking absent-mindedly at a single string as he stared raptly into space. A third man stood behind the bar polishing thick glasses.
"Greetings!" As Drew stood blinking just within the doorway the card player rose. He was a tall, wide-shouldered man, a little too thin for his height. Deep lines in his clean-shaven face bracketed his wide mouth. His curly hair was a silvery blond, and he had dark, deeply set eyes. "I'm Reese Topham, owner of this oasis," he introduced himself.
"Drew Kirby." He must remember that always — he was Drew Kirby, a Texan schooled with kinfolk in Kentucky, who served in the war under Forrest and was now drifting west, as were countless other rootless Confederate veterans. Actually the story was close enough to the truth. And he had had months on the trail from San Antonio to Santa Fe, then on to Tucson, to study up on any small invented details. He was Drew Kirby, Texan, not Drew Rennie of Red Springs, Kentucky.
"For a man just off the trail, Kirby, the Four Jacks does have a few of the delights of civilization. A bath. ..." One of Topham's dark eyebrows, so in contrast to his silvery hair, slid up inquiringly, and he grinned at Drew's involuntary but emphatic nod. "One of nature's gifts to our fair city is the hot spring. Hamilcar!" His hand met table top in a sharp slap. The Mexican jerked fully awake and looked around. From the back of the cantina emerged a middle-aged Negro.
"Yes, Mistuh Reese, suh?"
"Customer for you, Hamilcar. I would judge he wants the full treatment. This, Mister Kirby, is the best barber, valet, and general aid to comfort in town, the sultan of our bath. Hamilcar, Mister Kirby would like to remove the layers of dust he has managed to pick up. Good luck to you both!"
Drew found himself laughing as he followed Hamilcar to the rear of the building.
Topham had reason to be proud of his bath, Drew admitted some time later. A natural hot spring might be the base of the luxury, but man's labor had piped the water into stone-slab tubs and provided soap and towels. To sit and soak was a delight he had forgotten. He shampooed his unkempt head vigorously and allowed himself to forget all worries, wallowing in the sheer joy of being really clean again.
Hamilcar had produced a clean shirt and drawers from the saddlebags, even managing to work up a shadow of shine on the scuffed cavalry boots, and had beat the worst of the trail dust from the rest of the traveler's clothing. Drew had re-dressed except for his gun belt when he heard a voice call from the next cubicle.
"Ham — Ham! You git yourself in here, 'fore I skin that black hide —"
"Johnny!" Topham's voice cut through the other's thickened slur. "You soak that rot-gut out of you, and mind your tongue while you do it!"
"Sure, sure, Reese —" The voice was pitched lower this time, but to Drew the tone was more mocking than conciliatory. Drunk or sober, that stranger did not hold very kindly thoughts of Topham. But that was none of the Kentuckian's business.
"Yore hat, suh." Hamilcar brought in the well-brushed headgear, much more respectable looking than it had been an hour ago. The cord on it glistened. Army issue — brave gold bullion — made for a general's wearing. Drew straightened it, remembering. ...
Sergeant Rennie of the Scouts, in from an independent foray into enemy-held Tennessee, reporting to the Old Man himself — General Bedford Forrest. And Forrest saying:
"We don't give medals, Sergeant. But I think a good soldier might just be granted a birthday present without any one gittin' too excited about how military that is." Then he had jerked the cord off his own hat and given it to Drew. It was something big to remember when you were only nineteen and had been soldiering three years, three years with a dogged army that refused to be beaten. That hat cord, the spurs on his boots, they were all he had brought home from war — save a tough body and a mind he hoped was as hard.
"Mighty pretty hat trimmin', that, suh," Hamilcar admired.
"Mighty big man wore it once." Drew was still half in the past. "What do I owe you more'n the thanks of a mighty tired man you've turned out brand new again?" He smiled and was suddenly all boy.
"Foah bits, suh. An' it was a pleasure to do fo' a gentleman. It truly was. Come agin, suh — come, agin!"
Drew went down the corridor, his spurs answering with a chiming ring each time his heels met planking. Worn at Chapultepec by a Mexican officer, they had been claimed as spoils of war in '47 by a Texas Ranger. And in '61 the Ranger's son, Anson Kirby, had jingled off in them to another war. Then Kirby had disappeared during that last scout in Tennessee, vanishing into nowhere when he fell wounded from the saddle, smashing into a bushwhackers' hideout.
On a Sunday in May of '65, back in Gainesville, when Forrest's men had finally accepted surrender and the deadness of defeat, a Union trooper had worn those spurs into church. And Boyd Barrett had sold his horse the same day to buy back those silver bits because he knew what they meant to his cousin Drew. Now here Drew was, half the continent away from Gainesville and Tennessee, wearing Anse's spurs and half of Anse's name — to find a father he had not known was still alive, until last year.
The Kentuckian was sure of only one thing right now, he was not going to enter a town or a stretch of country where Hunt Rennie was the big man, and claim to be Rennie's unknown son. Maybe later he could come to a decision about his action. But first he wanted to be sure. There might well be no place for a Drew Rennie in Hunt Rennie's present life. They were total strangers and perhaps it must be left that way.
There was no reason for him to claim the kinship. He was independent. Drew Kirby had a mule and two good horses, maybe three by tomorrow. Aunt Marianna had insisted that he accept part of the Mattock estate, even though his Kentucky grandfather had left him penniless. He'd made his choice without hesitation: the colt Shiloh, the mare Shadow, and she bred to Storm Cloud for what should be a prize foal. His aunt had made him take more — gold in his money belt, enough to give him a start in the west. He was his own man, not Rennie's son, unless he chose. ...
Two more lamps had been lighted in the cantina. Drew sat down at a table. There was a swish of full skirts, and he looked up at a girl. She smiled as if she liked what she saw of this brown-faced stranger with quiet, disciplined features and eyes older than his years.
"You like, señor ... tequila ... whiskee ... food?"
"Food, señorita. You see a most hungry man."
She laughed and then frowned anxiously. "Ah, but, señor, this is a time when the cupboard is, as you would say, bare! When the wagons come — then what a difference! Now, tortillas, frijoles, maybe some fruit ... sweet for the tongue, like wine in the throat. Perhaps an egg —"
"To me that is a feast." Drew fell into the formal speech which seemed natural here. "You see one who has done his own trail cooking too long."
"Ah — el pobrete — poor man! Surely there will be an egg!" She was gone and Drew began covertly to study the other men in the room.
Excerpted from "Rebel Spurs"
Copyright © 2017 Open Road Integrated Media, Inc..
Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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