Authors: Louis L'amour
Rimes threw off his blankets. "You go up on the lookout and see if you see anybody. I'll put some breakfast together."
It was bright and clear on the morning side of the mountain. He glanced across the valley, picked up a tiny cloud of dust, looked away and back again. It was still there, still coming.
Rimes came up to look. "It'll take them an hour to get here," he said, "the way they've got to come. Let's hang on the feed bag."
As they ate, Rimes explained. "Place we're heading for is a ranch. Owned by a girl whose pa just died a while back. Her name is Fan Davidge. Her foreman is Arch Billings. They are good folks."
"Running an outlaw hangout?"
"It's a long story. It's come to a place where they no longer can control it. Arch Billing is a fine man, but he's no gun-hand."
"Don't they have a crew?"
"Only man left is an oldster. The outlaws do the ranch work, and do it almighty well."
Together they gathered up, washed the frying pan and coffeepot, and stowed them away in the corner. By the time they reached the mountainside they could see a buckboard, only a mile or so off, and coming on now at a spanking trot
There were at least two people in the buckboard. Rimes studied it through his field glasses. "Fan Davidge is aboard. Leave her alone."
"Is she somebody's woman?"
"No... but she's spoken for."
They had started down the slope and they went six paces before Rimes replied, "Ben Janish."
"Is he the bull of the woods around here?"
"You bet your sweet life he is, and don't you be forgetting it, not for a moment. He won't be home right now, but Dave Cherry will be, and he's nearly as bad. You cross them and you won't last a minute."
The man who called himself Jonas considered that. "I am somehow not worried," he said after a moment. "I have searched myself and found no fear, but one thing I can tell you. I remember nothing, though, as I told you, I heard Ben Janish's name mentioned."
"He was the man who shot me. He was hunting me."
Rimes stared at him. "You mean Ben Janish shot at you and missed?"
"He didn't miss. He just didn't hit me dead center. Rimes, you'd better leave me here. I don't know why Ben Janish wants me. I have no idea except that somebody must have paid him to kill me. Now I'd be a copper-riveted fool to ride right into his bailiwick, wouldn't I?"
The buckboard clattered up over the rock-strewn desert and came to a halt opposite them. The dust drifted back and started to settle, and J. B. Rimes walked down, greeting Arch Billing. Jonas was not looking at Arch, but past him, at Fan Davidge.
"There's little time," Billing said. "Mount up, boys."
"There'll be just one of us, I - " Rimes began.
"There will be two, Rimes. I am going along."
Rimes glanced at him, and then at Fan. "Your funeral," he said, and gestured toward the pile of blankets in the back of the buckboard. "Climb in, then. But you'd better be good with that gun."
The buckboard started off, and they went at a fast trot. Obviously Billing did not wish to linger in the area. Their presence in such a lonely place would be difficult to explain, as far off a reasonable trail as they were.
After a few minutes, Runes asked, "Arch, is Ben in the valley?"
"No. He hasn't been around for a couple of weeks. El Paso, I reckon."
El Paso ... Dean Cullane's town.
The man who called himself Jonas, and who might be Dean Cullane, drew a blanket around his shoulders, for the wind was chill. He did not know who he was, nor where he was going, but now he knew why. He was going to the ranch because a girl lived there.
A girl named Fan ... who had merely glanced at him.
He was a fool.
His hand touched his face. He was unshaved, of course, but there was a strong jaw, high cheekbones. There was quite a lot of money in his pockets, from what source he had no idea, and there were the letters and the legal document which he had not had the privacy to examine.
The buckboard had started off across the valley, but when it reached a sandy wash it descended into it, and turned at right angles. The going was slower in the wash, but Jonas thought they could not be seen because of the high banks.
There was no talking. Each of the occupants of the buckboard seemed busy with his or her own thoughts, and it provided time for Jonas to assay his position.
He knew he was a hunted man, hunted either by the law or by some individual with power. The fact that Ben Janish, whom he assumed to be an outlaw and a gunman, had been hired to kill him made it seem doubtful that it was the law that was seeking him. That such a man as Ben Janish seemed to be had been hired to do it made him assume that he was known as a dangerous man.
He now had three days' growth of beard on his face and letting it grow might be a good idea. It might help to conceal his features from people who knew him, at least until he knew them.
Several times they stopped to rest the horses, then went on. It was late afternoon when they drew up at a small seep and got down stiffly, stretching and brushing away some of the accumulated dust.
Arch Billing helped Fan Davidge down, and she went to a rock at the water's edge and dipped up water in a small tin cup and drank.
Rimes began putting together a small fire, and then, taking the gear from the buckboard, he made coffee.
Jonas sat on a rock apart from the others. The air was cool, and shadows began to gather in the hollows along the face of the hills. He heard a quail call ... a quail, or an Indian? There was no echo, no after-sound, and he knew it was no Indian.
How did he know that? Apparently it was only his name, his history, the actualities of his life that were missing. The, habits, the instincts, the ingrained reactions remained with him.
Fan Davidge glanced at him, faintly curious. Men usually wanted to talk to her, but this one held himself aloof. He had a sort of innate dignity, and he did not seem like the others.
He was lean, but broad-shouldered, and altogether puzzling, resembling perhaps a scholar more than a western man; when he moved it was with the grace of a cat.
She watched J. B. Nobody knew more of what was going on than Rimes did. He had offered no explanation except to say the man's name was Jonas. Now he was crossing over to where Jonas was sitting.
Rimes spoke in a low tone, but the night was clear, and in the desert sound carries easily. She could just barely distinguish the words.
"If you want to light a shuck, I can get you a horse."
"I'll come along."
"Look, if Janish is there - "
"Then I'll have some answers, won't I?"
"Mister, I don't know you, but I cotton to you. I don't like to see you get your tail in a crack."
There was no reply, and after a little while Rimes said, "Don't you think I don't know why you're taking this chance, but you'll waste your time."
"I had a feeling she was in trouble."
Rimes was silent for a moment. "Leave it lay. You'd just get yourself in a corner."
"I just got out of one."
"You're not out of it yet. Not by a long shot. If I only knew - "
"But you don't, and neither do I."
"Well," Rimes said after another pause, "there's two or three you'd better fight shy of. Dave Cherry ... he's trouble. So's John Lang. And there will be others, so watch your step."
His head ached and he was tired, and he continued to hold himself aloof. He thought of the coming night, and was conscious of the faintest sounds, of the smells of coffee, of bacon frying, of burning cedar, and of sagebrush. He got up and walked off a few feet, feeling sick and empty, surrounded by unknown dangers.
A light step sounded behind him. It was Fan Davidge. "Please ... you have been hurt," she said. "You had better drink this." She handed him a cup of coffee.
"Thank you." He looked straight into her eyes and liked what he saw there. He took the cup, and when she remained with him he said, "Don't let me keep you from your supper."
"You should eat, too."
But neither moved, and finally he said, "I like the twilight, but there is little of it in the desert."
"Who are you, Jonas? What are you?" she asked.
"I do not know." He looked at her over his cup. "I am afraid that what I am is not something to be proud of, but I do not know."
"What does that mean?"
He touched his wound. "That ... since that I can not remember. All I know is that somebody tried to kill me."
"You don't know who it was?"
"It was Ben Janish, but I don't know why."
" Ben Janish!But then you mustn't come to the ranch! He might be there even now."
He shrugged. "A man will do what he must."
"But that's crazy! I mean ..."
"There are two reasons, I guess. I had nowhere to go, and Rimes suggested the ranch. And then there was you."
"You looked to be in trouble."
She glanced at him. "You have troubles enough of your own."
Then she added, "I own the Rafter D."
Rafter D!Suddenly it was as if a shaft of light had stabbed into the darkness of his brain. He knew that brand... from where? How?
A thought formed in his consciousness. Four to be killed... four men and a woman.
Killed? By whom? And for what reason?
"You didn't know you were going to the Rafter D?" she asked.
"I didn't ask."
They walked back to the fire, and he refilled his cup and accepted a plate of food. The ache in his head had dulled, and the stiffness seemed to be leaving his muscles, but he still felt tired and on edge. The others sat about talking in a desultory fashion. They seemed to be waiting for somebody, or something.
He knew what was bothering him. He was afraid. Not of any man or men, but of discovering who and what he was. He would have liked just to walk off into the night and leave it all behind ... all but Fan Davidge.
He did not want to leave her, and for that he felt that he was a fool, a double-dyed fool to be falling in love - if that was what it was - with a girl he scarcely knew and who was spoken for by the most dangerous man around. Why did that not worry him?
He went to the seep and rinsed his dishes, and replaced them in the buckboard. Arch Billing was standing near the horses, smoking his pipe. Rimes was dozing.
Jonas heard the faintest whisper of sound ... listened ... heard it again.
"Somebody is coming," he said.
Rimes opened his eyes, listened, then said, "I hear them."
There were two mounted men and they came up to the edge of the firelight. He could see little of their faces, but the firelight played on the horses' legs and shoulders, and he saw that one of the men wore Mexican spurs.
"Who's he?" the man asked, glancing at Jonas.
"On the dodge," Billing replied. "He came in with J. B."
Runes stepped into the light. "Law was after him back yonder."
"I don't like it. I don't like him." The speaker was a big, rawboned man with a sandy walrus mustache.
"I don't give a damn what you like." The words came from Rimes. "I haven't asked you for anything, and there isn't anything you can give me."
The man on the horse seemed shocked, and his features stiffened. "The rest of you get into the buck-board and get started," he said. "We'll leave this gent right here."
"Now, see here, Lang," Rimes said. "I-"
"Thanks, J. B.," Jonas interrupted. He felt suddenly cold inside, and welling up within him was an ugly feeling. "Nobody needs to speak for me. If Lang wants to make an issue of it he can die here as easy as later."
John Lang was suddenly wary. For the first time he looked straight at the stranger. For a city dude, this one was pushing too hard. There had been rumors of hired killers being sent among the outlaws simply to kill.
"Nobody said anything about dying but you, mister," Lang said. "I just said we were going to leave you here. We don't know you."
"I don't know you, either, but I am willing to come along."
"Nevertheless, we leave you."
It was Fan who spoke, quietly but sternly. "This man has been injured. He needs rest and care. He is coming to the ranch with us."
Lang hesitated. He was a crafty man as well as a dangerous one, and he quickly saw this as an easy way out of a bad situation. After all, if need be they could always be rid of him.
"Certainly, ma'am. Whatever you say goes." He turned his horse and, followed by the other rider, disappeared into the darkness.
Fan started to get into the buckboard, and Jonas took her elbow, helping her in. She glanced at him, surprised, and said, "Thank you."
Billing took up the reins. Rimes tossed the last of their gear under the seat and got in. "You sure about this?" he asked.