Authors: Louis L'amour
The man who called himself Jonas shrugged. "I'm sure."
"You could have got yourself shot back there."
"You sure don't seem worried."
"Why should I be? I'm wearing a gun, too."
Rimes had nothing more to say, and the buckboard was rolling, teetering over rocks, dipping down through a wash, emerging to wind a precarious way among gigantic boulders. The stars were out, the night was colder. Jonas hunched a blanket around his shoulders, eased his gun into a more favorable position, and dozed.
Twice they passed through small bunches of cattle. The only brand he glimpsed was a Rafter D. Once they went through a tiny stream, no more than a trickle of water.
Ahead of them, after they had traveled for some tune, he heard John Lang call out: "It's all right, Charlie. It's the buckboard. We're bringin' in Rimes and a stranger. Says his name is Jonas."
"Just so's it ain't Jonah. But he better be advised. It's a whole lot easier to get in than to get out."
When Jonas helped Fan Davidge down she whispered to him, "Thank you ... and be careful."
Rimes came up to him. "We'll go to the bunkhouse."
"Not yet," Jonas said.
Rimes paused, waiting for him to say more.
"What kind of place is this? Miss Davidge doesn't seem the kind who'd run an outlaw hangout."
"She doesn't run it. She just owns the ranch. Her pa built this ranch and turned it into a money-making outfit, but he was investing in other things, got rich, and went back east.
"He was an easterner, anyway, and he got to dealing with those railroaders and bankers back there. For a time he was a mighty well-off man, and used to come out every so often, then he came up short financially and died of a heart attack. Fan, she came back here to all that was left.
"Arch Billing ran the place for her pa when he was east, and Arch had rustler trouble. Friend of mine named Montana rode for him. Monty was a good hand, but not above holding up a stage or two if things looked right. He knew all the boys on the outlaw trail.
"Montana went to Arch and suggested he had some friends who could handle his rustler problem. Well, Arch knew they were outlaws, but they were also good cowhands when they wanted to work at it. They needed a place where they could lay low for a while, and Arch needed help with his rustler problem, so he took them on.
"Well," Rimes went on, "I was one of them. We just rode back to that rustler hide-out and laid down the law. We told them the Rafter D was friendly to us and we'd take it most unthoughtful if any more cattle showed up missing.
"Well, those rustlers were small potatoes, and they wanted no truck with the kind of shooting we would do, so they laid off. That day to this there's been no rustling of Rafter D stock.
"The thing was," he continued, "the first of us were mostly cowhands who'd got into trouble through brainless skyhootin' around. My first holdup was when I was seventeen - a bunch of us figured it would be smart to stop a train and pick up some drinking money.
"Well, we did it. We made the conductor give us twenty dollars and we were going to ride off and leave it at that. Then some wise jasper sticks his head out of a car and let go with a pistol. He hit Jim Slade, a friend of mine, gut-shot him. And I shot back, mad and not thinking, and I drilled that man through the skull.
"Nobody had figured on that. Nobody had thought it was anything but a lark; then all of a sudden it wasn't fun any more. Jim was dying, and that man I'd shot was a Wells Fargo agent. . . . I've been riding the outlaw trail ever since."
He lit his pipe. "The others were much the same sort, there at first, and we did far more punching of cows than riding the outlaw trail. This was home to us. No law came around, and we kept a good lookout. Arch knew what we were, but he ignored it, and then this other bunch came riding in."
"Him, Dave Cherry, John Lang, and some others. They'd held up a Denver & Rio Grande train and needed a hide-out. We didn't want their kind around, but we figured they'd pull out, and they did. Trouble was, they came back.
"Arch had this tough hand I was speaking about, the one we called Montana, and he braced Ben - told him they'd have to high-tail it out of there. Ben laughed at him, taunted him, and Monty went for his gun. Well, he never cleared leather before he had two holes right in the heart. Then Ben told us he figured to stay, and there wasn't a thing we could do about it.
"Fan's pa was alive then, and I know Arch wrote him about it, but Davidge died soon after, and that was an end to it."
"And then Miss Davidge came home?"
"That's right. Arch didn't like it, her being here with them, but there wasn't anything he could do about it. Whenever they ride off on a job they leave somebody here, and then Ben Janish let everybody know he figured to marry Fan so's he could tie up the ranch for good. And Ben let Fan know that if she tried to get away he'd kill Arch."
"Doesn't Fan Davidge have any family?"
"I've heard she has an uncle or a cousin, or maybe both. One of them lives down El Paso way, but they never cottoned to the old man, nor he to them, and they've never showed up. The uncle worked for Davidge in his office back east for a while, I hear. I wouldn't know anything about that."
Rimes seemed to have talked all he intended to, and he went with Jonas into the bunkhouse. There were bunks for at least twenty men, about seven of which seemed to be occupied. When Jonas followed Rimes into the room John Lang was standing before the fireplace, facing them.
There were two other men in the room with him, a sour-looking older man with thin white hair and olive skin. His eyes were black and shrewd. The other man, big, heavy-shouldered, and lantern-jawed, had a shock of blond hair.
It was this man who looked at Jonas. "I've seen you before," he said.
Jonas merely glanced at him, then picked up a worn magazine, and began to leaf through it.
"You!" The blond man pointed a stiff finger. "I'm talkin' to you."
Jonas looked up, let seconds go by while their eyes held, and then he said, "I heard you make some sort of a comment. I was not aware that it required an answer."
"I said I've seen you before."
Jonas knew trouble when he saw it coming, and he knew there were times when it was better to face it than avoid it.
"I don't recall seeing you, but I am sure that if I had I would remember the smell."
For an instant there was silence. Jonas had spoken so casually, in such an ordinary tone, that for a moment his words failed to register.
"Whatwas that you said?"
"You seem to want trouble, so I decided to make it easy for you. I said you smelled - like a skunk."
Jonas was still half reclining on the bunk, and the blond man bent over, reaching for him. Jonas' left hand caught the sleeve on the reaching arm and jerked the man forward and off balance. The magazine, suddenly rolled tight, smashed upward, catching the attacker on the Adam's apple.
With a shove, Jonas threw the man off to the floor, where he rolled over, gasping and retching.
Jonas glanced at him, then opened the magazine, and began to read.
The sour-faced old man, called Henneker, was forking hay into a manger when Jonas walked into the barn. He worked swiftly, silently, ignoring his approach. As Jonas turned to leave, the old man said, "He'll kill you. Kissling will kill you."
"Is that his name?"
"Yes. He's killed four men in gun battles. Maybe two, three others in holdups. You won't have a chance."
"Miss Davidge - does she like Ben Janish?"
"Her?" The old man straightened up angrily. "She wouldn't look at such as him. Only ever'body's afraid of him. Even Kissling an' Cherry."
"She's quite a woman."
"You bother around her an' I'll stab you with a hayfork. I'll come on you asleep. That's a fine girl."
"I believe you. She's the only reason I am here. When I saw her I had to come."
"She ain't for your kind."
"What kind am I?"
The old man strained up and looked at him with shrewd eyes. "Look, boy, I'm not as soft in the head as them in yonder. I know what you are, an' by comparison them inside ain't out of diapers yet. If I cared a plugged nickel for 'em I'd give warning, but they ought to see they're nothing but a bunch of mangy coyotes with a lobo wolf among 'em."
The old man turned his back and started off, and the man who called himself Jonas stared after him.
Was the old man right? Was he worse than these men? Was he evil? If so, what was evil?
He shrugged and strolled to the corral to lean on the rail, watching the horses. They stirred warily, and his eyes were drawn to a line-back dun with black ears, black mane and tail.
The horse had stopped suddenly, ears pricked, and was looking at him. "Come here, boy," he said softly, and to his surprise, the dun came ... halted ... rolled his eyes, showing the whites, then sidled away. "It's all right, boy," he whispered, and held out his hand.
The dun's nose extended, sniffing the fingers.
"You have a way with horses, Mr. Jonas."
He turned to find Fan Davidge at his elbow. "That horse is an outlaw. Nobody has ever gotten so close to him before."
"He's your horse?"
"We brought him in with our stock off the winter range. He's a stray. I understand that's a Texas brand."
"Cherokee Nation," he said, and wondered how he knew.
She glanced at him curiously, but said only, "Ride him if you like ... if you can."
"Is he in anybody's string?"
He turned to look at her. "You are a very beautiful girl, Miss Davidge."
She flushed slightly. "Thank you."
Abruptly she turned and went back to the house. Whatever she had come to say, she had changed her mind. He watched her go, admiring her easy walk and the swirl of her riding skirt.
He had no right to think of this girl. He would be inviting trouble he could not afford. And he had no idea who he was or what he had been.
Rimes came out of the bunkhouse. "Did you eat yet?"
Together they walked to the ranch house. The long toom where the table stood opened off the kitchen. There were flowered curtains at the windows, and plants arranged in clay pots. Everything was bright, clean, attractive.
The cook, who was Chinese, brought dishes to the table, then returned to the kitchen. There was no sign of Kissling. Glancing to his left, Jonas saw a door opening to a room with shelves of books.
"Don't worry about Kissling here," Rimes said, speaking softly. "There'll be no shooting on the ranch. Her orders, and his-Ben Janish, I mean."
Presently Jonas said, "I think I will take a ride after I eat."
"Then go toward the mountains," Rimes said.
"If you know anything about punching cows, ask Henneker what to do. Arch rode out this morning. We all help with the ranch work," he added.
"Suppose I just kept on riding?"
"You'd get nowhere. That's a wall of mountains yonder. There's fifty box canyons, all of them dead ends. You could climb out afoot, but there's nowhere to go. There'd be fifty or more miles of the roughest country in the world ahead of you ... and no grub."
"I've got to find out who I am."
Rimes was silent a moment. "Leave it lay. Why don't you just start off as if you'd just been born? 'Let the dead past bury its dead,' as somebody said one time."
"The dead might not want to be buried, nor the past want to have them buried. I have an uneasy feeling about that."
Rimes talked of the ranch, the cattle. There had been no beef shipped from here since Davidge died but the range was good. The mountains and the ridges formed almost natural corrals, and the outlaw hands had kept others away. There were thousands of acres between the ranch and the mountains, a restricted range, well-watered and in some cases sub-irrigated by the flow off the mountains.
Rimes left, and Jonas lingered over his coffee, worrying about his problem. Did Henneker know anything? Or was the old man just guessing?
There were clues . .. one was the recognition of the dun's brand as from the Cherokee Nation, which was an outlaws' hangout. The one thing he was sure of was that Ben Janish must know who he was and why he was to be killed.
And there were the letters and the legal document in his pocket, which so far he had not had a chance to examine.
Was he Dean Cullane? The letters he had found in his pocket, addressed to that name, would make it seem so, but somehow he was uneasy over the name. Might he have stolen them? Or offered to carry them for Cullane? None of the reasons he could think of made much sense.
He was feeling restless. His headache had dulled to a persistent throb that kept him on edge, and he was in no mood to be with people. He needed to get off by himself, to think, to plan, to try to find a way out.
Ben Janish would soon be coming to the ranch, and Ben would no doubt try to finish what he had begun. But what would be his reaction when he found the man he had tried to kill waiting for him?