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ERNEST HAYCOX

DEAD-MAN TRAIL

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First published in The Saturday Evening Post, 11 September 1948

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2019
Version Date: 2019-08-30
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The Saturday Evening Post, 11 September 1948, with "Dead-Man Trail"



JOHNNY POTTER had only squatted himself in the cabin's doorway for a smoke when he heard Plez Neal's footsteps rattling along the stony trail in a rapid return from town. Plez came across the sooty shadows of the yard and made a mysterious motion at Johnny. He said, "Come inside."

Johnny followed Plez into the cabin and closed the door. A third partner, Thad Jessup, lay on a bunk, stripped to socks, trousers and iron-stained undershirt. He had been half asleep, but his eyes opened and were instantly alert.

"Buck Miller's in town again," said Plez Neal. "He's huddled up with that saddle-faced barkeep in the Blue Bucket. They were talking about me—I could tell." He went over to a soapbox to fill his pipe from a red tobacco can.

"Add those three other fellows that drifted in yesterday," said Thad. "There's your crowd. They smell honey."

"They smell us," said Plez. "Now we're sittin' ducks, not knowin' which way we'll be flushed."

"How'd you suppose they know we're worth a holdup?" asked Thad.

"Talk of the camp. I wish we hadn't let that damned dust pile up so long."

Johnny Potter sat hunched over on the edge of a box, arms across his knees. He spread out his fingers and stared at them while he listened to the talk of his partners. Both Plez and Thad were middle-aged men from the Willamette who had left their families behind them to come here and grub out gold enough to go back and buy valley farms. He was the youngster who had a good many more years to throw away than they had; he didn't dread the loss of the dust as they did, but he understood how they felt about it. He riffled his fingers through his hair, and once he looked toward the fireplace, beneath whose stones lay twenty thousand dollars in lard cans. His eyes were a flashing blue against the mahogany burn of his skin; he was a slender young man and his face had a listening silence on it. In the little crevices around his features, boyishness and rough knowledge lay uneasily together.

"We've made our stake," said Thad. "We could pack and pull out."

"Won't do. We've got some protection in camp. On the trail we'd be easy marks."

"But," said Thad, "if we stay here we'll get knocked over. It's a Mexican standoff. If they want us they'll get us. Just a question of how and when."

There was a silence, during which time Johnny Potter decided that his partners had no answer to the problem. He straightened on the box and made a small flat gesture with both hands against his legs.

"The three of us would travel too slow, but one of us could travel light and fast," he said. "I'll take my horse and your horse, Plez. Tonight. With a head start, I can outrun that crowd and get into The Dalles with the dust in four days or less."

"Why two horses?" asked Plez.

Johnny nodded toward the fireplace. "That stuff weighs around ninety pounds. I'll change horses as I go."

Plez said, "We'll cook up some bacon and you can take bread. You can make cold camps."

"I got to have coffee," said Johnny. "Pack the dust in the two sets of saddlebags."

Thad said, "If they're watchin' us, they'll notice you're gone in the morning."

"While you're packing," said Johnny, "I'll drop in at the Blue Bucket and play sick. Tomorrow you tack a smallpox sign on the cabin. They'll think I'm in bed."

Plez thought about it, sucking at his pipe. "Johnny, it's a long way to The Dalles. If they pick up your tracks you're a gone chicken."

"Fall of the dice," said Johnny, and opened the door and stepped into a full mountain darkness. Cabin lights and campfires glimmered through the trees and along the gulch below him, and men's voices drifted in the windless air. He took the trail to the creek bottom, threaded his way past tents and gravel piles thrown back from bedrock, and came upon Canyon City's shanties wedged at the bottom of the ravine. The sound of the saloons reached out to him.

He turned into the Blue Bucket, stumbling slightly; he saw a few friends at the poker tables and nodded to them in a drawn and gloomy manner, and he made a place for himself at the bar beside Pete Hewitt. The saddle-faced barkeep was at the far end of the counter, talking to a man whose face Johnny couldn't see at the moment. The barkeep broke off the talk long enough to bring Johnny a bottle and glass, and went back to his talk. Johnny took his cheer straight and poured another. The saddle-faced barkeep was at the edge of his vision; he noted the man's eyes roll toward him.

Pete Hewitt said, "What's the matter with you, Johnny?"

"I ache. I'm hot, I'm cold, I feel terrible."

"Ague. Get good and drunk."

Johnny eased his weight on the footrail, swinging to have a look at the man with the barkeep. It was Buck Miller, no question—big nose, face the color of an old gray boulder, a set of rough and raking eyes. Johnny called the barkeep back to pay for his drinks. He said to Hewitt, "I'm goin' to bed, and I'm not getting up for a week."

As he left the bar, he felt Buck Miller's eyes upon him. Outside, he remembered a chore and dropped into the Mercantile to buy caps for his revolver; when he came from the store he again noticed Buck Miller in the doorway of the Blue Bucket, staring directly at him. Short gusts of sensation wavered up and down the back of Johnny's neck as he traveled the stony gulch back to the cabin. No question about it, he thought. He's got his mind made up for that dust.

Plez met him in the yard's darkness and murmured restlessly, "Come on."

He followed Plez along the creek to a corral which boxed in a bit of the hillside, and found the horses packed to go. He tried his cinches and patted the saddlebags. There were two sets of bags, one behind his saddle and one hooked to alight rig thrown over the spare horse. Plez said, "Bacon and bread's in your blanket roll. Coffee, too, but get along without it, Johnny. A fire means trouble."

"Got to have coffee, trouble or no trouble."

"Tobacco and matches there. It's Thad's rifle in the boot. Shoots better than yours."

Johnny Potter stepped to his saddle, taking hold of the lead rope. Thad whispered, "Listen," and the three of them were stone- still, dredging the night with their sense. A few stray sounds drifted up the slope; a shape passed across the beam of a campfire. "Somebody around the cabin," whispered Thad. "Get out of here, Johnny."

Plez said in his kind and troubled voice, "Don't hold no foolish notions. If you get in a vise, dump the damned dust and run."

Johnny turned up the ravine, reached the first bench of the hill, and paralleled the gulch as it ran northward toward the wider meadows of the John Day, two miles distant. He was tight with the first strain of this affair; he listened for the sound of a gun behind him; he made quick searches of himself for things done right or done wrong, and presently he fell down the hill into the John Day and saw the dull glittering of the creek's ford ahead of him.

He held back a moment. There were lights along the valley, from other diggings and other cabins, and the trail was well traveled by men going to and coming from Canyon City. At this moment he neither saw nor heard anybody, and left the shadows of the hill and soon crossed the creek. The racket of his horses in the water was a signal soon answered, for, looking behind him, Johnny saw a shape slide out of the canyon shadows and come to the ford. Johnny swung from the trail at once and put himself into the willows beside the river.

He waited, hearing the rider cross the water and pass down the trail perhaps two hundred feet and there stop and remain motionless for a full three minutes. Suddenly Johnny understood he had made a mistake; he had tipped his hand when he had gone into the store to buy the caps. It wasn't a thing a sick man would do.

The rider wheeled and walked his horse toward the ford. His shadow came abreast of Johnny and faded, but at the creek he swung again and came back, clearly hunting and clearly dissatisfied. It was time, Johnny guessed, to use a little pressure; drawing his gun, he cocked the hammer and sent that lean dry little sound plainly into the night. The rider whipped about immediately, racing over the ford and running full tilt toward Canyon City. He would be going back for the rest of Miller's bunch.

Johnny came out of the brush and went down the trail at a hard run, passing cabins and campfires, and sometimes hearing men hail him. He followed the windings of this rough-beaten highway as it matched the windings of the river; he watched the shadows before him; he listened for the rumor of running horses behind him, and once—the better to catch the tomtoms of pursuit—he stopped to give the horses a blow and to check the saddlebags. The lights of the diggings at last faded, and near midnight he reached another cluster of cabins, all dark and sleeping, and turned from the valley into the hills. Before him lay something less than two hundred miles of country—timber, rough mountain creases, open grass plains and rivers lying deep in straight-walled canyons.

He slowed the horses to a walk and wound through the black alleys of these hills while the night wore on and the silence deepened. In the first paling dawn he stopped at a creek for a drink and a smoke, and went on steadily thereafter until noon found him on the edge of timber overlooking a meadowed corridor through these hills. Out there lay the main trail, which he watched for a few minutes; then he staked the horses, cooked his coffee and curled on the needle-spongy soil to rest.

It was less than real sleep. He heard the horses moving; he came wide awake at a woodpecker's drumming, and drifted away again, and moved back and forth across the border of consciousness, straining into the silence, mistrusting the silence.

He woke before sunset, tired. He threw on the gear and moved the horses to the creek and let them browse in the bottom grasses while he boiled up another pot of coffee. Afterward, he returned to the edge of the timber and, as long as light lasted, he watched the trail, which was a wriggling pale line across the tawny meadows below. He had to take that trail for the speed it offered him, but when he took it he also exposed himself. Thus far, he had been pretty secure in the breadth of country behind him—a pinpoint lost within a thousand square miles of hills and crisscross gullies. Ahead of him, though, the trail squeezed itself narrowly through a bottleneck of very rough land. Buck Miller knew about that, and might be waiting there.

Under darkness he moved over the flats to the trail and ran its miles down. He stopped to water at a creek, and later, well beyond the creek, he paused to listen, and thought he heard the scudding of other horses, though the sounds were so abraded by distance that he could not locate them. Riding west, he saw the ragged rising of hills through the silver gloom. The trail went downgrade, struck the graveled bottom of a dry wash and fell gradually into a pocket at the base of the hills. His horse, seeing some odd thing, whipped aside, going entirely off the trail. A moment later it plunged both forefeet into a washout, dropped to its knees and flung Johnny Potter from the saddle.

He turned in the air, he struck, he felt pain slice him through; the odor of blood was in his nostrils and his senses ran out like a fast tide, leaving him dumb on the ground. His left leg burned from hip to ankle and he kicked it out straight with a rough wish to know the worst. Nothing wrong there. He tried his right leg, he moved his arms, he stood up. He was all right.

He crouched in the washout and ran his hands along the down horse's front legs and discovered the break. He wanted a smoke, risk or no risk, and he filled his pipe and lighted it close to the ground. Then he brought in the lead horse, which had strayed out toward grass, and transferred the gear to it from the down horse.

When he was ready to travel again, he put a bullet into the head of the down horse, that report shouting and rumbling and rocketing away in all directions. It appeared to follow him and point him out when he rode forward.

In the first streaky moments of dawn he found himself in the bottom grasses and the willow clumps of Bridge Creek near its junction with the John Day. The ridges rose to either side of him, and he sat a moment motionless in the saddle and felt naked under such exposure; it would be a better thing to get out of this meadow land and to lose himself in the rough and treeless stringers of earth which made a hundred hidden pockets as they marched higher and higher over the mountains toward Central Oregon. But that was the slow way, and he had not enough knowledge of the country to leave the trail, and thus, his restless nerves pricking him into action, he went down the creek bottom at the best gallop he could kick out of his horse and reached the still more open bottoms of the John Day.

It was a wonderful thing at last to see the trail rise up from the river through a notch and go directly into the broken land. As soon as the ridge permitted him, he went up its side and got into another draw; he pressed on, climbing and turning and searching the land until he felt his horse lag. Thereupon he changed his course until he reached a ridge from which he saw the trail visible in the ravine below. He fed the horse and put it on picket in a gully and lay down to rest.

Through his curtain of sleep, broken as it was by strain and weariness, he heard the clear running sound of horses below. He reached for his rifle, rolled and crawled to the rim of the ridge all in a motion, and saw four men swinging along the trail below him; the lead man's head was bent, carefully reading signs, and in a moment this man signaled for a halt and swung his horse around, bringing his face into view—that dark skin and big- boned nose sharp in the sunlight. The four made a close group on the trail while they talked. Their words lifted toward Johnny.

"No," said Buck Miller, "we've gone too far this way. The kid left the trail back there where the ridge began. He went the other side. We'll go back and pick up his tracks."

"He's tryin' to fool us," said another man. "He may be settin' behind a rock waitin' for us to walk right into his shot."

"He's just a kid," said Buck Miller. "He'll run; he won't stand and fight. All he wants to do is keep-ahead of us and get to The Dalles."

The other man wasn't convinced. He said, "You go back and pick up his tracks while I ride this way a couple miles. If I don't see anything, I'll cut over the ridge and find you."

"No," said Buck Miller. "If I see anything moving ahead of me, I'll shoot it, and it might turn out to be you. We'll stick together. When we locate the kid we can box him in. He ain't far ahead. He's got two horses, and the dust weighs enough to slow him down."

The other man said, "He's got the advantage and I don't like it much. He can watch us come and he's above us."

Miller shook his head. "If it was a hard customer we were trailin', I'd say you were right. But he's never shot a man. That makes a difference, Jeff. It's a hard thing to pull the trigger if you ain't done it before—and while he's makin' up his mind about it, we'll get around him. I figure we can bring him to a stop.. Then one of us can slip behind and get above him. I can hit him with the first bullet, anywhere up to four hundred yards."

Johnny Potter drew his rifle forward and laid its stock against his cheek. He had Buck Miller framed in the sights, with no doubt left in his mind; it was a matter of kill or be killed—it was that plain. Yet he was astonished that Buck Miller knew him so well; for he had trouble making his finger squeeze the slack from the trigger. It was a hard thing to kill, and that was something he hadn't known. Well, I thought, I've got to do it, and had persuaded himself to fire when the group whirled suddenly and ran back along the trail. He had missed his chance.

It would take them a couple hours, he guessed. With Miller behind him, he had a chance for a clear run on the trail, and maybe he could set a trap. He figured it out in his mind as he rode directly down the ridge's side into the trail and galloped westward. They were careless in the way they boomed along; they had no particular fear of him—which made the trap possible, maybe.

He came to a creek and turned the horse into it; he dismounted and dropped belly-flat in the water at the feet of the horse, and drank in great, strangling, greedy gusts. Somewhere ahead of him the canyon would run out and the trail would then move directly up the face of the hills. When he took that, he was an open target. Meanwhile the creek, coming closer to its source, fed a thicker and thicker stand of willows, and presently he left the trail and put the horse well back into the willows. He walked a few yards away from the horse, parted the willows and made himself a covert. He took a few trial sights with the rifle down the trail, and sat back to wait. He closed his eyes, gently groaning. Canyon City was maybe a hundred miles behind him, and The Dalles a like distance ahead.

It was well into the afternoon when he heard the small vibrations of their coming. He turned on his stomach and brought the gun through the willows and took another trial sight, and had the muzzle swung against the bend when they came around it, riding single file and riding carelessly. They had convinced themselves he wouldn't stop to fight. They came on, loosely scattered, the lead man watching the trail and Buck Miller bringing up the rear.

Miller was the man he wanted, and he had terrible moments of indecision, swinging and lifting the gun to bring it on Miller, but the others made a screen for Miller, and at last Johnny took a sure aim on the lead man, now fifty feet away, and killed him with a shot through the chest.

He dropped the rifle and brought up his revolver as he watched the lead man fall and the riderless horse charge directly up the trail. The others wheeled and ran for the shelter of the bend. Two of them made it, but Johnny's snap shot caught the third man's horse, and it dropped and threw its rider into the gravel. The man cried as he struck, and his arm swung behind him in an unnatural way; he got to his knees and turned his face—bleeding and staring and shocked—toward Johnny. He tried to get to his feet, he shouted, he fell on his chest and began to crawl for the bend on one arm.

Johnny retreated into the willows, got his horse and came into the trail at a charging run. The fallen man made no move; the two others were sheltered behind the point of the ravine. Rushing along the trail, away from them, Johnny overtook the riderless horse, seized its reins as he passed by, and towed it on. He was, presently, around another turn of the trail and thus for a moment well sheltered, but in the course of a half mile the trail reached a dead end, with the bald rough hills rising in a long hard slant, and up this stiff-tilted way the trail climbed by one short switchback upon another.

He took to the switchbacks, coming immediately out of the canyon. Within five minutes he was exposed to them against the hillside, and waited for a long-reaching rifle bullet to strike. He looked into the canyon, not yet seeing them. He shoved his horse on with a steady heel gouging. He rode tense, the sharp cold sensations rippling through him; he jumped when the first shot broke the windless, heated air. The bullet, falling short, made its small "thut" in the ground below him. He kept climbing, exposed and at their mercy, and having no shelter anywhere.

He kept climbing, his horse grinding wind heavily in and out. He tried a chance shot with his revolver and watched both men jump aside, though he knew the bullet came nowhere near. They were both aiming, and they fired together. It was the foreshortened distance of the hillside which deceived them and left their bullets below him again. By that time he had reached a short bench and ran across it, temporarily out of their sight; then the hill began again and the trail once more began its climbing turns, exposing him. At this higher level he was beyond decent shooting, and he noted that the two had abandoned their rifles and were bending over the man lying on the trail. An hour later he reached the top of the hill and faced a broken country before him, bald sagebrush slopes folding one into another and hollow rocky ravines searching through them.

He dismounted and gave the horses a rest while he sat down on the edge of the hill and kept watch on the two dark shapes now far below. They hadn't come on. From his position he now had them on his hip unless they backtracked through this slashed-up country and took another ridge to ride around him. As long as he stood here they couldn't climb the open slope. He stretched out, supporting his head with a hand. He closed his lids and felt gritty particles scraping across his eyeballs, and suddenly he felt a sharp stinging on his cheek and jumped to his feet. He put a hand to his cheek and drew a short bit of sagebrush from his skin. He had fallen asleep and had rolled against the sagebrush.

The two men were at the creek, resting in the shade of the willows, no doubt waiting night. He rose to the saddle of the borrowed horse and started along the ravine which circled around a bald butte. Near sundown the ravine came out to the breakoff of this string of hills, and he saw the slope roll far down into a basin about a mile wide, on the far side of which lay a dark rim. Beyond the rim the high desert ran away to the west and the north; through the haze, far to the west, he saw the vaguest silhouette of snow peaks in the Cascades. He descended the slope as sunset came on in flame and violence.

Darkness found him beside a seepage of water in a pocket of the high rolling sagebrush land. He fed-the horses half the remaining oats; ate his bacon and bread and built a fire to cook his coffee. He killed the fire and made himself a little spell of comfort with his pipe. Haze covered the sky, creating a solid blackness; the horses stirred around the scanty grasses. He rose and retreated twenty yards from where his fire had been and sat against a juniper. He got to thinking of the two men; they knew he was somewhere in this area, and they no doubt guessed he'd camp near water. If he were in their boots, he decided, he wouldn't try to find a man in this lonesomeness of rolling earth; he'd lie out on some ridge and wait for the man to come into view. The trail—the main trail to The Dalles—was a couple miles west of him.

He seemed to be strangling in water; he flung out a hand, striking his knuckles on the coarse-pebbled soil, and then he sprang up and rammed his head against the juniper. He had been sleeping again. He walked to the seepage and flattened on his stomach, alternately drinking and dousing his head until coldness cleared his mind; then he led the horses to water and let them fill, and resumed his ride, following little creases he could scarcely see, toward a shallow summit. An hour later he came upon the main trail and turned north with it. Having been once over this route, he knew the deep canyon of the Deschutes was in front of him, with a wooden toll bridge, but of its exact distance from his present location he had no idea. Around midnight he identified the blurred outline of a house ahead of him—a single wayside station sitting out in the emptiness—and he left the trail to circle the station at a good distance. By daylight he found himself in a rutty little defile passing up through a flinty ridge, and here, at a summit strewn with fractured rocks, he camped his horses in a pit and crawled back to the edge of the trail, making himself a trench in the loose rubble. The defile was visible all the way to its foot; the plain beyond was in full view. Two riders were coming on across the plain toward the ridge.

He settled his gun on the rocks and, while he waited, he slowly squirmed his body against the flinty soil, like an animal gathering tension for a leap. They were still beyond his reach when they came to the foot of the defile and stopped; and then, in tremendous disappointment, he saw that they would not walk into the same trap twice. They talked a moment, with Buck Miller making his gestures around the ridge. Afterward Miller left the trail and traveled eastward along the foot of the ridge, away from Johnny, for a half mile or so before he turned into the slope and began to climb. The other man also left the trail, passing along the foot of the ridge below Johnny.

Johnny crawled back into the rocks and scrambled in and out of the rough pits and boulder chunks, paralleling the man below him. He went a quarter mile before he flattened and put his head over the rim, and saw the rider angling upward. Johnny retreated and ran another short distance, gauging where he'd meet the man head on, and returned to the rim. He squeezed himself between two rocks, with the aperture giving him a view of the rider so slowly winding his way forward. He looked to his left to keep Buck Miller in sight, and saw Miller slanting still farther away as he climbed. He returned his attention to the man below him, and pulled his rifle into position; he watched the man grow wider and taller as he got nearer, he saw the man's eyes sweep the rim. Suddenly, with a fair shot open to him, Johnny stood up from the rocks—not knowing why he gave the man that much grace—and aimed on a shape suddenly in violent motion. The man discovered him and tried to turn the horse as he drew. Johnny's bullet tore its hole through the man's chest, from side to side.

The pitching horse threw the man from the saddle and plunged away. Johnny gave him no more thought, immediately running back toward his own horses. Miller, having reached the crest of the ridge half a mile distant, paused a moment there to hear the shot, to orient it, and to see Johnny. Then Miller ran down the slope, toward the toll bridge, toward The Dalles. Johnny reached his animals and filled his pipe and smoked it while he watched Miller fade out of sight in the swells of land to the north. Now he had trouble in front of him instead of behind him, for there was no way to reach The Dalles except by the toll bridge. But the odds were better—it was one and one now. When he had finished his pipe he started forward, plodding a dusty five miles an hour along a downhill land under a sky filling with sunlight. The trail reached a breakoff, the river running through a lava gorge far below. He took the narrow trail, winding from point to point.

Rounding a last bend and dropping down a last bench, he found the bridge before him—a row of planks nailed on two logs thrown over waters boiling violently between narrow walls. There was a pack string on the far side and four men sitting in the dust. Coming to the bridge, he had a look at the men over the way, and the shed beyond the house, and the crooked grade reaching up the hill behind the bridge. He went across and met the tollkeeper as the latter came out of the house.

"Two dollars," said the tollkeeper.

"Can you fill that nose bag with oats?"

"All right."

Johnny Potter pushed the horses toward a trough and let them drink. He waited for the man to furnish the oats and went to a water barrel with a cup hanging to it. He drank five cups of water straight down. When the man brought the oats, Johnny scattered a good feed on the ground for the horses. He paid his bill, watching the packers, watching the shed, watching all the blind corners of this place.

"Man pass here little while ago?"

The tollkeeper nodded and pointed toward the north. Johnny looked at the hill before him, the long gray folds tumbled together and the trail looping from point to point and disappearing and reappearing again. The sight of it thickened the weariness in his bones. "How long into The Dalles?"

"Ten, twelve hours."

Johnny said, "You know that fellow ahead?"

The tollkeeper said most briefly, "I know him." Then he added, "And he knows me." But this was still not enough, for he again spoke, "You know him?"

"Yes."

"Well, then," said the tollkeeper, and felt he had said everything necessary.

That made it clear, Johnny thought. Since Miller knew that the tollkeeper knew him, he probably wouldn't risk a murder so near witnesses. It was his guess he could climb the canyon without too much risk of ambush; it was only a guess, but he had to go ahead on it.

A hopeful thought occurred to him. "That pack outfit going my way?"

"No. South."

Johnny mounted and turned to the trail. Half an hour of steady riding brought him to a series of blind, short turns above which the gray parapets of land rose one after another, and the sense of nakedness was upon him once more. His muscles ached with the tension of waiting for trouble, and his nerves were jumpy. When he reached the summit, long afterward, he faced a country broken into ridges with deep canyons between.

In the middle of the burning afternoon he reached the beginnings of a great hollow which worked its way downward between rising ridge walls. The road went this way, threading the bottom of the hollow and curving out of sight as the hollow turned obediently to the crookedness of the ridges. He followed the road with his growing doubt, meanwhile watching the ridges lift above him, and studying the rocks and the occasional clusters of brush. Three miles of such traveling took him around half a dozen sharp bends and dropped him five hundred feet. He thought, This is a hell of a place to be in, and thought of backing out of the hollow. But his caution could not overcome his weariness; the notion of extra riding was too much, and so he continued forward, half listening for the crack of a gun to roll out of some hidden niche in the hills above him. The road curved again, and the curve brought him against a gray log cabin but a hundred yards onward, its roof-shakes broken through in places, its door closed and its window staring at him—not a window with its sash, but an open space where a window once had been.

He halted. He drew his gun and he felt the wrongness of the place at once. Why, with the cabin showing the wear and tear of passing travelers, should the door be closed? He kept his eyes on the window square, realizing he could not turn and put his back to it; a rifle bullet would knock him out of the saddle long before he reached the protection of the curve. Neither could he climb the steep ridge and circle the cabin, for on that slope he would be a frozen target.

He got down from the horse and walked forward, the gun lifted and loosely sighted on the window square. The chinking between the logs, he noticed, had begun to fall away, but the logs, from this distance, didn't appear to have spaces between them large enough to shoot through. At two hundred feet he began to listen, knowing that if Miller was in the place he'd have his horse with him. He heard nothing. He pushed his feet forward and began to fight the entire weight of that cabin. It shoved him back, it made him use up his strength, it was like walking against a heavy wind.

The sun had dropped behind the western ridge and quick shadows were collecting in the hollow; he felt smaller and smaller underneath the high rims of the ridges, and the empty window square got to be like an eye staring directly at him. His stomach fluttered and grew hollow. He called out, "Hello! Anybody in there?"

His voice rolled around the emptiness. He stooped, never taking his eyes from the window square, and seized a handful of gravel from the road—walnut-sized chunks ground out of the roadbed by the passing freight teams. A hundred feet from the cabin he heaved the rocks at the window square. He missed the opening, but he heard the rocks slap the log wall, and suddenly he heard something else—the quick dancing of a disturbed horse inside the cabin. He jumped aside at once, and he straightened his aim on the squared window. A shadow moved inside the cabin and disappeared. Johnny broke into a run, rushing forward and springing aside again. He had thought there could be no moisture left within him after this brutal day, but he began to sweat, and his heart slugged him in the ribs. Energy rushed up from somewhere to jolt his muscles into quickness. A gun's report smashed around the inside of the cabin and its bullet scutted on the road behind Johnny. He saw the shadow moving forward toward the window. He saw Buck Miller stand there, Miller's face half concealed by his risen arm and his slowly aiming gun.

Johnny whipped his shot at the window, jumped and dodged, and fired again. Buck Miller's chest and shoulders swayed; the man's gun pulled off and the bullet went wide. Johnny stopped in his tracks. He laid two shots on that swinging torso and saw his target wheel aside. He ran on again and got to the corner of the house, hearing Miller's horse threshing about the cramped enclosure. Johnny got to the door, lifted the latch and flung it open; he was still in quick motion and ducked back from the door to wait out the shot. None came.

He held himself still for ten or fifteen seconds, or until a great fright made him back away from this side of the house and whirl about, half expecting to find that Buck Miller had got through the window and had come around behind him. He kept backing until he caught the two sides of the cabin. He stepped to the right to get a broader view of the cabin through the doorway, and presently he saw a shape, crouched or fallen, in the far corner. He walked toward the doorway, too exhausted to be cautious. The figure didn't move, and when he reached the doorway he found Buck Miller on his knees, head and shoulders jammed into the corner. He looked dead.

Johnny caught the horse's cheek strap as it got near the doorway; he pulled it outside and give it a slap on the rump, then stepped into the cabin and went over to Miller. He moved Miller around by the shoulders and watched him fall over. Miller's hat fell off, and he rolled until he lay on his side. This was the fellow who figured that he, Johnny Potter, would run rather than stand up and kill a man. He thought, How'd he know that much about me? He was right, but how'd he know? He was sick and he was exhausted; he turned back through the doorway and leaned against the casing a moment to run a hand over his face and to rub away the dry salt and caked dust. His horses were three hundred feet up the road. His knees shook as he walked the distance, his wind gave out on him and he stopped a little while; then he went on and pulled himself into the saddle and started on through the growing twilight.

Even now, knowing he was safe, he found himself watching the shadows and the road with the same tension. It wouldn't break; it had been with him too long; and he reached the hill and rode down a last grade into The Dalles near ten o'clock at night with his ordeal behind him and the watchfulness screwing him tight. Wells Fargo was closed. He had to get the agent's address and go find him and bring him down to the office; he leaned against the desk while the dust was weighed out, and took his receipt. He found a stable for the horses, and from there went to the Umatilla House and got a room. He walked into the bar, went over to the steam table and ate a meal. Then he went to his room, took off his boots and laid his gun under the pillow. He flattened on the bed with nothing over him.

He thought, Well, it's done, and they can buy their damned ranches. He lay still, and felt stiffness crawl along his muscles like paralysis, and his eyelids, when he closed them, tortured him with their fiery stinging. The racket of the town came through the window, and a small wind shifted the curtain at the window. He opened his eyes, alert to a foreign thing somewhere in the room and searching for it. Finally, he saw what troubled him—a small glow of street light passing through the window and touching the room's wall. The curtain, moved by the wind, shifted its shadow back and forth on the wall. Saddle motion still rocked him and, soothed by this rocking, he fell asleep. It was not a good sleep; it was still the tense and fitful sleep of the trail, with his senses struggling to stay on guard, and quite suddenly the strongest warning struck him and he flung himself out of bed, straight out of his sleep, seized the revolver from beneath the pillow, and fired at the wall.

The roar of the gun woke him completely, and he discovered he had put a bullet through the curtain's shadow which wavered along the wall. He stared at it a moment, reasoning out his action, and he listened for somebody to come up the stairway on the heels of the shot. But nobody came; apparently this hotel was accustomed to the strange actions of people out of the wild country. He put the gun on the dresser and rolled back under the quilt and fell so deeply and peacefully asleep that a clap of thunder could not have stirred him.


THE END


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