Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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IN the big hackberry tree down by the creek a mocking-bird woke in the starlight just before dawn and sang a few low, chuttering notes. In the darkness that filled the wide gallery of the house nearby a wooden bed creaked.
"Dawgone that old mocker!" Kid Reeves muttered under his breath, and turned his lean young body in the bed, pulling a corner of the blanket up over a chilly shoulder.
"Cr-cr-cr—choro-chow-chow!" sang the mocking- bird, unaware that he was interrupting the kid's dream of a shooting match just at the critical moment when he was sighting his yellowish right eye along his six-gun barrel, aiming at the ace of hearts held between brother Ben's thumb and finger.
The dream broke. The day's work pushed in upon the kid. Have to bring up the cows and milk them soon as it was light enough to sec. Have to go ride the north pasture fence where those Matador mares and their colts were grazing. Have to chop up wood enough to last all day—dawgone that crooked old mesquite! The kid burrowed his head deeper into his pillow to hide from the cares of a sixteen-year-old's day.
The mocking-bird accurately mimicked the call of a bob-white, while the slow push of the dawn wind set all the leaves of the hackberry tree dancing around him. It swept his song through the kid's dreams, oddly mingled with the fragrance of jasmine and the pungent smell of old saddles set astride the gallery rail. It filled two pairs of overalls on the clothesline, puffing the legs so that in that dim light they suggested headless men walking on air. It brought the distant baying of a hound on the warm trail of a fox, with the shrill barking of smaller dogs making a staccato chorus. The kid squirmed, twitched the blanket up over his ear to dull these sounds.
The mockingbird teetered and sang a sweet warbly song niched from a wild canary. Halfway up a rippling trill he hushed abruptly and was heard no more. Kid Reeves stirred, turned uneasily in his bed, lifted the blanket off his car and listened for a full minute. He pushed back the covers and crept from his warm nest. Silent as a shadow, he slipped into the house, through a big warm room and up to the open doorway of another filled with the slow, steady breathing of a man.
The breathing hushed as suddenly as had the mockingbird's song.
"Somebody's down by the hackberry tree, pap."
"Wheah's the dawgs at?"
"Huntin' down the creek."
"What yo'-all see?" There came faint sounds of clothing being dragged off a chair.
"Nothin'. Old mocker quit his singin' mighty sudden in the hackberry tree, like as if some strangeh was prowlin' around."
"Done flew, I reckon."
"Nevah does fly befo' dawn, pap. I shore know that old mocker. Takes a plumb strangeh to shut his mouth befo' sunup."
Old Bob grunted and pulled on his boots. He rose to his feet and left the room so quietly that even the kid scarcely heard a sound. There was another stirring in the bed and his mother spoke.
"Wake Ben and tell him to keep himself out of his pap's fightin'. How many's out theah, Bobby?"
"Cain't say, mom."
"Don't go back awn the gallery, Bobby. Theah'll be bullets flying directly."
"Got to get my pants, mom."
"Go careful, then. They might mistake you for pap and shoot yo'-all."
Like a drifting shadow the kid made his way to his bed and got into his clothes, his eyes straining to see what might be hidden in the bushes under the hackberry tree. He got his rifle and his six-shooter—even the youngest of the Reeves family slept with all his weapons beside his bed—and went tiptoeing off the gallery and around the side of the house. Through a window near the corner, where he stopped to peer and listen gentle snoring issued. The kid turned his head that way, lips parted to call Ben. But he shook his head. Best way to keep Ben out of a fight was to let him stay asleep.
Rifle held at half aim, the kid waited. The light was strengthening. The thicket along the creek showed green, the tops of tall bushes moving in slow rhythm against the first faint flush of dawn. He could not see the hackberry tree, but out toward the corrals and stables the view was clear and peaceful. So peaceful that a mottled cat came walking unalarmed across the yard, a field mouse limp in her mouth.
A rifle shot crashed abruptly through the stillness. Sudden as was the sound, the kid did not so much as twitch an eyelid; but the mottled cat flattened to earth and then scooted under the house, and the snoring within the corner room ceased with a strangled snort. The kid noted the faint puff of bluish smoke rising above the bushes by the corral, and his own gun rose to full aim while he watched the thicket under the hackberry tree. A rifle barrel and a frowsy black head poked through the window close beside the kid.
"Who done that?" Ben's voice was cautiously low but full of truculence.
"Pap, I reckon."
"Who-all's he gunnin' out theah?"
The kid waited, craning around the corner of the house toward the hackberry tree. He saw a clump of bushes sway violently for a minute or two, but there was no answering shot and presently the bushes were still. Then his father left the shelter of the stable and went slipping through the brush, making his way warily toward the tree. Ben poked his rifle barrel first out of the window and crawled out after it. As the kid started to join his father Ben caught him by the shoulder and yanked him back.
"Pap'll knock the tar outa you if yo'-all go pesticatin' around when he's fightin' a Gonzales."
The kid did not say anything to that. Ben was past twenty and pretty much of a bully; the kid was just biding his time until he was man enough to whip Ben. He waited now until Ben had started boldly off toward the hackberry tree where old Bob had come to a halt and was looking down at something in the bushes. The kid followed Ben, ready to stop at the first hostile gesture; but neither man took any notice of him, so he edged up beside Ben and took a good look.
A man lay on his back in the blood spattered bushes. His hat was off and his eyes were wide open and staring astonished up into the branches of the hackberry tree as if he were looking for the mockingbird whose stilled song had cost him his life. His right hand grasped a handful of weeds; his left was flung up beside his head. A hard, handsome face, dark and smooth, with even white teeth showing between his parted lips. Except for the red stain on his shirt he might have been just lying there day dreaming up into the tree as the kid himself loved to do.
"Ain't none of the Gonzales bunch—" Ben was saying in a puzzled tone.
"Shet yo' mouth; Ben!" snarled old Bob. "Gonzales has got many a killeh you never seen, I reckon."
The kid looked from his father to the dead man and back again, his eyes puzzled. Pap might not have noticed, but the fellow did not have any rifle. Six-guns in their holsters on his belt—dandy guns with pearl steer heads on the handles, a ruby deeply embedded in the eye socket. Toted 'em well forward—so they'd be handy for the draw; that is, if a fellow favored that particular kind of gun pulling. The kid didn't, but he reckoned it was every feller to his taste. But there was no rifle anywhere in sight, and he had not so much as pulled one of his six-shooters; which was plumb strange, if he was hiding there to waylay pap. Sho' oughta have one gun out, anyway—or a rifle, if he was a Gonzales man. They liked to do their gunning from a long way off, according to what pap and the boys said.
"Bobby, yo'-all git after them cows and do the milkin'. After breakfast, git out and round up this feller's hoss. Ben, you cat a snack of breakfast and hit out fo' town—"
THE KID did not wait to hear any more. When pap told you to do a thing yo'-all had better be steppin' right now. Already he was on his way to the corral after his horse and he did not loiter or look back, though his thoughts circled round and round the dead man back there in the bushes. A Gonzales man sent over to bushwhack old Bob Reeves. No rifle, though. That sho' was mighty strange.
The kid rode through the brush down creek in the pasture, watching this way and that for the dead man's horse. But nothing came of it. He routed the two milk cows out of a dewy willow growth and sent them on to the corral in a trot, bells jangling.
As he rode back to the corral the dogs came loping out of the bushes, led by the old liver spotted hound. Panting and smiling after their hunt, they leaped upon him when he dismounted, wet muzzles nudging his arms for the petting he always gave them. But the kid had no heart for play that morning.
Couldn't keep from looking over toward the hackberry tree, though. Pap was standing there with his gun like as if he was on guard or something. Pap shore must hate to think he had shot a man down that wasn't aiming to pull his gun on anybody. Like shooting an unharmed man, it seemed to the kid. No gun but two six-shooters and them in their holsters all peaceful like—it shore did seem plumb mysterious for a Gonzales killer.
Breakfast stood cooling on the table, with nobody making any move to eat it. Ben was gone after the sheriff and pap was all taken up with his killing, but the girls weren't eating, either. The kid sat down, reaching for a biscuit with one hand and the meat platter with the other. But though he seemed to be wholly preoccupied with his eating he saw the slow tears streaking down his mother's thin cheeks when she came to pour his coffee, and he saw the white, scared look on his sister Rose's face. Her eyes were wide and horrified as if she had seen a ghost. After a winter in Abilene she must think she'd come from school into a mighty tough place—dead man in the dooryard, breakfast on the table in the kitchen. But Jennie, the older sister, just looked excited and wanting to talk about it. The kid liked Rose best, though he did think she was getting mighty high toned, not to want anybody to call her Sis any more.
"Don't cry, mammy," Jennie said, reaching out to pat her mother's arm as she went past. "Just think how much worse it would be if he'd shot pap."
"I'm thinking how much better it would be if there wasn't so much shooting. It's an awful thing to take a man's life, Jennie."
Rose gave a gasp that sounded almost like a groan, and ran out of the room, but the kid was the only one who seemed to notice her going. Jennie was bound and determined to make a lot of gabble about it. She pushed the honey jar ingratiatingly toward the kid.
"Yo'-all got a look at him, Bobby. Wasn't it a Gonzales?"
The kid filled his mouth with buttered biscuit lavishly spread with honey. Jennie regarded him with the disfavor sisters usually display toward sixteen-year-old brothers.
"Pap has shore got you boys muzzled," she complained. "Look out yo'-all don't choke down. Mammy, just take a look at Bobby, the way he stuffs his mouth!"
"Mind your manners, Bobby, and take littler bites." Then Mrs. Reeves returned to her trouble. "'Pears like that pore feller ought to be toted inside, even if he is a Gonzales." She lifted the hem of her starched apron to wipe the tears from her face. "Your pap's getting hard as a rock, 'pears like."
"Pap's got to leave him lie where he fell till the sheriff comes and taken a look at him," Jennie wisely informed her mother. "That's to prove he was waylaying pap, to kill him. Pap just got in the first shot like he always does. I'm going out and take a look at him myself. 'Pears like that's the only way a person can find out anything awn this ranch."
"Yo'-all 'pears to think this is a circus show," the kid told her disgustedly, pushing back his chair.
He swooped his old hat—which Ben had discarded when he bought a new one—off the floor and went out with the stern dignity of his sixteen years.
His father still stood under the hack-berry tree with his rifle in the crook of his arm, keeping watch over the dead. The kid flicked a glance in that direction as he pulled the milk buckets off their rack in the sun. A dozen dead men might be lying there in the bushes, but the kid knew where duty lay for him at that moment. Come hell or high water, the cows had to be milked and turned back in the pasture. The kid took long steps to the corral, the two shining tin buckets swinging from his hands, his thoughts busy with man sized affairs.
IT was the kid's first experience with any of his pap's gun fights, but he A knew from hearing the boys talk just what the mode of procedure would be. The sheriff would wait and get a posse together and come out and hold an inquest on this hombre. First time pap had ever caught a Gonzales out that far in the open, seems like. Their way of fighting was to cut fences in the night and let their cattle into the Reeves water tanks, and then play innocent when pap jumped 'em about it; or cache themselves in the brush and look for a chance to get in a shot when pap or one of the boys rode past. Never did get up the nerve to come this close to the house before, though. Be a long time before they'd have that much nerve again, after the way this feller panned out.
Shore hoped he could find the hoss that hombre rode to the ranch. If it carried the G Dot brand, pap shore would have the goods on that Gonzales bunch. Quickest way would be to take and put old Spot on the trail. He'd go plumb straight to the hoss. Couldn't fool that old houn'.
With one eye on the ridge over which the sheriff and his posse would ride into view, the kid hurried to the springhouse with his two buckets slopping white foam, got the cloth strainer and strained the milk into four brown crocks which he placed carefully on flat rocks just lapped with cold spring water. One crock wasn't more than half full, but the kid hoped his mother was too upset over the killing to notice he was a little short on milk that morning. Shore couldn't hunker down on his heels strippin' a cow's teats dry when there was a dead man's hoss cached somewhere in the brush. Mom oughta know that.
The kid legged it back to the stable, got a tie rope and went to the calf shed where he had penned the dogs. As they came yammering around him in the half open doorway he leashed the old hound and let him out, pushing back the other dogs to leave them yelping in their prison. As he neared the thing that lay under the hackberry tree, the dog's hair lifted on the back of his neck. He went forward, stiff-legged, sniffing and straining at the rope. Abruptly he sank on his haunches, pointed his nose to the morning sun and howled mournfully until the kid stopped him with a yank of the rope.
"Sic 'im!" muttered the kid, pulling the hound over to a trampled line in the tall green weeds.
The dog understood. He started off, pulling the kid along toward the creek, a shallow stream now but flowing bank full in the rainy season, to the Brazos a few miles away. With the water running low and sluggish, a wide sandy strip lay under the flood gouged bank, perfect cover for man or horse. The kid called himself a fool for not thinking of it before.
Old Spot made his way down a steep, gouged trail to the sand under the bank, following the boot tracks of a man. In the loose gravel they were joined by three other sets of footprints, two going downstream and one coming back. The kid's eyes widened as he studied these tracks, and presently he dragged the dog to him, muzzled his jaws with a handkerchief so he couldn't let out one of his deep toned bays and tied him to a willow stub leaning over the bank.
Old Spot gave him one reproachful look and curled down to sleep. It was not the first time he had been squelched that way by the kid when they were out hunting together and the chase seemed nearly ended.
The kid went forward slowly, watching the bank ahead. Farther along the creek made a sharp bend and a clump of chinaberry trees leaned out over the bank, with a flat rock ledge making a comfortable seat in the shade. The kid was heading for that spot now, following the trail deeply imprinted in the sand.
Even though he was looking for the horse, he came upon it rather unexpectedly, tied close under the bank where the thick chinaberry branches rubbed the saddle and almost hid the horse from view. Even the kid's keen eyes did not glimpse it until the horse moved, flinging up its head to watch him as he approached. He looked as if he wanted to whinny—as if he were expecting his master—but a string tied snugly around his nose held him silent. But after one glance the kid never noticed the horse nor looked to see what brand it carried.
A HOT wave went rippling up his spine and into the roots of his hair at the sight of Rose standing with both hands clutching the saddlehorn and her face bowed down upon her arms. There was no mistaking that attitude of utter, abject despair. She was making little moaning sounds under her breath, like their mother had done when baby Charlie lay dead in her lap.
"What you doin' down heah, takin' on thataway. Sis?"
The kid's voice sounded rough, but his heart was like a lump of lead in his chest and the hand he laid on her shoulder trembled so he noticed it himself.
Rose shook her head, her face still hidden, and made again that moaning sound the kid hated so to hear.
"Betteh tell me 'fo' pap comes and finds yo'-all."
"Pap!" She threw up her head fiercely. "If he comes near me I'll kill him! Just like—he killed Luis!"
Blank horror swept over the kid. Luis—and Sis crying and carrying on over his empty saddle. He had to swallow twice before he could speak.
"Reckon yo' betteh tell me—"
"Oh, what's the use? He's dead. Leave me alone, Bobby. I'll kill pap for this, I tell you. Oh, if I'd just gone with him like I promised. If I hadn't made him sneak up to see what was keeping me so long—and now he's dead and I'll never see him again!" She burst into sudden, uncontrollable weeping, even more terrible to hear than her moaning.
The kid touched her timidly on the arm, moved closer and pulled her head over until it rested on his shoulder. Never did he pet a girl before in his life, but he ached all inside him now to say something or do something to comfort her.
"Hush, Rose. Don't cry, Sister. Cain't bring him back now by takin' awn thisa-way. Cain't blame pap, nohow. Pap mistook him fo' a Gonzales killeh, that's all." The kid gulped. "Co'se, pap neveh suspicioned he was heah to see yo'-all."
"I wish I'd run away with him like I was going to," Rose wailed. "He made me promise—and then I went back—just to write a goodby note and say we were going to be married in El Paso and go on to Mexico City where he lived. Luis wanted me to do that, so pap and the boys wouldn't—And then I lost my nerve. I just got into bed with Jen and was afraid to go away with Luis. I broke my solemn promise. And now he's dead! Nothing I can do, nothing I can say will ever bring him back, and I'll hate pap the longest day I live."
"Talking thataway don't do any good, Sis. Yo'-all have got to think of mom. AH the trouble she's had all her life—you runnin' away with a strangeh would plumb kill mom. Betteh come awn back to the house and tough it out."
"If I do I'll take a gun and shoot pap for what he did. I'll tell him to his face he's a murderer—"
"Cain't do that nohow." The kid tightened his clasp, just in case she should really make an attempt to go. "The sheriff'll be heah directly with a whole passel of strange men. Yo'-all wouldn't want to go yawpin' around befo' strangehs." The kid scowled. "Anybody know about—him? Does Jen?"
Rose shook her head, groping for her handkerchief.
"He—didn't want me to tell—"
"Jen's plumb gabby," said the kid with brotherly bluntness. "You go awn up heah in the grove and wait fo' me. I've got to take this hoss to pap befo' he comes searchin' fo' it himself. I'll be back directly, Sis. I'll see yo'-all th'ough this. Dawgoned right, I will."
He helped her up the steep bank to the rock ledge and left her there, and led the horse back up the creek, careful to walk in Rose's tracks and scuff his feet, and to see to it that the dead man's horse walked right behind him. Shuah was hell the way things had to happen. The kid felt old as pap, and yet he wanted to let go and bawl like a baby. But when you're most seventeen and all legs, yo'-all have to keep a stiff upper lip and act like a man.
At the willow stub where he had left the hound he stopped and tied the horse there instead, then stood back and flipped pebbles at it, making the animal dance and circle so the sheriff and pap and all the rest might think it had stood there a long while, the way the sand was all tracked up. It wasn't a G Dot horse, after all; of course it wouldn't be, since it belonged to Rose's sweetheart. But a rifle lay snug in its saddle case, so the kid reckoned Luis wasn't taking any chances. Went heeled like he had enemies in the country.
Where Rose's footprints went on up the creek the kid followed, stepping in her tracks and hoping the sheriff wouldn't get to wondering why a long legged feller like him went nipping along in the sand with such short steps. Shore was sly of Rose, sneaking off down the creek to meet a plumb strangeh thataway. The kid felt as if he never could trust anybody after this, but he was nevertheless very careful to tramp out every track she had made.
He returned to the horse, shied another pebble at the poor ownerless brute, for luck, and went on through the thicket to tell pap where the horse was tied and that he reckoned he'd go awn and ride the no'th pasture fence. Pap nodded abstractedly, eyeing the hill over which the sheriff would presently ride, and the kid went off to the stable and saddled two horses. No sign of the sheriff, thank the Lord.
As carelessly as he dared to act on a day of such grim beginning, the kid went into the kitchen and got a drink of water from the bucket on the bench by the door. Over the rim of the dipper he glanced at his mother, mixing down bread dough at the table.
"Plumb curious, what delicate nerves town schoolin' gives to a person," he remarked with elaborate unconcern when he had drunk. "'Peahs like sis is plumb upset oveh that dead man out theah. Reckon I'll take her to ride fence with me till things kinda settle down around heah."
"Don't hear anybody worrying about my nerves," Jennie hinted crossly. "Nobody's offering to take me for a ride, I notice."
"Yeah, I kinda noticed that myself." The kid grinned back at her, on his way to the pantry.
"Mammy, don't let that ornery kid take all he can lay his hands awn! Don't yo'-all touch that baked ham, Bobby."
The kid heard but he gave no heed. He helped himself to what he wanted and could find and made for the door with a lumpy package wrapped in cloth and tucked under his arm. Care sat heavily on his shoulders and his eyes had the secretive look of guilt, but no one noticed.
"Did yo'-all chop up any wood, Bobby?"
"No'm, not yet I ain't."
"You chop a good big pile before you go."
"Yes'm," mumbled the kid, and beat a guilty retreat before his mother could say anything more on the subject.
Chop wood—and the family teetering on the edge of disgrace, like a bird on a bough. The kid swallowed and moved his feet a little faster.
THE kid pulled his sweating horse to an uneasy, 'sidling halt and glanced appraisingly up at the sun. He lifted himself free of the saddle, swung his lean body around and frowningly scanned the hilly country behind them. He faced forward, studying the wilder country ahead, where rocky hills had been split and torn into ragged peaks and broken slopes with deep, unexpected little canons between. The "Breaks" that particular country was called, and the name described it well. The kid had never ridden very far into its maze, but he had always hankered to explore it, and meant to as soon as he was his own boss. It looked as if he'd get his chance now, and for a very good reason; or he would if he didn't have Rose on his hands.
From the corner of his eye he watched her sitting listlessly in the saddle and staring straight ahead. Not seeing a thing, by the look of her. Nothing in front of her eyes, anyway. The kid would bet she'd ride straight against a stone wall and never know it was there. Never care, either. He leaned and took hold of her saddlehorn, giving it a shake to attract her attention. She drew a long, shivering breath, shut her eyes tightly and opened them as if she were just waking from some horrible dream.
"I've plumb got to ride awn into the Breaks, Rose."
"I don't care."
"Reckon it's going to be a kinda long trip for yo'-all."
"I don't care how long it is."
"Don't yo' reckon yo' betteh go awn home now?"
"No, I don't."
THE KID heaved a sigh and leaned to quiet his fidgeting horse. He hated to put anything else ahead of Rose when she felt like that, but it seemed as if he would have to do it. He eyed her stony face for a minute and tried again.
"Yo'-all was too busy thinkin' to take notice, I reckon, but I've been trailin' a mess of hoss tracks all the way from our line fence. 'Peahs like that whole bunch of mares and colts busted out and took to the hills—and it sho' does look as if they had human help. Might not. Pap bought some of those mares over at the Matador, and it kinda looks like they aim to hit out fo' theah old home. In that case I've got a chance to catch up with 'em. If they went up Wolf Creek Canon they might stop to graze along in the bottoms and I could head 'em off."
"Well, why don't you do it then?" Rose did not look at him, but at least she showed that she heard.
"Plumb wild, up Wolf Creek. Wild and rough, and yo'-all might not want to tackle it."
"I don't care how wild and rough it is."
"It's fo', five miles from heah yet. Reckon it might be too much of a ride." The kid eyed her questioningly.
"Oh, I don't care if it is. I don't care for anything, any more." Rose brought her teeth together with a click.
"Must have some choice in the matteh. Yo'-all cain't expect to quit thinking and living, just 'cause yo' feel bad."
"I wish I could. I don't want to think or live. As long as I live I'll be hating pap for what he did. I'll be hating myself because I didn't run away with Luis last night. He came to make me go. He had friends waiting back in the sand hills with an extra horse for me to ride, and he—I was scared for a few minutes, because he was going to pick me up and carry me off anyway. So I promised to go with him if he'd wait. I wanted to write a letter and leave it, and explain I was going to be married to a man you-all could be proud of. So he said he'd come again tonight. And he's dead—and I feel that I'm almost as much his murderer as pap is.
"He was part Spanish, but he was the best and noblest man I ever met, and handsome too. He had the blood of the royal house of Spain in his veins, and I just couldn't bear the thoughts of having pap insult him by calling him a Mexican and a greaser. He would—Pap hates everybody with a drop of Spanish blood, on account of those Gonzaleses. He never would see that Luis was altogether different. He's no more like the Gonzales outfit than day is like night. Luis was a nobleman, and they're just thieves and outlaws. Luis was rich. He owned thousands of acres in Mexico, and he had a regular palace in the city, and for a wedding present he was going to give me jewels that had been worn by his grandmother at the court of Spain."
She poured it out without pause or emphasis, staring straight ahead with eyes that saw nothing. The kid hated to hear her go on like that, but it seemed to him better than her frozen silence. He wished he knew more about the right way to help her. He didn't know much about girls—nothing at all except what he had learned from living with Rose and Jen—but he reckoned she better talk and get it out of her system. At the same time he had to think of his own affairs.
"Sho' hate to interrupt," he ventured mildly, "but we plumb got to go awn after the hosses or turn back right now and go home."
"Home!" Rose caught at the word. "How can I ever go home where that awful thing happened? When I think—"
"Yo'-all used to be a mighty fine vaquero. Rose. Hazed 'em outa the brush on the run and never let one break back. If yo'-all feel like yo' could help with the hosses, and wouldn't get too tired, I sho' would like to go awn up the canon."
"Well, go then. I don't care if I never see home again."
THE kid heaved a sigh of relief and reined his horse into the trail ahead of her. It was going to be rough traveling from now on, and he didn't want to have his mind distracted with royal Spanish blood and crown jewels and such. He had to keep an eye out and not lose the trail of those horses, since he had been lucky enough to run across it. Sho' was strange that the whole dawgoned bunch should knock the fence down and head for the Breaks of their own accord. Looked mighty suspicious, and the kid would have given a good deal to have Rose at home where she belonged. No telling what he might be running into up ahead here. Might even be some of the Gonzales bunch running off the horses, though their ranch was off the other way and so far they hadn't come right out and rustled stock by wholesale. Not fifty or sixty mares and their colts and a few geldings.
Their style was more in doing spite work where they wouldn't get caught at it, and taking a shot at any Reeves they could draw a bead on from behind a bush when they could sift out away from there afterward. The kid wasn't sure this was the work of thieves, but if it was it didn't seem like a Gonzales trick.
He glanced back at Rose. Sho' was a fright to have a girl along if he was liable to run into any kinda trouble—but he was afraid to send her back, even if she would go. She wouldn't, but if she did she might get lost or something might happen to her.
No kinda country for Rose to be riding twelve miles and more all by herself, even if she wasn't all upset and liable to do any crazy thing that might come into her head. If she went back, he'd be plumb obliged to go with her, and he sho' couldn't do that—not with all those brood mares hittin' into the hills. Sho' was hell.
"What'll you do, Bobby, if you-all find out somebody stole the hosses?"
The kid gave a start and looked back at her. Sho' was queer, havin' her speak up like that after hours of riding in a trance or else ravin' about that royal blooded Mexican sweetheart of hers. Sounded more like the old Sis that used to ride and help drive cattle, and practise shooting with him, before she went off to Abilene and came back a young lady that had to be called Rose.
"Cain't say. Ain't crossin' bridges till I get to 'em."
She didn't care much about it after all, for she didn't say any more. Still the kid noticed that she paid more attention to the things along the trail, and she kept looking up at the hills that were closing them in; cliffs and steep rocky slopes a cat couldn't climb, and the canons twisting around among 'em, running every which way. No color in her face, though, and her eyes looked about ready to cry. Sho' hit her hard, having that happen at the ranch back there.
"You brought some sandwiches, didn't you? I didn't eat a bite of breakfast."
"Sho' did. Sis. Yo'-all will have to eat as yo' ride. Cain't stop now."
"I don't want to stop. I'd go crazy if I didn't keep riding, Bobby."
Tears stung the kid's eyelids at some pitiful quality of gameness in her voice, but he was watching his fingers manipulate the complicated knot he had invented for tying bundles to his saddle, and she never guessed how close she came to making him cry. They munched roast beef sandwiches, the bread thick and uneven, and the kid promised her a drink from a spring farther up the canon.
"Not till we come to the spring. It's pretty up in here, isn't it, Bobby?"
"Sho' is. Purly wild and snaky."
For the first time since the mocking-bird woke him that morning the kid grinned. Rose didn't know it, but that one remark lifted a ton of lead off his chest, seemed like. Chasing runaway horses suddenly became a pleasant adventure and dead men could be forgotten. 'Course, she hadn't forgotten her royal Spanish Luis yet—not this quick—but she sho' was showing signs of getting hold of herself. A few more hours in the Breaks here and she could go awn back home and live down her trouble.
The kid felt so light hearted that he pulled his dented old mouth harp from his shirt pocket and began to play softly while he rode. Sho' put a spring in this old bronc's legs, listening to music. Made him walk along like a circus hoss on parade. Made Rose's hoss tip his ears forward too. Made a different look come into Rose's eyes. Suddenly the expedition transformed itself into one of the old time pleasure jaunts he and Sis used to take, sneaking off together and staying as long as they dared, and like as not go home and take a lickin' for it afterward.
The kid looked up at the sky, half expecting to see a black cloud drifting off over the skyline.
The kid played the "Arkansas Traveler" with all the variations he had ever heard and some that he made up as he went along. He started to play "Annie Laurie," but stopped because his instinct warned him against anything that suggested lovers. Dawgone it, what did Rose have to go and fall in love with a royal blooded hombre for? Or anybody else, for that matter? Sho' did raise hell, this love business.
He wasn't forgetting the horses, though. While he played his eyes were turning this way and that, seeing everything just about. His ears were alert to every sound, even while he was apparently listening only to the music he made. So he heard a small rock off to the right of him strike gravel and roll scuttering down the canon side, and he twisted himself instantly in the saddle to sec what had caused the disturbance. As he did that, some one hidden in the rocks to the left of them gave a mocking laugh.
"THAT su'prise you, I'm think!" A man, plainly a Mexican, stepped out into view, his six-shooter held negligently in his hand as if he just happened to be holding it at the moment but there really was no unfriendly significance in the circumstance.
"Sho' did," the kid admitted, his mouth harp poised halfway to his lips while he regarded the stranger.
One who knew him well would have noticed that his yellowish right eye had suddenly taken on a round, unblinking stare very much like the still gaze a caged tiger bends upon the passing crowd.
"Yo'-all throw that rock oveh theah?"
"Just for making fun; for joke. I'm not meaning it in bad way, oh, no, no! Just for laughing."
"Yeah. Well, I laughed a'ready. What' yo'-all want?"
The kid did not put away his mouth harp. He looked as if he were merely waiting for the end of the interruption so he could go on playing. He did not even glance at Rose, except for one sidewise flicker of the eyes, so brief it could scarcely be noticed. Rose was showing astonishment but no fear. Had her wits about her, he reckoned—and that meant she didn't have to be knocked over with a club before she'd see the point.
"I am expect to see Luis come with thees señorita. I am not expect a boy to be making the serenade. Where is Luis?"
The kid's left toe moved over and poked Rose's horse in the shoulder so that it backed and swung away, but the kid himself was drawing his mouth harp across his lips in the first notes of the last tune he had been playing.
"Luis met somebody back theah a-piece—and he stopped," he drawled indifferently. "Where yo' got the hosses?"
The Mexican's eyes widened, then narrowed while he scrutinized the kid for a minute.
"Thees señorita was not to know—"
"Aw, she knows plumb ev'ything, Pedro." The kid played a rollicky strain, but his yellow eye did not lose its tiger look. "Yo'-all didn't go and drive them hosses any fu'ther, I hope. If yo' did, Luis'll sho'—" The mouth harp finished that dark and mysterious prophecy.
"No, no fear. But if somebody should come after—"
"Cain't. Not with Luis back theah." The kid played the rest of the tune, with a languid air that seemed to say he didn't give a dawgoned cuss about the whole affair, hosses included.
"No," laughed the man, "they do not come far when Luis is guard the pass. But is he not come weeth the señorita soon? He is say notheeng that he is taking a boy also."
"Reckon he didn't plan awn me befo'hand. Things happened kinda unexpected this mawnin'."
"But he is come soon?" The Mexican's black eyes swept from one face to the other, weighing and studying each. "How long you theenk till Luis come?"
"Cain't say. Sho' wasn't makin' any move when I left him." The kid did not look at Rose. He did not dare.
"Thees is beautiful señorita Luis have thees time," grinned the other, his bold eyes appraising her. "I think he will hurry. Already we have wait too long. The caballos should be far away thees time."
"The boys are holdin' the hosses close by, I reckon," the kid ventured, his heart beating like a trip hammer.
"Si, Luis say we must not separate before he come weeth thees señorita. He is not expect to be here in the daylight. We should be many miles away. Me, I am worry. No sabe." He shook his head. "Thees is not like Luis when he have taking señorita."
"Wish you'd call the boys," said the kid, glancing up ahead where the canon turned sharply to the left. "I got a message for yo'-all. Git 'em down heah, Pedro."
"Pedro," corrected the Mexican, "is weeth the caballos. I am Miguel. And you?"
"Roberto in Spanish." The kid gravely wiped his mouth-harp on his sleeve and slid it into his shirt pocket.
"Myself, I do not like thees thing. Pedro shall say what he think."
Miguel turned upon his rocky perch and, facing up the canon where the kid's view was blocked by the ridge, began signaling with his hat, waving it in the air. He waited, evidently for a reply; waved again and turned back to the two.
"Drap yo' gun awn the ground and slide down heah pronto!" commanded the kid, steady enough except that his voice slid up into falsetto with the last word. "Sis, you fetch his gun heah to me."
"No, Bobby, I want it myself." Rose slid from her horse and snatched up the weapon, shaking gravel out of the barrel. The kid flashed her a grateful glance. Game as they make 'em. Nothing yellow about Sis but her hair.
"Hold it awn him then till I get him tied," he ordered, in a tone worthy of Ben—or even pap. "Shoot if he lets a cheep outa him."
"Traitor! Luis will keel you! He will make of the señorita—"
"Aw, dry up!" The kid's long legs were taking him up the slope, two hastily cut saddle strings dangling from his fingers. "Pap killed Luis this mawnin'. He'll kill yo'-all, too, soon as—"
Miguel snarled like a cougar and hurled himself at the kid, swift as a striking rattler. He caught the boy full in the middle, butting like a goat. The kid gave a grunt and folded up on the ground, sliding until his boot heel caught and held. By that time the Mexican had leaped into the trail and scuttled up the canon and around the turn. When the kid had picked himself up and quit gagging, Miguel was gone and Rose was staring bewilderedly up the canon.
"Yo're a fine lot of help to a man! What yo'-all let that hoss thief git away for?"
"He—he went so quick, Bobby!"
"Don't yo'-all Bobby me—neveh no mo'!"
The kid strode indignantly to his horse. From the look on his face there were likely to be two killings in the Reeves family that day. He caught up the reins, flung himself into the saddle and was gone like a thunderbolt up the trail.
He rounded the bend in time to see three riders quirting their horses savagely as they merged with their own dust cloud far up the canyon. Off to one side the Matador mares were milling excitedly, long legged colts galloping wildly on the outside of the herd. The kid gave them a hurried glance and spurred on past, shooting as he rode.
Came the rapid beat of a running horse behind him, and three bullets went whining past him, one on the heels of the other. The kid set his horse up in three jarring jumps and whirled to face Rose, heading her off in the narrow trail.
"Dawgone you. Sis!" The kid was half crying with rage. "Ain't you got no sense a-tall?"
"Ah, come on!" Rose reined her pony past him. "We've got 'cm on the run! Come on, Bobby!"
In a cold fury the kid rode after her, forged alongside, caught her horse by the bridle and pulled it to a dancing, wild eyed, helpless stand.
OLD BOB REEVES turned himself about in his chair at the head of the long table and gave the kid a keen, scrutinizing stare from under his black eyebrows. With a swift sidelong glance at him the kid lifted a dipper of water to his mouth. His raised arm shielded his face from that penetrating stare and gave him the air of one whose mind is at ease.
"Young man, wheah yo' been all day?" It was the tone that always before had made the kid flinch like a nervous horse when a saddle is slapped on his back; the tone that usually was made the prelude to pap's braided quirt with the double lash on the end and a knot the size of your thumb. But something had happened to the kid that day. He had carried man sized problems through to a finish. He was a little surprised to see how the muscles didn't squint up on his shoulders. His heart didn't rise up in his throat, either. Seems like his old scare of pap was all past and done with.
He took three leisurely swallows of water, and knew that Rose was slipping around him, getting out of sight all she could. He lowered the dipper into the bucket and lifted his hat to hang it on a nail behind the door.
"Been huntin' hosses mostly," he said calmly; and the funny thing about it was that he felt calm. He could speak up and answer pap and know he wasn't scared.
"What hosses?" Old Bob's tone demanded details that would convince.
"Bunch in the no'th pastuah. Rose and I was ridin' fence up thataway. Found the fence down wheah' it crosses that little wash and the entiah bunch gone."
"That the truth?" Old Bob's hawk eyes turned upon Rose.
"Why, of course it's the truth, pap."
"Hunh. So yo' went huntin' 'em, eh?"
"Sho' did. Trailed 'em up into the Breaks. Hittin' out fo' bfce Matador, 'peahs like."
The kid gave old Bob an unhurried look of surprise that he should ask so foolish a question.
"I'd still be ridin', I reckon, if I hadn't got 'em." Then he added casually, "The'ah back in the pastuah—every last colt of the bunch, and the fence is up as good as I could fix it in the dark. Reckon I'll ride oveh theah in the mawnin' and make a betteh job of it."
He dipped water into the wash basin on the bench, unbuttoned his shirt sleeves, rolled back the wristbands to his bony elbows and reached for the bar of soap.
"Well, how'd yo'-all make out with the sheriff and coroner, pap?" The kid might have been asking Ben how he had made out with his coyote traps over in the sandhills, his tone was so unconstrained. He dipped hands and soap into the basin and lathered himself to his rolled sleeves, glancing over to the table in plain expectation of a reply.
It was as if an electric current had gone round the table. Jack and Curt started and looked at each other significantly. Ben's elbow jerked sidewise, nudging Jennie into attention—Jennie with her jaws gone slack and her eyes staring incredulously at the kid! Mrs. Reeves swung her thin body forward, gazing anxiously at her husband. Rose went hurrying to an open doorway behind her like a leaf blown before a storm, and like the leaf she fluttered there in the shadow, waiting for the next gust to sweep her farther away.
Old Bob had started as if a bee had stung him. He half lifted himself from his chair, then settled back and glowered at the kid calmly sudsing his arms and face at the wash bench. The kid scooped water on his tanned cheeks, gave the back of his neck a hasty swipe or two with his fingers, blew the water from his lips and reached for the towel. And old Bob sat there, half turned away from the table, staring hard at this tall young man who yesterday had been a gangling, bashful boy who spoke only when he was spoken to.
"If yo'd stayed home yo'-all would have found out yo'self," old Bob finally grunted.
"Sho' lucky I didn't. We'd have lost a bunch of mighty fine brood mares and colts. Plumb oveh into Wolf Creek Canon befo' Sis and I caught up with 'em. What-all'd the sheriff have to say, pap?"
Old Bob Reeves looked braced, as if he were going to get out of his chair and fling it behind him. The kid's mother sucked in her breath and her hand crept trembling across the tablecloth, timidly reaching for old Bob, yet fearing to touch him in that mood lest she explode his temper into violence. Then she let out her breath in a long sigh. The tenseness had gone out of Old Bob's muscles. His hand unclenched, reached up and gathered his beard into his palm.
"Said I've got five hundred dollahs rewahd money comin' to me from New Mexico. Said it was Luis Martinez I gunned this mawnin'. Bad hombre that's been hellin' around Silveh City and in th'ough theah." He pushed back his chair—quietly—and got up, pulling his pipe from his pocket. "Betteh hook up a team and haul oveh a bunch of wiah in the mawnin', Bob, and a few of them new posts we had left oveh Tom buildin' the big corral. Them fool mares is liable to try it again in the same place. Betteh make it hawg tight along in that corner."
"Sho'will, pap." The kid rolled a careful eye toward the indistinct figure in the shadowy door of the girls' bedroom, and went, on combing his thick tawny hair before the yellow framed looking glass over the wash bench. "Sho' gave me a right smaht chase today."
"Sister, come and eat yo' supper. Yo' look plumb beat out."
"I've got an awful headache, mammy, riding so far in the hot sun. Bob had to go so far after the hosses." Rose's voice had a squeezed, lifeless sound.
"Come drink a cup of tea, anyway, and eat something. Theah's fried chicken and roastin' eahs, honey."
"Aw, let 'er alone, mom. Sis is plumb wore out, helpin' me get those hosses home. Let 'er go awn to bed if she wants to."
His mother looked up at him as if he were some stranger, and the kid grinned back and gave her shoulder an affectionate pat as he went by to his own place at the table. Ben slid over on the bench to make room for him. With a curious, questioning stare Jennie lifted the platter of fried chicken and set it down in front of the kid's plate.
Curt Reeves, twenty-three and thinking of getting married to a girl in Dickens, pushed the plate of roasting ears within the kid's reach and sat back meditatively, stroking his silky little mustache. Old Bob lighted his pipe and sauntered out on the gallery to smoke, and the Reeves family relaxed.
The kid cleaned a drumstick and two chicken wings to white bones, stacked three juicy corn cobs beside his plate and spooned cream gravy over his fourth split biscuit. His face was calm and his eyes were untroubled. Vivid, detached pictures of the day's events kept flashing before his inner eye, but he did not let them so much as approach the gateway of speech. He walked apart from his family that night, and none but Rose would ever travel that mental trail.
"Want a piece of pie, Bobby?"
"Say, cut out that dawgoned Bobby name!" The kid whirled fiercely upon Jen. "I'm sick and tired of it."
"Well, don't bite a person's head off. Tiger Eye. Would yo'-all wish fo' a piece of pie?"
"Sho' would, Jen. Reckon I'm crabby this evenin'. Sho' had a plenty big day since mawnin'."
"Reckon we all did." Jen reached out and laid her fingers across her mother's arm.
"Well, it come out betteh than I expected," her mother sighed. "It could've been worse, I reckon."
"Sho' could," murmured the kid, straddling backward over the bench and stretching his long young arms to the ceiling. "Reckon I'll go awn to baid."
IN THE big hackberry tree down by the creek the wise old mocking-bird woke in the starlight and sang a few low, chuttering notes. Up on the gallery the kid's bed squeaked.
"Dawgone that old mocker! Cain't he let a man sleep when he's plumb tired out?" The kid burrowed deeper into the pillow, courting dreams.
The mocking-bird teetered and sang the warbly song he had filched from a wild canary, then mimicked the mating call of a bob white running through the tender green thickets in the spring. A slow, careful tread came down the gallery and paused beside the kid's bed.
"No, I ain't, pap."
"Reckon yo'-all have got some rewahd comin' to yo'self fo' what yo' done today. In the mawnin' yo'-all kin take Ben and run in that bunch of mares and th'ow 'em in the big corral. Reckon it's time yo'-all got a staht in stock. I'll vent a dozen head of colts and put a brand on fo' yo'-all."
"Why—that's—why, thanks, pap." The kid felt the old crimply thrill go clear to his toes.
"Bob—" the old man leaned closer—"how come yo' taken Rose off outa the way all day? Know anything about that feller and Rose?"
The kid jerked himself up to an elbow.
"He's daid," he muttered through his clenched teeth. "Right lucky he is, 'cause I reckon if he wasn't I'd kill him my own se'f." Then a thought came to him with a jolt. "How'd yo'-all find it out, pap?"
"Taken Rose's picture off the skunk. Had her writin' awn the back—to one she loved. Bob, if yo'-all eveh lets out a yeep I'll jest nach'ally skin you alive!"
"Don't fret yo'self, pap." The kid gave a snort of scorn for the threat. "I been slippin' joints all day, kiverin' things up fo' Sis. Reckon I ain't liable to staht unkiverin' it with gab."
"Yo' motheh ain't suspicionin' a thing." Old Bob's tone was gruffly tender.
"Sho' hope she neveh does, pap."
"I'm right proud of yo'-all, son."
"Shucks, pap! Yo'-all oughta know I'd plumb die fo' Sister." And he added to cover his shyness, "She's right glad yo' got 'im, pap. It was him and his gang that run off the hosses. Sis knows the kind o' hombre he was."
"Hunh! Learn her a lesson, I reckon."
"Sho' hope so," muttered the kid, curling himself down into the pillow. Old Bob tamped his pipe with his trigger finger and walked slowly away down the shadowed, jasmine scented gallery, trailing the pungent smoke of home grown tobacco behind him as he went.
"Cr-cr-cr—chow-ckow-ckow!" sang the mocking-bird, and never stopped until his song was ended.
Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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