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This sequel to Ride Proud, Rebel!, Norton's popular novel of the Civil War, begins in the aftermath of the conflict, when the surviving soldiers struggle to make sense of their lives and start anew. One rebel, Drew Rennie, makes his way to Arizona in search of his long-lost father and quickly finds himself embroiled in the drama, turmoil and romance of the Wild West.
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TABLE OF CONTENTS
Even the coming of an autumn dusk could not subdue the color of this land. Shadows here were not gray or black; they were violet and purple. The crumbling adobe walls were laced by strings of crimson peppers, vivid in the torch and lantern light. It had been this way for days, red and yellow, violet—colors he had hardly been aware existed back in the cool green, silver, gray-brown of Kentucky.
So this was Tubacca! The rider shifted his weight in the saddle and gazed about him with watchful interest. Back in '59 this had been a flourishing town, well on its way to prominence in the Southwest. The mines in the hills behind producing wealth, the fact that it was a watering place on two cross-country routes—the one from Tucson down into Sonora of Old Mexico, the other into California—had all fed its growth.
Then the war.... The withdrawal of the army, the invasion of Sibley's Confederate forces which had reached this far in the persons of Howard's Arizona Rangers—and most of all the raiding, vicious, deadly, and continual, by Apaches and outlaws—had blasted Tubacca. Now, in the fall of 1866, it was a third of what it had been, with a ragged fringe of dilapidated adobes crumbling back into the soil. Only this heart core was still alive in the dusk.
Smell, a myriad of smells, some to tickle a flat stomach, others to wrinkle the nose. Under the rider the big stud moved, tossed his head, drawing the young man's attention from the town back to his own immediate concerns. The animal he rode, the two he led were, at first glance, far more noticeable than the dusty rider himself.
His saddle was cinched about the barrel of a big gray colt, one that could not have been more than five years old but showed enough power and breeding to attract attention in any horse-conscious community. Here was a thoroughbred of the same blood which had pounded race tracks in Virginia and in Kentucky to best all comers. Even now, after weeks on the trail, with a day's burden of alkali dust grimed into his coat, the stud was a beautiful thing. And his match was the mare on the lead rope, plainly a lady of family, perhaps of the same line, since her coat was also silver. She crowded closer, nickered plaintively.
She was answered by an anxious bray from the fourth member of the party. The mule bearing the trail pack was in ludicrous contrast to his own aristocratic companions. His long head, with one entirely limp and flopping ear, was grotesquely ugly, the carcass beneath the pack a bone rack, all sharp angles and dusty hide. Looks, however, as his master could have proven, were deceiving.
"Soooo—" The rider's voice was husky from swallowing trail grit, but it was tuned to the soothing croon of a practiced horse trainer. "Sooo—lady, just a little farther now, girl...."
From the one-story building on the rider's right a man emerged. He paused to light a long Mexican cigarillo, and as he held the match to let the sulfur burn away, his eyes fell upon the stallion. A casual interest tightened into open appreciation as he stepped from under the porch-overhang into the street.
"That is some horse, sir." His voice was that of an educated gentleman. The lantern at the end of the porch picked out the fine ruffled linen of his shirt, a vest with a painted design of fighting cocks, and the wink of gold buttons. The rather extravagant color of his clothing matched well with the town.
"I think so." The answer was short and yet not discourteous.
Again the mare voiced her complaint, and the rider turned to the gentleman. "There is a livery stable here, suh?" Unconsciously he reverted in turn to the rather formal speech pattern of another place and time.
The man in the painted vest had transferred his attention from stallion to mare. "Yes. Quickest way is down this alley. Tobe Kells owns it. He's a tolerable vet, too. She's near her time, ain't she?"
"Yes." The rider raised one finger to the straight wide brim of his low-crowned black hat. He was already turning his mount when the townsman added:
"No hotel here, stranger. But the Four Jacks serves a pretty good meal and keeps a couple of beds for overnighters. You're welcome back when you've settled the little lady. She Virginia stock?"
"Kentucky," the rider answered, and then his lips tightened into a compressed line. Was it a mistake to admit even that much? He would have to watch every word he said in this town. He tugged gently at the lead rope and walked Shiloh ahead at a pace which did not urge Shadow to any great effort. The mule, Croaker, fell in behind her so that they were strung out in the familiar pattern which had been theirs clear from Texas.
Minutes later her owner was rubbing down the fretful Shadow, murmuring the soothing words to quiet her. The lean, gray-haired man who had ushered them into the stable stood eyeing the mare's distended sides.
"I'd say, young fellow, you didn't git her here a mite too soon, no, siree. She's due right quick. Carryin' a blood foal, I'm thinkin'—"
"Yes. How soon? Tonight?"
Tobe Kells made a quick examination. The mare, after a first nervous start, stood easy under his sure and gentle hands. "Late, maybe. First foal?"
"Yes." Her owner hesitated and then added, "You give me a hand with her?"
"You bet, son. She's a pretty thing, an' she's been a far piece, I'd say. Now you looky here, boy—you sure look like you could take some curryin' an' corn fodder under your belt too. You git over to th' Four Jacks. Topham's got him a Chinee cookin' there who serves up th' best danged grub in this here town. Fill up your belly an' take some ease. Then if we do have this little lady gittin' us up tonight, you'll be ready for it. I'll see t' th' stud an' th' mule. That colt's not a wild one." Kells surveyed Shiloh knowingly. "No, I seed he was gentle-trained when you come in." He ran his hand down Shiloh's shoulder, touched the brand. "Spur R? That ain't no outfit I heard tell of before."
"From Eastern ... Texas—" That much was true. All three animals had been given the brand in the small Texas town where the wagon train had assembled. And perhaps this was the time when he should begin building up the background one Drew Kirby must present to Tubacca, Arizona Territory. "All right, I'll go eat." He picked up his saddlebags. "You'll call me if——"
"Sure, son. Say, I don't rightly know your name...."
"Wal, sure, Kirby, Tobe Kells is a man o' his word. Iffen there's any reason to think you'll be needed, I'll send Callie along for you. Callie!"
At Kells' hail a boy swung down the loft ladder. He was wiry thin, with a thick mop of sun-bleached hair and a flashing grin. At the sight of Shiloh and Shadow he whistled.
"Now ain't they th' purtiest things?" he inquired of the stable at large. "'Bout th' best stock we've had here since th' last time Don Cazar brought in a couple o' hissen. Where'll I put your plunder, mister?" He was already loosing Croaker's pack. "You be stayin' over to th' Jacks?"
Drew glanced up at the haymow from which Callie had just descended. "Any reason why I can't bunk up there?" he asked Kells.
"None 'tall, Kirby, none 'tall. Know you want to be handy like. Stow that there gear up above, Callie, an' don't you drop nothin'. Rest yourself easy, son. These here hosses is goin' to be treated jus' like th' good stuff they is."
"Croaker, also." Drew stopped by the mule, patted the long nose, gave a flip to the limp ear. "He's good stuff, too—served in the cavalry...."
Kells studied the young man by the mule. Cavalry saddle on the stud, two Colt pistols belted high and butt forward, and that military cord on his hat—army boots, too. The liveryman knew the signs. This was not the first veteran to drift into Tubacca; he wouldn't be the last either. Seems like half of both them armies back east didn't want to go home an' sit down peaceful like now that they was through wi' shootin' at each other. No, siree, a right big herd o' 'em was trailin' out here. An' he thought he could put name to the color of coat this young'un had had on his back, too. Only askin' more than a man volunteered to tell, that warn't neither manners nor wise.
"He gits th' best, too, Kirby." Kells shifted a well-chewed tobacco cud from one cheek to the other.
He could trust Kells, Drew thought. A little of his concern over Shadow eased. He shouldered the saddlebags and made his way back down the alley, beginning to see the merit in the liveryman's suggestions. Food—and a bath! What he wouldn't give for a bath! Hay to sleep on was fine; he had had far worse beds during the past four years. But a hot bath to be followed by a meal which was not the jerky, corn meal, bitter coffee of trail cooking! His pace quickened into a trot but slackened again as he neared the Four Jacks and remembered all the precautions he must take in Tubacca.
In the big room of the cantina oil lamps made yellow pools of light. The man in the painted vest was seated at a table laying out cards in a complicated pattern of a solitaire game. And at one side a round-faced Mexican in ornate, south-of-the-border clothing held a guitar across one plump knee, now and then plucking absent-mindedly at a single string as he stared raptly into space. A third man stood behind the bar polishing thick glasses.
"Greetings!" As Drew stood blinking just within the doorway the card player rose. He was a tall, wide-shouldered man, a little too thin for his height. Deep lines in his clean-shaven face bracketed his wide mouth. His curly hair was a silvery blond, and he had dark, deeply set eyes. "I'm Reese Topham, owner of this oasis," he introduced himself.
"Drew Kirby." He must remember that always—he was Drew Kirby, a Texan schooled with kinfolk in Kentucky, who served in the war under Forrest and was now drifting west, as were countless other rootless Confederate veterans. Actually the story was close enough to the truth. And he had had months on the trail from San Antonio to Santa Fe, then on to Tucson, to study up on any small invented details. He was Drew Kirby, Texan, not Drew Rennie of Red Springs, Kentucky.
"For a man just off the trail, Kirby, the Four Jacks does have a few of the delights of civilization. A bath...." One of Topham's dark eyebrows, so in contrast to his silvery hair, slid up inquiringly, and he grinned at Drew's involuntary but emphatic nod. "One of nature's gifts to our fair city is the hot spring. Hamilcar!" His hand met table top in a sharp slap. The Mexican jerked fully awake and looked around. From the back of the cantina emerged a middle-aged Negro.
"Yes, Mistuh Reese, suh?"
"Customer for you, Hamilcar. I would judge he wants the full treatment. This, Mister Kirby, is the best barber, valet, and general aid to comfort in town, the sultan of our bath. Hamilcar, Mister Kirby would like to remove the layers of dust he has managed to pick up. Good luck to you both!"
Drew found himself laughing as he followed Hamilcar to the rear of the building.
Topham had reason to be proud of his bath, Drew admitted some time later. A natural hot spring might be the base of the luxury, but man's labor had piped the water into stone-slab tubs and provided soap and towels. To sit and soak was a delight he had forgotten. He shampooed his unkempt head vigorously and allowed himself to forget all worries, wallowing in the sheer joy of being really clean again.
Hamilcar had produced a clean shirt and drawers from the saddlebags, even managing to work up a shadow of shine on the scuffed cavalry boots, and had beat the worst of the trail dust from the rest of the traveler's clothing. Drew had re-dressed except for his gun belt when he heard a voice call from the next cubicle.
"Ham—Ham! You git yourself in here, 'fore I skin that black hide—"
"Johnny!" Topham's voice cut through the other's thickened slur. "You soak that rot-gut out of you, and mind your tongue while you do it!"
"Sure, sure, Reese—" The voice was pitched lower this time, but to Drew the tone was more mocking than conciliatory. Drunk or sober, that stranger did not hold very kindly thoughts of Topham. But that was none of the Kentuckian's business.
"Yore hat, suh." Hamilcar brought in the well-brushed headgear, much more respectable looking than it had been an hour ago. The cord on it glistened. Army issue—brave gold bullion—made for a general's wearing. Drew straightened it, remembering....
Sergeant Rennie of the Scouts, in from an independent foray into enemy-held Tennessee, reporting to the Old Man himself—General Bedford Forrest. And Forrest saying:
"We don't give medals, Sergeant. But I think a good soldier might just be granted a birthday present without any one gittin' too excited about how military that is." Then he had jerked the cord off his own hat and given it to Drew. It was something big to remember when you were only nineteen and had been soldiering three years, three years with a dogged army that refused to be beaten. That hat cord, the spurs on his boots, they were all he had brought home from war—save a tough body and a mind he hoped was as hard.
"Mighty pretty hat trimmin', that, suh," Hamilcar admired.
"Mighty big man wore it once." Drew was still half in the past. "What do I owe you more'n the thanks of a mighty tired man you've turned out brand new again?" He smiled and was suddenly all boy.
"Foah bits, suh. An' it was a pleasure to do fo' a gentleman. It truly was. Come agin, suh—come, agin!"
Drew went down the corridor, his spurs answering with a chiming ring each time his heels met planking. Worn at Chapultepec by a Mexican officer, they had been claimed as spoils of war in '47 by a Texas Ranger. And in '61 the Ranger's son, Anson Kirby, had jingled off in them to another war. Then Kirby had disappeared during that last scout in Tennessee, vanishing into nowhere when he fell wounded from the saddle, smashing into a bushwhackers' hideout.
On a Sunday in May of '65, back in Gainesville, when Forrest's men had finally accepted surrender and the deadness of defeat, a Union trooper had worn those spurs into church. And Boyd Barrett had sold his horse the same day to buy back those silver bits because he knew what they meant to his cousin Drew. Now here Drew was, half the continent away from Gainesville and Tennessee, wearing Anse's spurs and half of Anse's name—to find a father he had not known was still alive, until last year.
The Kentuckian was sure of only one thing right now, he was not going to enter a town or a stretch of country where Hunt Rennie was the big man, and claim to be Rennie's unknown son. Maybe later he could come to a decision about his action. But first he wanted to be sure. There might well be no place for a Drew Rennie in Hunt Rennie's present life. They were total strangers and perhaps it must be left that way.
There was no reason for him to claim the kinship. He was independent. Drew Kirby had a mule and two good horses, maybe three by tomorrow. Aunt Marianna had insisted that he accept part of the Mattock estate, even though his Kentucky grandfather had left him penniless. He'd made his choice without hesitation: the colt Shiloh, the mare Shadow, and she bred to Storm Cloud for what should be a prize foal. His aunt had made him take more—gold in his money belt, enough to give him a start in the west. He was his own man, not Rennie's son, unless he chose....
Two more lamps had been lighted in the cantina. Drew sat down at a table. There was a swish of full skirts, and he looked up at a girl. She smiled as if she liked what she saw of this brown-faced stranger with quiet, disciplined features and eyes older than his years.
"You like, señor ... tequila ... whiskee ... food?"
"Food, señorita. You see a most hungry man."
She laughed and then frowned anxiously. "Ah, but, señor, this is a time when the cupboard is, as you would say, bare! When the wagons come—then what a difference! Now, tortillas, frijoles, maybe some fruit ... sweet for the tongue, like wine in the throat. Perhaps an egg—"
"To me that is a feast." Drew fell into the formal speech which seemed natural here. "You see one who has done his own trail cooking too long."
"Ah—el pobrete—poor man! Surely there will be an egg!" She was gone and Drew began covertly to study the other men in the room.
In any western town the cantina, or saloon, was the meeting place for masculine society. Even if Hunt Rennie did not appear bodily in the Four Jacks tonight, Drew could pick up information about his father merely by keeping open ears. As far away as Santa Fe he had heard of Rennie's Range and Don Cazar (the name the Mexicans had given its owner, Hunt Rennie).
Escaped from a Mexican prison in 1847, believing his wife and the son he had never seen to be dead, Hunt Rennie had gone west. In contrast to the tragedy of his personal life, whatever Rennie had turned his hand to in the new territory had prospered. A prospector he had grub-staked, found the Oro Cruz, one of the richest mines in the Tubacca hills. Rennie owned two freighting lines, one carrying goods to California, the other up from Sonora. And his headquarters in the fertile Santa Cruz Valley was a ranch which was also a fort, a fort even the Apaches avoided after they had suffered two overwhelming defeats there.
That was Rennie's Range—cultivated fields, fruit orchards, manadas of fine horses. Don Cazar supplied Tucson and the army posts with vegetables and superb hams. He had organized a matchless company of Pima Indian Scouts after the army pulled out in '61, had fought Apaches, but had sided with neither Union nor Confederate forces. During the war years he had more or less withdrawn within the borders of the Range, offering refuge to settlers and miners fleeing Indian attacks. Don Cazar was a legend now, and a man did not quickly claim kinship with a legend.
"Want a room, Kirby?" Topham paused beside his table.
"No. I have to stay close to the mare."
"Yes. I can understand that. Kells is good with horses, so you needn't worry. Ever raced that colt of yours?"
"Not officially." Drew smiled. There was that lieutenant with the supply wagons. The man hadn't talked so loudly about Johnny Rebs after Shiloh showed his heels to the roan the soldiers had bragged up.
"This is a sporting town when the wagons come in, and they're due tomorrow. Johnny Shannon just rode in to report. Might be some racing. You aim to stay on in Tubacca?"
"Have to until Shadow can trail again. How's the prospect for a job?"
"Horses, I guess."
"Well, Don Cazar—Rennie—runs the best manadas. You might hit him for work. He'll be riding in to meet the wagons. Carmencita, did you bring all that was left of the supplies?" Topham's quizzical eyebrows lifted in greeting to the waitress's loaded tray. "I'd say, young man, that you are facing a full-time job now, getting all that inside of you."
Drew ate steadily, consuming eggs and beans, tortillas, and fruit. Topham joined three men at the next table, substantial town citizens, Drew judged. The owner of the cantina raised his glass.
"Gentlemen, I give you another successful trading trip!"
"Saw Johnny ride in," one of the men returned. "Kid seems to be settlin' down, ain't he? That ought to be good news for Rennie."
"One believes in reformations when they are proven by time, Señor Cahill," the man wearing rich but somber Spanish clothing replied.
"It sure must go hard with a man to have his son turn out a wild one," commented the third.
Drew's cup was at his lips, but he did not drink. Whose son? Rennie's?
"No son by blood, that much comfort Don Cazar has. But foster ties are also strong. And the boy is still very young—"
"A rattler with only one button on the tail carries as much poison as a ten-button one. Rennie ought to cut losses and give that kid the boot. The way he's going he could involve Hunt in a real mess," Cahill said.
"You are Don Cazar's good friend, Don Reese, his compadre of many years. Can you not do something?"
"Don Lorenzo, all men have blind spots. And Johnny Shannon is Rennie's. Bob Shannon helped free Hunt out of Mex prison in the war and was killed doing it. Soon as Hunt set up here he sent for the boy and tried to give him a father."
"It is a great pity he has no child of his own blood. I have seen him stand here in Tubacca giving toys and candy to the little ones. Yet he has only this wild one under his roof, and perhaps that Juanito will break his heart in the end...."
Drew put down his cup. It was very hard not to turn and ask questions. Dropping some coins on the table, he rose and started back to the stable, to the world of Shiloh and Shadow where he was unable to betray Drew Rennie. But there was so much Drew Kirby must learn—and soon!
Two lighted lanterns hung from pegs along the center of the stable, and Callie had mounted a barrel to put up a third as Drew entered. There were the soft peaceful sounds of horses crunching fodder, hoofs rustling in straw. Shadow turned her head and nickered as Drew came up to her box stall. She was answered by a blowing from Shiloh, a bray out of Croaker.
"It's all right, girl—pretty lady—" Drew fondled her mane, stroked the satin-smooth arch of neck. Callie dropped from his barrel perch.
"She sure is right purty, Mister Kirby. Mister Kells said as to tell you he's sleepin' on a cot in th' tack room over there, should you be needin' him." Callie pointed. "Me, I'm beddin' down in the last stall. I put your gear up right over here, so's you can hear if she gits to movin'—"
"Thanks." Drew felt in a pocket, tossed Callie the coin his fingers found.
The boy caught the piece, his eyes round as he looked at it. "Lordy! Thanks, Mister Kirby! You must be near as shiny as Don Cazar—or Mister Topham!"
Callie laughed. "Silver-shiny! Ain't too many men as goes round Tubacca throwin' out good money thataway. 'Less it's ringin' down on th' bar, or slidin' 'cross some table 'cause they found out as how they was holdin' Jacks against some other fella's Kings. You want anything—you jus' holler, Mister Kirby!"
"Mister?" Drew thought he did not have the advantage of Callie by more than four or five years.
"Oh—Captain Kirby, maybe? Or Lieutenant? Johnny Shannon—now he was a lieutenant with Howard's Rangers." Callie gave Drew a shrewd measuring look.
"Sergeant." Drew corrected automatically and then asked: "How did you know I'd been in the army?"
"Well, you wear them two shootin' irons army style, belted high an' butt to front. Must use a flip-hand draw as do all th' hoss soldiers. Listen, Mister Kirby, iffen you rode with th' Rebs, you better keep your lip buttoned up when th' Blue Bellies hit town. There's been a pile of fightin' an' folks is gittin' mad 'bout it—"
"Blue Bellies?" Drew was wrenched back months, a year, by that old army slang. "Union troops stationed here?" He had unconsciously tensed, his body responding nerve and muscle to past training and alarms. But there were no Yanks or Rebs any more, no riders or marchers in blue and gray—just United States troops.
"There's a garrison out to the Mesa camp. An' Cap'n Bayliss, he don't take kindly to Rebs. You see, it's this way.... Out in th' breaks there's a bunch of Rebs-leastways they claim as how they's Rebs—still holdin' out. They hit an' run, raidin' ranches an' mines; they held up a coach a while back. An' so far they've ridden rings round th' cap'n. Now he thinks as how any Reb blowin' in town could be one of 'em, comin' to sniff out some good pickin's. So anyone as can't explain hisself proper to th' cap'n gits locked up out at camp till he can—"
"Trifle highhanded, ain't he?"
"Well, th' cap'n's for law an' order, an' he's army. But folks ain't likin' it too much. So far he's been doin' it though."
Drew frowned. So even this far away from the scene of old battles the war still smoldered; the black bitterness of defeat was made harder by the victor. Drew's hand rubbed across the bulge beneath his shirt. In one pocket of the money belt were his papers, among them the parole written out in Gainesville which could prove he had ridden with General Forrest's command, far removed from any Arizona guerrilla force. But to produce that would change Drew Kirby to Drew Rennie, and that he did not want to do.
"I rode with General Forrest, attached to General Buford's Scouts," he said absently.
"General Forrest!" Callie glowed. "Lordy, Mister Kirby, that's sure somethin', it sure is! Only don't be sayin' that round Cap'n Bayliss neither. He has him a big hate for General Forrest—seems like Bayliss was a colonel once till th' General outsmarted him back east. An' there was a big smoke-up 'bout it. They cut th' cap'n's spurs for him, an' he ended th' war out here. Now he ain't no patient man; he's th' kind as uses his hooks hard when he's ridin'.
"You know, you sure can tell a lot 'bout a man when you give a look at his hoss after he's come off th' trail. That there Shiloh colt o' yours, an' this here lady hoss, an' that old mule ... anyone can see as how they's always been handled nice an' easy. They ain't got no spite 'gainst nobody as wants to rub 'em down an' give 'em a feed. But some hosses what git brung in here—they's white-eyed an' randy, does you give 'em a straight stare. For that there's always a reason. Mostly you can see what it is when you look good an' steady at th' men who was ridin' 'em!"
Drew laughed. "Glad I passed your test, Callie. Guess I'll turn in now. Been a long day travelin'—"
"Sure thing. An' from up there you can hear this little old mare, does she need you."
The Kentuckian's pack had been hoisted into the mow, and Callie had even humped up the fragrant hay to mattress his bedroll. A window was open to the night, and as Drew stretched out wearily, he could hear the distant tinkle of a guitar, perhaps from the Four Jacks. Somewhere a woman began to sing, and the liquid Spanish words lulled him asleep.
He roused suddenly, his hand flashing under his head before he returned to full consciousness, fingers tightening on the Colt he had placed there. Not the mare—no—rather the pound of running feet and then a cry....
"No, señor, no! No es verdad—it is not true! Teodoro, he meant no harm—!"
Drew scrambled to the window. Out in the alley below, three figures reeled in the circle of light afforded by the door lantern. The Kentuckian marked the upward swing of a quirt lash, saw a smaller shape fling up an arm in a vain attempt to ward off the blow. Another, the one who cried out, was belaboring the flogger with empty fists, and the voice was that of a girl!
To slide down the loft ladder was again nearer instinct than planned action. Shiloh snorted as Drew's boots rapped on the stable floor. The Kentuckian had no idea of the reason for that fight, but he ran out with the vague notion that an impartial referee was needed.
"You there—what's goin' on!" Sergeant Rennie came to life again in the snapped demand.
The one who fled the quirt came up against the side of the building almost shoulder to shoulder with Drew. And he was only a boy, about Callie's age, his black hair flopping over eyes wide with shock and fright. Drew's hand moved, and the lantern light glinted plainly on the barrel of the Colt. For a moment they were all still as if sight of the weapon had frozen them.
The attacker faced Drew directly. He was young and handsome, if you discounted a darkening bruise already puffing under one eye, a lip cut and swelling, a scowl twisting rather heavy brows and making an ugly square of his mistreated mouth.
"An' who th' devil are you?"
His voice was thick and slurred. Drew guessed that he had not only been in a fight but that he was partly drunk. Yet, as he faced the stranger eye to eye, the Kentuckian was as wary as he had been when bellying down a Tennessee ridge crest to scout a Yankee railroad blockhouse. He knew what he fronted; this was more than a drunken bully—a really dangerous man.
That queer little moment of silence lengthened, shutting the two of them up—alone. Drew could not really name the emotion he felt. Deliberately he tried to subdue the sensation as he turned to the girl.
"What's the matter?"
At first glance he might have thought her a boy, for she wore hide breeches and boots, a man's shirt now hanging loosely about her hips. She jerked her head, and a thick braid flopped from under her wide-brimmed hat.
"Señor, por favor—please—we have done no wrong. We are the Trinfans—Teodoro and me. Teodoro, he finds Señor Juanito's purse in the road, he follows to give it back. He is not a bandido—he is not espía, a spy one. We are mustangers. Ask of Don Reese, of Señor Kells. Why, Señor Juanito, do you say Teodoro spy on you, why you hit him with the whip?"
"Not thief, not spy!" The boy beside Drew dropped a wealed hand from his face. "The man who says Teodoro Trinfan is ladrón—bad one—him I kill!"
Drew's left arm swept out across the boy's chest, pinning him back against the stable.
"Now, what's your story?" the Kentuckian asked the man he fronted.
"An' jus' what's all this smokin' 'bout?" Kells came out. "You, Shannon, what're you doin' here? Been drinkin' again, fightin', too, by th' look of you."
"Señor Kells." The girl caught at the older man's arm. "Por favor, señor, we are not thieves, not spies. We come after Señor Juanito because he dropped his purse. Then he see Teodoro coming, he not listen—he beat on him with quirt. You know, we are honest peoples!"
"Now then, Faquita, don't you git so upset, gal!" She was wailing aloud, making no effort to wipe away the tears running down her cheeks. "Johnny, what kinda game you tryin'? You know these kids are straight; them an' their ol' man's come to work th' Range for wild ones on Rennie's own askin'. Takin' a quirt to th' kid, eh?" Kells' voice slid up the scale. "You sure have yourself a snootful tonight! Now you jus' walk yourself outta here on th' bounce. I'm doin' th' sayin' of what goes on, on my own property."
"You do a lotta sayin', Kells." The scowl was gone; Shannon's battered mouth was actually smiling. But, Drew decided, he liked the scowl better than the smile and the tone of the voice accompanying it. "Some men oughtta put a hobble on their tongues. Sure, I know these young whelps an' their pa too. Sniffin' round where they ain't wanted. An' mustangers ain't above throwin' a sticky loop when they see a hoss worth it. We ain't blind on th' Range." His head swung a little so he was looking at the girl. "You'd better hold that in mind, gal. Double R hosses have come up missin' lately. It's easy to run a few prime head south to do some moonlight tradin' at th' border. An' we don't take kindly to losin' good stock!"
The boy lunged against Drew's pinioning arm. "Now he says we are horse thieves! Tell that to us before the Don Cazar!"
Shannon curled the quirt lash about his wrist. "Don't think I won't, Mex! He don't like havin' his colt crop whittled down. You—" Those blue eyes, brilliant, yet oddly shallow and curtained, met Drew's for the second time. "Don't know who you are, stranger, but you had no call to mix in. I'll be seein' you. Kinda free with a gun, leastwise at showin' it. As quick to back up your play?"
"Try me!" The words came out of Drew before he thought.
Why had he said that? He had never been one to pick a fight or take up a challenge. What was there about Shannon that prodded Drew this way? He'd met the gamecock breed before and had never known the need to bristle at their crowing. Now he was disturbed that Shannon could prick him so.
Odd, the other had been successfully turned from his purpose here. Yet now as he swung around and walked away down the alley Drew was left with a nagging doubt, a feeling that in some way or other Shannon had come off even in this encounter.... But how and why?
Teodoro spat. His sister tugged at Kells' sleeve. "It is not true what he said. Why does he wish to make trouble?"
"Lissen, gal, an' you, too, Teodoro—jus' keep clear of Johnny Shannon when he's on th' prod that way. I've knowed that kid since he didn't have muscle enough to pull a gun 'less he took both hands to th' job. But he's not needin' any two hands to unholster now. An' he's drinkin' a lot—mean, ugly drunk, he is. Somethin' must have riled him good tonight—"
"In the cantina there was a soldier from the camp," Faquita volunteered. "They call names. He and Señor Juanito fight. Don Reese, he put them both out in the street. Señor Juanito he falls, drops purse. Teodoro picks it up, and we follow. When we try to give it back Señor Juanito yell, 'spy,' hit with whip. That is the truth, por Dios, the truth!"
"Yeah, sounds jus' like Johnny these days. Him with a snootful an' somebody yellin' Reb and Yank. Some men can't forgit an' don't seem to want to. Johnny sure takes it hard bein' on th' losin' side—turned him dirt mean. Now, you kids, you stayin' in town?"
"Sí." Faquita nodded vigorously. "With Tía María."
"Then you git there an' stay clear of Johnny Shannon, sabe? No more trouble."
"Sí, Señor Kells. You, señor," she spoke to Drew, "to you we owe a big debt. Come, Teodoro!" She caught at her brother and pulled him away.
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