CHAPTER ONE


  He eased the horse across the little stream and up the far bank, sitting easy in the kak against the tiredness flooding his rawboned body.  He had been riding since before sunup, with a far piece yet to go, and death waiting for him at the end of his riding. He had accepted this fact long ago, was grown used to it by this time.

  He wore a deerskin shirt outside his Levi's, heavily fringed and stained with the long rubbing of his heavy shell-belt  From the shirt he took papers and tobacco and built himself a smoke, letting the smoke ease down into his lungs, vaguely soothing, as his eyes roamed the grasslands ahead of him.

  Amos Carty did not want to die; he was not ready to be pushed into a pine box and shoved down into six feet of hard earth.  The wind that stirred the long yellow hair under his low-crowned Plains hat was filled with a fragrance of sage and greasewood; it told him life was all around him, to be lived at its fullest, and that only a bullet waited for him at Stovepipe.

  Carty smiled thinly.

 He had made a promise.  He would keep it.

  The grulla horse made a good time with its loping stride, leaving the buttes and malpais behind them, heading straight across the grama grass.  To one side, on a slope to the east, a stretch of ground was covered over with the small yellow flowers of the maguey bushes growing there. The rider flicked his eyes toward them, letting memory carry him backward.

  As a boy he had worked over plants like that, down in Kiowa country where he had grown up, stripping the leaves from them, gathering the sweet syrup from their flowers.  The Kiowas had made a drink from that syrup, had eaten the tender insides of the leaves. He had lived ten years of his life with them, before the father who had abandoned him had come to claim him.

  Amos Carty stirred.  Sometimes he felt more Indian than white; if was a matter of that early training, ingrained into his very nature was their mistrust of white men.  He smiled at that, but it was true.

  He had trusted Ken Stevens.

  And because Stevens had violated that trust, he was going to die.

  His shoulders lifted in a faint shrug.  Everybody had to die, some time. Maybe that was the Indian in him; he was imbued with their fatalism.  Well, he had also learned honor from old Buffalo Horn.

  He had given his word.

  And so he was riding now, to Stovepipe.

  No map showed the location of Stovepipe.  It was somewhere up there in the Horseheads, a collection of three buildings, maybe four, where not many men lived but where those who rode the long trail came to stop, knowing themselves safe from the law.

  Morgan Chance was waiting in Stovepipe.  For him, Carty.

  He would have his men with him, hard-bitten long riders who would as soon throw down on him without warning as not, if Morg Chance said the word.  He wondered whether he would be allowed to ride into town, or be cut down somewhere on its outskirts, where one or two riflemen would be hidden behind the big rocks that fronted the one trail into and out of Stovepipe.

  Well, no matter.  Except that he would have relished a chance to defend himself with his Colt or Spencer rifle.  He didn't want to die like a mad dog, shot down without warning. Anger stirred in him, then faded.  Of what use was anger? His had been the choice to come here, because he had given his word. He doubted even that Morg Chance really expected him.

  He smiled thinly, picturing Morg's surprise.  Might be he would be able to ride into Stovepipe, if that were the case.  And if he rode into Stovepipe alive, he wouldn't be the only man to die.

  His hands moved to the walnut-barrel Colt in its worn leather holster, loosening it.  Then he chuckled, shaking his head.

 "Pei, pei," he muttered in Kiowan.  "That's what I am. Spooked."

  He rode on, pushing aside his thoughts and his memories.

  He touched the grulla with a toe, urging him to greater speed.  The sooner at Stovepipe, the sooner over. The grama grass was behind him now, he was moving up into the foothills, in among the clumps of juniper, the tall pines.  The air seemed somehow cleaner here, with a bite of melting snow in the wind.

  The grulla was climbing steadily along a narrow path.  To his right a stand of quaking aspens rustled where the wind touched the silver-tipped leaves, and up ahead the lodgepole pines began their march to the high peaks, like sentinels.  The air was colder, bracing, and only the sunlight gave warmth upon his shoulders.

  Rocks lay sprawled off to one side, remnants of a fault a long time ago that had split the mountainside and left that debris in its wake.  Men could hide among those rocks, but Carty did not believe they did. It was too soon, too early. Chance would want to gloat a little before he gave the orders to shoot.

  He might be wrong.  He thought about that, swaying in the worn Cheyenne saddle.  Yes, he could be wrong. But he didn't think so. Morg would enjoy holding the winning hole card on him, being that sort of man.

  The climbing here was steep, though the grulla did not labor.  The mouse-colored horse was a good one; it had speed and endurance.  Carty had bought an Osage for the horse in an Indian encampment, two years before.  Like as not, the Osage had stolen it off a rancher. The Osages were great horse thieves.  Not as good as the Kiowas or the Comanches, but good enough.

  Sunlight touched metal, up above.

  He knew it was a rifle barrel.  Morg Chance had a man up there, watching the trail.  Carty laid his gaze across the rim rocks, but he did not tense, feeling certain that Morg Chance would want to put eyes on him, to savor the moment before the bullets would plow into him.

  And that might be Chance's big mistake.

  Carty let the grulla break into a canter when it came to level stretch.  Not so far, now. Another climb between the lodgepoles and he would be on the final level, be able to see the town itself.

  In among the pines, he was safe enough.  Nobody would try to shoot through those branches at him.  His hand went to the Colt out of long habit. It would not be a rifle that would bring him down, but handguns.  And with handguns he had a mite better than an even chance.

  He came to the level and reined in, sitting the grulla almost lazily, pausing to build a smoke, letting his hands perform the movements even as his stare went on before him.  Four buildings, then. Shacks, really. Wind-whipped and sun-baked, leaning a little, it seemed. A general store and a saloon, something that might be called a boardinghouse, and a blacksmith shop with a livery stable.  The men who rode to Stovepipe would need little more. Not here, anyhow.

  He saw no sign of life except for half a dozen horses tied to the hitch-rail before the saloon.  There were others in the livery stable, he felt certain. Morg Chance always had a large number of gunmen around him.

  Carty waited patiently, easing his seat in the kak.  There was at least one rifleman behind him, high in the rim rocks.  There might be others. Thus far they had made no move. He heeled the grulla forward at a walk.

  The hoof falls of the horse started up puffs of dust and made soft sounds.  Carty took a last drag of his cigarette and let it slip from his fingers. His eyes were on the saloon, but he did not ignore the livery stable nor the boardinghouse.

  He walked the length of the little main street to the tie rail and there he sat, waiting, wondering a little.  His Colt was easy to get at, loose and ready.

  A man opened the bat-wing doors and came out onto the little porch, squinting a little against the late-afternoon sunlight.  He was a medium-sized man with broad shoulders, wearing a faded red flannel shirt and heavy shell-belt His face was triangular, and Carty thought, as he had a while back when he had ridden with this man, that his eyes were set too close together.

  "Hobe," Carty said into the silence.

  Hobe Talbert let his lips slide into a smile.  There was no mirth in that smile, nor in his word as he said, "You come.  By God, you come. I'd never have believed it."

  "You're not a believing man, Hobe.  Always was too suspicious."

  Talbert nodded, his grin fading.  He frowned, holding his head sideways.  "I lost money on you, Indian. A double eagle.  To Morg."

  "Morg bet on a sure thing, Hobe."

  "Did he?  I don't get that."

  Carty shook his head, eased his leg over the cantle, and came down onto the dusty street.  Talbert was standing easily, with no threat in him, and that was strange. Or maybe Morg Chance wasn't going to do this one man against another but was waiting until he had his whole force siding him.

  Talbert moved sideways a step or two.  "Come on in. Morg's been expecting you."

  Carty moved forward, up the two steps and onto the porch, alert against any play Talbert might make.  But the other man was standing easily, not moving, his thumbs hooked in his gun belt. He lifted his left hand and waved it at the bat-wings

  "After you, Indian."

  Carty pushed against the wood, stepped into what seemed like darkness after all that sunlight.  His eyes adjusted quickly. Three men were lined up at the bar, elbows resting on it. Carty knew tow of them, Pike Shattuck and Ed Wells.

  At a table to one side, close by a window that looked down at the trail, a big man sat with a pack of soiled cards in his hands.  His hair was black and long; a drooping mustache framed a thin mouth. His calfskin vest held a gold watch chain, and Carty noticed that his boots were new and carefully polished, which surprised him a little.

  "You owe me twenty, Hobe," Chance said softly.

  Chance chuckled as Talbert cursed.  Then his leg kicked a chair toward Carty.  "Sit yourself, Amos. Might as well be comfortable."

  His arm lifted toward the bar.  "Still drinking firewater?"

  "When it's safe."

  Morgan Chance boomed laughter.  He seemed very pleased with himself as he put the cards face down on the table and leaned back.  He took tobacco and papers from his vest pocket and made a cigarette. His eyes never left Carty.

  "Go on, Indian.  Sit yourself."

  Carty was puzzled.  He knew Morg Chance was not a man to forget an injury, nor to forgive one.  Ken Stevens had stolen money Morg figured belonged to him. Carty had told Chance he would go surety for Ken Stevens, who was not a thief.  In his eyes, Stevens must have felt the money belonged to him and not to Morgan Chance.

  He waited until the barkeep came with two glasses and set them down, one for him, one for Chance.  Then he pulled the chair toward him and rested himself.

  The play would come, he knew this.  The man across the table from him was savoring the moment, relishing the power he held over Amos Carty.  He was testing his triumph as he was even now sipping from the glass, slowly and with pleasure. His face was crinkled from his grin.

  "Seen Stevens lately?"  Morg asked.

  Carty shook his head.  "Not for months. I've been riding the back trails."

  "But you heard he wasn't coming?"

  "I heard."

  A man in dusty clothes had appeared out of nowhere one morning, riding up on him as he was breaking his camp in San Carlos country, had dismounted and shared a tin cup of coffee with him.  The man had talked, had told him news of one thing and another, all the way from Eagle Pass to Ogallala, and in the talking, had mentioned Ken Stevens and how he had cut his rope and drifted west into California.

  Carty had known then that he would ride to Stovepipe to meet this man across the table from him.  He had been bitterly disappointed in Ken Stevens; it didn't seem like something Stevens would do.

  Morg pushed the empty whiskey glass across the table, never taking his eyes from Carty.  There was something in those eyes, or behind them inside his brain, that Carty could not lay a finger to.  He got the feeling that he would not like what he would see, if he could.

  "I came, like I said."

  "Expecting death?"

  "A fight, at least."

  Chance chuckled.  "Hope I'm not disappointing you, Indian."

  His men laughed around the room.  Carty felt the relaxation all through him.  For the first time, it occurred to him that maybe Morgan Chance didn't want him dead, after all; but he wanted something from him that he couldn't lay a hand on.

  "A man is never disappointed to know he's going to live."

  "I didn't say that."

  The words were like cold water in his face.  Carty tensed, but could find no threat in this smiling man across from him.  Would Chance dare to wave his gunmen at him, here? When he himself stood to die first, from Carty's gun?  Not likely, not at all.

  "You're worse than an Apache trying to hid e his sign," Carty said softly.  "You ever trailed an Apache who didn't want to be found, Morg? You bust a gut at the job, and nine times out of ten you don't succeed.  You're like that now. You got something to say, say it."

  Morgan Chance nodded.  "You got a choice, Carty.  You do what I ask, and you ride out of here a free man, beholden to nobody, especially me.  You refuse, and maybe you will die here, after all."

  Carty stared at him, wondering.  What was so important to Morgan Chance that he would bring Amos Carty across six hundred miles of sun-baked ground?  Carty was a gunfighter, almost an outlaw. He kept much to himself, he rode the back trails and the high hills, and in his going, he rarely mingled with the men at the ranches or at the forts.  Not even in the towns.

  "You're still dragging a rope behind you, Morg."

  "I got enemies, Indian."

  "Who doesn't?"

  "Bad enemies.  I don't mean just some lawman who might try to make a rep by coming after me.  You ever heard of Nogales Jack? Or Rawhide Bledsoe?"

  "Met them some years back, over in Durango.  They were hiding out, then. Matter of a whiskey-selling to the Osages."

  Chance nodded his big head.  "They took an interest in a lot of things."

  "And now they've taken an interest in you."

  The black eyes glinted.  As though he were uncomfortable, Morgan Chance shifted in his chair.  His hand went to the calfskin vest and lifted out a gold watch. He clicked it, the cover came up, and he glanced down at the dial.

  "I got enemies, Indian.  I also got a sister."

  Carty sighed.  "Didn't know that."

  "She ain't like me; she's a good girl."

  Carty shrugged.  It was of no moment to him.  But Chance scowled, seeing the gesture, and snarled a little.

  "A good girl, Carty," he repeated.

  "I'm listening."

  "Man wants to marry her, over in the Mogollon country.  Rich man, got a fine ranch. Twenty, thirty thousand head."

  "That's a big ranch, all right."

  "I want her to marry that man, Indian."

  Amos Carty spread his hands.  "I'm not stopping her."

  Chance grinned, wolfishly.  "No. You're helping her."

  It was not often that Amos Carty allowed himself to be surprised.  He was surprised now. He came halfway off his chair, his eyes locked onto those of Morgan Chance, and he let the air out of his lungs, very slowly.

  "Nogales Jack?  Bledsoe?" he asked.

  Morgan Chance nodded, biting his lower lip.  "They know about it and they sent word there'd be no wedding."

  Carty smiled.  "You got a small army here, Morg.  You just ride to that there ranch and you see your sister married.  No two men are going to stop you."

  "There'll be more'n the two of them.  They've gone and hired gun-hands At least half a dozen of them.  They're waiting, Indian. Waiting for me. And for Kate."

  Carty shook his head.  "Morg, there's more to it than that.  Are you asking me to hire on as another gun?  Is that it?"

  "Just you, Indian.  Just you."

  "There you go again, covering up your sign."

  Chance leaned forward.  There was an intentness in him, a desperation, that Carty could sense.  For all his bigness, his muscles, his way with guns, Morgan Chance was a man in need.

  "You're the only one  can do it, Indian."

  "Do what?"

  "Get Kate safe to that ranch."

  Carty looked at the glass on the table that held the whiskey he had not as yet tasted.  There was no thirst in him for whiskey, not ever. He would have preferred cold mountain water to any whiskey ever made.  Maybe it was because he had seen what whiskey could do to brave Kiowa men, back when he had been a youngster.

  No matter for whys and wherefores.

  His hand lifted the glass and drank.  He put the glass down empty and looked straight at Morgan Chance.

  "There's more to it than what you say.  What can one man do against seven or eight?"

  Chance grinned.  "Avoid them."

  Well, he could do that, all right.  If he wanted to stay hidden, no man except maybe an Apache or a Kiowa would find him.  Not any white man, certainly.

  "With a woman?"  he asked reflectively.

  "It's the only way, Carty.  You think I haven't sweated this all out in my head, night after night?  You're the only man I know can do it."

  Carty scowled.  "Suppose they find us?"

  Chance nodded.  "I'd rather have you siding her than anybody I know.  Even so, even against all seven or eight of them."

  "You're mad, Morg."

  A metallic sound made Carty tense.  Somebody was cocking a gun behind him.  He looked at Chance and said, "You aren't going to make a play for me now, are you?"

  The other man scowled and muttered, "Put the gun away, Hobe.  Honestly, I don't know what you use for brains. Or," He went on slowly, "did you figure on having the Indian do what you've maybe been thinking of doing, lately?"

  "Just checking to see if the gun was loaded, boss."

  Carty heard the gun being pushed back into its holster.  He had been tensed to draw and fire. He could get one man before he died with a bullet in his back.  That one man would have been Morgan Chance. Chance knew this. Maybe Hobe Talbert did, too.

  Chance kept his eyes on the man behind Carty, but his hand went to his Roskopf watch.  Again he glanced down at it. It was an expensive watch; Morgan Chance prided himself on it.

  He said heavily, "Kate should be up by now."

  His black eyes touched Carty.  "She is lying down, like I told her to do.  It was a long ride from Fort Bliss. She'll be here soon.  I want you to meet her, get acquainted."

  He closed the watch lid with a snap.  His lips twisted into a grin. "That is, if you want to live out the day?"

  Carty smiled faintly.  "You'd trust me with her, would you?"

  Chance heaved a great sigh, and relief went through him visibly.  He lifted the glass and tossed it through the air to one of his men.  The bartender filled it; the man brought it back and put it before him.

  "The only one I would, Indian," he said at last, softly.

  Carty considered that, turning it around in his mind.  He was a gunfighter, he used his gun for wages when they were offered, and he was good with his gun.  Very good. But it was not so much as a gunman that Morgan Chance wanted him, but as a guide. An Indian guide.

  When he wanted, Amos Carty could cross a countryside, and no man would know when or where he had passed.  His Kiowa teachers had done a good job with him. It would take an Apache to find any part of his trail when he wanted to hide it.  And having found that part, he would not be able to follow it.

  But—with a woman?

  Carty shook his head.  "There will be problems."

  "None you can't solve."

  "We'll need grub.  Pack horses."

  Morgan Chance grinned.  "I've thought of all that.  It's been arranged. All you need to do it take her."

  "I might pull her out, leave her on her own."

  "You came here, didn't you?  When it was only your word brought you.  You won't leave her." Chance grinned wolfishly.  "You'll do your damndest to get her to the Chessboard ranch, Amos.  No man could ask any more."

  There was a step on the porch.  Carty heard the swing of the bat-wings  He turned his head and stiffened.

  She stood just inside the doorway, with the dying sunlight forming a nimbus around her long brown hair, her bloused shoulders, her riding skirt.  She came forward, and now Carty could see that her eyes were brown. Her face was the most beautiful he had ever seen.

  Kate Chance walked with a swinging stride, but there was a hesitancy in her manner.  Her gaze went from her brother to Amos Carty, and she studied him dubiously. Good reason for her to frown, he thought.  He was dusty from his long riding, he needed a wash and a shave. To his surprise, he found that he was standing.

  "You're the man they've been expecting," she murmured.

  There was no need for an answer.  He merely looked at her. It was her brother who said, with amusement in his voice, "He's the only one can do the job, Kate."

  "Is he an outlaw, too?"

  Morgan Chance scratched his stubbled chin.  It was not a question usually asked of a man in frontier towns, not  being considered polite. As her brother hesitated, Carty smiled.

  "There's no price on my head, ma'am."

  Her eyes were very steady on him.  Carty got the notion that she was weighing him on invisible scales.  Finally she gave a brief little nod.

  "All right, Morgan.  When do we leave?"

  Her brother slapped the table with a hand.  The sound was loud in the silence. Tension eased out of him, and he grinned as he looked around the room.

  "Sit down, Kate.  We can talk now."

  She took a chair he pushed forward, and sat between her brother and Carty.  There was a quiet watchfulness about her, and Carty sensed she was uneasy under her calm manner.  She did not relish this meeting in a back trail town; she was used to finer things. A man could tell that just by looking at her.

  Carty said against her stare, "Sometimes we have to do things we don't like to do, ma'am."

  "Do you mean that you'd rather not take me to Chessboard?"

  "I can think of easier things," he said wryly.

  Her eyes hardened.  "Will I be such a burden?"

  Morgan Chance eased into their talk.  "Now, Kate. Amos here is doing me favor."

  She rounded on him.  "Is it something you can't do?"

  "Frankly, yes."

  She regarded him, frowning.  "I don't believe I understand."

  "There are men who'd rather not see you get to Chessboard, Kate.  Might as well face it."

  "Because of you?"

  "You might say that."

  She opened her lips, then closed them.  Then she murmured, "I should have had Peter meet me.  I could have gone farther by train. I only stopped off here to see you, Morgan, to say hello, as you asked."

  "They'd have stopped the train, taken you off it.  Then nobody would ever see you again."

  Carty could tell she had been startled.  She leaned forward, watching her brother intently.  "These men are your enemies, of course. They're trying to strike at you through me."

  "You get the picture."

  Her eyes slid sideways to touch Carty.  "You must be very good at whatever it is you're good at, if my brother thinks you can do what he and these men can't."

  "Good enough."

  She still watched him—as a chicken might watch the coyote sniffling at the hen-house fence, Carty thought.

  "What can you do that my brother, with all these men, cannot?"

  "Get you safe to Chessboard."

  "That isn't what I meant."

  Carty shrugged.  How could he tell this woman of the long hours he had spent with the Kiowa boys, learning to trail, to hunt, to eat where there was no food, to drink where there was no water?  How could he put into mere words the ache and the pain of trotting endless hours over sun-baked desert sands, on lava and rock? He had spent close to ten years with the Kiowas; he was considered one of them before his father had come back to take him away.

  Morgan Chance said, "Look, Kate.  He's your one hope. He doesn't do it, nobody can."

  "Very well.  I accept your decision.  I have no other choice." Her eyes touched her brother.  "I know you are doing this with my best interests in mind, Morgan."

  "You want to marry Pete Macklin.  Fine. He'll make you a good husband.  I want to see you settled in life, Kate.  But because you happen to be my sister, certain men are going to try to interfere if they can.  Carty here will make sure they don't.

  Kate stood up and shook out her skirt.  It was as if she were shaking away all connections with her brother and these unkempt men in this back-trail saloon, Carty told himself.  Maybe he didn't blame her too much. He himself wasn't too happy with this outfit.

  She walked out, and every eye watched.

  Chance growled, "Let's have a drink."

  Carty said, "I need soap and water more."

  He went out the bat-wing doors, untied the grulla, and walked him down the dusty street toward the livery stable.  An old man was sleeping in the late sunlight, chair tilted against the stable wall. Carty did not wake him.

  For a few minutes, he stood in the stable doorway, staring around the town.  Few men came to Stovepipe. It was far off the beaten trails; no one had any reason to come here except men like Morg Chance and his riders.  He wondered what Kate Chance really thought about it.

  He put his eyes on the tall pines that rimmed the mountain.  They were a long ride from the Chessboard. Their trail would run through barren country, among high peaks and canyons.  They would go through Kiowa country, some Comanche. And there would be white men waiting for them. Killers.

  Amos Carty shifted his gun belt.  When it came to killing, he would take a back seat to no man, if the life of Kate Chance depended on it.  His own too, for that matter.

  He went to the false-fronted building that was named the Stovepipe Hotel.  Another old man was behind the counter, also dozing. Carty rapped on the counter, and the man opened sleep-dimmed eyes.

  "You want a room?"

  "And water, and soap."

  "You must've seen Miss Kate."

  Carty took the key the man handed him, picked up his bedroll and saddlebags, and moved up the creaky stairs.  The old man followed after a time, a kettle of hot water in one hand, a kettle of cold in the other.

  Carty washed and shaved.

  The grimy mirror showed him a lean face, dark brown by overmuch exposure to hot sunlight.  His high cheekbones gave him something of the look of an Indian. Had his hair been black instead of tawny, and his eyes ebony instead of blue, he might have passed as one.

  He was slightly under six feet tall, with broad, muscular shoulders and arms that bulged his buckskin jacket.  His middle was lean, his legs were straight, unlike those of most men who spent long hours in the saddle. There was the suggestion of latent power in Amos Carty, as there might be in a sleeping puma.

  Carty kicked off his boots, dropped his shell-belt, and lay down on the bed, locking his hands behind his head.  The ceiling at which he stared was fly-specked and grimy, but he did not notice. His mind was far away, riding the dusty slopes, the fields of grama grass, the desert sands where the ocotillo and the cactus bloomed.  Over much of the country through which they would ride he had already gone, in one year or another. He made his plans, slowly, carefully.

  Much depended on the horses Morgan Chance would give him.  He had no doubts about the grulla. It was strong and fleet, with endurance that had yet to be tested.  Kate Chance would be well mounted; he would insist on that. And the pack horses must be almost as good.

  The air was filled with the aroma of cooking steak as he came down the stairs.  Morgan Chance was waiting with Kate in the dusty lobby. They must have been quarreling; Kate was staring off into nowhere, and her brother was honestly scowling.

  "We waited for you, Amos," Morg said grumpily.

  Carty studied Kate Chance.  "I'd rather eat alone."

  Her eyes flashed at him.  "I've been sitting here waiting for you, Mr. Carty.  Had I known you were going to refuse Morgan's invitation, I'd have been eating by now."

  Something had rubbed her raw.  Or maybe she was always like this, the chip visible on her shoulder.  Carty glanced at Morg. "Sorry," he said quietly.

  Chance gestured with a hand.  "Thought you'd want to talk over things."

  "Nothing to talk about, except horses and grub.  The horses got to be good, Morg. The grub doesn't matter so much."

  Morgan Chance chuckled, and nudged his sister with a hand to her shoulder.  "The Indian can live off the land, unlike most of us."

  Her interest quickened.  "Are you an Indian?"

  His head-shake was casual.  Let her brother tell her about him and his early years.  There was always a disinclination to talk in Amos Carty, and this woman didn't figure to change him.  

  With a nod, he brushed past them, went to the dining room, and found a table close to a window.  The men glanced at him; one or two nodded, and the rest stayed bent above their plates.

  To his surprise, the steak was cooked perfectly, the potatoes browned crisply.  And the homemade biscuits just about melted in his mouth. He ate with concentration, knowing this might be the last really good meal he would eat in a long time.  When he was done he walked to the big granite coffee pot and poured himself more coffee. He brought it back to his table and sipped it, smoking as he thought.

  When he was done he walked across the room and stood at the table where Morgan Chance and his sister sat.  They glanced up at him.

  "We go at dawn," Carty said.

  Kate said, "Dawn comes here a little before five, Mr. Carty."

  He nodded, then put his eyes on her brother.  "A good horse for her, Morg. Real good. And good ones for the packs."

  He turned and walked away.  She spoke softly, but he overheard her.

  "I don't like that man, Morgan."

  Carty did not smile.  He was Indian-trained, he rarely showed his emotions; he never did, when he did not want to.  He was no surprised that Kate Chance looked down her nose at him. He might have done the same, had he been an eastern-raised girl.

  What was he, after all?  A saddle bum with a fast hand for his gun, a nobody who wandered the back trails form Eagle Pass northward to the Milk River country.  He made his way by punching cows or by hiring out his gun to some rancher having trouble with rustlers or a neighboring ranch. The wind stirred the dirt over which he had ridden; he had left no mark upon the land to mark the way of his going.

  No reason for a girl to cotton to him.

  It made no difference; he was taking her into Arizona to pay off a debt that Ken Stevens owed.  By doing so, he was saving his life. The slate would be clean between himself and Morgan Chance then.

  He thought about Ken Stevens as he walked down the single street beneath the stars in the darkened sky, savoring the cool wind laden with the smell of pine.  He had known Ken Stevens, had ridden with him along the high trails, had worked with him on ranches here and there. Once Stevens had saved his life by warning him that two men were waiting in ambush for him.  He felt he owed Ken one for that. Now he was paying it off, wiping that slate clean, too.

  Carty built a cigarette, scratched a match on his Levi's, and lighted up.  He savored the smoke, cupping the glowing end in his palm so it should not be seen.  All his life he had been careful like that; it had been a trait Buffalo Horn had taught him.

  He would have to be careful with that woman.  She didn't have those habits. He frowned, thinking about that.  Like as not, she would get them both killed, no matter what he did.

  He hunkered down and rubbed out the quirley on the ground.  He started to put the dead butt in his pocket, then grinned.  No need to hide his sign in Stovepipe. He tossed the paper and shreds of tobacco high and watched the wind carry them off.

  He swung about and walked back along the street.

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