The three empty cartridge shells reflected the firelight.
They stood upright on a flat rock a few feet from the small fire where a coffeepot rested at the edge of the burning branches. They were .44 - .40 cases, polished and bright from long handling, and they had been fired so long ago the powder smell was gone from inside them.
The lean man hunkered down, a cup of coffee in his hand, not heeding the faint honking of the geese high among the clouds nor the chill wind whispering through the barren branches of the lodge-pole pines which covered this high corner of the Ramparts. His gaze held only the three shells, and there was a brooding sadness in his eyes.
His hand went out to the first shell.
"Red Patsy," he whispered between his teeth, and his fingers closed down on the brass cylinder. He stared at it for a moment, then tucked it away in a pocket of his vest.
He was a tall man with sharp angles to his bronzed face and a wide mouth that showed inbred humor beneath its present bitter lines. He wore his black Stetson low over narrowed eyes with the same casual air with which he wore the faded black flannel shirt and dusty boots. A heavy shell-belt of expensive leather holstered a Frontier Colt revolver. The belt and the gun were only clean, polished things about him.
He took the second shell off the rock.
For a moment he juggled it on a big palm before whispering, "Dutch Korman." Firelight built a redness along the cartridge as if some Blackfoot medicine man spell had imprisoned those darting tongues within the brass case. His eyes were turned inward, away from the reflected fire; he was seeing the big blond German standing in the New Mexico sunlight, his gun hand blurring. His ears heard the mocking laughter of long ago, and a wild savagery stirred along the channels of his blood...
They had been lying there in the tumbled rocks edging the prairie, their rifles thrust out in front of them, as he came cantering along the trail to Santa Fe. He was carrying more than forty thousand dollars in his saddlebags, money his guns had won for him over the past dozen years, money he was riding to turn over to the Territorial governor, as he had promised in his letter, so that he would come under the terms and conditions of the amnesty.
The governor was an Eastern man with a hunger to take his seat in the United States Senate. An amnesty for outlaws, a blanket pardon for those hard-cases willing to turn in their guns and the loot of their outlaw years, was his way of insuring peace in his Territory. More than a dozen men, tired of the long riding and the lonely nights, had taken advantage of his offer. Abel Kinniston meant to be one of the wise ones. Until he rode into the ambush, that is.
He neither saw nor heard anything. Three bullets drove into his chest and hip and arm at the same time.
He went backward over the cantle, catching a glimpse of a big blond man with a sun-reddened face rising out of the rock clusters, laughing and drawing his revolver amid a reeling maelstrom of blue sky falling in upon him.
They had come and stood over him, staring down upon him, and they had believed him dead, for though his eyes were open, something inside him had been paralyzed by their bullets so that he could not close his eyes nor blink them but lay looking up at the sky.
They had taken his saddlebags with the forty thousand dollars in them and they had ridden off across the flatlands. They believed Abel Kinniston to be dead; there was no need to waste another bullet on him.
He would have died, too, had not Old Tom found him and taken him to his hogan. Old Tom was an aged Navajo sheepherder who would not let even a dog die without trying to save its life. He had strapped Abel Kinniston on the back of his appaloosa and walked him to the dried chokecherry roots which, properly chewed to form a gummy paste, had stopped the flow of his blood. The Indian had dug out two of the bullets with his hunting knife while the lean man lay unconscious. The other bullet was somewhere back there on the cap rocks.
The terms of the amnesty had run out by this time. Abel Kinniston was still a wanted man. Bitterness was a tiny flame inside him, making him live through those long hours when his life hung on a single heartbeat. Old Tom did not believe he would live, and told him so when he was up and sitting in a chair.
Kinniston had grinned coldly, making the Navajo shiver. "I'll live," he promised, "leastwise, long enough to hunt them down."
"You know men shoot you?" Old Tom asked, sucking at his long-stemmed clay pipe.
"I saw them. Two of them I've known a long spell. The third man runs with them from time to time."
The man sighed and put away the shell.
The fire crackled, leaping read in the night. To the staring man its flames seemed stamped forever in the brass smoothness of the final cylinder. Tiny in brass, those fire flames danced and twisted, curving in on themselves as if silently mocking the lean man. Try and find me, Abel Kinniston. You can never find me. I'm the last of the bunch and the smartest of them all. I might even be as smart as you! The man by the fire nodded thoughtfully.
"Tom Yancy," he murmured, and swallowed what was left of the coffee. It was cold and bitter. He threw the cup from him so that it bounced off a stone and rolled back against his boot. As if goaded by its touch Kinniston said harshly, "Why, damn your eyes? Why'd you do it? Didn't you now I'd come after you, one by one, until I got you all?"
His hand was a stab in the night going for the shell. His fingers crushed around it as if it held the life of the man he hated most in the world. With cold fury making a bitterness on his tongue, he opened his hand and looked down at the empty cartridge.
"I almost had it, the honest life I've wanted. It was so close, just a matter of a few miles and a few words. Now I'll never find it."
Loneliness lay frozen in his staring eyes as he rose to his feet and stood framed tall and lean against the night sky. His gaze went upward to the clouds, seeing the wedge of geese sailing low against their silver. The wild things of the land were going north with spring. The man felt an inner kinship with them. They left no mark upon the land; neither did an outlaw. They had no home, nothing to call their own other than what went with them through the clouds; neither did Abel Kinniston.
He was something of a legend in the land, this Abel Kinniston, for it had always been his habit to ride alone. He and his great appaloosa stallion were rarely seen in the trail towns or in the cities mushrooming up from the Rio Grande to the Kootenai. He followed the back trails, the narrow hoof paths between the mountains and up along the high ridges. Sometimes he stopped at a lonely adobe shack where a sheepherder lived, to eat wheat cakes and drink coffee, or at one of the ramshackle saloons that were known only to a hard, tough breed of men, for aguardiente or rye whiskey.
The yellow spring blossoms of the Arizona deserts knew his lean figure in black trousers and black flannel shirt, as did the high juniper slopes of the San Juans close beside the Old Spanish Trail. There were times, when the need for action worked in his muscles, that he would swing from the saddle—it could be a boulder field along the Snake or a stand of Joshua trees below Fort Apache—and his hands would blue and his big Colt revolver buck and flame. The echoes of his shooting died away and left no trace behind him of his passing.
He was a shadow touching the Texas brasada and the moraines beyond Alder Gulch, and the instant of its touching brought a whisper of the men dead before the swiftness of his draw. Those who had never seen him scoffed a little at his name, believing it a myth; those who knew him—and these were very few—smiled tightly with the confidence of knowledge in their eyes.
Above all, he was a lonely man who spoke to animals more often than he did to people. A black bear shuffling through the timberlands of the Black Hills, a scampering brush rabbit out of a flatland hole along the Platte, a pronghorn antelope with its white tail bobbing madly as it fled across the grasslands of west Texas: these were his only confidants. The wild things and his stallion, they heard the troubled murmurs of his heart, the instinctive hungers of his blood, the deep ache of his tired muscles. And as the years fled away under the walking hooves of the palouse, Able Kinniston became something of a wild animal himself.
He grew used to the starry sky above his head at night, to the grate of dust under his boots at an early morning camp. His food he shot and ate on the trail. When a shirt or a pair of trousers wore out, he came into a town like Dodge or Tascosa and bought a new one, riding on without doing more than paying for his purchase. In these rare appearances, he seemed like nothing more than a visiting rancher, never a cowhand. His clothes were too neat and expensive for that. There was pride in Abel Kinniston, and that pride made him face the world with his own sober estimate of Abel Kinniston plain for all to read.
A wolf howled in the breaks to the south.
The man shook himself from his dreamings. A wedge of honking geese and the muted wail of a hungry lobo, strangely musical and stirring in the silent reaches of the night, were living reminders of his own loneliness. Not for the past three years, ever since he was gunned down, had he slept on a bed and within walls. In all that time he'd eaten at a table in a house less than twenty times. The ground was his mattress, a campfire his stove.
His hand that was usually so deft and sure fumbled now as he lifted out his gun—his gaze was oddly blurred with memory, this night—to spin its cylinder and check the five brass shells. Holstering the Colt, he moved with fluid stride to his saddle and lifted out the rifle. Levering the Winchester, he eyed it load and returned it to the bucket. His bedroll lay on the pine-needled ground. His horse, a rangy palouse in blacks and grays, was tethered to a fallen log with enough rope from a maguey lariat to browse where it would.
These were nightly chores grown into habit.
Restlessness made him walk from the fire to the rim of the rock lift where he'd made his camp. Out there to the south lay the Arkansas River and the New Mexico Territory, and the stark bluffs of the Llano Estacado where for a little while he had made his stand as a small rancher. His lips twisted. Ranch life lay behind him now, as did the killings that had made him outlaw, as did all the long and lonely years which had molded him into the man he was.
Where did they bury you, Homer Morrel, and you, Toleman Ackley? On what stretch of dry prairie does your grave lie hidden, Moses Pierce?
Coldness moved with the wind past his belt buckle and settled all along his spine. The honking geese went through the clouds and faded into the darkness of the north. The hunting wolf was silent far below. The world lay quiet, as if dying all around him.
Abel Kinniston knew a lot about death. He had seen men die from the bullets in his Colt. Many times a shovel in his hand had helped to bury those whom other men had killed, too. The little trail towns he had visited had been dying while he was there, only he'd been too blind to see it. He knew their names and where the prairie wind howled now around their dry and empty buildings. Fifty Mile. Painted Post. Wilkinson. Four Trees. They were a poem of sound etched in a corner of his memory. He and others like him had helped kill them. The world had no room for its outcasts and will not give them shelter.
He felt cold and tired, suddenly.
The wind made his eyes water.
A man on a horse walking through the red dawn was the only thing that moved on the wide flatness of the high beach lands. The man sat straight in the saddle, the cantle gripping his butt. His black Stetson rode low over his forehead against the coming heat of day and he held his reins loosely as if he did not need them to guide the appaloosa stallion.
From time to time the man dismounted and stared down at the ground before him. One he hunkered to brush fingertips across the dirt, to toss a pebble aside after studying it. Where the ground was rough and hard he rode slowly, where it lay soft and open he went at a swifter pace. From time to time he brought out a pair of field glasses–worn from overmuch use—and with them swept the land ahead. And always he rode with hand near the smooth butt of his holstered rifle.
This was a vast and empty land through which he moved, a land as lonely as himself. In the haze of distance red sandstone ridges erupted beyond a waste of flat gravel beds and lonely clump of palo verde. Mighty stone buttes, worn and eroded by wind and, in the days when the land was young, by rushing river waters, stood like sleeping sentinels bent against fatigue. An occasional flash of movement told him where a prairie dog had sighted him and vanished into its hole. Under the walking hooves of his horse the dry dust made tiny clouds, puffing up to fall apart and lie undisturbed as they had been in the long centuries before his coming.
A gathering excitement rode the trickle of sweat down his spine, causing him to stand in the stirrups and send his gaze raking the vast wasteland. The sun was high overhead now, and the red rocks of the moraines flared golden as they jutted their grotesque bulks at the cloudless sky. The heat was building with every added minute of daylight. In an hour it would be a pitiless thing, baking everything along this flat stretch of plateau land. As if he did not feel the heat the man rode on, eyes fixed straight before him.
He was close to the man with the scraggly red beard. He had picked up his trail in Fort Benton and had followed his tracks down the Missouri to Three Forks in Bozeman. The old Bozeman Trail carried him into Wyoming and the fringe land bordering the Grand Tetons.
Southward through the Red Desert he had skirted the Sierra Madres and followed them past Steamboat Springs. Now he was moving along the Sawatches, a tiny mote in an utter emptiness of sun and heat and haze. His mind was as empty as these barren lands, except for the face of Red Patsy.
Abel Kinniston put his fingers to his vest pocket, touched one of the three brass shells. There was a grim satisfaction in him. For close to three years he had been following the man with the scraggly red beard.
When the heat came off the hills in the shimmering waves of the midday sun, the man reined the palouse to his near side and let him walk upward half a mile to a rock sink. A stone cup, hollowed out by wind and time and an ancient glacier, held blue water in its maw under a rock overhand which sheltered it from the sun.
The man let the horse drink before he lay flat on his belly and sipped slowly. When he was done he unstrapped a Bentley canteen from his saddle and held it under the water until it was full. The water in the sink was almost gone.
Abel Kinniston made a circuit of the tenaja with curious eyes. Some dozen years ago—before Custer caught Black Kettle at the Washita and smashed his power—this was a Cheyenne rendezvous. A brave would rather die than reveal its existence to a white man.
There was a paw-mark in the dust below the rock.
"Only me and a coyote know about it now," side the lean man with a wry grin.
He moved up into the saddle and toed the speckled horse into a canter. Less than a score of miles from the sink there was an adobe building owned by a Mexican named Pio Pablo, who sold cheap mescal and fried tortillas. To a man who lived on the food he could shoot and the water he could find, the anticipated taste of tortillas was a sweetness to the tongue.
Pio Pablo was a fat man who panted when he walked. As a result he used his feet as seldom as possible. He had pushed a cot against an adobe wall close to the wooden bar so that he could rest more easily between the lonely visits of the riders who came out of the sunset toward his lonely shack.
He was stretching to light the oil lamp that hung on leather thongs from the ceiling when his ears caught the pound of hoof-beats The sun was a red ball on the horizon and inside the adobe building the shadows were long and thick. Pio Pablo waved out the match and got down laboriously from the single chair he owned. He was curious as to the identity of the rider but did not honor him going to the door.
"He will be here soon enough," he murmured, shrugging, and bent down for his big iron skillet.
Into a pool of grease he tossed half a dozen tortillas. The small iron cook stove hummed quietly with heat. Pio Pablo frowned thoughtfully, lips pursed. Abruptly he reached to the bar shelf and produced a granite coffeepot. Lonely riders meant white riders and white riders like coffee.
The horse slid in the dust outside the shack. An instant later Pio Pablo picked up the jingle of rowels. Spanish rowels, long and cruel, which made their own special kind of music. Curious, he looked away from the coffee tin to the open doorway.
A man with red beard stubble on his heavy jaw stood on the sill, staring into the lamp-lit interior. Pio Pablo felt uneasiness come into his belly. He did not like the face of this one, nor the worn look about the heavy gun belts and their twin burdens tied low on his thighs. Men like this sometimes did not pay for the food and drink he served. They laughed at him instead and Pio Pablo, being an honest coward, laughed along with them.
The red-bearded man stepped into the room after a long, searching look. He didn't smile; Pio Pablo was sure there was no humor in him. He simply walked straight ahead an leaned his elbows on the bar.
"Tortillas and coffee," he said softly. "I'll take all you can feed me."
"It is a 'dobe dollar for both, senor."
Redbeard shrugged and put a hand in his pocket. He tossed a coin on the bar top. His pale blue eyes watched Pio Pablo reach for the big Mexican dollar and tuck it into his strained trousers.
The man ate standing at the bar, both hands moving at the same time, using knife and fork with equal ease. Pio Pablo stared, fascinated. The man was finished with two plates and starting on his third when a wagon axle creaked.
Pio Pablo did not see the red-bearded man draw hit gun. It was done so smoothly and so quickly that one moment the man was calmly eating tortillas, the next he was standing with his back to the bar, gun in his hand.
"Senor, senor, they are my friends," protested Pio Pablo, wringing his pudgy hands. "Many people come to my lonely bar in the night. If you are going to shot them all—"
The red-bearded man grunted and waited, gun out. When he saw the two thin Mexicans who came walking through the dying sunlight he made a little motion with his shoulders and pushed the gun back into its holster.
"Many people come here, fat one?" he asked.
"Si, many. Non, not many." Pio Pablo shrugged. "It depends. Most of them are what you call bandido. Not wanted in the towns. They come here to eat, to drink."
The Mexicans sidled past the gunman, eyes wide.
After a moment the red-bearded man turned back to his tortillas, eating slowly. Twice he swallowed cups of steamed coffee. Nervousness made him move around the little room when he was done, examining the gourds which hung in their strings from the ceiling and the moldy cheeses lying side by side on the wooden shelf. His hand chose one. A knife came out of a pocket and cut deep. With both elbows braced on the bar and facing the open doorway which commanded a view of the night beyond it, he munched steadily.
"Fat one, you go any mescal?" he called out suddenly.
Pio Pablo turned from the far corner of the bar where he leaned with Miguel and Alonzo. "Si, senor. I give you a bottle."
The red-bearded man ignored the glass to catch hold of the tall thin bottle and tilt it to his lips. Pio Pablo and his two friends watched as the fiery liquor moved down his throat. When he put the bottle on the bar it was only half full.
"Get another one, fat boy."
Pio Pablo did not like to be spoken to in such a voice, but he was not a brave man, and so he hurried as much as his bulk would permit to wipe clean another bottle and place it beside its fellow. Twice he cleared his throat before he could speak.
"It is a dollar a bottle, senor."
The red-bearded man nodded carelessly, staring out the open door. Pio Pablo also looked out the door, past the man's shoulder, but all he could see was the open prairie with the blue bulk of the Ramparts in the far distance. He had seen this sight many times; he found nothing unusual about it, so he turned back to his friends. But the red-bearded man continued to stare until night was a black weight across the land.
Then he swung back to the bar and leaned his forearm on it. After a little while he looked at the end of the room. "How far's Wardance, fat man?"
Pio Pablo said, "Two hundred, maybe three hundred miles, senor. To the south."
"Any landmarks to watch for?"
It was Miguel who said, "Ride for the notch in the Indian Lances. You will come to a stand of aspens. Turn left and follow the edge of the river.
Pio Pablo would have liked to ask questions but the face of the red-bearded one was cold and hard. It was the face of a killer, he knew. Pio Pablo had seen a lot of such faces come and go. The less a man had to do with them the longer he would live. Pio Pablo shrugged and began to chat once more with Miguel and Alonzo.
Twice during the next hour men rode in off the flats, cowhands from the ranches half a dozen miles to the eastward along the Rio Grande, before it began its twist down into New Mexico and Texas. As each horse scattered gravel in its canter the red-bearded man tensed, but he did not lift again the heavy gun at his thigh. Apparently the mescal was soothing the open wound of his nerves; Pio Pablo hoped it was, fervently, with little whispered prayers to the Madonna. There was thick dust on the red one's vest and shirt, he had ridden far, he was probably tired and not inclined to quarrel. Or so Pio Pablo hoped.
The wind shifted over the Lances, chill with remembered winter.
On the wings of that norther, another horse came through the darkness. Its hoof-beats made faint and muted music to the ears listening in the little adobe shack. There was a jingle of ring-bits and the creak of saddle leather. The red-beard turned from his bottle to stare with narrowed eyes at the open doorway, then swung back to stand with hunched shoulders, both hands cupping the bottle, staring blindly at the wall over the little stove.
A boot crunched pebbles. A man came and stood in the doorway with his clothes worn and dusty and the look of the far traveler about his hard brown face. He wore his Stetson low on his forehead, tilted forward just above the eyes. Memory touched Pio Pablo as he came down the bar, smiling a welcome.
"Buenos noches, senor. You would like a little mescal?"
The stranger did not answer; he was looking at the red-headed man and Pio Pablo shivered when he saw the threat of death glinting in his eyes. The silence stretched on. It touched the red one, made him look up suddenly and angle his head around. Like that he stood frozen with his mouth a little open.
The dusty rider said, "Hello, Patsy."
Red Patsy whispered, "Oh, God..."
"You didn't kill me, you and Dutch Korman and Tom Yancy. You had fair chance at me. You hit me, too. I carry the scars of your bullets in my chest and hip and arm. I almost died, Patsy."
The wind moaned outside the shack and the flame of the oil lamp danced in answer to its song. Shadows shifted and quivered in the room. Miguel and Alonzo were quiet. The two white ranch hands lifted their drinks and moved backward into the darker shadows, where they stood watching.
"You can try again, Patsy. Any time. I'll wait."
Pio Pablo shivered. He had thought the redheaded man was muy duro—a very tough man—but the dusty stranger was cold fire. Again memory stirred. He knew this man with the worn clothes and the very clean gun belt; somewhere he'd seen that bronze face, but he could not remember his name.
Red Patsy was swinging slowly so as to put his back to the bar. His lips were trembling and he had grown very pale.
The stranger said, "This time it won't be from ambush and I don't have any money on me for you to steal. But if you ever killed a man, kill me now. Because if you don't, you'll never get the chance again."
A man exhaled sharply in the shadows. Pio Pablo found his memory coming with a rush, and now he remembered all the times he had seen this dusty man and especially the day Moses Pierce tried to beat his gun hand and failed; for the space of a single second it was like the old days, back in Texas. He put his hands on the bar and held them still by sheer will. Sweat stood in beads on his face, though he was shivering.
Laughter drifted from Abel Kinniston. Like a tangible thing if flicked the redheaded man and straightened him.
Red Patsy moved a shoulder. His gun was in his hand, lifting upward from the holster. Before the long barrel could clear the leather Kinniston fired three time. His bullets were long nails pinning the redheaded man back against the bar where he hung, head forward on his chest, legs rigid, dead on his feet. He was a long moment like that before he slumped to the hard dirt floor.
A man said from the shadows, "I didn't even see him draw." His words faded into a silence broken by the creak of dusty boot leather as Abel Kinniston knelt and put his hands to the body of Red Patsy.
From an inside pocket of his coat he brought out an envelope and stared at it curiously. He had not known Red Patsy could read. There was a postal stamp on the envelope and a date. Wardance, N. Mex. And the date was December 12, 1879.
The years of his trailing had put an instinct in Abel Kinniston. His nostrils flared and his eyes narrowed. Eagerly he opened the envelope, found part of torn letter inside.
...come down to Wardance and join your old friends. Dutch says hello, and wants me to say that you can make yourself a bundle here if you want it. The place is open for the taking. All a man needs is a fast gun and a little guts. You have both, so why not...
It was enough. Kinniston closed a fist, crumpling the letter. He didn't need to have the rest of the writing to know who had sent it. He went through the pockets of the worn, dusty pants, taking out some folded bills and loose change, which he put on the counter.
"The body's worth five thousand American dollars, Pio," he said softly. "Take it in to Cripple Creek and claim the reward." His gesture indicated the loose change and crumpled bills. "That'll pay for his food and drinks."
Pio Pablo swallowed. "You remember Pio Pablo, si?"
The dusty man let the corner of his lips twitch. The Mexican took it for a smile. "Could I ever forget it? The Morrels and Moses Pierce and dusty, dirty little Sundown, where I grew up. I've been trying for a dozen years to forget Sundown. Don't remind me of it."
His boot touched the dead man on the floor. He drew back and frowned. "Cook me up some tortillas. I'll eat them on the trail. And let me have a bottle of mescal. I have a long ride ahead of me."
Only Pio Pablo moved, bustling around the little stove. He said conversationally, "El muerto was riding for Wardance"
Abel Kinniston nodded. When the Mexican was done with his cooking he put the tortillas in a piece of cloth and wrapped it over three times. He handed a bottle to Kinniston, but Kinniston did not take it. His hand was fumbling in a vest pocket.
His hand lifted out an empty cartridge shell. Idly he turned it over and over, as if seeing it for the first time.
Pio Pablo felt his eyes drawn and held by that tiny cylinder. When Kinniston made a pouring motion with it, as if spilling the lifeblood of a man, Pio Pablo sighed thickly.
Kinniston let the shell go. It hit the redheaded man on his bloody shirt, and went rolling down his belly to his hop and off his thigh onto the floor. It came to rest against a dirty boot.
"Muy Gracias," whispered Kinniston, reaching for the bottle.
Then he was gone and the fading hoof-beats of a tired horse made echo to the rising murmur of the wind. For several minutes there was no movement in the adobe trail house. Then one of the cowhands came from the darkness and stood staring down at the dead man.
"Red Patsy," he said. "I've heard plenty about him. I always thought he was a fast gun."
His companion said softly, "Fast, fast. The other one was Kinniston, you fool. Didn't you hear him?"
Manuel made the Sign of the Cross.