Либрусек (книги fb2)
Brian Garfield Sliphammer
Ten minutes before the train arrived, a rider, cutting it fine, skewed his horse to a halt in piercing lemon sunlight at the crossroads store at Mountain View Junction. He could see the approaching Espee train straining up the long grade from Benson, where the Tombstone road made connections with the Southern Pacific. From this high point on the desert the weather-beaten plain dropped away in all directions except southwest, where brush-studded foothills staircased up toward the barren, dry range of mountains.
The rider had taken three hours to get here from Tucson; his horse was covered with a caked foam of lather and dust, evidence of hurry.
He dismounted, tossed one rein over the trading post’s hitch rail, and loosened the single-rig cinch before he climbed three splintered steps to the porch. By that time the storekeeper had come to the door-a squat Mexican tradesman with too much belly and the cheekbones of a Yaqui.
The storekeeper said, “Bad to ride out a horse like that. Might get him windbroke.”
“I got to meet that train, Miguel. They gonna stop here to take on water?”
“Always do,” said Miguel. “It’s a thirsty grade up to here from Benson. How you been, Kelly? Ain’t seen you since that fuckup down to the OK Corral-when was that, before Christmas?”
“October. You got any cold beer?”
“No. I got a lot of warm beer. Where’m I gonna get ice this time of year?”
“I was just asking,” Kelly said, but he did not turn to go inside. The train was within three miles, throwing back a rich plume of smoke. He could hear the rumble, or perhaps he was feeling it with his feet.
Miguel grunted and moved inside momentarily, walking with the slow care of a fat man who knows enough to conserve his sweat on a hot spring Arizona day. Kelly picked at his flannel shirt, pulling it away from the places where it stuck to him, turning his face advantageously into the tepid breeze, watching the train out of the corners of his eyes. He was a freckled, skinny man with a big Adam’s apple, a bowler hat on his head, and a Wells Fargo badge sagging from his shirt. He was thinking it was a damn stupid-ass thing to do, riding that hard in this heat just to bring word to the Earps on the train. He didn’t care much one way or the other about the Earps. But two of them-Wyatt and Virgil-had worked for Wells Fargo, and the dispatcher had reckoned Wells Fargo owed the Earps fair warning. Which meant somebody had to reach them before the train got to Tucson. Kelly wasn’t brimming with enthusiasm; it wasn’t as if the Earps were still working for Wells Fargo. That had been a while ago; since then, the Earps had had other things to do. Like running the whorehouse district in Tombstone, for instance. All the Earps, particularly Wyatt, were very big on whorehouses and gambling concessions, and of course politics, since one went hand in hand with the other.
Kelly took a wadded plaid handkerchief out of his hip pocket, removed his bowler hat, and wiped his face and ears and the back of his neck. Only late spring-what was summer going to be like?
Maybe reading his mind, the storekeeper spoke behind him, startling him: “Hot enough for you?”
Kelly turned. Miguel stood in the doorway shade, a clay mug in either fist. The fat brown hand proffered one of them; Kelly crossed the porch with two strides, took the mug, and swallowed half the beer from it. With foam on his lips he said, “You were right. Beer’s warm.”
“Ain’t no place south of the Mogollon that ain’t hot.”
“Why do any of us stay in this miserable country?”
“Beats shit out of me,” said Miguel.
Kelly squinted westward. The sun would be setting in a half hour or so; night would bring some relief. It occurred to him he hadn’t stopped to pick up his jacket. It would be a cool ride back to Tucson. Of course he could ride the train, but then he’d just have to come back later for the horse.
The train was a quarter mile down the tracks, slowing. Miguel said, “Funeral party’s on that train, you know. The whole Earp gang.”
“I know. What car they in?”
“Probably the express-they’re carrying the casket.”
“Sure.” Kelly handed the empty mug to him and walked out to the edge of the porch. The high-stacked woodburning locomotive chuffed and clattered; he winced against the piercing steel shriek of wheel brakes; the engine slid past and rumbled expertly to a halt right under the long spigot of the high wooden water tank.
Kelly dropped off the porch and dogtrot-ted back past the eight freight cars to the express. The sliding door stood part-way open against the heat; a pretty young man in a dandy black suit stood in the opening, his face cindered. Kelly didn’t recognize him but there was a faint clannish resemblance to Wyatt and Virgil Earp in the high, handsome features and the dark-blond hair. One of the Eastern Earp brothers, maybe-God knew how many brothers there were altogether.
Kelly stopped, smelling his own sweat, and said, “I got an important message for Wyatt.”
“Yeah? Who’re you?”
“Kelly, Wells Fargo. He’s seen me around.”
Someone inside spoke a muffled question; the young man in the doorway turned his head and spoke inside: “Wells Fargo fellow name of Kelly says he’s got a message for you.”
After a moment the youth stepped back into shadows and the doorway filled with a new shape, older and bigger. Kelly recognized right away the tawny mustache, the illuminated gray-blue eyes, the jut jaw and wide shoulders.
“You ride all the way down here from Tucson?” Wyatt Earp was dressed in black.
“I assume it’s important, then. Hell of a hot day for riding. On a horse or a train.”
“Yeah, I guess,” said Kelly, resenting the way he felt so grimy and uncomfortable in Earp’s presence. He puts his pants on the same way I do. But there was no denying the presence. What the Mexicans called machismo. Son of a bitch or not, Wyatt Earp was man-sized.
“All right, Kelly,” Earp said mildly, “you said you had a message for me.”
The lapse startled Kelly; when he swallowed, his big Adam’s apple slid up and down. “About Frank Stillwell. The one you said killed your brother Morgan.”
Earp’s face hardened. “What about him?”
“Stillwell says he wasn’t even in Tombstone that night. Says he had nothing to do with it.”
“And you rode all the way down here to tell me that?”
“No. I rode all the way down here because my boss told me to get word to you that Stillwell’s waiting for you.”
Earp’s jaw clicked. “Where?”
“Tucson. In the railroad yards where this train stops to couple on the cross-country coaches. Stillwells got a rifle and two handguns and he’s been talking around town how he wants to see you tell him to his face that he bushwhacked your brother.”
“I’ll tell him,” Wyatt Earp murmured. “If that’s what he wants to hear, that’s what I’ll tell him.”
Earp wasn’t smiling. As far as Kelly could see, he wasn’t armed. There were no bulges in the tailored black suit. Earp pulled one side of the coat back to dip his fingers into the side-belly pocket of his buttoned black vest; he took out something that glittered and tossed it down. Kelly almost missed his catch. It threw him off balance but he caught it.
Wyatt Earp said, “Thanks for letting me know, Kelly.”
The woodburner engine hooted and Kelly heard the big driving wheels start to scrape. There was a series of loud bangs as the betweeh-car couplings stretched. The express car started up with a jerk but Wyatt Earp kept his stance, balanced and easy, not using his hands, The train pulled forward and Kelly stood in the noise, looking down at the object in his palm. It was a twenty-dollar gold piece.
“Half my month’s wages,” he said aloud to himself. When he looked up at the express car receding in the middle of the train, he felt inarticulate anger well up in him. The caboose went by and he hollered: “Screw you!”
Warren Earp could, see that Wyatt had forgotten all about Kelly before he even turned out of the doorway and walked back to his place by the casket. In Wyatt’s book there were people worth knowing and people not worth knowing; and by tossing the double eagle to Kelly, Wyatt had forgotten him. Warren, who had been studying his brother to learn how to act, had already learned how to overtip common people for small favors, but he did think this time Wyatt had been too extravagant. Twenty dollars was a goddamn lot of money.
When Wyatt vacated the doorway, Warren moved back into it. The express car was so damn hot he thought if he didn’t stand in the wind he’d die-especially in this stinking black suit. Maybe it just took time to get used to the heat, — but it was hard to understand how the hell the rest of them took it so stoicly-all except Josie, who had been complaining ever since they got on the train.
The wind carried ashes back from the smokestack. Warren breathed deeply of the smoke and watched the desert churn past, creosote and crabby cactus and tall, man shaped saguaros riding by in the elongated evening shadow of the train. Everything was powder dry. He turned his face and shifted his gaze inside. The windows were small and dusty; the light inside was bad. Wyatt stood, swaying a little with the lurch of the train, brooding down at the coffin in front of him, obviously knowing the others were anxious to know what the message had been, obviously not caring how long he kept them waiting. Wyatt was watching the casket as if he was waiting for something. Waiting for Morg to start banging on the inside of the box and yelling to get out, Warren thought with a sudden fearful, crazy impulse.
The rest of them were watching Wyatt. They were all afraid to speak, all except Holliday, who evidently didn’t have anything he felt like saying at the moment. Holliday wasn’t scared of anybody; he didn’t care about, anything, even his own life, enough to be scared. Holliday was a shrunken little man with a lopsided face, sick-looking eyes, tiny broken blood vessels in his nose that made it look purple. Back East, Warren had read a dime novel about him, and now meeting him he had been shocked. This Doc Holliday was a dour little man with the mannerisms of a rag-picking tramp, a twisted, humorless being whose thick Georgia drawl was pitched on an incongruously thin, high voice.
Right now Holliday sat on the floor with his back to the car side, drinking from a bottle, playing cards with the three ruffians whom Wyatt in his expansiveness had invited to accompany the funeral party as far as the New Mexico line, where Texas Jack and his two unsavory friends would leave the train and go about their dubious business. The three ruffians had helped Wyatt catch the man named Cruz, the one Wyatt had killed last week.
The railroad had given them the entire express car as a favor to Wyatt and Virgil, who-according to the dime novels Warren had read-had caught several bands of train robbers. The other night Holliday, drunker than usual, had confided in Warren: “Don’t believe the lies you read in that yellow trash, sonny. Wyatt and Virg have got plenty of powerful friends in politics and that’s, how they arranged for the private car. None of us ever stopped any train robberies.” Then, laughing sourly: “Quite the reverse.” But Holliday was a habitual liar. It was impossible to know what to believe. The only sure and certain thing in all the confusion was Wyatt’s rock-hard assurance.
They were all Westerners except Warren; it was as if they all knew some secret he hadn’t yet learned. A few weeks ago he had still been pushing a plow back in Ohio, but then the telegram had come. Morgan Earp had been killed-from ambush, by three shotguns. The folks were too old to go West themselves; they had sent Warren to Arizona because somebody had to represent the home family at the funeral. He came all the way, and arrived to discover that his brothers had decided to ship the body back to Ohio for burial in the family plot. And here he was, back on a train, headed East.
Across the car, half hidden by the casket, Virgil Earp stood with his good shoulder braced against the wall. Virgil was the calm one. Morgan had been carefree; Virgil was level-headed; Wyatt-he was just Wyatt, too big to pin a label on. Warren thought, Where do I fit? Because he was damned if he’d go back to the farm now.
Virgil was over there talking to Josie, Wyatt’s wife. It was hard to tell if she was paying attention. Josie had a little hand mirror; she was fixing her hair with hand-pats, watching herself in the mirror. Evidently she never tired of looking at herself. Not that she wasn’t worth looking at. She was a medium-tall girl with dark cherry-red hair and golden skin, a wide, full mouth and a pointed nose that gave her, with her large brown eyes, a quizzical, pretty look. She had a dancer’s hard, slim body-long legs, tiny waist, bouncy, pointy breasts. She had been a dancer-actress with a traveling troupe of players when Wyatt had met her a year or so ago. Josephine something or other; now she called herself Josie Earp, but Warren had heard they weren’t really married. “Common-law wife,” Holliday had called her in one of his caustic tirades. Whatever that meant, it had been enough to drive Josie out of the room in tears, real or faked. According to Holliday, who seemed to be the self-appointed clan gossip, Josie was the errant daughter of a wealthy San Francisco family who had run off with the acting troupe in rebellion after her parents had arranged her engagement to a boy she loathed. Warren had no idea whether that was true, but it did seem in character. Josie was as untamed as the rest of the Earp clan, in her way: she did as she pleased. She liked to shock people; she had a provocative, sexy walk; when she got bored she was likely to do just about anything for amusement. It didn’t seem to bother Wyatt. He just laughed at her in his lusty way.
Now Virg said something to Josie-Warren didn’t hear what it was-and Josie stiffened and said, very loudly, “Horse shit,” and turned to walk away. Warren watched her buttocks as she walked. She went past the end of the casket and Wyatt reached out and gave her rump an affectionate slap. She went on to the far end of the car, knowing Wyatt was watching her: her awareness of his attention put an extra hip swing in her walk, put more of an arch in her back so that her breasts thrust out against the. fabric of her black dress.
She stopped at the far end and turned around. When she glanced at Virgil, her mouth was sucked in with a tight look of disapproval.
Wyatt said, “Something wrong with you?”
She shook her head mutely. Wyatt’s leonine head turned toward Virgil. Virg, in his unhurried, unrufflable way, smiled slowly and said, “I asked her if she knew how to fry an egg.”
Wyatt laughed. “She wouldn’t know what to do with herself in a kitchen. Would you, girl?”
Josie said, “Horse shit. You tell them to quit picking on me.”
Wyatt said, “Time you learned the difference between what’s funnin’ and what’s serious. Now we’ll talk about what’s serious for a minute. Virg, Doc, pay attention. The message was that Frank Stillwell’s waiting in the railroad yard at Tucson with a rifle and two belt guns.”
Doc Holliday drawled, “Alone?”
Holliday nodded. “Yeah, who else would be left? You killed the other two.”
Wyatt said, “He’s the last of Morg’s killers. Save me the trouble of looking for him.”
Josie’s face had changed. She said, “There’s going to be trouble, then.”
Wyatt had a tired, confident, masculine smile that worked slowly across his mouth. His heavy, deep voice was loose at the edges. He said: “Not for me, girl.”
Holliday, without comment, had got to his feet. He was unbuckling the straps of a carpetbag; when he turned around he had a double-barreled shotgun. He walked over to Wyatt and handed him the gun. Wyatt broke it open, inspected the loads, and snapped it shut, setting both hammers on safety half cock.
Warren moved in away from the open doorway. “I wish to Christ somebody’d let me have a gun.”
Holliday drawled, “What for, to shoot off your foot?”
“In my opinion I’m a pretty damn good shot:”
“Sonny, your brother isn’t interested in your opinion.”
“Nobody ever is.” Warren grumbled. He went back to the door. His movements were graceful but self-conscious, in imitation of Wyatt: he carried himself like an open bottle.
Josie said, “Doc.”
Holliday’s glance shifted. “What?”
“Go shit in your hat,” Josie said, and grinned.
Holliday muttered an oath and went back to the card game. Texas Jack, holding his hand of cards down so Holliday couldn’t see them as he went by, looked up and said lazily, “Yew thank yew need any hep, Wyatt?”
And Virgil, his heavily bandaged right shoulder gleaming in the half-light, said, “Maybe you could use a backup, Wyatt. You’re a little tense. A man who’s tense makes mistakes.”
Wyatt shook his head. “Keep your seat, Jack. And”-to Virgil-”please don’t presume to advise me how to handle Frank Stillwell.” With a quick snap of his big shoulders he turned away from the casket and walked over to join Josie, indicating that the discussion was ended. He appeared to have put the Stillwell threat clean out of his mind; Warren faintly heard him say to Josie, in an exaggerated hick-country drawl, “Ma’am, you look slicker’n a schoolmarm’s elbow.” Then both of them laughed and Josie squeezed herself against Wyatt. Warren wondered what it would be like to have those soft breasts pushing against his own chest.
Across the swaying car, Virgil moved away from the wall and came forward to the head of the casket. He braced his good hand against it and stood there, brooding. Virgil had been ambushed a few weeks before Morg’s death-the same shotguns. They hadn’t killed him but Virg’s right shoulder had been smashed, probably beyond repair; in time the bandages would come off but it was doubtful the big man would ever use his arm again. The tracks of pain and bitterness had etched deep creases in his long-jawed face. Warren wondered what he was thinking. Virg had been laid up in bed when Wyatt and Holliday and the others had gone after the ambushers who’d crippled Virg and killed Morgan. Wyatt had killed Cruz at a desert ranch, and the day of Warren’s arrival Wyatt had ridden into Tombstone and announced he had caught up with Curly Bill back in a canyon and left Curly Bill there dead. Nobody had found the body but Warren had no reason to disbelieve his brother. It left one ambusher at large, and Wyatt said that was Frank Stillwell, and now Stillwell was waiting for them in Tucson, a few minutes ahead. What was Virg thinking? A right-hander, he couldn’t be much use with a gun left-handed. Was he, in his mind, talking to Morgan in that quiet, manly, reasoning voice of his?
Warren walked to the casket and leaned both hands on it. “Wondering what he’d want us to do?”
“Something like that, maybe. You know it didn’t make any sense, kid. They had no fight with Morg. It was Wyatt and me that ran the Cat Town quarter. But Morg was at the OK Corral and that’s all they cared about, I guess. He shouldn’t have been there.”
“You’re his brothers.”
“Aeah, but Wyatt and I carried city badges. Morg was a private citizen. It wasn’t his fight.”
“The way I heard it,” Warren said carefully, “that fight at the OK Corral had nothing to do with the law. Would it have stopped the fight if you hadn’t been wearing a badge?”
“Kid,” said Virg, “you keep a civil tongue in your head, hear?”
“I was just asking, Virg.”
Virg nodded. “Wyatt’s not the only one tense. I’m sorry I jumped at you.”
“That’s all right.”
Warren looked around. The light was getting very poor-sundown. Holliday and the three ruffians played cards without talk. Wyatt and Josie stood in murmuring embrace at the back of the express car. Here in the exact center of the car the casket stood across a pair of two-by-fours. It was an expensive diamond willow casket. Eight black horses had drawn the ornate hearse that had brought Morg to the train. Warren remembered the crowd that had come down to see them off-gamblers, whores, politicians, and mineowners-all dressed in black like the pleasent occupants of the express car, black made dusty by the desert wind.
Virg cleared his throat and Warren looked up at him. Virg said, “Let me tell you how it was, Warren, because maybe you got a lot of lies from Doc and the rest of them. It wasn’t like the dime novels will tell it, but it wasn’t like Behan’s Nugget newspaper will tell — it either. Wyatt and I took over Cat Town down there because the town needed somebody to run it, so it wouldn’t get out of hand with tinhorns. We ran clean houses and clean gambling, which is not against the law, and the Tombstone council appointed me city marshal because they figured Cat Town would take orders easier from one of its own. So I had a city badge and brother Wyatt had a federal deputy’s badge because he volunteered to collect the taxes in Cat Town, which was a job that paid high but didn’t offer good chances to live long. I don’t apologize for us, kid, but I want to make you see. You take a tough boom camp like Tombstone and you need a place where folks can blow off steam. That was Cat Town. We weren’t hired to close it down. We were just there to keep the peace. We’re businessmen, Wyatt and me, and you don’t take any profits from dead men.”
“What about the OK Corral, then?”
“I’m coming to that, kid. You’ve spent your whole life in Ohio and I think you’ve read too damn many dime novels about this’ here Wild West of ours. You read a lot about plainsmen and cowboys and other claptrap like that. Your brothers and I, we’ve never been cowboys, never want to be. About the only time we spent riding the range was back when you were half grown, when the price of buffalo hides was so high Wyatt and I made a little fortune hunting buffalo for two months. But out here’s just like back there, at the bottom of things-a man’s still got to make a living, which is what the dime novels don’t tell you when they bleat about heroes of the plains and Indian fighters and all that hogwash. The Earp brothers are businessmen, kid, not penny-dreadful heroes. We’ve owned saloons in every town from Ellsworth to Tombstone. It may not be heroics but it makes a profit, which is a thing that can be hard to come by in a country that gets dumped on its butt by financial panics every other year and half wiped out by blizzards and droughts and a crash in the price of silver. It’s all accounting, kid, whether you’re a rancher or a hard-rock miner or a saloonkeeper. So you had better get a lot of notions out of your head before you go around begging for somebody to give you a gun you can strap on. A gun’s just a tool you use when you haven’t got a more profitable way to settle your quarrels.”
Warren said, “But what about the OK Corral?”
Virg shook his head. His face, in the deepening shadows, was hard to make out.
Finally he said, “That started in Kansas, you know.”
“Back right after the war. Before you were hardly out of baby pants. Texans brought their cows up to Kansas, hating Yankees, and Kansas hired a bunch of people to keep the Rebs in line. Wyatt and I did that kind of work for a while because Kansas paid high to get fighting men. That was some years back and we were some younger and looser than we are now.”
“The Clantons didn’t come from Kansas.”
“They came from Texas, kid, and they carried along that hate of Kansas Yankees, which meant us. One night Wyatt had to throw Ike Clanton out of a saloon of ours. I tangled with Johnny Ringo once or twice. And Doc took some stolen cows away from old man Clanton last summer. Not for law but to sell the cows himself, down in Mexico. Nobody could prove they were stolen.”
“How’d Doc get tied up with you, anyway?”
“He had a girl friend that worked in one of Wyatt’s houses. But that’s a long story. You asked about the OK Corral and I told you. It was Texans and Kansans and we were fighting the goddamned Civil War again, is all it amounts to, because I’ve yet to meet a Texan who really believes the war’s over and Texas lost. So you see kid, it’s not heroes of the plains versus villains with black mustaches, it’s just a goddamned stupid feud between people who ought to grow up and learn better.”
“You were there-at the OK Corral.”
“I didn’t like it.”
“But you were there.”
“I was there,” Virg said in a low, harsh voice. “I was there, kid, and I got nicked by a bullet or two, and I helped kill three men-for no good reason I could think of, and afterwards they put enough buckshot in this shoulder to fill a soda cracker keg, and after that they killed our brother here, and after that Wyatt went out and killed a couple more of them, and now somebody else is gonna get killed, and I just want to know where the spittin’ hell it’s all ever going to end.”
His face completely masked in shadow, Virg wheeled away and tramped back to a dark corner. Warren stared down at the coffin under his hands.
The engine whistled, several short hoots. The train was beginning to slow down. Warren looked toward the shadowy back end of the car. He could make out Josie back there but Wyatt was no place in sight. His glance traveled the length of the car. The poker game was suspended; Holliday and Texas Jack were getting to their feet. Wyatt wasn’t with them, either. Wyatt wasn’t anywhere in the car.
The grab of brakes threw Warren against the coffin. He righted himself and turned toward the half-open door, but Doc Holliday shouldered past him and growled, “Stay put right here, sonny,” and went on to the door with Texas Jack right behind him. Disobediently, Warren followed them and stood behind Texas Jack’s shoulder.
The train racketed to a stop with a sigh of sliding brake shoes. Warren saw a lot of freight cars on sidings in the twilight and a man dimly visible standing on the dusty ground beside the express car.
The man said, “Where’s Wyatt Earp?”
Doc Holliday said, “Buenos fucking tardes, Stillwell.”
“Up yours, Doc. The great man too chickenshit to come out of there behind you?”
Warren shifted to the side; he saw, now, that Stillwell had a rifle pointed right at Doc’s belly and cocked. The rifle shifted an inch and Stillwell yelled, “Where the hell is he?”
Warren jerked. Wyatt’s deep voice had shot forward from the shadows behind Stillwell.
“Right here, you son of a bitch!”
Stillwell wheeled, frantic. The rifle didn’t turn as fast as he did. Two brilliant stabs of flame lanced from the shadows between two freight cars. Warren felt the concussion of the shotgun’s earsplitting roar.
The double ten-gauge blast slammed Stillwell back. He pitched and toppled, aglisten with raw meat and gristle from rib cage to shoulder.
Warren was unable to swallow. He felt needles in his knees. His eyes refused to blink.
Wyatt stepped into sight. It was too dark to make outhis face. Stillwell was down flat and moaning.
Warren felt weight behind him-Virg, breathing through his teeth, and Josie. Warren felt the hard grip of her hands on his arm. He couldn’t rip his eyes off Stillwell. Stillwell was grumbling deliriously; Doc Holliday drawled cruelly. “Don’t be a poor loser, Frank.”
Wyatt Earp snapped, “He wasn’t playing a game.”
“Sure he was-sure he was. What else you want to call it?”
Warren’s legs began to tremble. The man wasn’t even dead yet. Warren saw Wyatt step across Stillwell and drop the empty shotgun across Stillwell’s legs. Wyatt stood below them, looking up. Behind Warren, Virg began to curse in a dead, flat, obscene monotone.
Somewhere in the ensuing run of moments, Stillwell died. Wyatt bent over him to make sure. Josie breathed, “Sweet, sweet Jesus.” Wyatt reached up for a grip and climbed into the express car.
The engine whistle startled Warren. He turned slowly in time to see big old Virg looking at Wyatt with the kind of stare he might have used on a stranger whom he didn’t know and didn’t want to meet.
The train started up, with a curious half-scared knot of pedestrians starting to appear in the yards. Wyatt Earp slammed the door shut. Warren heard him growl, “I’m sick of Arizona anyway.”
Jeremiah Tree sat his horse on the hillside, crossed one leg over the saddle horn and packed his pipe without hurry, lazy in the heat, a craggy, big man with a weathered, sun-squinted face and leathery little creases crosshatching the brown back of his neck. All around him the desert was in flower-Spanish bayonet, yucca, hummingbird bushes, chollas, staghorns, ironwoods, cat-tlaw, Joshuas, mesquite, paloverde, prickly pe’ar, ocotillo and the little red ones some drunken botanist had labeled with punful helplessness Echinocereus damdifino. Damned if I know, yeah. Didn’t matter if you knew their names anyway. The blossoming beauty of riotous color was a brief annual discovery that always made him feel as if he was going back to some very primitive and basic thing, an innocence and cleanliness long gone.
He put the pipe in a corner of his wide mouth but did not light it. It was too hot to smoke. He sat looking down at the ranch, where the sun seemed to set the corrugated metal shed roofs afire. The hot wind rubbed itself against him with abrasive dryness.
He had been sitting here for an hour, watching the two saddled horses ground-hitched in the ranch yard below. He had a fair idea what the two of them were doing inside, and he didn’t want to interrupt. He chewed on his pipe and waited. Absently, his left hand hooked itself for comfort over the hammer of his hip-holstered six-gun. It was a good fast gun: a fighting man’s gun. Forty-five center fire single action with a 4 %-inch barrel and a front sight that had been filed down low and smooth so it wouldn’t get caught on the holster coming out. It was a sliphammer six-gun: it had no trigger inside the oval guard; the hammer spur had been sawed off, cut down, and rewelded in place halfway down the back of the hammer. The hammer spring had been filed with care. It took a great deal of experience and practice to use a sliphammer gun effectively, but once the technique was learned-scraping the ball of the thumb fast over the lowered hammer spur-a sliphammer shooter could fire three times as fast as a man with a trigger, and far more accurately than an idiot who fanned.
Jeremiah Tree went with the gun: he had a workmanlike look. His face was the color of the worn walnut handle of the gun. His eyes were the color of the metal at the gun’s muzzle where holster friction had worn off the bluing: the silver color of a freshly minted. 45 slug, before corrosion dulled the lead. His skin had the texture of holster leather softened by countless saddle soap-ings. His shirt had been washed too often; the sleeves had shrunk halfway up his forearms. His long-legged stovepipe Levi’s were faded and white-threaded.
His hair was thick and black, curling out under the stained hat, and generally he had the look of an Indian or a half-breed, though he was neither: both parents had been Scotch-Irish. A history of fights was recorded in the myriad ^minor scars and half dozen major ones on his exposed face and hands; victories were implied by the fact that he was neither disfigured nor crippled.
The only clue to his present occupation was the pair of pinholes in the left breast patch pocket of his shirt. He wasn’t wearing a badge today.
Alerted by movement in the porch shadows, he straightened in the saddle and put his boots back into the stirrups. Down there he saw Caroline come out into sight and lift one hand to shade her eyes, looking toward the western horizon. Jeremiah Tree gigged his horse gently downhill.
She hadn’t seen him yet; she was looking the other way. As Tree rode switchbacking down the hillside, he saw Rafe come out of the house ramming his shirt tails into his Levi’s and then sweeping the disheveled hair back out of his eyes. Rafe walked up behind Caroline, reached under her arms and laid both hands on her breasts. The girl tipped her head back against his shoulder.
Tree’s face showed no break in expression. He was thinking of what Caroline’s father had said to him a month ago: I tried to talk her out of it, Sliphammer boy. Honest to God I did. I told her not to marry your brother because he just ain’t tough enough for her. She’ll put spurs to him one time when she ain’t even thanking about it, and she’ll rip him to shreds ‘thout ever knowing how it happened.
He brought his horse around the end of the porch. He heard crickets in the trees down by the spring. A hawk drifted above the house; a dog lay asprawl under the porch, panting in the shade.
Sliphammer Tree said, “Whose dog is that?”
Rafe had taken his hands down off Caroline’s breasts when he’d heard the hoofbeats. Now they were holding hands. Rafe said, “Beats me. Stray, I reckon.”
“Lo the bride and groom,” said Sliphammer with a little smile at Caroline. Husky and blonde, she made him think of haystacks. She had a sturdy, firm body; her breasts seemed so tightly packed and swollen that one good squeeze might bring forth a squirting shower of juices. She had the eyes of an alert doe stepping into a strange clearing.
Caroline said, “Do you like the place?”
Sliphammer had been inspecting the ranch. The buildings were weathered and tumbledown, with the look of abandonment. He said, “It looks lived in-hard to tell by what.”
“Snakes and roaches, mainly,” said Rafe. He was young and very earnest: half amazed by- his own possession of this vibrant, vital girl-wife he had, he had turned eager and flushed, and impatient with ambition. It troubled Tree but he had said nothing in the past week; once they had got married it had seemed too late for avuncular advice. The kid would have to make his own mistakes.
Rafe seemed irritable just now: his brown eyes flashed erratically. He was chunky and broad through chest and shoulder; in a few more years when he filled out completely he would be a powerful man. His jaw was wide and blunt. He had Sliphammer’s long bladed nose and the shape of his cheekbones and eyes was the same, but his bone structure was heavier, less graceful, and his coloring was lighter. They had shared the same father but different mothers: the frontier was hard on women.
Rafe said, “Damn it, do you like the place?”
“Looks like you’ve already got your minds set on it. Do you need my approval?”
Rafe’s chest swelled but Caroline cut him off: she said, “We think we can make a good place out of it, Jerr.”
She was the only one who’d ever called him that. He’d been called Jeremiah, Jerry, Jeremy, and Sliphammer. The West didn’t seem satisfied with a man until it had surrounded him with descriptive nicknames. Caroline’s father called her the Milkmaid, and truly she looked like one. Rafe was known as Wrangler Tree because his specialty was horses.
The house creaked, settling. Rafe said in a pushy, defiant voice, “Make a goddamn good horse ranch out of this outfit. Take a little cash and a lot of sweat but we’ll do it proud.”
In spite of himself Sliphammer said, “You’ll do as you see fit, I reckon, but maybe it’s a little early to chance it on your own. First of all you haven’t got the money to buy the place, and if you do it on borrowed cash all it’ll take will be one bad season to wipe you out. A man ought to have a nest egg before he goes into business on his own.”
“We’ll take the chance.”
“That’s what the last fellow thought who owned this place. Why do you think it’s up for sheriff’s auction?”
“Because the last fellow didn’t know how to run a ranch, which is not my weakness,” Rafe snapped. “For a man who’s worked for wages all his life you’re mighty free with your advice, Jeremy. I’m a married man and Caroline deserves a whole lot better than a thirty-a-month wrangler. You work your whole life for dirt wages and end up with nothing to show for it and when you die your friends got to take up a collection to bury you. That ain’t for Caroline and me.”
Caroline pushed her lower lip forward to blow hair off her forehead. Sliphammer said to her, “You agree with that?”
“If I didn’t I wouldn’t be here.”
“Hell,” said Rafe, “I got to admit it was Caroline’s idea in the first place.”
I should have known, Sliphammer thought. What he said was, “With a little luck I guess you might make it.” There was no point in arguing with them.
“Bet your ass we’ll make it,” said Rafe. Caroline blushed, and Sliphammer found that faintly surprising.
Rafe lifted his arm and pointed. “Somebody coming.”
Sliphammer turned to follow his gaze. He had to tip his head to get the sun out of his eyes. A rider was coming down the blossoming slope, neither hurrying nor wasting time. Rafe said, “Looks like your boss.”
It was in fact the sheriff, Bob Paul. He had a pinched, exasperated look on his heavy-jowled face. Paul had spent his whole life in the saddle but he still managed to look like a sack of potatoes on horseback. He was a rounded man, rounded everywhere: his thighs looked soft, his shoulders were matronly, his darkly beard-slurred face was puffy. He was a solemn, slow-moving man, a good sheriff, an acceptable boss, a casual friend.
Paul’s greeting was dour. “The one day in the year I really need you, you’re galivant-ing way the hell out here. Don’t you thank I’ve got better thangs to do than chase all over Pima County thew this heat? H’are you, Wrangler? Missus Caroline?”
Paul touched his hat. Sliphammer was smiling, not rising to the bait; he said mildly, “Even us slaves get a day off now and then.”
Paul removed his hat and wiped his face in the crook of his sleeve. “My frin, I’m jis gonna have to hang a bell on you.”
“I repeat,” Sliphammer said good-humoredly, “it’s my day off. You want to talk to me today, pay me an extra two dollars.”
“Ain’t nothing like a loyal deputy,” Paul complained with a great show of indignation. “And as for these kin of yours, you ever notice how these young folks lose all their manners? Ain’t nobody invited me to step down and take a little drank.”
Rafe said, “You’re welcome to light down. There’s nothing to drink here until somebody deans out the well. Or you can go down to the spring.”
Paul climbed down with a fat man’s sigh. “Get that well fixed soon as somebody buys the place at auction next month. You still in the market?”
“Bet your ass.”
“Likely you’ll have to scramble some, then. Get yoseff plenty of money. Fellow from Prescott’s gonna brang me a bid of three thousand dollars, I hear.”
Rafe’s face fell. Caroline said, “Three thousand?”
“That’s what I heard,” said Paul, and turned toward Sliphammer. “Rat now you and me got binness.”
“It’s still my day off.”
“Neither one of us gonna get no more days off for a while, Jeremy. We got ourselves a little chore up to Colorado.”
Paul nodded. He tramped over to the shady corner of the house and sat down on the sagging edge of the porch, his face pearled with sweat. “Come acrosst here and set down.”
Sliphammer went over and sat by him. Rafe and Caroline hovered, listening, and Paul made no effort to chase them off. He said, “Superior Court put out a fugitive bench warrant for the Stillwell murder last nat.”
“On the Earp crowd?”
“Just so. Wyatt Earp made a mistake pointing his fanger at Frank Stillwell-Stillwell had a lot of frinds and one or two of them got the Governor’s ear. Got a lot of Texas cowmen in Arizona that never did like the Earp gang, just lookin’ for an excuse like this. Now, Stillwell got killed in this jurisdiction, and that makes it our job to brang the Earps back from Colorado.”
Paul looked up at him. His fat face seemed boyish and sorrowful. “It sets up like this, Jeremy. The gang busted up after Stillwell got killed. Texas Jack and a couple others got lynched to death over to New Mexico, which leaves three Earp brothers and Doc Holliday. Now, Virgil went on back to Ohio with Morgan’s body. Ain’t nobody interested in crucifying Virgil-he’s crippled up anyway, everybody knows he couldn’t of shot anybody. But I got these warrants for Doc Holliday and Wyatt and Warren Earp. They all up in Colorado-Holliday’s bucking faro in Denver and the other two, they over to Gunnison on the southwest slope of the Rockies. Up to you and me to serve the warrants, boy.”
When Sliphammer didn’t speak, Paul glanced at him again and said morosely, “I can’t go both places at once, Jeremy.”
“So I’m elected to arrest Doc Holliday?”
“No. The Denver police will do that.”
“Aeah. I got to be the one to go to Denver, you see-I got to get the Governor of Colorado to sign the extradition papers before we can arrest anybody. You got to be the one goes to Gunnison, Jeremy.”
Wyatt Earp. Tree studied the toes of his sunwhacked boots and wondered how much registered on his face. It was unthinkable-like trying to arrest Robin Hood or Ulysses or Buffalo Bill.
Sheriff Paul’s voice droned on: “You ain’t to arrest them, not at first anyhow. While I’m dickering with the Governor I want you in Gunnison where you can keep your eye on Wyatt and his brother. Soon as I get the papers signed in Denver, I’ll send you a telegraph ware, you get the sheriff down there to hep you. I don’t know how many deputies he’s got but I reckon you’ll get plenty of hep. All you got to worry about is branging them back here and making damn sure they don’t bust loose.”
“Uh-hunh,” Sliphammer said absently.
Half the porch length away, Rafe was unable to contain himself: he blurted, “Sheriff, you think Wyatt Earp’ll take kindly to the idea of being brought back to Arizona to get hung?”
The sheriff gave him a long, slow look. “Why, no, son, I don’t thank he’ll take kandly to it at all.”
Caroline said, “You can’t mean this.”
Paul shook his head mutely and got to his feet with a grunt.
Sliphammer said, “I don’t take kindly to it either.”
“I ain’t worried about you.”
Sliphammer said, “That’s a comfort.”
“You ain’t a frind of Wyatt’s, are you?”
“I’ve never laid eyes on him.”
“Then that’s dll rat,” said Paul. “Listen here-he uses a privy the same way you do.”
Paul nodded sagely, and walked toward his horse. Sliphammer kept his seat, and the sheriff looked back at him inquiringly.
“Jeremy, I sure hope you ain’t thanking of refusing to do this little chore.”
“Maybe I am.”
“No. Long as you work for me, Deputy, you take awders from me. I can’t have a deputy that only works when he feels lak it.”
Caroline said, in awe, “But you’re talking about Wyatt Earp!”
“I thought I was,” Paul agreed. “Now look here, Jeremy, it’s too hot to stand here arguing for ahrs and ahrs. How about you get yoseff acrosst that horse? We got some traveling to do.”
Rafe was still on the porch with Caroline. He was frowning at Sliphammer, who got slowly to his feet. Rafe swung toward the sheriff and said abruptly, “They posted any reward on Wyatt Earp, Sheriff?”
“I regret to say they have.”
“It ain’t my doing. Cochise County put twenty-five hundred dollars on Wyatt Earp and fifteen hundred each on. Warren Earp and Doc Holliday. I reckon they’ll throw in Wyatt’s wife for nothing.”
“Then a man could get four thousand dollars for bringing Wyatt and Warren back.”
The sheriff shook his head. “Rafe, your brother’s a peace officer. He ain’t entitled to collect no bounties.”
“But a private citizen can,” Rafe said. “And I’m a private citizen. Woop!”
Sliphammer wheeled toward him. He spoke flatly: “No.”
“Don’t even daydream like that, Rafe.”
“Caroline and me need the money. I’m coming with you.”
“The hell you are,” Sliphammer said. “In the first place you’re no match for the Earps. In the second place it wouldn’t be right to take blood money for a man like Wyatt Earp. And in the third place you haven’t got the money to pay the train fare to Colorado in the first place.”
Rafe took one step forward. “We’re brothers, Jeremy. You owe me.”
“We’re half brothers,” Jeremiah Tree growled. “And I don’t owe you anything you don’t earn, Rafe.”
Caroline said, in a voice with a low husky quality to it, “You’re so damned honest, Jerr. Why do you have to be so damned honest?”
Rafe said petulantly, “It ain’t fair!”
Sliphammer looked at him. He said, “Fair, my ass.” He turned and walked to his horse.
Rafe made both hands into fists and got up on his toes as if he were about to fall forward. The sheriff said to him, “Gentle down, Wrangler. You got no binness in this kind of thang. You two just go on being Mister-missus Tree and raise a pack of churiren and wrangle horses. It took your brother here fifteen years of professional Indian fighting to learn how to use a gun and even-he knows enough to be scared of Wyatt Earp.” Paul turned, gathering the reins, and heaved himself into the saddle with considerable ungainly effort.
When Sliphammer stepped into his saddle, Caroline said to him, “Jerr, you be careful, hear?”
He gave her a long look, as if to pin her image in his memory; he waved at the two of them on the porch and swung his horse in alongside the sheriff’s. They rode out of the yard together. Behind them Rafe and Caroline stood and watched, arms about each other’s waists. Sliphammer looked back until the corner of the sagging house cut them off from sight. As he turned forward he saw himself, his shadow on horseback, riding along by.
The flayed landscape stretched away west across the great baking pan of the desert. On the far horizon he could see scattered clouds. He could smell a change in weather coming.
Sheriff Paul’s voice startled him: “I don’t want you going into this thang all hetup. If you really don’t want the job you better quit now. I’ll get somebody else.”
“Who’re you going to get to pin on a deputy doodad when they could do the same thing without it and collect four thousand dollars’ reward?”
“Don’t fret yoseff none. Plenty of fools in the same barrel you come from.” Paul grinned at him. He had a lot of gold teeth.
“I guess I’ll keep the joh.”
Paul said, “I thought you would. I mean, if you quit, what you gonna do then? Go back to Indian fighting? The Indian wars are all over. What choice you got? Naw, you’ll do it. I never doubted you would.”
There followed Paul’s short grunt. Sliphammer was thinking, a bit sourly, that it had always been his one incurable weakness-the infantile faith with which he always refused to fold a pair of jacks in the face of a big raise. The fact was, he wanted to meet Wyatt Earp.
The train brought him up a green valley at dawn, with the sky brightening cobalt and full daylight just cresting the westward peaks, dazzling the snow caps. Up ahead, green meadows ran up curving slopes into forests of aspen and pine. Here and there on the mountains he saw the thick columns of mill and smelter smoke.
The train threaded a field of brown-eyed yellow daisy buds and made a long, easy bend. Past the high, narrow locomotive he saw signs of civilization by the tracks: a dairy farm, a few houses, a deep-rutted ore wagon road, wooden mailboxes at graveled intersections. The train curled past a brewery and a small paint factory and a cement mill covered with gray powder. Sidings of polished rails began to proliferate beside the main line. Through the trees ahead he could make out the packed buildings of end-of-track Gunnison town. The bank of the river pushed close against the railroad yards; the train sighed and clanked and eased into the station gingerly.
Gunnison was a new town: two years ago it hadn’t been here at all. Trees grew thick everywhere there wasn’t a building because there hadn’t been time to clear land that wasn’t needed for immediate use. A few trees even grew in the streets.
Sliphammer Tree jumped down before the train had come to its full stop; he walked across the depot platform with a carpetbag in his right hand and a sheepskin-lined mackinaw under his arm. The sun’s rim sat on top of a mountain saddle. His lank, tall, striding body threw a long, skinny shadow.
He went around to the front loading deck, built as high off the ground as a freight wagon’s tailboard. Four steps, cut into the platform, let him down onto the street. He looked both ways before he went on.
The town was crowded together by trees and by the knees and elbows of mountains. It seemed without regular pattern; the center of activity seemed to be a few blocks north of him, signified by a cluster of two-story buildings with pitched roofs. He went that way. Sidewalks appeared, guarded by glassed-in gaslights on posts. He passed stores, an opera house, saloons, the Globe Theater, even a bookshop. Obviously the city fathers had foreverness in mind. The buildings were sturdy, some of them enormous, with the shambling, graceless opulence of Victorian splendor. The only giveaway that most of them had been thrown up hurriedly was that they were built of green lumber, already starting to warp and yaw.
It was cool; a few pedestrians were abroad; a water wagon trundled along, spraying the street to keep the dust down. Here and there shopkeepers were opening their establishments. Smoke came from a Chinese cafe’s kitchen and hunger drove him that way.
Procrastinating, he sat by the front window at a table hardly big enough for a plate and two elbows, wondering what Wyatt Earp was like. Steak, eggs, and coffee came; he knocked the flies off and began to eat. It was fresh-killed beef, not aged, and he had to work his teeth on it; the coffee was the chuckwagon variety-“If you put a horseshoe in it and the horseshoe sinks, it ain’t strong enough.” He paid for the two-dollar breakfast and wondered how long he would be able to survive these boom-town prices; gathered up his carpetbag and coat, and went out. The streets were busier than they had been. He threaded his way across the street through a traffic of ore wagons and buckboards and solitary horsemen, into the narrow lobby of a small hotel; awakened a drowsing night clerk and signed “Jeremiah R. Tree” in his crabbed hand; and found his way back to a first-floor room with a six-foot ceiling that made him stoop. The room was hardly big enough to accommodate the iron-frame, straw-tick bed and the commode. He filled the pitcher at the hallway pump,” washed in the commode basin, left his carpetbag and coat in the room, and locked the door when he left. Three paces down the hall his boot scuffed a hard object in the accumulated dust of the floor and he stooped to pick it up-a tenpenny nail. After a moment’s speculation he returned to the door of his room and wedged the nail between door and jamb, at a distance below the top that matched the length of his forearm from fingertip to bent elbow. If anyone opened the door, the nail would fall out, and even if the intruder noticed it and tried to replace it, he would not’ know exactly where it had been.
It was habit, he thought; not that he owned anything worth stealing. But he didn’t want to be caught by surprise by someone waiting inside the room.
By the time he reached the street the traffic was intense. Dairy and egg wagons crowded past huge ore rigs and ten-team freight outfits with riding mule skinners who whooped and cursed. Standing above the dust and din, he put the pipe in his mouth and struck a match to it, and squinted along the street, wondering which one of the buildings housed Wy att Earp and company.
A block away, on the same side of the street, two men stood outside a doorway. They were looking at him. He stared back. One of the men pointed at Tree, spoke to his companion, received the man’s nod, and went away. The man who remained was tall, lean, and white-haired. He lifted a long arm and beckoned.
Tree looked behind him, but there was no one else the man could have been signaling. With one eyebrow cocked, he left the hotel porch and walked upstreet toward the white-haired man, who waited without a smile, stirring slightly so that he came into the bladed edge of the sun falling past the corner of the building. A badge on his shirt picked up the light and lanced it into Tree’s eyes.
Tree was still half a dozen paces away when the white-haired man spoke; the voice was deep and curiously well modulated: “I’ve got a pot of fresh coffee inside if you’d care to join me.”
Without waiting an answer, the white-haired man turned inside. It was, Tree saw now, the sheriff’s office; a little shingle sign above the door said GUNNISON COUNTY SHERIFF: O. J. McKESSON.
When Tree went inside, the white-haired man was standing by a black iron stove whose chimney pipe staggered back to the ceiling corner in a series of steplike elbows. It made the room look more like a foundry boiler room than an office. A corridor of jail cells lay past an open door at the back of the room. There was a rolltop pigeon-hole desk against one wall, flap open and cluttered; there was the obligatory locked rack of guns; and there were three chairs and a spittoon. Otherwise the room was bare, uncluttered, and scrupulously clean, reflecting the careful dress and manicured appearance of the white-haired man himself. It didn’t remind Tree of Sheriff Paul’s office in Tucson, where every day for the past year and a half Tree had had to pick a path through an incredible litter.
Tree absorbed it all in the time it took his alert eyes to sweep the room once. When he let the screen door slam behind him on its spring, the white-haired man was holding up a coffee pot andpouring into two tin cups both of which were hooked to one finger. The coffee steamed as it flowed out of the pot.
The white-haired man put the pot on the stove, set one cup on a corner of the rolltop and gestured toward it. “Help yourself. You’re Tree?”
“I’m McKesson.” The white-haired man offered his hand. The fingers were long and brown; his handshake was hard and brief. Up close, the elegance of his face was marred by the rough pitting of an old skin disease.
“Have a seat-let’s talk.” McKesson sat down, blew across his coffee, and watched Tree from under thick, white brows. He was obviously aware of the impressive effect of his suntanned face against the bright white thick hair. Every body movement was made with self-conscious poise. He had hawked, predatory features, fingers like the claws of a bird of prey, gleaming violet eyes that missed nothing.
Tree said, “You know who I am, then you know why I’m here.”
“I had a wire from Sheriff Paul.” McKesson had large white teeth; they formed an accidental smile when his lips peeled back from the too-hot coffee. He lowered the cup and licked his lips and said conversationally, “Personally, I’d advise you to forget it, young fellow.”
“Wyatt Earp. He’ll destroy you-he’ll swat you like a fly, if you get in his way.” Absently, he made a face at the coffee and put the cup down to’ cool. He leaned back, crossing his legs and hooking one arm over the back of the chair, and in a sleepy way he added, “You’ll never get him out of this town if he doesn’t want to go.”
“Funny way for you to talk,” said Tree.
“Why? Because I wear a badge and you and I are supposed to be on the same side?”
“You might say that.”
“I might, but I won’t. You see, I’m an elected official with a duty to the constituency that voted me into office.”
“What’s that got to do with Earp? He didn’t vote for you.”
“His friends did,” McKesson murmured, smiling a little. He was being deliberately mysterious and it irritated Tree.
Tree said, “All right, since you want me to ask. What friends?”
It made McKesson laugh. “Very good. I’m glad to see you’re not the usual kind of bumbling half-assed farmer they use for deputy sheriffs down in Arizona.”
“Spare me the kind words, Sheriff. Get to the point, if you’ve got one.”
One bushy white eyebrow went up, a warning sort of expression that might have been accompanied by tongue-clucking. “Easy, young fellow,” McKesson said. “You haven’t got so many friends in his bailiwick that you can afford to alienate me.”
“I didn’t know we were friends.”
“I’m doing my best to be friendly,” McKesson answered. “I’m trying to give you some advice that may save your skin. What could be friendlier than that?”
“You said something about Wyatt Earp’s friends.”
“Friends,” the sheriff echoed. “Everybody’s somebody’s friend.” His hard smile did not give him the disarming appearance it was evidently intended to provide.
Patiently, Tree reached for the coffee and tasted it. It was a far cry better than the Chinese cafe’s.
McKesson said, “You’ll have to forgive me. I like to act as if I’m absentminded and vague-as if I’m not aware of events. It’s often an effective pose-it puts people off their guard, which makes it easier to get around them and cut them off. I should warn you I’m an overeducated old fart but I’m not as slow as I appear.”
“I’ll bear it in mind.”
“You do that. Now, about Earp and his friends. You arrive here one bright sunny morning all by yourself, evidently expecting to be able to do single-handed what a small army couldn’t do. In the interests of keeping the peace, which is what I’m hired to do, I feel it’s incumbent on me to alert you to the realities of the situation you’re in. You’ve been posted up here to keep surveillance on the Earps until you get word from Denver that Governor Pitkin’s signed the extradition papers. At that point you’re supposed to arrest Wyatt and Warren Earp and take them back to Arizona in custody. Is that right?”
“Do you think you can do that? If you do, you’re a fool. How do you expect to pull it off?” McKesson looked as if he were genuinely curious.
Tree gave him a long scrutiny, trying to see past the mask of wordy pomposity. Clearly McKesson was, as he said he was, a lot faster than he appeared: if he wasn’t, he wouldn’t have this job. A mining boom camp was no place for an addle-headed old law man.
Tree decided it might be profitable to play McKesson’s own game. And so he said, “Let’s put it this way. If I don’t have a plan, I’d be stupid to admit I was that much of a fool. And if I do have one, I’d be stupid to tell you what it is.” And he smiled.
The white eyebrow went up again. “Smart,” McKesson commented. “Smarter than I took you for-and coming from me that’s both a compliment and a confession. I rarely fail to size a man up correctly at first crack. You took me by surprise twice. Either I’m slipping or you’re a damned clever young man.”
“Uh-hunh.” Tree was beginning to enjoy the game; he would have enjoyed it more if it hadn’t been for the looming shadow of Wyatt Earp, which lay dark in the back of his mind and colored every thought and deed.
McKesson said, “I do like you. You size up like a man. I think you deserve a free lesson in politics-it may save your life.”
“I thought we were talking about friends.”
“We are. To a man like Wyatt Earp, friends and politics mean the same thing.”
“All right. You’re in a mood to lecture-I’ll listen.”
“Smart,” McKesson remarked again, and then he chuckled. “If you’d known me longer you’d know I’m always in a mood to lecture. Lately I haven’t had many good audiences, though, unless you count the drunks I gather into the fold every night. All right, young fellow, settle back and enjoy your coffee and try to appreciate my wisdom as much as it deserves. I’ll tell you about Gunnison and I’ll tell you about Wyatt Earp, and his politics, and his friends.”
McKesson was smiling-but his eyes were at odds with his lips. He spoke with a flat down-East accent, Tree noticed.
McKesson said, “We’ve got a tough Httle town often thousand tough people here. It’s a new mining region but it’s rich as hell. If you’ve seen the town, and you couldn’t have helped that this morning, then you’ve seen that — it’s a spectacular monument to what unlimited money and baroque bad taste can achieve. That ought to tell you something about the kind of men who built this town-the men who still own it. There are about fifty of them all told-strike-it-rich millionaires. Two years ago almost every one of them was a down-and-out prospector. They’ve got all the money in the world but they’ve got no traditions, no education, no taste, and not a hell of a lot of good sense. I’ve seen two of them sit in the lobby of the Inter Ocean Hotel during a cloudburst and bet fifty thousand dollars on which of two raindrops would first reach the bottom of a windowpane.”
The sheriff sipped coffee and cleared his throat. “Now, these old boys made their strikes just in the past couple of years, and big-money mining’s changed a good deal since the old days when they used to pan and sluice. The fortunes that are being made in these mountains are coming out of deep shafts in the ground, not out of creek-bed gravel. It takes a lot of manpower to dig a thousand-foot mine shaft and drag ore out by the thousands of tons and wagon it down into the smelters and mill it down into pure metal. A hell of a lot of manpower. For every overnight millionaire in Gunnison there are a couple of hundred hardscrab-ble miners working for day wages. Or more-some of these mines carry payrolls of six or eight hundred men. Nowadays a lot of these miners think they aren’t getting paid enough or looked after well enough. We’ve got a troublesome little bunch of loudmouthed agitators frdm back East calling themselves Knights of Labor trying to form strike unions. Maybe you’ve heard what happened in Leadville and Creede when they tried the same thing-a lot of heads were smashed.”
“I heard,” Tree murmured, lulled by the rambling run of the sheriff’s voice. “What’s this got to do with me?”
“I’m coming to that. Let’s look and see what we’ve got here. We’ve got a handful of lucky millionaires who want to stay rich and get richer, and we’ve got thousands of unhappy miners being stirred up by radical agitators, and into the middle of this comes a big man with handlebar mustaches and two revolvers and a big-gun reputation that’s made him as much of a legend as Wild Bill Hickok. This is the man who licked the Clan tons in Tombstone, the man the dime novels call the Lion of Tombstone.”
McKesson paused to see what effect his speech had taken. Tree was lighting his pipe. He was thinking about Wyatt Earp, a man he had never met, wondering how it would be, not liking the possibilities.
McKesson said, “The people who own this town gave him the key to the city.”
It made Tree look at him. “What?”
McKesson nodded. “They’re treating Wyatt Earp like visiting royalty. Given over the whole Inter Ocean Hotel to him and his wife and his brother.”
“Two reasons. First, these ore barons of ours are like kids when it comes to celebrated visitors-they’d do the same thing for an actress or a senator. And second, these Yankee millionaires of ours know it was the Earps who whipped hell. out of the Johnny Reb Texans in Kansas, and they respect a case-hardened man above all ethers. They’ve got a good use for Wyatt — Earp, you see. Just the fact that he’s holed up in the Inter Ocean is enough to give pause to these radical agitators. The miners know Earp’s on friendly terms with the owners, and nobody wants to get into a fracas where he may find himself staring down the wrong end of Wyatt Earp’s gunbarrels. Do you begin to see what I’m driving at?”
“Good. The point is, you’re supposed to arrest Earp and take him out of Gunnison. The millionaires aren’t going to like that. Earp’s doing them a favor by being here, and they’re doing him a favor in return.”
McKesson’s smile, again, was colder than it should have been. He said, “I’d have thought you’d have figured that out by now. This is a mining state-the men who own the mines pretty much control the politics. It’s for sure they control the governor’s office. You can’t arrest Earp unless Governor Pitkin signs the extradition papers. Now do you see? Earp’s friends are trying to persuade the Governor not to sign the extradition papers.”
Tree’s pipe had gone out; he found a match and lit it. When he looked at the sheriff, the long-clawed hands were spread in a gesture that meant, So there it is. McKesson’s smile was small and almost apologetic. “Friends,” McKesson said, “and politics. Earp stays in town to intimidate the agitators, and in return, the owners protect him against extradition.”
“You think they’ll persuade the Governor not to sign?”
“Who knows? My private opinion is it’s a tossup. But whatever happens in Denver, your problem’s right here in Gunnison, and nobody here will give you any help. The only men in Gunnison who’d be tough enough to join you going up against the Earps are the owners’ hired strike-breakers. They’re a pack of thugs but they have a purpose-they help me keep the peace by keeping the lid on ten thousand miners. Point is, of course, the strikebreakers are Earp partisans because they’re all on the same side, against the miners and agitators. You won’t get any help there.”
McKesson had finished his coffee. Now he stood up. “So you see the whole city’s united against you. Regardless of what happens in Denver, you haven’t got a chance.”
Tree said, “What about you?”
“If the Governor signs the extradition, where does that put you?”
“In a rather uncomfortable spot, I’m afraid. I’m a county official, of course, not a state employee, so there’s some question whether I’d be bounden to obey instructions from Denver unless martial law was declared.”
Without comment, Tree stood up and knocked the bowl of his pipe into his hand. He stooped over the spittoon to dump ash into it, pocketed the pipe and rubbed his hands. He gave McKesson a dry look.
McKesson said, “Don’t make the mistake of thinking I’m a coward.”
“What word would you prefer?”
For the first time, McKesson flushed. But he regained composure quickly; he said, “Realist. I prefer realist. I happen to know which side my job’s buttered on. I’m a hired hand, you know, and if you eat a man’s bread then you’re obliged to sing his songs.”
“Thanks,” Tree said, “for telling me where you stand.” The tone, if not the words, was without sarcasm.
“Think nothing of it.”
“I will,” Tree replied, and saw it take effect; he added, “Just one other thing.”
“Name it. I’m always anxious to be of service to a friend.”
“Aeah. If I have to arrest him will you try to stop me?”
McKesson’s pitted face was too animated ever to be blank, but he held it now in stern, guarded repose. “Probably not. I’ll have to wait and see.”
Tree tugged his hat down, feeling dismal; he said, “Listen, I’ll fight you too if I have to.”
“Will you, now. You’re talking as if you had a chance of winning.”
“No point in acting as if I’d already lost.” Tree managed a cool smile.
“You have, you know,” McKesson breathed. “You can only get killed.”
“You can’t always go by that.” Tree went outside into the morning sun and heard the screen door slap shut behind him. He squinted. The brilliant light was not in keeping with his bleak mood. Belly churning, he went up the street.
As he traveled the one-block distance between the sheriff’s office and his hotel, he was thinking darkly of the spare slipham-mer six-gun and holster packed away in his carpetbag. The way things shaped up, it looked as if he would need it: any time gunplay moved from remote possibility to likely probability, a sensible man needed two guns. Not that anybody in his right mind would use both guns at once, or be likely to need all that firepower-even case-hardened killers admitted that if you couldn’t do it with five or six bullets you probably couldn’t do it at all. But guns, even the most finely tuned and smithed guns, were never wholly reliable. You never knew when a vital spring would break, or a cartridge misfire, or a firing pin crystallize and shatter.
As he turned into the narrow lobby he became caustic with himself: Was this a legitimate errand, or was it just-a way to postpone meeting Wyatt Earp? Was he scared of Earp? Or was it that he cherished certain illusions about a legendary man and feared Wyatt Earp in the flesh wouldn’t live up to them? Or was it simply that he didn’t like this job and didn’t want to do it? If Stillwell had gone after my brother, he thought. Was it justice to arrest Earp? He couldn’t help remembering what he had said to his half brother Rafe: Fair my ass. It was a job.
He reached the back of the corridor and fumbled the room key out of his pocket, thinking maybe Earp’s influential friends would solve his problem by quashing the extradition. In the meantime, he reasoned, was there any reason why he should’hurry to meet Earp?
The key was within an inch of the lock when a corner of his vision registered warning in his mind. Alerted, he froze. The nail was gone from the doorjamb.
His left hand palmed the sliphammer gun. He moved to one side of the door and reached out to thumb the latch. The door wasn’t locked; it rode open, squeaking a little with a sappy protest of green wood. He flattened his back against the outside wall, gun up, holding his breath. Chances were there was nobody inside-somebody had searched the room, maybe, and gone…
He wheeled inside, crouching low, gun fisted tight. When the intruder fired the bullet went over his head.
Tree’s eyes registered the lancing bloom of muzzle flame and not much else: the intruder was in the dark corner. Tree shot twice, very fast; the afterglow was his aiming point.
The man came walking out of the corner as if on stilts, tripped and fell across the bed, and rolled off, leaving a red smear on the blanket. When he hit the floor his left hand opened and a tenpenny nail rolled out, clattering like a spinning coin on the floorboards.
Tree was down on one knee; he got up and strode forward and kicked the gun out of the man’s fist, and then had a look at the man.
The eyes were open, losing focus. It was the same man he had seen talking to McKesson-the man who had pointed him out to McKesson. Black bile formed in his throat; he wiped his mouth with the back of his sleeve and laid his fingers along the man’s skinny throat, feeling for a pulse. There was none.
Ears still ringing, Tree walked down the hall to the lobby. He still had the gun in his fist. The clerk, alarmed by the noise, stared at him and trembled.
Tree said, “Get McKesson and bring him back here.”
Swallowing, voiceless, the clerk nodded in spasms and ran flapping out the door.
Tree went back to the room, stepped across the body, and opened his carpetbag. He took out the spare gun and threaded the holster onto his gunbelt; he was buckling the rig around his hips when McKesson came in, red-faced and out of breath.
McKesson’s boot heels skidded when he came to a stop. He wore a gun, but it was holstered. His white hair was awry.
“For crying out loud,” McKesson said helplessly.
Tree bent down and picked up the intruder’s gun; glanced at it and handed it to McKesson. “One thing before you start making a speech. That’s a. 38. You can tell he fired it by the smell, and you’ll find the bullet in the wall out there in the hall. He was waiting back in that corner when I opened the door.”
McKesson took it all in his eyes, without moving from his stance in the doorway. When he spoke, he was surprisingly crisp: “Why did he miss?”
“He telegraphed. I came in low and he shot over my head.”
“If you knew he was in here why didn’t you speak out?”
“He heard my boots in the hall. He saw me open the door. If he’d had anything to say to me he had plenty of time to say it.”
McKesson gave him a sharp look. “You’re a tough son of a bitch, aren’t you?”
“I’m still taking nourishment,” Tree said. Then his temper broke: “Who the hell was this bastard? I saw him toll you onto me.”
McKesson nodded. “Grady Jestro was his name.”
“And that’s all you’re going to tell me?”
McKesson said, “I’m not obliged to tell you a damned thing. It’s within my power to run you in for homicide.”
“You can try,” Tree intoned.
“If that’s a threat I’ll ignore it. This sizes up as self-defense. Justifiable homicide. I’ll release you on your own recognizance as a courtesy to a fellow peace officer.”
“Still trying to show me what a good friend of mine you are.”
“Yes-whether you want to believe it or not.” McKesson moved into the room and Tree saw the little knot of onlookers crowded into the hallway. McKesson turned his head and said, “You two make yourselves useful. Get this out of here.”
Two men came inside; one of them said, “Where to?”
“For Christ’s sake the undertaker’s-do I have to draw a blueprint for you?”
“Okay, Ollie, keep your shirt on.” The man grimaced and bent to gather up the corpse. They carried it outside; the crowd made plenty of room for them. McKesson closed the door rudely in the onlookers’ faces and turned to Tree: “Now about Grady Jestro. He was a hired tough.”
“Yes. The day after the Earps arrived here, ‘Jestro made a pass at Wyatt’s wife, not knowing who she was. It got Wyatt a little angry, to say the least, and Jestro’s been trying to make up for it. Buttering Earp up, running errands, trying to please Earp.”
“Did Earp put him up to this, then?”
“Knowing Earp I would say definitely not Jestro probably had the idea he’d be doing Earp a favor by killing you. If he’d succeeded I imagine he’d have found out Earp wouldn’t have appreciated it one bit. But the world is full of misguided idiots and when one of them gets his hands on a gun it’s disaster.”
“Yeah.” Tree brooded toward the bloodstains on the bed blanket and on the floor. He went to the door and opened it. The crowd had mostly gone away but the clerk was still there, halfway down the hall, scrubbing his hands nervously together. Tree said, “I’ll want another room. You’d better get somebody to clean this one up.”
“Yes, sir. You can take the room across the hall there. Door’s open. I’ll bring the key.”
Tree went back inside, buckled his carpetbag shut and picked up his coat; carried them across the hall into a room with a slightly higher ceiling and a smaller window; there was no other distinction. McKesson followed him as far as the door and said, “What’ll you do now?”
“What do you suggest, Sheriff?”
“You already know my advice. Get back on the train and go home to Arizona.”
“I guess not.”
“It’s your funeral.” McKesson turned out of sight and Tree heard his boots bang stiffly down the corridor. When the sheriff had gone beyond earshot Tree closed the door and sat down on the bed and waited for the needles to go out of his knees. His hands, he saw, were steady; but his heart pounded and his eyes throbbed and the pulse in his throat seemed loud. He closed his eyes very tight and held them, making fists, drew great ragged breaths into his chest, lay back on the bed, and stared at the ceiling. Then, abruptly, he jumped up and ran around the foot of the bed to the basin on the commode, and vomited his breakfast into it.
Bathed, shaved, still tasting his lunch, he stood on the boardwalk and scrutinized the ornate facade of the Inter Ocean Hotel. The second story boasted gabled windows and corner gargoyles. The balconies were carved in friezes and spiral rails. The building covered most of an entire block. Three separate street entrances gave admittance to the hotel lobby, the dining room, and the saloon bar. The building had a fresh coat of brown paint with crimson trim. The sidewalk in front of it was broad and shaded by wooden awnings that ran the length of the building like a Southern veranda. Gaslamps were posted at ten-foot intervals. It was just past noon; cooking smells issued from the dining room and wafted along the street on the light, cool breeze.
A few yards down the walk from him, a little knot of jackbooted miners in overalls stood tight-packed and grumbling in muted voices calculated to reach no one’s ears but their own. The man doing most of the talking was a shrill little man, nervous’and narrow, who wore miner’s clothes but didn’t look like a miner. His hands, which gesticulated frequently toward the hotel with angry sweeps, were pale and fluttery. His face was feral, big-nosed and rodent-toothed. Several times Tree heard the miners growl angry assent to something the little man said.
He forced his attention away from them and took his reluctant, tall body across the street onto the veranda. He stopped at the lobby door and looked inside through its glass panes. The room was high-ceilinged and long, with rich dark beams and heavy furniture and a thick dark-cherry carpet. The only occupant was an emaciated old man with urine spots on the front of his pants, who wandered from the front window to an overstuffed chair and sat down to read a newspaper. Tree walked the forty feet to the dining room window. The place was crowded but not with anyone he cared to meet. It was strange: he had never met Wyatt Earp or seen a picture of him but he was certain he would know the man when he saw him.
He saw him when he stepped into the saloon bar. The entrance was on the intersection corner and, consequently, was set into the corner of the saloon, giving admittance at a forty-five degree angle so that the entire huge room was in sight at once. The polished maplewood bar ran the length of one wall, backed by two big mirrors, the obligatory ten-foot painting of a hefty naked woman draped in translucent veils, and a shelf of ornate beer mugs each of which had its owner’s name painted on it. Two sweating bartenders served the medium-thick throng of patrons standing at the brass rail along the eighty-foot bar.
The rest of the rpom was given over to chairs and tables of various sizes, ranging from small square ones to big round ones seven feet in diameter and covered with green felt. The room was carpeted in deep luxurious brown; the walls were stained dark and had the look of mahogany-a considerable feat since they were probably constructed of aspen or pine. There was no dance floor, no stage, no piano or bandstand; it wasn’t that kind of saloon. This was Gunnison’s gentlemen’s club. Only the Rich Need Apply. Even the chairs at the card tables were upholstered armchairs. Altogether, what the place reminded him of most was a railroad baron’s private car he had once entered to make an arrest. The men who had built this room had money and wanted everybody to know it.
It didn’t make him uncomfortable but it didn’t make him feel at home. He would always be an outsider in a place like this; it occurred to him obscurely that this gave Wyatt Earp an immediate advantage over him. He didn’t dwell on the thought. He had entered and absorbed the place with one glance; his attention had narrowed like a cone to focus on the five people sitting around the biggest of all the felt-covered card tables-four men and a woman. The table was back toward the rear corner. Gaslights on the windowless walls shone on the woman’s reddish auburn hair and the thick tawny hair of two of the four men-the Earp brothers. He didn’t have to be told.
The woman was slim with nubile roundnesses and skin made deep gold by the lamplight; she threw her head back to drink, displaying a long, swanlike neck. They all had drinks but they were not playing cards; they seemed to be engaged in desultory conversation.
Tree made a place for himself at the bar and ordered a drink. He had picked a spot from which he could appraise the Earps in the back bar mirror. Warren, the young one, wore his hair the same as Wyatt. His mustache and clothes were similar to Wyatt’s. The way he sat in his chair, trying to look muscular and easy-sprawled all at once, was a direct imitation of Wyatt’s unconscious position: chair pushed back, one knee crossed over the other, polished black boot swaying a little with easy rhythm as he talked, and one elbow on the arm of the chair supporting a half-full whisky glass held by a vertical forearm. It was significant that Wyatt held the glass in his left hand: Tree assumed that, unlike himself, Earp was right-handed. His right hand lay across his lap and it could be taken for granted a shoulder-hung gun was within six inches of his fingertips, just inside his coat lapel.
Tree’s drink came. He stood at the bar and twisted the glass on the bar surface and picked it up, observing the wet ring it left. Without looking up he knew a good many eyes were studying him from all over the room. But if he looked in the mirror he would not find Wyatt Earp looking at him. He smiled to himself, briefly; he lifted the drink to his mouth. He had a fleeting vision of Grady Jestro’s gun flaming at him from the dark corner of the hotel room. He closed his eyes momentarily and felt the whisky thunder into his blood.
He turned around, glass in hand, and hooked both elbows over the bar behind him, and stared straight at Wyatt Earp. Earp didn’t seem to notice; he was talking calmly to the man next to him-a big dark man who wore an expensive suit that did not make him look genteel. One of the overnight millionaires of Gunnison.
Wyatt Earp had a wise, tough, worldly face. Tree felt neither disillusioned nor disappointed. Earp was long-legged, whipcord handsome, self-assured, a healthy man in his mature hard-gutted prime. He was, Tree knew, thirty-four years old, which made him an elder statesman among the righting gamblers of the Western circuit. He had a tough, sleepy look of leonine competence.
Tree wondered whether he ought to feel relieved or sorry. The job would be less disagreeable, if not less difficult, if Earp had turned out to be a buck-toothed, snarling savage.
Abruptly, Earp turned his head and looked straight at Tree. Evidently he felt he had given Tree time enough to size him up. Earp’s free hand rose gently from his lap and he beckoned with a slow nod of recognition.
Tree made a gesture with his drink and walked forward without hurry, purposefully casual. Approaching, he glanced at the two other men at the table-the big dark millionaire and the muscular blunt-jawed tough who had to be one of the thug strikebreakers.
The girl looked up at him coyly from under lowered brows. Tree reached the table, facing Earp across it; Earp said to Warren, “Bring up another chair and make a place for friend Tree. How’re you making it, Deputy? Enjoying the town?”
Three only nodded, still trying to feel out the direction Earp wanted to go. He didn’t feel anything as specific as warning currents in the air, but it was an uneasy stretch of time.
Earp said, “The Deputy goes by the name of Sliphammer Tree. From Pima County, down in Arizona. He’s going to keep an eye on our obedient servant, gentlemen.”
Warren Earp put a chair down behind Tree’s knees and went back around the table to his seat. The two men on the near side of the table shifted their chairs to make room. The big dark millionaire said, “Howdy,” and offered a thick, hard hand. “I’m Wayde Cardiff, I own the Spurlock. Fellow on your left there, that’s Reese Cooley.”
Cardiff had sweaty palms. He was a once-tough man gone soft: his breasts were womanly, his arms flaccid, his chin padded and underhung by loose flesh. But his eyes were flinty. Cardiff shook Tree’s hand, hitched his suety belly and slumped back in his chair.
Reese Cooley, thuglike, had a horseshoe fringe of hair around a glossy bald spot. His chin was dark with heavy Mediterranean stubble. He had a greasy appearance. His handshake was a childish contest, as if to tell Tree he could break every bone in Tree’s hand if he felt like it. Tree matched him for pressure, heard Cooley’s grunt and saw the surprised respect in the blunt face, and set his drink down before he sat. He noticed that Wyatt Earp had not offered to shake hands; Warren, of course, had followed suit. Earp said casually, “My brother Warren, of course-you had that figured out. And this is Josie.”
Josie gave him a mock-sweet smile. He wondered what went on behind those flirty bemused eyes.
Reese Cooley said, without preamble, “You gunned one of mah boys. Jestro was one of mahn.”
Earp said, “Don’t hold that against him, Reese.”
“I ain’t decided yet. I’m still thanking on it.”
“Jestro was a stupid pig,” said Wyatt Earp.
“He smelled terrible,” said Josie. “He smelled like horse shit.”
Wayde Cardiff said, “Jestro got what he deserved.” Tree was still staring at Josie, who began to laugh in her throat.
Wyatt Earp said, “I make no apologies, Deputy, but I’ll say this to you, just once. What Jestro tried to do was not my idea.”
“I didn’t think it was,” Tree said.
Warren Earp said, “Good thing, too. You better not.”
Tree gave him a wry glance; he went back to Wyatt: “You know why I’m here. What I may have to do.”
“We’ll talk about that,” Earp said. “Plenty of time, Deputy. Let’s get to know one another first” His smile was genuine, not false, but it was layered with ungiving steel.
Wayde Cardiff explained, “No reason why we can’t all be friends, Deputy. There’s no harm mentioning that me and my friends get along right well with Governor Pitkin. It’s our considered belief there’d be a miscarriage of justice if Wyatt got hauled back to Arizona and put on trial by a rigged Rebel-style court for the justified killing of a Rebel-style cowman. Some of my friends are up to Denver right now impressing the Governor with how we feel. So you see it ain’t likely you’ll have to do anything at all, after all.”
When Tree looked at Wyatt Earp he saw an indolent smile, a slight dip of the head in acknowledgement. Earp murmured, “I like to avoid trouble when I can, Deputy. It’ll be my pleasure if you’d be our guest here as long as you’re in town.”
Tree said, “Why?”
“To avoid any more mistakes like the one Jestro made. If it’s common knowledge you and I are friends, nobody’s going to take potshots at you.” Earp was still smiling, still holding his glance; now Earp added, “Jestro was a fool but he knew how to use a gun. You’ve earned respect from me.”
Warren said, “But don’t let it go to your head, Deputy. We’d as soon-”
“Gentle down, boy,” Wyatt said, his voice a deep, soft basso profundo that rolled effortlessly over Warren’s talk, cutting it off.
Tree watched Earp, half fascinated, half baffled. Earp took a sparing sip of whisky and said mildly, “A lot of the things you’ve heard about me are probably true.”
“How do you know what I’ve heard about you?”
“I’d be a fool not to know my own reputation. I’ve got admirers and I’ve got enemies-it always pays to know both. It’s a mistake to be uninformed. Which is to say, I know your reputation too.”
Tree said, “I didn’t know I had one.”
“A man who’s named after the gun he uses is bound to be a man worth investigating,” Earp said. “You rode scout for fifteen years, served five years under Crook and two under Mackenzie. You’ve killed three white men-four, counting Jestro. You had an Indian wife, Papago, died of smallpox in ‘seventy-six. You’re left-handed and you handle a rifle well at long range, and once you drank Al Sieber under the table.”
Secretly, childishly pleased, Tree kept his face blank, reaching for his drink to mask his confusion. He said, “You probably know what I had for breakfast three Tuesdays ago.”
There followed Earp’s brief grunt of amused acknowledgement. It was neither grudging nor condescending; it was the absent chuckle of a man with other things on his mind. He appeared to be the kind of man who could juggle a dozen unrelated thoughts at the same time-a man whose brain was always busy. His eyes missed nothing; he was probably a fountain of information from petty trivia to matters of vital, if subtle, significance. All of it lurked behind the mask of massive secretiveness with which he held all men at a distance. It would probably be impossible ever to get to know him well; yet he was splendidly. endowed with animal magnetism. His appearance was one of force. A natural leader; a man who set his own standards and made his own rules. All put together, he was larger than life, it couldn’t be denied. As much as anywhere else, it was evident in his choice of a woman. Only a flamboyant stud could control the wildness and vitality in Josie; only a monolithic giant of a man could have attracted her in the first place.
No, Tree thought, he wasn’t disappointed
Earp had begun to speak, but then something stiffened him-the sight of someone at the door. “Heads up,” Earp murmured, and in the spuriously gentle tone of his voice Tree caught the run of ruthlessness: the hint of a core-deep, whetted hardness that Sheriff McKesson must have meant when he’d said Wyatt Earp was capable of swatting a man like a fly.
Tree’s head turned; in the edge of his vision he caught the front door and the men who stood just inside: the group of hard-rock miners he had seen outside on the street arguing. The leader was the narrow man with feral features and pale nervous hands.
Warren Earp said, “Who the hell’s that?”
“Floyd Sparrow,” Reese Cooley muttered in a flat voice. “Stinking dude agitatuh.”
Wayde Cardiff, the baron, twisted his bulk to look. His flinty eyes narrowed. “Those goddamn radicals got a hell of a nerve coming in here.”
Josie Earp said archly, “It’s a free country.”
Wyatt murmured, “Mind your manners,” but he seemed more amused than annoyed. Having alerted the others, he seemed satisfied and no longer interested in the intruders.
The miners had spotted the Earp table; they came forward in a crowded wedge. Their faces were almost comically grim and determined. Little Floyd Sparrow’s mouth was compressed into a thin lipless slash.
Cardiff and Cooley got to their feet, and Tree, seated between them, stood up as well, not wanting to be trapped in an armchair, surrounded by primed men on their feet. Across the table, the three Earps kept their seats. Wyatt Earp’s hand lay near his coat lapel; other than that, if he was at all uneasy he gave no sign of it. He looked sleepy and only casually concerned.
Floyd Sparrow stopped six feet from Wayde Cardiff. The millionaire opened his mouth angrily but Sparrow spoke first, in a high-pitched nasal voice: “We want to talk to you.”
“This ain’t the place.”
Reese Cooley drawled, “You boys drag-gin’ your pickets. This room’s out of bounds to you.”
Tree heard Josie snort. Floyd Sparrow snapped, “We’ll go anyplace we have to go to make you listen. We’ve got grievances-we mean to be heard.” His raspy voice was an unpleasant irritant, perhaps deliberately so; it echoed with the harsh, hurried accents of city slums. Abruptly his mean glance shifted to Tree: “Who’re you?”
Wayde Cardiff growled, “You’re disrupting the peace. This is a private club for gentlemen-take this rabble out of here.”
One of the miners cleared his throat and said, in a singsong Welsh voice, “Rabble, are we?” His fist, raised and poised, was the size of a sledgehammer and appeared just as hard.
Sparrow shook his head. “We came here to talk. If anybody starts violencing, it’ll be them, not us.” He wheeled, jabbing a pale finger toward Cardiff: “We’ve got just and reasonable demands. Either you meet them or you’ve got a miner’s strike on your hands-not just you, Cardiff, but every high-pockets son of a bitch on the Gunnison Slope. That’s the message. You bastard robber barons have exploited us long enough. We mean business.”
“Us?” Cardiff said with soft insinuation. He gave the miners a sardonic look. “Any of you boys ever see this Eastern sewer rat dirty his hands on a pick? Don’t you know when you’re being used?”
Sparrow said quickly, “That’s why they’re here-because you bastards are using them. They’ve had all the contempt and cruelty they’re going to take from you and your kind.”
Cardiff measured him with insulting calm over a long stretch of time that made Sparrow’s hands flutter; Cardiff finally said, “In just ten seconds I’m going to send for the sheriff. You people are trespassing on private property, which is a misdemeanor punishable by thirty days in jail.”
Warren Earp’s voice shot forward from behind Tree: “And if the sheriff wants help he’ll get plenty-from the Earp brothers. You understand what that means?”
In the corner of his eye, Tree saw Wyatt lift a hand casually to silence Warren.
Sparrow went right on talking to Cardiff as if he hadn’t heard: “We’re not afraid of your hired gunmen. Look at these men, Cardiff. You ever take a good hard look at the men you’ve made slaves of? Look at them! Fallon here lost two brothers when your number seven shaft caved in-because you’re too goddamned skinflinted to put proper shoring in those tunnels. Weed here’s got a wife back East and eight kids to support on the stinking sixty dollars a month you pay him to break his back a thousand feet underground in a tunnel that may collapse any day now.”
Cardiff turned without hurry and spoke across the room to a man standing at the bar. He hardly raised his voice. “Leroy, trot yourself on over to Ollie McKesson’s and ask him to come down here. Tell him he’ll need half a dozen sets of handcuffs.”
“Yes sir, Mister Cardiff.” The man headed for the door on the run.
Floyd Sparrow stepped toward Cardiff and made as if to grab the front of Cardiff’s coat, but evidently thought better of it; he poked Cardiff’s chest with a rigid finger. His voice rose in pitch. “Sixty dollars a month, Cardiff-could you live on that in a camp with boom-town prices where everything’s got to be freighted in across the mountains? Sixty stinking dollars-and even to earn that, a man’s got to sweat thirty half-day shifts in a month. That’s three hundred and sixty hours of slave labor. One month. A miner handles a thousand tons of rock with his bare hands every month to earn your puking sixty dollars and make you rich. And what happens if there’s a cave-in? Who takes care of the widows and the orphans you’ve made? Who takes care of the men if there’s a drop in the market price of silver next fall and half the men get thrown out of their jobs?”
Tree thought the man had a point. He glanced at Wyatt Earp, whose eyes were half-lidded; he was a picture of arrogant disinterest. When he caught Tree’s glance he showed a small smile at the corners of his mouth.
Wayde Cardiff said mildly to Sparrow, “I didn’t force them to come to work for me. They can quit if they don’t like the pay. And that’s all I’ve got to say to you. Now get your ass out of here before the sheriff comes. If you’re still here you’ll have a month in jail to think up more useless speeches.”
With a flat gesture of dismissal, Cardiff turned around and sat down and reached for his drink.
“Don’t you turn your back on me!” Sparrow cried.
“Unh,” growled Reese Cooley, still on his feet. “A man shouldn’t ever ought to turn his back on you. Looky here, I’ll give you a hand outside.” He grinned mirthlessly, grabbed Sparrow by the collar and hauled him up on his toes. The big Welsh miner roared and moved forward but Cooley was very fast. He spun Sparrow around, planted a boot on his butt and shoved the little man with brutal force. Arms flapping, Sparrow plunged against a deserted table. Its rim caught him below the waist; he buckled and slammed down face first on the table, fell off the side and got tangled up in the chairs.
“All right, now,” roared the Welsh miner, they asked for this,” and swung a great looping punch at Reese Cooley.
Cooley avoided the roundhouse punch easily. He let it sweep past six inches away. The force of the blow carried the Welsh miner off his feet. Cooley rabbit-punched him in the kidney as he went down.
A lot of things happened at once. It was instantly clear to Tree and everybody else in the saloon that a brawl of riot proportions was on. Nobody could stop it now. The only thing to do was get the hell out of the way, or pick a side.
As soon as the trouble started he saw Josie Earp get up and drift quickly, but without unseemly hurry, around the open end of the bar to cover. She moved the way you learned how to move when you had got used to seeing trouble erupt.
Cardiff was on his feet; Wyatt Earp had shoved his chair back to get free room, but he was still seated, wearing a slight twisted smile. Warren was up, raging. The six miners waded forward, choosing targets. Tree had no fight with them but he was in the wrong place to avoid it: he stood between Cardiff and Cooley, and that was all the miners needed.
Two of them converged on him. Tree, who had fast hands and knew a few Indian things the miners didn’t know, felt more regret than fear. He wheeled to one side, to place both charging miners on the same side of him; grabbed the nearer man by the wrist and twisted. He used one man as a shield against the other. His two-fisted grip was so tight an ape couldn’t have pried it loose. He swung the miner’s thick arm around, levered it up toward the shoulder blade and planted the heel of his boot against the man’s spine. It was a brutal hold: if the victim struggled, either his arm or his spine would break. All it would take to snap his backbone would be a hard thrust of Tree’s boot heel, but he withheld it, only interposing the helpless man against his companion and. speaking in a calm voice loud enough to be heard: “Back off or I’ll cripple him.”
The second miner stepped back reluctantly. Warren Earp, Cardiff, and Reese Cooley were going around with the other miners. Cooley had two of them on him. It was none of Tree’s affair. He backed up, pulling the helpless miner along clumsily, until his shoulders were wedged into the back corner of the room. He held the miner in front of him as a shield. It wasn’t dignified, but it wasn’t his fight. The miner said in a pinched voice, “Ease off, for the love of God,” but Tree ignored him.
Wyatt Earp left his chair. Men rushed forward from the bar to pitch in against the miners. Earp sidestepped a wrestling pair and came toward Tree, seeming to amble unconcernedly; only alert attention could detect the speed with which he actually moved. He made it look effortless; yet with half the room boiling with hurtling fists, jabbing boots, and tumbling bodies, he reached the corner without a hair out of place. He tipped his shoulder against the wall beside the helplessly snared miner and said to Tree, “You’ve got real balls to pull out of it and not care a damn who notices.”
“What about you?”
“I’ve won a few and lost a few. I’ve seen my fights.” Earp smiled, extracted a cigar from his inside coat pocket, and held a steady match to it while he watched the battle with the abstracted amusement of a wise parent with sense to keep hands off a fight between ten-year-old boys.
The imprisoned miner said in a small voice, “Please let go of my arm, Mister.”
Tree eased the pressure an inch. “Stay put.”
Earp smiled, squinting through his cigar smoke. Tree couldn’t help smiling back.
The noise was tremendous. Boots and bodies hit the floor like felled trees. There was a lot of hard breathing and grunting; not much speech. Nearby, the Welsh miner had found his way to Reese Cooley. They were both huge men. The Welsh miner jabbed a hard-muscled blow against Cooley’s big taut belly and Cooley laughed. “That your best shot, bucko?” Cooley brought his fist up almost casually. It came all the way from hip level, thudded the miner’s face with a sound like the flat of a cleaver striking a side of beef. It lifted the Welsh miner completely off his feet and spilled him over flat on his back with a crash that shook the room. The miner seemed less hurt than murderously enraged: suddenly a knife blade glittered, coming out of the top of his jackboot, lifting in his fist as he came warily to his feet.
The voice was hoarse: “I’m gonna open up your gut, Cooley.”
Cooley had lost his grin. “Think about it, bucko. Next time I’ll drop you in the ground.” He backed up, both hands raised on guard, until his back ribs hit the edge of the bar. The miner followed him, knife weaving in front of him, ignoring the combatants who wheeled past locked in struggle. Cooley spoke; from this distance Tree couldn’t hear the words. Behind the bar, Josie Earp matter-of-factly lifted a full, corked bottle of whisky and placed it in Cooley’s fist. Tree heard Wyatt Earp laugh deep in his big chest.
Cooley ranged forward from the bar to get swinging room. The Welsh miner’s knife sizzled back and forth, keeping Cooley at bay. Once, the knife clinked against the bottle.
The odds were all in the miner’s favor. Tree glanced at Earp, who shook his head mutely, watching for the first time with concern. Warren Earp was across the room somewhere, his voice rising and falling with lusty anger, full of hot juices. Wayde Cardiff had Floyd Sparrow up in the air, lifted above his head; Cardiff made a rush for the door, a man held it open, and Cardiff threw Sparrow outside as if he were a sack of feed. Men were mixing it up in pairs and quartets but there was an open circle around Cooley and the Welsh miner, who went around each other with loud-breathing care, seeking openings. The bottle was a wicked weapon but it was full, heavy, and slow with inertia; the knife was swift and darting. Cooley, fast on his feet, had to suck in his belly more than once to avoid wide sweeps of the glittering blade.
Then the blade made one more arc and Cooley had his opening. The knife went past, breathlessly close to his ribs. Cooley plunged forward and cracked the bottle down.
It smacked the Welsh miner square on the head; it broke with the sound of shattering glass. A dozen bladed fragments and a quart of whisky poured down the miner’s face. Blinded, the miner roared with panic. Cooley still had the jagged, broken end of the bottle; he shoved it in the miner’s face and twisted with a screwing motion. The miner’s scream was cut off abruptly. When he went down he had no face.
Tree had seen a great many brutalities but this one made him turn his face away. When he looked at Earp he saw Earp’s Adam’s apple go up and down; otherwise Earp maintained his strict composure.
At the bar, Josie whooped, perhaps in approval. Reese Cooley dropped the jagged, bloody neck of the bottle and rubbed the small streak of blood on his cheek where the Welsh miner’s knife had nicked him. The miner was down flat, no longer moving or groaning. Cooley kicked him in the head and stepped across him, looking for someone else to fight. His blood was up; his appetite was whetted; he was beyond control. His bald head bobbed through the center of a tangle of men and Tree saw three of them come flying out of the knot. Cooley tramped on through the melee and came in sight with his lips peeled back in an involuntary spasm, a grotesque mockery of a grin; he glanced Tree’s way, and his attention froze on Tree, and he roared and rushed forward, his bare bloody fists lifting. There was no mistaking his intent. His. motive was unclear-maybe he had recalled, in some dim animal corner of his mind, that Tree had killed his man Jestro. It didn’t matter; Cooley had the taste of blood on his tongue and needed no ordinary excuse.
Wyatt Earp grunted to Tree, “Use your guns if you have to,” and stepped away from the corner-certainly not in fear, but perhaps out of obeisance to some obscure code of conventions. There was no question but that if Cooley had chosen out Earp, Earp would not have turned away. Tree only had time for that thought before Cooley stopped, planted his feet, and said between deep heaving breaths, “Turn loose of that bastard and come out here, you son of a bitch.”
The imprisoned miner made a strangling sound. Cooley reached forward to grab the miner. If Tree held on, the miner’s arm would break-of course Cooley knew that, but didn’t care.
Tree let go of the miner, who scuttled away, rubbing his numb arm, until he ran unsuspectingly into Warren Earp’s fist, which knocked him down. The miner looked around in a daze and thought better of getting up.
With the space between them cleared, Cooley laughed. It was a curious, taut laugh-the sound of a man precariously close to the edge of sanity, or perhaps already past it. “Jestro,” Cooley said, his mind grappling slowly with primitive simplicities. “Jestro.” He waded in like a bear, upper body twisting from side to side with his hip-rolling gait. He probably had eighty pounds on Tree.
There was something in the rules that said you couldn’t use a gun on an unarmed man. Tree had already forgotten Wyatt Earp’s words. It did not occur to him to draw a gun. Nor did it occur to him to square off with his fists and box the man. Fair fights were for dilettantes; Cooley was a killer.
When Cooley was within range, Tree dropped to a crouch, planted one boot flat against the wall behind him, and launched himself at Cooley’s knees. It took Cooley by surprise. Cooley went down, over Tree’s back. Tree wheeled, up on one knee, lifting Cooley’s right foot in both fists. He bent the leg double and twisted the foot almost parallel to Cooley’s buttocks. Belly flat, Cooley was pinned and couldn’t move.
Tree said, “Now we’ll just sit like this until you cool off and start using your head again. Hear me?”
Cooley’s only response was to snarl and beat the floor with his fist. Tree glanced up and saw Wyatt Earp frowning at him. Earp seemed about to say something, but held his tongue.
The brawl in the rest of the room was beginning to calm down; most of the miners had been ejected. The sheriff appeared in the door and banged a gunbutt loudly against the door for attention. One last miner was hurled bodily past McKesson to the street; then silence. Pinned by Tree’s ankle-twisting hold, Reese Cooley gradually went limp and quit struggling. McKesson turned with a dark scowl to a grinning Wayde Cardiff and snapped, “I wish half of you’d killed the other half so I could have arrested whoever was left. Is that man dead?”
Eyes went to the bloody, faceless miner on the floor. Someone approached him gingerly and spoke in a broken voice: “He’s still breathing but God knows how.” There was the sound of retching.
The crowd milled forward to make a circle around the maimed miner. McKesson’s voice rode over the growl of the crowd: “Who did this?”
Someone said, “Reese Cooley done it, Ollie, but this son of a bitch had a knife and Cooley didn’t.”
“How in hell did he make such a godawful mess of this man’s face?”
Cardiff’s voice came through the crowd-Tree couldn’t see him. “Cooley done it in self-defense.”
“Nobody could do this in self-defense,” McKesson said, voice throbbing. “Where’s Cooley?”
Someone must have pointed without speaking; momentarily McKesson appeared on the near edge of the crowd. His eyes fell on Tree, then descended to Cooley on the floor. Tree was still gripping the twisted boot but Cooley was lying quite peaceably, getting his breath, eyes closed with an expression of rank disgust.
Tree said mildly, “Say something, Cooley, and I’ll let you up.”
Cooley said testily, “All right, all right. What you want me to say? Uncle? Hell, you got lucky once, that’s all. Forget it. I’ll try you on some other time.”
“Why bother?” Tree said wearily, but he let go of the twisted boot and got to his feet.
Cooley sat up and massaged his ankle, not ready yet to stand and test his weight. He looked up at McKesson and said, “I heard you, Ollie.”
McKesson said, “That was a terrible thing you did to that man’s face.”
“Turrble thang shit. He was all set to carve me in strips. Sumbitch had a knife a foot long.”
Wayde Cardiff said, in a warning voice, “Leave him be, Ollie.”
McKesson shook his head. “Have you taken a good look at the man’s face? Or rather, what’s where his face used to be.”
With abject disgust Cooley said, “Shee-yit,” and got carefully to his feet. When he put his weight on the twisted ankle he tested it with great caution and then slowly limped over to the bar, ignoring the group that carried the maimed miner out right past him. At the bar Cooley pounded with his fist and demanded whisky in a baleful, husky voice.
McKesson said to Wayde Cardiff, “I go a good part of the way with you fellows most of the time and you know it, or you’d hire another sheriff. But if I arrest those poor beat-up miners out in the street and Cooley goes scot free, it’ll be too much for the town to take. Too much for me to take, which is more to the point. Now how’s it to be, Wayde?”
Cardiff waved a hand at him. “Don’t arrest anybody, then. That ought to suit them. I reckon they learned their lesson anyway.”
“I doubt it,” McKesson growled, and stalked out of the place, hatless, his white hair a moving beacon.
The crowd began to mill and stir, voices rolling with charged emotions; the fight was done and now the participants and spectators had to post-mortem it into the ground. A few men slipped out of the salopn to carry the tale through town. Everybody began to settle down. Patrons walked around to set tables and chairs right side up and sit down. A kid swamper came in with bucket and mop and began to sop up the spilled whisky and beer, much of which had already soaked into the carpet. Front win dows were thrown open to help ventilate the place. One of the bartenders stood behind the bar stooping, leaning on his elbows, face in his hands, his head shaking slowly back and forth with aggrieved helpless ness. To Tree it seemed a miracle that none of the mirrors, and very little furniture, had been broken.
Tree picked up a chair and set it by the big table, Josie Earp came over. She smiled at him and he held the chair for her. She said, “Now, then, where were we?” Her grin was childishly innocent. It struck him, then, that Josie had been fundamentally untouched by the experience, by a whole lifetime of experiences. Suddenly she frightened him. He went and got another chair. By the time he brought it back to the table, Wyatt Earp had sat down and was snapping his fingers at a bartender for service.
When Tree sat down, Earp said to him, “You made a mistake.”
“You had Cooley down-you could have kicked his face in. That was a mistake. It would serve you right if he killed you.”
‘Sure,” said Tree. He was in a sour mood; it hadn’t been a cheery day.
Earp said, “If you let that kind of man walk on you, then he’ll walk on you. You’ll save yourself a good deal of grief-maybe save your hide, if you choose him out right now, stop him cold. Stomp him till he’s hurt too bad to want to go around with you again. Otherwise he won’t ever quit-you’ll have five or six fights with him and sooner or later he’ll get the advantage. When he does-well, you saw what happened over there.”
Tree was watching him speculatively. Earp said, very soft, “Do it now.”
“I thought he was a friend of yours.”
Wyatt Earp made no answer. There were, Tree thought, two possibilities. One: Earp respected him and was only giving his honest opinion. Two: if Cooley killed an Arizona deputy sheriff it could prove awkward for Earp, might shift the uneasy political balance, might alienate Governor Pitkin enough to make him sign the extradition papers. Or maybe it was both.
Earp said, “Do it.”
“I guess not,” Tree intoned, and got up from his chair.
“Your funeral, then,” said Wyatt Earp.
It was the second time today someone had^said that to him. He nodded his head with noncommittal gravity and turned to go.
Josie watched the deputy, Tree, thread his way out of the saloon. He had a wide, flat back. The shoulder blades made muscular ridges in his shirt. He had long arms and legs and under the clothes, she was sure, he would be a hairy beast. Wyatt had a lot of hair on his body-fine brown fur. She liked hairy men.
When Tree paused at the corner door to look back, she saw again the good-natured humor that had not wholly gone out of his silver eyes even when he was fighting. He was a big, craggy man with Indian-black hair and ugly powerful hands. He had more substance than all the other men in the place together, Wyatt excluded. She thought, if she had never met Wyatt she could have been real interested in Jeremiah Sliphammer Tree.
As Tree went out the door she was wondering if a left-handed man made love any differently. She couldn’t remember ever sleeping with a lef-handed man.
The barkeep brought two drinks to the table. Warren came to the table, sucking skinned knuckles, and said to the harried bartender, “Bring me one of those and hurry it up-I haven’t had a drink in at least six minutes.” His grin took the arrogant sting out of the words and the bartender smiled and nodded.
Warren’s boyish grin was full of handsome charm. Josie hoped she’d be around to see what he’d be like once he discovered how easy it would be to get women. For a kid with his good looks and the magic of his name, it would be hke falhng off a log. He hadn’t found that out yet, but when he did, she expected it would be fun to watch.
Warren had a shiny bruise on his cheek; soon enough it would work up into a painful discoloration. Warren was unsteady, brash because he wasn’t sure of himself, but she liked him: he had the Earp wildness and the. flamboyant Earp contempt for mundane conversations. He even had the Earp brains-the shrewd ability to observe everything at once, carry a dozen trains of thought in his head at once, and calculate cleverly. He had that intelligence, whenever he stopped to use it; a few years and, if he managed to live that long, he would grow up to be an impressive man. Maybe not quite the man Wyatt was, but Wyatt was unique.
Warren brought up a chair and sat. “That was a good fight. I like a good fight.” He had evidently put the maimed miner clean out of his head.
Wyatt snorted. “Those miners were outnumbered four to one. Is that what you call a good fight?”
“You’re the one who’s always saying it’s smart to make sure the odds are on your side before you mix into a thing.”
Wyatt said, “You still need to learn the difference between a serious fight and a fight for fun.”
“Which was this, then?”
“More fun than serious,” Wyatt said. “Sparrow only brought them here to feel us out If he’d been serious they’d have been armed.”
Josie said, “Horse shit. You call what Cooley did fun?”
Wyatt looked at her. “It was fun for Cooley,” he told her. His eyes were a bit cool.
Warren acted out a shudder with head and shoulders; he said, “Cooley’s the kind of bastard you can have nightmares about. I’d hate to be alone with him in a dark alley.”
Wyatt said, “Cooley’s all right. He knows what he does best and he takes pride in his work, which is one measure of a man.” That was, Josie thought, the kind of thing that could only be said by a man like Wyatt who was totally unafraid of Cooley. But she found it hard to reconcile with what Wyatt had said to Deputy Tree a few minutes before. Maybe Wyatt had just been testing Tree to find out which way Tree would jump.
Wyatt said to Warren, “You look kind of beat-you ought to go up and he down and put a beefsteak on that bruise.”
“I’m all right.”
“You look tired.”
“I’m not tired.”
“All right,” Wyatt said, “you’re not tired.” He smiled and winked at Josie.
Warren was about to deliver some angry retort, but he curbed his tongue, thought a moment, and finally said earnestly, “Look, I just don’t want you to think I’m weak. I know you haven’t got patience with weakness.”
“I’ve got nothing against natural weakness,” Wyatt said. “I despise a man who decides to be weak when the choice is open to him. But nobody thinks you’re soft, kid. You don’t have to prove anything.”
“I don’t want charity from you,” Warren said.
“You won’t get any,” Wyatt told him. “I still recommend a beefsteak.”
Warren grumbled, got up, downed the last of his drink, and left. Wyatt watched him with filial amusement* his expression was more gentle than Josie could ever remember it.
At the door, Warren turned and looked back at them. Seeing Wyatt watching him, Warren grinned nastily and made a finger gesture and shouted, “Screw you!” and disappeared into the hotel.
Wyatt growled, “Pretty soon I’m going to have to teach him to hobble his mouth.”
“He’s only trying to please you by showing you how tough he is.”
“I know, girl. Doesn’t take toughness to make a fool out of yourself. What do you think of the deputy?”
“He’s nice,” she said.
He laughed at her. “You’re always man-hungry.”
“Not any more-not with you here. I’m only hungry for you. The deputy’s not fit to wash your underwear.”
“Gently, girl. You exaggerate a thing too much and it’ll make a man suspicious. The deputy’s all right, he’s got sand.”
“Why did you want him to jump Cooley?”
“I had my reasons,” he replied, and looked up. Wayde Cardiff was coming toward the table with two other captains of industry. Josie made a face.
The mineowners sat down and started talking all at once. After they got it sorted out the talk proceeded with lusty abandon. They were wealthy men whose power was unfettered by good manners. Josie didn’t give the conversation her whole attention; it was man talk, about labor union agitators and miners: if Floyd Sparrow tried that kind of effrontery again it might be necessary to kill a few agitators. Teach the miners a lesson. Keep them in their place. Show them who was boss.
It gratified Josie that these wealthy titans spoke to Wyatt with great respect. Not obeisance: they were too arrogant themselves to patronize anybody they didn’t genuinely admire. They were a tough breed who did not hold ordinary gun-slingers in awe; they hired gunslingers by the dozens and treated them like dirt, which was to say they treated them as they would treat any other hired hands. But nobody had hired Wyatt. It was merely understood that they were all equals here. If Wyatt did these gentlemen a favor, they were in a position to repay him in kind, as equals; they had the Governor’s ear.
A small part of the mutual respect had to do with money and-position, she thought: Wyatt wasn’t rich, but he was financially sound; he still owned, or had a share of, a score of businesses down in Arizona. Like the mining bosses, he too was an owner.
But it went much farther than that. They respected him as a man.
That he was a man was a fact nobody knew better than Josie. He radiated force, like heat. He flowed full with the bull juices of life. She remembered first meeting him-a night in Tombstone, very late, all of them sitting around the saloon drinking and laughing after the last customers had left. Wyatt and Doc Holliday had won a lot of money dealing faro. Virgil, at the bar, was methodically counting the winnings and setting the money out in even stacks.
It was before all the trouble, before Warren came to Tombstone. Morgan Earp and Texas Jack were playing darts for a hundred dollars a game-they were drunk — and whooping. Josie had come over after the last curtain at the Bird Cage, brought by the three other girls from the show. Morg and Texas Jack had immediately adopted two of the girls and introduced them to the dart game. The third girl, the one who had suggested they all come over and meet the Earps, was a lusty, sensuous girl with abundant breasts and hips who was somehow fascinated by Doc Holliday. She was trying to cozy up to Holliday but Holliday was splendidly drunk by that time of night-as usual, as Josie later learned. The girl had pouted resentfully, taken three drinks in succession, and then jumped up on a table and clapped her hands for attention.
“Why don’t we all sit down together and play a little game of strip poker for fun? Everybody know the rules?” She was glaring at Holliday with challenge in her eyes.
Josie had been startled by the idea. Then, looking at Wyatt Earp, she began to feel intrigued. Texas Jack roared in his prairie twang: “I thank thet sounds lak a hell of a good thang to do, honey!” Morg, high-spirited and youthfully wild, gathered them all around the table-all except Virgil, who grunted something in his resonant, strait-laced voice and left the place, probably going home to his wife…
Josie remembered looking at Wyatt, then, seeing how he watched her, with his sleepy half smile; his frank scrutiny made her flush with sensation. He looked wholly self-assured, completely masculine: it was inconceivable he had ever stammered awkwardly to a girl, the way most men did at first meeting. He just sat there and watched Josie, the hint of a smile under the droop of his mustache, and it made her feel between her legs the tingle of excitement, the birth of an overwhelming appetite that was her response to the monolithic thrust of masculinity he radiated like musk.
She had never met a man like him; there never was anyone like him. They all sat down around the table. Morg and one or two of the girls were giggling nervously. Doc Holliday dealt the cards with suitable sarcasms. Holliday was a scrawny little runt, redolent of a distillery; he seemed sexless, but something about the game must have appealed to his warped sense of absurdities.
Josie had come straight out after the last show. It was late at night and she hadn’t troubled to festoon herself with all the fashionable undergarments dictated by the customs of the day. She wore only shoes and a dress. She had a good body and she wanted Wyatt to see it-but perversely the cards fell against her: by some trick of the cynical fates the big-breasted girl who liked Holliday was the first to lose all her clothes, and Holliday himself was soon stripped naked. He seemed indifferent to it. The girl reached out and tried to stimulate him and Holliday pushed her hand away to deal the cards. He concentrated on the cards with the grim gravity of a single-minded gambler in a no-limit game against seven high-rolling millionaires. His chest was hollow, caved in; his ribs showed and he v had no hair, on his chest or arms. His skin was as pallid as the underbelly of a fish. His sickly little-boy body was oddly in contrast with the killer’s face, etched with the tracks of lifelong pain, shaped into a habitual, sardonically satanic expression. With the table between them, Josie could not see Holliday below the waist, and did not particularly care to. Holliday dealt the cards and she watched them with tight concentration.
Beside her, Wyatt put his big hand on her thigh. The shock made her heart jump. The others were all drunk, laughing, paying no attention. She turned her head slowly, tingling with arousal, yet afraid; when her eyes reached his face he was smiling with unmistakable insinuation.
She hesitated; she smiled back, and presently moved her chair closer to his. After a moment, when everyone was watching Texas Jack get up and hobble desperately on one foot to get his pants off, she pushed her soft breast against Wyatt’s arm and reached over to touch him under the table. Her mouth was slack; her eyes had gone loose and half-lidded. She felt the marks of Wyatt’s fingers on the flesh of her leg like hot iron brands.
Wyatt got up from his chair and reached for her hand. He watched her unblinkingly, paying utterly no attention to the others. Someone-Morg-roared a raucous obscenity. Josie had kicked her shoes off; her naked feet reached for them and she got into them, got upright with her ankles wobbling, and went with him. Morg and Texas Jack spoke derisively. Josie was afraid to look back at them; Wyatt ignored them. He led her outside and walked her up the street.
She had difficulty getting full breaths into her lungs. Wyatt set the pace and it was up to her to keep up. Dark in the small hours, the streets of Tombstone were empty; dust hung in the cool air.
Wyatt reached a corner and stopped to wait. She ran right against him, tugged his head down and kissed him with passionate violence. Hurry up, she pleaded silently-I may explode if you don’t, I’ve got to have you quick!
He pressed his swollen manhood against her through the cloth of his pants. She” moaned, rubbed herself against him, and heard his deep chuckle before he picked her up and carried her around the corner into a narrow street. His room was right there: he took her inside. Her temples thudded with a hot crimson pulsebeat; her eyes were unfocused. She squeezed him, climbed tight against him. Her eyes closed. “Oh, hurry up, God damn you!”
Here and now, with the drone of the mining bosses’ voices in her ears, she remembered that first night with vivid intensity. The memory flushed her with the same excitement over again. It was always that way, sometimes frighteningly out of control.
She turned to look at Wyatt. He sat listening to the rich men speak; he sat lazy, at his ease, but always coiled like a primitive volatile animal ready to ex-’ plode-like a natural force, radiating tangible lines of taut energy, held precariously in check. She had learned that first night that nature had endowed him with a massive organ and the appetite to go with it: he had hurt her but even the pain had made her want him more.
The mining bosses argued among themselves. Abruptly Wyatt, momentarily left out of the discussion, turned to look at her, his eyes burning with gemlike brilliance. Her mouth softened and parted; her long breath lifted her breasts.
Wyatt stood up. He said something to Cardiff-some remark that was courteous and yet left no room for question or dispute. Overcome by sensual lust Josie did not hear the words. The hot bodily urge drove her to her feet. She walked across the room like a mechanism, her back rigid, long lithe legs striding crisply, feeling her inner thighs rub against each other as she moved. She crossed the dining room and the lobby; at the foot of the stairs he took her by the elbow and even that casual touch was fiery. They went up the stairs side by side, not looking at each other; but she heard his growling small laugh and felt an absurd thrill when he said, “You’re all woman, Josie-all woman.” Their feet made no sound on the carpet. Dreamlike, she went into the bedroom, disrobing with automatic, unthinking haste: by the time she reached the bedside, the floor was strewn with her clothes.
Her body felt full, swollen, ready to burst. The sight of herself in the mirror surprised her: slim and taut with a dancer’s hard grace. She looked lean, long-waisted, high-breasted; she felt small, loose, heavy-a hot softness of weighted flesh, singing with painful anticipation. Her skin was flushed to a scarlet and burgundy rash.
She turned around. He was stripping off his underwear. His great muscles rippled: he was bigger, more solid, more massive and powerful than he appeared when he had his clothes on. His body was a steel engine. His shoulder-holstered guns were on the chair. She stood mute, feeling short of breath, relishing the exquisite pain of a sensitiveness so taut that she felt certain she would burst into flame at the touch of his finger. The flow of her soft hair across her bare shoulders felt like the scrape of a red-hot iron file.
He came toward her. She climbed rushing against him, put her hands on his shoulders, spreading her thighs. He kissed her lightly, teasing her, and her throat made a breaking groan: her fingers bit deep, pulling him hard against her with crazy hunger. Her tingling rubber-hard nipples crushed against his chest. Her legs felt weak and she panted against his mouth.
His big hands cupped her swelling buttocks. She squirmed against him, her hand sliding down his stomach to the great veined ivory pole of his rigid organ. He laughed at her, twisted his body and rubbed and stroked her breast. She closed her eyes and cried out softly, arching her back. With a thunderclap of booming laughter he thrust her back onto the bed-she fell back splayed, squirming, moaning her panicky eagerness; she reached for his great stiff column and felt his throbbings alive in her hand.
He put one knee-on the bed and came down, flattening himself against her, his hard, seeking organ pushing between her legs inside her wetness. She sucked and locked him in; her body twisted against him. They began to move together, slowly at first like a railroad engine getting purchase-a long, slow rhythm that filled her with exquisite agony-then faster, to a driving thud and crash of uncontrollable urgency, a hot, slick writhing of limbs and locked bodies flailing together in ecstasy: they came rigid together, so taut-crushed she felt her bones must break. She cried out, screamed with an agony of white-hot joy, feeling the spurt and ooze of him inside her; the roar of his voice blended with the thunder of blood in her ears.
He did not roll away. They lay together, pulses drumming, lungs gasping. She felt the hungry cravings subside in logged satiety. She said, “Oh, God, let’s do it forever, it feels so damned good.”
He could make her feel as though she was the only woman on earth. She wrapped her arms around him and squeezed; he was still inside her and she didn’t want him to go. She said, “Know something?”
“Sometimes I hate your guts because I need you so bad. Nobody should have to need anybody as bad as I need you.”
He ruffled her hair. “You’re a good girl,” he said, and rolled his weight off her. He lay back naked, his belly rising and falling gently. She felt as if she had been surgically wounded; she felt raw with the residues of high, sweet pleasure.
After a while he sat up and looked down at her. She smiled almost shyly. Lying on her back, with her breasts diminished to the shape of inverted teacups, she knew she looked girlish and wistful. She felt somnolent pleasure, the soft glow of warmth, the temporary easing of lustful needs which soon would overcome her all over again.
He did an unusual thing: he bent and very softly kissed her. And then he got off the bed and walked into the private bathroom that was part of the great carpeted suite.
He was seldom so gentle with her; it made her feel strange and puzzled. She sat up, put her feet on the floor and walked to the mirror. She could feel the wet, draining stickiness between her thighs; she liked it there.
She studied herself in the mirror. She always liked to look at herself. Once, when she was sixteen, her father had caught her admiring herself naked in front of a mirror. He had grinned: “Don’t let that spoil, Josie. Be a shame to let it go to waste.” Her father had been like that. She wondered how he had been able to stand her prude of a mother. There were rumors about the women he was supposed to be keeping on the side, particularly a red-haired wench down on Mission Street. It didn’t matter any more; he had died when she was nineteen and after that, all that mattered to her was to get away from her mother; she had joined the traveling troupe, and she had met Wyatt.
Her face in the mirror had a bright, hard, shiny-eyed after-sex look. She thought, There really wasn’t much else than this; you went through the rest of the time just waiting for this.
He came out of the bathroom naked. He wasn’t smiling; he wasn’t looking at her: his mind had moved on to other things. She was struck by the sudden fear that his gentle gesture a few moments ago had been the sort of thing a man might do if he felt guilty about something. Was he getting weary of her? She felt a moment’s horror. She had always tried to ignore the dark cranny of her mind which housed the suspicion that what, to her, was both serious and desperate, was to him only occasionally desperate and never serious.
She knew it was altogether the wrong thing to say to him but she couldn’t help it. “Darling, when are we going to get married? Really married, I mean?”
She felt cold, anxious, unnerved. When he looked at her it was only a brief distracted glance, but at least it was without irritation.
“There’s no hurry, is there?” he said absently, and went to put on his clothes and guns.
In a dismal morning drizzle, Tree walked down to the telegraph office, his loose oilskin poncho flapping. Water dripped from the trough of his hat brim and his feet squished in his boots, the result of having to cross intersections that were a foot deep in mud after the steady two-day rain.
His mood was as bleak as the sky, the passage of time had screwed his nerves up past the point of alert tautness, into a state of apathetic indifference. His expression had faded to blankness.
The telegrapher gave him one brief look and said, “Nothing for you today.”
The telegrapher, a wizened little man, gave him a waspish glance. “I told you, Deputy, when anything comes in for you I’ll send a runner. You don’t have to keep checking in here.”
Tree turned the oilskin collar up around hii? face and ducked his head and stepped outside into the drizzle. He didn’t have to keep checking in with Western Union. But it gave him something to do. Besides, he didn’t trust the telegrapher: the man might deliver the message to Wyatt Earp before he delivered it to Tree.
By this time he didn’t trust anybody at all. It was a miserable feeling. Two weeks in this town had been ample to prove to him that the whole community was locked up tight against him. No one had threatened him, but no one had opened up to him. He was an enemy, tolerated because of Wyatt Earp’s truce. Even the miners, who were Earp’s enemies or thought they were, gave him wide berth. They probably didn’t want to get mixed up in what could turn out to be trouble-they had enough of that of their own.
Walking through town he passed occasional pedestrians darting from shelter to shelter, their faces as gray as the rain. He wandered unhurriedly toward the Inter Ocean because his orders were to keep an eye on the Earps. The fact was, the Earps weren’t going anywhere-they were safest right here, why should they leave? But this, too, gave him something to do.
Under the flowing oilskin his wrists brushed the paired sliphammer revolvers. His eyes, silver-hued in good light, seemed dulled to the color of tarnished lead. His face had developed a pinched pair of creases that bracketed his mouth, ordinarily good-humored, with a pattern of mute anger and volatility held precariously in check. At this point he would even welcome a fight with Reese Cooley: but Cooley, for reasons of his own, had made a point of ignoring him for two weeks.
He turned a corner a block from the Inter Ocean and stopped. A hundred feet away, under the shelter of the overhanging veranda roof, Wyatt Earp had posted himself in a porch rocking chair. Earp basked there with one boot up against the porch rail, lazy-eyed and droopy-mustached as a king lion keeping watch over his pride. If he saw Tree he made no sign of it, but it was inconceivable he was unaware of Tree’s appearance: Tree was virtually the only pedestrian in sight. Earp sat with a proprietary air, with the wise indolence of authority. He was smoking a cigar. Earp was a bit of an actor, Tree had learned; he liked to strike poses. He carried himself with the presumed superiority of a public figure who knew he was at all times on display. But his arrogance was earned. Tree had studied him with close care and thus far he had found in Earp no false note, no weakness, no sign that the pose was hollow bravado.
He and Earp had spent the two weeks feeling each other out-warily, like strange dogs on unfamiliar territory. Tree had come to Gunnison prepared to be impressed; Earp, hard-nosed and yet judicious, had not disappointed him. He did not want to think his judgment or intentions could be colored by the tall shadow of the Wyatt Earp legend, but he had taken care to make sure that was not the case. He had poked and prodded and by now he was more than satisfied. As a result, more than ever he did not want to have to try to arrest Earp.
While he stood watching, Josie Earp came out of the Inter Ocean, pouted at the rain, and said something to Wyatt, who nodded and gave her his sly, slow smile and whacked her rump affectionately before she turned to go back inside. At the door she paused and gave Tree a long direct glance. She excited his interest, and she knew it: she was a girl who exuded a subtle air of compressed amoral sexuality, calculated-by design or by nature-to excite a man. With a fleeting lidded smile she pulled her glance away from Tree and went inside, hips churning.
Tree dropped off the boardwalk and quartered across the muddy street, climbed onto the porch and kicked excess mud off his boots, and walked down the rail to where Earp sat. Earp only looked up when he stopped six feet away.
“Pull up a chair. I hate to have to look up at a man.”
“You could stand up.”
“Still digesting my breakfast,” Earp replied, and waved his — cigar toward a vacant rocking chair. “You keep regular hours for a man with nothing to do.”
“Habit, I guess.” Tree pulled the rocker forward and sat, batting his hat against the side of the chair and hooking it over his knee. “Another day of this and the whole town will float away.”
“Heard anything from Denver?”
Tree looked at him and grinned. “Now ask me a question you don’t already know the answer to.”
“If it’s any comfort to you,” Earp said, “I haven’t had any word either.” Which meant he had no news about whether there had been any success in his long-distance effort to pull strings in the Governor’s office.
“No particular comfort,” Tree said.
“You’d just as soon have it over with.”
“One way or the other-either way,” Tree agreed. “Waiting drags on a man’s nerves.” He gave Earp a sharp, sudden scrutiny in an effort to detect whether Earp felt the same pressure.
There was no change in Earp’s expression-the impassive face of the professional gambler. He said, “Put that you get orders to arrest me. What do you do?”
“If I didn’t mean to follow orders I wouldn’t be here at all.”
Earp’s big head moved back and forth morosely. “Then you’re a gold-plated fool, amigo. Digging yourself a grave.”
Tree shrugged. “You can’t lead my kind of life and expect to live forever. Yours either.”
“Oh, I don’t know. I expect to live to a ripe old age.” Earp gave him a guileless cocked-eyebrow glance; hard to tell whether he. meant it humorously. “If I’m religious about anything,” Earp said, “it’s that. I firmly believe I’ll have my threescore and ten, and then some.”
“Who told you that? Tea leaves or a crystal ball?”
Earp shifted his seat, leaned back and crossed his legs. He murmured, “Let’s use cards, Deputy-let’s lay them face up on the table. Now, I’ve been gentle with you because nobody had to tell me the courage it took for you to come in here at me, in a town where every gun’s against you. It takes guts to humble yourself to duty, obey an order you don’t like and maybe don’t even believe in. But you came here carrying the seeds of trouble-for me and my family. Every time the clock ticks it could mean you’re coming at us with a warrant and a gun. I don’t intend to hang, or see my brother hang, for doing what any decent man would have done to a mad dog like Stillwell. I don’t have to ask any questions, I know I’m right. You haven’t got that luxury. You’re not sure, down deep, whether arresting me is the right thing or the wrong thing. Which puts you in a bad position-you’ve got a private conscience hanging deadweight around your neck no matter what your notion of duty tells you you’ve got to do.”
Earp turned to look him in the face. “It’ll slow you down, you know. It’ll take the edge off. You’ll hesitate when you can’t afford to.”
“Maybe.” Not liking it here any more, Tree got up out of the chair, holding his hat.
Earp said, “It’d be a shame if you got yourself hurt to no purpose.”
Tree thought, God help me, I think you’re right He didn’t say a word; he walked away, putting on his hat before he stepped into the rain.
When he turned into Main Street he saw the white thatched figure of Sheriff McKesson standing just inside the open door of the sheriff’s office, ever vigilant, watching the town. As Tree went by on the opposite side of the street, the sheriff’s grave face turned slowly, indicating his interest in Tree’s passage. Tree waved at him and went on down to the little hotel. The clerk wasn’t on the desk; nobody was in sight. He went back through the corridor to his room and, from habit, glanced to see if the tenpenny nail was in place.
It wasn’t. The door stood ajar, open an inch.
He stood making a puddle in the shape of a ring around his dripping poncho. Disgust welled up in him. He drew both guns out through the pocket holes in the poncho, lifted his boot and kicked the door open.
Both of them jerked, startled. Caroline was by the window; Tree’s half brother Rafe lay on his back on the bed in sock feet.
Rafe grinned. “If I was a bushwhacker waitin’ with a gun I wouldn’t have much of a chance, would I?”
“What the hell are you doing here?”
“Come in and shut the door and we might tell you.”
“Aagh,” Tree said in disgust, putting his guns away and lifting the poncho over his head. He tossed it across a chair, removed his hat, ran fingers through his matted hair and said, “Well?”
Rafe got off the bed and went past him to shut the door. Then he turned. Caroline was watching Tree, looking pretty and blonde and milkmaid fresh in spite of the mud on her clothes and the tangled disorder of her hair.
Rafe said, “You got a nice warm way of greetin’ us, ain’t you?”
“What the hell is this all about?”
Caroline said, “We were afraid you’d get hurt. We came to help.”
“Sure you did.”
Rafe came around him from the door and went back to the bed, where he sat down and tipped his head to one side. “That ain’t exactly the whole truth. We couldn’t get the fare together so we came in the buggy.”
“All the way from Tucson?”
“Left right after you did,” Rafe said, not without pride. “All the way across the goddamn desert and the goddamn mountains in that old buggy, campin’ out. Caroline’s a right good traveler, she’d of made a good Forty-niner.” Rafe grinned at his wife.
“Both of you,” Tree said, shaking his head. “Why’d both of you come, for crying out loud?”
“Because,” Caroline said quietly, “I wouldn’t let him go without me. He came with me or not at all.”
Looking at both of them, Tree saw how it was. Once more he remembered what Caroline’s father had said to him not too long ago: J told her not to marry your brother because he just ain’t tough enough for her. She’ll put spurs to him one time when she ain’t even thanking about it, and she’ll rip him to shreds ‘thout ever knowing how it happened. It was clear to see how this marriage had settled down, who wore the pants. Tree thought, You poor son of a bitch, you should’ve known better.
He said to Rafe, “I suppose you’ve still got your tongue hanging out over that four-thousand-dollar reward on the Earp brothers.”
“I still need the money to buy that ranch. Where else am I, gonna get that kind of money?”
“You’re both pretty damned young,” Tree said, looking straight at Caroline. “Couldn’t you settle for something less than your own ranch to start out with?”
“Why should we?” Rafe demanded. “You take what you can get, Jeremy, it’s a me-first country.”
Tree jerked a thumb toward the invisible hills. “A lot of bleached bones up in those mountains thought the same thing.”
“I ain’t scared of Wyatt Earp.”
No, Tree thought, you’re not, are you? It surprised him a little-particularly because even if Rafe didn’t think he was scared of Earp, he was certainly intimidated enough by his own wife. But that was a different sort of thing: petticoat power was too subtle for Rafe to handle. Rafe was brash, bold, full of bullheaded guts, and no less callow than an ignorant puppy.
“Listen,” Tree said, “you two just get back in your goddamn buggy and drive back to Arizona. There’s nothing here for you.”
Caroline scowled at him but did not speak. Rafe, his face red, said, “Damn it, when you gonna quit treating me like a kid?”
“When you quit acting like one.”
Caroline said, “That’s not fair.”
He looked at her. “Shut up.”
Rafe sat up straight. “Who you tellin’ to shut up?”
Tree ignored him; he said flatly to Caroline, “You put him up to this-you filled his head with notions. If you don’t want him dead, you’d better change his mind.”
Caroline gave him a savage mock-sweet smile. “Rafe’s a man-he makes his own decisions.”
“In a pig’s eye. Now grab him by the ear and get him out of here-or I’ll do it myself.”
“You just try,” Rafe growled, eyes flashing. “You just try that little thing, Jeremy.”
Tree snorted, walked around the foot of the bed and picked up a newspaper from the little lamp table. He went over to the bed and lay down, crossing his muddy boots on the coverlet, and held the newspaper up in front of his face.
Caroline said, “What do you think you’re doing?”.
“Reading,” Tree said.
“And just what are we supposed to do?”
Tree lowered the newspaper and looked at her. “I couldn’t care less what you do,” he said, and lifted the paper.
Caroline said, “We haven’t got the money for a hotel room.”
“Should’ve thought of that before you came all this way, shouldn’t you?”
“You bastard,” she said.
Tree said, “There sure as hell isn’t room for all three of us on this bed, Caroline.”
“Jerr, you’re a first class A number one son of a bitch.”
“Uh-hunh,” he muttered, reading.
Rafe got off the corner of the bed, assembled his dignity, and said, “Come on, honey, let’s you and me go get something to eat. To hell with his majesty.”
“Enjoy yourselves,” Tree intoned, without looking away from his reading matter.
Caroline said in a stifled, angry little voice, “You just wait till you need our help arresting Wyatt Earp. You’ll come begging on your knees, Jeremiah Tree.”
“All right,” Tree drawled. “You two just stay out of trouble until I do.”
“Jesus H. Christ,” said Rafe, yanking the door open. He stopped. “You coming?”
Caroline came away from the window. “You just wait,” she fumed.
The two of them went out; the door slammed angrily. Tree put the paper down on his chest and frowned at the ceiling. The frown turned to a scowl.
Wyatt Earp said to him, “I’ve got a skittish brother too, amigo, but I can handle him. You put hobbles on that kid or he’ll get hurt.”
Tree glowered down at the man in the rocking chair. “What’d he do?”
“Came right up here and told me he wasn’t scared of me. Now, I don’t mind a man not being scared of me. I never asked him to be scared of me, did I? But I don’t like it when a man sneers at me.”
“You won’t kill him for a sneer.”
Earp gave a loud bark of laughter. “Hardly-hardly. But I’ll tell you something, it’s the kids you always have to watch. They’re the ones who haven’t got a layer of sense grown onto their hides. At thirty you start counting up the odds, you start recognizing consequences. At twenty you don’t believe a damned thing can ever happen to you. A tough kid is a lot more dangerous than a tough grown-up man. Which is to say I won’t give your brother as much leeway as I’d give you, because I don’t trust him half as far as you. If that kid makes the wrong move in front of me I won’t wait to find out whether he’s bluffing. I state that as a warning between friends, not a threat to scare you. Understand me?”
“Then hobble him,” Wyatt Earp said, got up from his chair and went inside.
Tree stayed put, scowling. Across the street, Sheriff McKesson ambled into sight and gave him a courteous look of mild inquisitiveness. Tree yanked his hat down tight and strode away up the street, breaking out into the brass afternoon sunlight with long-legged strides, tramping his shadow into the ground, heading with enraged aimlessness toward the telegraph office, where he knew there would be no message for him.
“Look at him,” Rafe complained. “Sittin’ up there on that porch like an old lizard lazy in the sun, actin’ like he owned all of Creation. I’d like to bring him down a peg.”
Caroline said, “You couldn’t beat him in a fair fight and you know it. It’s not smart to needle him, Rafe.”
“What the hell am I doing here if I can’t lick him? Hell yes I can lick him. He ain’t so tough. Look at him, he’s half asleep-he’s tired and he’s gettin’ old.”
“He’s thirty-four years old, Rafe.”
“Which means I’m a dozen years faster than he is. Listen, whose side are you on?”
They sat at the window table in a miner’s lunchroom. Empty plates sat before them gathering flies. They had wiped up every last drop of gravy with hunks of stone-ground bread. They had almost no money and they had eaten meagerly the past three days, sleeping outside town underneath their wagon; luckily, the afternoon they had arrived the rain quit.
“I’m on your side, Rafe,” Caroline said. She was using that persuasive tone of voice that always made him pay attention. He took his eves off Wyatt Earp across the street and settled his attention on her face. She said earnestly, “You’ve got to be realistic. You’re no gunfighter. But if Jerr decides to arrest Earp, he’ll know how to go about it so there won’t be a big gunfight. Hell get the drop on the Earp brothers somehow.”
“He would,” Rafe said flatly.
“It’s the only smart thing to do. And that’s where you’ll come in. Jerr hasn’t got a soul in this town to take his side, outside of you and me. Once he arrests them he’ll need someone to guard his back against the Earps’ friends. He can’t get them out of town without help. And once you’ve helped him that way, they’ll have to pay you the reward.”
“Yeah,” Rafe said. “Sure, I guess you’re right. I was just making bluff talk anyway. I know my limitations. I wouldn’t really pick a fight with Earp. Jesus.” He grinned at her. “But by Christ I’m not scared of the bastard either.”
“I never thought you were.”
A fat waitress brought two cups of coffee to the table and waited to be paid for the meal. Rafe dug in his pocket and counted out coins with care. The waitress took the money impassively and waddled away. Rafe picked up the steaming cup of foul brew and held it in both hands, blowing across the surface and looking out the window. A small group of men-three or four-had come out onto the porch of the Inter Ocean and ranged themselves alongside Wyatt Earp. He recognized Warren Earp and the mountain-sized strikebreaker, Reese Cooley. A bartender had told Rafe about the big fight in the Inter Ocean Hotel bar, where Sliphammer Tree had wrestled Cooley down. Rafe didn’t like Cooley’s looks at all.
The group on the porch was looking across the street at something Rafe couldn’t see, something on this side of the street but down the block in the other direction. Cooley and Warren Earp were talking. Wyatt Earp hadn’t stirred in his rocking chair. Cooley walked forward and stood on one leg with the raised second boot propped against the porch rail; only a very big man could do that without losing his balance. Cooley’s right hand wag thumb-hooked over his holstered revolver. His face had narrowed down to a mean stare directed at whatever was on the sidewalk down the street.
Rafe gulped his coffee down and stood up, pushing his chair away with the backs of his knees. “You stay put,” he said. “I want to see what the fuss is all about.”
“Be careful,” she said.
“Sure-sure.” He-headed for the door, weaving a threaded path among tight-crowded tables.
Warren had come out onto the porch feeling sour-mouthed and unhappy. He was remembering last night, and still feeling hung over from it. He’d made a fool of himself, he’d admitted that, but he still felt rage against the world in general.
Last night Wyatt and Josie had gone upstairs early. There was no mistaking what they had in mind as a way to pass the time for the rest of the evening. Those two spent a hell of a lot of the time balling it in the sack. It didn’t make Warren angry; it made him envious. Just thinking about it got him horny. He’d had a steady girl back in Ohio, a mousy little seventeen-year-old with underdeveloped breasts and buck-teeth. She wasn’t any world-beater but in the farm country where he lived there wasn’t much choice; there were damned few girls around and not many of them would put out. An awful lot of Bible-thumping \ back there, patriarchal farmers protecting their daughters’ virginity as if it was crown jewels. But he’d found this one buck-toothed girl and he’d got used to doing it with her every week or two. Now he’d been gone six or seven weeks from Ohio, maybe more, it was hard to remember, and he wanted a woman badly.
So last night after Wyatt and Josie had gone upstairs grinning at each other, Warren had gone on the prowl, and after he’d panned no pay dirt in three saloons he hit the real mother lode in the fourth: a big cow of a woman she’d been, but she looked ripe and ready, for it, and when he’d sat down next to her she hadn’t objected. It was one of the foul-smelling saloons the miners used; there were half a dozen used-up women in the place, but this one somehow didn’t look like a whore. She sat with heavy thighs spread loose, her big breasts lying on the table, moistening her lips when she looked at him, and after he’d bought her two drinks she’d told him her sad story-she was married to a miner on the night shift; he worked all night underground, and by the time he came home he was too tired to do anything but eat and sleep, and she was sick of it, drinking down here trying to work up the courage to leave him and go back home to Kansas where her folks had a soddy homestead.
They had both got very drunk together and she had let him take her home. He had no idea what time it was. They had gone into the dismal little shack and made love with hurried urgency on the filthy straw-tick mattress on the floor. It was after that he made the mistake: head wheeling with drink and exhaustion, he had fallen asleep, sprawled across her great mound of a snoring body.
Maybe it was something that was born into you if you were an Earp-an automatic warning signal built into the brain, like eyes in the back of the head. Wy att had it, he knew; Wyatt always seemed to know everything that went on in back of him. But whatever it was, it had saved his life this morning. He’d woken up, not completely aware of what had awakened him, but instantly and totally alert. He’d looked up and he’d seen the door creak open. The bright shaft of morning sunlight came cruelly inside the shack. The miner stood silhouetted, chest expanding to let out a roar, hefting his miner’s pickax and charging into the shack.
If Warren hadn’t been awake and alert, he’d have taken the head of that pickax through the back. As it was, he managed to roll off the far side of the mattress and scramble to his feet.
The miner roared in agonized howls, rushing forward and swinging the ax-but he’d tripped over the big woman and almost lost his balance. The pick came down and hit the floor.
Warren grabbed the pick by its head; jerked it out of the miner’s fists and thudded the handle into the miner’s belly, pushing with all his weight. The miner let out a whooshing wheeze of breath and sat down, hard, on his wife’s legs. The woman uttered a groggy howl and squirmed. The miner tried to get up. His face was murderous. Warren slammed him across the side of the face with the handle of the pickax. It knocked the miner over on his side. Warren dropped the pick and jumped over the sluggishly stirring woman and ran out of the shack. He hadn’t stopped running till he was all the way back to the Inter Ocean.
He’d tried to sneak up to his room but of course his luck hadn’t held. Wyatt had intercepted him on the stairs and he’d had to tell Wyatt the whole thing. Wyatt had surprised him by bursting out in a peal of bull-lunged laughter that had shaken the walls; Wyatt had pounded him uproariously on the back and taken him downstairs to breakfast, and insisted on him telling the whole story over again to Josie. She too thought it was the funniest damn thing she’d ever heard.
All he wanted was to go upstairs, take a bath, put on clean underwear, and sleep off his hangover, but he hadn’t had a chance to do that for another hour: first, nothing would do but that Wayde Cardiff, Reese Cooley, and everybody else in the Inter Ocean had to have the whole story of Warren’s big adventure. Finally, tasting foul and feeling sick and headachy, he’d managed to break away and go upstairs. He’d cleaned up and slept for a few hours and he’d just now come back downstairs, still feeling hung over but believing he might live.
It was Cooley who caught him at the saloon door, coming through the dining room; Cooley had grabbed him by the arm and hustled him out to the porch.
Wyatt was there, in the rocking chair. A couple of Cooley’s thugs wen tout just ahead of them and by the time Warren stepped onto the porch the thugs were standing by the porch rail. Cooley said, “Look over yonder, boy.”
Warren looked downstreet and saw, across the street half a block away, a little group of grim men standing with rifles and shotguns. He recognized Floyd Sparrow and he recognized the miner who’d almost pickaxed him this morning. The other four or five were miners too, one or two being the same ones who had mixed into the fight in the saloon a couple of weeks ago.
Cooley said, “They lookin’ for war, they gonna git one.”
Wyatt Earp, without stirring in his chair, said, “I imagine they intend to avenge that woman’s honor. Or at least that’s what one of them has in mind. Sparrow’s just using it for his excuse to get the war going. Warren?”
“What do you think, boy?”
“I didn’t rape the bastard’s wife. I only gave her what she asked me for. Man can’t keep his own wife in line, it’s his fault, not mine.”
“All right. But what do you think you ought to do about this?”
Sparrow had finished giving instructions to the miners down the street; they fanned out in a line abreast and began to walk forward along the opposite boardwalk, holding their rifles and shotguns ready. Reese Cooley took his boot down from the porch rail and lifted the six-gun out in his fist; Cooley said, “If they aimed to make advantage out of them rifles, they made a mistake comin’ inside handgun range.”
Wyatt said to his brother, “Well, boy?”
Warren shook his head. “I’ve gotno fight with them. I’m not afraid, but I don’t want a fight.”
“Good man,” Wyatt breathed. “Cooley, don’t use that thing unless you have to.”
Without taking his eyes off the miners, Cooley said, “Fuck that noise. They want their balls shot off, they can have it.”
“You’ll hold your fire, by God,” Wyatt Earp murmured in a very soft, grating voice. It was enough to make Cooley hesitate.
Wyatt got out of his chair and walked over to the pillar that supported the veranda roof. With half his body concealed behind it from the miners, Wyatt opened his coat to display the handle of one revolver. With slow motions he lifted the gun into his fist and cocked it. It wasn’t pointed at anyone in particular. Across the way, the miners were looking at each other in confusion, all except the enraged husband, whose face was black and blue; one eye was bruised shut. He had a shotgun locked in two fists the knuckles of which were white. The shotgun came around toward the veranda and the miner stopped with both feet braced. Floyd Sparrow’s piping thin voice reached harshly across the street: “We want Warren Earp for a miners’ court. Turn him over to us.”
It made Reese Cooley laugh with crude wickedness.
Wyatt Earp didn’t raise his voice; he didn’t have to. He said, “All right, Sparrow, you wanted to test us, you’ve tested us. You can’t have him. Now put down those cannons and get off the street before all of you end up with dirt in your faces.”
It was the wronged husband who made it inevitable: the miner uttered a shrill cry of inarticulate desperation and yanked both triggers of the shotgun.
The roar was deafening. The miner clearly knew nothing about weapons; he was eighty feet away from his targets and he hadn’t aimed. The buckshot pellets made spouts and creases in the street below the porch of the Inter Ocean; a few stray pellets from the charge rattled against the boards, and one of them stung Cooley in the foot, which made him howl and made him shoot. Cooley’s first bullet hit the miner somewhere in the upper body and knocked him back against Floyd Sparrow, who wind-milled his arms and fell down under the wounded man’s weight.
All in a split fraction of a few seconds, the street erupted in battle. The miners hunched over their rifles, shooting without knowing how to aim. Cooley and his two thugs answered the fire deliberately. Wyatt Earp, lifting his gun, did not shoot; and Warren took cover behind the second post, his gun ready but unfired. One of the miners, hit in the shoulder, spun all the way around and fell flat; another broke it off and started to run, and Cooley shot him in the leg, spilling him down, skidding, onto the boardwalk.
That was when someone came crashing out of the lunchroom door a few yards down the street from Floyd Sparrow. Reese Cooley wheeled that way, gun turning. Warren’s eyes snapped to the newcomer, saw young Rafe Tree come charging out onto the street, gun in holster, mouth open and working. Warren heard Cooley’s forty-five thunder and boom.
When Rafe had got near the door, inside the lunchroom, he’d heard the shooting start. Startled and baffled, he’d climbed past two close-crowded tables and rushed the rest of the way to the door, flung it open and run outside to see what was going on. He took two steps, had no time to find out what the shooting was all about; the bullet hit him just below his belt buckle.
It knocked him down, ignominiously on his ass, and sitting there he felt the warm sticky spread of wet blood filling his pants; he felt ashamed. He did not want to look at the wound the bullet had made. He looked at Wyatt Earp, across the street. Earp was-snarling at Reese Cooley. Earp swatted Cooley across the face with the barrel of his gun and Cooley fell back against the wall, amazed. Across the street Rafe dimly heard Floyd Sparrow’s voice, piping and panicky: “Christ, let’s get the shit outa here!”
Warren Earp stepped into sight beside a porch pillar, his gun lifted but not firing, watching the miners run away down the street. Rafe tried to turn his head to see them but he seemed very tired all of a sudden, too tired to move his head. He felt surprise, not fear; he felt very little pain but the wet discomfort in his pants was embarrassing.
He thought, I better get this tended to right away. They must have a doctor in this town. Hell, I ain’t dead, I’m okay, only if I don’t get it tended to I might bleed to death eventually.
A quick cramp, more spasm than agony, made him bend over. It felt like the aftereffect of a big meal spiced with hot chili peppers and coarse tequila-pressure of belly gas, a little pain beginning now, starting to spread through his abdomen, and he thought he would just sit here a moment longer until he felt alittlestronger, and then he would go find a doctor to patch him up so he could help Jeremy arrest those Earp bastards and collect the reward.
Caroline beat a path through the lunchroom, screaming, knocking people aside. She pummeled her way to the door-people were crowding forward to find out what was going on. She elbowed past two men at the door, wrenched it open, and plunged outside.
She took it all in with one glance. The little Knights of Labor agitator-Sparrow-running away down the street with a scuttling, scrambling gait, following the big miners who ran hard, two of them obviously wounded, their clumsy jackboots pounding the boardwalk; big Reese Cooley standing slumped under the veranda against the wall of the Inter Ocean, his face bleeding; Warren Earp and the two thugs with him, watching the miners run away, holding their guns ready but silent; and tall Wyatt Earp stepping down off the Inter Ocean veranda and dogtrotting forward toward the crouching man in the street-Rafe.
An involuntary sound gurgled in Caroline’s throat. She started forward with numb steps. Earp crouched down by Rafe just as Rafe tipped over and fell on his shoulder. Caroline’s hand rose to her mouth. She saw Earp reach out to feel for a pulse; she said with a little cry, “How bad… how bad is it?”
Earp looked up slowly, his eyes hooded by heavy over-hanging brows. “As bad as he can get.”
She closed her eyes tight. Slowly her shoulders slumped. She dropped her face into her hands. After a moment she felt a hand on her arm and she looked up to see Wyatt Earp beside her.
She said in a very small voice, “If you don’t take your hand off me right now I swear to God I’ll kill you with my bare hands.”
Wyatt Earp dropped his hands to his sides and turned away and walked over to the Inter Ocean. Caroline watched him until he disappeared inside. Then, strength gone, she fell to her knees beside Rafe. A man was running forward, summoned somehow, carrying a black? ctor’s bag. It was too late for that. Caroline’s eyes misted and she began to speak with numb monotonous repetition: “Oh God Oh God Oh God Oh God…”
The angry sun stood straight overhead; the undertaker’s wagon creaked past and Jeremiah Tree stepped off the walk to cross the street to the Inter Ocean. His face was a twisted, ugly mask of fury.
McKesson came out onto the veranda when Tree was halfway to the place. The sheriff opened his mouth to speak but Tree didn’t even-look at him, just went straight for the door, and so McKesson planted himself in front of the door and stiff-armed him to a halt.
Tree’s lips peeled back from his teeth. “Stick it up your ass, Sheriff.”
“Walk through that door the way you are now and you’re dead,” McKesson said flatly, staring him in the eye. “Just stand still and wait for your brain to start functioning, Deputy. Right now you’re no good to anybody-least of all yourself.”
“I’m going to do your job for you,” Tree snarled.
“What job is that? Arresting Reese Cooley? I already did that. The Judge turned him loose on his own recognizance after Cardiff’s lawyer got a writ.”
“Pretty damn fast work,” Tree said icily.
“Yes, well, it happens like that when you’ve got powerful friends. Cooley will face a preliminary hearing and if he’s bound over he’ll go to trial.”
“A trial, Sheriff-or a farce?”
Tree was facing McKesson, his eyes at the level of McKesson’s white thatch of hair; he was still feeling the shortness of breath, the debilitating massive rage that flooded through all the tissues of his body. His hands were formed into tight fists and he lifted one of them to the level of his waist. He was about to tell McKesson to get out of the way when a new voice slapped at him from just inside the door: “All right, Ollie, thanks. I’ll take over.”
It was Wyatt Earp. In his rage Tree had lost all alertness; Earp had come within six feet of him without his even knowing.
Earp was in his shirt sleeves, probably to eliminate any flowing coat cloth that might get between hand and gun. His shoulder-holstered guns hung heavy under his arms and his hands were held in front of his chest as if he were holding poker cards, only there were no cards; he was two inches from drawing his guns.
Earp said, “Now don’t say anything and don’t get stupid notions until you’ve heard me out. You’re in no shape to try me with a gun. Are you listening?”
With stubborn muteness Tree looked straight at him. Earp’s sleeves were rolled up; his golden-haired forearms were powerful and sleek. Tree hadn’t seen him angry before; now it was strong enough to reach through his own rage: it chilled him, a bleak coldness that came off Wyatt Earp like death.
“Now hear me,” Earp said. “You see men all the time who go around begging to get killed. They take a swing at you if you even brush by their sleeve without meaning to. They pick a fight over nothing, they accuse you of cheating at cards-anything. They go out of their way to make enemies of dangerous men when they know they haven’t got a chance of winning a fight with them. They beg to get hurt. And sooner or later they always find somebody to oblige them.”
“If you’re talking about Rafe-”
“I am.” Earp cut him off roughly and went on: “Your brother was begging for it. Making brags he knew he couldn’t keep. Talking it up in saloons, telling everybody in earshot what he’d do to me and my so-called gang if he ever got an excuse. I heard him and Cooley heard him. Maybe you heard him too.”
“It was just talk. Kid talk. Cooley’s going to pay-”
“Cooley will pay,” Earp grunted, “sooner or later, but not here, not now, and not for this. Listen to me, amigo. Your brother came boiling out that door over there at a time when guns were going off on this street. He didn’t just stick his head out for a look. He came running. When you’re in the middle of a gun battle and you see a man running at you and it’s a man who’s made threats against your life, you don’t stop to ask the bastard if his intentions are peaceable. I told you before, I wouldn’t wait to find out if he was bluffing. I told you to hpbble him. You didn’t, and he’s dead, and now you want to blame your own mistake on Cooley. Cooley had no choice.”
“No choice! Are you trying to tell me he forced Cooley to kill him when he didn’t even have a gun in his hand?”
“He was armed. He came ramming into a fight that was none of his business and it was his own stupid fault he got shot. We didn’t have time to wait to see whether he was going to start shooting at us. By God, how do I make you understand? There were guns going off!”
McKesson, at Tree’s shoulder, said in a strict voice, “Your brother was the one who had the choice to make, Deputy. He could have chosen not to come out on the street. When a man deliberately steps into the line of fire you’ve got to assume he means to take a hand in the fighting. He could hear what was happening-he wasn’t deaf, was he? — if he’d had any sense at all he’d have stuck to cover.”
Wyatt Earp said, “Just one more thing. You can come inside and try to take Cooley away from us, but I don’t recommend it. You’ll want better odds. Go home and think about it. Give yourself a chance, for the love of God.”
Abruptly, Earp backed inside and disappeared beyond the door.
McKesson reached for his arm; Tree shook him off. He stood staring at the closed door as if Earp were still there.
Finally he said in a low, throbbing voice, “What really happened here? I can’t get a straight story out of anybody.”
“I don’t know. I wasn’t here either. Don’t you believe him?”
“Why should I?”
McKesson said, “I was beginning to think you liked Earp.”
“I was beginning to think he believed in justice,” Tree answered darkly.
“How do you know he doesn’t?”
“Rafe didn’t have a gun in his hand, did he?”
“All I know is his gun was in the holster and it hadn’t been fired.”
“Yeah,” Tree said. “So.”
“So at least you’re starting to ask questions, which indicates to me that you’re no longer suffering total mental paralysis. I talked to Cooley. He said he saw the kid come barging out of the lunchroom door and he remembered all the threats the kid had been making and he didn’t have time to stop and ask his intentions. I tend to believe that. At any rate I don’t see how you could disprove it to the satisfaction of any court of law, rigged or honest, makes no difference. You’re sworn to uphold the law. All right, Cooley’s on your shit list, but don’t go after the whole Earp crowd on that account.”
Tree scraped the back of a craggy hand across his mouth. McKesson punched him lightly on the shoulder. “I rise to remark that once you’ve thought the whole thing over and had time to simmer down, you’ll chalk the whole thing up the same way you’d chalk it up if some fatal disease had killed your brother. You don’t go out to kill somebody because a brother died of smallpox-you can’t get revenge on smallpox. You can’t avenge an accident, and that’s what this was. When you spend as many years peace-officering as I have, you’ll learn things are never as simple as the old eye-for-an-eye philosophy would have it.”
“Sheriff,” Tree said, “if there’s one thing I don’t need right now it’s one of your speeches.”
“You’re wrong. I think it’s exactly what you do need. Why, I recall one time when-”
Tree turned away and left him there, trailing off. He went blindly across the street and strode through the town in a stiff, stunned way, not knowing where he was going, not caring. He didn’t even want to find a place to hole up and think; the last thing he wanted was to think. For it seemed clear that McKesson had to be right: no more chance of getting vengeance than of trying to fight a smallpox fever with a gun. He hated Cooley but even killing Cooley would solve nothing, would not be the answer. There was no answer, and it was that fact which stupefied him as if he had been clubbed. That, and the fact that he couldn’t put out of his head what Earp had said, so cruelly: J told you to hobble him. You didn’t, and he’s dead.
Hindsight, he thought, desperately grabbing at straws; it was no good. Neither killing Cooley nor blaming himself would bring Rafe back.
He just didn’t want to think about it.
He found in time that his steps had taken him into Poverty Row, the fringe of the tenderloin, inhabited by the dregs of Gunnison. Flimsy unpainted pine shacks under the plaid shadows of a railroad trestle. At midday Poverty Row was asleep. At first he saw no one; two blocks farther, he stopped to let a loose-bodied woman cross his path. She wore a shabby night-robe, nothing else; she padded across the dusty gulch in bare feet, carrying a bottle of cheap wine, and disappeared into a tumbledown crib with drawn curtains that had obviously been chopped from an army blanket. She hadn’t even glanced at him.
Beside him he saw the face of a Chinese girl pressed against a filthy window pane. He walked on, past a row of single-story cribs each of which had the occupant’s name painted on a removable shingle sign: Goldfield Nell, Bilious Billie, French Lil. Toward the foot of the street several of the girls sat spread-thighed on chairs in their open doors, which were overhung by the red railroad lanterns that had given red-light districts their name in the Kansas railhead towns ten years ago. The girls were sixteen-year-old soiled doves, painted ladies of the half-world. Black, Oriental, Mexican, Indian, European. They solicited halfheartedly from their doorways. It was the first time he had seen them close up; he had seen them uptown at night, when the light was poor, parading up and down the street with jangling saloon bands, stirring up business. Now, in daylight, at sixteen they looked all used up. A good many of them were probably addicted to opium and morphine, if they weren’t drunks. As he went by, three or four of them shouted raucous, obscene invitations. He shook his head without speaking and wandered on. At the heart of Poverty Row he came upon the Homestead Parlour House, which had a crescent-shaped sign painted high on its false front: GIRLS TWENTY GIRLS TWENTY GIRLS and, painted under that, Beer 5?.
Past that he came to the Bijou Union Saloon. A hand-lettered sign on packing cardboard announced that sleeping space was available on back-room billiard tables, one dollar a night.
He went inside. The place was sick-eningly rich with the aura of beer, whisky, smoke, vomit, and sweat. There were no windows and it was almost pitch dark. The bar was a row of roughhewn planks thrown across a series of barrels. There were a few half-broken tables, and packing crates which served as chairs. Knowing full well what he was doing, he bought a bottle of cheap whisky and carried it to a table in the darkest corner, sat down, leaned his back against the wall, and began to drink.
Fuzzily, he supposed it was nighttime. The place was filling up with miners. Trembling violenty, he sat hunched over the half-empty second bottle, hands pinched between his squeezed-together knees. Lamps were lit; it was brighter than it had been during the day. He felt coiling spasms in his groin and knew he had to relieve himself. He stood up-too fast: blood sank from his head and the room got darker. He leaned one hand on the wall to steady himself and tightened his gut, tensing all his muscles to build pressure until finally light came back into the room and he walked across it with shuffling, tentative steps.. He bumped into a few people and was shoved roughly away once. Finally he made his way outside and went stumbling into the alley alongside the saloon. It smelled of excrement. He unbuttoned his fly; he had to brace his hands against the wall to keep himself from falling while he urinated. Afterwards he buttoned up and lurched down the street, dimly aware he had better get back to his own part of town before he passed out; otherwise they would roll him for the few dollars in his Levi’s, and perhaps kill him for the hell of it. He kept a crafty eye out for would-be assassins but no one disturbed him in Poverty Row. A train rumbled across the trestle, showering him with soot and cinders. He staggered into Main Street in time to see an ore wagon run over a dog. The dog crawled a few feet toward the shelter of a raised porch, then lay whimpering in the street, movements slowing. By the time Tree came by, the dog was dead. He hunkered down to touch it; there was no heartbeat. As he crouched there, tears welled in his eyes and stained his cheeks.
He was violently sick in the alley beside the hotel. He dragged himself inside, ignored the clerk’s righteously arch glance, and lurched back through the corridor to his room. He had emptied himself but he still felt sick. When he opened the door, the tenpenny nail bounced off his shoulder and rattled when it hit the floor. He went inside, kicked the door shut, and sprawled facedown at an angle across the bed. He wanted to pass out, but unconsciousness eluded him crazily. The world spun. He could hear the nighttime revelry from the streets, bands playing, hoarse shoutings, some fool shooting off a gun somewhere. He lay that way in a suspension of time, with no idea how long he had been there-long enough to get cramped and feel pressure on his ribs lrom lying on them. When the dull, stunned feeling left, it unmasked sharp blades of anguish which stabbed him from all directions. He put his face in his hands.
He was lurching with sobs when someone shook his ankle. He turned his head sluggishly, ludicrously; he couldn’t turn it far enough; he had to roll over on his back; and when he did, he almost fell off the bed. He braced one arm against the floor and from that awkward drunken position saw Caroline, her curved, husky body silhouetted against the faint lamplight in the corridor beyond the open door.
The only way to get up was to get down. He rolled his legs and body off the bed, got his feet on the floor, and levered himself clumsily upright; sitting on the edge of the bed he scraped both hands down his face, wiping his eyes.
She was moving around the room. A match exploded, the lamp came alight; she walked back to the door to push it shut. When he looked up she was standing in front of him, looking down at his face.
She said, “Go ahead. I already did my crying.”
“You feel tougher now, Jerr?”
His mind was mired, his tongue thick; he had to think out what he said, and form the words with care. He said very slowly, “I think maybe I don’t ever want to be that tough.”
“God help you if you were.” She sat down on the bed beside him. “You’re drunk, but besides that-how are you, Jerr?”
“You’re lying-you feel terrible.”
“Why the hell should you care?”
She opened her mouth, closed it, and began again: clearly it was not what she had meant to say. “The funeral’s in the morning, in a few hours.”
“I’ll make it.”
“I know you will.”
“He was my brother,” he mumbled, slurring thick. “Half brother anyway. God damn it I let him down, I killed him, but God damn it God damn it I loved him!”
There was a stretch of silence at the end of which, with amazing abruptness, she slapped his face.
His head rocked back; he blinked and squinted at her. “What the hell was that for?”
“Shut up about killing him. You didn’t kiU him.”
“If I’d thrown him out of town the way I should have, he’d be alive.”
“No. He’d just have come back.”
“I thought you were the one who put him up to it.”
“If you want to blame me,” she said, “go ahead. I’ve been doing that myself. If anybody killed him it was me, not you. I wanted-”
He said with savage hastiness, “What did you want?”
She stood up, She had her back to him. “I wanted to make him into a man like you,” she said in a small voice.
It made her wheel. She lifted her hand as if to slap him again. He neither flinched nor guarded himself; he only stared at her brandished hand with a morose, vacuous scowl.
Slowly her hand dropped to her side. She shook her head. “Don’t you see, you couldn’t have stopped him. You couldn’t have kept it from happening. Maybe not the way it happened, but it would have happened sometime and someplace because I was too selfish and too stupid and too damned mixed up to know you can’t change anybody. I wanted to make him into something he wasn’t and I got him killed. And now,” she said with acid bitterness, “now I know. I’ had to learn from this that you can’t ever change anybody, you just have to accept them for what they are. Jesus, Jerr, Rafe was a goddamned good wrangler, he loved horses.”
She wasn’t crying but she refused to look at him; she turned her back again and he saw her small, tough hands bunched into fists, womanly fists, the thumbs inside the curled fingers.
She said, “Are you listening all right? Can you pay attention?”
“I guess so.”
“I have to say something and I don’t want to, and if I don’t say it to you now I probably won’t ever have the guts to again.”
He shook his head at her back. “I don’t know what you’ve got in mind but I think you’d better save it. Neither one of us is thinking too straight.”
Her fists tightened; he couldn’t see her face. He had to lean forward to hear her: “I’ve got to, Jerr, I’ve got to-I want you to listen to what I say and don’t interrupt. I put my hooks in Rafe because I wanted him to be you. I took him because I couldn’t get you, do you understand? He wasn’t you, he never would have been-let me finish! — but he was the closest thing there was to you. I tried to change him into you because you were the one I really wanted, and I knew as soon as we were married that I couldn’t do it but I wouldn’t give up, I couldn’t then, and you see what it did to him. It’s not your fault, what happened. It’s mine. Mine and Reese Cooley’s.”
He didn’t believe her. She wasn’t telling the truth; she meant the lie to show, she meant him to see through the falsehood, she just wanted to give him an out so he’d quit blaming himself. It had to be hke that; her story was too absurd. He said sourly, “Sure-sure. You say I was the one you wanted. You couldn’t get me. You flatter a man, Caroline. I never knew you even knew I existed until you and Rafe decided to get married.”
“I was always there but you never paid any attention to me. You weren’t interested in me-hell, why should you be? I was a young girl. My father’s not much older than you. You were out of my reach, Jerr, and I had to grab what I could get, and the closest thing to you was Rafe, and oh Jesus God I wish I could apologize to him.” She sank down on her knees with one arm across the iron foot of the bedstead.
He was developing a thudding headache that made it hard to think clearly. He had the taste of bile in his throat. He got up, swayed dizzily for a moment, said, “Be back,” and went down the corridor to the front desk. He asked the clerk for Seidlitz powders, got them and a filthy tumbler, and went back to the room to mix the compound. Caroline was sitting on the corner chair chewing her knuckle. He drank the bitter mixture and stood with his eyes closed until it went down into his belly and he felt it churning at work; he poured water into the commode basin and scrubbed his face.
When he toweled the water out of his eyes and looked at her, she was sitting up straight and there was fire in her eyes. She said, “All right, confession hour’s over, Jerr. We both made mistakes and Rafe suffered for them but we won’t be doing him or ourselves any good going on like this.”
“What do you suggest?” he said angrily. “A celebration?”
“No. But neither one of us is built to spend the rest of our lives wearing sackcloth and ashes over this.”
“You put him out of your mind just like that?” he said, incredulous. “He’s not even buried yet!”
“Women are tough,” she said. “My mother died when I was three. My father has outlived three wives. No, I haven’t put Rafe out of my mind. I probably never will. But we’ve got to-”
“Shut up,” he grated. “Shut up and get out. You make me sick.”
“How long do you intend to grieve? Are you going to brood over this the rest of your life?”
“That’s my business,” he snapped childishly.
She stood up. “All right, Jerr, you’ve had a rough time, that’s too bad. We’ve all had a rough time. But you’re standing on your own feet-you’re better off than you think you are. You’re not beaten-not unless you give up. Right now I think you’re trying to give up. Hell, be a man, Jerr.”
“Just who the hell do you think you’re talking to? Don’t crap all over me, Caroline, I don’t like being crapped on-I’m tired of it.”
“Sure. You’re burying yourself in self-pity. All right, have it your own way. But you’re sober enough now to listen to this. While you were out wherever you were, getting your guts pickled in rotgut whisky, that telegram you’ve been waiting for came.”
He stood bolt still and stared at her, the towel forgotten in his hands. He shook his head slowly in disbelief. “What telegram? What’d it say?”
“I don’t know what it said. It wasn’t delivered to me, or anybody else, because you couldn’t be found. But the Western Union boy spent three hours combing the town looking for you, and by the time he gave it up, everybody in town knew your message had arrived.”
Tree had tossed the towel aside and was headed for the door, reaching for his hat. Caroline said, “Never mind that. The office is closed, the telegrapher’s gone to bed and I have no idea where he lives. He said he’d have the message at the office for you when they open at eight in the morning. If Wyatt Earp can wait that long, you can too. And please don’t be forgetting, Rafe’s funeral is at nine.”
When he flung his hat away and stood with his back to her, grinding fist into palm, she said softly, “Jerr, you don’t even know what it says. Maybe it says the job’s off, the Governor refused to extradite them.”
And maybe it said to arrest the Earp brothers.
Only a handful stood on the hillside. A cold wind came down off the mountains, roughing up the aspen leaves, brushing the faces of Tree and Caroline, Sheriff McKesson, the circuit preacher, the undertaker and his two helpers, and three unshaven pilgrims drawn to the funeral by morbid curiosity. The preacher’s talk was flat, matter-of-fact, nothing beyond the words from the Book, for he had never met the deceased or even heard of Rafe Tree. When he finished his brief eulogy, Caroline sprinkled dirt on the simple pine casket and stood peering through her veil while the box was lowered by rope into the fresh grave.
The gravediggers stepped forward with their shovels. The preacher turned away, spoke softly to Caroline, shook Tree’s hand, nodded to the sheriff, and walked away down the hill toward town in the company of the undertaker.
Sheriff McKesson put his hat on-he seldom wore a hat but today he had, evidently, chosen deliberately to bring one so that he could make a point of removing it, his way of paying his respects to the deceased. Now, setting the hat firmly on his face so that the brim made a straight line across his brow, he walked ten paces downhill and stood waiting with calm patience.
Caroline seemed reluctant to move. Perhaps it was the three morbid pilgrims who refused to budge; probably they intended to stand there staring until the last shovelful of earth was in place. Tree left her standing there and walked off a little piece. He put on his hat and reached inside his coat to take out the folded telegram; he read it over for the tenth time and lifted his eyes to stare toward the rooftops of town.
McKesson walked over to him and spoke in a voice calculated to reach no farther than Tree’s ears: “Everybody in town knows what that says by now but I’d like to see it officially, if you don’t mind.”
“I don’t mind.” Tree handed it to him. “It says the Governor’s gone to Kansas on business and in his absence the Lieutenant Governor has tentatively authorized the extradition of Wyatt Earp and Warren Earp. I’m to arrest them and take them in custody to Denver.”
McKesson watched him while he spoke; then merely glanced at the telegram, nodded, and handed it back. Tree put it in his pocket.
McKesson said, “Of course, you could just walk into the Inter Ocean and tell them they’re under arrest. You could do that. If you want to commit suicide. Or get laughed at. Yes, now, think of that for a minute-what happens if you go in to arrest them and they just laugh at you? What do you do? Start filling the air with bullets? You wouldn’t get a gun out of the holster before you be whipsawed by eight different guns from eight different directions. They’ve got that whole street covered like an infantry battalion holding a strategic strong point.”
Tree murmured, “What are you trying to say to me, Sheriff?”
“I can feel it, Deputy-you’re like a keg full of blasting powder, ready to explode. There’s a lot of hate and anger in every word you’ve said this morning, no matter what you happened to be talking about at the moment. When I said it was a nice day you said yes it was and you made it sound as if what you really meant was you wanted to break every bone in my body. The size of your hate makes this valley crowded today, Deputy.”
“Maybe. Or maybe you’re reading the signs wrong. Maybe I’m just feeling frustrated and I just want to hit out at anything within reach.”
McKesson shook his head and glanced upslope at Caroline. Tree, thinking about Rafe, kept having other things intrude on him. The telegram had hit him’ like a physical blow. It made him feel like a small boy who’d made great threats against an imagined enemy giant-a small boy who’d made vast make-believe plans with the unbridled grim boldness of fantasy, only to discover with sickening helplessness that he had actually taken the step-actually moved from make-believe destructions into an impossible reality. Absurdly, he remembered how he had used to make believe, when he was a little kid, when they had locked him in the loft for some transgression or other. Was it too late to turn back? Was it done? What the hell am I doing here?
Uphill, Caroline came away from the grave, her face hidden by the borrowed veil. Tree stepped off to meet her, saying over his shoulder, “I’ll be seeing you sometime, Sheriff.”
“I’ll count the hours,” McKesson said with dismal humor, and went away down the long slope to town.
Tree glanced across the bleak anonymous grove of grave markers and brought his attention to rest on Caroline. Her body, clothed in severe black, seemed rigid with ill-controlled wrath.
She didn’t speak right away. They walked downhill together, not touching each other, and behind him Tree could hear the scrape and chink of the gravediggers’ shovels. Only when they were beyond the carry of that sound did Caroline stir from silence. She removed the veiled hat and held it at her side as she walked. Her eyes were sleepless-raw, but they burned with fevered brilliance.
She said in a hoarse voice that seemed drugged, “Well, Jerr?”
He only shook his head, and after a single frown at him she kept her peace. They walked together into town and Tree led her to a point a block from the Inter Ocean, where they stood and looked at the place; and he thought with sour irony that just thirty-six hours ago he had walked into that place and had a drink with Wyatt Earp, and they had laughed together over a coarse joke of Wayde Cardiff’s. Just thirty-six hours, and now he could no more walk peaceably into that place than fly to the moon. It had turned into a fortress and the drawbridge was up against him.
Caroline said, “Jerr, do people always have to be scared?”
He had no answer for that; what he said was, “If that warrant was for Cooley-”
“How would that make any difference?”
“I’ve got a reason to want Cooley.”
She stepped in front of him to face him. “You’re wrong, then. If Cooley’s guilty so is Wyatt Earp.”
“It wasn’t Earp that shot Rafe.”
“Earp could have prevented it. It amounts to the same thing, Jerr-don’t you see that?”
“I don’t think he had time to stop it.”
“He had plenty of time,” she said viciously. “He could have-if he’d cared.”
“No. You’re letting your temper get in the way of your sense.”
“Am I,” she said without inflection. She threw her head back to look him in the eye. “I’ll prove it to you. Will you come with me and listen to a man?”
“You’ll see when we get there.”
“Just come,” she said, and walked off. A few paces away she stopped to look back and see if he was coming. He broke loose, shaking his head, and went with her. She turned the corner and headed in the direction of Poverty Row.
On the way she said, “You still don’t want to arrest Wyatt Earp, and it’s not because you’re scared-”
“You are, but that’s not what’s making you hesitate. It’s that you don’t really think Wyatt Earp deserves to be arrested. You’re not sure where justice, is. You think Wyatt Earp’s a big wonderful man, you still believe all that dime novel junk-you think he’s the man of the legend.”
“You put it a bit strong. He’s a human being. But there’s a good chance if I arrest him he’ll get railroaded.”
“Only an innocent man can be railroaded,” Caroline said. They crossed a dust-caked intersection. Several blocks ahead he could see, over the low rooftops, the railroad trestle which was Poverty Row’s landmark.
She stopped in front of a boarding house and nodded. Tree held the door for her and they went inside. She seemed to know exactly where she was going; she went through the narrow foyer and turned up the stairs without glancing into the parlor whose door stood open across the hall. She said over her shoulder, “I was here last night,” and went right up. He followed her to the head of the stairs, where she turned left down a hallway lit only by the weak daylight that filtered through a small window set in the fire door at the far end. A little way along, she stopped at a door and lifted her small fist, whereupon a door behind her opened, across the hall, and a stout woman in a soiled apron appeared.
Caroline said, “How are they?”
“They all right.”
“Is Mr. Sparrow in here?”
“I reckon. You knock and you’ll find out.”
Coming up, Tree could see past the stout woman into the room behind her. There were two cots, both occupied by men in bandages-one on the leg, the other across his shoulder: probably the two miners who’d been shot by Earp’s people in the street fight.
Caroline was knocking at the opposite door. Little Floyd Sparrow answered it. The stout woman went back into the sickroom and closed the door. Sparrow gave Caroline his nervous glance and acknowledged Tree with a brief look of smouldering preoccupation.
Caroline said, without warmth, “I want you to tell him what you told me last night.”
Sparrow stepped back to let them in. His mouth was turned town in a scornful expression which seemed to have been shaped by a long, intimate acquaintance with life’s dour iniquities. Instead of making an immediate reply, he walked across the room and sat down on the sill of the filthy window, hipshot, swinging his free leg loosely. Caroline walked in and stood beside a writing desk, the entire surface of which was mounted high with disordered piles of books and pamphlets-atheist tracts, radical labor monographs, and, curiously, a copy of the Book of Mormon.
Tree propped his shoulder in the doorway, admitting to himself that he had let Caroline lead him here by the nose only because it afforded him a cheap excuse to postpone making the inevitable decision and doing what had to be done. He tried to put some show of interest on his face.
Sparrow gave him a twisted glance and said, “She tell you what I told her?”
“Are you interested?”
“Why should I be?”
“Because it’s about your brother-how he died.” Sparrow’s city-bred voice was high-pitched, abrasive. “I was there, you weren’t.”
“Sure. Does that guarantee your word’s gospel?”
“Why? Because you expect me to make up a lie that will put the Earp gang in a bad light?”
Tree said, “Your game would be a lot easier if Wyatt Earp was out of your way.”
“So would yours, I imagine,” Sparrow said with his crooked smile. “You and I have a few interests in common, Tree.”
“Is that an offer of help?”
“You could use some, couldn’t you?”
Tree wondered if it was part of Sparrow’s technique always to answer questions with questions. He said, “Offer it and see.”
“I can’t. I’m afraid. Even if I wanted to…The miners are scared green of the Earp crowd, especially after what happened yesterday. I’ve got my hands full just keeping the fires lighted.”
“Your miners scare easy.”
“They’re not gunslingers,” Sparrow said harshly. “Neither am I. I can fight a mob with clubs by using my own mob with clubs, but we haven’t got the kind of money it takes to import hired gunmen. I’ve got a tough enough fight on my hands without taking on Wyatt Earp. All I want is to see him out of town.”
“And you expect me to do that?”
“I don’t expect anything,” Sparrow answered. “Your sister-in-law came to me last night to find out what really happened out on that street. I told her. If you want to hear it, I’ll tell you. Otherwise you can go-I’m busy.”
Tree shrugged, turned, and reached for the door latch. Caroline’s voice grabbed him as if by the elbow and turned him around again: “You’re so damn sure Wyatt Earp told you the truth that you’re not even willing to listen to the other side of the story, is that it?”
He made a face. “What other side of the story?”
“Mine,” said Sparrow. “Like I said-I was there.”
“All right, go ahead, for whatever good you think it will do you.”
Sparrow glanced bleakly at Caroline and said, “I saw all of it when your brother came out on the street. Cooley spotted him first and Cooley turned his gun on your brother. He cocked it and waited for your brother to stop moving so’s he’d have a clear shot. It was cold-blooded and deliberate, he didn’t just shoot in blind reaction. Wyatt Earp watched the whole thing. I can’t prove it but I believe if Earp had cared about seeing an innocent man shot, he’d have had plenty of time to shoot Cooley before Cooley shot your brother. At least he could have told Cooley not to do it. He had time.”
Caroline said in a low tone, “He just didn’t care.”
“Oh, he cared all right,’ Sparrow said. “He cared about Cooley.”
Tree said, “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Politics,” said Sparrow. “Earp’s using the mining barons for his own political ends and he can’t afford to alienate them. Cooley was brought in here with his gang as a strikebreaker-Cooley works for the mining barons. Cardiff and the rest of those bastards need Cooley, and Earp’s too shrewd to turn against Cooley for the sake of any piddling abstraction like justice. Besides, you made a mistake going over to the Inter Ocean and expecting Earp to turn Cooley over to you just like that. That ain’t the way you operate with a fellow like Earp. You rubbed him the wrong way because he resents having his authority questioned. No, I say Earp could have stopped it, but you don’t have to believe that. What you do have to believe is that Earp saw it happen just like I did, he knew Cooley had a choice. Cooley didn’t have to shoot your brother-your brother didn’t have a gun in his hand. There was time. So when Earp lets Cooley hide behind his skirts, he’s not doing it to protect a man who did the right thing-he’s just proving what a big shot he is by forcing you to back away empty-handed, and he’s cementing his own position with the mining barons. You may think it’s too late for that but I’ve got news for you, that telegram of yours may yet turn out to be worthless, because the Governor may get back from Kansas and get worked over by Earp’s friends and decide to rescind the Lieutenant Governor’s extradition order.”
Tree regarded him unblinkingly. “You’re a shrewd little hairpin, I’ll give you that.”
“Why? Don’t you believe me? Why don’t you ask Earp?”
Caroline said, “There you have it, Jerr. If Earp had cared at all, he could have prevented Rafe’s dying. There’s your big hero for you.”
Sparrow murmured, in his abrasive, insinuating twang, “It changes the picture a little for you, doesn’t it? Before, it was a disagreeable job somebody told you to do, you didn’t think it was just, you had trouble making up your mind whether to do it or not. But this has got to change things for you, Tree. Now you’ve got a personal stake. Earp the same as pulled the trigger that killed your brother.”
“If I believe you.”
“I think you do,” Sparrow said. “You know damned well I’ve got my own ax to grind but you still know I’m not lying. I don’t have to.” He flicked imaginary moisture from the corners of his mouth with thumb and forefinger, and added, “There was one thing I didn’t strictly tell the truth — about. I said none of the miners would help you arrest Earp. That was true, but I do know a couple of men who might give you a hand-hot miners. One’s a foundry worker from the smelter on Bald Hill; he was one of us on the street yesterday, damn near’got killed in the gunfight. He’s mad enough to want to get even, not too bright, but he’ll do. The other man I’ve got in mind is an ex-convict who used to be a cattle thief, ran with the old Clanton gang. He’s a liltle gone to seed but he hates the Earps on principle and he’d go along with you for a cut of the reward money. You asked for help. I can get you those two-not much but better than nothing. I wish I could do more but I’ve got big problems of my own. Morale stinks in my organization after that fiasco yesterday-Warren Earp upset my applecart when he got those miners fired up; the timing was all wrong but I had to go along with them or they’d have lost all respect for me. It’s going to take a while for me to get things built up again. If I told a bunch of miners to go with you right now and face Wyatt Earp, they’d ride me out of town on a rail. But I told you before, I want the Earps out of this town, and if you’re the man who can do it, I’ll do my best to help.”
“I’ll give it some thought,” Tree said, and turned once again to open the door. Caroline got up and followed him out, not speaking. He went downstairs and outside. She trailed along, almost demure, until he stopped on the corner and said to her, “You’d better start back for Arizona.”
“I’m staying.” Her face was set. “What are you going to do?”
“The day after tomorrow,” he said, “is Saturday night That’s when I’ll make my move.”
“Are you going to use those two men he offered?”
“I haven’t got much choice. McKesson’s out of it.”
“I’ll help too,” she said.
“Caroline,” he breathed, “you’ve got a beautiful face and a beautiful body and plenty of guts but you’re short on sense. It’ll be tough enough without having to keep one eye out for your safety.”
“He was my husband,” she snapped, and strode away fast, leaving the words hanging behind in the still air.
He didn’t like either one of them. Obie Macklin was small, a quick-moving man, all sharp angles. His eyes never stopped moving restlessly. His biceps were thick, his hands calloused and scarred from foundry work, but he looked unsteady, undependable. The other one, Mordecai Gant, was even worse: a burly ex-convict down on his luck, Gant was a used-up tough, with no skill but thievery and fighting, and no future in sight. He had been reduced to cleaning out stables for a living and he smelled like it. Gant protested to Floyd Sparrow in a pained whine: “Look, it may be a half-assed pissante job but it’s the first one I ever had where I didn’t have to rob somebody or kill somebody to get paid. I made myself a nice quiet nest here and I don’t want nobody shake the limb.”
They stood in the dark maw of the stable; it was past midnight. Floyd Sparrow said to Tree, “He’ll work for you. He just likes to whine.”
Gant clamped his mouth shut. He was squat and greasy, his features fleshy, his cheeks folded and jowled; he looked like a thief.
“He’ll come,” said Obie Macklin. Mackjin ended every sentence with a nervous, meaningless laugh. “He’ll think about his share of that ree-ward money and he’ll come.”
Gant glared at him. “Obie, I’ll do my own thanking. You about four seconds short of losing your front teeth.”
“You wouldn’t hit me-I’m littler’n you are!”
Gant said, “Nobody that wears a gun is little. If you got the guts to pull that on me.”
“Listen,” Floyd Sparrow said, “try saving the violencing for the Earps.”
Gant turned and gave Sparrow what passed for a shrewd squint. “Buddy, less I get paid in advance, I ain’t about to go fool with the Arp brothers.”
“Sure you are,” Sparrow breathed. “You made a deal, remember?” Then, without warning, he slugged his little fist into Gant’s unsuspecting face.
It hardly budged Gant but his nose immediately began to bleed. He touched it, looked at the blood on his finger, and held his hand cupped under his nose to catch the blood as if he had some compelling reason „to avoid staining his filthy shirt or the manure-fouled stable floor. He said in a slow-grappling, awkward way, “Whud you do that for, Floyd?”
“To remind you you gave your word on this little thing.”
“They ain’t enough of us. You didn’t say they’d only be three of us.” Gant tugged a shirttail out of his pants and bent his head to wipe his nose.
Sparrow said, “You’ve got a choice, Mordecai. You can go up against the Earps, which gives you a chance, or you can go up against me, which gives you no chance. You’ve seen me work on a man. Now which is it to be?”
Sparrow’s voice had been more gentle than Tree had ever heard it before, but something in Sparrow’s manner carried absolute conviction. It struck Tree for the first time that Sparrow’s carping, nervous personality was a ruse, that the man behind it was as ruthless and hard as any man alive. Sparrow was a dangerous man.
Now, with a guilelessly dour glance at Tree, Sparrow said, “There they are-not much, I’ll admit. Can you use them?”
“I’ll have to.”
Sparrow said, “You heard the man, boys. Pay attention to what he says and follow his orders to the letter. I’ll bid you all good night.” With a sardonic salute, Sparrow walked out of the stable.
Mordecai Gant wiped his nose and looked at Tree with baleful reluctance. Obie Mack-lin put a chaw of tobacco in his mouth; it bulged in his cheek, squirrel-like. He gave a nervous bray of laughter that trailed off into silence.
Tree gave them both his unhappy scrutiny and began to speak.
He got back to his room late that night. He didn’t have to check the tenpenny nail because the door was wide open, the lamp alight; Caroline was inside, gnawing on a hunk of cheese.
He pushed the door shut and said, “I want you to go home to your daddy, Caroline.”
With her mouth full she said, muffled, “You set it up for tomorrow night like you planned?”
“Uh-hunh. I don’t give much for our chances now I’ve seen Sparrow’s two prize boys.”
She swallowed, wiped her mouth, and said matter-of-factly, “I’ve been thinking on it. Suppose you get the Earps out of the hotel. You can’t use the railroad because the Earps’ mining boss friends could have the train held down the line, intercept you. So you’ve got to go out horseback.”
He made a patient grimace.
She grinned. “I know-I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. But you’re going to need somebody to hold the horses ready for you, and more than that, you’re going to need a goddamn chaper-one.”
“Chaperone, you know-duenna”
“I know what the damned word means,” he growled.
“You can’t get Earp out of his hotel room without her knowing-Josie, his wife. You leave her behind, and she’ll raise a hue and cry they’ll hear from here to Leadville. You’ve got to keep her quiet, and you can’t very well shoot her. So you’ve got to take her with you. Besides, Earp might be easier to handle if she was along-he wouldn’t want to risk getting her caught in the middle of a shooting war.”
Tree glared at her. She was smiling innocently; she said triumphantly, “So you need a chaperone to look after the lady prisoner. Me.”
“No. Absolutely no.”
She sighed. “Look, Jerr, forget that I’m Rafe’s widow, which gives me a stake in this too. Forget that if you want to, but think of this: you need all the help you can get, and I’m not just a frilly petticoat schoolmarm all aflutter with my-goodnesses. I’m a ranch girl born and bred. I’m full of fight and vinegar. Maybe I don’t shoot so good but I don’t intend to shoot anybody. I can handle horses almost as well as Rafe could. Horse for horse I can probably outride you because I weigh fifty pounds less than you. I’m not dead weight, Jerr. I can help. I mean it.”
She picked up the hunk of cheese and bit off a corner, watching him out of the side of her vision. “You need every pair of eyes you can get to keep watch on those Earps. And one more thing: you don’t know how far you can trust those two bully boys of Floyd Sparrow’s, if you can trust them at all. You do know you can trust me,” she finished, and added after a moment, “all the way.”
He said sourly, “Thought it all out, have you?”
“It’s a couple of hundred miles from here to Denver and you’ll have to horseback across some of the ruggedest mountains this side of Hell. It’ll take a week to get there and you can’t stay awake the whole way. You’ll want somebody on your side that you can trust.”
He said, “Your daddy was right about you.”
“Damn it,” she said, “I only want you to have the best possible chance of coming out of this alive-I want you to make it, Jerr.”
Her eyes were open wide; her breasts lifted and fell with her breath. Her lips were parted, moist and heavy in repose. She wrenched her eyes away, walked quickly to the door, and went.
When it came time to perform, Macklin and Gant did better than he had expected of them. They were like garrison soldiers who only griped when there was nothing better to do. Once the action started, they did fine.
The operation was as simple as it was desperate. Because of its boldness, and because of the strength of the Earps’ defenses, Tree gave it a fifty-fifty chance to succeed: the Earps were so well defended that their sentries were less alert than they would have been had the situation seemed precarious. Their complacence was a formidable weakness.
The Earps expected a night raid; because they expected it, they didn’t give its success much credence. The Inter Ocean was guarded at every entrance by Cooley’s strike-breaker-thugs. Men were posted on the staircase landings, front and back, and two armed guards stood outside the bedroom doors of Wyatt and Warren Earp, covering the corridor between them in cross fire. It had been no great task to leam that; the whole town buzzed with word of the Inter Ocean’s fortifications, and while Tree made a point of being visible and nonagres-sive all day Saturday, Macklin and Gant gathered intelligence. Once it became clear that there was no way to get into the Inter Ocean by any ground-floor entrance, and that even if somehow such entrance should be achieved there would still be no way to get upstairs undiscovered, Tree knew he had a good chance. They had made it so difficult for him to get at the Earps that they must believe, by now, that he probably wouldn’t even try.
Wyatt and Josie slept in the bedroom of the big second-floor suite at the back corner of the building. Their windows gave out onto gingerbread balconies which overhung alleys at the side and back of the Inter Ocean. Two sentries stood guard in the alley under bright lights. They were expertly posted-too far apart to be taken together, too close to each other to be surprised one at a time. The chance of silencing them simultaneously, to prevent one of them from seeing the other attacked and giving the alarm, was too remote to consider. Nobody was going to get past those two; thus, clearly, nobody was going to climb to the balconies and get in through the windows.
Earp’s generalship was excellent. But the world boasted very few impregnable fortresses, and the Inter Ocean had not been designed with the idea in mind of repelling invasion. There was an obvious chink in Earp’s defenses-Tree hoped it wasn’t so obvious that Earp was waiting for it.
By three in the morning the Saturday night crowds had broken up. Obie Macklin strolled past the front of the Inter Ocean, acting like a drunk on his way home. He peered in the windows as he went by, and ambled the long way around several blocks to report to Tree and Mordecai Gant, who stood in a dim alley at the foot of the two-story Gunnison Bank’s fire stairs.
Macklin said in a businesslike tone, “They all gone up to bed. Cooley was makin’ the rounds to check on his bully boys. Barkeep was puttin’ out the lights when I come by.”
Tree said, “We’ll give them forty-five minutes to get to sleep,” and they did.
At the end of that interval the three men went up the bank’s outside staircase. Over his shoulder Mordecai Gant carried a heavy ten-foot plank that would have staggered a smaller man. From the landing, Gant gave Tree a boost up onto the roof. Tree flattened himself by the edge and hauled up the plank. Gant boosted Macklin up, then lifted both arms; Tree and Macklin hauled him up by the arms.
The bank’s roof was six feet lower than the roof of the Inter Ocean, which stood faintly silhouetted above the far end of the bank roof. An eight-foot alley separated the two buildings.
The night, like most Rocky Mountain nights, was clear and starlit. Tree would have preferred a cloudy night but that might have required a month’s wait. The chill air had a bite in it. Tree felt an involuntary tremor. He picked up one end of the ten-foot plank and led the way, crouched to half his normal height, toward the far corner of the roof, with Gant carrying the other end of the plank and Macklin crawling on the right flank with his gun drawn.
There was, of course, a sentry on the roof of the Inter Ocean; that was taken into account. Crossing the roof of the bank, Tree kept his attention riveted to the hotel’s roofline, ready to freeze if a man’s head appeared. It did not; they crossed the bank without alarms and reached the corner which stood directly opposite the south corner of the back of the Inter Ocean. The Earp suites were up at the farther end of the hotel; the guards would not be watching this end with as much care. Tree sat down, removed his hat and both boots, and lifted his head, carefully to look down into the alley. He had time to glimpse the two sentries, fifty feet apart below the far corner of the hotel under gaslights which stood under the Earps’ balconies and threw heavy shadows across the windows above. Obie Macklin suddenly hissed and grabbed Tree’s arm. Turning his head slightly, Tree saw the red button-tip of a cigarette on the far roof corner, above the Earps’ balconies. View of the balconies themselves would be cut off to that sentry’s view by the deep overhanging window cornices. With that man above, and the two alley sentries below, nobody could get onto the balconies from overhead or from underneath; but once a man was on one of the balconies, none of the guards would be able to see him. That was the trick: to reach the balcony without discovery. Tree had considered the idea of a diversionary attack but assumed it wouldn’t work. Earp was smart enough to instruct his men to keep their posts. He had discarded the notion in favor of silence and subterfuge.
The cigarette alternately glowed and dimmed on the far corner, six feet above Tree and a hundred feet away down the length of the eight-foot-wide alley. He didn’t withdraw his head; he knew the guard with the cigarette couldn’t see him against the black mass of the bank roof. The downward angle of the sentry’s view would keep Tree invisible unless he stood up to his full height.
The cigarette moved back and forth; the rooftop sentry was pacing. Tree squinted toward him. After a few minutes the cigarette went flicking over the edge of the hotel roof. Wind made it flare angry red; it hit the alley floor in a shower of sparks. The sentry’s silhouette, heightened by a tall-domed hat, moved back and forth against the sky with shoulders raised against the chill. Gant whispered in Tree’s ear, “Maybe he won’t move away again.”
“Maybe he will. We’ll give it a few more minutes.”
“Better move now-dawn gonna start to gray up pretty quick.”
“You got balls,” Gant remarked.
That was when the sentry’s hat receded. “Move,” Tree breathed. Gant got on the other side of the plank and they slid it out across the alley. Against the dark mass of the mountain beyond, the alley sentries a hundred feet away wouldn’t be able to see it. With the long end of the plank hanging in space both Tree and Gant had to use all their weight to keep it level. Macklin put his lesser weight on the tip of the board, behind them. Tree’s shoulders and biceps bunched. With a cramped muscular strain they horsed the far end high enough to siide across the top of the balcony rail opposite. The plank was inclined downward from the bank roof at a twenty-degree angle. They slid it forward until it rested snug against the dark frame of the balcony door. It barely reached.
Braced at the lower end, the plank wasn’t going anywhere. But too much weight on it would bow it enough to make it fall. It was thirty feet to the ground. Tree cursed silently, wishing he’d brought a plank six inches longer. They’d have to make sure not more than one person at a time had weight on it.
There was no need for conversation. Tree palmed a sliphammer gun in his left hand and crawled out onto the plank. He watched the roofline of the Inter Ocean and he watched the two brightly lit sentries below. The bright light down there was in his favor; it didn’t carry this far, but it would make it hard for the sentries to see into the shadows beyond their own circle of light.
He was halfway to the balcony when a fist struck his boot softly. He froze and glanced up, not moving his head. The sentry’s hat appeared at the hotel roof, moving slowly from right to left: the sentry was walking a square around the whole building. The hat rose higher as the sentry came closer to the edge. Tree held his breath and curled his thumb over the cut-down six-gun hammer. The sentry stood not more than ten eet away. It was impossible to tell what he was looking at. Blood pounded in Tree’s temples. The sentry’s head dipped sharply, as if he had seen something, and Tree tensed-there was the brilliant, exploding flash of a match. He saw the sentry’s face in the harsh light-one of Cooley’s thugs, lighting another cigarette. The match would blind him for quite some time: only a fool lit matches or smoked on night guard-it spoiled night vision. Tree was thankful for fools. After a moment the cigarette moved on toward the farther corner and Tree resumed his crawl.
He stepped down onto the balcony, held up his hand to hold the others back, and moved the plank to one side, pushing it back a few inches toward the bank, lodging the end against the masonry of the doorjamb. It gave them four extra inches and made it far less likely the plank would give way. Then, not waiting for the others, he turned to the end of the balcony and put one sock foot up on the rail.
The balconies across the back of the Inter Ocean were separated by not more than two feet; they ran the length of the second story in a series of scallops. He tested his weight to make sure the wood would not snap and creak, and climbed across to the next balcony, and so on, balcony to balcony, toward Warren Earp’s room. There was an armed sentry somewhere above him and two more down below; along these balconies he was in deep shadow-no windows were lighted at this hour; the only thing that could give him away would be noise, and he moved with extreme care, as an Apache would move.
The latch that joined Warren Earp’s balcony-doors together was easy prey to his knife blade, which slipped between the doors and lifted the catch soundlessly. He scabbarded the knife and pulled one door open with slow caution. Through the inset windows he could see the mounded shape asleep on the rumpled bed.
The sleeping man had no chance. Tree was versed in a modicum of handholds designed to silence, paralyze, even kill. By the time Warren Earp was awake enough to resist, Tree had thrust a wadded bandanna in his mouth to gag him and had pinned both hands together with a one-hand lock which expertly applied finger and thumb pressure to wrist points so sensitive that struggle produced instant agony-Warren was game but half asleep and gave up fast.
Tree murmured, “Gently, kid. I don’t want to put you out.” He tied Warren’s hands together with rawhide string and secured the gag with another length; he looked up and saw Obie Macklin’s sharp, small silhouette against the open balcony door. Macklin came inside and Tree said, “Get his clothes and take him out.”
Macklin nodded. “Meet you back there. You handle the rest with Mordecai?”
“Yeah. On the move, now.” Tree slipped past him and went out onto the balcony. Gant was there waiting, his big feet like paddles in dark socks. Tree stepped across the space to the big suite’s long balcony, gun in hand, looking down; neither of the sentries below him was looking up when he made the crossing.
When Gant came across and there was no outcry, Tree took a deep breath. Gant was looking at him with a glance of strain and anxiety. This one wouldn’t be so easy.
Tree was halfway to the bed when something, maybe the legendary eyes in the back of his head, brought Wyatt Earp awake. Tree saw the tiny flicker against the eyeball and knew Earp was awake and watching him-and then, with speed startling in so big a man, Earp’s naked body was hurtling toward the chair where his guns hung.
Tree came at him on the run, cracking the sliphammer gun down with full force against Earp’s extended forearm. He could tell from the sound that he hadn’t broken any bones but it numbed Earp, probably clear to the shoulder, and the arm dropped limp, flapping, and when Earp tried to use the other arm Mordecai Gant had reached the bed and Gant’s sharp, whispered words reached starkly across the dimness:
“I’ll kill her.”
It made Earp hesitate long enough to look past Tree at Gant. The blade of Gant’s knife rested against Josie Earp’s throat, silver edge glittering against the pale skin. Josie was awake, swallowing in spasms. In the minimal light Gant’s greasy, heavy face looked hooded and satanic.
Gant whispered sibilantly, “You make one more move, friend Arp, or just speak one word loud, and she’s dead. Hear?”
Mute, barely concealing his tremendous rage, Wyatt Earp nodded his head once. He straightened up and contented himself with a glare straight against Tree’s eyes. Tree thought, If looks could kill. He took care when he tied Earp’s big hands and fitted the gag into his mouth. Gant trussed Josie, stopped her mouth with a tied bandanna, and went around the room on padding feet to gather up clothes and boots. He wadded them all into a pillowcase, stuck it under his arm and prodded the girl to her feet. Wyatt Earp was stark naked. Josie wore a robe which Gant allowed her to don: Gant’s eyes eyed her body hungrily before she put it on, and Tree noted that Gant’s lustful attention didn’t escape Wyatt Earp’s silent notice: Earp was. chalking it up.
It couldn’t be helped. Tree said to Earp, “Just do what you’re told. You know what I want. Nobody gets hurt unless you force it.” He spoke soft against Earp’s ear.
Gant went out first, tugging Josie by the arm. Tree glanced at her briefly. She was looking back at Wyatt. Tree caught on her dimly lighted features, in that briefest unguarded instant, a look of savage satisfaction. It was gone so swiftly he might have imagined it; but the thought grenaded into his mind that she was happy about this. He had seen it before in other women. It irritated a woman to see her man having too much success, having things go too much his own way; it made her uneasy, unsure of her hold over him.
It was no time to be thinking of abstractions. He prodded Wyatt Earp ahead of him and they went out onto the balcony. He kept his distance: Earp was a man of enormous physical power and there was no telling what rage might tempt him into. Tree felt a momentary regret, as he might have felt if he had been trapping a magnificent wild animal.
Tree was the last of the four in the slow, tense procession across the balconies. Progress was slow: Josie was agile enough but the flowing robe hampered her climbing. Finally Gant picked her up and slung her over his shoulder like a sack of meal.
There was a moment that formed an almost comical picture: Wyatt Earp climbing across the balconies, jaybird naked, his private parts wobbling as he spread his legs across the gap.
Tree had both guns fisted and ready to go to war but his plan had been conceived with care and it worked. There was no alarm. Gant crawled up across the plank first and then turned and held his gun in plain sight. Josie went across, reluctant and trembling with anger but boosted by a calm nod from Wyatt Earp, who went across after her. Tree crossed last. With Gant’s help he hauled in the plank. They left it there on the bank roof and walked across the building, Tree walking backwards with his guns up, seeking the rooftop sentry. The man came in sight but was looking the other way. Gant jumped down to the fire-stair landing and stood ready to receive Josie. Tree said, “Help her down,” and caught Wyatt Earp’s stinging white-hot glance of malice before Gant took the girl by the wrists and lowered her off the roof. Tree jumped down behind Earp and saw Josie look at her naked husband and giggle through the gag. She had nerve, that one. They went down the stairs and Gant led the way, after scouting the dark street, across into the opposite alley and up the block as far as the back corral of the livery stable. The corral gate was open; the only animals inside were tethered-seven saddled horses. Caroline stood among them.
When Caroline saw Wyatt Earp naked her eyebrows went up and she grinned brashly.
Tree took the pillowcase from Gant and handed it to Earp and said, “Both of you get some clothes on.”
Tree said to Gant, “Untie Mrs. Earp’s hands and watch her, I don’t want her yanking the gag off.” To Earp: “Just your pants. You’ll ride without a shirt, at least till we’re clear, of town. I’ll put your coat across your shoulders if you’re cold.”
Obie Macklin came out of the stable shadows, prodding Warren Earp ahead of him. Warren had his pants on over the nightshirt he had been wearing. Tree said, “Hurry up-let’s go, now.”
Eight hours of hard travel brought them to a frothy stream that came slicing down out of the eastward mountains. The noon sun was brass-brilliant, its heat cut by altitude; tall crags loomed high above them against the sky. The canyon was green with lush growth, its walls upended in stark, steep tilts that climbed, tier after tier, toward the great, high Rocky Mountain passes at twelve and thirteen thousand feet. The tall timber was an admixture of lance-like conifers and silver-barked aspens. The forest floors made for silent passage across deep beds of pine needles; the trees grew so close together that even without undergrowth travel was difficult.
Gnats and dragonflies hovered above slack eddies where the stream made a bend across massive rocks. Tree called a brief halt to water the horses, remove the gags, and get proper clothes on the prisoners. Josie went with Caroline behind a pinon to protect her saddle-scraped legs with petticoats; the Earp brothers were untied one at a time and watched with alert care. When Warren said, “I got to take a leak,” Obie Macklin went with him-with a gun-and Tree stood by the horses, watching Mordecai Gant make faces at Wyatt Earp. Gant was on the prod, trying to egg Wyatt Earp into reaction, but Earp was having none of it, ignoring Gant.
Wyatt Earp had simmered soundlessly since dawn. Now he went to a tree and sat down with his back to it, lifting and bending one knee. He put his rawhide-manacled hands in his lap and stared passionately at the roaring stream.
Macklin herded Warren into sight. Tree walked over to Wyatt Earp and said, “How’re you making it?”
Earp glanced up at him; instead of answering, he said, “Where’d you pick up those two ass holes?” talking about Macklin and Gant.
Tree said, “Does it matter?”
“That’s why they’re handy.” Tree took his pipe out of his pocket and stuck it in his mouth. He seldom lit it but the stem was tooth-scarred from chewing. He said, “If I’d been alone last night you’d have let out a bellow that would’ve brought an army on the run. But you couldn’t trust Gant not to kill Josie. You trust me too much-that’s why I needed him.”
“Trust you? That’s not the point.” Earp looked up-he was taking some strange satisfaction from this. “The point is, I couldn’t trust you to handle Gant.”
“I knew that wretch a long time ago. He used to ride for Phin Clanton. He’d carve up his own mother if he could get a good price for the pieces.”
“I expect he would,” Tree muttered, without heat. Gant and Macklin were too far away to hear but he glanced that way anyhow.
Earp said, “I’m not in the habit of making empty threats, so listen to me. If that scum lays one finger on my wife I’ll have his guts for guitar strings-and yours with them. Clear?”
Tree, surveying the camp, said in a mild, abstracted voice, “You don’t give any orders here-maybe you ought to bear that in mind.”
Warren Earp was sitting on the rocks, massaging his bare foot; he seemed to have picked up a splinter. Josie and Caroline reappeared from behind the pifton clump; Josie went directly to Wyatt, sat beside him and reached, awkwardly with bound hands, for his fingers. When she looked up at Tree there was white heat in her eyes.
Gant and Macklin sat gnawing on strips of jerky, hunkered on their haunches like a pair of unshaven cavemen, watching the Earps with bloodshot eyes and waiting-maybe hoping-for a false move. Gant’s eyes played across Josie’s supple body with sensuous lust: he even licked his lips. Tree had no intention of reining him in; Gant’s too-obvious lust would keep Wyatt Earp too mad to concentrate on other things.
The air was thick and heady, laden with the scent of pine resin. Insects buzzed around the horses. Caroline moved around restlessly, a. 38 birdhead revolver in the waistband of her Levi’s. Her flannel shirt enclosed her abundant milkmaid breasts without concealing their weighted, soft curves. Her feet stopped, she turned and laid her eyes directly on him, but he couldn’t fathom her expression.
He turned to face the three Earps and said, with strong projection, “Pay attention, I’m going to make a little speech and I’ll only make it once.”
Josie tossed her head. She didn’t say horse shit-she didn’t have to. Warren glanced at him derisively and went on rubbing his foot. Wyatt was the only one of them who gave him full attention. Whatever was in his mind didn’t show on his leonine face.
Tree said, “It must’ve taken Cooley a little while to discover you were gone, and a little while more to find out I’d disappeared too. They’ll put things together soon enough-they’ll know we didn’t take the train, they’ll start hunting for tracks and sooner or later they’ll find them, the time it takes depending on luck more than anything else. I have no doubts Cooley’s on our backtrail with his whole gang.”
Warren’s mouth twisted; he said, “Maybe you should’ve thought of that before you pulled this idiotic stunt.”
Tree ignored him. “We can’t outshoot all of them. But we’ve got two advantages, one of which is that we’ve got you three for hostages. The other-and I state this plain at the risk of boasting-I survived a few years fighting Indians by playing the Indians’ own game a little better than they played it. I don’t mean to leave Cooley a plain trail to follow. When we pull out of here we’ll ride upstream in the creek and from time to time I’ll pull one or two other tricks. If I catch any one of you trying to leave sign for Cooley to pick up later, I’ll tie all three of you facedown across your saddles in a dead-man ride. Not very comfortable after the first few hours. I hope you all understand I mean that.”
He saw Josie shudder and knew he had scored the point. Earp scowled at him and had nothing to say. Warren Earp was concentrating on his foot as if he hadn’t even listened.
Tree added softly, “If that doesn’t persuade you, I might think about turning Gant lose on Mrs. Earp. Understood?”
Wyatt Earp looked at him, in the eye. After a moment he switched his attention to Gant and the smile that settled on Earp’s face was as chilling as any expression Tree had ever seen.
Mordecai Gant said, “Maybe I’ll just turn me loose on her anyhow, huh?”
“Not before I say so,” Tree said. He wheeled, trying to catch Gant off guard: “Any objections?”
Gant shrugged. “You runnin’ this thang.”
Obie Macklin uttered his brief, nervous laugh.
“All right. Mount up.”
They put the prisoners on their horses, lashed their bound hands to the saddle horns and ran a tether rope through the three bridles. Mordecai Gant held the lead end of the rope and led the way out of camp, splashing upstream in the shallow, fast running creek. Tree posted Macklin and Caroline at the rear, and splashed past Gant to ride ahead and scout, not wanting to get beyond earshot but needing to find a route that wouldn’t box them into a blind canyon.
When he came to a long barren strip of granite that shelved down to the edge of the stream, he tied the horse and climbed the slope on foot, avoiding the risk of leaving iron horsehoe scars on the rock. At the top of the ten-minute climb he had a commanding view of the country through which they had climbed steadily the past few hours. Gunnison was somewhere southwest, many miles out of sight in the tangle of hills and canyons. On this exposed height, the wind was turbulent; but there was no sign of rain clouds anywhere on the great dome of the sky. That was both good and bad. Heavy rain might wash out their tracks; but the mud left behind after a rain would just as easily retain sign.
Somewhere about two days’ ride to the northeast sat Leadville, which Tree planned to give wide berth; Gunnison’s telegraph, without doubt, had already alerted Leadville’s mining bosses; possibly Leadville was throwing its own posse into the field. Law was law, but the Governor had not personally signed the extradition warrants, and moguls like Wayde Cardiff could be depended on to interpret politics their own way and tell their lawyers to dream up high-sounding legal justifications after the fact. He had no doubt Reese Cooley was on the trail by now with supplies, remounts, and enough guns to decimate an infantry platoon. And Cooley wouldn’t mind leaving Tree and his three companions in unmarked Rocky Mountain graves if it would get the Earps free.
But if Cooley’s posse was on the track, it wasn’t close enough to be seen from this vantage point. The country seemed so peaceful and uninhabited that when he took a deep breath the air tasted fresh-clean as if nobody had ever breathed it before. The only signs of life were twittering birds, clumps of crickets, and a mountain antelope which showed briefly in a clearing beyond the stream, several hundred yards below him. The antelope froze, alerted by the approaching racket of the riders in the stream bed; it wheeled, with the signal spots of alarm snowing bright on its rump, and disappeared into the thick stand of aspen from which it had emerged.
Tree looked forward, into the rising passes, and chose what looked like a good route. Fixing it in mind, he scrabbled down the steep tilt of rock to his horse, got mounted, and waited for the others to come up. He thought he was studying the problems ahead, but when the riders came in sight and he saw Caroline, fluffy and blonde on her wiry sorrel pony, he realized he had been thinking about her with most of his mind. Thinking about her unsettled him-the mere fact that he was thinking of her at all made him uneasy. He spoke gruffly to Gant and turned his horse into the stream to lead the way.
The afternoon was a steady progress, without haste; they had no change of horses, they had to conserve the ones they had. Twice more he rode considerably ahead to check out the land above; once they had to retrace a quarter mile and choose another canyon. At two o’clock by the sun they had left the original stream and led their horses across half a mile of gravel and broken boulders, mounted up and ridden around the circumference of a high-grass meadow; since then, by sundown, Tree had not spent much effort trying to conceal tracks-it would have taken too long and he was fairly sure Cooley was not close enough to justify the time.
When the sun went down he examined the peaks with close scrutiny, imprinting on his mind the shape of the land which darkness would soon make invisible; he was resolved to keep moving as late as possible. They didn’t stop to eat until the last twilight had drained out of the sky; and after the brief, tireless meal, they went on.
The intimate enclosure of darkness brought fantasies more vividly alive in his mind. The singing, silky warmth of her body, imagined as it must be; he only drew himself up with anger when he realized he was rehearsing in his mind the act itself-taking her with rough quickness, somewhere on an open mountain meadow, a quickness matched in his wishful thinking by her own eager, ready hungers.
He halted the column three hours after dark: visibility was too poor to go on. They had been moving for eighteen hours with only a few brief halts; his rough estimate was that they had put at least seventy miles behind them, all of it uphill and tough. Obviously seventy traveled miles didn’t put them seventy straight-line miles from Gunnison-in as-the-crow-flies distance Gunnison was maybe forty miles behind-but it was a good jump; with luck it would let them hold a healthy lead. He was less concerned with human fatigue than with the horses’; his first act was to order the animals unsaddled and hobbled. Not sure of the country, he had brought grain sacks across three saddles; now they fed and watered the animals before sprawling to eat and rest. There was no campfire; the meal was cold, basic, and cheerless. The currents of rage and hate didn’t need speech to sustain them-even Macklin and Gant maintained a morose silence; the long day’s ride had been a shakedown, it had reduced all of them to fundamentals. But as Tree sat against a rock washing down smoked beef and biscuits with metallic water from his — canteen, he found himself unable to take his eyes or his mind off Caroline. She ate nearby, her sturdy body carelessly at ease on the pine needles, propped on one elbow; there was just enough light to see the reflected surfaces of her big, startled-doe eyes. He thought she was looking right at him but he couldn’t be sure; he did not look away.
Macklin got up without being told, went to Warren Earp and tied him to a pine trunk. Taking the hint, Moradecai Gant lumbered toward Wyatt and Josie, who lay on their sides with their heads together, murmuring. Gant uncoiled a rope and said something in a crude, harsh-laughing voice which made Wyatt Earp look up at him and spit deliberately on the ground at Gant’s feet. Gant began to growl in his throat. Tree levered himself upright and said, “All right, Gant,” and went across the camp, taking the rope away from Gant and kneeling to pass it around a tree and snug it to Earp.
Wyatt Earp’s jut-jawed face was clamped tight; his big shoulders bulged. In the dimness his eyes were colorless. Tree heard his breathing; there was no talk. He tested the lashings and then got to his feet and said to Josie, “Come over here with me.”
“Nothing doing,” she said.
Tree shook his head. “Don’t argue, girl. Nobody wants to hurt you but if you make it tough-”
“You touch me,” she retorted, “and I’ll kick the shit out of you.”
In the darkness he heard Wyatt Earp’s chuckle. Earp said, “She’ll try it, too. Watch out for your balls.”
Gant said, “Shut you mouth, Arp, or I’ll knock your teeth rat thew your backbone.”
“Gentle down,” Tree said over his shoulder. He took Josie by the bound wrists and dragged her ten feet away. It was easy pulling, across the slick pine needles. She kicked and argued but he finally got her trussed to a pine. He had to have them separated, though it gave him no pleasure; together they could untie each other.
Gant came up and was standing right there when Tree finished the job and stood up. Gant yawned in his face; Gant’s breath made him turn away. Leering down at Josie, Gant said, “You don’t get no chanst to shove him between your tits tonight, little plum, but how bout me? My hands ain’t tied.”
From ten feet away, Obie Macklin said, “Forget it, Mordecai. Ain’t nobody else could make her happy after that big stud Earp got through with. her. He knows how to bang them.” Macklin’s nervous laugh was overlaid by nasty spite; there was something sadistic in the way he liked to bait Gant.
“That’ll be about enough,” Tree said mildly. “Both of you bed down. I’ll take first watch.”
He waited until Gant and Macklin had rolled up in their blankets, made one more tour of the three prisoners to check their lashings, and walked uphill to post himself with his back to a pine trunk and a rifle across his lap. Starlight filtered down faintly through the trees; it was a chill night, stillness disturbed only by the easy rustle of occasional breezes and the crackle of dead pine needles whenever someone stirred on the ground. Caroline was a soft, dark mound on the earth twenty feet below him. To take his mind off her, he watched the others and thought about the events that had brought him here. Now that it was done, he had contempt for the hesitation that had made him walk so gingerly around Wyatt Earp. That restraint had not been a fear of Earp; it had been a fear of discovering his own limits-a caution that masked the fear of failure. He had seen Indian foot races in which there were always a few runners who held themselves back, didn’t commit themselves fully to the race, because they preferred to lose than to risk going all out. If you knewyou had held back, then you had an excuse for failure. He hadn’t recognized that in himself until now; it made him feel both regret and freedom. He had made his share of mistakes but it was to his credit that he learned something from every one of them.
He wondered what mistake he had made with Rafe and with Caroline; something to be learned there, too. He remembered the things she had told him and he wondered if it could be true that she had accepted Rafe as a substitute for himself. In his own straightforward world that didn’t make sense, but perhaps in hers it did; women were woven of subtle complexities beyond the understanding of men. He thought of getting up and going down to her and saying, flat out, All right, let’s talk about how you used to be in love with me. For that was what she had implied. But of course he didn’t do it. It might open up a wound he had tried to ignore for so long he didn’t think he could break the habit.
As if reading his thoughts, she stirred in the shadows and came up the slope and sat down beside him. At first she didn’t talk. Her toe described small circles in the earth. She looked up; her face hovered before him. There was a telltale thread of moisture on her upper lip and her eyes were very wide open. She murmured, “Damn it, Jerr, I feel shy with you.”
He thought, right here and right now in this moment he loved her.
She said, “You’ve got hooks.”
“I know you never meant to,” she said. “Maybe it’s just that I need somebody-feeling this way about you, maybe it’s just something to ease the loneliness.”
He drew her close, feeling her spine beneath his fingers, and put his mouth on hers, hard, until she gasped for breath. It was a staggering sensation: it rocked him down to his toes. He pulled away from her and muttered, “Better cut this out.”
He said, “Let’s end up liking each other, all right?” He was cross with himself.
Caroline said, “Are you thinking about Rafe?”
“I don’t know what I’m thinking about.”
“Rafe’s gone-as if he never was. I know that sounds-”
“I know,” he said, more harshly than he intended. “I was thinking about something else, though. Goes back a long time. All the way back when I first met you.”
“I didn’t think you’d remember.”
“Why,” he said, “I spent a long time trying to forget it.”
“Caroline,” he said, “I was a scraggy Government scout with a drunk Indian wife someplace back in the hills, her gone to fat and me consigned to squaw-man cantinas on the wrong side of town. No reason for you to look twice at me.”
“There was plenty of reason. Don’t you know what kind of man you are?” She touched his cheek. “I thought you never noticed me.”
“If I said I stayed away for Rafe’s sake it’d be a lie. Maybe I was afraid you’d turn me down. You got pretty deep in my guts and I fought that.” When he looked at her, her lips were parted. Abruptly, wordless, he took her by the hand, swept the camp with quick inspection, and took her up through the trees. Her head moved before him; she swayed forward and gave her lips for his kiss, making a kitteny little sound in her throat and suddenly pressing against him with tugging urgency. They twisted down, opening and sliding clothes, their breath coming quick; she touched him gently and hot sensation raced through him. His hand cupped her buttock; he moved down, grinding his hardness against her. She was mouthing words: “Oh, yes; please, please, now!” His hands stroked her, caressed the melon breasts that came springing free of the open shirt. They rolled on the ground of soft needles, kicking off pants; with ruthless quickness he plunged himself into her, a great stab of his shaft rodding into her feminine softness, a hot, throbbing velvety snugness. Her fingernails scraped and dug his back and he was thinking, This is crazy, it’s the wrong goddamn place for this, and then there was no more thinking, there was only heat and flame, her nails raking his back, their bodies lunging on the silent, soft bed of pine floor.
She sighed warmly and wriggled and gave him a serene, unhurried kiss; he wanted to He with her, her breasts in his hands, but he said, “We are goddamn loco,” and got his pants on and went down through the trees with his rifle. In camp nothing stirred; the prisoners lay asleep. He put on his hat and laid the rifle across his crook’d elbow, still tasting the flavor of her skin on his tongue. She came out of the trees tucking in her shirt and he saw the happiness glowing in her face and felt an overwhelming warmth course through him, an unreasoning reaching out of his heart. He felt absurdly pleased with himself, and grinned at her idiotically.
She came close and brushed him with her lips; she said, “It’s all right, isn’t it? I was so afraid it would come between us-remembering Rafe, I mean.” Her face changed; she was looking toward the sky, not meeting his eyes, and she said slowly, “I do feel guilty about it. I can’t help it. And so do you. But it wouldn’t be any good if we didn’t feel like that.”
“Maybe it’ll take a while to sort it all out.”
She said, “Is your back bleeding?”
“I don’t know-I don’t mind.”
“I never did that with-” she began, and stopped. He took her hand in both of his. She smiled briefly and said, “Fm sorry, I won’t do that again. I love you, Jerr, I always did.”
The high passes were cold, wind-raked. On tired horses they struggled slowly upward. Tree rode ahead early in the afternoon to seek out a way across; his exhilaration had crumbled, he felt sour and weary. He had begun to smell himself. That afternoon they wasted four hours doubling back from a blind cliff and he knew it was time they couldn’t afford to lose: he had seen the first signs of pursuit, a rising of flocked birds from a mountain behind them.
Taking the chance it would work, he spent an hour planting another false trail and led the way up a narrow granite gorge. Hoofbeat sound swelled and echoed between the rocky walls. For two hours Gant and Macklin had been filling the air with threats-what they’d do if Cooley caught up. Gant said, “I’d sooner kill you, Arp, than turn you over to them alive.”
Macklin said, “After all, that Arizona ree-ward’s dead or alive.”
“Yuh,” said Gant. “Yuh, and it’s easier handlin’ a corpse than a live, squirmin’ sumbitch like Arp here.”
Finally, having enough, Tree shut them up. He, wanted the Earps lathered; he didn’t want them so infuriated they would take stupid chances.
Wyatt Earp had maintained an air of disinterested righteousness; Caroline kept hammering him about Rafe’s death, about Cooley, and Earp only replied, “I’m not responsible for your opinions-he was your husband and you’re mad, all right. For myself, I regret nothing. Badgering me will get you nowhere.”
They threaded the edge of a deep forest and stayed within it all afternoon. There was no further chance to survey the trail behind them-the trees closed off the view; Tree saw no further sign of pursuit that day but it didn’t mean pursuit wasn’t there. After dark he had to call a halt. They camped beneath the solid mass of a mountain saddle he planned to cross in the morning. It turned bitter cold. Tree took down his rifle but Caroline spoke low to him: “You have got to sleep, Jerr. Those two can watch the Earps, and I’ll watch them. I’ll wake you up if I have to.”
He didn’t protest: he had gone too long without sleep. He felt drunk, in that stage where nothing seemed quite real; everything seemed slightly farther away than it was, and the things he said and heard no longer quite made sense. When he sat down he felt needles in his legs. He rolled up in coat and blankets and lay on his back, belly rising and falling with his breath, closed his eyes, and in five seconds was unconscious.
Obie Macklin watched Tree go to sleep, then picked up his rifle and walked past the three trussed prisoners to where Mordecai Gant stood bulky against the sky. Macklin spoke in a low voice: “I hope to God this works.”
“You thank Floyd’U catch us up tomorrow?”
“Maybe. I ain’t worried about Floyd. It’s Cooley I’m thinking about.”
“If Floyd don’t get here first, Obie, we got to do it ourselves and get the hell out of here before Cooley shows up with that fucking army of his.” Gant glanced across the camp at Caroline, lowered his voice still more, and said, “Cooley ain’t gonna find them messages you left for Floyd, is he?”
Macklin said, “Cooley wouldn’t know where to look-I hope.” He followed Gant’s glance and saw Caroline watching them. That lit Je blonde catamount didn’t trust nobody at all. He made a note to watch out for her-she had a gun and it wouldn’t be smart to assume she wouldn’t use it.
Gant said, “Maybe we ought to do it now.”
“You that hungry for somebody’s blood?”
“I don’t mind,” Gant said. “We ought to do it and git shet of it and git the hell out of here.”
“Go ahead and try if you want to. Me, I keep remembering the way he handles that sliphammer gun of his. I’d just as soon wait for help. Hell, that was the whole object of setting this thing up.”
“How hard you think Tree’d fight to save Wyatt Arp’s hide?”
“Why don’t you ask him?”
“You funny, Obie, real funny. Sometime you gonna laugh yoseff to death.”
“Screw you, Mordecai.”
Gant scowled. “Some reason you don’t want to go on living, Obie?” he asked with soft, bloodthirsty insinuation.
Macklin laughed bitterly. “Living? Hell, I never even wanted to be born.” He turned and moved away.
The third day was the heartbreaker. They got all the way up the mountain saddle only to find that the far side was a sheer cliff. Nothing to do but retrace and go around: it took hours. When Tree finally found a pass that crossed over, he halted his horse to the crest to look back, and saw two armies of horsemen doggedly descending the slopes five or six miles back. The two groups were a mile apart, separated by a hogback ridge. Tree’s pinched mouth formed a slash across his face like a surgeon’s wound.
Caroline said, puzzled, “They look like they’re hiding from each other.”
Wyatt Earp said, “I recognize that white horse-Floyd Sparrow’s. Trying to beat Cooley to us.”
Mordecai Gant laughed coarsely. “Lookin’ to skin your hide, Arp.”
Earp looked at Tree with venom. “This game’s rigged, isn’t it.”
“Not by me,” Tree answered shortly, and led them through the pass; He had been spotted; the pursuers lifted their pace.
The far side was a long, sweeping downslope. They crossed at a canter. Up above was a sawtooth tangle of peaks, the highest in this range-Continental Divide. Beyond that, it would be mostly downhill; but it was still three days to Denver.
He tried to stretch the hour’s lead. They found a spring, watered, and walked the horses downslope in the creek, then came to the confluence of a tributary and turned deliberately upstream in the secondary creek. It was out of the way but it might confuse pursuit. Tree led them out onto a shale slide that made dangerous footing but concealed all sign of their passage. When they had gone a mile beyond, he discovered Macklin wasn’t with them: Macklin trotted up from behind and saw his look, and said casually, “Thought I better have one more look back the way we come.”
“Not a thing,” Macklin said, and pushed on.
They breathed the horses at intervals but made no noon halt. At two they spent fifteen minutes in a creek, going upstream and thus losing a mile’s progress to gain concealment; at a tortuous chasm Tree tossed big rocks across to the far side until he had overturned a fair number of loose stones to expose their damp undersides. It would take pursuers an hour or more to get over to that side. Tree led down the near side to the belly of the gorge, which took them by a series of rock-floored hairpin twists down through the upper elevations of timber forests. They entered groves so thickly massed at the treetops that no sun got through to the ground. Moss and decaying growth made easy footing for the horses but left clear sign. The riders had to ward off branches and duck under tree limbs. Once, in the center of the timber, Tree called a halt to blow the horses and listen for pursuit. He turned his head slowly to catch any sounds that might come rolling down the long-sounding forest corridors. He heard nothing-which in itself was not reassuring-and led on, noticing vaguely that Obie Macklin was occupying his nervous hands by sharpening his knife on stirrup leathers.
Distances in the high-country air deceived the eye. The high peaks that had loomed within obvious bullet range that morning were still ahead of them in midaf-ternoon, when they climbed past timberline into stunted marginal growth. The air had a clear, gemlike quality. Tree halted to give the canyons behind him a long inspection; doubtless the two pursuing bands were down there under the trees somewhere-the question was, how close?
Warren Earp said, “God damn it, I wish they’d show themselves.”
Wyatt said testily, “Take it easy, boy, take it easy.” It made Tree look at him. The deep voice, calm on the surface, had a strained, false timbre.
Warren said, “What the hell you mean, take it easy? My damn wrists are just about to start bleeding and we’re unarmed and hogtied and right back there we’ve got a pack of stinking miners wanting to lynch both of us.”
Caroline said, with acid, “Don’t you think your friend Cooley can take care of a few worthless miners?”
“Not if they get to us first,” Warren said, looking as miserable as he probably felt. He hadn’t whined much, which was to his credit, but the strain was getting to him now. There was, Tree observed, a surprising amount of sand beneath Warren’s bravado. A lesser man would have crumbled by now-he had expected it to happen, and found himself curiously pleased that it hadn’t. Now, after the one minor outburst, Warren clamped his mouth shut and turned to stare stonily ahead.
They climbed another mile and Tree looked back again, saw nothing, and urged the weary horses on. Caroline drew alongside and crinkled her nose at him. At that moment Josie Earp, looking down the backtrail, said, “Oh, shit-Oh, Jesus Christ!”
Tree’s attention whipped down the mountain. He saw them then-Floyd Sparrow’s bunch, the white horse in the lead, coming up from the trees not three miles below.
Josie said, “Sweet Jesus, get us out of this.” She was talking to Wyatt.
Wyatt put his hooded eyes on Tree and said, “Don’t you think this damned foolishness has gone far enough now?”
It was Caroline who said, “What’s the matter-afraid you won’t make it to Denver?”
Earp’s eyes, flashing bright for a moment, receded under drooping lids; he said nothing more.
Dead weary, Tree pushed them on. He kept looking back, kept getting glimpses of Floyd Sparrow’s determined gang, and knew without being told exactly what Sparrow wanted.
The hard pressures of pursuit, fatigue, vigilance constricted him like iron hoops drawn painfully around his chest. He glanced at Wyatt Earp and knew the man was getting rattled. He felt acutely embarrassed, as if he had blundered in on Earp’s privacy. All during these endless hours of riding he had communicated very little with Earp but he still hadn’t shaken the possibility he was doing Earp an injustice, Rafe or no Rafe. Nothing was simple, he thought; particularly in questions of guilt. There were no innocent men.
The horses clambered uphill, heaving and beaten. Tree looked at Earp again and found Earp chewing his lip. Earp caught Tree looking at him and straightened up in the saddle with an expression under his mustache that might have been a sullen snarl; Earp said, “Sparrow’s the kind of man who won’t mind shooting the lot of us whether we’ve got our hands tied or not-fish in a rain barrel to him.”
“What do you want me to do?” Tree snapped.
“I know,” Earp said, with imperfect sarcasm “you’ve got your stupid duty to do.”
Caroline, overhearing, let her horse drop back and said angrily to Earp, “Maybe just one time in your miserable life you ought to try pretending the rest of us are almost as good as you are.”
Earp tried to shrug with disdain. “I’m only pointing out the odds to your pigheaded friend. Why should all of you have to die over me?”
Caroline cried, “People are always deliberately choosing to die around you. All the people who absolutely force you to kill them!”
“I didn’t kill your husband,” Earp snapped.
“You did everything but pull the trigger!”
“You could have stopped Cooley,” she said, with scorn.
“You’re babbling,” Earp grunted, and stirred in the saddle, looking back and making a face. “Can’t we speed this up? Or are we going to dawdle and wait for Sparrow to ride right up?” He poked his face toward Tree: “Maybe you made a private arrangement with Sparrow to sell us out?”
Tree tried to keep the anger off his face. Earp’s raucous bleatings were the signs of a man cracking up. Where was the man’s courage? Earp hadn’t once tried to escape-waiting for Cooley, maybe? Or just using his head, appraising the “odds” so coolly? Earp was a poker player-maybe he’d started out with a plan of some kind; but poker was a game in which you lost if you hesitated too long before bluffing. There didn’t seem any getting around the obvious fact that Wyatt Earp was losing his nerve.
Not sure any more, Tree was enraged-enraged more by disillusion and his own uncertainty than by anything else, even Sparrow back there. Everything he had taken for granted seemed to be falling apart. He had, in a strange way, believed in Wyatt Earp; it had been important to him. Now either Earp was folding up, or it was some fantastic trick designed to get Tree off guard.
The thought grenaded into his mind, and he clung to the possibility almost with relief. He realized: he wanted Earp to try to escape.
Then Earp crushed him. Earp said, “Maybe you ought to think what it could mean to you to have the gratitude of men like Wayde Cardiff. I’m offering no bribes but you need to be reminded of reality. Damn it, all I want is a fair chance against those red-eyed sons of bitches down there.” He was brooding back toward Sparrow’s bunch.
“Good God,” Tree said, his voice grating hoarse. “Shut up now, will you?” Shut up before you destroy yourself!
He gigged the tired horse ahead.
The sun went down behind them, a vivid splash of colors across the mountains. The horses were played out; it was an agony of stumbling hoofs and slip-sliding boots, all the riders on foot now, leading the animals. Tree posted himself in the rear, guarding the backtrail. The pass was in sight, clearly silhouetted against the stars as night came down full; and they kept plugging stubbornly toward it until, dropping across a rocky bowl of ground, Tree called forward softly, went past the line, and spoke to Gant: “They can’t see us in this hollow. We’ll turn left and go north through the gully until it peters out.”
“Take us north of the pass,” Gant grumbled.
“Can’t be helped. We’ll go over the north side of the mountain. It may just lose them.”
So they turned, keeping to the concealment of the lateral gully along the flank of the mountain, hoping Sparrow behind them would keep going straight up for the pass. Tree dropped back to the rear. He felt stunned by weariness. His footing was bad, his eyesight played tricks on him. Once up ahead he thought he saw Obie Macklin stooping by a rock, doing something, his knife blade glinting dully. When Tree reached that area he gave the ground a close search and finally found it: a round quartzite stone the size of a hat, with bright, fresh slashes across its top, three parallel straight lines-a signal in private code. Sparrow, knowing what to look for, would spot it immediately. So, there it was. Tree closed his eyes and gathered himself, marshaling strength, and strode forward, dragging the horse, clambering past the rest of them until he caught up with Macklin.
Gant and Macklin were talking in subdued tones; they drew apart when he approached. Everybody halted, without needing instructions. Macklin caught some sign, even in the starlight; he stiffened arid said tentatively, “What’s wrong with you?”
Tree said, “That’s all for both of you. Shuck your gunbelts.”
Gant said, “Huh?” and Macklin at the same time said, “What the hell’s all this?”
Tree shook his head. “Drop those belts and then sit down and take off your boots.” His palm curved over the sliphammer gun. Macklin and Gant looked at each other; then, as if on prearranged signal, they dived in opposite directions, both clawing at their revolvers.
The sliphammer gun fired-once-at Gant’s big shadow, and whipped across toward Macklin. The little man was rolling under the belly of his horse, snapping off a shot. The report of the gun was startling. Muzzle flame lanced forward. The bullet went wide somewhere and Tree fired at the only target visible beyond the horse’s shadow-Macklin’s head. Bone fragments and blood sprayed from the skull. The horse reared, slipped on the loose rocks, and fell on Macklin, crushing his body underneath.
Tree spun, crouching, toward Gant, but Gant hadn’t fired at all: clearly Tree’s first one had hit him somewhere. His bodily functions had lost control; there was the sharp stink of human urine and manure coming upwind from Gant. Tree got to him in four strides and found him dying.
Macklin’s horse scrambled for footing and ran in terror, back the way they had come. Gant’s horse wanted to run too but it was joined by rope tether to the prisoners’ horses; it reared and stayed put. Caroline stood back there with the birdhead. 38 in her fist, aimed at Wyatt Earp, who hadn’t moved a muscle after crouching down and whipping Josie flat to the ground.
Tree walked away from Gant, taking a deep breath and letting it out, went past Macklin’s body, and reached for the reins of his horse. “That gunshot will bring them on the run. Get mounted.”
Josie said in a cracked voice, “Dear God. But those-” she was staring at the bodies.
Tree said harshly, “Let Sparrow bury them.” He led his horse over to Wyatt and Josie, glanced at Warren’s shocked face, and said in a bitter, clipped way, ‘They were blazing a trail for Sparrow-Sparrow had to get you out here alone, away from Cooley and the rest of your friends.”
“How long have you known that?”
“I just got proof. Do you want to argue about it or get out of here?”
“Untie my hands first,” said Earp.
“No. I’m not done yet. Now damn it get mounted.” He swung toward Caroline: “You’ll ride Gant’s horse and lead the others.”
She didn’t ask questions; she went to Gant’s horse. The stirrups were far too long for her and she had to ride with her feet dangling. They left the dead men on the ground and went out as fast as the bone-tired horses would move them, curving broadly northeast, then east, then back toward the pass, because there was a chance Sparrow would not double back after finding the bodies. And the pass, now, was the fastest way across.
In the pass, the night wind sliced through Tree as if he were naked. His horse turned a fetlock and went lame; he swapped over to the spare animal but even without a rider the lame horse couldn’t keep up with the slow pace, and he had to unsaddle it and turn it loose. With a game leg it wouldn’t drift far and Sparrow would surely pick it up. Luck had turned all bad; this was just one more thing that couldn’t be helped. Wyatt Earp’s remarks, delivered at intervals, were snappish and bitter. Josie swore in a monotonous voice, going through her limited vocabulary of obscenities and then going through it again. Warren was the silent one; his eyes were shut half the time and he was probably half drugged with sleeplessness, so tired he just didn’t care any more. Of the five of them, only Caroline didn’t seem to have run out of stamina.
Beyond the pass the slope was a downgrade but not an easy one. Steep slides alternated with boulder-littered humps. At intervals they trotted, walked, and got off to lead. Tree kept looking back, expecting to see horsemen on the skyline. The moon rose, a pale, thin rind. They walked down into the forest of scrub pine and high mountain piiion and Caroline broke off unripe pinon nuts to chew. By the time dawn broke across the Rockies, there was a glaze on the surfaces of Tree’s eyes that made him blink continuously to keep it away. He felt as if he had gritty sand under his eyelids. His legs were numb stumps, blistered and uncooperative. Wyatt Earp had developed a tic above his right cheekbone; his eyes were raw, sunk back behind dark pouches. He had gone hoarse and stopped talking an hour before sunrise.
They ate on the move. Around nine o’clock they entered the upper fringe of taller pine forest and at the edge Tree looked back once more. Still no sign of Sparrow: had he lost them? It didn’t seem possible. They went down through the dry timber-land, zigzagging through canyons to stay dff the visible high ground. He checked the ropes which lashed the Earps’ wrists. There was a raw-rubbed spot on Warren’s left wrist that was ugly red with scabbed blood but Tree didn’t loosen the ropes. Warren hardly seemed to recognize him. Tree scraped a hand across the abrasive stubble on his jaw, pinched his eyes with thumb and forefinger, and looked up to see they were near the edge of a promontory that looked down past a tortured series of gorges and ridges into a deep river valley. The sun, in the east beyond, reflected painfully off the rushing river several miles below and the steel ribbons of railroad tracks running along by the river. Tree looked at Caroline and said, “The Arkansas. If these horses get us that far we’ll flag a southbound train and ram through to Denver if I have to hold a gun at the engineer’s head.”
A wind rushed through the trees and at midafternoon they were within a mile of the Arkansas when a rifle went off somewhere not too far away, the solitary crack echoing and rebounding through the canyons. It stirred Tree’s adrenalin, bringing him more fully awake. All of them had stiffened in their saddles; they were all looking around. The timber was broken up into patches separated by meadows; the hilly horizons were near. Abruptly Tree spotted movement: a bunch, on horseback, wheeling out of the forest half a mile back. The rifle shot had been a rallying signal; horsemen galloped in from several directions. He recognized the white horse.
Wyatt Earp bellowed, “We can’t outrun them on these horses.”
“We can try,” Tree said. “On the run, now!” They urged the faltering animals downslope-just one more ridge to cross, then downhill to the river. But when they started up the ridge, a pack of riders materialized at the crest. Tree reined in; Caroline yanked her horse to a stop so abruptly that the other three got tangled up. Tree slapped Caroline’s horse across the rump and went wheeling past her, turning aside into a boulder-strewn gully that angled upslope to the right. They clattered up the defile in a row. It took them five hundred yards toward the crest of the ridge, and turned a bend, and ended: it just petered out in a sloping field of buffalo grass. They emerged, fully exposed on the flats. The upper band of riders was ramming forward at a gallop-and Caroline sucked in her breath: “That’s Cooley’s gang. God damn them!” Cooley must have taken a calculated chance, cutting ahead to wait by the Arkansas and trap the fugitives coming down. So now it was Cooley up there and Sparrow’s miners galloping up from below-a hopeless pincer.
Wyatt Earp roared, “For the love of God cut us loose-at least let a man die with a gun in his hand!”
Warren said bitterly, “You really fucked it up, Deputy-I hope you roast in Hell.”
Tree got them dismounted. Cooley was three quarters of a mile away, plunging his army forward at a full gallop, riders fanning out in a tense arc-and half a mile below them, Sparrow’s miners, ungainly on horseback but armed to the teeth, came swirling upslope, disdaining the gully.
Warren said, “All fucked up,” spitting it out like acid, and Wyatt Earp’s eyes, gone hard again, penetrated Tree. Dispassionately Tree took down his rifle, cocked it, and said with unhurried clarity, “We’re all going to walk back into that gully and belly down in the rocks. Move.”
He jabbed Wyatt Earp in the gut, hard enough to make the big man stumble. Earp, his hands tied together, turned lobster red and went at an awkward, shambling run. Tree gathered up all the guns, handed some of them to Caroline to carry, and brought up the rear. They tumbled into the rocks and flattened themselves in boulder crevices.
Wyatt Earp said, “Give us to Cooley and I’ll safeguard your hide. It’s the only chance you’ve got.”
“My string’s not played out,” Tree said, watching the miners come-Sparrow had the lead, two or three hundred yards, but his path was uphill and Cooley’s was down. It looked like a dead heat: already both groups were lifting their guns, reining in, trying to feel out the shape of things.
Tree said, “Keep your heads down.”
Josie said, “Horse shit. If I’ve got to get shot I want to watch.”
Warren Earp banged his shoulder into her and knocked her down. Two or three rifles went off-Sparrow’s men-the bullets singing off the rocks. Both posses came within two hundred yards of the gully, on the opposite sides of it-and stopped.
Tree said softly, “We’ll just count on Cooley to protect us from Sparrow.”
Caroline said dully, “And who protects us from our protector?”
“Cooley won’t ram in here as long as I’ve got a gun at Wyatt Earp’s head.”
“So,” said Warren, “that’s it.”
Rifles opened up: Cooley’s men shot high overhead in arced trajectories, trying to scatter Sparrow’s bunch. The miners returned the fire. It wasn’t long before both groups retired beyond rifle range of each other, leaving a few gunshot horses on the field. Wyatt Earp, squatting in the rocks, said, “Fine. Mexican standoff till sundown and then Sparrow’s ghouls sneak in here and finish us off.”
Caroline said, “Will you shut up? Will you please just shut up?”
Tree scanned the grass. Cooley’s strikebreakers had moved back into a grove of trees, left their horses, and now could be seen fanning out on foot. Sparrow’s men were somewhere in the thickets below. Tree thought, We won’t have to wait until dark. He said, “They’ll be coming up the gully. Watch the bend.”
“With what?” Wyatt Earp demanded. “God damn it, a gun, man!”
The grass was waving in various places; there was no wind to stir it. Men crawling on their bellies. Tree said, “Oh, Christ.” He looked at his rifle and closed his eyes down hard, hating it all, hating Wyatt Earp most of all. He opened his eyes and turned a bleak, hollow stare on Earp and said, “Call your friends down here.” He put his gun to Earp’s head.
A man came in sight down the gully, a miner with a rifle. The rifle went off, badly aimed, and Tree fired a snap shot which drove the miner behind cover. Tree wheeled flat against a boulder, jacked a cartridge into the magazine and heard Wyatt Earp bellow, “Cooley! Get down here!”
Lower down in the gully bend, several miners flitted from cover to cover. Tree raked the bend with rifle fire, and sprinted across to the far side. A bullet kicked up rock dust at his heels. He slammed behind a boulder and fired. From this angle he had a wider field of fire along the bend; he could keep them back, two hundred yards below. He levered the rifle, fast, slamming bullets into the rocks, hearing the ricochets buzz and crang. The miners went to cover-and Caroline shrieked, “Jerr!”
He snapped his head to the side and saw Wyatt Earp spinning around, a revolver in his trussed hands.
Josie had jumped Caroline; they were locked together. Earp must have dodged past Caroline to the guns. Earp’s eyes were wide, as if in surprise. His gun swiveled toward Tree. Tree yanked the rifle around, triggered it.
Nothing-the rifle was empty. He dived flat for the ground, hitting on his right shoulder, and Earp’s gun roared. Tree, not knowing if he was hit or not, spun the sliphammer gun up in his left hand and flicked the hammer. Earp was dodging; the. 45 hit him in the arm, spun him around and knocked him back into the rocks. Earp lost the six-gun when he fell: his hands, tied together for so long, must have lost strength. Tree scrambled back into the rocks. The miners were shooting but some of Cooley’s men were down there too, and it wasn’t clear who was shooting at whom. Tree slid himself tight into the rocks, ready to shoot Earp again if he had to-Earp was getting his feet under him, doggedly going toward the gun on the ground. Caroline was wrestling with Josie, who had made a grab for the. 38. Warren Earp came raging out of cover to make a dash for the guns Tree had left ten yards away, above Wyatt in the rocks.
That was when Floyd Sparrow appeared, on the grass edge above the rocks to Tree’s left. Movement drew the corner of Tree’s vision and when he turned he saw Sparrow, face twisted cruelly, lifting a rifle toward Warren, who was the only Earp in Sparrow’s range of vision. Warren had his back to Sparrow; Wyatt was still scrambling for the dropped gun; Tree turned the sliphammer gun and fired upward.
Sparrow’s body snapped to one side under the bullet’s impact: he fell with the quick, spineless looseness of instant death.
When Tree turned back, he saw Wyatt Earp’s gun dead level on him.
Earp’s face was unreadable. His eyes flickered. The gun shifted up, pointed somewhere above Tree, and with immediate knowing, Tree wheeled fully around. He saw Cooley up there.
Cooley had guns in both fists; he was running; he started shooting-at Tree-and as Tree began to dive away, bringing his own gun up too late he knew, he heard Wyatt Earp’s gun go off and saw Cooley’s face change. The bullet fractured the lens of Cooley’s right eye like a plate of shattered glass; the eye filled with blood. Wyatt Earp’s second bullet drilled through Cooley’s throat and blasted out a splatter of tissue. Cooley tumbled out of sight beyond the rock rim.
Head spinning, Tree got to one knee and coughed, choking on smoke. His eyes watered. He scraped a hand across his eyes and tried to see Wyatt Earp; he held the sliphammer back with his thumb but couldn’t see. He braced his body for a bullet’s impact. Someone on the grass, outside the gully, was yelling in a murderous roar and he thought he recognized the voice.
His eyes cleared and he saw Wyatt Earp, still as granite, watching him over the muzzle of the cocked gun.
The voice beyond was still roaring-Sheriff McKesson’s voice. Tree held the hammer back, his glance locked with Wyatt Earp’s. Earp’s eyes flashed very wide, once, and slowly he lowered the gun without firing.
In the gully below, there was a ragged aftervolley of gunfire, and then stillness. McKesson’s loud voice rode across the flats, calling for calm. The sheriff came in sight on his horse, his hawked, predatory face grim under the white thatch of hair; he had a rifle in one hand and a revolver in the other. Across the gully, Wyatt Earp stood with his gun held muzzledown in both fists; his arm was bleeding slowly. Josie and Caroline had quit wrestling; the. 38 lay in the center of the gully. Warren Earp had picked up a gun and was watching his brother for a lead. It was a stilled tableau. McKesson wheeled past on horseback, yelling at everybody, rounding up the miners and Cooley’s men and telling them the war was over, the leaders dead.
Uncertain, Tree got upright and sprinted across the gully. No one shot at him. Josie moved toward Wyatt and began to fuss with his arm. Earp looked across the top of her head at Tree. McKesson clattered into the gully on his horse and yanked a document out of his shirt and tossed it down; it fluttered to Tree’s feet and Tree said, “What’s that?” in a stupid voice.
“Your goddamned warrant from the Lieutenant Governor,” McKesson said. “It’s no good. The Governor rescinded it. Cut the Earps loose-you’ve got no more authority to hold them.”
Tree had the impulse to laugh. Hysteria, he knew; he fought it down. Slowly, involuntarily, he reached down to pick up the mocking warrant. As he straightened he heard the sheriff say, “You might want to wipe your ass with it.”
The river ran along noisily. Up the steel tracks a train hooted on the downgrade and began to slow down a full mile away, responding to McKesson’s flag signal. The mountains, trees, men, horses all threw long shadows from the late sun. Wyatt Earp, on horseback with his arm made bulky by bandages, loomed against the cobalt sky, his face in shadow because the sun was behind him. Tree stood by the tracks with Caroline, squinting up at the Earps and McKesson. Young Warren looked badly shaken-his face was pale and his hands, lifting a canteen, were unsteady. McKesson had a disgusted look on his pitted face; the lip corners were turned sternly down. Of them all only Josie seemed unchanged, as if none of it had really touched her. She looked impatient to be getting on.
Tree glanced at the approaching train. Wyatt Earp was lifting his reins, adjusting them in his hand, and Tree said to him, “You had a chance to kill me-I think maybe you wanted to.”
“If you’re wondering why I didn’t-a life for a life,” Earp growled. “You saved my brother’s skin when you took Sparrow out. I pay my debts-always.”
Tree said, choosing his words with care, “Then if you didn’t owe me for that, you’d have shot me in the back.”
“You had it coming,” Earp said. His voice was strictly flat; it gave away nothing.
“Honor,” said Sheriff McKesson, “is for fools and story-book heroes.”
Tree said, “You’re dead wrong about that.”
McKesson shrugged. Wyatt Earp said, “Amigo, you had a lot of luck and you didn’t get killed. That kind of luck won’t hold out very long unless you learn how to be practical about things. Right and wrong are flexible ideas-you’ve got to learn how to count up the odds.”
The train was close, sliding on protesting wheels. Tree took Caroline’s hand and when the train stopped he handed her up to the coach platform and climbed onto the step behind her. The whistle hooted. Wyatt Earp made a vague, grave sort of hand salute and neck-reined his horse around; the four riders went toward the mountains, not hurrying; Josie and Warren were looking back. The train jerked and began to pick up speed. He stood gripping the handrails and felt Caroline’s hand on his arm; she said, “Do you still doubt which one of you was the better man?”
He gave her a quick, blank look. She said, “I think you’ve learned something about legends.”
He made a puzzled frown and looked up toward the mountains at the four riders. It was young Warren who hipped around in the saddle and, hesitantly, lifted his arm and waved. Tree didn’t answer the gesture. The train clattered along the Arkansas bank and Caroline moved close against him, warm and soft; she said, “Maybe they’ll write a dime novel about you.” When he looked at her he saw she was joking.