Midway between Phoenix, Arizona and the Colorado River, the town of Polvo Gris was circled by hills that trapped heat and dust. The town had sprung up near the lower slopes of the Eagle Tail Mountains, not far from the timber-stands of pine and spruce from which some local folk gleaned a living.
Where dense agave and mescal filtered the breezes that would have otherwise brought relief to the bleak settlement, Melvin Cody's horse shifted anxiously under him. He checked it and held it quiet while he spared a thought for his father.
It was twenty-five years since a young and adventurous Hammond Cody had heard tell of the immense, bountiful territories that lay far to the north. From Polvo Gris, he'd travelled a thousand miles to the Canadian border. In Moose Jaw, he'd traded his cow pony and pack mule for a canoe and traps, paddled the Qu'Appelle until he made it to the shores of the Quill Lakes. That was near to where he'd meet Morning Sky, the Cree chieftain's daughter he'd later marry, who was to become Melvin's mother.
Melvin leaned forward and patted the neck of his mare, then recalled the cheerless, dying words of his father. "The company men . . . the fur traders are moving in, son. There's no room for the buckskinner any more. You ain't got your ma, so just go. If you ever make it back, take your time. Look over the country about—look in any direction. Make it your country."
So now Mel Cody had gotten here fully grown, and years later than he should have. Perhaps too late to make any part of it his own country. The mare shifted again, impatient to get moving, wearied by the heat and another day's ride. She wanted water and feed. Mel gave her free rein, and she ambled toward the rough trail that led to Polvo Gris.
Horse and rider flickered in the heat shimmer off the land. The horse was an iron-gray quarter horse, well-built. Despite her weariness she was sure of foot. Mel was tall and slim, and rode at ease in the saddle. He had the sun-burned skin of a mixed blood and his dark, deep set eyes looked around with the confidence of a man who'd seen much. He travelled in a mail order black suit. He knew it would be uncomfortable, but he'd decided that's what you probably wore when you travelled beyond Flat Stone.
Two miles out from Polvo Gris, Mel let his horse pick a solitary trail. When he finally rode into the town, he kept to the west side of the main street, where there was shade from the slanting sun. The gray nickered and crow-hopped excitedly on smelling the water in a nearby street trough. Mel let her go for the water.
Two townsmen walked across the street toward him. Mel nodded civilly. "Where can I get my horse taken care of?"
"Livery. Turn left past Marcella's. That's the place we go to drink, and there ain't no choice," one of the men said bluntly.
Mel said thanks, unsure of who 'no choice' applied to. He drew his horse from the tepid water and walked on, clasping one hand to the horn of his saddle. With his hat brim bent low, he looked along the main street. He glanced indifferently at the paint peeled store fronts and bleached boardwalks, the overall dried out decay. He passed Marcella's Quarter and considered buying a drink. He had little idea of how long he'd be staying in Polvo Gris or what it had to offer. Maybe he'd go back to the saloon a little later, after he'd taken care of his horse.
On the side of a building, an arrow pointed down a side street. Under it was a sign that read: FRATER'S LIVERY STABLE.
Mel turned down the muck-covered lane. With his usual caution, he pressed the palm of his left hand into the butt of his gun, a .44 Colt tucked snugly in the beaded sash around his waist.
The town was quiet in this near-to-noon hour, with only a small number of people on the move. But when Mel was in sight of the open doors of the livery stable, someone staggered in front of him. From one side of the street, Selwyn Church wavered then stopped, lurched forward and fell to his knees.
Church was an elder, with enough years to be venerated by a mixed-blood Cree. He was cowering, his pale eyes burning with fear.
A gun fired, roared twice in the narrowness of the street. The bullets buried themselves in the ground either side of the old man's knees and kept him from moving.
Mel pulled on his horse's mane and made some comforting sounds. He twisted slightly in the saddle as four men appeared from a pole-fronted stable yard. One stepped forward challengingly; two others held back. The fourth clung tightly to the halter of a bad-tempered chestnut gelding, trying to soothe it.
Budge Miner took a brief look at Mel. The man was big, but he hesitated a moment before waving Mel away. Then he smiled coldly, pulled back his fist and piled his knuckles down hard into the back of the man's neck.
Church didn't make a sound—just went down with his face driven hard into the dung-encrusted ground. He did cry out when Miner kicked him in the legs, ribs, and the side of his head.
But it wasn't Mel's affair. It wasn't like it was his town, and he didn't have his bearings. "Why don't you leave the old feller alone?" he asked, uneasily. "Looks to me, like he's had enough."
Miner waited while Mel's words sank in, then he turned on his heel. He bunched his fist and blew on his knuckles. "Back off," he threatened.
As Mel spared a quick look at the other two, Miner reached down and pulled Church from the dust. He held him with one hand and slapped his face with the other.
Mel, shaken, touched his horse's belly with his boot heels and the animal lunged forward. He swung the gray to the left. and the horse's shoulder smashed the tall man away.
Mel swung from the saddle and danced forward quickly. His right hand gripped Miner's, his left pistoned low into his midriff. The blow exploded the man's breath away, staggered him a step or two backwards. Mel turned quickly to see the expected advance of the other two men.
His left hand moved quickly to his waistband, drew his Colt. The two men stopped in their tracks. One was eyeing the big man behind Mel. Mel turned to find the man had drawn his own gun halfway from its holster. "That'd be real stupid. Me with my gun already pointed at your gut an' all."
Church, staggered to his feet and stood, wheezing and watching. He took a step back against a building. Then he pushed himself away from the wall, and drew his own gun.
His eyes were rheumy, but hate-filled when he pulled the trigger. His bony wrist bucked and the bullet whistled high above and between the two other men. They cursed in unison and stared hard at Mel. But then the man who'd been holding the fractious gelding dropped its headstall, drew a pistol from his belt and fired in one violent movement.
Church dropped his gun and clutched his knotty fingers to his shirt front. He let out a whisper of air, twisted futilely at his darkening shirtfront.
He sniffed at the air and smiled. But he wasn't smiling—he was saying something, grimacing as pain coursed through his gaunt frame. He was dying, crumpling to the ground, when Mel's shot ripped the horse minder's arm apart, sent the gelding rearing and bucking away down the side street.
"I never done them no harm . . . .never stole cattle," the old man croaked. Then his dry lips ceased to move against the hard-packed dirt. His legs jerked once, then he died.
Mel grabbed the big man roughly, hurled him at his two companions. He raised his Colt and set the action.
The big man rasped loudly. "In hell's name mister, I don't know who you are, but you just bought yourself a real load of trouble."
"Someone sure did." Mel looked past the men as someone turned into the side street. This man was different though. He carried a shotgun, and wore a star on the lapel of his short hickory coat.
Sheriff Brett Vaughn walked fast, taking notice of the stricken old man. He stopped just short of Mel, eyed him with professional judgment, then spoke to the big man. "Budge Miner . . . I might have known. Speak to me, and make it good."
The big man glared furiously at the lawman for a moment before he answered. "This weren't my play, Sheriff. We came in here after a damned cattle thief, an' we caught us one. It was Selwyn Church—him and this fellow here."
Vaughn looked sidelong at Church's pathetic body. He spat dryly and cursed.
"Make sure you aim your spitting an' cursing right." Miner pointed at Mel. "Him an' Church stole some of Casper Spool's stock . . . hid 'em up on Church's place. We followed their tracks into town. I figure they were planning for the stock auction: there'll be enough of them Phoenix buyers here. They're ain't too watchful about the brands they're buying. You know that, Sheriff."
Vaughn looked cautiously at Mel. "Well?"
"I don't know what they're talking about," Mel retorted. "I do know the big plug-ugly here's a liar. But I've never seen any o' the others before, an' that's the truth."
"How'd you get involved?" the sheriff asked.
"I just rode in . . . was following the livery stable sign. They came out . . . started bulldogging the old feller. He drew his gun all right, but he was beaten so bad he couldn't see proper. They weren't good odds, Sheriff. The one there with half an arm's a killer."
Vaughn turned his attention to the man Mel indicated. "What you got to say, Rourke? Is what he says right?"
Rourke was holding his shattered arm tight against his chest. Pain distorted his face and drained him of color.
"I need a doctor," he groaned. "Budge told it right. They must of been stealing Spool's cattle. Church went for his gun. I had to shoot. Now someone get me to McLane."
"You heard him. So get the 'breed in your jail, Sheriff," Miner said, still breathing hard. "An' you keep him there 'til Mr. Spool comes to take a look at him. Them tracks tell their own tale."
Vaughn threw a worried look in Mel's direction. "You keep your big mouth to yourself, Budge, else I'll walk away and leave you to sort it out amongst yourselves. You really want that?"
But for the moment, Miner had the protection of a county sheriff. "You know how Mr. Spool deals with cattle thieves, Brett? If there ain't a cottonwood handy, he'll drag 'em 'til their skin turns red." With that, he licked his lips at his dark humor and looked hard at Mel.
Mel didn't like Miner's reference to his mixed blood. His eyes turned black and bored through the big man as he pushed his Colt back into his waistband.
Vaughn saw a look that told him Budge Miner was a dead man if he didn't step in.
Reluctantly, Vaughn swung his shotgun at Mel. "I know what you're thinking stranger. I'll take that Colt if you don't mind."
"What about one-arm?" Mel asked, even and slow.
"There ain't no doubt Selwyn drew a gun first. Much as I'd like, I'm not holding Rourke for anything. Anyway, leave him standing much longer, and he'll likely bleed to death."
"I told you, Sheriff, I just rode in. I was looking to get oats for the gray."
The sheriff looked as though he was getting bored. "Yeah, that's as may be," he said. "But there's this other matter of the stolen Spool cattle. I can't just turn you loose an' you know it." Vaughn drew back the twin hammers of his shotgun. "Now, last time, hand over your gun."
Mel took a short breath, then grumbled and huffed as he decided. He took a few steps toward the sheriff. "You take it," he said. "I don't give it to no one. There's a difference."
"Yeah, I just bet there is," Vaughn said as he lifted the Colt and admired the glass beaded waist band. "What tribe's that?"
"Cree. My ma," he added, knowing the sheriff was wondering.
"Well, that's a hell of a long ways off, son. I ain't ever been further north than Wolf Hole, myself," Vaughn said with a half smile.
Once Vaughn had Mel's gun, Miner grimaced sourly and his mouth started working again. "Now we'll see how if you've got a fork in your tongue. See how you holler when a loop of hemp starts squeezing your neck."
"Get out of my way," the sheriff snapped. "Any of you men make a move I don't like, an' I'll blast your goddamn hides. This is a lawful take now, an' I'm handling it. You'll do best to get your stories off pat, 'cause I'm warning you now: if there's any lying been done, you'll find little comfort in this town from now on."
Miner held up his hand in mock acceptance. "We got 'em all but branded, Sheriff. You see if we ain't."
Vaughn nudged Mel in the side and motioned for him to move on.
* * *
Mel held out his hand and waited for the gray to come to him. He led the mare back to the main street, muttering about having to wait for a rub down and feed. He turned alongside the dry, gray boardwalk, and headed for the jailhouse. The small crowd who'd gathered watched him in curious dumb silence. One of them stepped forward and spat at his feet and he stopped, but another nudge from Vaughn made him go on.
Mel carefully hitched his horse outside the jailhouse while staring back down the street. He pushed aside the half-open door and walked into the small, heat-choked building. He gasped and wondered why Vaughn had called it the cooler. Vaughn turned the key in the first of three cells. He took off his sweat-stained hat, cursed and wiped his gleaming forehead. Standing at his desk, he flicked and fumbled at some papers. "Right here ain't the best spot in town, mister. So you can start by telling me what I don't already know. What's your name?"
"Melvin Cody." Mel didn't think any sort of Cree name would help him much in the circumstances, or that now wasn't the time to go Injun.
"How did you meet up with Selwyn Church?"
"I already told you, Sheriff. The one called Miner was giving him a real beating. I suggested he leave him alone. Said I thought he'd taken enough."
"Seems a fair request. What happened then?"
"All four of 'em started to act real hostile. I think they wanted to kill the old 'un all on their own. What was his name . . . Selwyn?"
"Yeah, Selwyn Church." Vaughn looked hard at Mel. "An' you never seen him before? You're sticking to that story?"
"I'm just sticking to the truth, Sheriff. I'm hoping you're going to do the same. I ain't taking any of your bootleg justice for something I ain't done."
"It'll be the truth that gets its chance, mister," the sheriff said with a wry smile. "I know there's maybe others around here who'll tell it different, but right now you need a better excuse than taking your mount for a feed."
Mel looked through the bars at the bleak, featureless surroundings, remembered his pa telling him not to take much heed of them. "I never did make the stable. Can you take care of my horse?"
Vaughn nodded. "Yeah, I'll get it done. Now, you just rode in, Melvin Cody, so maybe you can tell me where you been the last few days . . . up 'til this mornin?"
Mel's shoulders slumped and he groaned inwardly at his misfortune. For the last two weeks, he'd rode from Lake Powell and the Utah border and made lone camps. He'd seen a cattle drive trailing south along the Colorado River toward Yuma, but he'd spoken to no one since leaving Salt Lake City.
When Mel didn't give an immediate answer, Vaughn laid out the full details of the circumstances. "If you haven't got a better answer, it don't improve matters. That outfit you just crossed? They're Spool men, an' Casper ain't exactly what you'd call a yearling, if you get my meaning. When Budge Miner tells him what happened here, he'll come down like a blue norther."
Mel wanted to ask where the Sheriff would be during all this but, decided he was in deep enough, and held his tongue again. He stretched out on the grimy crib and realized he was badly placed. If Casper Spool was that powerful, how would Vaughn stack up against him, what back-up did he have? Mel didn't intend to be hanged, that was for sure. He was a fast learner, and hadn't let another man best him for many years.
Vaughn placed his shotgun on top of the papers. Then he pulled his revolver, thoughtfully the checked the cylinder, and holstered it. He opened the sand-blasted window, blinked at the hot dusty breeze.
Ten minutes later, two men delivered Selwyn Church's body to the jailhouse. Vaughn thanked them, then asked them to take Mel's gray to the stable and have it looked after.
With a great deal of cursing and puffing, the sheriff laid out the dead man in the cell next to Mel. "Old goat," he muttered. "About as likely a cattle thief as Mary's boy child."
Mel silently watched the sheriff from under the brim of his hat. He was truly in two minds about a man dying or getting himself killed. The Cree in him believed there was a greater place to go to; the white man thought it was simply turning your toes to the daisies.
He pulled his hat over his face, clasped his fingers behind his head, and closed his eyes. He recalled the time when he'd first realized his own father was getting old.
Hammond Cody had taken him to an eerie, silent place that was the burial ground of Morning Sky. His father had explained how a hand-woven casket containing the body of Mel's mother had been lowered into a shallow grave. There had been ritual songs, and for her final journey she was buried with a pair of moccasins and a few personal belongings. Mel had watched intrigued, as his pa kneeled to place one of two bone effigies into the bower of branches. At the time, there was so much Mel had wanted to ask about medicine and spiritual meanings, but he was embarrassed and unsure, because he was a child. That was when he'd noticed the wolfy grayness of his pa's hair, the deeply etched lines of his aging.
The pieces of moose bone had been carved into small animals, and Mel still kept one of them deep in his pocket. Now, lying in his close darkness, he envisioned a cunning smirk across Budge Miner's face and shuddered. He shook himself from his daydream and pulled his hat away from his face. For a moment he reflected on allowing himself to be drawn into trouble. He'd only been in Polvo Gris an hour or so, but he swore that before he left, he'd have a go at shifting that look off Miner's face.
Except for childbirth, tooth-pulling and sickly calves, George McLane, MD didn't regard anything less than amputations as very serious. "I can take it off now. But if it's fixing up you're after, come back when the fighting stops," was a quoted truism from his sawbones days in the Civil War.
He pushed up out of his chair, flustered when the cowhand, Wystan Rourke, piled into his private room in back of his surgery. Through the door he could see Budge Miner waiting on the back porch with Miles Beckman and Felix Chelloe.
Rourke turned his bloodied arm toward him. "I been hit. This goddamn arm's falling apart. See to it, Doc."
McLane appraised the man's shattered limb. "Looks to me like someone's already done just that."
"Just get on with it," Rourke yelled. "Stop the pain an' the bleeding."
"We'll use the surgery," McLane said. He walked into the annexed room and rinsed his hands then slowly reached for a towel.
Rourke followed him, standing close by and cursing under his breath. He was blanched with pain, his face greasy-cold with sweat. "Goddamn you, McLane. You waiting for the gangrene?"
"That's what you'll get if I don't clean my hands," McLane said calmly. "There's plenty worse off than you today. Are you the one who killed Selwyn?"
"You know about that?"
"I knew he'd been shot dead . . . not who pulled the trigger."
Rourke took short, sharp breaths and glared at the doctor. "He drew on me. I just defended myself."
McLane took hold of the cuff of Rourke's shirt. He lifted it up for a closer look at the bullet wound between the man's wrist and elbow. Rourke let out a gasp of pain and staggered back a step.
"What the hell you doing, you idiot? The goddamn arm's broke! Been smashed with a bullet—anyone can see that. Give me something for the pain before you start meddling."
"You best remember, sonny, this meddling idiot's the only one around here who can do something for you." The doctor was upset and his smile showed it. "Anyway, a top ranny who's tough enough to take out Selwyn Church in a gun fight can endure a twinge or two. But if you want that help, it'll cost you ten dollars."
"Yep. The bones're busted, and need some fancy work. It's ten dollars, and I hope you're carrying it in your left pocket. Take it or leave it, mister; it ain't my body."
Rourke gasped. "Why you blood sucker. I'll—" But the man stopped short of his threat when Budge Miner strode into the surgery.
"I can hear you squealing on the street," he complained. "Sounds like a pig with a stick up its ass."
"He wants ten dollars for fixing my arm," Rourke rasped. "He ain't a doctor, he's an old army cut-throat."
"And I want it before I start," McLane said coolly, his manner matching Miner's.
Miner turned on Rourke. "Wash the wound yourself. We'll just take some painkilling stuff. Waste of time coming to this dude set-up. We should've gone to the livery for a saddle-stitch. He'd've charged five dollars for a lasting job."
McLane almost smiled. If only he knew. "I just told him. It looks like there's bad lesion trouble . . . all sorts of trauma, besides broken bone," he said instead.
Miner grabbed the lapels of McLane's coat and shoved him into a high-backed, chair.
"You shut your mouth," he said, and kicked the doctor's shin with the sharp toe of his boot. "We need something to clean his wound."
He went to a glass-fronted cabinet and looked at the labels on bottles. He opened the door and pulled out a bottle of laudanum. "We'll take this. Let's go Stan," he said, and tossed a silver dollar onto McLane's desk.
McLane glared defiantly. "A bully's always a coward, Miner. I've seen 'em all in my time. And there's one thing they all got in common. They die many times, and you ain't no different. Your time's coming. It's just a question of how far away."
Miner's jaw tightened. He hesitated, then went, shoving Rourke ahead of him.
* * *
Miner clumped down the steps of McLane's property and shouted at Felix Chelloe. "Get back to Mr. Spool. Tell him what's happened. We'll sort out the drifter. We'll bring the supply wagon in early tomorrow. Have the boys make a gather on the cattle."
Chelloe went off at a canter. Miner led Rourke and Miles Beckman down the street to Marcella's Quarter.
"We'll wait here an hour," he said. "Then, Miles, you go and bail out the 'breed."
Beckman grimaced, "Bail out the 'breed? I don't understand. Why are we bailing him out?"
"Because he's no good to us in Vaughn's jail." Miner beckoned the bartender and ordered beer. "You'll get your chance Nils. We'll bust him up some when he gets out. Then we'll get him back on that gray of his." Miner could see both Beckman and Rourke eying him intently, still not completely understanding. "We ain't got Church any more, remember? So we need someone else. Like the 'breed."
Beckman's mouth opened as he grasped Miner's plan. "We got ourselves a pigeon to take the blame. We pull the big job, and he's there, prime an' sassy," he said, tapping the side of his nose and grinning foxily.
Beer was placed on the bar in front of the three men who stood indifferent to the stares of the other customers. Not one of them doubted that the ill feeling in Polvo Gris was already running high against them. That had started from the time Casper Spool cut himself off from the range and the town to become his own law.
"You drink some of this," Miner said, pulling out the bottle of laudanum that he'd taken from Doc McLane's surgery. "When we get you back to the ranch, we'll get that arm seen to proper." he told Rourke with little obvious feeling
* * *
Doc McLane limped across the hot sandy street. He grimaced, his face tilted away from the low glare of the sun. His leg hurt from where Miner had kicked him.
Selwyn Church had been a friend, and it was crazy for anyone to believe he'd been involved in something to get shot for.
He stepped through the open door of the jailhouse to find Sheriff Vaughn seated behind his desk, an unlit corn-cob pipe in the corner of his mouth. The sheriff raised his eyes wearily. He held a dipping pen and had been concentrating on writing up a ledger.
"You took your time," he grumbled. "But before you say anything, George, there was nothing I could do about Rourke killing old Selwyn. It was done when I got there."
"Yeah, well, I guess our legs just don't carry their full, fast movement any more, Brett," McLane answered sardonically. He looked through to the cells at Mel. He'd seen Mel ride in, and been interested. Lone riders were rare in Polvo Gris. and a stranger who'd travelled so long and so far to get here was an added curiosity.
"You're not really a cattle rustler are you son?" he asked directly.
Mel lay still on the cot. Only his eyes moved as he took in the other man. "No, I ain't. Sheriff thinks otherwise though, an' that's what counts from in here."
"Ha," McLane laughed. "Even I know that Indians are only horse-thieves." He turned to confront the sheriff.
Vaughn got in first. "I can do without the smart remarks, George."
"You're a damn fool Brett, and most of this town knows it. A good sheriff? Yes. A damn fool, nonetheless. You really believe what them Spool hands are saying? They treat this town as if it's their own private robbers' roost. They're goddamn irritants at best, and never been far away from a killing at worst, and that's now."
"Close your chops, Brett, and listen to me for a bit," McLane cut in. "I was out front having myself a smoke when I saw old Selwyn ride into town. He came in past the chandlers . . . the other end of town. That's what he would have done if he'd been coming from his ranch. But I saw this stranger too, and there was a good half-hour between them. He comes in from the north though, where he would have if he'd come off the Colorado trail."
The sheriff quietly contemplated his desk top, rubbing his chin and inspecting the bowl of his pipe.
"Come on, Brett," Vaughn persisted. "You already heard him say he's no rustler. I believe him, why can't you? In fact, why don't you release him, let him get about his business? The only harm he's likely to do now will be to Spool's crew."
Mel rolled from his cot. He stepped up to the bars of his cell and looked intensely at Doc McLane. "I'm obliged for that."
McLane held out his hand. "Name's George McLane. For my sins, town MD."
"I'm Mel Cody." He pushed his own hand through the bars to shake hands. "Just tell me why."
"Always prided myself on having the measure of a man," McLane replied. "Sheriff knows it, too. He also knows I don't condone wasting town's money. That's what'll happen if there's a court case over this."
Vaughn dabbed at the sweaty sheen across his face. "Miner said he followed two sets of tracks into town from Selwyn's place. He said Cody here was in league with him."
"Budge Miner's about as wholesome as Injun whiskey, and we all know it." McLane turned casually to Mel. "Sorry son, no offence meant."
"If you want, I'll document those facts," McLane told Vaughn. "Whichever way it breaks, young Mel here doesn't deserve to be locked up for going to old Selwyn's aid. If it was you or me, Brett, we'd of done the same thing. Sure we'd be dead, but that's the only difference."
Undecided as to what action to take, Vaughn lifted his hands from Mel's gun, and gripped the edges of his desk. Aware of the lawman's dilemma, McLane stepped forward and pulled a ring of keys from a wall peg. But Vaughn grunted and clasped a big hand around the man's wrist.
"Goddamnit Doc. I'm sitting here willing to listen to you, not have you take over the jail."
McLane sighed wearily, and dropped the keys onto the end of the desk. "I was only wanting you to move. We've said all there is."
"There's more, Doc an' you know it. I got to put this side of things to Miner. Then, depending on what he says and what we work out, I'll either release Cody or keep him here for trial." Vaughn smiled patiently at McLane. "As a doctor, George, you'd make a decent bulldogger. Now leave me alone to get on with my work."
McLane grimaced exasperatedly as Vaughn hung the keys back on the wall hook. Then he turned to give Mel a friendly-like wink. "Tell me what happened, son. I suddenly got myself a bedside manner."
"I'll go lay down again then," Mel said wryly.