Mel started to explain to Doc McLane. "I saw Church being crowded . . . figured there was too many for him," he said. "I told Miner that, but he wasn't impressed. I had to step in—stop the beating. The old man could only just about stand, but he made a break for it. An' that was the wrong move . . . the curious thing about it."
"What's so curious about what?" McLane asked.
"Well, he could . . . should have gotten clear, but he didn't. He stopped an' pulled a gun, he was so stirred up. I could see it in his eyes. He managed to get off a shot too. That's when Rourke killed him."
"Selwyn said something? Before he died?" McLane asked.
"He didn't have time to say much. He mumbled something though—something about him not being a cattle stealer." Mel turned thoughtfully toward McLane. "I guess you'd expect that. But I just got the feeling it meant more . . . don't know why or what That's about it. The sheriff arrived then. You can ask him what happened next."
McLane turned to Vaughn for an explanation, but before he had time to ask anything, Miles Beckman stepped into the jailhouse.
The Spool rider chinked some coin in his hand, placed it down carefully on Vaughn's desk. "Budge's been doing some figuring' . . . reckons he could be wrong, Sheriff," he said.
"That'll be a first," McLane answered back.
"Yeah, well as there's a doubt, he figures you won't be talking bail," Beckman replied. "So here's ten dollars for the inconvenience." Then he ran his eyes over Mel and, with the trace of a smirk, made for the open doorway.
As he was about to step onto the boardwalk, Vaughn yelled, "Not so fast, cowboy."
Beckman looked back insolently. "If ten ain't enough . . . too bad. Take it up with Budge. I done my bit."
Vaughn took a couple of steps toward the cowhand. "What about the charges he made?" he snapped. "We just forget, do we?"
Beckman shrugged. "Like I said. He reckons he could've been wrong. That's it." And with that, Beckman was gone.
While Vaughn was staring nonplussed out into the street, Mel removed his sash, smiled wryly and offered a key turning motion in response.
Doc McLane picked up the cell keys, called Vaughn's name and tossed him the keys. "You got no reason to hold him, Brett," he said. "At least you made ten dollars out of his board."
Vaughn caught the keys. He fidgeted with them a few moments, then unlocked Mel's cell. "No hard feelings son," he said. "I was just doing my job."Mel picked up his hat and tugged it back on his head. He collected his gun from the desk, checked the cylinder and quickly pushed it into his coat pocket. "I know it."
"There is one thing I'd like to know," the sheriff asked.
"What's that, Sheriff?"
"What do you intend to do now?"
"First off, I'm going to see my horse is OK. Then I'm going to get me some rib sticker an' wash it down with a bottle of whiskey. That'll be white man's of course," he added with a quick ironic look at McLane. "I need to wash the taste of this hog-pen out of my mouth. After that I don't know. I really don't."
"Yeah, well that's the part I'm interested in. I suggest you keep riding," Vaughn said. "Miner ain't fooling me with that could be wrong stuff. An' I don't want you tangling with him."
"I don't want me tangling with him either. But that's up to him," Mel said, and followed Beckman out onto the street.
* * *
Vaughn took a step forward, but McLane dropped a restraining hand on his arm. "Easy there, Brett. You've done your best by that boy. Now leave well enough alone."
"If he goes down to Marcella's an' Miner's there with the others, they'll bust him. Hell, you know that."
"Yeah, I know it. At least I know they'll try." McLane's eyes gleamed with the prospect.
Vaughn noticed and rumbled an oath. "Damn you, George. You had that in mind when you first came over. You spoke up for that 'breed drifter just to get him back out there . . . back on the street."
"Time Miner was pegged down, Brett. I haven't seen anyone much in the last few months who could do it . . . not until now. You want to move some checkers . . . fill in the time?"
"Did you see what young Cody did with that fancy binding he was wearing round his middle?"
"Yeah, he wound it up real neat-like an' put it in his pocket."
"What for? Why'd he do that?"
"Dunno. Perhaps he doesn't want to get it messed up. Why don't you go and ask him? You know where he's headed."
"Yeah I just might, by Christ. If them rough-stringers start cutting up again, I'll send 'em back to Spool short-handed. An' Cody along with 'em, if he answers their call." The lawman stomped to his desk. He buckled his gun belt back on and pushed his pipe into a top pocket, his mouth chewing over a fitting threat. He slammed his desk drawer closed, tossed the ring of cell keys at the wall peg, and cursed when they missed, clattering on the floor.
Doc McLane went out onto the boardwalk and squinted into the falling sun. A moment later he called back to Vaughn. "No need to hurry, Brett. Our boy's going where he said. He's looking out for that gray of his."
Vaughn pushed some papers into a heap on his desk. With a purposeful tug at the brim of his old Stetson he joined McLane on the boardwalk.
The doctor pointed to the land west of town where a trail ran in a thin line across the plain. It was late afternoon but heat still shimmered across the land. Dust was rising to make a low cloud between Polvo Gris and Buckskin Mountain's timbered slopes. "The stage's coming in. Be here in ten, fifteen minutes." he said. Then he laughed and started off across the street. "Should give you something else to worry about," he called out over his shoulder.
* * *
After Mel gave Bill Frater's boy instructions on how to tend his horse, he went out to the street. He stood a moment, listening to the low rolling rumble of wheels and the creak of harness above the day's afternoon stillness. He saw a coach bumping its way across the hard country, heard the driver yipping at the team in his final dash for town.
Townsfolk emerged from stores to stand expectantly along the boardwalks. There was no practical reason for them to meet the stage. They simply needed to see, to get touched by events and happenings distant from their own isolated frontier town.
Mel turned on his heel and walked toward the saloon. He allowed himself a moment's thought for Budge Miner and the sheriff's warning about retaliation. But he was too thankful to be away from his confinement to give time to Miner and his colleagues.
He was close to Marcella's Quarter when, ahead and to his right, a rider emerged from an alleyway. Mel recognized him as one of Miner's company—Beckman, one of the two who'd stood back while Selwyn Church was killed. But the man paid Mel no heed, turning out of the narrow lane and moving on along the street.
Mel stopped walking and took a step back beneath an overhang. Only when Beckman went on by did he step out again.
The noise of the stage was close, swelling in the street around him. Mel found a place with a good view and watched. His eyes glittered with anticipation as the racing coach horses raced round the final turn into town.
The break from his inborn watchfulness made Mel unprepared for the big loop of rope that suddenly dropped over his shoulders. For the briefest moment he was confused, then his hands jerked up, taking hold of the tightening rope as he heeled about. The drag by the rider in the street wrenched Mel from the boardwalk, but he caught sight of two more men as they rode from the alley. He was pulled off balance, falling when he recognized the leering face of Budge Miner. For the shortest moment he thought of rescue when Brett Vaughn yelled out from somewhere behind him.
He twisted his body as he landed, he, but the side of his face still slammed into the hard-packed surface of the street. He sucked in a mouthful of alkali dust, spat and grabbed up along the taut line of the rope. Miles Beckman brazenly wheeled his horse and kicked it into a lunging run.
Mel was dragged on his chest for several yards before a hard-baked runnel turned him over. He went with the movement, getting onto his back. After another twenty or thirty more yards, he drew up his legs, and dug his heels in. It was the sort of punishment he knew about, and could deal with. He'd heard other tales from his grandfather, Chief Josef Fish, learned how braves had tested themselves for strength and vision. But right now, and like a lot of things Indian, Mel only had the legend to go by.
With Beckman now whooping with excitement, Mel twisted over onto his chest again, making a desperate clutch up the rope's length to gain a grip higher up. He swung his legs around into an arc, pressing his knees into the ground and giving one tremendous jerk. Momentarily the rope slackened and, half-bent, he lumbered to his feet, staggering a few steps. He leaned back against the rope, and braced his legs. Then he hauled with all his angered strength. He looked up and, from the middle of the street, saw the stagecoach bearing down on him. Having thrown caution to the wind, Miner and another man were riding along the trail of his dust.
Sheriff Vaughn yelled, wildly, as he ran forward, and from the edge of his porch, Doc McLane, swore freely. The town's dog pack crouched in a semi-circle beneath the boardwalk. Their hackles were raised and they barked madly at the noise and disorder.
Mel saw everything fleetingly before he saw the alarmed eyes of the coach driver. The driver dragged frantically on the reins with one hand, the brake lever with the other. Beckman, meanwhile, to control his kicking, frightened mount, had eased off the rope and Mel dragged him from his saddle. As the coach veered around him, Mel moved forward. He pulled the slack rope from his upper body, closing in on the man who was scrambling to his knees.
Mel wasted no time. With both hands he grabbed Beckman's lank hair, and dragged him up. "That's a bad thing you just done. What have I ever done to you?" he rasped, staring into the man's craven eyes.
He hit the man in the stomach with his left hand, pushing his head back down with his right. He brought up his knee sharply, groaning in mutual torment as he sensed Beckman's teeth snapping through his tongue. Then he stepped back. The man stared at his boots as the blood dripped, making thick globules in the dirt between them.
Mel chopped swiftly at Beckman's neck with the side of his hand, watching impassively as he went down. "Now, you got an answer."
Mel turned to see the stage had slowed around him. He'd felt the air pulse as the big, iron-bound hubs of the wheels churned within inches of his lower back. The heavy vehicle had gone on another twenty yards, had torn out the boardwalk railings of Polvo Gris's boarding house before coming to rest with its near-side door only a few feet off the depot's landing stage. The driver, huffing and puffing, turned to look back at Mel as he approached. Two young ranch hands ran to control the frightened horses, hanging onto lead traces. while the driver swung himself down from his box. The rear off-side window blind unfurled and the face of a young woman looked out. She glanced quickly at Mel and the agitated crowd and pushed the knuckles of her fist against her chin. He had time to see the foreboding in her bright eyes.
Then the pounding of hooves bore down on him. He went into a crouch, turning in time to see Budge Miner swing himself from his horse. With one hand the big man was gripping his saddle horn ready to launch himself.
Mel braced his legs and raised his hands. As Miner crashed down on him, he grabbed at the man's leather coat. He swung the ox of a man around then let go. He darted back a yard before Miner's shoulder hit the ground. But the man was agile: he rolled with the impact and came up cursing to face Mel.
Mel braced himself as Miner came at him. The man was wild. He wanted a fight and lashed out with a flurry of blows. One smashed into the side of Mel's head and he went back on his heels. He dodged aside as Miner continued to swing at him.
Mel caught two more glancing blows before he regained his balance. He dipped under a wild swing and brought his clenched knuckles up under Miner's jaw. The heavy man was jolted, but he'd been ready. He set his thick neck, tucked his head in and bunched his shoulder muscles. He took the blow well—that blow and another that Mel shafted in at his meaty face. There was a flat splatter of noise, a split second's respite before Miner opened up, breaking into Mel's attack with machine-like ferocity.
Mel backed off, his senses working. As Miner pursued him, the two men fought their way across the street. A crowd milled around them, keeping wide in an expanding circle. Sheriff Vaughn yelled again, but this time it was close. Then he saw McLane pacing alongside the fight.
Mel thought he'd got the measure of his opponent. He could take a breath, pick his spot and consider the blow. He almost grinned as he ducked a great looping right. He stopped, then dashed forward and drove a straight right to Miner's forehead. As the man's head shook, Mel sent in another with the same hand. Pain stabbed through the bones of his fingers and wrist as he connected with teeth. Miner was done, but he lumbered on. His eyes glazed and spitting blood, he made low guttural noises from his smashed mouth.
"Goddamn you two. Cut it out," Vaughn shouted.
Mel heard the sheriff above the clamor of the excited crowd. But he didn't need to act on it—and Miner wasn't going to pay Vaughn any heed.
Mel breathed deep, bit his lip at the pain along his hand and forearm. He turned to have a look at the stagecoach. The girl was still looking from the window. Her eyes met his and he could see the troubled look in her color-drained face.
The stage driver was telling her something, but the girl's attention had been seized by what she was witnessing in the street.
Budge Miner had found the life to come back at Mel, and he was close. He roared in with both hands around Mel's neck, and bent him backwards. Mel brought up the heel of his boot, catching Miner full and hard. He felt the man's tough fingers loosen and he spun himself around fast. He was up close to the man's bloodied face and he didn't like it. He remembered his pa once telling him the big ones went down hardest. It just took them a bit longer.
Mel wrenched himself free, at the same time jabbing his left hand hard all over Miner's face, then his neck. Each time Miner's head came straight, he hit him again with a blow to the opposite side of his head. Hard against bone, the flesh of Miner's cheek split open and blood gushed, then an eyebrow was torn.
Both Mel's arms were hurting and he took a small step back to finish Miner off. He half turned away and swung up his foot to catch Miner hard around his back, deep in his kidneys; a blow that a one time Blackfoot friend had taught him many years before. This was the end for Miner and Mel knew it. He watched with satisfaction as the big man staggered around in a tight circle.
Miner caught sight of the coach and reached out for it. He got his hands on the window sill and looked up into the terrified face of the girl. She gasped and shrunk away. Miner laughed before his legs gave in and he crumpled heavily to the street.
* * *
Mel wiped the blood from the torn skin of his knuckles. His ribs and most of his body hurt, and he breathed in short shallow gasps. But his head cleared and he rubbed at his mouth with his coat sleeve.
The crowd had gone silent now. Most of the people were silently watching Mel. It was the first time they'd seen the like done to Budge Miner.
Vaughn angrily pushed two onlookers aside, as he stepped down from the boardwalk. In the yellow light of the late afternoon sun, he walked slowly toward the coach. "Okay, Cody," he growled. "We both know he had it coming. Now move away."
Mel looked tiredly at the lawman but said nothing. He looked to the window of the coach and his heart pounded. The girl was staring directly at him. Her lips moved and she shook her head.
Doc McLane called out anxiously. "Look out—" The sheriff and Mel swung around.
Wystan Rourke came reeling along the boardwalk. He was beyond the coach team, dragging a leg, his right arm hanging useless at his side. In his outstretched left he gripped a long-barreled Colt. He swung the barrel at Mel.
"Damn your hide, Rourke! Put the gun down," Vaughn yelled.
But Wystan Rourke had come too far to back off. He passed behind the coach and its team, pushed his back up against the wall of the stage-depot building. With his blood racing, he'd sucked recklessly at the laudanum. His eyes were red-rimmed, filled with hopeless loathing. He gasped, managed to hold his breath as he attempted a careful aim.
He bared his teeth and was ready to kill, when Mel went for his own Colt. He pulled the gun and actioned off one shot before Rourke had the chance to fire.
The roar split the pall of silence. A woman shrieked and the dogs opened up again with their barking. As echoes rebounded across the town, Mel's bullet hammered high into Rourke's chest. The man couldn't go back; he just slid down the clapped wall, sat cross-legged and died. His head lolled forward and the last of the day's light slanted sharp across his shirt front, partly hiding the spreading stain.
Mel looked at the coach. The girl was no longer watching from the window. Miner hadn't stirred, but Beckman, the man who'd started the fight with his thrown lariat, was moving forward.
Beckman's vindictive glare drilled into Mel. But the sheriff had been watching him and had seen him rise from the street where Mel had dumped him. He pulled his Colt and leveled it at Beckman.
"Don't, Beckman," he shouted. "Just get back."
Beckman thought for a second, then, dragging his hand across the blood that ran from his chin, he lowered his gun.
Mel stepped away from Vaughn's side. "They ain't ever going to give in, are they, Sheriff?"
Vaughn swore to himself. "Like hell they won't. This fight's over," he stated for the attention of everyone. "The next man, woman or child who goes for a gun will find themselves half full of buckshot an' laid out on George's bench, God help me." He walked toward Rourke and pushed at the body with his boot. "He must have wanted this real bad," he muttered before turning back to Beckman.
"You get Miner on his horse . . . get him out of my sight . . . out of this town. Tell Spool what happened here, an' make sure you tell him as it was. He can deal with any of Rourke's kin . . . not that any will own up to it.. That goes for both o' you. Now get out."
Beckman grumbled as he turned his attention to Miner. He dragged at the big man's clothing. As a dead weight, though, Miner was too much for him.
"Go get their horses," Vaughn ordered one of the youngsters who'd been holding on to the coach team's harness.
A few minutes later, he asked both boys to get Miner across the saddle of his horse. "The town'll take care of Rourke," he told Beckman when the man had painfully mounted his own horse. Beckman looked bitterly at Mel. He opened his mouth to spit out the last say when Vaughn snarled, "Remember, you're through here, Beckman. Now get out an' stay out. Ride."
Mel stood, undaunted and unmoved. He took his waistband from his pocket and thoughtfully looped it around his middle. Beckman watched as he turned his horse down the street and walked on, Miner's horse trailing nervously behind.
Vaughn watched silently until Beckman rode to the end of the main street, then turned to Mel. "Well what now? You finished the show or what? Perhaps another act to close with?"
"No, I ain't got any more. You saw what happened," Mel told him straight.
"Yeah. I saw. The whole goddamn town saw . . . got impressed too. But I'm thinking you and Polvo Gris ain't ideally suited. Might be for the best if you rode on as well."
Mel didn't answer. He looked away toward Eagle Tail Mountains. He thought maybe he should ride on, see if he could find which particular part of the country his pa meant him to make his.
* * *
Vaughn stepped past him and had another look at Rourke. He asked the two boys to carry the dead cowhand to Bill Frater's livery stable, then he started to get the street cleared, dispersing the crowd. He looked at the driver then to the girl. "To some of us this is all in a day's work. I guess you can carry on with your business."
The doc stood outside Scullys. He was smoking one of his cigaritos and holding a glass of whiskey. Vaughn, passing close by, noticed the doctor's satisfaction.
"There ain't going to be any more trouble out here, George," he growled."Why don't you get off the street, too?"
"All I've been doing is putting forward my opinion. The fact that it's evidence, isn't exactly my fault, or what ensued," he railed in good humor.
"You interfering old duffer. Don't try an' soft soap me," Vaughn retorted. "We both know who was ring-leading all this."
McLane shook his head, grinned mischievously as the sheriff started back along the street toward his jailhouse.
The stagecoach team was now standing quiet. After tying off the reins, and setting the hand brake, the driver went to the side door and opened it, almost immediately called out for the doc.
McLane put down his glass, threw his smoke aside and hurriedly crossed the street. The moment he saw the girl's stockinged legs, he shoved the driver out of the way, and climbed into the coach. He could see the girl was pale, but she appeared unhurt.
"Sitting in here's not ideal for anyone's constitution," he called out to Vaughn who'd returned to the coach on hearing the driver shout.
"Who is she?" Vaughn asked of the driver.
"Came from Yuma. Name's, R. Church," said the driver who was craning his neck for a look.
"Church?" Vaughn asked.
"R. Church. That's what it says on the passenger list, an' on the luggage tags," the driver answered. "You want that I should help, Doc?"
"No," McLane said simply. "Just move her luggage to the depot. I can send somebody for it later."
The doc eased the girl to her feet and into Vaughn's arms, then climbed down. "We'll take her to my place, poor kid. What a first sight this must have been for her. No wonder she headed for the floor."
As she came to, the two men helped her across the street, down to the end of town. They made her comfortable on a couch in McLane's front room, then after McLane lifted a window full open, they went out on to the porch.
"You hear that name, George?" Vaughn asked
"Yeah. You don't reckon . . . ?" he said, the question tailing off.
"Don't know. I got other things to take care of." Vaughn cast a jaundiced eye up and down the now quiet street. He lifted a hand in acknowledgement, and made off to administer the burying of Wystan Rourke.
Doctor George McLane was left muttering the girl's name to himself. "Church," he said. "Church. She's got his eyes. It's just got to be . . . goddamnit."
"Well, hello there. You feeling better young lady?"
In response to the voice, Reba Church raised herself from the couch. For a moment she considered the quiet and unfamiliar surroundings before easing herself back down again. "Who are you?" she asked, tiredly.
"I'm Willow Legge, and you're not coming to any harm by staying right there, for a while longer, young lady. Your bags are outside in the hallway an' Doctor McLane's in the next room. This is his house."
The girl wanted her bearings and looked around her uneasily. But the warm, smile of Willow relaxed her a little.
"What happened?" she asked. "Where am I?"
"Nothing very much, except you passed out. I'll go fetch the Doc, but don't you go bothering to get up now."
Willow left and a minute or so later, a man came in. He smiled warmly, took her wrist, and checked her pulse rate.
"As I thought," he said. "You're going to live. I'm George McLane, but you can call me Doc. I'm guessing it was the heat inside that coach that made you pass out."
"I think it was a bit more than that," the girl said, taking her hand back from McLane's.
"Hmm, I guess you're talking about Budge Miner up close. Huh, he's no picture even from across the street. It was regrettable that you had to get such a ringside view. Miss Church isn't it?"
"Yes. Rebecca Church," the girl said. "But you can call me Reba," she added, with a glint in her eye. "I'm looking for my uncle Selwyn Church."
McLane turned slightly away and swallowed hard.
"Is there something wrong?" Reba asked. "Dr. McLane?"
When McLane finally turned back, his face was drawn. His eyes looked heavy under his gray brows. "Yes, I'm afraid there is," he said. "Your uncle's dead, Rebecca . . . Reba. He was killed today . . . just today here in town. There was another fight. I'm real sorry."
Reba shook her head. "Another fight?"
"Yes. What you saw was the aftermath of it, I guess. The one who's dead in the street? Well . . . he's the one . . . that . . . "
" . . . killed my uncle," Reba said, finishing the doc's sentence for him.
McLane nodded. "I am very sorry. Selwyn was a friend as well as a patient. Not close, but a friend nevertheless. He was a good man. There's more than a few people in this town who did know him well, and they'll miss him. Not one of them could've stopped what happened, though."
"Why not? What did happen?"
"He got involved in an argument with some cowhands from out of town, and went for his gun. He was killed for it."
"You said them. How many did it take?" Reba asked, the hurt and frailty obvious in her voice.
"It was just the one," McLane said quietly.
Reba blinked, but it was more shocked than tearful. "I wanted to tell him . . . ask him if I could help. There was nothing left for me up north." There was a short silence, then she added, "I knew I wasn't headed for the promised land but . . . " She shook her head and let the words trail away.
* * *
McLane felt her silent anguish. He was unable to come up with words that made sense of her arrival in town, the timing. "Well you're safe here," he said, and quietly left the room. He asked Willow look after her, to engage her in small talk, said he wanted to keep her in the house for a while. "I'm thinking this place was more peaceable when we arrived," he muttered dryly.
At Marcella's he ordered a beer and whiskey chaser. Mel Cody was standing at the end of the counter with Brett Vaughn, and he got a round for them too. He held the beer in his right hand and pushed the whiskeys along the counter with his left. "The girl's Selwyn's niece. I think she'll be staying for a while," he said, to ease their curiosity.
"His niece, eh? I did wonder on it. She's come a long way to find him dead," the sheriff replied.
"Yeah, ain't that just the hell of it?" McLane agreed in a raw manner. "She can't be more than twenty, and all I can do is take her pulse and tell her what a lot of friends Selwyn had in town. What sort of prattle-gob does that make me, eh?"
Mel had been studying the doctor's face. "Are you talking about the girl in the stage?"
"The very one. I reckon she saw most of the fight, if not all of it. That's why she blacked out . . . the horror of it all. And who's to blame her? She's likely never seen anything quite like the street show you put on out there."
Vaughn looked up from his whiskey and nodded. "Yeah, it's a cheerless story sure enough, but that's about all it is, eh, Doc? I don't see what we can do about it. Besides, I've got other stuff to take care of."
The doc gave him the beady eye. "Oh, yeah. You've got paperwork for a burial to take care of. Very tiresome."
"No I've taken care of that. I'm talking about young Mel here."
"I don't need taking care of," Mel told him with good humor.
The sheriff flicked a shrewd eye at the doctor. "Oh, yes you do, son. Oh, yes you do. Tell him, George. Tell him what Miner'll do when he gets his senses back."
"He'll rant some, make threats and get his drawers twisted," McLane mumbled casually.
"He'll buckle on his gun belt, that's what he'll do, goddamnit! He's soaked up a punishment here in town today. That's humiliation for Miner. He ramrods the biggest spread in the territory and keeps the hands in check 'cause they're scared of him . . . scared to hell. As sure as the sun comes up tomorrow he'll be back to save his face." The sheriff turned to Mel and poked him in the chest. "He'll come to town looking for you, an' it won't be to shoot the breeze. So you just sup that whiskey an' get that nice looking gray saddled. You hear me?"
"I hear you, Sheriff," Mel told him.
Doc McLane looked on curiously. "Where are you headed for?"
"I don't remember saying I was headed anywhere," Mel said, again with the good-humored smile.
Vaughn cracked the base of his glass against the counter. "Maybe you was too good for Rourke, son. But Miner with a gun's another proposition. I told you, he won't be looking to do you any favors. He's cunning. We'll never know he's there, 'til it's too late. You'll never know. I don't want any more trouble in town. Not while I'm still sheriff."
"There's half of me that makes it difficult for a man like Miner to gain much of an advantage, Sheriff," Mel said dryly.
"I bet I know which half," the doc added.
"A man shouldn't have to ride from anywhere for no reason," Mel continued.
Vaughn was getting exasperated. "You got a reason. I'm telling you . . . ain't asking."
Doc McLane saw the expression that set Mel's face and hardened his eyes. He was reminded again of the first time he'd seen the man ride into town. Since then, Mel Cody had bested Budge Miner and three of his cowboy cronies in a side street. Later, set upon by three of them, he'd got out of Beckman's roping, given Miner another beating and shot Wystan Rourke dead. McLane knew his instincts were right about Melvin Cody. The Indian part troubled him, the part that had re-tied the beaded sash, the fearless part.
"I rode hundreds of miles to reach Polvo Gris, Sheriff," Mel said. "It's my pa's homeland, an' he wanted me to see it. So far I can't see the attraction, but I promised him I'd have a look. You ain't going to change that. I haven't done anything wrong."
"Listen to me, son. Maybe you're right, maybe you ain't done nothing wrong. But all you're going to do is cause trouble by staying around. Let's face it, you ain't even got yourself a pot to piss in. Your only board was my jail. So, as it is . . . "
"As it is, you best clear the decks, Brett," McLane interjected. "The boy's not so much a drifter as you might think."
"Stay out of this, George. You've been dancing with enough trouble today already."
"Can't do that, Brett. Wouldn't be fair on Mel."
"What the hell's fair got to do with it?" the sheriff demanded, looking quizzically at Mel.
"He's got himself work," McLane continued. "The Church girl needs help out at Selwyn's place. At least 'til probate's done. I suggested she take on Mel."
Vaughn's jaw dropped. He indicated for the bartender to pour them another round of whiskies. "You joshing me?"
McLane ran some coin on to the counter for the whiskey. "No, I'm serious. I came looking for him. Him and Miss Church have got things to discuss. You don't think I came in here for your company do you, you old woosher?"
"You probably thought, 'here's where the next load of trouble's coming from,'" Vaughn grumbled.
The doctor studied his whiskey. "Seems to me you could be a tad more appreciative, Brett. Maybe get the town to award him one of them civic-duty badges. Rourke's not going to be missed, and Cody handed Miner nothing more than he's been asking for for a long time. You tell me what's so wrong with that? Look at it from the girl's point of view. She gets here to find herself in the middle of a gunfight, then finds out her uncle's been shot dead. She's no one to turn to. Putting young Mel to work's not such a dumb idea. Have you got a problem with that, eh Brett?"
"Selwyn's land rests smack-bang up against the Spool spread. In case you forgot, Budge Miner ramrods it. Have I got any problems with that? You out of your mind?"
Doc McLane grinned. "Yeah. Isn't that good?" he said, with a roguish twinkle in his eye.
"By hell, I could probably get you for disturbing the peace or something similar . . . toss you in a cell even, for that," Vaughn retorted.
"Wouldn't do any good, Brett. Least of all Cosmo Collins and his waterbelly trouble. The Fulpott woman's expecting to drop another child any day, and then there's Ma—"
"Gaaargh." Vaughn picked up his drink and finished it in one gulp. "To hell with everybody. Don't know why I bother to even try an' keep the peace in this hell-hole."
He glowered at Mel then back to McLane.
"I'll be glad when they call time on this day." The sheriff coughed, wiped his chin and walked dourly from the saloon.
McLane raised his eyebrows and took a sip of the remainder of his drink. "I know what you're thinking son. I'm ready when you are."
Mel finished his drink. "Is that the truth . . . what you just told the sheriff?"
McLane grinned. "The idea of it was. I got the notion you want to stick around. Sheriff Vaughn or Budge Miner notwithstanding."
Mel raised his chin, studied the doctor.
"If that means what I think it means, I need some more time here . . . roundabouts."
"Are you looking for something particular?" McLane asked.
"Don't rightly know. Did you know that girl . . . before today?"
"Rebecca Church? Never seen her before. I'm not so sure Old Selwyn had either. I guess he would have said something if he had." McLane was thoughtful for a few seconds, then said, "I got myself involved now, so I'm kind of obliged to help. If what those Spool men—"
"Hey. Hold up a second, Doc," Mel interrupted him. "You're roping me in. You got something else on your mind other than me being some sort of gopher for a white girl? A hay shaker?"
"Maybe, son. Maybe, " McLane said, smiling uneasily at Mel's belittling turn of phrase. "If there's trouble there, I'm sure you'll handle it."
Mel gave a twisted grin and shook his head. "Then it's no deal. I can find enough of that by just minding my own business."
"You're in too deep for the luxury of getting by on that son. Especially in this town. Besides, I've seen enough to know that running scared doesn't figure much in your life. So why not help out the Church girl while you're waiting up? Miner's going to come for you anyway."
Mel knew that some of what the doc said was true. He stared thoughtfully at the labels on the bottles of drink on the back bar. "I don't know quite why I came here," he said, "but I know it weren't for this."
McLane leaned across the counter, stood very close. "Hell son, if you want to look the ground over, what have you got to lose? No one else is going to employ you. They're too goddamn scared."
Mel wiped a hand tiredly across his face. "She sure had a nice face. Her eyes were the same color as her uncle's. I noticed that."
"Yeah, that's right, and Selwyn was a good ol' stick by all accounts. He wouldn't have stole a hair from the back of one of those mad dogs out front. From what you say, he was killed saying something to that effect. It wasn't your fault things got out of hand with him getting shot dead, was it? You went to help him."
"Yeah, that's right," Mel said falteringly. He wondered if in some curious way, the doc was implicating him, putting some guilt his way.
"And you can't just walk away now can you, as if nothing's happened?" McLane affirmed. "There's too much molasses sticking to your legs for that, son."
Mel gave a few Red River trapper curses. Very soon he would have to consider his next move. Most of his anguish would be caused by those who wanted to get close, side with the town's new champion. But he was a man unused to the press of a crowd, the brush of sudden notoriety.
"Let's go see Miss Church, then," he said. "I guess I owe her, 'specially if I'm to blame for the horror of what she's seen and heard so far," he added ironically.
"That's just fine. Something for us all to look forward to." McLane beamed and before Mel could change his mind, led the way from the saloon.