On entering his house, McLane stopped and looked toward the closed door of his front room. "How is she?" he asked Willow, who was waiting for him.
"Poorly. I don't think she's taking it well," Willow replied, her face tight with anxiety. "I don't think it's my sort of nursing she's after. She's just laying there, staring into space."
McLane puffed out his cheeks, and fiddled with the cigaritos in his coat pocket. "Leave it to me then," he said. "Not that it's me or my doctoring she needs either. You better light some more lamps before you get dinner ready, Willow. We'll eat early, eh? Perhaps the smell of home cooking will bring her round. She may well think of leaving after she's more settled and with some food inside her."
"Oh, I don't think so Doctor. It's almost full dark now. Where'll she be going in an hour or so?" Willow said, the concern evident in her voice.
McLane turned to Mel. "Take a seat, Mel. I won't be a minute," he said. "I'll go and see what her thinking is."
McLane knocked on the door of the room where the girl was resting. There was no response, so he opened the door gently and went in.
Reba Church was sitting up, wedged at the rising end of the couch. She was clasping her hands together, eyes unresponsive as she faced McLane's concern. He could see she'd hardly moved. He took a couple of paces toward her, but she held up a hand that meant she wasn't yet ready.
"I'm sorry," he said sympathetically. "In your shoes, I'd probably need more than a couple of hours to recover. I'll leave you for a bit. You know we're here." McLane backed off, watched her for a moment further, then closed the door quietly.
* * *
"I don't think she's too interested in talking about cattle grubs and the like," he said on rejoining Mel. "Guess I'll just have to carry on making decisions."
"And I'll just do the fighting." Mel had the distinct feeling that McLane had wheedled him into a place he didn't want to be. "You got the right to make those decisions, Doc?"
"I've got a clear conscience, if that's what you mean. You'll learn that's a good pillow, son . . . lullaby at midnight. You tell me what you or anyone else should do in the circumstances and I'll listen. " He crossed to a desk in the corner of the room and pulled out paper and pencil, then sketched a rough map of some country to the north-west of Polvo Gris and handed it to Mel. "Here, this is your ticket out of trouble. Take a ride, go on out and let some air into the place. Don't know whether Selwyn locked the place up. He didn't have much on him . . . no keys. Have a look around, do anything you figure needs doing. As soon as the girl's well enough to travel, I'll bring her out."
"An' if I have visitors?" Mel asked.
Doc McLane gave a slight shrug. "Well if it's not me, it'll be the bad guys, and you fill the place with gun smoke. Seriously, Mel, I guess you can expect visitors. But you'll get 'em anyway, whether you stay in town or find yourself a hole in a wall somewhere. And remember, this is probably the only way Brett Vaughn's going to let you stick around these parts. Right?"
Mel shrugged. It wasn't quite the answer he was hoping for or expecting. He'd told McLane he wasn't sure what he was looking for in Polvo Gris. That's when he'd lost control of the situation and he knew it—but it was too late now. He picked up his hat. "How far's this place, then?"
The doc pointed to the map he'd sketched. "It's a ways. Take you best part of three hours, I reckon. Steer just north of east and keep Standup Rock ahead of you. You'll ford the Dog Creek twice; the second time, head west. Can't miss the place."
Willow came out and smiled politely. "Will that be another place for dinner?" she asked as Mel walked to the door.
"No, no, he's in a hurry," the doc replied.
The response was a little quick to Mel's way of thinking, so he gave Willow a wounded smile and stepped out on to the porch. He heard the desert crickets and smelled the night blossoms, then took a deep breath. In darkness, the town looked less bleak, less faded. Night time created a flattering cloak, making places like Polvo Gris look no worse than anywhere else.
He crossed the street, went back to Marcella's Quarter. He indicated a bottle of forty-rod whiskey from the shelf along the back bar, paid the barkeep four dollars. He remembered hearing Chief Josef Fish once tell his father 'whiskey make rabbit hug bear.' He smiled favorably at the saw, and puffed his cheeks doubtfully at the thought of what might happen if he had a drink with Budge Miner. He left the saloon and turned into the side street, doubtfully made his way to Bill Frater's livery.
He gave the stable boy a dollar and led his gray out front and saddled it. Five minutes later, still uncertain if he was right or wrong, wise or foolish, he rode out into the main street, headed west toward Selwyn Church's homestead.
* * *
Doc McLane slumped in his porch chair and heaved a long sigh of relief. Willow Legge leaned against the porch rail, studying him closely as he lit one of his cigaritos.
"Are you going to tell me what you're up to?" she asked.
"I'm not up to anything," he replied, with a barely visible shake of his head.
"Oh yes you are. I've known you too long not to know when there's something devious going on in that head of yours. The hours I've spent listening to men's imaginings. I recognize the look. Nine times out of ten there was a woman involved. You're not the only one concerned about the girl you know."
"Most of those men you're talking of were dying, Willow. They needed those thoughts to know they were still living. Anyway, I got us into this problem, it's up to me to get us out . . . me and Reba Church, that is. You stick to looking after my patients and the house, Willow. Leave the other stuff to me."
"Hmm. I'll wager it's the 'other stuff' that's got you into whatever trouble you're talking about," Willow continued with her concerns. "You're involved in something you should have stayed away from—something or someone."
"What are you going on about, Willow?"
"The Spool foreman, Budge Miner. He's obviously no match for that young man. But to a silly, meddling old sawbones? Tell me you're not involved in something you shouldn't be, Doc . . . please."
"You reckon I should let her ride out to Selwyn's place on her own?" McLane suggested, veering away from Willow's question. "You saw how distraught she was when we brought her in, didn't you? Good God, Willow, she fainted at the sight of an ordinary fist fight."
"I think it was more than that," Willow said. "And I can see how you'd want to help her. You're bored and you want some excitement. But what you're actually getting is . . . big trouble."
"I'm a doctor, Willow. That makes me part of the real world, not someone who stands and watches," McLane answered back as Willow walked away. He knew he could depend on her. He'd known it from the time they'd walked from the carnage of war and decided to travel west. They'd first met at Chickamauga, when she'd worked alongside the field surgeons as a volunteer nurse.
Moving off the porch, McLane walked across his small front yard. Reba Church had remained in his front room. She hadn't shown any inclination to leave the house or even talk to anyone. Not that that bothered the doc. Getting justice for SelwynChurch or getting punishment with the Casper Spool hands did. And to that end, he wanted Mel Cody out on the Church place.
He stood by his picket fence and considered another smoke. He took a few breaths of the cool night air. Looking at the lamps that shone from the buildings along the main street he heard wild shouts from Marcella's Quarter, both inside and out. He thought about the old days when towns like Polvo Gris had been open, neighborly places with no man or family down on their luck, no man as wealthy and dangerously influential as Casper Spool.
He considered the trouble he'd caused Brett Vaughn and decided to take a stroll to the jailhouse. The sheriff sat moodily at his desk building a low stockade with shotgun cartridges. McLane grunted out a welcome and pulled the checker board out from under Vaughn's hat. He arranged the well-worn pieces.
Vaughn challenged him with a look and watched him make the first move on the board. "A whisky a game," he said, and went for his pipe.
"Two," said the old doctor and leaned over the board with eager resolve.
* * *
"So much for the early dinner," Willow said when Doc McLane returned two hours later.
"Yeah, sorry, Willow. I got caught up winning me a half bottle of whiskey," he said, unbuttoning his coat.
"Well, while you've been doing that, Reba's got herself up and about. She's asking for you. Looks like she's shook off the worst. She's back in the kitchen, eating now."
He found Reba sitting at the kitchen table. She had a bowl of broth that looked untouched cooling before her. She looked up when he came in and gave him a reserved smile.
"I'm sorry for the trouble I've caused you. Willow made this for me, but I can't—"
McLane interrupted, drawing up a chair. "Appetite'll come with the first mouthful, and it's no trouble. I don't do much that I don't want to anymore. And if there is any trouble, believe me, it ain't started yet."
"Hmm," Reba said, not picking up on McLane's forewarning. "My uncle told me very little about the town or his life here. After pa's death he just wrote and said to come on out. It took me nearly three months to tidy up pa's affairs though."
"You lost your pa as well?" Doc asked, grimacing.
Reba nodded and gave the broth a stir.
The doctor gave her wrist a short understanding grasp. "If there's any truth in trouble coming three times, I'd stay right here, young lady," he said thoughtfully. "If there's anything headed your way, meet it head on. So, stay; open a new chapter in your life."
Reba looked intent. "What am I supposed to do? I'm capable enough, but I don't have the money or the knowledge to go into business. I wouldn't know where to start."
"You know nothing of ranch work?"
Reba shook her head. "I ordered some mail order seeds once. My pa . . . family ran a shop, a drapers'."
"I see," he said, appreciating the degree of amusement in her reply. "Well it ain't all that challenging if you've got a head on you and an expert hand. Selwyn had himself a decent spread. It's three hours west of here; not big, but the land's pretty. There's good water and fat grass on the slopes. I'd say there was some . . . err . . . civic improvements needed, but you ain't inherited a pig in a poke, Reba."
"I told you; my background's frills and furbelows. Besides, I don't take easily to horses and cattle. I don't like the way they look at you . . . big ugly brutes."
"In a lot of ways, cattle and horses are about the same as people out here, Reba. You treat 'em right and they'll line up for you." McLane went to his top pocket for a cigarito but changed his mind.
"You can smoke if you want. I don't mind; I'm used to it," Reba said.
"No, it's all right. Willow don't like it." He patted her arm reassuringly with a nervous little grin. "Anyway, your problem ain't so great. I've sent a man out to look after things. He's a rough diamond but there's a charm about him. He won't let you down either."
"He'll be the hired hand, will he?"
"Yeah. You'll need someone to keep the fences in order, chop wood, do some round up and branding work. You know, that sort of thing."
"I can only guess, I'm afraid. You've been so kind, I—"
McLane interrupted again, cutting off her gratitude. "I don't know much about Selwyn's finances," he said, "but he never had any loans that I know of. Well, nothing big enough to cause him any hardship. As I said, the place is probably run down a bit, but I reckon he was making out fair enough. I'm sure you won't have much of a problem there."
Reba took a mouthful of chicken broth and sipped wistfully. McLane coughed and rose from the table. He'd have been tempted by the girl, a few years ago. But he'd already found Willow by then, so it never would have been anything more.
"I'd like for you to stay here the night," he said, relieved that Reba hadn't asked who he'd sent out to the ranch. "In fact, as your doctor, I'd prescribe it. Then sometime tomorrow we'll see what the bank's got your uncle down for, eh? See if there's any more surprises for you. Maybe the day after, we can ride out and you can see what you've become the owner of."
Reba put the spoon back in the bowl and McLane knew was getting ahead of himself, had said too much. But he thought it a good sign that she didn't appear to be interested in any gain from her uncle Selwyn's death.
He bade her goodnight then and went back to the front porch. He finally drew out the smoke he'd been wanting. He listened to the breeze soughing through the chaparral. All that fuss and he still hadn't had his dinner! As his belly grumbled he inhaled deeply on his cigarito. He hoped that out of the debris of one long day, a better morning would follow.
"You bring him closer, so I can get a good look at him." Casper Spool stamped down off his veranda to glare at Miles Beckman.
Ever since Felix Chelloe had reported back to him about the trouble in town, Spool had been keen to learn more of Selwyn Church's killing. The old man had held a section of land which spiked upwards into his already vast range and refused to sell. Spool had therefore considered his neighbor to be little more than an irksome sodbuster.
Beckman attempted to hold the reins as Miner climbed from his saddle and got a kick for it. Then he offered an assist to the house.
"Get your ham fists off me," Miner said, shoving him away. The big man braced himself on unsteady legs and took a step on to the broad veranda. He gave Beckman a rich curse and brushed past him up into the house. Spool was on the verge of shouting his foreman down when he saw the extent of Miner's beating. He sucked in his breath at the overall bruising across Miner's face—the raw, puffed-up mouth and the bloodied nose.
Miner limped on into the house. Spool turned on Beckman. "What the hell happened? It looks like he ran into the Pacific Flyer?"
"I'll let him tell it," Beckman said thickly, and led the two horses off. But he'd not got far when Spool shouted after him.
"Hold up, Miles. Where's Stan?"
"He can tell you that as well," Beckman muttered over his shoulder.
"I'm asking you, goddamnit."
"He's dead. Now, if you don't mind, Mr. Spool, my mouth feels like it's got a burning log in it, an' I'm kind of tired. It's been one hell of a day."
Spool glared furiously as Beckman started off again toward the corral. He was about to shout again, but thought better of it. Instead he hurried into the big day room to find Miner standing with his back to the wall and a glass of Kentucky bourbon in his hand.
"I'm so sorry, Budge," Spool remarked acidly. "That was thoughtless of me. I should have said, 'Make yourself at home, pour yourself something from my liquor cupboard!'" Warily, the rancher eyed his foreman. "Felix said Stan killed Selwyn Church. He also said there weren't any trouble with Brett Vaughn or any other townfolk. Beckman says for you to tell me the rest of what happened. Did Felix tell me true, Budge?"
"It's true," Miner said bluntly.
Spool strode across the room, filled himself a glass of the bourbon and turned back to Miner."Did you have anything to do with the Church killing?"
"If you don't give me more than that, Budge, you'll end up a range bum in these parts," Spool threatened.
Miner pushed himself away from the wall he was leaning against. He took a deep, labored breath. "You already been told. Stan shot the old man. Vaughn couldn't do much about it. But what you don't know is that while we was talking to Church about him rustling your beeves—"
"What? What do you mean, rustling my beeves?" Spool barked.
Miner raised his eyebrows in a pained expression. "Yeah. We followed the sign. He had a herd of thirty-five, forty steers. They were bunched in a pole corral at the bottom of the south slope of his spread. We caught up with him in town . . . asked him about it. I figure he panicked . . . went for his gun."
"Who was it did the asking?" Spool asked.
Spool swore violently. "Why the hell didn't you ride back here? You know how I feel about cattle-stealing. This far from town about the only law we can count on is our own, and imposed by me."
"I know that but there weren't time," Miner said. "If that sign had . . . got windblown, there'd be no proof. Anyway, I only meant to rough him up a bit, get him to squawk his guilt."
Spool shook his head slow and incredulous. "Did he do that to you, Budge? Was it him that gave you that beating?" Spool held out his glass to indicate the man's damaged face.
Miner held the back of his hand tentatively under his nose. "No, it weren't Church. That was Melvin Cody."
"Cody? Who the hell's he?"
"A drifter. He happened by. He got the drop on me . . . got stuck in before I could get myself together."
"Yeah, and Stan?"
"Stan killed Church. Cody killed Stan."
Spool gaped. "I don't think I want to know the whole of this story, Budge. You're telling me that you and Miles and Stan got jumped by a drifter who just happened by?" he cracked.
"I said, he got the drop on us. He ain't no normal drifter either. Not the kind we see in these parts. He looked like he was a . . . I dunno, not Mex, maybe one of them mestizos. Mean eyes and cold-blooded. I was going after him, but Vaughn stepped in. But no matter, I'll take care of him, soon as I'm right in the saddle again."
"I'm sure you will, Budge," Spool mocked.
Miner's eyes narrowed in resentment. "Ease off, Casper," he said flatly. "You weren't there. You don't know how it was set up. We got your goddamn beeves back, an' another rustler's kicking up brush. As soon as I can, I'm going after this Melvin Cody."
"When's that then?" Spool asked.
"Sun up tomorrow. Meantime, I'll get a slab of meat an' some salt on these wounds. And this time, I won't be involved in any ringster stuff. I'm talking lead."
Spool finished his drink. He put down his glass heavily, signaling their talk was over. "You do whatever you think's best, Budge. But now I'm kind of curious. I think I'll take me a ride into town to see our good sheriff. Find out what's going on . . . see what he's up to."
Miner finished his drink, and walked tiredly across the room. He stopped near the open door. "No, Casper," he said with an edge of unease. "Leave it to me. I know what to do . . . and who to do it to. That's what you pay me for. Shouldn't take me more'n a day."
Spool nodded and followed Miner on to the veranda. Miner had been hurt bad, but he'd seen many men who'd been beaten in fights before—seen a lot of it in a mirror when he was making his mark in Polvo Gris. He cursed quietly, and wondered about the man who was calling himself Melvin Cody.
* * *
Miles Beckman was brushing his horse when Miner entered the barn.
"I told Spool that Cody got the drop on me," Miner said.
Beckman kept on brushing. "That's right Budge," he agreed. "I mean, there's no one going to believe otherwise, is there? If that's how you want it to be told?"
"It is. First thing, you and Felix get to that low country an' clean it out. Take them beeves down to the wash an' leave 'em there. They won't go far."
"What about you?" Beckman asked anxiously.
"I got something to attend to. I ain't letting no drifter beat the stuffing out of me an' walk away. You just tell the men we was jumped . . . never had a chance. You hear me, Miles?"
"Yeah, an' I got the picture, boss," Beckman said.
Sunlight reached the town, sought the blistered surfaces of its clapboard walls, and brightened the dullness of the alleys and side streets. Eventually, Polvo Gris was only a yellow break from the timbered greenness that bent around Eagle TailMountains. An outcast from the dog pack lay in the dust. It panted slightly and rose on its front legs, too uncomfortable to stay in the rising sun—but fell back again, too lazy to move. A rider came along the main street, threw a package into the doorway of the boarding house and rode on. A storekeeper swept the litter of his shop on to the boardwalk. On the steps of Marcella's Quarter, a grizzled old man sat. He was half keeled over, not quite fallen, and he had both eyes shut. In the narrow street alongside, a woman threw a pail of water up over Bill Frater's livery stable sign.
Sitting on his porch, Doc McLane saw Budge Miner making his way up the street. When he passed Marcella's and headed on toward the north end of town, the doc eased himself from his chair and walked to his front gate. Then he hurried along the boardwalk until he reached the side street where Selwyn Church had met his death. Miner was only fifty or so yards ahead of him, and still riding slowly.
McLane turned into the lane and jogged in a staggered loop through sheds and workshops until he came to the rear door of the jailhouse. Calling for the sheriff, he thumped on the heavy slabs of pine. "Brett. It's me, George. Open up, I got something to tell you."
The door creaked open a few moments later and Vaughn frowned out at him. The doc didn't bother to make his way into the jailhouse, just said urgently: "Miner's riding in. He's coming this way, and I reckon we know what for."
Brett Vaughn squeezed his eyes shut for a troubled moment. "Hold up, George," he started, but McLane cut him short.
"He's almost here, Brett. Shut up an' listen to me, will you? I got young Mel Cody to ride out to the Church spread. Someone's got to be there, if only to protect the girl . . . Reba. There's likely to be trouble, we know that. I been mulling over what Miner and them cowhands had to say about Selwyn stealing their cows. Well that ain't so . . . can't be. So, who was it moved those cattle on to his land, eh? Who was it, gave Miner the chance to make the accusation?"
"How the hell would I know?" Vaughn rumbled impatiently. "An' how come you got so involved? You said he's here and headed this way, so make your point fast, George."
"Never mind me. My involvement ain't important. If it weren't Selwyn, who was it? But right now, even that don't matter. You got to get us time, Brett. You got to get Cody some time."
The sheriff's brows arched and he puffed, tugged at his loose belt."What in blazes you up to Doc? Time . . . what the hell you want time for? By Big Lucy, if you're putting those goddamn boots of yours into-"
McLane banged the flat of one hand against the door frame. "I said to listen, Brett. Miner must be just pulling up outside right now. Whatever you say, don't let on where Cody has gone. I got a bad feeling it matters . . . that we all need time. There's something real damn wrong about Selwyn getting shot the way he was. Just tell Miner that Mel Cody went on his way. Just leave it at that."
Both men heard the pounding on the front door of the jailhouse. McLane nodded his urgent encouragement at Vaughn. "Please, Brett. Just do it." Then he pushed the back door open and left before Vaughn could argue further.
* * *
Vaughn swore, stuffed the tail of his shirt into his pants, and tugged at his belt again. Then he unlocked the front door to let in the Spool foreman.
In the bright, slanting light, Miner's face looked a lot worse than he remembered from the day before. It had matured badly. His left eye was almost closed, the flesh across his cheeks, his mouth and nose, were deeply colored and swollen.
"What do you want, Miner?" Vaughn asked.
"Cody," the Spool ramrod said. "You can back him or me; don't matter much. Just find him . . . tell him."
"Ride away, Miner, before I get to thinking lawful stuff. Busting in here with your threats an' demands. Who the hell do you think you are?"
"The man who's come for Cody," Miner told him thickly. "You just stay out of my way, Sheriff. This is between me an' him."
"Seems like most folk are telling me what to do," Vaughn snapped back. "Shame I'm such an ornery old cuss." He reached for his gun-belt and buckled it around his spreading middle. Then he pushed past Miner and went to sluice water over his face in a corner basin. "Wouldn't you just love to be able to do this," he said, toweling himself roughly. "Now why don't you just settle down? Maybe you was asking for all you got, Miner."
"I came looking for Cody, Vaughn. Either you go get him or I find him myself. Either way you'll be burying him."
Vaughn hung the towel on a peg, put his hat on. He smiled thinly. "You considered that maybe you ain't up to taking him?"
Miner swore, drew his gun in a fast, smooth motion and actioned the hammer.
Vaughn's gun hand dropped instinctively, but he left his gun holstered. "Jesus, you should be milling with them stolen cows. You think acting the gunny is enough to kill Melvin Cody? You really are more stupid than you look, Miner, an' right now that's saying something."
"He jumped me from behind. That's how he managed to take me."
"Rubbish. You came at him like a riled greenhorn. He stepped away then came back an' beat you to a pulp. That's how it was."
Miner released the hammer of his Colt. "I'm sick of talking. I want Cody, so if you want to see it done fair, you best lead the way, Sheriff."
"I ain't leading you anywhere. There's no point," Vaughn said easily.
"You're staying out of it then?"
"Yeah, sure I am. Don't figure on riding no hundred miles or so just for the hell of it."
Miner inclined his head, looked at him with his good eye. "What're you talking about?"
"Cody quit town last night."
Miner swore. "When?"
"Smack on sundown. I reckon with him riding all night on that gray of his. He could be a fair way across the Yuma Desert . . . if he went that way, that is. If he took the Casa Grande trail he'd be near the Cactus Plain." Vaughn grinned mischievously. "Of course, he could be building himself a smoke on top of Stand Up Rock. Then again, if he went—"
"Shut it, Vaughn. Shut your goddamn mouth." Miner, infuriated, thrust his gun back into his holster. He touched his sore, split lips with the tips of his fingers, took off his hat and rubbed a hand through his hair. "Which way did he go?"
"Now that I didn't see, friend."
"You saw. You just ain't telling."
Vaughn grinned widely at him. "That's for me to know, Miner. But if you want some advice? Go home and count your blessings. Now if you don't mind, I got another day to start, an' I don't want you cluttering up my office. Unless you figure on spending time in one of these cells?"
* * *
Miner held the sheriff with a steely glare, then heeled about and stomped out onto the boardwalk. He looked thoughtfully up and down the street, then made it along to Frater's stable. The boy remembered Mel Cody all right,; had taken a dollar off him. He confirmed that Cody had taken his horse just after sundown the previous evening, saddled it himself and ridden out.
Miner went back to his own horse and swung stiffly into the saddle. After giving Brett Vaughn another hard look as the lawman watched him from the jailhouse, he kicked his mount into a trot and rode from town.