Reba Church ran a finger along a shelf and frowned at the dust.
Watching her, McLane said, "Selwyn weren't a tidy man, but he had honest values." Reba didn't say anything, so he went on, "I'm sorry I took over out there, Reba, but Spool was lying to you. Selwyn didn't make any deal: I know how he felt about this place. There's no way he ever meant to leave it . . . except to you. That makes Spool a liar, and I couldn't let him get away with it."
Reba walked thoughtfully from the small room. Not a window in the house had curtains to keep out the harsh sunlight. The floor was rough finished planks, but she doubted if it had ever been washed down or even seen a broom. The air, even for its recent airing, was stale., The light from the window was thick with the glow of rising dust motes.
"At least I can manage the cleaning, if nothing else," she said, feeling the dirt clinging to her hair. "It won't be done overnight though."
"Does that mean you'll stay?" McLane asked intently. "Are you taking into account that outburst of mine?"
"I might stay for a month. I had no real plan to sell before I looked the place over, you know, Doc. Uncle Selwyn did write, telling me how wonderful the country was. I wasn't going to sell up before I gave the place, or me a chance. Even draper's daughters aren't that dimwitted."
"Hmm, I guess not. What about Mel then?" Doc asked, uncertainly.
Reba lifted the lid of a blanket box and fingered the contents with a glint of approval. "Selwyn didn't write me about him," she said, smiling. "I really don't know. Giving it some thought is the least I can do, though."
"Yeah, that's right, Reba," McLane responded. "I can only imagine what first impression Mel gave you, but it was me asked him to come out here. In two days he's already got the place part fixed, if you overlook the dust. And I don't think he's going off on a war dance over Miner and Casper Spool. I'd say he acted respectable-like, real committed."
"Don't get too long on your praise," Reba suggested. "He's got doubts."
McLane laughed scornfully. "Oh yeah, he's got them all right. He knows how blood spilling affects you. No, Reba. He acted just the way I thought he would. He's the man you're looking for right now."
Reba walked to the door and pushed it fully open. McLane came and stood beside her.
"Give it that month," he said encouragingly. "Whatever heaven on earth looks like, this'll be it, believe me. Casper Spool wants to annex it so bad, that must tell you its true worth. You don't have to move, Reba. You got a life right here. A good life."
"I'd be happier if you knew more about Melvin Cody," she said.
"Well he's got some rough edges, that's for sure. But you got to admit, he gets things moving. Unless there's some other problem you got concerning him, Reba?"
"I'll be out here on my own. What do you think?" Reba murmured.
McLane gulped and looked out toward the barn. "I think it's about trust and goodwill. But if it's some other feeling you're worried about, perhaps you should ride out of here right now. I'll take you back to town. You can sell up to Spool, take the coach right back home."
"Don't be annoyed, Doc," she said, lowering her head in an attempt to mask the fluster. "I just need a little more time."
"Well, Reba, I reckon that's something we're plumb out of."
Reba saw Mel come out of the barn. He led his gray to the corral where he swung up and looked toward the creek. He had a coil of wire slung across his shoulder, a hammer, nails and staples in a saddle bag.
"Give him a chance," McLane said. "He's giving you one. I mean, how much do you need to know about hired help?"
For Reba, the words stung. But McLane was already down the steps, hurrying across the yard.
* * *
McLane removed his hat, dabbed at his forehead. "I reckon I've won her round, Mel," he said guardedly. "She was worried you'd be wanting more'n wages."
Mel's eyes narrowed. "What's changed her mind?"
"I hinted at bear grease and buffalo blankets. You know, that sort of thing."
"You done me a favor then?" he said dryly.
McLane studied him for a moment then breathed a big sigh. "That's up to you. I've always believed that opportunity comes to all who work for it." The doc gestured with his hands. "So good luck. And watch out for Budge Miner. I noticed he had a hungry gleam in his eye. Even if it was a touch bloodshot."
He turned and walked away, but Mel called out, "Hey, Doc. Hold up a minute."
McLane looked back. "Yeah?"
"I don't know what you got in mind," Mel said, "but it might be best if you stayed away. Miner will make a play, and when he does, I don't want you here. But after, well, I'll be moving on. I ain't having no woman boss."
McLane gaped at him. "Why in hell not?" Her dollars are just as good as anyone else's." Then he thought for a moment. "Oh yeah, I forgot," he said, and his face crumpled into a knowing grin. "There's probably some part of you believes that womenfolk find pleasure in doing the chores. Well, suit yourself, but I reckon you got to leave that way of life behind you son, and I don't mean no offence."
"Well there's some taken, Doc." Mel said. "But it cuts both ways."
"Yeah," McLane replied a little cheerlessly."Seems you both got a lot to leave behind . . . a lot of rethinking to do." He raised a farewell hand, and went back to his rig. Clutching the reins, he watched Mel heel his gray off again, down toward the creek.
He swung the rig around outside the front of the house and called out to Reba. "You got nothing to worry about except maybe worrying. For the most part, leave him be. He'll keep his own council most of the time. If you want me for anything, you know where to find me." And with that, McLane gave the horse its head back to Polvo Gris.
* * *
As soon as Mel was out of sight, Reba walked up to the barn. She saw he had cleaned up, tidied sacks and sorted tack. The ladder to the loft had been fitted with a few new rungs and the north wall had been mended.
Looking up, she saw a shirt flapping in the breeze which came through a high window. She listened for a moment, then climbed up until she could see over the edge of the loft flooring. She saw his straw-bagged bedding, his few personal belongings in the fruit box. On top was the sash that Mel wore around his waist. Fascinated, she took another step upwards. She picked up one end of the sash, ran her thumb across the intricate, colored glass beads. She was shocked and couldn't believe that a seemingly brutal man could possibly own such an exquisite object.
Surprised at her inquisitiveness, Reba returned quickly to the yard. She looked to where Mel had been riding, then went back to the house and opened one of her two bags. She changed into working clothes and set to on the floorboards.
Mel rode into the yard at sundown. He was tired, encrusted with dried sweat and dust, but he looked quietly satisfied. From a front window where she'd been sitting for some time, Reba saw him pull off his shirt and wash himself down from the water pail outside of the barn. He seemed to glow in the yellow sunset, and for a moment she was curiously moved by the way his wet glossy hair clung to the muscles of his neck. But then she sniffed and turned away to fix up a cold supper. There was chicken, pickled eggs, cheese and a large slice of peach pie, starter foodstuff that Willow Legge had thoughtfully packed into the rig.
As darkness began to settle Reba lit an oil lamp and a string of happy jack lanterns. Instinctively, she started to set out a table, but thought better of it. Instead, she set Mel's meal on a trencher and carried it to the door.
Mel stood in the doorway of the barn, smoking. When he saw her, he tossed the cigarette aside and went forward to meet her. "I'll bring the plates back in the morning. Thank you, an' good night ma'am," he said quietly, accepting the tray.
Reba brushed a long strand of dusty hair from her face. She realized she'd not bothered to tidy herself since noon. She was still wearing the clothes she'd last worn when sweeping the stoop of her father's store in Jerome City. As Mel looked at her, she hoped the fading light would disguise the color in her cheeks.
"Thank you ma'am," Mel said again. "That's real thoughtful. Tomorrow I'll be gone early. The creek needs to be dragged off, where it's silting. If you want me, thump a stick against something. I'll here it an' come running." He smiled, then was gone and Reba returned to the house. She sat down and looked at the wedge of cheese, the sliver of pie she'd left herself. As tears of exhaustion welled in her eyes she brushed her hand angrily at a fat blowfly. She started to tremble and felt the crush of isolation and loneliness.
Reba was awakened by the sound of the gray's hoofbeats as Mel rode off in the morning. She was surprised to find the light was already creeping around the edges of a blanket she'd pressed into the window frame. Dressing hurriedly, she went to the kitchen and found that he'd already replaced his two supper plates. Somehow she knew they'd be there, but was shocked at discovering that Mel had entered the house while she slept. She moved to the front door, scanned the grass-covered slope, and saw him riding down Only his head and shoulders were visible above the early, low-curling mist.
Reba's shoulders drooped. She didn't know how to take Mel. She went back to the scullery, and ate the food she'd left untouched the night before. She saw the chopped timber he'd piled against the wall just outside the back door, the freshly pumped water in a big pitcher on the table. He'd invaded her privacy, but he was helpful, and that sort of evened things up.
There was still a lot of work ahead, though, and while Reba worked hard all morning, scrubbing, tidying and moving stuff around, she still didn't seem to be achieving much. She found the scattergun above the door and ran the back of her hand along the twin barrels. The stock felt hard and smooth in her grip, then curiously frightened, she replaced it and turned away. She made window curtains from the dress she'd travelled in. The main room started to look like someone's home. It wasn't yet hers, and it saddened her to think of her uncle not having much in the way of comforts.
* * *
Mel returned at noon. He hitched the gray in the overhanging lee of the barn, flipped his hat over the pommel of the saddle, washed his face and walked to the house. Outside the front door he called out, waiting a moment for Reba to appear in the doorway.
"I let myself in earlier . . . had an egg. I didn't disturb you, did I? I got my own coffee makins' in the barn."
"No, that's all right. I never heard a thing," she heard herself saying.
"I got to thinking though. If you want, you can lay out some jerky for me. Perhaps some bread . . . drippins', maybe, when you get set up. I can eat in the saddle."
"That sounds dreadful . . . wouldn't keep a mouse alive," Reba said quickly. "I thought all cowboys ate hugely?"
"I ain't really a cowboy, ma'am. I was brought up on mudfish, nuts an' snake. What I'm asking you for's a real treat."
Reba looked askance at Mel for a moment, raised her chin and half smiled. "I do have a lot to learn, I know," she said. "Don't worry, I'll make sure you get well fed."
"I got to make a pen for them godda . . . . . . Sorry ma'am. Over the Quill Lakes, there's so many geese, they turn the sky black. But here, you got two of 'em just want to peck me to pieces."
"Yes, well we can't have that. You do what you think's best. Will you always have to work this long?" Reba asked.
"As long as I'm here ma'am . . . yes," Mel said slowly, trying to measure the implication."I don't want to burn up in the heat of the day. So for the time being I'll be going out an hour before sun up. I'll come back at eleven. After a bite, I'll work until the sun starts to drop . . . around four."
"There's that much to do, is there?"
"Well I sure ain't making it up. The fences come first, I reckon. Most of 'em need tending, an' they won't wait."
"Yes," Reba said quietly.
Mel nodded, turned and walked away.
"The pump doesn't work properly," she called after him. The words came tumbling, and she realized she must have sounded anxious, as if she wasn't keen to see him leave. She took a breath. "At the side of the house. There's no draw from the pump. I checked the prime and the pump leather. Could it be the well's run dry?"
"No ma'am. Not on this slope. It's one of the good things about the place. I'll take a look at it."
"Thank you. I'll make some food. Will you want to eat it here?"
Mel smiled and pointed to the back of the house. "I'll be working out there this afternoon. There's some fruit trees need cutting back an' a feeder ditch needs clearing out. Doc McLane said there's a market in town every week. Come the fall, you could make some money selling apples."
Reba smiled in return and watched Mel go to the trough above which the pump was set up. Then she went straight back to the house and plumped herself into a chair. She knew she should have controlled her emotions better. Mel Cody was the hired help; a man with whom she could never have anything in common. But as soon as she'd thought it, Reba recognized just how wrong she was.
Half an hour later when Reba came out with his food, the trough was filled to overflowing.
"What was wrong?" she asked.
"Nothing much. It just needed fixing," he said, and thanked her for the trencher.
Again, Reba was perplexed. She felt a curious frustration in the way they conversed.
* * *
Mel tugged at the brim of his hat and settled in the shade of a fruit tree circle that Reba's uncle had planted. He was mopping at gravy and contemplating a smoke, when Reba came around the corner of the house with two mugs of coffee. She was only twenty feet from him, was still thinking about what to say, when a bullet spat into the ground between them. At the echoed crack of the rifle, Reba stopped walking, her mouth opened and closed and she dropped the mugs. She made a small, choking cry, looked at Mel, stunned, then started to tremble.
Mel got to his feet and turned in one smooth movement. Reba lifted her hands to her face, took a step backwards. Then a second bullet smashed into the wooden platter, sent Mel's food plate and his fork flying into the air.
Mel swore. Then he yelled at her. "Get to the house. Go now!"
Reba stood there shaking her head, swaying unsteadily. Mel held out one hand toward her, pointing his gun at the timber where everything appeared normal, unmoving.
"For God's sake, move, woman, or we'll both die out here!" he bellowed, his eyes bright with anger.
Mel's shout shocked Reba from her frozen fear. She turned and fled.
As soon as she rounded the corner of the house, Mel made his way through the trees. Running from the orchard and up the grassy slope, he saw Miles Beckman and another rider bearing down on him from the timber stands. He swerved to the left and ran for a big, fallen spruce. He vaulted the tree and rolled down into its dirt-filled depression. Then he quickly regained his footing, leveled his gun hand across the broad tree trunk and opened fire.
Three of Mel's quick-fire bullets ripped close above the heads of the men's horses, causing them to buck and rear. The riders fought to regain control, as they brought their own guns to bear as Mel ran from cover.
Beckman wheeled his terrified cow pony about. He cut it into a run and rode the top of the slope. His companion, slower to move, saw Mel too, and after firing off a shot whipped his horse the other way.
Mel scrambled up the slope then weaved around some felled perimeter trees. He saw Beckman riding into a long, narrow wash. The other rider was already moving through boot-high grass on the far side. He pushed his gun into his pants top and carefully wiped the sweat and root dirt from his hands, waiting for the two men to ride from sight.
The attack had been carelessly planned, and that confused and worried Mel. He was sure Miner would have come after him himself and would probably have brought more backing than Beckman and another cowhand.
Mel ejected the spent cartridges from his revolver and refilled the cylinder from a handful of bullets he kept in his pocket. Then he turned and made his way back to the fruit grove. He was approaching the back of the house when he saw a rider coming fast along the wagon road. He broke into another run, then ran faster when he recognized the red, meaty face of Budge Miner.
Miner saw Mel, too, and wheeled his horse off the track. He rode straight at Mel, his eyes vengeful. But Mel had outguessed him in time. A desperate, headlong dash for the cover of the water trough along the side wall of the house gave Mel an advantage.
Miner had drawn his gun. He fired, fast and indiscriminately. The bullets cracked into the trough and whined off the pump head Mel had just repaired.
Mel swore as he hit the ground. He rolled, raised himself on his elbows and loosed off two shots in return. Wet dirt spat up into his face and he lay down again, rubbing at his eyes with the sleeve of his shirt.
"I'm getting real sick and tired of you, Miner," he yelled, getting to his feet. He stood with his back to the wall and brought up his Colt. Just before Miner swung his horse's head away, Mel fired.
The shot was calculated, the only one he had time to make. It missed. Bent low in the saddle, the Spool foreman was away. Mel stretched out his watched the man ride away. He couldn't pull the trigger for fear of hitting the horse, and he'd never do that. Mel walked toward the fleeing figure, fired one ill-omened shot into the air.
When Miner was out of range he stopped at the edge of the timber. He looked back for a moment, then, lashing his horse's gleaming shoulders, he raced away.
Mel plunged his head into the trough, shuddered and then gulped down the fresh, cool water. Then he rubbed his hands up his face into his hair. As he walked to the front of the house he took the remaining bullets from his pocket and gripped them in his fist. "One of these is for you, Miner, you son-of-a-bitch."
There was deep silence now. Even the geese had found sanctuary under the floor timbers of the house. From near the front door Mel called out, "Miss Church."
With no immediate answer he called again, "Miss Church . . . ma'am," tentatively added, "Reba," then waited a long minute before he heard her telling him to go away.
"OK, if that's what you want," he said, relieved that she wasn't hurt. "An' don't go worrying about them visitors. It's over now." After a few seconds more he added, "They won't be coming back."
Then he turned and walked across to the barn. Five minutes later he came back out, wearing his black coat with his Cree sash around his waist. He led his horse out into the yard, climbed slowly into the saddle.
* * *
From a front window Reba watched him nervously. But there was a difference now, and she felt a pang of shame. He'd stood resolute for her, on her land and faced the bullets that were fired point blank at him.
She saw him ride from the yard, away beyond the barn. She went quickly to the door, and lifted out the security rail. She stepped out onto the veranda and waved her hand.
"Mr. Cody. I'm sorry, I am all right," she called, and listened to the empty echo of her words.
Mel rode down to the creek and made straight for the Spool ranchlands. In the past two days he'd traversed a sizeable section of the Church place, had discovered that Selwyn's fencing abutted not only fertile Spool land but vast tracts of desolate scrub. He cut through a section of fence and, with his hat pulled down hard over his eyes, headed west across the Spool wasteland. He saw tickseed and mallow—drylands plants not fit for graze—and better understood Spool's drive to gain old Selwyn's access to fresh, sweet water.
As he rode, his mind kept going back to the attack on the ranch, and to Reba Church. He wondered, worried that he should have remained, just in case the Spool men returned. But after a while, a slight, dawning smile broke across his face.
Yeah, that was it.
Exactly what he was supposed to think? Miner carried a rifle and could have dropped him from a distance if he'd wanted to. The attack wasn't as carelessly planned as Mel had thought. The ploy was to draw fire, to keep him off the range.
He was riding along a low, stony ridge that rose into higher country when he reined in. To the south, he sighted dust rising above a long finger of pine that ran down from the main timber. He headed off, deeper into Spool country, pushing the gray for a few more miles until the terrain evened out.
The land spread out in big, gently rising slopes. Now he could see the dust again, closer and more clearly. He saw the slow-moving, patchy carpet, the bobbing brown heads of longhorns. It looked like four riders driving the herd, but the trail dust was thick and he was still too far away to be sure. He sat awhile and watched the advance of the herd, wondered why Spool was moving cattle through the crushing heat of the day.
Mel finally drew back and rode to the other side of the ridge. He swung down into a shallow valley, following a fence until it came to a run of the creek. He crossed in the shallows, and let the gray slurp some water before taking a run at the far slope. Within minutes he was looking down into another long trough of country, only this time it was well grassed. A collection of buildings spread midway along its northern aspect.
"Casper Spool," Mel said aloud. "That's just got to be you."
He found a scrub pine and climbed from his horse. With his back against the bole of the tree he hunkered down, and built himself a smoke. From the ranch, he'd be silhouetted against the skyline, would have been an easy see for a lookout. He expected somebody to ride out to meet him with a rifle, but no one came.
Twenty minutes later, Mel was less than a quarter mile from the sandy yard that fronted the main ranch house. Only then did he notice movement from along the columned terrace of the two story building. The rest of the vast spread appeared to be deserted. He walked the gray steadily beneath a timbered archway, picking out the lone figure standing deep within the shade of the house's upper balcony.
When he was thirty yards from the porch rail, Casper Spool stepped forward and leveled a big Spencer rifle on him. But, coolly, Mel held his course and allowed the gray to keep going.
Spool moved a step sideways to position himself alongside one of the columns. "That's far enough, mister. You've not been invited in," he rasped.
Mel let his horse walk a few more paces into the slanting shade before he drew rein.
"You need some iron to ride in here," Spool said.
"Why? I've done nothing wrong by you, have I?"
"Well Miner doesn't think like that. He could be here, just busting to strip your hide," Spool suggested.
"I don't think so, Mr. Spool. Anyway, I rode down here to talk to you . . . I need to ask you something," Mel said.
"Ha. You decided to light out? You and that interfering McLane going to let the girl sell up as she pleases?"
Mel shook his head. "No. No such luck."
"What is it then? What do you want?"
"Well I'm learning, Mr. Spool. I'm curious to know why a smart rancher would herd cattle in this heat?"
Spool regarded him suspiciously. "What the hell are you talking about? What cattle . . . where?" he asked.
"Back a ways. They're being pushed through that bad land of yours. I never got close enough to check the brand, but they certainly ain't Church stock."
"A herd?" Spool asked incredulously.
"Yeah, an' running fast enough to lose most of their lard. Must be pushing three hundred head. That's a herd ain't it?"Mel looked around him, then asked. "It's sure quiet here. Your men out taking . . . some sort of picnic in the badlands?"
"What's that got to do with you? Did you come riding out here to cause trouble, Cody?"
Mel shook his head. "No, why would I do that? Having you for a neighbor don't concern me much either way. But just a couple of hours back, Miner an' Beckman an' another of your rabble paid the Church place a visit. Miner fired off some shots . . . came real close to nailing me. Now that concerns me, Spool. But you know, I got to thinking afterwards. What they was really trying to do was to make me stick real close to the ranch house. Close to Miss Church's skirts, if you get my meaning?"
Spool was plainly confused. He took a step toward the porch steps, held the rifle barrel across the terrace railings. "What the hell are you gnawing at, Cody?"
"As far as I know about this country, there's no other ranches this side of Dog Creek. So those men I saw could be . . . probably are your hands . . . driving your cattle. That's what they never wanted me to see."
Spool mouth twisted into a sneer. "My men are checking the fences, cleaning out Copper's tank ready for next month's drive. That's what they're doing."
"No, they ain't. Come take a ride, we'll see who's right," Mel suggested.
"Go to hell."
"Given time I might well do that. But right now you're coming with me, Spool. I got a claim in this trouble."
"You've got a claim? What the hell's it got to do with you anyway, whether my cattle are being herded or not?" Spool demanded.
"I think it was old Selwyn Church telling me that he never stole cattle . . . never. But the truth didn't stop one of your men shooting him dead. That's one reason." Mel's voice hardened as he continued. "Then, of course, there's your ramrod. I ain't going to sleep too well at night just knowing he's out there somewhere. Maybe he got himself a dose of buck fever today, so I'd like to give him another chance. Beckman can buy in, an' maybe a couple of the others, if they feel that loyal to him."
"You think you're that good, cowboy?"
After a fast, almost imperceptible movement of his right hand, Mel held his Colt, the barrel pointed straight at Spool's broad chest.
"I think maybe I'm good enough," he advised with a thin smile. "Right now, if you pull the trigger of that Spencer, we'll both die. So you got to ask yourself, is it worth it, Spool? Looking around, you got a hell of a lot more to lose than me."
Spool didn't appear to be bothered by Mel's take on the situation, although he dropped the rifle barrel. "These men?" he asked. "Which way are they headed?"
"West. An' the longer we stand here powwowing the further we'll have to ride. If we lose the sun it won't be any easier travelling in that country . . . even for an Injun 'breed."
Spool's breath was heavy. "I'll get me a horse. By hell, Cody, we'll have ourselves a powder burning contest if you're wrong," he growled.
"Concern yourself with what'll happen if I'm right," Mel said, calmly pushing his gun back into his sash.