Mel turned his horse from the yard and Spool followed. Together they rode off the home pastures and headed west.
Mel took the lead, and for two hours worked his way into the bare country. The deep red light of the setting sun was slanting into their eyes when they first found the lifeless, crushed ground of the drive.
"What the hell's going on?" Spool said. "There's no cattle on this side of the range other than Church's stock, and those blackjacks couldn't make it across Dog Creek, let alone to Yuma."
"You want we should go back?" Mel asked.
"Hell no," Spool barked and heeled his horse forward.
They travelled another ten miles before Mel pointed ahead. The herd was settled, heads down around a cluster of hog wallows. Five men were riding close, giving the cattle a lick of water before taking advantage of the rustler's moon, pushing on through the night.
Spool dragged his big rifle from its scabbard, but Mel blocked the other horse with his gray. "We don't know who we're shooting at," he said. "Best wait for morning. The rising sun'll give us the edge we need. Meantime you can decide what you're going to do."
"What I'm going to do?"
"Yeah. I figure they're your cattle." Mel swung down from his horse. He stretched out on the warm ground, pulled his hat over his eyes.
Spool slapped the barrel of his big rifle against his leg, "You figure to sleep, with them owl hoots making off with the herd?"
"Your herd!" Mel snapped back. "I'll hear 'em when they move out, which won't be long. For the minute, I ain't going nowhere. I've been doing work I ain't rightly used to . . . got aches in muscles I never knew I had."
Spool got down from his horse, let it mouth a tuft of cheat grass. "What work's that, Cody?"
"Fixing up the Church place. She's going to stay, you know . . . Miss Reba. She's like one of them Red River boats . . . got an oak keel, probably some of her uncle's stubbornness too." Mel lifted his hat away from his face, looked up at Spool. "What was your bellyache with old Selwyn? Must've been something besides creek water?"
Spool thought for a moment before he answered. "He left his fences to rot. His longhorns strayed onto my place an' mixed with my Herefords. He should've been more careful . . . should've moved on, but instead he hung on, stubborn as a mule."
"And that's why you branded him a cattle thief? Sent four of your men into town to beat up on him and kill him?"
"No, I never did that," Spool railed, not liking Mel's charge. "I've never sent anyone to do my work, Cody. Not that sort of work. Not so long ago I fought to keep every goddamn blade of grass. There was hardly a man for hire you could trust, and I saw off nesters and sheep men. I had to drive cattle all the way to Mexico to get me a fair deal. No mister, I never needed to send men to do my work."
Mel kept quiet. It was as close as he could get to letting Spool know he believed him without saying so.
Spool stared out to where the herd was still watering. He rubbed the gray stubble of his chin, kicked each foot as if trying to move trapped grit around. "It looks like they're getting ready to move them out," he said.
He went to his horse and Mel did the same. For the next few hours they rode beyond the herd's dust, pushing further west across the hostile, darkening country.
* * *
"Hold up," Mel called. He cut his horse across Spool's track, and the rancher drew rein.
"What is it?" Spool asked.
"There's Copa Gully up ahead. If we ride the higher ground we'll be looking down on 'em. Should be close enough for you to let me know if they're your riders."
Already the early light was good enough for Spool to see a mile ahead. But a thick cloud of yellow dust hung as a screen between him and the slow-moving herd, forcing him to ride with a neck cloth pulled high around his face.
Mel was working his way up a long sloping trail, and Spool reluctantly decided to follow him. They rode steadily higher for close to another hour, and then, with the sun beginning its long, daytime burn, they reached a plateau that flattened off beyond the gully.
Mel stopped there and climbed from the saddle. "We've got ahead of 'em," he said. "They got to come through here, but they won't see us. We'll wait up."
Spool compassed the country about him, then he hitched his horse back out of sight. He brought the Spencer and flattened himself on the ground beside Mel.
"By hell, if you are right about Miner, I want the treacherous dog all for myself," he said. "You hear me, Cody? He's mine."
Mel shrugged. "It'll be him that's going to make the play. An' when he does, I won't be waiting for you to take over. Sorry, Spool."
Spool studied him grimly for a moment but said nothing. Below them, the lead cattle were already moving into the head of the gully with the remainder of the herd in straggled lines behind. The five riders were bunched close, as if their lives were to be saved that way.
Mel lifted a hand and shaded his eyes. "Can you make 'em out yet?" he asked.
"I can't see a goddamn thing," Spool complained.
"Yeah. We'll see better when they're below us. We won't be looking into the light," Mel said.
* * *
They waited while the hot sun got higher, powered down onto their backs. A breeze drifted up into their faces, but it carried hot, peppery dust from the desert floor.
Slowly the herd came on. Spool continually rebuked one and all as he waited for the riders to move up close enough for naming. When the untidy spread began to bunch up directly below them, Spool raised himself to get a better view. Mel knew that anybody looking up couldn't see them against the high sun, and kneeled alongside him.
Spool hissed a curse as he pointed down to the first rider. "Miles Beckman," he growled. "And Felix Chelloe, damn his hide. I never did like the look of him. His eyes are set too close together."
Mel was smiling to himself as Spool jumped to his feet. The rancher hurried for his horse and was in the saddle before Mel had fully considered the situation. Mel shook his head, walked to his gray and gave chase. He wasn't overly concerned, even relieved that Spool took the trail that would bring him out at the head of the herd.
Spool had drawn fifty yards clear by the time Mel reached the bottom of the sloping trail. When Spool sensed he was caught, he slowed his horse to a trot. "This is my fight. They're my cattle, my men and they're on my land."
Mel drew alongside the fierce rancher. "I don't care a goddamn spit in hell about any of that, Spool. But no one's firing a gun at me because I made it easy, you hear?"
Spool cursed and swallowed his angry words. "OK, we let the herd go by," he snapped out. "But then I'm going for 'em. You got that?"
Even as they spoke, Mel was working his way across the gully. The lead steers trod wearily between them, tossing their heads uneasily as they continued. The bulk of the herd then crowded mindlessly past in their wake.
Shielded by an outcropping, Mel sat his horse. Across from him, Spool too, sat hunched forward in the saddle. He was seething with fury, peering into the low pall of dust and trying to stifle a thick cough.
Mel was looking for the last of the herd when he saw Spool kick his horse away from the gully wall. As the dust thinned he saw the old rancher riding straight for the drovers. The Spool men were all riding drag, picking up stragglers, when through the rolling carpet of dirt they saw their boss, Casper Spool, bearing down on them.
Miles Beckman shouted a warning. He wheeled his horse about and the others drew rein, staring ahead, unbelieving.
"Yeah, it's me, the one who pays you, you thieving scum. Prepare yourselves," Casper Spool yelled. Anger had got the better of him and he pulled a big Colt from his holster and took the centre ground, throwing shots ahead of him as he raced forward.
The stunned riders broke apart at Spool's wild offensive. Beckman swerved for a wall of the gully when he saw Mel Cody charging toward him and he fired. The gun roared in the steep rocky confines, the bullet slicing across Mel's left arm.
Mel issued a comforting word to his grey, and reined the horse 'til its flanks brushed the walls of the gully. He gritted his teeth and brought his Colt to bear on Beckman. The injury to his arm was bloody but slight. He recalled his father's words about being caught in a gun fight.
You've maybe learned about one trusty bullet being enough if right's on your side? Well, forget it, son. Go for the belly, an' put in three.
Two of Mel's bullets hit Beckman. One of them smashed into the man's side as he tried to swing his horse away. The other hit below his ear as he jerked forward in the saddle.
As its rider took the bullets, Beckman's horse whirled about and threw up its forelegs in an attempt to scale the gully walls. Then it slammed its hoofs back into the ground, and Beckman was pitched from the saddle. His body spread-eagled into the gully floor. Dust fell, and immediately crusted the broken flesh of his face. His horse squealed its terror and took wild flight.
Spool saw the shooting and cursed violently. He looked about as Felix Chelloe's bullet thumped into his upper leg. He groaned with the searing stab of pain, but he was a wronged man in a rage, and too hardy to falter. As Chelloe thundered toward him, he reined in, threw his handgun to the ground and pulled the Spencer rifle. He lifted the big gun over the shoulder of his horse and fired point blank range at the cowhand.
"Meet your maker, boy," he rasped.
Chelloe threw up his arms as the flat-nosed .52 bullet exploded into his chest. He went backwards and sideways, with one foot remaining trapped in its stirrup. Like Beckman's, his horse veered away in panic, heading back toward the end of the gully. Mel watched in heart-thumping disgust as the horse sped by, Chelloe's lifeless body rolling, leaving a twisting, thin trail of bloodied dust.
Mel patted his gray's neck and looked back to where the drover had ridden from. The other three riders had withdrawn. They were sitting their horses with their hands spread and away from their holstered guns.
He rode slowly down the gully to confront them. His eyes were wary, and he rested his gun hand across the horn of his saddle. Just ahead of him, Spool was moving too. The rancher was hurt and visibly shaken. He'd come too close to being killed by his own men.
"Don't know what in tarnation's going on here, Mr. Spool, but we been taking orders," one of the drovers spoke up hastily.
"Taking orders from who?" Spool demanded.
"Budge Miner. He said to get the herd onto the barrens through Copa Gully," the man said anxiously. "We didn't figure it was right, Mr. Spool. Me nor the boys here, an' that's the truth."
"It's a goddamn tale to keep me from stringing you up," Spool rasped. "What's your name, mister?"
"Jake Tanner," the man said. "We was hired by Miner a week ago."
Spool had a severe look at the two other men.
"Miner told us there was work if we wanted it. Never planned to rob the big house," Tanner said.
Spool glowered at him. "Another likely damn yarn," he said.
"Ain't no yarn, Mr. Spool. We never took from no one," said another man.
"I'll remember you said that, mister," Spool threatened.
"You can check our guns, they're cold. Anyhow, they'd probably blow up in our faces if we used 'em," the man offered as a further defense.
Mel reached out a hand to Tanner. The gun resembled Mel's own Colt, but was a cheap imitation of the real thing, making a harsh grating noise when he spun the cylinder. "Leave 'em be, Spool," he said. "It's Miner we both want."
Tanner pointed back along the trail. "He pulled back, mid-afternoon. Said he was going to check with Mr. Spool about pushing the herd through the night. He should have been back by now."
Mel worked his horse closer, looked at the doubtful Spool. "We're wasting time. Their story sits well with me."
Tanner tipped the brim of his hat and nodded obligingly. Then he looked straight at Spool. "Them cattle of yours'll be running 'emselves to bone," he said. "We best get after 'em . . . turn 'em back to pasture. What do you say Mr. Spool?"
Spool rubbed a gnarled hand across his face, looked back through the gully. "What about Beckman and Chelloe? You going to take care of them too?" "If we don't, them buzzards will," Tanner said, inclining his head to the clear blue sky.
A malevolent grin crossed Spool's face. "They're circling on an ill wind, sure enough."
"I'm interested in where you made the pick up," Mel said to Tanner.
"They were corralled on land beyond the creek. They been there for a couple of days," Tanner told him.
"Church's land," Mel confirmed. He'd not ridden that far in his exploration yet., If not for Miner's strike at the ranch, he'd have soon enough stumbled on the herd and known that trouble was in the wind.
"My cattle on Church land," Spool said quietly, as if to himself.
"They're still running, Mr. Spool," Tanner went on. He'd slowly lowered his hands, was twitching his reins.
Spool thought for a moment, looked hard at the riders. "OK, go get 'em," he ordered. "We'll talk everything out later."
Tanner and the other two turned their mounts and rode off. Mel sat his horse, flexed his fingers as the sting in his arm spread to his hand.
"You been elected? Cause you're sure losing a mess of blood," he said, seeing the dark wet spread down Spool's leg.
"I've been nominated, that's all. I'll live."
"Looks like Selwyn didn't die for nothing," Mel said tellingly.
"Looks like it," Spool accepted. "One day maybe I'll get to thank him. In the meantime, I'll just burn me a deeper brand into Miner's hide."
"Maybe Reba Church would like to hear something from you," Mel suggested.
"Don't get me wrong, Cody, I'm not rolling over. That land business isn't finished yet. I'm still aiming to get the girl to sell up. What's more, I'm not paying you any respect for today's work."
"That's all right Spool. I weren't looking for any," Mel retorted.
Spool grimaced, then swore thoughtfully. "I got to get back to the ranch. Get this goddamn leg seen to."
"Yeah, you do that," Mel said and hauled away.
As he rode south, Mel went over the past few days in his mind. None of what had happened mattered much to him, except Selwyn dying. After a while he climbed from the saddle, walked the gray a mile or so. Then he remounted and ran the horse toward where Reba Church would be.
Budge Miner reached the Spool ranch at first dark. Finding the other hands had eaten and retired to the bunkhouse, he walked across the yard and knocked on the big, white-painted door of the main house.
Miner wanted to stall, needing time for Beckman and Chelloe to get the cattle off Spool's land. He intended to spend most of the night jawing with his boss, while the herd got close to the sale pens outside Yuma. When there was no response to his knock, he turned the great latch ring and pushed open the door. He called Spool's name, then, slightly troubled at the quiet, he stepped back on to the terrace.
After thinking about it for a moment, he decided Spool had likely gone to town, but he was worried. The Spool ramrod sauntered back across the yard to the bunkhouse where some of the itinerant cowboys were playing blackjack.
"Anybody seen Mr. Spool?"
The men shook their heads without looking up. But Otto Ribb, a longtime hand, raised his eyes. "Maybe he's gone to town. What's up?"
"Seems there's a lot of help missing. Beckman, Chelloe and Tanner . . . one or two others that were working the bottom slopes. They should all have been back by now."
Ribb sniffed derisively. "Happen they run across that 'breed, that hair-lifter we heard so much about. People round here get real skittish when his name's mentioned. 'Cody,' ain't it . . . his white man's name? Seems he goes on the warpath when he's put out any."
"You don't know what you're talking about, Ribb," Miner snapped. "Just get yourself ready for tomorrow. You'll likely be riding all day." Knowing something had gone wrong, Miner angrily left the bunkhouse. He was uneasy as he saddled up a fresh horse.
As he rode, he was hoping that Spool had either gone to town or was paying the Church girl another visit. Either way, when the loss of the cattle was finally discovered, he hoped to have the herd money safely stashed and be riding back with Beckman and Chelloe.
For Casper Spool, Miner had his story all worked out. He'd tell how they'd trailed cattle thieves into the barren land, got ambushed in the gully, and lost three men as well as the herd. Maybe then, by using a crooked truth, he'd get some backup to take out the stumbling block called Mel Cody. Perhaps he'd call in on the Church girl himself, offer his deceitful commiserations and console her after having sold out to Spool.
He single-footed his horse west, into the night. There was no real hurry. He didn't much care about catching up with Beckman and the others, having to swallow trail dust for his trouble.
* * *
When he emerged from the timbered slopes, Miner almost crossed Casper Spool's way. He'd been escaping the full blast of the sun when he sighted the lone rider coming back from the direction of the gully.
At first he thought it was Beckman or one of the other hands riding back to meet up with him. But he drew back into the trees when he saw it was Spool who rode past.
Miner cursed. Spool was slumped forward, gripping the saddle horn. Then he saw the dark blood, thickly congealed across and down the man's leg. Spool's face was haggard, but determined, and his eyes were set straight ahead.
Miner was unnerved. His mind raced, but he sat the saddle very still. He watched the rancher until he was a long way past, half expecting him to fall heavily from his horse.
The old man was nearly a mile off before Miner decided to make a move. He kicked his own horse, spurring it fast across the open country. He was headed for the high ground that fell sharply down behind the Spool ranch house.
A good hour later he slipped from his horse and hitched it in the shade at the back of the spread. He walked cautiously around the outbuildings, then waited until he saw Spool making his way across the yard that fronted the big house.
Three men came running from assorted work sheds. They ran to Spool and helped him down from his horse, carried him toward the house and up the steps while Miner slunk quietly around to the back porch.
With his gun in his hand, Miner stood with his back hard-pressed against the rear wall of the house. He was breathing deeply and his heart thumped with the fear of what might have happened, the aftermath of Spool's misadventure.
From inside the house, he heard an excited voice.
"You going to tell us what happened, boss?" the old ranch hand, Otto Ribb was asking."You want me to send someone into town for the doc?"
"No, you see to it, Otto. It looks bad, but it ain't more'n a flesh wound. It's Miner I want. Where is he?" he asked savagely.
"He was here, asking the same of you, boss. Not more than a few hours ago."
Miner gripped the butt of his gun until his hand shook. He realized that Spool had caught up with the stolen herd; that's where he'd got his wounds from. And he must have spoken at some time with one of his riders, if not Beckman or Chelloe. But now Miner didn't know what state the herd was in, whether it had been pushed on to the Yuma cattle pens or not. Then he recalled that he'd only hired Jake Tanner and two other men to drive cattle. They weren't in on the deal. He was in a mess, and knowing he had to stay and find out more, he cursed his luck.
"Cody came through here. I think he was looking for Miner," Spool shouted angrily. "Told me about a herd being pushed Yuma way. So together, we went down to have a look. We found Beckman an' Chelloe all right. They had three new hands with 'em . . . driving my cattle through Copa Gully. Cody an' me, we just rode into the point, shot 'em dead."
Miner heard the startled voices of disbelief. He cursed and hissed for them to keep quiet, waited for the silence to settle again.
"An' that ain't the best part of it," Spool went on. "One of them others . . . Tanner. Said, it was Miner's plan they were hired to work to."
"What you want us to do boss?" Ribb asked.
"Get out an' help bring back them beeves. But not you, Otto. You got to help patch me up. Tie me to my saddle if you have to."
"You going after Miner, boss?"
"Yeah. An' it'll be a lot more'n that when I've figured out where he's gone."
Miner felt the cold shiver between his shoulder blades. He was about to back off when he heard Chick.
"What about him off the reservation . . . Mel Cody? Who's he riding with then, boss?" the man asked.
"Well, he ain't with us. But then again, he ain't against us, either. You men steer clear of him, you hear? I'll handle him when the time comes."
Miner didn't wait to hear more. He fast tracked back to his horse and heeled away up the slope. Frustration and anger burned through him now. His scheme was in ruins, and mostly due to the intervention of the 'breed called Mel Cody. He checked the cylinder of his Colt and, heading for Church country.
Reba Church heard the alarmed honking of the geese and rose, startled, from where she'd been sitting half asleep on the porch. She looked out at the yard and home pasture for sign of a horse, but saw none, and realized the sounds were from the back of the house. Perturbed, she reached for the door latch, but it suddenly opened away from her, catching her off-balance.
"Mister Cody? Mel?" But the words died in her throat when she saw Budge Miner standing in the shadows of her main room.
The man's face was pouring with sweat, still blotched and ugly from his encounter with Mel. Reba couldn't help thinking of a giant slice of pan fried chicken and she drew back in silent horror, her body tense.
Miner stepped quickly forward and grabbed her wrist. "No,' it ain't him," he sneered."Ain't that just too bad? Or maybe not, eh, pretty miss?"
"Get off me!" Reba shouted, but Miner pulled her close. She smelled his hot, muggy odor and clawed his face. He cursed and dragged her further into the house. Reba kicked out, but Miner's strength was too much. He hurled her down onto the couch.
"You little wolverine," he said, holding his fingers to the side of his face.
"Get out of my house!" Reba screamed, her mind flying through defenses and escapes.
"Shut your mouth," Miner told her. "You make another sound like that an' I'll mark you. I'll cut you so's your 'breed friend won't recognize you when he gets here."
All color drained from Reba's face and she started to tremble uncontrollably. All she could think of was Mel Cody.
Miner wiped blood across his face, on to his chin. "Seems you get yourself a front row seat when me an' him meet," he snarled. "Only this time the ending's going to be different, eh missy?"
Reba leaped to her feet and raced for the door. But Miner had seen it coming and was too quick. He placed himself in the doorway and as she lunged at him he gave a dead-bone grin.
"Yeah that's it missy," he said. "A man like me can take that an' more."
Reba lashed out with her foot and caught him low in the leg. Miner threw a punch at her head and she felt the hard, dark thud. Then she felt herself being grabbed, lifted bodily from the floor. There was a wild rush of air, then a smack of pain across her body.
Miner walked over to where he'd thrown her. He grabbed her by the hair and pulled her to her feet. He ripped the top of her blouse from her shoulders while Reba clawed at his face. She tore open his bottom lip and Miner smashed her down to the floor again.
Reba tried to rise, to stay awake and warn Mel. But her hands gripped at nothing and she collapsed with her cheek against the floorboards she'd so recently scrubbed. She sobbed just once, then lost her senses as the painful dark enveloped her.
* * *
Mel Cody rode into the yard of the Church ranch at mid afternoon. The whole place was quiet, and from the moment he'd started down the grassy slope, he'd felt an uneasy tension gripping his vitals. The geese were nipping at long grass in the orchard and there was no sign of Reba.
He watched the house closely, half expecting her to come out and greet him, curious to know what had happened. As he rode toward the house, he rehearsed just how he'd tell her how he'd resolved the trouble with her neighbor, Casper Spool.
He reined in at the hitch rail, but remained saddled. He lashed out with his boot as the geese came running and swore he'd kill them if Miner didn't get him first. Then he rolled stiffly from his horse, dropped the reins as he saw movement from behind the front window. He had only taken one step towards the stable when the window shutter was smashed open and a gun roared at him.
Mel felt the warm pulse of air as the bullet missed his left eye. He dropped to a crouch but held his fire, uncertain of Reba's whereabouts.
The gun roared again. This time the shot smashed his left shoulder and sent him twisting to the ground. "Miner," he said as he rolled with the impact. Another bullet came, spitting the hard packed yard dirt into his face. He continued to roll, seeking shelter below the low, planked veranda of the house. Each turn sent pain stabbing deep into his chest, up into his neck.
When he got to the relative safety of the corner of the house he got to his feet. His left arm was already unusable, his left hand rigid with pain. He worked his way down the side of the house to the water trough.. Then he heard the clump of boot steps from inside, as another bullet tore through the small side window. He grinned, mumbled, "Stupid, he's going to kill you," and doubled over.
He went on and turned across the rear of the house. He banged on the door, ran faster right the way around the building, until he came to the front corner. He took six quiet steps to the front door and stopped for a moment. Then he pushed his Colt back into his waistband, and called on his forebears for strength as he lifted the latch.
As he hoped, Miner was coming through the house from the back, where he'd heard Mel bang on the door. He fired on instinct, but Mel leaped to the side, throwing himself to the floor as he came in. Through the instant tear of pain, he saw Reba. She was looking at him. He held out his right hand, hoping she'd stay down.
But she was still dazed. She looked at him with scared, confused eyes. Mel could see the distress and a grimace bent his features.
He stepped up and looked toward Miner, grimaced when he saw the bloody mess of the man's face. He stood very still, dared Miner to fire because he'd been counting. But the closeness of certain death for one of them was too much for Miner. and a final, desperate bullet buried itself in the wall planks behind him.
"Stay down!" Mel yelled at Reba while staring into Miner's eyes. He'd got it right; Miner had to reload.
Mel felt like apologizing for using the advantage of thinking. Instead, he drew the Colt from his waistband with his right hand and with a cheerless shake of his head, steadied himself and fired. The first shot ripped low into Miner's neck, the second and third into his chest and belly. The man's legs buckled and he went down.
Miner was a big man and had a few moments of life left in him. He gurgled a curse and held his shattered neck with one hand, swung his gun up with the other. The empty chambers made their dull, empty clicks. He dropped the gun and raised his arm, twisting his fingers into the fabric of Reba's newly tacked up curtains.
Reba looked at the still smoking gun in Mel's hand as she started to raise herself from the floor. With one arm, Mel clumsily helped her to her feet and noticed the dark bruise high on the side of her face.
"I'm needing a moment," she said with a tight smile.
"Yeah, you an' me both," he returned.
He pushed the Colt back into his waistband and pulled off his coat, then blinked at the pain of his bloodied arm and shoulder. He turned away from Reba as he roughly twisted his shirt sleeve tight around the wound. The searing pain made him curse long and loud as he dragged the heavy body across the yard. But he didn't stop until he'd made the ground between the fruit trees. He let go his grip of Miner's sweat-stained collar and watched the man's meaty face press deep into the grass.
"Eat goddamn worms, you son-of-a-bitch," he said coldly.
* * *
Back in the house, the cloying heat and cordite fumes almost overcame him. He looked at his shoulder and his arm, ground his teeth with the pain. But now Reba saw the blood running to his fingers, and was already on her feet.
"Outside on the rocker," she said curtly. "Now I'm fully rested, I'll take control."
Twenty minutes later, after finishing the last of his forty-rod, Mel closed his eyes as Reba administered warm water, salve and a bandage.
"The bullet might still be in there," she said. "We'll have to get you into town, first thing. Doc McLane needs to see these wounds."
But Mel's mind was elsewhere. "I had a little animal once . . . never knew what it was. I kept it in a box," he said ruefully. "When it died, I poked it down a hole in the riverbank."
"With one hand, you're going to poke that giant down a hole?" Reba asked in disbelief.
"No, not really. I thought about it though. When Casper Spool gets here, as he surely will, he's going to feel real cheated when he finds Miner's body. So I'll leave the burying to him. A gesture of my good will."
"Well I'm glad I won't be here to see it," Reba said.
"You're going? Leaving the ranch? But I thought—"
"Then you thought wrong . . . like me," she interjected. "I loathe just about everything there is in Polvo Gris. Mr. Spool is welcome to all of it. Right now his money is as good as anyone else's."
Mel had himself a few moments of thought before he spoke. "I've had a look around, like my pa told me, an' he was right. But he only spoke about the richness of the land, not about those who own it." Mel relaxed a little as the salve began its work. "On the way down here from the north, I rode through Montana . . . along the Yellowstone. There's a lot of free country, Reba, an' not much in the way of killing. So perhaps now I'll try there. It looked like somewhere my ma would have spoke well of."
Reba looked Mel in the eye. "Sounds almost too good to be true. Perhaps I'll leave everyone a forwarding address for somewhere along the Yellowstone. What do you think?"
Mel opened one eye, nodded diffidently. "I think you'd be real good company ma'am . . . real good," he said quietly.
"Well that is good, then," Reba declared with a smile. "But right now, there's no rush to go anywhere. So perhaps you'd like something to eat? I can't go as far as asking what you'd really like, though. We don't have that much."
While he thought of an answer, Mel untied his sash. With one hand, he wrapped it around his Colt, and tossed the bundle across the veranda. "Oh there's enough," he said, with a slow, wicked grin. "I've had both them murderous geese plucked an' filled with apples. All you got to do is wring their necks an' cook 'em."
Reba didn't move for a moment, or create much of an expression. Then a smile broke across her face and she wagged a reproving finger as she grasped the joke.