The yellow summer sunshine's warmth spreading across his hard-muscled back brought a rush of energy as Griff Brady stripped off his faded flannel shirt. He draped the shirt over the top rail of the corral next to his gun belt and, bracing two hands on the top rail of the corral, he lithely swung his legs up and over. A big man, near six feet without his riding boots, two months' work swinging the axe and digging with the spade had sculpted Brady's muscles, and now a man could be forgiven for thinking that ranching was his regular job. His strong blue eyes met and could transfix a man's attention when needed. The firm set to his jaw declared his confidence in himself and his powers, an impression only partly softened by the jet-black beard, customarily trimmed neatly to the style made popular by old President Garfield, but scuzzy now that he had kept close to his cabin since his last visit to his favorite Laramie barber before his spring trip north.
Brady's near thirty years of living, his knowledge of the West and its ways, his experience, earned him respect from the men he worked with. No, he corrected himself, it wasn't just that he had been on the team the longest; it was something deeper: the aura of competence that fit him like the soft well-worn shirt he had just removed. His job performance demonstrated to all the superior quality of his workmanship. Even in a competitive business, younger men sought assignments with him, to learn the trade from him, to bask in the warmth of his approval, and he'd been unsparing of his time, teaching, training, helping each of the youngsters grew in their shared profession. In return, they looked to him as the model of what they might aspire to become themselves. In short, everything Westerners meant by the word "man."
In the corral he admired the effects of his recent labors. His idleness, unwelcome at first, had been spent to good effect. Now, a steady flow from the creek at the edge of his holding followed the ditch his muscles had sunk into the earth and filled the two water troughs embedded in the ground, one inside the corral for his horse, the other outside—upstream of course—for his own convenience. The outflow then spread downslope where it irrigated the bunch grass now growing vigorously despite the heat of summer.
Brady crossed the small corral to the barn and swung back the weather-beaten door. Inside, as his eyes adjusted to the dimmer light, he moved slowly past the stored ranching equipment, the hoes and spades, the pitchfork, the tongs, the Rafter B iron for the branding fire, to his destination, the stall in the rear where "Rusty," his roan mare, snorted a morning welcome.
He led Rusty into the sunshine and let her muzzle into the water trough to drink her fill, then he worked the wire brush over the mare's coat, removing the tangles, grooming her, letting her stand proud as an animal worth the tending of her owner. Finally, he forked some hay into the manger so she could feed, then turned aside to appraise his land.
His cattle, just a small herd of fifty or so, enough to give him the name of rancher but not too much to distract him from his work, grazed down in the creek bed where the July grass was still green and juicy. The cabin, corral and outbuildings sat on higher ground, above the drifts of a High Plains winter snow but still nestled under the western ridge and the grove of ponderosa pine that broke the afternoon heat.
He had cleared out the brush that accumulated around the cabin during the two years of neglect since he moved in; he had spaded out the weeds on the south slope so nurturing grass would have no competition, and cleared a small fenced off area for the pretense of a vegetable garden. A lot of work, but looking at it now, a man could take pride in his own industry.
As he surveyed his property, new jobs came to his attention, things he had ignored. He ran his hand along the rough planking of the barn where paint was starting to flake off—several days of work there to repaint before the fall rains came. The cabin roof needed to be checked for leaks. Some of the fence posts down by the creek showed signs of rot. He laughed at himself. Thinking like a rancher, you are. For some reason, that brought a satisfied smile to his lips.
With all the work of the spring and summer, his claim now resembled the spread of a small but hard-working rancher were he to be visited by the sodbuster from a mile over the ridge. Nothing even would trouble the hostile scrutiny of any inquisitive deputy who might take it in his mind to wander by uninvited.
Perhaps like the horseman Brady now heard clumping through the gravel on the other side of the house? For a solitary man, caution always predominated. Brady swung back over the rail, landing within easy reach of his gun rig, draped seemingly casually, but with butt out, of course, and looked across the yard expectantly. Momentarily, a horse came around the corner of the cabin, on its back a certain stocky rider wearing a grin as wide as the handlebars of his blonde mustache and clad as every horseman across the West dressed: blue denim trousers stuffed into scuffed brown riding boots, maroon flannel shirt tucked into a serviceable leather gun belt, yellow calf-skin vest with the ever-present Bull Durham tag dangling from a pocket and blue plaid bandanna, topped off by a tan sweat-stained Stetson hat: a man who would pass without notice anywhere in cattle country.
"Dix!" Brady gave a hearty welcome to Dix Drucker, a reliable man to work with, an enjoyable man to drink with, a man he could chin with without needing to pick his words carefully. "Long way from the bright lights and hot women."
"How do, G-man," the newcomer said. "Range customs say, it 'd be good manners to ask a pard to stand down."
Brady knew better than to let his friend take charge. He grinned the challenge. "First, I got to know. You come to use up the whiskey supply of a lonesome cowman? Or you bring your own?"
Drucker's laugh was always infectious. "Know better than to count on you being supplied after all the time you been lollygagging on your summer vacation. Got me a bottle in my saddlebags."
"Stand down then." Brady strode across the twenty feet of hard-packed dirt yard separating them, his hand outstretched. Their clasp was solid and comforting. He hadn't realized how lonely a man could become in two months.
"Mr. Morford wanted someone to swing by to see you was spending a contented summer and I made sure I was Johnny-on-the-spot," Drucker said.
"What took you so long?" Brady asked. "Let's get out of the sun and do justice to that bottle you brought."
Inside, Brady quickly toweled off the sweat and fetched two glasses from a sideboard a prior occupant had nailed to the wall. Once the men were seated at the cabin's central plank table, Drucker uncorked the whiskey bottle, poured a generous four inches in each glass and raised his own in toast. "To the Lone Star State," he proposed.
"And them that was bred there," Brady replied.
The gossip from town was what Brady thirsted to hear. "The usual," Drucker replied. "Crenshaw's off to Idaho for a couple of weeks, so I had to do my drinking with Hensley, you being standoffish from us working men."
"How about that new kid, Lonny something?"
"Peters." Drucker made a sour face. "Green. Sometimes I wonder does he know the working end of his tool."
"Iowa hoe man." Brady said. "It's a wonder he even knows how to fork a saddle horse, but you'll break him in right."
"Morford should pay me double," Drucker groused. "You and me were never that green."
"Me? I never was, for sure," Brady agreed. "But I seem to remember a trip to The Dakotas—"
"I was testing you," Drucker interrupted. "Seeing if you was worth partnering with."
Drucker's boisterous banter always brought a grin to Brady's face. "We always made a good pair. You riding along with me to Crazy Woman Creek last spring would have turned the errand into a good romp."
The two men talked, the soft Texas Hill Country edges to their voices forming the bond that united them against the flat "twangers" of High Plains natives. Each had eaten trail dust behind someone else's herd, had nothing they cared to go back to, and, in the still-half-empty cattle country that was Wyoming Territory, each found his life's calling.
"Made a man out of me, those eighteen months in the territorial can at Laramie," Brady told Drucker. They knew each other's stories almost as well as their own, but a summer afternoon, and whiskey conviviality made it natural for Brady to reminisce. "Montana wasn't a bad place for a Texas boy not yet needing to dull his razor every day," he said. "All was fine until the year of the Big Die-Off when winter kill was so harsh the lucky brands found no more than half their herds feeding the crows come spring thaw. With so many hands paid their time and turned loose there was no jobs a man could write home about. Some of the boys I knew went in for stopping stage coaches for a living, but I liked the cattle business. So, I rode south with my lariat and started swinging my wide loop stealing syndicate beef."
"Not stealing, you weren't," Drucker insisted. "Just taking back money the Eastern carpetbaggers stole from us Texas boys after their invasion."
"Easy work. With all the cattle they had, wouldn't have thought they'd have noticed," Brady remembered. "But the Cheyenne Club cabal didn't have the Christian spirit of sharing, and set a range dick loose on me and some other free-thinking boys. One day, whilst I was just minding my business, their pet poodle bloodhounded me into my favorite Casper butcher with three freshly re-branded VX steers."
"Wolcott's brand," Drucker said.
"Seemed as good as any," Brady replied. "I didn't pay no favorites. I used my running iron on VX, TA, whatever stock I could get my loop around. But that day I found myself in the local hoosegow and soon as they could sober up some sleepy judge, I had bracelets on my wrists and leg irons on my ankles and I was bouncing on the bench of a prison wagon on my way to the lock-up at Laramie. Sitting on my bunk and staring at steel gray walls. I got me plenty of time to think through the errors of my ways. I come out determined to live my life so as never to go back."
"Become a regular Sunday-go-to-meeting 'thou shalt not steal' type, did you?" Drucker let his skepticism show.
"'Thou shalt not get caught,' that's the only Commandment I needed," Brady said. "Sitting by my lonesome, I thought of ways I could work cattle smarter and keep myself ahead of whoever they sent after me. So, when they clanked the steel door shut behind me, I figured them ranchers owed me a lot of back pay."
"Didn't work out that way," Drucker said.
"First night out," Brady continued, "I was bellied up to the bar at the Ten Gallon Saloon drowning my whiskey thirst, when this pushy older jasper shouldered in next to me like he bossed the whole town. Before I could stop him, he snatched the glass of rotgut I was working on right out of my hands and shoved it across the bar. 'Toss it out,' he ordered the barkeep. 'This man and me are drinking Double Anchor.'"
"Good whiskey," Drucker said. "Linc Hammond?"
"Just a townie for all I knew, dressed like some ribbon clerk, not even wearing gun leather that night," Brady said. "But listening to his silver clinking on the bar made him my best friend in all Wyoming. Didn't have much to say, he didn't, nor me neither. But it don't take much to size a fellow up. By the third night, he started talking business. Told me one of the screws in the lock-up passed the word that I was too good for the cattle business, tough, disciplined, that's what he said. When Hammond told me where I could get good paying work and still spend most of my nights in a warm bed. I listened close and four years now I've been working for Mr. Morford."
Brady knew Drucker's story too, but it was polite to listen how Stephen J. Drucker, if his birth name mattered, trailed a delivery herd north to get fat on Major Wolcott's rich Wyoming grass, and having no desire to go back to his family's dirt-scratching hovel, made his own way—never crossing the law, not that Sheriff could find proof of, nor Wells, Fargo neither. While Drucker was talking, Brady remembered back to the night he'd been waiting his turn to be serviced at his favorite cat house, and something about the next man in line hearkened him back to his salad days in old Dixie. Before long they were swapping good-natured lies in their soft Hill Country drawl. Not long after, Brady led his Lone Star compatriot on a routine run over to The Dakotas for Drucker's probationary trip.
"Mr. Morford's been a good man to work for," Brady said when Drucker finished his story. "Respects his men, took me from nothing, Dix, gave me the chance to prove what I could do, let me grow my skills, become a man who earns his keep."
"And he pays us good money for our fun," Drucker added. "You became his top hand."
"Sure beats rasslin' a six-hundred-pound steer that don't hanker to end up in someone's skillet."
Drucker raised his glass thoughtfully and looked around the cabin. "Ain't this where Hammond squatted back when he was working with us?"
"Before he started making eyes at that filly in the Third Street Diner," Brady replied.
"Old man like him," Drucker scoffed, "him being near forty, he should have known better. No room for a filly here."
"Guess he knew that," Brady said. "He started buying my whiskey again, picking up the gleanings of what I remembered from my riding days in Montana, about the ranching around Billings and Great Falls, places where a man might find good paying work. But when he asked straight out, I told him the best place for a working man to light himself down is the Missouri Breaks, it being just a spit and a holler to the Canadian border."
"Fellow wouldn't be worth much to Mr. Morford way up there," Drucker reflected. "Guess he learned what it's like." Drucker looked over at Brady with casual interest. "How'd he go?"
It was a natural question. Since language was invented, men have enjoyed sharing stories about their work, swapping yarns, discussing techniques, comparing thoughts about the latest equipment, always learning, always getting better. A man learns his craft by experience. But a true professional also listens to the experience of others and Brady was the best teacher Drucker knew. If the storytelling sometimes sounded like bragging, each knew he would get his turn.
Brady took another swallow of whiskey and settled back to tell his tale. "Got an early start from town that morning," he remembered. "Bellied down up on the ridge before his chimney started smoking with his breakfast cook fire. After he did his business in the outhouse, he went into the barn. When he come out, I was standing in the middle of the corral, my iron fisted and at full cock. I spoiled his shirt with two quick bucks of my wrist and watched him bounce off the corral fence and go down." Brady grinned across the table. "You'll be telling me I wasted a round when I stepped over and stopped the groaning."
"You always was a softy, Griff," Drucker scoffed. "He could have been fun for three hours. No one would have minded." The light-hearted chuckle was typical of a man who never took the world too seriously. "Me, I never liked the son-of-a-skunk."
The two friends continued talking through the afternoon as the level on the bottle went down, the way companions relax in each other's company: shop talk; discussion of articles Drucker had read in the latest Police Gazette; politics, whether the new statehood for Wyoming was bad for their business. "Politicians," Drucker said. "They only care what's good for them. Never think about hard-working men like us." No one could argue with that, and the talk went on. They chuckled over work they'd done together, trips to Brown's Park, to the Big Horn Country, to Medicine Bow, even all the way up to Deer Lodge, Montana to give a coming-out welcome for a convict who had paid his debt to Montana, but had other accounts needing to be settled.
"Man likes doing something important," Brady said, "throwing out the trash—rustlers, squatters, two-bit ranchers trying to hog the best water for their puny little herds, men who've earned their spot in the refuse heap."
"Targets, they all got it coming," Drucker cheerfully agreed. "Every last one of them. We always got the job done,"
"Too bad you wasn't along last spring up on Crazy Woman Creek," Brady said. "Maybe I wouldn't be cooling my gun barrel."
"Can't imagine a man like you needing my help."
"Shouldn't have. Just a typical 'one-man'er," Brady said. "Major Wolcott didn't take kindly to some squatter fencing the VX off from its usual and accustomed watering. In town, a sheriff I knew got his votes from the cattlemen told me where the fellow had his claim. The target went down smooth and I played firebug with the cabin so no new dirt-scraper would get the idea of squatting there. No problem. But when I come out of the cabin, I spotted a range rider just cresting the hogback half a mile away. Too far for me to go get him." Brady shrugged. "But too far for him to see much beyond my handsome hirsute adornment. Still, Mr. Morford told me to take some time off."
"Careless," Drucker said, more sharply than he intended. "Smarter to wait until nightfall." He quickly laughed off any offense and shrugged. "It happens. Let me tell you about what I had to haul Lonnie out of over Rawlins way." He told a tale only a charitable man could dismiss as a "newbie" mistake. "He had the wide-looper under the gun and couldn't pull the trigger. After I crooked my own finger to get the work done, Lonnie said he never seen it done before. Promised it wouldn't happen again."
"Should have dumped him in a gully on the way back."
"Like you done that time in Dakota?"
"Different. You're a Texas boy. 'Course you'd measure up."
Drucker slid his revolver out of its holster and spun the cylinder thoughtfully. "Mr. Colt's new model, 1893 double action, just out this spring," he told Brady. "Laramie gunsmiths don't got it yet. Had to go to Warren's Emporium up to Cheyenne to find me one."
He slid it across the table so Brady could take a look. "Like the balance," Brady said. "How's the trigger action?"
"Still a bit stiff and I ain't filed it down yet, so it's a shade slower than I like. And I ain't got used to its pulling to the right either."
"Every piece has its own feel," Brady agreed as he passed the weapon back.
Drucker spun the cylinder again, by habit assuring that the hammer rested on the empty chamber. "Ain't been broken in yet," he said. They both knew what he meant. He looked thoughtfully at Brady, shrugged, and slipped the Colt back into its holster.
And so, it was time.
Drucker divided what was left in the bottle with Brady. "Drink up, Griff. I got me an hour's ride to town."
* * *
Outside, the shadows had stretched from the ridge to the corral, bringing a gentle cooling breeze. Brady breathed deep of the freshness of the Ponderosa. This was the best time to be alive in Wyoming. He took a few steps into the center of the yard, watching Drucker tighten the cinch straps. "It's been a good afternoon, Dix," he told his companion as Drucker tested the saddle and, satisfied that the cinches were set, stepped to Brady, his hand outstretched for a sturdy, farewell shake.
"The boys'll be glad to hear you may be an almighty cattleman now, tending your fifty head, but you ain't forgotten where you come from."
"Never will, Dix. Mr. Morford always treats me right." The two men released their handshake and Drucker turned back toward his horse. "Tell Mr. Morford to find some work for me," Brady appealed. "Colorado, Dakota, even Utah, it don't matter where. A man needs to feel useful."
In response, Drucker paused and turned back toward Brady. "Almost forgot," he said as his hand reached up and pulled something out of his shirt pocket. "Something come in last week the boys thought would give you a big belly laugh." His eyes crinkled with amusement as he handed Brady a folded document and retreated five steps toward his horse to watch Brady's reaction.
The first thing Brady saw were the large black letters, "Wanted—$150," forming a banner across the top. "Not much of a price," he said, "but he was just a sodbuster." He unfolded the second fold and staring up at him he saw a rough artist's sketch of a face sprouting a Garfield-style beard. "They'll need more than that to run me to ground," he scoffed. "Half the men in Wyoming wear bea . . . " Brady's voice trailed off as his eyes traveled down the page. "Hell. How'd they get my name?"
Drucker was chuckling lightly, a man who always enjoyed a good joke, as his revolver made its lazy upswing. No need to rush against a gun-naked target standing in the open at comfortable kill range. Just plant one in the gut, pull out the makings, and watch the show.
But Griff Brady was no pot-bellied homesteader. Even as Drucker fired, Brady was lunging for the corral, the first shot burning through the air where he had stood a second ago. Brady's hand closed around his gun belt and he took it with him as he rolled away just before Drucker's second shot splintered the corral rail. On the ground, Brady's working hand sought the grip as he rolled. Drucker's third shot searched for him, near claimed him, as it ripped at his trouser leg.
Brady's gun was fisted now, confidence flowing from its solid heft, as his finger slid inside the trigger guard. When he suddenly came to rest on his back, Drucker's fourth shot went wide off to the right, only spraying harmless dirt on Brady's chest.
Drucker had stopped chuckling. With four beans on his wheel spent, the game had turned deadly serious. He could see his prone target starting to elevate his revolver. Drucker urgently swung his gun into line. Make your last one count, he told himself, or face a full load incoming.
Two proven professionals, acting without wasted thought, each skilled in his trade, each working his target.
In the microsecond before guns would roar, Brady saw Drucker's gun searching toward him. His own gun barrel arced up. It was close, he knew, brutally close. Brady's finger began squeezing the trigger even before the barrel came into line, knowing a belly shot would do.
Brady's gun bucked against the palm of his hand, a muzzle flashed and another too close to tell apart. Brady gasped as the impact jostled his aim and a hot, sticky liquid began flowing down his side. Not done, Brady's mind insisted, not near done. He struggled against his sudden weakness to bring his gun back into play while Drucker dropped his now-useless weapon. It took will, not muscle, for Brady to swung his arm up toward the target jogging toward him. Finally, as the numbness in his hand began to wear off, his thumb worked the hammer and only one thing was left. Squeeze, dammit, squeeze.
Brady screamed as Drucker's boot smashed down on his gun arm, snapping the bone. Fighting through his pain, Brady knew he could still stretch his good arm across his body before Drucker could bend down to seize Brady's Colt. Then, even firing wrong-handed but at point-blank range, he would down his target. With all the desperate urgency he had ever brought to any task, Brady rolled. His fingers brushed the gunmetal and were already closing around the grip when Drucker made his own move, his boot twisting viciously, grinding the broken arm bones into inexpressible, debilitating agony.
Squirming helplessly, Brady saw his own revolver as it was roughly wrenched from his limp fingers, as it arced up toward his face, as the well-blackened borehole came into line, as the muzzle flashed, and—