When half the men in town are away on the cattle drive, I usually get a chance to relax a bit. I was sitting on the boardwalk outside my office having a quiet smoke and thinking I might head down to The Lazy Mañana for lunch when I spied a horseman headed into town from the north. Even at a distance, I could tell he was riding hard. I got up and stretched. In the sheriff business, someone coming in a rush generally means trouble coming in a hurry.
The rider was young Ben Turgis. He and his sister Nancy were watching their father's ranch while their old man and their two ranch hands were off on the cattle drive. Nancy is around twenty, Ben, five or six years younger. Since their mother died four years ago, Nancy has been handling the business end of the ranch and raising Ben in the bargain.
Ben pulled up his horse in front, slid out of the saddle and threw the reins around the hitching rail. He was a tall young man, dressed like one more cowpuncher. He came over to where I was standing. "Sheriff," he said, "if you burn down someone's house, is that a hanging offense?"
"I think it's called arson. If they catch you for doing it, do you hang?"
"I don't think so," I said. "If I caught such a varmint, I'd lock him up and he'd go to trial. Probably go to prison for ten years plus. Of course if the person whose house he burned down got to him first, there might not have to be a trial. What the hell is this all about?"
"Sis and I were over at the schoolhouse for a couple of hours. When we got back, someone had set our house on fire. It was too far gone. Just had to watch it burn."
"And your sister wants me to go after the men who did it?"
"No. She's gone after them. I want you to go after her and stop her before she kills whoever did it."
Who would do this? I thought, and Steve McLeelan came instantly to mind. He owned the spread next to the Turgis land and had been pushing to buy them out for years with niggardly offers of half what the property is worth. Rumor had it he had just hired the Taggart brothers and their worthless cousin Wayne. You didn't hire those three to run a kindergarten.
"We'd better get going," I said. "Your sister may be in big trouble."
Ben smiled. "No, she'll take care of herself."
"Come on," I said, "let's round up a posse."
We headed down to the Lazy Mañana. I pushed open the swinging doors and stood for a moment letting my eyes get accustomed to the darkness of the place. Then I did my usual quick sweep of the room to see if any of the faces of the men seated behind their drinks matched the pictures on the wanted posters hanging in my office. I noted a couple of faces that should have been on one of those posters, but no actual matches.
"There he is," I said. Ben followed me over to the table where Injun Yano was seated. He was sound asleep with his head down on his hands. He was obviously sleeping off his current drunk.
"Mug of coffee," I shouted to Carlos who was behind the bar. "Make it quick."
Injun Yano had wandered into town some three months ago. He was thought of by most of the residents of Dustville as our pet drunken Indian, a savage tamed into stupidity by fire water. I knew differently. He probably drank because the world made him an outcast. No one but me would hire him thanks to the color of his skin. I happened to know he was, when sober, the best tracker in the whole county. His ability to smell out an ambush had saved my skin just a month before.
Carlos brought over a big mug of hot coffee and I set it in front of Yano. I grabbed him by the shoulder and shook him awake. "Yano," I said, "we need your help to track down some bad white men."
Yano blinked awake. "Which bad white men?" he said.
"We'll know when you find them." I pointed to the chair next to him and said to Ben, "Have a seat. Make him drink that coffee. Don't let him go back to sleep."
I figured we needed at least one more gun so I headed over to the poker table where a half-dozen men who were too lazy or smart to have gone on the cattle drive were seated.
"Someone burned down the Turgis place," I said. "I'm rounding up a posse to track them down. Anyone interested?"
No one answered. It looked as if anyone smart enough not to go on a cattle drive was smart enough not to volunteer to get shot at.
Finally Noflush Watson spoke. He was a runt of a cowboy who had earned his nickname in a game long ago where he had bluffed a professional gambler out of close to a hundred. Unfortunately, things had gone downhill for him since then. While Noflush was a hopeless gambler, I knew he could be trusted to stand with me in a showdown. There had been a couple of times I'd seen him take gambles in a gunfight that I wouldn't have gone near.
"Sheriff," Noflush said, "I sure would like to go along on your man hunt, but I just lost my revolver to Jake." There was, in fact, a revolver sitting on the pile of chips in front of Jake.
Jake picked up the revolver and pushed it across the table to Noflush. "For the purpose of seeing justice rendered, I'm loaning you back your gun." He grinned, revealing his three missing front teeth set in a face way beyond ugly.
Everyone but Noflush burst into laughter. I wasn't disappointed in my recruiting effort. "Let's go," I said to Noflush. "You haven't also lost your horse?"
"No." He rose reluctantly. I waved to Ben. He pulled Yano to his feet and steered him after us out the door.
It took us about a half hour to get the gear together, rent a horse for Yano and dole out a small arsenal of weapons. I didn't bother to try to talk Ben into staying behind. I'd just have to make sure he didn't do anything foolish if we got into a gunfight.
We white men mounted up. Yano placed his hand on the horse's head, said something into its ear, then eased into the saddle.
* * *
There wasn't much left of the Turgis' house when we got to their spread. The barn was untouched. Yano slid off his horse and went out to do a wide sweep around the outskirts of the yard. He came back and looked at me. "Three horses come from road, leave to west. Maybe head for hills. Another horse follow them. Maybe sister of Ben. Maybe they shake white woman. Not shake Yano." He smiled at me, an evil little grin. I was very glad I wasn't one of those hombres he was about to track.
"Should we get going?" I asked.
"Wait. Yano have question. Why evil men not burn barn?"
I hadn't thought about it, but an answer came instantly to mind. "Probably whoever set this up figured he might be buying the property after the fire. Why burn down a useful barn?"
"McLeelan," said Yano. There was no love in that one word. I remembered there was a rumor around about how McLeelan's father had cleaned an Indian family off of a piece of real estate he wanted.
"Look," I said, "I don't want you killing anyone unless we get in a shootout. If there are going to be any accidental deaths, leave those to me."
"When you hang evil men, Yano watch?"
"Definitely. Front row seat."
Yano had seen something that interested him. He walked over to the corral fence, bent down and started to pick up what looked like old tin cans. He placed six of them side by side on the top rail of the fence.
Yano pointed to the cans. "All cans have bullet holes," he said. That was true. Each can had multiple bullet holes all of them clustered halfway between the can ends.
"My sister likes to shoot cans," Ben said.
"Long gun or hand gun?" said Yano.
"Revolver." Ben backed away from the fence a few feet and pointed his hand like a gun at the cans. "Bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam," he shouted, moving his hand slightly to the side between each bam.
"She shoot from where you stand?" said Yano.
"Oh no. She likes to shoot from what used to be our front porch."
Yano looked over at the remains of the porch which was a good hundred feet away. He shook his head. "Coyote Woman," he said. "Come back in form of white woman."
"Is he insulting my sister?" Ben said to me.
"I don't think so," I said. "I think it's a compliment. He's saying he thinks your sister is some kind of Injun goddess."
"We go back to town now," said Yano. "Only fools burn home of Coyote Woman. All soon be dead fools."
"I kind of agree with you," I said, "but we white men are more civilized. We like to bury our dead proper." I knew if I didn't pick up the bodies and haul them back to town, Kalegg would be all over me. Kalegg is our town mortician and barber. The latter is sort of a free bonus. No one ever gets buried who isn't clean shaven.
The sun was getting a bit close to the western hills. "Let's get going," I said to my posse. "We'll go as far as we can with the daylight that's left."
Yano rode in front. Every now and then he would hang down off his moving horse with his face a foot off the ground, a move he had probably learned it in his youth practicing counting coup.
We covered over twenty miles before even Yano couldn't see the tracks. We were already in the beginning of the hills. We dry camped, built a fire and digested some of the canned beans I'd brought along, wet down by coffee out of my old battered pot.
After what passed for dinner, Ben came over to where I was sitting and dropped down beside me. "Can I talk to you man to man?" he said.
"Sure," I said, hoping it wasn't going to be all about how to get into the drawers of some fifteen year old girl he was besotted with.
"I got expelled from school because I punched Harry Mavis after he called my sister a bad name."
"How bad a punch?"
"Just one, but his nose bled a lot. Anyhow Miss Gallagher expelled me. So when I got home, Sis decided to go over to the schoolhouse and get me back in school."
"And while you were away, your house got burned down?"
"Yes. Sis's really angry with me. Says she doesn't know why she bothers to keep me in school seeing as how I hate it so much."
"Do you?" I said.
"Yeah. What's the use anyway? What good are penmanship and grammar and mathematics if you're going to be wrangling cattle?"
"That's all you want to do?"
"Sis keeps telling me I'll own the ranch someday, so that's what I'll be doing."
"Suppose you owned the ranch and McLeelan wanted to buy the place. You wanted to send him a letter saying he could stuff it up his ass, but you didn't want to use those words. Think you could write that letter?"
Ben thought that over for a while. "You mean like he reads the letter and gets pissed off but can't figure out why he's pissed?"
"Miss Gallagher did talk about that when we were reading some story. Implied meaning she called it."
"See what I mean?" I said.
"I guess so."
Yano stood up at this point. "Who watch camp?" he said.
"Bedtime," I said to Ben. "I'll take the first watch," I said to Yano, "you take over about midnight." Keeping watch was definitely necessary. When you're tracking varmints, sometimes the hunted will come back in the night and try to be the hunters.
Coming down the draw we'd camped in was the only clean way anyone could approach our campsite. I picked a couple of close together trees off to the side and blended into their shadow. There was a half-moon giving a bit of light. No one could slip by, no matter how soft-footed they were.
The only intruder that appeared was a coyote. He stopped halfway down the draw, sniffed the air, smelled sheriff and disappeared back the way he had come.
At close to midnight Yano materialized beside me. There had been no sight or sound to his approach. He was suddenly just there. "You know you give a person a bit of a fright with that Indian stealth shit," I said. "Couldn't you have kicked a stick by mistake or something?"
"Sorry," said Yano, "sometime it hard to learn white man's ways."
"All right," I said, "but if someone unfriendly shows up, none of this silent-kill Indian craft. You bring him back alive and healthy. No tying anyone down on an anthill either. Understand?"
"Yano never tie enemy on ant hill. Perhaps tie down someone for wolves to find. Never use ant hill." It was never clear with Yano how many of the nasty things he talked about he had actually done and how many he had read about in those copies of Western Truth Magazine he's been reading. I put a lot of blame on that mission school he says taught him how to read.
I went back to the remains of the campfire, crawled into my bedroll and was soon asleep.
It must have been close to three in the morning when a foot nudged me awake. "Here is alive and healthy bad white man," said Yano's voice.
I sat up and took a look. Yano had thrown a couple of logs on the embers of the fire. In the light of the new flames, there stood Yano pointing his rifle at Wayne, the Taggart brothers' cousin. His hands were tied behind his back.
"It ain't what it looks like, Sheriff," said Wayne. For a supposed tough hombre, there was a lot of fear in his voice.
"You're saying you weren't planning a little private midnight massacre?" I said.
"No. I was coming to give myself up. You gotta protect me Sheriff. That she-devil is coming for me. Take me in to town. Lock me up. Get someone to guard the cell. Keep her away."
"Well I don't know," I said. "I can't lock someone up unless they've committed a crime. You got any suggestions?"
"Yeah, of course. I did it. I helped the Taggarts torch the Turgis place."
"Well, that confession will get you locked up, but it won't provide any guard. You'll be all alone in your cell all night. Anyone could break in the back door of the place in the middle of the night and administer some lead poisoning. Now if we were protecting a witness before a trial that would be a different matter."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Wayne was not exactly an intellectual giant.
"You and your cousins obviously didn't decide to burn down the Turgis place just for the fun of it. Somebody put you up to it. Now if you were willing to say who that was at that person's trial, we'd have to guard you ahead of the trial."
Wayne was silent for a couple of minutes mulling over his options in what passed for a brain. Was he more frightened of McLeelan or Nancy?
I guess he finally decided it was McLeelan as he said, "Okay, just take me in and lock me up. No need to guard me."
"Okay," I said, "but I'm kind of wondering just why a big mean hombre like you should be so frightened by a slip of a girl."
"That's no slip of a girl. That is a she-devil."
"So what happened?" I said.
"When we were sure the house was really burning, the Taggarts and I took off. We'd been told to head for the hills until things cooled down. We made it up into the foothills until it got too dark and we made camp. We figured we'd shaken anyone following. We were about to sack in when Slim Taggart sees this light way off in the distance. Just a flicker, but still a light.
"We figured it was a campfire and someone was on our trail. Slim and Willie talked it over. Slim was for saddling up and seeing how far we could get in the dark. Willie was for going back and killing whoever was tracking us. Willie won out. He rode out. Slim and I waited. After about fifteen minutes there were three shots. After a short pause there were two more shots.
"We waited. Twenty minutes later Willie's horse came walking into the light from the fire. His saddle was empty."
"Then what did you do?" I said.
"That empty saddle made us right uneasy. We tried to figure out who was following us and decided it must be that Turgis girl. We were sitting there discussing what to do next when the coffeepot exploded."
"Well it sounded like an explosion. The pot was sitting on a stone next to the fire and someone shot it. It jumped and overturned into the fire. That she-devil girl was out there with a rifle and could shoot right accurate. Slim went loco. He jumped up, grabbed his saddle and threw it on his horse. Off he goes hell for leather up the trail we'd been following. He couldn't have gone a hundred feet when he lets out this ghastly scream and I hear a crash like a body falling."
"So what did you do?"
"I figured that she-devil was out there in front of us. No way was I going to check on what had happened to Slim. I saddled up and started back the way we had come. With any luck there would be a posse following the girl. Lucky I found you."
"Well," I said, "we can't do much tonight. We'll check things out tomorrow. We might as well turn in for the rest of the night."
Yano disappeared and returned a few minutes later leading Wayne's horse. We trussed up Wayne to keep him out of trouble and we all turned in.
We were off at dawn with Wayne on his horse with his hands tied in front. Yano picked up the trail and we followed. About five miles further up into the hills we came across an interesting scene. Next to the ashes of a campfire there was a large log with a bunch of rocks piled along one side. Maybe fifteen feet from the log lay the body of a man face down.
I dismounted, went over and turned over the body. "Is that Willie?" I said to Wayne.
Yano had dismounted. He came over and looked at the body, the log and the campfire. He looked over at Ben. "Your sister have Cheyenne blood?"
"No, of course not," said Ben. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Old Cheyenne trick." Yano pointed at the log. "Cover log with blanket. Looks like sleeping man. Bad hombre come softly. Fire gun into blanket to kill sleeping man. Coyote Woman come up behind bad man. Kill him."
"Self-defense," I said, "definitely self-defense."
We loaded the body onto the back of Wayne's horse. "Show us the way to where you camped," I said to Wayne.
It was about a quarter mile up to where Wayne and the Taggarts had camped. There in the ashes of the fire was the coffeepot with a bullet hole plumb in the center of one side. Yano disappeared into the scrub and came back in a couple of minutes leading a saddled horse, obviously Willie's. We transferred the body to that horse.
"Now which way did Slim ride?" I asked Wayne.
Wayne pointed to an opening in the scrub that led to an open trail. I walked where he pointed. A hundred feet ahead I came upon another body, this one with a head that looked like it had been half twisted off.
"That Slim?" I said to Wayne.
Yano looked at the body and then looked around at the trees next to the trail. "Your sister have Apache blood?" he asked Ben.
"Of course not," said Ben. "Why does he keep asking me if she's part Injun?"
"Old Apache trick," said Yano. He pointed at one large pine beside the trail and then at another across from it. "See bark torn there?"
Sure enough, by looking closely, I could see a faint line circling each of the trees where the bark had been roughed up.
"Tie rope across trail at height of neck of man on horse. Frighten man. He ride hard. Neck snap easy like woman break kindling for fire."
"Well," I said, "that's one explanation. However, it sounds like Slim did saddle up in kind of a hurry. Might not have cinched the saddle up tight."
I turned to Yano. "See if you can find the horse."
Yano disappeared again and returned with Slim's mount. The saddle was hanging sideways on the horse. "Looks like that's what happened," I said. "He fell off his horse and hit his head on the ground. Accidental death."
We loaded Slim's body onto the horse.
"Now," I said to Wayne, "We need one more bit of information. Just who put you up to burning the Turgis house?"
"I can't tell you that," whined Wayne. "My life wouldn't be worth shit if he found out I'd squealed on him."
"You see any anthills on your way up here?" I said to Yano. "Lively ones full of those big red ants?"
Yano looked over at Wayne and smiled. "One quarter mile back," he said. He spread his hands. "Bigger than man's body."
The light was beginning to dawn in Wayne's thick skull. "Wait a minute. You wouldn't turn me over to that Injun. That's inhuman."
"You bring honey?" Yano said to me.
"No, but I have the rest of the syrup we didn't use on the flapjacks this morning,"
"Okay, okay," Wayne was almost shouting. "It was McLeelan. He set up the whole thing."
"Guess we should head over to his spread," I said. "Yano, lead the way."
* * *
Three hours later we were on the road leading to the McLeelan ranch. As we approached, three riders came towards us, riding hard. I held up my hand and they stopped.
"What's going on?" I said.
"That devil woman. That's what's going on. Told us to go packing. We've worked there three years. Just like that. 'Go packing. You're not needed anymore.'"
"What did McLeelan have to say about your leaving?" I asked.
"Nothing. Couldn't say much what with her holding a gun on him."
"Better get on your way," I said.
They took off and were out of sight in a minute.
We rode on and stopped our horses facing the ranch house. There on the porch sat two figures in rocking chairs. On the left was Nancy dressed in jeans and a leather jacket. On the right sat a very unhappy McLeelan in his wealthy rancher shirt and bow tie but solidly roped to his chair.
"I was wondering when you'd get here," said Nancy, not moving the rifle she was pointing at McLeelan. "Time to get some answers."
She started to get up but was interrupted by McLeelan. "Awfully glad to see you, Noflush. I need your help."
That statement was puzzling. How could Noflush help him?
"Good to see you, Sir," said Noflush in a voice that totally belied that statement.
"I'm calling in my chips," said McLeelan. "Please ask this young lady to untie me."
Suddenly all was clear. I had wondered why Noflush could keep losing big time at the poker table. McLeelan had been funding him. I wondered just how much this loser must owe the rancher.
"Just do as I ask," said McLeelan, "and your debt is cancelled. All square and even."
"Yes, Sir," said Noflush. He drew his gun and pointed it at Nancy. He was close enough so there was no chance he would miss if he fired. "Miss Nancy," he said, "toss that gun down on the floor." He nodded at me, Ben and Yano. "The three of you drop your guns on the ground or I shoot her."
There was nothing else we could do. We dropped our weapons into the dust.
"Now," said Noflush, "Nancy, I want you to untie Mr. McLeelan. And then I want—"
He stopped talking and looked down at the knife that was sticking in his chest. The gun fell out of his hand and he pitched out of his saddle onto the ground. He twitched once, a long shudder, then no longer moved.
I looked over at Yano. He was holding a second knife and grinning at me. "Only need one," he said.
"Yano," I said. "Throwing knives isn't an Indian skill. Tomahawks maybe, but not knives."
"Find ad in Western Truth Magazine. Learn to throw knives. Complete kit one dollar. White-man skills sometimes useful."
Nancy had retrieved her rifle and was again pointing it at the rancher. He made one more try at escaping her clutches. "Sheriff," he said, "as one of the foremost citizens of Dustville, I demand you have this woman untie me."
"I don't see any reason to interfere while you and Nancy work out your little problem," I said.
Nancy smiled at me and disappeared through the open door to the ranch house. Ten minutes later she emerged from the house followed by a cloud of grey smoke that billowed up from the doorway.
"You can't do that," shouted McLeelan. "That's arson. Sheriff, stop her."
I said nothing. Nancy went over, grabbed the rancher's chair by the back and dragged it into the house. She reappeared and called back through the open doorway. "Let me know when you're ready to talk."
McLeelan held out for about five minutes. We could hear him coughing and swearing inside. Finally he called out, "Alright, get me out of here."
Nancy went inside and dragged him back out. "Now," she said, "did you order the Taggarts and Wayne to burn down my home?"
"Yes." His voice was faint but it was a definite yes.
"Sheriff," said Nancy, "he's all yours."
I swung down from my horse. I was not looking forward to having McLeelan in my jail. Too many people in town owed him too much. Expensive slick lawyers would be plying Judge Framway's ear and pointing out all the errors I had made in making my case.
I was wondering how to get McLeelan back to town when a new voice interrupted me. "I don't mean to interfere with your prerogatives, but I think I have jurisdiction in this case."
"What?" I said. I turned and stared at Yano. The slouching hungover Indian had disappeared, replaced by a tall man with a badge on his chest that read U. S. Marshall.
"When the hell did you turn into a U.S. Marshall?" I demanded.
"Right after law school."
"And where did all that crazy Injun talk come from?"
"That's the way Indians talk in Western Truth Magazine," said the Marshall. "Part of my cover. It is amazing what you hear in a barroom when everyone thinks you are a passed-out drunk."
"You got to be a Marshall because you went to law school?" Ben asked.
Ben looked at his new hero with an expression heavy in the awe department. It was going to be difficult to keep him out of school in the future.
I had a sudden thought. "Nancy," I shouted, "shouldn't we be putting out the fire in the ranch house?"
"Not to worry." She disappeared into the house and returned in a moment. No further smoke came out the door. "The fire is out," she called. "I just built a fire in the fireplace and stuffed up the chimney with an old blanket I had. I just pulled the blanket out of the chimney."
The new Marshall walked over and looked down at the rancher. "Steven McLeelan, I am arresting you for violation of Federal Statutes relating to the unlawful accession of tribal lands." He then recited the code numbers of a half dozen laws. You didn't have to be a legal genius to figure that lot of violations added up to a goodly time in the slammer.
"You can't arrest me," shouted McLeelan, "I did everything according to law."
"Maybe your idea of the law," said the Marshall, "but not the Federal Government's. And, by the way, when we're done with you, there'll be a State charge of conspiring to commit arson waiting for you."
Yano looked over at Nancy. "Coyote Woman get day in court," he said.