Melvin Cody forded Dog Creek for the first time, took a short rest, and resumed his way. The Buckskin Mountains broke into long slopes where lush grassy meadows lay alternately with finger-shaped washes. An hour later, below the pine and spruce, he found the creek again, as Doc McLane told him he would. He put his gray on picket in a small flat of grass and made a meal of two doughgod biscuits and creek water. A small, chill wind moved against him and he drew his blanket in, sat and watched the sun break.
At this hour, the air was thin and clear. When Mel rose the strike of his spur on a creek side rock ran a sharp echo along the edge of timber. Shielding his eyes with his hat, Mel wondered if he was anywhere near where his father had once stood, wondered if it was the picture he'd had in mind when he'd said 'look to the country about, son.'
Twenty minutes later, using a broken wheel spoke, Mel kicked away two aggressive geese while he levered open the back door of Selwyn Church's house. He went into the low-ceilinged building with his stomach churning at the smell, reached for the first window and pushed it open. Then he opened all the windows in the other rooms and the front door.
As fresh air cleared the rooms, he had time to notice the old Hawken rifle in its rack above the lintel. Selwyn's soiled work-clothes were piled in a heap on the floor. An assortment of dirty pans and plates were stacked high on a table. There was a basin of murky water standing in a bowl and an iron pot that contained something that smelled bad. A side of bacon was hanging from a rafter, shiny and beginning to sour. None of it was that unusual: just everyday chores that Selwyn would have eventually gotten 'round to taking care of.
Mel cut down the flitch, gathered the obvious unwanted rubbish and took it all out back. He got some dry leaves and sticks and made a fire of the waste heap. He watched it burn before going back to get the dead man's clothes and other flammable bits and pieces. He drew some water from the well and tipped away the foul, standing juices. Then he went across a small clearing to Selwyn's barn.
The barn was about in the same mess as the house and reeked of soiled straw and horse piss. A few sacks of grain had been roughly split, the contents scattered along the fronts of the two horse stalls. Two saddles hung on wall hooks but it looked like only one was useable. The spread had been running down and, like a lot of settler folk, Selwyn Church had been chary of discarding anything that had some mileage left in it.
One of the horse corrals had a broken rail, another, fallen poles, but generally they were solid enough. Mel unsaddled his gray and turned it into the yard after fixing a low sapling bar. Then he hefted his possessions up into the barn loft. He worked for half an hour before he had a bagged-straw mattress, his spartan belongings piled into an empty fruit box. When he was satisfied that he'd gotten himself sorted out, he saddled up an inquisitive cow pony that came to greet him and went to inspect the rest of the Church property.
He got an impression of the land and its boundaries, made mental notes of the damaged fences, how the creek was silting up downstream. A long hour later back at the ranch house, he took an early pull of his whiskey and contemplated the work ahead.
Mel figured it would take him five, maybe six days to get the house and its immediate surroundings fixed and tidied. After an unhurried smoke he took off his shirt and grabbed an axe he'd found in a lean-to tool-shed. He went on to the slopes and, in the hot afternoon sun, he swung at timber. It was a task which he knew about and was skilful at. He soon had cut enough to make fence posts and repair the barn and corrals.
That night he slept a weary sleep, and was up at first light. He started work on the north wall of the barn, remaining at the job until the noon heat drove him upstream into the icy creek water. He rested for an hour and ate some more of his biscuit. This time though, he had them with wild onions and a goose egg. He found an unopened tin of condensed milk and some sugar and he made strong, sweet coffee. After his accustomed smoke, he started work again. Then at sundown, with his muscles jingling with the work of sawing and hammering, he stretched out on the porch to survey his labor. He watched the geese go for a lone heron probing the rushes for frogs. He was tired, but alert and more content than he'd been the night before.
He was sipping his whiskey from a tin mug when two riders came up from the creek. He sat in the dark shadows, only the intermittent glow from the tip of his cigarette marking his presence. He silently placed the mug at his feet and pinched out the tip of his smoke, then sat unmoving.
The riders came straight for the house. The geese hissed an alarm, but knew enough to stay away from the horses' hooves.
"Ol' Selwyn liked his grog. We might get ourselves lucky this night," one of the men said, as they pulled their horses up.
They were swinging from their saddles when Mel walked slowly to the doorway. Mel was light-footed, but his footfall made an ominous noise in the night silence. The two men stopped suddenly as they approached the porch steps and dropped hands to their side arms.
"Don't touch them guns," Mel demanded, remembering that he'd wound his waistband around his Colt and left it in the melon box. He stretched an arm up until he felt the breech of the Hawken above the door.
Alarmed and surprised, the men did as they were told. They looked hard at each other and backed off a pace.
"Who the hell's speaking, mister? This is Selwyn Church's place," the same man said. "We're neighbors, an' we know he ain't here."
"But you think his grog might be," Mel said." You were about to steal a dead man's bottle. Now the two of you move real slow while I get myself a little lamp going here. I wouldn't want to put a hole in someone's belly's when I meant to take their legs out, now would I?"
"Who the hell are you?" the other man growled.
"I'm the hired hand," Mel told him.
"Selwyn lived here alone. He never took on no hired hand."
"I'm working for his niece," Mel said flatly. "You staying on for that drink?"
The two men looked at each other again. In the shadows they could see Mel's raised arm or guess where he had his hand. After a few moments' thought, they backed toward their horses.
Mel remained very still. He could just see them climb aboard their mounts. "If you two ever come back, make sure it's daylight. I got an aversion to night riders . . . might just turn real unneighborly."
The man who'd spoke first sniffed and hawked. "We'll be back, daylight or not. I'm going to get you checked out, mister."
Mel drew back the hammer of the big-bored rifle, flinched as the deadly, metallic snap splintered the night. "I've changed my mind," he said. "Get off this land, an' don't ever come back."
The riders turned their horses. Mel watched until the ribbon of light broke as they crossed the creek downstream. They must have headed east, in the general direction of Casper Spool's land.
* * *
Casper Spool looked hard at his two hired hands. "So, the old coot has himself a niece, does he?"
"That's what he said, Mr. Spool. Said that was who he was working for."
"And who exactly was he?"
"Hired hand, he said. It weren't that friendly a meeting."
Spool frowned. "Well, what did he look like?"
"It was dark, Mr. Spool. You can't—"
"So you let him sweet-talk you? You never thought to bust him, just got your asses safely back here. Is that it?"
One of the two men showed surprise. "Hell, Mr. Spool, if you've ever heard the sound of a big rifle being cocked a few feet from your face in the dark, you don't stay around arguing."
Spool sighed wearily. In the last few days he'd realized just what a seedy and disorderly outfit he'd got on the payroll. Not so long ago he'd had good reliable men: rawhiders who knew their place, the way of things. But now he reckoned he was employing treacherous men who were getting the nod from Budge Miner rather than himself.
He looked up. In the light from his house lamps he saw Miles Beckman and Miner walking toward him. "These boys say there's a gun staked out on the Church place, Budge. Do you know anything about it?"
Miner shook his head. "Nope. I was in town most of yesterday. Today I been working the bottom country with Felix and Miles." He turned to the two men. "A gun, you say? Who the hell was he?"
"They didn't see him because of the dark, and they didn't get his name because he didn't tell," Spool mocked. "All they did was ride away and come straight back here." Spool looked out at the two men, but he didn't know them well, didn't even know their names. He was wearying of the task, of even giving Miner the responsibility of hiring new hands for the herding season.
"Tomorrow, we'll ride over and take a look at this feller," he told Budge firmly. "It's no secret I want that land. I suppose I'll have to go through Selwyn's niece to get it. We'll leave at sun-up, might even go on into town if the deal means me seeing her personal."
Spool turned back into the house. Miner followed, but the ranch owner was expecting it and closed his front door quickly. Miner pulled up short and his beaten face took on a heavier color. For a short moment, his eyes bored into the solid timber. Then he turned, and strode from the porch. He hurried across the yard with Miles Beckman close on his heels.
"Looks like you got the ticket away from Mr. Spool's gang, Budge," he said.
"Shut it," Miner snarled.
Outside the bunkhouse he turned sourly to Beckman. "Tomorrow, you an' Felix get that section cleared out. Drive the cattle down the wash. I'll go with Spool, try an' keep him busy 'til we get them beeves on the run for Yuma. I want no mistakes, Miles. Anybody gets wind of what's going on, tell 'em to see me. You're just carrying out ramrod's orders."
"We already got nigh on three hundred head, Budge," Beckman contended.
"So? We want another hundred, maybe two if we can get 'em. I'm not pulling out short if I can help it. Spool can afford it."
Beckman said nothing more, but stood watching in the looming darkness as Miner turned back toward the cookhouse.
Miner spent a quarter-hour tenderly bathing his face with brine water before he returned to the bunkhouse. His whole body hurt, and his mind turned to murderous thoughts. First, he was going to relieve his boss of four to five hundred head of good cattle. Then he'd drift, search out Melvin Cody, maybe even kill him.
Reba rose early. For two days, she'd ventured no further than the outskirts of Polvo Gris. Doc McLane had introduced her to many of the townspeople. Now, walking with the doctor to the livery stable, she was taking a different view on the town.
Her first reaction to it had been one of abject horror. From the window of the stage coach, she'd seen no redeeming features to the stark frontier town—nothing that could possibly appeal to her. Things seemed a little different now that she'd spent a few days here. The people who claimed friendship with her uncle she'd found kindly and sympathetic to her predicament. Perhaps the town was, after all, a likely place for her to settle.
Eager nervousness gripped her as she climbed into the rig that McLane had hired to go and visit the Church spread. Spending time with the doctor and Willow Legge had given her something to think about. Now that she owned something, she could consider things other than the fripperies of the drapery.
A more optimistic Reba Church drove out that morning with George McLane. As they waved to Willow and left the northern end of town, the sun burst through, lifted itself high across the distant Cactus Plain.
McLane waved an arm at the land ahead of them. "I keep thinking of this as Selwyn's place, but I guess it's yours now, Reba. Yeah, it's your place. It's set up high on the lush slopes, with Dog Creek running through it, and plenty of timber. Was a while back that I spent some time out there . . . doctor's rounds, you know. When that big sun hits the trees . . . " McLane stopped for a moment. "Oh yeah, it was pretty all right. Makes me wonder why I spend so much time in town."
"Because that's where the people are . . . who need looking after, I guess," Reba offered. "It must be good to have so many close friends. To have won their respect."
"Hmmm. There's times when I think I'd rather have won something else. An argument maybe? A seat on the State Legislature?"
"You're unhappy in Polvo Gris?"
McLane shrugged and flicked the reins. "Weary. Bored to tears, more like it. And that winning their respect's not quite what it seems. I know so many secrets and been told so much in confidence, it's difficult for most folk to be anything but respectful."
"What did you know about my uncle?" Reba asked, before McLane got to be too sentimental or personal.
"You're not going to like it, girl," McLane started uncertainly. "But then again it's only an accusation."
McLane watched the track ahead of them as they took a long shallow bend. He let the horse settle into an even gait. He pulled one of his cigaritos, thought about it and put it back. "Selwyn was accused of being a rustler . . . a cattle thief."
"I do know what a rustler is, Doc. Who accused him of being one?"
"A neighbor of his. Yours now."
As if by instinct, Reba's mind went back to her arrival in town, the fighting in the street. "You can tell me, Doc. I'm not for swooning . . . not anymore."
"Budge Miner was one of them. They claimed Selwyn stole some of your neighbor's cattle . . . had 'em corralled on his land."
"What neighbor?" Reba asked curtly.
"Casper Spool. Selwyn called them all liars. Miner tore into him. That was when our young Geronimo came along . . . stopped him being beaten up bad."
"What Geronimo? What do you mean?"
"I mean, Melvin Cody," he said sourly. "Sorry, the tag's not funny and it's nowhere near accurate either. He's just got some Indian blood in him," The doc took a deep breath, "And I really have got to tell you about him . . . very soon. Anyway, old Selwyn went for his gun. The shame of it was, he was killed before he could do any damage. Even the sheriff agreed."
The color drained from Reba's face and she held her hands tight as McLane continued.
"The upshot was your poor uncle lying dead in the street, and Mel Cody keeping the curs at bay until the sheriff arrived to jail him."
"He was the man in the street wasn't he?"
"That was him—the last one left standing," McLane grinned, almost chuckled.
"And he was jailed for helping my uncle? An old man who was bullied and outnumbered?" Reba asked.
"Yeah, that's the cruel irony. But that's not the fault of Brett Vaughn, Reba . . . not totally. Miner accused Cody of being in cahoots with Selwyn, so he reckoned he had to do something."
Reba screwed up her face. "What?" she said, dumbfounded. "The sheriff just 'reckoned he had to do something?' Didn't he know Selwyn?"
"I was getting to that, Reba. I'd seen this stranger riding into town earlier—about an hour later than Selwyn came by. I wanted the boy let out. Of course he weren't in cahoots with Selwyn. They'd never even seen each other before."
"How did he get out then . . . Melvin Cody?"
"Well that's the curious thing. Miner must have come up with something. It doesn't make much sense for what happened next."
Reba's concern showed, but she kept her silence.
"After he was let out, Mel came down the street, headed for Marcella's," the doctor went on, "and one of Miner's men dropped a rope around his shoulders. He got dragged off the boardwalk, near pulled under the stage you were on."
"Yes, I saw that part of the story and what happened next."
"Yeah, well then Rourke came along. He was gunning for Mel. There was no other way."
"Why doesn't that surprise me?" Reba said scathingly.
"What Mel Cody did lets him fight another day. And that's what will happen."
McLane stared into the distance as he answered. "Because it's him that's out at the ranch. Your ranch."
"I should have guessed. The good doctor's got me a gunman to chop firewood and mend fences."
"He's the man that sided with your uncle, Reba. He could have walked away. He didn't believe he had a choice. He's a good man."
"Yes, I know. I'm sorry, Doc. I didn't mean he wasn't."
"Do you think there'll be more fighting on my land?"
"Out here Reba, you've got to be ready for most things. I guess gun fights are just the worst of them." As he spoke, McLane drew rein and pointed ahead. "Just down there. Along the slope and we cut the creek again, then it's your land, Reba Church. Why don't you sit quiet now . . . take it in and just see if this isn't God's own country." McLane smiled warmly. "It's worth fighting for. Selwyn knew it . . . wouldn't be pushed off."
But Reba couldn't see much of the country that stretched out before her. She was fighting it well, keeping her emotions in check. From what the doctor had said, she was employing the man who'd shot someone dead in the middle of Polvo Gris's main street. It was true that Mel Cody had gone to the aid of her uncle. But if Cody stayed on her ranch, she too would be involved in neighbor trouble. She didn't know how to resolve the problem with the well-meaning doctor.
The rig worked its way across the shallow bed of the creek crossing, went rolling easily up the long slope. Through the noises of harness and rig Reba heard the carried sound of a hammer smacking into clout nails. Then, all of a sudden the house was before them. The mid-morning sun touched the grass and beamed into the pine and spruce that edged the slopes around the compact building. In spite of her troubled thoughts, Reba couldn't hold back a short intake of breath when she saw the color and richness of the land.
"Shame it's all got to be spoiled by ugly brutes of cows," she said.
"Not just the cows," McLane agreed.
Reba nodded, afraid to look at anything else lest Mel Cody appear. In her imagination, the man who'd tried to save her uncle had now reverted to the war-painted savages she'd encountered in dime novels.
"There's our man," McLane said and pointed off to the left.
Reba tried not to look but found her head coming about anyway. Mel Cody was striding across the long eastern slope, the long heft of an axe in his right hand, his cambric shirt tied loosely around his waist.
Reba tensed. McLane reached across and gripped her arm. "Cut him some slack," he said quietly. "It might not all go as badly as you think."
Reba shrugged from his touch. "It already is. I saw his eyes. The memory's come back. I didn't think it would."
"I told you, he's a good man, Reba. I know it," McLane said defensively.
"How can you know that? He didn't carry recommendations on him, did he?"
"Not all of us arrive with that, Reba. This is still a frontier, and there's other ways of reading a man. If you'll let me be blunt, ma'am, if you're aimin' to stay, maybe you should look at things as they actually are." Mel was close now, so he dropped the axe head to the ground and leaned on the heft. As the rig approached, he looked up at Reba and saw her blush of embarrassment
For Reba Church it was a curiously troubled moment. She was almost instantly moved by the contradiction of what she'd thought and what she saw.
"Hello there Mel. Miss Church has come to look at the house. You've been working off some aches, I see."
"Yeah, a few," Mel agreed, his eyes still on Reba. "But there's still a heap of work to do."
"Thank you for what you've done. What there's still to do . . . if you're interested . . . " Reba found herself saying, albeit haltingly. She tried again. "If you want the job for longer, I need the help."
Mel nodded in response. "I'll thank you for giving me the chance to stay, ma'am. Not for the work, though. I aim to earn my pay," he said.
* * *
McLane grinned indulgently. "You done good, Mel. But now we got things to talk about."
"It's going to get real hot out here. Why don't you get Miss Church's luggage, take her into the house, out of the sun an' away from them goddamn geese," Mel said. "I had some time an' made me a nest in the barn."
McLane considered Mel's choice of words, thought there might be another problem. He climbed down from the rig and offered a hand to Reba. Despite her obvious reluctance, he led her into the house. He could see she was uneasy and there were bits and pieces for her to look at. He left her there looking at what could be family mementos, then he returned to catch up with Mel who was lifting a pail of water onto a table outside the barn.
"You don't need to get close to sense the temperature she's blowing, Doc. So what exactly is it you've been telling her about me?" Mel asked.
"She's a draper's daughter, Mel. Young and impressionable too. She's not looked too long into this world. Give her time."
Mel shook his head. "She wants no part of this place, an' I reckon you knew it. But you want rid of Budge Miner so much, you ain't going to see it. That's what I think."
"Yeah, well that's as may be. But if that weren't enough, she lost her pa a few months back. There's no family left."
Mel held up and stared confusedly at McLane. "What the hell are you trying to do then? I thought doctors were supposed to help."
"They do. And that's exactly what I'm doing. Not just because somebody has to."
Using both hands, Mel rinsed his face. He rubbed his chest and shoulders, took a deep breath. "You better tell me then," he said, sputtering water.
"Casper Spool has always wanted the tail section of this spread, but Selwyn wasn't interested in selling.. So, accepting that Selwyn wasn't a cattle thief . . . which he wasn't, I reckon they killed him for it."
Mel untied his shirt. "How would they have got it?" he asked.
"A land sale . . . a settlement of property? I don't suppose there would have been any claim or opposition. But like most of us, Spool never reckoned on a niece turning up."
"Seems to me you're sending us out along a cracked branch on that reckoning Doc. What else you got on your mind?"
"Right now? those two riders," he said, nodding out at the green pasture.
Mel turned. A rider who was obviously running to fat was nearing the farm, sided by a grim-faced Budge Miner. Mel eyed them for a moment more, then stepped quickly into the barn. When he returned, he'd donned a long skin shirt. The Colt, which he placed on the table behind the water pail, was ready if needed.
"You going to throw pills, or do you prefer that I handle this?" Mel asked.
"I'm plum out of ammo, kid. You're on your own," McLane said with a friendly grin. "Let's move to the house to do our talking. That's Casper Spool riding with Miner and he knows better than to harm me. As for you Mel . . . ?" McLane let the words hang before continuing." Let me do the talking though. Maybe I can work my way round 'em."
They set off across the yard. Mel swore under his breath in aggravation. Miner and Spool were well out of the timber now and approaching the back of the house. McLane went on, but Mel held his ground. He stared hard at the two riders and saw the angry twitch of Miner's wounded jaw.
Spool gave a sharp signal with his right hand and Miner pulled his horse in behind his boss. Doc McLane stepped out from the front of the house with Reba alongside. She looked straight at Mel, and her eyes blazed when she saw he was now holding the gun down at his side.
Spool and his ramrod reined in, and the rancher removed his hat. He glanced speculatively at Mel before nodding at Reba.
"Ma'am. I guess you'll be Selwyn Church's niece," he said.
Spool gave a fleeting smile. "I'm Casper Spool," he said. "I'm known to the doc here, and vice versa, so we can get settled straightaway. Mine's the land that borders your lower slopes . . . the south boundary beyond the creek. It's regrettable what happened to your uncle, but—"
"Regrettable!" snapped McLane. "What in the name of God are you talking about? You sent those sons of bitches into town to gun down Selwyn. Four of 'em against one old man. Those always the sort of odds you go for, Spool?"
The muscles tightened in Spool's face and Budge Miner shifted in his saddle.
Mel leaned against the low veranda fence, placed his Colt on top of the hand rail. He deftly built himself a cigarette, but his casual stance suggested a man who'd just as soon hold a gun in his hand.
Spool prodded his horse a little closer to McLane. "This is between me and the girl. Butt out."
"That's where you're wrong, friend. You see, I'm advising and prescribing for Miss Church. And I will, until she says otherwise," McLane retorted. "She doesn't know you, and Selwyn was a friend of long standing. So I'm not going to stand by and let you cheat her out of this ranch or anything else."
Spool ground his teeth. "A thousand dollars isn't cheating. That's the deal I had with Selwyn . . . the deal he accepted. Now I'm offering fifteen hundred." Spool looked at Reba and smiled archly. "If you want to go on living here, that can be arranged. If you want to carry yourself with crops, play around with a horns-an'-bone herd, that can be arranged, too. But there's no percentage in being hasty about a thing like this. You can have until this evening."
"You're wasting your time, Spool. Yours, mine and hers. So why don't you take that bag of buffalo guts that rode in with you and go home."
Spool backed up his horse a few paces, and Miner came forward to join him.
"Don't push your luck, ol' feller," he threatened while taking a quick, sideways glance at Mel.
"Habit from most of a lifetime. It was something I learned at Chickamauga," McLane told him. "There was no other way then and no other way now. And talking of those who push their luck, why don't you clear off this land? There's some of us got work to do."
Mel flicked away his cigarette butt and flexed the fingers of his right hand. He was ready to move. Both Miner and Spool saw the slight movement.
"We taking ultimatums from these two, boss? An ol' quack an' a 'breed drifter?" Miner questioned sourly. "Why don't we teach 'em a lesson right here . . . deal with the girl after? She looks to me like a filly that don't like heat an' flies bothering her. Reckon she'd prefer town, with its comforts."
"If the lady wants you to stay, she'll invite you to get down. If not, she won't." Mel turned to Reba and asked, "You want 'em to stay, ma'am?"
Reba shook her head slowly. "No. I would prefer it if they left," she said.
Mel tensed like a mountain lion and his eyes gleamed. "You heard," he said with fearsome menace. "The lady's given her orders. Now why don't you an' manure mouth do as the doc suggests, an' ride off?"
"Yeah, why not? It's over, Spool. There's nothing more for you here." McLane said, and took Reba's arm, guiding her back along the short veranda. But Reba had begun to tremble at the ultimatums and she stopped when they got to the doorway.
"No," she protested. "I want to see what sort of neighbors they really are." Miner cursed and kicked a heel into the belly of his horse, grabbing for the revolver at his waist.
He'd hardly cleared the leather of his holster before Mel flashed his hand to his own Colt. In an instant, he had the blue steel barrel pointing up into Miner's startled, overwhelmed face.
The blur of movement brought a gasp then a low oath from Spool. "You're real adept with that gun, Mister Cody. Not your everyday plough chaser."
Mel smiled grimly at Miner, "Yeah I know. Must come as a real surprise. My pa once told me never to pull a gun unless I aimed to use it. He never told me about exceptions, though. I guess I'll have to learn as I go along. You want to risk it, you big, ugly son-of-a-bitch?"
Miner snorted loudly and shifted in his saddle. He was fighting down an urge to rush Mel, but it was a doomed challenge and his shoulders slumped. "There'll be another time, Cody," he muttered, drawing his hand away from the holster. "You ain't finished with me."
"Clear off," Mel said. "If there is a next time, I'll set the geese on you." He crooked his arm and, against his thumb, opened and closed the forefinger of his right hand, hissed between his teeth in goosey derision.
* * *
Mel stood watching as the Spool pair moved off. Not until they disappeared into the first stand of pine did he move away from the house. Without another word from Reba or Doc McLane, he'd heard the front door close. On his way to the barn, his forehead was creased. He knew there was going to be trouble with Miner, but it didn't overly concern him. He was bothered by the opinion Reba Church had formed of him. He was put out because she'd seemed to take it for granted that he'd fight for her. Perhaps he'd have to reconsider his position. He wasn't the only one who could close a door on something he didn't like the look of.
He went into the barn, was muttering as he climbed the ladder to his lofty lair.