Hondo

He rolled the cigarette in his lips, liking the taste of the tobacco, squinting his eyes against the sun glare. His buckskin shirt, seasoned by sun, rain, and sweat, smelled stale and old. His jeans had long since faded to a neutral color that lost itself against the desert.

He was a big man, wide-shouldered, with the lean, hard-boned face of the desert rider. There was no softness in him. His toughness was ingrained and deep, without cruelty, yet quick, hard, and dangerous. Whatever wells of gentleness might lie within him were guarded and deep.

An hour passed and there was no more dust, so he knew he was in trouble. He had drawn up short of the crest where his eyes could just see over the ridge, his horse crowded against a dark clump of juniper where he was invisible to any eye not in the immediate vicinity.

The dust had show itself, continued briefly, then vanished, and that meant that he also had been seen.

If they were white men fearful of attack, they were now holed up in some arroyo. If they were Apaches, they would be trying to close in.

He studied the terrain with care. Patience at such a time was more than a virtue, it was the price of survival. Often the first to move was the first to die.

Hondo Lane took out the makings and built another cigarette. When he struck the match he held it well back in the foliage of the juniper. He drew deep on the cigarette, returning his attention to the terrain.

The rough-looking mongrel dog that followed him had lowered himself into the soft earth beneath another juniper a dozen yards away. The dog was a big brute, gaunt from running.

There were junipers beyond the ridge. Hondo Lane crossed the ridge into the junipers and hesitated briefly, studying the country. His every instinct told him those riders had been Apaches and that they were somewhere close by. Yet the dog had given no sign.

He slid his Winchester from its scabbard and rode with it across the saddle, keeping his horse to a walk. He went down the slope to the river, knowing there was no way of avoiding crossing. He used every bit of cover and changed direction frequently. The dog went along with him and together they crossed.

As the buckskin went up the bank, Hondo heard the twang of a bowstring and felt the buckskin bunch its muscles under the impact of the arrow. As the horse started to fall, Hondo Lane rolled free.

He hit the sand on his shoulder and rolled swiftly behind a drift log. When he stopped rolling he was looking past the butt end of the log with is rifle in position. He saw a movement of brown and his finger tightened and the rifle leaped in his hands. He heard the whop of the striking bullet and saw the Apache roll over, eyes wide to the sun.

As he fired, he moved, getting into a new position in course grass with almost no cover. And then he waited.

A fly lighted on the back of his hand, he heard the sound of water running over stones. Around him were the gray bones of a long dead tree.

There was no movement; only a small bird started to land in a clump of brush, then veered away. He fired suddenly into the brush, spacing his shots. He heard a faint gasping cry and fired again at the same spot. He saw a moccasin toe dig spasmodically into the sand, then he saw it slowly relax.

Two Indians, or more? He lay still, ears alert to sound. A tiny lizard appeared on a branch near him and stared, wide eyed. He dried a palm, then flicked a stone into the brush twenty feet away. He heard it fall, and no sound followed.

Probably not more that two. His mouth felt dry and he dearly wanted a drink. Yet he waited, wanting to take no chance, and knowing too well the patience of the Apache.

Only after several minutes did he ease away from the log and circle to get a better look. The Apache lay still, his lower back bathed in blood that glistened redly in the hot afternoon sun. Hondo Lane got to his feet and moved closer. The bullet had struck the Indian in the chest. Lowering the butt of his rifle, Hondo took off his hat and mopped his brow with a handkerchief. He looked again at the sprawled brown body of the Indian, then glanced over at the other. Both are dead. . . and this was not a good place to be.

The dog stopped under a tree and lowered himself to the ground, watching him. Hondo glanced at his dead horse, then stripped it of saddle, bridle, and saddlebags. It was a load, but swinging them together, he shouldered them and started off through the trees.

Reaching the stream at a bend, Hondo Lane walked into the water on an angle that pointed upstream. When he was knee-deep he turned and walked downstream, then emerged and kept to rocks along the stream. He used every device to hide his trail, changing his direction with the skill of an Apache, and finally he reached a ridge, which he followed, just below the crest.

The sun sank and the long shadows crept out from the hills, but Hondo Lane did not rest. He moved on, checking distance by the stars, and continuing along the ridge. When he had walked two hours into the night, he finally lowered his heaving burden to the ground and rubbed his shoulder.

He had come to a halt in a tiny circle of rocks among scattered pinons. Unrolling his blankets beneath a tree, he made a quick supper of a piece of hardtack and jerked beef. Then he rolled in his blanket and slept.

At dawn he was awake. He did not awaken gradually, but his eyes opened quickly to consciousness and he listened, then glanced at the dog. It lay some yards away, head resting on paws. Hondo relaxed and swiftly rolled his blankets.

He built a small fire under a pinion so what little smoke there was would be diffused by rising through the branches. He made coffee, ate more jerky and hardtack, then eliminated all evidence of his fire. Carefully he removed evidence of his resting place and tracks. Then, shouldering his saddle and saddlebags he started along the ridge.

The morning air was fresh and cool. He walked with a steady stride, rarely pausing to rest. At midmorning he heard birds chirping and went toward the sound. A shallow basin in the rock held water. He dropped to his belly and drank, then moved back, and the dog moved in, lapping the water gratefully, but with eyes wary.

Among the rocks near the water Hondo Lane smoked a cigarette and studied the country. There was no movement but an occasional buzzard. He drank again, then shouldered his saddle and moved on.

Once he stopped abruptly. He had found the old track of a shod horse. The track was days old, and from its appearance had been made before the rain. Little was left but the indentations. Thoughtfully he studied the terrain around him. It was an extremely unlikely place for a rider to be.

Shouldering his burden once more, Hondo backtrailed the hoof marks, finding two more tracks, then losing them on lower ground where the rain had washed them out. Finally, making a guess, he quartered on his route and cut across the shallow valley, moving toward a place of vantage from which he could see the country. Suddenly the dog stiffened.

Hondo eased himself back to the ground. There was sparse grass where he lay, a few scattered chunks of rock. He lowered his saddle among the rocks and lay perfectly still. The dog, a few yards away, lay absolutely immobile. He growled, low and deep.

"Sam!" Hondo's whisper was quick, commanding. The growl subsided.

Several minutes he lay still, and then he heard the movement. There were nine Apaches, riding in a loose bunch, heading in a direction roughly parallel to his own. He lay still, avoiding looking directly at them for fear of attracting their attention.

Nine. At this distance he wouldn't have a chance. He might get three or four before they hit him, and then that would be all. Nor was there any shelter here.

He listened to their movement. They did not talk. He heard the rustle of the horses, through the coarse growth, an occasional click of hoof on stone. And then they were gone.

He lay still for several minutes, then got up and cut across their trail, still occupied with those shod hoof tracks. They had all been made at the same time. This meant a white rider had spent some time in the area. He might still be there. One horse could mean another.

A few miles farther and suddenly the cliff broke sharply off and he was looking into a deep basin at the bottom of which lay a small ranch. It was green, lovely, and peaceful, and with a sigh he started down the slope, walking more slowly.

Below him, near the worn poles of the corral, a small boy was playing. Suddenly, attracted by some sound, he lifted his head and looked up the slope at the descending man.

"Mommy! Mommy!"

A woman came to the door of the cabin, shading her eyes against the sun. Then she walked out to the child and spoke to him, and together they watched the man on the hillside. He walked still more slowly, the fatigue of the long days and his heavy burden at last catching up with even his iron strength. She hesitated, then turned quickly and walked back to the cabin.

Hanging in a holster from a peg on the cabin wall was a huge Walker Colt. She lifted the hefty weapon from its holster and walked back to the door, placing it under a dish towel on the table were it would be immediately available.

She put her hand on the child's head. "You let Mommy do the talking," she said quietly. "Remember!"

"Yes, Mommy."

Hondo reached the bottom of the slope and walked slowly toward the cabin. As he drew near his eyes went from the house to the corrals and the open-face shed that sheltered an anvil, a forge, and a few tools. Not even the presence of the woman and child in the doorway dispelled his suspicion.

"Remember," the woman whispered, "no talking."

Hondo lowered his saddle to the ground under the shed and took off his hat as they walked toward him. He mopped his face. "Morning, Ma'am. Howdy, son."

"Good morning. You look like you've had trouble."

"Yep. I lost my horse while I was gettin' away from Indians a few days ago. Made a dry camp above Lano last night." He gestured toward the dog. "Then Sam here smelled Apaches, so I thought I'd make some more miles."

"But why? We're at peace with the Apaches. We have a treaty."

Hondo ignored her comment, looking around at the stables. There were several horses in the corral. "Yes, ma'am, and now I've got to get me a new horse -- borrow or buy one. I'll pay you in United States scrip. I'm ridin' dispatch for General Crook. My name's Lane."

"I'm Mrs. Lowe. Angie Lowe.

"Can you sell or hire me a horse, Mrs. Lowe?"

"Of course. But I've only got the plow horses and two that are only half broken. The cowboy that was training them for me got hurt and had to go to town."

They walked toward the corral together. Two of the horses were obviously mustangs, wild and unruly. Hondo Lane moved around, studying them carefully. Both were good animals.

"I'm sorry my husband isn't here to help you. He's up in the hills working some cattle. He would pick this day to be away when we have a visitor."

"I'd enjoy meetin' him, ma'am." He glanced toward the boy, who was walking toward Sam. "I wouldn't pet that dog, son. He doesn't take to petting. And now ma'am, if you'll allow me, I'll give those horses a try."

"Of course. And I'll get you some food. I imagine you're hungry."

Lane grinned. "Thank you. I could eat."

Lane hesitated before going to the corral. There was work that needed to be done around here. The little things that are done by a man constantly living around were undone. He rolled a smoke and lighted it, then leaned on the corral bars. The two mustangs moved warily, edging away from the man smell and the strangeness. There was a lineback that he liked, a dusky, powerful horse, still wearing his shaggy winter coat.

Lane went through the bars and into the corral, rope in hand, cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. The horses moved away from him, circling against the far side of the small corral. He watched them moving, liking the action of the lineback, and studying the movements of both horses.

He talked quietly to the horses and dropped his cigarette into the dust. He was conscious that the boy was perched on the corral, watching with excitement. Dust arose from the corral, and he shook out a loop. The lineback dun tossed his head and rolled his eyes, moving away from the threat of the loop.

Hondo smiled, liking the horse's spirit. He spoke softly, then moved in. When he made his throw it was quick, easy, and deft. Leading him to the corral bars, Hondo talked softly to him, stroking his neck and flanks. The mustang shied nervously, then began to quiet down.

Making no quick movements, Hondo walked to the bars and crawled through. When he had his saddle and bridle he walked back, dropped them near the horse, talked to him a little, and then after rubbing his hand over the dun's back he put the saddle blanket on him. Then the saddle. The horse fought the bit a little, but accepted it finally.

Once, glancing toward the house, he saw Angie Lowe watching from the doorway.

Leaving the saddle and bridle on the horse so the animal could get used to them, Hondo left the corral. He stood beside the boy, letting his eyes trace the line of the hills. It was amazing to find this woman and her child here, in Apache country.

Suddenly curious, he walked toward the stable, then circled around the bank of the stream and back to the house. The only horse tracks entering or leaving since the rain were his own. Thoughtfully he studied the hills again, and, turning, walking back to the house.

"There was a tin washbasin on a bench beside the door, a clean towel and a bar of homemade soap beside it. Removing his hat and shirt, he washed, then combed his hair. Donning the shirt again, he stepped inside.

"Smells mighty good, ma'am," he said, glancing at the stove. "Man gets tired of his own fixin'."

"I'm sorry my husband picked today to go hunting those lost calves. He would have enjoyed having a man to talk to. We welcome company."

Lane pulled back a chair and sat down opposite the plate and cup. "Must be right lonely here. Specially for a woman."

"Oh, I don't mind. I was raised here."

Sam came up to the door and hesitated, then came inside, moving warily. After a minute he lay down, but he kept his attention on Hondo. He seemed somehow remote and dangerous. There was nothing about the dog to inspire affection, except, perhaps, his very singleness of purpose. There was a curious affinity between man and dog. Both were untamed, both were creatures born and bred to fight, honed and tempered fine by hot winds and long desert stretches, untrusting, dangerous, yet good companions in a hard land.

"What can I feed your dog."

"Nothin', thanks. He makes out by himself. He can outrun any rabbit in the territory."

"Oh, it's no trouble at all." She turned back to the shove and picked up a dish, looking around for scraps.

"If you don't mind, ma'am. I'd rather you didn't feed him."

Curiously she looked around. The more she saw of this man, the more she was impressed by his strangeness. Yet oddly enough, she felt safer with him here. And he was unlike anyone she had ever know, even in this country of strange and dangerous men. She had the feeling that he was a man that lived in continual expectation of trouble, never reaching for it, yet always and forever prepared. Her eyes dropped to the worn holster and the polished butt of the Colt. Both had seen service, and the service of wear and use, not merely years.

"Oh, I think I understand. You don't want him to get in the habit of taking food from anyone but you. Well, I'll just fix it and you can hand it to him."

"No, ma'am. I don't feed him either."

When her eyes showed their doubt, he said, "Sam's independent. He doesn't need anybody. I want him to stay that way. It's a good way."

He helped himself to another piece of meat, to more potatoes and gravy.

"But everyone needs someone.'

"Yes, ma'am." Hondo continued eating. "Too bad, isn't it."

She moved back to the stove and added a stick of wood. She was puzzled by him, yet there was a curious attraction, too. Was it simply that he was a man? That the woman in her needed his presence here? That the place had been needing a man too long?

"You're a good cook, ma'am." Hondo pushed back from the table and got to his feet.

"Thank you." She was pleased, and showed it. She smoothed her one good apron with her hands.

"A woman should be a good cook."

He walked to the door and hesitated there, looking over the yard, then at the trees, the arroyo, and finally the hills. As he did this he stood just within the door, partly concealed from outside by the doorjamb. Then he put on his hat, and turning he said, "I'm a good cook myself."