The Key-Lock Man

The man called Key-Lock was a man alone, and before him lay wilderness. Behind him were searching men, and each was armed, each carried a rope. Each rope was noosed for hanging, and each man was intent on the purpose of the chase.

The solitary rider did not fear his aloneness, for he had the companionship of the mind. He had strength also, patience beyond that of most men, and some knowledge of the wild lands into which he rode. If the men who pursued knew nothing of him he at least knew their kind, and was stronger because of this.

They were men shaped and tempered to the harsh ways of a harsh land, strong in their sense of justice, ruthless in their demand for punishment, ruthless in pursuit. In the desert and the wilderness they had built their homes, and from the desert and the wilderness they drew their courage and their code. And the desert knows no mercy, the wilderness no kindness.

Before the man called Key-Lock lay a land fragmented and torn, a magnificent land, gnarled and ancient. It was a land of shattered battlements, broken towers, and the headless figures of vast and shapeless gods. An empty land, yet crowded with epics in stone, harried by wind and thunderstorm, ripped by flash floods, blistered by summer's heat, frozen by winter's cold.

He rode now in Arizona, but beyond the horizon to the north lay Utah, and between himself and the border, a desert. Between himself and escape--if he chose to escape--lay an almost waterless waste in which he must trust to his ingenuity to keep him free.

The border lay ahead, but the border was merely a line on a map, and did not exist in the minds of the men who pursued him. If they knew of this border, it would have no place in their thinking for to them he had already crossed another border, a border between the law and the lawless, between the right and the wrong, between what was done and what was not done.

To kill a man who faced you with a gun was in their minds no crime, nor was it a crime in the customs of their period. In the East and in Europe men settled affairs of honor with pistols, but according to plan and ritual. In the West, in what was a new world, where men were often strangers to each other, the settling of such an affair was immediate, and without ritual.

To shoot a man in the back, however, was a crime, and this they believed he had done, and for this he must be hung.

But it was not enough for the man called Key-Lock to understand the philosophy of the hunters; the important thing for him was to escape them.

"Where's he bound?"

"Home, more'n likely. He'll need an outfit if he aims to run far . . . if we don't get to him first."

"Where's he live?"

"He was a stranger, and had no trail outfit with him. Over to the store they said that when he taken out to get away, the one thing he latched onto was a woman's comb."

"A comb?"

"Seems daft, but that's what was told us. One of those fancy combs like Spanish women wear in their hair. He rummaged through all that grub and truck in the store just for that."

Kimmel's eyes narrowed against the sun's hard glare. "He's got him a good horse. Moves right along."

"Big buckskin," Chesney said. "I seen the horse. Wears a Key-Lock brand. A key alongside a keyhole--never seen it before."

"He's no tenderfoot." Chesney expressed the thought Hardin held. "He's covering ground , but he knows how to save a horse, and he knows wild country."

The trail lay straight before them. Only at clumps of rock or thorny brush did it swerve. Like a thrown lance, it seemed to thrust at the distant heart of the hills. The six men of the posse rode warily, their thoughts uneasy about what lay in the mind of the man they pursued.

"What started it?" one of them asked now.

In the vast hollow of silence the words hung empty and alone.

Hardin turned his head in the manner of a man who rides much in the wind, and let the words drift back.

"Loose talk. He was buyin' grub in the Bon Ton an' took offense at something Johnny said. Johnny was wearin' a gun an' the Key-Lock man wasn't, so Johnny told him to go fill his hand or he'd hunt him down anyway.

"Johnny was in the saloon when he came back an' pushed the door open an' shot Johnny twice in the back whilst he stood drinkin' at the bar. Third shot busted a bottle of whiskey."

After a moment's silence , Neill asked slyly, "We hanging him for killing Johnny, or for busting the whiskey?"

It was a fair question, but the dignity of the riders and their mission was not to be lightened by humor. They offered no reply, nor any acknowledgment that he had spoken.

"Who saw the shooting?" Neill asked.

"Nobody saw it, actually. Sam was tendin' bar, but he was down at the other end and it happened too fast. But this Key-Lock man couldn't have given Johnny a chance. Johnny was too good with a gun."

Johnny, Neill recalled, was far better than just good with a gun. He was damned good, and prided himself on the fact. Neill felt a twinge of uneasiness, and then a faint sense of guilt that he should for an instant doubt anything that was said of Johnny; but he couldn't help recalling that Johnny was a little less then friendly to strangers.

"Will you know him if you see him, Kimmel?" Chesney asked.

"He's a big man, maybe on the lean side, but strong-made. Maybe thirty-five. No hand to talk about his business, but over to the store where he did his buying folks said he shaped up like a mighty hard piece of merchandise."

Chesney himself was a wiry man with strong brown hands. He was hard as a whipstock, with bits of sharp steel for eyes. He was a good man and a good neighbor, but there was no give in him. He was stubborn in his opinions and a driver, pushing hard on himself and all about him. He had been the first to reach Neill's place that time when a prairie fire threatened.

Kimmel had been a close second, racing his wagon as if it was a buckboard, and it was filled with sacking already wet, and with shovels. Last year when Hardin was laid up with a broken leg, Kimmel fed Hardin's stock and his own too, all through a hard winter, and he had a long ride every day to do it.

Chesney and Johnny had been saddle partners on the old Squaw Mountain round-ups, and when Chesney drove his small herd into this part of the country, Johnny had come along to see him through, then located a place of his own and stayed on.

Johnny Webb had been a dare-devil and a hellion, but he was well liked for all of that. He laughed a lot, played practical jokes, and was ready to break a horse for anybody just for the hell of it. He was fast with a gun, and no man was likely to beat him in a fair, stand-up shooting.

Now Johnny Webb was gone, Johnny with his laughter and his jokes, brightening more than one day's work on the range. And Neill was feeling guilty at remembering that he had never really liked Johnny, and that there had been strain between them when Neill first came into this part of the country. It was only after Chesney accepted him, and after Johnny apparently realized that Neill was not a potential rival that a sort of friendship developed.

Johnny might have been a little overanxious with that gun, Neill thought, but he deserved something better than a shot in the back.

Neill mopped his brow, and wiped the sweatband of his hat. He thought of his wife and the milk she kept in a stone jug in the wall. It would taste almighty good about now.

Suddenly he looked at the sun. It had been on the left, but now it was on the right, for the trail had swerved sharply. Hardin, who was riding point, swore.

Riding up beside him, the men found themselves looking into a draw that cracked the desert's face only a few rods away. There was a place where a horse had been tethered, and a bit of white fluttered from a rock.

Chesney rode down into the draw to pick it up, and they heard him swear again. Scrambling his horse back up the draw, he passed the paper to Hardin. It looked like a leaf torn from a tally book. On it a message was scrawled.

That was a fair shootin anyway six ain't nowhars enuf. go fetch more men. man on the gray better titen his cinch or heel have him a sore backed hoss.

The note was unsigned.

"Why, the low-livin' skunk!" Short spoke half under his breath. "Not forty yards off, and him with a rifle."

Neill, his face flushed with anger, was tightening his cinch. Nobody appeared to notice him; they were as embarrassed as he was himself. The note was an insult to them, even if the advice was good.

They were angry men, but they were frightened men, too. It gave them an eerie feeling to realize that the man they were hunting had been lying within easy range, close enough to kill one or more of them before they could either attack or take shelter.

The man was playing Injun with them, and they did not like it. Their dignity was offended, but more than that, they realized they had been grossly negligent. They had taken it for granted the man was out there in front of them, running.

"Fair shootin', hell!" McAlpin said. "Right in the back!"

They went ahead now with increased caution.

Now the trail took them into the bottom of a wash where the fitful puffs of wind they had met occasionally on the flat desert were gone. The wash was an oven, its floor and walls reflecting savage heat. They seemed to be riding through flames that seared and burned. Eyes smarting from the salt of their sweat, skin itching from the dust that caked the stubble on their jaws, they clung to the trail.

Suddenly the wash turned into an apron of sand that went down into the vast basin of a dry lake, white with alkali. Yet the lake was not entirely dry, for in the center was a sheet of water, the result of recent rains. The dead water was heavy with alkali.

The man called Key-Lock had ridden his horse into the water. The tracks were there, and they stared at them, blinking the sweat from their eyes.

"He daren't ride across that," Hardin commented. "Out there in the middle it would be too deep, and he could bog down."

Their party split, three circling the lake in either direction, seeking tracks. They had gone only a few hundred yards when Neill glanced back to see Chesney's uplifted arm, calling them back. He had found where the horse and rider had left the water.

The ruse was a simple one, but it was a delaying tactic that gave advantage to the pursued. Neill felt his anger rising. The man was playing them, playing them like a fish on a line.

The line of hoof prints veered sharply to the left, pointing through thick brush toward the shoulder of the mountain.

"Where the devil's he goin'?" Chesney demanded irritably. "This doesn't make sense."

No one answered him. Strung out in single file, they rode on, sagging with weariness. Suddenly Kimmel, who was in the lead now, pulled up short. Before them a thread of water trickled from the rocks into a basin of stones.

"I'll be damned for a coyote!" Hardin exclaimed. "I never knew this was here."

Kimmel swung down, and the others followed. "I can use a drink," he said. Indicating the small stone basin, he added, "Somebody put in a sight of work here. This hasn't been build long."

Hardin had been scouting around, studying the tracks, old and new. All were made by the same horse and the same man. "Fixed it himself. Wonder how he located it in the first place?"

"Looks to me like he knows this country," Short said.

Hardin chuckled, eyes glinting with a hard humor. "We hooked onto a real old he-coon, boys. This one's from the high timber. Now, we know it takes no time for a man and a horse to drink, but it takes a while for six horses and six men to drink. That little basin will need time to refill before we can all water up."

"He ain't missed a trick," Kimmel said.

"D'you think he'll stand and make a fight of it?" McAlpin asked.

"He'll fight," Chesney said. "This one will fight, and I hope he does."

Hardin shot him a glance. "You read that sign like I do?" he asked quietly. "If you do, you know what's comin'."

Neill put his tongue to dry lips. He looked from one to the other. A change had come over them now, and fear touched him with cold fingers.

This man was sure of himself. He had told them it was a fair shooting, but that note had been a warning if anything ever was. The fact that he could have had them within easy range told them what he might have done. He could have shot them like fish in a barrel, but when he chose to fight he would choose his ground, and theirs.

Neill was no coward, but when he thought about his wife alone on the ranch, he felt sick. He might die today, and she could never make it alone. She would have to give up the ranch, and all their plans together.

We could quit, Neill thought. We could quit now before it's too late.

But he did not speak this thought aloud, nor would any other the others, even if they thought it. Something had been started, and they must carry it through. The law must not be flouted, the sinful must pay for their sins.

Into the minds of each man crept an uneasy thought: Sooner or later he would have them where he wanted them, and then what? How many would die?

But now their pride was involved, their pride as well as their code, and their code said that for a life taken as Johnny's had been, a life must be paid.

Neill's thoughts turned again to his wife. She would be feeding the baby now, wondering where he was, and keeping the food warm. None of them had expected this to be anything but a short chase, with perhaps a brief gun battle at the end.

Regretfully, Neill realized that now it might be a week before he got home--if he ever did.