North to the Rails
They could call it running away if they wanted to, but it made no sense to kill a man, or risk being killed over something so trivial. He had never used a gun against a man, and did not intend to begin now.
He glanced back, but the town lay far behind him, and there seemed to be no reason for pursuit.
Dawn would be breaking soon, and they would be expecting him on the street to face Dutch Akin, and Dutch would certainly be there, right in the middle of that Las Vegas street, a gun ready to his hand.
He had been a fool to come west, even on business. But how could he have imagined he would run into trouble? Though he rarely took a drink, and was not inclined to argue, he had taken a drink while waiting for either Pearsall or Sparrow, and he had gotten into an argument.
What would they say when they realized he was gone? When he failed to appear? At the thought, his ears reddened and he felt uncomfortable.
To hell with them! It was better to be a live coward than a dead hero. Coward. . . the word rankled. Was he a coward? Had he been afraid?
He seemed to feel his father's eyes upon him -- those cool thoughtful eyes that knew so well how to measure a man and judge what he had in him.
His father had been a cattleman, reasonably successful by any man's standards, but then had come the great freeze-up, and when the snow melted his father was a poor man. Cattlemen could always get credit, and when they sold their herds they paid up; only Pa had no herd to sell.
The men of the town respected him, knew he had a family to feed, and they also knew that he was a man good with a gun, so they offered him the job of town marshall.
For six years he ran the town, and kept it free of serious trouble. He rarely had to draw his gun, and several times he held his fire to give the other man a chance to drop his, and they usually did--all but one.
That man elected to fire. . . and missed. Borden Chantry did not miss.
That was the shooting that led to his death, for the men who came up the trail to kill him were friends of the dead man, and they staged the ambush that wiped out Borden Chantry.
Tom Chantry touched his horse with a spur. It would soon be light and he wanted to be far away before they discovered he was gone. He had been a fool to come west in the first place. Both Ma and Doris had tried to talk him out of it, but there was a shortage of beef in the East and he had argued with Earnshaw that they could buy it on the plains. No use dealing with a middleman.
Doris' father was Robert Earnshaw. He had been quick to recognize the profit to be had it Tom Chantry could go west, buy cattle on the plains and ship them east. Tom had come west with his blessing.
A cattleman told him of a herd that was being held outside of Las Vegas, New Mexico. The owners, Pearsail and Sparrow, had been holding the cattle to speculate, but now were in a bind for money. Tom Chantry had immediately left for Las Vegas, sending a message ahead to make the appointment with the prospective sellers.
He had gone to the saloon where Sparrow had said they would meet. Dutch Akin had come in, bumping him hard as he lurched up to the bar, then turning to glare at him with a muttered reference to a "dude."
Tom Chantry ignored the rudeness. He edged over a little without seeming to do so, giving Akin more room.
Chantry had finished his drink, hesitated, then ordered another. He had not eaten since early that morning and knew that he should not have that second drink, but he was embarrassed to stay at the bar without ordering.
By the time he had finished his drink Sparrow had not come, so he started to turn away from the bar. Without warning a rough hand grasped his shoulder.
Akin was grinning at him. "Dude, diden you hyar me? I invited you to drink wi'me."
"Sorry, I didn't hear, but I've had enough, thank you."
"`I've had enough, thank you.'" Akin put his hand on his hip and aped the words in a falsetto; then his voice changed. "I'll tell you when you've had enough! Now belly up to the bar an' drink!"
It was foolish. A ridiculous situation. Tom Chantry was irritated with himself for remaining long enough to get involved, but there was no help for it now.
"I am sorry, my friend, but I have no wish for another drink. I was just leaving."
"You'll leave when I get damn good an' ready for you to leave. Now belly up to the bar."
Chantry turned to leave the room. Again he felt the hand touch his shoulder, and this time his reaction was swift. He swung around quickly and, throwing his left hand back, took hold of the grasping arm and jerked hard.
Dutch Akin hit the floor with a crash. His hand swept for his gun.
"Dutch!" The sharp voice cut through the haze of anger in Dutch Akin's brain.
A short, slender man in a business suit and a white hat was holding a gun in his hand. "This gentleman isn't armed, Dutch. If you haven't noticed that, you'd better. You draw that gun and I'll put a hole into you."
"This ain't none of your affair, Sparrow. This is just me and him."
Chantry turned his head to look. A man of about forty-five, well-dressed, cool, competent-looking. This was the man he had come to see.
"If you shoot an unarmed man you'll hang for it, Dutch. I'll see that you do."
Dutch got up slowly, holstering his pistol. "All right," he said calmly. "All right, Sparrow. But I'll be on the street at daybreak wearin' this gun, and he better be armed, because if he ain't I'll break both his legs."
Dutch turned sharply and walked out of the room.
Chantry held out his hand. "Tom Chantry here, Mr. Sparrow. Thank you--thank you very much."
They walked back to the hotel together. "Bad case, that Akin," Sparrow commented, "a real trouble-maker."
Chantry shrugged. "I doubt if I ever see him again. Actually, you are the man I came to see. I understand you have a heard of beef outside of town that you might sell."
"I might. But you are mistaken if you think Akin won't show. The man may be a trouble-maker and a loud-mouth, but he's got sand, and he's killed a man or two. You can expect him."
"He will have forgotten all about it in the morning."
Sparrow lighted his cigar, threw the match into the dust. "No, Mr. Chantry, he will not have forgotten it. Nor will anyone else. Come hell or high water, Dutch Akin will be in the street tomorrow, and if you don't own a pistol you had better buy or borrow one. You'll need it."
"Are you seriously suggesting that I be out there in the street? That I engage in a duel with this -- this ape?"
Sparrow glanced at him. "Are you by any chance related to Borden Chantry?"
"I am his son."
"Then I would think--"
Suddenly Tom Chantry was impatient. "I came to Las Vegas to make you an offer for your cattle. I did not come out here to be involved in brawls or shootings, or anything or that sort. I dislike violence, and will have nothing to do with this affair."
"You went east after your father's death, didn't you?"
"The situation back east is very different from out here, Mr. Chantry. Money is not always the only consideration. Out here we place emphasis upon the basic virtues, and I have noticed that the more organized our lives become the less attention we pay to such things as courage and loyalty.
"And what does that mean?"
"Simply this: that a man's courage or lack of it is a matter of economic importance in the West. There are few ventures that can be attempted out here where courage is not a necessity, and anyone engaged in such a venture has a right to know the courage of those who are to share the risk."
"What you are saying is that if I do not meet Dutch Akin tomorrow I had better go back east?"
"I don't believe that."
Sparrow shrugged. "It does not matter what you believe. Your father understood, and he lived by the code."
"And died by it."
"That sometimes happens. Understand this, Mr. Chantry, the love of peace and the unwillingness to fight never kept anyone out of trouble."
They left it at that, but during the night Tom Chantry made his decision.
Turning now in the saddle, he looked back again. There was nothing--nothing at all.
All around were the vast sky and the open prairie. To the north there were mountains, ahead was a broken, rugged country. It was not until then that he realized what he had done.
He had ridden west, not east.