Behind me a noose hung empty and before me the land was wild.
I rode a blue horse to the trail's divide and tossed a coin to choose my way. The coin fell left and I turned the roan, but doubt rode my shoulders like an evil thing.
The rimrock broke and the trail dipped through the crack, and my horse picked a careful way to the bottom, down the earth and rockslide that lay below the notch. Sweat stung my neck where the rope burns were, for the flesh was torn and raw. At the bottom of the slide I turned left again and the roan moved eagerly forward.
There would be riders behind me now, eager to hang me again, for they were fierce and bitter men with hatred for me, a stranger.
Yet when had I not been a stranger, riding alone?
There had been nothing ahead to look to, and nothing behind I wanted to remember, so I'd headed west into new country simply because it was new country.
When I came up on them standing beside the trail I was headed for a far-off town. An Indian woman with an Indian boy, an old man and a horse dead beside them.
They lifted no hand and made no sign, but the look of trouble was harsh upon them. The desert lay wide around them, a desolate land where they stood, and their lips were parched and cracked. The boy's eyes went to my canteen but he said nothing.
They stood and looked at me and I took the canteen from its lashings and passed it to the woman. She passed it first to the boy and he took it and drank, then returned it to her.
From the last of my hoarded biscuits I gave them food, then helped to bury the old man, safe from wolves and buzzards.
Then I put them up on my packhorse and carried them to the town, where I gave each a silver dollar. I stabled my horses, stowed my gear in the corner of a dusty, rarely used tack room, and walked to the saloon for a drink. A bad choice in a bad town.
There was a tall man at the bar, a man with a mustache and goatee, his black coat drawn back to reveal a pearl-handled gun. When I saw his face I knew his kind and went to the far end of the bar. Heat and weariness had shortened my temper so I wanted space about me and no words with anyone until I had eaten and rested.
He stared at me and said, "Afraid of something?"
"Of nothing," I said, and there was impatience in my tone, for I knew what was coming. There was in me the memory of other such towns and other such men.
"You are not polite," he said, "and I like people to be polite when they speak to me. Do you know who I am?"
"Leave me alone," I said. "I shall be gone within the hour."
The bartender poured my drink and there was a warning in his eyes.
"Do you know who I am?" he persisted.
Tiredness and impatience overruled my judgment. "A damned fool if you persist in this," I said. "I'm a drifting man who just wants to drift."
"A `damned fool' he calls me, and he's wearing a gun, too." He dropped his hand to his gun and I killed him.
His gun had not cleared leather when my bullet took him at the base of the throat, and there was a moment when his face was wild with disbelief. He had killed before but he had not expected to die. He looked into my eyes with all the manhood gone from his. He sank to his knees and he tried to speak but blood was choking him, and he went face-down in the sawdust, filling his clutching fist with it.
"You will hang for this, someone said, "hand until you're dead!"
"He was asking for it. He put a hand to his gun before I did."
"It makes no difference. He is a known man and you are not. There's his brother behind you with a shotgun now."
So they took me out, his brothers did, and hanged me high from a cottonwood limb. There was no drop to break my neck, for they shoved me off the rump of a blue roan horse and left me strangling there, to die slowly while they went off for a drink.
Then the Indian woman and the boy came from the brush and cut me down. They removed the noose from my neck and stood by while I gagged and choked and coughed. The blue roan horse stood there and on him was a fine saddle with a rifle in the scabbard.
My own horses were a mile away in a livery stable and to get them I'd have to go through town. Taking up the bridle reins, I put a foot in the stirrup, and the Indian woman said, "No, No!"
She gestured violently. "Bad! Horse no good! Bad! Bad!"
"He may be bad but he's the only one I've got. My horses and gear are in the stable and I'm not going back there." Swinging to the saddle , I turned to give them my thanks but they had turned their backs on me and were disappearing into the brush.
The roan moved out eagerly and I let him go. "You've a smart way about you, Horse," I said, "and I like it."
From the scabbard I shucked the Winchester and checked the magazine . . . fully loaded. My pistols needed no checking, picked from the ground where they had been thrown and handed to me by the Indian boy when they took the noose from my neck.
The trail branched but the horse went left and I let him go. Left it began and left it could continue, although I regretted the outfit left behind, and the horse as well, although he was no such a horse as this I rode.
Mountains lay west and behind me, blue mountains with a hint of pines upon them, but my horse stepped south and east, tossing his head and eager for the distance. He had style, that horse did, and no doubt his owner would be riding with the posse that would follow.
Glancing back, I saw no dust. Yet I knew the manner of men they were, and they would be coming to hang me again and this time they would not fail. Escape I must or fight, and they would be too many for me. Yet I did not run the roan because he was too fine a horse to kill, and the heat was great.
The distant mountains toward which I rode were beginning to take shape from the haze and gathering shadows. I looked back again, and saw no dust.
How far had I come? Fifteen miles? Twenty? What I needed was a camp, even if I had no blankets, no food, and no water. The roan needed rest as I did, and moreover, I needed to know where I was going. In the gathering dark all was mystery.
Suddenly, almost a mile further along, the roan turned from the trail and followed a creek into the hills. "Hope you know what you're doin', Horse." I said. `because I sure don't."
He wound around, went along a flat through some cedars, and suddenly dipped down and headed into the darkness where trees clustered against a rock shelf. Behind the trees he stopped.
A moment I sat the saddle listening. There was no sound but the ripple of water and occasionally a stirring of the leaves. Overhead the stars were disappearing behind drifting clouds. In the distance there was a rumble of thunder.
On my left there seemed to be a black opening of some sort. Carefully, I dismounted and holding the reins, moved toward the wide, dark opening.
No sound. I took a chance and struck a match, holding it up. A cave! Not a deep cave, but a place where water seemed to have hollowed a natural shelter. It was empty.
Leading the roan inside, I tied him to a projecting horn of rock and gathered sticks from under the trees, hoping I would not also gather a snake. When I had a few sticks I got a fire started and looked around. The cave was about twenty feet across, at a rough guess, and something more than half that deep. On one side there had been a rockfall, a slab dropping from the roof overhead.
The place where I'd started my fire was an old, well-used fireplace. Looking around again, I swore softly. I knew this place! Not from memory, but from word passed along the trail. It was called the Cowboy Hotel and dozens of drifting or passing cowboys had spent nights here. It was a convenient shelter with water and fuel. If I was right, there was grass on the meadow just beyond the trees. Not very good grass but forage for a hungry horse.
Taking the rope from the saddle, I picketed the roan on the grass close to the water. He drank, looked at me with his ears forward, and I talked softly to him. "I've a hunch you and me are two of a kind," I said. "One thing I want you should know. I done a lot of things but I never stole no horse before." I straightened up from gathering fuel and thought about it. No, none that I could recall. Of course, when a man's in a hurry . . .
Whose horse was he anyway? Why hadn't they led him away after using him to hang me? Puzzled, I lit a small torch and walked over to where the horse stood. He looked at me, rolling his eyes at the fire. "It's all right, boy. I just want to look at your brand."
It was on his left hip. I looked and then looked again. That was a hell of a brand to put on a good horse! A hell of a brand.
A skull and crossbones.
Backing off, I looked at that horse again. I'd never seen a finer animal, anywhere. Nice clean lines and built for travel.
In the cave, I built up my fire. There was nothing to eat for me, although the blue horse was doing all right judging by the sounds of cropping grass from the meadow. All that remained was for me to bed down. Picking up the saddle, I carried it well inside the cave.
A good saddle, a very good saddle, and some saddlebags. Come daylight I'd have a look at them. The Winchester was almost new, a `76, of .44 caliber. The saddle blanket was a Navajo.
The fire died down and I went to sleep, covering my shoulders with the saddle blanket. It was right chilly before daybreak but I stuck it out, trying to get all the sleep I could.
The cold awakened me, and I stirred the ashes to find a small bit of glowing wood, added some leaves and twigs until I got the fire going. By that time I was shivering and shaking. It took me a while to get settled down. When I'd warmed up I went down to the meadow and brought up the roan. He stood quiet whilst I saddled him up and slid my rifle into the sleeve.
The sky was overcast when I rode up out of the canyon and took a look-see around the country. Where I was going I had no idea, but what I wanted was distance. Looking back from time to time, I saw nothing, and that worried me more than had I seen a posse coming. You can run from a posse or fight it, but you can't run from what was worryin' me.
Mountains reared up on my left, set back from the trail but not far. The foothills were covered with aspen and scattered ponderosa pine, and a creek came down from the mountains, ran across in front of me, then headed west.
Right now I was fetching up to be hungry. It had been more than two days and nights since I'd eaten and my stomach was beginning to think that my throat had been cut.
Then we dipped down alongside a creek and up ahead I could see a big barn, some stacks of hay, and then a couple of other buildings, one of them a good-sized cabin.
Loosening the Winchester in its scabbard and taking the thong from my six-shooter, I rode up to the house an stepped down from the saddle. Tying my horse in front of the granary or whatever it was, I walked up to the door and knocked.
Nothing happened. The latch string was not out and the door was strongly made. After a moment I rapped again and thought that time I heard movement inside. Then a woman's voice. "Who is it? What do you want?"
Well, what could I tell her? That I was a man escaping from a hanging?
"Sort of driftin', ma'am, and I ain't come by any grub lately. I was wonderin' if you could sort of let me set up an put my feet under your table."
My eyes went to the gate. It was hanging loose, a top hinge busted. It had been a no-account hinge anyway. Homemade it was, but made in the wrong home.
"Do you mean you are hungry?"
"That's one way of puttin' it, ma'am. Another would be to say I was starved."
The door opened. "Come in, please."
Taking off my hat, I ran my fingers through my hair. There was something in that voice . . . something I couldn't place.
Suddenly wary, I stepped through the door, pausing on the stoop to whip my hat against my pants to get rid of some of the dust, and taking time to give a quick glance around.
The house, what I could see of it, was spotlessly clean. There were curtains in the windows, and neatly made cushions on the chairs. The copper pots I could see shone like mirrors. Inside, everything was the exact opposite of what I'd seen outside, which looked to be a real rawhide sort of outfit. I'd seen busted rail in the fence and a lot that needed doin' outside.
She was at the fire, but at my step she turned to face me. She was taller than most women, with blond hair, quite a lot of it, tied in a neat bun at the back of her head.
"Please, please do come in. I--we do not often have visitors."
We? I looked around and saw no one.
Awkward, because I suddenly realized I'd not shaved in a week and my hair needed combing. "I was just ridin' through, ma'am, and I've come a far piece an my horse is wearied."
"Won't you be seated? You must have ridden far, for there are no ranches in some distance."
There was a wooden peg on the wall and I hung up my hat, wishing again that I'd shaved.
She was beautiful, and there is something about a really beautiful woman that throws a man off. A pretty girl, now, she just warms a man up, but a really beautiful one is apt to make him tongue-tied and fixin' to run. This was such a woman. A golden blonde with only a slight wave to her hair, and features cut to classical perfection. Looked like one of them Greek statues, only not so full in the face.
There was sunlight in the room but shadows in her eyes, and shadows around them, too. "We do not have many visitors. I am glad you came by."
I'd think every man in the country would be at your door, " I said. "A body likes to look on a beautiful woman even if she belongs to somebody else."
"I belong to no one."
She spoke flat and cold, so I did not know how to respond. It just stopped me right where I was. it was not an invitation but a clear statement of fact, and left me with the impression she did not want anybody, either.
How could such a woman exist in such a place without a man? There was so much man's work to be done on this kind of outfit, and I'd seen enough tying up my horse to know it needed doing.
"Ma'am? I think I'd better tell you. There may be some men lookin' for me. If they come, I'll go out to meet them. No use you gettin's involved."
"Yes, ma'am. I killed a man."
Her expression did not change. "So did I."
If she was interested in my reaction she offered no sign of it, but went to the stove and began dishing up something that smelled mighty good. It was stew, and she brought a heaping plate to the table. Taking up a fork, I started to eat, then stopped suddenly, looking at my food.
For the first time, she smiled. "I did not poison him."
"It wasn't that. I was waiting for you."
"Don't. I eat very little."
"It was a fair shooting," I said.
She offered no comment but filled two cups with coffee and placed one before me. She seated herself across the table and took her cup in both hands, looking across it at me.
"You said you were a drifter."
"I was working for an outfit in the Nation and decided to move west. I prospected some up around Hite."
"How did you find this place?"
"It wasn't me, it was my horse. You see, they'd taken me out to hang me, and when I got away there was only the horse they hung me from. They sort of left it standin'. Well, I took out astraddle that horse an' that horse just naturally brung me here.
Her features tightened with shock. She clutched the edge of the table with both hands, her knuckles while. "Not . . . ? Not a blue roan?"
"Yes, ma'am, and a mighty fine--"
My God!" she whispered. "Oh, my God!"