Son of a Wanted Man
The winter snows were melting in the forests of the Kaibab, and the red-orange Vermilion Cliffs were streaked with melting frost. Deer were feeding in the forest glades among the stands of ponderosa and fir, and trout were leaping in the sun-sparkled streams. A shadow moved under the ponderosa, then was gone.
Five deer fed on the grass along the bank of a mountain stream back of Finger Butte, their coats mottled with the light and shadow of sunlight through the leaves.
It was very still. A faint breeze sifted though the grass and stirred the leaves, and with the breeze the shadow moved into the sunlight and become a man, standing motionless not twenty feet from the nearest deer.
Straight and tall he stood in gray buckskins. He wore no hat, and his hair long. Lean and brown, his black hair loose, he waited until the buck's head lifted again, looking right at him.
A startled snort and the buck sprang away. The others followed. Mike Bastian stood with his hands on his hips, watching them go.
Another man came through the trees behind him, a lean, wiry old man with a gray mustache and blue eyes alive with humor.
"What do you think of that, Roundy?" Bastian asked. "Could your Apache beat that? Another step and I could have touched him."
Roundy spat into the grass. "No Apache I ever knowed could do better, son. An' I never seen the day I could do as well. You're good, Mike, really good. I am surely glad you're not huntin' my hair!" He drew his pipe from his pocket and began stoking it. "We're headin' back for Toadstool Canyon, Mike. Your Pa sent for us."
"No trouble, is there?"
"None I know of, although things don't look good. They don't look good at all. No, I think your Pa figures it's time you rode out with the bunch."
Mike Bastian squatted on his heels, glancing around the glade. This was what he liked, and he did not want to leave. Nor did he like what he was going back to face. "I believe you're right, Roundy. Pa said I was to ride out in the spring when the boys went, and it is about time."
He tugged a blade of grass and chewed on it. "I wonder where they will go this time?"
"Whatever it is, and wherever it is, it will be well planned. Your pa would have made a fine general, boy. He's got the head for it. He never forgets a thing."
"You've been with him a long time, haven't you?"
"Mighty long. I was with him before he found you. I met him in Mexico during the War, longer ago than I care to remember. I was just a youngster then, myself."
Side by side they started back through the woods. The earth was spongy with the thick bed of pine needles. An occasional break in the trees offered a glimpse of the far-off San Francisco peaks, with clouds shrouding their summits. Roundy was not as tall as the younger man, but he walked with the long, easy stride of the woodsman. Coming to a break in the forest that permitted them a long view of the wild, broken canyon country to the east, Roundy spoke. "Your pa picked mighty well. Nobody in God's world could find him in all that."
They walked on, in silence. Several times Bastian paused to study the ground, reading the tracks to see who or what had passed since they had passed. "This here is somethin' you better not do again," Roundy suggested, "comin' back the way we went out. somebody could be layin' for us."
"Ah, now. That's the question. Nobody is supposed to know your pa's plans for you, but there's always the chance somebody might. Believe me, son, nothin' is a secret for long, an' you can just bet some of the boys have been doin' some thinkin' about you."
They paused again, studying the country around, and Roundy put the question that had been bothering him for months. "Mike? If Ben's ready for you to go out, what will you do?"
"Go, I guess. What choice do I have?"
"You're sure? You're sure you want to be an outlaw?"
"Wasn't that why he raised me? To take over from him?" There was an edge of bitterness in Mike's tone. "Wasn't I to take over when Ben Curry stepped aside?"
"That's what you were raised for, all right." Roundy poked at the pine needles with his toe. "But it's your life you have to live. Ben Curry can't live it for you, and you can't live his life for him, no matter how much he wants it.
"The thing to remember, Mike, is that things have changed since Ben an' me rode into this country together. It's no longer wild and free like it was. Folks are movin' in, settlin' the country, buildin' homes.
"Getaways won't be so easy no more, and the kind of men you ride with will change. Fact is, they have already changed.
"When Ben an' me rode into this country it was wide open. Most banks had been mighty hard on a poor man, ready to foreclose at the slightest chance, and the railroads gave all the breaks to the big cattle shippers, so nobody cared too much if a train was robbed or a bank. If you killed somebody, especially a man with a wife and kids--well, that was something else. If you just robbed a bank or train the posses would chase you more for fun than actually to catch you. It was a break in the work they were doin'. They'd get out, run an outlaw for a while but not too serious about it.
"Kill a man? That was different. They'd chase you for keeps then, and they'd catch you."
Little of what Roundy was saying was new to Bastian, yet he was curious as to why the old man was saying it. Obviously there was purpose in Roundy's bringing up the subject, and Bastian waited listening. Over the years he had learned that Roundy rarely talked at random. He spoke when he had something to say, something important.
He thought of Kerb Perrin and Rigger Molina. Was he afraid? No, he was not. Both men had been tolerant and even friendly when he was a boy, Molina especially. Yet as he grew older and became a man they had withdrawn. Did they realize the role that he was being prepared for?
Roundy interrupted his thoughts by stopping to study the country ahead. "Mike," Roundy said, "the country is growing up. Folks don't look at an outlaw as they used to. He isn't regarded as some wild youngster full of liquor and excess energy. He's a bad man, dangerous to the community, and he's stealing money folks have saved.
"Now they see an outlaw like a wolf, and every man will be hunting him. Before you go into this you'd better think it over, and think seriously.
"You know Ben Curry, and I know you like him, as well you should. He did a lot for you. At the same time, Ben had no right to raise you to be an outlaw. He chose his own way, of his own free will, but you should be free to do the same.
I don't know what you'll do, but if you decide to step out of the gang I don't want to be around when it happens. Old Ben will be fit to be tied. I don't figure he's ever really thought about how you feel. He's only figuring on gettin' out and havin' somebody to take over.
"Right now you're an honest man. You're clean as a whistle. Once you become an outlaw a lot will change. You will have to kill, don't forget that. It is one thing to kill in defense of your home, your family, or your country. It is quite another thing when you kill for money or for power."
"Do you think I'll have to kill Perrin an' Molina?"
"Unless they kill you first."
Roundy paused, puffing on his pipe. "Sooner or later, Mike, there'll be a showdown. It will be one or the other, maybe both of them, and God help you!"