The Burning Hills

On a ridge above Texas Flat upon a rock shaped like flame, a hand moved up the lava. The hand moved and then was still. In all that vast beige-gray silence there was still was no other movement and no sound.

A buzzard swinging in lazy circles above the serrated ridge had glimpsed that moving hand. Swinging lower, he saw a man who lay among the rocks atop the ridge. He was a long-bodied man in worn boots and jeans, a man with wide shoulders and a lean tough face.

It was the face of a hunter but now of a man hunted. A man who lay with his rifle beside him and who wore a belted gun; but the man still lived and the buzzard could wait.

Below and stretching away from the very foot of the ridge to lose itself in shimmering distance lay the glaring white expanse of the playa. Beyond that playa and even now riding up to draws that would eventually open upon the dry lay were three groups of horsemen who rode with a single thought.

To left and right of the hunted man's position the comb-like ridge stretched away like a great wall dividing the dead white of the playa from the broken lands beyond. Once in those broken lands south of the border, a man might lose himself in any one of a thousand canyons and might himself be lost.

Northward, not yet within range of the man's eyes, moved the searching riders. They were hard men bred of a hard and lonely land, men with eyes red-rimmed from sun-glare, faces whitened by alkali and muscles heavy with weariness. Yet they knew the man for whom they searched could not be far ahead and they pushed on, riding steadily into the hot still afternoon.

Trace Jordan could not see the riding men but he knew they were out there and he knew they looked for him. Once, seven hours ago, they believed they had him and his blood-stained shirt revealed how close a thing it had been.

Sliding back on his belly until the ridge covered his rising, he got awkwardly to his feet. He swayed then, trying to focus his eyes, gathering his failing strength. He had taken precious time to climb up here, knowing that if his pursuers happened to swing north or south he could gain distance by riding the other way. And time and distance were now the very stuff of life itself.

When he reached his horse he took time to roll a smoke and while his fingers fumbled at the cigarette he considered his problem.

They knew the country and he did not. They would know the trails and the hiding places and moreover they had with them Jacob Lantz, the best tracker in the southwest.

Jordan knew Lantz by reputation, as such men were always known in the west. Tales were told over the campfire by drifting cowhands and retold at bars and gambling tables, the stories of gunmen and trackers, of tough town marshals and crooked gamblers, until the mind of each western man was a storehouse of such information.

Lantz was a man who tracked with his mind as well as with his senses. Even as his eyes spelled out the meaning of a trail, his mind would be probing far ahead to seek out the direction and destination of the man he trailed.

A plan was a dangerous thing, yet a plan he must have, a plan would give direction and purpose to his riding; and as soon as Lantz had time to solve the plan, he must shift to another. Yet there was a chance he might lead them off his trail by such a plan.

First, he would need to point himself toward an obvious destination, a way out of the country. There was a river crossing, one of the few crossings of the Colorado, far to the northwest. That would seem logical to Lantz and to the others, for the trail would avoid towns and people who might pass along information of his passing to his pursuers. So that could seem to be his destination.

Jordan slumped in the saddle, his body smelling of stale sweat, his clothes stiff with sweat and dust. Under him the horse plodded wearily and Jordan knew the poor beast was drawing on his last reserves of strength. Even that splendid animal, the last of his captured horses, was being defeated by the killing pace and the rough country. And they had been all night and most of the day without water.

For an hour he climbed steadily, riding up a long ridge of gravel and sand sparsely dotted with bear grass and prickly pear. Before him the shoulder of a vast escarpment had broken down and among the talus, some of it huge blocks of solid rock, the deer trail led steadily upward toward the mesa top. Riding among the rocks and favoring his wounded side, he turned in the saddle and glanced back.

His trail across the playa would be obvious to any eye but his direction along the wash would puzzle them for a while and every delay was important.

His head throbbed heavily. His mouth was dry, his lips parched and broken. He had a fever . . . he could feel it. His wound would be dirty and he could feel the gnawing agony of it constantly.

The horse walked on . . . the mesa was flat, stretching away to infinity, broken by few rocks and by a scattering of gnarled and twisted cedars and by a few pinon.

He carried a pebble in his mouth to relieve the thirst. Twice he dismounted and walked to relieve the horse of his weight, to let him rest. There was no telling how soon he might again have to make a break for it and the horse's strength might mean his life.

He walked several miles before he fell . . .

For a long time he lay where he had fallen, unable to summon the strength to rise. The wind stirred a wisp of hair against his forehead and the horse nuzzled him impatiently. His thoughts no longer clear, he got drunkenly to his knees and got hold of the stirrup, pulling himself erect. Somehow he got into the saddle and, of his own volition, the horse began to walk.

Heat waves shimmered their veil across the distance. Above the mirage of a distant blue lake the heads of the cedars peered like strange beings from some enchanted world. There were passages of delirium then, through which were woven thin threads of sanity.

He must rest soon. If he fell now he could not get up again but must lie helpless until his enemies came upon him and killed him. Yet he had done nothing but what any man would have done. He had done nothing he did not have to do.

Old Bob Sutton was dead . . . the old bull of the herd shot down in the dusty street, and his sons and nephews would never stop hunting until Trace Jordan had been tracked down and killed.

A few days ago he had been a wild-horse hunter with no troubles. He and Johnny Hendrix had gone broke trying to buck a faro layout and, drifting west, they came upon a herd of wild horses. For a month they lived on the country, finally trapping two dozen horses in a box canyon. One by one they broke them and slapped on their brand, the JH, for Jordan Hendrix. Trace Jordan had gone off to find a market and to buy more grub with their last three dollars, for there were still a few horses they wanted.

A bartender remembered them in Durango and loaned Trace Jordan money for supplies and he returned to camp.

Only there was no camp and there were no horses. All were gone, the camp trampled out by the rush of horses and Johnny lying dead near the water hole with four bullets in him and his gun gone.

Slowly, taking infinite pains, he worked out the story of the fight.

Six men had come in from the north. Spotting the horse camp, they had kept back in the brush along the creek and studied the layout.

It must have been about noon. The spilled bucket lay near Johnny and the frying pan lay on the ground near the scattered fire. They had come up, riding slow. Johnny had just filled the bucket and was leaving the spring (his tracks were cut deeper going away from the spring) and he had stopped as they rode up.

Twice in the days that followed Jordan wasted time on streams, yet each time he found the trail again and by that time he could identify the tracks of each of the six horses and those of several of the riders.

One man rarely smoked more than half a cigarette. He occasionally took only a few nervous puffs, then dropped it. Another wore large-roweled Mexican-style spurs that left an imprint when he squatted on his heels.

After a week of such travel he rode into the street of Tokewanna. It was a single dusty street with the usual clapboard false-front buildings and several of adobe. And a man loitering on the street took one quick, startled glance at the brand on his horse and ducked into a saloon. Trace Jordan swung down from his horse and loose-tied him at the hitch-rail. Yet when he went into the saloon there was no sign of the man he sought. Trace ordered a drink and looked around at the three men playing cards . . . another man leaned against the bar. Trace Jordan glanced at his spurs.

"How about a drink?"

The man moved over as he spoke. He was young, rugged-looking, a working cowhand. When their glasses were filled he lifted his and looked at Trace Jordan. "Here's to you and the trail ahead."

They drank and Trace said quietly, "I may stick around for a while."

"My advice," the young man was smiling, "keep travelin'!"

The implication was obvious. To the man in the street the JH brand on his horse had meant something and that had to mean the man knew about the killing of Johnny. Obviously, in passing through the saloon he had said something to this man. Trace was now being warned away and that implied the six had friends.

"Had some horses stolen," Jordan said. "My partner was murdered. I trailed `em here."

The young man was no longer smiling. He took the last drop from his glass and stepped back from the bar. "Depends on how much country a man needs."

Jordan waited the explanation, his eyes missing nothing in the room. The men at the table were alert and listening.

"Six thousand miles out there," the man said, "or six feet here."

The harshness of the trail had drawn him fine. He turned from the bar, a big tough lonely man suddenly showing all the danger that was in him. The young man took a step back, suddenly wary.

"I already bought chips," Jordan said. "They dealt the hand."

He turned from the bar and went through the door and then saw the big old man coming up the street on the steeldust. Trace had gentled that steeldust himself. He had taken time with the horse. Next to the big red horse he rode, it had been the best of the lot.

The old man had a shock of white hair. His eyes were fierce and commanding. When he stepped down from the saddle there was something of the king in his manner.

Trace Jordan stepped down from the walk and started across the street toward the old man, a tall man with an easy woodsman's walk and the knowledge that he was heading right into trouble. Down the street a man stopped . . . another appeared in the entrance to the store.

The brand on the steeldust had been worked over and an excellent job. The JH had been turned into an SB.

The old man looked across the saddle at him, a strong old man with fierce unrelenting eyes. "What's the matter? Lookin' for something?"

Remembering Johnny lying in the dried mud beside the water-hole, Trace told him: "I'm looking for the man who stole that horse from me. He's mine. I caught him. I broke him. I branded him JH."

Quick temper flared in the hard old eyes. "You callin' me a horse thief?" He stepped around the horse to face Jordan. He was wearing a tied-down gun.

"I'm only saying that's my horse you're riding. He's a stolen horse."

"You're a dirty liar!"

When the old man's hand dropped to his gun, Trace Jordan shot him through the stomach.

Jordan looked over the smoking gun at two bystanders. "Walk out there and lift that saddle skirt, both of you." When they started walking he said, "If there isn't a four-inch white scar under the saddle skirt, I'm a liar."

The scar was there . . .

"No matter," one of the men told him, "maybe this is your horse but that old man was no thief. You'd better ride before they hang you."

There was an instant then when Trace Jordan looked down into the dying man's eyes. "That was my horse," he repeated. "My partner was murdered when he was stolen."

All time seemed to stop while the old man struggled to speak but blood frothed at his lips and he died. But of the one thing Jordan was sure. The old man had believed him.

From up the street a yell, "He's downed Bob Sutton! He's shot Bob!"

And the doors vomited men into the street.

Trace Jordan hit the leather running and took the big red horse out of town at a dead run. Behind him guns talked but no bullet hit him.

And now he was here, high on a sunlit mesa, dying in the saddle. There was nothing to see but distance, nothing but an infinity of far blue hills and nameless mysterious canyons.

The mustang stopped suddenly, head up.

Jordan turned painfully, searching all around, and in all that vast emptiness there was no living thing to be seen but a solitary buzzard. Heat waves shimmered the outlines of the junipers but nowhere was there movement, nor any sign of life . . . and then he saw the tracks.

The tracks of a pack rat in the dust and the tracks of a deer.

They led to the cliff edge and disappeared there. Why did that seem important? His mind fumbled at the puzzle but the mustang tugged impatiently at the bit and Jordan gave the horse his head. The mountain-bred horse swung at once to the cliff-edge and, reaching it, stopped.

Below him was an eyebrow of trail that clung to the cliff face. To this trail led the tracks. Jordan tried to focus his thoughts on the trail. The tracks of a pack rat alone would mean nothing, yet the deer tracks on the same trail could mean water. And the smell of water would have stopped the horse, for the animal must be half-dead with thirst.

Despite his condition he realized at once the possibilities of such a place. His horse, bred to wild country with only few weeks away from running wild, might take that trail. A wrong step could send them plunging a thousand feet or more to the bottom, yet those tracks might lead to water and a deer had negotiated the trail. And what had he to lose? Going on was impossible . . . he spoke to the horse.

Momentarily, ears pricked, the horse hung back, but the urging of the rider and his own promptings decided the matter. The inside stirrup scraped hard on the canyon wall and the outer hung in space but the mustang, walking on delicate feet, went on down the trail, no more than an edge of sloping rock stratum, to a place some forty yards along where the trail widened to ten feet. Here Jordan swung from the saddle and, trailing his reins, he went back up the trail on hands and knees, unable to risk walking in his weakness.

With a handful of bunch grass he brushed out the tracks leading to the cliff-edge and then, taking a handful of dust, he let it trickle from his hand and, caught by the wind, spray over the ground, leaving the earth apparently undisturbed. Then he edged back down the trail and climbed to the saddle.

Suddenly, after more than a half-mile of trail, it ended in a half-acre of shelf almost entirely overhung by the cliff and entirely invisible from above. The outer edge was skirted by manzanita and juniper that gave no indication from across the canyon of the space that lay behind it. Here, concealed from all directions, was an isolated ledge . . . and at one side of the ledge, a ruin.

Without waiting to be guided, the horse walked toward the ruin with quickening footsteps . . . and Jordan heard the sound of running water.

Almost falling from his horse, he staggered to the basin where clear cold water trickled from a crack in the rock to fall into a rock basin some dozen feet across. When he had drunk deep of the water he rolled on his back and tried desperately to think.

A long time later he opened his eyes into darkness. Listening he could hear no sound but the trickle of water. The night was cold.

Crawling to his saddle, he fumbled at the knots and finally loosened them enough to get at his blanket roll. Wrapping himself in his blankets, he lay still, his head feeling like a great half-empty cask in which his brains seemed to slosh around like water. His lips were cracked by fever . . . outside a lone star hung over the rim of a far cliff.

Pain gnawed at his side like a hungry rat . . . such a little wound but it needed care, it needed cleansing. His eyes found the lone star above the canyon's rim and held to it and a long time later, he slept.

Through the day-long heat that followed the night, Trace Jordan wavered between delirium and a sick exhausted consciousness. He dozed or became unconscious . . . vaguely he recalled drinking and bathing his face and his fever-slaked lips. He remembered getting sticks together for a fire to heat water in the bottom of an ancient jar found in the ruins. He removed the bandage to look at the wound. It was ugly and inflamed, frightening to see.

He never succeeded in bathing it. Somewhere along the line of his planning he lost consciousness again.

The first thing he realized was a sense of movement where no movement should be. He listened aware of danger, trying to place that faint, mysterious rustling . . . petticoats! But that was ridiculous.

He felt cool now and comfortable. There was a dull throb in his side but some of the stiffness was gone. His head felt heavy and he did not wish to open his eyes. Something cool touched his brow and he lay still, afraid it would go away. He tried to identify the sounds, fearing he was delirious or dying.

The coolness of his brow went away but he felt fingers unbuckling his belt, moving his shirt aside. Fingers cool and deft touched the wound and then something comforting and warm was placed against his side.

He opened his eyes and stared up at the rock overhang. The coolness on his brow was a memory but the pleasent warmth at his side remained. He looked down.

A woman knelt beside him but at first all he could see was a smooth brown shoulder, from which the red blouse had slipped, and a wealth of intensely black hair.

He was delirious . . . he had to be. No such woman could be in this lonely place. And then she turned her head and looked at him.

Her eyes were large and dark, ringed with long lashes, and in that first glimpse he found eyes that were soft with a woman's tenderness.