Macon Fallon was a stranger to the town of Seven Pines, and fortunately for him he was a stranger with a fast horse.
In the course of an eventful life, Macon Fallon had become a connoisseur of western hospitality, and knew when a limit had been reached.
Hence, when an escorting party, complete with rope, arranged to conduct him to the vicinity of a large cottonwood where the evening's festivities would be concluded, he wasted no time on formalities, but promptly departed the premises.
The moment chosen was, of course, appropriate to the situation. The self-appointed posse were as confident as a few drinks could make them, but were totally unaware of the quality of the man they escorted.
One of the riders had lagged a little, and at that moment they came abreast of an opening in the brush that walled the trail. Fallon rode an excellent cutting horse that could turn on a dime.
The black horse went through the opening with a bound and, sensing the urgency of its rider, took off on a dead run.
No horse Fallon had ever seen could catch that black of his in under half a mile, and by the time that distance lay behind, Fallon was prepared to resort to evasive tactics. The black had staying quality as well as an initial burst of speed; and the posse , less superbly mounted, fell rapidly behind.
Unfortunately, by the time the opportunity for escape was offered, only one direction remained to Fallon . . . and westward lay a waterless waste . . . or one that was relatively so.
The nearest water hole was thirty miles off, but on Fallon's one previous visit the water there had been plentiful and good. With a safe lead, and some tracks purposely left to indicate that he had circled the town, he settled down for a long ride.
At thirty miles, with his throat parched for a drink, the water hole proved to be a bed of dried, cracked mud.
At forty-two miles, with his horse stumbling, the creek was a dusty trough, and Macon Fallon was a man in trouble.
Somewhere behind was a posse of irate citizens who had by this time found his trail. They would be coming along with filled canteens and could afford to ignore the water holes.
To the best of his knowledge, which admittedly was not thorough, the next twenty miles offered no water.
Dust sifted over him, and sweat etched a fine pattern of lines upon his lean, ruggedly handsome if somewhat saturnine features. He dismounted, talked to the horse to reassure it, then walked on, leading the horse.
He was a man naturally considerate of horses, but he also knew that in this country if his horse should die, his own death was only a matter of time.
The trouble in Seven Pines had been none of his own making. It has been written that while Man proposes, God disposes; but when Macon Fallon joined that poker game he had no idea he was sitting in on an invitation to death.
He had money, a good horse, and time for a leisurely ride south. The poker game was merely a means to endure a dull evening in a strange town; whether he won or lost was unimportant.
The game began innocently enough. He won a small pot, lost two . . . As the evening progressed he drew no very interesting cards. By midnight he was winner to the tune of six silver dollars, and was ready to turn in. At that moment, destiny took a hand.
Now, Fallon was a man who could do things with cards. He could, while shuffling, run up a top stock or a bottom stock; he could shift the cut, deal from the top or bottom, or second-deal; and he knew all about slick aces, marked or trimmed cards, shiners, mirrors in pipe-bowls or match boxes, and the tiny pricks on finger rings for the purpose of marking cards.
Sleeve and belt holdhouts were no mystery to him, and he knew all about the man who brings drinks or sandwiches to the table with a cold deck held underneath the tray ready for a switch. In short, Macon Fallon was a professional; and although usually honest, he was not above cheating the cheaters if they invited it.
On this night he was playing a fair game, and was not especially interested in winning.
Suddenly he was dealt an ace, another ace, and a third one. He discarded two different cards, and was rewarded with two queens. The pot was very satisfactory, and no comment was made.
The following hand he received two sevens and a pair of jacks, then drew a third seven. Once more the pot was a pleasant one; and a player named Collins, a popular man locally, gave him a long, careful look and commented, "You are lucky tonight."
"I think I'll turn in," Fallon said, stifling a yawn. "I've a long ride tomorrow."
Collins glanced at him. "You have a good deal of our money. Better give us a chance to win it back."
"Two more hands then," Fallon agreed. "I'm dead tired."
Instinct warned him that he should get out while the getting was good, but even as he spoke the deal was progressing. It was with relief that he picked up two fours. He would lose this hand, then he would quit.
He contributed liberally to the pot, and on the draw he picked up the other two fours.
Four of a kind . . .
Recognizing his dismay, they misunderstood its reason. Promptly, then began to raise, and Macon Fallon was not a man to look gift horses in the teeth, nor will any gambler in his right mind betray his luck.
Unfortunately, that drawing of fours was followed by the drawing of sixes and Collins lost on that draw also. He started to take action, and Fallon forced to deal, placed two aces of lead, neatly spaced over the heart of Collins, where they might have been covered by a blue chip.
The shooting was fair, and nobody had seen anything wrong with the play, but Collins had been a popular man and nobody wanted to see all that money leave Seven Pines.
A self-appointed committee convened and it was decided to hang Fallon, whereupon the committee repaired to the bar to drink to their decision. Several drinks later Macon Fallon was led to his horse and started along the road toward the selected cottonwood.
Yet dying of thirst was scarcely preferable, and that appeared to be the alternative he had chosen. Walking and riding with these thoughts in his mind, Fallon covered ten miles more.
He was now devoid of any illusions as to the outcome. He simply was not going to make it, and neither was his horse. The blazing sun had taken its toll, as had the stifling dust.
At that moment he saw the wagons. They were no mirage.
Two covered wagons, two teams of six oxen each, two saddle horses, a milk cow, and half a dozen people. One wagon was canted sharply over, a condition he diagnosed as a broken wheel. Oxen and horses were gaunt, the people drawn and tired.
Hastily, in the moment before they sighted him, Fallon beat the dust from his clothing, straightened his tie, pulled his horse's head up, and straightened up himself. He would approach them as a man of means, a man of spirit, a man who could take command. Once people felt pity for a man, he would never be able to have the upper hand. The thing to do was take command and keep them moving.
Macon Fallon was alive to opportunity, and opportunity was what he needed now. Every bit of his cash except for a few dollars had been left behind in Seven Pines. He needed not only a stake before going on, but a chance for his horse and himself to recover strength.
And these were the people who would provide it. Did not the good Lord send the lambs to be sheared?
Two assets belonged to Fallon besides a glib tongue and a gift for handling the pasteboards. One was a keen sense of observation; the other, an excellent memory and a mind filled to overflowing with an enormous variety of usually useless information.
So, when he glimpsed the wagons his mind was not so gripped by the sight of them that he failed to see lying in the brush, almost obliterated by the weather, a faded sign: BUELL'S BLUFF.
Startled he drew up and looked again and immediately the sign, the people of the wagons, and his own fertile imagination became the base upon which he began to construct a plan. His thoughts leaped ahead. If the plan worked he could, in a few weeks, at most in a few months, ride into California completely solvent.
His lethargy was gone, his weariness fell away, even the heat and his own parched throat and cracked lips were forgotten; for here was opportunity, and no man had ever needed one more.
There were two men, two women of mature years, a boy of sixteen, two young girls, and three smaller children. There was also a young man of perhaps nineteen.
Sweeping off his hat as only he knew how, Fallon asked, "May I be of service?"
"Wheel broke." The speaker was a man of about forty-five, with sandy hair, a well-shaped head, and a strong face. "We got the know-how, but we ain't got the tools."
Macon Fallon stepped carefully from the saddle, trying not to stagger. With that bulging water-sack hanging from the wagons, with that smell of bacon frying, absolutely nothing was going to get him away from here. Yet he must seem prosperous; anything else at this time would prove fatal to his plan.
"You are going to the mines?"
The worry in the sandy-haired man's face was apparent. "Small chance unless we leave our wagons and start off afoot." He indicated the shimmering wasteland. "We're kind of scared to tackle that, with the womenfolks, and all."
Salvation lay here for Fallon, not only for the moment, but for the future as well, if he could play these people in the right way. His throat was raw with the need for water, and the smell of food made his stomach growl with impatience.
"Rightly so." He gestured toward the barren country around them. "A man without a horse out there, and without water . . . he might keep going two days if he was strong to begin with."
Fallon's glance fell on one of the girls . . . quickly he averted his eyes. This was no time for sentiment.
These were good people, the sort he usually avoided, but he could not think of that now. In any event, it was not them he planned to victimize. They would be merely the window dressing.
And what else could they do? Where could they go? With luck, the men might make it through; the women and children never could.
Fallon opened his campaign with a wide, friendly smile. "Believe me, you are more fortunate than you realize. That wheel of yours must have been inspired to break down here. You need go no further."
He turned to the water barrel. "May I?"
Dipping water into his hat with the drinking gourd, he held it for his grateful horse. He took only the smallest sip himself, but it sent an agonizing, unbelievable coolness throughout his body.
When his horse had emptied the hat, Fallon hung up the gourd. His eyes at that moment fell upon the sorrel horse tied to the tail-gate of the other wagon, and he seemed to consider for a moment. "Have you ever heard," he asked, "of the town of Red Horse?"
He moved closer to the fire and the bacon, fighting the urge to drink more, and still more. "Red Horse," he continued, "was a mining town born suddenly from a rocky gorge. It was said to be the richest strike among the mines."
He paused . . . would nobody offer him a cup of coffee?
"My Uncle Joe, God rest his soul, was among he founders, owner of the richest, claim. Then the Piutes came . . . suddenly in the night . . . and every manjack of them was slaughtered . . . wiped out."
He glanced around the group, then moved again to the water barrel and dipped the gourd. All eyes were upon him, all were listening avidly, except one girl, who looked at him with cool, disdainful eyes.
He touched the gourd to his lips and allowed a little more water to trickle to the parched tissues of his mouth and throat.
"The town and the claims were forgotten. They had existed too short a time to be generally known, those who knew the most about the place were dead, the claims were deserted, the buildings empty."
He sipped water again. "One thing, and one only, prevented Red Horse from being forever lost."
He had their attention, all right. They had forgotten their troubles, even forgotten where they were, yet he knew it was less what he said that was important then what their imaginations would do to the story.
"My uncle," he said, "had written a letter." He put his hand on his breast. "I have it . . . here."
"That's all very well, mister." It was the girl with the skeptical eyes. "But what has that to do with us?"
Fallon held a mouthful of water for an instant before swallowing it.
"Do I smell coffee? And bacon?" No use waiting for an invitation. "Perhaps we could discuss the situation over supper?"
His strategy had only begun, and he needed time. He had his over-all plan, but there were ramifications to be worked out.
He had already decided that these were no lambs ready for the fleecing, for they had little--at least, by his standards. A few supplies, some equipment, their weapons, the animals and wagons. He doubted they had cash to any amount; but one of the wagons had several packing cases that he could use.
The younger ones still clung, not doubt, to a dream of golden riches from the mines. The older ones--he knew the signs--had long since begun to disbelieve. The present disaster had been the clincher, and now they were frightened. Hardship they understood and could take; struggle, poverty--these were expected. But now they feared death, and riches they no longer hoped for.
With eyes of one who had often looked upon men in trouble, he knew these people had come to the end of their resources.
And besides all that, what they now lacked was hope, and that he meant to give them. In Buell's Bluff there could be no hope, so he had invented Red Horse.
What's in a name? A town by any other name can be as big a fraud.
Yes, he could give them hope, but he was honest enough to attribute no motives to himself that he did not deserve. The truth was, he needed these people for his own purposes. What he had in mind was a colossal swindle, but if he brought it off he could then proceed to San Francisco in style.