The High Graders
Mike Shevlin squatted on his heels in the driving rain and struck a match under the shelter of his slicker. The match flared and he leaned forward, cupping the flame in his hand against the face of the gravestone.
There was no mistake, then; how in the name of truth could a peace-loving man like old Eli wind up in a grave on Boot Hill?
Eli Patterson had been a Quaker, a man of deep conviction who never touched a gun for his own use and did not approve of those who did. Yet he was dead, shot to death, and buried here among the victims of gun and knife, and if rumor could be credited, he had himself died gun in hand.
The splash of a footstep in a pool of water warned him an instant before the voice spoke. "Kind of wet up here, isn't it?"
Mike Shevlin straightened slowly to his feet, glad his slicker was unbuttoned and his gun ready to hand. Enemies he would surely find at Rafter Crossing, but he could expect no friends. He took his time in facing around, careful that his movement be not misunderstood.
Through the pouring rain and the darkness he could see the bulk of a square, powerfully built man. Lightning flared, throwing the grave crosses into sharp relief, lighting the water-soaked earth, and making an occasional gleam on stone, but of the wide face before him he could make out no detail.
"You make a practice of following people?" Mike Shevlin asked.
"It's a wet night to be on Boot Hill."
"I've buried men here on wetter nights. If need be I can bury more."
"Ah, I was right then. You're no stranger." There was satisfaction in the man's voice. Lightning glinted off the badge on his chest.
Mike Shevlin put a rein on his tongue. Wanting no trouble, he simply said, "I've been here before, if that's what you mean."
The man with the badge shifted his feet slightly. "Are you Ray Hollister?"
"If you don't know Ray Hollister," Shevlin replied, "you haven't been around long."
"Two years. He left before I came."
Shevlin had an uneasy feeling that had he said he was Ray Hollister, the sheriff would have killed him.
Wind and rain lashed the grave-covered knoll, whipping the branches of the trees. Off to the right were the lights of the town--man more lights than he remembered. Beyond the town was the gallows frame and the huddled buildings of a mine, lighted for a night shift.
"Too wet to talk here," Shevlin said. "What's on your mind?"
"You were looking at Patterson's grave. He was killed in a gun battle two years ago."
Anger flared up in Mike Shevlin. "Whoever told you that," he said roughly, "lied."
"Then the coroner lied, Mason lied, and Gib Gentry lied."
"Who killed him?"
"Gentry--in self-defense. Mason was a witness. Patterson still had a gun in his hand when others came up."
Suddenly Shevlin knew he was not likely to be offered a drink nor a hot meal on this night. Rain slanted across the windows down there in town, windows behind which it would be dry and warm, but where he might be identified before he found out what had come so far to learn.
Gentry? No, not for a minute. Not, Gib. Gib would shoot fast enough, but he would never have shot Eli Patterson.
"No coroner's jury in the old times would believe that story. They knew Eli too well."
Shevlin, who knew most things that might be expected at a time like this, was prepared for the match when it flared in the sheriff's hand, and his own hand was suddenly before his face, pulling down his hat brim. The flare revealed only the sheriff's own tough, weather-beaten features.
Now where had he seen that face before?
"The old-timers are gone, or most of them," the man said. "Times have changed. Why don't you ride on?"
"Why should I?"
There was irritation in the sheriff's response to this. "Because you smell of trouble, and trouble is my business. You start anything and I'll have to come against you."
"Thanks." Shevlin's tone was dry, harsh. "You've warned me, now I'll return the favor. Don't make my trouble your business, and don't come against me."
The sheriff gestured across the valley at the huddle of mine buildings. "They tell me that's where the old Rafter H headquarters used to be. Now they use the old barn as a hoisthouse for the Sun Strike Mine. The town is no longer cattle, my friend, its mining. You won't find anyone around who knows you, and nobody who wants you here. Do yourself a favor and ride on."
Mike Shevlin, who had known many men, knew this was a truly dangerous man. He knew it because the sheriff had not tried to force the issue, as a less experienced man might have done; knew it because he was calm, talking quietly, trying to avoid trouble before it arrived, and because he was so obviously one of those who knew when and where not to use a gun.
"I'll tell you something." Mike Shevlin, who normally explained his actions to no man, explained them now in deference to the kind of man this was. "In my lifetime one man gave me a square shake without figuring to get something out of it. That man was Eli Patterson."
There was a pause.
"You'll be staying on then?" the sheriff asked.
"I'll be staying."
The sheriff tried again. "Look," he said patiently, "you start shaking the brush to find what happened to Eli Patterson and you'll have the whole town on you."
Mile Shevlin turned his horse toward Main Street. Over his shoulder he said, "It's a small town."
As he rode away he told himself has was a fool. He should not have come back. What could any man do to help the dead?
He had returned because a fine old man who had been his friend when he had no friends had been murdered, and his killers had gone unpunished. Nor could that one murder have made an end to it, for the wicked do not cease from wickedness, nor does evil end with one crime.
Weariness swept over him, and he felt empty, exhausted both mentally and physically. He was tired of being wary, tired of running, tired of being alert for trouble. But he could not have picked a worse time to feel that way, for he had come back to a country that was obviously on the brink of a shooting war.
Yet he had no idea what was going on. He only knew that the town was cold, wet, and unfriendly, just as it had been seventeen years ago.