The Man from the Broken Hills

I caught the drift of woodsmoke where the wind walked through the grass.

A welcome sign in wild country. . . or the beginning of trouble. I was two days out of coffee and one day out of grub, with an empty canteen riding my saddle horn. And I was tired of talking to my horse and getting only a twitch of the ears for answer.

Skylining myself on the rimrock, I looked over the vast sweep of country below. The smoke was there, pointing a ghost finger at the sky, so I rode the rim looking for a way down. It was forty or fifty feet of sheer rock, and then a steep slope of grass-grown talus, but such rims all had a break somewhere, and I found one used by run-off water and wild animals.

It was steep, but my mustang had run wild until four years old, and for such a horse this was Sunday School stuff. He slid down on his haunches and we reached bottom in our own cloud of dust.

There were three men around a fire, with the smell of coffee and of bacon frying. It was a two-bit camp in mighty rough country, with three saddle-broncs and a packhorse standing under a lightening-struck cottonwood.

"Howdy," I said. "You boys receivin' visitors, or is this a closed meetin'?"

They were all looking me over, but one said, "You're here, mister. Light and set."

He was a long-jawed man with a handlebar mustache and a nose that had been in a disagreement. There was a lean, sallow youngster, and a stocky, strong-looking man with a shirt that showed the muscle beneath it.

The horses were good, solid-fleshed animals, all wearing a Spur brand. A pair of leather chaps lay over a rock near the fire, and a rifle nearby.

"Driftin?" the stocky fellow asked.

"Huntin' a job. I was headed east, figurin' to latch onto the first cow outfit needin' a hand."

"We're Stirrup-Iron," The older one commented, "an' you might hit the boss. We're comin' up to roundup time and we've just bought the Spur outfit. He's liable to need hands who can work rough country."

Stepping down from the saddle I stripped off my rig.

"Seen any cattle over west?" The handle mustache asked.

"Here an' there. Some Stirrup-Irons, HF Connected, Circle B. . . all pretty scattered up there on the caprock."

"I'm Hinge," the handlebar said, "Joe Hinge. That long-legged galoot with the straw-colored hair is Danny Rolf. Old muscles here is Ben Roper."

"Name's Milo Talon," I said, but nobody so much as blinked.

"Set up," Hinge suggested, "we're eatin' light. Just a few biscuits and the bacon."

"Dip it in the creek," I said, "and I'll eat a blanket."

"Start with this," Ben Roper gestured to Rolf. "He's got enough wild life in it to provide you with meat."

"Huh! I--!"

"You got comp'ny," I said, "five men, rifles in their hands."

"Roper stood up suddenly, and it seemed to me his jaws turned a shade whiter. The kid was up, movin' to one side, and the oldster just sat there, his fork in his hand, watching them come.

"Balch an' Saddler," Hinge said quietly. "Our outfit an' them don't get along. You better stand aside, Talon."

"I'm eatin' at your fire," I said, "and I'll just stay where I am."

They came on up, five very tough men, judging by their looks--well-mounted and armed.

Hinge looked across the fire at them. "`Light an' set, Balch," he offered.

Balch ignored him. He was a big man, rawboned and strong. He looked straight at me. "I don't know you."

"That's right," I said.

His face flushed . Here was a man with a short fuse and no patience. "We don't like strange riders around here," he said flatly.

"I get acquainted real easy," I said.

"Don't waste your time." Just get out."

He was a mighty rough-mannered man. Saddler must be the square-shouldered, round-faced man with the small eyes, and the man beside him had a familiar look, like somebody I might have seen before.

"I never waste time," I said. "I thought I'd try to rustle a job at the Stirrup-Iron."

Balch stared at me, "You're a damn fool if you do," he said.

"I've done a lot of damn fool things in my time," I told him, "but I don't have any corner on it."

He had started to turn his attention to Hinge, but his head swung back. "What's that mean?"

"Read it any way you like," I said, beginning not to like him.

"I'll make up my mind about that and when I do, you'll have my answer."

"Anytime," I said.

He turned away from me. "Hinge, you're too damn far west. You start back come daybreak and don't you stop this side of Alkali Crossing."

"We've got Stirrup-Iron cattle here," Hinge said. "We will be gathering them."

"Like hell! There's none of your cattle here! None at all!"

"I saw some Stirrup-Irons up on the cap-rock," I said.

Balch started to turn back on me, but Ben Roper broke in before he could speak. "He saw some HF Connected too," Roper said, "and the major will want to know about them. He will want to know all about them."

Balch reined his horse around. "Come daybreak, you get out of here. I'll have no Stirrup-Iron hand on my ranch."

"Does that go for the major, too?" Roper asked.

Balch's face flamed with anger and for a moment I thought he would turn back, but he just rode away and we watched them go, then sat down.

"You made an enemy," Hinge commented.

"I'm in company," I replied. "You boys were doing pretty well yourselves. Who is the major?"

"Major Timberly. He was a Confederate cavalry officer in the late difficulty. Runs him some cattle over east of here and he takes no nonsense from anybody."

"He's a fair man, a decent man. . . and that's what worries me. Balch and Saddler aren't decent, not by a damn sight."

"They've crowded the range with cattle, and they push. . . they push all the time. They crowd Stirrup-Iron riders and Stirrup-Iron cattle, and they crowed the cattle of some other outfits."

"Like Spur?" I suggested.

They all looked at me. "Like Spur. . . crowded him until he sold his brand to Stirrup-Iron and left the country."

"And the major?"

"They leave him alone. Or they have so far. If they crowd him, he'll crowd back."

"What about Stirrup-Iron?"

"Hinge glanced at Roper. "We avoid trouble. Just the same, come roundup time we'll ride in there after our cattle, calves and all."

We ate up. I kept thinking about the third man. I knew him from somewhere.

Most of the last three years I'd been riding the outlaw trail. Not that I was an outlaw. It was just that I liked the backbone of the country, and most of the outfits I'd worked for since leaving the home ranch had been along the outlaw trail.

"We'll ride home in the morning," Hinge said. "We will talk to the major, too."

"Who's your boss?" Who runs the Stirrup-Iron?"

"An old man," he said, "and a kid girl."

"She ain't no kid," Danny said, "she's older'n me."

"A girl-kid," Roper added, "and the old man is blind."

I swore.

"Yeah," Roper said, "you'd better think again, mister. You ain't in this like we are. You can ride on with a clear conscience."

"Are you boys quittin'?

There was no friendly look in their eyes. "Quittin'? Who said anything about quittin'?"

"Goin' against a tough outfit for a blind man and a girl," I said, "just doesn't make sense."

"We ain't about to quit," Roper said.

I grinned at them.