For seven days in the spring of 1882 the man called Shalako heard no sound but thewind. . . .
No sound but the wind, the creak of his saddle, the hoofbeats of his horse.
Seven days riding the ghost trails up out of Sonora, down from the Sierra Madre, through Apache country, keeping off the sky lines, and watching the beckoning fingers of the talking smoke.
Lean as a famine wolf but wide and thick in the shoulder, the man called Shalako was a brooding man, a wary man, a man who trusted to no fate, no predicted destiny, nor to any luck. He trusted to nothing but his weapons, his horse, and the caution with which he rode.
His hard-boned face was tanned to saddle leather under the beat-up, black, flat-crowned hat. He wore fringed shot-gun chaps, a faded red shirt, a black handkerchief knotted about his throat, and a dozen scars of knife and bullet.
It was a baked and brutal land, this Sonora, sun-blistered and arid, yet as he sifted his way through the stands of organ-pipe cactus, prickly pear and cat's claw, he knew the desert throbbed with its own strange life, and he knew those slim fingers of lifting smoke beckoned death.
He was a lone-riding man in a lonesome country, riding toward a destiny of which he knew nothing, a man who for ten long years had known no other life than this, nor wished for any other.
What else there was he had known before, but now he lived from day to day, watching the lonely sunsets flame and die, bleeding their crimson shadows against the long, serrated ridges. Watching the dawns come, seeing the mornings stir with their first life . . . and the land he rode was a land where each living thing lived by the death of some other thing.
The desert was a school, a school where each day, each hour, a final examination was offered, where failure meant death and the buzzards landed to correct the papers.
For the deserts holds no easy deaths . . . hard, bitter, and ugly are the desert deaths . . . and long drawn out.
For seven days Shalako heard no sound but that of his own passage, and then a gunshot bought space in the silence, a harsh whiplash of sound, followed after an instant by the shattering volley of at least four rifles.
The rifles spoke again from the sounding board of the rocks, racketing away down the canyons to fade at the desert's rim.
Motionless upon a sun-baked slope, he waited while the sweat found thin furrows through the dust on his cheeks, but there was no further sound, no further shot, nor was there movement within the range of his vision . . . merely the lazy circle of a buzzard against the heat-blurred sky.
If they had not seen him already they would not see him if he remained still, and Shalako had learned his patience in a hard school.
The notch in the hills toward which he was pointing held a pass through the mountains, and within the pass lay a waterhole.
His canteen was half-full and if necessity demanded it could be made to last another three days . . . it had done so before. In the desert a man learns to use water sparingly and to make a little cover a lot of distance.
Sunset was scarcely an hour away, and the waterhole was at least that far distant.
It was unlikely that whoever fired those shots would at this hour, ride farther than the nearest water. Therefore the chances were that the water toward which he was riding would be occupied by whomever had done that shooting.
Four men do not fire in unison unless from ambush, and Shalako had no illusions about the sort of men who attack from concealment, nor what their attitude would be toward a drifting stranger who might have seen too much.
Whatever of gentleness lay within the man called Shalako was hidden behind the cold green eyes. There was no visible softness, no discernible shadow left by illusion. He was a man who looked upon life with a dispassionate, wry realism.
To his thinking those men who thought their hour was predestined were fools. Whatever else nature was, it was impersonal, inexorable. He had seen too much of death to believe it was important, too much of life to believe that the destiny of any creature was important to any but itself or those dependent upon it.
Only the mountains lasted, and even they changed. Shalako knew that he would live as long as he moved with care, considered the possibilities, and kept out of the line of any stray bullet. Yet he was without illusions; for all his care, death could come and suddenly.
Behind him to the east lay Mexico, but what trail he left back there only an Apache or a wolf might follow. Deliberately, he had avoided all known waterholes, keeping to the roughest country, seeking out the rarely used seeps or tinajas, and avoiding the places an Apache might go in search of food.
He had seen nobody in those seven days, and nobody had seen him. He was aware of that for, had he been seen, he would be dead. Yet he knew that the Apaches had come down out of the Sierra Madre and were riding north.
Removing his hat, he wiped the sweatband. No further sounds had reached him, nor was there any dust. Around him the desert lay still as on the day the earth was born. Yet he did not move.
Big Hatchet Peak towered more than eight thousand feet just to the south and west. He had crossed the border from Mexico into the States at a point in the foothills of the Sierra Rica, knowing the approximate location of the waterhole toward which he was riding.
It lay about two miles up a canyon and two trails led from it. One started south and east, then swung westward toward Whitewater Wells, every inch of it Apache country.
The second trail was dim, scarcely used even by Indians, an ancient trail that dated back to the Mimbres people, long vanished from their old haunts, if not from the face of the earth.
This trail led almost due west from the waterhole, was much shorter and less likely to be watched.
It was hot, and the roan was streaked with sweat and dust. The border country can be cool in April. It can also be an oven, the way it was now.
He started his horse, walking it to keep the dust down. From the shade of a nearby boulder an irritable rattler buzzed unpleasantly, and then for a time a chaparral cock raced ahead of him, enjoying the company.
After almost an hour of slow progress, he rode down a draw toward a small playa, or dry lake. It was unlikely the killers had remained in the area but Shalako was not a trusting man.
Within the mouth of the draw he drew rein again. With his first glance he recognized the body for what it was, but only when he was quite sure that he was alone did he approach it. He circled it as warily as a wolf, studying it from all angles, and when finally he stopped within a dozen feet of the dead man he knew much of what had happened at this place.
The dead man had ridden a freshly shod horse into the playa from the north, and when shot he had tumbled from the saddle and the horse had galloped away. Several riders on unshod ponies had then approached the body and one had dismounted to collect the weapons.
The clothing had not been stripped off, nor was the body mutilated. Only when he could learn no more by observation did he dismount and turn the body over. He was already sure the dead man's identity.
Pete Wells . . .
An occasional scout for the Army, a some-time driver of freight wagons, a former buffalo hunter and lately a hanger-on around Fort Bowie, Fort Grant, or Tucson. A man ofno particular quality, honest enough, and not a man likely to make enemies. Yet now he was dead, shot from ambush.
Circling, Shalako discovered where the ambushers had lain in wait.
Four men . . . .four Apaches.
Their trail when they left Well's body lay in the direction he himself was taking, and that meant the waterhole was off limits for Shalako unless he wished to fight them for it, and no man in his right mind started a fight with Apaches.
Despite his weariness and that of his horse he began backtracking the dead man.
Pete Wells was not likely to be alone, so his presence indicated a camp nearby, and a camp meant water. Yet Shalako puzzled over his presence here at such a time.
The Hatchet Mountains were in a corner of New Mexico that projected somewhat south of the rest of the state line. It was a desert and mountain region, off the main trails and offering no inducements to travel except several routes to Mexico. These were routes used by the Apaches in making their raids, but by no one else.
Unless Wells had been with the Army.
Within a few minutes Shalako knew that was highly unlikely, for Wells had been following another rider or looking for someone whom he did not fear. Wells had mounted every ridge and knoll to survey the surrounding country, and Wells knew better than to take such risks. Obviously, he knew nothing of the movement of the Apaches, and that implied that nobody else knew as yet. Wells was close to the Army and would be among the first to hear.
Shalako had backtrailed Wells for less than two miles when he came upon the trail Wells had lost.
What he found was merely a white scratch . . . the scar of an iron shoe upon a rock. Farther along a bit of stepped-on sage, then a partial hoof track almost hidden by a creosote bush. The trail led toward the Hatchet Mountains and, judging by the crushed sage, it was no more than two hours old.
By the time, some thirty minutes later, that he was riding up the slope that led to the base of the Hatchets, he knew a good deal more about the person he was following. He also knew why Wells had been following and that there was a fairly large camp in the vicinity.
In the first place the rider was in no hurry, and was unfamiliar with the country. As there were no inhabitated ranches or mines in the area, this implied a camp close enough for the rider to return before dark.
Here and there the rider had paused to look more closely at things, interesting enough in themselves, but too familiar for a Western man to notice.
At one point the rider had attempted to pick the blossom from a prickly pear. The blossom lay where it had been hastily dropped . Shalalo's face broke into a sudden grin that brought a surprising warmth to his bleak features.
Whoever plucked that blossom had a bunch of stickers in her fingers.
Yes, he was sure the rider was a girl or woman. The tracks of the horse, for example . . . it was a horse of medium build with a good stride . . . the tracks were but lightly pressed upon the sand, which implied a rider of no great weight.
Suddenly, almost in the shadow of the mountains, he saw where a trail of unshod ponies had crossed ahead of him. The rider he followed had noticed them also.
"One up for her," he said aloud. "At least she has her eyes open."
Now he scored another mark for the rider . . . a tenderfoot and a woman, but no damned fool . . . she had turned abruptly north and, skirting a nest of boulders, had entered a canyon. That last was not a good move but, obviously alarmed, she was seeking the quickest route back to camp.
The roan stumbled often now and Shalako drew rein beside the boulders and got down. Pouring a little water into his bandanna, he squeezed the last drop into the roan's mouth. He did this several times, and was about to step back into the saddle when he heard a horse's hoof click on stone.
He swung his leg over the saddle, then stood in the stirrups to look over the top of the boulder.
Evidently the canyon had proved impassable or a dead end, for the rider was returning. And the rider was a woman.
Not only a woman, but a young woman, and a beautiful woman.
How long since he had seen a girl like that? Shalako watched her ride toward him, noting the ease with which she rode, the grace of manner, the immaculate clothing.
A lady, this one. She was from a world that he had almost forgotten . . . bit by bit his memories had faded behind the blazing suns, the hot, still valleys, the rawbacked hills.
She rode a sorrel, and she rode sidesaddle, her gray riding skirt draped gracefully over the side of the mare, and she rode with the ease of long practice. Yet he was grimlypleased to see the businesslike way her rifle came up when she appeared from around the rock. He had no doubt that she would shoot if need be. Moreover, he suspected she would be a very good shot.
She drew up a dozen yards away, but if she was frightened there was no visible evidence of it.
"None of my business, but this here is Apache country."
"You know a man named Pete Wells?"
"Yes. He's our wagon-master."
"Pete never did have much sense." He gathered his reins. "Lady, you'd better get back to your camp wherever it is and tell them to pack up and high-tail it out of here."
Why should I do a thing like that?"
"I think you've guessed," he said, "I think you had an idea when you saw those tracks back yonder." He gestured to indicate the mountains far behind them. "Over there in the Sierra Rica there's an Apache named Chato. He just rode up out of Mexico with a handful of warriors, and here and there some others are riding to meet him. He will soon be meeting with some more who have jumped their reservation, and within forty-eight hours there won't be a man or woman alive in this corner of New Mexico."
"We have been looking forward to meeting some Indians," she replied coolly. "Frederick has been hoping for a little brush with them."
"Your Frederick is a damned fool."
"I should advise you not to say that to him."
"You and your outfit better light out fast. You already got one man killed."
"I . . . what ?"
"Pete was always a damn' fool, but even he should have known better than to bring a party of greenhorns into this country at a time like this."
Her cheeks paled. "Are you telling me that Pete Wells is dead?"
"We've sat here too long. Let's get out of here."
"Why should I be responsible? I mean, if he is dead?"
"He's dead, all right. If he hadn't been sky-lining himself on every hill while hunting for you he might not have been seen."
He led off along the base of the Hatchets, heading north. The gaunt land was softening with shadows, but was somehow increasingly lonely.
"We're at a ranch north of the range," she told him. Mr. Wells took us there. The place is deserted."
"How'd you get in here past the troops?"
"Frederick did not want an official escort. He wished to see the Apache in battle."
"Any man who hunts Apache trouble is a child."
Her tone was cool. "You do not understand. Frederick is a soldier. He was a general in the Franco-Prussian War when he was twenty-five. He was a national hero."
"We had one of those up north a few years back. His name was Custer."
Irritated by his amused contempt, she made no reply for several minutes yet, despite her anger with him, she was observant enough to note that he rode with caution, never ceased to listen, and his eyes were always busy. She had hunted before this, and her father had hunted, and she had seen the Masai hunt in Africa . . . they were like this man now.
"It is silly to think that naked savages could oppose modern weapons. Frederick is amused by all the trouble your Army seems to have."
He looked uneasily into the evening. There was a warning in the stillness. Like a wild thing he felt strange premonitions, haunting feelings of danger. He felt it now. Unknowingly he looked eastward toward the mountains, unknowingly because upon a ridge of those mountains an Apache looked westward . . . miles lay between them.
Tats-ah-das-ay-go , the Quick Killer, Apache warrior feared even by his own people . . . master of all the wiles, the deceits, the skills. He looked westward now, wondering.
At the no longer deserted ranch where the hunting party of Baron Frederick von Hallstatt built its cooking fires, a man beside one of the fires suddenly stood up and looked away from the fire.
He was a lean and savage man with a boy's soft beard along his jaws, high cheekbones, and a lantern jaw. His thin neck lifted from a greasy shirt collar, and he looked into the distance as if he had heard a sound out there. The .44 Colt on his thigh was a deadly thing.
Bosky Fulton was a gunman who had never heard of either Tats-ah-das-ay-go or Shalako Carlin. He did not know that his life was already bound inextricably to those two and to the girl Irina, who he did know. Yet the night made him restless.
Back upon the desert, Shalako had drawn up in a cluster of ocotillo clumps and under their slight cover he studied the country around, choosing a way.
"Every Apache," he said conversationally, "knows all your Frederick knows about tactics before he is twelve, and they learn it the hard way. The desert is their field of operations and they know its every phase and condition."
"How do they eat?"
He swept a gesture at the surrounding desert. "You can't see them but there are a dozen food plants within sight, and a half a dozen that are good for medicine."
She felt obliged to defend their attitude. "There are eight of us, and we are accompanied by four scouts or hunters, eight teamsters, two cooks, and two skinners. We have eight wagons."
"That explains something that been bothering me. The Apaches started eating their horses two days ago."
"Only thing an Apache likes better than horse meat is mule meat. He will ride a horse until it's half dead and, when they find a place where they can get more horses, they will eat those they have."
"You are implying they expect to have our horses?"
The sun was gone when they reached the last rocky point of the Hatchets. West of the nearest peak was a dark blotch of ranch buildings, and among them some spots of white that could be wagon covers. And in their midst blazed a fire, too large a fire.
Smelling water, the roan tugged at the bit, but there was a feeling in the air that Shalako did not like.
Into the silence she said, "I am Irina Carnarvon."
She said it as one says a name that should be known, but he did not for the time place the name, for he was a man to whom names had ceased to matter.
"My name is Carlin . . . they call me Shalako."
He started the roan down the gentle slope. The roan was too good a horse to lose and in no shape to run, but the ranch was safety and the ranch was two miles off. He slid his rifle from its scabbard.
"Get ready to run. We'll walk our horses as far as we can, but once we start running, pay me no mind. You just ride the hell out of here."
"Your horse is in no shape to run."
The roan quickened his pace. There was a lot of stuff in the that roan, a lot of stuff.
"You actually believe we are in danger?"
"You people are a pack of idiots. Right now you and that tin-braided general of yours are in more trouble than you ever saw before."
"You are not polite."
"I've no time for fools."
Anger kept her silent, yet she sensed the uneasiness of her horse and it made her wary.
Silence, and the distant fire . . . the hoof falls of the horses . . . the stars against the soft darkness of the sky, the loom of the mountains . . . a coolness in the air, balm after the day's fierce heat. The quickening pace of the horses, the faint gleam along the rifle barrel. A slight breeze touched her cheek.
When the camp was less than a mile away and they could hear faint sounds, an Apache suddenly raised up from behind a greasewood bush with a bowstring drawn back . . . but he had stood up directly in front of the muzzle of Shalako's rifle and less than thirty feet off.
He heard the thud of the bullet into flesh in the instant the arrow whizzed past his ear.
Startled by the explosion of the gunshot, both horses leaped into a run. Behind them there was another shot and Shalako felt the bullet when it struck the cantle of his saddle and carromed off into the night.
The roan ran proudly, desperately, determined not to lose the race to the fresher horse. A wave of fierce pride swept over Shalako and he realized again the unconquerable spirit of the roan mustang.
Neck and neck they raced for the ranch, and Shalako let go with a wild Texas yell to warn them those ahead that he was not a charging Indian.
On a dead run they swept into the ranch yard and drew up in a cloud of swirling dust. Several people started toward them, and Shalako glanced sharply around, taking in the camp and those who peopled it with that one sweeping glance.
The man who walked up to them first was tall. He was lean and strong, with blond hair and handsome, if somewhat cold, features. His eyes were white-gray, his boots polished and immaculate, his white shirt crisp and clean.
"What happened? Did you see a coyote?" His eyes went from Irina to Shalako, taking in his dusty, travel-worn clothing, his battered hat, and unshaven face.
"Better circle you wagons into the gaps between the buildings," Shalako suggested. "Get your stock inside the circle. That was an Apache, not a coyote."
The gray eyes turned again to Shalako, cool, attentive. "There are no Indians off the reservations," the blond man said, "Our man Wells told us--"
"Your man Wells is dead. If you want him you'll find him all spraddled out in a dry lake southeast of here, as full of holes as a prairie dog town . . . and it wasn't any reservation Indian that shot him."
"Who is this man, Irina?"
"Mr. Carlin, the Baron Frederick von Hallstatt."
"If you want to live," Shalako said, "forget the formalities."
Von Hallstatt ignored the remark. "Thank you for bringing Lady Carnarvon back to camp, Carlin. Now if you want something to eat, just go to the cook and tell him I sent you."
"Thanks, but I'm not staying that long. This outfit doesn't have a prayer and I'm not going down the chute with it. I'm riding out."
"Your pleasure," von Hallstatt replied coolly, and lifted a hand to help Irina from the saddle.
Two of the men who had come forward were standing by, and one of them said, "Forget it, General. This fellow was scared by a shadow."
The roan gelding swung as of its own volition and faced the speaker. Shalako's face was half-hidden by the pulled-down brim of his hat, but what the man could see he did not like. "Mister" --Shalako's voice was utterly cold--"I saw Apaches out there. What I shot was an Apache. Do you want to call me a liar?"
The man backed off a step. Desperately, he wanted to call the name and draw his gun, but something about the man on the roan horse made him hesitate.
"None of that!" Von Hallstatt's voice rang with the harshness of command. "Carlin, we thank you for escorting Lady Carnarvon back to camp. Eat if you wish. Sleep here if you wish, but I suggest you be gone by daybreak."
"By daybreak you'll be fighting for your lives. I'll be gone within the hour."