Three days I’d been zigzagging and covering up my trail out of one dusty little town and through another. I stopped in a town called Pecos. It was scarcely more than a feed store, a shanty hotel, a tiny bank, a livery, and two saloons. A scattering of clapboard houses were situated at the end of the dusty street, set off near a small creek that meandered by. It was a mite past noon when I rode into town.
Few people were about. Clumps of cottonwoods offered a swath of shade here and there along the same little creek I’d crossed a mile or so back, coming off a rocky ridge that dropped down onto the stage line’s lonesome trail. Running through town, it veered south again and out toward the sun-parched desert where moisture of any sort seemed to disappear altogether.
My dun loped casually down the middle of the empty street. A sunbaked boardwalk fronted the sheriff’s office to my right. A dog was lounging in the dust out front. He lifted his head, gave me nigh but a passing glance and a slap of his tail b’fore dozing off against the jailhouse wall.
I swung down at the hitchin’ rail and went inside to see the sheriff.
“Been expecting you, young man. Folks say you left Odessa with trouble on your tail.”
I nodded, prepared for handcuffs and a jail cell. But I let him speak.
“Despite what some folks say about bad Indians around, it turned out to be a couple of ornery Arkansas boys who done stole them cattle,” he said with a jerk of his head toward the back room. “Some bad whiskey in ‘em, and well, we all know what a feller can do on a drunk.”
“I reckon. And much obliged to ya for declaring my innocence.” I glanced into the back cells where a couple of sullen men hunched over, shackled to the floor. “Them two?”
Sheriff nodded. “Instead of a hanging, that posse will be hauling them two back to their own jurisdiction for a trial. I got a full confession out of ‘em after they showed, liquored up and a bragging away at the saloon.”
I thanked the sheriff and stepped through the door to leave when he spoke again.
“You in town a while, or just passin’ through?”
“Was hoping to find me some work, sir.”
“Couple of outfits around, may be hiring. Good luck to ya … and stay out of trouble.”
I smiled and walked out. It was never a question of me staying out of trouble. It was more about whether or not I could stand clear of trouble coming at me.
Hungry as a horse, I walked into a nearby grub house that doubled as one of the town’s three saloons. A sign over the doors read Sidewinder, a name that don’t ring friendly to a feller growing up around poisonous snakes. My spurs jingled against the bleached clapboards.
Darkness inside stopped me under the shade of the awning. Made a habit of adjusting the eyes before entering one of these lowdown drinking establishments. Gives a feller time to anticipate whatever trouble waits inside.
The batwing doors protested on rusted hinges as I pushed into the dank lighting, common to a hangout fit for lonely cowpokes, gamblers, and bored gunslingers. Seen plenty of ‘em on my way out West through Oklahoma into east Texas.
Settin’ off to my right a couple of rawboned aces grunted over a rickety poker table. The same sort of lot opposite the room, which left me a path straight and narrow to the bar. The owner, a tall man with a crooked nose and wiry hair was humming over a rag that polished whiskey-soaked hardwoods. At this hour I expected the joint to be empty, ‘cept for a rancher or two sipping whiskey over a cattle deal.
After a brief meeting of our eyes, the poker games resumed. Maybe I was just another stranger of no particular interest…but that is unlikely, for I am a half-breed. And half breeds are seen as contamination, according to many Anglos, no matter how we are raised. Smoke hung round a hatchet-faced hombre spitting brown slurry into a tin bucket. He dealt cards to a couple unshaven characters, a fat one and another who looked old enough to be their pa. Who were these men?
I ordered the usual, a slab of beef and beans with coffee from the bartender.
He shoved the plate in front of me, then poured coffee at the bar. “Ain’t got no cream, young man.” He’d said it loud enough so as the others could hear.
“What’s that got to do with the price of beef?” I asked him sardonically through sharp coal-colored eyes. I turned toward the room where the others looked somewhat amused at the bartender’s remark.
“Figuring we don’t serve no Injuns whiskey, you’d be drinkin’ coffee and cream all day,” he answered, eliciting jeers from the card tables.
I said nothing of it. A feller learns to let dogs lay if he ain’t hungry for lead. I couldn’t afford to draw any more attention than I had in the last town.
My boots took me to the far side of the room against a wall near a ruined piano, for easy viewing between me and the front door. Preferred it that way. At nineteen I was too young to be planted on Boot Hill, forgotten in some lonely two-bit town. Near three years I’d a fleeting notion to set my roots down somewhere out here in west Texas. It was well off the reservation, which had become a trap for my people. With an aim to buy me some livestock and grazing land, the fifteen dollars in my pocket wouldn’t get me more than a week of freeloading.
I was mighty hungry to find work.
Reckon I was gettin’ ahead of myself, but a feller who fails to plan may as well plan to fail. Pa would say that. He taught me a plenty ‘bout pullin’ my own weight, and then some. And Pa, he set store on working hard to make somethin’ of a life to be proud of.
That was the Irish in Pa’s blood, he always said.
Now that beef sandwich, it satisfied me clear through. Why it’d been several days livin’ off neigh more than jerked buffalo and black coffee high in the mountains or low on the desert.
Calm in this little one-street town gave way to the occasional clatter of wagons and buggies passing by outside. Children laughed and ran up the street.
The mere presence of younguns told me something good of this town. A bit more settled than most towns I’d passed through, where cow punchers and prospectors dominated life in saloons. And the occasional brothel run by shotgun-toting madams.
Had Pecos risen above that?
I sat there a daydreaming where I’d hang my hat—maybe in some quiet valley … or along the mountainside … or up in the highlands to the north.
That’s when trouble came a calling.
“Hey you? Injun boy?” The ornery words cut through the smoky room in frothy grunts. “You A-pa-chee … or is you Co-man-chee?” His pause was tailored for a saloon audience. “Either way, I got me a good rope outside.”
The gamblers waited. Their cards carefully laid flat to the tables. Swallowing the last of the beef sandwich I calmly washed it down, grasping the cup of coffee with my left hand. My right hand flattened out and slid within easy reach of my pistol.
I wasn’t huntin’ no trouble in this town, but sometimes a feller has to meet trouble when it comes—a vow I’d taken at the orphaned-age of fifteen…after losing Pa to a dry-gulcher after he’d stood up to a band of claim jumpers raiding a small gold mine on reservation land.
Ma, she done passed away a year earlier during a scourge of small pox that had been killin’ off a good bit of her Cherokee kinfolk.
Aside from a brother who’d elected to make a life in the mountains of Tennessee, I’d left a pack of broken dreams and two grave stones behind.
My eyes, calm and steady, locked on the red-haired no-account who sat glaring at me through malicious eyes. He was the squat ugly one of his lot. Splotchy scars crossing red cheeks into a bent nose.
A fella can read much of a man’s life by his eyes and the condition of his face.
Me, I had a notion to set. Yup. Let olé red play out his hand. The trouble-seeker always shoulders the greater risk. It figured right to let him make his own fatal mistake.
He bellowed again. “Can’t you hear, Injun boy?” I heard the others chuckle, saw them waiting with suggestive grins. In one synchronized motion the poker table betwixt me and Red cleared. The pendulum clock behind the bar clicked off edgy moments. The bartender’s polishing rag came to rest.
Red’s voice filled with tension. “I done ass’t you a question! Or don’t you unda’stand English, Injun-boy?”
Nothing like a good dose of silence. Kinda leaves a trouble hunter in the dark. Meanwhile, it gets a fella ready to defend himself. Ready for whatever misfortune beckons him. Big Red, well, he was the sort to grow impatient. I could see him settin’ there thinking despite all the empty space between his ears. Would the breed back down and run? Or would he put up a fight?
He wasn’t sure what to do about me setting there calm and ready, little more than whisperin’ distance.
High cheek bones and a leathery face, parched by long days in the sun, revealed my Cherokee blood lines. Gave them high-riding sorts like Red here a convenient target instead of bullying his own kind.
Down in Texas folks had shed blood at the hands of Comanches. But there were peaceful Indians a-plenty who’d been slaughtered with no cause but ignorance and unfounded fear. I expect a little suspicion toward a stranger passin’ through, but that don’t make a feller guilty of trouble.
I wasn’t hunting no trouble in Pecos, or anywhere. But when it comes, I’m a’ready, having learned early the strong often stand alone. Upon them notions does a man’s life rest.
Red’s eyes narrowed now, contemplating my broad shoulders and lean muscular torso, and wondering just what he’d bargained for. His eyes had surely glanced over my two six-shooters, tied down and hanging low, when I come through them doors. Most fellers didn’t display their irons as such. But for me it proved a useful deterrent.
To compose myself, I returned briefly to my thoughts—a decent spread to graze a hundred or more head where land was cheap and good stock still occupied open ranges. The notion calmed me as I waited for Red to finish his business.
The mottle-faced brute cussed under his breath and got to his feet. A hand hovered over his gun as he tossed a playful glance to his partners. “This’ll be like taking a gumdrop from a baby.”
It was the moment I waited for.
In the time his eyes had left me to indulge in a dose of grandstanding, I’d sprung like a cat. And when he’d turned back to take me, the Colt in my hand was no hallucination.
“You say something, mister?”
My tone was low and even, with a playful touch of malice. As if in my moccasins, I’d slipped up on him, less than five steps of his table. The pistol in my hand floated easy and level. My dark eyes drilled his bloodshot stare.
The others threw Red a taunting grin—a challenge to put the half-breed kid in the ground? Mebbe. But he elected to assess his odds mighty careful. Swallowing hard, his face tightened and he touched his tongue to quivering lips. Slowly he laid both palms down on the table. “Just havin’ a little fun witcha, Injun boy.”
I let my words come out real slow. “Reckon you’ll git more amusement from that there card game, mister. You just set back down and finish it.”
Red didn’t know what to think. That he had backed down against a breed in a bar would spread like wild grass fire. Every chuck wagon within a hundred miles would hear that story. It rankled ole Red as I watched him ease himself back down in that wooden chair. His sallow glare tracked that half-breed who’d holstered his gun and walked out.
Folks in Pecos were busily going about their business when I stepped off the boardwalk into the street. Two small children crossed in front of me as they hurried home for fresh baked pie. The town’s banker swept dust off his porch and wiped dust off a sign that said he was open for business. I would make a stop in the bank to deposit my cash, then inquire about jobs and maybe land prices.
Beyond the saloon crowd, the town took on a homely feel. Good roots had been planted here some years ago. The presence of children was a good sign. Wouldn’t be long before there’d be brick buildings, more houses, restaurants, a church, maybe even a dancehall. What with the presence of lady folk about.
“Name’s Llano,” I said as I entered the bank and we shook hands.
Curt Rollins was a red-faced middle-aged man who looked older. Was he drinking? I seen him slipping a whiskey bottle behind his desk just as I come through the door.
Swaying slightly, he peered at me. A friendly enough look. “How old are you, young man?”
I told him I was nineteen, but he refused to believe me. “You’re a mite young lookin’. Reckon it’s the breed in yuh.” My face remained unchanged, something a fella learns to do after such encounters. “Now, I’ve a notion to call you Llano the Kid,” he continued. “Or maybe just Llano Kid.” He chuckled at his own remarks, unaware the moniker already existed but I’d save it for later.
Sure, I looked a mite young, and a bit lean for my years. And that rankled me. For I yearned to be seen as a grown man after being on my own for some time.
“Now, now, don’t git me wrong, Llano. Take it as a compliment. Sort of like that gun slingin’ feller, Billy the Kid.”
I finished making my deposit and was ready to be on my way, but he was a talking man. Turns out Rollins owned some land himself and knew the valley well after homesteading two generations in his family.
“Can yuh handle cattle?” he asked flatly.
I nodded, reluctantly. The truth was I didn’t have a whole lot of experience herding cows. But with my skills straddling a horse, I could learn.
“A few outfits are hiring,” he continued, “but you won’t get on ‘less you can handle them irons you’re wearing, son. It’s come down to some range wars out there.”
I said nothing of it, but that news did set me to thinking.
“You best see a fella by the name of James Maxwell,” he advised. “Man’s got a nice spread west of here, called the T-Bar. Mebbe fifteen miles out.
“Rarely ever see Maxwell in town these days. Come to think of it, I ain’t seen his money come to the bank for some time. Must be stashing it in his root cellar. Sort of laid up due to failing health. Least that’s what folks are saying.
Rollins lit a cigar and sat down at his desk. “Maxwell may be hiring on account of losing a couple of good hands. Some say to Apaches. Others doubt it. Talk of rustlin’ is always about, but I’m not one to get my nose too wet in the details.” Rollins paused, peering over his glasses at me. “You’re dressed like a white man, but … well, there are a few folks who’ll figure you to be of Injun blood, I reckon.”
Staring out the window toward the hills, Curt Rollins rubbed his chin and managed to change the subject.
“I hear some outfit is rustling cows and driving them over the border to sell in Mexico. No one’s got proof of it, but folks believe one of their men dry-gulched one of Maxwell’s boys. Old man Instrom, he owns the I-Bar. Swears they was Injuns who done it, but some believe otherwise.”
“Where do I find this James…?”
“Maxwell. I seen his foreman, mebbe half hour ago at the general store. Beckman’s his name. He’s the man doing the hiring & firing for Maxwell these days. Got hired on to keep the books and run the operation. Come to think of it, I don’t know where he’s from.
“Could be a good gig … if you can stay on his good side and keep up with his outfit. He’s tough on that bunch out there, but if they like yuh they’ll back you up when trouble strikes. If they don’t, well—”
“I get the picture,” I said wanting to change the subject. “If a feller wants to buy land…where does he look?”
Rollins smiled. “What’s left of range land round here, with clear water and grassy meadows is up yonder, near the mountains to the north. Instrom’s been buying up most of it when he can.”
“So, Instrom runs a big cattle operation?”
Rollins glanced through the front window then back at me. “Llano Kid,” he began grimly, “not so much in raising cattle as I’d expect, but I-Bar’s foreman comes in to make some mighty big cash deposits. Newly minted gold coins and crisp hundred-dollar bills. Stuff not yet in circulation around here. Sure. It’s good business for this here bank, but it sets a feller to wonderin’.”
By the look in his eyes, he’d said too much.
“Thank you, sir.” We shook hands at the door.
Rollins nodded, his eyes careful to miss nothing about me. “Glad to help,” he replied. “Watch yourself, son. Rough shod clan, them Instroms.”
I adjusted my hat and pulled the door open as a pretty woman under a sunbonnet strolled inside, leaving me hardly time for a polite nod. Her black hair danced as it reflected off beams of sunlight coming through the window.
Maybe it was her grace and poise that reminded me of Ma. Only thing, this fine lady was not much older than I.
Outside the general store a handsome, powerful man with hawkish eyes was loading up a wagon hitched to a horse with the T-Bar brand. So, I walked over and made my acquaintance with Dave Beckman. We talked a mite before he instructed me how to get out to the ranch. I’d soon meet Maxwell and we’d talk more about a job.
My thoughts were never too far from my Ma and Pa as my horse cantered through town and onto the stage line’s trail. Figured I’d have a look around at the surrounding countryside before committing to a job.
A mile or so out of town I reined in. The dun grazed while I sat him and took stock of the riverbed. A scattered rock formation indicated the valley had been carved out by a glacier, thousands of years past. Steep canyon walls rose up to the north. Tall stands of ponderosa pine blotted the hillside to the west.
The trees, the landscape, the mountains, they were barren in comparison to the Nation where Ma spent her early years. Then came the Removal Act that sent Ma’s people to Oklahoma. Too many Cherokees perished along the way.
It was in the Blue Mountains where Ma and Pa met. Pa, he later deserted as one of the soldiers assigned to escort the Cherokees out. He’d privately informed Ma the move was more about gold than wanting the Nation’s land for white settlements.
Our people hunkered down in the mountains, scratching out a life that had turned to raw survival. This eventually brought in-fighting amongst the inner clans and leaders.
The discovery of gold in the Blue Mountains blew the top off our Nation when my Pa was standing up to renegades who’d come in jumping claims and killing Cherokees who had illegally stayed back. Pa was buried on a hillside after he’d been shot in the back.
I was orphaned at age twelve. Soon more soldiers came and bunched us orphaned Cherokees into wagons. They took us to the reservation in Oklahoma. I was coming into my teen years and had learnt to work as any man could. I grew strong and took many jobs to help what remained of the Cherokee Nation recover.
The road to the T-Bar was deeply rutted from rains and regular use by the stages. We skirted a low ridge for nearly an hour. Then it narrowed as I entered a fold in a steep canyon. Long shadows sliced the trail in front of the dun. I decided to scout the spots Rollins had pointed to on a map. Much unclaimed range land awaited me beyond the canyon, dropping down into a vast basin.
My horse blew and was eager to take to the trail. A muscular horse he was, with generous bouts of speed and ample endurance.
Could run all day if I’d push him. But Pa had taught me to care for our animals. “Llano,” he’d say, “you best prepare for what is ahead, night or day. A worn down horse ain’t no good when a man’s gotta light a shuck or duck trouble that he can’t handle on his own.”
The sun was high when I paused to let the dun drink from a brook that trickled across our trail. The dun’s ears pricked up. His flared nostrils drew in the scent of something nearby. I nudged him out of the clearing and into a cleft in the canyon wall where we couldn’t be seen.
I watched a lone horseman appear. He was but a hundred yards behind me. A rifle lay across his knee as he surveyed the ravine to his left. I watched patiently. He wore a pistol on his hip. The brim of his dusty hat rode low over his face, and his eyes were fixed down on the trail.
What was he looking for?
Whose sign was he looking at? I had noticed tracks going both directions, some as recent as a day or two. When had he dropped down on my back trail? Was he following me? How far out of town had the rider been on my trail? I waited to see if he would continue on.
He paused to look around but seemed to lose whatever sign he was following. I had been careful to keep to hard ground when we weren’t on gravel. Still, it was impossible for a man to leave no sign for much distance. And if it was my trail this rider was looking for, we would eventually meet up.
Looking for the upper hand in the matter, I decided to play my cards. Better on my own terms, I reasoned. So I nudged the gray dun from the cleft in the canyon wall, sliding a ready hand over my knee.
The rider’s bronc continued in my direction. He was clearly startled at his own carelessness when his eyes found mine as he walked his horse up within thirty yards of me. A man unaware of his surroundings at such close proximity finds an early grave.
He paused and I heard him curse himself.
“You from these here parts?” I asked. He stared back at me. Contrary to mine, his tone was flat and irritable.
“Pretty sights up yonder. Whether a feller is passin’ through or fixin’ to stay.”
He moved closer and drew up ‘bout twenty yards from where I sat my horse. His hand remained on the rifle. “A feller is sometimes better off passin’ through.”
From the start I didn’t like this hombre. His manner was ugly and harbored trouble.
“Reckon you’re right,” I replied mildly, “…if a body wanders into Comanche or Apache country. This here trail is well travelled from the looks of it. I hear tell Apaches hardly cotton to hunting this far north.”
The rider spat onto the trail. “How do I know you ain’t one of ‘em?”
I ignored his remark. “They call me Llano. And you are?”
“Ain’t important who I am.” He said it leaning forward over his saddle horn, eyeing me like poison.
I shot him a cheerful grin. “Sorry to hear you’re not so important in these parts.”
His face flushed with fury. “That ain’t what I meant,” his words cracked with tension. “For a young buck…and a breed, you got a boldness ‘bout you I don’t like.”
“Never did cotton to crowd pleasing,” I told him coolly. Look, man, I’d had enough run-ins with his kind. Inside I was nervous, and my heart was ready to jump out onto the ground, but I knew hombres of his sort couldn’t frighten me no more.
Let a feller on that you’re scared, and he’ll strike ‘fore you can say rattlesnake. It’s become a matter of survival for me and a lot of other fellas out here.
The rider was a large scruffy man with cruel eyes. He chuckled without humor then took his hand off the rifle to roll a smoke. Me, I kept him in my sights, letting my ears tune into the sounds around us. The canyon would amplify any movement within a quarter mile. Were others with him? Was this man waiting for his outfit to show up? Could he be working for Instrom and his gang?
His horse commenced to munching bunch grass along the trail. I guessed the horseman to be like he said, unimportant. Perhaps a look-out, but not a man of authority or position. A dangerous man, nonetheless.
“I-Bar outfit operate out this way?” I asked casually, remembering Rollins talking about it as the Instroms’ handle.
He grinned with evil in his eyes. “Most of these parts is owned and run by Instrom’s outfit. You huntin’ a job? They done hired greasers. Maybe they’d take on a driftin’ no-account Injun.
Ignoring the insult, I pushed on with my intentions to rattle him a bit. “Maybe… Maybe not,” I replied slow and easy. “Twixt here and town a feller can’t help but take notice of all the open grazing land. Seems odd I don’t see a single head, unless…”
I watched the rider touch his tongue to dry lips. A thin veil of contempt burned in his eyes.
“Unless what?” he demanded.
“Unless they’re held somewhere out of the way, waitin’ to be driven yonder. Mebbe ‘cross the border.”
“You accusin’ something, Injun?”
I said nothing of it but gave him the inscrutable Indian look and let him set there and wonder. Soon his eyes broke off in nervous glances around us, unsure how to save face once he could see I wasn’t going to leave.
“Well,” he grunted, “such a notion has a way of gettin’ a man kilt … that is if he’s to be poking ‘round in the wrong places. So mebbe, half-breed, you best turn round and ride out-a-here.”
I held my gaze on him, forcing this hombre to do his own bidding. When he failed to get the response he wanted he disappeared up the draw into the canyon.
Something was amiss out here. Rollins had alluded to a ranching operation without much in the way of visible stock. And what about them large bank deposits? The rider’s testy attitude suggested he cared none for questions, let alone friendly chat. Was Instrom’s outfit hiding stolen cattle up here?
This here wasn’t my business, but I had a bad habit of sticking my nose out too far when justice and fair play was hard to come by.
It did git me more curious than a buzzard ridin’ the desert winds at high noon. And I said as much to the dun as we loped on down the trail.