The driving rain drew a sullen, metallic curtain across the fading afternoon, and beneath his horse's hoofs the earth was soggy with this rain and that of the rains that had gone before. Hunching his big shoulders under the slicker, Tom Radigan was thinking of the warm cabin and the hot coffee that awaited him when he glimpsed the trail across the meadow.
What Tom Radigan saw was the trail of a ridden horse that had come down from the lonely hills to the southwest and headed into even lonelier hills beyond his ranch house.
"Now what in thunderation," he said aloud, "would anybody want back in there on a day like this?"
Or on any other day, for that matter.
In a world in which most things have a reason, Radigan was disturbed. Northern New Mexico in the 1870s was not place where men rode for pleasure, and especially not in a driving rain on the heels of several days of driving rain; nor was there anywhere to go in that direction other than the bluff back of the ranch.
Ordinarily, Radigan would not have seen the trail for this was not a route he usually chose, but for the past months he had been moving stock into a remote area known locally as the Valle de San Antonio, a well-watered valley nearly twenty miles from his home ranch. Returning, he had found this trail, which could scarcely be more than an hour old.
Whoever had made that trail had chosen a route that could not have been accidental; no casual rider would have come that way, but only someone who did not wish to be seen. There were easier ways and more direct routes.
Tom Radigan's R-Bar outfit was remote, hidden back in the hills far from any accepted route of travel. He worked his range alone but for one hand, a half breed Delaware who had once scouted for the Army and was known as John Child.
Coming out of the draw where the meadow lay he looked across the fairly wide sweep of the Canyon Guadalupe and over the gradually rising bench beyond it toward the ranch. During a momentary lull in the rain the ranch buildings and the trees around them were plainly visible, for the ranch was almost three miles away but a thousand feet higher than his present position.
The problem of the strange rider was disturbing, yet approaching the ranch with care he saw no one. A thin trail of smoke lifted from the chimney, but there was no other movement, and there should have been. Riding in from behind the stables and corrals, Radigan drew up and surveyed the situation with care.
Tom Radigan was a considering man. He took his time to study things out, and he was never one to come to quick decisions or solutions. He took his time now.
Four years of comparative quiet had not lulled his sharpness of sense--his hunting alone would have kept that alive--nor had it make him less wary. There were many reasons why a rider might come up the Canyon Guadalupe, but none of which he could think for coming over the rugged mountains to the east of it . . . unless he wanted to approach without being seen.
He scowled, watching the house, the hills, the forest and the mesa rim.
The gelding stamped impatiently and Tom Radigan swung down and opened his slicker, moving his colt into an easier position. Then, remaining on the side of the gelding that kept the horse between himself and any marksman on the talus slope, he went around and into the stable.
His first thought was for the horse. Stripping off the saddle and bridle, he rubbed the animal down with a piece of sacking, his mind turning over all the possible facets of the situation. He was probably being a fool; the rider might have been someone lost and searching for shelter.
Yet there was no sound from the house, and John Child did not appear, as he usually did. It was the half-breed's custom to stroll out from the house, help him with the horse and exchange gossip about the activities of the day.
Through the partly opened door he studied the house. By this time it would be dark inside and John would have lighted a lamp . . . you'd never catch John Child moving around in a dark house of his own free will.
Yet John's horse was in his stall and his saddle in its proper place. So why had not John come out to greet him, and why wasn't the light lit?
The situation at the ranch now seemed part of the sequence of affairs begun with the strange trail across the meadow. Never a trusting man, Tom Radigan had lived by taking care, and if someone were in the house waiting for him they would be apt to have the light going to make the situation as normal as possible. And the mud around the door had a few tracks . . . he studied those tracks again.
Somebody had come out and gone back. The steps from the house were even and regular until the fourth step which was skidded sharply in the slippery mud, and the returning steps were longer. Whoever had come out of the door had started toward the barn, had wheeled and sprang back for the house.
Nobody could have shot at John from the rim of the mesa because nobody knew the way up there but John and himself, but a shot fired from the talus slope back of the house would have found a target at just about the point where John had wheeled and dashed back into the house.
All right, that was it, then. Somebody was or had been on that talus slope behind the house, and that somebody might still be there waiting for a shot at John or himself the instant one of them appeared in the open yard.
Drawing back inside the barn he squatted on his heels and lighted a cigarette. If a man were to hide on that slope there were a dozen possible places, but none of them would conceal a horse.
So the sniper's horse would be hidden down in the trees on the lower hill, and somewhere east of the ranch. There was no cover directly east of the ranch yard, but around the corner of the hill there were scattered clumps of trees and brush, and then lower down, thick forest. The rifleman had hidden his horse somewhere down the slope and then had crawled up in the talus where he could cover the ranch yard.
Within the hour it would be completely dark.
After dark there would be no reason for anyone to wait up on that slope for there would be nothing to see. Therefore the hidden man would return to his horse and ride off somewhere to give up or await a better chance the following day.
Not even a mouse trusts himself to one hole only, and Radigan was no mouse. In the side of the barn that formed one wall of the corral there was another door made of sawed logs that was perfectly fitted and left for emergencies. He had never used that door since it had been built, but now he did.
Easing himself out that door, which was invisible from any place the watcher could be, he went down the slope behind the barn and into the trees. On a run, he began to circle the ranch area to get where a horse might be concealed.
It was almost dark and at any moment the man might be returning to his horse. Every step Radigan took was now a danger, and he made no move without checking the terrain before it.
He paused in the shadow of a boulder, his feet on the sand of a gradual slope. Raindrops felt his cheeks with blind, questing fingers. Walking on, he rounded the corner of a rocky promontory and saw the horse.
Standing head down, partly sheltered by he overhang, it waited.
He had been right then.
He stood close beside a sentinel pine, holding his body to merge with the blackness of the trunk. It was dark now.
Rain talked to the leaves. It was cold . . . he relaxed his grip on the gun action and shifted his hold.
A boot scraped on stone, a peddle cascaded among the rocks.
Delicately, Radigan tilted the Winchester barrel up to meet his left hand. He held the gun at hip level, ready to lift it for a quick shot.
There was a moment of silence, then a boot crunched on sand. A dark figure moved the shadows in the mouth of rock, and in the moment before the man reached the horse, Radigan said, "You looking for somebody?"
The man twisted and the flat stab of fire thrust toward him from the darkness and the rain, crossing the heavier sound of his Winchester, firing almost of it own volition, an instant late. He felt the shock of the bullet as it hit the tree beside him and spattered his face with tiny fragments of bark.
He fired a second time, realizing as he did so that the other man was fast, and a dead shot. Without warning more than his words, the man had wheeled and fired . . . he saw the man's body crumpling to the sand and the horse shy back, snorting. Tom Radigan moved a bit more behind the tree and waited.
He waited without movement, listening to the slow whisper of falling rain: there was no other sound.
The horse blew through his nostrils, not liking the smell of gunsmoke. A wind stirred the corner of Radigan's slicker.
The shot was a dart of red flame and a smashing concussion. A finger tugged at the slicker and Radigan fired, levered the Winchester and fired again into the dark bulk of the body.
Silence again, and rain. He waited, feeling sure the man was dead . . . this time he was dead.
Who had he killed? How had he even known about this place? In the four years since Radigan come to the bench above the Vache there had been no more than a half-dozen visitors.
The man had come to kill, or else he would not have fired so suddenly at a strange voice speaking from the darkness.
The minutes dragged, and Radigan waited. Many times the first men to move was the first to die, and he had learned patience. After awhile there was a short convulsive sigh and a boot toe scraping in the sand. The man was dead.
Radigan moved to another tree, his rifle ready for another shot.
Near the white palm of an outflung hand Radigan saw the wet shine of a pistol barrel. He came from behind the tree and walked toward the body.
Radigan prodded the body with his toe, rifle held for a shot, and when there was no move he turned the body so the face lay white under the dripping sky.
Young--not more than twenty-one or -two. A narrow face with a hard mouth and thin lips, a forehead too high. The holster was slung low and tied fast.
Lifting the body, Radigan draped him over his saddle, then retrieved the rife and pistol and leading the horse he walked back to the barn.
As he entered the yard the door opened and John Child stepped out with a lantern.
Child took the dead man's head in his grip and turned the face to the light."Know him?"
"No . . . do you?"
"No, I don't. Something familiar there, though."
Radigan noticed a small patch of bandage on Child's skull and indicated it with his eyes. "He hit you?"
"Burned me. I had your coat on." He looked at Radigan across the darkness. "What's the matter, Tom? What's wrong?"
"Damned if I know." He explained about the tracks that came over the hills far from any trail, indicating the man had come with purpose in mind, using a way that would avoid the chance of being seen. "Somebody hunting me, John. Or you."
Child considered that. "You," he said finally. "My enemies are dead." He looked at the body. "Bury him in the morning?"
"No. I'm a curious man, John. A wanting-to-know sort of man. I'm going to leave him tied across that saddle and turn the horse loose."
There was a moment of silence while the rain fell, and then Child muttered, "Damn!" There was wonder and satisfaction in his tone. "I'd not have thought of that."
"Maybe, just maybe it'll work. The horse might be borrowed or rented, but it might be his own. In any case, that horse is likely to go home. OR maybe to where it was fed and stabled last."
"You'll do," Child said, "You'd have made a fine Indian, Tom."
He studied the body, noting the three bullet holes, "He was a tough man."
"And fast," Radigan said. "He was fast and he was good. This man knew his business, John. He was a man hired for the job. I'm guessing."
That was the question, of course.
"We'll let him start now, and in the morning I'll trail him down." Radigan indicated the sky. "Look--the rain is breaking. The tracks will still be there."
Leading the horse to the trail south he slapped him hard across the rump, and stood while the horse jumped away and then trotted off down the trail, the dark bulk of the dead man in the saddle.
At daybreak he was out of bed and into his socks and shirt. Then he stirred the coals and laid on a few chunks of pitch pine to get a hot fire going, then he put the water on for coffee.
John Child came in. "Saddled that blaze-face sorrel for you. It clearing up nicely."
"Want I should ride along?"
"Stick around. There's enough to do and I don't want the place left alone now. You keep your guns close and don't get far from the place."
Child grinned at him. "I'm a Delaware . . . you forgettin' that?"
"It's the English in you worries me. The Delaware can take care of itself."
Radigan shouldered into a buckskin coat and went down to the corral. The sorrel was a good trail horse, half-Morgan and half-mustang, with lots of bottom and enough speed.
The trail was plain enough, for there had been a hard rain that wiped out tracks before the shooting and wind enough to dry the mud and set the tracks since the rain stopped. The trail led right to the bottom of Guadalupe Canyon and after that there was small chance to wander.
San Ysidro was nothing much as a town. Three stores, two saloons and a third saloon that was called a hotel because they occasionally rented rooms, and a scattering of houses, most of them adobe. It was just short of noon when Tom Radigan rode into town.
There were four horses at the hitching rack and a buckboard, but nobody on the street.
Three of the horses were branded with a Running M-on-a-Rail, a brand strange to him. He tied his horse at the hitching rack and went into the saloon. Two of the men at the bar were strangers, the third was Deputy Sheriff Jim Flynn and the fourth a man in buckskins who trapped over in the Nacimientos. His name was Hickman.
They nodded to each other and Flynn asked, "Travelin', Tom? Didn't figure to see you around here this late in the year."
"Man has to get out, time to time." He glanced briefly at the two strange riders. They looked to be tough, competent men. But why here? There was no Running M-on-a-Rail in this part of the country and no open range. There should be a third rider . . . where?
"Stage is about due," Flynn commented.
The door opened then and a big men came in. As tall as Radigan's six feet and two inches, he was thirty pounds heavier than Radigan's one hundred and eighty-five. His square, powerful head sat on a wide neck and powerful shoulders, yet for all his beef he moved easily, and he glanced sharply at Radigan, then again.
"I know you from somewhere," he said.
"You live around here?"
The cowhands had straightened up at the bar and so had Flynn. "Could be."
The newcomer hesitated as if to say something further but a shill yell from down the street and the rattle of hoofs and harness brought the stage up to the door.
The big man stood in frowning concentration, then called after the last man through the door. "Coker," he said, "shake the snow off those robes in the buckboard."
Radigan glanced out the window. It was snowing, not very seriously, but snowing nonetheless. He felt relieved. A good snow now might close the country for all winter. His first glance registered the snow, but the second caught the horse tied behind the stage.
Hickman stepped in the door. "Sheriff," he said, "we've a dead man out here."
Downey came from behind the bar. All of them went out but Tom Radigan. He refilled his glass.
Hickman glanced at him curiously. "Ain't you curious?"
"Me?" Radigan glanced at him. "I've seen a dead man."
The door pushed open and men came in carrying a body which they stretched on the pool table. The big man followed them in, his features a study in puzzled anger. A man obviously the stage driver entered with Downey and Flynn.
"About ten mile out," the driver was saying, "we come around a bend and there was this horse, walkin' toward us. We figured it was somethin' for you."
The deputy sheriff stared sourly at the dead man. Why didn't they let the horse keep going? Clean out of the county? "Anybody know him?" he asked.
Nobody spoke up. In the silence Hickman glanced quizzically at Radigan. Flynn noted the glance.
"He's some shot up," Downey commented, "and I'd say early last night." At Flynn's questioning glance Downey flushed. "Worked with doctors durin' the war," he said. "I know something about wounds."
"He could have come quite a ways," Flynn commented, "since early last night."
Tom Radigan was sure he knew what Flynn was thinking, that the unknown dead man could have come from the ranch under the mesa. There were not too many places he could have come from except maybe Jemez or Jemez Springs. Deputy Sheriff Flynn, Radigan decided, was no fool.
"All the wounds are in front," Radigan commented.
"That's where you'd expect `em to be," Hickman said. "That's Vin Cable."
Flynn turned around sharply around. "Damn it, Hickman!" he demanded irritably. "What would Vin Cable be doing up here? Maybe somebody is startin' a war?"
"Cable must've killed five or six men," Downey said.
"That folks can testify to," Hickman added. "No tellin' how many he dry gulched."
The big man turned sharply on Hickman. "You talk a lot," he said.
"You don't like it?" Hickman's voice was mild. He was idly whittling with a Bowie knife.
"Stop it," Flynn said, glaring at him. The deputy looked as sore as a hound dog with a bad tooth. He smelled trouble, Radigan surmised and, good officer that he was, wanted to avoid it.
Coker came to the door and called to the big man, "Ross, Miss Foley is ready to go."
Radigan followed them to the street, and Flynn trailed after.
A tall young man was helping a girl in a gray traveling dress from the stage. She had dark-brown hair and as Radigan saw when she glanced up at him, green eyes. He escorted the girl to the buckboard and paused there as Ross joined them. Whatever he said caused the young man to turn on him, startled and angry. The girl waited, listening.
Flynn seemed to make up his mind. "You folks planning to settle around here?"
Ross turned squarely around to face him. "We do. We've rented the Hansen place until our cattle come in, and then we're moving up on Vache Creek."
Flynn started to speak but Radigan interrupted. "I wouldn't count on it," he said.
All eyes were on Radigan.
"And why not?" Ross demanded.
"Because he missed," Radigan said quietly.