He was asleep and then he was awake. His eyes flared wide and he held himself still, staring into the darkness, his ears reaching for sound.
And then he heard again the sound that had awakened him. It was not the stir of hoofs on the dusty trail some thirty yards away -- not the sound of one horse alone, but of several horses.
Carefully, he lifted himself to one elbow. This was strange country and he was unarmed. What motives might inspire whoever was out there he could not guess. This was no celebrating bunch of cowhands headed for the home ranch. These men were quiet, and their very stillness was a warning.
They stopped. A horse moved nervously, and then there was a voice. "Right above your head." There was a pause. "That's it."
Another and deeper voice spoke. "Lead his horse over here."
Saddle leather creaked, then that second voice came again. "There."
The word held satisfaction, a gloating born from some dark well of hatred and rolled on the tongue as if the speaker had waited long for this moment and wished to prolong it.
"Easy with that horse! Don't let him drop! Ease him down! I want him to know what he's gettin'! How d'you like it, Neal?"
The voice that spoke now was that of the man being hanged. He spoke coldly. "You always were a double-crossin' rat, Lud, an' you ain't changed any."
There was the sharp crack of a slap, and then the same voice spoke again. "Lucky my hands are tied, Lud. Old as I am I'd take you apart."
The man in the blanket was sweating. He eased from the blankets and grasped his boots, drawing them on. Then he stood up.
"Hurry it up, Lud! It'll soon be light an' We've miles to go!'
"All right," Lud's voice was thick, irritated, "lead his horse out easy. I want this to last."
A horse moved and the listener heard the creak of a rope taking strain; then he heard the jerking of it as the hanged man kicked and struggled.
"After Neal the rest of them will be easy."
"Huh!" Lud grunted. "You leave it to me. Let's get out of here!"
There was a sudden pound of horse's hoofs and the listener moved swiftly. He went up the tree and with a quick slash, he cut the rope and let the body tumble into the dust. Grasping the branch he swung out and dropped lightly beside the body, then bent swiftly and loosened the noose. Almost at once the man began to gasp hoarsely.
Picking up the older man as if he were a child, the rescuer went quickly through the brush to his bed and placed the man on the ground. Then he loosened the man's shirt and got his own canteen. Gasping painfully, his neck raw from the manila rope, the man drank. Then he sank back on the blankets.
"Fig. . . figured they. . . had me." His voice was thick and hoarse.
"Save the talk. Only reason you're alive is that Lud hombre. He wanted you to choke slow instead of break your neck with a drop."
The old man rolled over to his elbow and sat up. "Where's your horse?"
"Don't have one."
The older man stared at him. "My name's Joe Neal," he volunteered. "Who are you? What are you?"
The big man squatted. "What's this all about?" He jerked his head at the trail. "Who were they?"
"Vigilantes," Neal's voice was still hoarse. "That's the devil of it, stranger. I helped organize `em."
He stretched his neck gingerly. "The country was overrun with rustlers so we got them vigilantes together. Them rustlers was well organized with spies everywhere. Nobody ever knew who was behind `em until Lud Fuller turned it up that Gid Blake was the man. I'd never have believed it."
"They hung him?"
"Nope. He got him a gun first an' shot it out. Fuller handled it."
The man got to his feet. "If you're up to it, we better light out. Is there anywhere near we can pick up horses?"
"The nearest is over by the lava beds. The Sostenes outfit."
They started walking, heading back up a draw. Neal's muscles were still jumping from the shock of hanging. Sweat got into the raw flesh on his throat and smarted painfully. He turned and glanced at the big man who walked behind him with an effortless ease that he could never have hoped to match. Who was the fellow?
After a while, Neal stopped. "Better take a blow." He grinned wryly. "Never was no hand for foot travel, not even when I felt good. And it's a distance yet."
"Got any plans?"
"No," Neil admitted. "I haven't. This thing has been a shock to me. Can't figure out why they did it. One of the men in that outfit was my foreman. Now I don't know who to trust."
"Then don't trust anybody."
"That's easier said than done. I've got to have help." Neil felt gingerly of his neck. "I'm not as young as I used to be. I don't want to go back there an' get my neck stretched."
"You aim to quit?"
Neil spat. "Like hell, I'll quit! Everything I've got is back there. You want I should give up thirty thousand head of cattle?"
"Be a fool if you did. I figured you might send me."
"Sure. Give me papers authorizing me as ranch manager, papers the banks will recognize. Let me work it out. You're up against a steal, and a smart one."
"I don't follow you."
"Look, you organized the vigilantes to get rid of some crooks. Then all of a sudden when you aren't with them the vigilantes hang this Gid Blake. He was a rancher, you said. What happens to his outfit?"
"What happens? His daughter runs it."
"Well, I don't know," Neal admitted. "She's mighty young."
"Was her foreman a vigilante? I'm bettin' he was. I'm bettin' somebody got smart down there and decided to use the vigilantes to get possession of your range and that of Blake. From what they said they have others in mind, too. I'm bettin' none of your range was filed on. I'm bettin' that with you gone they just move in. Is that right?"
"Could be." Neal shook his head. "Man, you've struck it. I'll bet that's just it."
They got up and started on, walking more slowly. "Well, like my proposition? You go back there now they'll kill you sure as shootin'. Send me in an' you'll have `em worried. They won't know what's become of you."
"What's to stop them from killin' you?" Neil demanded. "You'd be walkin' right into a trap."
"It wouldn't be the first. I'll make out."
They walked on and the sun came out and it grew hotter, much hotter. Joe Neal turned the idea over in his mind. He was no longer a youngster. Well past sixty, with care he might live for years.
"I don't know who you are. Far's I can see you're just a tramp without a saddle."
"That's what I am. I just broke jail."
Neal chuckled. "You got a nerve, stranger. Tellin' me that when you're askin' me to drop my ranch in your lap."
"The jail was in Old Mexico. I was a colonel in the army of the revolution, and the revolution failed. They took me prisoner and were fixin' to shoot me. The idea didn't appeal very much so I went through the wall one night and headed for Hermosillo, then made it overland to here."
"What's your name? I s'pose you got one?"
The young man paused and mopped the sweat from his face. "I got one. I'm Utah Blaine."
Joe Neal stiffened, looking up with startled realization. "You...you're Utah Blaine? The gunfigter ?"
Joe Neal considered this in silence. The man was ranked for gun skill with Wes Hardin, Clay Allison and Earp. Yet he was known as a top hand on any ranch.
"All right, Blaine. We'll make a deal. What do you want?"
"A hundred a month and an outfit. A thousand dollars expense money to go in there with. Then if I clear this up, give me five hundred head of young stuff."
"Neal spat. "Blaine, you clear this up for me and you can have a thousand! A permanent job, if you want it. I'll sign the papers, Blaine, makin' you ranch manager and givin' you right to draw on my funds for payrolls or whatever."
They came up to the Sostenes ranch at sundown. Pete saw them coming almost at once and stood waiting for them. he glanced from Blaine to Neal. "What had happen?" he asked. "You are without horses! You have been hurt."
Inside the house, Neil explained briefly, then nodded to Blaine. "He's goin' back there for me. Can you get us out of here to the railroad? In a covered wagon?"
"But surely, Senor! An' if I can help, you have only to ask."
"Four days later, in El Paso, they drew up the papers and signed them. Then the two shook hands. "If I had a son, Utah, he might do this for me."
"I reckon he would," Blaine replied, "an I've got a stake in this now, Neal. You want your outfit back, and I want to start a little spread of my own."
The dust from the roadbed settled on his clothes. Come hell or high water, Blaine thought. But he knew it was foolish to make promises. It was action that mattered, and now he was ready for action. He liked the feel of the gun in his waistband, and the knowledge of the other gun in his bag and the cased Winchester beside him.
Blaine slumped in the train seat and pulled his new hat over his eyes. He had better rest while he had the chance.