Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
All afternoon Jastrow Brant, the pressure of whose big body against a lame hip had long since tamed him to a chair, sat on the porch of his High Pass tavern and watched the inevitable signals of another range war rise from the bald and tawny domes around him. Situated on the exact summit of the range, the world was for him an unrolled scene; below to the west the immense dun flatness of the Yellow Horn country—a feudal domain of cattle kings—marched mile upon mile into the horizon, overcast by a sultry haze that was itself like a portent of trouble. The sun was a shapeless glow in the sky. Eastward, on the other side of the range, the slashed and contorted badlands emitted a sulfur-bronze coloring, all the false beauties of its chemicals beckoning the inexperienced traveler into a labyrinthine trap.
Still, it was out of the western range and into the badlands hastening riders were urging their jaded horses this afternoon. First it had been a mere youth, so agitated that he galloped past the watering trough. Since it was the only water for sixty miles east, Brant called a warning and got no reply excepting a startled backward glance. “Fool kid on a Diamond and a Half pony, and he’ll lose the pony pretty soon,” murmured Brant, considering him to be a fugitive from some solitary scrape. Later three other horsemen came up from the Yellow Horn to revise his opinion. These men also straddled Diamond and a Half ponies, though they were harder specimens and not too rushed to halt for water. Brant observed their uneasiness. They said nothing and were soon gone.
“Bad feelin’s busted out again,” Brant surmised. “Looks like Diamond and a Half is gettin’ licked.”
Within the hour a fellow astride a sweat-caked Cloverleaf roan drifted by, one arm hanging useless. Scarcely had he disappeared down the throat of the pass when a sizable group rounded a high dome to southward and advanced on the tavern—Y Cross men, and all looking hostile. They were not hunted, his judging eye told him, but hunters. The leader was known to him, being Toomey, the Y Cross foreman.
“Seen anything, Brant?”
“No,” said Brant. “I never see anything. You know that, Toomey.”
“Hell’s broke loose again,” offered Toomey, with a visible deference, “and we’re payin’ off.” There was a stifled consultation among them and when the watering was done they moved away, not along the trail, but into the higher buttes north of the tavern. “You ain’t seen us at all, Brant,” called back the foreman.
Brant made a logical pattern of the gleaned facts. “Diamond and a Half and Cloverleaf buckin’ Y Cross, which is usual. And Y Cross holdin’ its own, also usual. But it looks bad. Can’t change the habits of twenty years’ makin’. These outfits are plumb poison to each other and they love to scrap. Evident, the battle’s been on two-three days. The boys are rid tired, full of dust and sweated out.”
Afterward, Y Cross having been gone an hour, a wary fugitive shot from a crease of the hills, dashed for water and was away. A golden shaft of the sun finally broke through the haze and exploded against the range in a thousand glinting fragments. And at this interval, framed in the blazing shield of light, tall and supple and indolent in the saddle, the smiling man came along.
He came not from the Yellow Horn country, but east, out of the badlands, whereupon Brant knew he had traveled far during the day. The horse was a high black, streaked with alkali, and all the gear was worn and plain. Rounding to the trough, the smiling man let the horse nose into water, himself dismounting and pushing back his hat to reveal a mane of corn-colored hair that instantly added a candid cast to features molded against a tanned skin. Actually he wasn’t smiling, but the level serenity of his glance and the puckered sun wrinkles around each eye seemed to create an air of constitutional cheer. His movement was lazy, deliberate. He crouched and drank beside the horse. He rose with a sighing relish and planted his feet apart in puncher’s style. He weighed his surroundings with a bland, half-lidded glance; then, these preliminaries complete, he spoke a brief and drawling phrase that swept aside the ordinary explanations as if indicating them to be but a waste of energy. “Sit tight. I’ll stable the horse myself.”
He led the horse around to the barn. The brand mark was strange to Brant, being a 44 Slash and probably Southern on account of its size. He was searching the capacious archives of his memory when the stranger returned and settled on the steps, reaching for tobacco. “This day,” said he, yellow head bent over the chore of rolling a smoke, “sure has been a weariness to the spirit and flesh.”
“So,” agreed Brant. As in horses, so in men; breeding showed. This stranger was no wandering scrub. He had loosely coupled legs and a torso that ran admirably from slim flanks to a broad, flat chest. The fingers displayed deftness in rolling the cigarette. There was a single gun, carried low enough to indicate wisdom in the draw. The eyes of the man, casually turning on Brant, were infinitely more capable of hardness than first inspection had revealed. About him was an ease, a touch of reckless surety.
“Down there,” he added, “even the rattlers are huntin’ shade.” After a pause he added, “and some men,” chuckling a little to himself. Cigarette smoke curled over his face; he relaxed limply on the steps. Shadow came into the world and suddenly the blue banners of dusk drifted around. A gust of fresher air touched them as promise of the usual crisp night. Inside the tavern was a light rhythm of steps, light gushed through the door and a woman’s voice called: “Supper.”
The stranger’s indolence vanished. He rose, flipped away the cigarette stub and turned, catching sight of a bright dress moving within the tavern door. “Better scrub some,” said he and strolled toward the trough, untying his neckpiece. Brant went inside. The stranger presently followed, to find man and girl waiting at the table. Standing there, beads of water sparkling on the yellow hair and the glint of humor in his level eyes, he seemed to feel the necessity of manners before breaking bread with these people. “My name,” he announced, “is Lewis Cantrell. From the Poco country.”
“I’m Jastrow Brant,” said the tavern keeper. “My daughter, Lee Ann. Sit and fall to. Ridin’ makes a man hungry.”
“Which gives me license to eat well,” replied Cantrell, turning to the girl. “I’ve been ridin’ all my life.”
“Yeah,” agreed Brant. “I know that lean and gaunt feelin’ and I’d give most of my possessions to have it again. When I was young, the whole universe was too small to turn in. Not now. I been a rockin’-chair rider for twenty years.”
Surprise ran deeply through him. Lewis Cantrell’s pleasant face had turned to Lee Ann and this dark, slim girl who invariably met tavern guests with graven reserve smiled at him. It was like a spark flashing out; something strange and very powerful entered the room to lighten the gloom and the dullness of the place— youth and youth. Brant felt anew the hurt of being old. He studied the stranger through harder eyes, a kind of defensive cruelty in his heart. “You’ve gadded some, uh?”
“My feet burn if I stay in one place long,” agreed Cantrell. “I take no pride in it. I only say it for a fact.”
“Some run because they like it, some because they got to.”
Cantrell grinned and the characteristic chuckle made a little melody through the room. “In my case it’s mostly from like, but now and then necessity.”
Brant looked to his daughter, expecting that she, who hated lawlessness with more than passing reason, would draw back. Instead, she asked a swift, eager question. “You love that life?”
Lewis Cantrell sobered. “I have thought it fine to rove and lay my blanket under the sky. It’s good to have weather in your face and a sound horse under you, puttin’ miles behind. It’s great; until something hits you between the eyes and you see maybe you’ve been only a fool.”
Lee Ann’s glance rested levelly on him. “What would make you feel that?”
“A man’s self-sufficient just as long as he thinks he is,” said Cantrell. “I have figured I could ride forever, one long and full day. But sometimes I see down the trail and it looks cloudy at the end. Lone riders are like lone wolves—they howl out in the hills a while and then they don’t howl any more. Nobody hears or sees them again.”
Lee Ann’s lips curved. “You came smiling. Now you are sad. Our house seems to be bad medicine for you.” They watched each other quite a long interval. “Maybe good medicine,” said Cantrell.
The chill of night increased in the room. Brant pushed his plate away and rose to drop a match on the kindling in the fireplace. He sank into his accustomed chair, a darker glow rising from beneath the shaggy brows. Lee Ann busied herself at the table and Cantrell stood facing the fire, attention absorbed in the crimson core of flame. Brant, ruthless when on a scent, began to question the man. “44 Slash is new to me.”
“Rodd Brothers ranch, western Kansas,” said Cantrell absently.
“Only business could bring you through the badlands on a day like this.”
“But now you tarry,” grunted Brant.
“Waitin’ out the [???] business,” drawled Cantrell and roused himself. “It’s maybe a tough country through here?”
“I wondered how it was you kept from bein’ bothered.”
Lee Ann came from the kitchen and sat down. Daughter and father exchanged a quiet glance. “I’m let alone,” answered Brant, somewhat abrupt.
Cantrell laced his arms behind his back and lifted his inspection to a belt with two attached guns hanging over the mantel. The belt was black with usage, the weapons freshly oiled. “Those,” said he, following an interested survey, “were used by a man who knew how.”
Brant’s answer was increasingly curt. “Left in payment of a bad debt.”
“Ahuh,” agreed Cantrell, so mild as to echo skepticism. Outside was the impact of a galloping horse. The rider drew in by the house and instantly Cantrell’s head rose, remaining thus attentive until the unseen traveler pushed on eastward. Thereafter the frown across his forehead cleared, but both Brant and Lee Ann, watching closely, had seen how easily the air of indifference could drop from this man. It prompted Brant to another question.
“Know the Yellow Horn country?”
“Some little,” said Cantrell and let it go at that.
The girl rose, went through a far door, and presently returned with a pair of slippers; she helped her father remove his boots and get into the slippers. Cantrell looked down, darker of face than he had thus far been, and the girl, meeting his eyes, unexpectedly challenged him. “Does it hit you so hard?”
“My life,” said he, almost bitter, “has led me to believe these things, woman and house and warm fire, are for the blessed alone. I have not known them.”
“Never for you?”
“Time for bed,” said Cantrell abruptly and turned away.
Lee Ann brought another lamp from the kitchen and led him up the stairs to a room. At the door he took the lamp and held her eyes for a moment. There was between them the constraint of withheld words and in the long pause a rising fire of emotion that flickered and flamed; then the girl, stronger color on her temples, nodded and turned back. Cantrell closed the door, scowling at the exact neatness of the room, the bed with its folded coverlet, the net curtains stiff beside the window. Extinguishing the lamp, he went to the window and scanned the dark earth. A quarter moon shed uncertain light on the yard and touched briefly the mystery-ridden domes beyond. Watching and listening for a moment, he at last reclined on the bed fully dressed and pulled the coverlet over him, not to sleep but to stare at the black square of ceiling. “A woman like that,” said he, half-aloud, “will never bring slippers to me.”
Below in the big room, Jastrow Brant shot a swift question at his daughter. “You like him, Lee Ann?”
“Yes,” said she. “I do.”
Brant frowned at the fire. “Can’t blame you. You’ve had nothin’ but the company of an old man since you was a kid. You’re starved for company your own age.” “Don’t forget, there have been young men here before. I haven’t liked them.”
Brant rose, endeavoring to conceal the discontent in him. “Seems like I get sleepy mighty soon these days. Well, he’s better than average. That I know. He’s maybe eaten a lot of beef not his own, but he ain’t a killer type.” “Of course he isn’t! That name?”
“But he’s up here for a reason,” interrupted Brant, and went to his room. Settled down for the night he considered Lewis Cantrell with a restless mind. Lee Ann passed softly along the hall, silence settled down. Still awake an hour later, Brant heard a horseman canter into the yard and halt; a short whistle, twice repeated, hailed the house, and presently Cantrell came down the stairs. Crawling from his bed, Brant limped to the window, finding the two men close together just beyond the porch, talking in undertones. It lasted only a moment; when the newcomer swung away a stray beam of moonlight slid across his face and revealed it. Lewis Cantrell came inside and walked up the stairs with no attempt at being furtive.
Sudden savagery lived in Jastrow Brant’s veins—an emotion he had not felt since active manhood. His peaceful after life had been painfully built up, and here in the space of a single afternoon it was threatened. “Frawley,” he muttered, “the Cloverleaf ridin’ boss comes here to meet Cantrell by appointment. Cantrell’s got a hand in that war yonder. He’s a gun slinger, nothin’ less. And my girl wants him. I saw it in her eyes. Wants him regardless of price. Damn the man, I’ll see him dead before I’ll let him drag Lee Ann down to an outlaw’s level!”
But whatever hard resolves were in him, Brant held his peace next morning until Cantrell, having curried his pony, settled on the porch. It was to be a waiting game then. Brant rubbed his leg and broke a spell of thoughtful silence.
“Cantrell. Was a man in Yellow Horn once by that name. He had Y Cross for a while.”
Cantrell turned a javelin-sharp glance on him. “You know that man?”
Brant was smoking a cigar. He drew on it vigorously and the heavy clouds of smoke obscured his face. After a considerable pause he said: “Somewhat.”
“My father,” explained Cantrell. “A great and good man who believed all other men were as honest as himself.” Terrific cynicism crept into the words. “He abided by the Golden Rule in a country of stalkin’ savages. Yonder is the Y Cross tank. My father built it. He settled and developed the Y Cross Range. It was his, and he put the best of his years in it. I was born there, and for seven years it was the only happy world I ever knew or ever will know. The rest of the story is no doubt familiar to you.”
“He was killed twenty years ago this October,” said Brant.
“By yellow curs who wanted what he had and afraid of tacklin’ him alone. So they organized a war and killed him. The owners today are those men. I was a kid when I left. My mother died soon after. I been driftin’ ever since.”
“But you’re back now,” murmured Brant.
“I’m back now,” said Cantrell in a manner that was more of a threat than a statement. His slim face, pointed on the dim outline of the Y Cross water tower, was hard and predatory. “They made a lone wolf out of me.”
“The hates of men,” said Brant, “make a hell of this earth that could be forever at peace.”
Cantrell swung on the tavern keeper. “That sounds like you got it from yourself and not from a book. It’s true. But a single rider like me can’t feel it very deep, true as it may be.”
“Not yet, boy,” sighed Brant. “Not yet.”
There was a sound at the door. Both men turned to see Lee Ann retreating hurriedly into the big room. Jastrow Brant pushed himself from the chair and limped around to the barn. When he came back it was to say briefly, “Got to shake up my liver,” and to disappear southward into a crease of the hills.
Mid-afternoon had passed before Brant returned, sagging with weariness. Cantrell was out of sight. Lee Ann, answering her father’s first question, motioned to the barn. “There, with his horse. Where have you been?” “Answering my own questions,” groaned Brant and sank into the rocker. “Judas, what wouldn’t I give for a sound body. Lee Ann, I ought to have died when that bullet smashed this hip! I ought to have died!”
Brant pulled himself together with a vast heave of shoulders. “I’m too old a dog not to know. The country yonder is full of single rider’s tracks, all driftin’ out of the badlands and collectin’ somewhere. An unexpected strike at Y Cross, that’s the idea. It explains Frawley of Cloverleaf comin’ to meet Cantrell. Those are Cantrell’s men. He means to get even for his dad. Another bitter, bloody scrap like in the old days.”
“He can’t do that!” said the girl, clenching her hands. “You talked with him while I was away?”
The old man studied her closely and finally shook his head. “I was hopin’ for better news. I know you, Lee Ann. You’ve got my blood and you want what you want, regardless of price.”
“Not an outlaw!” said Lee Ann, all her strength in the words. “Never—never!”
Brant said nothing, but in his mind was a doubt. The blood of his family had always been a little wild. Once sworn to allegiance it never varied. His own crippled body testified to the fact, and the same steadfast blindness would break Lee Ann’s heart. Discouraged and irritable, he ate a bite in the kitchen and went to his room for a nap. It was on his mind to go speak to Cantrell plainly, but a stronger impulse in him overruled the thought. He hated interference and he understood Cantrell’s kind. Nothing he might say would change the long crystallized fighting desire that had brought the man back to his birthplace. So, troubled of mind and body, he fell to a restless slumber.
When Brant woke there was a crisp clashing of voices in the yard. Cantrell was speaking with a metal-edged drawl. “Who I am and where I’m going is my business.”
“My business if I make it so,” said an equally hard voice. Brant rose so abruptly that an idling heart pounded in protest. When he reached the porch he found Cantrell confronting the Y Cross patrol party. Toomey’s hostility diminished on sight of Brant. “Listen, we been keepin’ an eye on this road and this man. Jastrow, I want no grief with you, but yo’re foolish to harbor trouble.”
“Never mind Brant,” said Cantrell definitely. “I stay here because it is a public place. Don’t lay any pressure on me, brother. I’ve been on ridin’ committees myself, and I know the old soap.”
“Yuh come up from the badlands,” accused Toomey.
“What of it?”
“Bear this in mind, mister. Here’s a dividin’ line. We’ll agree yore business is yores, this side of the line. Step over into Yellow Horn and we’ll pick you up.”
“Get out of here,” growled Brant.
Toomey’s manner was half uneasy and half insistent. “No personal affront, Brant, but I got my orders. Come on, boys.”
The party swept down grade into the Yellow Horn, now all smoky with the last of the afternoon’s light. Brant watched them until the last trailing horseman vanished beyond a curve. Cantrell walked around the house and in a little while led back his horse. “I put you under suspicion and I’m sorry,” said he. “I’ll be on my way pretty soon and relieve you of worry.”
“South, I reckon,” suggested Brant calmly, sinking into the rocker.
Cantrell cast a hard blue glance at him. “I figured from the first you didn’t miss much. South it is.”
“How do you suppose I’ve lived the last forty-five years,” muttered Brant. “I’ve seen ‘em come and go. Many that went down there never came back. Some did come back, marked to die. Fools like you, Cantrell!”
“Have I said I wasn’t?” retorted Cantrell.
“That’s what makes it sad to me. You ain’t of the ordinary run of shad. You got a heart and a head. You got the breeding of a stout, sound man. But I will not keep you, Cantrell. Yonder is your signal!”
Cantrell lifted his head. Off on the southern slopes a rider emerged and sent his horse in widening circles. Cantrell rose, deep feeling rushing over his face and passing on to leave it chilled and blank. “I’d like to shake hands, Brant.”
Brant’s big paws remained on the rocker arms, “Get out of here!”
Cantrell climbed to his saddle, slim fingers idling on the reins. “I shouldn’t of come here,” said he. “It’s brought back to me things a lone wolf never ought to think about; things only so much misery to a man dodgin’ from pillar to post.”
Lee Ann ran through the door and down the steps. She laid an arm on the horse’s mane and looked up to Cantrell. Brant, ceasing to breathe, felt dull grief that a daughter of his should so throw herself away by every gesture and expression.
“You’re going?” asked Lee Ann, faint and small.
Lewis Cantrell swept off his hat, the last flash of sun making tawny flames on his head. “Going, Lee Ann.”
“Nothing that has happened here matters to you?”
He stared down, mouth pressed thin. “I can’t answer that.”
“Nothing I might say now would change your mind?”
“Better do it this way, though it’s bad enough,” said Cantrell, and at that moment even Brant felt a touch of compassion for the man. But he was shocked inexpressibly by the sweep of wild anger distorting the girl’s white cheeks—an anger that was actually hate.
“Then go!” she cried at Cantrell, and struck the horse with her doubled fist. “Go on, you dirty outlaw! But never set your foot in our house again!”
Lewis Cantrell bowed and whirled away, sweeping up the rising ground; sun fell and instant tendrils of dusk filtered through the sky. Yonder the messenger waited in plain view, but Cantrell saw him only dimly, through a deepening cloud and when he came abreast of the man he never stopped. Plunging into the remoter recesses, he turned for a last glance at the tavern. The girl stood in the yard, a rigid, diminishing figure. Cantrell stiffened to the front. “Better that way,” he muttered. “Better one single hurt than dragged out regret and misery all her life. I’m the kind to ruin the happiness of all I touch. But it’s hard to do!”
The messenger spurred forward. “What’s the matter, Lew?”
“Nothing!” shouted Cantrell. “Shut your mouth!”
They galloped side by side down the gulch. Dusk deepened and when half an hour later they came into a depression of the earth the murmuring impatience of a group of waiting men met them. Without order the whole outfit swung up. A figure rode forward and Frawley of Cloverleaf spoke. “Ready to go?”
Cantrell studied the dim forms around him. Frawley had brought along ten Cloverleaf hands and these he didn’t know. But he knew his own crowd. Once they had seemed good enough. Now, in a flash of clarity, he discovered they were the sweepings of the West, collected to destroy and plunder. They could be no better than that, for he himself had picked them.
“Ready to go?” pressed Frawley.
“We’ll ride,” said Cantrell in a dull voice and moved ahead. Behind him grew the steady beat of the party; above, a sickle moon glowed ineffectively, and across the infinite heaven was a crusted glitter of stars. By degrees a more permanent group of lights strengthened on the prairie below—the far-off lamps of Y Cross. Frawley said in a softening rumble: “Swing right here. Tell your bunch not to make so much noise.”
Cantrell heard himself say: “Draw up!”
The party passed him by and came around in grumbling surprise. Frawley swore. “Now what?”
“Who’s down there at the ranch?” asked Cantrell slowly, feeling himself thrust upward on the wings of a cold, unfathomable exultance.
“Part of a crew and one of the owners, Crow Hicks. Don’t worry. I’ve took care of my end of this business.” Cantrell shook his head, seeing odd shapes come out of the black frame of night; there was a fire leaping from a hearth, a woman kneeling in front of it with slippers in her white hands. “As maybe is happenin’ in the Y Cross house now,” said he. “Why didn’t I think of it before?”
“What?” inquired Frawley, more and more impatient.
“Frawley,” said Cantrell, still and cold, “I’m through.”
“Listen, you,” breathed Frawley, coming nearer, “after three months of plannin’ you ain’t goin’ to develop no weak heart. Come on.”
“We’re drawin’ out,” added Cantrell.
“Damn you, don’t crawl!” cried the Cloverleaf boss. Cantrell cleared the surrounding men and placed himself downslope against them. Frawley cursed, and the whole ragged outline of the party shifted nearer. Cantrell was swayed by a queerly savage emotion that seemed to clear his head of every atom of bitterness and uncertainty. He was right, his thoughts ran in a true channel at last. The machine he had so painstakingly built to accomplish destruction was now on the verge of riding him down, and he didn’t care; in the dark his lip corners curled to a kind of smile.
“Push that fool aside!” yelled Frawley.
“Don’t trust him behind us,” countered another voice. “Take him along.”
“I organized you hammerheads,” droned Cantrell. “And I can disorganize you. The first to start past me gets a bullet. I’m through and so are you.”
“Shoot the yellowback!”
Cantrell’s gun ripped from leather; a flat sheet of sound struck him in the face and all through him ran pain. He fell, massed shadows moved over him, and the thunder of hoofs quaked in his ears, to diminish and die. They had gone on, leaving behind the echo of Frawley’s contemptuous words suspended in the chilling air: “The end of a doublecrosser!” His pony stamped restlessly near by.
“But they’ll never make it now,” gritted Cantrell. “All this noise has spotted them for the Y Cross patrol!” Knives sliced across his chest; a warm current of blood spread along his shirt front. One arm sank bonelessly beneath him, but the other held and in a sudden burst of strength he reeled against the horse, knowing there was only one sustained effort left in him. A kind of frenzy took hold, and he never exactly knew how he reached the saddle, to sag there and sob for breath. Clinging to the horn, he used the pressure of his legs to swing his pony and presently felt the land carry him upward— back toward the rendezvous. Vitality leaked out of him and the sound and color of the night grew dimmer, but he was still canny enough to realize when he had reached the meeting point and to turn north through the gulch. His thought was for water to curb the flames racing across his chest and stifling his mind. “If they want a trail,” he thought grimly, “they got one, a yard wide and red as the sun.” Vaguely he was aware of a fresher wind and the rousing detonations of gunfire below. Then those sounds dwindled, and he took the change to be due to his own senses abandoning him; and it was like waking from long sleep when he heard the soft trickle of water directly beside the horse. Lights flashed from somewhere. Letting go the horn, he fell into the tavern water trough. A great voice—it was Jastrow Brant’s—yelled: “Lee Ann, bring the lantern!”
The water brought him definitely back. Brant’s big arms were holding him up and the full beams of the lantern blazed in his eyes; he saw Lee Ann’s pallid face shining down.
“Never mind,” he muttered. “I’m not in your house. This water’s on a public road.”
“Lift him!” cried Lee Ann anxiously. “They’re coming up the trail now!”
“Not in the house,” warned Cantrell. “It’s Y Cross’s night to howl and they’ll be on your neck in a minute. I’m not askin’ for sympathy. Throw me off the road.”
But Lee Ann’s arm clung to his neck. “You’re back; that’s all I care about! You’re back! You understand! Dad, lift him! Hurry!”
Jastrow Brant's arms were immense. They folded effortlessly about him, and he felt himself swinging forward as in a cradle, dipping as the tavern keeper’s game leg flinched against the ground. Presently he opened his eyes; he was in a chair by the fire and a pleasant peace ran through his body. A rider went by as on the van of storm wind, the heave of the pony’s lungs echoing into the house. Lee Ann was on her knees, both hands pressed against his body.
“Close the door, dad, close it”
“Waste no grief on me,” sighed Cantrell. “I’m not goin’ to die. Throw me out and take care of yourself.”
Lee Ann was crying again: “Close the door or they’ll see him! They’ll kill him!”
But Jastrow Brant, standing over Cantrell, stared down with a hard, black glance. “You’ve had your fling and what do you think of it now, Mister Outlaw?”
Cantrell’s head rolled negatively. “Couldn’t go through with it. Tried to stop ‘em, but they shot me down. A funny thing to live twenty-six years believin’ yourself to be somethin’ you ain’t. Can you imagine it— I’ve got a conscience!”
Lee Ann’s grip tightened on Cantrell, and he saw she was staring up to her father with bright, glowing eyes. “They’ll never get him! Never! He’s back to me!”
“For better or worse?” asked Cantrell, astonished at the humbleness in him.
“It will be better,” said Lee Ann. “But if it must be for worse—I’ll share that, too! It’s better to share than to be forever alone.”
Brant’s hard eyes bored into Cantrell, probing, searching. “You got a bellyful, is that it? You’ve howled the last time on the hills?”
“I’m through, Brant. I couldn’t do it. By this fire last night I saw somethin’ I didn’t dare destroy. Here, get rid of me. The pack’s up the grade now.”
Lee Ann stared at her father. “If you let them get him I’ll never forgive you!”
Brant moved forward. His big arm reached up and brought down the blackened belt with its two suspended guns. He strapped the belt around him, and Cantrell, watching closely, saw a different, harsher man standing in the room. Hoofs crushed across the yard and a trampling tide swept up the porch steps. Toomey and his men choked the doorway. “Brant, I told yuh we was payin’ off! I warned yuh to keep out of this! We want that man!”
Brant made a downward gesture with his arms and Toomey abruptly yelled. “You wearin’ yore guns!”
“My house is my castle, Toomey, and be damned to you! Get out of here!”
“Be careful, yore buckin’ the Y Cross,” said Toomey, voice trailing into doubt.
“I’ve bucked bigger outfits in my day, Toomey. You see these guns; you know what I can do? Why, you cream-faced rats, I slung lead afore you was born! Now get out of here before I make a shambles of this place!”
“I want no trouble with you, Brant,” said Toomey. “But I got orders. You agree to promise—”
“I’m through,” broke in Cantrell, drowsy and faint. “I hate your condemned outfit and some day I’ll smash it. But not by the gun—not by the gun.”
“That’s all,” said Toomey and backed away from the door. Brant wheeled about, still a flare and flicker of storm in his deep eyes. For a space he watched Cantrell, palms unconsciously caressing the belt cinched around him. “It’s good sometimes,” he finally muttered, “to have a bad name. My claws were cut many a year back, but it’s like tonic to know I once rode like a man—evil as the trail might of been. You know about me now, Cantrell?”
“The guns told me somethin’,” admitted Cantrell.
“No man learns from advice. He’s got to take the fall before he knows the hurt. I was like you. The wild bunch was my kind for a long while. But one night I made a ride too many. Your father—your own father, boy— smashed my hip with his shell in a runnin’ fight. And when I come to my senses I thanked him for it. Tonight I’m only returnin’ the favor of a good man. Hadn’t that been so I’d of let you lay out there like a dog.”
Cantrell made a motion toward his belt. “Hang up my gun with yours, Brant. Another lone wolf dies.”
Lee Ann’s finger tips brushed his face. “But not out in the hills.”
Brant’s face settled; the fresh, bold lines of revived outlawry died from his face. Unstrapping his belt he grunted at his daughter. “If you want him, Lee Ann, you better take care of him. Put him to bed and watch him close.