Authors: Lauran Paine
FEUD ON THE MESA
NEW YORK CITY
Rufe eased the double-barrels around into sight. Someone saw them, squawked like a wounded eagle, and men scattered every which way except for a grizzled, hard-looking old cattleman, and all he did was lean down upon the tie rack flintily staring back. He hardly more than raised his voice when he said: “What the hell you figure to do with that silly thing, cowboy? It don’t have a range of over a hunnert and fifty feet.” He spat, then said: “You better come out of there. So far, you ain’t done nothing that maybe should have been done long ago. You shoot anyone else, and that’s going Tomake a heap of difference, so you’d better just walk out of there.”
Rufe listened, and pondered, then called back: “I got a better idea, mister,
The old stockman chewed, spat, looked left and right where the wary crowd was beginning to creep up again, then he said: “All right, I’ll come inside. But I got to warn you…”
he words were thick with fury and scorn: “Injun lover! Squawman!”
Caleb Doom only shrugged with a saturnine, dour smile on his face. “Not by a damned sight,
I think you’ve laid the blame where it don’t fit.”
The freighter, whiskey-red eyes aglow with anger, sneered at the buckskin-clad frontiersman in front of him. “I reckoned you’d feel thataway Look at you.” The bitter, muddy eyes swept over the lean, hard man before him. “Beaded moccasins, buckskin huntin’ shirt, and fringed britches Tomatch, like a redskin.” A thick, grimy finger pointed accusingly at the sky-blue, beaded knife sheath with its inlaid beaded triangles in blue and white, and the heavy deer-horn handle.
He reached over and flipped the little twig at the bottom of the sheath, twisted into a circle and with a small, tightly stretched wisp of scalp hair dangling from it. “What kind of o’ hair is that, Squawman? Injun or white? Ha, more’n likely it’s white hair offen some woman or kid.”
The man had worked himself into a killing frenzy and Doom saw it. He didn’t want to fight the man, especially since he was a stranger in Dentón. The small bunch of other whiskey-flushed faces in the
rude mud-wattle saloon were cold-eyed and menacing, too. He shrugged again. “That’s Apache hair, pardner. The same kind of hair you’re cussin’ about right now.”
“Y’damned liar!” The man was poised like a big, wobbly stag.
Doom’s face went bleak and his lips flattened over his teeth. “Keep back, freighter.”
The words had a sobering effect on some of the spectators, but the belligerent freighter only sneered at them. He licked his lips and hunched forward a little.
Doom saw it coming and raised himself slightly on the balls of his moccasin-clad feet. When the big man came in with a furious, obscene oath, he side-stepped quickly and lashed out with all the power of a whipcord, bone-and-sinew body. The freighter half turned, blundered up against the bar with a room-shaking jar, shook his head foggily, and straightened up.
“Forget it, mister.”
It was a useless warning. The freighter came in again, more wobbly than ever, his breath whistling through his tobacco-stained teeth like the fetid wind from a stagnant marsh. He lashed out with a massive, oak-like arm. Doom dropped to one knee, rolled his shoulder, and the blow tore into the man’s unprotected midriff like a battering ram. The freighter went down with a gasping sob.
Doom was coming back to his feet, his hand dropping instinctively to his .44. He was ready for the others that he knew, from a lifetime spent on the frontier, would be rushing him, when a deep, edgy voice broke in. “None o’ that, damn ya. Your friend got just what he come a-lookin’ fer.”
Doom looked back and saw the short, massive bartender, a worn and shiny wagon spoke in one brawny hand, standing, spraddle-legged, behind the mob of snarling freighters, drovers, and scouts who were edging in on Doom.
“One at a time, boys.” The words were silky soft, and the hard-eyed men hesitated, hung back, then slowly straightened up and moved back toward the bar, grumbling to themselves and throwing venomous glances at the man in buckskin.
The ugly, pockmarked bartender, a sprinkling of pale gray through the jet-black, coarse hair of his bullet-shaped head, glared at his customers and resumed where he had left off mopping up the puncheon bar top with a sticky, damp rag.
“I know how you feel. Ain’t a wagon or a cow been able to move outen Dentón since the ’Paches took up the knife. Wal”—he wagged his head slowly, somberly—“they’s a lot o’ truth in what this here stranger says. The whites is mad because they can’t do no business what with Injuns keepin’ the town cut off. Sure, it hurts my trade, too. Hell, most o’ you boys been bottled up here for a month, an’ your business with me’s been mostly credit business. I don’t like that no more than you do. But when this here
says the whites are makin’ heroes out of themselves by puttin’ out a fire they started themselves, he’s plumb right.” Again the big head bobbed up and down convincingly. “We come in here an’ shoved the redskins out. That’s what we call progress. I ain’t sayin’ we shouldn’t’ve done it. Dammit, we had to. But then when the Injuns fight back, an’ we gotta beat’em off…well, dammit all, just like this feller says, we’re only puttin’ out a fire
we started ourselves. That’s plumb right, too, an’ ain’t no one got no call to try an’ gang up on a man’cause he speaks out after thinkin’ things over. Not here in Jock Leclerc’s saloon, the Southern Cross, no siree. Not by a damned sight.”
One of the cattle drovers, a tall, lean, thin-faced man with pensive, sad eyes, cleared his throat. “I allow there’s somethin’ to what you say at that.” He tossed his head a little under the hard, stiff brim of his low-crowned hat. “I’m sorry, stranger, reckon it’s the eternal waitin’ an’ knowin’ that a bunch of cattle are eatin’ ya into bankruptcy, while them troops are supposed to be comin’ up to clear the redskins offen the desert so’s a man can move on again.”
Doom flashed a rare, shy grin at the big man and nodded. “My fault, too, I reckon. Shouldn’t’ve said anythin’.”
The freighter began to moan and the bartender went around and poured half a water glass full of green whiskey down his throat. The man jerked up to a sitting position with a strangled oath and sprayed the acid-like liquor half across the room. Someone laughed, and others took it up. The tension was bro-ken. The freighter got unsteadily to his feet, white-faced and beaded with nauseous sweat. He held onto the bar next to Doom, gagged eloquently a couple of times, raised his head, looked straight into Doom’s eyes, blanched a little, and forced up a very ill-looking, lopsided grin. “Gawd,
, what’d you hit me with?”
The laughter was explosive and the bartender, even, white teeth flashing sympathetically, released his hold on the wagon spoke under the bar. Doom ordered another drink for the man and the episode was closed, but Caleb had learned one thing. Dentón
was nerve-raw and red-eyed after a month of being cut off from the rest of the frontier by the Apache cordon. It was better to say nothing than to argue.
Just before Jock Leclerc closed his rude saloon for the night, an old, wizened barfly was staring with watery eyes into the amber liquid on the bar in front of him. He and Leclerc were the only ones left in the saloon and the bartender was watching the customer sip his rotgut whiskey with an impatient, jaundiced eye.
The oldster screwed up his bloated face and spoke softly. “I seen him somewhere, I dang’ well know it, but I can’t recollect where.”
“That there scout with the Kiowa Apache scalpin’ knife that whupped that there freighter this after-noon.”
The bartender said nothing and finished wiping up the last of the strong smelling, sticky tin cups. He turned abruptly, his day’s labors completed.
Before he could speak, however, the old man slammed down his mug with an oath. “Now I recollect. He’s Caleb Doom.”
The bartender leaned heavily on the backbar and frowned at the oldster with a critical look. “Y’sure?”
“Yep, shore as shootin’. I was in Santa Fé when he was court-martialed an’ drummed offen the post for refusin’ to lead a squadron o’ cavalry inter a Comanche ambush.” The old head wagged on its scrawny neck. “Army called it insubordination, whatsoever that means. Anyway, they run him offen the post, yes siree.”
The bartender shifted his weight a little and looked, long and steadily, at the old fellow without
seeing. Caleb Doom was a name to conjure with. An ex-soldier who had refused to leave the frontier after his disgrace and had mingled with Indians and whites indiscriminately ever since. There were almost incredible legends of his feats with a .44 and his big scalping knife with its weighted, forked, deer-horn handle.
He nodded thoughtfully. Yes, that would be Doom all right. He’d level a foe with a knee-dropped uppercut into the belly like that. Well, he had seemed to be every bit as good a man as the frontier stories made him out to be. Leclerc yawned prodigiously and looked at the triangular little piece of gold coin that the old man had left on the bar. He pocketed it owlishly, swabbed out the tin mug, and took off his apron with another big yawn.
Dawn was a chilly pink mist on the horizon when Jock Leclerc came out of his back room, puffy-eyed and sober-faced, and lifted down the big door bar. He started slightly when he opened the doors to look at the clear, pale sky, which was a habit contracted in his youth when a hint about the weather told him more than he needed to know now. He blinked rapidly at the lean, fresh-eyed man leaning indolently against the hitch rail, a big black horse, saddled and with full saddlebags, behind him.
Doom nodded with a wisp of a grin in his eyes. He had seen Leclerc’s quick start at seeing him standing there. “‘Mornin’. Can a man get a little breakfast with you before he leaves Dentón?”
Leclerc started to say something, hesitated, and nodded. “Sure, come on an’ I’ll whip up a little fried meat. Ain’t eaten yet myself.”
Doom was relaxed on a hard, hand-hewn bench against the shadowy north wall of the hovel when Leclerc came out of the back room with two huge, thick platters of greasy food. Somehow—probably through much practice—he managed to hold two steaming hot tin mugs of deep brown tea without spilling.
Arranging the victuals with a calm, ham-like paw, Leclerc sighed heavily and dropped onto the bench across from Doom, who was eating with a patent hunger. “Leavin’ Dentón, right now…an’ especially alone…is pretty risky business.” Leclerc sprayed a thick mist of pepper over his food as he spoke, without looking up.
Doom nodded briefly. “I reckon. Still, I came in here yesterday alone an’ no one bothered me. No one, that is, that had a red skin.”