THERE WAS WAVERING WHITE FIRE over Cochise County, one of those sapping early September days when the sky was light cobalt and cloudless. Since dawn any breeze that had crossed the nearby puny, snuff-colored mountains was filled with high fever.
Billy Bonney sat bootless on the boardwalk planks in sweating misery outside Little Sally's Saloon, warm, half-gone Mex beer by his side, fanning himself in the shade with a stained, dusty hat, thinking that McLean had to be the worst, poorest town of all. Sometime or another, the wind would hide it with dunes. It had died in 1876, when the tin mine quit, but hadn't decently buried itself yet, five years later.
He thought he maybe should have stayed in Douglas or gone on to Tucson. Yet one didn't offer much more than the other. They were both miserable towns. He made his swollen feet comfortable, extending them to the full angle of the shade.
For the last few minutes, he'd been picking at the idea of going back to Mexico, going back to work for the Cudahys, the meat people from Chicago, shooting down rustlers on the Durango spread. He'd done that and it was like target practice. The rustlers never had a chance. Aside from the money, there wasn't much appealing about working for the Cudahys. He pushed the thought away for the time being.
Just now, nobody with any common sense was ambling about in McLean. Not even lizards. Yet he heard a voice: "Move yo' laigs, cowboy." The Texas-flavored drawl carried distinctly over the lifeless midafternoon murmur that trickled out of Little Sally's. It was too oven stifling to even laugh at the gruff orders. But Billy looked up with interest.
There were three of them, trail flushed and alkali dusty. One was a squat man with a square face that reminded Billy of a large cube of whiskered bedrock. About fifty, Billy guessed. He looked as tough as oak heart. Another, looking midtwenties, was big and burly, also fatty. Then there was a young one, also burly and fatty. Maybe nineteen. They all looked a bit alike. They'd come out of nowhere.
"I said, 'Move yo' laigs.'"
That was the youngest one talking so emphatically. Billy frowned up at him, not quite believing any right-minded human would come on that strong in this heat. The speaker had loose lips, a beetle brow, and the damnedest bullet necklace that Billy had ever seen. The bullets were pierced through with baling wire. A silly decoration, Billy thought. The speaker looked remarkably like some boy lumberjack, but he was dressed more like a trail rider.
Billy cocked his head and said, with rapt amusement, "Step around 'em, boy. Plenty o' room. I'm jus' too tuckered to accommodate."
Billy watched as the fatty fellow frowned at his partners, then seemed to make up his mind. It was fascinating to watch those dumb gray eyes operate. The boy aimed a large marred boot toe. Billy estimated that it would hit him just below the rump, in thigh flesh. It was a big slabby toe that would hurt.
Billy's back parted from the adobe wall and he came up in one smooth move, a .44 suddenly in his hand. The gun thudded and the felt crown jumped from the boy's tall black hat before the intruder could get anywhere near his own hip holster. He froze in panic. Billy fanned another shot near the formerly threatening toe, sending splinters of wood; then he turned his attention to the others, ready to shoot again.
The visitors stood openmouthed and amazed. What had been lazing against the wall-an ordinary, no-good, shiftless, scruffy young cowhand-was now erect and tense, cold-eyed, lips tight against teeth. Thin smoke spiraling from his barrel, he was ready for a third shot. Suddenly full of fury, three days of yellow beard on his rigid jaws, he appeared ready to clear the town. He looked older than he was. Actually, he'd just turned nineteen.
Heads poked out of Little Sally's as the booms echoed along the near-empty shimmering street. A dog barked up the way, awakened by the bursts. Then a horse whinnied in fear before McLean fell back to silence.
Billy, feeling like he wanted to kill-maybe it was the heat-heard a female voice behind him. It asked caustically, "Who the hell's shootin'?" He didn't turn, just kept the .44 on the boy, breathing hard.
Sally sighed, "Cowboy, go across the street if you're gonna do that."
The squat older man, quizzical more than frightened, answered her slowly, "Why, I bet this feller a five he couldn't put a hole in my son's hat. He did it, by grannies. Burn your scalp, Joe?"
Still stunned, Joe shook his head.
In contrast to the others, the sweating gray-eyed, gray-haired older man was dressed like he might be a traveling merchant. His alpaca black suit coat fit his stocky body and heavy shoulders snugly. He laughed softly. "I guess it's too steamin' hot for lil' jokes, eh?"
Billy relaxed, holstering the gun. He felt adrenaline start filtering back into its proper places and broke a friendly smile on his face. When it wasn't tensed, it was a pleasant, appealing face. Even the stubble couldn't hide that. He was of medium height and build, body hard as river rocks, hair curly blond.
"It's hot, all right. Been like a furnace here two days."
Billy glanced again at Joe. There were white streaks angling toward Joe's mouth. His nostrils had flared. He was an ugly something, and ugly somethings rarely lived long here in the West.
Billy said quietly, "This weather'll turn a rabbit stark mad." He took an almost unnoticeable breath, relaxing even more, but he remained wary, his hands barely inches from his holster. The older man's practiced eyes took account of those hands.
"Name is Smith," he said with a warm smile. "All of us is Smith. I'm daddy to these boys. This is Joe, my youngest. Joe, you 'pologize. You disturbed a restin' stranger."
Joe mumbled an apology, his cheeks now crimson with a mixture of embarrassment and rage.
"This is Perry, my oldest."
Billy nodded. Both were two hundred-pounders if an ounce. Shaggy, sandy hair grew down their napes and puffed at the vees of their shirts. Their dusty black pants were tucked into brown boot tops. Texans, he was sure.
The squat man grinned back, nodding at the dead beer. "Billy, how 'bout me gittin' you a fresh'un, an' we'll join out here where it's cool." There wasn't a cool square inch in all of Arizona.
"Mr. Smith, all the-"
"Art," he said disarmingly. "We deal in cattle. Buy ranches and so forth."
"Art, then. All the way to California, it's not cool. I rode up from Douglas two days ago an' like to died. Walked the last ten miles. My horse is still parched an' my feet is blowed."
Art nodded back. "We come up this mornin' from Tombstone. I am ever parched." He went on into Little Sally's.
Gunplay over, Billy eased down to the boardwalk again, his heart flattening out. Putting his shoulders against the eroding clay wall, he wondered about the trio. That Joe had sure pushed his luck. Tampering with a total stranger in a 110 degrees was like stroking rattlesnakes at high noon. Tampering with one who'd been in a bad mood for months invited maiming. He filled his lungs with the hot air and made a guess their name wasn't Smith. Art's sons stayed uncomfortably on their feet, keeping silent, acting restless. They looked around as if McLean had something of interest to see. Then Joe spit into the street dust.
Billy held back a laugh.
Perry trained his eyes over to the livery. Billy followed the look and saw three glistening horses. They'd traveled hard. They looked like good mounts. The big gelding, in particular. Billy knew horses. These were not cowpoke mounts. And the "Smiths" didn't look like cattle dealers.
Perry said, "Joe, go tell that liveryman to git those horses out o' the sun right now. Tell him I said so. You heard Pa say we'd stay tonight."
Joe sent another juvenile glob of spit into the yellow-white dust, hitched his belt, and turned abruptly, glaring at Billy. "I'm gonna kill yo' ass," he said, then slouched off across the street.
Billy shook his head. "My, Joe has a fatal attitude."
Perry stared at Billy. "He's fast. You took him by surprise."
Billy grinned. "That's the only way."
Then Art came out. He settled intimately by Billy and passed a mug, shoving one toward Perry, who squatted. Billy blinked as Art took a long gulp of fresh milk and wiped his mouth. "Ah, that is some kinda good. I had some gypsum wattah this mornin' and still taste it."
"Gypsum's a bad taste," Billy agreed, and fell silent. Milk? He didn't know that Little Sally had it in her cooler.
Billy was normally talkative, but he hadn't been himself for quite a while. He felt an even greater strain at the moment. Behind the generosity of his host, he thought he saw a brutality that was more open in his sons. There was something cruel, nearly hidden, in Art's face.
"I had to be impressed by that shootin'," Art said. "I declare it was the fastest I've seen in years. That your line o' work?"
"Well, I stay in practice, Art. Never know when someone's gonna come up an' make rude demands."
Art laughed back. "That Joe is somethin', isn't he? Real frisky."
"Yeh." Billy pulled out a small cloth bag of Greensboro and started making a cigarette.
"He is reckless sometimes. But a good boy. I'm gonna talk to him tonight." Art took another long gulp of the white stuff. "The way you handled that gun-um-huh! Almost professional. Not many men 'round like that now."
Copyright and#169; 2005 by Theodore Taylor
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