Even before his horse's ears suddenly pointed for-ward, Webb Matlock was becoming uneasy. He had slipped his saddlegun out of its scabbard beneath his leg and had lifted it up across the pommel, on the ready. He pulled the dun horse to a halt and raised his left as a signal to the riders with him.
“Easy, boys. We don’t want to be in no hurry about this thing.”
Webb Matlock wore a sheriff’s badge. With him rode five men from the Box L cow outfit, hurriedly deputized to help him run out the trail of some would-be cattle thieves. Johnny Willet and another Box L hand had come unexpectedly upon a half a dozen men hazing 70 or 80 of Old Man Jess Leggett’s good cows south toward the Rio Grande. Rather than tackle the rustlers themselves, they had pulled back unseen and spurred to the ranch headquarters.
For several years now, Old Man Jess had been bringing in good Durham bulls to breed out the Longhorn strain. He was proud of these halfbreed cows and didn’t want to lose any of them. Over and above that, he held a deep and abiding hatred for thieves. In olden times, before there had been law to look to, he had shot or hanged them himself. This time he had sent for Webb Matlock. Then, instead of waiting, the impatient old man had taken his cowboys and set out in pursuit. They fought a running battle that forced the thieves to give up the cattle. But Old Jess had fallen with a bullet in his shoulder. That had stopped the pursuit until Webb got there.
The last thing Jess had hollered at Webb as they had hauled him toward town in a wagon was: “You get ’em now, you hear?”
This was the Texas border country, and ladrones out of Mexico sometimes still came over the border to hit and run, steal and carry off whatever they could get away with. In many people on both sides of the river, old hatreds still burned. To some on the south side, the Texas revolution and the Mexican war had meant nothing. To these this land still rightfully belonged to Mexico, and so did everything that walked upon it.
Webb had asked Johnny Willet, “Mexicans, Johnny?”
Johnny had been riding in a strange, thoughtful silence. He shook his head. “Mostly it was gringos. Odd thing about one of them, he…” Johnny broke off. “Forget it, you wouldn’t believe it.”
“Believe what, Johnny?”
“Nothin’, it was a crazy notion.” He changed the subject. “I’m pretty sure we hit one of them. He slumped over, nearly fell off his horse. Got away into the brush, though, and that was the last we seen of him.”
A mile or so back they had come upon a blood-crusted handkerchief lying amid the fresh horsetracks, and they had known for sure.
Now Webb sat rigid in the saddle, squinting into a brushy header where in rainy times the water would come rushing off the sides of the rocky hills to spread out down a silty mesquite draw. Webb Matlock was a medium-tall man in his early thirties, a little on the stocky side but without any fat on him. He had a square face, a strong jaw that showed the dark stubble of two days’ whiskers. His gray eyes were habitually squinted a little, for this was a land of harsh sunlight, dust, and wind. He was a sober, sober, serious man for the most part, so much so that people who didn’t know sometimes guessed him to be much older than he was. He had toted his own load since before he was fifteen.
The black-tipped ears of his dun horse were still pointed forward. Looking around him, Matlock could see that a couple of the other horses were the same.
Something ahead of us yonder, he thought. Pity a man can’t be as smart as a horse.
He made a sweeping motion with his hand. “Fan out, boys. Couple of you work up the hill on one side of that header, a couple on the other. Better go afoot. Ollie Reed, what say you hold the horses.”
Ollie Reed, 50 now and bald as an egg, was glad enough to accept that chore. He was not the contentious kind.
Halfway out of his saddle, Johnny Willet stopped himself and asked, “Webb, what you aimin’ to do?”
“You don’t flush quail by ridin’ around them. Somebody’s got to go on in.”
The sheriff swung to the ground to make himself less of a target. He stood behind his horse for cover and peered across the saddle, looking for signs of anything in the brush. He waited then, giving the men time to work up the hills on either side of the header. Once they were there, they should have a good view of whatever might be below them. They could provide cover for Webb when he moved in.
Ollie Reed’s voice was thin with excitement. “I don’t like this, Webb, don’t like it atall. Puts me in mind of the days when Clabe Donovan and his bunch was runnin’ loose.”
“Clabe Donovan’s dead, Ollie.”
Ollie nodded, shivering “That don’t keep me from rememberin’.”
Not many years ago, Clabe Donovan and a wild bunch that ran with him were cutting a wide swath through the border country, jumping back and forth across the Rio Grande, stealing what they wanted, killing when someone got in their way. Donovan caught the blame for just about everything bad that happened in those days. Likely it wasn’t all justified, but he had gloried in it anyway, perversely proud that he was becoming a legend while he still lived.
In death, the legend had kept on growing.
Webb’s horse nickered. An answering nicker came from within the thorny tangle of mesquite. Limbs crackled. A riderless bay horse broke into the open, moving in a long trot. He came straight toward the possemen’s horses and stopped among them.
Webb saw blood splotches on the saddle.
He glanced at the wide-eyed Ollie Reed. “There’s probably a rustler lyin’ in yonder dead.”
“And again, maybe he ain’t,” Reed observed nervously. “Wounded animal is the most dangerous kind.”
“A man’s different from an animal.”
“Some of them ain’t.”
Webb handed Ollie his bridle reins. “We’ll find out pretty quick.” Holding the saddlegun ready, he started toward the brush afoot. He moved cautiously from one mesquite to another, keeping himself behind cover of the green leaves as much as he could. A cold tingle ran up and down his back. His sweaty shirt clung to him.
A bullet whined by his head. Leaves drifted down from a mesquite where the slug had clipped them. He threw himself to the ground, breaking his fall first with his knees, then with the butt of the rifle. He snapped a shot in the direction from which the report had come. A second bullet buzzed angrily overhead.
Six-shooter. Webb could tell by the sound. Six-shooter must be all the man had. If he had a rifle he would have used it. At this range, only the rankest kind of luck would score the man a hit. The sheriff levered another cartridge into the breech, pushed to his knees, and sprinted again. This time he saw the flash. The saddlegun was nearly torn from his hands. Splinters drove searing hot into his skin. The bullet had glanced off the wooden stock.
He saw a depression ahead, with a bush beyond to help hide him. He dived, sliding in the loose rocks, ripping his clothing, tearing his flesh. He knew he was bruised blue. Breathing hard, he paused to wipe sweat from his forehead onto his sleeve. He listened, hearing movement as the gunman tried to shift position. Webb called:
“This is Sheriff Matlock. We got you surrounded. No sense in you fightin’ anymore. Throw your gun out and raise up where we can see you.”
Another shot sent more mesquite leaves showering down.
Webb called again: “You’re playin’ the fool. If you’re wounded, you need doctorin’. Don’t just lay there and die.”
He heard a cough. A weak voice said, “You’d never get me to town. You’d hang me.”
“Nobody’ll molest you, I give my word on that.”
Johnny Willet was cautiously working his way back down the hillside. The cowboy paused tensely and caught the sheriff’s eye. He held up one finger. Just one man, that was all.
The sheriff tried reasoning again. “You haven’t got a chance, so why keep on with it? Don’t make us have to kill you.” He held his breath, waiting for an answer that didn’t come. “There’s already been enough blood spilled. We don’t want any more.”
Johnny Willet was moving in closer.
“Last chance,” Webb called. “What do you say?”
The outlaw squeezed off another shot. It kicked dirt into Webb Matlock’s eyes. The sheriff blinked desperately to clear away the burning, the momentary blindness.
He could hear Johnny’s voice. “All right now, mister, how about it?”
Webb heard a desperate cry as the outlaw flopped over to see the man who had crept up on him unseen. The pistol cracked. Then Willet’s rifle roared. Webb heard a groan. The pistol fell, rattling upon the rocks.
Webb stood up rubbing his eyes, blinking away the sand. He could see the cowboys closing in. Johnny Willet stood slump-shouldered, the smoking rifle held slackly in one hand. He glanced up as the sheriff reached him.
“Sometimes, Johnny, a man’s got no choice. Did he hit you?”
Eyes bleak, Johnny shook his head. “Missed. Scared, I reckon. Took a wild shot.”
“Next one might not’ve been so wild. You had to shoot him.”
Willet’s mouth twisted. “That don’t make it no easier.” He walked off into the brush to stand alone, his back turned.
The gunman lay twisted, face to the ground, legs drawn up in dying agony. Breath still struggled in him, but it wouldn’t last long. Gently Webb turned him over. His heart went sick.
Gray-haired Uncle Joe Vickers, the Box L foreman, took a long look and cursed softly. “A button, Webb, not a day over twenty! Just a slick-faced kid is all!”
Webb knelt beside the dying youth. “Can you hear me, boy?”
The youngster tried hard. He managed a weak “Yes.”
“They just threw you away, kid. They left you to cover for them, and they ran off. Who was it?”
The boy didn’t answer.
Webb said, “You don’t owe them a thing now, son. Tell us, who was it?”
His lips painfully attempted to form the word. “Dono…Donovan.”
Webb looked quickly up at the perplexed faces around him. He said, “Boy, that can’t be. Donovan is dead.”
The youngster started again. “Don…Don…” The voice trailed off and he was gone.
Webb stayed on one knee. Despite the heat, a chill played up and down his back. Presently he said, “That’s the strangest thing I ever heard. Everybody knows Donovan is dead.”
Uncle Joe Vickers’ face had turned as gray as ashes. “Sure we know. It was me that killed him!”
Webb Matlock closed his eyes, remembering the violent night Clabe Donovan’s wild border-jumping career had suddenly been brought to a close. Donovan had had a brother named Morg, a salty young hellion a few years younger than himself. Morg had been a reckless rider, a good shot, a headstrong desperado of Clabe’s own stripe. One thing he had lacked had been Clabe’s shrewd judgment. Trying to pull a robbery on his own, Morg had gotten himself into a jackpot he couldn’t get out of alone. Clabe had come to his rescue. Morg had escaped, but Clabe’s horse had been hit. Left afoot, Clabe was tracked down like a wild animal.
His trial had been short, the verdict certain. And the sentence: to hang by the neck until dead.
Morg had made a big effort one night to free his brother. He had sent part of the Donovan bunch to one end of Dry Fork to set up a diversion and draw much of the guard away from the jail. Then he had moved in with the rest of the men. They stormed the jail and broke Clabe out. But spurring away, they rode into a deadly barrage of bullets.
Clabe Donovan’s trademark had always been a black Mexican hat with peaked crown and wide brim. Uncle Joe Vickers had seen that hat and had stepped out into the dusty, dark street with a double-barreled shotgun. He had triggered both barrels at once. His target had rolled in the dirt, face blasted away. He had been dead before he hit the ground.
The people of Dry Fork never doubted the man’s identity. They buried him and put up a marker: Clabe Donovan. The Donovan gang disappeared. Some said Morg had tried later to rob a mint deep down in Mexico and had been cut down by the rurales. Nobody worried much about Morg. Main thing was that Clabe was dead, and this section of the border country had comparative peace for the first time in years.
Sure, there were stories, persistent stories that came from God knows where, rumors that Clabe Donovan still lived down in Mexico. Those kinds of stories arose about every well-known outlaw. Always, after a passage of time, there were some who claimed the man had never really died. There were those who claimed to have seen him alive, long after the man had been buried.
At Dry Fork, men shrugged off such stories. They knew, for Uncle Joe Vickers had killed Clabe Donovan, and nearly everybody in Dry Fork had gone down to the cemetery to watch the outlaw’s wooden coffin lowered into the grave. In time, souvenir hunters had whittled away so much of the simple little cross that the county had had to put up a new one.
Donovan, the young rustler had said. Donovan!
Johnny Willet had heard. Slowly he came back and stood looking down at this youngster he had killed. Voice unsteady, he said, “Webb, that’s what I started to tell you while ago, only the more I thought about it, the crazier it seemed. I remember seein’ Clabe Donovan in his prime. I’ll never forget the way he looked, tall, straight, broad-shouldered, with that big black Mexican hat.”
He looked around at the other men and said shakily, “I got in pretty close to them cow thieves today. If I hadn’t known better, I’d have sworn one of them was Clabe Donovan, black hat and all!”
* * *
No effort was made to go on with the chase. In the first place, no one had the spirit for it now. In the second, tracks showed the rustlers had been gone a long time. They had simply left the wounded boy to die because they knew he would anyway, and he would slow them down. They probably had hoped for him to delay pursuit. That he had done.
“Not much use goin’ any farther,” Webb said. “They’ll be across the river before we can catch them anyhow.”
Beyond the river lay the wild and brushy sanctuary that was Mexico. There the gringo lawman was never welcome. Decades of border warfare had left in much of the Mexican population a mortal hatred for the rinches, a term they applied to Rangers and all other gringo officers. There the gringo lawbreaker could find safety, even a welcome of sorts, so long as he spent good money and did not unduly disturb the people.
Webb Matlock looked down at the body. “It’d take us till this time tomorrow to get him to town. We better not wait that long.”
Uncle Joe Vickers said, “There’s a Box L line shack back yonderway. I except we could find a shovel.”
All they found for identification was a letter, carried in the shirt pocket so long that the envelope was beginning to wear through at the edges. They rolled the body in a slicker and tied it across the bay horse the young outlaw had been riding. At the line shack they found a shovel but no Bible. They dug a grave, and Webb Matlock stood over it with bared head, repeating the Twenty-third Psalm by heart.
Afterwards, the grave covered and a mound tamped over it, the gray-haired foreman said, “We’ll put up some sort of a marker. Ordinarily I’d be inclined to leave a cow thief lay where he fell. But this one bein’ just a kid and all…”
Webb nodded. “It’s a long way to town, Uncle Joe. I expect I’d best be gettin’ started.”
“We’ll go with you,” said Vickers, “me and Ollie Reed. We’re anxious to see how Jess Leggett’s gettin’ along. That old man’s a way too ancient to be carryin’ a slug in his shoulder…”
For the first time, Webb had to suppress a smile. The worried foreman lacked only three or four years being as old as his boss.
Camped on the trail that night, Webb kept remembering. The dying outlaw’s words came back to him again and again. Donovan. Donovan.
“Uncle Joe,” he said, “is there a chance you could’ve been mistaken? Is there a chance the man you shot wasn’t Clabe Donovan?”
Fiercely Joe Vickers responded, “No sir, there ain’t. I seen him!”
But the old man stared into the firelight, doubt coming into his eyes.
And Ollie Reed murmured wonderingly to himself, “Clabe Donovan, come back to life. Now, ain’t that somethin’?”
Copyright © 1961, 1986 by Elmer Kelton