Ben Langham reined to a halt on the north bank of the Canadian. He looped the reins around the saddlehorn and fished a tobacco pouch from inside his greatcoat. His horse lowered its muzzle to the water while he stuffed and lit his pipe.
On the sundown side of sixty, Langham was nonetheless a man of imposing stature. Age had thickened his waistline, but he sat tall in the saddle, head erect and shoulders squared. With a mane of white hair, and wind-seamed features, he looked very much like a grizzled centaur. The pipe jutting from his mouth, he puffed cottony wads of smoke and slowly regarded the sky.
There was a bite in the air, unusually sharp for early December. A heavy overcast screened the af ternoon sun, and beyond the river umber plains stretched onward like a burnt-out sea. Shifting in the saddle, Langham tested the wind, searching for the scent of snow. A slight northerly breeze was crisp and dry, but he'd weathered too many storms in the Panhandle not to recognize the signs of oncoming winter. Soon, he told himself, the blizzards would howl down off the high plains and blanket the land with snow. Which meant today might very well be his last chance to inspect the line camps until spring melt-off.
To Langham, the line camps were a hedge that often spelled the difference between disaster and a profitable year. As the largest rancher in the Texas Panhandle, his LX spread was much too big to be manned from the home compound. Like a small nation, it needed outposts during the long plains winter. Spotted every six miles around the fifty-mile perimeter, these outposts formed a fence of sorts on the open range. Cattle had a tendency to drift with a storm, or to mindlessly gather in bunches, shivering and hungry, and starve to death rather than seek out graze. The line riders patrolled between their stations, holding the cows on LX land and driving them to hillsides where wind had blown snow off the grass. A grueling task, it was a job assigned to the most trustworthy men on Langham's crew. Without them, the winter-kill alone would have soon bankrupted the LX.
Yet, while Langham himself had handpicked the line riders, he understood that even the best of men occasionally needed prodding. Life in a line camp, which consisted of a one-room cabin and a log corral, was a solitary existence. With the onset of winter, a line rider often went for weeks at a time without seeing another human. The loneliness and the drudgery of herding stubborn cattle through snowdrifts could sour a man, slowly work on his spirit and turn him lax. A surprise visit and a word of encouragement would do much to bolster that spirit. And the uncertainty, never knowing when to expect another visit, gave the men something to ponder on cold winter nights.
Langham knocked the dottle from his pipe, thoughtful a moment. He was privately amused that the men considered him the original sonofabitch, far more demanding than Jack Noonan, the ranch foreman. At his age it was no small compliment, one he meant to preserve. He nurtured it at every opportunity.
Stuffing the pipe in his pocket, Langham gathered the reins and kneed his horse into the water. Once across the river, he turned west and rode along the shelterbelt of trees bordering the shore. His thoughts now centered on Shorty Phillips, who was stationed at a line camp several miles upstream. He debated staying for supper, then quickly decided against it. No slouch as a cowhand, Phillips's cooking could gag a dog off a gut wagon.
Some while later, Langham crested a wooded knoll and hauled back sharply on the reins. Below, where the treeline thinned out, several riders were hazing a bunch of cows away from the river. At first glance, he thought some of the crew were moving cattle to another section of range. Then he looked closer, and realized none of the men rode for LX. The bastards were cow thieves.
And they were rustling his stock!
Langham reacted instinctively, his hand moving to the carbine in his saddle scabbard. But blind anger quickly gave way to cool judgment. He counted seven men, and forced himself to admit the odds were too great. He needed help, even if it meant allowing the rustlers to escape for the moment. His mind turned to Shorty Phillips, estimating time and distance. Within the hour he could have Phillips riding for the home compound; another three hours, four at the outside, and Phillips could return with most of the LX crew. By nightfall they would be on the rustlers' trail, and easily overtake them at first light. The conclusion, though delayed, would be no less satisfying. A stiff rope and a short drop always settled a rustler's hash.
The plan formulated, Langham shoved the carbine back in the scabbard and gathered his reins. So intent had he been on the rustlers that the whirr of a gun hammer caught him completely unawares. He turned, scanning the trees to his rear, and found himself staring into the muzzle of a cocked pistol. Not ten yards away a young boy, mounted on a bloodbay gelding, sat watching him over the gunsights. There was a haunting familiarity about the youngster's features, and for an instant the two men stared at each other. Then the boy wagged his head.
"Old man, you're too nosy for your own good."
"You're makin' a mistake," Langham warned him. "No way on God's earth you'll get away with it."
The boy's mouth twisted in a bucktoothed grin. "Wanna bet?"
"Well, I'll be damned." Langham blinked, suddenly recognized the misshapen face he'd seen on reward dodgers. "I know you!"
"Now you done spoiled it for sure."
The boy fired twice, one report blending with the other. Langham swayed, jolted by the impact of the slugs, then slowly toppled out of the saddle. He hit the ground on his side and rolled over, bright dots of blood staining his coat. He groaned, struggling to rise, and somehow levered himself to his hands and knees. His mouth ajar, head hung between his arms, he stared sightlessly at the hard-packed earth. He tried to speak, but produced only a distorted whisper.
The youngster watched his struggles with an expression of detached curiosity. Then he sighted carefully and shot Langham in the head. The rancher's skull exploded in a mist of gore and bone matter, and he collapsed. His leg twitched, and his foot drummed the dirt in a spasm of afterdeath. A moment passed, then he lay still.
At the last shot, his horse spooked, rearing away. The boy aimed, triggering two quick shots, and the horse went down in a tangle of hooves and saddle leather. Without haste, the youngster calmly reloaded and holstered his pistol. Then he reined the bay around and rode down the knoll.
Shorty Phillips discovered the body early next morning. A couple of hours later, still rattled by what he'd seen, he rode into the home compound. There, once Jack Noonan had him calmed down, he spilled out the story. While riding his regular patrol, he had spotted buzzards circling the knoll, and upon investigating, he'd found Langham's body. Other than covering the remains with his mackinaw, he hadn't waited around. He hit the saddle and rode.
The foreman immediately summoned Luke Starbuck. Headquartered at the LX, Starbuck was chief range detective for the Panhandle Cattlemen's Association. The news of Langham's death struck him hard, for he'd been a lifelong friend, and at one time foreman of the LX. But he listened impassively, revealing nothing of what he felt, and questioned Phillips in a cold, measured voice. Then he ordered horses saddled, and sent someone to fetch his assistant, John Poe. Within minutes, Starbuck and Poe, trailed by Noonan and Shorty Phillips, rode out of the compound.
Shortly before noon, the men reined to a halt atop the knoll. Buzzards had already begun working on the dead horse, but took wing as the riders approached. Starbuck sent John Poe to scout the outlying area, and told the other two men to remain with the horses. Then he walked forward and knelt beside Langham's body. When he lifted the mackinaw, his face turned ashen and for a moment it seemed his iron composure would crack. Yet he somehow collected himself and, after inspecting the grisly remains, climbed to his feet. Without a word, he began a careful examination of the knoll.
Noonan and Phillips watched in silence. Neither of them offered to help, for they saw that a quietness had settled over Starbuck. A manhunter for the past four years, tracking down rustlers and horse thieves, he had acquired a reputation for steel nerves and suddenness with a gun. Outlaws seldom surrendered when cornered, and in the time he'd served as a range detective, he was known to have killed eleven men. The number he had hung was a matter of speculation. The nearest peace officer was four days' ride to the south, and summary justice was widely practiced on the plains. Starbuck, according to rumor, had decorated a dozen or more trees throughout the Panhandle. But he was a private man, with no tolerance for questions, and the exact count was unknown. Those who had worked with him, however, told of an eerie quietness he displayed when pushed beyond certain limits. Some men called it a killing quietness, and the record seemed to bear them out. Today, watching him, Noonan and Phillips were aware he hadn't spoken since looking underneath the mackinaw.
Starbuck completed his examination as Poe topped the knoll and rode toward them. He waited, his mouth set in a grim line, with Noonan and Phillips standing beside him. When Poe dismounted, he wasted no time on preliminaries.
"I make it seven or eight," Poe informed him. "Found signs where they were drivin' a bunch of cows, then all of a sudden they just stopped and hightailed it out of here."
"Figures," Starbuck observed. "One of them was posted up here as a lookout. The way I read it, Ben rode in from the north, and when he saw what was happening, the lookout killed him."
"So they ditched the cows to make better time. Whoever's leadin' them evidently wanted to be long gone by the time Ben was found."
"That's how it adds up."
"Ben have any chance at all?"
"None," Starbuck said tonelessly. "Bastard drilled him twice, then finished him off with one in the head. No way of telling, but I'd say he shot the horse so it wouldn't show up with an empty saddle and raise an alarm. Probably figured that'd buy them a little more time."
"That, or he's plain kill crazy."
"Crazy like a fox." Starbuck extended his hand, five spent cartridges cupped in his palm. "Found these over in the trees. He sat there and reloaded before he rode off. That tell you anything?"
"Offhand, I'd say he's not the type that spooks easy."
"Yeah, that's for sure." Starbuck paused, considering. "How about tracks?"
"I followed them maybe half a mile, no trouble."
"Southwest," Poe noted. "Straight as a string."
Starbuck nodded. "New Mexico."
"You thinkin' what I'm thinkin'?"
"Maybe, maybe not; but I know a place we can find out."
Late that night, Starbuck and Poe rode into Tascosa. An isolated trading post, the town was situated on the Canadian River, roughly halfway between LX lands and the eastern border of New Mexico. Apart from a few adobes, there was one saloon and a general store. Tascosa had no streets, only a handful of permanent residents, and no law. It was the perfect haven for outlaws, on the edge of nowhere.
When Starbuck pushed through the batwing doors, a measurable hush fell over the saloon. There were perhaps a dozen men standing at the bar and seated around crude tables. Some of them knew him on sight, and the others would have instantly recognized his name. Yet, even to those who had never seen him, his presence was a matter to be weighed with care. In Tascosa, where every man looked to his own safety, caution was the basic tenet of survival.
With Poe at his side, Starbuck walked directly to the bar. Outside, he had checked the horses tied at the hitch rack, and none of them had been ridden hard. A swift glance around the saloon further strengthened his hunch: the men he sought were by now across the border into New Mexico. He rapped on the counter, and the bartender hurried forward.
"Evenin', Mr. Starbuck."
"Ernie." Starbuck nodded amiably. "How's tricks?"
"Oh, you know, dollar here, dollar there. What can I get you gents?"
"A little information."
The barkeep gave him a guarded look. "I try to tend to my own knittin', Mr. Starbuck. Feller stays healthier that way."
"Ernie, you've got a choice." Starbuck paused, motioning around the room. "You can worry about these boys later, or you can worry about me now. Which way you want it?"
"Jesus." The barkeep licked his lips, shot a nervous glance over his shoulder. "That ain't no choice at all."
"Wasn't meant to be." Starbuck fixed him with a level gaze. "Last night, maybe the night before, eight men wandered in here for a drink. Tell me about them."
"How'd you hear about that bunch?"
"Let's stick to me asking the questions."
"Well, there's not nothin' special to tell, except maybe ..."
"Yeah," Starbuck prompted him, "except maybe what?"
"The youngest one," the barkeep replied thoughtfully. "No more'n a kid, but the others treated him like he was meaner than tiger spit. Sorta strange."
"Describe him," Starbuck persisted. "Anything you remember."
"Oh, he was an ugly little scutter. Wouldn't stand no taller'n your shoulder. And his face was all lopsided. Looked like a jackrabbit when he grinned."
"You mean he was bucktoothed?"
"Near about as bad as I ever seen."
Starbuck turned to Poe. "What do you say, John? Think he fits the ticket?"
"In spades!" Poe agreed. "Couldn't be no one else."
"And I'll bet they called him Billy." Starbuck pinned the barkeep with a look. "Didn't they, Ernie?"
"How the hell'd you know that?"
"Took a wild guess." Starbuck stepped away from the bar. His eyes traveled around the room, moving from face to face. "This here's private business, just between me and Ernie. Anybody sees it different, now's the time to speak his piece."
A leaden stillness filled the saloon. None of the men spoke, and no one met Starbuck's gaze. After a brief while he dug a double eagle from his pocket and tossed it on the counter.
"A drink for my friends, Ernie."
Starbuck walked to the door. He waited there, watching the room, until John Poe was outside. Then he stepped into the night. A moment later the sound of hoofbeats slowly faded from Tascosa.
Copyright © 1980 by Matthew Braun.