WHO WALKS ALONE

 

 

Buck Cannon and Manolito crested the huge mass of rock and paused to give the horses a rest. Below them the desert was gouged by deep gullies that exposed coloured layers of clay and rock. The flatland had its own wild beauty, for now in summer the spindly ocotillo, or coach whip, had put out bright red flowers.

 

But Buck had no eye for beauty just now. “We better push on fast, Mano,” he grunted. “Big John needs the doctor bad.”

 

He urged his mount forward, and had begun the clattering descent to the plain when Mano’s shout halted him. “Hey, Buck! You see what I see?”

 

Mano was pointing to the southern rim of the rock mass. A single figure was toiling up its face, going on foot and leading his horse by the reins.

 

“What in tarnation --?” Buck pushed back his hat and scratched his head. The two men glanced at each other.

 

“You think we ought to ride that way and find out who he is?” wondered Mano.

 

Buck hesitated. “Well … we don’t really have time … but I guess we’d better,” he said reluctantly.

 

They rode as fast as they dared along the crest. The man on foot had heard them coming, and was standing in a watchful pose, eyes shaded to see their approach.

 

Buck lifted a gloved hand. “Hi!” he greeted. “Come far?”

 

The stranger was a man of average height. He seemed to be well dressed, although his clothes were stained and dusty from travel.

 

“I was coming fine until my horse picked up a stone,” he said, evading Buck’s question. “Don’t suppose I could find a smith anywhere?”

 

Manolito lifted broad shoulders in an expressive gesture. “You are right, senor. There is no blacksmith for fifty miles. But we have our own forge at High Chaparral, which is much closer.”

 

“That a ranch?” asked the stranger.

 

“That’s right,” nodded Buck. He turned in the saddle and pointed back across the lowlands. “Best part of twenty miles east …. Sorry we can’t lead you there, but we’re on our way to fetch the doctor for a mighty sick man.”

 

“Maybe I can save you a trip,” said the other. “I’m Clem Burgess, and I’m a doctor.”

 

“You are! Well that’s great, huh, Mano?” exclaimed Buck.

 

“Wonderful,” agreed his companion. “Look, why don’t you let the Doc ride along with you back to the ranch? I’ll follow on with his horse.”

 

“Fine,” said Burgess. “I’ll just get my case from the saddle.”

 

It was a couple of hours before Manolito rode in through the high arch of the High Chaparral, trailing the injured horse behind him. He yelled to Pedro to take the animal to the stables, and was walking towards the house when his sister, Victoria, came running out.

 

Her face and eyes were shining with the joy and relief she felt. “Oh, Mano! Dr. Burgess has given John a draught, and already his temperature is dropping,” she gasped.

 

“Why that’s great!” exclaimed Manolito. “Can I see him?”

 

“Not now. He’s sleeping peacefully,” said Victoria. “But do come and help me thank the doctor.”

 

They found Burgess finishing a meal at the big table. He had washed and brushed the sand from his clothes. Manolito noticed that his hair was grizzled grey at the temples, and was marred by a half-moon scar on the left side.

 

“Well, after this I guess I must believe in miracles,” said Manolito. “How else could we have come across a doctor in the desert just when we needed him?”

 

Burgess laughed politely. It was the hesitant, rusty laugh of a man who is a stranger to humour. “Glad I could be of service,” he said gruffly. “My horse okay?”

 

Manolito waved a hand. “Don’t worry, Doctor. Maybe a few days rest for the animal, and – “

 

“But I can’t wait. I’m on my way to Mexico. I’ve got to push on.” There was a note of urgency in the man’s voice, and Victoria noticed that his right hand twitched nervously on the table.

 

“Then you can take a fresh horse from here, Doctor,” she said gently. “It is the least we can do to repay you.”

 

Burgess gave her a quick glance. “I’d appreciate that,” he said. “I’ll freshen up and be on my way in an hour.”

 

Manolito caught the look of dismay in his sister’s eyes. “But – you are welcome to stay a while,” she urged. “My husband might need your care –“

 

The Doctor shifted uneasily in his chair. “He’ll be all right,” he said. “I’ll leave you some of the draught I gave him.” He rose to his feet. “Sorry Ma’am but I gotta go!”

 

Manolito noted that he picked up his black bag, which he had placed under his chair. He exchanged a puzzled glance with his sister. “Well, I’ll go and have one of our horses saddled up,” he said.

 

At that moment Buck came in. “Leaving us, Doctor?” he exclaimed. “Then at least let me guide you south, onto the trail for Mexico.”

 

Burgess hesitated, then nodded. “Okay … thanks,” he said.

 

As Victoria and her brother watched the two men ride away an hour later, she saw a worried look on his face.

 

“I don’t like to say this, but there’s something not quite right about the Doctor,” he said. “What’s he in such a hurry for? And why take the hard way to Mexico?”

 

Victoria shared the same doubts, but she banished them with a smile as they turned to go indoors. “Stop worrying, Mano,” she chided. “The important thing is that John is getting better.”

 

With the atmosphere of crisis gone, life settled down to its normal, peaceful round at High Chaparral.

 

But towards sunset the thudding hooves of hard-driven horses sounded a note of urgency again. Blue Boy hurried out first to see if it was his Uncle Buck returning. But he found three travel-stained men dismounting from their horses. Two were thick-set, strong-looking men, and one wore a sheriff’s badge. The third was a distinguished-looking man, slim and erect, and the cut of his expensive riding clothes marked him as a man of wealth. He made a small, gracious bow to Blue, and offered the same greeting to Manolito and Victoria as they came from the house.

 

“I hope you will pardon this intrusion,” said the stranger. His voice was deep with a cultured foreign accent. “We are looking for a man who may have come this way.”

 

“Well, if we can help, sure,” said Blue.

 

Victoria came forward. “Will you come inside and rest?” she said.

 

The men followed her inside the big, gracious room. As Victoria brought refreshments, they explained their mission.

 

“I’m Sheriff Bridson of Dale City,” said the man with the badge. “This is my deputy, Sam Cook, and this gentleman is Count Castella …. We’ve been trailin’ someone who stole some mighty valuable gems from the Count … and the trail seems to lead right here.”

 

Victoria exchanged a quick glance with her brother. “Who is this man you are hunting?” she queried.

 

It was the Count who answered. “He calls himself Doctor Burgess. He is a man of middle height. His hair is going a little grey, and he has a curved scar on the left side of his temple.”

 

There was a few moments’ silence. For once, both Manolito and his sister felt lost for words, faced with the thought of betraying the man who had helped to save Big John’s life.

 

Blue Boy answered for them. “Okay, so Burgess was here,” he admitted. “But how do we know you ain’t lying about him? He gave my father some medicine that lowered his temperature and maybe saved his life.”

 

The Sheriff stirred angrily, stung by the boy’s quick words. “Now, see here –“ he began.

 

But Count Castella motioned him to silence. “If I may ask – was it a draught that he gave your father?” he asked quietly.

 

Blue nodded. “I think so – wasn’t it, Victoria?”

 

“Yes, it was a draught,” she admitted. “Why do you ask?”

 

The Count fingered his chin. “Mrs Cannon, I think I understand the quandary in which you find yourself,” he said. “The draught was effective in helping your husband. It was also effective in helping my wife, who had a fever when Burgess first came to my home. I was grateful to him – just as you are. I gave him money, and he became a guest in my house. That is when he stole the gems from my safe.”

 

Blue was frowning fiercely at the toes of his boots. Now he looked up. “But if he ain’t a doctor, then what about this draught that cures?” he demanded.

 

It was the deputy, Sam Cook, who answered. “We done some checking on Burgess. He used to travel round the county fairs, selling this potion as some kind of miracle cure for everything from falling hair to chilblains.”

 

Manolito stood up. “I think we had better get moving,” he said, with a nod to Victoria. “Burgess left here soon after midday with Buck Cannon. They were headed for the trail to the border.”

 

As she watched the men head out, Victoria took a step forward as if to stop them. Then she turned swiftly and went to the bedroom as John Cannon called out to know what was happening …

 

***************

 

Buck Cannon was finding Doctor Burgess a strange travelling companion. The man seemed to be all tensed up. Even Buck’s slow, easy drawl failed to break the ice between them. In the end he gave up his attempt at conversation, and they rode in silence, their shadows growing longer as the sun dipped beneath the burning plain.

 

The pace was beginning to tell on the horses, but Burgess urged his mount onward as they drew near the rugged shape of the San Remo ridge.

 

“Whoa!” cried Buck, as they crested the first slop.

 

“What’s wrong?” queried Burgess, reining in his horse.

 

Buck slid from the saddle and stretched his legs. “There’s a water hole here. Good place to camp the night,” he said.

 

Burgess leaned forward in the saddle. “I wasn’t figuring on camping,” he said. “How far to the border now?”

 

Buck shrugged. “Twenty – thirty miles … thirty if you take this long track round the ridge.”

 

“There’s another way?” queried Burgess.

 

Buck motioned to the yawning, shadow-filled entrance to Dead Man’s Canyon. “Come daylight, you can take the track through the canyon. But if you aim to push on in this light, you’ll have to take the long track.”

 

“Why?” The other’s voice was sharp. “I want the quickest way.”

 

Buck felt a stir of annoyance. But his voice still drawled, “Well, Doc, it’s not called Dead Man’s Canyon for nothing. There’s a narrow track along the edge. Tricky enough in daylight. Impossible at night!”

 

“Not for me!” Burgess turned his horse towards his guide and now Buck could see the .45 glinting in the last rays of the sun. “Y’see you’re going to guide me through,” said Burgess coldly.

 

Buck stared. “I told you it’s impossible …. What’s wrong, Doc? I guided you this far … can’t you take the longer trail?”

 

The gun waved briefly. “Mount up – and lead on!”

 

Buck shrugged. He made a half-turn to mount his horse, then exploded into action. His spring carried him clean across the gap between him and Burgess. His gloved right hand sliced upward and connected with the other’s wrist.

 

The gun went off as it spun from Burgess’s grip. The next minute Buck was pulling the man from the saddle. As he did so, the black bag was torn loose from behind the saddle.

 

Buck landed one blow. But he pulled his punch, because he could not forget the gratitude he still owed the man. Burgess slumped back and lay still.

 

Buck stepped away. He turned to find the fallen gun, and it was then that he caught sight of the gems spilling from the black bag.

 

He dropped to one knee, and began to pick them up. He was so engrossed with the new mystery that he failed to hear the faint footfall behind him until it was too late. He twisted to avoid the blow of the rock in Burgess’s hand. Then a thunderbolt burst inside his brain, and he knew no more …

 

When he struggled upward from his pit of pain and blackness, he felt the bracing splash of water in his face. A voice called urgently: “Uncle Buck – you okay?”

 

He opened his eyes and managed a weak grin at Blue Boy. “Well, I’ve felt better in my time – but I guess I’ll survive this once,” he wisecracked.

 

Blue helped him to his feet. “We’d better get you back to High Chaparral, and let Victoria fix that wound on the back of your head,” he said.

 

Buck touched it and winced. “Where’s Doc Burgess?” he asked, looking round.

 

Blue Boy shrugged. “I guess he tried riding through the canyon,” he said. “We heard a scream. The others went to see.” He went on to explain what had happened since Buck had left the ranch. As he finished, the little posse of horsemen - the Count, the Sheriff and his deputy, with Manolito – came riding out of the darkness. The Count had the black bag.

 

“Well, so much for ‘Doctor’ Burgess,” said Sheriff Bridson. “We’d better come back at first light and recover his body.”

 

Buck mounted his horse, and pulled it close to Manolito as the party turned back for the ranch. “Funny thing, Mano,” he mused.

 

“What’s that, Buck?”

 

“Burgess couldn’t have been all that bad. He may have been a quack doctor, but his potion worked.”

 

Manolito nodded slowly. “Pity he didn’t have a potion to cure his own complaint.” He said.

 

“What complaint?” asked Buck.

 

Mano touched his horse into a brisker walk as he replied: “Greed … just plain greed.”

 

 

THE END

 

 

 

 

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