Billy Blue Cannon was tired – but not too tired to appreciate the splendour of the desert landscape before him. He reined-in his horse, pushed back his hat from his flaxen hair, and leaned forward on the pommel of his saddle.
“Man, oh man!” he breathed in admiration. “What a picture!”
The sun was setting, and the merciless glare of the sky was suddenly softened. As the shadows lengthened, the colours deepened. Yellow cliffs were suffused with pink lights, the grey layers turned into magenta, and the red bands were taking on a violet hue.
It was after the late spring rains, and the prickly pears and the purple tinged cactus were in bloom. Even the sand and stone that had forced his horse to a walking-pace seemed now to add grandeur and colour to the scene.
When his horse suddenly whickered, Blue was rudely awakened from his reverie. “What’s the matter, old girl?” he asked, patting the sweat-covered mane. “Anxious to get home?”
High Chaparral was still a good day’s ride away. Blue knew he would have to camp for the night. This trip south had been undertaken at the request of his father, John Cannon. The cattle buyer he had been visiting had pressed the boy to stay overnight, but Blue felt out of his depth away from the Chaparral and had made his goodbyes on the spot.
The horse shifted nervously, tossing its head. Blue stiffened as he sensed danger. To his left lay a group of rocks. There was a sudden, stifled cry from that direction.
With a quick movement he checked his gun, then inched his horse closer to the rocks. The animal seemed to know the need for caution and picked her way with dainty steps.
As he rounded the rock, Blue drew the animal to a halt with the pressure of his knees. In a hollow below him were two men fighting with deadly, silent intent. One was an Indian, the other a young white man.
Blue knew the folly of interfering in private fights. But he also knew that renegade Apaches had been known to lie in wait for lone travellers in that bleak place.
He slid from his horse, gun in hand. Two steps he took towards the fighters, when the white man, who had been desperately holding off the redskin’s knife, now managed to free his gun.
There was a sharp explosion; the yellow rocks gave back the gunshot echo a hundred times. The Indian slowly crumpled to the sand and was still.
“Having trouble?” said Blue.
At the sound of a strange voice, the other whirled. His gun flashed, as the setting sun reflected on the barrel.
When he found himself staring into Blue Boy’s gun-barrel, the look on the stranger’s face changed. A look of terror came into his eyes, terror, mixed with wild desperation. It was a look Blue had seen once in the eyes of a man who had gone berserk in a Mexican village and tried to shoot everyone in sight.
But the look was gone in a flash. In its place there was an expression of mingled weariness and defiance. “Trouble?” came the reply. “I was nearly knifed by this crazy Indian, that’s all. He jumped me from behind those rocks.”
The stranger put his gun away and wiped the sweat from his face. As he turned to pick up his hat, he stumbled and might have fallen but for Blue’s supporting arm.
“You’ve been wounded,” said Blue, noticing a dark stain on the other’s arm.
“Not too bad,” was the reply.
A moment later the man fainted. Blue Boy lowered him gently to the ground, in the shelter of the rocks. He brought his canteen and forced a few drops through the other’s clenched teeth. The man coughed and opened his eyes.
“Lie still!” said Blue. “I’ll bind up that wound, and we’ll get you to the doctor in Meserra Junction.”
As he was fumbling for a clean neckband from his saddlebag, Blue heard a low groan from the Indian. He took three steps toward the prostrate figure, then whirled as he heard the tell-tale ‘click’ of a revolver safety-catch being thumbed.
“Hold it!” he rapped. The other white man slowly lowered the gun he had been aiming at the Indian.
Blue let his breath out in a low sigh of relief. He turned and went to the Indian. Kneeling beside him, he turned the brave over.
The lean, brown face was set tight in an expressionless mask. But Blue knew it was a mask that hid pain greater than the other man’s, for the bullet had sliced through the leather buffalo-hide jerkin and was buried somewhere between chest and shoulder.
Blue and the Indian eyed each other steadily for a moment.
“Apache?” queried Blue, his hands busily tearing the clean neckband into strips for bandages.
The Indian nodded. Then his grey eyes turned and found his attacker. “Why white man attack me?” he asked.
Blue Boy paused in surprise, then he went on tearing the bandage. “Don’t move!” he ordered, “I’ll bring you water, bind your wound, and take you to a doctor.”
The Apache stirred uneasily. “Take me to my people,” he said. “I am Little Beaver. I was setting out on a mission for my tribe.”
Blue Boy said nothing. The Indian gritted his teeth as the bullet-wound was bound tightly, then he accepted the water with a dignified nod of gratitude.
Blue Boy went back to the other wounded man. “I’m Billy Blue Cannon,” he said.
“Josh Coney,” said the other, completing the introduction. “Cowhand… I was on my way north to find another job when the Injun jumped me.”
“He says you jumped him.” Blue said casually.
Coney gave a hard laugh. “Rich, ain’t it? You saw what was happening, didn’t you?”
The binding of the knife-wound gave Blue the chance to ignore this question. When he had done, he looked around. “Your horse?” he asked.
Coney nodded away beyond the yellow cliffs. “Took fright and bolted over there,” he said.
Blue stood up reflectively.
“You could ride after it and bring it back,” Coney said. “I’ll keep a good eye on the Injun.” He tapped his gun as he spoke.
But Blue Boy could see the danger. While his back was turned, either man might try to despatch the other and claim it as self-defence.
“I’ll mount you both on my horse,” he said firmly. “I’ll walk until we pick up the tracks of your horse.”
Coney seemed inclined to dispute this, but Blue took no notice. A few moments later, with the two men mounted, he set off, leading his horse towards the cliffs.
It was almost dark now. Blue knew that there was only a faint chance of finding the runaway horse. But as it was the same direction in which they would be heading for Meserra Junction, he was glad to be on the move.
With the sun gone, the air struck suddenly chill. Blue shivered. He stopped the horse and unstrapped a blanket which he threw around the wounded men. Then he took out his own jacket and pulled it round him.
The cliffs were black, and unfriendly now. Somewhere a coyote howled. Coney muttered: “No good going on. Have to camp.”
Blue Boy was about to rein the horse to a standstill, when the Indian stiffened and grunted a warning. “My pony! Over there!” he said.
Blue Boy left the horse standing. He ran in the direction Little Beaver had pointed. A pony whickered in the darkness. Blue came to a stop. He stared in surprise. Not only was there an Indian pony there, but also a laden packhorse.
He led them both back. “Yours?” he asked the Apache.
The other nodded. “My pony, my packhorse,” he said simply.
Blue helped him to the ground. Then he assisted Coney to dismount. “I’ll light a fire,” he said. “We’ll push on before sun-up. We could be in Meserra Junction by nightfall.”
They did even better than that. The Indian mounts were strong and well cared for. They carried the wounded men at a brisk pace. In the heat of the late afternoon, the huddle of clapboard buildings that made up Meserra showed in the distance.
Blue rode straight to the Marshal’s office. The law officer was a big, chunky man with a brick-red face. He did not seem too pleased at the burdens being passed on to him. Grudgingly he arranged for the two wounded men to be cared for by a doctor.
A bath and a meal helped Blue Boy recover from his trip. But before he sought the comfort of his hotel bed, he paid a visit to the Marshal in his office. In a few words he explained how he had found the two men fighting, and how each had complained about being attacked by the other.
The Marshal shook his broad shoulders. “Well, nobody’s doubting Coney’s word, are they?” he yawned.
“I am!” said Blue quietly.
The lawman sat up slowly. His steely eyes met Blue’s for a full minute. “You’d take the word of a renegade Apache Indian against a white man’s?”
“I’m not taking anybody’s word,” said Blue. “I’m thinking of the packhorse.”
The Marshal frowned. “Coney’s packhorse? What about it?”
“It’s not Coney’s,” Blue said quietly. “It’s Little Beaver’s packhorse.”
“Yeah?” The Marshal’s jaw stopped chewing on tobacco, and his eyes wrinkled thoughtfully. “I didn’t know that… but what does it prove?”
Blue shrugged. “It ties in with the Indian’s story about starting on a long journey for his tribe,” he said. “And just supposing that Coney did try to jump him, maybe it was because he wanted that packhorse and them supplies.”
The Marshal leaned back in his chair. “Possible,” he mused. “That way he could avoid calling at towns like this….You was figurin’ that, eh?”
Blue stirred. “I just thought it was too convenient to blame the attack on a lone Indian,” he replied. “So – I wondered if you could make a couple of enquiries, Marshal.”
The big man was already on his feet and opening the top drawer of a filing cabinet. “I’m ahead of you, son, “ he drawled. He took out a file, placed it on the desk and opened it. Blue saw it contained ‘Wanted’ posters, and messages.
The Marshal picked up a cable form. “So happens this reached me yesterday,” he mused. “It’s from the Marshal at Twin Forks. Two fellers robbed the bank there. The posse caught up with one of ‘em and killed him in a gunfight. The other guy hightailed it into the desert …. Now lemme see…” He squinted at the cable and scratched his chin. “Name unknown. Age about 30. Medium height. Weight, about 160 lbs. Fair hair, fresh complexion, hazel eyes…Hm! Come on – mebbe I’d better take a closer look at this guy Coney. There’s a reward of five hundred dollars for him.”
The two men left the building and walked along the boardwalk towards the hotel. The moon had risen, turning Meserra into a ghost-town. Lamplight gave an orange glow to the windows of the hotel and the saloon, from which came the sound of a jangling piano and raucous voices.
The Marshal led the way into the first-aid building beside the hotel. He opened the door to the clinic, and then stopped with a muttered exclamation. “Well, I’ll be…”
“What’s wrong?” asked Blue, craning to look past the other’s broad back.
The Marshal shifted. “They’ve gone! Both of ‘em!” he said.
The lamplight that spilled into the darkened room from the hall showed the two empty beds. The lawman grunted: “Huh! Mebbe they’re both anxious to avoid me.”
He strode out to the stables at the back of the hotel. Blue Boy caught up with him as he shone a lantern around the empty stalls where the horses of the wounded men had been stabled.
“Marshal, I believe Little Beaver may be trying to get to his people,” said Blue.
The other man turned. Blue Boy read the scepticism in his eyes, but went on doggedly: “He was anxious for me to take him to the tribe when I fixed up his wound.”
The Marshal shouldered past without a word. At the door of his office, he paused and spoke curtly over his shoulder: “I’m going after them at dawn with a posse. Come, if you want.”
As first light streaked the night sky, five men rode out of Meserra Junction. They fanned out, and within half an hour one of them picked up the tracks of two horses. The Marshal examined the marks, then shot a quick glance at Blue as he said: “It’s the Indian pony and the packhorse.”
The tracks led towards the desert. The posse rode hard, covering as much ground as possible before the sun slowed them. Suddenly the Marshal held up his hand and halted. He pointed to a new set of tracks which had joined the ones they were following. “That’s Coney’s horse,” he said. “Looks like Coney is out to get the Redskin too. Maybe I misjudged him.”
They rode on fast. Ahead of them loomed the yellow cliffs. Then one of the deputies pointed and yelled: “There’s the Injun’s pony – and his packhorse.”
As the posse drew rein near the two waiting ponies, the Marshal signalled for everyone to dismount. “The Indian must’ve spotted us. He could be holed-up anywhere among these rocks,” he growled. “Spread out and search. But keep under cover!”
Guns in their hands, the men crept forward. Blue Boy lost sight of the others as he climbed the dry gulley. He was struggling up a scree slope, when something hit him on the back of the head. He pitched forward…
Fighting off the mists of unconsciousness, he rolled over. But his assailant leaped on him, knocking the gun from his hand.
“Coney!” Blue exclaimed, staring up.
Coney pushed the barrel of the gun against Blue’s forehead. “Get up – nice and slow!” he gritted. “I’m fed up with being tailed… First the Indian, and now you… Well, you’re not going to stop me, see? That bank job at Twin Forks is going to let me live soft and easy for the rest of my life… So long, sucker!”
Blue Boy saw the other’s finger tightening around the trigger. At the same moment there was a wild whoop nearby. Coney whirled. Little Beaver stood poised on a rock about twenty feet away. His wounded arm was tucked into his tunic, but with his free arm he flung his knife.
Coney’s gun exploded into the air as he spun backwards, the knife embedded in his chest. Blue scrambled to his feet. He turned to meet the Apache striding towards him. The two men looked down at the motionless figure of the bank robber. Then they looked at each other.
“Thanks, Little Beaver!” said Blue quietly. “You saved my life.”
The Indian nodded impassively. “I woke to find this man had gone, taking my horses,” he said. “I followed on his horse, but it was not until dawn that I picked up his tracks.”
Blue Boy allowed himself to smile. “And thank heaven you did!” he exclaimed. “I was never so near to death.”
He turned to meet the Marshal and the other men, as they came running to find the reason for the gunshot.
“Here’s your bank robber, Marshal,” said Blue. “And the reward goes to Little Beaver.”
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