The three of them rode through the purple dusk, through the juniper that grew thick and matted as a beard on the land, and came to a halt at the tip of the mesa. They were on the edge of the Rim country now and they could look southward for uncounted miles to where the shape of the Arizona desert died in the coming night. Tiger Sheridan spoke finally, in a voice husky with exhaustion.
"I hope there's bigger timber ahead. This scrub stuff ain't tall enough to hang a man on."
Brian Sheridan did not answer his father. He slackened in the saddle, trying to ease aching muscles, and with his bandanna wiped futilely at the grit masking his face. It was a bony face, with all the irrepressible humor of the Red Irish in its mobile lips and all their volatile temper in its blue eyes. That temper was boiling in him now. It had been a helluva long ride for nothing.
Indifferently he watched Robles dismount and begin hunting for tracks. Robles was a very old Apache, none knew exactly how old. He had ridden with Mangas Coloradas and Geronimo and had been one of the warriors who buried Cochise in Stronghold Canyon and who rode their horses through the gorge from dusk to dawn till every trace of the grave was obliterated. The strange hush hanging over the land made him nervous and he kept glancing apprehensively around and touching his medicine bag.
"Any fresh signs?" Brian asked.
"Old sign," Robles said. His voice was like the rustle of dry leaves. "Bad sign."
Brian turned to Tiger. "You sure you read those signals right?"
Tiger snorted. "I can read smoke signals good as any Indian. That was talk them Apaches were makin' on the reservation yesterday. Two hundred cattle and three men, they said. Traveling south and due to reach the Rim by sundown today."
Tiger's saddle squawked as he shifted his bulk impatiently. In any other age this man would have been a king. There was conquest in his face. Glacial eyes peered fiercely from beneath shaggy white brows and his nose was crooked and questing as an eagle's beak. But he was an old king now. His head was shaggy and white and bowed. A paunch sagged heavily against his belt and his ague kept him rubbing peevishly at massive joints.
"Your eyes goin' bad, old man?" he asked Robles. "If they went off the Rim they must of done it here." He jerked his leonine head at Brian. "Git down and have a look."
Robles stood to his full height, like a dog with his hackles up at the offense. Tiger took no notice. Robles had started working for him before Brian was born, and the two were like a pair of crotchety old sourdoughs constantly snapping at each other.
Brian dismounted stiffly and roamed through the juniper, bending low to study the ground in the strange twilight. He was six feet tall, long-legged, cat-flanked, his broad shoulders bowed now with the weariness of the long ride. Dust was caked all over him; it turned his Levis white, lay in chalky patches on his denim jacket, sparkled like frost on his day's growth of red beard. Despite his exhaustion and disgust he had a streak of wry humor that would never allow him to take himself or his job too seriously. What if the cattle had been taken? It was just another of the minor rustlings that had been going on for years and would always plague an outfit the size of the Sheridan's vast Double Bit--
His rambling thoughts broke off sharply as he saw freshly turned earth and a broken branch. He almost dropped to one knee, then checked himself. He hated to shame Robles by succeeding where the old Apache had failed. He sought vainly for some way to help Robles save face in front of Tiger.
Then the desire left him as he realized this was ground Robles had already passed over. The Indian's eyes couldn't be that bad. Had he deliberately ignored the sign?
"You got something?" Tiger asked.
Brian glanced at Robles. Framed in a coarse mane of white hair, the Indian's face was an idol's mask of shimmering ridges and gaunt hollows, turned dark by the tobacco-stain of time and weather and age. It told Brian nothing.
"Looks like a lot of cattle," Brian said, dropping to one knee and studying the tracks. "Shod horses. Pretty fresh."
As Brian walked back to his horse, Tiger said, "This is what you been needing. I hope they put up a fight."
"I'll put the notches on my gun," Brian said.
Tiger slapped his saddle so hard the horse jumped. "Don't be so damn uppity. This is all part of the business. It's time you quit wenchin' and drinkin' and raisin' hell and got down to learnin' your trade."
Brian looked sullenly at him. "Who taught me to drink and raise hell?"
"That's different." Tiger scowled and tugged his longhorn mustaches uncomfortably. "Man gits old he's entitled to a little carousin'. What else has he worked for all his life? When I was your age I was workin' eighteen hours a day and didn't have a cent to spend come Saturday."
Brian gigged his Steeldust forward. It was the old bone of contention between them and he had heard the lecture a hundred times before. Hell, what did the old man expect of him? He'd lived all his life in the shadow of the great Tiger Sheridan. Every time he'd tried to learn the business or do something on the Double Bit it had ended up with Tiger taking the reins away from him.
Robles passed Brian, taking the lead. The Indian wore a purple cotton shirt frayed at the elbows and cuffs, and on his skinny legs was a pair of rawhide chivarras mottled with grease and desert dust. He did not look at Brian but in the compressed shape of his lips was his old disapproval of the younger man. Brian had never measured up to his conception of manhood.
Twilight seemed to flow away from them into darkness as they started the long drop. The Rim here was not a sheer cliff as it was farther west. It dropped down in talus slopes and slanting shelves, broken buttes and winding ridges that formed a gradual, tumbling descent for many miles until it reached the desert floor.
They crossed a long and twisted valley choked with scrub growth; they fought their way through clawing mesquite and stunted juniper and reached a cut that sliced its way through the transverse ridge forming the lower wall of the valley. The cut opened into a long park where a last stand of high country timber reached up to the sky. Brian sensed Tiger's head turn to look at it. They passed the timber and came to the edge of a slanting mesa and heard cattle lowing in the black pockets below them. Robles got off his horse and disappeared like a ghost in the darkness and Tiger and Brian sat their weary animals in silence for what seemed a lifetime. The tension built in Brian till it lay against him like an overwhelming pressure. Then Robles returned and walked to his horse; he put a hand on the saddle and looked back in the direction he had come.
"Well?" Tiger said.
"Our cattle," Robles said. "Circle rider hold them. Two men sleep in camp. No guard."
"We can ride right in," Tiger said.
Robles shook his head. "Better wait for daylight. Bad sign."
"Why no guard? Maybe a trap."
"Trap, hell! They're just so damn played out they're gettin' careless. Now you mount up and take that circle rider. Brian and me'll hit camp."
The Apache was reluctant and hesitated a long time; finally he put his horse on the downslope again and angled off into the night. Tiger eased his saddle gun from its boot. All his hands carried Winchesters but he still clung to the old Spencer breechloader he'd used in the early days. Brian slipped his own .45/70 out of the scabbard.
"What's the matter with Robles?" he asked.
"He's just gettin' senile," Tiger said. "Now let's go."
They pushed their horses slowly off onto the trail that ran in tortuous switchbacks down the face of the crumbling rock. They reached the bottom of the pocket and saw the smoky movement of cattle in the matted growth ahead. The moon was up on their left now and in the silvery gloom they could see the shape of the camp.
Either these were men made careless by exhaustion or made reckless by the years they had been doing this without retaliation. For, like a horse switching its tail at flies, Tiger had tolerated the penny-ante rustlers hopping the border to cut out their handfuls of his beef.
A picketed horse snorted ahead of Brian and spooked away from him. It reached the end of its rope and brought up with a sharp squeal. Tiger's command came sharp and clear.
They both touched spurs to their horses and rode hard into camp. Brian had a dim sense of two shapes rolling from their blankets and coming to their feet.
"Nacho?" somebody shouted.
Then Brian saw a smoky figure almost directly before him, running across in front of his horse. Tiger saw him too and yelled:
"Get him, Brian. Cut him down."
It was almost pointblank range and Brian could hardly have missed. Instead of firing he wheeled his horse into the man; its shoulder struck him a heavy blow on the chest and he went down. At the same time Brian heard the other man shout again, frantically:
"Don't shoot, you got me, you got me--"
Brian wheeled his horse and saw that Tiger had halted across camp, holding his gun on the man. Brian recognized him as Ramsey, a shiftless, wedge-faced idler who spent most of his time cadging drinks in Apache Wells. Brian's man was rolling over now, getting dazedly to his feet. The pale moonlight revealed him as another habitue of the Apache Wells saloons, the half-breed they called Nacho. He had a narrow, sun-blackened face, Aztec cheekbones, eyes that glittered green as a cat's in the treacherous moonlight.
"What the hell?" he said. "Where's Latigo?"
"What's Latigo got to do with it?" Tiger asked.
Robles trotted in, kicking up sand. "Circle rider got away," he said.
Tiger spat angrily and then glanced back at the pines. "Get a pair of ropes. Sling 'em over a high branch."
There were two horses picketed beside camp, still saddled, hipshot and briny with dried lather. As Robles turned his roan to get the dally ropes off their rigging, Nacho made a bleating sound.
"Tiger, you're makin' a mistake. We didn't take this herd. We're workin' for Latigo--"
"My foreman wouldn't make no deals with trash like you," Tiger said.
"He did, he did. He promised us a dollar a head for every beef we brought back. We come up with some long riders pushing this stuff across the Little Colorado."
"What long riders?"
"It was night. We couldn't see 'em. We had to fight for it."
"It's the truth," Ramsey said. "I swear it."
"I believe you," Tiger said caustically. He put his hands on the saddle horn and leaned forward. "I've taken all I'm goin' to, Nacho. When it was a dozen head at a time I let it go. I couldn't waste all my men chasin' every border hopper that came up from Sonora. But now you're gettin' too big for your britches. I'm gonna make an example of you. By tomorrow evenin' every man from here to the border will know what happens to the man who takes a Double Bit steer. That's the way it used to be and that's the way it's gonna be again." Tiger turned to Brian "Get some tie-ropes and lace 'em up."
Brian saw the wicked gleam in Tiger's eye. The old man was just putting the fear of hell in these men. He couldn't be serious about hanging them.
Brian played along, dismounting and walking to the heap of gear by the dead ashes of the fire. He found some short piggin' strings on a pack saddle and took a pair of them. Nacho had begun pleading again but Tiger was not listening. A little muscle began to twitch in Ramsey's cheek and he was death-pale.
While Tiger held the rifle on them Brian tied their hands behind their backs. Ramsey submitted, trembling now. Nacho started to fight, refusing to put his hands at his back. Tiger cocked the Spencer. Nacho stopped struggling, glaring at the old man.
When Brian had finished, he helped the two onto their saddled horses. All the way up the switchbacks Nacho alternately pleaded with Tiger and cursed him foully. Robles had made the two dally ropes fast to the trunk of a tree, then had slung them over a high branch. Tiger halted beside the dangling nooses and nodded at the Apache. Stony-faced, the Indian slipped the first noose over Ramsey's head. The slat-limbed puncher began to writhe from side to side like some animal in a trap, spittle becoming foam at the edge of his lips. A frantic note made Nacho's voice shrill.
"Tiger, damn you, at least give us a chance. Go get Latigo. He hired us, I tell you--"
Robles slipped the noose over Nacho's head. Brian looked at the deep grooves in his father's face and began to stir uncomfortably. He pulled his horse close and spoke in a low voice.
"Hasn't it gone far enough? You couldn't scare them much more?"
Surprise widened Tiger's eyes. Then he shook his massive head in disgust. "What kind of milk sop have I got for a son? I guess that's the trouble with this whole country. There hasn't been a decent hangin' around here in so long we're all goin' soft." He turned to Robles. "Slap those horses on the rump."
Realization hit Brian like a blow. This was a part of the Tiger Sheridan legend--a part of the fire and brimstone, the savage violence and primitive code that had allowed the man to carve an empire out of the Indian-infested wilderness. But most of that legend had been created while Brian was too young to take part in it, so that the incredible feats and conquests had become as much myth as reality to him. In these last years Tiger had been an aging, arrogant old man, living in the reflected aura of past glories. Maybe he'd once been as great as everybody said but not to his own son....
As Robles edged his roan toward the noosed men, Brian kicked his Steeldust into a run that took it between the Indian and the other pair. He reined it to a spinning halt, facing Tiger.
"You can't do it this way. Maybe Nacho's telling the truth. You've got to give them a chance."
Tiger's face was blank for an instant. Then he made a savage sound. "Nacho's a born liar. Are you gonna git out or am I gonna shoot you out?"
There was a withering ferocity in his face, but Brian did not move. They faced each other in the intense silence.
When Tiger was finally convinced that Brian would not move, he shouted with rage and jerked the gun toward the ground. The shot made a deafening crash. All the horses jumped in startled fright and the animal beneath Nacho bolted.
The rope pulled Nacho off the horse's rump; his body jerked like a sack of meal and then swung wildly through the air. With an outraged shout Brian wheeled his Steeldust toward the man, snatching his Barlow knife from a hip pocket. The motion took the Steeldust across the front of Ramsey's horse. It had started to bolt also but the Steeldust jamming up against it stopped the animal before Ramsey was pulled off.
"Damn you," bawled Tiger, "let them be!"
But Nacho had swung back, crashing into the Steeldust. With his knife open, Brian slashed at the rope. Hemp parted, dropping the man heavily to the ground. At the same time Tiger began firing again.
The deafening crash and the bullets kicking up dirt around their feet made both Ramsey's horse and the Steeldust rear frantically. Brian felt himself going out of the saddle. He caught at the headstall of Ramsey's horse as he fell.
His weight pulled the animal's head almost down to the ground and he thought his arms would be jerked from their sockets. It was like bulldogging a steer. As Brian's boots struck the ground the horse tried to spin and bolt. The horse had to drag Brian's whole weight with him and though he managed to wheel in a half-circle, it kept the animal from running.
"Let him go," Tiger bawled. "I'll shoot your legs off."
He jammed a fresh shell into the old breechloader and fired again. Deafened by the crashing gun, with the slug kicking dirt against his legs, Brian hung onto the plunging horse. Ramsey had his legs clamped around the animal like a bronc peeler, his slack body jerked violently from side to side by the plunging beast.
Brian caught the bit, yanking down viciously. The horse squealed in pain and quit its wild rearing. In a fury, Tiger fired again at Brian, the bullet striking so close he could feel the jarring impact through his boot. But he turned in angry defiance toward his father, refusing to release the frantic horse. Jamming another shell into the breech, Tiger jerked the gun up till it covered Brian's chest. The old man's face was choleric and his whole body shook with fury. Brian could see his finger trembling against the trigger.
At last, however, he settled back into the saddle of his fiddling, excited horse. He glanced contemptuously at Nacho, who was groaning and trying to roll over. Brian knew a moment of relief that the man's neck hadn't been broken.
The rage left Tiger's face abruptly, and he let out an explosive laugh. He looked at Brian, with a frosty gleam in his eyes that could have been grudging pride.
"Dammit," he said, "maybe the cub has some starch in his backbone after all. Maybe."