In the harsh yellow sky behind Trebor, a few cloud slivers caught the sun's first light, while the crescent moon hung low in the west. He edged forward until he could see though the brush at the top of the rise.
He adjusted the binoculars until pines appeared like saw teeth on the horizon in the circle of his view. He moved the glasses down to sweep along the creek, around the horseshoe bend, past the cottonwood grove. There--the dark outline of a horse. Below, to the left, he spotted huddled shape. Trebor shook his head. The stranger made no attempt at concealment. None at all.
Trebor slipped the glasses into the case at his belt. I've no choice, he told himself, I've got to find out. As he crawled back over the loose earth he felt the wind die, heard an owl screech. He pulled on the end of his belt until the leather cut into his middle. The single action Colt .45, as always, rode his hip.
He followed a shadowed arroyo to the creek where water seethed in the first of a series of rapids. The water level had risen several inches from the first November rain. He crossed the creek bed, still mostly dry. Ten feet before he reached the dead campfire, Trebor paused, gun in hand, while his senses probed the mesquite to his right. Nothing. Instinct told him he and the stranger were alone.
Trebor tensed at the cold, west-of-Texas drawl. "I been waiting for you." The stranger expected him?
"Get up," Trebor told him. "Get up slow. Keep your hands out front."
He waited in the shadows while the man rose, keeping his hands in sight. Trebor relaxed a notch and approached. The man was tall, almost as tall as he, with a stubble of black beard covering his face except where a scar blazed his left cheek. He wore a six-gun low on his right hip.
"You're on my land," Trebor said, his voice flat, without emotion, his eyes never leaving the other man's right hand.
No answer. He heard the rush of water in the creek. A far-off flash of white told him sunlight had touched the tops of the peaks.
"You were in Flagstaff yesterday," he said. "Asking around. You mentioned a name."
The two men faced each other, Trebor big, a shade heavy, gray streaks in his dark sideburns and his bushy mustache. The bare-headed stranger was young, lean and hard.
The young man grunted an acknowledgment. "They call me Floyd. We need to talk. Your place?"
"No. If you want talk, it'll be here and now."
Floyd motioned toward the pocket of his shirt. "Okay?" When Trebor nodded, the other man brought out a plug of tobacco, offering the plug and a penknife to Trebor. "Chaw?"
Trebor shook his head.
Floyd cut off a slice and began to chew. "I been on the trail two, three days. If I had a house like you do, and if you was to come riding in, I'd say to you, 'Trebor,' I'd say, 'come, with me to the house. Here,' I'd say, 'have some coffee.' After we set for a time, we'd talk."
"You're talking but not saying much. You got something that needs saying?"
Floyd shrugged. "What I got is reluctance."
Trebor waited without speaking.
"I don't talk good looking into that muzzle." Floyd nodded at the Colt.
For a long moment Trebor held steady before he thumbed the hammer down and slid the revolver back into his holster.
"I been to Prescott," Floyd said. "Talked to a man there. 'I got a job needs doing in Flagstaff,' he tells me. 'A job?' I asks. 'A payroll. Ten thousand dollars, or so I'm told.'" Floyd spat to one side. "Understand me, Trebor?"
"'I don't know the country near Flag,' I says to him. 'Don't want you, Floyd,' he tells me, 'no reflection. I want a man I heard of who lives out of Flagstaff. I want you to get him for me.'"
"There's only one payroll that size here. Contractors for the Atlantic & Pacific Railway. You're showing your hand."
"No harm showing your hand to a partner, is there? You're the man he wants. You get to take the payroll--one man job--but you'll have help before and after."
Trebor's breath quickened but he kept his voice level. "I'm a rancher. Might cut some timber or run a few cows. Raise enough crops to get by. What've I got to do with you and your kind?"
Floyd spat near Trebor's boot. "Good tobacco."
Trebor's eyes narrowed, aware their shadows now stretched into the scrub. The sun was up. What was this man up to?
"Got to say I'm surprised at you," Floyd went on. "Word is you been around--here, there, Dodge, Santa Fe." He shifted his wad in his cheek. "Abilene." Floyd shot the town's name at him bullet hard.
Trebor's expression didn't change. "Let me have it straight."
"One word. All I got to say is one word."
"Slater." The word came out knife sharp.
"Never heard of him."
"I think different. I know different."
"Never heard of him," Trebor repeated.
"I had me an older brother. Used to ride point on the cattle drives from Texas to Kansas. Name of Bert Peters. Never heard of him, neither, I suppose."
Trebor clenched and unclenched his fists. He'd never known Bert had a brother. He walked to the creek bank, his back to Floyd. The other man's gun didn't worry him now--Floyd had threatened him with a weapon more deadly than a six-gun. No one else had known about Slater except Bert Peters and Bert was dead. Gunned down in Abilene in '70. Or was it '71?
He flipped a piece of driftwood into the water and watched the stick spin in the current before being swept downstream out of sight. Twelve years. He'd had twelve good years. Lonely for the most part, woman-lonely, but good years nonetheless.
Staring at the water, he thought about what happened when heavy rains fell in Arizona. The earth, baked hard by the sun, can't soak up the moisture. Flash floods propelled rocks and debris along mud-brown streams. Creeks change course. You build your life in one of those dry creek beds, he thought, because there's nowhere else. Month after month your confidence grows until you hardly ever think of the water swirling so near in its new course. Then one night you wake up and find the water flooding in on you and before dawn the deluge sweeps away all you've built, your whole life.
Floyd. Trebor felt the all-but-forgotten tingle in his fingers. Kill him now, he told himself. Gain six months, maybe a year before they send another Floyd. Then another and another until finally ... He turned to look at the man. But, in the meantime, if I kill him...