Sunday, April 13, 2014

THE WOLF--HE IS OUR RESPONSIBILITY

Before anyone ever starts calling me a wolf hater, I wonder if I might put my stance in a totally different way than anything I've said so far. Please bear with me, all right? And please do read this. I think it might clear up a lot of things.
First, I like wolves. They are beautiful and majestic and loving of their own families. And born and raised to kill, to solve boredom, for exercise, and to eat. We all need to understand this simple truth.
It has been said, and very recently on this wall, that we shouldn't be "killing wolves," and that all we have to do is put them in a more controlled environment. What? You mean like in a zoo? I hope that's what the maker of the comment meant. No, never mind. I already know that isn't what they meant. They meant to put them in a place like Yellowstone National Park. What, and then tell them "STAY"? In a firm, resolute voice? Maybe we need to train them longer to "stay" and then even paint orange lines all around their territory so they won't step out of it. And next, train them not to kill anyone's dog, cat, sheep, goat, horse, cow, llama. Okay, well you get the picture.
The photos I've included here are just a sampling of animals. Let's bring them all back to their native environment. Bison. A bull can weigh over 2000 pounds. Back in their native environment means my garden. My lawn. YOUR golf course. Your city street. Elephants? Same thing. Ask the people living in Africa what kind of damage a herd of 14,000 pound bull elephants can do to the crops they rely on to survive. Grizzlies? Yeah. Your back yard, not mine.
Now let's say that I should turn my 10 rattlesnakes loose. I'm going to do it right here in my yard and not let them go into anyone else's yard. They'll stay. I just have to teach them, right? I want to know a year from now what my neighbors have to say about that. Snakes, like wolves, bison, elephants, and grizzly bears, don't stay. They have NO idea when you put them in a certain place that you intend for them to remain there--not that they would care even if they did know.
I really like wolves. I admire them a lot. They have a lot of great qualities, and they, like bears and bison--and rattlesnakes--symbolize the wild. But unless you want to spend your own pocket money spaying and neutering them to control their populations--you know, so they won't have to be murdered (or what's the fashionable word, slaughtered?), then you need to understand that wolves, like any other animal, cannot be allowed to breed willy nilly, not in our modern world. This is about common sense. All of us--BOTH SIDES--need to leave emotion out of it. The wolf haters and the wolf worshippers need to come together and meet in the middle. This situation is out of control. Why and when did wolves become more important than dogs, horses, cats, any other animal, or even people? It is time to wake up, America. Step back, stuff your hearts back in your chest and trot your brains back out to the forefront. We can enjoy wolves, and the whole call of the wild thing, but still keep them under control. This is a stupid saying and I don't generally use it, but we can't have our cake and eat it too. If we want wolves here as part of our environment, we are going to have to help them to survive. And letting them run rampant across our land with no control is NOT the help the species needs.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

RED DAWN Movie Review


All right, I guess it was inevitable that I make an "official" review of the movie RED DAWN. Which one? you might ask. Well, both. A couple of weeks ago I saw the remake, and I wrote what appears to be a highly agreed upon, very brief, review.
 
Well, I have had the DVD of the original movie from 1981, I believe, sitting in its cellophane wrapper for quite some time now, and having bought this new computer I'm typing this review on just last night, and wishing to try out the player, I popped in RED DAWN, with the simple intention of making sure it would play. Two hours later, I was done watching the movie.
 
That would  not have happened with the remake of this movie, starring Chris Hemsworth, for two reasons. One, I would have never owned that DVD, and two, if I had I certainly wouldn't have used it to test out my DVD player. I guess there are three reasons: If I had made the mistake of beginning to watch the remake I would quickly have thought better of it and turned it off. The only reason I watched it all the way through the first time is because I knew it just had to improve. WRONG.
 
All right. Let's admit this upfront: Critics also blasted the original RD, starring one of my favorite actors, Patrick Swayze, as Jed. They still do blast it. I, however, do not. Did it have its problems? Well, sure. Hollywood did make the movie, after all. Let's face it. Hollywood always has to be Hollywood. The story, about a group of high school kids and one high school graduate, played by Swayze, who escape into the forest after an enemy invasion of the Rockies, and from there conduct rebel warfare against the invaders, is full of action. Some of it is believable, some not. But far more of the original story is believable than the remake. The major problem is that in the original NO ONE involved in this group called the "Wolverines" had ANY reason to understand how to use missile launchers or automatic weapons of war, and yet they all used them throughout the movie, and generally with pretty satisfactory results. At least in the remake Chris Hemsworth, now playing Jed's part, was just out of the marine corps and could feasibly teach the others to use these weapons. That is unfortunately about the only thing the remake can boast over the original.
 
In the original, we had a darn good cast, in my opinion. Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen (whether you like him personally or not, he is still a good actor), Lea Thompson, Powers Booth, Ben Johnson, William Smith, and C. Thomas Howell. In the new movie they had . . . um . . . Chris Hemsworth. By the way, this movie was originally made in 2009 and has sat on the shelf since then, and it was AFTER the making of RD, not before, that Hemsworth was cast as THOR. Just a bit of trivia there.

Anyway, the characters in the original RD played very believable parts. They went from terrified kids, to hardened soldiers, and finally to worn-out vets who just wanted to die if that was the only way they could find true peace. They showed them passing through those different stages very believably. The remake forgot to address that. They also forgot to put any emotion into the remake. In fact, if anything I only wanted to punch Josh's young brother Matt in the face, not see him and Josh have touching moments together.

The action in the remake was choppy and annoying, often overbearing. The action in the original was tasteful, generally feasible (except, again, for the war scenes which no untrained force of high school kids could likely have carried out against trained armies, and if they hadn't suspended reality in that part, then there would have been no movie).

If you are going to spend money on RD, go rent or buy the original. Chris Hemsworth is an awesome guy to look at--a real man's man. But you are better off buying a poster of him and hanging it on your wall then wasting any of your time or money watching this lousy remake. Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen are still the kings of Red Dawn.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

LET ME BE A SHEEPDOG

To all sheep: 

Please allow me to remain a sheepdog. 

This is  not a new idea. It is recycled. I am simply putting my own spin on the idea. Please listen with an open mind to what I have to say, as you know I would you.

There are three kinds of people in the world. There have always existed these three distinct kinds of people. You have your sheep, who will run with the crowd when they run, even to the point of running off a cliff in blind, emotional panic. They are good people. They want good laws, laws that are enforced. They want their rights to be defended.

You have your wolves. These are the "villains," the "bad guys," if you will. These are the Snidley Whiplashes, the Darth Vaders, the "black hats." They are those who will prey on the sheep, rape them, beat them, kill them. They live by the knowledge that they are bigger and badder and stronger, and if they aren't physically then they will use some man-made means to make it so. They live by intimidation and the willingness to hurt others to get what they want, even if what they want is merely to hurt others for their own sadistic pleasure.

And then there are the sheepdogs. These are your defenders. Your cops, your military, and anyone of like convictions. 

I am a sheepdog.

Although I am no longer a police officer, I still have that mindset. I have carried that mentality since I was a child, when my grandfather was the sheriff of the county I grew up in, when I spent countless hours watching Matt Dillon, on GUNSMOKE, save the day and rescue the helpless, and when I watched Davy Crockett walk into the Alamo and fight for Texas against all odds.

I spent a young childhood being picked on at school and watching others be mercilessly harassed as well, and that is why I started lifting weights--to be a sheepdog. To be the one who stood up for the underdog--the "sheep," who "equalized" for those who weren't as strong. It is also why I became a cop, and then a firefighter. 

As an off-duty cop, I once waded into the middle of a riot of people of a ... different color of skin than my own. I had two things going for me--a badge and a gun. I took my own life in my hands to stop a riot which ended up being five or ten people beating to death one who was of the same skin color they were.I have no doubt that he would be dead today if I hadn't stepped in, and if I hadn't been armed. Was it a little suicidal? I guess so. But the gamble worked.

I am the one carrying a weapon wherever I go. Why? Not because every day I walk out of the house I am paranoid that I will be set upon by thugs or murderers. But because I know that on ANY day there is always that chance. And too many times innocent lives have been lost because there were NO sheepdogs present when there were wolves, or the sheepdogs who were present were not equipped and ready to play their necessary role in society. They were unprepared.

Now... Do I take a sheepdog and pull his teeth and still expect him to fight the wolves? NO!!!! My sheepdog, to defend the flocks of sheep whose lives I am in charge of, MUST have the same weapons the wolf will always have. He MUST have the same teeth. In the human world, like it or not, those teeth are guns.

If you want to be a sheep, or for whatever reason you feel like you HAVE to be a sheep, that is fine. I have many friends in that category, who are unable, either physically, mentally or emotionally, to play the part of a defender, of self or others. I will defend my right to defend them, no matter what. But if I choose to pull my own 'teeth," in other words give up my guns, or if my teeth are pulled by the laws of the land that are supposed to protect me, and I abide by it, and then I am forced to watch innocent lives be taken when I could have stopped it if I only still had my teeth, then I am at fault. And I will always mourn that I was not there when I could, and should, have been.

I defend anyone's right to be a sheep. I don't understand it, but I defend it. And understand that I am not using the term "sheep" in a derogatory sense. Of course there are the innocent children and the frail or handicapped. I KNOW they can't defend themselves. And then there are some people who simply can't wrap their minds around taking another human life, even if it is in defense of someone they love. This concept is so far from my understanding that no amount of debate could ever change my mind. 

But as for me, I refuse to be part of the "flock." So PLEASE do not take away my right to be a sheep dog. PLEASE do not take away my ability to defend the innocent or the helpless, whether they be sheep by choice or by circumstance. 

I will defend my own "sheep" and any I see around me who are in need of defense with everything I have, but hitting a wolf with my tail because my teeth have been removed isn't much of a defense, I'm afraid.

Wolves will always be wolves, and sheep will most likely always be sheep.

And until my dying day I pray that I can say I will always be the sheepdog, even if I am standing alone. Please do not take away my ability to "equalize."

It has been said, if we can outlaw guns and save even one life, isn't it worth it? My response is, "You are forgetting about the countless millions that have been saved BECAUSE of guns." What of them? Were they, then,  not worth saving because we used guns to save them?

This is the anthem of Colonel Colt's revolver:

"Be  not afraid of any man,
No matter what his size;
When danger threatens, call on me,
And I will equalize."

I am a sheepdog. I am here to defend the helpless and those unwilling to fight against the wolves that will ALWAYS plague our society, as they have done from the very beginning. 

I will not require you to become a sheepdog, against your nature. In turn, I ask one thing:

Please do not take a part in removing the teeth I need to defend you and your loved ones.

 


Tuesday, August 14, 2012

THE SECRET OF TWO HAWKS (chapters 1 to 3)


THE SECRET OF TWO HAWKS

Winner of 2010 Spur Award for Best Western Novel on Audio

Audio read by Kevin Foley, Books in Motion, Spokane, Washington
 
to be released, fall 2012 


Publisher's note: "The Secret of Two Hawks tells the story of young Austin Everett, a conflicted boy of sixteen, who has been beaten by his father, his only blood relative, his entire childhood and has no understanding of the real love of family. Austin meets another lost soul, Alto Martinez, whose wife and daughter have been killed and who is on the trail of a killer. When Austin's father is murdered in the night, Austin sets out to find and kill the man, and he becomes partners with Martinez and a third partner, the one-armed, one-eyed Mexican named "Lefty." This is the triumphant story of the true love of friends, of revenge, betrayal and lies, and the one secret that carries the story through like a continuous flash of lightning and the thunderous boom that inevitably comes at its end. A story long to be remembered, about the triumph of love and of unexpected justice."


To the memories of the best of friends:
Dave, Loui, Rick, and Shawn
And to my good friend Mike Corkish,
without whose help the town of Helena and its
environs would have been an uncharted jungle

Also, to Dell Mangum—
yes, the same “Dell” in the book




Far and away the most startling and tragic realization in life is the revelation that the old adage is true: You never know who your friends are.



Chapter One 


Austin Everett and a green willow switch would never be friends. But intimate acquaintances they were. All too often it was hard to tell where the switch left off and Austin’s scarred back began.
The swat of the branch made a hiss in the air and a whip-cracking, wicked snap across the sixteen-year-old’s back. His teeth ached from clenching them, and blood ran down the inside of his cheek where he had bit down at the first stroke.
But oddly, the switch didn’t hurt much anymore. Austin Everett had forgotten the last time it had hurt bad. Some time lost to fickle memory it had stopped feeling like new-kindled fire and begun to seem more like the slap of the old cow’s manure-matted tail—annoying, but nothing that would bring tears.
He heard the switch whistle through the air before it slapped his back. In a detached sort of way, he listened to the whoosh, then the solid whack—which didn’t seem so solid anymore. And it wasn’t that his father was losing his strength, nor his knack for corporal punishment. If anything, he was improving. But Austin’s ability not to feel was improving faster. To survive, he had adapted.
The old man’s tenth blow hadn’t brought so much as a whimper from Austin. So the next broke with vehemence over his scarred young hide, and Austin winced. But still he refused to cry out.
Austin slipped into a dream world. He pictured the branch’s graceful arc, the raising of a new scarlet welt as it crossed a T or an X. The entire design must be a unique etching by now—Old Rock Everett’s brutal work of art.
After the fifteenth swat Old Rock began to apply his soul. Austin felt the change with almost a sense of relief, for he knew his father was growing weary of the beating. Austin’s strength began to wane. His will drained away with the warm rivulets coursing down his back.
With a final, blood-letting blow, his father brought an end to the day’s lesson. But Austin didn’t feel it. His conscious thoughts and his strength had failed him, and he was already headed for the ground.

“Rub it on there thick, woman, or he’s bound to get worms in them cuts.”
Through a cobweb of semi-consciousness, Old Rock’s voice clawed into Austin Everett’s ears.
“Layer it on. Boy’s gonna have to be healed an’ ready to pull them stumps, an’ there’s a ten acre stretch of field yet to be plowed.”
The woman’s voice was harsh like the man’s, but ragged and worn thin. “I’m doin’ same as always. Let me do the doctorin’. You done yore part.”
An unintelligible rejoinder followed, spiced by sullen curse words. Austin didn’t listen. He’d heard the same basic exchange many times.
Hunger began to gnaw at his insides. But he didn’t dare let on he was waking up, even though he was usually safe after Lucille started slathering the grease on his wounds. By then his pa was either worn out from the beating or didn’t want to waste good grease. Maybe he’d best wake up now if he wanted to catch some hint what had brought on the beating. He guessed it was the broken hinge on the barn door, which hadn’t been his fault. Old Dolly, the plow horse, had done that. The old lummox. But he couldn’t blame her for being old and clumsy. Apparently his father didn’t blame her either. Why should he? He had a better scapegoat in his son.
He lay there for a while longer. Even with Lucille’s rough hands there was no pain—or none he would let himself feel. He actually liked the feel of the heavy grease oozing into his wounds, in part because it meant the humiliation of the beating was over, and that was the part he hated most.
He knew by the earthy odor of corn shucks in the mattress and by the mustiness of the quilt crushed against his face that he was lying in a bed. But this wasn’t the smell of his own blankets, which didn’t surprise him since even as powerful as Rock was it would have been a big chore and called for a block and tackle to haul a boy of his size up the vertical ladder into his loft. Before he decided to own up to being conscious, he heard the lumbering steps of Old Rock fading away across the puncheon floor. He lay there for a minute more, smelling the grease, the corn shucks, the musty quilt and the stale odor of fried meat trapped in the broad ax-scarred log wall near his head. He groaned to the rough feel of Lucille’s calluses on the worst of his wounds. She stopped her motion and waited.
After several seconds, she grunted. “Boy, I can hear you awake. You may’s well get up now. He ain’t gonna waste good grease on beatin’ you no more today. ’Sides, he’s fixin’ to heal you up for plowin’ while he takes the hosses and that bunch of steers over to Challis.”
Knowing he was caught, Austin started to rise, but the woman pushed him back down, her hands not hard, yet not gentle. “Hold on a minute, boy. Let me wrap you up, else you gonna get this mess over everything. I shore am tired of you causin’ trouble, you know it? Seems like half my days I spend smearin’ you with grease after you got a whuppin’. I wish you’d grow up or leave this place. Rock an’ me could get along just fine without you. You know that?”
Austin worked his face deeper into the rough-sewn blanket. When Lucille finished wrapping his torso and tying off the bandage, she stood up from the bed. “Yore free to go, boy. Now try an’ stay out of trouble, would yuh?”
He pushed to a sitting position on the edge of the bed, his head throbbing. He looked toward the woman through bleary eyes, but she was walking away. In his head, he called her a name—after the mother of the new pups that lived behind the barn. And that animal didn’t have an official moniker, only a category.
Lucille was her real name, but he couldn’t remember saying it more than once or twice. Cuss words seemed to fit her better, though not near as well as they fit his pa. Lucille had come around not very long after a runaway team killed his mother in the streets of Corinne, Utah, eight years ago, back in seventy-one. This rough-talking woman had fit right in with his pa. So well, in fact, that he sometimes wondered if his mother’s death hadn’t been more than an accident.
Viewed solely from the back, Lucille wasn’t all that mean looking of a woman. A slender thing, the two drab dresses she owned hung off her frame like curtains, squaring at the shoulders then dropping straight down and wrapped around her loosely like they might possibly have held two of her, had she been Siamese twins. Her hair was a mop of greasy, dead blond strings, seldom put up, seldom even tied. She just threw it back out of her face and let it part itself and hang how it chose.
Lucille chanced a look toward Austin, and he met her eyes defiantly and from her drew a frown. She motioned toward a plate on the counter. “Yore pa said not to give you any food, but you may’s well eat that ’fore he comes back in and I’ll tell ’im I did it. He says to strengthen yuh up so’s you c’n do the work around here, an’ I shore don’t see how we gon’ do that if’n yore hungry.” She stared at him, and he stared back. “Well, come on, fraidy cat. It ain’t me that hurts yuh—don’t know what yore always so scared of.”
Pursing his lips, Austin glanced about the room to be sure the old man was gone. He stood and edged toward the plate, which was scantily covered with grits and a tad of pork not much bigger than bite-size to an overgrown shrew. He wolfed this down while Lucille glanced at him now and then out of the corner of her eye. Then he scooted out of the house.
Outside, he scanned the yard. The moment he heard the ring of the ax around back he made for the barn as fast as he could walk.
Austin found haven inside the barn. He glanced up at the raw, sturdy rafters, at the near-empty loft. It had been a long winter, and it was good the grass was coming on, for their hay supply was nearly down to toothpicks. Climbing into the loft, he sank down to his stomach on the rough-hewn floor. From here he could stare out the window, across the long, upsloping meadow toward the creek. From here he could dream.
But he dreamed of a flailing willow switch . . .
Austin had noticed one thing long ago. When he was younger, his father’s beatings were never long. Back then, he couldn’t hide his pain, and after five or six blows he would begin to cry, even if only very softly. Not long after, Old Rock would stop. There were no soft words, sometimes no words at all. More often it was a growled warning about “next time,” and Austin was left for the night to nurse his wounded pride on an empty stomach.
But sometime after his thirteenth birthday, Austin’s ability to hurt seemed to vanish, or at least crept into the far reaches of his brain. He didn’t remember ever consciously trying to block the pain. It just happened. After that, his father’s cruelty seemed only to grow with each passing year. He seemed to need reassurance that his calculated whippings caused pain, and not receiving that proof drove him into a frenzy. The last few times ended with Austin’s going unconscious.
But even knowing how he could get out of the greatest of the blows, Austin couldn’t escape like that. His father could beat him into jerked meat if he wanted to, but Austin Everett was not about to cry.

Back in the house late that afternoon, Austin heard the dog barking out in the yard, and, sometime after, strange voices. Curiosity staved off his pain, and he limped to the kitchen window—the only glass window they had—and peered out. Four men sat their horses in the yard, leaning in the saddle in various muscle-stretching contortions while a fifth man stood in front of Old Rock.
Hands on his hips, Austin’s father exchanged words with the man on the ground.
“Creek water’s free to ever’body,” his father was saying. “As to victuals, I don’t know how fur along the woman is on supper. You of a mind to stay, I don’t mind the company—if you’re peaceable.”
The man on the ground was friendly looking, and smooth-faced but for a well-trimmed brown mustache. He was handsome even on his own, but compared to Old Rock, Austin imagined him to look like one of the ancient, fabled princes his mother used to tell him about. But then being handsome was something no one ever accused Rock of. The stranger held a pair of white doeskin gauntlets in one hand, and a big shiny Peacemaker tilted in a cross-draw holster on his left hip.
“Fact is, mister,” the stranger said, “the lot of us are about tuckered out. Been ridin’ nigh five days on these same broncs, and we could stand to rest them. A trade would be even better.” As he spoke, he glanced beyond Rock Everett at the corral full of horses leaning their heads over to eyeball the strange mounts.
Rock Everett looked over the jaded animals. Then he slowly shook his head. “Like I said, boys. Water’s free, and I don’t mind the comp’ny. But I breed hosses fur a livin’, and I got no use fur them’ns yer ridin’.  I’m takin’ these to Challis fur sale. I’d like ’em lookin’ fresh, and yours ain’t.”
Austin looked from the handsome man to the mounted crowd. One big man with hair as black as his father’s sighed and stepped down from a long-legged, mostly white pinto horse with an arching, muscular neck. The only markings that were obvious were a sorrel blanket across its hips and a sort of cap of the same color that covered the top of its head and its ears. It was, he remembered a visitor once telling him, what they called a medicine hat.
The big man eased around one side of the medicine hat as if checking his cinch. He was starting to draw a rifle out of the boot when the sound of Lucille’s voice farther along the wall at the front room window opening startled Austin.
“Best find a place to rest yer hands, mister,” the woman growled. Austin looked over as the double hammers of the shotgun clicked back. Lucille freed a hand to push a greasy hank of hair out of her face. “There ain’t no deer in this yard, ’n’ if you go shuckin’ thet rifle I’m gonna s’pose you mean to use it for no good.”
The dark-haired man pivoted, and slowly his hand slid away from the rifle. But he wasn’t scared. A half-smile tilted up one side of his mouth, and he stared at the woman for a long time, his eyes glittering. Then he walked around the horse to stand beside his handsomer cohort. “Put the scattergun away, Missus. I don’t aim no harm. But I do aim to trade that hoss of mine.”
Austin looked the black-haired one up and down. He didn’t appear to be the leader here, but he was the biggest of them, and his face could have been broken from the same weather-worn granite as Rock’s. His mouth cut a wide, ugly gash through his whiskers, and a wrinkle deep enough to have been hacked with a hatchet ran down his forehead to the top of his nose. He wore an open-crowned hat with battered brim, and a pistol inside the front of his waistband. His hands were big—near as big as Rock’s.
Austin couldn’t see his father’s face, but his words were clear and bold. “You c’n trade that hoss of your’n in. I would, too. But y’ain’t tradin’ it here. I take pride in my stock, ’n’ thet crockhead ain’t worth the saddle on his back.” Austin wondered if Old Rock were talking only to talk, because one thing the old man had taught him was horses, and the pinto looked pretty good to him. It was young, but it would fill out, and it had the looks of making an impressive saddle horse.
The black-haired man’s eyes turned flat and mean, flickering over at his cohort and back. The handsome man had a smirk on his face, and he looked from Rock to his partner. Before either Rock or the black-haired one could speak, the handsome one’s lips moved.
“Mister, you look like a wagerin’ man. And I don’t need to add that you appear capable of lickin’ your weight in wet bearskins. Bill, here, he’s quite a man himself when it comes to knuckle dustin’ and crackin’ heads. I’d like to propose a challenge.”
Rock scanned the handsome man’s face. “What challenge?”
“You an’ Bill go hand to hand. If he wins, we trade horses. You win, you take his rifle. And don’t sell that pinto short. He’s wore out now, but he’s a mighty fine horse. Pure saddlebred, and a breedin’ stud.”
Old Rock nodded. “You ain’t from around here.”
 “No,” Handsome said. An amused twinkle perked his eyes.
“That’s obvious. Men from around here don’t gen’rally challenge Rock Everett to fisticuffs.”
Handsome rocked easily on his heels and showed a brief sparkle of teeth. “My name’s Matt Mosbrucker, Mr. Everett. And this is Bill Warjack. Name fits him, too—he sure likes his little wars. Like you say, I’m not from around here, so I don’t know any better, and neither does Bill. You take the challenge, or don’t you?”
“What kinda gun you got?” Rock asked Bill Warjack.
Warjack’s eyes narrowed, and he gave a little smile. “A brand new Winchester .44 carbine.  It don’t have more’n twenty rounds through it. But you ain’t puttin’ none through it. Nobody whips Bill Warjack.”
Rock’s head pivoted, taking in the other riders. “Sure they don’t. Not when you got four hoot owls to back you up.”
Warjack looked around at the others. “Boys, this fight is mine. Anybody takes a hand in it I’ll personally break their arm.” He spoke with a smile that lacked a couple of teeth and bragged others that were browned by tobacco.
Old Rock Everett was a bear of a man, with small, narrow-set eyes and a wide, oft-broken nose. He was broad across the forehead and shoulders, and the hips, too. Finesse did not know him. His black hair was cropped short and uneven, parted in the middle and greased down until it looked like a melted candle top. The only practiced expression of his habitually whiskered face was a scowl.
Old Rock Everett wasn’t really old. He could be over fifty, perhaps under forty-five. Austin had never heard. The power of the man was legend throughout Alturas County, a county that in the year of 1879 covered a good fourth of the Idaho Territory.
“You want a hoss awful bad,” said Rock, and he turned to look back at the house, where Lucille’s shotgun still leaned on the windowsill. “Lucy, if this buck beats me fair and square give ’im his choice of the hosses. And the rest of ’em too.” Lucille just nodded, forcing a bored frown.
Rock turned back to Bill Warjack, his hands dangling along his thighs. “Wal, Whore-jack,” he said with contempt and spat. “Come on over here’n’ let’s see if you can muss my hair.”
Warjack snaked out his pistol and handed it to a smug-looking Matt Mosbrucker. His hat came next. Dipping his chin, he walked toward Rock, swiping a hand the length of his whisker-blackened jaw. When he got close to Rock, he looked him up and down, his eyes hating and hard and full of intent to do great harm. Warjack was no gentleman, guessed Austin. He must have killed men before.
Warjack’s fist shot out, and Austin couldn’t remember seeing his father move so fast. One moment his blocky head was a bold target. The next, he had Warjack by the arm and was slamming a knee into his belly. Austin was astonished, for he had heard stories about his father’s fights but had never seen one. He was just a boy of sixteen, and he hadn’t been around other boys enough to practice up on fighting of his own. It wasn’t until that moment that he started to realize what it took to win a fight.
The two men fought around and around the yard, and Rock didn’t always appear to be the top dog. Warjack got in enough blows of his own to ugly Rock Everett even more, but every time Rock seemed like he was out of wind and about to go down he found a reserve somewhere.
Warjack, breathing in and out with fierce gusts, finally had enough, and he whirled on his comrades. “Get off yer horses and give ’im hell!”
Hesitantly, two of them started to climb down, but Matt Mosbrucker’s cold voice stopped them, and for the first time the smile was gone from his eyes. “You boys plant your seats. I promised a fair fight, and that’s just what we’ll have. Bill—” he looked at his cohort disdainfully “—I thought better of you.”
Warjack stared at Mosbrucker, and finally he spat blood at his feet. “To hell with you.”
He turned to finish the fight.
It wasn’t long before Rock landed a blow to the bridge of Warjack’s nose that brought him to his knees. A kick to his chest finished him.
Rock Everett stood breathing in ragged gasps, sputtering blood and pawing at his face like some fiery ogre. Mosbrucker and the others stared at him while Warjack lay like waste meat in the black soil of the yard.
Mosbrucker raised his eyebrows and sighed. He walked around to the right side of Warjack’s horse with the sound of shotgun hammers clicking in the house behind him. Giving no indication that he’d heard, he jerked the shiny new ’73 Winchester from Warjack’s scabbard and walked over to hand it butt-first to Rock. The big man looked it up and down, but he couldn’t speak yet. He let his lungs fill up and empty a couple of times, then gave Mosbrucker a grudging nod.
“Man of yer word,” he said, and sucked a deep breath. “If’n you want—you c’n trade your horse—for any in the correll. An’ thet fella, too.” He heaved more air and pointed to the only other man who hadn’t made an attempt to answer Warjack’s call for help. He was a little man with slanted eyes, red hair and big ears that protruded comically to the sides under a buckskin-colored hat.
“That’s Sherm Edgley,” said Mosbrucker with a smile. “The other two are Jim Dillard and Fingers Bronson.”
Austin’s eyes snapped to the hands of Fingers Bronson, seeking a clue as to his odd name. He had made the right guess: two missing fingers made Bronson’s left hand resemble a disfigured claw.
Sherm Edgley gave a shy smile, but Jim Dillard sat as sullen as Fingers Bronson. Both had been singled out as unworthy to trade horses. They must have known why, but it was obvious that didn’t make it easier.
Mosbrucker turned back to Rock. “I sure appreciate the offer, Mister Everett. I think Sherm and me will take you up on it.”
Old Rock nodded and jacked the lever of the Winchester, making a full cartridge spin out of the chamber and land in the dust. Rock had always taught Austin not to leave a cartridge in the chamber until he expected to use it; obviously, Warjack had intended to. “Go pick yer hosses,” Rock said, bending over to retrieve the cartridge as his waistband forced a long sigh out of him. Mosbrucker was eyeing the carbine, and Rock looked down at it as if surprised it was there. “Don’t worry ’bout the rifle. Sometimes there’s coyotes in my yard.” As he said it he gave Bill Warjack a hard look.
“Come on, Elf,” Mosbrucker said to the little redhead, and he tramped off to the corral, leading his buckskin. Sherm Edgley touched spurs to his bay and followed.
Austin didn’t go outside. He didn’t know what kind of humiliating treatment he would get from his father in front of the strangers. He didn’t think Rock ever meant to make him look bad. That was just how the old man was.
After five minutes, Edgley and Mosbrucker rode back around the house on two horses that Austin recognized as two of his father’s prize animals. Mosbrucker had chosen a buckskin that looked a lot like the one he had been riding before, and Edgley sat a beautiful blue roan. The buckskin was easy to identify because the blaze that ran from under its forelock to its upper lip was broken in three places, resembling a dotted line, and all four of its legs were black up past its knees. Old Rock’s expression didn’t waver. He only nodded when the two men stopped in front of him.
“Will these do?” asked Mosbrucker, swinging down.
“They’ll do,” said Rock. “You got a good eye fur hoss flesh.”
Matt Mosbrucker walked over to his still-unconscious comrade and nudged him in the ribs with a toe. “But I guess I don’t have too good an eye for pardners.”
Old Rock grunted. He turned and yelled at Lucille to bring him a pail of water. When she brought it, Rock emptied it on Bill Warjack’s head.
The downed man sputtered and shook the hair out of his eyes. At last he pushed up to his hands and knees, then rocked back on his haunches. Bleary-eyed, he looked around him until his eyes came to focus on Rock Everett. He started to speak, then must have thought better of it as he staggered to his feet and pawed dirt and blood off his face.
Warjack finally looked beyond Rock, to the window where Lucille still stood. For a long, breathless moment he pierced the woman with his hard black eyes. “You people ain’t seen the last of Bill Warjack. Next time I come here it’ll be to kill you.” The last words were directed at Rock.
Rock watched him, and for the first time Austin noticed the ready spring to his old man’s legs. His father might have looked like an oaf at first glance, but Austin felt a strange sense of pride fill his chest. That was his father standing out there!
He was still at the window, watching out across the sagebrush-covered valley long after the riders had disappeared.

Austin Everett woke to the sounds of Lucille screaming, their dog yapping and horses galloping.
He heard his father roar, and shots exploded in the night like fireworks.



 










Chapter Two


Nearly falling out of bed, Austin groped for his shoes. He pulled them on and scaled down the ladder by dangerous leaps, landing with a thud on the puncheon floor. As he reached the front door, a shape loomed up and crashed into him. By the smell and the size he recognized Lucille. He stood as if in a trance as she fumbled for matches and lit the coal oil lamp on the front room table, making her face come into view in a sickly yellow light. It was wreathed in purple spots, and blood trickled from one corner of her mouth. Lucille ran and got the shotgun, thumbing in shells as she made her way back to the front door and out on the porch. Austin didn’t have a gun of his own, but he trailed outside with her just the same.
By now the horse sounds had faded, except for a restless whinnying and a whirl of hooves from the corrals out back. Austin looked over to see puffs of smoke coming from one of their sheds, which sat off to the right, toward the Salmon City-Challis highway. The sound of Old Rock cursing came from there.
Lucille almost threw down the shotgun when she realized the shed was on fire, and she and Austin rushed out to help. By the time they got there Rock had the fire down to smoldering embers. He had reacted quickly and sensibly enough to wet a gunny sack in the nearby horse trough and beat out the flames. Now he was using the gunny sack, wadded up, like a scrub brush to snuff out remaining embers. The fire hadn’t really had time to get going well, so it hadn’t been much of a fight.
Neither Lucille nor Austin dared be anywhere near Rock now, and both backed away from the shed to wait for the ebbing of the big man’s tirade. Rock was throwing things around, cursing what Lucille called a “blue streak,” or, as Old Rock would say, “like a Frisco whore.”
The tantrum went longer than normal, but after fifteen minutes, when it was surprising he would even have a voice left, he came out of the shed toting his new carbine. Lucille had lit a lantern, and in its light they could see the big man’s face and hands were smeared with soot, and there was scarlet dribbling down his right cheek. He flung out a few more curses, but the enthusiasm had gone from his voice. Lucille and Austin waited breathlessly.
“Got a bunch of stuff out of the shed,” he said huskily. “An’ got off with probably ten head of hosses. I stopped ’em ’fore they c’d git to the other corral.” He stopped and stared at his wife as if noticing the forming bruises and the blood on her face for the first time. “They hurt you bad?”
Lucille shook her head quickly and lowered her eyes. “Slapped me mostly, and did a lot of cussin’. It was all that big man—Bill. He was gonna—” She stopped, looking down at the torn shoulder of her dress, then over at Austin. “…Gonna do more. But that Mosbuck fellow stopped him, wouldn’t let it happen.”
Rock glowered at his son, then looked back at the woman. “Well, I hurt ’em, that’s shore. There’ll be a dead horse lyin’ out in the fields, I ’spect. I’d a killed the rider, too, but he got out there in the dark, and the others set up a cover fire while he got the saddle off and skinned out.” He paused and stared at Lucille again. “So . . . you say the feller I beat down was the one set on you . . . and that Mossbucker feller stopped him, uh? Mebbe I’ll recollect that come killin’ time. They shoulda left a plain enough trail. I’ll catch up with ’em.” Saying that, the big man wandered off toward the creek, disappearing in the dark.
Lucille turned back to the boy. “You wanna keep from gettin’ in his way, boy. I’s you I’d hightail it for bed ’fore he comes back. He’ll likely be lookin’ for somethin’ to make pain for.”
Austin appreciated the advice, and knowing she was right he turned and headed back to the house, climbing the ladder to his bed. It was late in the night before he was able to drift off to sleep.

 Early the next morning Rock Everett made ready to set out for Challis, the supply point for Custer, Bonanza and the other mining towns along the Yankee Fork of the Salmon River, as well as Bay Horse and Clayton. In the last couple of years, Challis had become an important market for beef and horses, a market with which the scattered ranches in the area had to work to keep up. The Everetts also sold corn, wheat, red beets and potatoes there.
From trailing the plentiful tracks, Rock had also learned it was the direction the thieves had run with the horse herd. Going after them was going to be convenient.
With the sun bursting fresh across the eastern slopes, Austin sat on the log porch in front of the house, feeling the irritating tickle of his wool shirt catching against the scabs on his back every time he moved. Old Rock rode up on a stocky bay every bit as ugly and swollen-nosed as its rider. He was leading a string of horses, each one tied to the tail of the one in front of it. He held his new Winchester across the fork of his saddle, and he swiveled it until it very nearly pointed at his son’s midsection. He didn’t seem to notice.
“Now, boy. You keep yer tongue in check with my woman. Understand? Do as she tells you an’ you finish up what I said. I’ll maybe try to bring somethin’ back for you, maybe a new jackknife or a lassoo or some boots, if I get a good price on the stock. An’ you know they’re sellin’ high on the Yankee Fork. Them boys’re ’bout starved out up there. How’s yer back? It shore is gettin’ ugly.”
Austin shrugged, looking away briefly, then back to meet his father’s eyes. “It’s healin’ up, I reckon. That grease does good.”
“Good, good. Well sir, I reckon Lucy’s still a-sleepin’, ’n’ I won’t wake ’er up. Tell ’er I should be back in five, six days at the most, ’n’ she c’n plan on waitin’ ready with the so’rdough biscuits. I aim to be horngry as a hog with a cut throat when I git back. You take care of that ugly mug of your’n now, hear? I’ll bring you somethin’.”
“I will, Pa. Pa?”
“Yes sir?”
“What about them men? You aim to . . . fight ’em all?”
“Don’t you worry ’bout yer old man, sonny. Ain’t no five men c’n whip the likes of me.” He winked.
Austin stood up, walking a few steps out toward Old Rock’s horse. He yearned to shake his pa’s hand before he left. But the only time they ever touched was when Austin had done something wrong—or leastwise when Rock figured he had.
Rock Everett saw his boy coming closer, and like a skittish horse he dipped his chin in farewell and started off toward the pen where he had kept fifteen fat steers overnight. Six days he would be gone, most likely. Six days Austin knew he wouldn’t have to be beaten. But still, he didn’t like being left here alone with Lucille. At least Rock and he shared the same blood. He and the woman hardly shared a smile.

Over the winter, the ground had frozen hard, and now spring thaw was deep within the earth. These two acts of nature had heaved at corral posts, but more importantly at tree stumps. Owing to this helping hand, April and early May were the prime months to pull a stump, and Austin tore into the job with a vehemence, wanting to prove to Old Rock that he was a man.
He harnessed the old sorrel plow horse, Dolly, and drove her mercilessly through the day, pulling at stumps when he wasn’t chopping stubborn roots with the twin-bit axe. As the stumps came out he made the old horse drag them into a line, a makeshift fence. At the least, the roots would make a home for rabbits, and this would one day be a prime hunting spot.
The next day, he decided he needed to break ground on some of the many acres of sagebrush Rock had left him. This he had dreaded, because of the sores healing on his back. But he had no choice. He went at the plowing with the same vigor he had savaged the stumps, and soon much of the sagebrush land lay in furrows, waiting to be seeded.
He went home that evening with his shirt stuck firmly to his back.
On the second day he tried to plow, but with his back in bloody agony he could do little before his will gave way. He would lower his pride enough to allow Lucille to grease up his back, then he would rest an hour or two, eat a big meal, and go at the plow again. It was a job that must be done, to avoid a new whipping before the blood was dried from the previous one.
The third morning and the fourth were even worse, for his back seemed to be festering. But he went out all the same, with his father’s threats ringing in his ears. He wasn’t worth much. He knew that because Old Rock had told him since as far back as he could recall. But if he could get all that plowing done, along with the stumps cleared, maybe Rock would start to think different. If he could ignore the pain his back was giving him and just work his blamedest while Old Rock was gone, maybe he could avoid another beating and win some respect to boot.
The fifth morning Austin was sick with fever, so he lay in bed. Lucille yelled at him a few times, and when he heard her coming up the ladder to the loft he groaned inwardly. Was she going to beat him, too? More likely she would just wait for Rock to come home and tell him his good-for-nothing son had slept in past sunrise. That would bring a healthy beating on, maybe even a few blows from Rock’s fists.
To Austin’s surprise, when Lucille saw him she didn’t say a word. He feigned sleep and heard her step toward him. The back of her hand, cool from the morning air, lay gently across his forehead. Then, strangely, her palm came to rest against his cheek. It was the briefest of touches, and then it withdrew. Much more quietly than she had ascended, Lucille went back down the ladder. She brought a glass and a pitcher of water up later, but other than that he didn’t see her again until she brought him a big bowl of chicken broth around noon, and again in the evening.
The sixth morning, Austin was up early, with the fever still burning deep in his back. Cold sweat stood out all over his face, and he shook with sickness. But there were still three stumps to pull out of the field and five acres of land to plow before he could call his work finished. There was fresh salve on his back this morning, not because Lucille had pulled her lazy carcass out of bed to do it, but because he had improvised with a long wooden spoon. But thanks to the plow straps, his back would be a long time healing. It was far worse now than it had been the first day.
All day long Austin drove the old horse. The sweat standing on his skin was cold. Once, he went and had a few bites, but he threw them up later. He pushed and pulled at the stump roots, chopped, even attempted to burn them. But one of the stumps would not be moved. He had to do it, just to show Rock he was a man. He had to show him he could do what had been left to him. Then perhaps the beatings might stop.
But the heart of the horse gave way before the stump did.
By evening Old Dolly’s eyes were glazed, the pupils swollen, and blood ran from one corner of her mouth. The faithful old horse lay dead in the field.
And Austin slumped there in the new-plowed earth, leaned on the sweat-dampened old ribcage and wept. No one could see him here. He would never have cried if they could.









 Chapter Three

The medicine hat stallion’s name was Valeroso, meaning valiant. He had been gone for more than six days. The tall, handsome, broad-shouldered Mexican with eyes like shotgun barrels dogged the thieving bandidos relentlessly, but he was getting no closer. These men were running scared. Like most men who rode the wild country, particularly those who had called themselves “cowboy,” the Mexican was adept at reading sign. And this time in particular it was little challenge, for he followed six horses over mountain trails deep and oozing with spring melt. But the thieves had a long head start, and the only thing in his favor was a determination born of hate.
His name was Elmer Martinez, and he was of Hispanic blood but born to Texas. The given name was English in origin, and it meant noble—highborn. But he didn’t feel very noble or highborn right now. He rode alone, without adjutants or porters, without a soul who would hear his orders even if he gave any. His face was wreathed in bruises, and the grime and stink of days on the trail stuck to him like tar. He was a weary man, but that weariness would have to wait to be salved. Until his gun was smoking and at his feet a man lay dead he did not intend to stop.
Martinez had no concern about the rose dun gelding beneath him. Little Pueblo was born to country like this, had run it with his mother and the wild mustangs of Idaho until he was almost two years old, when Martinez roped him from a herd of bachelor studs. Next to a mountain goat, there wasn’t a more sure-footed animal than Pueblo. And with Martinez standing six-foot-two and one hundred ninety pounds it would have taken one brute of a mountain goat to carry him.
Back in the mining town of Rocky Bar they had stolen his horses, Valeroso and Pueblo, taken them out of the livery as brazen as street corner prostitutes. It wasn’t an act of chance; the five thieves had targeted Martinez and taken his horses to foil pursuit. That was after cornering him in a secluded alley and beating him unconscious. But it hadn’t stopped Martinez. Their mistake was not being smart enough to kill him or cut off his feet.
He had been laid up for four days in a hotel room until he could recover from ribs that should have been broken but appeared to have been only bruised, eyes that had both been swollen completely shut the morning following the beating, and a forearm that he still wasn’t sure didn’t have hairline fractures. But the moment he thought he could travel again, he packed his gear and made ready.
He had used every last bit of money he had to his name for his five nights in the hotel and meals to nourish him back to strength. He had nothing left with which to buy another horse. But the thieves were wrong if they thought being set afoot would stop a Texan with hatred in his heart. Martinez was bent on justice—or revenge, whatever a man wished to call it. He would not be turned aside.
Sore-footed and near exhausted from packing his rifle, saddle and bedding, Martinez had arrived in the mining camp of Atlanta late that same evening. Fourteen miles of mountain travel had left his feet raw and aching inside tall-heeled riding boots. He soaked them in the icy waters of the Boise River, rolled out his bedding in the freezing cold grass along the bank, and awakened more angry and determined than ever to track these men down the river Styx if he had to.
But fortune was with Martinez. Fortune and a faithful horse. The morning of the second day, with the sun striking full force down through the ponderosa pines to warm the Mexican’s shoulders and burn into the scabs on his face as he hiked along the thieves’ trail, he heard the drum of a horse’s hooves. Waiting beside the trail, he was surprised to see Little Pueblo come rounding the bend. The dun must have broken away from his captors, and his escape trail led him back the way he had come. The way he had last seen his friend. Martinez had no idea how far away the horse must have broken free of the thieves, but certainly it was many miles. And days! But still it didn’t surprise Martinez to see his friend coming back. The horse was gaunt from hard travel and lack of good feed, but he wasn’t much worse for the wear, and he was glad to greet his friend.
Martinez had had no idea how exhausted he was until he settled into that saddle—the saddle he had packed by then nearly eighteen miles in hopes of finding something to fit it. He was too honest to steal a horse. But he had known people with the mercy to loan a lame traveler a horse, and it was that mercy he had banked on in packing the saddle. He had not figured on seeing Little Pueblo again for some time. Then again, the saddle had been a gift from his wife, a wife who now lay beneath the sod. It would have been tough to leave it behind.
Around noon of the seventh day on the trail, Martinez spotted the house blending into the sage a couple hundred feet below. It was a crude cabin—one room, maybe two, with a tall roof section that likely held a loft. A log barn squatted close by, an empty corral tacked up to it, and an array of outbuildings scattered through the pale sage. He could make out one cow, half a dozen hogs in one pen, and what appeared to be more cattle grazing far out in the brush, hundreds of yards beyond the house.
Even as Martinez nudged Pueblo’s ribs with his spurs and started him down the decline, movement from the left drew his attention. Pulling on the reins and setting Pueblo crosswise on the slope again, he shifted his eyes to take in a lone rider coming slow along the ranch lane from the direction of what appeared to be a well-used highway. He was a big man—that was notable even from four hundred yards. His height couldn’t be told, but the great bulk of his body was remarkable. He sat the bay horse like a man who didn’t belong there, and it was a good bet the horse wished he wasn’t.
The big man swayed in the saddle, headed for the cabin yet in no great hurry to get there. In the group who stole Martinez’s gaited pinto there would be no man as big as this. Between the weight of the man and a horse that big, the tracks would be deep, and there were no such tracks in the bunch Martinez followed. Besides, no man that big could have kept up the merciless pace the others were setting. No, this man he was watching had nothing to do with the stolen horse—except for the fact that the tracks Martinez was following led straight down the mountain toward this ranch. So perhaps this man had at least seen them.
But something made Martinez wait and watch. Pueblo wanted to be moving. He fidgeted and tossed his head, stamping a hoof against the damp soil. Yet Martinez was cautious, for some men did not like to be ridden up on and taken by surprise. Martinez was one of those men himself.
The stranger drew up, and Martinez watched him studying what appeared to be a dead horse lying in a freshly plowed field. The stranger watched the dead horse for a time, then moved on. He reached the barn, and after looking about for a moment he rode on inside. Martinez had just started Pueblo down the slope when he caught sight of a slighter figure striding from the house and out toward the barn. A woman stood at the front of the house with her hands on her hips, watching after the other one, who appeared by his light gait to be a boy. By all appearances the man in the barn was a family man. That was good. It had been a while since he had been around people who cared about each other. It would do his heart good to sit down to a meal with family people—if they would invite him. Some white people would not stand for a Mexican at their table.
Martinez let Pueblo pick his way down the ridge, his eyes on the barn. He was unworried about the mustang’s footing, even on the muddy, rock-impregnated slope. He was watching the barn’s big, open doorway when the slighter man—or boy—came reeling out and landed in the dirt.
Martinez jerked back on the reins. The little dun responded appropriately, but he didn’t like the treatment. He tossed his head, tearing some of the rein out of his rider’s hand.
Martinez didn’t even have time to apologize to the horse. As he watched, the big man lumbered out of the barn and came at the other one. As he reached him, he bent and jerked him off the ground, backhanding him across the face and sending him to earth again. Judging by the treatment, and by the way the man was able to throw him around, Martinez had decided this was indeed a boy.
Anger twisted his features, his thin-haired mustache curving around a lopsided grimace. There was no thinking in him now, only unreasonable anger. He drew the sleeve of his hickory shirt across his mouth so it nearly ripped skin off his lips. But it didn’t wipe off his scowl. With his eyes watering up so he could hardly see, he rolled his spurs and started downhill.
It was instantly obvious Pueblo had no intention of making that steep descent at the speed Martinez wanted. He jammed the spurs deeper, his eyes still set on the man below. Even as Martinez sank the spurs, the big man once more struck the boy, who made no move to get away.
When Pueblo felt the spurs, he reacted with a jump. Martinez wasn’t a man to misuse a horse, so Pueblo was unaccustomed to the bite of the spur. He came down wrong on a scree outcrop and lost his footing. As he started to tip to the side, Martinez came to his senses enough to kick his feet free of the tapaderos and shove at the dinner plate saddle horn, trying to avoid what was sure to be a nasty fall. But Pueblo already had his momentum, and as he went over sideways he took the Mexican with him.
The horse plunged to his left side, Martinez still scrambling to clear him. When Pueblo rolled onto his back, as he had no choice but to do, he jerked Martinez clear over him and past his flailing hooves, sending him sprawling down the slope. Certain he was bound for the bottom of the hill, Martinez was stunned when he slammed up against the tangled base of a serviceberry bush.
Numb, the Mexican sat up, and instinct made him reach for the Colt Army in his belt. It was still there, the grip scuffed. His hands went next to his face, and his gloves came away streaked with blood. Uphill several yards, Pueblo stood blowing in fright and confusion. Wild-eyed, he looked down at Martinez and shook his head violently.
His legs and heart shaking, Martinez stood up, brushing off his brown-striped, rough-woven pants, which had a ragged tear in one knee. After his own harrowing mishap, he had forgotten the scene below. But now he turned his eyes that way.
They must have heard Pueblo’s scream of fright as he fell, for the big man stood looking up at him, hands on his hips, and the woman had come out to stand beside him. The boy sat on the ground, holding his bowed head.
After what could have been a deadly fall, Martinez’s surge of anger had ebbed. Watching the people in the yard, he pulled off his gloves and palmed his face, wiping the blood back on his gloves. He drew a breath and looked up the slope at Pueblo.
“Well, amigo, we might as well go down there. Their fight’s over, and I’m out of wind. You better watch those rocks, caballo. And I promise to watch the spurs.”
The Mexican looked down again toward the three people who watched him, waiting. The anger he had felt before the fall might have left his face, but it dwelt in a more dangerous place—his heart. He was afraid something bad would happen if he went down the hill. But nothing could be worse than what Elmer Martinez had already been through—the tragic incident which had led him to his brutal beating at Rocky Bar. 
Climbing the several yards to the horse, he picked up the trailing reins and started downhill once more. Only this time he trod with care.
By the time Martinez reached the ranch yard, the boy had picked himself up and gone to the house. The man and woman stood beside each other waiting, and Martinez stopped before them and dropped the reins.
“Took a bad fall, stranger. I count you lucky to be standin’ here.”
Martinez gave a wry, one-sided grin to the heavy-set man, his cheek dimpling. He pulled off his flat-crowned gray hat and swept back collar-length hair, dabbing again at the oozing cut on his cheek. “The horse is young.” He tossed his head toward Pueblo and lied: “He doesn’t know the way of the mountains. Mind if I water him here?”
“Hell, water him, mister. Looks like he c’d use it. Name’s Everett,” the man said. “Rock Everett. And this here’s Lucy.”
The man held out a thick, black-haired hand, and Martinez looked down at it, then shook his head with a slight smile. “I have blood on my hand.” He held up the palm of his right hand for them to see. “You don’t want to shake with me.” In truth, it was the other way around.
“Laws,” growled Everett, spitting to one side. “I fit Injuns, I skinnt rotted cows an’ all kinds o’ critters. Ain’t no little bit o’ blood goin’ bother me.” But even as he finished speaking his broad hand was falling away, gladdening Martinez.
“What about the water?” He glanced around the yard.
“Creek out back o’ the barn,” Everett said, giving a wave that direction.
“When you done, come back to the house,” the string-haired blonde woman added. “You ’pear nigh starved to death.”
Martinez nearly turned down the offer. He was hungry, right enough. But that was not why he stayed. It was no longer for pining to be in the company of family affection, either. He would find that more quickly among a pack of wolves than among this clan. He didn’t rightly know why he agreed to stay.
When he had watered Pueblo and turned him loose on a field of bright green grass spotted with blue lupine and white clover, Martinez went to satisfy his own hunger. The inside of the house was dark, with tattered gunnysacks languishing over one hole that served as a window, and a film over the only glass window, in the kitchen. The floor was puncheon, so roughly cut it would not behoove a man to walk barefoot across it. The crooked slab table held a spread of victuals that made Martinez’s mouth water.
Martinez was strongly aware of the boy’s absence when they sat down at the table. “I hope I’m not eating the boy’s food.”
Everett jerked his eyes up from his plate, then sliced a glance toward the woman. He dabbed a hunk of pan bread into his gravy and shoved it into his mouth, then spoke around it, “We didn’t catch your name, stranger.”
Martinez shrugged. “Elmer. Elmer Martinez, up from Texas. Most folks call me Alto.”
Leaning down over his plate for a drip of gravy to fall off his chin, Everett raised his eyebrows to look up at his dinner guest. “Texas, eh? You don’t say!” He straightened up and looked over at his woman, food pooching out his lower lip. “You don’t say. I sorta thought you might be from Mexico,” he said with a dry chuckle, swallowing his mouthful and picking up a thick steak with his fork to rip a bite out of it.
Martinez gave his little half smile and tugged at the thin tuft of hair below his bottom lip.  He wasn’t sure if Everett was so ignorant as to believe everyone of Hispanic origin came from Mexico, or if he didn’t care. “Yes, of course you would have guessed that,” he said. He changed the subject. “I should have asked before—did you see five riders come by this direction?”
“Woman was here,” Everett said with a shrug, looking at Lucille questioningly as he wiped another dribble of grease from the point of his chin.
The woman shrugged. “Nobody been by while I was lookin’. Why you ask?”
“They stole a tall, rangy pinto from me. A medicine hat.”
Rock Everett made a loud noise when he swallowed, then slurped at a tumbler of cider, letting out a belch. A dark look came over his face as he looked back at Martinez. “Yeah, I know ’bout losin’ a hoss. Boy just kilt my plow hoss. Drove her int’ the ground.”
“Killed her how?”
“Told you. Drove her int’ the ground pulling out tree stumps.” He glanced darkly at Lucille. Her eyes were lowered, looking at her plate as she carved away a piece of steak.
“It sounds like the boy was working hard,” Martinez mused. “A hard-working boy’s not easy to find.”
“Hard-workin’, my laig!” Everett snapped. “Lazy good-for-nothin’ ain’t done a full day’s work in his life.”
Martinez forced his eyes down as he worked a mound of potatoes onto his fork and put it in his mouth. If the boy had killed the horse pulling stumps, it sounded like he was working hard. But who was Martinez to say? He didn’t know the boy.
“Boy!” Everett bellowed. “You ’bout done cowerin’ up there? Git down here an’ go take care of ole Ned. He’s gone hungry ’n’ still saddled ’cause o’ your stupid doin’s.” Old Rock was apparently not the quintessential horseman who always cared for his horse first.
There came a scrape on the floor of the loft, and the boy appeared and came down the ladder, a thin blanket wrapped about his shoulders. His face was almost gaunt, and very pale at the moment. Droplets of sweat stood out all over his forehead and cheeks, and his eyes appeared sunken in. He started past the table, not looking at its occupants, but Rock Everett towered out of his chair and grabbed at a corner of the blanket as the boy went by.
“What you dressin’ like a Injun fer? Go git clothes on ’fore you come down with comp’ny here.” He yanked the blanket from the boy, leaving him standing shirtless.
Martinez felt his teeth grind against one another until he thought they would crack. He looked at the boy, but he could hardly see him through eyes blurred by anger. He fought his vision clear and glanced down at his food, not daring look at Rock Everett. But as the boy went to make his way back up to the loft, and Everett flung the blanket after him with the order to take it with him, Martinez turned his eyes back to the boy.
The white skin of the boy’s back was a road map of welts, bruises, old scars and nasty wounds scabbing over. A switch had made most of the marks. A switch in the hands of a hateful, worthless man who in Martinez’s opinion knew nothing about raising a boy.
Martinez dropped his eyes to avoid looking at Everett. He concentrated on his food, cutting into his steak with a vengeance. But even as he chewed he could not taste it. There was no pleasure left in this meal—if there ever had been.
Suddenly, Martinez stood. “You’ll have to excuse me,” he said through tight lips. “I’m not getting any closer to those thieves sitting here.”
Everett stared up at Martinez with his half-open mouth full of steak. As if he had just remembered it, he gave it three quick chews and swallowed it in a big lump, slurping cider. Neither he nor his wife stood up.
“Well, you should stay longer. We don’t git comp’ny here much,” Everett said as his hand fumbled after another piece of pan bread. “Hope y’ find them rustlers. Ain’t nobody so worthless as a thief.”
Martinez nodded and thought, At least there aren’t very many people worse. He turned from the table, picking up his hat at the door. With a deep breath, he forced himself out into the sunshine and off toward the barn.
He had not gone far before he heard Rock Everett’s voice behind him, from the porch. “Say, stranger! How many men d’you say you’s chasin’?”
Martinez turned back. “Five.”
Everett glanced back into the house, then stepped into the dust. “There was five men here, but it ain’t been recent, or I’d a mentioned it sooner. It’s been some days back. One of them was ridin’ a ugly lookin’ long-legged pinto hoss. Reason I think of it is that hoss was a medicine hat, like you mentioned.”
A fire started once more to burn deep in Martinez’s guts.
“Can you tell me more about the horse?”
“Not much hoss. Tall stewball stallion, but with that medicine hat. Had a sorrel blanket on his rump. Don’t remember much other color.”
The description of the horse was dead on, other than the man’s misuse of the word skewbald, meaning a brown and white pinto horse. Martinez’s interest was piqued, but one more question needed answering. “Did the men say who they were?”
“One dandy by the name o’ Mossbucker and another by the—”
Martinez took an urgent step closer. “Mosbrucker, you say? Where’d these men go?”
“Well, they went on to Challis, but I missed ’em there. Last I knew they had turned around and was headed thataway, t’ward Blackfoot. Must of slid past me in the dark.”
If Matt Mosbrucker was headed toward the freighting town of Blackfoot, maybe he would lay up there. Maybe, too, he would die there.
Martinez gleaned as much more information on the horse thieves as he could before turning away from the yard. His thoughts were on Matt Mosbrucker, murderer of babies and women. But sitting in the saddle he flinched at the last sound he heard as he rode grimly away—Rock Everett bellowing and the sound of an open hand striking flesh. He clenched his teeth and sank into his saddle, tickling Pueblo with the spurs.

That same night, Austin Everett heaved himself up in bed, soaked with sweat. He had been having a nightmare. But in a moment it was plain that was not what had awakened him.
Outside, he heard his father shouting, and then the bellow of a rifle. More shots followed, and the faint sound of hoofbeats.
Again! They had never had trouble in this place before. Now twice in one week!
Deliriously, Austin rolled off his bed, losing his balance while trying to struggle into his canvas britches. Neglecting to put on his tattered old shoes, he scrambled down out of the loft, leaping from the third rung of the ladder and nearly landing on top of Lucille.
Swearing at him, Lucille reached the cupboard, and he heard her curse again at the sound of shotgun shells rattling around the floor. Austin ran outside. All he could see was a dim vision of the yard by the sliver of the moon.
The pound of horse hooves rolled back to him from off toward the road, and then all was silent.
“Rock!” Austin cried into the night. “Rock!” Not even a cricket answered him as he stepped out away from the house.
Lucille suddenly stood beside him. He looked over to see her quivering, holding the shotgun up chest-high and searching the darkness almost frantically. “Rock! Rock, you out there?” Again, there was only quiet.
Bewildered, Austin started toward the shed until Lucille’s snarled words stopped him. “Boy! They might still be out there.”
“Who?” he asked.
“I dunno. Whoever come. Maybe they got old Ned. Injuns. I’ll bet them Bannocks again! You know how they was at it last year.”
A chill ran up Austin’s spine, and he backed toward the house. Lucille must have scared herself at the thought of the Bannocks, for she followed him. Her eyes, gone wide, dodged this way and that in the dark, the moonlight shining off the whites of them.
They made it to the house, and Lucille slammed the door behind them and dropped the bar in place, for all the good it would do with the two big windows. And then once more the silence settled in.
After a long, long time they heard the first tentative cricket begin to chirp, and soon there was a chorus of them. Their music seemed to drown out the world.