Tuesday, August 12, 2014



by Louis L'Amour

(first published in the pulp magazine West Feb. 1949)

In the Barrons, the close-knit frontier clan of this story, Louis
Cover West magazine Feb. 1948
L'Amour's faithful readers will recognize an early prototype of the Sacketts.
  In the days when the nearest neighbors – or law officers – lay twenty or eighty miles away, families had to stick together in the face of threats, both from their fellow men and nature.  That the clan ethos had its dark side (as illustrated in many parts of the world today, or on Judge Judy for that matter), L'Amour was only too aware – populating his stories with clans hateful as well as good.

Dusty Barron turned the steel-dust stallion down the slope toward the wash.  He was going to have to find water soon or the horse and himself would be done for.  If Emmett Fisk and Gus Mattis had shown up in the street at any other time it would have been all right.
As it was, they appeared just as he was making a break from the saloon, and they had blocked the road to the hill country and safety.  Both men had reached for their guns when they saw him, and he had wheeled his horse and hit the desert road at a dead run.  With Dan Hickman dead in the saloon it was no time to argue or engage in gun pleasantries while the clan gathered.
It had been a good idea to ride to Jarilla and make peace talk, only the idea hadn't worked.  Dan Hickman had called him yellow and then gone for a gun.  Dan was a mite slow, a fact that had left him dead on the saloon floor.
There were nine Hickmans in Jarilla, and there were Mattis and three Fisk boys.  Dusty's own tall brothers were back in the hills southwest of Jarilla, but with his road blocked he had headed the steel-dust down the trail into the basin.
The stallion had saved his bacon.  No doubt about that.  It was only the speed of the big desert-bred horse, and its endurance, that had got him away from town before the Hickmans could catch him.  The big horse had given him lead enough until night had closed in, and after that it was easier.
Dusty had turned at right angles from his original route.  They would never expect that, for the turn took him down the long slope into the vast, empty expanse of the alkali basin where no man of good sense would consider going.
For him it was the only route.  At Jarilla they would be watching for him, expecting him to circle back to the hill country and his own people.  He should have listened to Allie when she had told him it was useless to try to settle the old blood feud.
He had been riding now, with only a few breaks, for hours.  Several times he had stopped to rest the stallion, wanting to conserve its splendid strength against what must lie ahead.  And occasionally he had dismounted and walked ahead of the big horse.
Dusty Barron had only the vaguest idea of what he was heading into.  It was thirty-eight miles across the basin, and he was heading down the basin.  According to popular rumor there was no water for over eighty miles in that direction.  And he had started with his canteen only half full.
For the first hour he had taken his course from a star.  Then he had sighted a peak ahead and to his left, and used that for a marker.  Gradually, he had worked his way toward the western side of the basin.
Somewhere over the western side was Gallo Gap, a green meadow high in the peaks off a rocky and rarely used pass.  There would be water there if he could make it, yet he knew of the Gap only from a story told him by a prospector he had met one day in the hills near his home.
Daybreak found him a solitary black speck in a vast wilderness of white.  The sun stabbed at him with lances of fire, and then rising higher bathed the great alkali basin in white radiance and blasting furnace heat.  Dusty narrowed his eyes against the glare.  It was at least twelve miles to the mountains.
He still had four miles to go through the puffing alkali dust when he saw the tracks.  At first he couldn't believe the evidence of his eyes.  A wagon-here!
While he allowed the steel-dust to take a blow, he dismounted and examined the tracks.  It had been a heavy wagon pulled by four mules or horses.  In the fine dust he could not find an outlined track to tell one from the other.
The tracks had come out of the white distance to the east and had turned north exactly on the route he was following.  Gallo Gap, from the prospector's story, lay considerably north of him, and a bit to the west.
Had the driver of the wagon known of the Gap?  Or had he merely turned on impulse to seek a route through the mountains.  Glancing in first one and then the other direction, Dusty could see no reason why the driver should choose either direction.  Jarilla lay southwest, but from here there was no indication of it, and no trail.
Mounting again, he rode on, and when he came to the edge of the low hills fronting the mountains, he detected the wagon trail running along through the scattered rocks, parched bunch grass and greasewood.  It was still heading north.  Yet when he studied the terrain before him he could see nothing but dancing heat waves and an occasional dust devil.
The problem of the wagon occupied his mind to forgetfulness of his own troubles.  It had come across the alkali basin from the east.  That argued it must have come from the direction of Manzano unless the wagon had turned into the trail somewhere further north on the road to Conejos.
Nothing about it made sense.  This was Apache country and no place for wagon travel.  A man on a fast horse, yes, but even then it was foolhardy to travel alone.  Yet the driver of the wagon had the courage of recklessness to come across the dead white expanse of the basin, a trip that to say the least was miserable.
Darkness was coming again, but he rode on.  The wagon interested him, and with no other goal in mind now that he had escaped the Hickmans, he was curious to see who the driver was and to learn what he had in mind.  Obviously the man was a stranger to this country.
It was then, in the fading light, that he saw the mule.  The steel-dust snorted and shied sharply, but Dusty kneed it closer for a better look.  It had been a big mule and a fine animal, but it was dead now.  It bore evidence of that brutal crossing of the basin, and here, on the far side, the animal had finally dropped dead of heat and exhaustion.
Only then did he see the trunk.  It was sitting between two rocks, partly concealed.  He walked over to it and looked it over.  Cumbersome and heavy; it had evidently been dumped from the wagon to lighten the load.  He tried to open it, but could not.  It was locked tight.  Beside it were a couple of chairs and a bed.
"Sheddin' his load," Dusty muttered thoughtfully.  "He'd better find some water for those other mules or they'll die, too."
Then he noticed the name on the trunk.  D. C. LOWE, ST. LOUIS, MO.
"You're a long way from home," Dusty remarked.  He swung a leg over the saddle and rode on.  He had gone almost five miles before he saw the fire.
At first, it might have been a star, but as he drew nearer he could see it was too low down, although higher than he was.  The trail had been turning gradually deeper into the hills and had begun to climb a little.  He rode on, using the light for a beacon.
When he was still some distance off he dismounted and tied the stallion to a clump of greasewood and walked forward on foot.
The three mules were hitched to the back of the wagon, all tied loosely, and lying down.  A girl was bending over a fire, and a small boy, probably no more than nine years old, was gathering sticks of dried mesquite for fuel.  There was no one else in sight.
Marveling, he returned to his horse and started back.  When he was still a little distance away he began to sing.  His throat was dry and it was a poor job, but he didn't want to frighten them.  When he walked his horse into the firelight the boy was staring up at him, wide eyed, and the girl had an old Frontier Model Colt.
"It's all right, ma'am," he said, swinging down, "I'm just a passin' stranger an' don't mean any harm."
"Who are you?" she demanded.
"Name of Dusty Barron, ma'am.  I've been followin' your trail."
"Why?"  Her voice was sharp and a little frightened.  She could have been no more than seventeen or eighteen.
"Mostly because I was headed this-away an' was wonderin' what anybody was doin' down here with a wagon, or where you might be headed."
"Doesn't this lead us anywhere?" she asked.
"Ma'am," Dusty replied, "if you're lookin' for a settlement there ain't none thisaway in lesson a hundred miles.  There's a sort of town then, place they call Pie Town."
"But where did you come from?"  Her eyes were wide and dark.  If she was fixed up, he reflected, she would be right pretty.
"Place they call Jarilla," he said, "but I reckon this was a better way if you're travelin' alone.  Jarilla's a Hickman town, an' they sure are a no-account lot."
"My father died," she told him, putting the gun in a holster hung to the wagon bed, "back there.  Billy an' I buried him."
"You come across the basin alone?"  He was incredulous.
"Yes.  Father died in the mountains on the other side.  That was three days ago."
Dusty removed his hat and began to strip the saddle and bridle from the stallion while the girl bent over her cooking.  He found a hunk of bacon in his saddle pockets.  "Got plenty of bacon?" he asked.  "I most generally pack a mite along."
She looked up, brushing a strand of hair away from her face.  She was flushed from the fire.  "We haven't had any bacon for a week."  She looked away quickly, and her chin quivered a little, then became stubborn.  "Nor much of anything else, but you're welcome to join us."
He seated himself on the ground and leaned back on his saddle while she dished up the food.  It wasn't much.  A few dry beans and some corn bread.  "You got some relatives out here somewheres?"
"No," she handed him a plate, but he was too thirsty to eat more than a few mouthfuls.  "Father had a place out here.  His lungs were bad and they told him the dry air would be good for him.  My mother died when Billy was born, so there was nothing to keep us back in Missouri.  We just headed west."
"You say your father had a place?  Where is it?"
"I'm not sure.  Father loaned some man some money, or rather, he provided him with money with which to buy stock.  The man was to come west and settle on a place, stock it, and then send for dad."
Dusty ate slowly, thinking that over.  "Got anything to show for it?"
"Yes, father had an agreement that was drawn up and notarized.  It's in a leather wallet.  He gave the man five thousand dollars.  It was all we had."
When they had eaten, the girl and boy went to sleep in the wagon box while Dusty stretched out on the ground nearby.  "What a mess!" he told himself.  "Those kids comin' away out here all by themselves an' the chances are that money was blowed in over a faro layout long ago!"
In the morning Dusty hitched up the mules for them.  "You foller me," he advised, and turned the stallion up the trail to the north.
It was almost noon before he saw the thumb-like butte that marked the entrance to Gallo Gap.  He turned toward it, riding ahead to scout the best trail, and at times dismounting to roll rocks aside so the wagon could get through.
Surmounting the crest of a low hill, he looked suddenly into Gallo Gap.  His red-rimmed eyes stared greedily at the green grass and trees.  The stallion smelled water and wanted to keep going, so waving the wagon on, he rode down into the Gap.
Probably there were no more than two hundred acres here, but it was waist deep in rich green grass, and the towering yellow pines were tall and very old.  It was like riding from desolation into a beautiful park.  He found the spring by the sound of running water, crystal clear and beautiful, the water rippling over the rocks to fall into a clear pond at least an acre in extent.  Nearby space had been cleared for a cabin, then abandoned.
Dusty turned in the saddle as his horse stood knee deep in the water.  The wagon pulled up.  "This is a little bit of heaven!" he said, grinning at the girl.  "Say, what's your name, anyway?"
"Ruth Grant," she said, shyly.
All the weariness seemed to have fled from her face at the sight of the water and trees.  She smiled gaily, and a few minutes later as he walked toward the trees with a rifle in the crook of his elbow he heard laughter, and then her voice, singing.  He stopped suddenly, watching some deer, feeding a short distance off, and listening to her voice.  It made a lump of loneliness rise in his throat.
That night after they had eaten steaks from a fat buck he'd killed, their first good meal in days, he looked across the fire at her.  "Ruth," he said, "I think I'll locate me a home right here.  I've been lookin' for a place of my own.
"I reckon what we better do is for you all to stay here with me until you get rested up.  I'll build a cabin, and those mules of yours can get some meat on their bones again.  Then I'll ride on down to Pie Town and locate this hombre your father had dealin's with, an' see how things look."
That was the way they left it, but in the days that followed Dusty Barron had never been happier.  He felled trees on the mountain side and built a cabin, and in working around he found ways of doing things he had never tried before.  Ruth was full of suggestions about the house, sensible, knowing things that helped a lot.  He worked the mules a little, using only one at a time and taking them turn about.
He hunted a good deal for food.  Nearby he found a salt lick and shot an occasional antelope, and several times, using a shot-gun from the wagon, he killed blue grouse.  In a grove of trees he, found some ripe black cherries similar to those growing wild in the Guadalupe Mountains of West Texas.  There was also some Mexican plum.
When the cabin was up and there was plenty of meat on hand he got his gear in shape.  Then he carefully oiled and cleaned his guns.
Ruth noticed them, and her face paled a little.  "You believe there will be trouble?" she asked quickly.  "I don't want you to–"
"Forget it," he interrupted.  "I've got troubles of my own."  He explained about the killing of Dan Hickman and the long standing feud between the families.
He left at daybreak.  In his pocket he carried the leather wallet containing the agreement Roger Grant had made with Dick Lowe.  It was a good day's ride from Gallo Gap to Aimless Creek where Dusty camped the first night.  The following day he rode on into Pie Town.  From his talks with Ruth he knew something of Lowe, and enough of the probable location of the ranch, if there was one.
A cowhand with sandy hair and crossed eyes was seated on the top rail of the corral.  Dusty reined in and leaned his forearm on the saddlehorn and dug for the makings.  After he had rolled a smoke he passed them on to the cross-eyed rider.
"Know anything about an' hombre name of Dick Lowe?" he asked.
"Reckon so."  They shared a match, and looking at each other through the smoke decided they were men of a kind.  "He's up there in the Spur Saloon now."
Dusty made no move.  After a few drags on the cigarette, he glanced at the fire end.  "What kind of hombre is he?"
"Salty."  The cowhand puffed for a moment on his cigarette.  "Salty, an' mean.  Plumb poison with a shootin' iron, an' when you ride for him, he pays you what he wants to when you quit.  If you don't think you got a square deal you can always tell him so, but when you do you better reach."
"Like that, huh?"
"Like that."  He smoked quietly for a few minutes.  "Four hombres haven't liked what he paid 'em.  He buried all four of 'em in his own personal boot hill, off to the north of the ranchhouse."
"Sounds bad.  Do all his own work or does he have help?"
"He's got help.  Cat McQuill an' Bugle Nose Bender.  Only nobody calls him Bugle Nose to his face."
"What about the ranch?  Nice place?"
"Best around here.  He come in here with money, had near five thousand dollar.  He bought plenty of cattle an' stocked his range well."
The cross-eyed cowhand looked at him squinting through the smoke.  "My name's Blue Riddle.  I rode for him once."
"I take it you didn't argue none," Barron said, grinning.
"My maw never raised no foolish children!" Riddle replied wryly.  "They had me in a cross fire.  Been Lowe alone, I'd maybe of took a chance, but as it was, they would have cut me down quick.  So I come away, but I'm stickin' around, just waiting.  I told him I aimed to have my money, an' he just laughed."
Dusty dropped his hand back and loosened his left-hand gun.  Then he swung his leg back over the saddle and thrust his toe in the stirrup.  "Well," he said, "I got papers here that say I speak for a gal that owns half his layout.  I'm goin' up an' lay claim to it for her."
Riddle looked up cynically.  "Why not shoot yourself and save the trouble?  They'll gun you down."
Then he sized Barron up again.  "What did you say your name was?"
Dusty grinned.  "I didn't say, but it's Dusty Barron."
Blue Riddle slid off the corral rail.  "One of the Barron's from Castle Rock?"  He grinned again.  "This I gotta see!"
Dusty was looking for a big man, but Dick Lowe, whom he spotted at once on entering the saloon, was only a bit larger than himself, and he was the only small man among the Barrons.
Lowe turned to look at him as he entered.  The man's features were sharp, and his quick eyes glanced from Dusty Barron to Riddle, then back again.  Dusty walked to the bar, and Riddle loitered near the door.
The man standing beside Lowe at the bar must be Cat McQuill.  The reason for the nickname was obvious for there was something feline about the man's facial appearance.
"Lowe?" Dusty inquired.
"That's right," Lowe turned toward him slowly, "something you want?"
"Yeah," Dusty leaned nonchalantly on the bar and ordered a drink.  "I'm representin' your partner."
Dick Lowe's face blanched, then turned hard as stone.  His eyes glinted.  However, he managed a smile with his thin lips.  "Partner?  I have no partner."
Dusty leaned on the bar watching his drink poured.  He took his time.
Lowe watched him, slowly growing more and more angry.  "Well," he said sharply, "if you've got something to say, say it!"
Dusty looked around, simulating surprise.  "Why, I was just givin' you time to remember, Lowe!  You can't tell me you can draw up an agreement with a man, have it properly notarized, and then take five thousand dollars of his money to stock a ranch and not remember it!"
Dusty was pointedly speaking loudly and the fact angered Lowe.  "You have such an agreement?" Lowe demanded.
"Sure I got it."
"Where's the party this supposed agreement belongs to?  Why doesn't he speak for himself?"
"He's dead.  He was a lunger an' died on his way west."
Lowe's relief was evident.  "I'm afraid," he said, "that this is all too obvious an attempt to get some money out of me.  It won't work."
"It's nothing of the kind.  Grant's dead, but he left a daughter and a son.  I aim to see they get what belongs to 'em, Mr. Lowe.  I hope we can do it right peaceable."
Lowe's face tightened, but he forced a smile.  He was aware he had enemies in Pie Town, and did not relish their overhearing this conversation.  He was also aware that it was pretty generally known that he had come into Pie Town with five thousand in cash and brought cattle when everyone on the range was impoverished.
"I reckon this'll be easy settled," he said.  "You bring the agreement to the ranch, an' if it's all legal I reckon we can make a deal."
"Sure!" Dusty agreed.  "See you tomorrow!"
On the plank steps of the hotel, he waited until Riddle caught up with him.  "You ain't actually goin' out there, are you?" Blue demanded.  "That's just askin' for trouble!"
"I'm goin' out," Dusty agreed.  "I want a look at the ranch myself.  If I can ride out there I can get an idea what kind of stock he's got and what shape the ranch is in.  I've got a hunch if we make a cash settlement Lowe isn't goin' to give us much more chance to look around if he can help it.
"Besides, I've talked in front o' the folks here in town, and rough as some of them may be they ain't goin' to see no orphans get gypped.  No Western crowd would stand for that unless it's some outlaws like Lowe and his two pals.
Riddle walked slowly away shaking his head with doubt.  Dusty watched him go and then went on inside.
He was throwing a saddle on the steel-dust next morning when he heard a low groan.  Gun in hand he walked around the corner of the corral.  Beyond a pile of poles he saw Blue Riddle pulling himself off the ground.  "What happened?" Dusty demanded.
"Bender an' McQuill.  They gave me my walkin' papers.  Said I'd been in town too long, which didn't bother Lowe none till I took up with you.  They gave me till daybreak to pull my freight."
He staggered erect, holding a hand to his head.  "Then Bender bent a gun over my noggin."
Barron's eyes narrowed.  "Play rough, don't they?"  He looked at Riddle.  "What are you goin' to do?"
"You don't see me out here runnin' down the road, do you?" Riddle said.  "I'm sittin' tight!"
"Wash your face off, then," Dusty suggested, "an' we'll eat!"
"You go ahead," Riddle replied.  "I'll be along."
Dusty glanced back over his shoulder as he left and saw Blue Riddle hiking toward the Indian huts that clustered outside of Pie Town.
When he rode out of town an hour later Dusty Barron was not feeling overly optimistic.  Riddle had stayed behind only at Dusty's insistence, but now that Dusty was headed toward Lowe's ranch he no longer felt so confident.  Dick Lowe was not a man to give up easily, nor to yield his ranch or any part of it without a fight.  The pistol whipping of Riddle had been ample evidence of the lengths to which he was prepared to go.
The range through which Dusty rode was good.  This was what he had wanted to see.  How they might have bargained in town he was not sure.  He doubted if anyone there would interfere if a deal was made by him.  It was his own problem to see that Ruth and Billy Grant got a fair deal, and that could not be done unless he knew something, at least, of the ranch and the stock.
Dusty was quite sure now that Lowe had never expected the consumptive Roger Grant to come west and claim his piece of the ranch.  Nor had he planned to give it to him if he had.  He knew very well that he, himself, was riding into the lion's mouth, but felt he could depend on his own abilities and that Lowe would not go too far after his talk before the bystanders who had been in the saloon.  By now Lowe would know that the story would be known to all his enemies in Pie Town.
Cat McQuill was loafing on the steps when Dusty rode up, and the gunman's eyes gleamed with triumph at seeing him.  "Howdy!" he said affably.  "Come on in!  The boss is waitin' for you!"
Bugle Nose Bender was leaning against the fireplace and Lowe was seated at his desk.  "Here he is, Boss!" McQuill said as they entered.
Lowe glanced up sharply.  "Where's the agreement?" he asked, holding out his hand.
Barron handed it to him, and the rancher opened it, took a quick look, then glanced up.  "This is it, Cat!"
Too late Dusty heard the slide of gun on leather, and whirled to face McQuill, but the pistol barrel crashed down over the side of his head and he hit the floor.  Even as he fell he realized what a fool he had been, yet he had been so sure they would talk a little, at least, try to run a blazer or to buy him off cheap.
Bender lunged toward him and kicked him in the ribs, then Lowe reached over and jerking him to his knees, struck him three times in the face.  The pistol barrel descended again and drove him down into a sea of blackness.
How long they had pounded him he had no idea.  When he opened his eyes, he struggled, fighting his way to realization of where he was.  It took him several minutes to understand that he was almost standing on his head in the road, one foot caught in the stallion's stirrup!
The steel-dust, true to his training, was standing rigid in the road, his head turned to look at his master.  "Easy boy!" Dusty groaned.  "Easy does it!"  Twisting his foot in the stirrup, he tried to free it, but to no avail.
He realized what they had planned.  After beating him they had brought him out here, wedged his foot in the stirrup, struck the horse and when he started to move, had ridden hastily away before they could be seen.  Most horses, frightened by the unfamiliar burden in the stirrup, would have raced away over the desert and dragged him to death.  In fact, it had happened to more than one unwary cowhand.
They had reckoned without the steel-dust.  The stallion had been reared by Dusty Barron from a tiny colt, and the two had never been long apart.  The big horse knew instantly that something was radically wrong, and had gone only a little way, then stopped.  His long training told him to stand, and he stood stock still.
Dusty twisted his foot again but couldn't get loose.  Nor could he pull himself up and get hold of the stirrup and so into the saddle.  He was still trying this when hoof-beats sounded on the road.
He looked around wildly, fearful of Lowe's return.  Then a wave of relief went over him.  It was Blue Riddle!
"Hey!" Blue exclaimed.  "What the heck happened?"  He swung down from his horse and hastily extricated Dusty from his predicament.
Barron explained.  "They wanted me killed so it would look like I was dragged to death!  Lucky they got away from here in a hurry, afraid they might be seen!"
"But they got the agreement!" Riddle protested.
"Uh uh."  Barron grinned, then gasped as his bruised face twinged with pain.  "That was a copy.  I put the agreement down an' traced over it.  He took a quick look and thought it was the real thing.  Now we got to get to town before he realizes what happened."
Despite his battered and bruised body and the throbbing of his face, Dusty crawled into the saddle and they raced up the road to Pie Town.
Two men were standing on the hotel porch as they rode up.  One of them glanced at Dusty Barron.  "Howdy.  Young woman inside wants to see you."
Dusty rushed into the lobby and stopped in surprised.  Facing him was Ruth Grant, holding Billy by the hand, but her smile fled when she saw his face.  "Oh!" she cried.  "What's happened to you?"
Briefly, he explained.  Then demanded, "How'd you get here?"
"After you left," Ruth told him, "I was worried.  After father's death and the trouble we had before you came there was no time to think of anything, and I had to always be thinking of where we would go and what we would do.  Then I remembered a comment father made once.
"You see, Mr. Lowe left a trunk with us to bring west or send to him later.  It wasn't quite full, so father opened it to pack some other things in it.  He found something there that worried him a great deal, and he told me several times that he was afraid he might have trouble when we got out here.
"From all he said I had an idea what he found, so after you were gone we searched through the trunk and found some letters and a hand bill offering a five thousand dollar reward for Lowe.  Why he kept them I can't imagine, but the sheriff says some criminals are very vain, and often keep such things about themselves."
"And then you rode on here?"
She nodded.  "We met two men who were trailing you, and as they had extra horses with them so they could travel fast, we joined them."
Dusty's face tightened.  "Men looking for me?"
Riddle interrupted.  "Dick Lowe's ridin' into town now!"
Dusty Barron turned, loosening his guns.  He started for the door.
"I'm in on this, too!" Riddle said, trailing him.
They walked out on the porch and stepped down into the street, spreading apart.  Dick Lowe and his two henchmen had dismounted and were starting into the saloon when something made them glance up the street.
"Lowe!" Dusty yelled.  "You tried to kill me, an I'm comin' for you!"
Dick Lowe's hard face twisted with fury as he wheeled, stepping down into the dust.
He stopped in the street, and Cat McQuill and Bender moved out to either side.
Dusty Barron walked steadily down the street, his eyes on Dick Lowe.  All three men were dangerous, but Lowe was the man he wanted, and Lowe was the man he intended to get first.
"This man's an outlaw!" he said, speaking to Bender and McQuill.  "He's wanted for murder in St.  Louis!  If you want out, get out now!"
"You're lying!" Bender snarled.
Dusty Barron walked on.  The sun was bright in the street and little puffs of dust arose at every step.  There were five horses tied to the hitch-rail behind the three men.  He found himself hoping none of them would be hit by a stray shot.  To his right was Blue Riddle, walking even with him, his big hands hovering over his guns.
His eyes clung to Dick Lowe, riveted there as though he alone lived in the world.  He could see the man drop into a half-crouch, noticed the bulge of the tobacco sack in his breast pocket, the buttons down the two sides of his shirt.  Under the brim of the hat he could see the straight bar of the man's eyebrows, and the hard gleam of the eyes beneath, and then suddenly the whole tableau dissolved into flaming, shattering action.
Lowe's hand flashed for his gun and Dusty's beat him by a hair's breadth, but Dusty held his fire, lifting the gun slowly.  Lowe's quick shot flamed by his ear, and he winced inwardly at the proximity of death.  Then the gunman fired again and the bullet tugged impatiently at his vest.  He drew a long breath and squeezed off a shot, then another.
Lowe rose on tip-toes, opened his mouth wide as if to gasp for breath, and seemed to hold himself there for a long moment, then pitched over into the street.
Dusty's gun swung with his eyes and he saw Bender was down on his knees and so he opened up on McQuill.  The Cat man jerked convulsively, then began to back away, his mouth working and his gun hammering.  The man's gun stopped firing, and he stared at it, pulled the trigger again, and then reached for a cartridge from his belt.
Barron stood straddle legged in the street and saw Cat's hand fumble at his belt.  The fingers came out with a cartridge and moved toward the gun, and then his eyes glazed and he dropped his iron.  Turning, as though the whole affair had slipped his mind, he started for the saloon.  He made three steps, then lifted his foot, seemed to feel for the saloon step, then fell like a log across the rough board porch.
Blue Riddle was on his knees, blood staining a trouser leg.  Bender was sprawled out in the dust, a darkening pool forming beneath him.
Suddenly the street was filled with people.  Ruth ran up to Dusty and he slid his arm around her.  With a shock, he remembered.  "You said two men were looking for me.  Who?"
"Only us.
He turned, staring.  Two big men were facing him, grinning.  "Buck and Ben!  How in tarnation did you two find me?"
Buck Barron grinned.  "We was wonderin' what happened to you.  We come to town and had a mite of a ruckus with the Hickmans.  What was left of them headed for El Paso in a mighty hurry – both of 'em.
"Then an Injun kid come ridin' up on a beat-up hoss and said you all was in a sight of trouble so we figgered we'd come along and see how you made out.
"An Injun?"  Dusty was puzzled.
"Yeah," Riddle told him, "that was my doin'.  I figgered you was headed for trouble, so I sent an Injun kid off after your brothers.  Heck, if I'd knowed what you was like with a six-gun I'd never have sent for 'em!"
Ben Barron grinned and rubbed at the stubble of whiskers.  "An' if we'd knowed there was on'y three, we'd never have come!"  He looked from Dusty to Ruth.  "Don't look like you'd be comin' home right soon with that place at Gallo Gap an' what you've got your arm around.  But what'll we tell Allie?"
"Allie?"  Ruth drew away from him, eyes wide.  "Who's Allie?  You didn't tell me you had a girl!"
Dusty winked at his brothers.  "Allie?  She's war chief of the Barron tribe!  Allie's my ma!"
He turned to Riddle.  "Blue, how's about you sort of keepin' an eye on that Gap place for me for a week or so?  I reckon I'd better take Ruth home for a spell.  Allie, she sure sets a sight of store by weddin's!"
Ruth's answering pressure on his arm was all the answer he needed.

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