Grief is a white-hot molten anguish that shatters a man's heart, then sinks into his gut and solidifies thereâa knot of heavy lonely agony that will not go away. Time can encase it in scar tissue, and the day-to-daybusiness of living can dull the pain. But it does not heal. Grief is a loss of which cannot be regained, and even the satisfaction of vengeance will not banish it.
There was not even vengeance for Falcon MacCallisterwhen he lost his beloved Marie Gentle Breeze to renegade Cheyennes. She was already dead by the time he learned of it, and the cut-fingers who took her from him were dealt with by others, at another time and in another place.
In the seasons following, Falcon rarely returned to his home ground in Coloradoâin the valley settledby his father. Too many painful memories lived there. Instead he drifted, as though by being constantlyon the move he might somehow shake off the ghosts that rode with him.
Some said, as those years passed, that Falcon MacCallisterwas a cold-blooded killer. Some claimed he was an outlaw, though those who knew him knew that the dodgers once circulated on him had been rescinded. He himself rarely spoke of such things. People would think what they chose to think.
Sensational stories circulated in his wake, and some of them were true. They called him a gunfighter,a gambler, and a bad man to crowd, and he was all of these. They said he was a skilled tracker, a solitary hunter, and a formidable foe, and there was ample proof that he was.
Some said he was a desperado, though, and that was a lie, like the stories that he was a highwayman and a mercenary assassin. That he was a solitary drifter and went his own way was obvious, but if the trail he rode was the owlhoot trail it was by no design of his.
There were many who sought him outâsome to hire him, and some to test themselves against himâand as the seasons passed the stories grew. Of those who sought to kill Falcon MacCallister, the lucky ones were those who never found him. It was a big country, and a man on the move could be elusive even if he didn't try to hide.
Falcon MacCallister was the spitting image of his father Jamie in more ways than one. At six-foot three, moon-blond and heavily muscled, Falcon was a man not easily forgotten. Like his father, he was a deadly shot, a skilled fighter, and a hunter who some said could track a buzzard's shadow. And, like his father, he literally did not know his own strength.
Yet wherever he went he was a haunted man, and even his bloody season in the Apache campaigns, as scout for Captain Buford in the Arizona Mountains, did little to dull the ache of his grief.
By the time he headed northward from Tombstone,after bidding farewell to his friend “Doc” Holiday, Falcon had accepted that nothing but unseenprovidence could ever make him whole again ... providence, and the mounting need to somehow atone, to make up for not being there when Marie needed him, for never having found the means to avenge her death.
From Tombstone he headed north, astride the big black horse he called Diablo. He wasn't going anywhereespecially, just drifting, although he thought of spending a little time at Valley visiting with kin. Thinking of Valley gave him a direction, and he followedit, through lands that held other memories, other visions to distract him.
Up through New Mexico he rode in those early months of 1881, keeping to the east slopes of the high ranges still white-flanked with winter's snow, and into an unseasonably early spring. He followed the old trails across the lava beds, skirted around Mount Capulin's cone, and saw the mining settlementsbelow Raton. And when the peaks to the west of him showed signs of melt, he set his course for Denver.
Eastward the land fell away into that wilderness of breaks and canyons that some called Purgatory and others called the Cimarron breaks. From a high ridge on a clear day he could see a hundred miles, all the way to that vague flat-topped monolith known as Black Mesa.
Beyond, he knew, was No Man's Land, and the drifter's curiosity in him pulled his eyes that way. But there were folks in Valley who cared about him, and he went that way. He was weary of fighting, weary of seeking the diversions that never seemed to dull the hard bite of his loss.
Ahead, to the north, the long slopes flowed outwardlike a lady's skirts, and up there, just coming out of winter's shrouds, lay the high Rockies and the melancholy trail home.
Fourteen miles west of the sorry little dugout settlementcalled Hungry, Owen Blanchard hauled his tired team to a halt and rubbed his eyes. For the past two hours the cold glare of spring sunlight had been in his face, and he felt half-blind.
He set his overland's brake, tied off his reins, and slumped forward, resting his face on crossed forearmson the high toeboard while he rolled his shouldersslowly, easing the cramps from his back. When he straightened up again, he could see a little better, and he gazed around bleakly.
Ahead, the sun was down now, hiding behind the toothed blue-white peaks in the distanceâpeaks like a giant erratic saw blade that sliced upward out of the horizon and seemed no closer than they had this morning. All around, as far as he could see in the muted rays of early evening, the plains rolled away endlesslyâsurging upward toward the west, towardthe seemingly near yet far-off mountains. In all other directions they just went on and on until they simply disappeared into the deepening sky.
“I guess we're lost,” he admitted. “They said back there that we'd come to a town of some kind after we crossed Horse Creek, but that was way back yonder and I don't see any town out here. I don't see
Beside him, Ruth pulled her skirts around her against the chill of evening wind. “I haven't seen anything since we left that place this morning,” she admitted. “Those people said stay on the road, but I haven't even seen a road.”
“Wasn't anything but a few ruts to start with.” Owen stood, flexing his tired legs and stretching tall to peer out across the empty plains. “Then they disappeared in that sandy stretch.” He peered to his left and pointed. “I see some treetops or something ... I think. Off to the left there, just a little ways. God a'mighty, I can't get used to this, hon. There's a slough there, or a creek, but if it wasn't for those bare limbs sticking up, I'd never know it was there. This damn grass prairie ... it just goes on and on, and you can't even see where there are holes in it!”
“Maybe that's a river,” Ruth said, standing and squinting to see. “There was supposed to be a river, wasn't there?”
Behind them in the covered wagon, Dorothy and Tess pushed forward, curious to see why they had stopped. The girls had a little nest of bedding back there, among the packed furnishings and household goods. During the past few days Ruth had kept them close to the wagon, because of the dangers of walking.
A couple of hundred yards out ahead, young Bob Simms stood on a little rise, looking back at them. He held a forked stick in one hand and a rusty old saber in the other. Bullhide leggings covered his legs from the tops of his shoes to his knees. Ever since the scare two days ago, when the wagon had rolled out of a sage stand into a nest of rattlesnakes, Bob had made it his business to clear the trail of snakes. These first few days of spring sunshine had brought them out of their holes in droves, and they were everywhere.
The people at Hungry hadn't helped matters, either, with their talk of snakes. “That mound ye passed by, back a ways,” an old man had said, giggling,“that were Rattlesnake Rock. Call it that cause the buzzers winter there. Stick aroun' a while, we'll fry some up for you. Tastes a mite like chicken.”
They had left Hungry in a hurry. Now Owen wonderedwhether they had made a mistake. Two or three days more, maybe a week, and there would have been a supply train coming up from Raton to meet the rail at Big Sandy. They could have traveled with the supply wagons, then gone on to Denver, but Owen had scoffed at waiting. At the next real town, there would be a road. How difficult could that be, just to push on to the next town? He wonderednow whether his logic was sound. With all the charts and maps he had studied before setting out from Meade's, and with the biggest of landmarksâthe high Rockies up aheadâstill, he was lost.
“They said we'd come down to a river,” Ruth remindedher husband. “Maybe that's it.”
“That's no river.” Owen shrugged. “I don't see any river. Just a whole lot of ... well, of nothing. Whatever's over there, it's no more than a little creek. Damn these high plains!” He lowered himself onto the high seat, grunting as his aching legs and back protested the movement. “I guess we'd better take a look. At least maybe there's a place we can make camp, and some wood for a fire.”
“Maybe we'll see lights after dark,” Ruth said. “I thought a while ago that I saw some riders up ahead. Maybe we'll see their campfire. There's bound to be somebody around, to give us directions.”
Bob Simms came walking back, and he had the same idea. “I saw them, too,” he said. “Hour or so ago. Several riders, coming from maybe north. They'll be stopping, too.” He grinned reassuringly. “Maybe we'll see them.”
“You're just like your sister, Bob,” Owen growled. “How can you always be so cheerful? Remember what they told us at Newton?”
“Oh, sure.” Bob shrugged, still grinning. “Outlawsand Indians, they said. Well, we haven't seen either one, and I don't believe we will. Those sure weren't Indians I saw on that ridge out there. Just some men on horseback. And as for outlawsâwell, brother-in-law, I don't see what they'd want from us. We aren't carrying any gold or anything.”
Owen felt uneasy, but what Bob said made sense. They were just harmless movers, heading west. What would anybody bother them for? The Blanchards were of eastern stock, of modest roots and gentle background. It would never have occurred to any of them that a fully provisioned ten-span overland wagon, the kind often called a prairie schooner, might be valued in these wild lands.
“Can we stop for the night, Daddy?” Dorothy urged. “I'd sure like to heat some water and get cleaned up. I feel as if my hair is full of sand.”
Ruth glanced around at her daughters. “You both need some washing and combing,” she decided.
The treetops led them to a sharp little gully that opened out into a wide ravine. Scrubby cottonwoods,still with their winter limbs, lined a foot-deep creek where clear cold water flowed from a spring. There was plenty of firewood, and winter grass stood pale and thick downstream. When the stars came out, Owen climbed to a high swale and looked all around. He had hoped to see firelight, where there might be friendly strangers, but he saw nothing anywhere.
In the ravine, limestone walls blocked the chill wind and reflected back the heat of a good fire. While Bob Simms tended the stock, Ruth and her daughters bathed themselves, put on fresh dresses, and combed out their hair.
Three of one stamp,
Owen thought, coming back. The girls, now fourteen and twelve, were becoming young ladies, and would be as pretty as ever their mother had been.
He would find and stake the land he had bought, and they would begin the building of cabins. His brothers would be along soon, with their families, to prove up their own claims.
Maybe when the cabins were in they could all go up to Denver. They could enjoy town life for a while, and he could talk with men there about his plans to breed highland stock. The summer would be time enough to begin settling in.
Asa Parker knew, as he watched the last railroad man fall, that it was time to leave Colorado for a while. He watched for a time to make sure none of them were moving. Then he got to his feet and came down from the water tower, carrying his rifle. As Asa stepped from the ladder Tuck Kelly joined him, and he saw the others comingâfrom the old corral, the broken-down barn, and the cabin.
“Slick as a whistle, Asa,” Tuck purred. “They never knowed what hit 'em.”
A few steps back, Billy Challis laughed. “Wonder what them rail spur promoters will think when they show up tomorrow for their land meetin'! Sorry, boys, but the buyers turned up dead, and the sale's off?”
“Shut up,” Asa rumbled. “Just get over there and make sure they're all dead. You can poke around that cabin, Tuck. Take anything you boys want, but keep it light. We've got travelin' to do. And leave their stock alone! Those are all marked animals. Just take a look around and we'll get out of here.”
“You plannin' on sharin' out any of that money, Asa?” Billy Challis demanded. “Looks like there's enough to spread around.”
Parker frowned at the cocky little gunman. “The money's for investment, Billy. I told you, we got biggerfish to fry. Now get those horses saddled!”
Aside, Tuck Kelly muttered, “What's the matter, Billy? Don't you trust Asa?”
“Hell, no!” the kid snapped. “Nor any of the rest of you, either. I'll go along, but don't nobody get any notions of shortin' on me!”
Tuck turned away, shaking his head. Billy was about as sociable as a rattlesnake, but that was normalfor him.
The three rail agents were as dead as they'd ever be. Two or three bullets apiece, from ambush, had seen to that. Kurt Obermire and Folly Downs went from corpse to corpse, relieving them of their guns, loose change, and pocket watches. The two men looked like hovering vultures in their dark coats, stooping over first one and then another of their victims.
The railroad moneyâintended to buy rights for a San Juan spur for the Kansas Pacific Railway Companyâwasfresh stacks of goldbacks in a little wooden chest.
“Nine thousand dollars!” Tuck licked his lips. “Lordy, I know what I'd do with a share of that. There's a whorehouse up at Denver thatâ”
“There'll be law crawlin' over each other around here,” Asa rumbled. “Besides, we're not goin' to Denver. I told you all, we got a job to do! We're headed for No Man's Land, just as fast as we can pack up!”
It would be a long hard ride on short provisionsâdownacross the Purgatoire and the Cimarronbreaks. Casper Wilkerson glanced longingly at the busted buckboard lying askew in a gully. Its team had bolted at the gunfire, and it was a wreck.
“Wish we had that.” Casper shrugged. “Be easier travelin' with a wagon.”
The six had put a hundred miles behind them when Billy first saw the lone wagon coming westward across the grasslands. A high-bow overland, it rocked along behind its ten-horse team miles from any road or trail. They watched it off and on for an hour or two, then noted where it halted for the night.
Settlers! A wagon like that was a rolling storehouse.With a wagonload of supplies, Asa reasoned, there would be no need to zigzag among the scatteredlittle settlements and trading posts. And the prairie schooner itself was a prize. Where he was going, the big wagon might be very useful.
From a mile away, they watched and waited, letting the little camp settle in for the night. Then, when the fire's glow was low, they went in.
Bob Simms barely felt the razor-edged blade that sliced his throat open. He came out of sound sleep when his blankets were thrown back, and hard fingersin his hair pulled his head back and down. He saw a flash of metal, and then a coldness crossed his throat. He barely felt it, but he heard the sound of it as it sliced across, and he felt the warm torrent of his own blood bathing him.
The pain came then, when he tried to yell and couldn't. The pain slashed at him like fire, but only for a moment. It dimmed, right along with everythingelse, and Bob Simms sank into a blackness that would never end.
Owen Blanchard went down fighting, screaming and trying to load shells into the double-barrel greener that was the only gun he owned. He managedto swat one of the attackers with the shotgun's butt and kick the feet out from under another one, but then they were all over him. A big revolver was shoved into the pit of his stomach, and three of its slugs had blossomed in him before he hit the ground.
Billy Challis looked down at the writhing gurgling man beside the wagon wheel and grinned happily. He put his iron away and stepped over the body. Folly Downs was at the wagon. Slicing lashes, he pulled the canvas back and Billy peered into the wagon bed. Three pale faces full of terror looked back at him from the shadowsâpretty faces above the lace collars of demure sleeping gowns. “Well, well,” the gunman crowed. “This here night is our lucky day, fellers! Looky here what we got!”
Stepping up on the rear wheel hub, Billy grabbed a small arm and pulled. Amid screams of terror, he dragged fourteen-year-old Dorothy Blanchard from the wagon and threw her on the hard ground.
Ruth shrieked, and came over the sideboard swinging a skillet. Tuck Kelly intercepted her, swung a hard fist, and sent her rolling.
Beside the wagon, Billy grinned at the terrified girl trying to scramble away. Picking her up by her hair and one leg, he slammed her down again and fell on her. Slapping her hands away, he tore open the front of her gown.
“Come get 'em while they're hot, boys!” He giggled.“This here one's mine first!”
With his knife he slashed away her clothes, ignoringher screams and the blood that welled from a dozen cuts. When she fought at him he punched her in the face, breaking her nose.
Tuck Kelly swore and tugged at Asa's sleeve. “Look what he's doing!” he shouted. “I don't like to see that!”