Read the Key-Lock Man (1965) Online

Authors: Louis L'amour

the Key-Lock Man (1965) (15 page)

BOOK: the Key-Lock Man (1965)
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Had they left somebody behind? Yes, vaguely he seemed to remember overhearing some talk, remembered the scrape of a boot on rock not far above him.

It was farther to go down than to go up. Besides, he would need a horse, and his buckskin was somewhere on top. As carefully as he could, he lowered his hand and tried to ease the weight of his body off the rock.

Little by little he worked his way-soundlessly, he hoped-out of the space beneath the shelf where he lay.

He could see the stars above, the cloudless sky.

He smelled smoke.

Somehow he had the impression that one or more of their men had been shot by Kris or Cooley. If so, a wounded man might be close by and might have a fire. That would account for the smoke. His hands and arms were all right. He caught hold of the rocks and lifted himself, feeling his way with infinite care, toward the surface. Before thrusting his head over the top, he listened. Presently he heard a subdued movement that seemed to be some distance away.

He permitted himself a careful lifting of his head.

About twenty yards off, was a campfire. He could see the glow of light above it, and the reflection on a man's face, but the fire itself was hidden from his view. He waited, watching . .. and considering.

If he attempted to crawl out, and the man by the fire turned his head,
would be in full view.

Carefully, he looked about, searching for the horses. He had tried to avoid thinking of his injuries, but his throat was parched and a wetness on his chest told him) his wound was bleeding again. Something had happened to his side, perhaps to his hip. It was stiff, and in crawling only the few feet he had so far managed, he had to favor it. Quick movement of any kind was out of the question.

The others, he thought, could not be far off and they would presumably return here, and by daylight they would examine that crevice thoroughly. They might try smoking him out, if the wind was right.

He had no choice, then-he must try to get out now. He could not risk a shot, for a shot might bring the others down on him all the faster.

He held himself there an instant longer, then using his hands and arms, he lifted himself onto the rock.

Then, favoring his side, he began to ease himself across the ground.

He was sweating with fear. At any moment the man by the fire might choose to turn his head. Matt
would be in full view for all of thirty or forty yards, although during the last few feet he would be in partial shadow.

The moments dragged with the dragging of his body. A dozen times he felt sure the man must turn, must see him or hear him. His rough clothing rasped lightly against the rocks beneath him, and he could do nothing to prevent it.

Now he was halfway. Using his hands and one knee, he crawled a little farther. A long wedge of shadow showed itself close by, the shadow of a bush or tree, and he veered aside to make for it. He was gasping for breath, and there was a knifing pain in his chest.

The bullet had not touched a lung, or it would have showed in his breathing; and he had not bled as badly as he would have expected. But he had lost a good bit of blood, and it had weakened him.

His hands reached the shadow, then his body. For an instant he rested, and glanced back. The man was standing up, stretching. Now, at last, he turned his head. His face was visible enough for
to recognize him as one of the men from Tuba City.

He looked in
's direction, then looked away. He walked around the fire, picking up sticks and breaking them.

He must have been looking into the flames,
thought, and because of that his eyes were almost useless for the darkness.

lifted himself over a rock, and eased himself through a wall of cedars. Now he was behind the low parapet he had seen just before being shot. He crawled along it, intent only upon distance.

He smelled the horses before he saw them, gathered in a little copse. He crawled nearer, and one of the horses snorted. He swore deep within himself, and then very softly he spoke. "Here, boy!


The horse tugged and the bushes rustled. He crawled nearer, trying to distinguish the animals. The next thing he knew a horse was snuffling at him.

He reached up and caught it by the mane and pulled himself up to a standing position. His hand felt the bridle, then his exploring fingers searched for the brand.

He was sure this was his horse, by its very manner, but in that darkness he could see hardly at all, for the trees made the night's darkness still deeper. He traced out the brand-it was his own- and then he felt along the bridle to the bushes and, balancing himself by a grip on the mane, he untied the knot with one hand.

By the time he got a grip on the pommel he was so weak he was afraid he might fall. If he did, he would never have the strength to get up again. He hesitated, resting his head against the horse's side.

He took a fresh grip, put the wrong foot in the stirrup and lifted himself to the saddle, sitting down in a sidesaddle position. Clinging to the saddle he worked his boot loose from the stirrup and swung his leg across the saddle. Then he spoke very softly to the buckskin and together they walked away into darkness.

Matt made no effort to guide the horse, for it required all his strength just to stay in the saddle, and the buckskin had of his own accord started downhill.

He felt faint and sick, and he leaned far forward, clinging desperately to the pommel. His body lurched with the movements of the horse, and each lurch brought a stab of pain. Yet somehow he stayed in the saddle.

Her FIRST INSTINCT was to get away. Only when she had a mile behind her did she think of the pack animals. She slowed up then and turned in the saddle. They were scattered out behind her, running to catch up ... at least, some of them were.

She waited until four of them had come up to her, and then started on. They were used to following her horse, and they managed to stay up with her pretty well. There were three more back there, but she was not worried about them. The food and the ammunition, as well as their essential outfits, were carried on the four she now had with her. The question was where to go.

Matt had told her that if they were somehow parted to go to the head of the canyon that he believed might offer access to the top of No Man's Mesa. But the men who had hunted him, as well as Gay Cooley, were between her and that rendezvous. She would ride around the mesa.

Matt had showed her the trail up Copper Canyon, and she had only to ride around the south end of No Man's and then go due east to reach that trail. She stopped, dismounted, and ran a lead line to the pack mules, then she rode on.

At sundown she had reached Copper Canyon trail and was starting north. At this very time Matt still lay unconscious in his hiding place.

The night was coming on. A lone star appeared ... a bat swirled above her head, and somewhere far off, a coyote called into the empty desert.

Her rifle was reassuring in her hand, and she held it ready. She was alone now in a vast and empty land, and she rode into uncertainty, with no Matt beside her. The horse alone seemed confident.

He was on a trail and it held to the trail.

The walls of the canyon rose on either side.

Darkness had closed in, and now it was a relief to look up at the narrow band of sky, with its stars.

The night was still.

The tired horse kept on, and the mules followed reluctantly now. None but a tough mountain horse such as she rode could have taken the beating this one had.

She herself was exhausted from the long hours in the saddle.

She lost all sense of time. Suddenly the horse lurched, staggered, then lunged upward, scrambling hard on the lip of the cliff. Then a cool night breeze was blowing in her face, and they were out of the canyon.

She paused once to water the horses, to fill the canteens they carried, and to prepare some food for herself. At this place she rested, and for a couple of hours she slept.

When dawn was breaking, she rounded the end of No Man's Mesa and drew up to listen and to study the sand for tracks. Then she rode on.

The mesa curved inward, so that her route led her toward its gigantic wall that lay ahead. Here she was riding with the wall towering above on her left, and she was completely in the shadow.

She went forward with extreme caution, pausing often to listen. At any time she might come upon Gay Cooley, or the party who had attacked them, or Oskar Neerland and those accompanying him. But somewhere ahead was Matt, if he was still alive.

The morning air was still. She was quite sure she could not be seen by anyone unless they were very close, because of the deep shadow of the wall. From what Matt had told her, she recalled that it was all of two miles from the corner ahead to the point at which he believed the mesa might be climbed. There was a notch in the mesa there from which a stream occasionally emerged, but the rest of the time the bed of the stream was dry.

Nervously, she drew her rifle again, brushed a wisp of hair back from her face, and started on.

There was no sound but the walking of her horse and the pack animals following, the twittering of birds, and the singing of cicadas out in the sunlight.

Suddenly, she heard a shot. It was far off, but the sound slapped against the cliffs and went echoing off down the wall of rock. Careful to raise no dust, she rode up to the corner. Below her and half a mile away, she saw a wildly running horse, and the saddle was empty.

Her heart pounding, she started forward, standing in the stirrups for a better view. She felt almost sure it was Matt's horse-she would have known him anywhere.

But she kept telling herself that she might be mistaken ... at that distance she could be.

There was dust down there; and then there were more shots.

She was too far away to get there in time if help was needed, and there would be nothing she could do. If Matt could escape at all, he would be escaping to her, coming to her for help, for food, for ammunition. She went on steadily along the narrow bench. And then something made her look back.

Three riders!

There had been two men with Oskar Neerland, Matt believed. Somewhere they had picked up her trail and they were coming on now behind her. They might have seen her already, though there was just a possibility they had not.

The face of the cliff curved back suddenly, and there in the notch she saw the deep cut of the beginning canyon, and a heavy growth on the far side, which was only a few yards off. Swiftly she herded the pack mules into the gap and, grasping her rifle, she dropped to the ground.

This was where Matt had said he would come; and this was where she would stay until either he came or she knew beyond doubt that he was dead.

Within her there seemed to be a vast emptiness, for every moment of the long ride she had been hoping against hope that he would be here, that she would find him waiting for her.

Hurt, perhaps, but here.

And now he was not here, nor was there any sign of him.

It was a good place. Behind her the cliff rose steeply. In wet weather there was probably a waterfall at this place; now there was a small pool of water, five or six feet across, a dark, cold pool in a natural catch-basin.

A trail marked by the hoofs of unshod horses led to this spot, and someone had placed stones to make a crude parapet, a defense against attack, or perhaps against the wind. Behind this she knelt on one knee, waiting. Beside her on the rock, she placed a row of cartridges.

Suddenly Neerland came in sight, but a little way off. Without hesitation, she lifted her rifle and put a bullet into the earth right in front of him. His horse leaped and went into a wild fit of bucking.

The two men behind him ducked back out of sight.

When the horse quieted, Neerland stared toward where she stood hidden. He was sure enough who it was.

"It's no use, Kris," he said. "You might as well come, give up. I won't leave without you."

She did not reply.

"I know you're there. You come out, or we come after you."

From down on lower ground, among the maze of rocks and broken ground, she heard faint shouts, and then a shot.

Oskar Neerland took out his tobacco and started to build a cigarette. "It's no use," he said again. "They will kill him, if he is not dead already.

And if they do not, I shall. You are alone now, unless you come to me."

She realized that he was easing his horse toward her. The horse seemed to be moving restlessly, but somehow each move brought him closer.

She fired again.

Neerland swung his horse quickly, scattering gravel as he leaped back to safety. She had put that bullet within an inch of his skull, the bullet notching his hat brim, and the hat lay there upon the ground to prove it.

She could hear the horse plunging, and she heard Neerland swear, and regretted what trouble she might have caused the horse.

But there was something else ... or had she imagined it?

BOOK: the Key-Lock Man (1965)
6.76Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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