Read the Key-Lock Man (1965) Online

Authors: Louis L'amour

the Key-Lock Man (1965) (7 page)

BOOK: the Key-Lock Man (1965)
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"We've had no trouble here," Hardin said. "I don't think there's any need for a town marshal."

Neill had not spoken. He wanted nothing so much as to get back to his wife and his ranch and stay there.

Right at the moment he did not care if he ever left it again, and the idea of having the pursuit taken off their hands was appealing. At the same time, he did not trust this
cold looking
stranger-he did not trust him at all. And he had a feeling that Hardin felt the same way.

"There'd have to be a town meeting," Chesney said after a moment; "we're just a few." Sam looked at him in surprise, as did Neill. Hardin was obviously not at all surprised. "I mean,"

Chesney went on, "there's others to vote besides us."

"I'll be around." Neerland tossed off his drink and put the glass down on the bar. "I'm camped over by the creek."

He walked out, and the wings of the door fanned themselves shut. The room remained silent behind him until Neill said, "I've got to get home. My wife will be worried."

"Me, too," Hardin said.

Chesney straightened up. "Well, why not? Why not hire this man? We could go back to our places and let him carry on ... only I want in on the hanging when we take him. Let this man find him, then we can all move in and make it official."

"We don't know him, Bill," Hardin suggested. "We don't know who or what he is."

"Aw, hell!" Short said, "we can always call a town meeting and throw him out. Just because we hire him, we don't have to keep him. Fact is, I don't think he'd stay on. He just wants the job long enough to find this man."

"How do you figure that?"

"Look at it. He knew who we were talkin' about, even knew the man's name. I'd guess he rode in here huntin' him."

"Then why pay him?" Hardin said. "Come on, Neill. I'm riding your way."

Chesney threw a hard look at them as they started for the door. "You mean you're against it, Hardin?

You're against hirin' this man?"

Hardin stopped, considered the matter for a long, slow minute, and then he said quietly, "Yes, Bill, I am against it. I don't like the man, and I don't trust him. I say we scotch our own snakes."

Deliberately, Chesney turned his back on them, and after a moment they walked out.

At the hitch rail Neill tightened his girth.

"I don't know what to make of Bill," he said.

"He's changed."

"He'll be all right, kid. He's just tired and sore, like all of us."

Yet Neill was sure that Hardin was worried.

Chesney was different. He was sour, bitter. He had always been a hard man, but with a certain tough, genial humor that was no longer there. Neill had always respected Bill Chesney, and admired him, too. But he had always been a little uneasy around him, watchful for fear he would say or do the wrong thing. A man had a feeling about Bill Chesney, a feeling that there was little leeway in him. He was a man who was utterly sure of his own Tightness . .

. not that he was cocky or assertive, simply that once he had made a decision he could not conceive of there being any other way that could be right.

SKAR NEERLAND, IN his camp by the river, watched them ride out of town, and smiled after them. It was not a nice smile.

He knew the opposition when he saw it, and knew what a mistake they had made. They felt by riding out they would break up the meeting, put an end to the whole idea ... at least, the older one would think that.

Usually when one man made a move, such a gathering broke up, and all of these men were tired and ready to ride home. Neerland, with a quick grasp of the situation, had rightly judged the man who counted was Chesney. Hardin was easygoing, and perhaps the brightest of the lot; but the very fact that he was intelligent would tend to make him a middle-of-the-roader. Chesney, on the other hand, was of the stuff that fanatics are made of. Short and McAlpin-he had learned all their names before ever returning-would follow Chesney's lead.

Kimmel... he was the doubtful one. A solid, tough man. In a last-ditch fight, Kimmel would be there, among the fighters. Oskar Neerland decided to avoid any contact with Kimmel, to sidestep any issue on which Kimmel might oppose him.

Sometimes the best way of eliminating a fighter was by simply not providing the chance for him to fight.

Neerland could handle the tough ones when he had to, but in the meantime it was best to circle away from them, giving them no grounds for opposition.

He went over to the fire. His coffee water was boiling.

He dumped in the coffee and waited, still thoughtful.

He was going to snare two birds in the same trap.

He was going to wipe out his score with the Key-Lock man, and he was going to take this town and wrap it up.

There was not much to be had here, but enough to make it worthwhile, and it would be like taking candy from a baby.

And then he would ride on west with that blonde and a good big stake to start him out somewhere else. From the hour when he rode into Freedom he had known what he was going to do.

There was no finesse about Oskar Neerland. He had no involved or complicated plan, for the simple reason that he was not a complicated man. He was big, tough, and brutal. . . and completely devoid of any feeling for the rights of others.

Now he dropped some cold water in the pot to settle the grounds, and never gave a thought to Neill.

Nor did he consider Kristina, beyond what he planned to do to her. Had he been able to raise the spirits of the dead, he might have had good advice from a certain Austrian military attache, who had also misunderstood Kristina.

WAS a man with a lot of hopes and few illusions. He had a clear and definite idea of what he wanted from life. At least, he knew what he wanted first.

He wanted a ranch with good grass and water, and he wanted cattle to make money, and horses simply because he loved them. He was not waiting around to fall heir to a fortune, nor to marry a rich wife, nor to steal enough to get by. He knew there was no easy way, and he was not looking for one. It was his pride that he walked his own trail, saddled his own broncs, and fought his own battles. And he earned his own money.

That he faced a fight now, a fight that might come at him from several directions, was a fact he understood and accepted. If they wanted his kind of trouble, they could have it. He had measured himself against the land and against other men, and he stood prepared to give as good as he got, and a little more.

Kristina had been unexpected. In the back of his mind there had been a picture of the woman he wanted, a woman to walk beside him, not behind him. The face was indistinct, but the character was not. He knew the life he planned to lead would not be easy, and he knew what manner of woman was needed for it. When he saw Kristina he knew she was the one.

He had planned the home he would take her to, this girl of whom he had dreamed, but now that he found her he had no such home for her. He had only a rock overhang near a pool of water in a raw, harsh land.

Each day he spent here on the mountain was a day of searching, not only searching the country for the approach of enemies, but searching his own mind for a plan of action.

A man needed a plan, he needed direction.

If he did not have that, he had nothing. A man, like a ship at sea, might change course many times in getting to an eventual destination, but he must always be going somewhere, not simply drifting.

did not plan to remain in Navajo country. The area he favored was south and west, in the timbered country of the White Mountains and west of them. But he had known of a band of wild horses running in the breaks of the Colorado, and he wanted these. He had seen them once, and among them a colt.

The Navajos or Utes might have captured them by now, but he did not think so. Even the Indians who came into this far and lonely land were few. With any luck, he would ride away from here with some fine breeding stock.

Most wild horses weren't of much account, but among the thousands that ran on the plains and in the mountains, there were many splendid creatures. Time and careless breeding would change them, the best would be captured, the breeding would become less good, and before many years they would be scrubs. But for the present this was not so.

This particular bunch of horses had a particular origin, however, and a reason for being the stock they were. And he knew about where to look for them. Tomorrow they would ride north toward the river, and try to locate the herd.

The worst of it was, he desperately needed supplies. When he had raced away from Freedom ahead of a hanging posse, he had left behind the supplies he had ridden so far to get.

They needed meat, too, and there was a good chance that they might kill a bighorn or a deer on their trip tomorrow.

Kristina waited for him by the pool. "I have fixed our supper," she said; but neither of them moved. The sun was setting in the red gorge and the walls were like living flame. They stood there watching the light change, listening to the quail calling mournfully, and hearing the replies.

"I love the stillness," she said. "Somehow it seems to soak through me, smoothing out all the rough places, making all my troubles seem as nothing."

When they ate their supper it was in near silence.

They talked a little of commonplace things, each alive to the presence of the other.

Before turning in, he made a last stroll around, walking to the corral-merely a brush corral with a rope strung from tree to tree. The buckskin, already rested, nickered and plucked at his sleeve.

Their camp was well hidden. For anyone riding by way of Marsh Pass-and not many did-there was no reason to turn off and ride up the canyon. The entrance was wide, but promised nothing, while Marsh Pass opened ahead and seemed to draw one on.

He glanced toward the great open-faced cavern that sheltered the mysterious ruins. The bulge of the cliff face above them was streaked with dark stains left by unnumbered ages of rain. The great ruins lay ghost-like and still, dwarfed by the immensity of the cavern and the towering cliff above.

This was a good place, and he would regret leaving it. There were ghosts here, he felt, but he could not disturb them, and they seemed to know that his way was their way also, as if they could sense his love for the silent land.

Kristina came quietly and stood beside him in the stillness.

"After all you have known, this must seem another world," he said.

"I am glad that it is, Matt, but somehow when I look out there now it is hard for me to believe I ever knew any other. My people were a mountain people in their time, and we take naturally to the wilderness."

In the morning, by way of a devious trail masked by brush and the fallen rocks below the cliffs, they rode out of the canyon and headed north. Twice, far off,
saw antelope. A jack-rabbit leaped from under his horse's hoofs and sprang away, and he timed its third jump and got it with a bullet from his Colt.

"A man can starve to death eating rabbits," he commented, "but we'll have this much meat at least."

Twice he saw the tracks of wild horses, and studied them with care. Once they followed the tracks for several miles, but when the horses drifted down a trail into the deeper canyons, he let them go.

"The band I want runs further north," he said. "We will ride on."

They were skirting the base of Boot Mesa when they saw the horses at last. The band had come down the canyon of Moonlight Creek and out on the flatland, where they walked slowly along, grazing from the brush and grass as they moved.

Several minutes passed before they saw the golden stallion. He had topped out and was standing motionless on a knoll, head up, ears pricked.

They were more than a mile off, but the air was clear and his glasses brought the horses close. "He's the color of a gold coin," Matt said, "and there seems to be a splash of white over the rump. I think this is the band that I want."

He turned the glasses to examine the other horses. There were twenty-five to thirty head, most of them mares, and several of them had splashes of white over the shoulders or rump. He could not see if they were otherwise marked.

He passed the glasses to Kristina. "Look at the stallion. I want him, and some of the others.

"There was a Mormon came into this country a few years back," he went on, "and he brought some of the finest horses you've ever seen. His name was Ed Linnett, and his father came west with the original stock from Virginia and Kentucky. Then Ed picked up a fine stallion and some mares from the Nez Perces up in Idaho."

"Aren't these wild horses?"

"You bet they are-wild as they come. Ed came out on the wrong end of a fight with a grizzly. He was hunting a colt one of the mares had hidden and he found it the same time this she grizzly did. He wounded the bear and it charged him. He killed the bear, but it killed him, too."

"He must have been quite a man."

"He was all of that, and he never weighed over a hundred and thirty pounds, soaking wet. When that grizzly tackled that colt of his, he tackled Ed Linnett. Ed was all torn up by grizzly teeth and claws, but that bear had nine or ten stab marks in its hide where Ed got home with his hunting knife. Ed never did take to anything worrying his stock."

BOOK: the Key-Lock Man (1965)
6.45Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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