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The cook who had straightened up from the fire stared at him, his eyes narrowing with speculation when he noted that Ben Tolan dismounted with the horse between himself and the fire . . .
Rough Beginning of a Short Story or Novel
BEAU L'AMOUR'S COMMENTS:
I have often wondered if this fragment wasn't an alternative attempt to the "stranger rides up to a camp" concept that kicked off "Carlan's Gold." My father often kept trying variations on an approach until something clicked. This story has a bit more potential to go all the way to novel length, however. The conflict between the issue of the captive woman and the need to return to civilization for supplies seemed to suggest that the tension in "Carlan's Gold" was likely to blow up much more quickly than the balance between the elements he was working with here.
Ben Tolan came down off the ridge with the sun behind him, and when he left the glare of the sun he was out of sight under the trees.
He rode up-wind toward the camp he had glimpsed so their horses would catch no scent, and he rode quietly, choosing his approach.
In the Mocking Bird country they would tell you Ben Tolan was a careful man ... up to a point. He was especially careful now.
There were eight people around the fire but it was a girl who saw him first. She did not speak to the others, merely watching him as he rode through the trees. He drew up some thirty feet from the fire and sat his saddle, taking it all in.
Six of them, three girls and three men were obviously tenderfeet, to judge by their clothing. The man who was cooking was a western man ... Tolan knew it by his gear and the way he worked around the campfire.
The last man was apparently a guide, a stocky, hard-jawed man. The only one who wore a gun. It was this man who now saw him, glimpsing him from the corners of his eyes and turning sharply around in a manner that to Ben Tolan was unmistakable.
The man had turned as if prepared to defend himself ... why? What was bothering him?
"Andy," it was the girl who had first seen him who spoke, "we have a guest."
A young man with a shock of dark hair turned around and when he saw Tolan his face broke into a wide smile.
"Hey!" He said. "Get down and come in!" His grin was a little self-conscious when he added, "what is it they say out here? 'Light an' set!'"
Tolan swung to the ground. The cook who had straightened up from the fire stared at him, his eyes narrowing with speculation when he noted that Ben Tolan dismounted with the horse between himself and the fire.
Ben Tolan was a tall, spare man who wore a buckskin hunting jacket with fringed sleeves and a black, flat-crowned, flat-brimmed hat. He also wore a gun.
"Coming on to rain," he commented. "You folks hunting?"
The young man with the shock of dark hair walked around the fire. "I'm Andy Blake. We're going after elk."
"Good country for it."
His eyes lifted to the girl, who puzzled him. Her hair was a rusty brown, her eyes golden in the firelight, probably hazel by day. She had square, fine shoulders and a quick, easy way of moving that spoke of some controlled inner restlessness. She took up the blackened coffee pot and filled a cup and handed it to him.
"Thanks," he said again.
The guide looked sullen and angry. He turned sharply away and walked back toward their horses, and Ben's eyes followed him thoughtfully.
The chatter that had stilled when he approached welled up again, although with a certain self-consciousness in it now. It was the friendly, careless chatter of people without responsibility, at least for the few days ahead of them. Never having known such a time, he looked at them with wonderment.
The guide returned to the edge of the fire, but merely stood there, staring at Tolan.
Andy Blake briefly introducing the others. There was an older man and woman, and she wore a wedding ring. He missed their names, only hearing that of the girl who had first seen him.
Melanie Rand ... he turned the name over in his mind. It had a nice sound, but he had never heard it before, and that was curious because there was a puzzling familiarity about her.
The coffee was good. "Thanks," he said again, "I was fresh out of coffee."
"You're traveling light." It was the guide who spoke.
Andy Blake turned. "Oh, I'm sorry! This is Bill Geghan ... our guide."
"That's a fine horse," Melanie commented, "is it a Morgan?"
He glanced at her thoughtfully. "About half. The rest is Arab and mustang."
She looked at him strangely, and he noticed that her eyes went again to the brand. She had glanced at it when he first rode up, and it was the reaction of a western girl, not a tenderfoot. A brand told who you rode for in most cases, it was identification, often an introduction. In a country where riders were fiercely loyal to the brand for which they rode it often told more than might have been imagined.
He put down his cup. "Take care of my horse," he muttered.
"Put him up with ours," Blake said, "stay the night."
"Thanks," he said again. He walked off under the trees leading his horse and heard the conversation well up behind him. Melanie Rand was having no part of it, but standing to one side, looking off into the trees as if listening.
"Tolan"...Melanie lifted her head. That was the name. It had been such a long time since she had heard it, such a long time since the terror . . .
The guide had been upset by his arrival...now why would that be?
He stripped the gear from the black horse and then took a handful of grass and started rubbing him down. As he worked he thought of the party behind him, and wondered why they worried him. Was it that he wished to be alone in the mountains with what lay before him?
He thought of Bill Geghan. Had his been the natural reaction to some casual drifter who might interfere with his plans for the party? Or was there something more behind it?
"The trouble with you," he said aloud, "you're too suspicious."
"Was that meant for me?"
He turned to her voice. "No. No, Ma'am, it surely wasn't. Something a lonely man gets into the habit of doing .. .talkin' to himself."
"Why are you here?"
"Me?" He was surprised. "I'm just drifting."
"I don't believe that. You see, I know that brand. I know that breed of horse."
His glance was alive with curiosity. "Figured you might."
He dropped the grass and pulled another handful. It was scarce here at the edge of the forest. He started on the other side of the horse, and she followed him around.
"Where's he takin' you? I mean where are you going to hunt?"
"Over on the Blue ... there's elk there."
"There's others closer. That's mighty rough country."
A man was walking toward them from the fire. He was the big young man that Tolan had noticed before.
"Melanie? Supper's ready."
"All right, Don."
Don whatever-his-name-was looked at Tolan with irritation.
Tolan picked up his gear and carried his Winchester in his right hand. He walked to a place not too far from the horses and dropped his gear near a tree. He leaned his rifle there, not too far out of reach.
On the Blue? There was game there ... lots of it. But that was rough country ... not the easiest to travel nor the best for hunting. Thoughtfully, he walked to the fire and fell in at the end of the line.
It made a kind of sense, for the country was beautiful, and Blake looked like the sort who might like to tackle some rough country. He was a tenderfoot, but he looked fit and he looked game.
This Don now ... who was he?
They were half-way through their meal when they heard some horses. Melanie heard them and her head came up. The stranger was gone from his place ... she realized then, for the first time, that he had not told them his name.
The horses came closer. "Hello, the fire!"
Geghan was standing. "Come on in," he said.
There were ten in the group, hard-bitten, dusty men.
The man with the star dismounted and walked to the fire, glancing swiftly around. He nodded briefly to Geghan. "Howdy, Bill. You in charge here?"
"I would say that I am," Andy Blake said, "as much as anybody. These people are my guests."
"I bought the old Hayden place. We're going after elk."
The sheriff seemed satisfied. "There's been trouble. We're riding toward Squaw Peak."
Geghan shifted his feet. "Kind of wasting time, aren't you? Or do you believe that old story about the box canyon on Squaw?"
"I believe it. That was where Art Tolan kept his horses. He must have. Nobody ever saw them running with his other stock."
Tolan ... Melanie lifted her head. That was the name. It had been such a long time since she had heard it, such a long time since the terror to the country around.
She had grown up on the stories of the Tolans, wild, romantic stories about a band of outlaws that lived back in the hills and rode fabulous horses. She had almost forgotten the stories until now ... until she had seen that horse out beyond the campfire light.
"I don't believe it," Geghan replied. "I never believed it. Anyway, that was a long time ago."
She sat down by the fire. She listened to the idle talk, watched the sheriff's posse ride away to make camp somewhere not far off. Some time passed before anyone mentioned their visitor. "He turned in, I think," she replied indifferently. "He looked tired."
"There was a train holdup at Spring Valley Junction. Four men got away...one was killed."
"They think the Tolans did it? . . . "
"Don't they always!"
Lying in her blankets later, she tried to remember all she had heard. This was home to her. She had grown up on a ranch not twenty miles from here, although few of her friends knew that. Her father, she recalled, had always been sympathetic to the Tolans. Although regarded as outlaws, they had been friendly with the Indians when nobody else was, and they had turned no man from their door. They had been Union men in an area over-run with Confederate sympathizers.
There had been a gun battle over horses. Somebody had claimed a Tolan horse, only right before the eyes of a group, Tolan had called the man a liar, and when guns were drawn, had killed him. Then he had called to the horse and the horse had followed him away like a pet dog.
Nevertheless, the dead man had friends. Rumors had circulated that the Tolans were stock rustlers, and newcomers in the area had believed it. More and more they had drawn in on themselves. And then, just before her time the Tolan-Horell feud had broken out and for years it had seesawed back and forth until the Horells were finally wiped out.
She remembered a time at Zimmerman's Store when she had gone there with her father and four of the Tolans had suddenly ridden up to the store. They were straight, tall men, very dark and lean, and heavily armed. They had several pack animals with them, and she remembered their magnificent horses...that had been the time her father had told her about those horses, about the Tolan who had come west with three Morgan mares, magnificent animals, too.
Later, he had gone to California and married a Spanish-Californian and had returned with an Arab stallion and a mare.
They had bred mustang blood into them for the added hardiness, and they guarded their horses jealously and would sell none of them at all. They were rumored to keep them hidden in a secret box-canyon in the broken country around Squaw Peak. There had been nine boys in one family, and three girls. In the other Tolan family there had been five boys and three girls.
Several ... she had forgotten how many ... had been killed in the feud. There was another who had lost his life rescuing a drunken man from a fire ... she had supposed they were all gone.
When she came to the fire at daybreak, Ben Tolan was already there, nursing a cup of coffee in his hands. He glanced up at her and said quietly, "It's a fortunate quality."
"What? What do you mean?"
"For a woman to look lovely in the morning."
She blushed. "Why ... why, thank you."
He reached for the pot as she picked up a cup and without moving from the squatting position, he filled it for her, then his own.
The others were stirring. Bill Geghan was already gone off somewhere, and Andy Blake was pulling on his boots while the cook worked over a small table close by. It was a folding table that Black had brought from the ranch.
"You're a Tolan, aren't you?"
He glanced at her. "Ben Tolan," he said. "You knew the horse, and that means you must be from this country."
"Not any more. We left there ten years ago." Melanie paused just an instant. "My father was Dave Rand, we lived over on the Blue not far from Squaw Peak."
"Neighbors." He gulped coffee. "Only we never had any real neighbors. Sort of kept to ourselves."
"You heard what the sheriff said?"
"I heard it." He rested his forearm on his knee. "What about Geghan? Why's he taking you to the Blue? Elk all over this country."
"Why, I don't know." Oddly enough, she had not given it a thought, but now that he mentioned it, she knew it was foolish ... and puzzling.
"Do you know why the sheriff is going up there?"
He got up. "There was a train holdup at Spring Valley Junction. Four men got away ... one was killed. They carried off about sixty thousand dollars."
"And they think the Tolans did it?"
"Don't they always?" He rinsed out his cup." Ma'am, I'll tell you this. No Tolan ever took a dime that wasn't rightfully his."
He walked to his horse and she watched him saddling up. Andy Blake walked over to him and Melanie joined them. "Have time to join us?" Nobody was more friendly than Andy. "Like to have you along."
"Sorry." Ben Tolan stepped into the saddle and turned the black. It was a splendid horse ... about sixteen hands and strongly built, shaped for stamina and rough going. "You should never have left this country," he said to her, "you belong here."
He rode off through the trees, and Andy turned to her curiously. "You never told me you had lived up here. I had no idea."
"I was a child then ... but I loved it."
Late in the afternoon she fell back beside Andy, who was bringing up the rear. Don turned in his saddle to stare back at her, irritated that she should leave his side.
"Andy, did Bill Geghan tell you why we had to go to the Blue for elk? There's a lot of them in this country."
"They are larger over there ... prettier country. That's what he said. And we might even get a shot at a bear."
That was true enough, but it worried her. By nightfall she was even more worried.
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