ROBERT J. HOGAN April 1 1952


ROBERT J. HOGAN April 1 1952


The killer motioned with his gun. "Let's be going," he said. And so May and Will stepped out into the searing heat of Wildhorse Basin where their dreams of a private paradise had turned to dust


EARLY JULY was upon Wildhorse Basin and the summer heat cursed the land. Where grass should be green and lush for the stock, only heat waves rose from the cracked earth.

The stock stood on the bare ground watching for Will Hadley to return with a jag of the last swamp hay from the drying mountain spring bench and a barrel part-filled with the day’s run of water. He’d been hauling regularly for two weeks now since the creek that cut the Hadley ranch had run dry.

May Hadley looked at herself in the mirror over the black iron kitchen sink. The slight lines of her formerly attractive young face were no longer just lines. The dryness and heat and alkali dust had made them more like the cracks in the parched earth. She shuddered at sight of herself and took the pail out to the pump.

For a long time she worked the handle. She knew about how many strokes would bring water. Each morning of late it had taken an added stroke or two to bring it up from the drying well. Finally the parched plunger caught suction and water began coming in a sick muddy stream. It poured limp into the pail. She watched it without change of expression. Her mouth remained in the same straight firm line for she had made up her mind this morning and now nothing would change her. She would tell Will as soon as he got back from the spring. No, she’d wait until after he got some breakfast in him. Then she’d tell him she was going back east to Alton to her folks. She formed the words in her mind as she pumped.

“Will, it isn’t anything you’ve done. It’s me, most likely. I’m to blame. I wasn’t made for a ranch woman. I can’t stand to stay living here, drying up in this heat without neighbors or friends or anything but more heat and privation. I’ve stuck it out two years and I can’t stand it any longer. I’m leaving you.”

The pail was a little over half full when the sucking sound of the pump stopped. She carried the pail into the kitchen and stirred up the fire.

Hector, the steer they’d been trying to fatten for their winter meat, let out a long bellow and she knew Will was in sight up the basin. Hector always bawled like that when Will came in sight after he’d been away. She wondered how Will would get up the courage to butcher Hector in November. He’d made such a pet of him.

She hurried breakfast, now that she'd decided to tell Will. She hurried everything to get it over. Things would be easier then.

The wheels of the Brewerton wagon rumbled on the bridge over the creek and she knew just how much time she’d have left to take up breakfast. The biscuits would be done and the sowbelly, too, by the time Will had spread the swail grass for the cattle and poured the water into the watering trough.

Will came in on schedule as she put the hot biscuits on the kitchen table. He said, “Buck Blackburn’s been seen in this section.”


“Buck Blackburn. He’s the killer who shot the sheriff down in Salado county after robbing the bank there.”

May took a deep breath and let it out. She couldn’t think of anything she wanted to say about it.

“Lute Mabon was up at the spring, playing his mouth organ and waiting to tell me. He likes to feel important.”

“You don’t count on anything Lute tells you, do you?”

“Never can tell. The kid’s supposed to be kind of queer but sometimes he acts real smart.” He went to the sink.

“Be gentle with the water,” May said. “That’s all I could get from the well.”

“Don’t need to wash,” Will said, turning to the table. “Got my hands fairly wet in the cattle water from the spring.”

He drew out his chair and sat down. She sat across from him and minced at her food while she watched him please his hunger.

Will stuffed a half biscuit in his mouth and said, “There was some

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clouds, looked like, way up the Escalonte. Hope it means rain.”

May was beyond hope. She sat waiting. He finished his coffee and glanced at the stove. She rose and filled his cup. It would likely be the last cup of coffee she’d pour for him.

She sat down again with her hands in her lap and waited for him to finish drinking. He lingered over the cup and took another biscuit.

Her tension reached bursting pressure and she said, “Will, I’m leaving you.” She stopped there and sat staring at her husband. “I’m going home to my folks.”

Will had been spreading sowbelly grease on his biscuit. He laid down the knife and sat holding the biscuit in his big hand, greasy side up. His blue-grey eyes held no shock or surprise. “Well,” he said, “I can’t say I blame you.”

“It isn’t you,” she said quickly. “It isn’t anything you’ve—.”

“Don’t suffer over it,” he said. “You been hurt enough. May. I just built up the picture of living on the ranch too much. ’Course, the main trouble was, this section never had two dry years running like we’ve had.”

“It—it’s not just that, either.”

“I know,” he said. “It’s everything. The drought and the neighbors moving away and it’s me and it’s everything.” He got his pipe and felt for tobacco that wasn’t there. He sucked at his pipe a little and put it back in the pocket of his soft worn blue shirt. He sighed. “I expect I should have borrowed money at the bank and put in a windmill and lots of things to make life easier. But it was a lot of work getting this place paid off free and clear and I meant to keep it that way.” He rose. “I’ll see about borrowing enough for your railroad ticket.”

“That won’t be necessary,” she said. “Mother sent me some money last Christmas I never told you about. It was to use to come and see them then.”

“I’ll get the money for you,” Will said. “You’re my wife and I can pay your way home if you want to go.” He took out his pipe again and felt instinctively in the pocket of his work vest hanging in the corner. He found no tobacco so he sucked on the pipe some more and put it away. “One thing I’m curious about, though. May. You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to.”

She waited.

“You’ve stuck it out two years. You want to tell me the real reason you made up your mind this morning?”

Her mouth hardened as if trying to hold back something. She picked up the dishes and put them in the sink and stood looking into the mirror.

“It’s just that—enough is enough, Will.”

He nodded. “You been good to stand it this long,” he said. “It wasn’t the way I planned it. None of it. I’ll go to Rangely and get some money for you and a ticket back to Alton. You keep what your folks sent you. You’ll need it.”

He put on his wide-brimmed hat and started for the door.

She turned from the sink. “While you’re gone I’ll wash you some clean clothes so you’ll have enough to carry you for a while.”

“I’ll he obliged,” Will said.

He went out and saddled the spare chestnut. On his way out of the yard, he reined beside the kitchen door. “I’ll leave the Winchester in the corner,” he called.

May stood in the doorway with her wet hands together, her eyes questioning.

“There’s not a chance, but since Buck Blackburn has been seen in the region, you might feel easier having the gun.”

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He turned and rode to the bridge and across it toward town. There was no use causing May more pain than necessary. If she wanted to go, she deserved it and he’d make it as easy as he could. It just hadn’t been meant to work out, that was all.

He thought about the first time he had met her, fresh out of Normal School. He’d gone to the cattle showwit h some prize stock from the Pothook M ranch the other side of Rangely where he’d been top hand at the time. May had come with her folks and she’d taken a fancy to the soft-nosed champion steer. Will had liked to think it had been him she’d taken the fanev to. He had seen her several times on that trip and then on the next he had asked her to marry him and she had accepted.

“Maybe,” he said aloud, “I painted things too pretty for her on the ranch, telling her about the sunsets out here and how the coyote pups sound in the spring and the screech owl that used to purr outside my bedroom window in the juniper.”

He reined his chestnut to the left of the trail and headed for a notch in the long ridge where a little green showed. Giving his mind something to do as he rode might take his thoughts off his loss. He inspected some halfdead grass there for feed to keep his stock going a little longer then he headed for town along the back trail.

“And me telling her the bull bats drumming in the evening was pretty.” He shook his head. “And May expecting some kind of animal drumming like a grouse cock, making pretty music, instead of a night hawk diving past your head, picking bugs out of the air.” He almost laughed at the recollection. “Poor little bunny squirrel. I oughtn’t to have talked her

into coming here in the first place.”

He rode into town the back way and came down the street where there was a vacant house he might have got her so she could live in town. He glanced at the place as he rode by it and decided it wouldn’t have done anyway. Outside the fact that she would be living in town where she’d see people, she wouldn’t gain anything. The four-room ranch house was better to live in than this shack in town.

He rode on to the bank.

Mark Dewey, the banker, sat studying the human nature in Will’s long face as he came through the wicket.

“I’d like to borrow a little money, Mark,” Will said, “if my note’s good for fifty dollars.”

Dewey nodded slowly. “You got no indebtedness against your place, have you, Will?”

“Nothing’s against it,” Will said. “I’m scared to put a mortgage on it, I guess. Worked too hard getting it paid for.”

“Money spent in the right places sometimes helps to make more money,” Dewey said.

“I expect so,” Will said. He nodded at the note Mark Dewey was making out for him to sign. “Wanted a little money for May so she can visit her folks. Been a long time.”

Mark pushed the note toward him. Will read and signed it. There was no use telling the banker or anybody that May wasn’t coming back. There was no use, really, admitting it even to , himself. It would be easier on him if he tried to make himself believe she was just going for a visit.

He drew the fifty dollars at the window and walked out. While he rode to the railroad station, he tried to think what he would do for company after May was gone. He took particular pains to speak to a half-dozen citizens along the boardwalks. He’d need friends to fill in the loneliness At the little weathered station down by the sizzling tracks, the agent said, “Round trip ticket is cheaper and she’s got it when she’s ready to come back, Will.”

“She’s not sure just when that’ll be,” Will said, and his stomach went sour at the words. To make it more convincing, he said, “It’ll likely depend on her folks and such.”

“Her ma or pa sick?” the agent asked.

“No, not exactly, I don’t guess.” “Hmm,” said the agent.

Will stopped for a visit wdth the loungers in front of the barber shop. He went into the general store and bought some harness thread for sewing up the cantle leather of his old saddle that was coming loose.

Ed Priestley, the merchant, said, “Seen anything of that Blackburn killer out around your place, Will?” “No,” Will said and thought about May alone there.

“He won’t go far,” Priestley said. “Jake Titus found the sorrel horse Buck Blackburn had stole in Salado county up back of his place in the hills, wandering around on three legs. That killin’ devil, Blackburn, didn’t even have the goodness in him to shoot the horse after the leg broke.” “Likely afraid somebody’d hear the shot,” Will said.

Jake Titus’ big spread extended almost up to Will Hadley’s ranch. Will tipped back his hat and mopped the sweat off his brow with his sleeve.

He went out and paused on the general store porch. A crowd was growing in front of the sheriff’s office in the courthouse square. He heard the bellowing voice of Matt Kelso, Sheriff of Rangely County.

“We’ll corner him and kill that skunk if we have to burn the house down around him,” Kelso shouted.

Will got on his horse and rode up toward the cottonwood grove that sheltered the courthouse from the blazing sun. Lute Mabon broke from the crowd and came running toward him, his stubby legs beating the air.

“Will,” he said, “I just come by your place. Recollect me tellin’ you about they was lookin’ for Buck Blackburn?” The strange little man was panting in his excitement, as if he had run all the way. His eyes stood out of his bullet-shaped head and his wide mouth worked spasmodically. “I seen him directly after you’d got out of sight. He come sneakin’ from the alders back of your place and I seen him slip in the kitchen door and close it. So I come down to tell the sheriff.” Sheriff Kelso was on his horse, a big, noisy man with long arms. He waved one in the air and shouted, “Come on, boys. You’re all deputized. Let’s go.” Will gigged his mount up beside the sheriff. He said, “We got to figure

something different, Kelso. My wife’ll be there in the house; with Blackburn.” “We’ll see about it when we get there,” Kelso said.

They spurred their horses down Main Street.

ALOW RIDGE gave them the first view of the Hadley place a mile off. There, Sheriff Kelso called his dozen-man posse into a clump of sickly green lodgepole pines.

“We’ll separate here. I'll take you and you,” he said, picking the men, “and you, Will. We’ll ride ’round

about to the dry creek bed ih front of the house. The rest of you spread around the back so the place is surrounded. Don’t let Buck Blackburn know we’re there until we get ready to open fire.”

“Sheriff,” Will said, “I can’t let you start shooting at my house while my wife’s in there.”

“I’m afraid, Will,” Kelso said, “you’ve got nothing to say about it. This is a matter of kill or get killed.” “I know,” Will said, “but—.”

They were riding off, keeping to cover. The other section of the posse

was skirting out around to come up behind the house through the alders.

He wondered just what had happened when Buck Blackburn entered his house. He wondered how May had felt about it—if she’d been scared— what she had done.

“One thing, Sheriff,” Will said. “If Blackburn comes out of the house, using May for a shield, don’t shoot till we get them parted.”

Sheriff Kelso turned on him. “Will, I got enough to worry about with my own men taking chances. I’ll be as easy as I possibly can. We got some

mighty good shots in this here posse.” “I know, but—.”

“You’re unarmed, Will,” Kelso said. “You just keep down out of the way.” They left their horses in a juniper clump and walked, bent double, to the cottonwoods along the creek.

“Maybe they ain’t in the house,” Lute said in his high, quick-paced voice. “Maybe Buck Blackburn come and took her off with him.”

“If Buck did stop there and you ain’t made up the story,” Kelso said, “he likely only wanted something to eat.” He turned to Hadley. “Will, you got any way to tell if anything’s wrong?”

“I don’t think so.” He was staring at the house. There was no sign of life except for the open lower sashes of the front windows. May usually kept those open in the morning to let in the cool that was left from the night. “No, 7 don’t think anything—.” He paused and tried to think what was wrong. “Wait a shake. She said she was going to wash this morning, if she did that, there’d he clothes hanging on the line.”

“Keep down, boys,” Sheriff Kelso said. “Something moved by the west window.”

Will strained his eyes. He saw his wife’s face at the opening, then she drew back. Suddenly she appeared again.

“It’s May,” he said. “Don’t shoot. Somebody’s keeping her at that window. She’s not the kind to be peeking from windows.”

Will stood up suddenly. Before the sheriff or any of the others could pull him down, he stepped out into the open with his hands raised shoulder high and began walking toward the house.

“Come back here,” Kelso growled. Will shook his head and kept going. “I’m going to her.”

There was no use trying to hide the fact that the sheriff and his posse were there now. Kelso rose from cover and bellowed, “Hadley, come back here or I’ll—.”

“Shoot and be damned,” Will called over his shoulder. “I’m going to be with my wife, I tell you.”

His boots had a steady solid rhythm. Once he’d broken into the open he never changed his pace. He moved purposefully. His eyes shifted from the windows to the door.

The door opened and he walked in and the door closed. May stood before him, white-faced but otherwise composed. Still, there was something strange about her. She looked taller. “You shouldn’t have come, Will.” “1 couldn’t leave you here alone,” Will said. “Where is he?”

“Here,” a voice said from the kitchen.

Will turned and looked into the muzzle of a Colt. He recognized the outlaw from his dodger picture. He’d always had the idea that it would be a fearsome thing if he ever faced an outlaw killer. But this man looked normal. He had steady blue eyes wit h sun crinkles about them. He had a short growth of unkept beard. He half grinned at Hadley and said, “That took a lot of guts to walk across the open, knowing I was here. I can use you.”

“I was hoping you could,” Will said. “I came to make a swap for my wife.” “That’s something different again,” Blackburn said.

“Let her walk out the front door alone and I’ll stay if you .got to have a shield.”

Blackburn shook his head. “Not while I got two of you,” he said. “You see, now I’m going out the back door between you, then they han’t get me from either side.”

“They’ll get you front and rear,” Will said.

“We’ll be walking real close,” Blackburn said. “And we’ll head for the barn and the corral. You got a horse out shere I can ride.”

“I’m asking you once more,” Will said. “Let my wife go and I’ll do anything you want me to.”

Blackburn hesitated, then he shook his head. “Let’s try it my way—right now.” He moved them ahead of him toward the kitchen door that faced the barn and corral. He had a gun in each hand now.

They paused before him at the door. Will glanced at his wife. She moved strangely as if she were having trouble walking.

Buck Blackburn slid his gun-filled hands under an arm of each, hugged them close to him, and kicked the kitchen door open. “Let’s be going.”

Will thought of the sheriff and his men to the right. That was his side of the outlaw. He worried more about May’s side. She was smaller and they might try to shoot past her.

Blackburn was strong and he moved them in a fast walk toward the corral. His voice grew tense.

“Doin’ just fine. Move faster.”

He hurried them along.

May suddenly crumpled and went down in a heap on the ground. The thought passed through Will’s slow mind that she had done a clever thing. By falling, she exposed Buck Blackburn’s left side to the men in the alders.

Will dived for the earth, wrenching his arm free from Blackburn. He lit ¡ on his right shoulder.

He could look over and see May in a heap on the ground three feet away, l He heard Buck Blackburn curse, then the guns began firing.

A volley of shots came from the dry creek bed and another from the possemen in the alders.

Blackburn had started to run. He stumbled and pitched over on his face and lay still.

The possemen came out from both sides of the house. Sheriff Kelso turned Blackburn over with his boot.

Will helped his wife up. Everybody stared at the corpse.

The sheriff said, “Let’s get him over a horse and start him for town. Here’s one we won’t have to try.”

The possemen stood around, em| barrassed, and looked at May Hadley j and her husband as if they thought | they should make some apology.

Will took his wife back into the house and the posse rode away.

IN THE KITCHEN Will breathed deeply. He looked at the pot of coffee and felt the heat from the stove where May had cooked a meal for Blackburn.

“Would you like a cup of coffee?” she asked.

“I’d like something,” he said. “Coffee’d be fine.”

She poured two cups and they sat down at the kitchen tab.e.

“I got to hand it to you,” Will said. “That was a clever trick, pretending to faint walking to the corral.”

“I wasn’t pretending,” she said. “When he came in and wanted something to eat, I was practicing in the high-heeled shoes I was married in, to see if I could wear them on the trip. I fell down.”

“Anyway, it worked dandy,” he said. He sighed. “I got some money on a note at the bank and brought you your ticket to Alton. There was some money left. You’li want some new clothes, maybe, and shoes you can walk in.

She looked at the ticket and money lying between them on the table. Slowly, she shook her head, then

reaching out, she pushed it back. “I couldn’t leave you now, Will. Not after the way you came to me. Even if I go crazy here, I couldn’t leave.” “Well,” Will said, “1 think you were right. This’d be a hard place to bring up a baby, if things didn’t get better.” “Baby?” she said. “How did you know?”

“Signs,” he said. “I sort of figured it was the baby that made up your mind to leave about now.”

“I couldn’t think of bringing someone into this world to be as lonely as I’ve been,” she said. “But then I’d

be more lonely for you, Will, if I went back home.”

“It may not be so lonely here,” Will said. “Chuck Lindrum and his family are figuring to come back to their place across the basin as soon as the weather changes. Just heard that at the barber shop. He can’t see how this dry spell can last many more summers.”

“I did like Zema Lindrum,” May said.

“I thought you’d be glad to hear about them,” Will said.

May turned her attention to the open window. She said, “Isn’t it getting dark early this afternoon?”

“That’s another thing 1 forgot to mention,” Will said. “They say it rained hard up the Escalonte and we always get their weather down here later on.”

Outside, there was a far-off roar.

“What was that?” May asked. “It sounded like thunder.”

“Will got up and stood in the doorway, looking at the dark clouds. “Tbat’s what it was,” he said.

May came and stood with him in the doorway and he put his arm lightly about her shoulder.

It began to rain. ★