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WE CAME UP the trail from Texas in the spring of '74, and bedded our herd on the short grass beyond the railroad. We cleaned our guns and washed our necks and dusted our hats for town, riding fifteen strong to the hitching rail and standing fifteen strong to the bar.
We were the Tumbling B from the rough country of the Big Bend, up the trail with three thousand head of longhorn steers, the first that spring, although the rivers ran bank-full and Comanches rode the war trail.
We had buried two hands south of the Red and one on the plains of the Nation. A fourth had died on Kansas grass, his flesh churned under a thousand tearing hoofs. Two men had fallen before Comanche rifles, but the Comanches sang their death songs in the light of a hollow moon, and the Kiowas mourned in their lodges for warriors who fell before the guns of the Tumbling B.
The town to which we had come was ten buildings long on the north side of the street, and seven long on the south, with stock corrals to the east, and a Boot Hill on the west, and in between an edging from the mills of hell.
South of the street were the shacks of the girls, and north of it the homes of the respectable businessmen of the town, where no trail driver was permitted to go.
We were the riders who drove the beef on which the town's existence was built, fighting dust, hail, and lightning, meeting stampede and Kiowa lance, leaving the Comanche dead in his own tall grass. We fought our nameless Alamos and rode to our deaths without a song of glory, nor any memory to leave behind except a hand less at the night guard and an empty saddle in the chuck wagon.
We rode the long grass miles where no boundaries were, some riding a day's work for a day's pay, but others filled with their own wild poetry, conscious of the epic they rode.
Wild and hard were the men of the Tumbling B. Only two of us were past thirty, and some not yet twenty. We meant money to the girls of the Line and whiskey sales to the bartenders; to the merchants we were lean, brown young savages whose brief assault on their town was tolerated because of the money we brought.
That was the year I was thirty-five, and only the cook was as old as I. It was my fifth trip up the trail. I'd seen this town born from the stock pens, and other towns before it. At least one of those towns I'd seen die, leaving only brief scars for the prairie grass to erase.
We rode up the trail as before, with Kate Lundy driving her army ambulance alongside the chuck wagon, and when the Kiowas attacked, Kate's buffalo gun boomed an echo to our own.
That was the year when young Tom Lundy was nineteen, as much of a man as any man could wish to be, and he had left no love back in Texas.
He was one among us who rode north with a dream. For he wanted a girl, not just one to hold in his arms for a passing hour, but one to whom he could speak in the moonlight, a girl eager for the bright beauty of new love, with ears to listen to the words born of the poetry of life that had awakened within him.
And I, who had ridden beside him and seen him grow from the boy he'd been to the man he had become, knew what lay within him, knew the better because my heart had been singing its own song, and my horse's hoofs had drummed a tune to the sound of the same haunting, far-off bells.
The girl stood on the boardwalk outside the store, and when she lifted a hand to shade her eyes toward us, the sun caught at the red lights in her hair, and her eyes reached out for Tom as he rode up the street.
She looked straight at him, with a smile on her face, and at nineteen the smile of a strange girl is a glory to the blood and a spark to the spirit, carrying a richer wine than any sold across the bar of a frontier saloon.
He'd had no shave for days, and the dust of the trail lay thick on his clothing, but he stepped down from the saddle and walked toward her. She looked at him, a long, appraising look, and then she turned and went inside. The glance she left with him neither promised nor rejected.
He had taken his hat off, and now his hair blew in the wind. He stood there staring, his heart yearning after her. Up the street John Blake was watching, the black cigar in his teeth, and then his eyes turned to me. He rolled his cigar to the other side of his mouth, then turned away and walked up the street.
Tom came back to his horse. "Conn," he said excitedly, "did you see her? Did you see that girl?"
"I saw her."
He wanted a bath and a shave, he wanted new clothes . . . and he wanted to know that girl.
"It's trouble you're facing, Tom Lundy," I said. "She was a bonny lass, but you know the rules. No trail hand may walk north of the street, nor disturb the citizens."
"I've got to know her, Conn. I've got to! I'm not going to bother anybody. It's just that I've got to know her, to talk to her."
"This is John Blake's town."
The name had a special sound of its own, for it was a name known wherever cattle grazed. He was a hard man, trained by experience in the handling of hard men, knowing as much of their ways and movements as we knew of the cattle we drove. When he spoke, his voice was law. A square, powerful man with square, powerful hands, a man with a reputation for square dealing, but one who backed his law with a gun.
"This is a time for courting," Tom Lundy said, "and I want trouble with no man-least of all with John Blake."
When we stepped down from our saddles at the Bon Ton, I heard Red Mike say, "No drinking this day. We've got a man to stand behind."
There was a bright eagerness in young Tom's eyes, and I stood there on the walk, watching him, and thinking about it.
Tom Lundy was a man-man-strong, and man in the work he did. He was Kate Lundy's brother, but he had asked no favors because of it, standing to his work through drouth and blizzard, through dust and Indian battle. Yet in some ways he was very young, for in our wild country there were no girls for miles, and none for the likes of young Tom, who had grown to manhood on the novels of Sir Walter Scott.
In his own dreams he was a knight in bright armor who rode to find the golden-haired princess. He was no fool, no wild-eyed idealist, but simply a strong young man with an honest dream, a dream that his sister-and I, God help me-had helped to build.
And he had seen the girl.
It might have been any of a thousand girls in a thousand towns spread across the land, but the moment was here, and it was this one he had seen.
Bannion came out of his saloon and paused beside me. "Hard drive, Conn?"
"The usual . . . more Indians, I think."
"You're the first up the trail."
"Ban," I said, "there was a girl in front of the store over there, a tall, straight, fine-looking girl with a touch of red in her hair. Do you know who she might be?"
"Stay away from her."
"It's not me. It's young Tom."
Bannion took the cigar from his teeth and studied it carefully before replying. "Conn, you tell the boy to stay on his own side of the street. That's Aaron McDonald's daughter."
The sign was on the store into which she had walked: McDonald's Emporium.
"Tom Lundy," I said, "is a fine lad. If I had a sister I'd be proud to have Tom interested in her."
Bannion put the cigar back in his mouth and relighted it. "Tom Lundy," he said then, "is a Texan. He's also a cattle driver. In the mind of Aaron McDonald that rates him a mite lower than a red Indian."
"The hell with him."
"All right . . . but you take my advice. Tell Tom to lay off."
"Did you ever try to talk to a youngster who has just seen the girl he thinks he can't live without?"
"Aaron McDonald is a stiff-necked, bigoted old Puritan." Bannion spoke softly, and that very fact conveyed something to me. "He owns the Emporium, he owns a piece of the bank, he owns the livery stable. He also has the finest house in town, with grass growing in the yard and a picket fence around it.
"He came to town eight months ago, and he passes me on the walk two or three times a day. He has never spoken to me, he has never so much as acknowledged my existence."
Bannion paused. "I want you to understand something, Conn. I know how he feels, and do not hold it against him.
"He's eastern. Since he came into town he hasn't once driven any farther out of town than the cemetery. When he came west he brought his New England village mind right along with him. He's a hard man, Conn, and, meaning no offense, he thinks cattlemen are a wild, lawless crowd."
In spite of myself, I had to smile. Sure, some of us were wild and lawless . . . this had been, and still was to a great extent, a lawless country.
"Tom's a good boy," I said. "One of the best."
"Not to Aaron McDonald, he isn't. You put chaps and spurs on a man, and as far as McDonald is concerned, he's a savage.
"He says the cattle are a passing phase, and the sooner we're rid of them, the better. And believe it or not, there are plenty who think just as he does."
"Out here? They're crazy!"
"They are looking to farmers, Conn. They want to be rid of the cattle business, and of my kind, too, when it comes to that."
"They're jumping the gun, if you ask me. It will be years before there's farmers enough in this country to support a town."
"Not to hear them tell it."
Kate Lundy was coming out of the hotel, so I excused myself and went to meet her.
Kate was a handsome woman. Not all the hardship of pioneering on the Texas border had taken one bit of it from her. She was tall, slender, and graceful. She had a beautifully boned face and large, lovely eyes . . . yet there was a kind of special steel in Kate Lundy, a steel tempered and honed by the need to survive under the harshest kind of conditions. Only two people knew what Kate had been through . . . only one, really, for Tom had been too young to appreciate most of it. And that left me.
"Good morning, Conn," Kate said. "How are the cattle?"
"Fine. I left Priest and Naylor out there with D'Artaguette."
"Have you had breakfast?"
"Coffee . . . I thought I'd better come in and talk to them first. Hardeman's down at the yards. He can handle five hundred head today, but we'll have to graze most of the herd until he gets more cars."
"The grass is good."
"Yes . . . it is."
"You're worried, Conn. What is it?"
"Tom. He's laid his eyes on Aaron McDonald's daughter, and he's cleaning up to go courting."
"You mean she isn't a nice girl? Is that it?"
"She lives north of the street."
She didn't reply for a minute or two, and we stood there together in the bright sunlight. Finally, she said simply, "Conn, let's have breakfast."
We turned toward the restaurant, but John Blake was coming up the walk, and we stopped to greet him.
He had a square, strong face and blue eyes, cool eyes that measured a man with care. He wore a neat black suit with a black tie.
"How do you do?" he said to Kate. "Mrs. Lundy, is it?"
"Yes, and you'll be John Blake."
His eyes flickered to me. "And you are Conn Dury."
Oh, he knew the name, all right! There were not many in the cattle country who didn't, and there were both good and bad things he could have heard of me. Being John Blake, he had heard it all, I think. He would make it his business to do so.
"You've the name of a good cattleman, Dury, and your steers look it." He glanced along the street, and then he came to the point. "Your men aren't drinking."
"Tod Mulloy," he said, "and Red Mike . . ."
"And a dozen more like them. They're good men, John Blake."
"You came for trouble, Dury."
"The Comanches are riding the war trail, and the Kiowas. A man would be a fool not to expect trouble."
"Man," I said irritably, "think of it. Why would we want trouble? Mrs. Lundy has a good crew, a solid crew, and a crew that has been with her for some time. Our hands are her family."
"It is true, Mr. Blake," Kate said.
He was not through. He knew as well as we did that when hands do not drink something is in the wind, and he wanted to know what to expect.
We were scarcely seated in the restaurant before she came in-a beautiful girl, cool, composed, and a bit older than I had first thought. She was perhaps nineteen, or even twenty, and few girls reached that age without being married. Kate glanced at her, then looked again, but before she could say anything to me the door burst open and Tom came in.
He did not see us. He saw nothing but the girl before him, seated alone at a table. He approached her, sweeping his hat fom his head.
"I saw you when I rode into town," he said. "I am a poor hand for courting, knowing little but horses, cattle, and grass. I only know that when I saw you standing there, I knew that my life began and ended with you, and I would have no happiness until I knew you."
She looked up at him and said, "My father is Aaron McDonald, and a hard man. He looks with no favor on Texas men."
"If you will allow it, I shall call this evening."
"The house stands among the cottonwoods at the street's far end," she said, and then she added, "and it is north of the street."
"You can expect me," he said.
He turned and walked out of the restaurant, and he did not see us, nor look our way.
She sat very still after he had gone, and there was no change of color in her face, although I noticed a brightness in her eyes that I did not like.