Read an Excerpt
For seven days in the spring of 1882 the man called Shalako heard no sound but the wind . . .
No sound but the wind, the creak of his saddle, the hoofbeats of his horse.
Seven days riding the ghost trails up out of Sonora, down from the Sierra Madre, through Apache country, keeping off the skylines, and watching the beckoning fingers of the talking smoke.
Lean as a famine wolf but wide and thick in the shoulder, the man called Shalako was a brooding man, a wary man, a man who trusted to no fate, no predicted destiny, nor to any luck. He trusted to nothing but his weapons, his horse, and the caution with which he rode.
His hard-boned face was tanned to saddle leather under the beat-up, black, flat-crowned hat. He wore fringed shotgun chaps, a faded red shirt, a black handkerchief knotted about his throat, and a dozen scars of knife and bullet.
It was a baked and brutal land, this Sonora, sunblistered and arid, yet as he sifted his way through the stands of organ-pipe cactus, prickly pear and cat’s claw, he knew the desert throbbed with its own strange life, and he knew those slim fingers of lifting smoke beckoned death.
He was a lone-riding man in a lonesome country, riding toward a destiny of which he knew nothing, a manwho for ten long years had known no other life than this, nor wished for any other.
What else there was he had known before, but now he lived from day to day, watching the lonely sunsets flame and die, bleeding their crimson shadows against the long, serrated ridges. Watching the dawns come, seeing the mornings stir with their first life . . . and the land he rode was a land where each living thing lived by the death of some other thing.
The desert was a school, a school where each day, each hour, a final examination was offered, where failure meant death and the buzzards landed to correct the papers.
For the desert holds no easy deaths . . . hard, bitter, and ugly are the desert deaths . . . and long drawn out.
Merciless were the raw-backed mountains, dreadfully desolate the canyons, the white-faced ancient lakes were dust . . . traps where a man might die, choking horribly upon alkali or the ashen powder of ancient rocks.
For seven days Shalako heard no sound but that of his own passage, and then a gunshot bought space in the silence, a harsh whiplash of sound, followed after an instant by the shattering volley of at least four rifles.
The rifles spoke again from the sounding board of the rocks, racketing away down the canyons to fade at the desert’s rim.
Motionless upon a sun-baked slope, he waited while the sweat found thin furrows through the dust on his cheeks, but there was no further sound, no further shot, nor was there movement within the range of his vision . . . merely the lazy circle of a buzzard against the heatblurred sky.
If they had not seen him already they would not see him if he remained still, and Shalako had learned his patience in a hard school.
Movement attracts the eye, draws the attention, renders visible. A motionless object that blends with the surroundings can long remain invisible even when close by, and Shalako was not moving.
About him lay vast, immeasurable distances, pastel shadings of salmon, pink, and lemon broken by the deeper reds of rock or the darkness of cliff shadow. Overhead the sun was lost in a copper sky above the heatwaved reaches where all sharpness of outline melted in the shimmering movement of the air.
The innocent distance that lay before him was broken by hollows, canyons, folded hills, but it seemed an even, unbroken expanse from where he sat. There were cholla forests out there, scatterings of lava . . . a land where anything might be and something obviously was.
The notch in the hills toward which he was pointing held a pass through the mountains, and within the pass lay a water hole. His canteen was half-full and if necessity demanded it could be made to last another three days . . . it had done so before. In the desert a man learns to use water sparingly and to make a little cover a lot of distance.
The roan gelding was a mountain-bred horse and could survive on cholla or prickly pear if the spines were burned away, but water and grass lay within that opening in the hills, and Shalako had no intention of skirting the mountain unless circumstances insisted. Yet the sound of shots had come from that direction.
After a while he made, with sparing movements, a cigarette, his eyes holding on the far, blue mountains briefly, then surveying the country while he worked with the small, essential movements. He considered the possibilities, knowing that a desert offers less freedom of movement than at first seems likely. All travel in the desert, of man or animal, is governed by the need for water. Some animals learned to survive for days without water, but man was not one of these.