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The False Rider

Max Brand

  Table of Contents





























  Copyright © 1933 by Dorothy Faust.

  Published by Wildside Press LLC. |


  Duff Gregor

  Duff Gregor left the town of Piute on the run. It was not the first town which he had left with speed. In fact, he knew all about ways of leaving towns. He had left on foot, on horseback, in the blind baggage, and riding the rods. He had left a Mexican town, one day, tied face down on a wild horse; Mexicans are sure to serve up novelties. He had left more than one town riding a rail, and on two occasions wearing a coat of tar and feathers. The exit from Piute, as a matter of fact, had been rather a lucky one.

  The reason lay in a card game. Most of Gregor’s ups and downs in life sprang from cards. This time he had just cut in a cold pack of his own in an interesting little game when the jack pot was piled high in the center of the table. And then a man drew a gun.

  Gregor knew what the glare in the eyes and the sudden hunching of the shoulders meant. He was prepared out of the stores of old experience for just such gestures and attitudes, and for that reason he carried deep in a coat pocket a little two-barreled pistol, one of those silly, old-fashioned affairs that have the barrels built one on top of the other. It was a very short gun. At twenty paces it shot wild and hardly with force enough to break bones. But it looked no bigger than a tobacco pouch, say, and it threw a big slug. At a distance no greater than the width of a table it did real execution.

  In this case its bullet sent the fellow who had reached for a gun toppling back out of his chair with a scream of agony. Duff Gregor was no fool with a gun. He had shot straight under the table with the first bullet. With the second, his hand now raised, he hit the light that hung from the ceiling in the back room of that hotel, and in the dark confusion that followed, he scraped the stakes off the table, kicked open a door, and got to a horse reasonably ahead of the other men in the card game.

  He was not entirely ahead of their bullets, however, and when he was five miles out of Piute, that poor mustang began to fail and falter. When Gregor dismounted to look for causes, he discovered that the poor game animal had run all that distance hard and true while the life-blood was leaking out of it through a bullet wound.

  Gregor was interested, but not touched. He cursed that pony for playing out on him, stripped off saddle and bridle, and did not waste an extra bullet to put the lost mustang out of its last agonies. Duff Gregor was a practical man, and he hated wasted gestures of sentimentality.

  He was sufficiently practical, however, to know the value of carrying the saddle, the bridle, and the forty-foot hempen rope, for on the range he might come across another horse, and if he did, he would not stop to ask who owned it. He was not at all foolishly particular about such matters.

  A range saddle is a heavy burden. A range bridle is not a light weight, and even forty feet of rope weighs something. But Duff Gregor turned himself into a plodding pack animal and endured his labor patiently. He had qualities, Duff Gregor, and the ability to make the best of a bad moment was one of them.

  What he wanted most of all was to get distance between himself and Piute. He wanted the blue of a certain mountain range to the west between him and the thought of the angry citizens of that town, but he was well into the foothills before he saw a horse at hand.

  He climbed a hill, looked down into a little valley where there was wood, water, and plenty of grass, and in the middle of that place he saw a chestnut stallion that looked able to jump over the moon if he heard so much as a whisper in the tall grass. He was shining like metal, that stallion. The westering sun made the gold of him burn.

  Duff Gregor worked his way around until he was directly down-wind from the horse, and stalked with care for a full hot hour. When he came closer, he raised his head near the tops of the high grass and made out that there was no sweaty mark of bridle strap or saddle blanket on the horse; neither was there a saddle gall to patch with white the smooth gold of the stallion’s back.

  A wild horse? Well, if that was the case, Duff Gregor would find himself hitched to a comet, perhaps. But he had plenty of nerve. He had an extra share of courage that might have been dished out to make a sufficient portion for three ordinary men.

  He had left the saddle and bridle, as meaningless encumbrances, farther up the hill. Now he went on, stealthily, making a noose in the rope. He was very close before the snort of the stallion warned him that his approach might have been discovered. Then, peering cautiously through the higher heads of the grass, he made out the golden stallion on guard, with head and tail high, and the look of a creature capable of bounding into the air and taking wing above the mountains at any moment.

  Gregor rose out of that grass with a beautiful underhand cast of the rope, a trick that he had learned in Mexico in the old days. The noose settled fair and true around the neck of the big horse as he turned.

  But he was a wild horse, apparently. The burn of the rope as he pulled taut had not stopped the stallion. Instead, he went off as fast as he could leg it with seventeen hands of muscle and bone. In the very end of the rope a snarl hooked around the leg of Gregor, who was snaked off his feet and skidded away through the grass with such speed that the blades stung his hands and face.

  Unless he killed that stallion, he would be dragged to death. He got hold of his gun just as he was dragged through a patch of brush, and the Colt exploded vainly in the air as it was torn out of his grasp. The speed of the stallion was tremendous by this time. Life was, for Duff Gregor, a blur of green and blue that darted past his eyes altogether too fast for him to make sure he was alive and a creature capable of thought.

  Then a man’s voice called out. The terrific speed diminished. It ceased.

  Gregor rose staggering to his feet and, with spinning sight, saw before him an image, very blurred, of the golden stallion coming eagerly to the hand of a tall man, who was saying: “Steady, boy. Steady, Parade.”

  Gregor had the rope off his leg, by this time, and the sound of the horse’s name knocked the last of his dizziness out of his wits.

  “Parade?” he shouted. “Is that Parade?”

  He pointed. The great horse stood at the side of his master, staring at the stranger with blazing eyes. The man was big, with heavy, capable shoulders and a body strung out lean and sinewy as that of an Indian runner below the chest. He had a big head and a big, brown, handsome face.

  “This is Parade,” he was saying. “Are you hurt?”

  “Parade?” echoed Gregor. “Then you’re Arizona Jim—you’re Jim Silver!”

  “I can’t say ‘No’ to that,” replied the other.

  Gregor was not easily amused, but now he broke into rather wild laughter.

  “Wouldn’t I do it?” he cried, when he was able to speak again. “Wouldn’t I try to rope a Parade? Wouldn’t it be my luck to run into that horse in a range all filled with mustangs?”

  Silver said nothing, and suddenly Gregor was explaining.

  “There wasn’t a mark of a saddle or a bridle on him. No saddle gall. I thought he was a wild one, Silver.” He advanced, holding out his hand. “Name is Duff Gregor,” he said. “Sorry I daubed the rope on your stallion, Silver. My mustang is in a junk heap, ’way back yonder.”

  Silver took his hand freely. Gregor noted that. There was no hesitation. Considering the number of men who would have been glad to freeze onto the gun hand of such a man and pump lead into him at the same instant, this might have appeared rather strange, had it not been that Gregor knew perfectly well that Silver was about as good with the left hand as with the right. And there he stood, shaking hands with Jim Silver!

  Little worms of ice wriggled up and down his spine. It would be something to tell his cronies, that he had stood face to face with that perennial and terrible enemy of gun fighters and thugs in general. That he had looked into the face and the eyes of this eagle who preyed on hawks only. That he had held the hand of Jim Silver and had seen the scars that streaked his skin.

  Yes, the story was true. There were a dozen—no, there were twenty little gleams of brightness in the face of Silver. Bullets had cut the flesh or drilled through it. Knives had done their share. Such danger as he had made his bedfellow could not be endured for many years without leaving its marks.

  In fact, there was a whole pattern of war on the face of Jim Silver, very dimly sketched in, to be sure, but visible to a keen eye when the slant light of such a sun as this fell straight against the skin.

  Duff Gregor pumped that terrible hand three times, and with each gesture he thought of the number of times the thumb that now pressed the back of his knuckles had fanned the hammer of a revolver and sent death into the hearts of greater men than Duff Gregor would ever claim to be.

  He could see that everything he had heard was true, and from the gesture, the voice, of this man, he knew that his modesty was as great as his daredevil courage. He was one of those quiet fellows who fight their battles only once and forget the past before their revolvers are cold. That was Jim Silver. An unwilling admiration and an envious, grim passion rose in the heart of the card cheat, gunman, and general crook.

  It was unfair that there should be such a fellow on the face of the earth. Ordinarily, one could say that the so-called “good” men simply lacked the courage to take chances and get illegal gains. But one or two such fellows as Jim Silver were enough to explode the theory. He loved a square deal as he loved danger.

  “By thunder, Jim,” said Gregor, “there’s something about you! Maybe I’ve seen your picture before, but it looks to me as though I’ve known you, somewhere!”

  “Does it?” asked Jim Silver, with a faint smile.

  Duff Gregor had heard of that smile, too, the faintness of it which was rarely brightened or dimmed by circumstances. No man who wore that smile could be called a habitually happy man. Gregor was savagely glad of it. He heard Silver continuing:

  “You’ve looked in your mirror and you know yourself, Gregor. And we’re a lot alike.”

  “You mean that?” exclaimed Gregor.

  “Of course. We’re about of a build, and our faces are a good deal alike. We could pass for brothers, Gregor, I suppose.”


  Gregor thought of a past that ranged from sneak thieving to cheating at cards and an occasional plain stick-up; he thought of the long record of the brave and honorable actions of Silver, and a chilly shudder went through him. Yes, it was true that they looked very much alike, if one could read only skin deep.

  “Well, I’ll be hanged!” said Gregor, gasping.

  “I hope not,” said Silver, and his smile was fainter than ever.


  Stage Holdup

  They camped together. Duff Gregor never forgot that occasion. He never forgot his bewilderment when, at Silver’s chosen point on the runlet of water, the fire was built and a bit of fresh venison was started roasting after it had been cut into convenient chunks and spitted on bits of wood, for then he discovered that Jim Silver traveled through the land with no further provision than a rifle, salt, and matches!

  “Why,” said Gregor, “a wild goose couldn’t fly no lighter than that! How d’you bed yourself down, brother?”

  “I have a blanket and a slicker,” said Silver.

  It was true. One threadbare blanket and a slicker; that was all.

  “When I have to move, I generally have to move fast—and sometimes rather far,” explained Silver.

  That was true, also. A thousand crooks of all sorts and sizes, most of them dangerous, because Silver never bothered with small fry, were constantly on the lookout for opportunities to revenge themselves on this man.

  Many a time, according to legend, they had banded together and, in full power, hunted Jim Silver north and south and east and west. Parade was what beat them, and when they scattered, Parade bore his master on the back trail until some two or three of the pursuers had paid for their rashness as much as man can pay. These man hunts had grown unpopular, therefore, among Silver’s greatest enemies.

  But it was more than the need to escape enemies or the will to hunt them down that made Silver fly light. Men said that he could not find continued happiness in any one spot, as though there were a curse upon him, and he was forced to rove endlessly. Or perhaps he was seeking happiness as other men seek for gold, and never finding more than the brief content that comes from action.

  There were other reasons, later on, why Gregor could never forget the evening, or the picture of the calm, quiet face of Jim Silver. He had sense enough not to turn the conversation on the past, or to try to make Silver talk about his exploits. He knew the man’s reputation for taciturnity in all that concerned his own feats. But he found that Silver would talk readily enough in a deep, pleasantly flowing voice. What he liked to describe were his journeys through the mountains or across the deserts, and the strange men he had met—old pioneers, squatters, Indians—who partook of the nature of the wilderness and of the frontier life.

  Silver went to bed early. He simply took his blanket and slicker and went off, after he had first cut a good soft bed of evergreen boughs and saplings for Gregor.

  “I have to keep in the open,” said Silver. “People could sneak up on me, if I stayed in cover like this. But out in the open Parade takes care of me. And I’ve learned to sleep warm enough with one blanket and a slicker—even in the snow.”

  He went out, in fact, on the bare flat of the valley, and there gaping Gregor saw him lie down, while the great stallion ranged to and fro.

  No doubt Parade himself lay down before morning, but the last Gregor saw of the picture Parade was still moving about, now and then nibbling the grass, and again throwing up his head to study the far horizon and all of the unseen dangers of sound and scent that blew to him down the wind.

  Well, it would take a clever man to stalk Jim Silver under conditions like these. But not even for the devotion of a matchless horse like that would Duff Gregor have changed conditions with Silver, and not for all the fame that rang in the ears of men. To eat like a wild hawk, and live like a wild hawk—that was not for Gregor!

  How could Jim Silver enter a town without being aware, every instant, that danger might leap at him from every doorway, that guns might fire from every window? How could he sit in peace, except with two walls of a room guarding his back? What, in fact, did life mean to such a man, except the arduous pursuit of glory, unendingly?

  Gregor had asked during the evening: “D’you like it, Jim? D’you like living this sort of a life—traveling with no coffee, no flour, no bacon, no cooking pans, no nothing?”

  And Silver had said: “Well, it makes everything more simple. I used to carry not even salt, but I’ve added that. I guess I’m getting old and soft. But you can look at it this way, Duff: Wherever you go, no matter on what desert, there’s always life of some sort. There aren’t very many desert jack rabbits, but there are some. Wherever you go, you’ll find game, if you hunt carefully for it.
And if you miss food for a couple of days, it makes it taste all the better when you make a kill.”

  It was a very simple philosophy, but it made the heart of Duff Gregor grow small. For himself, he preferred a little more fat, a little more comfort, a little less glory, if need be. But to think of lying down every night without the certainty that the day would ever dawn again—that the bark of a gun or the cold agony of steel buried in the throat might not be the end of the world!

  No wonder that this man had been able to run even the great criminal name of Barry Christian out of the world, and broken him utterly, and his gang, too, so that one heard nothing of Christian in these days.

  It might be that Christian was dead. It might be that, a broken man, he was cooking for some obscure cattle ranch. But no wonder that Silver had beaten him, for the man was all edge. He was all cutting edge: he could not fail to win.

  When Gregor rose in the morning, the fire had already been rekindled by Silver, and they had for breakfast the same as they had had the night before. At least, Gregor had it.

  “Roast meat and cold water,” he said. “How d’you stand it? Ain’t it monotonous?”

  “You see,” said Silver, “when I’m on the range, I eat only once a day, and then I’m so hungry that I’m never tired of meat. And I’m so thirsty that water tastes better than wine.”

  That day he took Gregor across the mountains through the first pass. In the middle of the day he showed him a patch of houses on the other side of a valley.

  “That’s Allerton,” said Silver. “The stage from Crow’s Nest runs there. If you want to move on, you can get the stage. Any money?”

  There was plenty of money in the pocket of Gregor, but he had no objection to taking more. He said that unluckily he was broke.

  Silver took a sheaf of five twenties out of his pocket and handed them over. There was very little left of his roll after he had made this contribution. He was easy. It was no wonder that he could not keep the fortunes which he had made several times, because everyone knew that he could not say “No.” He was so easy that it was hard for Gregor to keep from laughing in his face.