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Valley of Outlaws

Max Brand

  Copyright © 2009 by Golden West Literary Agency.

  First Skyhorse Publishing edition published 2014 by arrangement with Golden West Literary Agency

  “Valley of Outlaws” first appeared as “Outlaw Valley” by Max Brand, a five-part serial in Street & Smith’s Far West Illustrated (4/28—8/28). Copyright © 1928 by by Street & Smith Publications, Inc. Copyright © renewed 1955 by Dorothy Faust. Copyright © 2009 by Golden West Literary Agency for restored material. Acknowledgment is made to Condé Nast Publications, Inc., for their co-operation.

  The name Max Brand® is a registered trademark with the United States Patent and Trademark Office and cannot be used for any purpose without express written permission.

  All Rights Reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner without the express written consent of the publisher, except in the case of brief excerpts in critical reviews or articles. All inquiries should be addressed to Skyhorse Publishing, 307 West 36th Street, 11th Floor, New York, NY 10018.

  Skyhorse Publishing books may be purchased in bulk at special discounts for sales promotion, corporate gifts, fund-raising, or educational purposes. Special editions can also be created to specifications. For details, contact the Special Sales Department, Skyhorse Publishing, 307 West 36th Street, 11th Floor, New York, NY 10018 or [email protected].

  Skyhorse® and Skyhorse Publishing® are registered trademarks of Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.®, a Delaware corporation.

  10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available on file.

  Cover design by Brian Peterson

  Print ISBN: 978-1-62873-638-0

  Ebook ISBN: 978-1-62873-997-8

  Printed in the United States of America

  Chapter One

  At first he had no name, and that was not odd, seeing that, when he appeared in the village, he neither spoke nor appeared to possess hearing, nor bore a sign that would tell people how to call him. He was dressed in a good gray suit, such as businessmen the world over are apt to wear. He had in his hand a slender walking stick, and in his pocket there was a wallet of dark, time-polished pigskin that, when opened, gave out only a small handful of dollar bills.

  Everything about this man was neat and precise. He was well barbered and well tailored. There was no outdoor tan on his skin, but it was pink-tinted and clear—the skin of an athlete, as if he were one of those thousands who keep fit in city gymnasiums, squash courts, or swimming tanks. He had smooth, regular features; his hair was a dark, glossy brown; his step was as light and swinging; indeed there was little about him to suggest age. One might have picked him to win a tennis match or come in well in front in a golf match. And yet everyone in the town who saw him judged him to be fifty at the least.

  Even on that first day he attracted a good deal of attention. The town of Lister is so small that if a strange dog barks within its precincts, every boy and every housewife notes the new noise, and, of course, the appearance of this deaf-mute excited everyone to the utmost. That excitement grew when the list of his purchases was made known.

  From his appearance he would have been set down as a rich man on a Western vacation, but his actions were decidedly out of harmony with that idea. He took $5 in his hand and went from one new gun to another in the rack of Bowen’s General Merchandise Store, until Bowen himself, in a pet wrote down on a piece of paper in large letters: $5 won’t buy so much as the trigger of one of these guns!

  The stranger seemed shocked to hear this, and young Sandy Larkin suddenly remembered the Winchester Forty-Five that hung on the wall of his father’s room. Once it had blown holes through Indians, but now it was good only to be talked about, and it was coated inside and out with rust. Sandy beckoned the stranger to come after him and led the way to his house, where he displayed the gun. The stranger took down the gun, examined it for a long time with the most painful attention, and then gave his $5 for the relic.

  When they passed out through the yard of Sandy’s house, the deaf-mute was attracted by an axe head that he kicked up out of the dust beside the chopping block. This he examined with almost as much care as he had given to the rifle. It was of an old pattern, made of the stoutest of German steel—when German steel was the best in the world—but it had a fat-bellied bevel, and it was heavy and clumsy to a degree. It seemed to suit the stranger, however. He offered 25¢ for it and got it for 30¢. Also, for $1.25, he secured an old adz hanging at the side of the woodshed. The day of the adz had passed in the town of Lister.

  Returning to Bowen’s General Merchandise Store, he now looked over the knives and bought the two best blades in the collection, as Bowen afterward declared. They were long in stock, prohibitively priced, and the stranger picked them out quickly enough from the long case where a big assortment of hunting knives was displayed.

  “He’s been in the steel business,” said Bowen afterward with much confidence. “Otherwise, how could he have known?”

  After this a quantity of powder and a supply of lead was bought, and also a tarpaulin, a blanket, some salt, and a little flour. The stranger made a pack, clumsily enough, walked a mile out of the town, and then he returned.

  He took what appeared to be his last coin from his pocket. It was a 25¢ piece, and, when he pointed to a coil of strong rope, Bowen cut off a dollar’s worth and gave it to this singular adventurer.

  After that he marched away with a long, strong step, and he was last seen headed for the highest mountains.

  For two months Lister buzzed about him.

  It was Sandy Larkin who brought down the first authoritative word about him. Sandy, on a hunting trip, had become widely separated from his companions on the gulley-riven side of Mount Shannon, and there, in a narrow little valley, he had come upon a newly built cabin whose logs bore the marks of fresh chippings. In front of it he found a stone oven, most crudely built. When he opened the door, he found that, inside, there was nothing but a homemade chair, a rude table, and a pile of pine boughs for a bed in one corner. Also, around the walls, were a number of coyote, lynx, and wolf skins drying on stretchers.

  Sandy found a quarter of venison and, being very hungry, he helped himself to it in true mountain style, and built a fire in the stone oven to cook it. In the midst of this process the owner returned, and Sandy recognized him at once as the deaf-mute who had astonished Lister two months before. He was altered, for he was brown now, very thin, and where his gray suit had been torn it had been roughly mended with sinews. His shoes had given out and on his feet were shapeless moccasins of crude design.

  He appeared glad to see Sandy and, with a smile and a wave of his hand, offered the boy all the hospitality that the cabin afforded. Then he put down his rifle and went inside to get salt.

  While he was gone, Sandy looked at the old gun. It was well cleaned and oiled, and Sandy learned that the stranger had fitted it with hand-made ammunition. He saw many other details of the curious housekeeping of this man, and returned to Lister bursting with news. Before he left, he had written on the back of an envelope: You’d better get out of here before the snow begins. It will be terrible cold here!

  But the stranger had merely nodded and smiled, and did not seem to understand the meaning of the message.

  “He’s a half-wit,” reported Sandy.

  This report made a sensation in the town, and a party of hunters who were aimed in that direction promised to find the stranger and bring him in. However, what Sandy had done by chance proved very difficult to accomplish by calculation, for Mount Shannon was clothed in virgin forest, and the forest, in turn, was cut across ten thousand times by gullies, rivulets, and great cañons. It was a labyrinth, and the party of hunters nearly lost
their own way, to say nothing of finding the object of their search.

  For the sake of convenience he came to be known as “the man on Mount Shannon,” or “the man on Shannon,” and in a little while this bulky title was shortened simply to “Shannon.” So he received a name.

  The mountain turned white with winter. For four months people shivered when they looked at its bald head and forest-darkened sides. Then, with the first thaw of spring, Shannon came down from the mountain, bending under a vast load of pelts. He made no less than four separate journeys before he succeeded in carrying down the last of his pelts. These he turned in at Bowen’s store and carried back, in exchange, as many loads of flour, sugar, bacon, coffee, spices, and rolls of strong cotton cloth. In addition, he invested in a new gun with a large store of ammunition, as well as a broad-brimmed hat, a neck cloth, heavy boots—in short, he fitted himself out in garb appropriate to his surroundings.

  He was surrounded by curious observers every time he appeared in the streets; many questions were written down and given to him, but uniformly he answered all requests for information by shrugging his shoulders and smiling politely. He had bought some books, paper, ink, and pens, and it seemed clear that Shannon was determined to stay for a long time on the side of his difficult mountain.

  For a month he was busy making these journeys back and forth between his cabin and the town of Lister, and, on the last of these return journeys toward the mountain, an unexpected adventure happened to Shannon.

  He walked bent under a hundred-pound pack that would have broken the back of an ordinary man, but Shannon was powerfully made, and six or eight months of toiling over the mountains had given him legs of iron. So his progress was slow, but it was steady.

  On his second day out, as he went up a trail that was bordered by magnificent silver spruce trees, set out as though by hand for the sake of their beauty and their broad shade, Shannon paused to put down his pack and drink from a twinkling rivulet, and, as he straightened again and the dizziness cleared from his head after bending, he saw a horse standing in the shadows nearby.

  It was dying on its feet, dying of old age, he thought, when he first saw it, with its ewe neck and pendulous lower lip and dull eyes, for the withers and hip bones thrust sharply upward and between the ribs were deep shadows. Then he went closer and saw that age could be only one reason for its boniness. For on shoulders, flanks, hips, neck, and even across the head ran great welts that a whip had made. And along the ribs great knots stood out where the loaded end of the whip had been used when it was found that even the cutting lash—it had slit the skin like a knife—was not enough to urge the poor creature forward. On either flank was a great crimson place as big as the hand of a man where the terrible rowels had thrust into the bleeding flesh again and again, and from shoulder to hip ran deep abrasions where the rider, with a swinging movement of his leg, had raked his horse.

  But all of these tokens were but minor wounds; the main horror was yet to be seen. For on the right loin, just where the flesh sank away from before the hip bone, the skin had been gathered up, twisted into a knot, and then through this knot, as a skewer, a rough splinter of wood had been thrust.

  Shannon jerked the splinter out, but the horse was so far spent that not even its ears twitched. One ear hung forward, the other lay back on its neck, and there was not a quiver in them as the splinter was withdrawn.

  There was a long catalogue of other ills besetting this poor creature, such as deep girth galls under each elbow and gaping saddle sores on either side of his spine.

  Shannon hastily tore up some grass and offered it; it was untouched. He opened the mouth and placed the grass inside. Some of it fell out; the rest stuck where it had been placed.

  Chapter Two

  He stood a moment to consider.

  There is an old saying in the West that after a white man has ridden a horse to a state of exhaustion, a Mexican can extract another day’s labor from the failing animal, and after the Mexican has given it up, an Indian can ride the staggering creature for a week. Indian work, Shannon was willing to venture, it had been in this case.

  He took his rifle, made sure that the load was in place, and stepped aside to take aim, but, in taking aim, it seemed to him that he was looking at another animal. His narrowed attention shut out the view of that tormented and grotesque body, and the head in itself suggested such a possibility of equine beauty that the hermit lowered the gun in haste.

  He opened the mouth of the horse again, and then drew in his breath sharply. Old age had nothing to do with the condition of this animal. Its state was all the work of a masterpiece of human cruelty, for one glance at the teeth told Shannon that the horse was a scant five years old.

  He grounded the butt of the rifle with a crash. Old age may be pitied, but it cannot be salvaged. Youth is a different matter.

  Then he could remember that he had heard or read, somewhere, that hard-worked horses can use a certain percentage of animal food. Even raw meat will sustain them. And this reminded Shannon that among the luxuries that composed this last load of supplies, he had allowed himself one prime treat—two pounds of butter secured in a tin.

  He opened the pack straightway and took forth the tin. In the meantime the horse made a last great effort and managed to brace its feet a little farther apart. Its head hung still lower, and shudders of weakness shook the legs.

  Shannon lifted the helpless head onto his shoulder, opened the mouth, pulled the tongue out on one side, and into the throat he forced two pounds of choicest butter. Then he stepped back to watch results.

  There were no results whatever, apparently. The head hung as low as ever, the eyes were as dead, and the weak legs shook.

  He brought water, therefore, and tempted the dying thing with it; still there was no response.

  He had bought a quart of good brandy as a medicine. Part of this he poured into the empty butter tin; the remaining half he mixed with water and poured down the throat of the horse. Again there was no response.

  He sent the remaining pint of brandy after the first. Then several quarts of water. And yet there was no sign of life.

  Then, suddenly, when he had stopped his ministrations, there was a sudden groan, and the hindquarters of the horse sank to the ground in an awkward heap. Vainly he strove to keep his forequarters erect, and in that last effort of courage and spirit he pricked his ears as he struggled. But even that effort could not support him, and he slumped suddenly to the ground. His head struck it with a jar.

  The end, thought Shannon.

  He had actually remade his pack, when, returning to the horse, he found a slight pulse still moving. So Shannon made up his mind quickly. The last investments that we surrender are those that seem made in a lost cause. Where there is no hope, the imagination and the heart fight hardest.

  He cut tender young boughs and wedged bedding around the fallen animal. Upon either side of it he built a strong fire, for the night was beginning and it would soon be very cold.

  After that Shannon sat under the stars and watched.

  Still the horse breathed; still there was a faint and irregular pulse. By firelight, Shannon began to work on those deep spur wounds, on the wide-mouthed saddle sores, on the gouged place where the splinter had been thrust through skin and flesh. It kept him busy. Presently he was aware that the horse either slept, or was dead. He worked on with gentle touches, half convinced that the body upon which his hands worked was turning cold under them.

  So at last the stars began to go out; the great night went slowly away toward the west, and the daylight came, cold and dismal and small. With the dawn came a wind, and with the wind came whistling blasts of rain.

  Shannon freshened the two fires and put his coat across the back of the horse. For the animal still lived. He opened his eyes as Shannon stood before him, and pricked his ears a little. That to the man was victory.

  The rain was coming faster, now, and certainly, in spite of the protection of the coat and the warmth o
f the two fires, exposure to the cut of the wind and the wet might finish off this poor derelict. Manifestly the cripple could not be moved except through its own power, so Shannon started to urge it up, and at last, with infinite difficulty, lifting the bulk of the weight with his own hands, he managed to heave the forequarters up. Then he went behind and tugged and heaved again.

  At last, braced on legs that wavered and shook beneath him, the beast tried to answer the hand of Shannon and go forward. He pricked his ears once more. In his dull eyes came a faint light, as though to indicate that he understood what was wanted and was willing to do his best.

  So, a step at a time, as a child moves when it learns to walk, the horse was brought forward under the high shelter of a spruce with dry ground beneath.

  All around him, then, Shannon built a deep bed of softest spruce boughs, taken from young saplings. Then he carried water in his hat, and, the instant it was brought, the poor beast buried its nostrils deep in the liquid. He drank and drank again, and, when the man brought handfuls of seed grass, it was eaten slowly but readily enough. So Shannon had his first real hope.

  For a week he lived on that spot. On the fifth day the horse could rise with its own unassisted strength, and go slowly out to graze. On the seventh day Shannon went up the trail and the horse followed like a dog.

  Seven days of hand-feeding had made little difference in the appearance of the horse, except that the mud and the ingrained dust had been worked out of its coat, which appeared now as a dark bay. But the sores and wounds refused to close, and the belly seemed about as gaunt as when Shannon had forced the first mouthful down its throat.

  Their means of progress was the most leisurely imaginable. Shannon would walk a hundred yards ahead, and then sit down while the bay grazed his way to him, and that process was repeated as they gradually drew a bit farther toward the goal.

  That goal was made longer by the roundabout trail that the man was forced to follow, for his usual route, up cliffs and down gulches, would have been quite impossible for the horse. For a whole week they wandered on, and at last they came weaving up the mountainside to the cabin. And when Shannon lifted the latch and walked in, the bay walked in behind him.