Owen Merritt and Sally Bidwell have a long history together as they loved each other for a long time and were on the verge of getting married. But destiny was against them and Sally ended up marrying Will Isham, owner of the biggest ranch in the state called the Skull, and the richest man in the Bunchgrass Hills. Animosity between Merritt and Isham grows as the Skull's owner tries to buy out a small-time cowboy and push him out of business. Caught between the woman who left him and the woman who loves him, Merritt is forced to stand up and fight for himself.
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Bourke Prine went into the Palace, looked around the crowd a moment, and saw the door of the back room standing ajar. He turned into that room and paused with his shoulder rested against the door's edge. Sound rolled in from the front part of the saloon, the sound of men's voices cheerfully arguing, the scrape of boots and spurs and chair legs, the dry clatter of poker chips, the sudden rush of horses coming off the Piute Desert at the dead run. A little current of air pulled smoke through the doorway, and somebody's question broke above the steady racket. "When's this weddin'?"
Bourke spoke to the man sitting so alone at the table. "Thought I'd find you here."
He tried another match to the limp cigarette between his lips and a half-severe, half-amused glance slid over the edge of his cupped hands. This back room was small and scarred and bare, holding only a table and two chairs. There wasn't anything on the pine-board walls except a pen-and-ink drawing of two horsemen trying to hold a grizzly with their ropes. Every time Bourke came here he said the same thing, and he said it now. "That fellow don't know how to draw horses." But his attention returned to Owen Merritt, who sat so loose-muscled before a table which supported one bottle, one glass, and a coal-oil lamp.
The lamplight threw its yellow shine directly against Merritt's face. He said in the softest voice, "Shut that damned door."
Prine closed it with his heel and came over and settled down in the opposite chair. The saloon's noise dropped away to a steady rumble beyond the partition. The smell of tobacco smoke and stale whisky and resin from the pine boards strengthened. Prine took the only glass on the table and helped himself to a drink, and pushed the glass back to Owen Merritt, meanwhile bracing himself to the shock of the whisky by pushing his shoulders forward. He was tall and heavy-chested, and the muscles of his upper body stirred the gray fabric of his shirt. Solidness was the key to Bourke Prine, solidness and a dark skepticism lying deep in his eyes.
He said, "The Methodist missionary bishop just staged in from Winnemucca, so it will be a proper wedding. The hotel is lighted up like a burnin' haystack, and the women have started cryin' already. What makes women cry at weddings, kid? Skull's riders are all out there belly flat to the bar, plastered with bear grease and bad intentions. You drunk yet, Owen?"
"The bottle," said Owen Merritt, by way of refuting the charge, "is still half full." He decanted himself a drink but let it lie a moment, speculatively watching the amber shine of the liquor. His long feet were slid under the table and he lay thoroughly slack on the chair, no muscle of his body holding perceptible tension, which was a sufficient reason for Bourke Prine to study his partner with a fresher interest. Owen Merritt's hair was as yellow as the lamplight, lying well down along his forehead. Skin made a tight fit across high cheekbones, turned a ruddy bronze by sun and wind, and his freshness of complexion made his blue eyes a shade darker than they really were. At the moment his expression was wholly unreadable. It was a way Owen Merritt had of dropping a curtain in front of his feelings. He was still and he was loose, but two small signals gave him away to Bourke—the upward strike of his lip corners, as though a smile lay somewhere near, and the manner by which, after downing the drink, he laid the glass on the table and worried it with the blunt ends of his fingers. This was the signal of rashness crowding him hard.
Prine said, "I don't know where they hide but there's a lot of pretty girls in town. Helen Tague's here. Well sure, she's Sally Bidwell's bridesmaid. And Nan Melotte, and Swanee Vail's daughter, and Irene Spaugh, and some homesteaders' women. Takes a weddin' to bring 'em out. Maybe it's hope."
Owen Merritt shifted on the chair. Gently, restlessly prodded by Bourke Prine's deliberate talk. "I remember," he said, "one time when my old man was alive: We rode to the rim of the Bunchgrass Hills. It was fall. Heat smoke lay across the desert. Out Christmas Creek way we could see dust rolling up from a band of Piutes crossing down to the antelope country. Wonder what makes a man think of things that mean nothing?"
Bourke Prine's talk once more pushed against Owen Merritt. "Fay Dutcher is at the front door of this joint, keepin' tally on the Skull riders. Wearin' his pearl-handled gun for the ceremony. Maybe it's a Texas habit." His voice swung away to a lighter, quicker note. "Hugh Clagg's in town," he said, his glance touching Merritt and going away. "I saw Sheriff Medary hangin' around the hotel to kiss the bride. An easy way to keep his politics in good shape. Well, it takes a weddin' to bring 'em out."
"Antelope are running heavy over in Fremont Basin," said Owen Merritt, in a voice gently controlled. "I guess it's time I had another look at that country."
Bourke Prine took his turn on the glass and bottle. He split the contents of the bottle, drank his share, and pushed the glass back toward Merritt. He said, "That's your trouble. Always goin' off to take another look at a piece of country. Fiddle-footed. Always smellin' the wind for scent. And so you lose out." He swung his broad torso around and gave Owen Merritt a stiff, hard survey. "When I came by the hotel I saw Sally Bidwell lookin' down from a room window. She saw me and waved. She wasn't smilin' at all. Why shouldn't a prospective bride smile, kid?"
This was the way he fed it to Owen Merritt, stubbornly, slyly, with an irony drying out his words. He kept observing how Owen Merritt worried the glass around the table with his finger tips. There was a wild temper in that long man with the whalebone frame, a temper as unpredictable as dynamite.
Merritt had the last drink. "Damn bottle's empty again. Maybe we should take a walk."
"What for?" grunted Bourke Prine. "You're always takin' a walk. Why?"
"Maybe because I'm sick of listenin' to your speeches." They turned out of the back room, into a full and heavy racket. Everybody on the Piute Desert, it seemed certain, had come to The Wells this Saturday night to celebrate the wedding. Tom Croker's saloon could hold fifty men if the poker tables and the faro rig were pushed against the wall, but there were more than that many in here now, everybody turning and colliding, and pleased to have it that way after a long summer's work and isolation. Lamplight splintered against a long back-bar mirror, and smoke lay low and thick, and the front swing door kept squalling on its hinges, and sweat ran down the points of Tom Croker's mustache as he stood behind the bar and tried to serve this crowd. The whole Skull outfit was here. So were Mike Tague's riders from Wagon Rim way; and all the smaller ranches nestling along the base of the Bunchgrass Hills were represented. Drifters from the Broken Buttes made a show, and four cavalrymen had ridden in from distant Camp McDermitt. Juke Slover, six feet from Owen, yelled to make himself heard. "Hello, pilgrim!" Skull's foreman, Fay Dutcher, worked his way slowly through the jam, using his shoulders, using his elbows. There was a quietness to this Dutcher almost like insolence—a kind of overbearing assurance in the way he pushed others aside. It was a quality, Prine thought idly, that Fay Dutcher had imparted to his men. All Skull's riders were like that. Dutcher was short and broad, with a weather-blackened skin and a heavy cropped mustache half hiding his upper lip and a pair of eyes that showed a slanted, short- tempered shining. He only nodded at Bourke Prine. But he took in Merritt with a full glance, a careful and far more aroused glance, and said, "Hello, Merritt," and moved aside. Other men turned to watch this scene, and then Will Isham came into the saloon and made his way forward.
Bourke Prine knew that it was a purely accidental meeting, yet Isham used the accident to a good purpose, as he always did. He stopped in front of Merritt. "Owen," he said, "I'm glad to see you. Because I want a word with you."
This room had no privacy in it, and yet men pressed away a little and gave Isham a space. Bourke Prine considered that with his sharp mind. Will Isham could have elbow room any time he wanted; for he was owner of Skull, and Skull was a quarter million acres lying along the southern base of the Bunchgrass Hills, one of the great ranches in the state. Nevertheless, it was some other prompting which moved the crowd away. Here was Isham marrying Sally Bidwell, not Owen Merritt who had gone with her so long a time. One man was winning and one man was losing, nobody on the Piute knowing the reason, and now they were face to face. This was why the crowd withdrew and let them alone.
"Owen," said Will Isham, "I want to know how you take this. If there is to be trouble between us, I'd like to know it now."
So coolly, so softly—and yet with so much willfulness lying behind that easy speech, with so direct and unwavering a determination to have his answer. In a country of physically big riders, Will Isham was small, almost slight; in a land of carelessness and laughter, he remained grave, he held himself under stiff control. He was, Bourke Prine remembered, close to forty—at least ten years older than Owen Merritt and still older than Sally Bidwell whom he was shortly to marry.
It occurred to Bourke Prine suddenly to look over to Owen Merritt, whereupon he noticed the blond man's wide lips placed in a faint half-smile. That was all. Nothing else got through the consistently smooth expression. Merritt said. "I congratulate you, Will."
Isham's tone was thoroughly courteous, but it held the same insistence that had been there before. "You're sure?"
It seemed then to Bourke that a break hovered over these two. They were both calm, they were both softly and deceivingly gentle with their words. Prine felt the weight of Isham's will; definitely he could feel it. And he knew enough about his partner to guess at the wildness lying behind Merritt's half-smile. Owen said, in his summer-soft tone, "What are you worried about, Will?"
Fay Dutcher, on the edge of this scene, hauled his shoulders about and placed his agate-black eyes against Merritt. Isham kept still a moment, but Bourke Prine witnessed the minute break in the gravity of Skull's owner and identified the faint heat of a touched pride. Isham said, "I want no war of words, Owen. We'll be living in this country a long while, you and me. I should like to continue to regard you as a friend. If that is not to be, I want it made clear."
Bourke Prine, who disliked Will Isham and Skull and all that Skull stood for, had his moment of admiration for the man. Here Isham stood, asking for his showdown, sidestepping nothing, doggedly insisting on a clear answer. He wore a black broadcloth suit and a white shirt. An elk-tooth charm swayed in the sag of his watch chain, and a diamond showed a flicker of light on his right index finger. He was sparing in his gestures and mild in his talk—and somehow very formidable to Bourke Prine at the moment. A quality set him apart from every other man in the room.
"The luck," said Owen Merritt, "is yours. I will not complain."
"Owen," counseled Will Isham, "it isn't like you to dodge. I want the truth—and I want everybody in this room to hear it. I will not have rumors going around."
"I have said I wish you luck," stated Owen Merritt. "Better let it go like that."
Isham hesitated at the answer, and Bourke Prine saw the man's steady glance search Merritt's face as though to find a direct and visible hostility. He was balancing the issue in his mind. Behind Owen's answer lay so much that was unsaid, as Isham knew, and as all the crowd knew. But in the end some caution or sense of propriety made an answer for Isham. He said, "Let's drink on that," and led the way to the bar, adding a word for the crowd. "Gentlemen, this is on Skull." Afterward, when the drinks had been put before them, he took up his glass. "To the future Mrs. Isham."
Bourke Prine felt a chill ride down his back. Isham had turned; his eyes suddenly struck Owen Merritt. There was an expression on his face more personal than before, touched with a triumph and yet showing the bright thin edge of bitterness. The man wasn't sure. Merritt said, "Her health and yours, Will," and drank down.
Isham placed his untouched glass on the bar, and gave his apology. "I would not care to appear before the bishop with a drink on me. Croker, I'm buyin' the house for the rest of the night." He turned then and went down the alley at once made for him, a small, grave, and thoroughly cool man.
Men began to talk again. Juke Slover came over to stand with Prine and Merritt—these three making an accustomed familiar group. Lee Repp, an obscure rider of the Broken Buttes, came out of the night, using his hands to clear a trail. He was drunk, and his lips moved loosely across a white skin. He stared at Merritt. "I guess the Broken Buttes crowd ought to feel pretty happy, huh? Sally's old man is out there braggin' about his son-in-law already."
Owen Merritt looked at him without interest. Lee Repp described a circle in the air with his hands. "Yeah, so. Sally's old man sure has got a pretty easy thing now. Maybe—"
Merritt said, "Shut up, Repp."
Fay Dutcher plowed over from another corner of the house. "Repp," he said, "get out of here." But Repp was watching Owen Merritt and his mouth closed slowly, without further sound. Merritt's shoulders lifted. The smooth surface of the man was beginning to wear thin. Small, sudden flashes of wildness got through his eyes, the ruddiness of his cheeks glistened with an overlay of sweat, as though from strain, and the cut of his jaws showed a straight, solid line. He looked at the glass in his hand, caught in some odd debate, and put it down, and nodded at Bourke. "Let's have a look at the joyous night, Bourke." Somewhere on the street a gun banged twice, but nobody in the Palace considered the sound of any import.
Pay Lankershim shoved his way through the crowd. He tapped Owen's shoulder with a hand blackened and bony and crippled from seventy years of hard living. But his eyes, cool and bright, were still young. He stood above most men in the saloon, being Merritt's exact height. He said, "Owen—I want to see you sometime tonight."
Merritt said, "All right," and moved toward the door. Following Merritt closely, Bourke Prine cast a quick glance across the room and discovered Hugh Clagg shouldered against a far wall. Owen, Bourke knew, hadn't noticed Clagg so far, which was a pretty good lead on Owen's frame of mind.
Out in the faint cool of the street Prine said, "Will Isham had a reason for buyin' you that drink in front of the crowd."
"Peace and good will," said Owen Merritt in a short tone.
"Don't talk like a sucker."
Love Bidwell stood by the saloon's door, talking to Mark Medary, who was the county's sheriff. Love was a thin one with a gray goatee and a windy, irritating voice. His accent was altogether Southern and he always wore a Confederate campaign hat, which now lay far back on his head. Both thumbs were well hooked into his suspenders. "I lose a daughter," he said to Medary. "Sho', I lose a daughter. I reckon that time comes to us all, Medary. But I'll be travelin' that way to see her a lot. We was always close, Sally and me. Whut's eighty miles of distance? If my saddle horse gives out I guess I got a son-in-law to supply me fresh, ain't I?"
Medary listened casually, his eyes traveling elsewhere.
He put out a hand to Owen Merritt. "Wish you'd stop by sometime and talk with me, Owen. Hello, Bourke." Love Bidwell at once checked his voice and looked at Owen Merritt. He pushed his lips together, as though afraid of committing himself to error in his new situation as Will Isham's father-in-law. People were gently moving up in the direction of the hotel. Owen Merritt paced over the street and stopped in the dark arch of Sam Nankervell's blacksmith shop. He turned, leaning against the wall. There was glow enough from all the lights shining across the dust for Bourke Prine to see how stiff the edges of Merritt's lips had become. The smiling ease had gone out of the big man.
He said, "Don't seem only ten years since the Piutes killed Bill Grandgent right where the hotel stands now. Country's beginning to grow up."
The Wells consisted of two rows of pine-boarded buildings separated by a wide street whose dust reflected a pale silver shining where the store lights touched it. The Palace threw off a brilliant glow; the hotel's windows all showed yellow radiance. Elsewhere lay the stores and sheds of a cattle town. Saddle horses and single buggies and wagons lay banked against the street racks, and people moved up and down, the walks, doing a week-end shopping, and children raced in and out of between- buildings alleys, and at those points where the lights of town failed to reach, in velvet-thick shadows, soft-speaking men stood, their cigarettes making firefly glints.
Wind rolled softly and coldly in from the deep distances of the Piutes, with the smell of sage and Indian summer's baked earth in it, and with the faint smell of wildness in it. This dark desert lay all around The Wells; it held the town to its flat breast, it had weathered the town to its own uniform powder- gray and bronze-brown. North and south and west there was no horizon at all, but eastward seven miles the Bunchgrass Hills lifted a long black shadow. This was 1878, and the town was only nine years old. This was cattle land, fenceless and vast and lonely; and tied to a far-away outer world only by dim, dusty trails half lost in the ever-growing sage.
"You were a fool to take Isham's drink," said Bourke Prine. "It ties your hands." Darkness lay wholly around Nankervell's, but he saw Owen Merritt's head turn and lift, which meant his partner would be watching that bright second-story window where Sally Bidwell waited for her wedding. The bitter-pungent smell of singed hoofs and heated metal and of grease and forge-fire ashes drifted from Nankervell's.
Bourke's voice had pushed insistently against Owen Merritt all evening. It did so now. "Listen. Go up the side stairs of the hotel. It takes you straight to her door. You've got time. I'll get a rig and drive around back—and wait there for you both."
"A little late, Bourke," said Owen Merritt. "A little late."
"When I saw her she wasn't smilin'," repeated Bourke. "Her heart ain't in this weddin', or she would be smilin'. God knows why you let Isham make a fool out of you."
"Maybe not her heart, Bourke. But her mind's made up to it. The damage is done."
"You sure? Something mighty odd happened between you two to make it like this. Listen, Owen, this business will eat on both of you for a hell of a lot of years. So you better be sure it can't be changed."
"I guess," murmured Merritt, "I've done my share of talkin'." He threw his cigarette far into the street and drew a long breath. He said, "I'll meet you in the saloon—five minutes. Another drink and we'll leave this damned town behind."
He cut straight across the street, going into the alley near Shannon's store to avoid the crowd gathering up by the hotel porch, and came through the back lots of town to the hotel's side stairway. This was a boarded-in affair marching up the outside wall of the building. Letting himself through the bottom door, he closed it and rose through solid darkness until he came to the top. He pushed that door partially open.
Rooms opened upon a hall running the length of the second floor, and little streaks of light crept beneath an occasional sill, breaking the blackness. At the hall's far end a stairway led to the lobby, from which came the run and murmur of a good many people's voices. Suddenly the door of a near-by room opened, and he saw Helen Tague come quickly out and turn toward the lower lobby.
He came into the hall. "Helen," he said.
She wheeled with a half-startled lift to her shoulders, this tall and calm daughter of Mike Tague. She came up to him, very serious and very pretty in her half-excitement—the full light of the near-by room showing all this to him—and a sense of risk made her push him back into the stair landing, into the shadows. She pulled the door half shut.
"Helen," he said, "tell Sally I'm here."
The shadows obscured her expression, but it seemed both sad and disapproving to him. She spoke in her pleasant voice. "You're sure you want me to, Owen?"
"Tell her I'm here, Helen. I'd like to see her for a moment—if she'll come."
"She'll come. But are you sure you want her to?"
"Why not?" he said. "Why not?"
Her answer was soft and faintly regretful. "Oh, Owen." She went back into the room, not quite closing the door; and he heard her speaking to Sally, the words low and quick and insistent.
He stood on the stair landing, thoroughly motionless, his blond head tipped down. Such light as reached the landing broke vaguely against the blue surfaces of his eyes and made strong shadows beneath his jaw corners and in the exposed hollow at the base of his neck. He was quite a long man, flat and wide at the shoulders, whipped in at the flanks from all the riding he had done. Even now, in this remote corner, he kept his feelings away from his face. His breathing lifted and settled the cotton shirt gently. And so he stood as Sally Bidwell's room door fully opened and she came toward him.
She said, "Owen," and came into the landing, near enough to see him clearly, near enough to touch him. "Owen."
Certain things were in this girl, as he had learned them through long courtship. Pride and a strong will above all. Even in this dismal corner she showed these qualities to him, her head thrown back and her deep-copper hair showing its luster. And because they had been very close to each other for so long a time, he understood that she was near the weakness of tears. It was a feeling that came from her to him.
He said, no break in his voice, no lift and no urgence, "You're sure it's got to be this way, Sally?"
"Is that all you came to say?"
"It's enough to say, isn't it? We'll live a long time. I can do a lot of remembering in the next thirty years and so can you. I can remember I didn't play my hand right. Or I can remember I came up these stairs at the last minute and tried to get it straight."
"Owen," she said, "your voice is so hard. You've condemned me already."
He shook his head. He let the silence ride a moment, staring at her. "No," he answered at last. "No, I'm just keeping back a lot of things that I can't say—or won't. I won't beg, Sally. You're the one that made the choice, not me. All I want to know is if you're sure."
"Yes," she said. "I'm sure." Then she finished it out with a phrase that was quick and vehement and odd. "I've got to be sure, haven't I?"
She wore a russet gown that showed her arms and shoulders. She was, he decided, almost as tall as Isham, and that thought gave him an odd feeling, as though it were improper. She had a firm chin and a straight, swinging body and he remembered that her smile always changed the color of her eyes, placing a frank, invitational smoothness on her lips—for him. She wasn't smiling now. She touched him with her hand, and drew back with a startled swiftness; and immediately the memory of a good many things lay between them, hot and disturbing and compelling. She murmured, "Do you really understand, Owen?"
"I wish you luck," he said. "And so-long."
"Wait. You're coming to the wedding?"
"Why? I'd be the ghost at the banquet."
"It isn't like you to run away. From anything. From anything on earth."
"No," he said, flat and final. "I won't be there."
She said, "Then I want you to do one thing for me. When I leave the hotel to ride home I want you to be there. Wish me luck. Please. So that everybody sees you do it."
"To make the record complete," he said, dryness rustling his talk.
"Don't try to hurt me any more, Owen. It isn't that at all. I don't want anybody on the Piute to think you ran away from this. Not you."
"Thanks," he said. "Thanks for the interest."
She came a little nearer him, her lips remaining even and composed while she watched his face. When she spoke again her words were not as unerringly direct, not as certain. "Is it—is it so hard to believe—that I take an interest in you? That I'd still fight for you? Oh, Owen, you don't understand it yet."
"I guess we've talked that all out. Which was one of our troubles. We always talked too much. And did too little. You're an ambitious girl, Sally. You set your mind on certain things long ago. I couldn't break up that."
She said in almost a whisper, "Is that all? Do you really think that's all?"
"I lay no blame on you. None. You reasoned it out—the bargain and what it called for. You're getting something from Isham and from Skull. But you're an honest girl, Sally, and you'll give him more than he'll give you. And you'll stick with it, even if it gets bad."
She said, in a lower and lower tone, "Why should it ever be bad. Owen?"
"There's one thing you never found out. You're a stubborn girl and you always figured you could make your mind pull your heart along. Well, your heart ain't in this. You figure you can make it go with him. But you won't. You never will. That's why it will get bad."
She was somber and strained and still, listening to the run of his voice, listening to its repressed feelings and to all those others he could not quite keep back. She said at last, quick and broken, "Owen, why—"
He cut in with a voice on the ragged edge of anger. "We always talked too much. Nothing's any good but this." He looked at her, dismal hunger shining out of his blue eyes, the rashness of his temper having its way at last; and he seized the points of her bare shoulders and drew her against him. Her breath rushed out from the strength of his arms and a faint cry escaped her lips, and was shut off when he kissed her. She didn't breathe and she made no more protest. Helen Tague's voice came from the hall. "Sally—you've got to hurry."
Sally Bidwell drew away, with an emotion in her worse than sadness. It was like despair; it pulled her lips together until they were no longer pretty and it took the pride out of her slim, self-confident body. It was a reflex of all that which made her push at him, and sway back; afterward it was her own desire that sent her forward again. She dropped her head against his chest, struggling against a quiet, terrible crying.
Owen Merritt stood still, holding her loosely with his arms and stirred by the fragrance rising from her copper hair; and his mind did cruel things to him then, reminding him of the sweetness and laughter and womanly softness she had once held for him. These were things gone by. He had suddenly a sense of loss that pumped him empty.
Helen Tague said again, "Sally."
Sally drew back. Her chin lifted, and he had this last look into her eyes, this one unguarded moment before she remembered where her loyalties lay. She said, brokenly, "Why—why didn't you—" and, leaving it unfinished, ran back to her room. Someone came up the stairs from the lobby at a heavy tread, and Helen Tague closed the door on the outer stairway, leaving Owen Merritt in the solid black.
He went down the stairs and let himself into the alley. He paused here, his breath springing from the bottom of his chest. So standing in the gloom, he heard a man stumbling around from the hotel's back side. This man went by him at a distance of two yards, walking fast, and reached the street. A light from Shannon's store touched the area, and by its glow Owen Merritt identified Hugh Clagg.
He waited until Clagg had turned the corner of Shannon's before following. People were still coming into The Wells and the faint breeze had turned colder and in the sky all the stars of the universe made a cloudy glitter, deepening the thorough blackness lying over this world. Troubled as he was, Owen Merritt paused by Shannon's to have his look at that sky. High-built and rangy, he tipped up his head and thus stood—absorbed in the sight and smell and sound of the night.
This was the way Nan Melotte saw him. Coming out of Shannon's, she passed within a yard of him, and threw him a quick, lively glance of curiosity. He wasn't, she saw, aware of her, or of anyone on the street; and after she had gotten by him, she turned to watch him, and remained that way until he moved on, toward the Palace.
People were moving toward the hotel for the wedding. Love Bidwell came by Owen Merritt, nursing a long cheroot between his lips. He slanted a quick glance toward Merritt, and his hand rose and touched his goatee, as though to hide the forming expression on his cheeks. Sally Bidwell's brother, Starr, followed indolently behind, taciturnly amused by all this and yet watching the town with the close and wary manner of one on risky ground. His eyes lifted on Owen Merritt and were at once reserved.
Owen Merritt strolled into the Palace, finding Bourke and Juke Slover established over a bottle of pale Kentucky moonshine at the bar. Bourke nodded to Owen. Liquor had stirred him up; he showed the room a small, rash grin: "Help yourself to a smile."
"Sure," murmured Owen. "Well, it's a historic occasion, Bourke. May you live to tell it to your grandsons."
Bourke said, idly, "Seems too long."
The four cavalrymen from Camp McDermitt stood along the far wall, their uniforms making a splash of color in the scene. But they were lonely in the crowd, for this was cattle land which had no particular liking for the military. All the poker tables were in full blast; the faro rig was surrounded. Owen Merritt hung over the glass of moonshine, both his elbows on the bar. He was turned away from the room and seemed to see nothing; yet the whole room was pictured before him in the long, back bar mirror, and certain things began to break through the heavy indifference of his mind. Hugh Clagg stood alone in a corner, which was a signal to catch Owen Merritt's rising attention. Clagg had his slender frame to the wall. His long arms hung motionless, and the smoke of a brown-paper cigarette made a vague shadow in front of his narrow-shaped face. He was a roan-headed man, deliberately withdrawn from others. Quickness was written into him, still- placed as he was, and the world he saw was a world colored and changed by the smiling malice of his eyes. He had a wide, resolute mouth. A scar gouged a white dimple out of the left cheek, and his fists were very broad and very heavy for one so otherwise lean-shaped. At this moment he seemed to be thoroughly idle and thoroughly off guard.
This was the thing that held Owen Merritt—this idleness. He knew this man too well to be fooled by it.
Bourke Prine spoke out his growing, dissatisfaction. "You were a sucker to take Isham's drink."
Pay Lankershim came out of the crowd. He put his thin-old shape against Merritt, speaking into Merritt's ear. "Son, you going to let Isham do it?"
Pay stepped back. He turned to Bourke. "What's a follow to think? Ain't you talked to him, Bourke?"
Bourke said, "No use," and turned to the bottle.
Pay lifted a finger, catching Merritt's attention. He drew the finger sharply across his throat. "That's what it is—tonight. Dammit, Owen!" He pushed back through the crowd.
Owen Merritt considered the room more carefully, which was a thing he had so far failed to do. It was a little odd to see Hugh Clagg inside four walls with a Skull outfit. The politics of it wasn't right. Searching the crowd, via the back bar's mirror, he saw four others who had come out of the Broken Buttes country with Hugh Clagg this night. Ray Neale stood by the faro rig, not playing. Pete Mariels, the half-breed, remained nearest the shadows of the back end, as he always liked to do; and Tempe Killeen and Lee Repp were at one end of the bar. Will Isham had bought the house, and here Hugh Clagg's riders were drinking Skull whisky. It was a little odd.
"Unless," he said, "there's been a change."
"What?" said Bourke Prine instantly. Juke Slover looked up from his glass.
"The charity of Skull extends all the way to the Broken Buttes tonight."
"So finally you're awake," grumbled Bourke Prine.
Fay Dutcher came into the Palace and called out, "All right, boys," Skull's men immediately milled toward the door, bound for the wedding. Mike Tague, who owned most of the Wagon Rim country outright, rose from one of the poker tables, his Irish cheeks a flame-red. He came by Owen. He called, "Large night—large night," and followed the crowd outward. There remained a few homesteaders and a few riders who had no direct interest in the wedding. And Hugh Clagg and his four riding companions. Owen Merritt poured another drink into the glass and laid full weight on his elbows, looking into the oily shine of the liquor. For a little while he forgot Hugh Clagg and remembered other things. There was a growing silence in The Wells. Everybody would be up at the hotel, listening to the Methodist missionary bishop.
Bourke said, "You goin' or stayin'?"
Lee Repp made a turn away from his partner, Tempe Killeen. He had to support himself on the bar. Tempe Killeen called, "Come back here, Lee." But Repp moved up to Owen Merritt. His long lips squashed a smile into crookedness. Killeen said again, "Repp." Something as definite as the stir of wind crossed the saloon, and Bourke Prine, always alert to trouble, made a half-turn away from the bar, watching Hugh Clagg, Juke Slover, quick to follow the gesture, wheeled to keep an eye on Pete Mariels.
Repp looked up at the tall Merritt. He was unsteady on his feet; unsteady and full of some kind of secret amusement that had to come out. He said, "Listen. I guess Sally's brother won't have anything to worry about now, will he? I guess Starr's going to feel a lot safer now, ain't he? Well, it's one way. It sure is one way."
Tempe Killeen stepped forward, but it was too late to help Repp then. Owen Merritt raised one arm and hit Repp fully in the soft flesh below his ear. Repp wheeled gently around and fell with his mouth wide open. The sound of it made a racket in the still saloon; and afterward Repp lay on his belly and kicked his legs against the floor.
"If I hear it again from you," Merritt said, "I'll rub you out."
The saloonman, Tom Croker, spoke half in apology and half as a protest. "Well, he was drunk, Owen."
"It is something I didn't care to hear," said Owen Merritt. "Even from a drunk. But maybe there's a sober man in the place that wants to repeat it."
Temple Killeen came up and looked down at Repp, not showing any concern. "Repp," he said, "get off the floor."
Repp rolled over, pushing himself to his knees, his head lobbing down. A round red blotch showed where Merritt had hit him. He called weakly, "Give me a hand, Tempe. Give me—"
But Tempe wasn't watching him now, and nobody else in the saloon paid any attention. The people in the saloon were riders who knew the Piute and the ancient grudges of the Piute thoroughly. Lee Repp's foolish talk, meaning nothing in itself, had led into something else. Repp was one of Hugh Clagg's men and the play was up to Clagg. So the crowd watched Hugh Clagg and Owen Merritt, knowing the old, old enmity between those two.
Repp got to his feet at last and put a hand on Tempe Killeen's shoulder for support. He said to Owen Merritt uncertainly, "What the hell? I didn't—"
"Go on," said Merritt. "Go on."
Repp hesitated and at that moment Hugh Clagg broke his long silence. He called across the room, even-voiced, "Get out of town, Repp."
The wedding was over, for men's returning boots drummed on the outside walk. Repp reached the Palace doorway, turned a moment to look behind him, at Killeen and at Merritt, and at Hugh Clagg for a longer length of time—and left the saloon.
Hugh Clagg said, not changing the tone of his voice, "I'll let that ride, Merritt. He had it comin' for the remark." He was a high shape against the far wall, holding himself aloof, careful to keep his talk level in the quiet of the place.
Merritt said, "Sure," and turned to nod at Bourke Prine and Juke Slover. The three of them left the Palace just as the returning crowd reached its door. Standing aside from that thirsty current, Owen Merritt said, "I guess I've had enough of this."
Bourke said, "Repp wasn't drunk. No drunk man's eyes pull down small like his did when he walked at you. So, one of that crowd forgot somethin'."
Owen said irritably, "How'd you get spooked up?"
"I know enough to pay for my own whisky, son."
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