Riding for the Brand (Ss) (1986) (35 page)

BOOK: Riding for the Brand (Ss) (1986)
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She may have married again. Anyway, she couldn't have stayed on that ranch alone. Man, you'd better leave the child here with us. Take the money. You earned it packing her here, but let her stay until you find out."

London shook his head patiently. "You don't understand"... He said, "that's my Jane who's waiting. She told me she'd wait for me, and she don't say things light. Not her."

"Where is she?" Maxwell asked curiously.

"We got us a place up on North Fork. Good grass water and timber. The wife likes trees.

I built us a cabin there, and a lean-to. We aimed to put about forty acres to wheat and maybe set us up a mill."

He looked up at them, smiling a little. "Pa was a miller, and he always said to me that folks need bread wherever they are. Make a good loaf"... He said, "and you'll always have a good living. He had him a mill up Oregon way."

"North Fork?" Boggs and Maxwell exchanged glances. "Man, that country was run over by Injuns two years ago. Some folks went back up there, but one o' them is Bill Ketchum. He's got a bunch running with him no better'n he is.

Hoss thieves, folks reckon. Most anything to get the "coon."

When he rounded the bend below the creek and saw the old bridge ahead of him his mouth got dry and his heart began to pound. He walked his horse, with the child sitting before him and the carbine in its scabbard. At the creek he drew up for just a moment, looking down at the bridge. He built it with his own hands. Then his eyes saw the hand rail on the right. It was cut from a young poplar. He had used cedar. Somebody had worked on that bridge recently.

The cabin he had built topped a low rise in a clearing backed by a rocky overhang. He rode through the pines, trying to quiet himself. It might be like they said.

Maybe she had sold out and gone away, or just gone. Maybe she had married somebody else, or maybe the Injuns. . . .

The voice he heard was coarse and amused.

"Come off it"... The voice said. "From here on you're my woman. I ain't takin" no more of this guff!"

Jim London did not stop his horse when it entered the clearing. He let it walk right along, but he lifted the child from in front of him and said, "Betty Jane, that lady over yonder is your new ma. You run to her now, an' tell her your name is Jane. Hear me?"

He lowered the child to the ground and she scampered at once toward the slender woman with the wide gray eyes who stood on the step staring at the rider.

Bill Ketchum turned abruptly to see what her expression meant. The lean, raw-boned man on the horse had a narrow sun-browned face and a battered hat pulled low. The rider shoved it back now and rested his right hand on his thigh.

Ketchum stared at him. Something in that steeltrap jaw and those hard eyes sent a chill through him.

"I take it"... London said gravely, "that you are Bill Ketchum. I heard what you said just now. I also heard down the line that you was a horse thief, maybe worse. You get off this place now, and don't ever come back. You do and I'll shoot you on sight. Now get!"

"You talk mighty big."... Ketchum stared at him, anger rising within him. Should he try this fellow? Who did he think he was, anyway?

"I'm big as I talk."... London said it flatly. "I done killed a man yesterday down to Maxwell's.

Hombre name of Hurlburt. That's all I figure to kill this week unless you want to make it two.

Start moving now."

Ketchum hesitated, then viciously reined his horse around and started down the trail. As he neared the edge of the woods, rage suddenly possessed him. He grabbed for his rifle and instantly a shot rang out and a heavy slug gouged the butt of his rifle and glanced off.

Behind him the words were plain. "I put that one right where I want it. This here's a sevenshot repeater, so if you want one through your heart, just try it again."

London waited until the man had disappeared in the trees, and a minute more. Only then did he turn to his wife. She was down on the step with her arm around Betty Jane, who was sobbing happily against her breast.

"Jim"... She whispered. "Oh, Jim!"

He got down heavily. He started toward her and then stopped. Around the corner came a boy of four or five, a husky youngster with a stick in his hand and his eyes blazing. When he saw Jim he stopped abruptly. This stranger looked just like the old picture on his mother's table. Only he had on a coat in the picture, a store-bought coat.

"Jim."... Jane was on her feet now, color coming back into her face. "This is Little Jim. This is your son."

Jim London swallowed and his throat suddenly filled. He looked at his wife and started toward her. He felt awkward, clumsy. He took her by the elbows. "Been a long time, honey"... He said hoarsely, "a mighty long time!"

She drew back a little, nervously. "Let's I've coffee on. We'll "She turned and hurried toward the door and he followed.

It would take some time. A little time for both of them to get over feeling strange, and maybe more time for her. She was a woman, and women needed time to get used to things.

He turned his head and almost automatically his eyes went to that south forty. The field was green with a young crop. Wheat! He smiled.

She had filled his cup; he dropped into a seat, and she sat down opposite him. Little Jim looked awkwardly at Betty Jane, and she stared at him with round, curious eyes.

"There's a big frog down by the bridge"... Little Jim said suddenly. "I bet I can make him hop!"

They ran outside into the sunlight, and across the table Jim London took his wife's hand. It was good to be home. Mighty good.

BOOK: Riding for the Brand (Ss) (1986)
6.32Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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