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XXXX

He ain't really come around yet, Boss, not so's you'd notice I mean. His eyes are open, but he sorta just looks past a man…can't seem to focus. Must be that knock on the head hurt him worse than I figured." Wishbone shrugged, sighing deeply. "It's worrisome. Too bad his head ain't as hard as Rowdy's."

Although Favor agreed with Wish, including his assessment of Yates' hard head, Gil flashed the old cook a disproving frown before hunkering down next to Pete to check the scout's condition first hand. "Maybe I'll have more luck gettin' through to him."

But it was just as Wish said. Nolan's gaze never appeared to focus for more than a second or two, and when spoken to he seemed unable to understand the words. Favor soon quit trying. Getting wearily to his feet, he accepted a cup of coffee from Mushy, the ever cheerful, always optimistic Mushy.

"Mr. Nolan's much better, Mr. Favor. I can tell. Why just a little bit ago I heard him talkin'. Couldn't rightly make out what he was sayin' exactly, but he was sure enough talkin' all right!"

Wishbone whacked the youngster on the shoulder with a long-handled wooden spoon, causing Mushy to rub the affected part vigorously. "The hell you say! And who was he supposed to be talkin' to, might I ask?"

"Well…I dunno, Mr. Wishbone! I didn't say he was talkin' to anybody…just that he was talkin' is all."

"Delirious ramblin' don't mean nothin'. Wish put aside the spoon and picked up a clean towel and a pan of warm water. Settling in at Pete's side he dipped the towel in the water and continued where he'd left off some time earlier, attempting to wash some of the crusted blood from the side of the scout's face as well as from his hands. As he worked he spoke soothingly, the words quietly spoken but mostly nonsense. As before, the patient's gaze and attention wandered aimlessly which left Wish, as well as the observant Mr. Favor, despairing of any sort of quick recovery.

XXXX

Rowdy rode into camp, handing his lathered horse off to Hey Soos before attempting to locate Mr. Favor. The boss had been right. There were no tracks whatsoever and no signs either. Rowdy had circled the camp in an ever-widening spiral hoping to find something – a broken branch, a discarded cigarette butt, horse droppings, anything that would've lead him to whoever had shot Pete and stolen the money. He'd failed and more than anything in this lifetime, he did not want to admit failure to the boss.

Gil Favor sat, head in hand, elbow resting on one knee. If he was aware of any discomfort associated with his seat of choice, a large, less than flat rock, he gave no outward sign; his attention, indeed his pain, turned inward.

Favor's agony, for it was that, originated from what he perceived as failure on his part – failure to safeguard that which had been entrusted to him by the hard working cattlemen who had put not only their life-savings, but their faith into the hands of Gil Favor.

Gil suffered, too, from having to accept the fact that one failure had led to another – one that might cost Pete Nolan his life. Things were spiraling out of control; the situation becoming frightening. Who the hell do I trust? He asked himself, if not men like Joe Scarlet and Jim Quince. Men he'd employed on more drives than he could count on the fingers of one hand.

He pulled out tobacco and papers and rolled a quirly.

"Got enough for one more?"

Gil looked up. Rowdy Yates' head hung upon his breast, eyes downcast, shoulders hunched. If that wasn't the absolute picture of despair then Gil Favor was no judge of character or men. "By the looks of it I'd say you didn't find any sign of …." Favor bit his tongue, beginning again. "I'd say you didn't come across any tracks." He handed Yates his own cigarette and rolled another, lighting both off a single match.

Rowdy took a long draw on the quirly, coughed once, gave the boss an apologetic shrug and let the unsmoked cigarette drop to the ground. He shook his head. "Nothin', Boss. Like you said, ground's hard as rock. A bloodhound might have a chance, but no human tracker." Rowdy sighed. "I failed, Mr. Favor. For that I'm sorry as a man can be."

Taking a deep drag off the quirly and picking a piece of errant tobacco off his lip, Favor ground the half-smoked cigarette out against the rock. "I hope you'll allow me to join that club a yours, because I sure enough got the credentials."

"You failed, Boss?" Yates was more than dubious of Favor's claim. "You?"

"Yes me, but until you walked over here I wasn't sure what to do about it. Now I know that sure as night follows day I'm not gonna sit around beating myself to death over it." Favor got to his feet and stretched. "I'm gonna find out exactly what happened here today AND I'm gonna get that payroll back."

Standing there before Rowdy, hat in hand, everything about Favor bespoke a sense of purpose, from the straight line of his back to the resolve in his eyes. "I'm gonna find an answer to Pete's question while I'm about it, too, cause just like Pete, I wanta know why!"

XXXX

Pete Nolan heard snatches of conversation as the men milled about, whispering so as not to disturb him. Most of the news was no news. And most of it centered upon Joe Scarlet and Jim Quince. Few of the drovers believed Joe could've shot Pete and that was okay by Nolan because he couldn't really believe it either! But as much as he tried to make heads or tails out of what he remembered, his aching head and the pain in his gut wouldn't allow him to expend his energy on anything but them. Even Wish's dose of pain-killing laudanum did little to allow him to focus and actually seemed to make the memories fuzzier.

Rowdy returned and the news that the ramrod found absolutely nothing on his scouting expedition did not surprise Pete in the least. He knew the surrounding area almost like the proverbial back of his hand. The rocky ground made even tracking by an expert impossible, let alone a novice like Yates. But Pete knew something the others did not. He knew exactly where Joe Scarlet would run. He knew because he'd run there himself once, not so many years past – a place called Salty's Ridge.

Nobody knew why it was called that or if someone once did the knowledge died with him many years past. Salty's Ridge was a rock butte two thousand or more feet high that rose, seemingly, right out of the flat Texas plain upon which it squatted. Bleak and dark it loomed like an impenetrable fortress, but impenetrable only if you didn't know its hidden secret. The only way up was through the solid rock of the butte itself, the cave entrance hidden by overgrown brush and debris. The cave fronted a tunnel, a tunnel wide enough and high enough to allow a man to lead a horse through its mile or more of switchback trail all the way to the top.

Pete had a question that needed an answer and nothing was going to stand in the way of his getting an answer; not Wishbone's hovering presence; not Hey Soos sleeping right next to the tethered horses; not the streaks of lightening and the booming thunder which kept most of the drovers out with the easily spooked herd and not Nolan's own pained weakness – especially not that.

At his side Wishbone snored softly. Usually the cook/healer slept, literally, with one eye open, but not this night. His stint at the wounded man's side for two nights running exhausted him to the point where both eyes were closed and tightly.

It took a full ten minutes for Pete to inch the covers off his body. As it was the action caused terrible pain, reducing Nolan to the equivalent of a quivering, sweating, helpless blob. Another ten minutes passed to where he was finally able to try sitting up. First he rolled onto one side, then he pressed himself up, resting between gasps for breath and between waves of pain. He decided against even attempting to pull on his boots instead slipping his feet into the low, heavily beaded moccasins Mushy had thoughtfully taken from Pete's gear and laid out next to his pallet. He slipped his pistol from the holster, sliding it gingerly into the waistband of his trousers. Getting to his feet was truly the effort of a stubborn man, but staying there was another thing. He clung to the edge of the supply wagon, shaking like a man with the palsy. Within easy reach rested a box of candles, just what he needed. Pete helped himself to a couple.

Those few drovers who remained in camp were dead asleep. Nolan glanced over to the remuda. Mr. Favor must have asked the wrangler to saddle his spare horse. The boss traded off at least twice a night so not to wear out any one mount. This was an unexpected bonus; Pete thought he just might have to ride out bareback since there was no way he could lift a saddle – even a blanket would've strained his strength.

Making his way to the saddled horse he untied the reins and led the gelding out of camp and over to a low flat rock. Lifting his leg with one hand he managed to place a foot onto the rock and from there into the stirrup. Pulling the wounded body up into the saddle had him seeing black spots and biting his lip through to keep from yelling into the pain. He sat, head down, sweat dripping from his chin for what seemed forever. Voices of returning drovers moved him from his stupor and tapping the horse's side he urged the animal forward.

Riding the five or so miles on the straight and narrow with nary a bolt of lightning nor a rumble of thunder to spook his horse and with a newly risen full moon to light the way was the easy part of Pete Nolan's quest.

Arriving at the base of the butte, he tilted his head up and even then the top of the monolith wasn't in sight. Pete rode around the base to the eastern side and urged his horse up the narrow rocky path. Some hundred or so feet ahead the opening of the cave appeared. There was no brush camouflaging the entrance and so the scout knew he'd been correct in his thinking – someone had entered the cave and the tunnels beyond; someone who did not fear being followed.

"Let's go, boy…there's no time to waste, not if I wanta come on 'em before daybreak." Pete urged the horse into the cave, its only illumination a shaft of bright moonlight.

It was mostly as he remembered it – a large cave with several tunnels leading off in different directions – only one of which was tall enough and wide enough to admit a horse. Pete knew he wouldn't be able to dismount and lead his animal through the labyrinth; his wound effectively saw to that. He'd have to hug the saddle, basically laying his cheek against the horse's neck to clear the tunnel ceiling – headroom was extremely limited. But Nolan had no choice. Taking a candle from his pocket he put a match to the tip - a tiny flame and meager light, but it was all he had and all he'd need. Bending low, muffling a groan of pain against the horse's neck, Pete urged the animal forward and into the darkness.

Luckily once the tunnel was entered there were no others coming off it to confuse a man. It was straight ahead or nothing and no room in which to turn around and go back if a man got claustrophobic.

"Might make things easier if I had a torch or a lantern maybe," Pete muttered. The candle he held awkwardly in one hand flickered constantly, threatening to go out in the slight movement of air within the tunnel. The prospect of absolute darkness, even to a man without the fear of such, was still bothersome.

The tight fit of the tunnel, which seemed to go on forever, gave Nolan several short-lived moments of extreme discomfort though the sounds around him, the scurrying of unseen rodent feet, dripping water and the occasional bat whizzing past so close he could've reached out and touched it, were almost a comfort. "At least we ain't completely alone, Jughead," he whispered against the horse's ear.

When literally 'the light at the end of the tunnel' finally appeared as a tiny pale dot in the black, Pete was more than ready for it. He hoped the men he trailed camped some ways off from the tunnel's end for he sincerely doubted he could straighten up, draw his gun and fire (if the need arose) without some moments to shake off the effects of being prone so long.

The fresh air after the dank fetid stuff of the tunnel was purely delicious and Pete sucked it eagerly into his lungs. With one hand against his wound he slowly and carefully forced his aching body upright in the saddle. For a moment he thought he just might faint, but that feeling quickly passed. Several more deep breaths of the fresh night air cleared the remaining cobwebs from his brain. Off in the distance firelight flickered. Stubbing the candle out against his pommel he tucked the piece into his pocket. He drew the Colt, checking to be sure it was well loaded. He then turned his horse to the left, meaning to flank the thieves' camp and catch them unawares.

Coming in close Pete was surprised. It appeared no guards were posted. Two forms lay close to the fire, both heavily wrapped in blankets. Snoring came from one and Nolan recognized it as Joe Scarlet's deep baritone interspersed with the occasional hiccoughing snort. You can't sleep among men season after season and not recognize something as individual as a man's snore.

Pete rode in closer and was just trying to figure the best way to dismount without falling out of the saddle like a green-horn or twisting the wrong way and crying out in pain when he saw yet another body. This one was well away from the fire and sort of tucked behind a log. It was a man. Pete figured now was the time to dismount. Things were getting confusing and he needed a closer look because if Joe Scarlet and Jim Quince were asleep by the fire, then who was this?

Nolan made it out of the saddle just barely and just barely able to keep quiet. He doubled over at the pain in his belly, pressing his free hand hard against the heavily bandaged wound in hopes of somehow easing the hurt. It didn't work.

Sweating and shaky Pete crept toward the lone figure, the gun in his hand cocked.

To his great surprise the figure was trussed up like a Christmas goose, tied hand and foot and gagged to boot. With a mocassined foot Pete touched the body. It jerked and rolled quickly over. Adding shock to surprise Pete Nolan found himself looking into the eyes of Jim Quince, a sorely used Jim Quince. From what he could see both Jim's eyes were blackened and there was blood matted in his hair.

Tucking his gun away, Pete crouched down and pulled Jim's gag away from his mouth.

"Am I ever glad to see you, Pete Nolan! The way Joe talked you was dead for certain!" Although Quince must've believed he was whispering, he was not and for about a second and a half Pete thought of stuffing the gag back into the relieved drover's mouth.

Instead he cautioned him to be quiet as he untied the knot which bound Jim's hands. "Why are you a prisoner?" he whispered. "I thought you and Joe…well, I thought you must be in cahoots."

Jim opened his mouth to speak and once again Pete cautioned him. "Keep it real quiet."

"Damn right…" Jim began. It was not a whisper.

One of the sleeping figures stirred and Pete knew the time was now if he wanted to take Joe and his accomplice unawares and without a fight. He motioned Jim to stay where he was.

Pete nudged the sleeping Scarlet with his foot. "Get up, Joe. It's over and I'm takin' you back to Mr. Favor, you and the money."

Joe sat up in alarm, but alarm soon changed to an ear-to-ear grin of delight. "Pete! My God, but I thought you was dead."

Nolan stepped back, wary and confused. "You mean you hoped I was dead. You're the one back shot me, Joe. I was there…remember?"

Joe shook his head and there was such a sadness in his eyes, such a hang-dog expression of sorrow that somehow, in spite of what he knew, Pete Nolan had his doubts about Joe's guilt.

"I had to steal that money, Pete!" Joe rolled out of his blankets and attempted to get to his feet, but Nolan wouldn't allow it.

"Nobody has to steal, Joe. What the hell kinda excuse is that?" Pete remained skeptical.

"You're wrong there. I did," Scarlet's voice was husky with regret.

At Joe's declaration Jim Quince got to his feet and walked slowly, warily over to the fire. He kept looking over his shoulder as if expecting someone to jump out at him from the bushes. When he saw the other blanketed form at the fire, though, he calmed down a bit. "Listen to him, Pete! He's tellin' the truth and you know Joe ain't a liar! He did it to save my life!"

This was really getting good and confusing. Pete pointed his .45 at the second slumbering figure. "Wake up your partner there, Joe. I wanta see who else is in on this."

Scarlet leaned over and shook the form. "Get up. It's over. This whole lousy nightmare is finally over."

Nothing happened. Joe looked up at Pete and then shook the figure again, this time vigorously. The blanket opened to a bunch of rolled up clothing and a sack of sugar – an old trick that obviously still worked to good advantage.

"Drop the gun, Nolan. It's over all right, but for you. You got lucky the first time I put a bullet into you."

Pete let the hammer slowly down and tossed the pistol onto the nearest bedroll.

A tall figure moved out from behind the cover of thick brush and stunted trees, a rifle held in both hands.

"I didn't want to shoot you, Nolan. Not really. You're a fine lookin' fella. I saw that right off, and tall. I like 'em tall. They gotta be taller than me and that takes some doin'. Now that trail boss a yours, that Gil Favor. That's my idea of somethin' special." There followed a low soft whistle of appreciation.

Pete's head swam and he really thought this time a good deep faint was coming on. At this point he might've welcomed it. "You shot me…not Joe? And Scarlet, why did Quince say you saved his life?"

Following a chuckle of derision, the rifle-toting figure answered Pete's question. "It was easy as pie to lure Quince away from the herd. I knew he was Joe's best friend, his pard and I knew good ole boy Joe would do anything to keep Jim from, shall we say, dyin' an early and unpleasant death? I asked Joe, politely mind you, to steal the big boss man's payroll, and he did."

Pete looked at Quince; the drover nodded.

"That's so, Pete. That's just what happened," Joe added.

Quince's kidnapper stepped closer to the fire. It was then Pete got the surprise of his life. The man who'd nearly fractured his skull and for good measure shot him from behind was no man at all, but a woman. Tall, she must've stood close to six feet and with a full, voluptuous figure no man's clothing could fully disguise, but the package was marred by a face ugly enough to curdle milk. It wasn't her features so much as the cruel line of a thin-lipped mouth and the lack of anything even resembling a soul behind the dark eyes.

Pete wiped the perspiration from his forehead back against an already soggy sleeve. His knees felt like jelly. "But Joe, why in hell didn't you do something? You had a gun…a rifle… why didn't you stop her?"

This time a full blown roar of laughter accompanied the woman's answer. "He didn't stop me Pete Nolan…he didn't shoot me himself because I'm his baby sister and unfortunately for him, Joe's got feelings. Unfortunately for you, Jim Quince and big brother, Joe…I don't." She thumbed the hammer back on the rifle and aimed it tauntingly at Quince.

Oddly enough Pete actually recognized the woman, though he never would have connected her to Joe Scarlet. He played for time, pandering to whatever woman was left in her – to her woman's vanity. "I know you. I've seen your face on wanted posters." As if he could ever forget it. "You're Red Nancy Danaher – the most notorious woman since," he fumbled for a good one, "Belle Starr."

Red Nancy tossed her head in what seemed almost a parody of a coquettish girl. "Belle Starr," she huffed. "She's a fake and a phony - the stuff of dime novels. She ain't done half a what they say she's done. Now me on the other hand…I've done it all and then some."

Well, that bought some time, but not enough. Pete was fast running out of ideas and strength. He'd tried pandering, now he'd try getting her dander up. He turned to Joe, shaking his head in wonder. "How did two such different people come outta one family, Joe? You're as nice a fella as any mother could wish for – honest, good-natured, hard-working…your mama must be proud."

He turned to Nancy and there was such a look of disgust upon his features, of revulsion, the woman couldn't help but notice. "But you…your mama musta wished she'd a drowned you like an unwanted kitten the day you were born instead a livin' with the shame of havin' a piece a trash like you as kin." Pete got up a good gob of saliva at spat it at the woman's feet, barely missing her boots, unfortunately.

Red Nancy turned into a hissing shrieking harridan. Using the rifle as a club she lunged forward, swinging for all she was worth at Pete's head.

Two shots rang out, sounding almost as one. With the rifle mere inches from making contact with Nolan's already battered skull, Red Nancy fell dead at the scout's feet. This time Nolan did faint.

He woke with his head pillowed on a rolled up blanket and four grinning men hovering over him. Pete immediately closed his eyes.

"You can't fool us. We know you're awake!" Jim Quince's battered face was wreathed in a cloud of cigarette smoke. He must have suffered the pains of hell bound and gagged – unable to get a quirly rolled or smoked for who knew how long and he was making up for the lack of tobacco, in spades.

"Okay, you got me." Pete opened his eyes again, slowly. The smiles were still firmly in place, all but his. He looked accusingly at Gil Favor. "You followed me, you and Rowdy. No wonder I got outta camp so easy."

Yates nodded and Gil replied. "What'd you expect us to do, let you go alone, in the shape you're in?"

There were questions that needed answers, too many questions. "How'd you figure I'd know where to look for Joe… and what made you think I'd try it beat up as I was…am," Pete corrected.

For some reason the last question elicited loud guffaws all around. Gil patted Pete's shoulder affectionately. "We knew you'd know because you're the scout of this outfit and you'd damn well better be familiar with the layout of the land. And how'd I know you'd try to find Joe in your condition? Because you're Pete Nolan – the most hard-headed, mule-stubborn individual that ever came outta Texas, that's how! You wanted answers. I knew you'd go lookin' for 'em."

Pete sobered and a dark shadow crossed his pale face. He turned his attention to Joe Scarlet. "I'm sorry things ended the way they did, Joe. I mean your sister… I finally know the why of it, but…."

"You're sorry Nancy's dead, Pete?" Joe asked.

Nolan nodded.

"Don't be 'cause I ain't," Joe stated emphatically, surprising his companions by his fervor. "All she's done since the day she was old enough to talk back was cause trouble in the house; stealin', drinkin', men, it never stopped. Finally Pa threw her out. I can't tell ya how many hours my ma spent cryin' over that girl. She was born bad 'cause she sure weren't raised that way; born bad and married worse. I'm glad she's dead. Maybe now she'll find peace…and the family right along with her."

Scarlet looked away. He might've meant every word he said, but the tears in his eyes were impossible to hide. Somewhere, sometime, he must've found something to love in Nancy.

END