Return of the Rio Kid by Brett Halliday by Brett Halliday - Read Online

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Return of the Rio Kid - Brett Halliday

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ROLLINS

1

In the vague half-light of early night a lone rider was mistily outlined as he halted atop a narrow ridge south of the Rio Grande. There was something arresting in the posture of the rider as he sat with bronzed hands resting on the silver horn of a heavy, double-girthed Texas saddle, his bleak gaze sweeping downward over the barren, cactus-dotted slope to the vague outline of the river marking the International Boundary between Mexico and the United States.

There was something of expectancy and of hope in his bearing, a grim determination which overshadowed and submerged any slight nervousness he felt upon viewing his native land after an exile of three years in the southern republic.

The Rio Kid was riding north again. Behind him was a long lonely trail which he had ridden three years ago, leaving behind the printed posters bearing a smudged picture of his reckless young face and an offer of ten thousand dollars reward for his capture, dead or alive.

Would these posters still be up on the other side of the river?

The Rio Kid didn’t know. He intended to find out … tonight. Three years in the land of mañana, of frijoles and tequila, was enough for any American even if he had killed an Arizona sheriff in an unwitnessed brawl and brought the charge of wanton murder down upon his head.

Sinewy fingers brought out a sack of American flake tobacco from a pocket of his leather vest, and fashioned a Mexican cigarillo out of a native cornhusk wrapper with incredible dexterity.

Flame spurted in the deepening shadows of twilight, momentarily lighting a lean hard face burned as dark as a Mexican’s by the tropical sun during the three years the Rio Kid had been in exile. He would, in fact, have been taken for a native of Mexico by a casual observer. But there was a subtle difference which one versed in the ways of the Border would have discerned at once.

The broad-brimmed hat of black felt was high-peaked like a Mexican’s, but, like everything about him, it was severely unadorned … worn for service and not for display. A gray flannel shirt and a sleeveless leather jacket were his only protection against the chill night, and his legs were encased in scarred, serviceable chaps, above which were crossed gunbelts of soft black leather, each with its twin row of gleaming brass cartridges, and each carrying a holstered .45 tied low at the hip.

Pinpoints of light cut through the coming darkness of night from a small Mexican pueblo nestled in a tiny valley close to the river. Sucking reflectively on his cigarillo, the Rio Kid gazed downward on the peaceful scene.

That would be the village of Zargosita, he surmised. He had never been to this part of the Border before, but deep in Mexico he had heard tales of this section south of the Big Bend where Mexican bandits and renegade Americans made their headquarters at Zargosita and planned raids on the rich ranches across the line.

It was partly those tales which had brought him here to essay his return to his native soil. The Big Bend was several hundred miles south of the point where he had fled across the Border three years ago, and he felt there was little chance of being recognized if he recrossed here. True, reward posters had been scattered up and down every foot of the Border country … but that was three years ago … and the Rio Kid had changed a lot during those three years.

He straightened his lithe body in the saddle. His burned-down cigarillo made a glowing arc in the new darkness. His clean-limbed bay cocked inquiring ears backward at the movement of his rider, stepped forward into a smooth trail-trot at the jangle of silver spurs from the Kid’s booted heels.

The trail led downward through thorny mesquite and squatty greasewood directly toward the lights of the village. The Kid rode easily, rocking with the motion of the bay, a reckless smile upon his thin hard lips.

He had been eighteen when he fled across the Arizona border just one jump ahead of a hard-riding posse thirsting for his blood. A mere kid, frightened and lonely … knowing in his soul that it had been a fair gunfight and that he was unjustly accused of murder.

Now, he was twenty-one. A man. Embittered by the years of unjust exile, determined to return and clear his name with blazing guns if there was no other way.

He straightened warily in the saddle as the trail widened into a wagon road lined by small irrigated farms. The lights of the Mexican village were just ahead. Furtive, dim lights to welcome those who rode beyond the law. He had lived in many such villages during the past three years, but he was resolved that tonight would see an end to that kind of life.

The shod hoofs of his bay made a dull, plopping sound in the thick dust of the main street. On either side were squalid frame buildings with curtained windows.

He reined his bay into a hitchrack in front of a low building near the end of the street which was more brightly lighted than the others and from which came the sound of strumming guitars and boisterous laughter.

Dismounting in the semi-darkness, the Rio Kid looped reins over the rail, stepped across the board sidewalk with his fingers subconsciously going to the worn black butts of low-swinging .45’s to assure himself they were loosened in the holsters for a quick draw. A man never knew what he was walking into in a town like Zargosita which was peopled with the criminal scum of two countries.

He shouldered the swinging doors inward, blinked from beneath the low-pulled brim of his black hat at the brilliantly lighted interior of the Mexican cantina.

A rough pine bar ran along one side of the building, presided over by a pockmarked Mexican bartender who halted in the act of pouring sotol into a glass and stared at the Rio Kid.

Three Mexican vaqueros in tight-legged pants and crimson sashes leaned on the bar talking volubly and explosively in their native tongue.

At the rear, a heavy pall of smoke hung over a dozen small tables scattered about a raised platform where sat three old men strumming guitars in a lively tango. Many of the tables were unoccupied, and through the smoke-laden air the Kid could see half a dozen couples dancing in a small cleared space.

He took all of this in through one brief, inclusive glance, then strode to the upper end of the bar and said, Whisky, to the still-staring bartender.

The man nodded and filled the sotol glass to the rim with the white, evil-smelling liquid, corked the bottle and slid an empty glass toward the Kid. Setting a quart of Waterfill and Frazier whisky on the bar in front of his new customer, the bartender hunched his head forward confidentially.

You are new in Zargosita, no?

The Rio Kid poured himself a drink and nodded. Yeh. Just drifted in.

"From Los Estados Unidos, Señor?"

I don’t reckon it’s any of yore business where I hail from, drawled the Kid. He lifted his glass and sniffed the aroma, then downed the drink.

He was conscious of a sudden silence farther down the bar. The three vaqueros had stopped talking and were staring at him. The tension of silence spread back into the rear of the room. Men and painted women at the tables turned their heads to whisper and stare.

A man got up from a rear table and sauntered forward. Refilling his glass, the Rio Kid’s attitude was one of bland unconcern. The approaching man was a burly American with red whiskers sprouting raggedly on heavy jowls, eyes bloodshot.

He stopped on spread legs in front of the Kid and thrust his jaw out pugnaciously.

Yore uh a stranger, he charged. The guitars were silent and the big man’s words echoed through the quiet cantina.

Thass right. The Kid lifted his glass and peered at the man over its brim. Why not? His soft-spoken words threw the challenge back into the other’s face.

No reason why not. Ha-ha. We all got tuh be strangers when fust we come. But yore wearin’ yore guns mighty keerlesslike. There’s uh rule in Zargosita that every stranger leaves off his guns till he gits sorta acquainted.

The Rio Kid tipped up his glass and emptied it. Setting it down on the bar he smiled and said:

I don’t like that rule.

Like it er not, yore no better’n any other stranger. Better loose yore belts an’ turn ’em over tuh Jose behind thuh bar.

The Kid kept on smiling but his eyes were steely and there wasn’t any mirth in his upturned lips. His left arm on the bar supported his slouched weight, but the fingers of his right hand hung downward, curving dangerously.

I’ll just keep my guns on, I reckon, he drawled, ’less yo’re of uh mind tuh take ’em offa me.

They ain’t no use lookin’ fer trouble, the red-whiskered American protested, licking his lips and looking down at the manner in which the Kid’s hand hovered above the butt of his .45. Don’t fergit yo’re all alone here.

The Rio Kid threw back his head and laughed. I’m used tuh playin’ uh lone hand, Mister. You got uh gun on yore hip. Lead talks louder’n words where I come from.

The heavy man braced himself and scowled. In a lifetime of outlawry he had faced death often enough to know he was closer to it now than he had ever been before. He was fast enough with a gun, but some intuition told him that this youth who faced him with reckless laughter was a whole lot faster. Barney Armint hadn’t lived below the Border for twenty years without learning when to back down. With forced heartiness, he said:

Shore, I didn’t mean tuh be onfriendly, stranger. Live an’ let live is what we say in Zargosita. It wuz fer yore own good I wuz advisin’ yuh. Ef Pedro Sanchez sees yuh wearin’ uh gun agin thuh rule he’s liable tuh …

Por Dios! hissed one of the vaqueros behind Barney. He gave the American a shove and the slender blade of a knife gleamed murderously in the light as he sprang forward without warning.

There was an exhaled, A-h-h, from the spectators as the Kid ducked the first knife-thrust, his left fist swinging from the bar to brupp against the man’s jaw as he rushed in. Reeling out from under the limp body, the Rio Kid came up with a gun in each hand … and there was utter, awed silence in the cantina.

The Kid crouched there before them, lips drawn back in a snarl, eyes shifting from one to another as they backed slowly before him.

Suddenly he straightened and both guns were sheathed in a single flashing movement. He laughed mockingly and turned to the bar, saying over his shoulder to the American:

Name yore poison.

Barney Armint stepped forward eagerly. Whisky. An’ my name’s Armint. Barney Armint.

The Rio Kid nodded, his eyes glacially cold. Behind him, the vaquero struggled to his feet and slunk back to join his companions at the far end of the bar, nursing his jaw and shooting venomous glances at the Kid.

Here’s tuh yore faster’n-greased-lightnin’ draw, Barney toasted, lifting his glass high. That’s thuh slickest piece of gun-slingin’ I’ve seen in many uh day, stranger.

The Rio Kid shrugged off the compliment. For three years he’d had little to do except practice that draw.

This Pedro Sanchez you mentioned, he said casually, who’s he?

Barney stared at him in astonishment. You don’ know Pedro Sanchez? You musta made uh long ride, stranger. He runs this hull layout south of thuh Big Bend. Nobuddy lasts long in these here parts without they play along with Pedro.

Is that a fact, now? A slumbrous light lay in the Kid’s cold gray eyes. "Maybe he’d like tuh take my guns offa me?"

Say, yo’re jes spoilin’ fer uh six-foot hole, ain’t yuh? Yuh cain’t buck Pedro, I’m tellin’ yuh.

The Rio Kid slapped his empty glass down on the bar. The guitars in the back had resumed the strumming, and again there arose the low buzz of conversation and laughter from those seated at the tables. Soft, sibilant tones from the red lips of señoritas, dark eyes flashing; inviting and flirtatious gestures.

I’m not studyin’ about buckin’ nobody, he drawled. I just dropped in for uh drink tuh wash thuh dust outa my throat an’ I don’t figger I had tuh unbuckle my guns tuh do that. I ain’t never had much hankerin’ fer rules no-way … ’specially no rules made by uh Mex.

Barney glanced back over his shoulder fearfully at the natives behind him, and lowered his voice. This is uh good place tuh hang out ef yo’re on thuh run from thuh law in thuh States, but yuh gotta play hit Pedro’s way or else. An’ he’s liable tuh be comin’ in any minute.

Is he, now? The Rio Kid pushed the brim of his hat far back to reveal the lean hard lines of his face, turned slowly and draped his elbows on the bar behind him. I reckon I’ll wait uh little time afore ridin’ on, he drawled. "Me, I’m a plumb peaceful hombre, but I shore ain’t in thuh habit of runnin’ from no man."

He shook flaked tobacco into a corn-husk and mechanically rolled a cigarillo while his bleak gaze drifted back over the cantina, getting himself one last eyeful of Mexico before he rode on across the Border.

The hoofs of galloping horses pounded in the street outside, and Barney grabbed the Kid’s arm in an urgent grip.

That’ll be Pedro an’ his gang uh hellions, he muttered in the Kid’s ear. You kin git out that side door without bein’ seen.

The Rio Kid shook his hand off, lighting a match and letting smoke spurt from between strong white teeth.

I’m stayin’ for a look-see, he announced calmly. You’ve done got me plumb curious.

The swinging doors burst inward before a booted and spurred group of ruffians who swaggered toward the bar calling hoarsely for tequila and mescal.

There were both Mexicans and Americans in the group, coarse, hard-bitten fellows, armed and dangerous.

Barney moved away from the bar with a muttered warning to the Kid to do likewise, but the Rio Kid stubbornly remained where he was, with only a catlike tensing of his muscles to indicate that he realized the danger he faced.

Outa muh way, one black-bearded fellow snarled, making a sweeping motion with his huge arm to brush the Kid aside.

A curious thing happened. The Rio Kid did not move nor speak, but the big fellow checked the motion of his arm just in time, taking a backward step before the blazing ferocity suddenly unleashed in the eyes of the slim youth standing so negligently before him.

The doors again swung inward and a silken voice cut through the sudden hush holding the bandit gang. Who ees this man?

No one spoke.

The Rio Kid turned his head slowly and stared into the beady eyes of a slender, foppishly dressed Mexican with a cruel slit of a mouth beneath a stringy black mustache.

Who the hell are you? the Rio Kid returned insolently.

Me? The Mexican’s cheeks puffed up like a toad’s. "I am Pedro Sanchez. Baddest dam hombre in hall Mexico. W’at for you wear thees guns, hey?"

I’d feel undressed without them, the Rio Kid drawled.

S-o-o? Pedro Sanchez sucked in his breath, then nodded and spread out slim, tapering fingers.

I am onnerstan’, he said magnanimously. You are fear for arrest, no? Not een Zargosita. There ees no need for be afraid of nossing in Zargosita. I am ze law an’ there ees no law. Zat ees good news for you, hey?

The Kid shrugged and moved negligently away from the bar with both hands swinging free.

He said: No. The whole set-up stinks, Sanchez. I’m ridin’… an’ my guns ride with me.

Pedro Sanchez stepped aside politely. "Bueno, Señor. Vas con Dios. Mexico ees beeg countree. Ze road south, she ees zat way." He motioned with his right hand in the direction from which the Kid had ridden.

The Kid paused in the doorway with a grin. I happen tuh be ridin’ north, he announced calmly.

But no! Ze Rio Grande, she ees north.

Shore, I know that. That’s where I’m aheadin’. The Rio Kid paused to let his announcement sink in, then added softly: I hear you fellers have uh playful little pastime of raidin’ across the Border when you get hongry for fat beef. I’ll be hangin’ out on the other side from now on, an’ I’m warnin’ yuh to stay on yore own side.

He backed out slowly, hands hovering just above his gun butts, then whirled and leaped across the board walk to grab his reins and vault into the saddle in one lithe movement.

Light streamed from the cantina, then a mob of cursing men who had suddenly come to the realization that this hard-eyed brown stranger was not one of themselves as they supposed, but was escaping toward the Border where he would be a constant menace to their safety.

The Rio Kid laughed aloud in the night and turned in his saddle to throw lead back at them, giving the bay free rein as he swept down the street and into the road leading to the river ford.

They were mounting and in hot pursuit, spurts of orange flame lighting the darkness behind him, but the Kid rode swiftly on toward the river with no thought of any real danger.

It had been a reckless, crazy thing to do, but it was the Rio Kid’s final derisive gesture toward the life of outlawry which he was leaving behind him. He hoped … forever. For three years he had been forced to associate with such men, and had despised it. That was ended now. He had fixed it so he couldn’t go back.

The bay’s head was down and his labored breathing came back to the Kid’s ears, but his pursuers were far behind, firing desultory and unaimed shots from rifles.

Then there was the wide river directly ahead, the pale gleam of starlight reflected back from the slow-moving water, silvery spray splashing high as the bay forged in under the goad of his master’s blunt rowels.

They were through and up on the other bank, on American soil, and the sound of pursuit was dying away in the night behind them.

The Kid reined his mount in, bringing the bay to a trembling halt in the middle of the well-beaten road winding along the edge of the river just below the ragged outlines