AFTER THE MOON lowered itself behind the serrated ridge of the Gunsight Hills, two riders walked their horses from the breaks along the river.
The night was still. Only the crickets made their small music, and down by the livery stable a bay horse stamped restlessly, lifting his head, ears pricked.
Another rider, a big man who sat easy in the saddle, rode up out of a draw and walked his horse along the alleyway leading to the town’s main street. Only the blacksmith heard the walking horse.
His eyes opened, for he was a man who had known much of Indian fighting, and they remained open and aware during the slow seconds while the horse walked by. Casually, he wondered what rider would be on the street at that hour of the night, but sleep claimed him and the rider was forgotten.
This rider did not emerge upon the street, but drew rein in the deepest shadows beside the general store, hearing the approach of the two riders coming along the street.
There was no sign of Considine, but he expected none. Considine had a way of getting to where he wanted to be without being seen.
The two riders went by, turning at the last minute in a perfect column right to stop before the bank. Each dismounted at once, and each held a rifle. Only when they were in position did Dutch walk his mount across the street and swing down in the comparative shelter of the bank building.
As he dismounted he held one hand carefully about a fruit jar. It was a very small jar, but Dutch treated it with respect.
Considine opened the bank door from within as Dutch brought his jar around the corner.
“It’s an old box . . . nothing to worry about.”
Dutch moved past him in the darkness, walking with the cat-footedness given to some very heavy men, and squatted before the big iron safe.
Considine walked back to the door for one last look down the empty street. Behind him the peteman had gone to work.
Hardy lit a cigarette and glanced over his shoulder. He was younger than Considine and just as tall, but thinner—a knife-edged young man with a face that showed reckless and tough in the faint glow of the cigarette.
The Kiowa neither moved nor spoke. A blocky, square-built young man, he was a half-breed known from Colorado to Sonora, wanted everywhere and nowhere.
Considine walked back to where Dutch was working on the safe. Sweat beaded the big man’s face as the steel drill bit into the softer iron of the safe. The first hole, at the top corner of the safe door, was well started.
Dutch was a craftsman and proud of his work. He had done time in the Texas pen for being caught with the wrong cattle, and while in prison he had learned from an old peterman how to crack a safe. Now there was no better man west of the Mississippi, but there was no hurry in him, not even under fire.
Minutes passed. . . . Up the street somewhere a door slammed, a moment of quiet followed, and then a pump complained wearily, and after an interval they could hear the water gushing into an empty tin bucket.
They waited, each man poised in position, Dutch resting the heavy drill on the floor. After a few minutes they heard a door close up the street, and then silence. Dutch replaced the drill in the hole and leaned into his job. Sweat trickled down his face, but he worked steadily, unhurried and confident.
Considine felt the pressure begin to mount. Every second they were here increased their danger. He knew these western towns only too well, and nobody got away with anything in any of them. He had heard gangs talk of taking towns, but it never happened. If a gunman or a pack of outlaws tried to tree a western town the population would vie to see who got the first shot.
Take the banker of this town, for example. He had been a colonel in the Union Army during the Civil War, and had been a lieutenant in the war with Mexico, and he had fought Indians and hunted buffalo. . . . The saloonkeeper across the street was a noted buffalo hunter. . . . The man who owned the general store had been the crack shot of his regiment during the Civil War, and had fought Indians in Wyoming and Nebraska.
The whole town was like that. Probably there weren’t three men in town who had not used guns, and used them a lot. It was a time when every western town’s population was made up of the daring, the adventurous, and the skilled. No tinhorn would ever tree a town like this, or any part of it. Gunmen and outlaws were left alone as long as they stayed with their kind, with the cheaper saloons and the girls of the bawdy houses.
An insect droned by in the darkness, and somewhere a quail called. Considine leaned against the door jamb and waited, listening to the sound of the drill.
He was a damned fool, he thought. Any man who tried to do anything like this was. How had he become a thief, anyway? He shied at the word thief. At first it had seemed a big lark. They had been out of money and wanted enough for a few days in town, so they bunched some cattle, drove them to a man they knew of, and sold them.
After that it happened again. On the fourth time they had been seen and there was a running gun battle and the only answer to that was to leave town.
He left ahead of a posse and drifted to Kansas, and since then it had been just one thing after another until here he was, cracking the safe in a bank.
Four years of crime behind him, and he had made only a little more than he would have made working for wages on a cow outfit. With the difference that had he worked for wages, men would not be hunting him all over the country.
Dutch rested, mopping sweat from his forehead. The first hole was finished. Considine picked up a bar of homemade soap and began stopping up the crack around the safe door. Out in the street one of the horses stamped and Dutch placed his drill in the new position and went to work. The iron showed white under the bite of the steel bit.
The quail called again, a lonely call, inquiring and plaintive. Considine slapped a mosquito on his neck and swore under his breath.
The pressure continued to mount. Hardy no longer leaned against the building. His nonchalance was gone. He was sweating, too. Only the Kiowa seemed unperturbed.
Hardy hissed suddenly and Considine touched Dutch on the shoulder. The drill ceased to move and there was silence, and in the stillness Considine could hear the slow ticking of the bank clock.
On the cross street a few doors away they could hear two horses walking, two sleepy riders on sleepy horses. They crossed Main Street and vanished in the darkness, with the muzzles of two rifles on them all the way. When they had been gone a full minute, Considine spoke to Dutch and the big man returned to work. He had not so much as turned his head to look.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from High Lonesome by Louis L'Amour. Copyright © 2005 by Louis L'Amour. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.