HOW OIL CAME TO THE CATTLE COUNTRY AND BROUGHT A NEW WEST
BY WILLIAM MACLEOD RAINE
AUTHOR OF THE BIG-TOWN ROUND-UP, A MAN FOUR SQUARE, THE YUKON TRAIL, ETC.
TO JAMES H. LANGLEY
WHO LIVED MANY OF THESE PAGES IN THE DAYS OF HIS HOT-BLOODED YOUTH
I. "CROOKED AS A DOG'S HIND LAIG"
II. THE RACE
III. DAVE RIDES ON HIS SPURS
IV. THE PAINT HOSS DISAPPEARS
V. SUPPER AT DELMONICO'S INTERRUPTED
VI. BY WAY OF A WINDOW
VII. BOB HART TAKES A HAND
VIII. THE D BAR LAZY R BOYS MEET AN ANGEL
IX. GUNSIGHT PASS
X. THE CATTLE TRAIN
XI. THE NIGHT CLERK GETS BUSY PRONTO
XII. THE LAW PUZZLES DAVE
XIII. FOR MURDER
XIV. TEN YEARS
XV. IN DENVER
XVI. DAVE MEETS TWO FRIENDS AND A FOE
XVIII. DOBLE PAYS A VISIT
XIX. AN INVOLUNTARY BATH
XX. THE LITTLE MOTHER FREES HER MIND
XXI. THE HOLD-UP
XXII. NUMBER THREE COMES IN
XXIII. THE GUSHER
XXV. MILLER TALKS
XXVI. DAVE ACCEPTS AN INVITATION
XXVII. AT THE JACKPOT
XXVIII. DAVE MEETS A FINANCIER
XXIX. THREE IN CONSULTATION
XXX. ON THE FLYER
XXXI. TWO ON THE HILLTOPS
XXXII. DAVE BECOMES AN OFFICE MAN
XXXIII. ON THE DODGE
XXXIV. A PLEASANT EVENING
XXXV. FIRE IN THE CHAPARRAL
XXXVI. FIGHTING FIRE
XXXVII. SHORTY ASK A QUESTION
XXXVIII. DUG DOBLE RIDES INTO THE HILLS
XXXIX. THE TUNNEL
XL. A MESSAGE
XLI. HANK BRINGS BAD NEWS
XLII. SHORTY IS AWAKENED
XLIII. JUAN OTERO IS CONSCRIPTED
XLIV. THE BULLDOG BARKS
XLV. JOYCE MAKES PIES
"CROOKED AS A DOG'S HIND LAIG"
It was a land of splintered peaks, of deep, dry gorges, of barren mesas burnt by the suns of a million torrid summers. The normal condition of it was warfare. Life here had to protect itself with a tough, callous rind, to attack with a swift, deadly sting. Only the fit survived.
But moonlight had magically touched the hot, wrinkled earth with a fairy godmother's wand. It was bathed in a weird, mysterious beauty. Into the crotches of the hills lakes of wondrous color had been poured at sunset. The crests had flamed with crowns of glory, the canons become deep pools of blue and purple shadow. Blurred by kindly darkness, the gaunt ridges had softened to pastels of violet and bony mountains to splendid sentinels keeping watch over a gulf of starlit space.
Around the camp-fire the drivers of the trail herd squatted on their heels or lay sprawled at indolent ease. The glow of the leaping flames from the twisted mesquite lit their lean faces, tanned to bronzed health by the beat of an untempered sun and the sweep of parched winds. Most of them were still young, scarcely out of their boyhood; a few had reached maturity. But all were products of the desert. The high-heeled boots, the leather chaps, the kerchiefs knotted round the neck, were worn at its insistence. Upon every line of their features, every shade of their thought, it had stamped its brand indelibly.
The talk was frank and elemental. It had the crisp crackle that goes with free, unfettered youth. In a parlor some of it would have been offensive, but under the stars of the open desert it was as natural as the life itself. They spoke of the spring rains, of the Crawford-Steelman feud, of how they meant to turn Malapi upside down in their frolic when they reached town. They "rode" each other with jokes that were familiar old friends. Their horse play was rough but good-natured.
Out of the soft shadows of the summer night a boy moved from the remuda toward the camp-fire. He was a lean, sandy-haired young fellow, his figure still lank and unfilled. In another year his shoulders would be broader, his frame would take on twenty pounds. As he sat down on the wagon tongue at the edge of the firelit circle the stringiness of his appearance became more noticeable.
A young man waved a hand toward him by way of introduction. "Gents of the D Bar Lazy R outfit, we now have with us roostin' on the wagon tongue Mr. David Sanders, formerly of Arizona, just returned from makin' love to his paint hoss. Mr. Sanders will make oration on the why, wherefore, and how-come-it of Chiquito's superiority to all other equines whatever."
The youth on the wagon tongue smiled. His blue eyes were gentle and friendly. From his pocket he had taken a knife and was sharpening it on one of his dawn-at-the-heel-boots.
"I'd like right well to make love to that pinto my own se'f, Bob," commented a weather-beaten puncher. "Any old time Dave wants to saw him off onto me at sixty dollars I'm here to do business."
"You're sure an easy mark, Buck," grunted a large fat man leaning against a wheel. His white, expressionless face and soft hands differentiated him from the tough range-riders. He did not belong with the outfit, but had joined it the day before with George Doble, a half-brother of the trail foreman, to travel with it as far as Malapi. In the Southwest he was known as Ad Miller. The two men had brought with them in addition to their own mounts a led pack-horse.
Doble backed up his partner. "Sure are, Buck. I can get cowponies for ten and fifteen dollars—all I want of 'em," he said, and contrived by the lift of his lip to make the remark offensive.
"Not ponies like Chiquito," ventured Sanders amiably.
"That so?" jeered Doble.
He looked at David out of a sly and shifty eye. He had only one. The other had been gouged out years ago in a drunken fracas.
"You couldn't get Chiquito for a hundred dollars. Not for sale," the owner of the horse said, a little stiffly.
Miller's fat paunch shook with laughter. "I reckon not—at that price. I'd give all of fohty for him."
"Different here," replied Doble. "What has this pinto got that makes him worth over thirty?"
"He's some bronc," explained Bob Hart. "Got a bagful of tricks, a nice disposition, and sure can burn the wind."
"Yore friend must be valuin' them parlor tricks at ten dollars apiece," murmured Miller. "He'd ought to put him in a show and not keep him to chase cow tails with."
"At that, I've seen circus hosses that weren't one two three with Chiquito. He'll shake hands and play dead and dance to a mouth-organ and come a-runnin' when Dave whistles."
"You don't say." The voice of the fat man was heavy with sarcasm. "And on top of all that edjucation he can run too."
The temper of Sanders began to take an edge. He saw no reason why these strangers should run on him, to use the phrase of the country. "I don't claim my pinto's a racer, but he can travel."
"Hmp!" grunted Miller skeptically.
"I'm here to say he can," boasted the owner, stung by the manner of the other.
"Don't look to me like no racer," Doble dissented. "Why, I'd be 'most willin' to bet that pack-horse of ours, Whiskey Bill, can beat him."
Buck Byington snorted. "Pack-horse, eh?" The old puncher's brain was alive with suspicions. On account of the lameness of his horse he had returned to camp in the middle of the day and had discovered the two newcomers trying out the speed of the pinto. He wondered now if this precious pair of crooks had been getting a line on the pony for future use. It occurred to him that Dave was being engineered into a bet.
The chill, hard eyes of Miller met his. "That's what he said, Buck—our pack-horse."
For just an instant the old range-rider hesitated, then shrugged his shoulders. It was none of his business. He was a cautious man, not looking for trouble. Moreover, the law of the range is that every man must play his own hand. So he dropped the matter with a grunt that expressed complete understanding and derision.
Bob Hart helped things along. "Jokin' aside, what's the matter with a race? We'll be on the Salt Flats to-morrow. I've got ten bucks says the pinto can beat yore Whiskey Bill."
"Go you once," answered Doble after a moment's apparent consideration. "Bein' as I'm drug into this I'll be a dead-game sport. I got fifty dollars more to back the pack-horse. How about it, Sanders? You got the sand to cover that? Or are you plumb scared of my broomtail?"
"Betcha a month's pay—thirty-five dollars. Give you an order on the boss if I lose," retorted Dave. He had not meant to bet, but he could not stand this fellow's insolent manner.
"That order good, Dug?" asked Doble of his half-brother.
The foreman nodded. He was a large leather-faced man in the late thirties. His reputation in the cattle country was that of a man ill to cross. Dug Doble was a good cowman—none better. Outside of that his known virtues were negligible, except for the primal one of gameness.
"Might as well lose a few bucks myself, seeing as Whiskey Bill belongs to me," said Miller with his wheezy laugh. "Who wants to take a whirl, boys?"
Inside of three minutes he had placed a hundred dollars. The terms of the race were arranged and the money put in the hands of the foreman.
"Each man to ride his own caballo," suggested Hart slyly.
This brought a laugh. The idea of Ad Miller's two hundred and fifty pounds in the seat of a jockey made for hilarity.
"I reckon George will have to ride the broomtail. We don't aim to break its back," replied Miller genially.
His partner was a short man with a spare, wiry body. Few men trusted him after a glance at the mutilated face. The thin, hard lips gave warning that he had sold himself to evil. The low forehead, above which the hair was plastered flat in an arc, advertised low mentality.
An hour later Buck Byington drew Sanders aside.
"Dave, you're a chuckle-haided rabbit. If ever I seen tinhorn sports them two is such. They're collectin' a livin' off'n suckers. Didn't you sabe that come-on stuff? Their pack-horse is a ringer. They tried him out this evenin', but I noticed they ran under a blanket. Both of 'em are crooked as a dog's hind laig."
"Maybeso," admitted the young man. "But Chiquito never went back on me yet. These fellows may be overplayin' their hand, don't you reckon?"
"Not a chanct. That tumblebug Miller is one fishy proposition, and his sidekick Doble—say, he's the kind of bird that shoots you in the stomach while he's shakin' hands with you. They're about as warm-hearted as a loan shark when he's turnin' on the screws—and about as impulsive. Me, I aim to button up my pocket when them guys are around."
Dave returned to the fire. The two visitors were sitting side by side, and the leaping flames set fantastic shadows of them moving. One of these, rooted where Miller sat, was like a bloated spider watching its victim. The other, dwarfed and prehensile, might in its uncanny silhouette have been an imp of darkness from the nether regions.
Most of the riders had already rolled up in their blankets and fallen asleep. To a reduced circle Miller was telling the story of how his pack-horse won its name.
"... so I noticed he was actin' kinda funny and I seen four pin-pricks in his nose. O' course I hunted for Mr. Rattler and killed him, then give Bill a pint of whiskey. It ce'tainly paralyzed him proper. He got salivated as a mule whacker on a spree. His nose swelled up till it was big as a barrel—never did get down to normal again. Since which the ol' plug has been Whiskey Bill."
This reminiscence did not greatly entertain Dave. He found his blankets, rolled up in them, and promptly fell asleep. For once he dreamed, and his dreams were not pleasant. He thought that he was caught in a net woven by a horribly fat spider which watched him try in vain to break the web that tightened on his arms and legs. Desperately he struggled to escape while the monster grinned at him maliciously, and the harder he fought the more securely was he enmeshed.
The coyotes were barking when the cook's triangle brought Dave from his blankets. The objects about him were still mysterious in the pre-dawn darkness. The shouting of the wranglers and the bells of the remuda came musically as from a great distance. Hart joined his friend and the two young men walked out to the remuda together. Each rider had on the previous night belled the mount he wanted, for he knew that in the morning it would be too dark to distinguish one bronco from another. The animals were rim-milling, going round and round in a circle to escape the lariat.
Dave rode in close and waited, rope ready, his ears attuned to the sound of his own bell. A horse rushed jingling past. The rope snaked out, fell true, tightened over the neck of the cowpony, brought up the animal short. Instantly it surrendered, making no further, attempt to escape. The roper made a half-hitch round the nose of the bronco, swung to its back, and cantered back to camp.
In the gray dawn near details were becoming visible. The mountains began to hover on the edge of the young world. The wind was blowing across half a continent.
Sanders saddled, then rode out upon the mesa. He whistled sharply. There came an answering nicker, and presently out of the darkness a pony trotted. The pinto was a sleek and glossy little fellow, beautiful in action and gentle as a kitten.
The young fellow took the well-shaped head in his arms, fondled the soft, dainty nose that nuzzled in his pocket for sugar, fed Chiquito a half-handful of the delicacy in his open palm, and put the pony through the repertoire of tricks he had taught his pet.
"You wanta shake a leg to-day, old fellow, and throw dust in that tinhorn's face," he murmured to his four-footed friend, gentling it with little pats of love and admiration. "Adios, Chiquito. I know you won't throw off on yore old pal. So long, old pie-eater."
Across the mesa Dave galloped back, swung from the saddle, and made a bee-line for breakfast. The other men were already busy at this important business. From the tail of the chuck wagon he took a tin cup and a tin plate. He helped himself to coffee, soda biscuits, and a strip of steak just forked from a large kettle of boiling lard. Presently more coffee, more biscuits, and more steak went the way of the first helping. The hard-riding life of the desert stimulates a healthy appetite.
The punchers of the D Bar Lazy R were moving a large herd to a new range. It was made up of several lots bought from smaller outfits that had gone out of business under the pressure of falling prices, short grass, and the activity of rustlers. The cattle had been loose-bedded in a gulch close at hand, the upper end of which was sealed by an impassable cliff. Many such canons in the wilder part of the mountains, fenced across the face to serve as a corral, had been used by rustlers as caches into which to drift their stolen stock. This one had no doubt more than once played such a part in days past.
Expertly the riders threw the cattle back to the mesa and moved them forward. Among the bunch one could find the T Anchor brand, the Circle Cross, the Diamond Tail, and the X-Z, scattered among the cows burned with the D Bar Lazy R, which was the original brand of the owner, Emerson Crawford.
The sun rose and filled the sky. In a heavy cloud of dust the cattle trailed steadily toward the distant hills.
Near noon Buck, passing Dave where he rode as drag driver in the wake of the herd, shouted a greeting at the young man. "Tur'ble hot. I'm spittin' cotton."
Dave nodded. His eyes were red and sore from the alkali dust, his throat dry as a lime kiln. "You done, said it, Buck. Hotter 'n hell or Yuma."
"Dug says for us to throw off at Seven-Mile Hole."
"I won't make no holler at that."
The herd leaders, reading the signs of a spring close at hand, quickened the pace. With necks outstretched, bawling loudly, they hurried forward. Forty-eight hours ago they had last satisfied their thirst. Usually Doble watered each noon, but the desert yesterday had been dry as Sahara. Only such moisture was available as could be found in black grama and needle grass.
The point of the herd swung in toward the cottonwoods that straggled down from the draw. For hours the riders were kept busy moving forward the cattle that had been watered and holding back the pressure of thirsty animals.
Again the outfit took the desert trail. Heat waves played on the sand. Vegetation grew scant except for patches of cholla and mesquite, a sand-cherry bush here and there, occasionally a clump of shining poison ivy.
Sunset brought them to the Salt Flats. The foreman gave orders to throw off and make camp.
A course was chosen for the race. From a selected point the horses were to run to a clump of mesquite, round it, and return to the starting-place. Dug Doble was chosen both starter and judge.
Dave watched Whiskey Bill with the trained eyes of a horseman. The animal was an ugly brute as to the head. Its eyes were set too close, and the shape of the nose was deformed from the effects of the rattlesnake's sting. But in legs and body it had the fine lines of a racer. The horse was built for speed. The cowpuncher's heart sank. His bronco was fast, willing, and very intelligent, but the little range pony had not been designed to show its heels to a near-thoroughbred.
"Are you ready?" Doble asked of the two men in the saddles.
His brother said, "Let 'er go!" Sanders nodded. The revolver barked.
Chiquito was off like a flash of light, found its stride instantly. The training of a cowpony makes for alertness, for immediate response. Before it had covered seventy-five yards the pinto was three lengths to the good. Dave, flying toward the halfway post, heard his friend Hart's triumphant "Yip yip yippy yip!" coming to him on the wind.
He leaned forward, patting his horse on the shoulder, murmuring words of encouragement into its ear. But he knew, without turning round, that the racer galloping at his heels was drawing closer. Its long shadow thrown in front of it by the westering sun, reached to Dave's stirrups, crept to Chiquito's head, moved farther toward the other shadow plunging wildly eastward. Foot by foot the distance between the horses lessened to two lengths, to one, to half a length. The ugly head of the racer came abreast of the cowpuncher. With sickening certainty the range-rider knew that his Chiquito was doing the best that was in it. Whiskey Bill was a faster horse.
Simultaneously he became aware of two things. The bay was no longer gaining. The halfway mark was just ahead. The cowpuncher knew exactly how to make the turn with the least possible loss of speed and ground. Too often, in headlong pursuit of a wild hill steer, he had whirled as on a dollar, to leave him any doubt now. Scarce slackening speed, he swept the pinto round the clump of mesquite and was off for home.
Dave was halfway back before he was sure that the thud of Whiskey Bill's hoofs was almost at his heels. He called on the cowpony for a last spurt. The plucky little horse answered the call, gathered itself for the home stretch, for a moment held its advantage. Again Bob Hart's yell drifted to Sanders.
Then he knew that the bay was running side by side with Chiquito, was slowly creeping to the front. The two horses raced down the stretch together, Whiskey Bill half a length in the lead and gaining at every stride. Daylight showed between them when they crossed the line. Chiquito had been outrun by a speedier horse.
DAVE RIDES ON HIS SPURS
Hart came up to his friend grinning. "Well, you old horn-toad, we got no kick comin'. Chiquito run a mighty pretty race. Only trouble was his laigs wasn't long enough."
The owner of the pony nodded, a lump in his throat. He was not thinking about his thirty-five dollars, but about the futile race into which he had allowed his little beauty to be trapped. Dave would not be twenty-one till coming grass, and it still hurt his boyish pride to think that his favorite had been beaten.
Another lank range-rider drifted up. "Same here, Dave. I'll kiss my twenty bucks good-bye cheerful. You 'n' the li'l hoss run the best race, at that. Chiquito started like a bullet out of a gun, and say, boys! how he did swing round on the turn."
"Much obliged, Steve. I reckon he sure done his best," said Sanders gratefully.
The voice of George Doble cut in, openly and offensively jubilant. "Me, I'd ruther show the way at the finish than at the start. You're more liable to collect the mazuma. I'll tell you now that broomtail never had a chance to beat Whiskey Bill."
"Yore hoss can run, seh," admitted Dave.
"I know it, but you don't. He didn't have to take the kinks out of his legs to beat that plug."
"You get our money," said Hart quietly. "Ain't that enough without rubbin' it in?"
"Sure I get yore money—easy money, at that," boasted Doble. "Got any more you want to put up on the circus bronc?"
Steve Russell voiced his sentiments curtly. "You make me good and tired, Doble. There's only one thing I hate more'n a poor loser—and that's a poor winner. As for putting my money on the pinto, I'll just say this: I'll bet my li'l' pile he can beat yore bay twenty miles, a hundred miles, or five hundred."
"Not any, thanks. Whiskey Bill is a racer, not a mule team," Miller said, laughing.
Steve loosened the center-fire cinch of his pony's saddle. He noted that there was no real geniality in the fat man's mirth. It was a surface thing designed to convey an effect of good-fellowship. Back of it lay the chill implacability of the professional gambler.
The usual give-and-take of gay repartee was missing at supper that night. Since they were of the happy-go-lucky, outdoor West it did not greatly distress the D Bar Lazy R riders to lose part of their pay checks. Even if it had, their spirits would have been unimpaired, for it is written in their code that a man must take his punishment without whining. What hurt was that they had been tricked, led like lambs to the killing. None of them doubted now that the pack-horse of the gamblers was a "ringer." These men had deliberately crossed the path of the trail outfit in order to take from the vaqueros their money.
The punchers were sulky. Instead of a fair race they had been up against an open-and-shut proposition, as Russell phrased it. The jeers of Doble did not improve their tempers. The man was temperamentally mean-hearted. He could not let his victims alone.
"They say one's born every minute, Ad. Dawged if I don't believe it," he sneered.
Miller was not saying much himself, but his fat stomach shook at this sally. If his partner could goad the boys into more betting he was quite willing to divide the profits.
Audibly Hart yawned and murmured his sentiments aloud. "I'm liable to tell these birds what I think of 'em, Steve, if they don't spend quite some time layin' off'n us."
"Don't tell us out loud. We might hear you," advised Doble insolently.
"In regards to that, I'd sure worry if you did."
Dave was at that moment returning to his place with a cup of hot coffee. By some perverse trick of fate his glance fell on Doble's sinister face of malignant triumph. His self-control snapped, and in an instant the whole course of his life was deflected from the path it would otherwise have taken. With a flip he tossed up the tin cup so that the hot coffee soused the crook.
"Goddlemighty!" screamed Doble, leaping to his feet. He reached for his forty-five, just as Sanders closed with him. The range-rider's revolver, like that of most of his fellows, was in a blanket roll in the wagon.
Miller, with surprising agility for a fat man, got to his feet and launched himself at the puncher. Dave flung the smaller of his opponents back against Steve, who was sitting tailor fashion beside him. The gunman tottered and fell over Russell, who lost no time in pinning his hands to the ground while Hart deftly removed the revolver from his pocket.
Swinging round to face Miller, Dave saw at once that the big man had chosen not to draw his gun. In spite of his fat the gambler was a rough-and-tumble fighter of parts. The extra weight had come in recent years, but underneath it lay roped muscles and heavy bones. Men often remarked that they had never seen a fat man who could handle himself like Ad Miller. The two clinched. Dave had the under hold and tried to trip his bulkier foe. The other side-stepped, circling round. He got one hand under the boy's chin and drove it up and back, flinging the range-rider a dozen yards.
Instantly Dave plunged at him. He had to get at close quarters, for he could not tell when Miller would change his mind and elect to fight with a gun. The man had chosen a hand-to-hand tussle, Dave knew, because he was sure he could beat so stringy an opponent as himself. Once he got the grip on him that he wanted the big gambler would crush him by sheer strength. So, though the youngster had to get close, he dared not clinch. His judgment was that his best bet was his fists.
He jabbed at the big white face, ducked, and jabbed again. Now he was in the shine of the moon; now he was in darkness. A red streak came out on the white face opposite, and he knew he had drawn blood. Miller roared like a bull and flailed away at him. More than one heavy blow jarred him, sent a bolt of pain shooting through him. The only thing he saw was that shining face. He pecked away at it with swift jabs, taking what punishment he must and dodging the rest.
Miller was furious. He had intended to clean up this bantam in about a minute. He rushed again, broke through Dave's defense, and closed with him. His great arms crushed into the ribs of his lean opponent. As they swung round and round, Dave gasped for breath. He twisted and squirmed, trying to escape that deadly hug. Somehow he succeeded in tripping his huge foe.
They went down locked together, Dave underneath. The puncher knew that if he had room Miller would hammer his face to a pulp. He drew himself close to the barrel body, arms and legs wound tight like hoops.
Miller gave a yell of pain. Instinctively Dave moved his legs higher and clamped them tighter. The yell rose again, became a scream of agony.
"Lemme loose!" shrieked the man on top. "My Gawd, you're killin' me!"
Dave had not the least idea what was disturbing Miller's peace of mind, but whatever it was moved to his advantage. He clamped tighter, working his heels into another secure position. The big man bellowed with pain. "Take him off! Take him off!" he implored in shrill crescendo.
"What's all this?" demanded an imperious voice.
Miller was torn howling from the arms and legs that bound him and Dave found himself jerked roughly to his feet. The big raw-boned foreman was glaring at him above his large hook nose. The trail boss had been out at the remuda with the jingler when the trouble began. He had arrived in time to rescue his fat friend.
"What's eatin' you, Sanders?" he demanded curtly.
"He jumped George!" yelped Miller.
Breathing hard, Dave faced his foe warily. He was in a better strategic position than he had been, for he had pulled the revolver of the fat man from its holster just as they were dragged apart. It was in his right hand now, pressed close to his hip, ready for instant use if need be. He could see without looking that Doble was still struggling ineffectively in the grip of Russell.
"Dave stumbled and spilt some coffee on George; then George he tried to gun him. Miller mixed in then," explained Hart.
The foreman glared. "None of this stuff while you're on the trail with my outfit. Get that, Sanders? I won't have it."
"Dave he couldn't hardly he'p hisse'f," Buck Byington broke in. "They was runnin' on him considerable, Dug."
"I ain't askin' for excuses. I'm tellin' you boys what's what," retorted the road boss. "Sanders, give him his gun."
The cowpuncher took a step backward. He had no intention of handing a loaded gun to Miller while the gambler was in his present frame of mind. That might be equivalent to suicide. He broke the revolver, turned the cylinder, and shook out the cartridges. The empty weapon he tossed on the ground.
"He ripped me with his spurs," Miller said sullenly. "That's howcome I had to turn him loose."
Dave looked down at the man's legs. His trousers were torn to shreds. Blood trickled down the lacerated calves where the spurs had roweled the flesh cruelly. No wonder Miller had suddenly lost interest in the fight. The vaquero thanked his lucky stars that he had not taken off his spurs and left them with the saddle.
The first thing that Dave did was to strike straight for the wagon where his roll of bedding was. He untied the rope, flung open the blankets, and took from inside the forty-five he carried to shoot rattlesnakes. This he shoved down between his shirt and trousers where it would be handy for use in case of need. His roll he brought back with him as a justification for the trip to the wagon. He had no intention of starting anything. All he wanted was not to be caught at a disadvantage a second time.
Miller and the two Dobles were standing a little way apart talking together in low tones. The fat man, his foot on the spoke of a wagon wheel, was tying up one of his bleeding calves with a bandanna handkerchief. Dave gathered that his contribution to the conversation consisted mainly of fervent and almost tearful profanity.
The brothers appeared to be debating some point with heat. George insisted, and the foreman gave up with a lift of his big shoulders.
"Have it yore own way. I hate to have you leave us after I tell you there'll be no more trouble, but if that's how you feel about it I got nothin' to say. What I want understood is this"—Dug Doble raised his voice for all to hear—"that I'm boss of this outfit and won't stand for any rough stuff. If the boys, or any one of 'em, can't lose their money without bellyachin', they can get their time pronto."
The two gamblers packed their race-horse, saddled, and rode away without a word to any of the range-riders. The men round the fire gave no sign that they knew the confidence men were on the map until after they had gone. Then tongues began to wag, the foreman having gone to the edge of the camp with them.
"Well, my feelin's ain't hurt one li'l' bit because they won't play with us no more," Steve Russell said, smiling broadly.
"Can you blame that fat guy for not wantin' to play with Dave here?" asked Hart, and he beamed at the memory of what he had seen. "Son, you ce'tainly gave him one surprise party when yore rowels dug in."
"Wonder to me he didn't stampede the cows, way he hollered," grinned a third. "I don't grudge him my ten plunks. Not none. Dave he give me my money's worth that last round."
"I had a little luck," admitted Dave modestly.
"Betcha," agreed Steve. "I was just startin' over to haul the fat guy off Dave when he began bleatin' for us to come help him turn loose the bear. I kinda took my time then."
"Onct I went to a play called 'All's Well That Ends Well,'" said Byington reminiscently. "At the Tabor Grand the-a-ter, in Denver."
"Did it tell how a freckled cow-punch rode a fat tinhorn on his spurs?" asked Hart.
"Bet he wears stovepipes on his laigs next time he mixes it with Dave," suggested one coffee-brown youth. "Well, looks like the show's over for to-night. I'm gonna roll in." Motion carried unanimously.
THE PAINT HOSS DISAPPEARS
Wakened by the gong, Dave lay luxuriously in the warmth of his blankets. It was not for several moments that he remembered the fight or the circumstances leading to it. The grin that lit his boyish face at thought of its unexpected conclusion was a fleeting one, for he discovered that it hurt his face to smile. Briskly he rose, and grunted "Ouch!" His sides were sore from the rib squeezing of Miller's powerful arms.
Byington walked out to the remuda with him. "How's the man-tamer this glad mo'nin'?" he asked of Dave.
"Fine and dandy, old lizard."
"You sure got the deadwood on him when yore spurs got into action. A man's like a watermelon. You cayn't tell how good he is till you thump him. Miller is right biggity, and they say he's sudden death with a gun. But when it come down to cases he hadn't the guts to go through and stand the gaff."
"He's been livin' soft too long, don't you reckon?"
"No, sir. He just didn't have the sand in his craw to hang on and finish you off whilst you was rippin' up his laigs."
Dave roped his mount and rode out to meet Chiquito. The pinto was an aristocrat in his way. He preferred to choose his company, was a little disdainful of the cowpony that had no accomplishments. Usually he grazed a short distance from the remuda, together with one of Bob Hart's string. The two ponies had been brought up in the same bunch.
This morning Dave's whistle brought no nicker of joy, no thud of hoofs galloping out of the darkness to him. He rode deeper into the desert. No answer came to his calls. At a canter he cut across the plain to the wrangler. That young man had seen nothing of Chiquito since the evening before, but this was not at all unusual.
The cowpuncher returned to camp for breakfast and got permission of the foreman to look for the missing horses.
Beyond the flats was a country creased with draws and dry arroyos. From one to another of these Dave went without finding a trace of the animals. All day he pushed through cactus and mesquite heavy with gray dust. In the late afternoon he gave up for the time and struck back to the flats. It was possible that the lost broncos had rejoined the remuda of their own accord or had been found by some of the riders gathering up strays.
Dave struck the herd trail and followed it toward the new camp. A horseman came out of the golden west of the sunset to meet him. For a long time he saw the figure rising and falling in the saddle, the pony moving in the even fox-trot of the cattle country.
The man was Bob Hart.
"Found 'em?" shouted Dave when he was close enough to be heard.
"No, and we won't—not this side of Malapi. Those scalawags didn't make camp last night. They kep' travelin'. If you ask me, they're movin' yet, and they've got our broncs with 'em."
This had already occurred to Dave as a possibility. "Any proof?" he asked quietly.
"A-plenty. I been ridin' on the point all day. Three-four times we cut trail of five horses. Two of the five are bein' ridden. My Four-Bits hoss has got a broken front hoof. So has one of the five."
"Movin' fast, are they?"
"You're damn whistlin'. They're hivin' off for parts unknown. Malapi first off, looks like. They got friends there."
"Steelman and his outfit will protect them while they hunt cover and make a getaway. Miller mentioned Denver before the race—said he was figurin' on goin' there. Maybe—"
"He was probably lyin'. You can't tell. Point is, we've got to get busy. My notion is we'd better make a bee-line for Malapi right away," proposed Bob.
"We'll travel all night. No use wastin' any more time."
Dug Doble received their decision sourly. "It don't tickle me a heap to be left short-handed because you two boys have got an excuse to get to town quicker."
Hart looked him straight in the eye. "Call it an excuse if you want to. We're after a pair of shorthorn crooks that stole our horses."
The foreman flushed angrily. "Don't come bellyachin' to me about yore broomtails. I ain't got 'em."
"We know who's got 'em," said Dave evenly. "What we want is a wage check so as we can cash it at Malapi."
"You don't get it," returned the big foreman bluntly. "We pay off when we reach the end of the drive."
"I notice you paid yore brother and Miller when we gave an order for it," Hart retorted with heat.
"A different proposition. They hadn't signed up for this drive like you boys did. You'll get what's comin' to you when I pay off the others. You'll not get it before."
The two riders retired sulkily. They felt it was not fair, but on the trail the foreman is an autocrat. From the other riders they borrowed a few dollars and gave in exchange orders on their pay checks.
Within an hour they were on the road. Fresh horses had been roped from the remuda and were carrying them at an even Spanish jog-trot through the night. The stars came out, clear and steady above a ghostly world at sleep. The desert was a place of mystery, of vast space peopled by strange and misty shapes.
The plain stretched vaguely before them. Far away was the thin outline of the range which enclosed the valley. The riders held their course by means of that trained sixth sense of direction their occupation had developed.
They spoke little. Once a coyote howled dismally from the edge of the mesa. For the most part there was no sound except the chuffing of the horses' movements and the occasional ring of a hoof on the baked ground.
The gray dawn, sifting into the sky, found them still traveling. The mountains came closer, grew more definite. The desert flamed again, dry, lifeless, torrid beneath a sky of turquoise. Dust eddies whirled in inverted cones, wind devils playing in spirals across the sand. Tablelands, mesas, wide plains, desolate lava stretches. Each in turn was traversed by these lean, grim, bronzed riders.
They reached the foothills and left behind the desert shimmering in the dancing heat. In a deep gorge, where the hill creases gave them shade, the punchers threw off the trail, unsaddled, hobbled their horses, and stole a few hours' sleep.
In the late afternoon they rode back to the trail through a draw, the ponies wading fetlock deep in yellow, red, blue, and purple flowers. The mountains across the valley looked in the dry heat as though made of papier-mache. Closer at hand the undulations of sand hills stretched toward the pass for which they were making.
A mule deer started out of a dry wash and fled into the sunset light. The long, stratified faces of rock escarpments caught the glow of the sliding sun and became battlemented towers of ancient story.
The riders climbed steadily now, no longer engulfed in the ground swell of land waves. They breathed an air like wine, strong, pure, bracing. Presently their way led them into a hill pocket, which ran into a gorge of pinons stretching toward Gunsight Pass.
The stars were out again when they looked down from the other side of the pass upon the lights of Malapi.
SUPPER AT DELMONICO'S INTERRUPTED
The two D Bar Lazy R punchers ate supper at Delmonico's. The restaurant was owned by Wong Chung. A Cantonese celestial did the cooking and another waited on table. The price of a meal was twenty-five cents, regardless of what one ordered.
Hop Lee, the waiter, grinned at the frolicsome youths with the serenity of a world-old wisdom.
"Bleef steak, plork chop, lamb chop, hlam'neggs, clorn bleef hash, Splanish stew," he chanted, reciting the bill of fare.
"Yes," murmured Bob.
The waiter said his piece again.
"Listens good to me," agreed Dave. "Lead it to us."
"You takee two—bleef steak and hlam'neggs, mebbe," suggested Hop helpfully.
"Tha's right. Two orders of everything on the me-an-you, Charlie."
Hop did not argue with them. He never argued with a customer. If they stormed at him he took refuge in a suddenly acquired lack of understanding of English. If they called him Charlie or John or One Lung, he accepted the name cheerfully and laid it to a racial mental deficiency of the 'melicans. Now he decided to make a selection himself.
"Vely well. Bleef steak and hlam'neggs."
"Fried potatoes done brown, John."
"Flied plotatoes. Tea or cloffee?"
"Coffee," decided Dave for both of them. "Warm mine."
"And custard pie," added Bob. "Made from this year's crop."
"Aigs sunny side up," directed his friend.
"Fry mine one on one side and one on the other," Hart continued facetiously.
"Vely well." Hop Lee's impassive face betrayed no perplexity as he departed. In the course of a season he waited on hundreds of wild men from the hills, drunk and sober.
Dave helped himself to bread from a plate stacked high with thick slices. He buttered it and began to eat. Hart did the same. At Delmonico's nobody ever waited till the meal was served. Just about to attack a second slice, Dave stopped to stare at his companion. Hart was looking past his shoulder with alert intentness. Dave turned his head. Two men, leaving the restaurant, were paying the cashier.
"They just stepped outa that booth to the right," whispered Bob.
The men were George Doble and a cowpuncher known as Shorty, a broad, heavy-set little man who worked for Bradley Steelman, owner of the Rocking Horse Ranch, what time he was not engaged on nefarious business of his own. He was wearing a Chihuahua hat and leather chaps with silver conchas.
At this moment Hop Lee arrived with dinner.
Dave sighed as he grinned at his friend. "I need that supper in my system. I sure do, but I reckon I don't get it."
"You do not, old lizard," agreed Hart. "I'll say Doble's the most inconsiderate guy I ever did trail. Why couldn't he 'a' showed up a half-hour later, dad gum his ornery hide?"
They paid their bill and passed into the street. Immediately the sound of a clear, high voice arrested their attention. It vibrated indignation and dread.
"What have you done with my father?" came sharply to them on the wings of the soft night wind.
A young woman was speaking. She was in a buggy and was talking to two men on the sidewalk—the two men who had preceded the range-riders out of the restaurant.
"Why, Miss, we ain't done a thing to him—nothin' a-tall." The man Shorty was speaking, and in a tone of honeyed conciliation. It was quite plain he did not want a scene on the street.
"That's a lie." The voice of the girl broke for an instant to a sob. "Do you think I don't know you're Brad Steelman's handy man, that you do his meanness for him when he snaps his fingers?"
"You sure do click yore heels mighty loud, Miss." Dave caught in that soft answer the purr of malice. He remembered now hearing from Buck Byington that years ago Emerson Crawford had rounded up evidence to send Shorty to the penitentiary for rebranding through a blanket. "I reckon you come by it honest. Em always acted like he was God Almighty."
"Where is he? What's become of him?" she cried.
"Is yore paw missin'? I'm right sorry to hear that," the cowpuncher countered with suave irony. He was eager to be gone. His glance followed Doble, who was moving slowly down the street.
The girl's face, white and shining in the moonlight, leaned out of the buggy toward the retreating vaquero. "Don't you dare hurt my father! Don't you dare!" she warned. The words choked in her tense throat.
Shorty continued to back away. "You're excited, Miss. You go home an' think it over reasonable. You'll be sorry you talked this away to me," he said with unctuous virtue. Then, swiftly, he turned and went straddling down the walk, his spurs jingling music as he moved.
Quickly Dave gave directions to his friend. "Duck back into the restaurant, Bob. Get a pocketful of dry rice from the Chink. Trail those birds to their nest and find where they roost. Then stick around like a burr. Scatter rice behind you, and I'll drift along later. First off, I got to stay and talk with Miss Joyce. And, say, take along a rope. Might need it."
A moment later Hart was in the restaurant commandeering rice and Sanders was lifting his dusty hat to the young woman in the buggy.
"If I can he'p you any, Miss Joyce," he said.
Beneath dark and delicate brows she frowned at him. "Who are you?"
"Dave Sanders my name is. I reckon you never heard tell of me. I punch cows for yore father."
Her luminous, hazel-brown eyes steadied in his, read the honesty of his simple, boyish heart.
"You heard what I said to that man?"
"Part of it."
"Well, it's true. I know it is, but I can't prove it."
Hart, moving swiftly down the street, waved a hand at his friend as he passed. Without turning his attention from Joyce Crawford, Dave acknowledged the signal.
"How do you know it?"
"Steelman's men have been watching our house. They were hanging around at different times day before yesterday. This man Shorty was one."
"Any special reason for the feud to break out right now?"
"Father was going to prove up on a claim this week—the one that takes in the Tularosa water-holes. You know the trouble they've had about it—how they kept breaking our fences to water their sheep and cattle. Don't you think maybe they're trying to keep him from proving up?"
"Maybeso. When did you see him last?"
Her lip trembled. "Night before last. After supper he started for the Cattleman's Club, but he never got there."
"Sure he wasn't called out to one of the ranches unexpected?"
"I sent out to make sure. He hasn't been seen there."
"Looks like some of Brad Steelman's smooth work," admitted Dave. "If he could work yore father to sign a relinquishment—"
Fire flickered in her eye. "He'd ought to know Dad better."
"Tha's right too. But Brad needs them water-holes in his business bad. Without 'em he loses the whole Round Top range. He might take a crack at turning the screws on yore father."
"You don't think—?" She stopped, to fight back a sob that filled her soft throat.
Dave was not sure what he thought, but he answered cheerfully and instantly. "No, I don't reckon they've dry-gulched him or anything. Emerson Crawford is one sure-enough husky citizen. He couldn't either be shot or rough-housed in town without some one hearin' the noise. What's more, it wouldn't be their play to injure him, but to force a relinquishment."
"That's true. You believe that, don't you?" Joyce cried eagerly.
"Sure I do." And Dave discovered that his argument or his hopes had for the moment convinced him. "Now the question is, what's to be done?"
"Yes," she admitted, and the tremor of the lips told him that she depended upon him to work out the problem. His heart swelled with glad pride at the thought.
"That man who jus' passed is my friend," he told her. "He's trailin' that duck Shorty. Like as not we'll find out what's stirrin'."
"I'll go with you," the girl said, vivid lips parted in anticipation.
"No, you go home. This is a man's job. Soon as I find out anything I'll let you know."
"You'll come, no matter what time o' night it is," she pleaded.
"Yes," he promised.
Her firm little hand rested a moment in his brown palm. "I'm depending on you," she murmured in a whisper lifted to a low wail by a stress of emotion.
BY WAY OF A WINDOW
The trail of rice led down Mission Street, turned at Junipero, crossed into an alley, and trickled along a dusty road to the outskirts of the frontier town.
The responsibility Joyce had put upon him uplifted Dave. He had followed the horse-race gamblers to town on a purely selfish undertaking. But he had been caught in a cross-current of fate and was being swept into dangerous waters for the sake of another.
Doble and Miller were small fish in the swirl of this more desperate venture. He knew Brad Steelman by sight and by reputation. The man's coffee-brown, hatchet face, his restless, black eyes, the high, narrow shoulders, the slope of nose and chin, combined somehow to give him the look of a wily and predacious wolf. The boy had never met any one who so impressed him with a sense of ruthless rapacity. He was audacious and deadly in attack, but always he covered his tracks cunningly. Suspected of many crimes, he had been proved guilty of none. It was a safe bet that now he had a line of retreat worked out in case his plans went awry.
A soft, low whistle stayed his feet. From behind a greasewood bush Bob rose and beckoned him. Dave tiptoed to him. Both of them crouched behind cover while they whispered.
"The 'dobe house over to the right," said Bob. "I been up and tried to look in, but they got curtains drawn. I would've like to 've seen how many gents are present. Nothin' doin'. It's a strictly private party."
Dave told him what he had learned from the daughter of Emerson Crawford.
"Might make a gather of boys and raid the joint," suggested Hart.
"Bad medicine, Bob. Our work's got to be smoother than that. How do we know they got the old man a prisoner there? What excuse we got for attacktin' a peaceable house? A friend of mine's brother onct got shot up makin' a similar mistake. Maybe Crawford's there. Maybe he ain't. Say he is. All right. There's some gun-play back and forth like as not. A b'ilin' of men pour outa the place. We go in and find the old man with a bullet right spang through his forehead. Well, ain't that too bad! In the rookus his own punchers must 'a' gunned him accidental. How would that story listen in court?"
"It wouldn't listen good to me. Howcome Crawford to be a prisoner there, I'd want to know."
"Sure you would, and Steelman would have witnesses a-plenty to swear the old man had just drapped in to see if they couldn't talk things over and make a settlement of their troubles."
"All right. What's yore programme, then?" asked Bob.
"Darned if I know. Say we scout the ground over first."
They made a wide circuit and approached the house from the rear, worming their way through the Indian grass toward the back door. Dave crept forward and tried the door. It was locked. The window was latched and the blind lowered. He drew back and rejoined his companion.
"No chance there," he whispered.
"How about the roof?" asked Hart.
It was an eight-roomed house. From the roof two dormers jutted. No light issued from either of them.
Dave's eyes lit.
"What's the matter with takin' a whirl at it?" his partner continued. "You're tophand with a rope."
"Suits me fine."
The young puncher arranged the coils carefully and whirled the loop around his head to get the feel of the throw. It would not do to miss the first cast and let the rope fall dragging down the roof. Some one might hear and come out to investigate.
The rope snaked forward and up, settled gracefully over the chimney, and tightened round it close to the shingles.
"Good enough. Now me for the climb," murmured Hart.
"Don't pull yore picket-pin, Bob. Me first."
"All right. We ain't no time to debate. Shag up, old scout."
Dave slipped off his high-heeled boots and went up hand over hand, using his feet against the rough adobe walls to help in the ascent. When he came to the eaves he threw a leg up and clambered to the roof. In another moment he was huddled against the chimney waiting for his companion.
As soon as Hart had joined him he pulled up the rope and wound it round the chimney.
"You stay here while I see what's doin'," Dave proposed.
"I never did see such a fellow for hoggin' all the fun," objected Bob. "Ain't you goin' to leave me trail along?"
"Got to play a lone hand till we find out where we're at, Bob. Doubles the chances of being bumped into if we both go."
"Then you roost on the roof and lemme look the range over for the old man."
"Didn't Miss Joyce tell me to find her paw? What's eatin' you, pard?"
"You pore plugged nickel!" derided Hart. "Think she picked you special for this job, do you?"
"Be reasonable, Bob," pleaded Dave.
His friend gave way. "Cut yore stick, then. Holler for me when I'm wanted."
Dave moved down the roof to the nearest dormer. The house, he judged, had originally belonged to a well-to-do Mexican family and had later been rebuilt upon American ideas. The thick adobe walls had come down from the earlier owners, but the roof had been put on as a substitute for the flat one of its first incarnation.
The range-rider was wearing plain shiny leather chaps with a gun in an open holster tied at the bottom to facilitate quick action. He drew out the revolver, tested it noiselessly, and restored it carefully to its place. If he needed the six-shooter at all, he would need it badly and suddenly.
Gingerly he tested the window of the dormer, working at it from the side so that his body would not be visible to anybody who happened to be watching from within. Apparently it was latched. He crept across the roof to the other dormer.
It was a casement window, and at the touch of the hand it gave way. The heart of the cowpuncher beat fast with excitement. In the shadowy darkness of that room death might be lurking, its hand already outstretched toward him. He peered in, accustoming his eyes to the blackness. A prickling of the skin ran over him. The tiny cold feet of mice pattered up and down his spine. For he knew that, though he could not yet make out the objects inside the room, his face must be like a framed portrait to anybody there.
He made out presently that it was a bedroom with sloping ceiling. A bunk with blankets thrown back just as the sleeper had left them filled one side of the chamber. There were two chairs, a washstand, a six-inch by ten looking-glass, and a chromo or two on the wall. A sawed-off shotgun was standing in a corner. Here and there were scattered soiled clothing and stained boots. The door was ajar, but nobody was in the room.
Dave eased himself over the sill and waited for a moment while he listened, the revolver in his hand. It seemed to him that he could hear a faint murmur of voices, but he was not sure. He moved across the bare plank floor, slid through the door, and again stopped to take stock of his surroundings.
He was at the head of a stairway which ran down to the first floor and lost itself in the darkness of the hall. Leaning over the banister, he listened intently for any sign of life below. He was sure now that he heard the sound of low voices behind a closed door.
The cowpuncher hesitated. Should he stop to explore the upper story? Or should he go down at once and try to find out what those voices might tell him? It might be that time was of the essence of his contract to discover what had become of Emerson Crawford. He decided to look for his information on the first floor.
Never before had Dave noticed that stairs creaked and groaned so loudly beneath the pressure of a soft footstep. They seemed to shout his approach, though he took every step with elaborate precautions. A door slammed somewhere, and his heart jumped at the sound of it. He did not hide the truth from himself. If Steelman or his men found him here looking for Crawford he would never leave the house alive. His foot left the last tread and found the uncarpeted floor. He crept, hand outstretched, toward the door behind which he heard men talking. As he moved forward his stomach muscles tightened. At any moment some one might come out of the room and walk into him.
He put his eye to the keyhole, and through it saw a narrow segment of the room. Ad Miller was sitting a-straddle a chair, his elbows on the back. Another man, one not visible to the cowpuncher, was announcing a decision and giving an order.
"Hook up the horses, Shorty. He's got his neck bowed and he won't sign. All right. I'll get the durn fool up in the hills and show him whether he will or won't."
"I could 'a' told you he had sand in his craw." Shorty was speaking. He too was beyond the range of Dave's vision. "Em Crawford won't sign unless he's a mind to."
"Take my advice, Brad. Collect the kid, an' you'll sure have Em hogtied. He sets the world an' all by her. Y'betcha he'll talk turkey then," predicted Miller.
"Are we fightin' kids?" the squat puncher wanted to know.
"Did I ask your advice, Shorty?" inquired Steelman acidly.
The range-rider grumbled an indistinct answer. Dave did not make out the words, and his interest in the conversation abruptly ceased.
For from upstairs there came the sudden sounds of trampling feet, of bodies thrashing to and fro in conflict. A revolver shot barked its sinister menace.
Dave rose to go. At the same time the door in front of him was jerked open. He pushed his forty-five into Miller's fat ribs.
"What's yore hurry? Stick up yore hands—stick 'em up!"
The boy was backing along the passage as he spoke. He reached the newel post in that second while Miller was being flung aside by an eruption of men from the room. Like a frightened rabbit Dave leaped for the stairs, taking them three at a time. Halfway up he collided with a man flying down. They came together with the heavy impact of fast-moving bodies. The two collapsed and rolled down, one over the other.
Sanders rose like a rubber ball. The other man lay still. He had been put out cold. Dave's head had struck him in the solar plexus and knocked the breath out of him. The young cowpuncher found himself the active center of a cyclone. His own revolver was gone. He grappled with a man, seizing him by the wrist to prevent the use of a long-barreled Colt's. The trigger fell, a bullet flying through the ceiling.
Other men pressed about him, trying to reach him with their fists and to strike him with their weapons. Their high heels crushed cruelly the flesh of his stockinged feet. The darkness befriended Dave. In the massed melee they dared not shoot for fear of hitting the wrong mark. Nor could they always be sure which shifting figure was the enemy.
Dave clung close to the man he had seized, using him as a shield against the others. The pack swayed down the hall into the wedge of light thrown by the lamp in the room.
Across the head of the man next him Shorty reached and raised his arm. Dave saw the blue barrel of the revolver sweeping down, but could not free a hand to protect himself. A jagged pain shot through his head. The power went out of his legs. He sagged at the hinges of his knees. He stumbled and went down. Heavy boots kicked at him where he lay. It seemed to him that bolts of lightning were zigzagging through him.
The pain ceased and he floated away into a sea of space.
BOB HART TAKES A HAND
Bob Hart waited till his friend had disappeared into the house before he moved.
"Thought he'd run it over me, so I'd roost here on the roof, did he? Well, I'm after the ol' horn-toad full jump," the puncher murmured, a gay grin on his good-looking face.
He, too, examined his gun before he followed Dave through the dormer window and passed into the frowsy bedchamber. None of the details of it escaped his cool, keen gaze, least of all the sawed-off shotgun in the corner.
"That scatter gun might come handy. Reckon I'll move it so's I'll know just where it's at when I need it," he said to himself, and carried the gun to the bed, where he covered it with a quilt.
At the top of the stairs Bob also hesitated before passing down. Why not be sure of his line of communications with the roof before going too far? He did not want to be in such a hurry that his retreat would be cut off.
With as little noise as possible Bob explored the upper story. The first room in which he found himself was empty of all furniture except a pair of broken-backed chairs. One casual glance was enough here.
He was about to try a second door when some one spoke. He recognized the voice. It belonged to the man who wrote his pay checks, and it came from an adjoining room.
"Always knew you was crooked as a dog's hind laigs Doble. Never liked you a lick in the road. I'll say this. Some day I'll certainly hang yore hide up to dry for yore treachery."
"No use to get on the peck, Em. It don't do you no good to make me sore. Maybe you'll need a friend before you're shet of Brad."
"It relieves my mind some to tell you what a yellow coyote you are," explained the cattleman. "You got about as much sand as a brush rabbit and I'd trust you as far as I would a rattler, you damned sidewinder."
Bob tried the door. The knob turned in his hand and the door slowly opened inward.
The rattle of the latch brought George Doble's sly, shifty eye round. He was expecting to see one of his friends from below. A stare of blank astonishment gave way to a leaping flicker of fear. The crook jumped to his feet, tugging at his gun. Before he could fire, the range-rider had closed with him.
The plunging attack drove Doble back against the table, a flimsy, round-topped affair which gave way beneath this assault upon it. The two men went down in the wreck. Doble squirmed away like a cat, but before he could turn to use his revolver Bob was on him again. The puncher caught his right arm, in time and in no more than time. The deflected bullet pinged through a looking-glass on a dresser near the foot of the bed.
"Go to it, son! Grab the gun and bust his haid wide open!" an excited voice encouraged Hart.
But Doble clung to his weapon as a lost cow does to a 'dobe water-hole in the desert. Bob got a grip on his arm and twisted till he screamed with pain. He did a head spin and escaped. One hundred and sixty pounds of steel-muscled cowpuncher landed on his midriff and the six-shooter went clattering away to a far corner of the room.
Bob dived for the revolver, Doble for the door. A moment, and Hart had the gun. But whereas there had been three in the room there were now but two.
A voice from the bed spoke in curt command. "Cut me loose." Bob had heard that voice on more than one round-up. It was that of Emerson Crawford.
The range-rider's sharp knife cut the ropes that tied the hands and feet of his employer. He worked in the dark and it took time.
"Who are you? Howcome you here?" demanded the cattleman.
"I'm Bob Hart. It's quite a story. Miss Joyce sent me and Dave Sanders," answered the young man, still busy with the ropes.
From below came the sound of a shot, the shuffling of many feet.
"Must be him downstairs."
"I reckon. They's a muley gun in the hall."
Crawford stretched his cramped muscles, flexing and reflexing his arms and legs. "Get it, son. We'll drift down and sit in."
When Bob returned he found the big cattleman examining Doble's revolver. He broke the shotgun to make sure it was loaded.
Then, "We'll travel," he said coolly.
The battle sounds below had died away. From the landing they looked down into the hall and saw a bar of light that came through a partly open door. Voices were lifted in excitement.
"One of Em Crawford's riders," some one was saying. "A whole passel of 'em must be round the place."
Came the thud of a boot on something soft. "Put the damn spy outa business, I say," broke in another angrily.
Hart's gorge rose. "Tha's Miller," he whispered to his chief. "He's kickin' Dave now he's down 'cause Dave whaled him good."
Softly the two men padded down the stair treads and moved along the passage.
"Who's that?" demanded Shorty, thrusting his head into the hall. "Stay right there or I'll shoot."
"Oh, no, you won't," answered the cattleman evenly. "I'm comin' into that room to have a settlement. There'll be no shootin'—unless I do it."
His step did not falter. He moved forward, brushed Shorty aside, and strode into the midst of his enemies.
Dave lay on the floor. His hair was clotted with blood and a thin stream of it dripped from his head. The men grouped round his body had their eyes focused on the man who had just pushed his way in. All of them were armed, but not one of them made a move to attack.
For there is something about a strong man unafraid more potent than a company of troopers. Such a man was Emerson Crawford now. His life might be hanging in the balance of his enemies' fears, but he gave no sign of uncertainty. His steady gray eyes swept the circle, rested on each worried face, and fastened on Brad Steelman.
The two had been enemies for years, rivals for control of the range and for leadership in the community. Before that, as young men, they had been candidates for the hand of the girl that the better one had won. The sheepman was shrewd and cunning, but he had no such force of character as Crawford. At the bottom of his heart, though he seethed with hatred, he quailed before that level gaze. Did his foe have the house surrounded with his range-riders? Did he mean to make him pay with his life for the thing he had done?
Steelman laughed uneasily. An option lay before him. He could fight or he could throw up the hand he had dealt himself from a stacked deck. If he let his enemy walk away scot free, some day he would probably have to pay Crawford with interest. His choice was a characteristic one.
"Well, I reckon you've kinda upset my plans, Em. 'Course I was a-coddin' you. I didn't aim to hurt you none, though I'd 'a' liked to have talked you outa the water-holes."
The big cattleman ignored this absolutely. "Have a team hitched right away. Shorty will 'tend to that. Bob, tie up yore friend's haid with a handkerchief."
Without an instant's hesitation Hart thrust his revolver back into its holster. He was willing to trust Crawford to dominate this group of lawless foes, every one of whom held some deep grudge against him. One he had sent to the penitentiary. Another he had actually kicked out of his employ. A third was in his debt for many injuries received. Almost any of them would have shot him in the back on a dark night, but none had the cold nerve to meet him in the open. For even in a land which bred men there were few to match Emerson Crawford.
Shorty looked at Steelman. "I'm waitin', Brad," he said.
The sheepman nodded sullenly. "You done heard your orders, Shorty."
The ex-convict reached for his steeple hat, thrust his revolver back into its holster, and went jingling from the room. He looked insolently at Crawford as he passed.
"Different here. If it was my say-so I'd go through."
Hart administered first aid to his friend. "I'm servin' notice, Miller, that some day I'll bust you wide and handsome for this," he said, looking straight at the fat gambler. "You have give Dave a raw deal, and you'll not get away with it."
"I pack a gun. Come a-shootin' when you're ready," retorted Miller.
"Tha's liable to be right soon, you damn horsethief. We've rid 'most a hundred miles to have a li'l' talk with you and yore pardner there."
"Shoutin' about that race yet, are you? If I wasn't a better loser than you—"
"Don't bluff, Miller. You know why we trailed you."
Doble edged into the talk. He was still short of wind, but to his thick wits a denial seemed necessary. "We ain't got yore broncs."
"Who mentioned our broncs?" Hart demanded, swiftly.
"Called Ad a horsethief, didn't you?"
"So he is. You, too. You've got our ponies. Not in yore vest pockets, but hid out in the brush somewheres. I'm servin' notice right now that Dave and me have come to collect."
Dave opened his eyes upon a world which danced hazily before him. He had a splitting headache.
"Wha's the matter?" he asked.
"You had a run-in with a bunch of sheep wranglers," Bob told him. "They're going to be plumb sorry they got gay."
Presently Shorty returned. "That team's hooked up," he told the world at large.
"You'll drive us, Steelman," announced Crawford.
"Me!" screamed the leader of the other faction. "You got the most nerve I ever did see."
"Sure. Drive him home, Brad," advised Shorty with bitter sarcasm. "Black his boots. Wait on him good. Step lively when yore new boss whistles." He cackled with splenetic laughter.
"I dunno as I need to drive you home," Steelman said slowly, feeling his way to a decision. "You know the way better'n I do."
The eyes of the two leaders met.
"You'll drive," the cattleman repeated steadily.
The weak spot in Steelman's leadership was that he was personally not game. Crawford had a pungent personality. He was dynamic, strong, master of himself in any emergency. The sheepman's will melted before his insistence. He dared not face a showdown.
"Oh, well, what's it matter? We can talk things over on the way. Me, I'm not lookin' for trouble none," he said, his small black eyes moving restlessly to watch the effect of this on his men.
Bob helped his partner out of the house and into the surrey. The cattleman took the seat beside Steelman, across his knees the sawed-off shotgun. He had brought his enemy along for two reasons. One was to weaken his prestige with his own men. The other was to prevent them from shooting at the rig as they drove away.
Steelman drove in silence. His heart was filled with surging hatred. During that ride was born a determination to have nothing less than the life of his enemy when the time should be ripe.
At the door of his house Crawford dismissed him contemptuously. "Get out."
The man with the reins spoke softly, venomously, from a dry throat. "One o' these days you'll crawl on your hands and knees to me for this."
He whipped up the team and rattled away furiously into the night.
THE D BAR LAZY R BOYS MEET AN ANGEL
Joyce came flying to her father's arms. The white lace of a nightgown showed beneath the dressing-robe she had hurriedly donned. A plait of dark hair hung across her shoulder far below the waist. She threw herself at Crawford with a moaning little sob.
"Oh Dad ... Dad ... Dad!" she cried, and her slender arms went round his neck.
"'T's all right, sweetheart. Yore old dad's not even powder-burnt. You been worryin' a heap, I reckon." His voice was full of rough tenderness.
She began to cry.
He patted her shoulder and caressed her dark head drawing it close to his shoulder. "Now—now—now sweetheart, don't you cry. It's all right, li'l' honey bug."
"You're not ... hurt," she begged through her tears.
"Not none. Never was huskier. But I got a boy out here that's beat up some. Come in, Dave—and you, Bob. They're good boys, Joy. I want you to meet 'em both."
The girl had thought her father alone. She flung one startled glance into the night, clutched the dressing-gown closer round her throat, and fled her barefoot way into the darkness of the house. To the boys, hanging back awkwardly at the gate, the slim child-woman was a vision wonderful. Their starved eyes found in her white loveliness a glimpse of heaven.
Her father laughed. "Joy ain't dressed for callers. Come in, boys."
He lit a lamp and drew Dave to a lounge. "Lemme look at yore haid, son. Bob, you hot-foot it for Doc Green."
"It's nothin' a-tall to make a fuss about," Dave apologized. "Only a love tap, compliments of Shorty, and some kicks in the slats, kindness of Mr. Miller."
In spite of his debonair manner Dave still had a bad headache and was so sore around the body that he could scarcely move without groaning. He kept his teeth clamped on the pain because he had been brought up in the outdoor code of the West which demands of a man that he grin and stand the gaff.
While the doctor was attending to his injuries, Dave caught sight once or twice of Joyce at the door, clad now in a summer frock of white with a blue sash. She was busy supplying, in a brisk, competent way, the demands of the doctor for hot and cold water and clean linen.
Meanwhile Crawford told his story. "I was right close to the club when Doble met me. He pulled a story of how his brother Dug had had trouble with Steelman and got shot up. I swallowed it hook, bait, and sinker. Soon as I got into the house they swarmed over me like bees. I didn't even get my six-gun out. Brad wanted me to sign a relinquishment. I told him where he could head in at."
"What would have happened if the boys hadn't dropped along?" asked Dr. Green as he repacked his medicine case.
The cattleman looked at him, and his eyes were hard and bleak. "Why, Doc, yore guess is as good as mine." he said.
"Mine is, you'd have been among the missing, Em. Well, I'm leaving a sleeping-powder for the patient in case he needs it in an hour or two. In the morning I'll drop round again," the doctor said.
He did, and found Dave much improved. The clean outdoors of the rough-riding West builds blood that is red. A city man might have kept his bed a week, but Dave was up and ready to say good-bye within forty-eight hours. He was still a bit under par, a trifle washed-out, but he wanted to take the road in pursuit of Miller and Doble, who had again decamped in a hurry with the two horses they had stolen.
"They had the broncs hid up Frio Canon way, I reckon," explained Hart. "But they didn't take no chances. When they left that 'dobe house they lit a-runnin' and clumb for the high hills on the jump. And they didn't leave no address neither. We'll be followin' a cold trail. We're not liable to find them after they hole up in some mountain pocket."
"Might. Never can tell. Le's take a whirl at it anyhow," urged Dave.
"Hate to give up yore paint hoss, don't you?" said Bob with his friendly grin. "Ain't blamin' you none whatever, I'd sleep on those fellows' trail if Chiquito was mine. What say we outfit in the mornin' and pull our freights? Maybeso we'll meet up with the thieves at that. Yo no se (I don't know)."
When Joyce was in the room where Dave lay on the lounge, the young man never looked at her, but he saw nobody else. Brought up in a saddle on the range, he had never before met a girl like her. It was not only that she was beautiful and fragrant as apple-blossoms, a mystery of maidenhood whose presence awed his simple soul. It was not only that she seemed so delicately precious, a princess of the blood royal set apart by reason of her buoyant grace, the soft rustle of her skirts, the fine texture of the satiny skin. What took him by the throat was her goodness. She was enshrined in his heart as a young saint. He would have thought it sacrilege to think of her as a wide-awake young woman subject to all the vanities of her sex. And he could have cited evidence. The sweetness of her affection for rough Em Crawford, the dear, maternal tenderness with which she ruled her three-year-old brother Keith, motherless since the week of his birth, the kindness of the luminous brown eyes to the uncouth stranger thrown upon her hospitality: Dave treasured them all as signs of angelic grace, and they played upon his heartstrings disturbingly.
Joyce brought Keith in to say good-bye to Dave and his friend before they left. The little fellow ran across the room to his new pal, who had busied himself weaving horsehair playthings for the youngster.
"You turn back and make me a bwidle, Dave," he cried.
"I'll sure come or else send you one," the cowpuncher promised, rising to meet Joyce.
She carried her slender figure across the room with perfect ease and rhythm, head beautifully poised, young seventeen as self-possessed as thirty. As much could not be said for her guests. They were all legs and gangling arms, red ears and dusty boots.
"Yes, we all want you to come back," she said with a charming smile. "I think you saved Father's life. We can't tell you how much we owe you. Can we, Keith?"
"Nope. When will you send the bwidle?" he demanded.
"Soon," the restored patient said to the boy, and to her: "That wasn't nothin' a-tall. From where I come from we always been use to standin' by our boss."
He shifted awkwardly to the other foot, flushing to the hair while he buried her soft little hand in his big freckled one. The girl showed no shyness. Seventeen is sometimes so much older than twenty.
"Tha's what us D Bar Lazy R boys are ridin' with yore paw's outfit for, Miss—to be handy when he needs us," Bob added in his turn. "We're sure tickled we got a chanct to go to Brad Steelman's party. I'm ce'tainly glad to 'a' met you, Miss Joyce." He ducked his head and scraped back a foot in what was meant to be a bow.
Emerson Crawford sauntered in, big and bluff and easy-going. "Hittin' the trail, boys? Good enough. Hope you find the thieves. If you do, play yore cards close. They're treacherous devils. Don't take no chances with 'em. I left an order at the store for you to draw on me for another pair of boots in place of those you lost in the brush, Dave. Get a good pair, son. They're on me. Well, so long. Luck, boys. I'll look for you-all back with the D Bar Lazy R when you've finished this job."
The punchers rode away without looking back, but many times in the days that followed their hearts turned to that roof which had given the word home a new meaning to them both.
The pursuit took the riders across a wide, undulating plain above which danced the dry heat of the desert. Lizards sunned themselves on flat rocks. A rattlesnake slid toward the cover of a prickly pear. The bleached bones of a cow shone white beside the trail.
The throats of the cowpunchers filled with alkali dust and their eyes grew red and sore from it. Magnificent mirages unfolded themselves: lakes cool and limpid, stretching to the horizon, with inviting forests in the distance; an oasis of lush green fields that covered miles; mesquite distorted to the size of giant trees and cattle transformed into dinosaurs. The great gray desert took on freakish shapes of erosion. Always, hour after hour beneath a copper sky, they rode in palpitating heat through sand drifts, among the salt bushes and the creosote, into cowbacked hills beyond which the stark mountains rose.
Out of the fiery furnace of the plain they came in late afternoon to the uplands, plunging into a land of deep gorges and great chasms. Here manzanita grew and liveoaks flourished. They sent a whitetail buck crashing through the brush into a canon.
When night fell they built a fire of niggerheads and after they had eaten found its glow grateful. For they were well up in the hills now and the night air was sharp.
In the sandy desert they had followed easily the trail of the thieves, but as they had got into the hills the tracks had become fainter and fewer. The young men discussed this while they lay in their blankets in a water-gutted gulch not too near the fire they had built.
"Like huntin' for a needle in a haystack," said Bob. "Their trail's done petered out. They might be in any one of a hundred pockets right close, or they may have bore 'way off to the right. All they got to do is hole up and not build any fires."
"Fat chance we got," admitted Dave. "Unless they build a fire like we done. Say, I'd a heap rather be sleepin' here than by that niggerhead blaze to-night. They might creep up and try to gun us."
Before they had been in the saddle an hour next day the trail of the thieves was lost. The pursuers spent till sunset trying to pick it up again. The third day was wasted in aimless drifting among the defiles of the mountains.
"No use, Bob," said his friend while they were cooking supper. "They've made their getaway. Might as well drift back to Malapi, don't you reckon?"
"Looks like. We're only wastin' our time here."
Long before day broke they started.
The canons below were filled with mist as they rode down out of the mountains toward the crystal dawn that already flooded the plain. The court-house clock at Malapi said the time was midnight when the dust-covered men and horses drew into the town.
The tired men slept till noon. At the Delmonico Restaurant they found Buck Byington and Steve Russell. The trail herd had been driven in an hour before.
"How's old Alkali?" asked Dave of his friend Buck, thumping him on the back.
"Jes' tolable," answered the old-timer equably, making great play with knife and fork. "A man or a hawss don't either one amount to much after they onct been stove up. Since that bronc piled me at Willow Creek I been mighty stiff, you might say."
"Dug's payin' off to-day, boys," Russell told them. "You'll find him round to the Boston Emporium."
The foreman settled first with Hart, after which he, turned to the page in his pocket notebook that held the account of Sanders.
"You've drew one month's pay. That leaves you three months, less the week you've fooled away after the pinto."
"C'rect," admitted Dave.
"I'll dock you seven and a half for that. Three times thirty's ninety. Take seven and a half from that leaves eighty-two fifty."
"Hold on!" objected Dave. "My pay's thirty-five a month."
"First I knew of it," said the foreman, eyes bleak and harsh. "Thirty's what you're gettin'."
"I came in as top hand at thirty-five."
"You did not," denied Doble flatly.
The young man flushed. "You can't run that on me, Dug. I'll not stand for it."
"Eighty-two fifty is what you get," answered the other dogmatically. "You can take it or go to hell."
He began to sort out a number of small checks with which to pay the puncher. At that time the currency of the country consisted largely of cattlemen's checks which passed from hand to hand till they were grimy with dirt. Often these were not cashed for months later.
"We'll see what the old man says about that," retorted Dave hotly. It was in his mind to say that he did not intend to be robbed by both the Doble brothers, but he wisely repressed the impulse. Dug would as soon fight as eat, and the young rider knew he would not have a chance in the world against him.
"All right," sneered the foreman. "Run with yore tale of grief to Crawford. Tell him I been pickin' on you. I hear you've got to be quite a pet of his."
This brought Dave up with a short turn. He could not take advantage of the service he had done the owner of the D Bar Lazy R to ask him to interfere in his behalf with the foreman. Doble might be cynically defrauding him of part of what was due him in wages. Dave would have to fight that out with him for himself. The worst of it was that he had no redress. Unless he appealed to the cattleman he would have to accept what the foreman offered.
Moreover, his pride was touched. He was young enough to be sensitive on the subject of his ability to look out for himself.
"I'm no pet of anybody," he flung out. "Gimme that money. It ain't a square deal, but I reckon I can stand it."
"I reckon you'll have to. It's neck meat or nothin'," grunted the foreman.
Doble counted him out eighty dollars in cattlemen's checks and paid him two-fifty in cash. While Dave signed a receipt the hook-nosed foreman, broad shoulders thrown back and thumbs hitched in the arm-holes of his vest, sat at ease in a tilted chair and grinned maliciously at his victim. He was "puttin' somethin' over on him," and he wanted Dave to know it. Dug had no affection for his half-brother, but he resented the fact that Sanders publicly and openly despised him as a crook. He took it as a personal reflection on himself.
Still smouldering with anger at this high-handed proceeding, Dave went down to the Longhorn Corral and saddled his horse. He had promised Byington to help water the herd.
This done, he rode back to town, hitched the horse back of a barber shop, and went in for a shave. Presently he was stretched in a chair, his boots thrown across the foot rest in front of him.
The barber lathered his face and murmured gossip in his ear. "George Doble and Miller claim they're goin' to Denver to run some skin game at a street fair. They're sure slick guys."
Dave offered no comment.
"You notice they didn't steal any of Em Crawford's stock. No, sirree! They knew better. Hopped away with broncs belongin' to you boys because they knew it'd be safe."
"Picked easy marks, did they?" asked the puncher sardonically.
The man with the razor tilted the chin of his customer and began to scrape. "Well, o'course you're only boys. They took advantage of that and done you a meanness."
Dug Doble came into the shop, very grim about the mouth. He stopped to look down sarcastically at the new boots Sanders was wearing.
"I see you've bought you a new pair of boots," he said in a heavy, domineering voice.
Dave waited without answering, his eyes meeting steadily those of the foreman.
The big fellow laid a paper on the breast of the cowpuncher. "Here's a bill for a pair of boots you charged to the old man's account—eighteen dollars. I got it just now at the store. You'll dig up."
It was the custom for riders who came to town to have the supplies they needed charged to their employers against wages due them. Doble took it for granted that Sanders had done this, which was contrary to the orders he had given his outfit. He did not know the young man had lost his boots while rescuing Crawford and had been authorized by him to get another pair in place of them.
Nor did Dave intend to tell him. Here was a chance to even the score against the foreman. Already he had a plan simmering in his mind that would take him out of this part of the country for a time. He could no longer work for Doble without friction, and he had business of his own to attend to. The way to solve the immediate difficulty flashed through his brain instantly, every detail clear.
It was scarcely a moment before he drawled an answer. "I'll 'tend to it soon as I'm out of the chair."
"I gave orders for none of you fellows to charge goods to the old man," said Doble harshly.
"Did you?" Dave's voice was light and careless.
"You can go hunt a job somewheres else. You're through with me."
"I'll hate to part with you."
"Don't get heavy, young fellow."
"No," answered Dave with mock meekness.
Doble sat down in a chair to wait. He had no intention of leaving until Dave had settled.
After the barber had finished with him the puncher stepped across to a looking-glass and adjusted carefully the silk handkerchief worn knotted loosely round the throat.
"Get a move on you!" urged the foreman. His patience, of which he never had a large supply to draw from, was nearly exhausted. "I'm not goin' to spend all day on this."
Dave followed Doble out of the shop. Apparently he did not hear the gentle reminder of the barber, who was forced to come to the door and repeat his question.
"Want that shave charged?"
"Oh! Clean forgot." Sanders turned back, feeling in his pocket for change.
He pushed past the barber into the shop, slapped a quarter down on the cigar-case, and ran out through the back door. A moment later he pulled the slip-knot of his bridle from the hitching-bar, swung to the saddle and spurred his horse to a gallop. In a cloud of dust he swept round the building to the road and waved a hand derisively toward Doble.
"See you later!" he shouted.
The foreman wasted no breath in futile rage. He strode to the nearest hitching-post and flung himself astride leather. The horse's hoofs pounded down the road in pursuit.
Sanders was riding the same bronco he had used to follow the horsethieves. It had been under a saddle most of the time for a week and was far from fresh. Before he had gone a mile he knew that the foreman would catch up with him.
He was riding for Gunsight Pass. It was necessary to get there before Doble reached him. Otherwise he would have to surrender or fight, and neither of these fitted in with his plans.
Once he had heard Emerson Crawford give a piece of advice to a hotheaded and unwise puncher. "Never call for a gun-play on a bluff, son. There's no easier way to commit suicide than to pull a six-shooter you ain't willin' to use." Dug Doble was what Byington called "bull-haided." He had forced a situation which could not be met without a showdown. This meant that the young range-rider would either have to take a thrashing or draw his forty-five and use it. Neither of these alternatives seemed worth while in view of the small stakes at issue. Because he was not ready to kill or be killed, Dave was flying for the hills.
The fugitive had to use his quirt to get there in time. The steepness of the road made heavy going. As he neared the summit the grade grew worse. The bronco labored heavily in its stride as its feet reached for the road ahead.
But here Dave had the advantage. Doble was a much heavier man than he, and his mount took the shoulder of the ridge slower. By the time the foreman showed in silhouette against the skyline at the entrance to the pass the younger man had disappeared.
The D Bar Lazy R foreman found out at once what had become of him. A crisp voice gave clear directions.
"That'll be far enough. Stop right where you're at or you'll notice trouble pop. And don't reach for yore gun unless you want to hear the band begin to play a funeral piece."
The words came, it seemed to Doble, out of the air. He looked up. Two great boulders lay edge to edge beside the path. Through a narrow rift the blue nose of a forty-five protruded. Back of it glittered a pair of steady, steely eyes.
The foreman did not at all like the look of things. Sanders was a good shot. From where he lay, almost entirely protected, all he had to do was to pick his opponent off at his leisure. If his hand were forced he would do it. And the law would let him go scot free, since Doble was a fighting man and had been seen to start in pursuit of the boy.
"Come outa there and shell out that eighteen dollars," demanded Doble.
"Nothin' doin', Dug."
"Don't run on the rope with me, young fellow. You'll sure be huntin' trouble."
"What's the use o' beefin'? I've got the deadwood on you. Better hit the dust back to town and explain to the boys how yore bronc went lame," advised Dave.
"Come down and I'll wallop the tar outa you."
"Much obliged. I'm right comfortable here."
"I've a mind to come up and dig you out."
"Please yoreself, Dug. We'll find out then which one of us goes to hell."
The foreman cursed, fluently, expertly, passionately. Not in a long time had he had the turn called on him so adroitly. He promised Dave sudden death in various forms whenever he could lay hands upon him.
"You're sure doin' yoreself proud, Dug," the young man told him evenly. "I'll write the boys how you spilled language so thorough."
"If I could only lay my hands on you!" the raw-boned cattleman stormed.
"I'll bet you'd massacree me proper," admitted Dave quite cheerfully.
Suddenly Doble gave up. He wheeled his horse and began to descend the steep slope. Steadily he jogged on to town, not once turning to look back. His soul was filled with chagrin and fury at the defeat this stripling had given him. He was ready to pick a quarrel with the first man who asked him a question about what had taken place at the pass.
Nobody asked a question. Men looked at him, read the menace of his sullen, angry face, and side-stepped his rage. They did not need to be told that his ride had been a failure. His manner advertised it. Whatever had taken place had not redounded to the glory of Dug Doble.
Later in the day the foreman met the owner of the D Bar Lazy R brand to make a detailed statement of the cost of the drive. He took peculiar pleasure in mentioning one item.
"That young scalawag Sanders beat you outa eighteen dollars," he said with a sneer of triumph.
Doble had heard the story of what Dave and Bob had done for Crawford and of how the wounded boy had been taken to the cattleman's home and nursed there. It pleased him now to score off what he chose to think was the soft-headedness of his chief.
The cattleman showed interest. "That so, Dug? Sorry. I took a fancy to that boy. What did he do?"
"You know how vaqueros are always comin' in and chargin' goods against the boss. I give out the word they was to quit it. Sanders he gets a pair of eighteen-dollar boots, then jumps the town before I find out about it."
Crawford started to speak, but Doble finished his story.
"I took out after him, but my bronc went lame from a stone in its hoof. You'll never see that eighteen plunks, Em. It don't do to pet cowhands."
"Too bad you took all that trouble, Dug," the old cattleman began mildly. "The fact is—"
"Trouble. Say, I'd ride to Tombstone to get a crack at that young smart Aleck. I told him what I'd do to him if I ever got my fists on him."
"So you did catch up with him."
Dug drew back sulkily within himself. He did not intend to tell all he knew about the Gunsight Pass episode. "I didn't say when I told him."
"Tha's so. You didn't. Well, I'm right sorry you took so blamed much trouble to find him. Funny, though, he didn't tell you I gave him the boots."
"You—what?" The foreman snapped the question out with angry incredulity.
The ranchman took the cigar from his mouth and leaned back easily. He was smiling now frankly.
"Why, yes. I told him to buy the boots and have 'em charged to my account. And the blamed little rooster never told you, eh?"
Doble choked for words with which to express himself. He glared at his employer as though Crawford had actually insulted him.
In an easy, conversational tone the cattleman continued, but now there was a touch of frost in his eyes.
"It was thisaway, Dug. When he and Bob knocked Steelman's plans hell west and crooked after that yellow skunk George Doble betrayed me to Brad, the boy lost his boots in the brush. 'Course I said to get another pair at the store and charge 'em to me. I reckon he was havin' some fun joshin' you."
The foreman was furious. He sputtered with the rage that boiled inside him. But some instinct warned him that unless he wanted to break with Crawford completely he must restrain his impulse to rip loose.
"All right," he mumbled. "If you told him to get 'em, 'nough said."
THE CATTLE TRAIN
Dave stood on the fence of one of the shipping pens at the Albuquerque stockyards and used a prod-pole to guide the bawling cattle below. The Fifty-Four Quarter Circle was loading a train of beef steers and cows for Denver. Just how he was going to manage it Dave did not know, but he intended to be aboard that freight when it pulled out for the mile-high town in Colorado.
He had reached Albuquerque by a strange and devious route of zigzags and back-trackings. His weary bronco he had long since sold for ten dollars at a cow town where he had sacked his saddle to be held at a livery stable until sent for. By blind baggage he had ridden a night and part of a day. For a hundred miles he had actually paid his fare. The next leg of the journey had been more exciting. He had elected to travel by freight. For many hours he and a husky brakeman had held different opinions about this. Dave had been chased from the rods into an empty and out of the box car to the roof. He had been ditched half a dozen times during the night, but each time he had managed to hook on before the train had gathered headway. The brakeman enlisted the rest of the crew in the hunt, with the result that the range-rider found himself stranded on the desert ten miles from a station. He walked the ties in his high-heeled boots, and before he reached the yards his feet were sending messages of pain at every step. Reluctantly he bought a ticket to Albuquerque. Here he had picked up a temporary job ten minutes after his arrival.
A raw-boned inspector kept tally at the chute while the cattle passed up into the car.
"Fifteen, sixteen—prod 'em up, you Arizona—seventeen, eighteen—jab that whiteface along—nineteen—hustle 'em in."
The air was heavy with the dust raised by the milling cattle. Calves stretched their necks and blatted for their mothers, which kept up in turn a steady bawling for their strayed offspring. They were conscious that something unusual was in progress, something that threatened their security and comfort, and they resented it in the only way they knew.
Car after car was jammed full of the frightened creatures as the men moved from pen to pen, threw open and shut the big gates, and hustled the stock up the chutes. Dave had begun work at six in the morning. A glance at his watch showed him that it was now ten o'clock.
A middle-aged man in wrinkled corduroys and a pinched-in white hat drove up to the fence. "How're they coming, Sam?" he asked of the foreman in charge.
"We'd ought to be movin' by noon, Mr. West."
"Fine. I've decided to send Garrison in charge. He can pick one of the boys to take along. We can't right well spare any of 'em now. If I knew where to find a good man—"
The lean Arizona-born youth slid from the fence on his prod-pole and stepped forward till he stood beside the buckboard of the cattleman.
"I'm the man you're lookin' for, Mr. West."
The owner of the Fifty-Four Quarter Circle brand looked him over with keen eyes around which nets of little wrinkles spread.
"What man?" he asked.
"The one to help Mr. Garrison take the cattle to Denver."
"Recommend yoreself, can you?" asked West with a hint of humor.
"Who are you?"
"Dave Sanders—from Arizona, first off."
"Been punchin' long?"
"Since I was a kid. Worked for the D Bar Lazy R last."
"Ever go on a cattle train?"
"Twice—to Kansas City."
"Hmp!" That grunt told Dave just what the difficulty was. It said, "I don't know you. Why should I trust you to help take a trainload of my cattle through?"
"You can wire to Mr. Crawford at Malapi and ask him about me," the young fellow suggested.
"How long you ride for him?"
"Three years comin' grass."
"How do I knew you you're the man you say you are?"
"One of yore boys knows me—Bud Holway."
West grunted again. He knew Emerson Crawford well. He was a level-headed cowman and his word was as good as his bond. If Em said this young man was trustworthy, the shipper was willing to take a chance on him. The honest eye, the open face, the straightforward manner of the youth recommended his ability and integrity. The shipper was badly in need of a man. He made up his mind to wire.