BOOKS BY WILLIAM MACLEOD RAINE Published By HOUGHTON MIFFLIN COMPANY
THE SHERIFF'S SON. Illustrated. THE YUKON TRAIL. Illustrated. STEVE YEAGER. Illustrated. A MAN FOUR-SQUARE. With colored frontispiece. OH, YOU TEX!
OH, YOU TEX!
OH, YOU TEX!
By WILLIAM MACLEOD RAINE
Author of "A Man Four-Square," "The Sheriff's Son," "The Yukon Trail," Etc.
Boston and New York HOUGHTON MIFFLIN COMPANY The Riverside Press Cambridge 1920
COPYRIGHT, 1919, by THE STORY-PRESS CORPORATION COPYRIGHT, 1920, by WILLIAM MACLEOD RAINE ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
TO SAM F. DUNN OF AMARILLO, TEXAS INSPECTOR OF CATTLE IN THE DAYS OF THE LONGHORN DRIVES TO WHOSE EXPERIENCE AND GENEROUS CRITICISM I AM INDEBTED FOR AID IN THE PREPARATION OF THIS BOOK
I. THE LINE-RIDER 3 II. "I'LL BE SEVENTEEN, COMING GRASS" 12 III. TEX TAKES AN INTEREST 18 IV. TEX GRANDSTANDS 26 V. CAPTAIN ELLISON HIRES A HAND 38 VI. CLINT WADLEY'S MESSENGER 44 VII. THE DANCE 54 VIII. RUTHERFORD MAKES A MISTAKE 62 IX. MURDER IN THE CHAPARRAL 69 X. "A DAMNED POOR APOLOGY FOR A MAN" 75 XI. ONE TO FOUR 79 XII. TEX REARRANGES THE SEATING 89 XIII. "ONLY ONE MOB, AIN'T THERE?" 99 XIV. JACK SERVES NOTICE 108 XV. A CLOSE SHAVE 113 XVI. WADLEY GOES HOME IN A BUCKBOARD 122 XVII. OLD-TIMERS 132 XVIII. A SHOT OUT OF THE NIGHT 138 XIX. TRAPPED 146 XX. KIOWAS ON THE WARPATH 155 XXI. TEX TAKES A LONG WALK 166 XXII. THE TEST 174 XXIII. A SHY YOUNG MAN DINES 179 XXIV. TEX BORROWS A BLACKSNAKE 184 XXV. "THEY'RE RUNNIN' ME OUTA TOWN" 191 XXVI. FOR PROFESSIONAL SERVICES 199 XXVII. CLINT FREES HIS MIND 203 XXVIII. ON A COLD TRAIL 211 XXIX. BURNT BRANDS 219 XXX. ROGUES DISAGREE 226 XXXI. A PAIR OF DEUCES 237 XXXII. THE HOLD-UP 245 XXXIII. THE MAN WITH THE YELLOW STREAK 251 XXXIV. RAMONA GOES DUCK-HUNTING 258 XXXV. THE DESERT 266 XXXVI. HOMER DINSMORE ESCORTS RAMONA 272 XXXVII. ON A HOT TRAIL 279 XXXVIII. DINSMORE TO THE RESCUE 287 XXXIX. A CRY OUT OF THE NIGHT 292 XL. GURLEY'S GET-AWAY 296 XLI. HOMING HEARTS 302 XLII. A DIFFERENCE OF OPINION 310 XLIII. TEX RESIGNS 319 XLIV. DINSMORE GIVES INFORMATION 328 XLV. RAMONA DESERTS HER FATHER 332 XLVI. LOOSE THREADS 338
OH, YOU TEX!
Day was breaking in the Panhandle. The line-rider finished his breakfast of buffalo-hump, coffee, and biscuits. He had eaten heartily, for it would be long after sunset before he touched food again.
Cheerfully and tunelessly he warbled a cowboy ditty as he packed his supplies and prepared to go.
"Oh, it's bacon and beans most every day, I'd as lief be eatin' prairie hay."
While he washed his dishes in the fine sand and rinsed them in the current of the creek he announced jocundly to a young world glad with spring:
"I'll sell my outfit soon as I can, Won't punch cattle for no damn' man."
The tin cup beat time against the tin plate to accompany a kind of shuffling dance. Jack Roberts was fifty miles from nowhere, alone on the desert, but the warm blood of youth set his feet to moving. Why should he not dance? He was one and twenty, stood five feet eleven in his socks, and weighed one hundred and seventy pounds of bone, sinew, and well-packed muscle. A son of blue skies and wide, wind-swept spaces, he had never been ill in his life. Wherefore the sun-kissed world looked good to him.
He mounted a horse picketed near the camp and rode out to a remuda of seven cow-ponies grazing in a draw. Of these he roped one and brought it back to camp, where he saddled it with deft swiftness.
The line-rider swung to the saddle and put his pony at a jog-trot. He topped a hill and looked across the sunlit mesas which rolled in long swells far as the eye could see. The desert flowered gayly with the purple, pink, and scarlet blossoms of the cacti and with the white, lilylike buds of the Spanish bayonet. The yucca and the prickly pear were abloom. He swept the panorama with trained eyes. In the distance a little bunch of antelope was moving down to water in single file. On a slope two miles away grazed a small herd of buffalo. No sign of human habitation was written on that vast solitude of space.
The cowboy swung to the south and held a steady road gait. With an almost uncanny accuracy he recognized all signs that had to do with cattle. Though cows, half hidden in the brush, melted into the color of the hillside, he picked them out unerringly. Brands, at a distance so great that a tenderfoot could have made of them only a blur, were plain as a primer to him.
Cows that carried on their flanks the A T O, he turned and started northward. As he returned, he would gather up these strays and drive them back to their own range. For in those days, before the barbed wire had reached Texas and crisscrossed it with boundary lines, the cowboy was a fence more mobile than the wandering stock.
It was past noon when Roberts dropped into a draw where an immense man was lying sprawled under a bush. The recumbent man was a mountain of flesh; how he ever climbed to a saddle was a miracle; how a little cow-pony carried him was another. Yet there was no better line-rider in the Panhandle than Jumbo Wilkins.
"'Lo, Texas," the fat man greeted.
The young line-rider had won the nickname of "Texas" in New Mexico a year or two before by his aggressive championship of his native State. Somehow the sobriquet had clung to him even after his return to the Panhandle.
"'Lo, Jumbo," returned the other. "How?"
"Fat like a match. I'm sure losin' flesh. Took up another notch in my belt yestiddy."
Roberts shifted in the saddle, resting his weight on the horn and the ball of one foot for ease. He was a slim, brown youth, hard as nails and tough as whipcord. His eyes were quick and wary. In spite of the imps of mischief that just now lighted them, one got an impression of strength. He might or might not be, in the phrase of the country, a "bad hombre," but it was safe to say he was an efficient one.
"Quick consumption, sure," pronounced the younger man promptly. "You don't look to me like you weigh an ounce over three hundred an' fifty pounds. Appetite kind o' gone?"
"You're damn whistlin'. I got an ailment, I tell you, Tex. This mo'nin' I didn't eat but a few slices of bacon an' some lil' steaks an' a pan or two o' flapjacks an' mebbe nine or ten biscuits. Afterward I felt kind o' bloated like. I need some sa'saparilla. Now, if I could make out to get off for a few days—"
"You could get that sarsaparilla across the bar at the Bird Cage, couldn't you, Jumbo?" the boy grinned.
The whale of a man looked at him reproachfully. "You never seen me shootin' up no towns or raisin' hell when I was lit up. I can take a drink or leave it alone."
"That's right too. Nobody lets it alone more than you do when it can't be got. I've noticed that."
"You cayn't devil me, boy. I was punchin' longhorns when yore mammy was paddlin' you for stealin' the sugar. Say, that reminds me. I'm plumb out o' sugar. Can you loan me some till Pedro gits around? I got to have sugar or I begin to fall off right away," the big man whined.
The line-riders chatted casually of the topics that interest men in the land of wide, empty frontiers. Of Indians they had something to say, of their diminishing grub supply more. Jumbo mentioned that he had found an A T O cow dead by a water-hole. They spoke incidentally of the Dinsmore gang, a band of rustlers operating in No Man's Land. They had little news of people, since neither of them had for three weeks seen another human being except Quint Sullivan, the line-rider who fenced the A T O cattle to the east of Roberts.
Presently Roberts nodded a good-bye and passed again into the solitude of empty spaces. The land-waves swallowed him. Once more he followed draws, crossed washes, climbed cow-backed hills, picking up drift-cattle as he rode.
It was late afternoon when he saw a thin spiral of smoke from a rise of ground. Smoke meant that some human being was abroad in the land, and every man on the range called for investigation. The rider moved forward to reconnoiter.
He saw a man, a horse, a cow, a calf, and a fire. When these five things came together, it meant that somebody was branding. The present business of Roberts was to find out what brand was on the cow and what one was being run on the flank of the calf. He rode forward at a slow canter.
The man beside the fire straightened. He took off his hat and swept it in front of him in a semicircle from left to right. The line-rider understood the sign language of the plains. He was being "waved around." The man was serving notice upon him to pass in a wide circle. It meant that the dismounted man did not intend to let himself be recognized. The easy deduction was that he was a rustler.
The cowboy rode steadily forward. The man beside the fire picked up a rifle lying at his feet and dropped a bullet a few yards in front of the advancing man.
Roberts drew to a halt. He was armed with a six-shooter, but a revolver was of no use at this distance. For a moment he hesitated. Another bullet lifted a spurt of dust almost at his horse's feet.
The line-rider waited for no more definite warning. He waved a hand toward the rustler and shouted down the wind: "Some other day." Quickly he swung his horse to the left and vanished into an arroyo. Then, without an instant's loss of time, he put his pony swiftly up the draw toward a "rim-rock" edging a mesa. Over to the right was Box Canon, which led to the rough lands of a terrain unknown to Roberts. It was a three-to-one chance that the rustler would disappear into the canon.
The young man rode fast, putting his bronco at the hills with a rush. He was in a treeless country, covered with polecat brush. Through this he plunged recklessly, taking breaks in the ground without slackening speed in the least.
Near the summit of the rise Roberts swung from the saddle and ran forward through the brush, crouching as he moved. With a minimum of noise and a maximum of speed he negotiated the thick shrubbery and reached the gorge.
He crept forward cautiously and looked down. Through the shin-oak which grew thick on the edge of the bluff he made out a man on horseback driving a calf. The mount was a sorrel with white stockings and a splash of white on the nose. The distance was too great for Roberts to make out the features of the rider clearly, though he could see the fellow was dark and slender.
The line-rider watched him out of sight, then slithered down the face of the bluff to the sandy wash. He knelt down and studied intently the hoofprints written in the soil. They told him that the left hind hoof of the animal was broken in an odd way.
Jack Roberts clambered up the steep edge of the gulch and returned to the cow-pony waiting for him with drooping hip and sleepy eyes.
"Oh, you Two Bits, we'll amble along and see where our friend is headin' for."
He picked a way down into the canon and followed the rustler. At the head of the gulch the man on the sorrel had turned to the left. The cowboy turned also in that direction. A sign by the side of the trail confronted him.
THIS IS PETE DINSMORE'S ROAD— TAKE ANOTHER
"The plot sure thickens," grinned Jack. "Reckon I won't take Pete's advice to-day. It don't listen good."
He spoke aloud, to himself or to his horse or to the empty world at large, as lonely riders often do on the plains or in the hills, but from the heavens above an answer dropped down to him in a heavy, masterful voice:
"Git back along that trail pronto!"
Roberts looked up. A flat rock topped the bluff above. From the edge of it the barrel of a rifle projected. Behind it was a face masked by a bandana handkerchief. The combination was a sinister one.
If the line-rider was dismayed or even surprised, he gave no evidence of it.
"Just as you say, stranger. I reckon you're callin' this dance," he admitted.
"You'll be lucky if you don't die of lead-poisonin' inside o' five minutes. No funny business! Git!"
The cowboy got. He whirled his pony in its tracks and sent it jogging down the back trail. A tenderfoot would have taken the gulch at breakneck speed. Most old-timers would have found a canter none too fast. But Jack Roberts held to a steady road gait. Not once did he look back—but every foot of the way till he had turned a bend in the canon there was an ache in the small of his back. It was a purely sympathetic sensation, for at any moment a bullet might come crashing between the shoulders.
Once safely out of range the rider mopped a perspiring face.
"Wow! This is your lucky day, Jack. Ain't you got better sense than to trail rustlers with no weapon but a Sunday-School text? Well, here's hopin'! Maybe we'll meet again in the sweet by an' by. You never can always tell."
"I'LL BE SEVENTEEN, COMING GRASS"
The camper looked up from the antelope steak he was frying, to watch a man cross the shallow creek. In the clear morning light of the Southwest his eyes had picked the rider out of the surrounding landscape nearly an hour before. For at least one fourth of the time since this discovery he had been aware that his approaching visitor was Pedro Menendez, of the A T O ranch.
"Better 'light, son," suggested Roberts.
The Mexican flashed a white-toothed smile at the sizzling steak, took one whiff of the coffee and slid from the saddle. Eating was one of the things that Pedro did best.
"The ol' man—he sen' me," the boy explained. "He wan' you at the ranch."
Further explanation waited till the edge of Pedro's appetite was blunted. The line-rider lighted a cigarette and casually asked a question.
"Whyfor does he want me?"
It developed that the Mexican had been sent to relieve Roberts because the latter was needed to take charge of a trail herd. Not by the flicker of an eyelash did the line-rider show that this news meant anything to him. It was promotion—better pay, a better chance for advancement, an easier life. But Jack Roberts had learned to take good and ill fortune with the impassive face of a gambler.
"Keep an eye out for rustlers, Pedro," he advised before he left. "You want to watch Box Canon. Unless I'm 'way off, the Dinsmore gang are operatin' through it. I 'most caught one red-handed the other day. Lucky for me I didn't. You an' Jumbo would 'a' had to bury me out on the lone prairee."
Nearly ten hours later Jack Roberts dismounted in front of the whitewashed adobe house that was the headquarters of the A T O ranch. On the porch an old cattleman sat slouched in a chair tilted back against the wall, a run-down heel of his boot hitched in the rung. The wrinkled coat he wore hung on him like a sack, and one leg of his trousers had caught at the top of the high boot. The owner of the A T O was a heavy-set, powerful man in the early fifties. Just now he was smoking a corncob pipe.
The keen eyes of the cattleman watched lazily the young line-rider come up the walk. Most cowboys walked badly; on horseback they might be kings of the earth, but out of the saddle they rolled like sailors. Clint Wadley noticed that the legs of this young fellow were straight and that he trod the ground lightly as a buck in mating-season.
"He'll make a hand," was Wadley's verdict, one he had arrived at after nearly a year of shrewd observation.
But no evidence of satisfaction in his employee showed itself in the greeting of the "old man." He grunted what might pass for "Howdy!" if one were an optimist.
Roberts explained his presence by saying: "You sent for me, Mr. Wadley."
"H'm! That durned fool York done bust his laig. Think you can take a herd up the trail to Tascosa?"
"That's the way all you brash young colts talk. But how many of 'em will you lose on the way? How sorry will they look when you deliver the herd? That's what I'd like to know."
Jack Roberts was paying no attention to the grumbling of his boss—for a young girl had come out of the house. She was a slim little thing, with a slender throat that carried the small head like the stem of a rose. Dark, long-lashed eyes, eager and bubbling with laughter, were fixed on Wadley. She had slipped out on tiptoe to surprise him. Her soft fingers covered his eyes.
"Guess who!" she ordered.
"Quit yore foolishness," growled the cattleman. "Don't you-all see I'm talkin' business?" But the line-rider observed that his arm encircled the waist of the girl.
With a flash of shy eyes the girl caught sight of Roberts, who had been half hidden from her behind the honeysuckle foliage.
"Oh! I didn't know," she cried.
The owner of the A T O introduced them. "This is Jack Roberts, one of my trail foremen. Roberts—my daughter Ramona. I reckon you can see for yoreself she's plumb spoiled."
A soft laugh welled from the throat of the girl. She knew that for her at least her father was all bark and no bite.
"It's you that is spoiled, Dad," she said in the slow, sweet voice of the South. "I've been away too long, but now I'm back I mean to bring you up right. Now I'll leave you to your business."
The eyes of the girl rested for a moment on those of the line-rider as she nodded good-bye. Jack had never before seen Ramona Wadley, nor for that matter had he seen her brother Rutherford. Since he had been in the neighborhood, both of them had been a good deal of the time in Tennessee at school, and Jack did not come to the ranch-house once in three months. It was hard to believe that this dainty child was the daughter of such a battered hulk as Clint Wadley. He was what the wind and the sun and the tough Southwest had made him. And she—she was a daughter of the morning.
But Wadley did not release Ramona. "Since you're here you might as well go through with it," he said. "What do you want?"
"What does a woman always want?" she asked sweetly, and then answered her own question. "Clothes—and money to buy them—lots of it. I'm going to town to-morrow, you know."
"H'm!" His grunt was half a chuckle, half a growl. "Do you call yoreself a woman—a little bit of a trick like you? Why, I could break you in two."
She drew herself up very straight. "I'll be seventeen, coming grass. And it's much more likely, sir, that I'll break you—as you'll find out when the bills come in after I've been to town."
With that she swung on her heel and vanished inside the house.
The proud, fond eyes of the cattleman followed her. It was an easy guess that she was the apple of his eye.
But when he turned to business again his manner was gruffer than usual. He was a trifle crisper to balance the effect of his new foreman having discovered that he was as putty in the hands of this slip of a girl.
"Well, you know where you're at, Roberts. Deliver that herd without any loss for strays, fat, an' in good condition, an' you won't need to go back to line-ridin'. Fall down on the job, an' you'll never get another chance to drive A T O cows."
"That's all I ask, Mr. Wadley," the cowboy answered. "An' much obliged for the chance."
"Don't thank me. Thank York's busted laig," snapped his chief. "We'll make the gather for the drive to-morrow an' Friday."
TEX TAKES AN INTEREST
Jack Roberts was in two minds whether to stop at the Longhorn saloon. He needed a cook in his trail outfit, and the most likely employment agency in Texas during that decade was the barroom of a gambling-house. Every man out of a job naturally drifted to the only place of entertainment.
The wandering eye of the foreman decided the matter for him. It fell upon a horse, and instantly ceased to rove. The cow-pony was tied to a hitching-rack worn shiny by thousands of reins. On the nose of the bronco was a splash of white. Stockings of the same color marked its legs. The left hind hoof was gashed and broken.
The rider communed with himself. "I reckon we'll 'light and take an interest, Jack. Them that looks for, finds."
He slid from the saddle and rolled a cigarette, after which he made friends with the sorrel and examined carefully the damaged foot.
"It's a li'l bit of a world after all," he commented. "You never can tell who you're liable to meet up with." The foreman drew from its scabbard a revolver and slid it back into place to make sure that it lay easy in its case. "You can't guess for sure what's likely to happen. I'd a heap rather be too cautious than have flowers sent me."
He sauntered through the open door into the gambling-house. It was a large hall, in the front part of which was the saloon. In the back the side wall to the next building had been ripped out to give more room. There was a space for dancing, as well as roulette, faro, chuckaluck, and poker tables. In one corner a raised stand for the musicians had been built.
The Longhorn was practically deserted. Not even a game of draw was in progress. The dance-girls were making up for lost sleep, and the patrons of the place were either at work or still in bed.
Three men were lined up in front of the bar. One was a tall, lank person, hatchet-faced and sallow. He had a cast in his eye that gave him a sinister expression. The second was slender and trim, black of hair and eye and mustache. His clothes were very good and up to date. The one farthest from the door was a heavy-set, unwieldy man in jeans, slouchy as to dress and bearing. Perhaps it was the jade eyes of the man that made Roberts decide instantly he was one tough citizen.
The line-rider ordered a drink.
"Hardware, please," said the bartender curtly.
"Enforcin' that rule, are they?" asked Roberts casually as his eyes swept over the other men.
"That's whatever. Y'betcha. We don't want no gay cowboys shootin' out our lights. No reflections, y'understand."
The latest arrival handed over his revolver, and the man behind the bar hung the scabbard on a nail. Half a dozen others were on a shelf beside it. For the custom on the frontier was that each rider from the range should deposit his weapons at the first saloon he entered. They were returned to him when he called for them just before leaving town. This tended to lessen the number of sudden deaths.
"Who you ridin' for, young fellow?" asked the sallow man of Roberts.
"For the A T O."
The dark young man turned and looked at the cowboy.
"So? How long have you been riding for Wadley?"
"Don't think I've seen you before."
"I'm a line-rider—don't often get to the ranch-house."
"What ground do you cover?"
"From Dry Creek to the rim-rock, and south past Box Canon."
Three pair of eyes were focused watchfully on Roberts. The sallow man squirted tobacco at a knot in the floor and rubbed his bristly chin with the palm of a hand.
"Kinda lonesome out there, ain't it?" he ventured.
"That's as how you take it. The country is filled with absentees," admitted Roberts.
"Reckoned it was. Never been up that way myself. A sort of a bad-lands proposition, I've heard tell—country creased with arroyos, packed with rocks an' rattlesnakes mostly."
The heavy-set man broke in harshly. "Anybody else run cattle there except old man Wadley?"
"Settlers are comin' in on the other side of the rim-rock. Cattle drift across. I can count half a dozen brands 'most any day."
"But you never see strangers."
"I'm askin', do you?" The voice of the older man was heavy and dominant. It occurred to Roberts that he had heard that voice before.
"Oh!" Unholy imps of mirth lurked in the alert eyes of the line-rider. "Once in a while I do—last Thursday, for instance."
The graceful, dark young man straightened as does a private called to attention. "A trapper, maybe?" he said.
The cowboy brought his level gaze back from a barefoot negro washing the floor. "Not this time. He was a rustler."
"How do you know?" The high voice of the questioner betrayed excitement.
"I caught him brandin' a calf. He waved me round. I beat him to the Box Canon and saw him ridin' through."
"You saw him ridin' through? Where were you?" The startled eyes of the dark young man were fixed on him imperiously.
"From the bluff above."
"You don't say!" The voice of the heavy man cut in with jeering irony. The gleam of his jade eyes came through narrow-slitted lids. "Well, did you take him back to the ranch for a necktie party, or did you bury him in the gulch?"
The dark young man interrupted irritably. "I'm askin' these questions, Dinsmore. Now you, young fellow—what's your name?"
"Jack Roberts," answered the cowboy meekly.
"About this rustler—would you know him again?"
The line-rider smiled inscrutably. He did not intend to tell all that he did not know. "He was ridin' a sorrel with a white splash on its nose, white stockin's, an' a bad hoof, the rear one—"
"You're a damn' liar." The words, flung out from some inner compulsion, as it were, served both as a confession and a challenge.
There was a moment of silence, tense and ominous. This was fighting talk.
The lank man leaned forward and whispered some remonstrance in the ear of the young fellow, but his suggestion was waved aside. "I'm runnin' this, Gurley."
The rider for the A T O showed neither surprise nor anger. He made a business announcement without stress or accent. "I expect it's you or me one for a lickin'. Hop to it, Mr. Rustler!"
Roberts did not wait for an acceptance of his invitation. He knew that the first two rules of battle are to strike first and to strike hard. His brown fist moved forward as though it had been shot from a gun. The other man crashed back against the wall and hung there dazed for a moment. The knuckles of that lean fist had caught him on the chin.
"Give him hell, Ford. You can curry a li'l' shorthorn like this guy with no trouble a-tall," urged Dinsmore.
The young man needed no urging. He gathered himself together and plunged forward. Always he had prided himself on being an athlete. He was the champion boxer of the small town where he had gone to school. Since he had returned to the West, he had put on flesh and muscle. But he had dissipated a good deal too, and no man not in the pink of condition had any right to stand up to tough Jack Roberts.
While the fight lasted, there was rapid action. Roberts hit harder and cleaner, but the other was the better boxer. He lunged and sidestepped cleverly, showing good foot-work and a nice judgment of distance. For several minutes he peppered the line-rider with neat hits. Jack bored in for more. He drove a straight left home and closed one of his opponent's eyes. He smashed through the defense of his foe with a power that would not be denied.
"Keep a-comin', Ford. You shore have got him goin' south," encouraged Gurley.
But the man he called Ford knew it was not true. His breath was coming raggedly. His arms were heavy as though weighted with lead. The science upon which he had prided himself was of no use against this man of steel. Already his head was singing so that he saw hazily.
The finish came quickly. The cowboy saw his chance, feinted with his left and sent a heavy body blow to the heart. The knees of the other sagged. He sank down and did not try to rise again.
Presently his companions helped him to his feet. "He—he took me by surprise," explained the beaten man with a faint attempt at bluster.
"I'll bet I did," assented Jack cheerfully. "An' I'm liable to surprise you again if you call me a liar a second time."
"You've said about enough, my friend," snarled the man who had been spoken to as Dinsmore. "You get away with this because the fight was on the square, but don't push yore luck too far."
The three men passed out of the front door. Roberts turned to the barkeeper.
"I reckon the heavy-set one is Pete Dinsmore. The cock-eyed guy must be Steve Gurley. But who is the young fellow I had the mixup with?"
The man behind the bar gave information promptly. "He's Rutherford Wadley—son of the man who signs yore pay-checks. Say, I heard Buck Nelson needs a mule-skinner, in case you're lookin' for a job."
Jack felt a sudden sinking of the heart. He had as good as told the son of his boss that he was a rustler, and on top of that he had given him a first-class lacing. The air-castles he had been building came tumbling down with a crash. He had already dreamed himself from a trail foreman to the majordomo of the A T O ranch. Instead of which he was a line-rider out of a job.
"Where can I find Nelson?" he asked with a grin that found no echo in his heart. "Lead me to him."
Clint Wadley, massive and powerful, slouched back in his chair with one leg thrown over an arm of it. He puffed at a corncob pipe, and through the smoke watched narrowly with keen eyes from under heavy grizzled brows a young man standing on the porch steps.
"So now you know what I expect, young fellow," he said brusquely. "Take it or leave it; but if you take it, go through."
Arthur Ridley smiled. "Thanks, I'll take it."
The boy was not so much at ease as his manner suggested. He knew that the owner of the A T O was an exacting master. The old cattleman was game himself. Even now he would fight at the drop of the hat if necessary. In the phrase which he had just used, he would "go through" anything he undertook. Men who had bucked blizzards with him in the old days admitted that Clint would do to take along. But Ridley's awe of him was due less to his roughness and to the big place he filled in the life of the Panhandle than to the fact that he was the father of his daughter. It was essential to Arthur's plans that he stand well with the old-timer.
Though he did not happen to know it, young Ridley was a favorite of the cattle king. He had been wished on him by an old friend, but there was something friendly and genial about the boy that won a place for him. His smile was modest and disarming, and his frank face was better than any letter of recommendation.
But though Wadley was prepared to like him, his mind held its reservations. The boy had come from the East, and the standards of that section are not those of the West. The East asks of a man good family, pleasant manners, a decent reputation, and energy enough to carry a man to success along conventional lines. In those days the frontier West demanded first that a man be game, and second that he be one to tie to. He might be good or bad, but whichever he was, he, must be efficient to make any mark in the turbulent country of the border. Was there a hint of slackness in the jaw of this good-looking boy? Wadley was not sure, but he intended to find out.
"You'll start Saturday. I'll meet you at Tascosa two weeks from to-day. Understand?" The cattleman knocked the ashes from his pipe and rose. The interview was at an end.
Young Ridley nodded. "I'll be there, sir—with the six thousand dollars safe as if they were in a vault."
"H'm! I see you carry a six-shooter. Can you shoot?" Wadley flung at him abruptly.
Arthur Ridley had always fancied himself as a shot. He had belonged to a gun-club at home, and since coming to the Southwest he had practiced a good deal with the revolver.
"Pretty well, sir."
"Would you—if it was up to you?"
The youngster looked into the steel-gray eyes roofed by the heavy thatch of brow. "I think so. I never have had to yet. In the East—"
Wadley waved the East back to where it belonged. "Yes, I know. But we're talkin' about Texas. Still, I reckon you ought not to have any trouble on this trip. Don't let anybody know why you are at the fort. Don't gamble or drink. Get the money from Major Ponsford and melt away inconspicuous into the brush. Hit the trail hard. A day and a night ought to bring you to Tascosa."
The cattleman was leading the way with long strides into an open space back of the house. A pile of empty cans, symbol of the arid lands, lay beside the path. He picked up one and put it on a post. Then he stepped off fifteen paces.
"Ventilate it," he ordered.
The boy drew his revolver, took a long, steady aim, and fired. The bullet whistled past across the prairie. His second shot scored a clean hit. With pardonable pride he turned to the cattleman.
"Set up another can," commanded Wadley.
From the pile of empties the young man picked another and put it on the post. Wadley, known in Texas as a two-gun man, flashed into sight a pair of revolvers almost quicker than the eye could follow. Both shots came instantly and together. The cattleman had fired from the hips. Before the can had reached the ground the weapons barked again.
Ridley ran forward and picked up the can. It was torn and twisted with jagged holes, but the evidence was written there that all four bullets had pierced the tin. The Easterner could hardly believe his eyes. Such shooting was almost beyond human skill.
The owner of the A T O thrust into place his two forty-fives.
"If you're goin' to wear six-shooters, learn to use 'em, son. If you don't, some bad-man is liable to bump you off for practice."
As the two men stepped around the corner of the house a girl came down the steps of the porch. She was dressed in summer white, but she herself was spring. Slim and lissome, the dew of childhood was still on her lips, and the mist of it in her eyes. But when she slanted her long lashes toward Arthur Ridley, it was not the child that peeped shyly and eagerly out from beneath them. Her heart was answering the world-old call of youth to youth.
"I'm going downtown, Dad," she announced.
Ridley stepped forward and lifted his hat. "May I walk with you, Miss Ramona?"
"Stop at the post-office and see if the buckboard driver is in with the mail, 'Mona," her father said.
The boy and the girl made a couple to catch and hold the eye.
They went down the street together chattering gayly. One of the things young Ridley knew how to do well was to make himself agreeable to girls. He could talk nonsense charmingly and could hold his own in the jolly give-and-take of repartee. His good looks were a help. So too was the little touch of affectionate deference he used. He had the gift of being bold without being too bold.
It was a beautiful morning and life sang in the blood of Ramona. It seemed to her companion that the warm sun caressed the little curls at her temples as she moved down the street light as a deer. Little jets of laughter bubbled from her round, birdlike throat. In her freshly starched white dress, with its broad waistband of red and purple ribbon, the girl was sweet and lovely and full of mystery to Ridley.
A little man with a goatee, hawk-nosed and hawk-eyed, came down the street with jingling spurs to meet them. At sight of Ramona his eyes lighted. From his well-shaped gray head he swept in a bow a jaunty, broad-brimmed white hat.
The young girl smiled, because there were still a million unspent smiles in her warm and friendly heart.
"Good-morning, Captain Ellison," she called.
"Don't know you a-tall, ma'am." He shook his head with decision. "Never met up with you before."
"Good gracious, Captain, and you've fed me candy ever since I was a sticky little kid."
He burlesqued a business of recognizing her with much astonishment. "You ain't little 'Mona Wadley. No! Why, you are a young lady all dressed up in go-to-meet-him clothes. I reckon my little side-partner has gone forever."
"No, she hasn't, Uncle Jim," the girl cried. "And I want you to know I still like candy."
He laughed with delight and slapped his thigh with his broad-brimmed ranger hat. "By dog, you get it, 'Mona, sure as I'm a foot high."
Chuckling, he passed down the street.
"Captain Jim Ellison of the Rangers," explained Ramona to her companion. "He isn't really my uncle, but I've known him always. He's a good old thing and we're great friends."
Her soft, smiling eyes met those of Arthur. He thought that it was no merit in Ellison to be fond of her. How could he help it?
"He's in luck," was all the boy said.
A little flag of color fluttered in her cheek. She liked his compliments, but they embarrassed her a little.
"Did you fix it all up with Dad?" she asked, by way of changing the subject.
"Yes. I'm to go to Fort Winston to get the money for the beeves, and if I fall down on the job I'll never get another from him."
"I believe you're afraid of Dad," she teased.
"Don't you believe it—know it. I sure enough am," he admitted promptly.
"Why? I can twist him round my little finger," she boasted.
"Yes, but I'm not his only daughter and the prettiest thing in West Texas."
She laughed shyly. "Are you sure you're taking in enough territory?"
"I'll say south of Mason and Dixon's line, if you like."
"Really, he likes you. I can tell when Dad is for any one."
A sound had for some minutes been disturbing the calm peace of the morning. It was the bawling of thirsty cattle. The young people turned a corner into the main street of the town. Down it was moving toward them a cloud of yellow dust stirred up by a bunch of Texas longhorns. The call of the cattle for drink was insistent. Above it rose an occasional sharp "Yip yip!" of a cowboy.
Ramona stopped, aghast. The cattle blocked the road, their moving backs like the waves of a sea. The dust would irreparably soil the clean frock fresh from the hands of her black mammy. She made as if to turn, and knew with a flash of horror that it was too late.
Perhaps it was the gleam of scarlet in her sash that caught the eye of the bull leading the van. It gave a bellow of rage, lowered its head, and dashed at her.
Ramona gave a horror-stricken little cry of fear and stood motionless. She could not run. The fascination of terror held her paralyzed. Her heart died away in her while the great brute thundered toward her.
Out of the dust-cloud came a horse and rider in the wake of the bull. Frozen in her tracks, Ramona saw with dilated eyes all that followed. The galloping horse gained, was at the heels of the maddened animal, drew up side by side. It seemed to the girl that in another moment she must be trampled underfoot. Nothing but a miracle from God's blue could save her.
For what registered as time without end to the girl's fear-numbed brain, horse and bull raced knee to knee. Then the miracle came. The rider leaned far out from the saddle, loosened his feet from the stirrups, and launched himself at the crazed half-ton of charging fury.
His hands gripped the horns of the bull. He was dragged from the saddle into the dust, but his weight deflected the course of the animal. With every ounce of strength given by his rough life in the open the cowboy hung on, dragging the head of the bull down with him toward the ground. Man and beast came to a slithering halt together in a great cloud of dust not ten feet from Ramona.
Even now terror held her a prisoner. The brute would free itself and stamp the man to death. A haze gathered before her eyes. She swayed, then steadied herself. Man and bull were fighting desperately, one with sheer strength, the other with strength plus brains and skill. The object of the animal was to free itself. The bull tossed wildly in frantic rage to shake off this incubus that had fastened itself to its horns. The man hung on for life. All his power and weight were centered in an effort to twist the head of the bull sideways and back. Slowly, inch by inch, by the steady, insistent pressure of muscles as well packed as any in Texas, the man began to gain. The bull no longer tossed and flung him at will. The big roan head went down, turned backward, yielded to the pressure on the neck-muscles that never relaxed.
The man put at the decisive moment his last ounce of strength into one last twist. The bull collapsed, went down heavily to its side.
A second cowboy rode up, roped the bull, and deftly hogtied it.
The bulldogger rose and limped forward to the girl leaning whitely against a wall.
"Sorry, Miss Wadley. I hadn't ought to have brought the herd through town. We was drivin' to water."
"Are you hurt?" Ramona heard her dry, faint voice ask.
"Me!" he said in surprise. "Why, no, ma'am."
He was a tall, lean youth, sunburned and tough, with a face that looked sardonic. Ramona recognized him now as her father's new foreman, the man she had been introduced to a few days before. Hard on that memory came another. It was this same Jack Roberts who had taken her brother by surprise and beaten him so cruelly only yesterday.
"It threw you around so," she murmured.
"Sho! I reckon I can curry a li'l ol' longhorn when I have it to do, ma'am," he answered, a bit embarrassed.
"Are—are you hurt?" another voice quavered.
With a pang of pain Ramona remembered Arthur Ridley. Where had he been when she so desperately needed help?
"No. Mr. Roberts saved me." She did not look at Ridley. A queer feeling of shame for him made her keep her eyes averted.
"I—went to get help for you," the boy explained feebly.
"Thank you," she said.
The girl was miserably unhappy. For the boy to whom she had given the largesse of her friendship had fled in panic; the one she hated for bullying and mistreating her brother had flung himself in the path of the furious bull to save her.
Captain Ellison came running up. He bristled at the trail foreman like a bantam. "What do you mean by drivin' these wild critters through town? Ain't you got a lick o' sense a-tall? If anything had happened to this little girl—"
The Ranger left his threat suspended in midair. His arms were round Ramona, who was sobbing into his coat.
The red-headed foreman shifted his weight from one foot to another. He was acutely uncomfortable at having made this young woman weep. "I ain't got a word to say, Captain. It was plumb thoughtless of me," he apologized.
"You come to my office this mo'nin' at twelve o'clock, young fellow. Hear me? I've got a word to say to you."
"Yes," agreed the bulldogger humbly. "I didn't go for to scare the young lady. Will you tell her I'm right sorry, Captain?"
"You eat yore own humble pie. You've got a tongue, I reckon," snorted Ellison, dragging at his goatee fiercely.
The complexion of Roberts matched his hair. "I—I—I'm turrible sorry, miss. I'd ought to be rode on a rail."
With which the range-rider turned, swung to the saddle of his pony without touching the stirrups, and fairly bolted down the street after his retreating herd.
CAPTAIN ELLISON HIRES A HAND
Captain Ellison was preparing for the Adjutant-General a report of a little affair during which one of his men had been obliged to snuff out the lives of a couple of Mexican horsethieves and seriously damage a third. Writing was laborious work for the Captain of Rangers, though he told no varnished tale. His head and shoulders were hunched over the table and his fingertips were cramped close to the point of the pen. Each letter as it was set down had its whispered echo from his pursed lips.
"Doggone these here reports," he commented in exasperation. "Looks like a man hadn't ought to make out one every time he bumps off a rustler."
He tugged at his goatee and read again what he had just written:
Then this Jose Barela and his gang of skoundrels struck out for the Brazos with the stolen stock. Ranger Cullom trailed them to Goose Creek and recovered the cattle. While resisting arrest Barela and another Mexican were killed and a third wounded. Cullom brought back the wounded man and the rustled stock.
A short noontime shadow darkened the sunny doorway of the adobe office. Ellison looked up quickly, his hand falling naturally to the handle of his forty-five. Among the Rangers the price of life was vigilance. A tall, lean, young man with a sardonic eye and a sunburned face jingled up the steps.
"Come in," snapped the Captain. "Sit down. With you in a minute."
The cowboy lounged in, very much at his ease. Roberts had been embarrassed before Ramona Wadley that morning, but he was not in the least self-conscious now. In the course of a short and turbid life he had looked too many tough characters in the eye to let any mere man disturb his poise.
"Do you spell scoundrel with a k?" the Ranger chief fired abruptly at him.
"Nary a k, Captain. I spell it b-a-d m-a-n."
"H'mp!" snorted the little man. "Ain't you got no education? A man's got to use a syllogism oncet in a while, I reckon."
"Mebbeso. What kind of a gun is it?" drawled Jack Roberts.
"A syllogism is a word meanin' the same as another word, like as if I was to say caballo for horse or six-shooter for revolver."
"I see—or tough guy for Texas ranger."
"Or durn fool for Jack Roberts," countered Ellison promptly.
"Now you're shoutin', Cap. Stomp on me proper. I certainly need to be curried."
Again the Ranger snorted. "H'mp! Been scarin' any more young ladies to death?"
"No more this mo'nin', Captain," answered Jack equably.
"Nor grandstandin' with any more ladino steers?"
"I exhibit only once a day."
"By dog, you give a sure-enough good show," exploded Ellison. "You got yore nerve, boy. Wait around till the prettiest girl in Texas can see you pull off the big play—run the risk of havin' her trampled to death, just so's you can grin an' say, 'Pleased to meet you, ma'am.' When I call you durn fool, I realize it's too weak a name."
"Hop to it, Captain. Use up some real language on me. Spill out a lot of those syllogisms you got bottled up inside you. I got it comin'," admitted Roberts genially as he rolled a cigarette.
The Captain had been a mule-skinner once, and for five glorious minutes he did himself proud while the graceless young cowpuncher beamed on him.
"You sure go some, Cap," applauded the young fellow. "I'd admire to have your flow of talk."
Ellison subsided into anticlimax. "Well, don't you ever drive yore wild hill-critters through town again. Hear me, young fellow?"
"You'll have to speak to Wadley about that. I'm not his trail boss any longer."
"Since five o'clock yesterday evenin'. I was turnin' over the herd this mo'nin' when the little lady showed up an' I had to pull off the bulldoggin'."
"Wadley fire you?"
"Didn't like the way I mussed up son Rutherford, I kind o' gathered."
"Another of yore fool plays. First you beat up Wadley's boy; then you 'most massacree his daughter. Anything more?"
"That's all up to date—except that the old man hinted I was a brand-burner."
"The deuce he did!"
"I judge that son Rutherford had told him I was one of the Dinsmore gang. Seems I'm all right except for bein' a rowdy an' a bully an' a thief an' a bad egg generally."
"H'mp! Said you was a rustler, did he?" The Ranger caressed his goatee and reflected on this before he pumped a question at the line-rider. "Are you?"
"No more than Rutherford Wadley."
The Captain shot a swift slant look at this imperturbable young man. Was there a hidden meaning in that answer?
"What's the matter with Wadley? Does he expect you to let Ford run it over you? That ain't like Clint."
"He's likely listened to a pack o' lies."
"And you haven't heard from him since?"
"Yes, I have. He sent me my check an' a hundred-dollar bill."
Ellison sat up. "What for?"
"For my fancy bulldoggin'." The hard eyes of the young fellow smouldered with resentment.
"By dog, did Clint send you money for savin' 'Mona?"
"He didn't say what it was for—so I rolled up the bill an' lit a cigarette with it."
"You take expensive smokes, young man," chuckled the officer.
"It was on Wadley. I burned only half the bill. He can cash in the other half, for I sent it back to him. When he got it, he sent for me."
"And you went?"
"You know damn well I didn't. When he wants me, he knows where to find me."
"Most young hill-billies step when Clint tells 'em to."
"Do they?" asked the range-rider indifferently.
"You bet you. They jump when he whistles. What are you figurin' to do?"
"Haven't made up my mind yet. Mebbe I'll drift along the trail to the Pecos country."
"What was Clint payin' you?"
"Sixty a month an' found."
"How'd you like to have yore wages lowered?"
"That I'll give you a job."
Young Roberts had a capacity for silence. He asked no questions now, but waited for Ellison to develop the situation.
"With the Rangers. Dollar a day an' furnish yore own bronc," explained the Captain.
"The State of Texas is liberal," said the cowboy with dry sarcasm.
"That's as you look at it. If you're a money-grubber, don't join us. But if you'd like to be one of the finest fightin' force in the world with somethin' doin' every minute, then you'd better sign up. I'll promise that you die young an' not in yore bed."
"Sounds right attractive," jeered the red-haired youngster with amiable irony.
"It is, for men with red blood in 'em," retorted the gray-haired fire-eater hotly.
"All right. I'll take your word for it, Captain. You've hired a hand."
CLINT WADLEY'S MESSENGER
Outside the door of the commandant's office Arthur Ridley stood for a moment and glanced nervously up and down the dirt road. In a hog-leather belt around his waist was six thousand dollars just turned over to him by Major Ponsford as the last payment for beef steers delivered at the fort according to contract some weeks earlier.
Arthur had decided not to start on the return journey until next morning, but he was not sure his judgment had been good. It was still early afternoon. Before nightfall he might be thirty miles on his way. The trouble with that was that he would then have to spend two nights out, and the long hours of darkness with their flickering shadows cast by the camp-fires would be full of torture for him. On the other hand, if he should stay till morning, word might leak out from the officers' quarters that he was carrying a large sum of money.
A drunken man came weaving down the street. He stopped opposite Ridley and balanced himself with the careful dignity of the inebriate. But the gray eyes, hard as those of a gunman, showed no trace of intoxication. Nor did the steady voice.
"Friend, are you Clint Wadley's messenger?"
The startled face of Ridley flew a flag of confession. "Why—what do you mean?" he stammered. Nobody was to have known that he had come to get the money for the owner of the A T O.
"None of my business, you mean," flung back the man curtly. "Good enough! It ain't. What's more, I don't give a damn. But listen: I was at the Buffalo Hump when two fellows came in. Me, I was most asleep, and they sat in the booth next to me. I didn't hear all they said, but I got this—that they're aimin' to hold up some messenger of Clint Wadley after he leaves town to-morrow. You're the man, I reckon. All right. Look out for yourself. That's all."
"But—what shall I do?" asked Ridley.
"Do? I don't care. I'm tellin' you—see? Do as you please."
"What would you do?" The danger and the responsibility that had fallen upon him out of a sky of sunshine paralyzed the young man's initiative.
The deep-set, flinty eyes narrowed to slits. "What I'd do ain't necessarily what you'd better do. What are you, stranger—high-grade stuff, or the run o' the pen?"
"I'm no gun-fighter, if that's what you mean."
"Then I'd make my get-away like a jackrabbit hell-poppin' for its hole. I got one slant at these fellows in the Buffalo Hump. They're bully-puss kind o' men, if you know what I mean."
"I don't. I'm from the East."
"They'll run it over you, bluff you off the map, take any advantage they can."
"Will they fight?"
"They'll burn powder quick if they get the drop on you."
"What are they like?"
The Texan considered. "One is a tall, red-headed guy; the other's a sawed-off, hammered-down little runt—but gunmen, both of 'em, or I'm a liar."
"They would probably follow me," said the messenger, worried.
"You better believe they will, soon as they hear you've gone."
Arthur kicked a little hole in the ground with the toe of his shoe. What had he better do? He could stay at the fort, of course, and appeal to Major Ponsford for help. But if he did, he would probably be late for his appointment with Wadley. It happened that the cattleman and the army officer had had a sharp difference of opinion about the merits of the herd that had been delivered, and it was not at all likely that Ponsford would give him a military guard to Tascosa. Moreover, he had a feeling that the owner of the A T O would resent any call to the soldiers for assistance. Clint Wadley usually played his own hand, and he expected the same of his men.
But the habit of young Ridley's life had not made for fitness to cope with a frontier emergency. Nor was he of stiff enough clay to fight free of his difficulty without help.
"What about you?" he asked the other man. "Can I hire you to ride with me to Tascosa?"
"As a tenderfoot-wrangler?" sneered the Texan.
Arthur flushed. "I've never been there. I don't know the way."
"You follow a gun-barrel road from the fort. But I'll ride with you—if the pay is right."
"What do you say to twenty dollars for the trip?"
"You've hired me."
"And if we're attacked?"
"I pack a six-shooter."
The troubled young man looked into the hard, reckless face of this stranger who had gone out of his way to warn him of the impending attack. No certificate was necessary to tell him that this man would fight.
"I don't know your name," said Ridley, still hesitating.
"Any more than I know yours," returned the other. "Call me Bill Moore, an' I'll be on hand to eat my share of the chuck."
"We'd better leave at once, don't you think?"
"You're the doc. Meet you here in an hour ready for the trail."
The man who called himself Bill Moore went his uncertain way down the street. To the casual eye he was far gone in drink. Young Ridley went straight to the corral where he had put up his horse. He watered and fed the animal, and after an endless half-hour saddled the bronco.
Moore joined him in front of the officers' quarters, and together they rode out of the post. As the Texan had said, the road to Tascosa ran straight as a gun-barrel. At first they rode in silence, swiftly, leaving behind them mile after mile of dusty trail. It was a brown, level country thickly dotted with yucca. Once Moore shot a wild turkey running in the grass. Prairie-chicken were abundant, and a flight of pigeons numbering thousands passed at one time over their heads and obscured the sky.
"Goin' down to the encinal to roost," explained Moore.
"A man could come pretty near living off his rifle in this country," Arthur remarked.
"Outside o' flour an' salt, I've done it many a time. I rode through the Pecos Valley to Fort Sumner an' on to Denver oncet an' lived off the land. Time an' again I've done it from the Brazos to the Canadian. If he gets tired of game, a man can jerk the hind quarters of a beef. Gimme a young turkey fed on sweet mast an' cooked on a hackberry bush fire, an' I'll never ask for better chuck," the Texan promised.
In spite of Ridley's manifest desire to push on far into the night, Moore made an early camp.
"No use gauntin' our broncs when we've got all the time there is before us. A horse is a man's friend. He don't want to waste it into a sorry-lookin' shadow. Besides, we're better off here than at Painted Rock. It's nothin' but a whistlin'-post in the desert."
"Yes, but I'd like to get as far from the fort as we can. I—I'm in a hurry to reach Tascosa," the younger man urged.
Moore opened a row of worn and stained teeth to smile. "Don't worry, young fellow. I'm with you now."
After they had made camp and eaten, the two men sat beside the flickering fire, and Moore told stories of the wild and turbulent life he had known around Dodge City and in the Lincoln County War that was still waging in New Mexico. He had freighted to the Panhandle from El Moro, Colorado, from Wichita Falls, and even from Dodge. The consummate confidence of the man soothed the unease of the young fellow with the hogskin belt. This plainsman knew all that the Southwest had to offer of danger and was equal to any of it.
Presently Arthur Ridley grew drowsy. The last that he remembered before he fell asleep was seeing Moore light his pipe again with a live coal from the fire. The Texan was to keep the first watch.
It was well along toward morning when the snapping of a bush awakened Ridley. He sat upright and reached quickly for the revolver by his side.
"Don't you," called a voice sharply from the brush.
Two men, masked with slitted handkerchiefs, broke through the shin-oak just as Arthur whipped up his gun. The hammer fell once—twice, but no explosion followed. With two forty-fives covering him, Ridley, white to the lips, dropped his harmless weapon.
Moore came to life with sleepy eyes, but he was taken at a disadvantage, and with a smothered oath handed over his revolver.
"Wha-what do you want?" asked Ridley, his teeth chattering.
The shorter of the two outlaws, a stocky man with deep chest and extraordinarily broad shoulders, growled an answer.
"We want that money of Clint Wadley's you're packin'."
The camp-fire had died to ashes, and the early-morning air was chill. Arthur felt himself trembling so that his hands shook. A prickling of the skin went goose-quilling down his back. In the dim light those masked figures behind the businesslike guns were sinister with the threat of mystery and menace.
"I—haven't any money," he quavered.
"You'd better have it, young fellow, me lad!" jeered the tall bandit. "We're here strictly for business. Dig up."
"I don't reckon he's carryin' any money for Clint," Moore argued mildly. "Don't look reasonable that an old-timer like Clint, who knocked the bark off'n this country when I was still a kid, would send a tenderfoot to pack gold 'cross country for him."
The tall man swung his revolver on Moore. "'Nuff from you," he ordered grimly.
The heavy-set outlaw did not say a word. He moved forward and pressed the cold rim of his forty-five against the forehead of the messenger. The fluttering heart of the young man beat hard against his ribs. His voice stuck in his throat, but he managed to gasp a surrender.
"It's in my belt. For God's sake, don't shoot."
"Gimme yore belt."
The boy unbuckled the ribbon of hogskin beneath his shirt and passed it to the man behind the gun. The outlaw noticed that his fingers were cold and clammy.
"Stand back to back," commanded the heavy man.
Deftly he swung a rope over the heads of his captives, jerked it tight, wound it about their bodies, knotted it here and there, and finished with a triple knot where their heels came together.
"That'll hold 'em hitched a few minutes," the lank man approved after he had tested the rope.
"I'd like to get a lick at you fellows. I will, too, some day," mentioned Moore casually.
"When you meet up with us we'll be there," retorted the heavy-weight. "Let's go, Steve."
The long man nodded. "Adios, boys."
"See you later, and when I meet up with you, it'll be me 'n' you to a finish," the Texan called.
The thud of the retreating, hoofs grew faint and died. Already Moore was busy with the rope that tied them together.
"What's the matter, kid? You shakin' for the drinks? Didn't you see from the first we weren't in any danger? If they'd wanted to harm us, they could have shot us from the brush. How much was in that belt?"
"Six thousand dollars," the boy groaned.
"Well, it doesn't cost you a cent. Cheer up, son."
By this time Moore had both his arms free and was loosening one of the knots.
"I was in charge of it. I'll never dare face Mr. Wadley."
"Sho! It was his own fault. How in Mexico come he to send a boy to market for such a big stake?"
"Nobody was to have known what I came for. I don't see how it got out."
"Must 'a' been a leak somewhere. Don't you care. Play the hand that's dealt you and let the boss worry. Take it from me, you're lucky not to be even powder-burnt when a shot from the chaparral might have done yore business."
"If you only hadn't fallen asleep!"
"Reckon I dozed off. I was up 'most all last night." Moore untied the last knot and stepped out from the loop. "I'm goin' to saddle the broncs. You ride in to Tascosa and tell Wadley. I'll take up the trail an' follow it while it's warm. We'll see if a pair of shorthorns can run a sandy like that on me." He fell suddenly into the violent, pungent speech of the mule-skinner.
"I'll go with you," announced Ridley. He had no desire to face Clint Wadley with such a lame tale.
The cold eyes of the Texan drilled into his. "No, you won't. You'll go to town an' tell the old man what's happened. Tell him to send his posse across the malpais toward the rim-rock. I'll meet him at Two Buck Crossin' with any news I've got."
A quarter of an hour later the hoofs of his horse flung back faint echoes from the distance. The boy collapsed. His head sank into his hands and his misery found vent in sobs.
Long since the sun had slid behind the horizon edge and given place to a desert night of shimmering moonlight and far stars. From the enchanted mesa Rutherford Wadley descended to a valley draw in which were huddled a score of Mexican jacals, huts built of stakes stuck in a trench, roofed with sod and floored with mud. Beyond these was a more pretentious house. Originally it had been a log "hogan," but a large adobe addition had been constructed for a store. Inside this the dance was being held.
Light filtered through the chinks in the mud. From door and windows came the sounds of scraping fiddles and stamping feet. The singsong voice of the caller and the occasional whoop of a cowboy punctuated the medley of noises.
A man whose girth would have put Falstaff to shame greeted Rutherford wheezily. "Fall off and 'light, Ford. She's in full swing and the bridle's off."
The man was Jumbo Wilkins, line-rider for the A T O.
Young Wadley swung to the ground. He did not trouble to answer his father's employee. It was in little ways like this that he endeared himself to those at hand, and it was just this spirit that the democratic West would not tolerate. While the rider was tying his horse to the hitch-rack, Jumbo Wilkins, who was a friendly soul, made another try at conversation.
"Glad you got an invite. Old man Cobb hadn't room for everybody, so he didn't make his bid wide open."
The young man jingled up the steps. "That so? Well, I didn't get an invite, as you call it. But I'm here." He contrived to say it so offensively that Jumbo flushed with anger.
Wadley sauntered into the room and stood for a moment by the door. His trim, graceful figure and dark good looks made him at once a focus of eyes. Nonchalantly he sunned himself in the limelight, with that little touch of swagger that captures the imagination of girls. No man in the cow-country dressed like Rutherford Wadley. In the kingdom of the blind the one-eyed are kings, and to these frontier women this young fellow was a glass of fashion. There was about him, too, a certain dash, a spice of the devil more desirable in a breaker of hearts than any mere beauty.
His bold, possessive eyes ranged over the room to claim what they might desire. He had come to the dance at Tomichi Creek to make love to Tony Alviro's betrothed sweetheart Bonita.
She was in the far corner with her little court about her. If Bonita was a flirt, it must be admitted she was a charming one. No girl within a day's ride was so courted as she. Compact of fire and passion, brimming with life and health, she drew men to her as the flame the moth.
Presently the music started. Bonita, in the arms of Tony, floated past Rutherford, a miracle of supple lightness. A flash of soft eyes darted at the heir of the A T O ranch. In them was a smile adorable and provocative.
As soon as the dance was over, Wadley made his way indolently toward her. He claimed the next waltz.
She had promised it to Tony, the girl said—and the next.
"Tony can't close-herd you," laughed Rutherford. "His title ain't clear yet—won't be till the priest has said so. You'll dance the second one with me, Bonita."
"We shall see, senor," she mocked.
But the Mexican blood in the girl beat fast. In her soft, liquid eyes lurked the hunger for sex adventure. And this man was a prince of the blood—the son of Clint Wadley, the biggest cattleman in West Texas.
There were challenging stars of deviltry in Bonita's eyes when they met those of Rutherford over the shoulder of Alviro while she danced, but the color was beating warm through her dark skin. The lift of her round, brown throat to an indifferent tilt of the chin was mere pretense. The languorous passion of the South was her inheritance, and excitement mounted in her while she kept time to the melodious dance.
Alviro was master of ceremonies, and Wadley found his chance while the young Mexican was of necessity away from Bonita. Rutherford bowed to her with elaborate mockery.
"Come. Let us walk in the moonlight, sweetheart," he said.
Bonita turned to him with slow grace. The eyes of the man and the woman met and fought. In hers there was a kind of savage fierceness, in his an insolent confidence.
"No," she answered.
"Ah! You're afraid of me—afraid to trust yourself with me," he boasted.
She was an untutored child of the desert, and his words were a spur to her quick pride. She rose at once, her bosom rising and falling fast. She would never confess that—never.
The girl walked beside him with the fluent grace of youth, beautiful as a forest fawn. In ten years she would be fat and slovenly like her Mexican mother, but now she carried her slender body as a queen is supposed to but does not. Her heel sank into a little patch of mud where some one had watered a horse. Under the cottonwoods she pulled up her skirt a trifle and made a moue of disgust at the soiled slipper.
"See what you've done!" Small, even teeth, gleamed in a coquettish smile from the ripe lips of the little mouth. He understood that he was being invited to kneel and clean the mud-stained shoe.
"If you're looking for a doormat to wipe your feet on, I'll send for Tony," he jeered.
The father of Bonita was Anglo-Saxon. She flashed anger at his presumption.
"Don't you think it. Tony will never be a doormat to anybody. Be warned, senor, and do not try to take what is his."
Again their eyes battled. Neither of them saw a man who had come out from the house and was watching them from the end of the porch.
"I take what the gods give, my dear, and ask leave of no man," bragged Wadley.
"Ah! That is different. When the woman is Bonita, muchacha, I am her slave."
He dropped to one knee and with his handkerchief wiped the mud from the heel of her slipper. For a moment his fingers touched lightly the trim little ankle; then he rose quickly and caught her in his arms.
"Sometime—soon—it's going to be me and you, sweetheart," he whispered.
"Don't," she begged, struggling against herself and him. "If Tony sees—"
His passion was too keen-edged to take warning. He kissed her lips and throat and eyes. The eyes of the watcher never wavered. They were narrowed to shining slits of jet.
"Why do you come and—and follow me?" the girl cried softly. "It is not that you do not know Tony is jealous. This is not play with him. He loves me and will fight for me. You are mad."
"For love of you!" he laughed triumphantly.
She knew he lied. The instinct that served her for a conscience had long since told her as much. But her vanity, and perhaps something deeper, craved satisfaction. She wanted to believe he meant it. Under his ardent gaze the long lashes of the girl drooped to her dusky cheeks. It was Tony she loved, but Tony offered her only happiness and not excitement.
A moment later she gave a startled little cry and pushed herself free. Her dilated eyes were fixed on something behind the cattleman.
Rutherford, warned by her expression, whirled on his heel.
Tony Alviro, knife in hand, was close upon him. Wadley lashed out hard with his left and caught the Mexican on the point of the chin.
The blow lifted Tony from his feet and flung him at full length to the ground. He tried to rise, groaned—rolled over.
Bonita was beside him in an instant. From where she knelt, with Tony's dark head in her arms pressed close to her bosom, she turned fiercely on Wadley.
"I hate you, dog of a gringo! You are all one big lie through and through—what they call bad egg—no good!"
Already half a dozen men were charging from the house. Jumbo pinned Wadley's arms by the elbows to prevent him from drawing a revolver.
"What's the rumpus?" he demanded.
"The fellow tried to knife me in the back," explained Rutherford. "Jealous, because I took his girl."
"So?" grunted Wilkins. "Well, you'd better light a shuck out o' here. You came on yore own invite. You can go on mine."
"Why should I go? I'll see you at Tombstone first."
"Why?" Jumbo's voice was no longer amiable and ingratiating. "Because you gave Tony a raw deal, an' he's got friends here. Have you?"
Wadley looked round and saw here and there Mexican faces filled with sullen resentment. It came to him swiftly that this was no place for his father's son to linger.
"I don't push my society on any one," he said haughtily. "If I ain't welcome, I'll go. But I serve notice right here that any one who tries to pull a knife on me will get cold lead next time."
Jumbo, with his arm tucked under that of Wadley, led the way to the house. He untied the rein of Rutherford's horse and handed it to the son of his boss.
"Vamos!" he said.
The young man pulled himself to the saddle. "You're a hell of a friend," he snarled.
"Who said anything about bein' a friend? I'm particular about when I use that word," replied Wilkins evenly, with hard eyes.
Wadley's quirt burned the flank of the cow-pony and it leaped for the road.
When five minutes later some one inquired for Tony he too had disappeared.
RUTHERFORD MAKES A MISTAKE
Rutherford Wadley struck across country toward the rim-rock. Anger burned high in him, and like the bully he was he took it out of his good horse by roweling its sides savagely. He plunged into the curly mesquite, driving forward straight as an arrow. Behind him in the darkness followed a shadow, sinister and silent, out of sight, but within sound of the horse's footfall. It stopped when Wadley stopped; when he moved, it moved.
Midnight found young Wadley still moving straight forward, the moon on his left. Painted Rock was ten miles to the west. Except for the stage station there, and the settlement he had left, there was no other habitation for fifty miles. It was a wilderness of silence.
Yet in that waste of empty space Rutherford "jumped up" a camper. The man was a trader, carrying honey and pecans to Fort Worth. He was awakened by the sound of a raucous curse, he testified later, and in the bright moonlight saw the young cattleman beating his horse. Evidently the young animal had been startled at sight of his white-topped wagon.
An angry sentence or two passed between the men before the cattleman moved over the hill-brow. As the trader rolled up again in his sugun, there came to him faintly the sound of another horse. He was not able to explain later why this struck him as ominous, beyond the strangeness of the fact that two men, not in each other's company, should be traveling so close together in the desert. At any rate, he rose, crept forward to a clump of Spanish bayonet, and from behind it saw a young Mexican pass along the swale. He was close enough almost to have touched him, and in the rich moonlight saw the boyish face clearly.
By the time Wadley reached the rough country of the cap-rock, the young day was beginning to awaken. A quail piped its morning greeting from the brush. A gleam of blue in the dun sky flashed warning of a sun soon to rise. He had struck the rim-rock a little too far to the right, and deflected from his course to find the pocket he was seeking. For half a mile he traveled parallel to the ridge, then turned into a break in the wall. At the summit of a little rise he gave a whistle.
Presently, from above a big boulder, a head appeared cautiously.
"Hello, out there! Who is it?"
The rider swung to the ground stiffly and led his horse forward down a sharply descending path to a little draw. A lank, sallow man with a rifle joined him. With his back to a flat rock, a heavy-set, broad-shouldered fellow was lounging.
"'Lo, Ford. Didn't expect you to-night," he grumbled.
"Drifted over from the dance at Tomichi Creek. Beat up a young Mexican and had to get out."
"You're such a sullen brute! Why can't you let folks alone?" Pete Dinsmore wanted to know.
He was annoyed. Rutherford Wadley was not a partner in the business on hand to-night, and he would rather the man had been a hundred miles away.
"He got jealous and tried to knife me," explained the heir of the A T O sulkily.
"You durn fool! Won't you ever learn sense? Who was it this time?"
"Tony Alviro. His girl's crazy about me."
The keen, hard eyes of Dinsmore took in the smug complacency of the handsome young cad. He knew that this particular brand of fool would go its own way, but he wasted a word of advice.
"I don't guess you want any pearls o' wisdom from me, but I'll onload some gratis. You let Bonita Menendez alone or Tony will camp on yore trail till he gits you."
"Sure will," agreed Gurley, setting down his rifle. "Them Mexicans hang together, too. We need their friendship in our business. Better lay off them."
"I don't remember askin' your advice, Gurley."
"Well, I'm givin' it. See?"
Another sharp whistle cut the air. Gurley picked up the rifle again and climbed the lookout rock. Presently he returned with a dismounted horseman. The man was the one who had introduced himself to Arthur Ripley a few hours earlier as Bill Moore.
"Howdy, boys. Got the stuff all safe?" he asked cheerfully.
From behind Wadley Pete Dinsmore was making a series of facial contortions. Unfortunately the new arrival did not happen to be looking at him, and so missed the warning.
"Never saw anything work prettier," Moore said with a grin as he put down his saddle on a boulder. "Ridley hadn't ought to be let out without a nurse. He swallowed my whole yarn—gobbled down bait, sinker an' line. Where's the gold, Pete?"
"In a sack back of the big rock." Pete was disgusted with his brother Homer, alias Bill Moore. They would probably have to divide with young Wadley now, to keep his mouth shut.
Rutherford jumped at the truth. His father had told him that he was going to give Art Ridley a try-out by sending him to the fort for a payment of gold. Probably he, Rutherford, had mentioned this to one of the gang when he was drunk. They had held up the messenger, intending to freeze him out of any share of the profits. All right—he would show them whether he was a two-spot.
"Bring out the sack. Let's have a look at it," he ordered.
Gurley handed the sack to Pete Dinsmore, and the men squatted in a circle tailor-fashion.
"Smooth work, I call it," said Homer Dinsmore. He explained to Wadley why he was of this opinion. "Steve heard tell of a wagon-train goin' to Tascosa to-day. If Ridley slept overnight at the fort he would hear of it an' stay with the freight outfit till he had delivered the gold to yore dad. We had to get him started right away. So I pulled on him a story about hearin' the boys intended to hold him up. He hired me as a guard to help him stand off the bad men. Whilst I was keepin' watch I fixed up his six-shooter so's it wouldn't do any damage if it went off. Best blamed piece of work I ever did pull off. I'd ought to get a half of what we took off'n him instead of a third."
"A third! Who says you get a third?" asked Wadley.
"Three of us did this job, didn't we?" cut in Gurley.
"Sure. You took what belongs to me—or at least to my dad," protested young Wadley. "Tried to slip one over on me. Guess again, boys. I won't stand for it."
The jade eyes of the older brother narrowed. "Meanin' just what, Ford?"
"What do you take me for, Pete? Think I'm goin' to let you rob me of my own money an' never cheep? I'll see you all in blazes first," cried Wadley wildly.
"Yes, but—just what would you do about it?"
"Do? I'll ride to town an' tell Cap Ellison. I'll bust you up in business, sure as hell's hot."
There was a moment of chill silence. Three of the four men present knew that Rutherford Wadley had just passed sentence of death upon himself. They had doubted him before, vaguely, and without any definite reason. But after this open threat the fear that he would betray them would never lift until he was where he could no longer tell tales.
"How much of this money do you think is comin' to you, Ford?" asked Pete quietly.
"It's all mine, anyhow. You boys know that." Rutherford hesitated; then his greed dominated. He had them where they had to eat out of his hand. "Give me two thirds, an' you fellows divide the other third for your trouble. That's fair."
"Goddlemighty, what's eatin' you?" Gurley exploded. "Think we're plumb idjits? You 'n' me will mix bullets first, you traitor!"
The Dinsmores exchanged one long, significant look. Then Pete spoke softly.
"Don't get on the prod, Steve. Ford sure has got us where the wool's short, but I reckon he aims to be reasonable. Let's say half for you, Ford, an' the other half divided among the rest of us."
Wadley had refreshed himself out of a bottle several times during the night. Ordinarily he would have accepted the proposed compromise, but the sullen and obstinate side of him was uppermost.
"You've heard my terms, Pete. I stand pat."
Again a significant look passed, this time between Pete Dinsmore and Gurley.
"All right," said Homer Dinsmore shortly. "It's a raw deal you're givin' us, but I reckon you know yore own business, Wadley."
The money was emptied from the pigskin belt and divided. Rutherford repacked his two thirds in the belt and put it on next his shirt.
"I don't know what you fellows are goin' to do, but I'm goin' to strike for town," he said. "I aim to get back in time to join one of the posses in their hunt for the outlaws."
His jest did not win any smiles. The men grimly watched him saddle and ride away. A quarter of an hour later they too were in the saddle.
MURDER IN THE CHAPARRAL
To Jack Roberts, engaged at the Delmonico restaurant in the serious business of demolishing a steak smothered in onions, came Pedro Menendez with a strange story of a man lying dead in the rim-rock, a bullet-hole in the back of his head.
The Mexican vaquero came to his news haltingly. He enveloped it in mystery. There was a dead man lying at the foot of Battle Butte, out in the rim-rock country, and there was this wound in the back of his head. That was all. Pedro became vague at once as to detail. He took refuge in shrugs and a poor memory when the Ranger pressed him in regard to the source of his information.
Roberts knew the ways of the Mexicans. They would tell what they wanted to tell and no more. He accepted the news given him and for the moment did not push his questions home.
For twenty-four hours the Ranger had been in the saddle, and he was expecting to turn in for a round-the-clock sleep. But Pedro's tale changed his mind. Captain Ellison was at Austin, Lieutenant Hawley at Tascosa. Regretfully Roberts gave up his overdue rest and ordered another cup of strong coffee. Soon he was in the saddle again with a fresh horse under him.
The Panhandle was at its best. Winter snows and spring rains had set it blooming. The cacti were a glory of white, yellow, purple, pink, and scarlet blossoms. The white, lilylike flowers of the Spanish bayonet flaunted themselves everywhere. Meadowlarks chirruped gayly and prairie-hens fluttered across the path in front of the rider.
Battle Butte had received its name from an old tradition of an Indian fight. Here a party of braves had made a last stand against an overwhelming force of an enemy tribe. It was a flat mesa rising sharply as a sort of bastion from the rim-rock. The erosions of centuries had given it an appearance very like a fort.
Jack skirted the base of the butte. At the edge of a clump of prickly pear he found the evidence of grim tragedy which the circling buzzards had already warned him to expect. He moved toward it very carefully, in order not to obliterate any footprints. The body lay face down in a huddled heap, one hand with outstretched finger reaching forth like a sign-post. A bullet-hole in the back of the head showed how the man had come to his death. He had been shot from behind.
The Ranger turned the body and recognized it as that of Rutherford Wadley. The face was crushed and one of the arms broken. It was an easy guess that the murder had been done on the butte above and the body flung down.
Jack, on all fours, began to quarter over the ground like a bloodhound seeking a trail. Every sense in him seemed to quicken to the hunt. His alert eyes narrowed in concentration. His fingertips, as he crept forward, touched the sand soft as velvet. His body was tense as a coiled spring. No cougar stalking its prey could have been more lithely wary.
For the Ranger had found a faint boot-track, and with amazing pains he was following this delible record of guilt. Some one had come here and looked at the dead body. Why? To make sure that the victim was quite dead? To identify the victim? Roberts did not know why, but he meant to find out.
The footprint was alone. Apparently none led to it or led from it. On that one impressionable spot alone had been written the signature of a man's presence.
But "Tex" Roberts was not an old plainsman for nothing. He knew that if he were patient enough he would find other marks of betrayal.
He found a second track—a third, and from them determined a course to follow. It brought him to a stretch of soft ground at the edge of a wash. The footprints here were sharp and distinct. They led up an arroyo to the bluff above.
The Ranger knelt dose to the most distinct print and studied it for a long time. All its details and peculiarities were recorded in his mind. The broken sole, the worn heel, the beveled edge of the toe-cap—all these fastened themselves in his memory. With a tape-line he measured minutely the length of the whole foot, of the sole and of the heel. These he jotted down in his notebook, together with cross-sections of width. He duplicated this process with the best print he could find of the left foot.
His investigation led him next to the summit of the bluff. A little stain of blood on a rock showed him where Wadley had probably been standing when he was shot. The murder might have been done by treachery on the part of one of his companions. If so, probably the bullet had been fired from a revolver. In that case the man who did it would have made sure by standing close behind his victim. This would have left powder-marks, and there had been none around the wound. The chances were that the shooting had been done from ambush, and if this was a true guess, it was a fair deduction that the assassin had hidden behind the point of rocks just back of the bluff. For he could reach that point by following the rim-rock without being seen by his victim.
Roberts next studied the ground just back of the point of rocks. The soil here was of disintegrated granite, so that there were no footprints to betray anybody who might have been hidden there. But Jack picked up something that was in its way as decisive as what he had been seeking. It was a cartridge that had been ejected from a '73 rifle. The harmless bit of metal in his hand was the receptacle from which death had flashed across the open toward Ford Wadley.
At the foot of the rim-rock the Ranger found signs where horses had been left. He could not at first make sure whether there were three or four. From that spot he back-tracked for miles along the edge of the rim-rock till he came to the night-camp where Wadley had met the outlaws. This, too, he studied for a long time.
He had learned a good deal, but he did not know why Ford Wadley had been shot. The young fellow had not been in Texas more than six or eight months, and he could not have made many enemies. If he had nothing about him worth stealing—and in West Texas men were not in the habit of carrying valuables—the object could not have been robbery.
He rode back to Battle Butte and carried to town with him the body of the murdered man. There he heard two bits of news, either of which might serve as a cause for the murder: Young Wadley had quarreled with Tony Alviro at a dance and grossly insulted him; Arthur Ridley had been robbed of six thousand dollars by masked men while on his way to Tascosa.
Ranger Roberts decided that he would like to have a talk with Tony.
[Footnote 1: The '73 rifle was not a seventy-three-caliber weapon, but was named from the year it was got out. Its cartridges could be used for a forty-four revolver.]
"A DAMNED POOR APOLOGY FOR A MAN"
The big cattleman from New Mexico who was talking with the owner of the A T O threw his leg across the arm of the chair. "The grass is good on the Pecos this year. Up in Mexico the cattle look fine."
"Same here," agreed Wadley. "I'm puttin' ten thousand yearlin's on the Canadian."
A barefoot negro boy appeared at his elbow with a note. The owner of the A T O ripped open the envelope and read:
Dear Mr. Wadley:
I was held up last night by masked men and robbed. They took the gold. I'm too sick to go farther. Arthur Ridley.
The jaw of the Texas cattleman clamped. He rose abruptly. "I got business on hand. A messenger of mine has been robbed of six thousand dollars." He turned to the colored boy. "Where's the man who gave you this?"
"At the Buffalo Corral, sah."
Wadley strode from the hotel, flung himself on a horse, and galloped down the street toward the corral.
Young Ridley was lying on a pile of hay when his employer entered. His heart was sick with fear and worry. For he knew now that his lack of boldness had led him into a serious mistake. He had by his indecision put himself in the power of Moore, and the chances were that the man was in collusion with the gang that had held him up. He had made another mistake in not going directly to Wadley with the news. The truth was that he had not the nerve to face his employer. It was quite on the cards that the old-timer might use a blacksnake whip on him. So he had taken refuge in a plea of illness.
The cattleman took one look at him and understood. He reached down and jerked the young fellow from the hay as if he had been a child. The stomach muscles of the boy contracted with fear and the heart died within him. Clint Wadley in anger was dangerous. In his youth he had been a gun-fighter and the habit had never entirely been broken.
"I—I'm ill," the young fellow pleaded.
"You'll be sure enough ill if you don't watch out. I'll gamble on that. Onload yore tale like shot off'n a shovel. Quit yore whinin'. I got no time for it."
Arthur told his story. The cattleman fired at him crisp, keen questions. He dragged from the trembling youth the when, where, and how of the robbery. What kind of pilgrim was this fellow Moore? Was he tall? Short? Dark? Bearded? Young? Old? What were the masked men like? Did they use any names? Did he see their horses? Which way did they go?
The messenger made lame answers. Mostly he could only say, "I don't know."
"You're a damned poor apology for a man—not worth the powder to blow you up. You hadn't the sand to fight for the money entrusted to you, nor the nerve to face me after you had lost it. Get out of here. Vamos! Don't ever let me hear yore smooth, glib tongue again."
The words of Wadley stung like hail. Arthur was thin-skinned; he wanted the good opinion of all those with whom he came in contact, and especially that of this man. Like a whipped cur he crept away and hid himself in the barn loft, alone with his soul-wounds.
From its window he watched the swift bustle of preparation for the pursuit. Wadley himself, big and vigorous to the last masculine inch of him, was the dominant figure. He gave curt orders to the members of the posse, arranged for supplies to be forwarded to a given point, and outlined plans of action. In the late afternoon the boy in the loft saw them ride away, a dozen lean, long-bodied men armed to the limit. With all his heart the watcher wished he could be like one of them, ready for any emergency that the rough-and-tumble life of the frontier might develop.
In every fiber of his jarred being he was sore. He despised himself for his failure to measure up to the standard of manhood demanded of him by his environment. Twice now he had failed. The memory of his first failure still scorched his soul. During ghastly hours of many nights he had lived over that moment when he had shown the white feather before Ramona Wadley. He had run for his life and left her alone to face a charging bull. It was no excuse to plead with himself that he could have done nothing for her if he had stayed. At least he could have pushed her to one side and put himself in the path of the enraged animal. The loss of the money was different. It had been due not wholly to lack of nerve, but in part at least to bad judgment. Surely there was something to be said for his inexperience. Wadley ought not to have sent him alone on such an errand, though of course he had sent him because he was the last man anybody was likely to suspect of carrying treasure....
Late that night Ridley crept out, bought supplies, saddled his horse, and slipped into the wilderness. He was still writhing with self- contempt. There was a futile longing in his soul for oblivion to blot out his misery.
[Footnote 2: In western Texas when one speaks of Mexico he means New Mexico. If he refers to the country Mexico, he says Old Mexico.]
ONE TO FOUR
Through the great gray desert with its freakish effects of erosion a rider had moved steadily in the hours of star-strewn darkness. He had crossed the boundary of that No Man's Land which ran as a neutral strip between Texas and its neighbor and was claimed by each. Since the courts had as yet recognized the rights of neither litigant there was properly no State jurisdiction here. Therefore those at outs with the law fled to this strip and claimed immunity.
In the Panhandle itself law was a variable quantity. Its counties had been laid out and named, but not organized. For judicial purposes they were attached to Wheeler County. Even the Rangers did not pretend to police this district. When they wanted a man they went in and got him.
The rider swung at last from his saddle and dropped the bridle reins to the ground. He crept forward to some long, flat sheep-sheds that bulked dimly in the night shadows. Farther back, he could just make out the ghost of a dwelling-hut. Beyond that, he knew, was a Mexican village of three or four houses. A windmill reared its gaunt frame in the corral. A long trough was supplied by it with water for the sheep.
The night-rider dipped a bucket of water from the tank that fed the trough. He carried it to the gate of the corral and poured it slowly into the fine dust made by the sharp feet of the sheep, mixing the water and dust to a thick paste with the end of an old branding-iron. He brought bucket after bucket of water until he had prepared a bed of smooth mud of the proper consistency.
Before he had quite finished his preparation a dog inside the adobe hut began to bark violently. The interloper slipped over the fence and retreated to the darkness of the barranca.
From the direction of the hut men poured. The one crouching in the chaparral heard voices. He made out a snatch or two of talk in Spanish. The men were explaining to themselves that the dog must have been barking at a wolf or a coyote. Presently they trooped back into the house. Silence fell again over the night.
The man in the chaparral once more crept forward and climbed the fence. He made straight for the entrance of the corral. Carefully he examined the footprints written in the bed of mud he had prepared. One after another he studied them. Some had been crossed out or blotted by subsequent prints, but a few were perfect. One of these he scrutinized for a long time, measuring its dimensions with a tape-line from toe to heel, across the ball of the foot, the instep, and the heel. When at last he straightened up his eyes were shining with satisfaction. He had found what he wanted.