THE HEART OF THE RANGE
BY WILLIAM PATTERSON WHITE
"The Rider of Golden Bar," "Hidden Trails," "Lynch Lawyers," "The Owner of the Lazy D," "Paradise Bend," etc.
A GOOD HORSE AND A BETTER FRIEND
I. THE HORSE THIEF
II. THE YELLOW DOG
III. THE TALL STRANGER
IV. THE OLD LADY
VI. CHANGE OF PLAN
VII. THE RIDDLE
VIII. THE STARLIGHT
IX. THROWING SAND
X. THE BACK PORCH
XI. THE LOOKOUT
XII. THE DISCOVERY
XIII. A BOLD BAD MAN
XIV. THE SURPRISE
XV. FIRE! FIRE!
XVI. THE BAR S
XVII. SIGNED PAPER
XVIII. THE SHOWDOWN
XIX. THE SHOOTING
XX. DRAWING THE COVER
XXI. GONE AWAY
XXII. A CHECK
XXIII. TAKING FENCES
XXVI. THE QUARREL
XXVIII. THE LETTERS
XXIX. HUE AND CRY
XXX. THE REGISTER
XXXI. THE LAST TRICK
XXXII. THE END OF THE TRAIL
THE HEART OF THE RANGE
THE HORSE THIEF
It was a warm summer morning in the town of Farewell. Save a dozen horses tied to the hitching-rail in front of various saloons and the Blue Pigeon Store and Bill Lainey, the fat landlord of the hotel, who sat snoring in a reinforced telegraph chair on the sidewalk in the shade of his wooden awning, Main Street was a howling wilderness.
Dust overlay everything. It had not rained in weeks. In the blacksmith shop, diagonally across the street from the hotel, Piney Jackson was shoeing a mule. The mule was invisible, but one knew it was a mule because Piney Jackson has just come out and taken a two-by-four from the woodpile behind the shop. And it was a well-known fact that Piney never used a two-by-four on any animal other than a mule. But this by the way.
In the barroom of the Happy Heart Saloon there were only two customers and the bartender. One of the former, a brown-haired, sunburnt young man with ingenuous blue eyes, was singing:
"Jog on, jog on, the footpath way, An' merrily jump the stile O! Yore cheerful heart goes all the day, Yore sad tires in a mile O!"
Mr. Racey Dawson, having successfully sung the first verse, rested both elbows on the bar and grinned at the bartender. That worthy grinned back, and, knowing Mr. Dawson, slid the bottle along the bar.
"Have one yoreself, Bill," Mr. Dawson nodded to the bartender. "Whu—where's Swing? Oh, yeah."
Mr. Dawson, head up, chest out, stepping high, and walking very stiffly as befitted a gentleman somewhat over-served with liquor, crossed the barroom to where bristle-haired Swing Tunstall sat on a chair and slumbered, his head on his arms and his arms on a table.
Mr. Dawson stooped and blew into Mr. Tunstall's right ear. Mr. Tunstall began to snore gently. Growing irritated by this continued indifference on the part of Mr. Tunstall, Mr. Dawson seized the chair by rung and back and incontinently dumped Mr. Tunstall all abroad on the saloon floor.
Mr. Tunstall promptly hitched himself into a corner and drifted deeper into slumber.
Mr. Dawson turned a perplexed face on the bartender.
"Now what you gonna do with a feller like that?" Mr. Dawson asked, plaintively.
Mr. Jack Richie, manager of the Cross-in-a-box ranch, entering at the moment, temporarily diverted Mr. Dawson's attention. For Mr. Dawson had once ridden for the Cross-in-a-box outfit. Hence he was moved literally to fall upon the neck of Mr. Richie.
"Lean on yore own breakfast," urged Mr. Richie, studiously dissembling his joy at sight of his old friend, and carefully steering Mr. Dawson against the bar. "Here, I know what you need. Drink hearty, Racey."
"'S'on me," declared Mr. Dawson. "Everythin's on me. I gug-got money, I have, and I aim to spend it free an' plenty, 'cause there's more where I'm goin'. An' I ain't gonna earn it punchin' cows, neither."
"Don't do anything rash," Mr. Richie advised, and took advantage of a friend's privilege to be insulting. "I helped lynch a road-agent only last month."
"Which the huh-holdup business is too easy for a live man," opined Mr. Dawson. "We want somethin' mum-more diff-diff-diff'cult, me an' Swing do, so we're goin' to Arizona where the gold grows. No more wrastlin' cows. No more hard work for us. We're gonna get rich quick, we are. What you laughin' at?"
"I never laugh," denied Mr. Richie. "When yo're stakin' out claims don't forget me."
"We won't," averred Mr. Dawson, solemnly. "Le's have another."
They had another—several others.
The upshot was that when Mr. Richie (who was the lucky possessor of a head that liquor did not easily affect) departed homeward at four P.M., he left behind him a sadly plastered Mr. Dawson.
Mr. Tunstall, of course, was still sleeping deeply and noisily. But Mr. Dawson had long since lost interest in Mr. Tunstall. It is doubtful whether he remembered that Mr. Tunstall existed. The two had begun their party immediately after breakfast. Mr. Tunstall had succumbed early, but Mr. Dawson had not once halted his efforts to make the celebration a huge success. So it is not a subject for surprise that Mr. Dawson, some thirty minutes after bidding Mr. Richie an affectionate farewell, should stagger out into the street and ride away on the horse of someone else.
The ensuing hours of the evening and the night were a merciful blank to Mr. Dawson. His first conscious thought was when he awoke at dawn on a side-hill, a sharp rock prodding him in the small of the back and the bridle-reins of his dozing horse wound round one arm. Only it was not his horse. His horse was a red roan. This horse was a bay. It wasn't his saddle, either.
"Where's my hoss?" he demanded of the world at large and sat up suddenly.
The sharp movement wrung a groan from the depths of his being. The loss of his horse was drowned in the pains of his aching head. Never was such all-pervading ache. He knew the top was coming off. He knew it. He could feel it, and then did—with his fingers. He groaned again.
His tongue was dry as cotton, and it hurt him to swallow. He stood up, but as promptly sat down. In a whisper—for speech was torture—he began to revile himself for a fool.
"I might have known it," was his plaint. "I had a feelin' when I took that last glass it was one too many. I never did know when to stop. I'd like to know how I got here, and where my hoss is, and who belongs to this one?"
He eyed the mount with disfavour. He had never cared for bays.
"An' that ain't much of a saddle, either," he went on with his soliloquy. "Cheap saddle—looks like a boy's saddle—an' a old saddle—bet Noah used one just like it—try to rope with that saddle an' you'd pull the horn to hellen gone. Wonder what's in that saddle-pocket."
He pulled himself erect slowly and tenderly. His knees were very shaky. His head throbbed like a squeezed boil, but—he wanted to learn what was in that saddle-pocket. Possibly he might obtain therein a clue to the horse's owner.
He slipped the strap of the pocket-flap, flipped it open, inserted his fingers, and drew forth a small package wrapped in newspaper and tied with the blue string affected by the Blue Pigeon Store in Farewell.
Mr. Dawson balanced the package on two fingers for a reflective instant, then he snapped the string and opened the package.
"Socks an' a undershirt," he said, disgustedly, and started to say more, but paused, for there was something queer about that undershirt. His head was still spinning, and his eyes were sandy, but he perceived quite plainly that there were narrow blue ribbons running round the neck of that undershirt. He unrolled the socks and found them much longer in the leg than the kind habitually worn by men. Mr. Dawson agitatedly dived his hand once more into the saddle-pocket. And this time he pulled out a tortoise-shell shuttle round which was wrapped several inches of lingerie edging. But Mr. Dawson did not call it lingerie edging. He called it tatting and swore again.
"That settles it," he said, cheerlessly. "I've stole some woman's cayuse."
THE YELLOW DOG
It was a chastened Racey Dawson that returned to Farewell. He went directly to the blacksmith shop.
"'Lo, Hoss Thief," was Piney Jackson's cheerful greeting.
"Whose is it?" demanded Racey Dawson, wiping his hot face. "Whose hoss have I stole?"
"Oh, you'll catch it," chuckled the humorous Piney. "Yep, you betcha. You've got a gall, you have. Camly prancing out of a saloon an' glooming onto a lady's hoss. What kind o' doin's is that, I'd like to know?"
"You blasted idjit!" cried the worried Racey. "Whose hoss is this?"
"I kind o' guessed maybe something disgraceful like this here would happen when I seen you and yore friend sashay into the Happy Heart. And the barkeep said you had two snifters and a glass o' milk, too. Honest, Racey, you'd oughta be more careful how you mix yore drinks."
"Don't try to be a bigger jack than you are," Racey adjured him in a tone that he strove to make contemptuous. "You think yo're awful funny—just too awful funny, don't you? I'm askin' you, you fish-faced ape, whose hoss this is I got here?"
"Don't you know?" grinned Piney, elevating both eyebrows. "Lordy, I wouldn't be in yore shoes for something. Nawsir. She'll snatch you baldheaded, she will. The old lady was wild when she come out an' found her good hoss missing. And she shore said what she thought of you some more when she seen she had to ride home on that old crow's dinner of a moth-eaten accordeen you left behind."
Racey Dawson was too reduced in spirit to properly take umbrage at this insult to his horse. He could only repeat his request that Piney make not of himself a bigger fool than usual. And when Piney did nothing but laugh immoderately, Racey grinned foolishly.
"If my head didn't ache so hard," he assured the chortling blacksmith, "I'd shore talk to you, but—Say, lookit here, Piney, quit yore foolin', will you? Who owns this hoss, anyway?"
"Here comes Kansas," said Piney. "Betcha five even he arrests you for a hoss thief."
"Gimme odds an' I'll go you," Racey returned, promptly.
"Even," stuck out Piney.
"Naw, he might do it. You Farewell jiggers hang together too hard for me to take any chances. 'Lo, Kansas."
"Howdy, Racey," nodded Kansas Casey, the deputy sheriff. "How long you been rustlin' hosses?"
"A damsight longer'n I like," Racey replied, frankly. "Who does own this hoss?"
"Y' oughta asked that question yesterday," said Kansas, severely, but with a twinkle in his black eyes that belied his tone. "This here would be mighty serious business for you if the Sheriff was in town. Jake's so particular about being legal an' all. Yessir, Racey, old-timer, I expect you'd spend some time in the calaboose—if you wasn't lynched previous."
"Don't scare the poor feller," pleaded Piney in a tone of deepest compassion. "He'll be cryin' in a minute."
"In a minute I'll be doing somethin' besides cry if you fellers don't stop yore funning. This here is past a joke, this is, and—"
"Shore it's past a joke," Kansas concurred, warmly, "an' I ain't funning, not for a minute. You go give that hoss back, Racey, or you'll be sorry."
"Well, for Gawd's sake tell me who to give it back to!" bawled Racey, and immediately batted his eyes and gingerly patted the back of his head.
"Head ache?" queried Kansas. "I expect it might after last night. You go give that hoss back like a good boy."
So saying Kansas Casey turned his back and retreated rapidly in the direction of the Starlight Saloon.
Racey Dawson glared vindictively after the departing deputy. Then he switched his angry blue eyes to the blacksmith's smiling countenance.
"You can all," said Racey Dawson, distinctly, "go plumb to hell."
He turned the purloined pony on a dime and loped up the street, followed by the ribald laughter of Piney Jackson.
"They think they're so terrible funny," Racey muttered, mournfully, as he dismounted and tied at the hitching rail in front of the Happy Heart. "Now if I can only find Swing—"
But Swing Tunstall, it appeared on consulting the bartender, had gone off hunting him (Racey). The latter did not appeal to the bartender to divulge the name of the horse's owner. He had, he believed, furnished the local populace sufficient amusement for one day. He had a small drink, for he felt that he needed a bracer, and with the liquor he imbibed inspiration.
Miss Blythe, Mike Flynn's partner in the Blue Pigeon Store! She would know whose horse it was, for certainly the horse's owner had bought the undershirt and the stockings at the Blue Pigeon. Furthermore, Miss Blythe looked like a right-minded individual. She would take no pleasure in devilling a man. Not she.
Racey Dawson set down his glass and hurried to the Blue Pigeon Store. Miss Blythe, at his entrance, ceased checking tomato cans and came forward.
"Ma'am," said Racey, "will you come to the door a minute? No, no, don't be scared!" he added as the lady drew back a step. "I'm kind of in trouble, an' I want you to help me out. I'm—my name's Racey Dawson, an' I used to ride for the Cross-in-a-box before I got a job up at the Bend. Jack Richie knows me. I ain't crazy—honest."
For Miss Blythe continued to look doubtful. "I—" she began.
"Lookit," he interrupted, "yesterday I got a heap drunk an' I rode off on somebody's hoss without meaning to—I mean I thought it was my hoss and it wasn't. An' I thought maybe you'd tell me who the hoss belongs to so's I can return him and get mine back. She took mine, they tell me. Not that I blame her a mite," he added, hastily.
Pretty Miss Blythe smiled suddenly. "I did hear something about a switch in horses yesterday afternoon," she admitted. "But I thought Mr. Flynn said Tom Dowling was the man's name. Certainly I remember you now, Mr. Dawson, although at first your—your beard—"
"Yeah, I know," he put in, hurriedly. "I ain't shaved since I left the Bend, and I slept mostly on my face last night, but it's li'l ol' me all right behind the whiskers and real estate. Yeah, that's the hoss yonder—the one next the pinto."
"I know the horse," said Miss Blythe, drawing back from the doorway. "It belongs to the Dales over at Medicine Spring on Soogan Creek."
"Oh, I know them," Racey declared, confidently (he had been at the Dales' precisely once). "The girl married Chuck Morgan. Shore, Mis' Dale's hoss, huh? I'll take it right back soon's I get shaved. I s'pose I'll have a jomightyful time explaining it to the old lady."
"It isn't the mother's horse. It's the daughter's. She was in town yesterday."
"You mean Chuck's wife, Mis' Morgan?"
"I mean Miss Molly Dale, the other daughter."
"I didn't know they had another daughter," puzzled Racey, thinking of what Piney Jackson had said anent an "old lady." "They must 'a' kept her in the background when I was there that time. What is she—a old maid?"
"Oh, middle-aged, perhaps," was the straight-faced reply.
"Shucks, I might have known it," grumbled Racey; "middle-aged old maid! I know what they're like. I had one once for a school-teacher. I can feel her lickings yet. She was the contrariest female I ever met. Shucks, I—Well, if I gotta, I gotta. Might's well get it over with now as later. Thanks, ma'am, for helping me out."
Racey Dawson shambled dejectedly forth to effect the feeding of Miss Molly Dale's horse at the hotel corral. For his own breakfast he went to Sing Luey's Canton Restaurant. Because while Bill Lainey offered no objections to feeding the horse, Mrs. Lainey utterly refused to provide snacks at odd hours for good-for-nothing, stick-a-bed punchers who were too lazy to eat at the regular meal-time. So there, now.
"But I ain't gonna shave," he told himself, as he disposed of fried steak and potatoes sloshed down by several cups of coffee. "If she's a old maid like they say it don't matter how tough I look."
He was reflectively stirring the grounds in the bottom of his sixth cup when a small and frightened yellow dog dashed into the restaurant and fled underneath Racey's table, where he cowered next to Racey's boots and cuddled a lop-eared head against Racey's knee.
Racey had barely time to glance down and discover that the yellow nondescript was no more than a pup when a burly youth charged into the restaurant and demanded in no uncertain tones to know where that adjective dog had hidden himself.
Racey took an instant dislike to the burly youth, still—it was his dog. And it is a custom of the country to let every man, as the saying is, skin his own deer. He that takes exception to this custom and horns in on what cannot rightfully be termed his particular business, will find public opinion dead against him and his journey unseasonably full of incident.
Racey moved a leg. "This him, stranger?"
The burly youth (it was evident that he was not wholly sober) glared at Racey Dawson. "Shore it's him!" he declared. "Whatell you hidin' him for? Get outa the way!"
Whereupon the burly youth advanced upon Racey.
This was different. Oh, quite. The burly youth had by his brusque manner and rude remarks included Racey in his (the burly youth's) business.
Racey met the burly youth rather more than halfway. He hit him so hard on the nose that the other flipped backward through the doorway and landed on his ear on the sidewalk.
Racey followed him out. The burly youth, bleeding copiously from the nose, sat up and fumbled uncertainly for his gun.
"No," said Racey with decision, aiming his sixshooter at the word. "You leave that gun alone, and lemme tell you, stranger, while we're together, that I want to buy that pup of yores. A gent like you ain't fit company for a self-respecting dog to associate with. Nawsir."
"You got the drop," grumbled the burly youth.
"Which is one on you," Racey observed, good-humouredly.
"Maybe I'll be seein' you again," suggested the other.
"Don't lemme see you first," advised Racey. "Never mind getting up. Just sit nice and quiet like a good boy, and keep the li'l hands spread out all so pretty with the thumbs locked over yore head. 'At's the boy. How much for yore dog, feller?"
"What you done to my dog?" A woman's voice broke on Racey's ears. But he did not remove his slightly narrowed eyes from the face of the burly youth.
"What you done to my dog?" The question was repeated, and the speaker came close to the burly youth and looked down at him. Now that the woman was within his range of vision Racey perceived that she was the Happy Heart lookout, a good-looking creature with brown hair and a lithe figure.
The girl's fists were clenched so tightly that her knuckles showed whitely against the pink. Two red spots flared on the white skin of her cheeks.
"Dam yore soul!" swore the lady. "I want my dog! How many tunes I gotta ask you, huh? Where is he? Say somethin', you dumb lump of slum gullion!"
"He ain't yore dog!" denied the burly youth. "He never was yores! He's mine, you—!"
Which last was putting it pretty strongly, even for the time, the place, and the girl. She promptly swung a brisk right toe, kicked the burly youth under the chin, and flattened him out.
"That'll learn you to call me names!" she snarled. "So long as I act like a lady, I'm a-gonna be treated like one, and I'll break the neck of the man who acts different, and you can stick a pin in that, you dirty-mouthed beast!"
Muttering profanely true to form, the aforementioned beast essayed to rise. But here again Racey and his ready gun held him to the ground in a sitting position.
"You leave her alone," commanded Racey. "You got what was coming to yuh. Let it go at that. The lady says it's her dog, anyway."
"It's my dog, I tell yuh! I—"
"Yo're a liar!" averred the girl. "You kicked the dog out when he was sick, and I took him in and tended him and got him well. If that don't make him my dog what does?"
"Correct," said Racey. "Call him."
The girl put two fingers in her mouth and whistled shrilly. Forth from the Canton came the dog on the jump and bounced into the girl's arms and began to lick her ear with despatch and enthusiasm.
"You see how it is," Racey indicated to the man on the ground. "It's the lady's dog. You can go now."
The burly youth stared stupidly.
"You heard what I said," Racey told him, impatiently. "G'on. Go some'ers else. Get outa here."
"Say," remarked the burly youth in what was intended to be a menacing growl, "this party ain't over yet."
"Ain't you been enough of a fool already to-day?" interrupted Racey. "You ain't asking for it, are you?"
"You can't run no blazer on me," denied the other, furiously.
Racey promptly holstered his sixshooter. "Now's yore best time," he said, quietly.
When the smoke cleared away there was a rent in the sleeve of Racey's shirt and the burly youth sat rocking his body to and fro and groaning through gritted teeth. For there was a red-hot hole in his right shoulder which hurt him considerably.
Racey Dawson gazed dumbly down at the muzzle of his sixshooter from which a slim curl of gray smoke spiralled lazily upward. Then his eyes veered to the man he had shot and to the man's sixshooter lying on the edge of the sidewalk. It, too, like his own gun, was thinly smoking at the muzzle. The burly youth put a hand to his shoulder. The fingers came away red. Racey was glad he had not killed him. He had not intended to. But accidents will happen.
He stepped forward and kicked the burly youth's discarded sixshooter into the middle of the street. He looked about him. The girl and her dog had vanished.
Kansas Casey had taken her place apparently. From windows and doorways along the street peered interested faces. One knew that they were interested despite their careful lack of all expression. It is never well to openly express approval of a shooting. The shooter undoubtedly has friends, and little breaches of etiquette are always remembered.
Racey Dawson looked at Kansas Casey and shoved his sixshooter down into its holster.
"It was an even break," announced Racey.
"Shore," Kansas nodded. "I seen it. There'll be no trouble—from us," he added, significantly.
The deputy sheriff knelt beside the wounded man. Racey Dawson went into the Happy Heart. He felt that he needed a drink. When he came out five minutes later the burly youth had been carried away. Remained a stain of dark red on the sidewalk where he had been sitting. Piggy Wadsworth, the plump owner of the dance-hall, legs widespread and arms akimbo, was inspecting the red stain thoughtfully. He was joined by the storekeeper, Calloway, and two other men. None of them was aware of Racey Dawson standing in front of the Happy Heart.
"Was it there?" inquired Calloway.
"Yeah," said Piggy. "Right there. I seen the whole fraycas. Racey stood here an'—"
At this point Racey Dawson went elsewhere.
THE TALL STRANGER
"You'll have to manage it yoreself." Lanpher, the manager of the 88 ranch, was speaking, and there was finality in his tone.
"You mean you don't wanna appear in the deal a-tall," sneered his companion.
Racey Dawson, who had been kneeling on the ground engaged in bandaging a cut from a kick on the near foreleg of the Dale pony when the two men led their horses into the corral, craned his neck past the pony's chest and glanced at Lanpher's tall companion. For the latter's words provoked curiosity. What species of deal was toward? Having ridden for Lanpher in the days preceding his employment by the Cross-in-a-box and consequently provided with many opportunities for studying the gentleman at arm's-length, Racey naturally assumed that the deal was a shady one. Personally, he believed Lanpher capable of anything. Which of course was unjust to the manager. His courage was not quite sufficient to hold him abreast of the masters in wickedness. But he was mean and cruel in a slimy way, and if left alone was prone to make life miserable for someone. Invariably the someone was incapable of proper defense. From Farewell to Marysville, throughout the length and breadth of the great Lazy River country, Lanpher was known unfavourably and disliked accordingly.
To his companion's sneering remark Lanpher made no intelligible reply. He merely grunted as he reached for the gate to pull it shut. His companion half turned (his back had from the first been toward Racey Dawson), and Racey perceived the cold and Roman profile of a long-jawed head. Then the man turned full in his direction and behold, the hard features vanished, and the man displayed a good-looking countenance of singular charm. The chin was a thought too wide and heavy, a trait it shared in common with the mouth, but otherwise the stranger's full face would have found favour in the eyes of almost any woman, however critical.
Racey Dawson, at first minded to reveal his presence in the corral, thought better of it almost immediately. While not by habit an eavesdropper he felt no shame in fortuitously overhearing anything Lanpher or the stranger might be moved to say. Lanpher merited no consideration under any circumstances, and the stranger, in appearance a similar breed of dog as far as morals went, certainly deserved no better treatment. So Racey remained quietly where he was, and was glad that besides the pony to whom he was ministering there were several others between him and the men at the gate.
"Why don't you wanna appear in this business?" persisted the stranger, pivoting on one heel in order to keep face to face with Lanpher.
"I gotta live here," was the Lanpher reply.
"Well, ain't I gotta live here, too, and I don't see anything round here to worry me. S'pose old Chin Whisker does go on the prod. What can he do?"
"'Tsall right," mumbled Lanpher, shutting the gate and shoving home the bar. "You don't know this country as well as I do. I got trouble enough running the 88 without borrowing any more."
"Now I told you I was gonna get his li'l ranch peaceable if I could. I got it all planned out. I don't do anything rough unless I gotto. But I'm gonna get old Chin Whisker out o' there, and you can stick a pin in that."
"'Tsall right. 'Tsall right. You wanna remember ol' Chin Whisker ain't the only hoss yo're trying to ride. If you think that other outfit is gonna watch you pick daisies in their front yard without doing anything, you got another guess. But I'll do what I said—and no more."
"I s'pose you think that by sticking away off yonder where the grass is long nobody will suspicion you. If you do, yo're crazy. Folks ain't so cross-brained as all that."
"Not so dam loud!" Lanpher cautioned, excitedly.
"Say, whatsa matter with you?" demanded the stranger, leaning back against the gate and spreading his long arms along the top bar. "Which yo're the most nervous gent I ever did see. The hotel ain't close enough for anybody to hear a word, and there's only hosses in the corral. Get a-hold of yoreself. Don't be so skittish."
"I ain't skittish. I'm sensible. I know—" Lanpher broke off abruptly.
"What do you know?"
"What yo're due to find out."
"Now lookit here, Mr. Lanpher," said the stranger in a low, cold tone, "you said those last words a leetle too gayful to suit me. If yo're planning any skulduggery—don't."
"I ain't. Not a bit of it. But I got my duty to my company. I can't get mixed up in any fraycas on yore account, because if I do my ranch will lose money. That's the flat of it."
"Oh, it is, huh? Yore ranch will lose money if you back me up, hey? And you ain't thinkin' nothin' of yore precious skin, are yuh? Oh, no, not a-tall. I wonder what yore company would say to the li'l deal between you and me that started this business. I wonder what they'd think of Mr. Lanpher and his sense of duty. Yeah, I would wonder a whole lot."
"Well—" began Lanpher, lamely.
"Hell!" snarled the stranger. "You make me sick! Now you listen to me. Yo're in this as deep as I am. If you think you ain't, try to pull yore wagon out. Just try it, thassall."
"I ain't doing none of the work, that's flat," Lanpher denied, doggedly.
"You gotta back me up alla same," declared the stranger.
"That wasn't in the bargain," fenced Lanpher.
"It is now," chuckled the stranger. "If I lose, you lose, too. Lookit," he added in a more conciliatory tone, "can't you see how it is? I need you, an' you need me. All I'm asking of you is to back me up when I want you to. Outside of that you can sit on yore shoulder-blades and enjoy life."
"We didn't bargain on that," harked back Lanpher.
"But that was then, and this is now. Which may not be logic, but it is necessity, an' Necessity, Mr. Lanpher, is the mother of all kinds of funny things. So you and I we got to ride together."
Lanpher pushed back his hat and looked over the hills and far away. The well-known carking care was written large upon his countenance.
Slowly his eyes slid round to meet for a brief moment the eyes of his companion.
"I can't answer for my men," said Lanpher, shortly.
"Can you answer for yoreself?" inquired the stranger quickly.
"I'll back you up." Grudgingly.
"Then that's all right. You can keep the men from throwing in with the other side, anyway, can't you?"
"I can do that much."
"Which is quite a lot for a ranch manager to be able to do," was the stranger's blandly sarcastic observation. "C'mon. We've gassed so much I'm dry as a covered bridge. I—What does Thompson want now? 'Lo, Punch."
"'Lo, Jack. Howdy, Lanpher." Racey could not see the newcomer, but he recognized the voice. It was that of Punch-the-breeze Thompson, a gentleman well known to make his living by the ingenious capitalization of an utter lack of moral virtue. "Say, Jack," continued Thompson, "Nebraska has been plugged."
"Plugged?" Great amazement on the part of the stranger.
"Who done it?"
"Feller by the name of Dawson."
"Racey Dawson?" nipped in Lanpher.
Lanpher chuckled slightly.
"Why the laugh?" asked Jack Harpe.
"I'd always thought Nebraska could shoot."
"Nebraska is supposed to be some swift," admitted the stranger. "How'd it happen, Punch?"
Thompson told him, and on the whole, gave a truthful account.
"What kind of feller is this Dawson?" the stranger inquired after a moment's silence following the close of the story.
"A skipjack of a no-account cow-wrastler," promptly replied Lanpher. "He thinks he's hell on the Wabash."
"Allasame he must be old pie to put the kybosh on Nebraska thataway."
"Luck," sneered Lanpher. "Just luck."
"Is he square?" probed the stranger.
"Square as a billiard-ball," said Lanpher. "Why, Jack, he's so crooked he can't lay in bed straight."
At which Racey Dawson was moved to rise and declare himself. Then the humour of it struck him. He grinned and hunkered down, his ears on the stretch.
"Well," said the stranger, refraining from comment on Lanpher's estimate of the Dawson qualities, "we'll have to get somebody in Nebraska's place."
"I'm as good as Nebraska," Punch-the-breeze Thompson stated, modestly.
"No," the stranger said, decidedly. "Yo're all right, Punch. But even if we can get old Chin Whisker drunk, the hand has gotta be quicker than the eye. Y' understand?"
Thompson, it appeared, did understand. He grunted sulkily.
"We'll have to give Peaches Austin a show," resumed the stranger. "Nemmine giving me a argument, Punch. I said I'd use Austin. C'mon, le's go get a drink."
The three men moved away. Racey Dawson cautiously eased his long body up from behind the pony. With slightly narrowed eyes he stared at the gate behind which Jack Harpe and his two friends had been standing.
"Now I wonder," mused Racey Dawson, "I shore am wonderin' what kind of skulduggery li'l Mr. Lanpher of the 88 is a-trying to crawl out of and what Mr. Stranger is a-trying to drag him into. Nebraska, too, huh? I was wondering what that feller's name was."
He knelt down again and swiftly completed the bandaging of the cut on the pony's near fore.
As he rode round the corner of the hotel to reach Main Street he saw Luke Tweezy single-footing into town from the south. The powdery dust of the trail filled in and overlaid the lines and creases of Luke Tweezy's foxy-nosed and leathery visage. Layers of dust almost completely concealed the original colour of the caked and matted hide of Luke Tweezy's well-conditioned horse. It was evident that Luke Tweezy had come from afar.
In common with most range riders Racey Dawson possessed an automatic eye to detail. Quite without conscious effort his brain registered and filed away in the card-index of his subconscious mind the picture presented by the passing of Luke Tweezy, the impression made thereby, and the inference drawn therefrom. The inference was almost trivial—merely that Luke Tweezy had come from Marysville, the town where he lived and had his being. But triviality is frequently paradoxical and always relative. If Dundee had not raised an arm to urge his troopers on at Killiekrankie the world would know a different England. A single thread it was that solved for Theseus the mystery of the Cretan labyrinth.
Racey Dawson did not like Luke Tweezy. From the sparse and sandy strands of the Tweezy hair to the long and varied lines of the Tweezy business there was nothing about Mr. Tweezy that he did like. For Luke Tweezy's business was ready money and its possibilities. He drove hard bargains with his neighbours and harder ones with strangers. He bought county scrip at a liberal discount and lent his profits to the needy at the highest rate allowed by law.
Luke Tweezy's knowledge of what was allowed by territorial law was not limited to money-lending. He had been admitted to the bar, and no case was too small, too large, or too filthy for him to handle.
In his dislike of Luke Tweezy Racey Dawson was not solitary. Luke Tweezy was as generally unpopular as Lanpher of the 88. But there was a difference. Where Lanpher's list of acquaintances, nodding and otherwise, was necessarily confined to the Lazy River country, Luke Tweezy knew almost every man, woman, and child in the territory. It was his business to know everybody, and Luke Tweezy was always attending to his business.
He had nodded and spoken to Racey Dawson as they two passed, and Racey had returned the greeting gravely.
"Slimy ol' he-buzzard," Racey Dawson observed to himself and reached for his tobacco.
But there was no tobacco. The sack that he knew he had put in his vest pocket after breakfast had vanished. Lack of tobacco is a serious matter. Racey wheeled his mount and spurred to the Blue Pigeon Store.
Five minutes later, smoking a grateful cigarette, he again started to ride out of town. As he curved his horse round a freight wagon in front of the Blue Pigeon he saw three men issue from the doorway of the Happy Heart Saloon. Two of the men were Lanpher and the stranger. The third was Luke Tweezy. The latter stopped at the saloon hitching-rail to untie his horse. "See yuh later, Luke," the stranger flung over his shoulder to Luke Tweezy as he passed on. He and Lanpher headed diagonally across the street toward the hotel. It seemed odd to Racey Dawson that Luke Tweezy by no word or sign made acknowledgment of the stranger's remark.
Racey tickled his mount with the rowels of one spur and stirred him into a trot. Have to be moving along if he wanted to get there some time that day. He wished he didn't have to go alone, so he did. The old lady would surely lay him out, and he wished for company to share his misery. Why couldn't Swing Tunstall have stayed reasonably in Farewell instead of traipsing off over the range like a tomfool. Might not be back for a week, Swing mightn't. Idiotic caper (with other adjectives) of Swing's, anyway. Why hadn't he used his head? Oh, Racey Dawson was an exceedingly irritable young man as he rode out of Farewell. The aches and pains were still throbbingly alive in his own particular head. The immediate future was not alluring. It was a hard world.
When he and his mount were breasting the first slight rise of the northern slope of Indian Ridge—which ridge marks with its long, broad-backed bulk the southern boundary of the flats south of Farewell and forces the Marysville trail to travel five miles to go two—a rider emerged from a small boulder-strewn draw wherein tamaracks grew thinly.
Racey stared—and forgot his irritation and his headache. The draw was not more than a quarter-mile distant, and he perceived without difficulty that the rider was a woman. She quirted her mount into a gallop, and then seesawed her right arm vigorously. Above the pattering drum of her horse's hoofs a shout came faintly to his ears. He pulled up and waited.
When the woman was close to him he saw that it was the good-looking, brown-haired Happy Heart lookout, the girl whose dog he had protected. She dragged her horse to a halt at his side and smiled. And, oddly enough, it was an amazingly sweet smile. It had nothing in common with the hard smile of her profession.
"I'm sorry I had to leave without thanking you for what you done for me back there," said she, with a jerk of her head toward distant Farewell.
"Why, that's all right," Racey told her, awkwardly.
"It meant a lot to me," she went on, her smile fading. "You wouldn't let that feller hurt me or my dog, and I think the world of that dog."
"Yeah." Thus Racey, very much embarrassed by her gratitude and quite at a loss as to the proper thing to say.
"Yes, and I'm shore grateful, stranger. I—I won't forget it. That dog he likes me, he does. And I'm teaching him tricks. He's awful cunnin'. And company! Say, when I'm feeling rotten that there dog knows, and he climbs up in my lap and licks my ear and tries his best to be a comfort. I tell you that dog likes me, and that means a whole lot—to me. I—I ain't forgetting it."
Her face was dark red. She dropped her head and began to fumble with her reins.
"You needn't 'a' come riding alla way out here just for this," chided Racey, feeling that he must say something to relieve the situation.
"It wasn't only this," she denied, tiredly. "They was something else. And I couldn't talk to you in Farewell without him and his friends finding it out. That's why I borrowed one of Mike Flynn's hosses an' followed you thisaway—so's we could be private. Le's ride along. I expect you was going somewhere."
They rode southward side by side a space of time in silence. Racey had nothing to say. He was too busy speculating as to the true significance of the girl's presence. What did she want—money? These saloon floozies always did. He hoped she wouldn't want much. For he ruefully knew himself to be a soft-hearted fool that was never able to resist a woman's appeal. He glanced at her covertly. Her little chin was trembling. Poor kid. That's all she was. Just a kid. Helluva life for a kid. Shucks.
"Lookit here," said Racey, suddenly, "you in hard luck, huh? Don't you worry. Yore luck is bound to turn. It always does. How much you want?"
So saying he slid a hand into a side-pocket of his trousers. The girl shook her head without looking at him.
"It ain't money," she said, dully. "I make enough to keep me going." Then with a curious flash of temper she continued, "That's always the way with a man, ain't it? If he thinks yo're in trouble—Give her some money. If yo're sick—Give her money. If yo're dyin'—Give her money. Money! Money! Money! I'm so sick of money I—Don't mind me, stranger. I don't mean nothing. I'm a—a li'l upset to-day. I—it's hard for me to begin."
Begin! What was the girl driving at?
"Yes," said she. "It's hard. I ain't no snitch. I never was even when I hadn't no use for a man—like now. But—but you stuck up for me and my dog, and I gotta pay you back. I gotta. Listen," she pursued, swiftly, "do you know who that feller was you shot?"
"No." Racey shook his head. "But you don't owe me anything. Forget it. I dunno what yo're drivin' at, and I don't wanna know if it bothers you to tell me. But if I can do anything—anything a-tall—to help you, why, then tell me."
"I know," she nodded. "You'd always help a feller. Yo're that kind. But I'm all right. That jigger you plugged is Tom Jones."
The girl looked at Racey Dawson as though the name of Tom Jones should have been informative of much. But, Fieldings excluded, there are many Tom Joneses. Racey did not react.
"Dunno him," denied Racey Dawson. "I heard his name was Nebraska."
"Nebraska is what the boys call him," she said. "He used to be foreman of the Currycomb outfit south of Fort Seymour."
"I've heard of Nebraska Jones and the Currycomb bunch all right," he admitted, soberly. "And I'd shore like to know what was the matter with Nebraska to-day."
"So would I. You were lucky."
Racey nodded absently. The Currycomb outfit! That charming aggregation of gunfighters had borne the hardest reputation extant in a neighbouring territory. Regarding the Currycomb men had been accustomed to speak behind their hands and under their breaths. For the Currycomb politically had been a power. Which perhaps was the reason why, although the rustling of many and many a cow and the killing of more than one man were laid at their unfriendly door, nothing had ever been proved against them.
They had prospered exceedingly, these Currycomb boys, till the election of an opposition sheriff. Which election had put heart into the more decent set and a crimp in the Currycomb. It did not matter that legally the Currycomb possessed a clean bill of health. The community had decided that the Currycomb must be abolished. It was—cow, cayuse, and cowboy.
While some had remained on the premises at an approximate depth beneath the grass of two feet (for the ground was hard), the other Currycombers had scattered wide and far and their accustomed places knew them no more.
Now it seemed that at least one of the Currycomb boys, and that one the most notorious character of the lot, had scattered as far as Farewell and obtruded his personality upon that of Racey Dawson. Nebraska Jones! A cold smile stretched the corners of Racey's mouth as he thought on what he had done. He had beaten to the draw the foreman of the Currycomb. Which undoubtedly must have been the first time Nebraska had ever been shaded.
The girl was watching his face. "Don't begin to get the notion you beat him to it," she advised, divining his thought. "He was stunned sort of that first time, an' the second time his gun caught a little. Nebraska is slow lightnin' on the pull. Keep thinkin' you was lucky like you done at first."
Racey laughed shamefacedly. "Yo're too much of a mind reader for me. But what you telling all this to me for? I ain't the sheriff with a warrant for Nebraska Jones."
"I'm telling you so you'll know what to expect. So you'll get out of town and stay out. Because, shore as yo're a foot high, you won't live a minute longer than is plumb necessary if you don't."
"I beat Nebraska once, and he won't get well of that lead in the shoulder so jo-awful soon."
"Can you beat a shot in the dark? Can you dodge a knife in the night? It ain't a question of Nebraska Jones himself. It's the gang he's managed to pick up in this town. They are meaner than a nest of cross rattlesnakes. I know 'em. I know what they'll do. Right this minute they're fixing up some way to give you yore come-uppance."
"Think so! Say, would I come traipsing out here just for my health—or yores? Figure it out."
"Seems like you know a lot about Nebraska and his gang," he cast at a venture, glancing at her sharply.
"I lived with Nebraska—for a while," she said, matter-of-factly, giving him a calm stare. "Li'l Marie knows all they is to know about Nebraska Jones—and a little bit more. Which goes double for his gang."
"Shucks," Racey grunted contemptuously. "Does he and his gang run Farewell? I'd always thought Farewell was a man's size town."
"They're careful," explained the girl. "They got sense enough not to run any blazers they can't back to the limit. Yeah, they're careful—now."
"Now, huh? Later, when they've filled their hands and there's more of 'em playin' they might not be so careful, huh, Marie?"
"Unless yo're a heap careful right now you won't have a thing to do with 'later,'" she parried. "You do like I say, Mister Man. I ain't a bit anxious to see you wiped out."
"Wiping me out would shore cramp my style," he admitted. "I—"
At this juncture hoofbeats sounded sharply on the trail behind them. Racey turned in a flesh, his right hand dropping. But it was only Lanpher and the stranger riding out of a belt of pines whose deep and lusty soughing had drowned the noise of their approach.
Lanpher and his comrade rode by at a trot. The former mumbled a greeting to Racey but barely glanced at the girl. Women did not interest Lanpher. He was too selfishly stingy. The stranger was more appreciative. He gave the girl a stare of frank admiration before he looked at Racey Dawson. The latter perceived that the stranger's eyes were remarkably black and keen, perceived, too, that the man as he rode past and on half turned in the saddle for a second look at the girl.
"Who's yore friend?" asked Marie, an insolent lift to her upper lip and a slightly puzzled look in her brown eyes as her gaze followed the stranger and Lanpher.
"Friend?" said Racey. "Speaking personal, now, I ain't lost either of 'em."
"I know who Lanpher is," she told him, impatiently. "I meant the other."
"I'll never tell yuh. I dunno him."
"I think I've seen him somewhere—sometime. I can't remember where or how—I see so many men. There! I almost had it. Gone again now. Don't it make you sick when things get away from you like that? Makes you think yo're a-losing yore mind almost."
"He looked at you almighty strong," proffered Racey. "Maybe he'll remember. Why don't you ask him?"
"Maybe I will at that," said she.
"Didja know he was a friend of Nebraska's?" he asked, watching her face keenly.
She shook her head. "Nebraska knows a lot of folks," she said, indifferently.
"He knows Punch-the-breeze Thompson, too."
"Likely he would, knowing Nebraska. He belongs to Nebraska's bunch."
"What does Nebraska do for a living?"
"Everybody and anything. Mostly he deals a game in the Starlight."
"What does Peaches Austin work at?" he pursued, thinking that it might be well to learn what he could of the enemy's habits.
"He deals another game in the Happy Heart."
"'The hand is quicker than the eye,'" he quoted, cynically, recalling what the stranger had said to Punch-the-breeze Thompson.
"Oh, Peaches is slick enough," said she, comprehending instantly. "But Nebraska is slicker. Don't never sit into no game with Nebraska Jones. Lookit here," she added, her expression turning suddenly anxious, "did I take my ride for nothing?"
"Huh?... Oh, that! Shore not. You bet I'm obliged to you, and I hope I can do as much for you some day. But I wasn't figuring on staying here any length of time. Swing—he's my friend—and I are going down to try Arizona a spell. We'll be pulling out to-morrow, I expect."
"Then all you got to look out for is to-night. But I'm telling you you better drag it to-morrow shore."
Racey smiled slowly. "If it wasn't I got business down south I'd admire to stay. I ain't leaving a place just because I ain't popular, not nohow. I'm over twenty-one. I got my growth."
"It don't matter why you go. Yo're a-going. That's enough. It's a good thing for you you got business, and you can stick a pin in that."
"I'll have to do something about them friends of his alla same, before I go," Racey said, thoughtfully.
"Yeah. If they're a-honing to bushwhack me for what I did to Nebraska, it ain't fair for me to go sifting off thisaway and not give 'em some kind of a run for their alley. Look at it close. You can see it ain't."
"I don't see nothing—"
"Shore you do. It would give 'em too much of a chance to talk. They might even get to saying they ran me out o' town. And the more I think of it the more I'm shore they'll be saying just that."
"But you said you was going away. You said you had business in Arizona."
"Shore I have, and shore I'm going. But first I gotta give Nebraska's friends a chance to draw cards. A chance, y' understand."
"You'll be killed," she told him, white-lipped.
"Why, no," said he. "Not never a-tall. Drawing cards is one thing and playing the hand out is a cat with another kind of tail. I got hopes they won't get too rough with me."
"Well, of all the stubborn damn fools I ever saw—" began the girl, angrily.
At which Racey Dawson laughed aloud.
"That's all right," she snapped. "You can laugh. Might 'a' knowed you would. A man is such a plumb idjit. A feller does all she can to show him the right trail out, and does he take it? He does not. He laughs. That's what he does. He laughs. He thinks it's funny. You gimme a pain, you do!"
On the instant she jerked her pony round, whirled her quirt cross-handed, and tore down the back-trail at full gallop.
"Aw, hell," said Racey, looking after the fleeing damsel regretfully. "I clean forgot to ask her about the rest of Nebraska's friends."
THE OLD LADY
"Hope Old Man Dale is home," said Racey to himself when he saw ahead of him the grove of cottonwoods marking the location of Moccasin Spring. "But he won't be," he added, lugubriously. "I never did have any luck."
He passed the grove of trees and opened up the prospect of house and stable and corral with cottonwood and willow-bordered Soogan Creek in the background.
"Changed some since I was here last," he muttered in wonder. For nesters as a rule do not go in for flowers and shrubs. And here, besides a small truck garden, were both—all giving evidence of much care and attention.
Racey dismounted at the corral and approached the kitchen door. A fresh young voice in the kitchen was singing a song to the brave accompaniment of a twanging banjo:
"When I was a-goin' down the road With a tired team an' a heavy load, I cracked my whip an' the leader sprung, An' he almost busted the wagon tongue. Turkey in the straw, ha! ha! ha! Turkey in—"
The singing stopped in the middle of a line. The banjo went silent in the middle of a bar. Racey looked in at the kitchen door and saw, sitting on a corner of the kitchen table, a very pretty girl. One knee was crossed over the other, in her lap was the mute banjo, and she was looking straight at him.
Racey, heartily and internally cursing himself for having neglected to shave, pulled off his hat and achieved a head-hob.
"Good morning," said the pretty girl, putting up a slim tanned hand and tucking in behind a well-set ear a strayed lock of black hair.
"Mornin'," said Racey, and decided then and there that he had never before seen eyes of such a deep, dark blue, or a mouth so alluringly red.
"What," said the pretty girl, laying the banjo on the table and sliding down till her feet touched the floor, "what can I do for you?"
"Nun-nothin'," stuttered the rattled Racey, clasping his hat to his bosom, so that he could button unseen the top button of his shirt, "except cuc-can you find Miss Dale for me. Is she home?"
"Mother's out. So's Father, I'm the only one home."
"It's yore sister I want, Miss Dale—yore oldest sister."
"You must mean Mrs. Morgan. She lives—"
"No, I don't mean her. Yore oldest sister, Miss. Her whose hoss was taken by mistake in Farewell yesterday."
"That was my horse."
"Yores! But they said it was an old lady's hoss! Are you shore it—"
"Of course I'm sure. Did you bring him back?... Where?... The corral?"
The girl walked swiftly to the window, took one glance at the bay horse tied to the corral gate, and returned to the table.
"Certainly that's my horse," she reiterated with the slightest of smiles.
Racey Dawson stared at her in horror. Her horse! He had actually run off with the horse of this beautiful being. He had thereby caused inconvenience to this angel. If he could only crawl off somewhere and pass away quietly. At the moment, by his own valuation, any one buying him for a nickel would have been liberally overcharged. Her horse! "I—I took yore hoss," he spoke up, desperately. "I'm Racey Dawson."
"So you're the man—" she began, and stopped.
He nodded miserably, his contrite eyes on the toes of her shoes. Small shoes they were. Cheerfully would he have lain down right there on the floor and let her wipe those selfsame shoes upon him. It would have been a positive pleasure. He felt so worm-like he almost wriggled. Slowly, oh, very slowly, he lifted his eyes to her face.
"I—I was drunk," he confessed, hoping that an honest confession would restrain her from casting him into outer darkness.
"I heard you were," she admitted.
"I thought it was yore oldest sister's pony," he bumbled on, feeling it incumbent upon him to say something. "They told me something about an old lady."
"Jane Morgan's the only other sister I have. Who told you this wild tale?"
"Them," was his vague reply. He was not the man to give away the jokers of Farewell. Old lady, indeed! Miss Blythe to the contrary notwithstanding this girl was not within sight of middle-age. "Yeah," he went on, "they shore fooled me. Told me I'd taken an old maid's hoss, and—"
"Oh, as far as that goes," said the girl, her long eyelashes demurely drooping, "they told you the truth. I'm an old maid."
"You? Shucks!" Hugely contemptuous.
"Oh, but I am," she insisted, raising her eyes and tilting sidewise her charming head. "I'm not married."
"Thank—" he began, impulsively, but choked on the second word and gulped hard. "I mean," he resumed, hastily, "I don't understand why I never saw you before. I was here once, but you weren't around."
"When were you here?... Why, that was two years ago. I was only a kid then—all legs like a calf. No wonder you didn't notice me."
She laughed at him frankly, with a bewildering flash of white teeth.
"I shore must 'a' been blind," he said, truthfully. "They ain't any two ways about that."
Under his admiring gaze a slow blush overspread her smooth cheeks. She laughed again—uncertainly, and burst into swift speech. "My manners! What have I been thinking of? Mr. Dawson, please sit down, do. I know you must be tired after your long ride. Take that chair under the mirror. It's the strongest. You can tip it back against the wall if you like. I'll get you a cup of coffee. I know you're thirsty. I'm sorry Mother and Father aren't home, but Mother drove over to the Bar S on business and I don't know where Father went!"
"I ain't fit to stay," hesitated Racey, rasping the back of his hand across his stubbly chin.
"Nonsense. You sit right down while I grind the coffee. I'll have you a potful in no time. I make pretty good coffee if I do say it myself."
"I'll bet you do."
"But my sister Jane makes better. You'll get some of hers at dinner."
"Dinner?" He stared blankly.
"Of course, dinner. When Mother and Father are away I always go down there for my meals. It's only a quarter-mile down stream. Shorter if you climb that ridge. But it's so stony I generally go along the creek bank where I can gallop.... What? Why, of course you're going with me. Jane would never forgive me if I didn't bring you. And what would Chuck say if you came this far and then didn't go on down to his house? Don't you suppose he enjoys seeing his old friends? It was only last week I heard him wonder to Father if you were ever coming back to this country. How did you like it up at the Bend?"
"Right fine," he told her, settling himself comfortably in the chair she had indicated. "But a feller gets tired of one place after a while. I thought maybe I'd come back to the Lazy River and get a job ridin' the range again."
"Aren't there any ranches round the Bend?" she asked, poking up the fire and setting on the coffee-pot.
"Plenty, but I—I like the Lazy River country," he told her. "Fort Creek country for yores truly, now and hereafter."
In this fashion did the proposed journey to Arizona go glimmering. His eye lingered on the banjo where it lay on the table.
"Can you play it?" she asked, her eye following his.
"Some," said he. "Want to hear a camp-meeting song?"
She nodded. He rose and picked up the banjo. He placed a foot on the chair seat, slid the banjo to rest on his thigh, swept the strings, and broke into "Inchin' Along". Which ditty made her laugh. For it is a funny song, and he sang it well.
"That was fine," she told him when he had sung it through. "Your voice sounds a lot like that of a man I heard singing in Farewell yesterday. He was in the Happy Heart when I was going by, and he sang Jog on, jog on the footpath way. If it hadn't been a saloon I'd have gone in. I just love the old songs."
"You do?" said he, delightedly, with shining eyes. "Well, Miss Dale, that feller in the saloon was me, and old songs is where I live. I cut my teeth on 'The Barley Mow' and grew up with 'Barbara Allen'. My mother she used to sing 'em all. She was a great hand to sing and she taught me. Know 'The Keel Row?'"
She didn't, so he sang it for her. And others he sang, too—"The Merry Cuckoo" and "The Bailiff's Daughter". The last she liked so well that he sang it three times over, and they quite forgot the coffee.
Racey Dawson was starting the second verse of "Sourwood Mountain" when someone without coughed apologetically. Racey stopped singing and looked toward the doorway. Standing in the sunken half-round log that served as a doorstep was the stranger he had seen with Lanpher.
There was more than a hint of amusement in the black eyes with which the stranger was regarding Racey. The latter felt that the stranger was enjoying a hearty internal laugh at his expense. As probably he was. Racey looked at him from beneath level brows. The lid of the stranger's right eye dropped ever so little. It was the merest of winks. Yet it was unmistakable. It recalled their morning's meeting. More, it was the tolerant wink of a superior to an inferior. A wink that merited a kick? Quite so.
The keen black eyes veered from Racey to the girl. The man removed his hat and bowed with, it must be said, not a little grace. Miss Dale nodded coldly. The stranger smiled. It was marvellous how the magic of that smile augmented the attractive good looks of the stranger's full face. It was equally singular how that self-same smile rendered more hawk-like than ever the hard and Roman profile of the fellow. It was precisely as though he were two different men at one and the same time.
"Does Mr. Dale live here?" inquired the stranger.
"He does." A breath from the Boreal Pole was in the two words uttered by Miss Dale.
The stranger's smile widened. The keen black eyes began to twinkle. He made as if to enter, but went no farther than the placing of one foot on the doorsill.
"Is he home?"
"He isn't." Clear and colder.
"I'm shore sorry," grieved the stranger, the smile waning a trifle. "I wanted to see him."
"I supposed as much," sniffed Miss Dale, uncordially.
"Yes, Miss," said the stranger, undisturbed. "When will he be back, if I might ask?"
"To-night—to-morrow. I'm not sure."
"So I see," nodded the stranger. "Would it be worth while my waitin'?"
"That depends on what you call worth while."
"You're right. It does. Standards ain't always alike, are they." He laughed silently, and pulled on his hat. "And it's a good thing standards ain't all alike," he resumed, chattily. "Wouldn't it be a funny old world if they were?"
The smile of him recognized Racey briefly, but it rested upon and caressed the girl. She shook her shoulders as if she were ridding herself of the touch of hands.
The stranger continued to smile—and to look as if he expected a reply. But he did not get it. Miss Dale stared calmly at him, through him.
Slowly the stranger slid his foot from the doorsill to the doorstep; slowly, very slowly, his keenly twinkling black gaze travelled over the girl from her face to her feet and up again to finally fasten upon and hold as with a tangible grip her angry blue eyes.
"I'm sorry yore pa ain't here," he resumed in a drawl. "I had some business. It can wait. I'll be back. So long."
The stranger turned and left them.
From the kitchen window they watched him mount his horse and ford the creek and ride away westward.
"I don't like that man," declared Miss Dale, and caught her lower lip between her white teeth. "I wonder what he wanted?"
"You'll find out when he comes back." Dryly.
"I hope he never comes back. I never want to see him again. Do you know him?"
"Not me. First time I ever saw him was this morning in Farewell. He was with Lanpher. When I was coming out here he and Lanpher caught up with me and passed me."
"He didn't bring Lanpher here with him anyhow."
"He didn't for a fact," assented Racey Dawson, his eyes following the dwindling figures of the rider and his horse. "I wonder why?"
"I wonder, too." Thus Miss Dale with a gurgling chuckle.
Both laughed. For Racey's sole visit to the Dale place had been made in company with Lanpher. The cause of said visit had been the rustling and butchering of an 88 cow, which Lanpher had ill-advisedly essayed to fasten upon Mr. Dale. But, due to the interference of Chuck Morgan, a Bar S rider, who later married Jane Dale, Lanpher's attempt had been unavailing. It may be said in passing that Lanpher had suffered both physically and mentally because of that visit. Of course he had neither forgiven Chuck Morgan nor the Bar S for backing up its puncher, which it had done to the limit.
"I quit the 88 that day," Racey Dawson told the girl.
"I know you did. Chuck told me. Look at the time, will you? Get your hat. We mustn't keep Jane waiting."
"No," he said, thoughtfully, his brows puckered, "we mustn't keep Jane waitin'. Lookit, Miss Dale, as I remember yore pa he had a moustache. Has he still got it?"
Miss Dale puzzled, paused in the doorway. "Why, no," she told him. "He wears a horrid chin whisker now."
"He does, huh? A chin whisker. Let's be movin' right along. I think I've got something interesting to tell you and yore sister and Chuck."
But they did not move along. They halted in the doorway. Or, rather, the girl halted in the doorway, and Racey looked over her shoulder. What stopped them short in their tracks was a spectacle—the spectacle of an elderly chin-whiskered man, very drunk and disorderly, riding in on a paint pony.
"Father!" breathed Miss Dale in a horror-stricken whisper.
And as she spoke Father uttered a string of cheerful whoops and topped off with a long pull at a bottle he had been brandishing in his right hand.
"Please go," said Miss Dale to Racey Dawson.
He hesitated. He was in a quandary. He did not relish leaving her with—At that instant Mr. Dale decided Racey's course for him. Mr. Dale pulled a gun and, still whooping cheerily, shook five shots into the atmosphere. Then Mr. Dale fumblingly threw out his cylinder and began to reload.
"I'd better get his gun away from him," Racey said, apologetically, over his shoulder, as he ran forward.
But the old man would have none of him. He cunningly discerned an enemy in Racey and tried to shoot him. It was lucky for Racey that the old fellow was as drunk as a fiddler, or certainly Racey would have been buried the next day. As it was, the first bullet went wide by a yard. The second went straight up into the blue, for by then Racey had the old man's wrist.
"There, there," soothed Racey, "you don't want that gun, Nawsir. Not you. Le's have it, that's a good feller now."
So speaking he twisted the sixshooter from the old man's grasp and jammed it into the waistband of his own trousers. The old man burst into frank tears. Incontinently he slid sidewise from the saddle and clasped Racey round the neck.
"I'm wild an' woolly an' full o' fleas I'm hard to curry below the knees—"
Thus he carolled loudly two lines of the justly popular song.
"Luke," he bawled, switching from verse to prose, "why didja leave me, Luke?"
Strangely enough, he did not stutter. Without the slightest difficulty he leaped that pitfall of the drunken, the letter L.
"Luke," repeated Racey Dawson, struck by a sudden thought. "What's this about Luke? You mean Luke Tweezy?"
The old man rubbed his shaving-brush adown Racey's neck-muscles. "I mean Luke Tweezy," he said. "Lots o' folks don't like Luke. They say he's mean. But they ain't nothin' mean about Luke. He's frien' o' mine, Luke is."
"Mr. Dawson," said Molly Dale at Racey's elbow, "please go, I can get him into the house. You can do no good here."
"I can do lots o' good here," declared Racey, who felt sure that he was on the verge of a discovery. "Somebody is a-trying to jump yore ranch, and if you'll lemme talk to him I can find out who it is."
"Who—how?" said Miss Dale, stupidly, for, what with the fright and embarrassment engendered by her father's condition the true significance of Racey's remark was not immediately apparent.
"Yore ranch," repeated Racey, sharply. "They're a-tryin' to steal it from you. You lemme talk to him, ma'am. Look out! Grab his bridle!"
Miss Dale seized the bridle of her father's horse in time to prevent a runaway. She was not aware that the horse's attempt to run away had been inspired by Racey surreptitiously and severely kicking it on the fetlock. This he had done that Miss Dale's thoughts might be temporarily diverted from her father. Anything to keep her from shooing him away as she so plainly wished to do.
Racey began to assist the now-crumpling Mr. Dale toward the house. "What's this about Luke Tweezy?" prodded Racey. "Did you see him to-day?"
"Shore I seen him to-day," burbled the drunken one. "He left me at McFluke's after buyin' me the bottle and asked me to stay there till he got back. But I got tired waitin'. So I come along. I—hic—come along."
Limply the man's whole weight sagged down against Racey's supporting arm, and he began to snore.
"Shucks," muttered Racey, then stooping he picked up the limp body in his arms and carried it to the house.
"He's asleep," he called to Miss Dale. "Where'll I put him?"
"I'll show you," she said, with a break in her voice.
She hastily tied the now-quiet pony to a young cottonwood growing at the corner of the house and preceded Racey into the kitchen.
"Here," she said, her eyes meeting his a fleeting instant as she threw open a door giving into an inner room. "On the bed."
She turned back the counterpane and Racey laid her snoring parent on the blanket. Expertly he pulled off the man's boots and stood them side by side against the wall.
"Had to take 'em off now, or his feet would swell so after you'd never get 'em off," he said in justification of his conduct.
She held the door open for him to leave the room. She did not look at him. Nor did she speak.
"I'm going now," he said, standing in the middle of the kitchen. "But I wish you wouldn't shut that door just yet."
"I—Oh, can't you see you're not wanted here?" Her voice was shaking. The door was open but a crack. He could not see her.
"I know," he said, gently. "But you don't understand how serious this business is. I had good reason for believing that somebody is trying to steal yore ranch. From several things yore dad said I'm shorer than ever. If I could only talk to you a li'l while."
At this she came forth. Her eyes were downcast. Her cheeks were red with shamed blood. She leaned against the table. One closed fist rested on the top of the table. The knuckles showed white. She was trembling a little.
"Where and what is McFluke's?" he asked.
"Oh, that's where he got it!" she exclaimed, bitterly.
"I guess. If you wouldn't mind telling me where McFluke's is, ma'am—"
"It's a little saloon and store on the Marysville road at the Lazy River ford."
"It's new since my time then."
"It's been in operation maybe a year and a half. What makes you think someone is trying to steal our ranch?"
"Lots o' things," he told her, briskly. "But they ain't gonna do it if I can help it. Don't you fret. It will all come out right. Shore it will. Can't help it."
"But tell me how—what you know," she demanded.
"I haven't time now, unless you're coming with me to see Chuck."
"Then you ask Chuck later. I'll tell him all about it. You ask him. So long."
Racey hurried out and caught up his own horse. He swung into the saddle and spurred away down stream.
"They been after him to sell a long time," said Chuck Morgan, rolling a cigarette as he and Racey Dawson jogged along toward McFluke's at the ford of the Lazy.
"Who?" asked Racey.
"I dunno. Can't find out. Luke Tweezy is the agent and he won't give the party's name."
"Has Old Salt tried to buy him out?"
"Not as I know of. Why should he? He knows he won't sell to anybody."
"Have they been after you, too?"
"Not yet. Dad Dale's the lad they want special. My ranch would be a good thing, but it ain't noways necessary like Dale's is to anybody startin' a big brand. Lookit the way Dale's lays right across the valley between them two ridges like a cork in a bottle. A mile wide here, twenty mile away between Funeral Slue and Cabin Hill she's a good thirty mile wide—one cracking big triangle of the best grass in the territory. All free range, but without Dale's section and his water rights to begin with what good is it?"
"Not much," conceded Racey.
"And nobody would dast to start a brand between Funeral Slue and Cabin Hill," pursued Chuck. "Free range or not, it as good as belongs to the Bar S."
"Old Salt used to run quite a bunch round Cabin Hill and another north near the Slue."
"He does yet—one or two thousand head in all, maybe. Oh, these fellers ain't foolish enough to crowd Old Salt that close. They know Dale's is their best chance."
Racey's eyes travelled, from one ridge to the other. "How come they allowed Dale to take up a six-forty?" he inquired.
"They didn't," was the answer. "The section is made up of four claims, his'n, Jane's, Molly's, an' Mis' Dale's. But they're proved up now, and made over to him all regular. That's how come."
"Haven't Silvertip Ransom and Long Oscar got a claim some'ers over yonder on Dale's land?" inquired Racey, looking toward the northerly ridge.
"They had, but they got discouraged and sold out to Dale the same time Slippery Wilson and his wife traded in their claims on the other side of the ridge to Old Salt and Tom Loudon. None of 'em's worth anything, though."
Racey nodded. "Dale ever drink much?" was his next question.
"He used to before he come here. But he took the cure and quit. To-day's the first bust-up he's had since he hit this country."
"That's it, then. Luke gave him the redeye so's he'd be easy meat for the butcher. Does he ever gamble any?"
"Shore—before he came West. Jane done told me how back East in McPherson, Kansas, he used to go the limit forty ways—liquor, cards, the whole layout o' hellraising. But his habits rode him to a frazzle final and he knuckled under to tooberclosis, and they only saved his life by fetchin' him West. All of us thought he was cured for good."
"Now Luke Tweezy has started him off so's Nebraska—Peaches Austin, I mean, can get in his fine work. It's plain enough."
"Shore," assented Chuck Morgan. "Yonder's McFluke's," he added, nodding toward two gray-brown log and shake shacks and a stockaded corral roosting on the high ground beyond the belt of cottonwoods and willows marking the course of the Lazy. "Them's his stables and corral," went on Chuck. "The house she's down near the river. Can't see her on account of the cottonwoods."
"And they can't see us count of the cottonwoods. So—"
"Unless he's at the corral."
"I'll take the chance, Chuck. You stay here—down that draw is a good place. I'll go on alone. McFluke don't know me. Maybe I can find out something, see. Bimeby you come along—half-hour, maybe. You don't know me, either. I'll get into conversation with you. You follow my lead. We'll pull McFluke in if we can. Between the two of us—Well, anyhow, we'll see what he says."
Chuck Morgan nodded, and turned his horse aside toward the draw.
Ten minutes later the water of the Lazy River was sluicing the dust from the legs and belly of Racey Dawson's horse. Racey spurred up the bank and rode toward the long, low building that was McFluke's store and saloon.
There were no ponies standing at the hitching-rail in front of the place. For this Racey was devoutly thankful. If he could only catch McFluke by himself.
As Racey dismounted at the rail a man came to the open doorway of the house and looked at him. He was a heavy-set man, dewlapped like a bloodhound, and his hard blue eyes were close-coupled. The reptilian forehead did not signify a superior mentality, even as the slack, retreating chin denoted a minimum of courage. It was a most contradictory face. The features did not balance. Racey Dawson was not a student of physiognomy, but he recognized a weak chin when he saw it. If this man were indeed McFluke, then he, Racey Dawson, was in luck.
Without a word the man turned from the doorway. Racey heard him walking across the floor. And for so heavy a man his step was amazingly light. Racey went into the house. The room he entered was a large one. In front of a side wall tiered to the low ceiling with shelves bearing a sorry assortment of ranch supplies was the store counter. Across the back of the room ran the long bar. Behind the bar, flanking the door giving into another room, were two shelves heavily stocked with rows of bottles.
The man that had come to the door was behind the bar. His hands were resting on top of it, and he was staring fixedly and fishily at Racey Dawson. There was no welcome in his face. Nor was there any unfriendliness. It was simply exceedingly expressionless.
Racey draped himself against the bar. "Liquor," said he.
Having absorbed a short one, he poured himself a second. "Have one with me," he nodded to the man.
"All right." The man's tone was as expressionless as his face. "Here's hell." He filled and drank.
Racey looked about the room.
"Where's Old Man Dale?" he asked, casually.
"He got away on me," replied the man. "He—Say!"—with sudden suspicion—"who are you?"
"Are you McFluke?" shot back Racey.
The man nodded slowly, suspicion continuing to brighten his hard blue eyes.
"Then what didja let him get away for?" persisted Racey. "Luke Tweezy said he left him here, and he said he'd stay here. That was yore job—to see he stayed here."
"Who are—" began the suspicious McFluke.
"Nemmine who I am," rapped out Racey, who believed he had formed a correct estimate of McFluke. "I'm somebody who knows more about this deal than you do, and that's enough for you to know. Why didn't you hold Old Man Dale?"
"I—He got away on me," knuckled down McFluke. "I was in the kitchen gettin' me some coffee, and when I come back he had dragged it."
"Luke Tweezy will be tickled to death with you," said Racey Dawson. "What do you s'pose he went to all that trouble for?"
"I couldn't help it, could I? I ain't got eyes in the back of my head so's I can see round corners an' through doors. How'd I know Old Man Dale was gonna slide off? When I left him he was all so happy with his bottle you'd 'a' thought he'd took root for life. Anyway, Peaches Austin oughta come before the old man left. He was supposed to come, and he didn't. If anything slips up account o' this it's gotta be blamed on Peaches."
"Yeah, I guess so. And Peaches ain't been here yet?"
"Not yet, and I wish to Gawd he was never comin'."
The man's tone was so earnest that Racey looked at him, startled.
"Why not?" he asked, coldly.
"Because I don't wanna get my head blowed off, that's why."
"Aw, maybe it won't come to that. Maybe Luke will win out."
"It ain't only Luke Tweezy who's gotta win out, and you know it. And they's an 'if' the size of Pike's Peak between us and winning out. I tell you, I don't like it. It's too damn dangerous."
"Shore, it's dangerous," assented Racey, slowly revolving his glass between his thumb and fingers, and wondering how far he dared go with this McFluke person. "But a gent has to live."
"He don't have to get himself killed doin' it," snarled McFluke, swabbing down the bar. "Who's that a-comin'?"
He went to the doorway to see for himself who it was that rode so briskly on the Marysville trail. "Peaches Austin!" he sneered. "He's only about three hours late."
It was now or never. Racey risked all on a single cast.
"What did the boss say when him and Lanpher got here and found old Dale gone?" he asked, carelessly.
"He raised hell," replied McFluke. "But Lanpher wasn't with him. Yuh know old Dale hates Lanpher like poison. Well, I told Jack, like I tell you, that if anything slips up account o' this, Peaches Austin can take the blame."
Racey nodded indifferently and slouched sidewise so that he could watch the doorway without dislocating his neck. McFluke, his back turned, still stood in the doorway. Racey lowered a cautious hand and loosened his sixshooter in its holster. He wished that he had taken the precaution to tie it down. It was impossible to foresee what the next few minutes might bring forth. Certainly the coming of Peaches Austin was most inopportune.
Peaches Austin galloped up. He dismounted. He tied his horse. He greeted cheerily the glowering McFluke. The latter did not reply in kind.
"This is a fine time for you to get here," he growled. "A fi-ine time."
"Shut up, you fool!" cautioned Peaches in a low voice. "Ain't you got no better sense, with the old man—"
"Don't let the old man worry you," yapped McFluke. "The old man has done flitted. And Jack's been here and he's done flitted."
"Whose hoss is that?" demanded Peaches, evidently referring to Racey's mount.
"One of the boys," replied McFluke. "One o' Jack's friends. C'mon in."
Entered then Peaches Austin, a lithe, muscular person with pale eyes and a face the colour of a dead fish's belly. He stared non-committally at Racey Dawson. It was evident that Peaches Austin was taking no one on trust. He nodded briefly to Racey, and strode to the bar. McFluke went behind the bar.
"Ain't I seen you in Farewell, stranger?" Peaches Austin asked, shortly.
"You might have," returned Racey. "I'm mighty careless where I travel."
"Known Jack long?" Peaches was becoming nothing if not personal.
"Long enough," smiled Racey.
"Lookit here, who are you?"
"That's what's worryin' McFluke," dodged Racey, wishing that he could see just what it was McFluke was doing with his hands.
But McFluke was employing his hands in nothing more dangerous than the fetching of a bottle from some recess under and behind the bar. Now he laughed.
"He ain't tellin' all he knows," he said to Peaches Austin. "Don't be so damn suspiciony, Peaches. He's a friend of Jack's, I tell you. He knows all about the deal."
"That don't make him no friend of Jack's," declared Peaches, stubbornly. "I—"
At which juncture Peaches' flow of language was interrupted by the sudden entrance of Chuck Morgan. Chuck, after a sweeping glance round the room, headed straight for the bar.
"McFluke," said Chuck, halting a yard from the bar, "did you sell any redeye to Old Man Dale to-day?"
"What's that to you?" demanded McFluke, truculently.
"Why, this," replied Chuck, producing a sixshooter so swiftly that McFluke blinked. "You listen to me," he resumed, harshly. "It don't matter whether you sold it to him or not. He got it here, and that's the main thing. I'm telling you if he gets any more I'm gonna make you hard to find."
"Is that a threat or a promise?" inquired McFluke.
"Don't do that," Racey said, suddenly, as his hand shot out and pinned fast the right wrist of Peaches Austin. "C'mon outside now, where we can talk. Right through the door. To yore left. Aw right, now they can't hear us. Lookit, they ain't any call for a gunplay, none whatever. This gent is only laying down the law to Mac. And here you have to get serious right away. See how easy Mac takes it. He ain't doing a thing, not a thing. Good as gold, Mac is. Can't you see how a killing thisaway, and a fellah like Morgan, too, would maybe put a crimp in this place for good? Have some sense, man. We need McFluke's."
"He hadn't oughta drawed on Mac," said Peaches, his pale eyes, shifty as a cat's, darting incessantly between Racey and the doorway.
"He didn't shoot him. And he ain't. You lemme attend to this, will you? I'll get him away quiet and peaceable—if I can. But you keep out of it. Y'understand?"
Peaches Austin gnawed his lower lip. "I never did like Chuck Morgan," he grumbled. "It was a good chance."
"A good chance to get yoreself lynched. Shore. It was all that."
"Say, I'd like to know where you come in, stranger. Jack never said anything to me about any feller yore size."
"Jack is like me. He ain't tellin' all he knows. And while we're talking about Jack, I'll tell you something. And that's to keep away from Farewell for three-four days."
"So's to give Jack a chance to cool off. He's hotter than a wet wolf 'cause you didn't turn up here on time."
"I ain't afraid of Jack."
"'Course you ain't. But you know how Jack is. Even if it don't come to a showdown, there'll be words passed. And I don't wanna run any risk of you quitting the outfit. Every man is needed. You be sensible and stick here with McFluke three-four days like I say, and after that c'mon in to Farewell. In the meantime, I'll see Jack and tell him how it happened you didn't get here on time. And how did it happen, anyway?"
Peaches Austin looked this way and that before replying.
"I shore don't like to tell how it happened," he said. "Sounds so babyish like. But my hat blowed off over this side of Injun Ridge a ways and when I leaned down to pick her up, my hoss started, my hand slipped, and I went off on my head kerblam. And do you know, I'll bet I was three hours a-running from hell to breakfast before I caught that hoss where he was feedin' in a narrow draw. I'm all tired out yet. They ain't no strength in my legs."
"I'll fix it up with Jack," Racey lied with a wonderfully straight face. "Don't you worry."
"I ain't worryin'," Peaches denied, irritably. "I ain't afraid of Jack, I tell you."
"Shore," soothed Racey, who, having formed an estimate of Peaches, ranked him scarcely higher than McFluke and treated him accordingly. "Shore, I know you ain't. But alla same you need considerable of a coolin' off yoreself. Just you stay out here now and watch me get Morgan away."
Racey nodded blithely to Peaches Austin, and turned to go into the house. He saw that Chuck Morgan had come outside, that he had brought McFluke with him, and was observing events with a cold and calculating eye.
"I tell you I couldn't help his getting the whiskey," McFluke was whining. "It ain't my fault if somebody gives it to him, is it?"
"Of course not," chimed in Racey, briskly. "Mac means all right. He didn't know there was any law against providing old Dale with whiskey."
"They is a law," insisted Chuck Morgan, belligerently, his gun trained unswervingly on McFluke's broad stomach. "They is a law. I made it. And it goes. Peaches," he added, raising his voice, "don't you slide round the house now. If you move so much as a yard from where yo're standing I ventilate McFluke immediate."
"I wouldn't do that," said Racey, mildly.
"I got my eye on you, too," declared Chuck. "What I said to Peaches goes for you, and don't you forget it."
"I ain't likely to, not me. All I want you to do is go some'ers else peaceful. You ain't figuring on living here, are you?"
Chuck uttered a short, hard laugh. McFluke's back was toward Racey. Peaches Austin was behind him, thirty feet away. Racey's left eyelid drooped. His head moved almost imperceptibly toward his horse.
"I'm going now," said Chuck.
"I'll go with you just to see you on yore way sort of," said Racey.
"You was going with me anyway sort of," Chuck told him. "Yo're the only man round here so far's I can see, and I ain't taking any chances on you, not a chance. Yo're going down the trail a spell with me. Later you can come back. Keep yore hands where they are."
Quickly Chuck shoved McFluke to one side, rushed forward, and possessed himself of Racey's gun. "Crawl yore hoss," he commanded.
Racey obeyed without a word. Chuck climbed into his own saddle without losing the magic of the drop and without losing sight for an instant of McFluke and Peaches Austin.
"Take the trail south," said Chuck Morgan, and backed his horse in a wide half-circle.
Racey did as he was ordered. Three minutes later he was joined by his friend. Until the trail took them down into a draw grown up in spruce Chuck's gun remained very much in evidence. Any unbiased spectator without a knowledge of the facts would have said that he was keeping a close watch on Racey Dawson.
Once out of sight of the house of McFluke, Chuck sheathed his sixshooter with a jerk and returned Racey's gun.
"You did fine at the last," Racey said, admiringly, as he bolstered his weapon. "But what did you jump McFluke for thataway at first? That come almighty near kicking the kettle over, that play did."
"I know," said Chuck, shamefacedly, "and when I rode up to the shack I hadn't intended anything like that. But when I saw that slickery juniper McFluke standing there behind the bar so fat and sassy, it come over me all of a sudden what he'd done to the Dale family by letting old Dale have whiskey, that I couldn't help myself. Gawd, I wanted to knock him down and tromp his face flat as a floor. It ain't as if McFluke ain't been told about old Dale's failing. I warned him when he first came here last year not to let old Dale have redeye on any account."