E-text prepared by Al Haines
A Story of the Cattle Country
JAMES B. HENDRYX
"The Gun Brand," "The Promise," etc.
A. L. Burt Company Publishers New York Published by arrangement with G. P. Putnam's Sons Made in the United States of America
Copyright, 1918 By James B. Hendryx
This edition is issued under arrangement with the publishers G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York And London
A PROLOGUE I. THE TRAIN STOPS II. WOLF RIVER III. PURDY IV. CINNABAR JOE V. ON THE FLAT VI. THE RIM OF THE BENCH VII. THE ARREST VIII. ONE WAY OUT IX. THE PILGRIM X. THE FLIGHT XI. A RESCUE XII. TEX DOES SOME SCOUTING XIII. A BOTTLE OF "HOOCH" XIV. ON ANTELOPE BUTTE XV. THE TEXAN HEARS SOME NEWS XVI. BACK IN CAMP XVII. IN THE BAD LANDS XVIII. "WIN" XIX. THE END OF THE TRAIL
Exactly twenty minutes after young Benton dismounted from his big rangy black before the door of a low adobe saloon that fronted upon one of the narrow crooked streets of old Las Vegas, he glanced into the eyes of the thin-lipped croupier and laughed. "You've got 'em. Seventy-four good old Texas dollars." He held up a coin between his thumb and forefinger. "I've got another one left, an' your boss is goin' to get that, too—but he's goin' to get it in legitimate barter an' trade."
As the cowpuncher stepped to the bar that occupied one side of the room, a group of Mexicans who had lounged back at his entrance crowded once more about the wheel and began noisily to place their bets. He watched them for a moment before turning his attention to the heavy-lidded, flabby-jowled person who leaned ponderously against the sober side of the bar.
"Who owns this joint?" he asked truculently, as he eyed with disfavour the filthy shirt-sleeves rolled back from thick forearms, the sagging vest, and the collarless shirt-band that buried itself in a fold of the fat neck.
"I do," was the surly rejoinder. "Got any kick comin'?"
"Nary kick." The cowpuncher tossed his dollar onto the bar. "Give me a little red licker," he ordered, and grinned at the sullen proprietor as he filled his glass to the brim.
"An outfit," he confided, with slow insolence, "that'll run an eagle-bird wheel ain't got no more conscience than a hombre's got brains that'll buck one. In Texas we'd shoot a man full of little holes that 'ud try it."
"Why'n you stay in Texas, then?" growled the other.
The cowman drank his liquor and refilled the glass. "Most fat men," he imparted irrelevantly, "are plumb mindful that they're easy hit, an' consequent they're cheerful-hearted an' friendly. Likewise, they mind their own business, which is also why they've be'n let grow to onhuman proportions. But, not to seem oncivil to a stranger, an' by way of gettin' acquainted, I'll leak it out that it ain't no fault of Texas that I come away from there—but owin' only to a honin' of mine to see more of the world than what Texas affords.
"The way to see a world," I debates, "is like anythin' else—begin at the bottom an' work up. So I selects seventy-five dollars an' hits fer Las Vegas."
The fat man pocketed the dollar and replaced it with a greasy fifty-cent piece, an operation which the Texan watched with interest as he swallowed his liquor.
"They ain't nothin' like eagle-bird wheels an' snake-liniment at two bits a throw to help a man start at the bottom," he opined, and reaching for the half-dollar, tossed it to a forlorn-looking individual who lounged near the door. "Here, Greaser, lend a hand in helpin' me downward! Here's four bits. Go lay it on the wheel—an' say: I got a hunch! I played every number on that wheel except the thirteen—judgin' it to be onlucky." The forlorn one grinned his understanding, and clutching the piece of silver, elbowed into the group that crowded the roulette wheel. The cowpuncher turned once more to the surly proprietor:
"So now you see me, broke an' among evil companions, in this here God-forsaken, lizard-ridden, Greaser-loving sheep-herdin' land of sorrow. But, give me another jolt of that there pizen-fermentus an' I'll raise to heights unknown. A few more shots of that an' they ain't no tellin' what form of amusement a man's soul might incline to."
"Y'got the price?"
"I ain't got even the makin's—only an ingrowin' cravin' fer spiritual licker an' a hankerin' to see America first——"
"That hoss," the proprietor jerked a thumb toward the open door beyond which the big rangy black pawed fretfully at the street. "Mebbe we might make a trade. I got one good as him 'er better. It's that sor'l standin' t'other side of yourn."
The Texan rested an arm upon the bar and leaned forward confidentially. "Fatty," he drawled, "you're a liar." The other noted the hand that rested lightly upon the cowman's hip near the ivory butt of the six-gun that protruded from its holster, and took no offence. His customer continued: "They ain't no such horse—an' if they was, you couldn't own him. They ain't no man ever throw'd a kak on Ace of Spades but me, an' as fer sellin' him, or tradin' him—I'll shoot him first!"
A sudden commotion at the back of the room caused both men to turn toward the wheel where a fierce altercation had arisen between the croupier and the vagabond to whom the Texan had tossed his last coin.
"You'll take that er nothin'! It's more money'n y'ever see before an'——"
"Non! Non! De treize! De, w'at you call t'irten—she repe't! A'm git mor' as seex hondre dollaire—" The proprietor lumbered heavily from behind the bar and Benton noted that the thick fingers closed tightly about the handle of a bung-starter. The crowd of Mexicans thinned against the wall as the man with ponderous stealth approached to a point directly behind the excited vagabond who continued his protestations with increasing vigour. The next instant the Texan's six-gun flashed from its holster and as he crossed the room his eye caught the swift nod of the croupier.
When the proprietor drew back his arm to strike, the thick wrist was seized from behind and he was spun violently about to glare into the smiling eyes of the cowpuncher—eyes in which a steely glint flickered behind the smile, a glint more ominous even than the feel of the muzzle of the blue-black six-gun that pressed deeply into his flabby paunch just above the waistband of his trousers.
"Drop that mallet!" The words came softly, but with an ungentle softness that was accompanied by a boring, twisting motion of the gun muzzle as it pressed deeper into his midriff. The bung-starter thudded upon the floor.
"Now let's get the straight of this," continued the Texan. "Hey, you Greaser, if you c'n quit talkin' long enough to say somethin', we'll find out what's what here. You ort to look both ways when you're in a dump like this or the coyotes'll find out what you taste like. Come on, now—give me the facts in the case an' I'll a'joodicate it to suit all parties that's my way of thinkin'."
"Oui! A'm play de four bit on de treize, an' voila! She ween! Da's wan gran' honch! A'm play heem wan tam' mor'. De w'eel she spin 'roun', de leetle ball she sing lak de bee an', Nom de Dieu! She repe't! De t'irten ween ag'in. A'm reech—But non!" The man pointed excitedly to the croupier who sneered across the painted board upon which a couple of gold pieces lay beside a little pile of silver. "A-ha, canaille! Wat you call—son of a dog! T'ief! She say, 'feefty dollaire'! Dat more as seex hondre dollaire——"
"It's a lie!" cried the croupier fiercely, "the thirteen don't repeat. The sixteen win—you kin see fer yourself. An' what's more, they can't no damn Injun come in here an' call me no——"
"Hold on!" The Texan shifted his glance to the croupier without easing the pressure on the gun. "If the sixteen win, what's the fifty bucks for? His stake's on the thirteen, ain't it?"
"What business you got, hornin' in on this? It hain't your funeral. You Texas tin-horns comes over here an' lose——"
"That'll be about all out of you. An' if I was in your boots I wouldn't go speakin' none frivolous about funerals, neither."
The smile was gone from the steel-grey eyes and the croupier experienced a sudden chilling in the pit of his stomach.
"Let's get down to cases," the cowpuncher continued. "I kind of got the Greaser into this here jack-pot an' it's up to me to get him out. He lays four bits on the thirteen—she pays thirty-five—that's seventeen-fifty. Eighteen, as she lays. The blame fool leaves it lay an' she win again—that's thirty-five times eighteen. Good Lord! An' without no pencil an' paper! We'll cut her up in chunks an' tackle her: let's see, ten times eighteen is one-eighty, an' three times that is—three times the hundred is three hundred, and three times the eighty is two-forty. That's five-forty, an' a half of one-eighty is ninety, an' five-forty is six-thirty. We'd ort to double it fer interest an' goodwill, but we'll leave it go at the reglar price. So, just you skin off six hundred an' thirty bucks, an' eighteen more, an' pass 'em acrost. An' do it pronto or somethin' might happen to Fatty right where he's thickest." The cowpuncher emphasized his remarks by boring the muzzle even deeper into the unctuous periphery of the proprietor. The croupier shot a questioning glance toward his employer.
"Shell it out! You fool!" grunted that worthy. "Fore this gun comes out my back. An', besides, it's cocked!" Without a word the croupier counted out the money, arranging it in little piles of gold and silver.
As the vagabond swept the coins into his battered Stetson the Texan gave a final twist to the six-gun. "If I was you, Fatty, I'd rub that there thirteen number off that wheel an' paint me a tripple-ought or mebbe, another eagle-bird onto it."
He turned to the man who stood grinning over his hatful of money:
"Come on, Pedro, me an' you're goin' away from here. The licker this hombre purveys will shore lead to bloodshed an' riotin', besides which it's onrespectable to gamble anyhow."
Pausing to throw the bridle reins over the horn of his saddle, the Texan linked his arm through that of his companion and proceeded down the street with the big black horse following like a dog. After several minutes of silence he stopped and regarded the other thoughtfully.
"Pedro," he said, "me an' you, fallin' heir to an onexpected legacy this way, it's fit an' proper we should celebrate accordin' to our lights. The common an' onchristian way would be to spliflicate around from one saloon to another 'till we'd took in the whole town an' acquired a couple of jags an' more or less onfavourable notoriety. Then, in a couple of days or two, we'd wake up with fur on our tongue an inch long an' our wealth divided amongst thieves. But, Pedro, such carryin's-on is ondecent an' improvident. Take them great captains of industry you read about! D'you reckon every pay-day old Andy Rockyfellow goes a rampin' down Main Street back there in Noo York, proclaimin' he's a wolf an' it's his night to howl? Not on your tintype, he don't! If he did he'd never of rose out of the rank an' file of the labourin' class, an' chances is, would of got fired out of that fer not showin' up at the corral Monday mornin'! Y'see I be'n a-readin' up on the lives of these here saints to kind of get a line on how they done it. Take that whole bunch an' they wasn't hardly a railroad nor a oil mill nor a steel factory between 'em when they was born. I got all their numbers. I know jest how they done it, an' when I get time I'm a-goin' out an' make the Guggenhimers cough up my share of Mexico an' the Rocky Mountains an' Alaska.
"But to get down to cases, as the preachers says: Old Andy he don't cantankerate none noticeable. When he feels needful of a jamboree he goes down to the bank an' fills his pockets an' a couple of valises with change, an' gum-shoes down to John D. Swab's, an' they hunt up Charley Carnage an' a couple of senators an' a rack of chips an' they finds 'em a back room, pulls off their collars an' coats an' goes to it. They ain't no kitty only to cover the needful expenses of drinks, eats, an' smokes—an' everything goes, from cold-decks to second-dealin'. Then when they've derove recreation enough, on goes their collars an' coats, an' they eat a handful of cloves an' get to work on the public again. They's a lot of money changes hands in these here sessions but it never gets out of the gang, an' after you get their brands you c'n generally always tell who got gouged by noticin' what goes up. If coal oil hists a couple of cents on the gallon you know Andy carried his valises home empty an' if railroad rates jumps—the senators got nicked a little, an' vicy versy. Now you an' me ain't captains of industry, nor nothin' else but our own soul, as the piece goes, but 'tain't no harm we should try a law-abidin' recreation, same as these others, an' mebbe after some practice we'll get to where the Guggenhimers will be figgerin' how to get the western hemisphere of North America back from us.
"It's like this. Me an' you'll stop in an' get us a couple of drinks. Then we'll hunt us up a hash-house an' put a big bate of ham an' aigs out of circulation, an' go get us a couple more drinks, an' heel ourselves with a deck of cards an' a couple bottles of cactus juice, an' hunt us up a place where we'll be ondisturbed by the riotorious carryin's-on of the frivolous-minded, an' we'll have us a two-handed poker game which no matter who wins we can't lose, like I was tellin' you, 'cause they can't no outside parties horn in on the profits. But first-off we'll hunt up a feed barn so Ace of Spades can load up on oats an' hay while we're havin' our party."
An hour later the Texan deposited a quart bottle, a rack of chips, and a deck of cards on a little deal table in the dingy back room of a saloon.
"I tell you, Pedro, they's a whole lot of fancy trimmin's this room ain't got, but it's quiet an' peaceable an' it'll suit our purpose to a gnat's hind leg." He dropped into a chair and reached for the rack of chips.
"It's a habit of mine to set facin' the door," he continued, as he proceeded to remove the disks and arrange them into stacks. "So if you got any choist just set down acrost the table there an' we'll start the festivities. I'll bank the game an' we'll take out a fifty-dollar stack an' play table stakes." He shoved three stacks of chips across the table. "Just come acrost with fifty bucks so's we c'n keep the bank straight an' go ahead an' deal. An' while you're a-doin' it, bein' as you're a pretty good Greaser, I'll just take a drink to you——"
"Greasaire, non! Me, A'm hate de damn Greasaire!"
The cowpuncher paused with the bottle half way to his lips and scrutinized the other: "I thought you was a little off colour an' talked kind of funny. What be you?"
"Me, A'm Blood breed. Ma fader she French. Ma moder she Blood Injun. A'm leeve een Montan' som'tam'—som'tam' een Canada. A'm no lak dees contrie! Too mooch hot. Too mooch Greasaire! Too mooch sheep. A'm lak I go back hom'. A'm ride for T. U. las' fall an' A'm talk to round-up cook, Walt Keeng, hees nam', an' he com' from Areezoon'. She no like Montan'. She say Areezoon' she bettaire—no fence—beeg range—plent' cattle. You goin' down dere an' git job you see de good contrie. You no com' back Nort' no more. So A'm goin' down w'en de col' wedder com' an' A'm git de job wit' ol' man Fisher on, w'at you call Yuma bench—Sacre!" The half-breed paused and wiped his face.
"Didn't you like it down Yuma Way?" Benton smiled.
"Lak it! Voila! No wataire! No snow! Too mooch, w'at you call, de leezard! Een de wintaire, A'm so Godamn hot A'm lak for die. Non! A'm com' way from dere. A'm goin' Nort' an' git me nodder job w'ere A'm git som' wataire som'tam'. Mebbe so git too mooch col' in wintaire, but, voila! Better A'm lak I freeze l'il bit as burn oop!"
The Texan laughed. "I don't blame you none. I never be'n down to Yuma but they tell me it's hell on wheels. Go ahead an' deal, Pedro."
"Pedro, non! Ma moder she nam' Moon Eye, an' ma fader she Cross-Cut Lajune. Derefor', A'm Batiste Xavier Jean Jacques de Beaumont Lajune."
The bottle thumped upon the table top.
"What the hell is that, a name or a song?"
"Me, das ma nam'—A'm call Batiste Xavier Jean——"
"Hold on there! If your ma or pa, or whichever one done the namin' didn't have no expurgated dictionary handy mebbe they ain't to blame—but from now on, between you an' me, you're Bat. That's name enough, an' the John Jack Judas Iscariot an' General Jackson part goes in the discards. An' bein' as this here is only a two-handed game, the discards is dead—— See?"
At the end of an hour the half-breed watched with a grin as the Texan raked in a huge pile of chips.
"Dat de las'," he said, "Me, A'm broke."
"Broke!" exclaimed the cowpuncher, "you don't mean you've done lost all that there six hundred an' forty-eight bucks?" He counted the little piles of silver and gold, which the half-breed had shoved across the board in return for stack after stack of chips.
"Six-forty-two," he totalled. "Let's see, supper was a dollar an' four bits, drinks two dollars, an' two dollars for this bottle of prune-juice that's about gone already, an'—Hey, Bat, you're four bits shy! Frisk yourself an' I'll play you a showdown for them four bits." The other grinned and held a silver half dollar between his finger and thumb.
"Non! A'm ke'p dat four bit! Dat lucky four bit. A'm ponch hole in heem an' car' heem roun' ma neck lak' de medicine bag. A'm gon' back Nort'—me! A'm got no frien's. You de only friend A'm got. You give me de las' four bit. You, give me de honch to play de t'irteen. A'm git reech, an' den you mak' de bank, w'at you call, com' 'crost. Now A'm goin' back to Montan' an' git me de job. Wat de hell!"
"Where's your outfit?" asked the Texan as he carefully stowed the money in his pockets.
"Ha! Ma outfeet—A'm sell dat outfeet to git de money to com' back hom'. A'm play wan leetle gam' coon can an' voila! A'm got no money. De damn Greasaire she ween dat money an' A'm broke. A'm com' som'tam' on de freight train—som'tam' walk, an' A'm git dees far. Tomor' A'm git de freight train goin' Nort' an' som'tam' A'm git to Montan'. Eet ees ver' far, but mebbe-so A'm git dere for fall round-up. An' Ba Goss, A'm nevaire com' sout' no mor'. Too mooch hot! Too mooch no wataire! Too mooch, w'at you call, de pizen boog—mebbe-so in de bed—in de pants—in de boot—you git bite an' den you got to die! Voila! Wat de hell!"
The Texan laughed and reaching into his pocket drew out two twenty dollar gold pieces and a ten which thudded upon the table before the astonished eyes of the half-breed.
"Here, Bat, you're a damn good Injun! You're plumb squanderous with your money, but you're a good sport. Take that an' buy you a ticket to as far North as it'll get you. Fifty bucks ort to buy a whole lot of car ridin'. An' don't you stop to do no gamblin', neither—— Ain't I told you it's onrespectable an' divertin' to morals? If you don't sabe coon can no better'n what you do poker, you stand about as much show amongst these here Greasers as a rabbit in a coyote patch. It was a shame to take your money this way, but bein' as you're half-white it was up to me to save you the humiliatin' agony of losin' it to Greasers."
The half-breed pocketed the coins as the other buttoned his shirt and took another long pull at the bottle.
"Wer' you goin' now?" he asked as the cowpuncher started for the door. The man paused and regarded him critically. "First off, I'm goin' to get my horse. An' then me an' you is goin' down to the depot an' you're a-goin' to buy that there ticket. I'm a-goin' to see that you get it ironclad an' onredeemable, I ain't got no confidence in no gambler an' bein' as I've took a sort of likin' to you, I hate to think of you a-walkin' clean to Montana in them high-heeled boots. After that I'm a-goin' to start out an' examine this here town of Las Vegas lengthways, crossways, down through the middle, an' both sides of the crick. An' when that's off my mind, I'm a-goin' to begin on the rest of the world." He moved his arm comprehensively and reached for the bottle.
"You wait right here till I get old Ace of Spades," he continued solemnly when he had rasped the raw liquor from his throat. "If you ain't here when I come back I'll swallow-fork your ears with this here gat just to see if my shootin' eye is in practice. The last time I done any fancy shootin' I was kind of wild—kep' a-hittin' a little to one side an' the other—not much, only about an inch or so—but it wasn't right good shootin'."
The half-breed grinned: "A'm stay here till you com' back. A'm fin' dat you ma frien'. A'm lak' you, bien!"
When the Texan returned, fifteen minutes later, the man of many names was gone. "It's just like I said, you can't trust no gambler," he muttered, with a doleful nod of the head. "He's pulled out on me, but he better not infest the usual marts of midnight. 'Cause I'm a-goin' to start out an' take in everything that's open in this man's town, an' if I find him I'll just nachelly show him the onprincipledness of lyin' to a friend."
Stepping to the bar he bought a drink and a moment later swung onto the big rangy black and clattered down the street. At the edge of the town he turned and started slowly back, dismounting wherever the lights of a saloon illumined the dingy street, but never once catching a glimpse of the figure that followed in the thick blackness of the shadows. Before the saloon of the surly proprietor the cowpuncher brought his big black to a stand and sat contemplating the sorrel that stood dejectedly with ears adroop and one hind foot resting lightly upon the toe.
"So that's the cayuse Fatty wanted to trade me for Ace of Spades!" he snorted. "That dog-legged, pot-gutted, lop-eared patch of red he offers to trade to me fer Ace of Spades! It's a doggone insult! I didn't know it at the time, havin' only a couple of drinks, an' too sober to judge a insult when I seen one. But it's different now, I can see it in the dark. I'm a-goin' in there an'—an' twist his nose off an' feed it to him. But first I got to find old Bat. He's an Injun, but he's a good old scout, an' I hate to think of him walkin' all the way to Montana while some damn Greaser is spendin' my hard earned samolians that I give him for carfare. It's a long walk to Montana. Plumb through Colorado an' Wyomin' an'—an' New Jersey, or somewheres. Mebbe he's in there now. As they say in the Bible, or somewheres, you got to hunt for a thing where you find it, or something. Hold still, there you black devil you! What you want to stand there spinnin' 'round like a top for? You be'n drinkin', you doggone old ringtail! What was I goin' to do, now. Oh, yes, twist Patty's nose, an' find Bat an' shoot at his ears a while, an' make him get his ticket to New Jersey an'——
"This is a blame slow old town, she needs wakin' up, anyhow. If I ride in that door I'll get scraped off like mud off a boot."
He spurred the black and brought him up with a jerk beside the sorrel which snorted and reared back, snapping the reins with which he had been tied, and stood with distended nostrils sniffing inquiringly at Ace of Spades as the cowpuncher swung to the ground.
"Woke up, didn't you, you old stager? Y'ain't so bad lookin' when you're alive. Patty'll have to get him a new pair of bridle reins. Mebbe the whole town'll look better if it's woke up some.
"Y-e-e-e-e-o-w! Cowboys a-comin'!"
A citizen or two paused on the street corner, a few Mexicans grinned as they drew back to allow the Gringo free access to the saloon, and a swarthy figure slipped unobserved across the street and blended into the shadow of the adobe wall.
"O-o-o-o-o-h, the yaller r-o-s-e of Texas!" sang the cowpuncher, with joyous vehemence. As he stepped into the room, his eyes swept the faces of the gamblers and again he burst into vociferous song:
"O-o-o-o-o-h, w-h-e-r-e is my wanderin' b-o-y tonight?"
"Hey, you! Whad'ye think this is, a camp meetin'?"
The Texan faced the speaker. "Well, if it ain't my old college chum! Fatty, I stopped in a purpose to see you. An' besides which, by the unalien rights of the Constitution an' By-laws of this here United States of Texas, a man's got a right to sing whatever song suits him irregardless of sex or opportunity." The other glared malevolently as the cowpuncher approached the bar with a grin. "Don't bite yourself an' die of hydrophobia before your eggication is complete, which it ain't till you've learnt never to insult no Texas man by offerin' to trade no rat-tailed, ewe-necked old buzzard fodder fer a top Texas horse.
"Drop that mallet! An' don't go reachin-' around in under that bar, 'cause if you find what you're huntin' fer you're a-goin' to see fer yourself if every cloud's got a silver linin'. 'Tend to business now, an' set out a bottle of your famous ol' Las Vegas stummick shellac an' while I'm imbibin' of its umbilical ambrosier, I'll jest onscrew your nose an' feed it to the cat."
Sweat stood out upon the forehead of the heavy-paunched proprietor as with a flabby-faced grin he set out the bottle. But the Texan caught the snake-like flash of the eyes with which the man signalled to the croupier across the room. Gun in hand, he whirled:
"No, you don't, Toney!" An ugly blue-black automatic dropped to the floor and the croupier's hands flew ceilingward.
"I never seen such an outfit to be always a-reachin'," grinned the cowpuncher. "Well, if there ain't the ol' eagle-bird wheel! Give her a spin, Toney! They say you can't hit an eagle on the fly with a six-gun, but I'm willin' to try! Spin her good, 'cause I don't want no onfair advantage of that there noble bird. Stand back, Greasers, so you don't get nicked!"
As the croupier spun the wheel, three shots rang in an almost continuous explosion and the gamblers fell over each other in an effort to dodge the flying splinters that filled the powder-fogged air.
"Little black bull slid down the mountain, L-o-n-g t-i-m-e ago!"
roared the Texan as he threw open the cylinder of his gun.
"H-e-e-e-e scraped his horn on a hickory saplin', L-o-n-g t-i-m-e ago——"
There was a sudden commotion behind him, a swift rush of feet, a muffled thud, and a gasping, agonized grunt. The next instant the huge acetelyne lamp that lighted the room fell to the floor with a crash and the place was plunged in darkness.
"Queek, m's'u, dees way!" a hand grasped his wrist and the cowpuncher felt himself drawn swiftly toward the door. From all sides sounded the scuffling of straining men who breathed heavily as they fought in the blackness.
A thin red flame cut the air and a shot rang sharp. Someone screamed and a string of Spanish curses blended into the hubbub of turmoil.
"De hosses, queek, m's'u!"
The cool air of the street fanned the Texan's face as he leaped across the sidewalk, and vaulted into the saddle. The next moment the big black was pounding the roadway neck and neck with another, smaller horse upon which the half-breed swayed in the saddle with the ease and grace of the loose-rein rider born.
It was broad daylight when the cowpuncher opened his eyes in an arroyo deep among the hills far, far from Las Vegas. He rubbed his forehead tenderly, and crawling to a spring a few feet distant, buried his face in the tiny pool and drank deeply of the refreshing liquid. Very deliberately he dried his face on a blue handkerchief, and fumbled in his pockets for papers and tobacco. As he blew the grey smoke from his nostrils he watched the half-breed who sat nearby industriously splicing a pair of broken bridle reins.
"Did you get that ticket, Bat?" he asked, with a hand pressed tightly against his aching forehead.
The other grinned. "Me, A'm no wan' no ticket. A'm lak A'm stay wit' you, an' mebbe-so we git de job togedder."
The cowpuncher smoked for a time in silence.
"What was the rookus last night?" he asked, indifferently. Then, suddenly, his eye fell upon the sorrel that snipped grass at the end of a lariat rope near the picketed black, and he leaped to his feet. "Where'd you get that horse?" he exclaimed sharply. "It's Fatty's! There's the reins he busted when he snorted loose!"
Again the half-breed grinned. "A'm bor' dat hoss for com' 'long wit' you. Dat Fatty, she damn bad man. She try for keel you w'en you tak' de shot at de wheel. A'm com' 'long dat time an' A'm keek heem in de guts an' he roll 'roun' on de floor, an' A'm t'row de bottle of wheesky an' smash de beeg lamp an' we com' 'long out of dere." The cowpuncher tossed his cigarette away and spat upon the ground.
"How'd you happen to come in there so handy just at the right time?" he asked with a sidewise glance at the half-breed.
"Oh, A'm fol' you long tam'. A'm t'ink mebbe-so you git l'il too mooch hooch an' som'one try for do you oop. A'm p'ek in de door an' seen Fatty gon' shoot you. Dat mak' me mad lak hell, an' A'm run oop an' keek heem so hard I kin on hees belly. You ma frien'. A'm no lak I seen you git keel."
The Texan nodded. "I see. You're a damn good Injun, Bat, an' I ain't got no kick comin' onto the way you took charge of proceedin's. But you sure raised hell when you stole that horse. They's prob'ly about thirty-seven men an' a sheriff a-combin' these here hills fer us at this partic'lar minute an' when they catch us——"
The half-breed laughed. "Dem no ketch. We com' feefty mile. Dat leetle hoss she damn good hoss. We got de two bes' hoss. We ke'p goin' dey no ketch. 'Spose dey do ketch. Me, A'm tell 'em A'm steal dat hoss an' you not know nuthin' 'bout dat."
There was a twinkle in the Texan's eye as he yawned and stretched prodigiously. "An' I'll tell 'em you're the damnedest liar in the state of Texas an' North America throw'd in. Come on, now, you throw the shells on them horses an' we'll be scratchin' gravel. Fifty miles ain't no hell of a ways—my throat's beginnin' to feel kind of draw'd already."
"W'er' we goin'?" asked the half-breed as they swung into the saddles.
"Bat," said the other, solemnly, "me an' you is goin' fast, an' we're goin' a long time. You mentioned somethin' about Montana bein' considerable of a cow country. Well, me an' you is a-goin' North—as far North as cattle is—an' we're right now on our way!"
THE TRAIN STOPS
"I don't see why they had to build their old railroad down in the bottom of this river bed." With deft fingers Alice Marcum caught back a wind-tossed whisp of hair. "It's like travelling through a trough."
"Line of the least resistance," answered her companion as he rested an arm upon the polished brass guard rail of the observation car. "This river bed, running east and west, saved them millions in bridges."
The girl's eyes sought the sky-line of the bench that rose on both sides of the mile-wide valley through which the track of the great transcontinental railroad wound like a yellow serpent.
"It's level up there. Why couldn't they have built it along the edge?"
The man smiled: "And bridged all those ravines!" he pointed to gaps and notches in the level sky-line where the mouths of creek beds and coulees flashed glimpses of far mountains. "Each one of those ravines would have meant a trestle and trestles run into big money."
"And so they built the railroad down here in this ditch where people have to sit and swelter and look at their old shiny rails and scraggly green bushes and dirt walls, while up there only a half a mile away the great rolling plains stretch away to the mountains that seem so near you could walk to them in an hour."
"But, my dear girl, it would not be practical. Railroads are built primarily with an eye to dividends and—" The girl interrupted him with a gesture of impatience.
"I hate things that are practical—hate even the word. There is nothing in all the world so deadly as practicability. It is ruthless and ugly. It disregards art and beauty and all the higher things that make life worth living. It is a monster whose god is dollars—and who serves that god well. What does any tourist know of the real West—the West that lies beyond those level rims of dirt? How much do you or I know of it? The West to us is a thin row of scrub bushes along a narrow, shallow river, with a few little white-painted towns sprinkled along, that for all we can see might be in Illinois or Ohio. I've been away a whole winter and for all the West I've seen I might as well have stayed in Brooklyn."
"But certainly you enjoyed California!"
"California! Yes, as California. But California isn't the West! California is New York with a few orange groves thrown in. It is a tourist's paradise. A combination of New York and Palm Beach. The real West lies east of the Rockies, the uncommercialized, unexploited—I suppose you would add, the unpractical West. A New Yorker gets as good an idea of the West when he travels by train to California as a Californian would get of New York were he to arrive by way of the tube and spend the winter in the Fritz-Waldmore."
"I rather liked California, what little I saw of it. A business trip does not afford an ideal opportunity for sight seeing."
"You like Newport and Palm Beach, too."
The man ignored the interruption.
"But, at least, this trip has combined a good bit of business with a very big bit of pleasure. It is two years since I have seen you and——"
"And so you're going to tell me for the twenty-sixth time in three days that you still love me, and that you want me to marry you, and I'll have to say 'no' again, and explain that I'm not ready to marry anybody." She regarded him with an air of mock solemnity. "But really Mr. Winthrop Adams Endicott I think you have improved since you struck out for yourself into the wilds of—where was it, Ohio, or some place."
"Cincinnati," answered the man a trifle stiffly. The girl shuddered. "I had to change cars there once." Again she eyed him critically. "Yes, two years have made a really noticeable improvement. Do the Cincinnati newspapers always remember to use your whole name or do they dare to refer to Winthrop A. Endicott. If I were a reporter I really believe I'd try it once. If you keep on improving, some day somebody is going to call you Win."
The man flushed: "Are you never serious?" he asked.
"Never more so than this minute."
"You say you are not ready to many. You expect to marry, then, sometime?"
"I don't expect to. I'm going to."
"Will you marry me when you are ready?"
The girl laughed. "Yes, if I can't find the man I want, I think I shall. But he must be somewhere," she continued, after a pause during which her eyes centred upon the point where the two gleaming rails vanished into the distance. "He must be impractical, and human, and—and elemental. I'd rather be smashed to pieces in the Grand Canyon, than live for ever on the Erie Canal!"
"Aren't you rather unconventional in your tastes——?"
"If I'm not, I'm a total failure! I hate conventionality! And lines of least resistance! And practical things! It is the men who are the real sticklers for convention. The same kind of men that follow the lines of least resistance and build their railroads along them—because it is practical!
"I don't see why you want to marry me!" she burst out resentfully. "I'm not conventional, nor practical. And I'm not a line of least resistance!"
"But I love you. I have always loved you, and——"
The girl interrupted him with a quick little laugh, which held no trace of resentment. "Yes, yes, I know. I believe you do. And I'm glad because really, Winthrop, you're a dear. There are lots of things about you I admire. Your teeth, and eyes, and the way you wear your clothes. If you weren't so terribly conventional, so cut and dried, and matter of fact, and safe, I might fall really and truly in love with you. But—Oh, I don't know! Here I am, twenty-three. And I suppose I'm a little fool and have never grown up. I like to read stories about knights errant, and burglars, and fair ladies, and pirates, and mysterious dark oriental-looking men. And I like to go to places where everybody don't go—only Dad won't let me and—— Why just think!" she exclaimed in sudden wrath, "I've been in California for three months and I've ridden over the same trails everybody else has ridden over, and motored over the same roads and climbed the same mountains, and bathed at the same beach, and I've met everybody I ever knew in New York, just as I would have met them in Newport or Palm Beach or in Paris or Venice or Naples for that matter!"
"But why go off the beaten track where everything is arranged for your convenience? These people are experienced travellers. They know that by keeping to the conventional routes——-"
"Winthrop Adams Endicott, if you say that word again I'll shriek! Or I'll go in from this platform and not speak to you again—ever! You know very well that there isn't a traveller among them. They're just tourists—professional goers. They do the same things, and say the same things, and if they could think, they'd think the same things every place they go. And I don't want things arranged for my convenience—so there!"
Winthrop Adams Endicott lighted a cigarette, brushed some white dust from his sleeve, and smiled.
"If I were a man and loved a girl so very, very much I wouldn't just sit around and grin. I'd do something!"
"But, my dear Alice, what would you have me do? I'm not a knight errant, nor a burglar, nor a pirate, nor a dark mysterious oriental—I'm just a plain ordinary business man and——"
"Well, I'd do something—even if it was something awful like getting drunk or shooting somebody. Why, if you even had a past you wouldn't be so hopeless. I could love a man with a past. It would show at least, that he hadn't followed the line of the least resistance. The world is full of canals—but there are only a few canyons. Look! I believe we're stopping! Oh, I hope it's a hold-up! What will you do if it is?" The train slowed to a standstill and Winthrop Adams Endicott leaned out and gazed along the line of the coaches.
"There is a little town here. Seems to be some commotion up ahead—quite a crowd. If I can get this blamed gate open we can go up and see what the trouble is."
"And if you can't get it open you can climb over and lift me down. I'm just dying to know what's the matter. And if you dare to say it wouldn't be conventional I'll—I'll jump!"
A uniformed flagman, with his flag and a handful of torpedoes swung from the platform and started up the track.
"What's the trouble up in front?" asked the girl as Endicott assisted her to the ground.
"Cloud busted back in the mountains, an' washed out the trussle, an' Second Seventy-six piled up in the river."
"Oh, a wreck?" she exclaimed. "Will we have time to go up and see it?"
"I'd say it's a wreck," grinned the trainman. "An' you've got all the time you want. We're a-goin' to pull in on the sidin' an' let the wrecker an' bridge crew at it. But even with 'em a-workin' from both ends it'll be tomorrow sometime 'fore they c'n get them box cars drug out an' a temp'ry trussle throw'd acrost."
"What town is this?"
"Town! Call it a town if you want to. It's Wolf River. It's a shippin' point fer cattle, but it hain't no more a town 'n what the crick's a river. The trussle that washed out crosses the crick just above where it empties into Milk River. I've railroaded through here goin' on three years an' I never seen no water in it to speak of before, an' mostly it's plumb dry."
The man sauntered slowly up the track as one who performs a merely nominal duty, and the girl turned to follow Endicott. "It would have been easier to walk through the train," he ventured, as he picked his way over the rough track ballast.
"Still seeking the line of least resistance," mocked the girl. "We can walk through a train any time. But we can't breathe air like this, and, see,—through that gap—the blue of the distant mountains!"
The man removed his hat and dabbed at his forehead with a handkerchief. "It's awfully hot, and I have managed to secrete a considerable portion of the railroad company's gravel in my shoes."
"Don't mind a little thing like that," retorted the girl sweetly. "I've peeled the toes of both of mine. They look like they had scarlet fever."
Passengers were alighting all along the train and hurrying forward to join those who crowded the scene of the wreck.
"It was a narrow escape for us," said Endicott as the two looked down upon the mass of broken cars about which the rapidly falling waters of the stream gurgled and swirled. "Had we not been running an hour late this train would in all probability, have plunged through the trestle."
"Was anybody hurt?" asked the girl. The train conductor nodded toward the heap of debris.
"No'm, the crew jumped. The fireman an' head brakeman broke a leg apiece, an' the rest got bunged up a little; but they wasn't no one hurt.
"I was just tellin' these folks," he continued, "that they'll be a train along on the other side in a couple of hours for to transfer the passengers an' mail."
The girl turned to Endicott. "There isn't much to see here," she said. "Let's look around. It's such a funny little town. I want to buy something at the store. And, there's a livery stable! Maybe we can hire horses and ride out where we can get a view of the mountains."
As the two turned toward the little cluster of frame buildings, a tall, horse-faced man clambered onto the pilot of the passenger locomotive and, removing his hat, proceeded to harangue the crowd. As they paused to listen Alice stared in fascination at the enormous Adam's apple that worked, piston-like above the neckband of the collarless shirt of vivid checks.
"Ladies an' gents," he began, with a comprehensive wave of the soft-brimmed hat. "Wolf River welcomes you in our town. An' while you're amongst us we aim to show you one an' all a good time. This here desastorious wreck may turn out to be a blessin' in disguise. As the Good Book says, it come at a most provincial time. Wolf River, ladies an' gents, is celebratin', this afternoon an' evenin', a event that marks an' epykak in our historious career: The openin' of the Wolf River Citizen's Bank, a reg'lar bonyfido bank with vaults, cashier, an' a board of directors consistin' of her leadinist citizens, with the Honorable Mayor Maloney president, which I introdoose myself as.
"In concludin' I repeet that this here is ondoubtfully the luckiest wreck in the lives of any one of you, which it gives you a unpressagented chanct to see with your own eyes a hustlin' Western town that hain't ashamed to stand on her own legs an' lead the world along the trail to prosperity.
"Wolf River hain't a braggin' town, ladies an' gents, but I defy any one of you to name another town that's got more adjacent an' contigitus territory over which to grow onto. We freely admit they's a few onconsequential improvements which is possessed by some bigger an' more notorious cities such as sidewalks, sewers, street-gradin', an' lights that we hain't got yet. But Wolf River is a day an' night town, ladies an' gents, combinin' business with pleasure in just the right perportion, which it's plain to anyone that takes the trouble to investigate our shippin' corrals, four general stores, one hotel, an' seven saloons, all of which runs wide open twenty-four hours a day an' is accommodated with faro, roulette, an' poker outfits fer the benefit of them that's so inclined to back their judgment with a little money.
"In concloodin' I'll say that owin' to the openin' of the bank about which I was tellin' you of, Wolf River is holdin' the followin' programme which it's free to everyone to enter into or to look on at.
"They'll be a ropin' contest, in which some of our most notorious ropers will rope, throw, an' hog-tie a steer, in the least shortness of time. The prizes fer this here contest is: First prize, ten dollars, doneated by the directors of the bank fer which's openin' this celebration is held in honour of. Second prize, one pair of pants doneated by the Montana Mercantile Company. Third prize, one quart of bottle in bond whiskey doneated by our pop'lar townsman an' leadin' citizen, Mr. Jake Grimshaw, proprietor of The Long Horn Saloon.
"The next contest is a buckin' contest, in which some of our most notorious riders will ride or get bucked offen some of our most fameous outlaw horses. The prizes fer this here contest is: First, a pair of angory chaps, doneated by the directors of the bank about which I have spoke of before. Second prize, a pair of spurs doneated by the Wolf River Tradin' Company. Third prize, a coffin that was ordered by Sam Long's wife from the Valley Outfittin' Company, when Sam had the apendiceetis of the stummick, an' fer which Sam refused to pay fer when he got well contrary to expectations.
"Both these here contests is open to ladies an' gents, both of which is invited to enter. They will also be hoss racin', fancy an' trick ridin', an' shootin', fer all of which sootable prizes has be'n pervided, as well as fer the best lookin' man an' the homliest lady an' vicy versy. Any lady or gent attendin' these here contests will be gave out a ticket good fer one drink at any saloon in town. These drinks is on the directors of the bank of which I have before referred to.
"An', ladies an' gents, in concloodin' I'll say that that hain't all! Follerin' these here contests, after each an' every lady an' gent has had time to git their drink they'll be a supper dished out at the hootel fer which the directors of the bank of which you have already heard mention of has put up fifty cents a plate. This here supper is as free as gratis to all who care to percipitate an' which will incloode a speech by the Honorable Mayor Maloney, part of which I have already spoke, but will repeat fer the benefit of them that hain't here.
"Followin' the supper a dance will be pulled off in Curly Hardee's dance-hall, the music fer which will be furnished by some of our most notorious fiddlers incloodin' Mrs. Slim Maloney, wife of the Honorable Mayor Maloney, who will lead the grand march, an' who I consider one of the top pyanoists of Choteau County, if not in the hull United States. It is a personal fact ladies an' gents, that I've heard her set down to a pyano an' play Old Black Joe so natural you'd swear it was Home Sweet Home. An' when she gits het up to it, I'll promise she'll loosen up an' tear off some of the liveliest music any one of you's ever shook a leg to.
"An' now, ladies an' gents, you can transfer an' go on when the train pulls in on t'other side, or yon can stay an' enjoy yourselves amongst us Wolf River folks an' go on tomorrow when the trussle gits fixed——"
Bang, bang, bang! Bang, bang, bang! A chorus of wild yells, a fusillade of shots, and the thud of horses' hoofs close at hand drew all eyes toward the group of riders that, spreading fan-like over the flat that lay between the town and the railway, approached at top speed.
"The cowboys is comin'! Them's the Circle J," cried the Mayor. "Things'll lively up a bit when the T U an' the I X an' the Bear Paw Pool boys gits in." The cowboys were close, now, and the laughing, cheering passengers surged back as the horses swerved at full speed with the stirrups of their riders almost brushing the outermost rank of the crowd. A long thin rope shot out, a loop settled gently about the shoulders of the Mayor of Wolf River, and a cowhorse stopped so abruptly that a cloud of alkali dust spurted up and settled in a grey powder over the clothing of the assembled passengers.
"Come on, Slim, an' give these folks a chance to get their second wind while you let a little licker into that system of yours."
The Mayor grinned; "Tex Benton, hain't you had no bringin' up whatever? That was a pretty throw but it's onrespectable, no mor'n what it's respectable to call the Mayor of a place by his first name to a public meetin'."
"I plumb ferget myself, your Honour," laughed the cowpuncher as he coiled his rope. "Fact is, I learnt to rope mares back in Texas, an' I ain't——"
"Ropin' mares!" The cowboys broke into a coyote chorus that drowned the laughter of the crowd.
"The drinks is on me!" sputtered the Mayor, when he was able to make himself heard. "Jest you boys high-tail over to the Long Horn an' I'll be along d'rectly." He turned once more to the crowd of passengers.
"Come on, gents, an' have a drink on me. An' the ladies is welcome, too. Wolf River is broad in her idees. We hain't got no sexual restrictions, an' a lady's got as good a right to front a bar an' nominate her licker as what a man has."
Standing beside Endicott upon the edge of the crowd Alice Marcum had enjoyed herself hugely. The little wooden town with its high fenced cattle corrals, and its row of one story buildings that faced the alkali flat had interested her from the first, and she had joined with hearty goodwill in the rounds of applause that at frequent intervals had interrupted the speech of the little town's Mayor. A born horsewoman, she had watched with breathless admiration the onrush of the loose-rein riders—the graceful swaying of their bodies, and the flapping of soft hat brims, as their horses approached with a thunder of pounding hoofs. Her eyes had sparkled at the reckless swerving of the horses when it seemed that the next moment the back-surging crowd would be trampled into the ground. She had wondered at the precision with which the Texan's loop fell; and had joined heartily in the laughter that greeted the ludicrous and red-faced indignation with which a fat woman had crawled from beneath a coach whither she had sought refuge from the onrush of thundering hoofs.
In the mind of the girl, cowboys had always been associated with motion picture theatres, where concourses of circus riders in impossible regalia performed impossible feats of horsemanship in the unravelling of impossible plots. She had never thought of them as real—or, if she had, it was as a vanished race, like the Aztec and the buffalo.
But here were real cowboys in the flesh: Open-throated, bronzed man, free and unrestrained as the air they breathed—men whose very appearance called to mind boundless open spaces, purple sage, blue mountains, and herds of bellowing cattle. Here were men bound by no petty and meaningless conventions—men the very sight of whom served to stimulate and intensify the longing to see for herself the land beyond the valley rims—to slip into a saddle and ride, and ride, and ride—to feel the beat of the rain against her face, and the whip of the wind, and the burning rays of the sun, and at night to lie under the winking stars and listen to the howl of the coyotes.
"Disgusting rowdies!" wheezed the fat woman as, dishevelled and perspiring, she waddled toward the steps of her coach; while the Mayor, his Adam's apple fairly pumping importance, led a sturdy band of thirsters recruited from among the train passengers across the flat toward a building over the door of which was fixed a pair of horns of prodigious spread. Lest some pilgrim of erring judgment should mistake the horns for short ones, or misapprehend the nature of the business conducted within, the white false front of the building proclaimed in letters of black a foot high: LONG HORN SALOON. While beneath the legend was depicted a fat, vermilion clad cowboy mounted upon a tarantula-bodied, ass-eared horse of pink, in the act of hurling a cable-like rope which by some prodigy of dexterity was made to describe three double-bows and a latigo knot before its loop managed to poise in mid-air above the head of a rabbit-sized baby-blue steer whose horns exceeded in length the pair of Texas monstrosities that graced the doorway.
"We're goin' to back onto the sidin' now," announced the conductor, "where dinner will be served in the dinin' car as ushool."
The cowboys had moved along to view the wreck and were grouped about the broken end of the trestle where they lolled in their saddles, some with a leg thrown carelessly about the horn and others lying back over the cantle, while the horses which a few moments before had dashed across the common at top speed now stood with lowered heads and drooping ears, dreaming cayuse dreams.
The engine bell was ringing monotonously and the whistle sounded three short blasts, while the passengers clambered up the steps of the coaches or backed away from the track.
"Let's walk to the side track, it's only a little way."
Alice pointed to where the flagman stood beside the open switch. Endicott nodded acquiescence and as he turned to follow, the girl's handkerchief dropped from her hand and, before it touched the ground, was caught by a gust of wind that swept beneath the coaches and whirled out onto the flat where it lay, a tiny square of white against the trampled buffalo grass.
Endicott started to retrieve it, but before he had taken a half-dozen steps there was a swift pounding of hoofs and two horses shot out from the group of cowboys and dashed at full speed, their riders low in the saddle and each with his gaze fixed on the tiny bit of white fabric. Nose and nose the horses ran, their hoofs raising a cloud of white alkali dust in their wake. Suddenly, just as they reached the handkerchief, the girl who watched with breathless interest gasped. The saddles were empty! From the madly racing horses her glance flew to the cloud of dust which concealed the spot where a moment before had lain that little patch of white. Her fingers clenched as she steeled herself to the sight of the two limp, twisted forms that the lifting dust cloud must reveal. Scarcely daring to wink she fixed her eyes upon the ground—but the dust cloud had drifted away and there were no limp, twisted forms. Even the little square of white was gone. In bewilderment she heard cries of approval and loud shouts of applause from the passengers. Once more her ears caught the sound of pounding hoofs, and circling toward her in a wide curve were the two riders, erect and firm in their saddles, as a gauntleted hand held high a fluttering scrap of white.
The horses brought up directly before her, a Stetson was swept from a thick shock of curly black hair, the gauntleted hand extended the recalcitrant handkerchief, and she found herself blushing furiously for no reason at all beneath the direct gaze of a pair of very black eyes that looked out from a face tanned to the colour of old mahogany.
"Oh, thank you! It was splendid—the horsemanship." She stammered. "I've seen it in the movies, but I didn't know it was actually done in real life."
"Yes, mom, it is. It's owin' to the horse yeh've got, an' yer cinch. Yeh'll see a heap better'n that this afternoon right on this here flat. An' would yeh be layin' over fer the dance tonight, mom?"
The abrupt question was even more disconcerting than the compelling directness of his gaze.
For an instant, the girl hesitated as her eyes swept from the cowpuncher's face to the brilliant scarf loosely knotted about his throat, the blue flannel shirt, the bright yellow angora chaps against which the ivory butt of a revolver showed a splotch of white, and the boots jammed into the broad wooden stirrups, to their high heels from which protruded a pair of enormously rowelled spurs inlaid with silver. By her side Endicott moved impatiently and cleared his throat.
She answered without hesitation. "Yes, I think I shall."
"I'd admire fer a dance with yeh, then," persisted the cowpuncher.
"Why—certainly. That is, if I really decide to stay."
"We'll try fer to show yeh a good time, mom. They'll be some right lively fiddlin', an' she don't bust up till daylight."
With a smile the girl glanced toward the other rider who sat with an air of tolerant amusement. She recognized him as the man called Tex—the one who had so deftly dropped his loop over the shoulders of the Mayor, and noted that, in comparison with the other, he presented rather a sorry appearance. The heels of his boots were slightly run over. His spurs were of dingy steel and his leather chaps, laced up the sides with rawhide thongs looked as though they had seen much service. The scarf at his throat, however, was as vivid as his companion's and something in the flash of the grey eyes that looked into hers from beneath the broad brim of the Stetson caused an inexplicable feeling of discomfort. Their gaze held a suspicion of veiled mockery, and the clean cut lips twisted at their comers into the semblance of a cynical, smiling sneer.
"I want to thank you, too," she smiled, "it wasn't your fault your friend——"
"Jack Purdy's my name, mom," interrupted the other, importantly.
"—that Mr. Purdy beat you, I am sure. And are you always as accurate as when you lassoed the honourable Mayor of Wolf River?"
"I always get what I go after—sometimes," answered the man meeting her gaze with a flash of the baffling grey eyes. A subtle something, in look or words, seemed a challenge. Instinctively she realized that despite his rough exterior here was a man infinitely less crude than the other. An ordinary cowpuncher, to all appearance, and yet—something in the flash of the eyes, the downward curve of the corners of the lips aroused the girl's interest. He was speaking again:
"I'll dance with you, too—if you stay. But I won't mortgage none of your time in advance." The man's glance shifted deliberately from the girl to Endicott and back to the girl again. Then, without waiting for her to reply, he whirled his horse and swung off at top speed to join the other cowpunchers who were racing in the wake of the Mayor.
Some moments later, Jack Purdy nosed his horse into the group of cayuses that stood with reins hanging, "tied to the ground," in front of the Long Horn Saloon. Beyond the open doors sounded a babel of voices and he could see the men lined two deep before the bar.
Swinging from the saddle he threw the stirrup over the seat and became immediately absorbed in the readjustment of his latigo strap. Close beside him Tex Benton's horse dozed with drooping head. Swiftly a hand whose palm concealed an open jack-knife slipped beneath the Texan's right stirrup-leather and a moment later was withdrawn as the cayuse, suspicious of the fumbling on the wrong side of the saddle, snorted nervously and sheered sharply against another horse which with an angry squeal, a laying back of the ears, and a vicious snap of the teeth, resented the intrusion. Purdy jerked sharply at the reins of his own horse which caused that animal to rear back and pull away.
"Whoa, there! Yeh imp of hell!" he rasped, in tones loud enough to account for the commotion among the horses, and slipping the knife into his pocket, entered the saloon from which he emerged unobserved while the boisterous crowd was refilling its glasses at the solicitation of a white goods drummer who had been among the first to accept the invitation of the Mayor.
Three doors up the street he entered a rival saloon where the bartender was idly arranging his glasses on the back-bar in anticipation of the inevitable rush of business which would descend upon him when the spirit should move the crowd in the Long Horn to start "going the rounds."
"Hello, Cinnabar!" The cowpuncher leaned an elbow on the bar, elevated a foot to the rail, and producing tobacco and a book of brown papers, proceeded to roll a cigarette. The bartender returned the greeting and shot the other a keen glance from the corner of his eye as he set out a bottle and a couple of glasses.
"Be'n down to the wreck?" he asked, with professional disinterestedness. The cowpuncher nodded, lighted his cigarette, and picking the bottle up by the neck, poured a few drops into his glass. "Pretty bad pile-up," persisted the bartender as he measured out his own drink. "Two or three of the train crew got busted up pretty bad. They say——
"Aw, choke off! What the hell do I care what they say? Nor how bad the train crew got busted up, nor how bad they didn't?" Purdy tapped the bar with his glass as his black eyes fixed the other with a level stare. "I came over fer a little talk with yeh, private. I'm a-goin' to win that buckin' contest—an' yer goin' to help me—sabe?"
The bartender shook his head: "I don't know how I c'n help you none."
"Well yeh will know when I git through—same as Doc Godkins'll know when I have a little talk with him. Yer both a-goin' to help, you an' Doc. Yeh see, they was a nester's gal died, a year back, over on Beaver Crick, an' Doc tended her. 'Tarford fever,' says Doc. But ol' Lazy Y Freeman paid the freight, an' he thinks about as much of the nesters as what he does of a rattlesnake. I was ridin' fer the Lazy Y outfit, an' fer quite a spell 'fore this tarford fever business the ol' man use to ride the barb wire along Beaver, reg'lar. Yeh know how loose ol' Lazy Y is with his change? A dollar don't loom no bigger to him than the side of Sugar Loaf Butte, an' it slips through his fingers as easy as a porkypine could back out of a gunnysack. Well, that there dose of tarford fever that the nester gal died of cost ol' Lazy Y jest a even thousan' bucks. An' Doc Godkins got it."
The cowpuncher paused and the bartender picked up his glass. "Drink up," he said, "an' have another. I do'no what yer talkin' about but it's jest as bad to not have enough red licker in under yer belt when y' go to make a ride as 'tis to have too much."
"Never yeh mind about the licker. I c'n reg'late my own drinks to suit me. Mebbe I got more'n a ride a-comin' to me 'fore tonight's over."
The bartender eyed him questioningly: "You usta win 'em all—buckin', an' ropin', an'——"
"Yes, I usta!" sneered the other. "An' I could now if it wasn't fer that Texas son of a ——! Fer three years hand runnin' he's drug down everything he's went into. He c'n out-rope me an' out-ride me, but he can't out-guess me! An' some day he's goin' to have to out-shoot me. I'm goin' to win the buckin' contest, an' the ropin', too. See?" The man's fist pounded the bar.
The bartender nodded; "Well, here's to you."
Once more Purdy fixed the man with his black-eyed stare. "Yes. But they's a heap more a-comin' from you than a 'here's to yeh.'"
"Meanin'?" asked the other, as he mechanically swabbed the bar.
"Meanin' that you an' Doc's goin' to help me do it. An' that hain't all. Tonight 'long 'bout dance time I want that saddle horse o' yourn an' yer sideways saddle, too. They's a gal o' mine come in on the train, which she'll be wantin', mebbe, to take a ride, an' hain't fetched no split-up clothes fer to straddle a real saddle. That sideways contraption you sent fer 'fore yer gal got to ridin' man-ways is the only one in Wolf River, an' likewise hern's the only horse that'll stand fer bein' rigged up in it."
"Sure. You're welcome to the horse an' saddle, Jack. The outfit's in the livery barn. Jest tell Ross to have him saddled agin' you want him. He's gentled down so's a woman c'n handle him all right."
"Uh, huh. An' how about the other? Y'goin' to do as I say 'bout that, too?"
The bartender opened a box behind him and selected a cigar which he lighted with extreme deliberation. "I told you onct I don't know what yer talkin' about. Lazy Y Freeman an' Doc Godkins's dirty work ain't none of my business. If you win, you win, an' that's all there is to it."
The cowpuncher laughed shortly, and his black eyes narrowed, as he leaned closer. "Oh, that's all, is it? Well, Mr. Cinnabar Joe, let me tell yeh that hain't all—by a damn sight!" He paused, but the other never took his eyes from his face. "Do yeh know what chloral is?" The man's voice lowered to a whisper and the words seemed to hiss from between his lips. The other shook his head. "Well, it's somethin' yeh slip into a man's licker that puts him to sleep."
"You mean drug? Dope!" The bartender's eyes narrowed and the corner of his mouth whitened where it gripped the cigar.
Purdy nodded: "Yes. It don't hurt no one, only it puts 'em to sleep fer mebbe it's three er four hours. I'll get some from Doc an' yer goin' to slip a little into Tex Benton's booze. Then he jest nach'lly dozes off an' the boys thinks he's spliflicated an' takes him down to the hotel an' puts him to bed, an' before he wakes up I'll have the buckin' contest, an' the ropin' contest, an' most of the rest of it in my war-bag. I hain't afraid of none of the rest of the boys hornin' in on the money—an' 'tain't the money I want neither; I want to win them contests particular—an' I'm a-goin' to."
Without removing his elbows from the bar, Cinnabar Joe nodded toward the door: "You git to hell out o' here!" he said, quietly. "I don't set in no game with you, see? I don't want none o' your chips. Of all the God-damned low-lived——"
"If I was you," broke in the cowpuncher with a meaning look, "I'd choke off 'fore I'd got in too fer to back out." Something in the glint of the black eyes caused the bartender to pause. Purdy laughed, tossed the butt of his cigarette to the floor, and began irrelevantly: "It's hell—jest hell with the knots an' bark left on—that Nevada wild horse range is." The cowpuncher noted that Cinnabar Joe ceased suddenly to puff his cigar. "It's about seven year, mebbe it's eight," he continued, "that an outfit got the idee that mebbe Pete Barnum had the wild horse business to hisself long enough. Four of 'em was pretty rough hands, an' the Kid was headed that way.
"Them that was there knows a heap more'n what I do about what they went through 'fore they got out o' the desert where water-holes was about as common as good Injuns. Anyways, this outfit didn't git no wild horses. They was good an' damn glad to git out with what horses they'd took in, an' a whole hide. They'd blow'd in all they had on their projec' an' they was broke when they headed fer Idaho." The bartender's cigar had gone out and the cowpuncher saw that his face was a shade paler. "Then a train stopped sudden one evenin' where they wasn't no station, an' after that the outfit busted up. But they wasn't broke no more, all but the Kid. They left him shift fer hisself. Couple o' years later two of the outfit drifted together in Cinnabar an' there they found the Kid drivin' a dude-wagon. Drivin' a dude-wagon through the park is a damn sight easier than huntin' wild horses, an' a damn sight safer than railroadin' with a Colt, so when the two hard hands stops the Kid's dude-wagon in the park, thinkin' they'd have a cinch goin' through the Kid's passengers, they got fooled good an' proper when the Kid pumps 'em full of .45 pills. After that the Kid come to be know'd as Cinnabar Joe, an' when the last of the dude-wagons was throw'd out fer automobiles the Kid drifted up into the cow country. But they's a certain express company that's still huntin' fer the gang—not knowin' o' course that the Cinnabar Joe that got notorious fer defendin' his dudes was one of 'em.'"
The cowpuncher ceased speaking and produced his "makings" while the other stood gazing straight before him, the dead cigar still gripped in the corner of his mouth. The scratch of the match roused him and quick as a flash he reached beneath the bar and the next instant had Purdy covered with a six-shooter. With his finger on the trigger Cinnabar Joe hesitated, and in that instant he learned that the man that faced him across the bar was as brave as he was unscrupulous. The fingers that twisted the little cylinder of paper never faltered and the black eyes looked straight into the muzzle of the gun.
Now, in the cow country the drawing of a gun is one and the same movement with the firing of it, and why Cinnabar Joe hesitated he did not know.
Purdy laughed: "Put her down, Cinnabar. Yeh won't shoot, now. Yeh see, I kind of figgered yeh might be sort o' riled up, so I left my gun in my slicker. Shootin' a unarmed man don't git yeh nothin' but a chanct to stretch a rope."
The bartender returned the gun to its place. "Where'd you git that dope, Jack?" he asked, in a dull voice.
"Well, seein' as yeh hain't so blood-thirsty no more, I'll tell yeh. I swung down into the bad lands couple weeks ago huntin' a bunch of mares that strayed off the south slope. I was follerin' down a mud-crack that opens into Big Dry when all to onct my horse jumps sideways an' like to got me. The reason fer which was a feller layin' on the ground where his horse had busted him agin' a rock. His back was broke an' he was mumblin'; which he must of laid there a day, mebbe two, cause his tongue an' lips was dried up till I couldn't hardly make out what he was sayin'. I catched here an' there a word about holdin' up a train an' he was mumblin' your name now an' agin so I fetched some water from a hole a mile away an' camped. He et a little bacon later but he was half crazy with the pain in his back. He'd yell when I walked near him on the ground, said it jarred him, an' when I tried to move him a little he fainted plumb away. But he come to agin an' begged me fer to hand him his Colt that had lit about ten feet away so he could finish the job. I seen they wasn't no use tryin' to git him nowheres. He was all in. But his mutterin' had interested me consid'ble. I figgers if he's a hold-up, chances is he's got a nice fat cache hid away somewheres, an' seein' he hain't never goin' to need it I might's well have the handlin' of it as let it rot where it's at. I tells him so an' agrees that if he tips off his cache to me I'll retaliate by givin' him the gun. He swears he ain't got no cache. He's blow'd everything he had, his nerve's gone, an' he's headin' fer Wolf River fer to gouge yeh out of some dinero. He claims yeh collected reward on them two yeh got in the Yellowstone an' what's more the dudes tuk up a collection of a thousan' bucks an' give it to yeh besides. You was his cache. So he handed me the dope I just sprung on yeh, an' he says besides that you an' him's the only ones left. The other one got his'n down in Mexico where he'd throw'd in with some Greaser bandits."
"An' what—— Did you give him the gun?" asked the bartender.
Purdy nodded: "Sure. He' done a good job, too. He was game, all right, never whimpered nor hung back on the halter. Jest stuck the gun in his mouth an' pulled the trigger. I was goin' to bury him but I heard them mares whinner down to the water-hole so I left him fer the buzzards an' the coyotes.
"About that there chloral. I'll slip over an' git it from Doc. An' say, I'm doin' the right thing by yeh. I could horn yeh fer a chunk o' that reward money, but I won't do a friend that way. An' more'n that," he paused and leaned closer. "I'll let you in on somethin' worth while one of these days. That there thousan' that ol' Lazy Y paid Doc hain't a patchin' to what he's goin' to fork over to me. See?"
Cinnabar Joe nodded, slowly, as he mouthed his dead cigar, and when he spoke it was more to himself than to Purdy. "I've played a square game ever since that time back on the edge of the desert. I don't want to have to do time fer that. It wouldn't be a square deal nohow, I was only a Kid then an' never got a cent of the money. Then, there's Jennie over to the hotel. We'd about decided that bartendin' an' hash-slingin' wasn't gittin' us nowheres an' we was goin' to hitch up an' turn nesters on a little yak outfit I've bought over on Eagle." He stopped abruptly and looked the cowpuncher squarely in the eye. "If it wasn't fer her, by God! I'd tell you jest as I did before, to git to hell out of here an' do your damnedest. But it would bust her all up if I had to do time fer a hold-up. You've got me where you want me, I guess. But I don't want in on no dirty money from old Lazy Y, nor no one else. You go it alone—it's your kind of a job.
"This here chloride, or whatever you call it, you sure it won't kill a man?"
Purdy laughed: "Course it won't. It'll only put him to sleep till I've had a chanct to win out. I'll git the stuff from Doc an' find out how much is a dost, an' you kin' slip it in his booze."
As the cowpuncher disappeared through the door, Cinnabar Joe's eyes narrowed. "You damn skunk!" he muttered, biting viciously upon the stump of his cigar. "If you was drinkin' anything I'd switch glasses on you, an' then shoot it out with you when you come to. From now on it's you or me. You've got your hooks into me an' this is only the beginnin'." The man stopped abruptly and stared for a long time at the stove-pipe hole in the opposite wall. Then, turning, he studied his reflection in the mirror behind the bottles and glasses. He tossed away his cigar, straightened his necktie, and surveyed himself from a new angle.
"This here Tex, now," he mused. "He sure is a rantankerous cuss when he's lickered up. He'd jest as soon ride his horse through that door as he would to walk through, an' he's always puttin' somethin' over on someone. But he's a man. He'd go through hell an' high water fer a friend. He was the only one of the whole outfit had the guts to tend Jimmy Trimble when he got the spotted fever—nursed him back to good as ever, too, after the Doc had him billed through fer yonder." Cinnabar Joe turned and brought his fist down on the bar. "I'll do it!" he gritted. "Purdy'll think Tex switched the drinks on me. Only I hope he wasn't lyin' about that there stuff. Anyways, even if he was, it's one of them things a man's got to do. An' I'll rest a whole lot easier in my six by two than what I would if I give Tex the long good-bye first." Unconsciously, the man began to croon the dismal wail of the plains:
"O bury me not on the lone praire-e-e In a narrow grave six foot by three, Where the buzzard waits and the wind blows free, Then bury me not on the lone praire-e-e.
Yes, we buried him there on the lone praire-e-e Where the owl all night hoots mournfulle-e-e And the blizzard beats and the wind blows free O'er his lonely grave on the lone praire-e-e.
And the cowboys now as they roam the plain"——
"Hey, choke off on that!" growled Purdy as he advanced with rattling spurs. "Puts me in mind of him—back there in Big Dry. 'Spose I ort to buried him, but it don't make no difference, now." He passed a small phial across the bar. "Fifteen or twenty drops," he said laconically, and laughed. "Nothin' like keepin' yer eyes an' ears open. Doc kicked like a steer first, but he seen I had his hide hung on the fence onless he loosened up. But he sure wouldn't weep none at my demise. If ever I git sick I'll have some other Doc. I'd as soon send fer a rattlesnake." The man glanced at the clock. "It's workin' 'long to'ards noon, I'll jest slip down to the Long Horn an' stampede the bunch over here."
In the dining car of the side-tracked train Alice Marcum's glance strayed from the face of her table companion to the window. Another cavalcade of riders had swept into town and with a chorus of wild yells the crowd in the Long Horn surged out to greet them. A moment later the dismounted ones rushed to their horses, leaped into the saddles and, joined by the newcomers, dashed at top speed for perhaps thirty yards and dismounted to crowd into another saloon across whose front the word HEADQUARTERS was emblazoned in letters of flaming red.
"They're just like a lot of boys," exclaimed the girl with a smile, "The idea of anybody mounting a horse to ride that distance!"
"They're a rough lot, I guess." Winthrop Adams Endicott studied his menu card.
"Rough! Of course they're rough! Why shouldn't they be rough? Think of the work they do—rain or shine, riding out there on the plains. When they get to town they've earned the right to play as they want to play! I'd be rough, too, if I lived the life they live. And if I were a man I'd be right over there with them this minute."
"Why be a man?" smiled Endicott. "You have the Mayor's own word for the breadth of Wolf River's ideas. As for myself, I don't drink and wouldn't enjoy that sort of thing. Besides, if I were over there I would have to forgo——"
"No pretty little speeches, please. At least you can spare me that."
"But, Alice, I mean it, really. And——"
"Save 'em for the Cincinnati girls. They'll believe 'em. Who do you think will win this afternoon. Let's bet! I'll bet you a—an umbrella against a pair of gloves, that my cavalier of the yellow fur trousers will win the bucking contest, and——"
"Our train may pull out before the thing is over, and we would never know who won."
"Oh, yes we will, because we're going to stay for the finish. Why, I wouldn't miss this afternoon's fun if forty trains pulled out!"
"I ought to be in Chicago day after tomorrow," objected the man.
"I ought to be, too. But I'm not going to be. For Heaven's sake, Winthrop, for once in your life, do something you oughtn't to do!"
"All right," laughed the man with a gesture of surrender. "And for the rope throwing contest I'll pick the other."
"What other?" The girl's eyes strayed past the little wooden buildings of the town to the clean-cut rim of the bench.
"Why the other who rode after your handkerchief. The fellow who lassoed the honourable Mayor and was guilty of springing the pun."
The girl nodded with her eyes still on the skyline. "Oh, yes. He seemed—somehow—different. As if people amused him. As if everything were a joke and he were the only one who knew it was a joke. I could hate a man like that. The other, Mr. Purdy, hates him."
The man regarded her with an amused smile: "You keep a sort of mental card index. I should like to have just a peep at my card."
"Cards sometimes have to be rewritten—and sometimes it really isn't worth while to fill them out again. Come on, let's go. People are beginning to gather for the fun and I want a good seat. There's a lumber pile over there that'll be just the place, if we hurry."
In the Headquarters saloon Tex Benton leaned against the end of the bar and listened to a Bear Paw Pool man relate how they took in a bunch of pilgrims with a badger game down in Glasgow. Little knots of cowpunchers stood about drinking at the bar or discussing the coming celebration.
"They've got a bunch of bad ones down in the corral," someone said. "That ol' roman nose, an' the wall-eyed pinto, besides a lot of snorty lookin' young broncs. I tell yeh if Tex draws either one of them ol' outlaws it hain't no cinch he'll grab off this ride. The hombre that throws his kak on one of them is a-goin' to do a little sky-ballin' 'fore he hits the dirt, you bet. But jest the same I'm here to bet ten to eight on him before the drawin'."
Purdy who had joined the next group turned at the words.
"I'll jest take that," he snapped. "Because Tex has drug down the last two buckin' contests hain't no sign he c'n go south with 'em all." At the end of the bar Tex grinned as he saw Purdy produce a roll of bills.
"An', by gosh!" the Bear Paw Pool man was saying, "when they'd all got their money down an' the bull dog was a-clawin' the floor to git at the badger, an' the pilgrims was crowded around with their eyes a-bungin' out of their heads, ol' Two Dot Wilson, he shoves the barrel over an' they wasn't a doggone thing in under it but a——"
"What yeh goin' to have, youse?" Purdy had caught sight of Tex who stood between the Bear Paw Pool man and Bat Lajune. "I'm bettin' agin' yeh winnin' the buckin' contest, but I'll buy yeh a drink."
Tex grinned as his eyes travelled with slow insolence over the other's outfit.
"You're sure got up some colourful, Jack," he drawled. "If you sh'd happen to crawl up into the middle of one of them real outlaws they got down in the corral, an' quit him on the top end of a high one, you're a-goin' to look like a rainbow before you git back."
The other scowled: "I guess if I tie onto one of them outlaws yeh'll see me climb off 'bout the time the money's ready. Yeh Texas fellers comes up here an' makes yer brag about showin' us Montana boys how to ride our own horses. But it's real money talks! I don't notice you backin' up yer brag with no real dinero."
Tex was still smiling. "That's because I ain't found anyone damn fool enough to bet agin' me."
"Didn't I jest tell yeh I was bettin' agin' you?"
"Don't bet enough to hurt you none. How much you got, three dollars? An' how much odds you got to get before you'll risk 'em?"
Purdy reached for his hip pocket. "Jest to show yeh what I think of yer ridin' I'll bet yeh even yeh don't win."
"Well," drawled the Texan, "seein' as they won't be only about ten fellows ride, that makes the odds somewhere around ten to one, which is about right. How much you want to bet?"
With his fingers clutching his roll of bills, Purdy's eyes sought the face of Cinnabar Joe. For an instant he hesitated and then slammed the roll onto the bar.
"She goes as she lays. Count it!"
The bartender picked up the money and ran it through. "Eighty-five," he announced, laconically.
"That's more'n I got on me," said Tex ruefully, as he smoothed out three or four crumpled bills and capped the pile with a gold piece.
Purdy sneered: "It's money talks," he repeated truculently. "'Tain't hardly worth while foolin' with no piker bets but if that's the best yeh c'n do I'll drag down to it." He reached for his roll.
"Hold on!" The Texan was still smiling but there was a hard note in his voice. "She goes as she lays." He turned to the half-breed who stood close at his elbow.
"Bat. D'you recollect one night back in Las Vegas them four bits I loant you? Well, just you shell out about forty dollars interest on them four bits an' we'll call it square for a while." The half-breed smiled broadly and handed over his roll.
"Forty-five, fifty, sixty, seventy, eighty—" counted Tex, and with a five-dollar bill between his thumb and forefinger, eyed Purdy condescendingly: "I'm a-goin' to let you drag down that five if you want to," he said, "'cause you've sure kissed good-bye to the rest of it. They ain't any of your doggoned Montana school-ma'm-cayuses but what I c'n ride slick-heeled, an' with my spurs on—" he paused; "better drag down the five. You might need a little loose change if that girl should happen to get thirsty between dances."
"Jest leave it lay," retorted Purdy; "an' at that, I'll bet I buy her more drinks than what you do."
Tex laughed: "Sure. But there ain't nothin' in buyin' 'em drinks. I've bought 'em drinks all night an' then some other hombre'd step in an'——"
"I'd bet yeh on that, too. I didn't notice her fallin' no hell of a ways fer you."
"Mebbe not. I wasn't noticin' her much. I was kind of studyin' the pilgrim that was along with her."
"What's he got to do with it?"
"That's what I was tryin' to figger out. But, hey, Cinnabar, how about that drink? I'm dry as a post-hole."
"Fill 'em up, Cinnabar. I'm makin' this noise," seconded Purdy. And as the Texan turned to greet an acquaintance, he caught out of the tail of his eye the glance that flashed between Purdy and the bartender. Noticed, also out of the tail of his eye, that, contrary to custom, Cinnabar filled the glasses himself and that a few drops of colourless liquid splashed from the man's palm into the liquor that was shoved toward him. The Texan knew that Purdy had watched the operation interestedly and that he straightened with an audible sigh of relief at its conclusion. "Come on, drink up!" Purdy raised his glass as Tex faced the bar with narrowed eyes.
"What's them fellows up to?" cried Cinnabar Joe, and as Purdy turned, glass in hand, to follow his glance Tex saw the bartender swiftly substitute his own glass for the one into which he had dropped the liquid.
The next instant Purdy was again facing him. "What fellers?" he asked sharply.
Cinnabar Joe laughed: "Oh, that Bear Paw Pool bunch. Fellow's got to keep his eye peeled whenever they git their heads together. Here's luck."
For only an instant did Tex hesitate while his brain worked rapidly. "There's somethin' bein' pulled off here," he reasoned, "that I ain't next to. If that booze was doped why did Cinnabar drink it? Anyways, he pulled that stall on Purdy fer some reason an' it's up to me to see him through with it. But if I do git doped it won't kill me an' when I come alive they's a couple of fellows goin' to have to ride like hell to keep ahead of me."
He drank the liquor and as he returned the glass to the bar he noted the glance of satisfaction that flashed into Purdy's eyes.
"Come on, boys, let's git things a-goin'!" Mayor Maloney stood in the doorway and beamed good humouredly: "'Tain't every cowtown's got a bank an' us Wolf Riverites has got to do ourself proud. Every rancher an' nester in forty mile around has drove in. The flat's rimmed with wagons an' them train folks is cocked up on the lumber piles a-chickerin' like a prairie-dog town. We'll pull off the racin' an' trick ridin' an' shootin' first an' save the ropin' an' buckin' contests to finish off on. Come on, you've all had enough to drink. Jump on your horses an' ride out on the flat like hell was tore loose fer recess. Then when I denounce what's a-comin', them that's goin' to complete goes at it, an' the rest pulls off to one side an' looks on 'til their turn comes."
A six-shooter roared and a bullet crashed into the ceiling.
"Git out of the way we're a-goin' by!" howled someone, and instantly the chorus drowned the rattle of spurs and the clatter of high-heeled boots as the men crowded to the door.
"Cowboys out on a yip ti yi! Coyotes howl and night birds cry And we'll be cowboys 'til we die!"
Out in the street horses snorted and whirled against each other, spurs rattled, and leather creaked as the men leaped into their saddles. With a thunder of hoofs, a whirl of white dust, the slapping of quirts and ropes against horses' flanks, the wicked bark of forty-fives, and a series of Comanche-like yells the cowboys dashed out onto the flat. Once more Tex Benton found himself drawn up side by side with Jack Purdy before the girl, for whose handkerchief they had raced. Both waved their hats, and Alice smiled as she waved her handkerchief in return.
"Looks like I was settin' back with an ace in the hole, so far," muttered Tex, audibly.
Purdy scowled: "Ace in the hole's all right sometimes. But it's the lad that trails along with a pair of deuces back to back that comes up with the chips, cashin' in time."
Slim Maloney announced a quarter-mile dash and when Purdy lined up with the starters, Tex quietly eased his horse between two wagons, and, slipping around behind the lumber-piles, rode back to the Headquarters Saloon. The place was deserted and in a chair beside a card table, with his head buried in his arms, sat Cinnabar Joe, asleep. The cowpuncher crossed the room and shook him roughly by the shoulder:
"Hey, Joe—wake up!"
The man rolled uneasily and his eyelids drew heavily apart. He mumbled incoherently.
"Wake up, Joe!" The Texan redoubled his efforts but the other relapsed into a stupor from which it was impossible to rouse him.
A man hurrying past in the direction of the flats paused for a moment to peer into the open door. Tex glanced up as he hurried on.
"Doc!" There was no response and the cowpuncher crossed to the door at a bound. The street was deserted, and without an instant's hesitation he dashed into the livery and feed barn next door whose wide aperture yawned deserted save for the switching of tails and the stamping of horses' feet in the stalls. The door of the harness room stood slightly ajar and Tex jerked it open and entered. Harness and saddles littered the floor and depended from long wooden pegs set into the wall while upon racks hung sweatpads and saddle blankets of every known kind and description. Between the floor and the lower edge of the blankets that occupied a rack at the farther side of the room a pair of black leather shoes showed.
"Come on, Doc, let's go get a drink." The shoes remained motionless. "Gosh! There's a rat over in under them blankets!" A forty-five hammer was drawn back with a sharp click. The shoes left the floor simultaneously and the head and shoulders of a man appeared above the rack.
"Eh! Was someone calling me?"
"Yeh, I was speakin' of rats——"
"My hearing's getting bad. I was fishing around for my saddle blanket. Those barn dogs never put anything where it belongs."
"That's right. I said let's go get a drink. C'n you hear that?" Tex noted that the man's face was white and that he was eyeing him intently, as he approached through the litter.
"Just had one, thanks. Was on my way down to the flats to see the fun, and thought I'd see if my blanket had dried out all right."
"Yes? Didn't you hear me when I hollered at you in the saloon a minute ago?"
"No. Didn't know any one was in there."
"You're in a hell of a fix with your eyesight an' hearin' all shot to pieces, ain't you? But I reckon they're goin' to be the best part of you if you don't come along with me. Cinnabar Joe's be'n doped."
"Cinnabar Joe!" The doctor's surprise was genuine.
"Yes. Cinnabar Joe. An' you better get on the job an' bring him to, or they'll be tossin' dry ones in on top of you about tomorrow. Sold any drugs that w'd do a man that way, lately?"
The doctor knitted his brow. "Why let's see. I don't remember——"
"Your mem'ry ain't no better'n what your eyesight an' hearin' is, is it? I reckon mebbe a little jolt might get it to workin'." As Tex talked even on, his fist shot out and landed squarely upon the other's nose and the doctor found himself stretched at full length among the saddles and odds and ends of harness. Blood gushed from his nose and flowed in a broad wet stream across his cheek. He struggled weakly to his feet and interposed a shaking arm.
"I didn't do anything to you," he whimpered.
"No. I'm the one that's doin'. Is your parts workin' better? 'Cause if they ain't——"
"What do you want to know? I'll tell you!" The man spoke hurriedly as he cringed from the doubling fist.
"I know you sold the dope, 'cause when I told you about Cinnabar you wasn't none surprised at the dope—but at who'd got it. You sold it to Jack Purdy an' you knew he aimed to give it to me. What's more, your eyesight an' hearin' is as good as mine. You seen me an' heard me in the saloon an' you was scairt an' run an' hid in the harness room. You're a coward, an' a crook, an' a damn liar! Wolf River don't need you no more. You're a-comin' along with me an' fix Cinnabar up an' then you're a-goin' to go down to the depot an' pick you out a train that don't make no local stops an' climb onto it an' ride 'til you get where the buffalo grass don't grow. That is, onless Cinnabar should happen to cash in. If he does——"
"He won't! He won't! It's only chloral. A little strychnine will fix him up."
"Better get busy then. 'Cause if he ain't to in an hour or so you're a-goin' to flutter on the down end of a tight one. These here cross-arms on the railroad's telegraph poles is good an' stout an' has the added advantage of affordin' good observation for all, which if you use a cottonwood there's always some that can't see good on account of limbs an' branches bein' in the road——"
"Come over to the office 'til I get what I need and I'll bring him around all right!" broke in the doctor and hurried away, with the cowpuncher close at his heels.
ON THE FLAT
As Mayor Maloney had said, every rancher and nester within forty miles of Wolf River had driven into town for the celebration. Farm wagons, spring wagons, and automobiles were drawn wheel to wheel upon both sides of the flat. From the vehicles women and children in holiday attire applauded the feats of the cowboys with cheers and the waving of handkerchiefs, while the men stood about in groups and watched with apparent indifference as they talked of fences and flumes.
From the top of the lumber piles, and the long low roof of the wool warehouse, the train passengers entered into the spirit of the fun gasping in horror at some seemingly miraculous escape from death beneath the pounding hoofs of the cow-horses, only to cheer themselves hoarse when they saw that the apparent misadventure had been purposely staged for their benefit.
Races were won by noses. Hats, handkerchiefs, and even coins were snatched from the ground by riders who hung head and shoulder below their horses' bellies. Mounts were exchanged at full gallop. Playing cards were pierced by the bullets of riders who dashed past them at full speed. And men emptied their guns in the space of seconds without missing a shot.
In each event the gaudily caparisoned Jack Purdy was at the fore, either winning or crowding the winner to his supremest effort. And it was Purdy who furnished the real thrill of the shooting tournament when, with a six-shooter in each hand, he jumped an empty tomato can into the air at fifteen paces by sending a bullet into the ground beneath its base and pierced it with a bullet from each gun before it returned to earth.
A half-dozen times he managed to slip over for a few words with Alice Marcum—a bit of explanation of a coming event, or a comment upon the fine points of a completed one, until unconsciously the girl's interest centred upon the dashing figure to an extent that she found herself following his every movement, straining forward when his supremacy hung in the balance, keenly disappointed when another wrested the honours from him, and jubilantly exultant at his victories. So engrossed was she in fallowing the fortunes of her knight that she failed to notice the growing disapproval of Endicott, who sat frowning and silent by her side. Failed, also, to notice that as Purdy's attentions waxed more obvious she herself became the object of many a glance, and lip to ear observation from the occupants of the close-drawn vehicles.
It was while Mayor Maloney was announcing the roping contest and explaining that the man who "roped, throw'd, an' hog-tied" his steer in the least number of seconds, would be the winner, that the girl's thoughts turned to the cowpuncher who earlier in the day had so skilfully demonstrated his ability with the lariat.
In vain her eyes sought the faces of the cowboys. She turned to Purdy who had edged his horse close beside the lumber pile.
"Where is your friend—the one who raced with you for my handkerchief?" she asked. "I haven't seen him since you both rode up in that first wild rush. He hasn't been in any of the contests."
"No, mom," answered the cowpuncher, in tones of well-simulated regret; "he's—he's prob'ly over to some saloon. He's a good man some ways, Tex is. But he can't keep off the booze."
Kicking his feet from the stirrups the man stood upright in his saddle and peered over the top of an intervening pile of lumber. "Yes, I thought so. His horse is over in front of the Headquarters. Him an' Cinnabar Joe's prob'ly holdin' a booze histin' contest of their own." Slipping easily into his seat, he unfastened the rope from his saddle, and began slowly to uncoil it.
"All ready!" called the Mayor. "Go git him!"
A huge black steer dashed out into the open with a cowboy in full pursuit, his loop swinging slowly above his head. Down the middle of the flat they tore, the loop whirling faster as the horseman gained on his quarry. Suddenly the rope shot out, a cloud of white dust rose into the air as the cow-horse stopped in his tracks, a moment of suspense, and the black steer dashed frantically about seeking an avenue of escape while in his wake trailed the rope like a long thin snake with its fangs fastened upon the frantic brute's neck. A roar of laughter went up from the crowd and Purdy turned to the girl. "Made a bad throw an' got him around the neck," he explained. "When you git 'em that way you got to turn 'em loose or they'll drag you all over the flat. A nine-hundred-pound horse hain't got no show ag'in a fifteen-hundred-pound steer with the rope on his neck. An' even if the horse would hold, the cinch wouldn't, so he's out of it."
The black steer was rounded up and chased from the arena, and once more Mayor Maloney, watch in hand, cried "Go git him!"
Another steer dashed out and another cowboy with whirling loop thundered after him. The rope fell across the animal's shoulders and the loop swung under. The horse stopped, and the steer, his fore legs jerked from under him, fell heavily. To make his rope fast to the saddle-horn and slip to the ground leaving the horse to fight it out with the captive, was the work of a moment for the cowboy who approached the struggling animal, short rope in hand. Purdy who was leaning over his saddle-horn, watching the man's every move, gave a cry of relief.
"He's up behind! That'll fix your clock!" Sure enough, the struggling animal had succeeded in regaining his hind legs and while the horse, with the cunning of long practice, kept his rope taut, the steer plunged about to such good purpose that precious seconds passed before the cowboy succeeded in making his tie-rope fast to a hind foot, jerking it from under the struggling animal, and securing it to the opposite fore foot.
"Three minutes an' forty-three seconds!" announced the Mayor. "Git ready for the next one. . . . Go git him!"
This time the feat was accomplished in a little over two minutes and the successful cowboy was greeted with a round of applause. Several others missed their throws or got into difficulty, and Purdy turned to the girl: