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placed in that chair tied so that he can't move hand or foot for ten
minutes while I talk."

"Nice, quiet day you got planned for me, Mr. Drew."

The grey man considered thoughtfully.

"Now and then you've told me of a girl at Eldara - I think her name is
Sally Fortune?"

"Right. She begins where the rest of the calico leaves off."

"H-m! that sounds familiar, somehow. Well, Steve, you've said that if
you had a good start you think the girl would marry you."

"I think she might."

"She pretty fond of you?"

"She knows that if I can't have her I'm fast enough to keep everyone
else away."

"I see. A process of elimination with you as the eliminator. Rather an
odd courtship, Steve?"

The cowpuncher grew deadly serious.

"You see, I love her. There ain't no way of bucking out of that. So do
nine out of ten of all the boys that've seen her. Which one will she
pick? That's the question we all keep askin', because of all the
contrary, freckle-faced devils with the heart of a man an' the smile of
a woman, Sally has 'em all beat from the drop of the barrier. One feller
has money; another has looks; another has a funny line of talk. But I've
got the fastest gun. So Sally sees she's due for a complete outfit of
black mournin' if she marries another man while I'm alive; an' that
keeps her thinkin'. But if I had the price of a start in the world - why,
maybe she'd take a long look at me."

"Would she call one thousand dollars in cash a start in the world - and
your job as foreman of my place, with twice the salary you have now?"

Steve Nash wiped his forehead.

He said huskily: "A joke along this line don't bring no laugh from me,
governor."

"I mean it, Steve. Get Anthony Bard tied hand and foot into this house
so that I can talk to him safely for ten minutes, and you'll have
everything I promise. Perhaps more. But that depends."

The blunt-fingered hand of Nash stole across the table.

"If it's a go, shake, Mr. Drew."

A mighty hand fell in his, and under the pressure he set his teeth.
Afterward he covertly moved his fingers and sighed with relief to see
that no permanent harm had been done.

"Me speakin' personal, Mr. Drew, I'd of give a lot to seen you when you
was ridin' the range. This Bard - he'll be here before sunset to-morrow."

"Don't jump to conclusions, Steve. I've an idea that before you count
your thousand you'll think that you've been underpaid. That's straight."

"This Bard is something of a man?"

"I can say that without stopping to think."

"Texas?"

"No. He's a tenderfoot, but he can ride a horse as if he was sewed to
the skin, and I've an idea that he can do other things up to the same
standard. If you can find two or three men who have silent tongues and
strong hands, you'd better take them along. I'll pay their wages, and
big ones. You can name your price."

But Nash was frowning.

"Now and then I talk to the cards a bit, Mr. Drew, and you'll hear
fellers say some pretty rough things about me, but I've never asked for
no odds against any man. I'm not going to start now."

"You're a hard man, Steve, but so am I; and hard men are the kind I take
to. I know that you're the best foreman who ever rode this range and I
know that when you start things you generally finish them. All that I
ask is that you bring Bard to me in this house. The way you do it is
your own problem. Drunk or drugged, I don't care how, but get him here
unharmed. Understand?"

"Mr. Drew, you can start figurin' what you want to say to him now. I'll
get him here - safe! And then Sally - "

"If money will buy her you'll have me behind you when you bid."

"When shall I start?"

"Now."

"So-long, then."

He rose and passed hastily from the room, leaning forward from the hips
like a man who is making a start in a foot-race.

Straight up the stairs he went to his room, for the foreman lived in the
big house of the rancher. There he took a quantity of equipment from a
closet and flung it on the bed. Over three selections he lingered long.

The first was the cartridge belt, and he tried over several with
conscientious care until he found the one which received the cartridges
with the greatest ease. He could flip them out in the night,
automatically as a pianist fingers the scale in the dark.

Next he examined lariats painfully, inch by inch, as though he were
going out to rope the stanchest steer that ever roamed the range.
Already he knew that those ropes were sound and true throughout, but he
took no chances now. One of the ropes he discarded because one or two
strands in it were, or might be, a trifle frayed. The others he took
alternately and whirled with a broad loop, standing in the centre of the
room. Of the set one was a little more supple, a little more durable, it
seemed. This he selected and coiled swiftly.

Last of all he lingered - and longest - over his revolvers. Six in all, he
set them in a row along the bed and without delay threw out two to begin
with. Then he fingered the others, tried their weight and balance,
slipped cartridges into the cylinders and extracted them again, whirled
the cylinders, examined the minutest parts of the actions.

They were all such guns as an expert would have turned over with shining
eyes, but finally he threw one aside into the discard; the cylinder
revolved just a little too hard. Another was abandoned after much
handling of the remaining three because to the delicate touch of Nash it
seemed that the weight of the barrel was a gram more than in the other
two; but after this selection it seemed that there was no possible
choice between the final two.

So he stood in the centre of the room and went through a series of odd
gymnastics. Each gun in turn he placed in the holster and then jerked it
out, spinning it on the trigger guard around his second finger, while
his left hand shot diagonally across his body and "fanned" the hammer.
Still he could not make his choice, but he would not abandon the effort.
It was an old maxim with him that there is in all the world one gun
which is the best of all and with which even a novice can become a
"killer."

He tried walking away, whirling as he made his draw, and levelling the
gun on the door-knob. Then without moving his hand, he lowered his head
and squinted down the sights. In each case the bead was drawn to a
centre shot. Last of all he weighed each gun; one seemed a trifle
lighter - the merest shade lighter than the other. This he slipped into
the holster and carried the rest of his apparatus back to the closet
from which he had taken it.

Still the preparation had not ended. Filling his cartridge belt, every
cartridge was subject to a rigid inspection. A full half hour was wasted
in this manner. Wasted, because he rejected not one of the many he
examined. Yet he seemed happier after having made his selection, and
went down the stairs, humming softly.

Out to the barn he went, lantern in hand. This time he made no
comparison of horses but went directly to an ugly-headed roan, long of
leg, vicious of eye, thin-shouldered, and with hips that slanted sharply
down. No one with a knowledge of fine horse-flesh could have looked on
this brute without aversion. It did not have even size in its favour. A
wild, free spirit, perhaps, might be the reason; but the animal stood
with hanging head and pendant lower lip. One eye was closed and the
other only half opened. A blind affection, then, made him go to this
horse first of all.

No, his greeting was to jerk his knee sharply into the ribs of the roan,
which answered with a grunt and swung its head around with bared teeth,
like an angry dog. "Damn your eyes!" roared the hoarse voice of Steve
Nash, "stand still or I'll knock you for a goal!"

The ears of the mustang flattened close to its neck and a devil of hate
came up in its eyes, but it stood quiet, while Nash went about at a
judicious distance and examined all the vital points. The hoofs were
sound, the backbone prominent, but not a high ridge from famine or much
hard riding, and the indomitable hate in the eyes of the mustang seemed
to please the cowpuncher.

It was a struggle to bridle the beast, which was accomplished only by
grinding the points of his knuckles into a tender part of the jowl to
make the locked teeth open.

In saddling, the knee came into play again, rapping the ribs of the
brute repeatedly before the wind, which swelled out the chest to false
proportions, was expelled in a sudden grunt, and the cinch whipped up
taut. After that Nash dodged the flying heels, chose his time, and
vaulted into the saddle.

The mustang trotted quietly out of the barn. Perhaps he had had his fill
of bucking on that treacherous, slippery wooden floor, but once outside
he turned loose the full assortment of the cattle-pony's tricks. It was
only ten minutes, but while it lasted the cursing of Nash was loud and
steady, mixed with the crack of his murderous quirt against the roan's
flanks. The bucking ended as quickly as it had begun, and they started
at a long canter over the trail.




CHAPTER XII


THE FIRST DAY

Mile after mile of the rough trail fell behind him, and still the pony
shambled along at a loose trot or a swinging canter; the steep upgrades
it took at a steady jog and where the slopes pitched sharply down, it
wound among the rocks with a faultless sureness of foot.

Certainly the choice of Nash was well made. An Eastern horse of blood
over a level course could have covered the same distance in half the
time, but it would have broken down after ten miles of that hard trail.

Dawn came while they wound over the crest of the range, and with the sun
in their faces they took the downgrade. It was well into the morning
before Nash reached Logan. He forced from his eye the contempt which all
cattlemen feel for sheepherders.

"I s'pose you're here askin' after Bard?" began Logan without the
slightest prelude.

"Bard? Who's he?"

Logan considered the other with a sardonic smile.

"Maybe you been ridin' all night jest for fun?"

"If you start usin' your tongue on me, Logan you'll wear out the snapper
on it. I'm on my way to the A Circle Y."

"Listen; I'm all for old man Drew. You know that. Tell me what Bard has
on him?"

"Never heard the name before. Did he rustle a couple of your sheep?"

Logan went on patiently: "I knew something was wrong when Drew was here
yesterday but I didn't think it was as bad as this."

"What did Drew do yesterday?"

"Came up as usual to potter around the old house, I guess, but when he
heard about Bard bein' here he changed his mind sudden and went home."

"That's damn queer. What sort of a lookin' feller is this Bard?"

"I don't suppose you know, eh?" queried Logan ironically. "I don't
suppose the old man described him before you started, maybe?"

"Logan, you poor old hornless maverick, d'you think I'm on somebody's
trail? Don't you know I've been through with that sort of game for a
hell of a while?"

"When rocks turn into ham and eggs I'll trust you, Steve. I'll tell you
what I done to Bard, anyway. Yesterday, after he found that Drew had
been here and gone he seemed sort of upset; tried to keep it from me,
but I'm too much used to judgin' changes of weather to be fooled by any
tenderfoot that ever used school English. Then he hinted around about
learnin' the way to Eldara, because he knows that town is pretty close
to Drew's place, I guess. I told him; sure I did. He should of gone due
west, but I sent him south. There is a south trail, only it takes about
three days to get to Eldara."

"Maybe you think that interests me. It don't."

Logan overlooked this rejoinder, saying: "Is it his scalp you're after?"

"Your ideas are like nest-eggs, Logan, an' you set over 'em like a hen.
They look like eggs; they feel like eggs; but they don't never hatch.
That's the way with your ideas. They look all right; they sound all
right; but they don't mean nothin'. So-long."

But Logan merely chuckled wisely. He had been long on the range.

As Nash turned his pony and trotted off in the direction of the A
Circle Y ranch, the sheepherder called after him: "What you say cuts
both ways, Steve. This feller Bard looks like a tenderfoot; he sounds
like a tenderfoot; but he ain't a tenderfoot."

Feeling that this parting shot gave him the honours of the meeting, he
turned away whistling with such spirit that one of his dogs,
overhearing, stood still and gazed at his master with his head cocked
wisely to one side.

His eastern course Nash pursued for a mile or more, and then swung sharp
to the south. He was weary, like his horse, and he made no attempt to
start a sudden burst of speed. He let the pony go on at the same
tireless jog, clinging like a bulldog to the trail.

About midday he sighted a small house cuddled into a hollow of the hills
and made toward it. As he dismounted, a tow-headed, spindling boy
lounged out of the doorway and stood with his hands shoved carelessly
into his little overall pockets.

"Hello, young feller."

"'Lo, stranger."

"What's the chance of bunking here for three or four hours and gettin' a
good feed for the hoss?"

"Never better. Gimme the hoss; I'll put him up in the shed. Feed him
grain?"

"No, you won't put him up. I'll tend to that."

"Looks like a bad 'un."

"That's it."

"But a sure goer, eh?"

"Yep."

He led the pony to the shed, unsaddled him, and gave him a small feed.
The horse first rolled on the dirt floor and then started methodically
on his fodder. Having made sure that his mount was not "off his feed,"
Nash rolled a cigarette and strolled back to the house with the boy.

"Where's the folks?" he asked.

"Ma's sick, a little, and didn't get up to-day. Pa's down to the corral,
cussing mad. But I can cook you up some chow."

"All right son. I got a dollar here that'll buy you a pretty good store
knife."

The boy flushed so red that by contrast his straw coloured hair seemed
positively white.

"Maybe you want to pay me?" he suggested fiercely. "Maybe you think
we're squatters that run a hotel?"

Recognizing the true Western breed even in this small edition, Nash
grinned.

"Speakin' man to man, son, I didn't think that, but I thought I'd sort
of feel my way."

"Which I'll say you're lucky you didn't try to feel your way with pa;
not the way he's feelin' now."

In the shack of the house he placed the best chair for Nash and set
about frying ham and making coffee. This with crackers, formed the meal.
He watched Nash eat for a moment of solemn silence and then the foreman
looked up to catch a meditative chuckle from the youngster.

"Let me in on the joke, son."

"Nothin'. I was just thinkin' of pa."

"What's he sore about? Come out short at poker lately?"

"No; he lost a hoss. Ha, ha, ha!"

He explained: "He's lost his only standin' joke, and now the laugh's on
pa!"

Nash sipped his coffee and waited. On the mountain desert one does not
draw out a narrator with questions.

"There was a feller come along early this mornin' on a lame hoss," the
story began. "He was a sure enough tenderfoot - leastways he looked it
an' he talked it, but he wasn't."

The familiarity of this description made Steve sit up a trifle
straighter.

"Was he a ringer?"

"Maybe. I dunno. Pa meets him at the door and asks him in. What d'you
think this feller comes back with?"

The boy paused to remember and then with twinkling eyes he mimicked:
"'That's very good of you, sir, but I'll only stop to make a trade with
you - this horse and some cash to boot for a durable mount out of your
corral. The brute has gone lame, you see.'

"Pa waited and scratched his head while these here words sort of sunk
in. Then says very smooth: 'I'll let you take the best hoss I've got,
an' I won't ask much cash to boot.'

"I begin wonderin' what pa was drivin' at, but I didn't say
nothin' - jest held myself together and waited.

"'Look over there to the corral,' says pa, and pointed. 'They's a hoss
that ought to take you wherever you want to go. It's the best hoss I've
ever had.'

"It was the best horse pa ever had, too. It was a piebald pinto called
Jo, after my cousin Josiah, who's jest a plain bad un and raises hell
when there's any excuse. The piebald, he didn't even need an excuse. You
see, he's one of them hosses that likes company. When he leaves the
corral he likes to have another hoss for a runnin' mate and he was jest
as tame as anything. I could ride him; anybody could ride him. But if
you took him outside the bars of the corral without company, first thing
he done was to see if one of the other hosses was comin' out to join
him. When he seen that he was all laid out to make a trip by himself he
jest nacherally started in to raise hell. Which Jo can raise more hell
for his size than any hoss I ever seen.

"He's what you call an eddicated bucker. He don't fool around with no
pauses. He jest starts in and figgers out a situation and then he gets
busy slidin' the gent that's on him off'n the saddle. An' he always used
to win out. In fact, he was known for it all around these parts. He
begun nice and easy, but he worked up like a fiddler playin' a favourite
piece, and the end was the rider lyin' on the ground.

"Whenever the boys around here wanted any excitement they used to come
over and try their hands with Jo. We used to keep a pile of arnica and
stuff like that around to rub them up with and tame down the bruises
after Jo laid 'em cold on the ground. There wasn't never anybody could
ride that hoss when he was started out alone.

"Well, this tenderfoot, he looks over the hoss in the corral and says:
'That's a pretty fine mount, it seems to me. What do you want to boot?'

"'Aw, twenty-five dollars is enough,' says pa.

"'All right,' says the tenderfoot, 'here's the money.'

"And he counts it out in pa's hand.

"He says: 'What a little beauty! It would be a treat to see him work on
a polo field.'

"Pa says: 'It'd'be a treat to see this hoss work anywhere.'

"Then he steps on my foot to make me wipe the grin off'n my face.

"Down goes the tenderfoot and takes his saddle and flops it on the
piebald pinto, and the piebald was jest as nice as milk. Then he leads
him out'n the corral and gets on.

"First the pinto takes a look over his shoulder like he was waiting for
one of his pals among the hosses to come along, but he didn't see none.
Then the circus started. An' b'lieve me, it was some circus. Jo hadn't
had much action for some time, an' he must have used the wait thinkin'
up new ways of raisin' hell.

"There ain't enough words in the Bible to describe what he done. Which
maybe you sort of gather that he had to keep on performin', because the
tenderfoot was still in the saddle. He was. An' he never pulled
leather. No, sir, he never touched the buckin' strap, but jest sat there
with his teeth set and his lips twistin' back - the same smile he had
when he got into the saddle. But pretty soon I s'pose Jo had a chance to
figure out that it didn't do him no particular harm to be alone.

"The minute he seen that he stopped fightin' and started off at a gallop
the way the tenderfoot wanted him to go, which was over there.

"'Damn my eyes!' says pa, an' couldn't do nuthin' but just stand there
repeatin' that with variations because with Jo gone there wouldn't be no
drawin' card to get the boys around the house no more. But you're
lookin' sort of sleepy, stranger?"

"I am," answered Nash.

"Well, if you'd seen that show you wouldn't be thinkin' of sleep. Not
for some time."

"Maybe not, but the point is I didn't see it. D'you mind if I turn in on
that bunk over there?"

"Help yourself," said the boy. "What time d'you want me to wake you up?"

"Never mind; I wake up automatic. S'long, Bud."

He stretched out on the blankets and was instantly asleep.




CHAPTER XIII


A TOUCH OF CRIMSON

At the end of three hours he awoke as sharply as though an alarm were
clamouring at his ear. There was no elaborate preparation for renewed
activities. A single yawn and stretch and he was again on his feet.
Since the boy was not in sight he cooked himself an enormous meal,
devoured it, and went out to the mustang.

The roan greeted him with a volley from both heels that narrowly missed
the head of Nash, but the cowpuncher merely smiled tolerantly.

"Feelin' fit agin, eh, damn your soul?" he said genially, and picking up
a bit of board, fallen from the side of the shed, he smote the mustang
mightily along the ribs. The mustang, as if it recognized the touch of
the master, pricked up one ear and side-stepped. The brief rest had
filled it with all the old, vicious energy.

For once more, as soon as they rode clear of the door, there ensued a
furious struggle between man and beast. The man won, as always, and the
roan, dropping both ears flat against its neck, trotted sullenly out
across the hills.

In that monotony of landscape, one mile exactly like the other, no
landmarks to guide him, no trail to follow, however faintly worn, it was
strange to see the cowpuncher strike out through the vast distances of
the mountain-desert with as much confidence as if he were travelling on
a paved street in a city. He had not even a compass to direct him but he
seemed to know his way as surely as the birds know the untracked paths
of the air in the seasons of migration.

Straight on through the afternoon and during the long evening he kept
his course at the same unvarying dog-trot until the flush of the sunset
faded to a stern grey and the purple hills in the distance turned blue
with shadows. Then, catching the glimmer of a light on a hillside, he
turned toward it to put up for the night.

In answer to his call a big man with a lantern came to the door and
raised his light until it shone on a red, bald head and a portly figure.
His welcome was neither hearty nor cold; hospitality is expected in the
mountain-desert. So Nash put up his horse in the shed and came back to
the house.

The meal was half over, but two girls immediately set a plate heaped
with fried potatoes and bacon and flanked by a mighty cup of jetblack
coffee on one side and a pile of yellow biscuits on the other. He nodded
to them, grunted by way of expressing thanks, and sat down to eat.

Beside the tall father and the rosy-faced mother, the family consisted
of the two girls, one of them with her hair twisted severely close to
her head, wearing a man's blue cotton shirt with the sleeves rolled up
to a pair of brown elbows. Evidently she was the boy of the family and
to her fell the duty of performing the innumerable chores of the ranch,
for her hands were thick with work and the tips of the fingers blunted.
Also she had that calm, self-satisfied eye which belongs to the
workingman who knows that he has earned his meal.

Her sister monopolized all the beauty and the grace, not that she was
either very pretty or extremely graceful, but she was instinct with the
challenge of femininity like a rare scent. It lingered about her, it
enveloped her ways; it gave a light to her eyes and made her smile
exquisite. Her clothes were not of much finer material than her
sister's, but they were cut to fit, and a bow of crimson ribbon at her
throat was as effective in that environment as the most costly orchids
on an evening gown.

She was armed in pride this night, talking only to her mother, and then
in monosyllables alone. At first it occurred to Steve that his coming
had made her self-conscious, but he soon discovered that her pride was
directed at the third man at the table. She at least maintained a
pretence of eating, but he made not even a sham, sitting miserably, his
mouth hard set, his eyes shadowed by a tremendous frown. At length he
shoved back his chair with such violence that the table trembled.

"Well," he rumbled, "I guess this lets me out. S'long."

And he strode heavily from the room; a moment later his cursing came
back to them as he rode into the night.

"Takes it kind of hard, don't he?" said the father.

And the mother murmured: "Poor Ralph!"

"So you went an' done it?" said the mannish girl to her sister.

"What of it?" snapped the other.

"He's too good for you, that's what of it."

"Girls!" exclaimed the mother anxiously. "Remember we got a guest!"

"Oh," said she of the strong brown arms, "I guess we can't tell him
nothin'; I guess he had eyes to be seein' what's happened." She turned
calmly to Steve.

"Lizzie turned down Ralph Boardman - poor feller!"

"Sue!" cried the other girl.

"Well, after you done it, are you ashamed to have it talked about? You
make me sore, I'll tell a man!"


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