Max Brand.

Trailin'! online

. (page 9 of 17)
Online LibraryMax BrandTrailin'! → online text (page 9 of 17)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

up around the shoulders of the horses and set them staggering.

"The Saverack will be hell," said Nash, "and we'd better cut straight
for the ford."

"How long will it take?"

"Add about three hours to the trip."

"Can't do it; remember that little date back in Eldara to-night."

"Then look for yourself and make up your mind for yourself," said Nash
drily, for they topped a hill, and below them saw a mighty yellow flood
pouring down the valley. It went leaping and shouting as if it rejoiced
in some destruction it had worked and was still working, and the muddy
torrent was threaded with many a ridge of white and swirling with

"The Saverack," said Nash. "Now what d'you think about fording it?"

"If we can't ford it, we can swim it," declared Bard. "Look at that
tree-trunk. If that will float I will float, and if I can float I can
swim, and if I can swim I'll reach the other bank of that little creek.
Won't we, boy?"

And he slapped the proud neck of the mustang.

"Swim it?" said Nash incredulously. "Does that date mean as much as that
to you?"

"It isn't the date; it's the promise I gave," answered the other,
watching the current with a cool eye, "besides, when I was a youngster
I used to do things like this for the sport of it."

They rode down to the edge of the stream.

"How about it, Nash, will you take the chance with me?"

And the other, looking down: "Try the current, I'll stay here on the
shore and if it gets too strong for you I'll throw out a rope, eh? But
if you can make it, I'll follow suit."

The other cast a somewhat wistful eye of doubt upon the cowpuncher.

"How far is it to the ford?" he asked.

"About eight miles," answered Nash, doubling the distance on the spot.

"Eight miles?" repeated the other ruefully. "Too far. Then here goes,

Still never turning his back on the cowpuncher, who was now uncoiling
his lariat and preparing it for a cast, Bard edged the piebald into the
current. He felt the mustang stagger as the water came knee-deep, and he
checked the horse, casting his eye from shore to shore and summing up
the chances.

If it had been simply water against which he had to contend, he would
not have hesitated, but here and there along the course sharp pointed
rocks and broad-backed boulders loomed, and now and then, with a mighty
splashing and crashing one of these was overbalanced by the force of the
current and rolled another step toward the far-off sea.

That rush of water would carry him far downstream and the chances were
hardly more than even that he would not strike against one of these
murderous obstructions about which the current foamed.

An impulse made him turn and wave a hand to Nash.

He shouted: "Give me luck?"

"Luck?" roared the cowboy, and his voice came as if faint with distance
over the thunder of the stream.

He touched the piebald with the spurs, and the gallant little horse
floundered forward, lost footing and struck into water beyond its depth.
At the same instant Bard swung clear of the saddle and let his body
trail out behind, holding with his left hand to the tail of the
struggling horse and kicking to aid the progress.

Immersed to the chin, and sometimes covered by a more violent wave, the
sound of the river grew at once strangely dim, but he felt the force of
the current tugging at him like a thousand invisible hands. He began to
wish that he had taken off his boots before entering, for they weighted
his feet so that it made him leg-weary to kick. Nevertheless he trusted
in the brave heart of the mustang. There was no wavering in the wild
horse. Only his head showed over the water, but the ears were pricking
straight and high, and it never once swerved back toward the nearer

Their progress at first was good, but as they neared the central portion
of the water they were swept many yards downstream for one that they
made in a transverse direction. Twice they missed projecting rocks by
the narrowest margin, and then something like an exceedingly thin and
exceedingly strong arm caught Anthony around the shoulders. It tugged
back, stopped all their forward progress, and let them sweep rapidly
down the stream and back toward the shore.

Turning his head he caught a glimpse of Nash sitting calmly in his
saddle, holding the rope in both hands - and laughing. The next instant
he saw no more, for the current placed a taller rock between him and the
bank. On that rock the line of the lariat caught, hooking the swimmers
sharply in toward the bank. He would have cut the rope, but it would be
almost impossible to get out a knife and open a blade with his teeth,
still clinging to the tail of the swimming horse with one hand. He
reached down through the water, pulled out the colt, and with an effort
swung himself about. Close at hand he could not reach the rope, and
therefore he fired not directly at the rope itself, but at the edge of
the rock around which the lariat bent at a sharp angle. The splash of
that bullet from the strong face of the rock sliced the rope like a
knife. It snapped free, and the brave little mustang straightened out
again for the far shore.

An instant more Bard swam with the revolver poised above the water, but
he caught no glimpse of Nash; so he restored it with some difficulty to
the holster, and gave all his attention and strength to helping the
horse through the water, swimming with one hand and kicking vigorously
with his feet.

Perhaps they would not have made it, for now through exhaustion the ears
of the mustang were drooping back. He shouted, and at the faint sound of
his cheer the piebald pricked a single weary ear. He shouted again, and
this time not for encouragement, but from exultation; a swerving current
had caught them and was bearing them swiftly toward the desired bank.

It failed them when they were almost touching bottom and swung sharply
out toward the centre again, but the mustang, as though it realized
that this was the last chance, fought furiously. Anthony gave the rest
of his strength, and they edged through, inch by inch, and horse and man
staggered up the bank and stood trembling with fatigue.

Glancing back, he saw Nash in the act of throwing his lariat to the
ground, wild with anger, and before he could understand the meaning of
this burst of temper over a mere spoiled lariat, the gun whipped from
the side of the cowboy, exploded, and the little piebald, with ears
pricked sharply forward as though in vague curiosity, crumpled to the
ground. The suddenness of it took all power of action from Bard for the
instant. He stood staring stupidly down at the dying horse and then
whirled, gun in hand, frantic with anger and grief.

Nash was galloping furiously up the far bank of the Saverack, already
safely out of range, and speeding toward the ford.



When the cattleman felt the rope snap back to his hand he could not
realize at first just what had happened. The crack of the gun had been
no louder than the snapping of a twig in that storming of the river, and
the only explanation he could find was that the rope had struck some
superlatively sharp edge of the rock and been sawed in two. But
examining the cut end he found it severed as cleanly as if a knife had
slashed across it, and then it was he knew and threw the lariat to the

When he saw Bard scramble up the opposite bank he knew that his game was
lost and all the tables reversed, for the Easterner was a full two hours
closer to the home of Drew than he was, with the necessary detour up to
the ford. The Easterner might be delayed by the unknown country for a
time, but not very long. He was sure to meet someone who would point the
way. It was then that Nash drew his gun and shot down the piebald

The next instant he was racing straight up the river toward the ford.
The roan was not spared this day, for there were many chances that Bard
might secure a fresh mount to speed him on the way to the Drew ranch,
and now it was all important that the big grey man be warned; for there
was a danger in that meeting, as Nash was beginning to feel.

By noon he reached the house and went straight to the owner, a desperate
figure, spattered with mud to the eyes, a three days' growth of whiskers
blackening his face, and that face gaunt with the long, hard riding. He
found the imperturbable Drew deep in a book in his office. While he was
drawing breath, the rancher examined him with a faint smile.

"I thought this would be the end of it," he announced.

"The devil and all hell plays on the side of Bard," answered the
foreman. "I had him safe - almost tied hand and foot. He got away."

"Got away?"

"Shot the rope in two."

The other placed a book-mark, closed the volume, and looked up with the
utmost serenity.

"Try again," he said quietly. "Take half a dozen men with you, surprise
him in the night - - "

"Surprise a wolf," growled Nash. "It's just the same."

The shaggy eyebrows stirred.

"How far is he away?"

"Two or three miles - maybe half a dozen - I don't know. He'll be here
before night."

The big man changed colour and gripped the edge of the desk. Nash had
never dreamed that it would be possible to so stir him.

"Coming here?"


"Nash - you infernal fool! Did you let him know where you were taking

"No. He was already on the way here."

Once more Drew winced. He rose now and strode across the room and back;
from the wall the heavy echo of his footfall came sharply back. And he
paused in front of Nash, looming above his foreman like some primitive
monster, or as the Grecian heroes loomed above the rank and file at the
siege of Troy. He was like a relic of some earlier period when bigger
men were needed for a greater physical labour.

"What does he want?"

"I don't know. Says he wants to ask for the right of hunting on your
old place on the other side of the range. Which I'd tell a man it's jest
a lie. He knows he can hunt there if he wants to."

"Does he know me?"

"Just your name."

"Did he ask many questions about me?"

"Wanted to know what you looked like."

"And you told him?"

"A lot of things. Said you were big and grey. And I told him that story
about you and John Bard."

Drew slumped into a chair and ground the knuckles of his right hand
across his forehead. The white marks remained as he looked up again.

"What was that?"

"Why, how you happened to marry Joan Piotto and how Bard left the

"That was all?"

"Is there any more, sir?"

The other stared into the distance, overlooking the question.

"Tell me what you've found out about him."

"I been after him these three days. Logan tipped him wrong, and he
started the south trail for Eldara. I got on his trail three times and
couldn't catch him till we hit Eldara."

"I thought your roan was the most durable horse on the range, Steve.
You've often told me so."

"He is."

"But you couldn't catch - Bard?"

"He was on a faster horse than mine - for a while."

"Well? Isn't he now?'

"I killed the horse."

"You showed your hand, then? He knows you were sent after him?"

"No, he thinks it's because of a woman."

"Is he tangling himself up with some girl?" frowned the rancher.

"He's cutting in on me with Sally Fortune - damn his heart!"

And Nash paled visibly, even through whiskers and mud. The other almost

"So soon, Nash?"

"With hosses and women, he don't lose no time."

"What's he done?"

"The first trace I caught of him was at a shack of an old ranchhouse
where he'd traded his lame hoss in. They gave him the wildest mustang
they had - a hoss that was saddle-shy and that hadn't never been ridden.
He busted that hoss in - a little piebald mustang, tougher 'n iron - and
that was why I didn't catch him till we hit Eldara."

The smile was growing more palpable on the face of Drew, and he nodded
for the story to continue.

"Then I come to a house which was all busted up because Bard had come
along and flirted with the girl, and she's got too proud for the feller
she was engaged to - begun thinkin' of millionaires right away, I s'pose.

"Next I tracked him to Flanders's saloon, where he'd showed up Sandy
Ferguson the day before and licked him bad. I seen Ferguson. It was sure
some lickin'."

"Ferguson? The gun-fighter? The two-gun man?"


"Ah-h-h!" drawled the big man.

The colour was back in his face. He seemed to be enjoying the recountal

"Then I hit Eldara and found all the lights out."

"Because of Bard?"

"H-m! He'd had a run-in with Butch Conklin, and Butch threatened to come
back with all his gang and wipe Eldara off the map. He stuck around and
while he was waitin' for Butch and his gang, he started flirtin' with
Sally - Fortune."

The name seemed to stick in his throat and he had to bring it out with a
grimace. "So now you want his blood, Nash?"

"I'll have it," said the cowpuncher quietly, "I've got gambler's luck.
In the end I'm sure to win."

"You're not going to win here, Nash."

"No?" queried the younger man, with a dangerous intonation.

"No. I know the blood behind that chap. You won't win here. Blood will

He smote his great fist on the desk-top and his laugh was a thunder
which reverberated through the room.

"Blood will out? The blood of John Bard?" asked Nash.

Drew started.

"Who said John Bard?"

He grew grey again, the flush dying swiftly. He started to his feet and
repeated in a great voice, sweeping the room with a wild glance: "Who
said John Bard?"

"I thought maybe this was his son," answered Nash.

"You're a fool! Does he look like John Bard? No, there's only one person
in the world he looks like."

He strode again up and down the room, repeating in a deep monotone:
"John Bard!"

Coming to a sharp halt he said: "I don't want the rest of your story.
The point is that the boy will be here within - an hour - two hours. We've
got work to do before that time."

"Listen to me," answered the foreman, "don't let him get inside this
house. I'd rather take part of hell into a house of mine. Besides, if he
sees me - "

"He's coming here, but he's not going to see either of us - my mind is
made up - neither of us until I have him helpless."



"Dead, you mean," broke in Nash, "because otherwise he'll never be

"I tell you, Nash," said the other solemnly, "I can make him helpless
with one minute of talk. My problem is to keep that wild devil harmless
while he listens to me talk. Another thing - if he ever sees me, nothing
_but_ death will stop him from coming at my throat."

"Speakin' personal," said the other coldly, "I never take no chances on
fellers that might come at my throat."

"I know; you're for the quick draw and the quick finish. But I'd rather
die myself than have a hair of his head hurt. I mean that!"

Nash, his thoughts spinning, stood staring blankly.

"I give up tryin' to figure it out; but if he's comin' here and you want
to keep him safe I'd better take a fresh hoss and get twenty miles away
before night."

"You'll do nothing of the kind; you'll stay here with me."

"And face him without a gun?" asked the other incredulously.

"Leave gun talk out of this. I think one of the boys looks a little like
me. Lawlor - isn't that his name?"

"Him? Yes; a little bit like you - but he's got his thickness through the
stomach and not through the chest."

"Never mind. He's big, and he's grey. Send for him, and get the rest of
the boys in here. They're around now for noon. Get _every_ one.
Understand? And make it fast."

In ten minutes they came to the office in a troop - rough men, smooth
men, little and big, fat and thin, but good cattlemen, every one.

"Boys," said Drew, "a tenderfoot is coming to the ranch to-day. I'm
going to play a few jokes on him. First of all, I want you to know that
until the stranger leaves the house, Lawlor is going to take my place.
He is going to be Drew. Understand?"

"Lawlor?" broke out several of them, and turned in surprise to a big,
cheerful man - grey, plump, with monstrous white whiskers.

"Because he looks a bit like me. First, you'll have to crop those
whiskers, Lawlor."

He clutched at the threatened whiskers with both hands.

"Crop 'em? Chief, you ain't maybe runnin' me a bit?"

"Not a bit," said Drew, smiling faintly. "I'll make it worth your

"It took me thirty years to raise them whiskers," said the cattleman,
stern with rebuke. "D'you think I could be _hired_ to give 'em up? It's
like givin' up some of myself."

"Let them go, then. You can play the part, whiskers and all. The rest of
you remember that Lawlor is the boss."

"And brand that deep," growled Lawlor, looking about with a frown.

He had already stepped into his part; the others laughed loudly.

"Steady there!" called Drew. "Lawlor starts as boss right now. Cut out
the laughing. I'll tell the rest of you what you're to do later on. In
the meantime just step out and I'll have a talk with Lawlor on his part.
We haven't much time to get ready. But remember - if one of you grins
when Lawlor gives an order - I'm done with that man - that's all."

They filed out of the room, looking serious, and Drew concentrated on
Lawlor. "This sounds like a joke," he began, "but there's something
serious about it. If you carry it through safely, there's a hundred in
it for you. If you fall down, why, you fall out of an easy place on this

The big cattleman wiped a growing perspiration from his forehead and
considered his boss with plaintive eyes.

"This tenderfoot who's coming is green to the range, but he's a hard
man; a fine horseman, a sure shot, and a natural fighter. More than
that, he's coming here looking for trouble; and he'll expect to get the
trouble from you."

Lawlor brushed his moustache anxiously.

"Let someone else take the job - that's all. A hundred ain't to be picked
up every week, but I'll do without it. In my day I've done my share of
brawlin' around, but I'm too stiff in the joints to make a fast draw and
getaway now. Let Nash take this job. He's gun-fighter enough to handle
this bad-man for you."

"No," said Drew, "not even Nash can handle this one."

"Then" - with a mighty and explosive emphasis - "there ain't no possible
use of me lingering around the job. S'-long."

"Wait. This young chap isn't going to murder you. I'll tell you this
much. The man he wants is I; but he knows my face, not my name. He's
been on the trail of that face for some time, and now he's tracking it
to the right house; but when he sees you and hears you called Drew,
he'll be thrown off again."

The other nodded gloomily.

"I'm by way of a lightning rod. This tenderfoot with the hard hand, he
strikes and I sort of conduct the shock away from anything that'll burn,

Drew overlooked the comment.

"There are certain things about me you will have to know." And he
explained carefully the story which Nash had told to Bard.

"This Bard," asked the cautious Lawlor, "is he any relation of old John

"Even if he were, it wouldn't make your position dangerous. The man he
wants is I. He knows my face - not my name. Until he sees me he'll be
perfectly reasonable, unless he's crossed. You must seem frank and above
board. If you tell more lies than are necessary he may get suspicious,
and if he grows suspicious the game is up and will have to be finished
with a gun play. Remember that. He'll want to know about Nash. Tell him
that Nash is a bad one and that you've fixed him; he mustn't expect to
find Nash here."

Lawlor rubbed his hands, like one coming from the cold outdoors to a
warm fire.

"I'm beginning to see light. Lemme at this Bard. I'm going to get enough
fun out of this to keep me laughin' the rest of my life."

"Good; but keep that laugh up your sleeve. If he asks questions you'll
have some solemn things to say."

"Chief, when the time comes, there's going to be about a gallon of tears
in my eyes."

So Drew left him to complete the other arrangements. If Bard reached the
house he must be requested to stay, and if he stayed he must be fed and
entertained. The difficulty in the way of this was that the servants in
the big ranchhouse were two Chinese boys. They could never be trusted to
help in the deception, so Drew summoned two of his men, "Shorty" Kilrain
and "Calamity" Ben.

Calamity had no other name than Ben, as far as any one on the range had
ever been able to learn. His nickname was derived from the most dolorous
face between Eldara and Twin Rivers. Two pale-blue eyes, set close
together, stared out with an endless and wistful pathos; a long nose
dropped below them, and his mouth curled down at the sides. He was
hopelessly round-shouldered from much and careless riding, and in
attempting to straighten he only succeeded in throwing back his head, so
that his lean neck generally was in a V-shape with the Adam's apple as
the apex of the wedge.

Shorty Kilrain received his early education at sea and learned there a
general handiness which stood him in stead when he came to the
mountain-desert. There was nothing which Shorty could not do with his
hands, from making a knot to throwing a knife, and he was equally ready
to oblige with either accomplishment. Drew proposed that he take charge
of the kitchen with Calamity Ben as an assistant. Shorty glowered on the

"Me!" he said. "Me go into the galley to wait on a blasted tenderfoot?"

"After he leaves you'll have a month off with full pay and some over,

"Don't want the month off."

Drew considered him thoughtfully, following the precept of Walpole that
every man has his price.

"What _do_ you want, Shorty?"

The ex-sailor scratched his head and then rolled his eyes up with a
dawning smile, as one who sees a vision of ultimate bliss.

"Let one of the other boys catch my hoss out of the corral every morning
and saddle him for me for a month."

"It's a bargain. What'll you do with that time?"

"Sit on the fence and roll a cigarette like a blasted gentleman and damn
the eyes of the feller that's catchin' my hoss."

"And me," said Calamity Ben, "what do I get?"

"You get orders," answered Kilrain, "from me."

Calamity regarded him, uncertain whether or not to fight out the point,
but apparently decided that the effort was not worth while.

"There ain't going to be no luck come out of this," he said darkly.
"Before this tenderfoot gets out of the house, we're all going to wish
he was in hell."



But with the stage set and the curtain ready to rise on the farce, the
audience did not arrive until the shadow of the evening blotted the
windows of the office where big Lawlor waited impatiently, rehearsing
his part; but when the lamp had been lighted, as though that were a
signal for which the tenderfoot had waited, came a knock at the door of
the room, and then it was jerked open and the head of one of the
cowpunchers was inserted.

"He's coming!"

The head disappeared; the door slammed. Lawlor stretched both arms wide,
shifted his belt, loosened his gun in the holster for the fiftieth time,
and exhaled a long breath. Once more the door jerked open, and this time
it was the head and sullen face of Nash, enlivened now by a peculiarly
unpleasant smile.

"He's here!"

As the door closed the grim realization came to Lawlor that he could
not face the tenderfoot - his staring eyes and his pallor would betray
him even if the jerking of his hands did not. He swung about in the
comfortable chair, seized a book and whisking it open bowed his head to
read. All that he saw was a dance of irregular black lines: voices
sounded through the hall outside.

"Sure, he'll see you," Calamity Ben was saying. "And if you want to put
up for the night there ain't nobody more hospital than the Chief. Right
in here, son."

The door yawned. He could not see, for his back was resolutely toward it
and he was gripping the cover of the book hard to steady his hands; but
he felt a breath of colder air from the outer hall; he felt above all a
new presence peering in upon him, like a winter-starved lynx that might
flatten its round face against the window and peer in at the lazy warmth
and comfort of the humans around the hearth inside. Some such feeling
sent a chill through Lawlor's blood.

"Hello!" called Calamity Ben.

"Humph!" grunted Lawlor.

"Got a visitor, Mr. Drew."

"Bring him in."

And Lawlor cleared his throat.

"All right, here he is."

The door closed, and Lawlor snapped the book shut.

"Drew!" said a low voice.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 9 11 12 13 14 15 16 17

Online LibraryMax BrandTrailin'! → online text (page 9 of 17)