The Devil's Dooryard
THE DEVIL’S DOORYARD
A COMPLETE NOVELETTE
Author of “Figures of Speech,” “No Wonder,” etc.
"I HAS to disagree with yuh, cowboy. There is some romance left. A little barb-wire and a few sheep don’t cut the romance out of the cow-land. She’s there, Sleepy.”
“Where?” I asks politely. “Me and you ain’t, found none of it, Hashknife. Since we shook loose from Willer Crick we ain’t done nothin’ more romantic than gettin’ bucked off or lettin’ a gun go off accidental. There ain’t a man left in the cow-country that would get ambition if somebody called him a liar, and the villains has gone plumb out of the female-stealin’ business.”
“Well, get off your bronc, Sleepy. Folks’ll think you’re a statoo on a horse. I’m too hungry to argue. Git off and look for romance, cowboy.”
“In this town? Shucks. False fronts, licensed gamblin’-house, livery-stable, general merchandise store and a barber-shop. Romance——!”
“We-e-e-ll, get off. Some ham and eggs looks plenty romantic to me.”
I gets off my bronc, limbers up my legs and looks around. The sign on the store proclaims it to be the Sundown Mercantile Company.
“Sundown City,” says Hashknife. “She’s a cow-town, pure and simple.”
“Pure and simple——!” says I.
“Why argue?” he says, sarcastic-like. “All day long you finds fault. You’d kick if yuh was goin’ to get hung, Sleepy Stevens. Ain’t nothin’ right in your eyes?”
I reckon the argument had gone far enough, but that wasn’t no way to bust it up. A bullet splinters the top of the tie-rack, another one busts the glass in the store- window and another one scorches a lousy dog which was asleep in the shade of the saloon porch, and it went ki-yi-ing off down the street. Three punchers' comes gallivantin’ out of the saloon-door, sifting lead back inside, while several more oozes out the back door, hunting for a place to get behind. I never seen so much lead wasted and nobody saturated. Somebodymore bullets in our direction, and I stands there with my mouth wide open until Hashknife kicks my feet from under me, drops a rifle in my lap and then does a dive across the sidewalk.
“Yuh might do a little somethin’ for yourself,” says he, as I sits there digging dirt out of my eyes from the last bullet. Then he yells:
“Sleepy, you —— fool, get under cover! Ain’tcha got no sense?”
I crawls under the sidewalk and sprawls beside him.
“Yuh ain’t got the sense that —— gave geese in Ireland,” says he. “Watcha settin’ over there for? You ain’t got no brains a-tall.”
“I never got hit,” says I.
“You never got— Saya-a-y! Oh, you didn’t get hit, eh? Well, that’s too bad!”
“Well, what they shootin’ at me for?”
“We might ask ’em—some time. Dang yuh!”
That last wasn’t for me. A puncher raised up out of a wagon-box across the street and his bullet plowed a furrow in the sidewalk between me and Hashknife. Hashknife’s .45-70 spoke its little piece, and soon we seen that feller hop a circle plumb around the corner. Somebody else took a shot at him on the wing, but I reckon that he was so bow-legged that he didn’t get hit.
Another Johnny Wise got up on the roof of that gambling-house and begins to spin lead promiscuous-like, sort of protecting himself with the top of the false front, but he didn’t reckon on anybody using a rifle on his fort. He wasn’t shooting at us, but we didn’t mind that. Hashknife lines up on that false front and his first bullet kicked a hole in them old boards that you could shove your hand through.
Mister Johnny Wise just upended over the ridge of the building and took the high dive over the other side. Somebody creased the peak of the roof just a second after his panties got away from there.
“You keep on and you’ll hurt somebody,” says I. “’Pears to me that you’re horning into this shindig without knowing the facts of the case. You may be shooting at our side.”
“In a case like that, I ain’t got no side, Sleepy. I has been shot at and the same makes me angry.”
“Sa-a-ay,” says a voice kinda behind us, and we turns our heads to see a little bow-legged puncher hugging the side of the building.
“My ——!” gasps Hashknife. “Hello, Windy.”
The bow-legged hombre stares at us and then begins to laugh.
“Hashknife Hartley, yuh old son-of-a-gun! Where about in —— did yuh come from?”
“Git down!” yells Hashknife, as the feller starts to come over to us.
“Thank yuh,” says he. “I plumb forgot them or’nery Bar 20 cow-burglars.”
He gets down on his belly and comes angling over to us, and him and Hashknife shakes hands laying down.
“Sleepy, meet Windy Woods. Windy used to be with the Hashknife.”
“Yore bunkie?” asks Windy, pointing at me.
“Yeah. Some human drawback, Windy. I has to tell him when to chaw and kick him when it’s time to spit. I shore has a lot of chores with that pelican.”
“Haw! Haw! Haw! Howdja ever get so far north, Hashknife?”
“Follerin’ Sleepy. Part Eskimo. Kinda hankers for home scenes. What’s gone wrong in the saloon?”
Windy peers over the edge of the sidewalk and gets dusted with a bullet. Then he ducks down low and reaches for his cigaret-papers.
“Had a killin’ over there a while ago. My boss, old Mike Haley, mingles lead with Blazer Thorn, who own that —— Bar 20, and they both cashes in.
“Then some of the Bar 20 slaves gits into their heads that they must do something naughty with their six-guns, and I— I dunno whether anybody else hooked a harp or not. Most of the Bar 20 are inside the saloon, except one which is on the roof of the gamblin’-house.”
“He ain’t up there now,” says Hashknife; “chased him over the edge. One of ’em got in a wagon-box over there, but I made the old box leak and he sloped.”
“Yeah, I know,” says Windy, sad-like. “That was me.”
“I begs yore pardon,” says Hashknife. “Why didn’t yuh holler?”
“Holler ——! I didn’t have none comin’. I thought you was some more of them Bar 20’s, so I circled to get yuh from behind, but I got a look at yuh and then I knowed you was just company comin’ to our party.”
“How many in your outfit, Windy?”
“Oh!” grunts Hashknife. “They was all shootin’ at you?”
“All except ‘Snag’ Thorn—thankin’ him very kindly.”
“Ve-e-e-ry good. Yuh see, it was his pa that got a one-way ticket to ——, and sonny feels bad. Danged bunch of cow-thieves! I reckon they aimed to wipe out the Circle Dot, but li’l bow-legs was too fast. I’m foreman of the Circle Dot, Hashknife.
“Yep. Foreman, cow-hands, cook, and chambermaid. Me and old Mike run the place fine, in spite of him crabbin’ all the time. Poor old devil. Tough? Mm-m-m! Blazer Thorn heezed five .45’s into him but he hung on to the bar and emptied his gun into Blazer. Betcha that saloon looks be-yutiful inside.”
“What was you doin’?” asks Hashknife.
“Me? Aw, I couldn’t help Mike none and then my thoughts turned to the old man Woods’ li’l bow-legged offspring, and I picked up one of the Bar 20 punchers in my arms and packed him plumb to the door, while I backs out.
“Then I kicks him in the seat of the pants, rakes the saloon with me gun, and humped into that wagon-box. Nobody knowed where I went until you sent me a message to get out of there, and then them Bar 20’s are so flustered that they missed me somethin’ rediculous.”
“Better keep your head down,” advises Hashknife, when Windy peeks over the edge.
“Looky!” grunts Windy. “Sons of guns want peace.”
THERE’S a white handkerchief waving out of the saloon-door and then a man comes out, looks around and motions for the rest to come out, which they does, packing a man with them.
They crosses the street to a wagon, wherein they places their man, and then they drives away, two men in the wagon and three more on horses. Then another man rides out from behind the saloon, sees us and comes over with both hands in sight. He’s the dark, hatchet-faced person, sort of serious-looking, and sets his bronc like a regular puncher. We’re on the sidewalk now and he pulls up near us and says:
“Woods, I’m kinda sorry this happened. I ain’t extendin’ no sympthy to the Circle Dot, yuh understand, but I don’t like this six-to-one fightin’.”
“I didn’t get hurt, none to speak about,” says Windy, “and I didn’t hang out no white flag. If yuh asks me, Snag, I’d say that yo’re payin’ money to a lot of danged poor shots.”
He turns slow-like, and looks down the road. Then he turns back to us.
“You ought to be glad,” says he.
“What’s goin’ be done with the Circle Dot?” he asks.
“The same of which is none of your —— business, Thorn. I reckon the three of us can wiggle along—as long as we’ve got any cows left to foller around.”
He just sets there and looks at us, and I can see that he’s got the face of a killer, but he don’t make no break for his gun. He looks real hard at Hashknife, sort of sizing him up, and then he turns his horse and rides away.
“Bad hombre?” I asks.
“Well,” says Windy, “he’s called ‘Snag.’ They don’t make ’em faster with a gun, but he’s got pe-culiar ideas. I don’t reckon Snag would shoot a man in the back nor quarrel with a drunk man and I ain’t never heard of him swearin’ at anybody, but he’s a chip off the old block, and Blazer Thorn was plumb pizen in a fight.”
“What did yuh mean by ‘three of us?’” I asks.
“You two and me. I’m givin’ yuh each a job.”
“Well,” says Hashknife after a while, “a feller’s got to get a job once in a while, I reckon, ain’t he, Sleepy?’ Sleepy’s looking for romance, Windy. Know what romance is?”
“Yes,” says Windy, “I don’t, but if it is somethin’ yuh can find in the or’neriest danged cow-country on earth you’ll find her here on the Sundown range, y’betcha. There’s everythin’ here except peaceable people. Let’s get poor old Mike and make some funeral arrangements.”
We buries old Mike the next day at Sundown City and there wasn’t much of a audience. The preacher hurried so he’d have time to say a few words over the remains of Blazer Thorn, and then we went to the Circle Dot.
“Hackamore” Allen, the sheriff, comes out to the ranch and kinda sets around a while. He’s a gloomy-looking jasper with a tired eye, and he radiates cheer like a undertaker.
“Whatcha goin’ to do with the ranch, Windy?” he asks.
“You don’t own it.”
“What the —— has that got to do with it, Hack? She don’t owe nobody a cent, and there’s over a thousand head of good cows—or was, until the last time the Bar 20 branded.”
“Yeah? Well, I reckon I’ll be driftin’ on.”
He nods to me and Hashknife, and then rides back down the road.
“Windy,” says Hashknife. “Would yuh mind gossipin’ a little? Me and Sleepy don’t sabe the state of affairs around here.”
“Just ordinary,” says Windy. “She begins quite a long time ago, gents. This here range used to be milk, honey and brotherly love, you know it? Sure she did. Blazer Thorn and Mike Haley was thicker than thieves until one day Mike stops for supper at the Bar 20. I reckon that Mike had a scoop or two under his belt and he feels comical. He says to Blazer, ‘Know why I eats here so often?’ Blazer says, ‘Why?’
“Old Mike says, ‘I like the taste of my own beef.‘
“Well, Blazer must ’a’ been dyspeptic or somethin’ that day, ’cause he kicks back his chair and calls Mike a —— liar. Mike’s plumb hard-boiled and he don’t think that any man knows enough about him to call him a name like that, but some punchers grabbed the two of ’em and stopped a piece of gun-play. Blazer orders Mike off the ranch. Mike was joshin’ at first, but he’s been losin’ a lot of stock, and he gets to thinkin’—him bein’ sore anyway, and well—yuh know them things grows. Blazer’s plumb wild. Swears that the Circle Dot is stealin’ his cows, the same of which changes this country a heap, scaring out the bees and smearin’ the honey in the mud.
“Both outfits draws a dead-line. Ours is that old cross-roads, and the Bar 20 declares Cow Crick to be the stoppin’-place of the Circle Dot outfit. Then Blazer and Mike makes a agreement. Both of them pelicans are deadly with a gun. Blazer has a wife and this boy. Yeah, this started when Snag was mostly a ganglin’ kid, practisin’ with a .22.
“Both of them hombres knows it’s suicide to meet. Mike ain’t wistful to make Mrs. Thorn a widder with a orphing kid, so he agrees. Mike is to use Saturday as his day in town, and Blazer is to appear in person on Wednesdays.
“Fine. Folks got so used to it that they takes it for granted. Well, Mrs. Thorn goes the way of all critters, and Snag grows up, but the feud goes on just the same—only worse. It got so that the punchers of both outfits acts mean towards each other. There is a few killin’s.
“I reckon that Mike forgot. He sold a bunch of cows to a buyer from Chicago, and the man is in a hurry to get away; so Mike meets him in Sundown City—on Wednesday. You sabe the rest, I reckon. Mike and Blazer comes face to face in the saloon. Blooey! They ain’t met before for ten years, but they didn’t need no introduction. I reckon that’s all. My gosh, I ain’t talked that much for three years.”
“Is there anything in this rustlin’ stuff?” asks Hashknife.
“Everythin’,” nods Windy. “Everybody suspects everybody else, but she’s a cinch that the Bar 20 brands more than their share. Funny thing, though, Hashknife, nobody knows where the stock goes. Just two ways out. Yuh can take a herd to the railroad at Hollister or yuh can take ’em back through Hangman’s Pass and over to Blue Nose. There ain’t no other way out of this basin, but no cows have been taken either way.”
“Can’t yuh take ’em over the divide?” I asks.
“Naw. Not unless the cows has wings.”
“That’s it,” grins Hashknife. “You been lookin’ at the ground when yuh should ’a’ been lookin’ in the air, Windy. They flew.”
“Mebby. Honest to gosh, I’m willin’ to believe it, Hashknife.”
“Who’s this comin’?” I asks.
“That’s Bowers. He owns the Bar B outfit, which is between us and the Bar 20. He’s likely comin’ up here to beef about somebody stealin’ his danged cows.”
WINDY was right. This Bowers is a melancholy-looking jasper with sorrel hair, and he talks like he had a mouthful of mush.
“Yeah, I’m losin’ cows all the danged time,” he wails, humping over his saddle-horn. “Wisht I knowed what to do.”
“I’ll tell yuh what yuh ought to do,” suggests Hashknife.
“Get your adenoids cut out.”
“Uh-huh. Your talk sounds like a bogged-down calf. You know what I mean—kinda glub-glub.”
“Well,” says he foolish-like: “Well, I’ll be ——!”
Then he looks over at Windy, who looks as serious as a funeral.
“You sabe what he means?”
“Sure. He’s right, too.”
“Well. Mebbe that’s right. Huh!”
Then Mr. Bowers swings his horse around and goes poco poco off down the road, deep in thought.
“What’s adenoids, Hashknife?” asks Windy. “I know danged well that Bowers ought to have his cut out, yuh understand, but I ain’t clear in my own mind what they be.”
“Somethin’ that grows in his head,” says Hashknife.
“Sure,” nods Windy. “I hope they has to remove his whole danged head to get at ’em.”
“What did the sheriff mean, Windy, when he wanted to know what was going to be done with the Circle Dot? Didn’t Haley have no relatives?”
“I dunno—dang it all, Sleepy. Never said nothin’ to nobody about any. Never left no will nor nothin’. Reckon he feels that he’s so danged tough that he’ll outlive anybody else anyway, so why make a will? I’ve got somethin’—wait.”
Windy goes into the house and brings out a couple of sheets of paper.
“This is all I can find,” says he. “Looks like Mike started to write a letter and then tore it up, ’cause this is just part of it.”
The top part of the letter had been torn off, but what we’ve got reads like this:
—family, and I reckon you’ll have it all when I pass out. Feller back East tells me where he thinks you are, so I’m taking a chance. I would rather like to see you, but this ain’t no——
And the rest is torn off.
“Here is the envylope,” says Windy. “Same as the old man’s, only his middle letter was H, and this’n is J. What is a em-po-ree-um?”
“I dunno,” says Hashknife, looking at the envelope. “Must be somethin’.”
“My ——, you’ve got a fine head on yuh,” says Windy. “You’re goin’ to do well.”
“I sure has,” grins Hashknife, “and I’ll prove it to yuh, Windy. I’ve got a friend in Frisco—a lawyer, and he’ll find out for
“Lawyers costs money, Hashknife.”
“This one won’t. I packed this whippoorwill out of a tight corner on the Barbary Coast one night and I’m bettin’ he ain’t forgot it. He comes danged near bein’ a sailor, y’betcha. Crimps, they calls ’em, and I sure put a crimp into about six of ’em.
“He wasn’t very heavy and I just had enough hooch under my belt to shoot straight, but at that I had to hit two with my gun-barrel. If M. J. Haley is at the em-po-ree-um, I’m bettin’ that Billy Winters will find him. Sounds like a gamblin’-house to me.”
“All right, cowboy,” grins Windy. “You do the writin’, will yuh? I ain’t noways pencil-wise—me.”
HASHKNIFE writes the letter, explaining the best he can, and we posts it the next day in Sundown City. We don’t meet none of the Bar 20 bunch, but we does run into the sheriff and he seems glad to see us.
“Nice weather,” says Hashknife, and then adds, “I like it hot.”
“Yeah?” says the sheriff, and then he says to Windy—
“Baldy Willis got shot yesterday.”
“Did he?” says Windy. “Accidental, I suppose. Gol dang it, sheriff, they ought to have a school where a feller like him can learn to handle a gun and——”
“He didn’t get shot accidental,” says the sheriff, deliberate-like.
“Oh!” grunts Windy. “Sassed somebody, eh?”
“Nope. He was crossin’ around at the lower end of Devil’s Dooryard and got a rifle-bullet plumb through his shoulder.”
Windy squints at the sheriff and then at us. Then he rubs his nose, kinda thoughtful-like, and says—
“Well, I reckon you can talk a little more, sheriff.”
“Baldy says that he was knocked plumb hazy, but he seems to remember hearin’ a voice say, ‘Maybe you’ll keep off the Circle Dot Range after this.’”
“That’s a —— lie!” snaps Windy, dropping his hand to his gun.
“Now, now, don’t get in a hurry,” says the sheriff. “I’m just saying what Baldy said. Yuh can’t blame me for what somebody else said, can yuh?”
“Yuh hadn’t ought to repeat scandal,” says Hashknife. “Now, we’ll tell it to somebody, kinda exaggeratin’ it a little, and they’ll tell it to somebody else, kinda exaggeratin’ it a little, and by and by she gets to be a regular whale of a statement.”
“I’m just tellin’ what Baldy said,” insists the sheriff. “He says he thinks he heard that, and——”
“If yuh go out to the Bar 20 soon, yuh can tell Baldy that I think he’s a —— liar,” says Windy.
“Bar 20?” says Hashknife, like he’d never heard of it before. “Oh yeah. Ain’t that the place where all their cows has twin calves, Windy?”
“Uh-huh. Funny, ain’t it. The Circle Dot cows are like Mary’s little lamb. They never bring nothin’ but their tails behind them.”
“I don’t know who shot Baldy,” says the sheriff, “but I do know that I’m plumb sick and tired of the way things is goin’. The Bar 20 is losin’ cows every day and Bowers is wailin’ all the time about his cows being missin’. I tell yuh, it’s got to stop.”
“You —— tootin’ she has!” snaps Windy. “The Circle Dot ain’t bothered yuh none about missin’ cows, but if anybody asks yuh—we’re loser, y’betcha. I reckon you’ve got plenty to do, dry-nursin’ Snag Thorn and ‘Blubber’ Bowers, so I won’t take up none of yore time. Sabe?”
“Bowers said—” begins the sheriff, but Windy stops him.
“Bowers be ——!”
“He’s got complaints.”
“Adenoids,” says Hashknife. “Aggravated case. Yuh ought to send him to a doctor.”
“Addy—what?” asks the sheriff.
“Noids. Shouldn’t be surprized if they’re doin’ the work that his brain ought to do. You’ve got a touch of ’em, too. How’s your tonsils?”
“Let’s play a game of pool, Windy,” suggests Hashknife. “It’s too hot to stand herein the sun. See yuh later, sheriff.”
“Baldy might not live,” says the sheriff, offhanded-like.
“Well,” says Windy, “ther’s enough of ’em at the Bar 20 to bury him decently, but tell ’em not to fire no salutes over his grave, ’cause they might accident’ly hurt each other. Adios.”
We left the sheriff standing there, chawing at the corner of his mustache, and we went into the saloon and started a game. The bartender looks us over, sort of suspicious-like, but can’t refuse to let us play.
“All I asks of you fellers is this. If any of the Bar 20 shows up, fer ——’s sake don’t shoot toward my back-bar,” says he. “That last ruckus ruined all my whisky-glasses and everybody has had to drink out of beer-glasses, and they ain’t got no sense of proportion. Sabe?”
Bowers comes in after while and stands around watching the game. After while he says to Windy, confidential-like—
“I been up to the Bar 20.”
“Well, well,” grunts Windy, amazed-like. “You’re gettin’ to be a regular traveler. When did yuh get back and how are the folks?”
“Baldy ain’t expected to live.”
“Who don’t expect him to live—Baldy?”
“Nope. He’s danged awful low and might pass out any time.”
“He ain’t got nothin’ on the rest of ’em,” states Windy, “and they can all pass out, for all of me.”
“Snag says somebody has got to pay for shootin’ Baldy.”
“Well, if he has to pay what Baldy’s worth, I reckon it won’t break nobody.”
“Somebody took seven white-faced cows of mine out of my Salt Spring Corral, and I can’t find ’em,” says Bowers, complainin’-like.
“Yuh sure got troubles, ain’t yuh, feller?” laughs Hashknife, squinting down his cue. “Yuh ought to have patience, don’t yuh know it?
“Ever hear of Job? No? He had boils. Fact. Millions of ’em, but he stuck it out and didn’t whimper.
“You’ve got a cinch alongside of poor old Job. You ain’t got nothin’ but loss of beef, other folks’ troubles and adenoids. Get cheerful, why don’t yuh?”
“Well, dawggone it, I lost seventeen head of cows last——”
“I tell yuh what to do,” says Hashknife, serious-like. “You make out a list describin’ your lost cows, givin’ the name, age and general disposition and mail it to us, will yuh? Fine!”
“What good will that do yuh?”
“No good on earth; but yuh hankers to tell about ’em so bad that I just thought it might relieve yuh to set down and write it out—and I don’t like to listen to your voice. Honest to grandma, I don’t, Bowers. I ain’t jokin’.”
Bowers goes out, talking to himself, and Windy sets down in a chair.
“Mamma mine!” he chuckles. “Hashknife, you sure knows how to talk to folks. I wish I had eddication like that. All I can do is say something that is either plumb full of sugar, or else it’s fightin’ talk.
“You can say awful things to people and send ’em away talking to themselves, and they don’t know whether to get sore or shake hands with yuh. I’ll say you’re a wonder.”
FOR a couple of days we had perfect peace at the ranch. We don’t do a danged thing—much, except set around and wait for trouble. Windy insists that the Bar 20 is going to make trouble for us; so we polishes up all the guns and waits for the explosion.
Bowers pesticates up our way and sets down with us. I reckon he’s lost so much stock that it’s on his mind all the time.
“I’ll be busted in a little while,” he wails. “I just sets there and watches my money disappear. Was over to the Bar 20 yeste’day. Doctor don’t know yet if Baldy will pull through or not. I asked Snag if he had any suspicions who shot Baldy, and he said he sure did. I asked him who.”
“He told yuh it was none of your business,” says Hashknife.
Bowers looks at Hashknife queer-like and then says—
“How did yuh know that?”
“Deducted it, Blubber. I could tell that by lookin’ at yuh. Tomorrow I’m goin’ over and talk with Snag Thorn.”
“You are not!” declares Windy.
“Uh-huh, I sure am. Now, I know what I want to do, Windy.”
“You’ll get killed sure as thunder.”
“I wouldn’t advise it,” says Bowers. “I sure wouldn’t.”
“Which entirely makes up my mind,” grins Hashknife. “Why don’t you rise to object, Sleepy?”
“Go ahead,” says I. “Ventilation won’t hurt yuh none, I reckon.”
Hashknife went. About noon the next day he saddles his bronc, refuses to let us go with him, and rides away.
“You ain’t got a lick of sense, Hashknife!” yells Windy.
“I know it,” says Hashknife. “This is a job that takes brains, so I’m leavin’ the brains behind me to keep safe.”
“Now, what did he mean, Sleepy?” asks Windy.
“I dunno. The longer I lives with that blamed hatchet-faced cross between a danged fool and a heavenly angel, the less I sabe his wau-wau. Mebbe he wants to commit suicide, but I’m bettin’ money that he ain’t.”
It was about two hours before we seen him come into sight. He pokes into the ranch, takes his saddle off and comes up to the porch, dragging the saddle with him.
“Well, yuh got back, I see,” grins Windy.
“Yuh got good eyesight, Windy. Awful hot today. Got a blister on my heel, too.”
“Well, did yuh bring any messages from the Bar 20, Hashknife?” I asks.
“Uh-huh—two. Long distance, as yuh might say.”
“Meanin’ what?” inquires Windy.
Hashknife pulls his saddle over to him and yanks it around. Then he points to a long jagged rip in the fork, where a bullet plowed its way. Then he points to a jagged hole, drilled plumb through the right side of the cantle.
“Read ’em for youselves,” says he, grinning. “The first one busted into the fork and the next one just grazed my boot as I flipped off the saddle.”
“Where?” asks Windy.
“Just across the Cow Crick. I reckon it’s Cow Crick. I’m just goin’ up the far bank, when I gets reminded that I ain’t wanted. I humps out of the saddle before the next message arrives. I sure comes close to gettin’ peeled. I lit low down behind the bank and my bronc went across the crick into some willers. I sure tried to spot that bushwhacker, but he was too far away. A magpie gave him away by flyin’ over his location and then doin’ a upward twist, but there wasn’t much between him and me, and the danged fool shoots too close for comfort. Then I had to chase that fool bronc for half a mile before I got my hands on him, and I got a blister on my heel—dang the luck!”
“You ought to cuss your luck,” says Windy. “You’re lucky to be alive.”
“Must be a big blister,” complains Hashknife. “Got my feet wet, too.”
“I hope you’re satisfied,” says I, and Hashknife nods.
“Uh-huh, I’m satisfied' of one thing, Sleepy.”
“I dunno—yet. I’ve got to do somethin’ for that blister.”
Hashknife limps down to the bunk-house, dragging his saddle.
“What do yuh reckon he found out?” asks Windy. “Why is he satisfied?"
“Don’t ask me, Windy, and it won’t do yuh no good to ask him. A clam is a howling hyena beside that jasper, when he wants to keep still about his thoughts.”
Then he wants to see the place they calls the Devil’s Dooryard; so Windy guides us to that place. It sure looks like it might ’a’ been. Once on a time it was a volcano which busted out the side of the mountain and it sure made a barren spot out of a piece of country about two miles wide and three miles long.
Man, that must ’a’ been a hot place at one time. There ain’t a danged thing growing there. She’s just a humped-up mass of pillars, boulders and jagged rocks, kind of red and yaller and melted-like. The floor of it is solid rock, where the lava spewed over the side of the mountain. This rock is kinda like glass, having been heated so blamed hot.
We rides up one side of it, almost to the top, but she’s all alike. It ain’t no place to ride a horse on account of the sharp rocks. At the top is just one high cliff of the same rocks, sticking two or three hundred feet high into the air. The whole divide is one series of cliffs. We rides back to the foot of it and sits down to rest in the shade of a pillar.
“This place is sure well named,” opines Hashknife. “I reckon it was too hot for the devil, so he moved to his present location. This is where that Bar 20 puncher got shot, eh?”
“That’s what they say,” nods Windy. “It’s about five miles to the Bar 20 from here. I reckon he just hung on and let his bronc take him home.”
“Do yuh reckon he lied?” asks Hashknife.
“No, I don’t. Barrin’ the fact that he works for the Bar 20, Baldy ain’t such a bad hombre. I worked with him on the Seven Bar Seven Horse outfit, and he ain’t the kind that would lie thataway. Likely he just got it in his mind, don’t yuh know? Kinda knowin’ he was on the Circle Dot Range, and then gettin’ shot thataway, he might ’a’ imagined somebody yelled at him.”
“I reckon somebody yelled at him,” says Hashknife.
“Yuh think he—uh—told the truth?” asks Windy.
“I dunno. Mebbe they did and mebbe they didn’t. If they did, the Circle Dot has got it on the Bar 20, ’cause nobody yelled at me, that’s a cinch.”
“I reckon they keeps close watch on us,” opines Windy.
WE RIDES back to the ranch and the next morning we went to Sundown City. As we rides in past the little depot, the agent yells at us and we goes over. He’s got a telegram for us, which reads:
WILL ARRIVE WEDNESDAY. HANG ON UNTIL I GET THERE.
Signed M. J. HALEY.
“Holy henhawks!” explodes Windy. “He’s comin’! dang on until I get there! That sounds like old Mike’s voice. Betcha forty dollars he’s a go-getter.”
“That’s tomorrow,” says Hashknife. “What’s the nearest station down the fine, Windy?”
“Kelly’s Fork. It’s about six miles, but a train don’t stop there unless she’s flagged.”
“We’ll flag her,” says Hashknife. “We’re going to surprize some of these wise jaspers. Sabe? If we waits for him to come here, everybody will see him, don’t yuh see? That’ll make four of us, Windy, and if this here Haley is hard-boiled we can stand off the Bar 20 or any other cow-stealin’ outfit.”
“Yeah, that’s a hy-iu scheme, Hashknife. We’ll just do that little thing. Train is due along there about noon.”
There’s a lot of Bar 20 broncs at the tie-rack, and Hashknife wants to go over and see what the owners look like, but me and Windy points out the error of his ways and tells him that we’ve got to be intact to meet the new owner of the Circle Dot.
“I reckon it’s right,” admits Hashknife, “but I feels that I’m bein’ hoodled out of town. I’d swap lead with all that bunch, Windy—if they can’t shoot any straighter than they did at you.”
“That hombre that bushwhacked you shot straight enough,” says I.
“Nope. He would have hit me both times.”
“Maybe he didn’t want to hit yuh.”
“Never thought of that, Sleepy. Huh! He’s a wonder at missin’, if he didn’t.”
The next day we rides to Kelly’s Fork, and takes a saddled horse for our new boss to ride back. We flagged the train and I’m betting that half of the passengers thought it was a hold-up. The conductor howls like blazes when he finds why we stopped him, but Hashknife says:
“Shucks, you ought to be glad we only want a passenger. We’ll go with yuh.”
The conductor cusses a little more, but swings on to the coach with us and we all pilgrims down the aisle, the conductor calling:
“M. J. Haley! M. J. Haley! M. J. Haley! Is M.J. Haley on board?”
We went through two cars before we gets a response. A tired-looking girl takes the conductor by the sleeve and stops him. He says to her:
“Excuse me, ma’am, but I haven’t time to talk to you now. M. J. Haley! M. J. Haley! Is M. J. Haley on board?”
“I am M. J. Haley,” says the lady. “Is—is somebody looking for me?”
“M. J. Haley?” grunts Windy. “Nun-not M. J. Huh—Haley of the Circle Dot?”
“Yes,” says she, “from San Francisco.”
“Well, get off!” snaps the conductor. “I can’t hold this train all day.”
I grabs her valise, and we staggers down the aisle and swings to the ground.
“Must be a mistake,” opines Windy, scratching his head. “We was lookin’ for a man named M. J. Haley.”
“A lawyer, a Mr. Winters, sent me,” says she. “I am Mary Jane Haley.”
“Well, I hope to die,” gasps Windy. “I hope to die.”
“If yuh don’t shut your mouth you’ll get your tonsils sunburnt,” says Hashknife.
“Well, I’ll be everlastin’ly teetotally jiggered!” grunts Windy. “Whatcha know about that? Was Mike Haley a kin of yours, miss?”
“He was my father’s brother, I believe,” says she, and I can see her eyes laughing at Windy’s funny expression.
“Uh,” says Windy, kinda vacant-like. “Yes’m.”
“Will you take me out to the farm?” she asks.
“Farm?” says Windy, and then looks at Hashknife, whose face is serious. Then Windy looks at her and half-nods his head.
“Yeah—oh, sure. Uh-huh, but we don’t call ’em farms, ma’am. We can take yuh out there—in fact, we came after yuh, but——”
Windy glances at her clothes and then looks at Hashknife, who shakes his head and says:
“Yuh see ma’am, we looked for a man person, who natcherally don’t wear skirts, and we ain’t got nothin’ but a saddle-horse and no extra pants and—Sleepy, fer ——’s sake get in on this explanation, will yuh? Standin’ there like a grinnin’ hyener.”
“I think I understand,” says she.
“Bless yuh for that, ma’am,” says Hashknife, wiping his brow. “That —— Sleepy makes me sore sometimes. Oh, he talks a plenty when he ought to keep still.”
M. J. Haley sees the funny side of things and we all laughs together.
“I’ve got a idea,” says Hashknife. “Mebbe that little store over there has overalls, Windy.”
“I would wear them,” says Mary Jane, and Hashknife grins like a fool and says—
“Come on ma’am; if he’s got ’em we’ll get ’em, and if he ain’t got no back room for yuh to dress in I’ll make him come out in the street.”
He had ’em all right. I dunno how Mary Jane got into ’em, but she did. I let her ride my bronc, ’cause the one we brings for M. J. Haley wasn’t no ladies’ saddle-animal. Yuh can mostly always sometimes tell about a feller if yuh see him on a high- minded bronc, and we wanted M. J. Haley to measure right up to us.
Mary Jane never rode a horse before, but she was game. I knowed danged well that them overalls ached a heap by the time we hit the Circle Dot, but she don’t chirp a bit over discomfort.
Sing Lee has swamped out Mike’sfor her and we lets her move right in. She ain’t been in there long when Bowers comes poking up the main road. He naturally comes over to see us.
“Blubber has likely lost another cow,” says Windy, but Blubber didn’t speak of lost cows. He rides up to us and says—
“Did he come?”
“Who?” asks Windy.
“The new feller who is goin’ to boss this outfit.”
“There ain’t no feller goin’ to boss this outfit,” states Windy.
“Zasso? Huh. Station agent says that yuh got a telegraft from M. J. Haley who says he’s comin’ today. Train comes in, but nobody gets off. Some of the Bar 20 was down there to see what he looks like.”
“Was they disappointed?” asks Hashknife.
“Natcherally. I comes up to see why he didn’t come. The sheriff was wonderin’ who he was, and I thought maybe you’d—uh——”
“Did yuh?” says Hashknife. “Your thoughts are like your talk, Bowers—kinda suckin’ mud. What’s it any of the sheriff’s business?”
“I dunno. Say, Baldy Willis died this mornin’.”
“——!” says Windy, soft-like. “Poor old Baldy.”
“Uh-huh,” admits Bowers. “But it’s just like I said—he didn’t have no danged business on this range, nohow. When a feller has been warned to keep off——”
“Let your voice fall, Blubber,” says Windy. “You’ve talked enough. Sabe? Me nor none of this outfit had anything to do with killin’ Baldy, and the next hombre what insinuates that we did is goin’ kihootin’ to his God or beat me on the draw. That goes for you, the sheriff or any of that —— cow-stealin’ Bar 20 outfit. Sabe?”
“Honest to —— I ain’t insinuatin’ nothin’” wails Bowers. “Whatcha ridin’ me fer? I’ve lost twenty-seven head of cows in the last week, and I ain’t——”
“Yo’re all packed, wired and billed for shipment—git off this ranch!” yowls Windy. “I don’t care if somebody steals all your cows! I hope they do. I hope you’re the last calf they slickears. I hope they slaps every brand in the State register on your hide and then adds a dewlap and notches your ears.”
“That ain’t no way to talk,” grumbles Blubber, tearful-like. “I try to git along and——”
“You better do somethin’ besides try to git along,” says Windy. “You just ‘get along,’ Bowers, and get along fast.”
Bowers swings his horse around and points toward home.
“What did he want?”
We turns and looks at Mary Jane, standing in the doorway.
“Aw-w, he’s a danged maul-headed prairie-dog, which has to chirp every time somebody lifts one of his dogies,” says Windy.
MARY JANE laughs and shakes her head.
“I don’t think I understand.”
“He means that this person ain’t such a much,” explains Hashknife, “and that he gets husky in the neck because somebody rustles his beef.”
“You might try saying it different,” says she, looking at me.
“Well,” says I, “this whippoorwill is about three jumps short of being half-witted and he——”
“No,” says Mary Jane, “that isn’t exactly clear either.”
“He ain’t got good sense, ma’am,” says Hashknife.
“The —— I ain’t!” I snaps, ’cause it makes me mad.
“Back up—you’re in your own loop,” grins Hashknife; “I was speakin’ about Bowers, Sleepy,” and then he turns to Mary Jane.
“This person ain’t got good sense, ma’am. He thinks that somebody is stealin’ his cows and he copies over here to talk about it.”
“Oh, I see; who does he suspect?”
“Us, I reckon,” says Windy. “They think we killed Baldy Willis, too.”
“Yuh better tell her the whole sad tale, Windy,” says Hashknife. “Remember she ain’t wise to that layout here.”
“That’s right, Hashknife, I forgot. I want to give her some of the old man’s things too.”
“Let’s go inside,” says Mary Jane. “It’s too hot out here.”
“You tell her, Windy,” says Hashknife. “Me and Sleepy will be down at the bunk-house.”
In about half an hour we hears a pistol-shot and we tumbles out of the bunk-house, heeled for trouble. There ain’t nobody in sight, but pretty soon Windy comes down to see us.
“Hear her shoot?” he asks. “Didja?”
“Her shoot?” parrots Hashknife.
“Uh-huh. Mary Jane Haley fired her first shot. Honest to gosh. Missed my ear by the breadth of a gnat’s whisker.”
“Shootin’ at you?”
“We-e-e-ll, kinda at me, Hashknife. I tells her the story of the Circle Dot and then I gives her old Mike’s effects, which included his old .45 Colt. She looks at the old gun, and says, ‘Do I have to carry a gun like that?’
“I says, ‘It’s a danged good gun, if it ain’t too hard to pull.’ I shows her what I means and she tries it. Dang the luck! I thought Mike emptied it into Blazer, but I reckon he only shot five times.”
“Scare her?” I asks.
“I dunno. I went under the sofy like a picket-pin when he sees a hawk. When I peeked out she’s still got the gun in her hand, and is kinda feelin’ of the spot over her heart. I loaded it for her, but made her leave it on the table until I got to the door.”
“We’ll teach her how to shoot,” says I.
“No you won’t,” objects Windy, “but we will have to teach her to point it at enemies instead of friends.”
“Here comes the sheriff,” says Hashknife. “Wonder what he wants?”
The sheriff rides in the gate and heads toward the house, so we moves up and meets him at the steps.
“Nice large afternoon,” says Hashknife, pleasant-like.
The sheriff gives a short nod and looks at the open door of the house. Then he turns to Windy, and says—
“I’d like to see M. J. Haley.”
“I said I would.”
Windy says this kinda soft-like and the sheriff squints at him for several seconds before he says—
“Baldy Willis died.”
“Yeah, we heard about it,” says Hashknife. “What’s M. J. Haley got to do with Baldy Willis’ demise?”
“Baldy was shot on the Circle Dot Range,” says the sheriff, meaning-like. “He didn’t have no business on this range, I reckon, but—I want to see the owner of this outfit. Sabe? He’s responsible, or I’ll hold him responsible until I can put the deadwood on the guilty man.”
“Snag Thorn send yuh?” asks Hashknife.
“He did not! He told me to keep out of this, but I’m the sheriff, and——”
“Bein’ sheriff means quite a lot to you, don’t it?” asks Hashknife. “You’d just be plumb miserable if yuh wasn’t sheriff, wouldn’t yuh, Allen?”
“I didn’t come here to listen to you yappin’,” says he. “I want the man who owns this here ranch. Sabe?”
“Were you looking for some one?”
We all turns and looks at the door where Mary Jane is standing. The sheriff looks at her and then at us.
“There’s the owner of the Circle Dot,” says Hashknife. “Try to arrest her.”
The sheriff stares at her for a long time and then looks at us.
“Yuh figure she had anythin’ to do with the killin’ of Baldy?” asks Windy.
The sheriff sort of starts to reach up to his hat but his hand stops and rubs his chin. Then he turns his horse around and starts for the gate. He just says one word, and that is kinda like he was speakin’ to himself—
Mary Jane looks at us and then at Hack Allen, who is poking off down the road. Hashknife steps up beside her and then grins at us.
“The boss was sure heeled,” says he, and then he took her hand from the folds of her skirt, and I’m a liar if she didn’t have the .45 Colt. In the other hand she’s got a small bottle. Hashknife peers at the bottle and then kinda grins back of his hand.
“I—I—Mr. Woods said it needed oil, so I—” says she.
“Uh-huh,” says Hashknife, serious-like. “But yuh hadn’t ought to—uh—ma’am. I reckon a gun has feelin’s and mebbe—well, I’ve took that kinda stuff myself, and I sure mixed her plentiful with lemon juice, and even at that—uh——”
“I thought that oil was oil,” says she.
“Oh sure,” nods Hashknife. “It sure is, but—uh—that old six-shooter ain’t sick. Sabe? I’ll get yuh some gun-oil.”
“Would yuh have shot at the sheriff?” asks Windy.
“It—it seems to be the thing around here,” says she, serious-like. Hashknife stares at her for a moment and then at us.
“Ma’am, I’m plumb glad you wasn’t a he. Some fellers are so danged timid.”
“I am,” says she. “I have never done anything more serious than to sell lace in a department store. The lawyer found me there and I had just got my week’s pay, and also a notice that my services were no longer required. The lawyer was lovely to me, and—he said that Mr. Hartley was a close friend of his.”
“Sure was close once,” nods Hashknife. “Old Whiskers with his hay-hook wasn’t far behind us either. I reckon there’s a heap of difference between the he-men out here and the ones in town. Cow-punchers are rough, ma’am, but they don’t mean half what they do or say. I hope you’ll excuse Windy and Sleepy if they makes bad breaks at times. —— knows I’ve done my dangest for ’em.”
“I KNEW a cowboy once,” says she. “I know now that he was a cowboy, but he didn’t say he was. It was in San Francisco a year ago. There were four of us—another girl, and two young men from the store and myself. We went slumming down to Chinatown and the Barbary Coast.
“We were up in a Chinese noodle-house when a number of young men came in; I think they were drunk. One of them tried to kiss me. The young man who was with me asked him to stop and another of the crowd knocked him down.
“The Chinese were frightened. Some of the other men grabbed Gladys, and—oh, it was awful! I saw one of the men hit a Chinaman with a chair and then one of them grabbed me and tried to pull me across the table, but just then a man came from somewhere.
“He was wearing a big hat and I remember that he did not have any necktie or coat on, and he was smiling. He crashed into the crowd and tore his way to us girls, and then I saw his hand swinging a gun, and it hit a man on the head—then another!”
Mary Jane’s eyes were as big as saucers as she describes it.
“Then somebody fired a shot and I saw the blood trickle down his cheek where something had hurt him and he stopped hitting and began shooting. The booth was filled with smoke in a moment and the shots ceased. I heard him say—
“‘Ma’am, I reckon we better get out of here before the police and the undertaker comes.’
“I don’t know how we ever got out of there. I had to step over men who were lying on the floor and then I found myself in the open air, and Gladys was crying, and the man got a hack and took us home. I tried to thank him, but he just grinned, and then I—I grabbed him and kissed him! Honest I did. And as I ran into the house I heard him say—
“‘Well, I’ll be hornswoggled!’
“I have never seen him since then. I know I did not thank him enough, but if I ever see him again——”
“Yuh done quite a lot for him,” says Hashknife. “More than the lawyer done for me. Still, I reckon, he didn’t feel like kissin’ me. Did the police make any fuss over it?”
“We looked in the papers the next day, and it told about a fight in which three gangsters were killed and two more wounded. They were all wanted by the police, but it said nothing about the cowboy. If I ever see him again I want to thank him again.”
“Sure,” says Windy; “we all do. He sure done us a favor, too, ma’am.”
“I wish you would call me Mary Jane.”
“All right,” grins Hashknife, “but you’ve sure got to cut out misterin’ us, Mary Jane. We’re sort of ele-mental, as the poet would say. Hash, wind and sleep. Ain’t that elements? Haw! Haw! Haw!”
“Well,” says Mary Jane, grinning, “yuh might give me that gun-oil, so’s I can limber up this old six-gun.”
“Wel-l-l-come to our cow-camp!” explodes Windy. “That sounded just like old Mike, y’betcha. Mary Jane, if yuh wants anything out of the ordinary in cuss words I can loan yuh some that the old man used to patronize.”
“They’ll come to her,” grins Hashknife. “Wait till she gets mad.”
A little later here comes a tall gray-haired feller in a buckboard. He drives up to the bunk-house and speaks to Windy.
“Howdy, judge,” says Windy. “Meet Mister Hartley and Mister Stevens. Gents, this is Judge Waugh.”
We shakes hands all around and then the judge says:
“Windy, I came up here to have a talk with you. I suppose you heard about Pete Kelso getting shot.”
“When did this happen?” asks Windy.
“About noon or a little later—over by Cactus Cañon. Jimmy and A1 Orr found him. Shot with a .45-70. Likely live, I guess.”
“——!” exploded Windy. “Why, we came that way—huh!”
“Jimmy and Al said they thought it was you. They said there was four in the bunch.”
“Cactus Cañon is on the Circle Dot Range, too,” says Windy, serious-like, and the judge nods.
“We don’t know who done it, judge,” says Hashknife. “It’s a cinch that we didn’t. Somebody ripped my saddle all to pieces the other day, when I rides on to Bar 20 land.”
“Tell me about it.”
Hashknife gives him the details.
“I don’t know,” says the judge. “Of course there has been bad blood between these outfits for years. Each accuses the other of rustling, but neither has any evidence. This shooting is getting serious. Lost any stock lately, Windy?”
“I dunno. I do know that I seen seven cows with young calves down by the old salt springs, and the next day I finds seven bawlin’ cows and nary a calf. It ain’t reasonable to reckon that them cows all deserted their offsprings.”
“The Bar 20 is boiling,” states the judge. “Snag Thorn is keeping cool, but he’s cool just like his father used to be. The sheriff wanted to arrest all of you, but Snag told him to keep out of it and let him attend to you. They had quite a quarrel. I met Bowers as I came out, and he told me he lost some more cows and a couple of young horses. I guess Bowers is just about cleaned out.”
“Well,” says Hashknife, “we ain’t honin’ for trouble, but if they comes out here I reckon we’ll do like they do in Spain when it rains.”
“How’s that?” asks the judge.
“Let it rain.”
“Um-yah,” says the judge, grinning. “Well, I hope it won’t be a cloudburst, boys. I’ve always kinda figured that some day something is going to bust in the Sundown country. Bar 20 says that Circle Dot are rustlers, and——”
“We says that they are,” finishes Windy. “She’s a de-plorable fact, judge.”
“Bowers loses cows, too,” grins Hashknife. “Everybody loses some. I reckon there’s goin’ to be work for the legal lights before long.”
“Hm-m-m,” says the judge; “I hope so, Hartley, but it kinda looks like there wouldn’t be nothin’ but cripples to go to court.”
After the judge has gone Hashknife goes out and sets on the top pole of the corral where he acts like he’s thinking. I throwed a rock at him but he just ducked, stuck in that position and kept on thinking.
“Let him alone,” advises Windy. “That whippoorwill has somethin’ on his mind. I jist worked long enough with him to respect him with a gun or brains.”
“He sure can shoot,” I admits, but Hashknife never looked at us.
Me and Windy went down to the bunk-house and argued over the rules of two-handed poker for about an hour, when the door opens and there stands Sing Lee, with his hands wrapped up in his apron.
“Missie gone fo’ lide,” says he, offhanded-like.
“Ride?” says Windy, foolish-like, and Sing nods.
“Yessum. Yo’ sabe glay hoss, Tinker name?”
“She lide glay hoss day she come. Yo’ sabe? I t’ink she lide allesame glay hoss today. Blimeby I see glay hoss Tinker name. She no like, yo’ sabe? She allesame like glay hoss like Tinker. Me seeum.”
Windy sets there, staring at Sing, and then he gets slow-like to his feet.
“Wait a minute, Sing. She rode a gray horse, but didn’t ride Tinker?”
“Yessum. Tinker down by collal. She rideum glay hoss. Yo’ sabe?”
Windy beats it for the door and I went behind him. Down by the corral stands the gray horse she rode the day she came here. We went into the stable, but the saddle ain’t on the peg.
“What’s all the fuss about?” I asks.
“My ——!” wails Windy. “She hooked a hull on to Cheater!”
“Cheater!” wails Windy. “That sun-fishin’ man-eater from Wyoming. Looks like Tinker. Oh, —— it! Sleepy, that hawse is plumb loco! He might go good for a mile and then dump her off and walk on her. He’s a —— tiger!”
“Glay hoss,” says Sing, stony-faced, coming up to us; “look like Tinker, yo’ sabe? Me t’ink —— bad hoss, when me see Tinker. Mebbyso she get dump. Me no see her go. Where Lashknife? Mebbyso he go too.”
“I suppose that —— fool rode a gentle bronc,” wails Windy. “Where did she go-o-o-o?”
“You must ’a’ herded sheep,” says I. “I knowed a shepherd who used to say, ‘Ya-a-a-a-a-s and no-o-o-o-o,’ just like you do.”
“Funny, ain’tcha?” he howls. “Lady in peril, and you gets comical.”
“What do yuh want me to do—turn a handspring or climb a tree? We don’t know where she went, do we?”
“My ——, you can ask useless questions, Sleepy! Don’t know where she went, do we? I ask yuh to answer it yourself. You makes me tired, I tell yuh. Just stand around and ask fool questions, when a-a——”
“Lady is in peril. Now, just what had we ought to do, Windy? Can yuh track that pet man-eater? Got any idea what direction said horse favors to go? If you——”
“Look!” yelps Windy. “——’s bells, look what’s comin’!”
UP THE road comes a cloud of dust and in and out of that cloud goes a dust-colored horse, bucking like a crazy animal. Sunfish, worm fence, swapping ends and spinning like a top. Straight for the gate it comes, bucking straight for us. We climbs the corral fence just as the animal pitches straight into it, and goes down in a splinter of cottonwood poles and a cloud of dust.
I fell off the fence and got up just in time to see Hashknife untangle himself and step away from the horse. He looks down at it, trying to get up, and then at Windy.
“That’s a —— vigorous animal, Windy,” says he foolish-like, and then he takes a deep breath and says—
“Get your Winchester and saddle—quick!”
“Why—uh—why—” grunts Windy.
“——!” he explodes. “Get into action, will yuh! I’ll tell yuh later.”
Well, it didn’t take us long to saddle up, get our rifles and breeze off down the road, Hashknife in the lead.
“Mary Jane,” he grunts, as we swing in dose to him. “She saddled that gray bronc. Wanted to ride, asked me to go with her. I didn’t like the looks of that gray, so I traded with her. We went halfway to town. I saw that the gray wasn’t bridlewise, but he didn’t act bad until we met the sheriff, and then he got restless. Sabe?
“Me and the sheriff had words. That —— gray started to pitchin’, and I busted a rein and couldn’t pull his head, and—and the-jug-head bucked all the way back home. First runnin’ bucker I ever seen. My ——, but that bronc can hop, skip and jump somethin’ awful.”
“Mary Jane?” asks Windy. “Where is she?”
“They took her with ’em,” says Hashknife, kinda whispering. “The sheriff and Bowers and a couple of them Bar 20 hombres.”
“Took her!” explodes Windy. “What for, Hashknife?”
“Said she owned the Circle Dot and they wanted her. Seems that that last feller that was shot died. I called the sheriff and he drawed, but I shaded him a little. What in —— do yuh keep a bronc like that around for?
“I thought it was the same gray that Mary Jane rode, honest I did. I never looked at it close but I seen it kinda hump under the saddle, and I thinks maybe it feels cocky and I was goin’ to shake it up a little, but I was the one that got shook. Couple of bullets fanned past me, but they’d ’a’ had to have a shotgun to hit me on the wing thataway.”
“What are we goin’ to do?” I asks.
“Do? Sleepy, we’re goin’ to get our hoss back or they’ll have to build a new town. I’m goin’ through that town like quicksilver through a sieve.”
“And land in the penitentiary,” says I. “Cool off a little, Hashknife, and do a little thinking. There’s only three of us, yuh understand.”
“They’ll be lookin’ for us,” opines Windy, and then he asks—
“Was Snag Thorn with ’em?”
“Nope. One feller had a broken nose and a cock-eye, and the other had bat-ears and a yellow mustache.”
“‘Blondy’ McClure and ‘Peeler’ Malloy,” says Windy. “As fine a pair of horse-thieves as ever wore guns. Them two sure do show lack of Sunday schoolin’, and I reckon this is the time that we teaches ’em a few morals. Lemme get my old .40-82 lined up on either one—just lemme, tha’sall.”
“You too,” says I, complaining-like. “Want to kill somebody? You two hombres hankers for gore regardless, don’t yuh? Regular killers, eh? It’s a danged good thing you has a cool brain among yuh.”
“Cool ——!” snorts Hashknife. “Froze since the Winter of the big wind.”
“Course, this stealin’ of our lady boss don’t mean nothin’ to you,” says Windy, sarcastic-like, easing himself in the saddle when his bronc kinda loosens up. “You better go back and chop wood.”
“We won’t need any heat,” says I and everybody shuts up. We swung into town and rode straight to a crowd in front of the saloon. On the sidewalk lays a feller who looks a heap like he had met the enemy. We jerks up in front of ’em and looks the bunch over. Hashknife and Windy cocked their rifles and I’m expectin’ things to start whooping. This bat-eared, yellow-mustached hombre steps out of the crowd, and Windy spurs in close to him and says:
“Talk out loud, Blondy. Where’s the lady?”
“Aw-w-w-w, I dunno!” wails Blondy. “She went, —— it!”
“Anybody around here got any intelligence?” asks Hashknife, looking around, and then he sees the bartender.
“What happened?” asks Hashknife.
“I didn’t see it all,” says the bartender. “I heard somebody yell that here comes the sheriff and some feller with a lady, and I just got to the door when I hears a gun pop, and I seen Peeler’s horse buckin’ across the street, draggin’ Peeler. Then I sees Snag Thorn running for his horse and I seen a female on a horse runnin’ down the street. The sheriff took a shot at somebody—I think it was Snag, but he didn’t hit him.”
“The lady shot Peeler,” says a skinny puncher.
“She did not!” declares a little bow-legged puncher. “That first shot hit the casing of the store door right beside me. Snag Thorn killed Peeler.”
“Just the same, she shot at somebody.”
“Mebbe it was me then,” grins bow-legs.
“Where’d the sheriff go?” asks Windy.
“To his office, I reckon,” says the bartender. “Him and Bowers was together.”
“Do yuh reckon Mary Jane went home?” asks Windy.
“She didn’t pass us,” says I.
“The female took a shot at Peeler,” insists the skinny puncher. “I seen it. Peeler yanked his gun to—well, just then Snag shot from over there on the sidewalk, and I seen Peeler fall off. I dunno which shot hit him.”
“I tell yuh that first shot hit.”
We whirled and rode for the sheriff’s office and didn’t wait to hear the finish of the argument. Their two horses are out side the door. We hops right off and went inside. The sheriff and Bowers are in there. Bowers is setting on the table, working some shells into a Winchester, while the sheriff is washing his wrist where Hashknife’s bullet creased it. Bowers drops the rifle and puts his hands up, but the sheriff keeps right on bathing his wrist. He just looks at us and then back to his wash-basin. Hashknife says:
“Sheriff, for a dobie cent I’d fill you full of lead. Where is Miss Haley?”
“I dunno. Mebbe she’s at the Bar 20 by this time. I reckon Snag Thorn will know what to do with her when he catches her.”
“What in —— does he want her for?” asks Hashknife.
“Snag’s lost two men and a lot of cows and maybe he’s seein’ a chance to get even.”
The wash-basin hops right out from under the sheriff’s hands and a splash of soapy water hits him right in the face.
“Say it this way— ‘He thinks he’s lost cows,’” advises Hashknife, rubbing his thumb softly over the hammer of his cocked Winchester.
“Th-thinks he’s lost cows,” mumbles the sheriff, shaking the soap out of his eyes.
“I lost fifteen head and—” began Bowers, but Windy jabs him in the ribs with his rifle-barrel.
“Who in —— cares what you lost? You’re lucky to be alive.”
“Did Snag Thorn follow Miss Haley out of town?” I asks.
“Yeah! She shot one of his men, didn’t she? Maybe he rode to the ranch to get the rest of his men. Said he was going to clean out the Circle Dot while he had men enough left to help him.”
“Said that, did he?” asks Windy.
“He did. Whatcha mean by comin’ down here and actin’ like this? I’m the sheriff of this county and I won’t stand——”
“I sure apologizes to the wash-basin,” says Hashknife, “but that’s as far as I’ll go, Allen. You didn’t have no right to bring her here.”
“Didn’t I? Two men killed on her ranch, and cows stolen and——”
“Whope!” snaps Hashknife. “You never seen any of them on the Circle Dot. You don’t know that they’ve lost cows.”
“Sure. Stick to what you heard, sheriff—not to what you think you know.”
“She shot Peeler Malloy,” states Bowers.
“You’re a liar!” snaps Windy.
“Well,” sniffles Bowers. “Maybe I am mistaken, but I thought Blondy said——”
“There’s too danged much talk about what somebody else said,” says Hashknife. “Come on, boys; let’s get travelin’.”
“Where yuh goin’?” asks the sheriff.
“Goin’ to find out who has been doin’ all this dirty work. Sabe?”
“Zasso? Lemme tell yuh I’m the sheriff around here and I——”
The sheriff took hold of Hashknife’s left arm, like he was goin’ to stop him, and I said a short prayer for Mister Allen. Hashknife had that Winchester in his left hand, and it looked like the sheriff was goin’ to try to take hold of it, but Hashknife’s right fist hooked him under the chin and he lit on the back of his neck in the corner of his office and stayed there.
“He-he’s goin’ to be sore as ——,” states Bowers, awed-like.
“Little liniment will fix him,” says Hashknife. “Come on, boys.”
WE WENT out of that town like bats out of —— and we never broke a running lope until we hit the ranch. Mary Jane ain’t there. Sing Lee says he ain’t seen her.
“What will we do now?” asks Windy, but Hashknife whirls his bronc around and we follers him. We sailed out of the gate and hit straight for the hills.
“You aimin’ to hit the Bar 20?” yells Windy.
“Just like a ton of lead,” says Hashknife.
We tore across the dead-line, and never slowed up until the Bar 20 ranch-house is in sight.
“Don’t shoot until yuh has to,” advises Hashknife.
We ripped right into their front yards, and set up our horses. Just then Snag Thorn limps out of the front door and looks us over. I’ll say this much for him; he didn’t act a danged bit nervous.
“Where’s our boss?” asks Hashknife.
“Your boss?” he says, foolish-like.
“The lady you followed out of town.”
He looks us over for a moment and then says, kinda soft-like—
“That lady your boss?”
“Uh-huh. Where is she?”
“I don’t know. My horse fell with me and strained its shoulder. When I got up she was gone.”
“You tellin’ the truth?” asks Hashknife.
Snag Thorn’s eyes got real narrow and he studies Hashknife. Then he says—
“You don’t know me very well, do yuh?”
“He ain’t no liar,” says Windy; “Snag Thorn ain’t.”
“Much obliged, Woods,” says Snag Thorn.
“Excuse me,” says Hashknife. “That was a danged fool thing to say, Thorn. Yuh see I was kinda excited. The sheriff arrested her and then things happened in town and we didn’t find her at the ranch.”
“Yeah, I know,” says Snag, kinda weary-like. “I didn’t know she was your boss, and I didn’t know she had a gun, but I saw Peeler reach for his gun, so I cut down on him. The sheriff started after her but I cut him back to the main herd, and then I seen that her horse was running away with her. Peeler must ’a’ had hold of the bridle-reins and when her horse yanked back the head-stall busted.”
“My ——!” gasps Windy. “She’s ridin’ without a bridle? Which way did she go?”
“North,” says Snag. “The last I seen of her she was goin’ toward Devil’s Dooryard, and then my bronc turned a somersault. When I got straightened out she had disappeared.”
“It’ll be dark before we can get there,” says Hashknife. “That bronc she is ridin’ will go hawg-wild without a bridle, —— him! Mebbe he won’t buck, but he—aw, shucks!”
Just then Blondy, Bowers and the sheriff comes in sight. They rides slow-like up to us, looking like they was expectin’ trouble. Snag Thorn leans against the doorway and looks at them. Then he says to the sheriff—
“Come to get me for shootin’ Peeler?”
The sheriff looks us all over and then back at Snag.
“Didn’t know you shot him, Snag; thought it was the female.”
“I shot him,” states Snag coolly. “I’ll ask yuh—what did yuh arrest the lady for, sheriff?”
Hack Allen wets his lips, rubs his sore jaw and rests his hands on his saddle-horn.
“She’s the boss of the Circle Dot, ain’t she? Two of your men have been shot on the Circle Dot Range, ain’t they? They been stealin’ your——”
“Period!” snaps Hashknife. “You’re goin’ to hold your breath too long some of these days, Allen, and you’ll never get it again.”
“I'll ask yuh for help when I need yuh, Allen,” says Snag.
“Yeah? Your dead-line didn’t seem to stop the Circle Dot.”
“Hack,” says Snag, “you better go back to your office and let my business alone. Yuh might lock your door, too—if yuh want to play safe.”
“I’ll run my office, sabe? Neither you nor this bunch of gun-packers from the Circle Dot can tell me where to head in at. You try takin’ the law into your own hands and see how quick yuh get tripped up.”
Snag shrugs his shoulders and turns to Hashknife.
“What do yuh aim to do, Hartley?”
“Clean up this rotten range,” says Hashknife. “Would yuh mind tellin’ me what this Baldy person was doin’ in the Devil’s Dooryard the day he got shot?”
“Lookin’ for Bar 20 stock.”
“—— of a place to look for stock!” says Bowers.
“A cow don’t make tracks in there,” says Hashknife, thoughtful-like. “Feller’d have to see the cow, I reckon.”
“What do yuh mean?” asks Snag. “Baldy raved about seein’ cows in that place, but he was out of his head.”
“The Circle Dot has lost a lot of cows, and there ain’t no —— speakin’ of dead-lines, Thorn; you’ve got yours pretty well organized. I started over here the other day, and as I crossed the Cow Crick I got two bullets in my saddle. Yuh sure do protect your rights.”
“Did, eh?” Snag looks off across the hills, like he was thinking real fast.
“I’ve lost a lot of cows,” complains Bowers. “Jist vanished.”
“This range needs cleanin’ up,” opines Hashknife, “and it’s time to get busy. I ain’t accusin’ the Bar 20, Thorn. I think that Baldy was lookin’ for somethin’ in the right place. The Bar 20 is welcome to ride the Circle Dot from now on. Sabe? If the answer is on the Circle Dot Range—find it.”
“Where yuh goin’ now?” asked the sheriff.
“Goin’ to find the lady first,” says Hashknife, “and after that I’m goin’ to give you a few prisoners to feed, or a job for the coroner.”
“I’ll run my office!” snaps the sheriff, but Hashknife looks weary-like at him and then turns away.
WE WENT out of there and headed for the home ranch. Bowers rides with us as far as his place and then swings into his own gate. We didn’t do any talkin’ and he, for once in his life, didn’t harp about losing cows. It’s dark when we reach the ranch, but Mary Jane hasn’t showed up yet. Sing gives us a bite to eat and then we changed horses and hit into the hills toward Devil’s Dooryard. There’s a big moon coming over the hills. Not one of them flat-looking moons, but one what is round, like a big yaller ball hanging up there.
Sudden-like, Hashknife stops his horse and points toward the moon. Along a jagged ridge above us, sharp-cut against the moon, appears a figure on a horse. It’s there for several seconds, and then passes on.
“Mary Jane!” gasps Windy.
“Not unless she’s twins,” grunts Hashknife, as another mounted figure passes between us and the moon.
“The danged fools!” grunts Hashknife.
“Well who do yuh reckon it is?” asks Windy, but Hashknife don’t reply. He swings his horse and we rides up the hill, angling to try and cut the trail of the two horsemen. It’s plumb dark and going is tough. We has to angle all over that hill to get to the top, and when we get there we ain’t no better off, as far as I can see.
Hashknife swings off his horse and ties it to a scrub-pine. Me and Windy follers suit and then we all slips our Winchesters loose.
“Now that we’re all assembled, Hashknife, yuh might tell us whyfor and which,” states Windy, peering off into that jumble of fantastic-looking rocks.
“I dunno,” admits Hashknife. “I’ve just got a hunch.”
“He’s just got a hunch, Windy,” says I. “Hashknife’s like a lot of other jaspers what ain’t got no brains—he has hunches. What does your pet hunch say to yuh, Mister Hartley?”
“Hook on to your rifle and try to keep your big feet from rollin’ rocks,” grunts Hashknife, and we goes sneaking off across the Devil’s Dooryard in the dark.
“I’d like to know where I’m goin’,” says I. “This here business of packin’ a rifle and hobblin’ over——”
Just then I got my toe caught between two rocks and I sprawled flat on my face. I throwed my rifle about ten feet away and the danged thing went off. We can hear that old .45-70 echo from all points of the compass. There ain’t a word said for a while, and then Windy says:
“Yuh hadn’t ought to have a gun, Sleepy. Honest to gosh, yuh hadn’t. Next time we’ll give yuh a fish-pole.”
“No,” says Hashknife, sad-like; “no fish-pole, Windy. Give him a toy balloon.”
“He’d likely pinch it and then she’d bust,” objects Windy.
“I couldn’t help it,” says I. “I fell. The gun must ’a’ struck on the hammer. I can’t get my toe loose.”
“Can’t get loose?” grunts Hashknife. “Stuck fast, Sleepy?”
“Tighter ’n a wedge.”
“Fine! Come on, Windy. We’ll leave him where he’ll stay put.”
Know what them two wallopers done? Well, they went away and left me, that’s what they done. After twisting my toe half-off, I discovers that I can lift my foot out of my boot without no trouble, the same of which gives me both hands to unfasten that trapped boot. Then I got my rifle and blunders ahead in the dark about ten minutes behind Hashknife and Windy. I don’t know where they went. I know I must ’a’ been Injuning along pretty skookum, ’cause I almost stumbled over a cougar. Mister Cougar gives one despairing yelp, and fades away among the rocks, while old man Stevens’ son climbed up on a pinnacle of rocks and perspired freely.
Just in below me is a deep cañon, winding around among the rocks. Every danged thing looks kinda blue and silver-like. The moon ain’t climbed up high enough to light up things much, and I lays there in the edge of that pinnacle, trying to assemble enough tobacco to make a cigaret.
All to once I hears the squeak of saddle-leather and I spills the tobacco. I listens some more and hears it again. Then I lays down and peers into the cañon and I sees something. Ghosts! Honest to grandma, I got a bird’s-eye view of two riders, passing along without a sound, and all to once they fades out. They can’t be more than fifty feet below me, and their horses don’t make a sound on that rocky floor.
“Sleepy,” says I. “You’ve plumb seen a ghost!” And then I says to myself, “You’re a liar, ’cause ghost-saddles don’t squeak.”
Then I stand up and looks around, and across from me, against the sky-line I sees a man. There’s only one way to find out whether he’s friend or foe, and that is to kill him.
I lifts my rifle against the light of the sky and tries to notch my sights. Then I took my rifle down, lays her on a rock and goes on without it. I reckon it must ’a’ hit a rock when I fell, ’cause the front sight has been knocked plumb off, and I ain’t like some fellers that can shoot a rifle by the sense of smell. I sneaks along, using every sense I’ve got, and all to once something tells me to stop.
I stands there for about two minutes, still as possible, and then I hears Windy’s voice whisper:
“I dunno, —— it! If it moves again I’ll take a chance.”
“It ain’t goin’ to,” says I.
“Got loose, did yuh?” asks Hashknife.
“No,” says I; “I dragged the whole —— mountain over with me. Did yuh see the ghosts? I knocked the sight off my rifle.”
“What ghosts?” asks Windy, and then I told ’em about the two riders I seen in the cañon.
“Think he’s lying, Hashknife?” asks Windy.
“No-o-o-o. Ridin’ barefooted horses, with gunny-sacks mufflin’ their hoofs. Went up the cañon, Sleepy?”
“I think so. I shook hands with a cougar about a minute before and maybe my compass was out of order.”
“But where in —— is Mary Jane?” says Windy, complaining-like. “All this time we ain’t findin’ her a-tall.”
“Yuh might do like they do in hotels,” says Hashknife; “start off up the Devil’s Dooryard, yellin’ ‘Mary Jane! Mary Jane Haley! Windy Woods wants Mary Jane Haley!’”
“Sh-h-h-h!” hisses Windy.
We listens. Pretty soon we hear somebody walkin’ soft-like. Then silence.
“My ——!” whispers Windy. “What do yuh reckon that was—ghosts?”
From ’way up the hill comes the rattle of a couple of shots. They must be a quarter of a mile away. Then we hears somebody grunt; comes the rattle of gravel, and then we hears somebody running.
“Come on,” says Hashknife, “but for —— sake, go easy. There’s too danged much shooting going on to suit me. Look out—here comes a horse!”
Over the top of a saw-tooth ridge jerks a horse. For a second or two it’s outlined against the light of the sky and then it goes rattling off across the rocks.
“That’s my horse!” exploded Hashknife. “Mary Jane is a-foot! Come on!”
Bang! Bang! Bang!
Three distinct shots split the night and rattle among the rocks.
“Six-shooter,” gasps Hashknife, stumbling. “I wish the devil would clean up his yard!”
We staggers along, cutting our feet on the sharp rocks and praying that it will be light enough to shoot when we meet somebody to shoot at. All to once we hits the edge of that deep cañon. There ain’t no warning. I feels my feet slip into some loose stuff, so I grabs hold of Windy.
I hears Hashknife speak an unlovely word, and then me and Windy starts doing a toboggan to the bottom. It wasn’t straight down, but I’d just as soon fall as to set down in that loose stuff and get all heated up doing a slide for life.
WE LANDED in the bottom with about a ton of loose stuff, composed mostly of glassy gravel and other sharp-pointed particles. I got the dust out of my mouth, and I orates openly that we’ve lost Hashknife.
That operation caused a bullet to flup into our private landslide.
“Mebbe you’ll keep your mouth shut,” says Hashknife’s voice.
“How’d yuh get there?” I asks.
“Sittin’ down, yuh —— fool!”
“Oh,” says Windy, taking a few deep breaths, “I’m all worn off from my belt to my knees. Who is shootin’ at us, I’d love to awsk?”
Then we seen the flash of the next shot and the bullet threw dust into my face. I reckon our six-shooters cracked at the same time and then we fell all over each other trying to change positions. I bumped into Hashknife and we both fell over Windy.
“Don’t get excited,” begs Hashknife. “That —— fool up there couldn’t hit us with a shotgun—unless it was a mistake.”
“Mistakes has killed a lot of good men,” wails Windy. “I don’t want to be no accidental corpse. Let’s go and find Mary Jane Haley. We’re wastin’ a lot of good time, don’t yuh know it? Come on.”
“Well, who is shooting at us?” I asks. “Hashknife Hartley, if yuh know, tell us, will yuh?”
“Merely a surmise, Sleepy, but I think I’m right. Felt all along that I had the answer, but I wasn’t sure until tonight.”
“Fine!” grunts Windy. “Go ahead and tell us.”
“Let’s get under cover and wait for daylight.”
“While our li’l boss wanders around this God-forsaken place in the dark?” asks Windy. “I’m goin’ out and find her.”
“All right,” says Hashknife, “go ahead. I’ve got a hunch that somebody’ll lead yuh up a heap if yuh climb any farther, but it’s your business, Windy.”
“Who’d lead me up?”
“Tell yuh tomorrow—or, I reckon I’d better say, today. Must be gettin’ toward mornin’.”
A deer came along after while, and if Hashknife hadn’t grabbed my arm I’d a took a shot at it. I thought it was a man with a white pack on his back. It sure was sneaking along mysterious-like. My nerves had got to a frazzled state. I ain’t brave. Nope—not when it’s so danged dark that I can’t see which way to run.
After while it begins to get lighter and the old moon begins to lose a lot of his yaller. Down the hill a cougar rises his voice in sorrow and, and far away we hears the nicker of a horse.
“I can see to notch my sights,” announces Hashknife, after while, “and I reckon I can recognize a friend as far as I can hit anything. Let’s go.”
“Who do we shoot at?” I asks. “Any preference, Hashknife?”
“I reckon they’ll show their hand, Sleepy. Keep your danged head down.”
“Whose danged head is this? Yuh won’t tell anything, and yuh crabs when a feller wants to see something for himself. What for kind of a way is that to act? Are we with yuh, or just one of your party?”
“I wants to find Mary Jane first of all,” says Windy, sad-like. “I’m gettin’ worried.”
“Yeah, and get wrinkled like a Siwash squaw,” grunts Hashknife. “Whoa, Blaze!”
Hashknife points at a jumble of rocks farther up on the hill. We sees the figure of a man, humped over, crawling along like a big lizard. Comes the whang of a gun, and the man collapses in the rocks. But he ain’t dead. We sees him shoot twice, and then he drops lower and begins crawling.
“Shall I wing him?” asks Windy.
“Nope,” grunts Hashknife. “Dunno who he is yet. Got a idea, but ain’t sure.”
“This is a lot of fun for us, Sleepy,” says Windy. “The general won’t let us privates shoot until he sees the whites of their eyes.”
We sneaked along behind boulders, working up higher all the time. I ain’t got no knees left in my pants, the same of which makes ’em match in front and rear. We rounds the comer of a pinnacle, and Hashknife stops.
“I’m foreman of the Circle Dot,” says Windy, peevish-like, “and I do admire to know why they comes up here and shoots up my nice li’l rocks. Goin’ to put up signs,today, warnin’ folks to keep off my grass, y’betcha.”
I sticks my head over the top.
Zowie! A bullet spings off the rock beside my ear and goes buzzing off down among the cliffs.
“Next time I go out with you, Sleepy, I’m goin’ t’ pack a spade,” says Hashknife. “You sure does invite interment.”
We hugs the rocks for a while, and then peers out again.
Splat! A bullet flattens right beside my ear and I slides back.
Then I scratches my ear, looks at the lead spatter on the rock and cusses some more.
“We-e-e-ell,” drawls Hashknife, grinning, “I reckon you’ll get sensible now. That only misses by six inches. Huh!”
Hashknife rolls over, pokes into a rock crevice, and begins to climb. It’s only about seven feet to the top of the rock, and me and Windy stays there looking up at the soles of his boots. He stops. We sees him kinda anchor his knee against the side of the rock and then his rifle sings its little song. A empty shell rattles down at us and we hears him chuckle. Then he slides down to us and huddles down.
“Ketchum bad-man,” he grunts, stuffing another shell into the magazine of his rifle.
“Didja hit him?” asks Windy.
“If I didn’t, he must be a danged fool to upset the way he did.”
Spo-o-o-w! A bullet burned across my shoulder and whizzed into the air off the rock behind me. I dropped flat and remembered every cuss word I ever heard.
“And I raised him, Windy,” says Hashknife when I runs out of breath.
“I’ve learned his meek and mildness, but the minute the —— fool gets mad he backslides. Didja ever hear such language? Awful! I hates to see anybody kill him, ’cause his soul won’t be welcome nowheres.”
“He ain’t got none,” declares Windy. “No soul a-tall, Hashknife, but, man, man, he sure has a memory for words.”
“Burnt me right across the shoulder,” says I. “Stay here and get killed if you must, but I’m goin’ to smoke that hombre out. Sabe?”
“We’ve got to find Mary Jane,” says Windy. “All this time——”
“We’ll find her,” says Hashknife. “I figure she ain’t far away.”
WE CRAWLS over the top of them rocks, out through the fissure and slides down the other side. Then we crawls on our hands, knees and belly until our shirts are on a par with our knees and seats. We reaches the other side of the hill and angles through the rocks, until we’re working around behind a sort of cliff. Then a danged rattlesnake has to plant himself right in our trail. Ornery son of a gun wouldn’t budge and we didn’t want to shoot him for fear of letting folks know where we were.
There wasn’t a loose rock in reach, so Hashknife takes off his belt, slips his holster off and then he slams Mr. Snake with the buckle-end. It sure was effective. Windy collects the rattles as we go past. We gets almost around the cliff and then gets to our feet and peers around.
“Got to get up higher,” whispers Hashknife. “I reckon we can climb this end of the cliff.”
We crawls to the top and finds that it’s still lower than the main part of the cliff, but between us and the high part is about fifty feet of open country. We thought it was cliff all the way, and here we are up on kind of a table-rock. We peers around.
“Look!” croaks Windy.
There’s a man crawling along the base of the higher cliff. Windy lifts his rifle and lines his sights, but Hashknife pushes the gun aside.
“That’s Snag Thorn!” grits Windy. “Lemme nail him, Hashknife. Dirty rustler.”
“Betcha the whole gang are scattered around here,” says I.
“Wait a minute,” cautions Hashknife. “Plenty of time to kill him.”
“My ——! Look!” wails Windy. “There’s Mary Jane!”
We gets a glimpse of her on the side of that cliff, beyond the angle of where Snag Thorn is crawling, and she’s coming down. We can see her plain for a moment and then she goes down behind the angle of the rocks.
“Snag’s sneaking up on her!” gasps Windy. “The dirty pup!”
“——!” grunts Hashknife. “He likely don’t know she’s anywhere near here. Watch up the hill. Keep looking up toward where Snag is going.”
The three of us searches every sign on the side of the hill and all to once Windy says:
“I see a man. See that V-shaped pinnacle, with the point stickin’ out the side? Look right in below that. See him? Look—he’s movin’ around!”
Hashknife’s rifle jerks to his shoulder and shoots twice.
“My ——!” yelps Windy. “You’ve hit him! Some shootin’!”
“Come on,” snaps Hashknife.
We went down off that rock like three squirrels and went ducking and dodging straight for where we seen Snag, but there ain’t a bullet coming our way. We’re half way across to the rock when we hears a gun, but Hashknife don’t stop.
The three of us went around the corner of that cliff, and there stands Snag Thorn with his back to us, and he’s nursing his right hand. Against the side of the cliff stands Mary Jane, her hair hanging down, her hat gone and her dress is all torn and dirty. Her face is as white as chalk, and I thought she might ’a’ got hit. Neither of them sees us, although Snag ain’t twenty feet away.
Then Snag says:
“I thought it was you. I seen yuh in town—just a glimpse, but I remembered yuh, and when your horse ran away with yuh——”
“Oh!” says Mary Jane, “I w-wish I hadn’t shot you—I—I——”
“I tried to find yuh in Frisco,” says Snag. “I lost the address and I— But it don’t matter, I reckon.”
Snag looks down at his hand.
“Yuh see the Circle Dot says I’m a rustler and my dad and your uncle killed each other, and—I’ll help yuh get home safe, Miss Haley—if your men won’t fill me full of lead on my way out.”
“Have they been shooting at you?” she asks and he nods.
“Did you or your men shoot at me?”
“I came alone—and I didn’t shoot at you.”
“I thought it was your men,” says she. “I—I—that horse ran away with me and brought me up here. I was afraid to get off but after a while it stopped and I got off, and—and I didn’t have any bridle and I couldn’t catch it again.
“It got dark and I climbed up on top of the cliff and in the night I saw two men on horses ride past. I was afraid to call to them, but as I followed them—or rather went the way they did and heard them talking—I almost ran into them. There’s a cave up there, and they were talking something about somebody getting suspicious and about cow-tracks, and one of them said the best thing they could do was to either bluff it out or fight it out.
“I heard my name mentioned and Mr. Hartley’s, and—and I thought it was some of your men, and then one of them said: ‘Let’s bunch it. Nobody will ever know where we went, and they’ll never find this place in a thousand years.’ ”
“A cave?” asks Snag. “Up here?”
“Yes. It’s big enough to ride a horse into. One of the men said: ‘This sure has been easy pickings for us, but I made a big mistake when I missed that Hashknife person. He’s got too much sabe.’. And then the other one said: ‘Yes, you went too strong, I guess, and didn’t shoot straight enough.’
“I don’t know just what happened then, but I must have touched a loose rock, because it fell and made a lot of noise. I ran behind the rock and they went past me. Then I crept to the side of the hill, but they saw me and shot at me. I just remembered that I still had a gun and I shot. I don’t think I hit anybody and then I managed to get here and climb up on that rock. I—I think they shot several times at me, but it all seemed like nightmare, and then I—I shot at you.”
“So did they,” said Snag, foolish-like.
MARY JANE leans back against the rock and begins to weep. I starts to go over to her but Hashknife yanks me back. Snag walks over to her and pats her on the shoulder, kinda bashful-like, and says:
“Gosh, don’t do that! I’m all right and you found the place where they drifted all those cows, and we’ll find the rustlers.”
“Bub-but I shot you,” wails Mary Jane. “I—I don’t know how I happened to hit you. You saved my life that n-night in San Francisco, and I wanted to th-thank you, but I shot——”
“Aw, that’s all right,” says Snag, foolish-like. “You can shoot me any old time yuh feel like it.”
Wasn’t that a —— of a thing for a growed-up man to say?
“Duck!” says Hashknife, and the three of us went down like prairie-dogs when a hawk shows up.
“What was it?” whispers Windy, cocking his gun.
“Arrows,” says Hashknife, and then he takes me by the arm and leads me away, with Windy sneaking along behind.
Hashknife takes us ’way down among the rocks and then stops.
“Arrows?” asks Windy. “Whatcha mean?”
Just then we sees Mary Jane and Snag come down around the side of the cliff. They stops and looks off across the country, and then they starts off down among the rocks, and Snag and Mary Jane are hanging on to each other’s hand.
“Arrows?” asks Windy again.
“Cupid,” explains Hashknife. “Little feller, who don’t wear no pants. Shoots a bow and arrow.”
“You’re loco,” grunts Windy, and then we follers Hashknife up to where we saw the man spill into the rocks. Windy looks at Hashknife; but don’t say a word, and then we went down and helped Hashknife find the other one.
“My ——!” says Windy. “Did yuh know who they was, Hashknife?”
“Sure. I had a good idea right off the reel, but I wasn’t sure until I got shot at down on Cow Crick, after I told Bowers I was goin’ over to the Bar 20. Did you ever hear of that cave?”
“Nope,” replies Windy. “I don’t reckon anybody ever cared to pesticate around up there, ’cause I never heard there was any caves.”
“There had to be a way out,” states Hashknife. “I reckon that old crater must run plumb through into Bluff Lake Valley, and they runs a few head of steers through at a time. Likely run in a few at a time and held them up in the rocks until they has enough to make a drive. I knowed the answer was up here, ’cause Baldy got shot here, and somebody bawled him out for bein’ on Circle Dot Range. They kept the two ranches fightin’ each other, while they stole from both.”
“I wonder,” says Windy, sad-like. “I wonder if Snag and Mary Jane——”
“Kinda looks thataway,” nods Hashknife.
“And the sheriff’s office ain’t got no keeper and Blubber won’t ever have to get his adenoids cut out,” says I.
“Well,” says Windy, “I reckon it’s all right for Snag to get Mary Jane. I like her fine, yuh understand. Yeah, I like her better than any girl I ever seen, but she’s too danged good for me. I—I never said anythin’ to her—never intended to, yuh understand? Why, if she was to ask me to marry her I’d have to refuse. Yessir, I’d have to. What would you do in a case like that, Hashknife?”
“Just like you would, you —— liar,” says Hashknife, and we went down through the Devil’s Dooryard without further comment.