The Man from Bar-20/Chapter 1

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The Man From Bar-20



A HORSEMAN rode slowly out of a draw and up a steep, lava-covered ridge, singing "The Cowboy's Lament," to the disgust of his horse, which suddenly arched its back and stopped the song in the twenty-ninth verse.

"Dearly Beloved," grinned the rider, after he had quelled the trouble, "yore protest is heeded 'Th' Lament' ceases, instanter; an' while you crop some of that grass, I'll look around and observe th' scenery, which shore is scrambled. Now, them two buttes over there," leaning forward to look around a clump of brush, "if they ain't twins, I'll eat—"

He ducked and dismounted in one swift movement to the vengeful tune of a screaming bullet over his head, slapped the horse and jerked his rifle from its scabbard. As the horse leaped down the slope of the ridge there was no sign of any living thing to be seen on the trail. A bush rustled near the edge of a draw, a peeved voice softly cursed the cacti and Mexican locust; and a few minutes later the shadow of a black lava bowlder grew suddenly fatter on one side. The cause of this sudden shadow growth lay prone under the bulging side of the great rock, peering out intently between two large stones; and flaming curiosity consumed his soul. A stranger in a strange land, who rode innocently along a free trail and minded his own business, merited no such a welcome as this. His promptness of action and the blind luck in that bending forward at the right instant were all that saved his life; and his celerity of movement spoke well for his reflexes, for he had found himself fattening the shadow of the bowlder almost before he had fully realized the pressing need for it.

Minute after minute passed before his searching eyes detected anything concerned with the unpleasant episode, and then he sensed rather than saw a slight movement on the mottled, bowlder-strewn slope of a distant butte. A bush moved gently, and that was all.

To cross the intervening chaos of rocks and brush, pastures and draws would take him an hour if it were done as caution dictated, and by that time the chase would be useless. So he waited until the sun was two hours higher, pleasantly anticipating a stealthy reconnaissance by his unknown enemy to observe the dead. He had dropped into high grass and brush when he left the saddle and there was no way that the marksman could be certain of the results of his shot except by closer examination. But the man in ambush had no curiosity, to his target's regret; and the target, despairing of being honored by a visit, finally gave up the vigil. After a silent interval a soft whistle from a thicket, well back in a draw, caused the grazing horse to lift his head, throw its ears forward and walk sedately toward the sound.

"Dearly Beloved," said a low voice from the thicket, "come closer. That was a two-laigged skunk, an' his eyes are good. Likewise he is one plumb fine shot."

Ever since he had listened to the marriage ceremony which had subjugated his friend Hopalong for the rest of that man's natural life, the phrase "Dearly Beloved" had stuck in his memory; and in his use of it the words took the place of humorous profanity.

Mounting, he rode on again, but kept off all skylines, favored the rough going away from the trail, and passed to the eastward of all the obstructions he met; and his keen eyes darted from point to point unceasingly, not giving up their scrutiny of the surroundings until he saw in the distance a little town, which he knew was Hastings.

In the little cow-town of Hastings the afternoon sun drove the shadows of the few buildings farther afield and pitilessly searched out every defect in the cheap and hastily constructed frame buildings, showed the hair-line cracks in the few adobes, where an occasional frost worked insidious damage to the clay, and drew out sticky, pungent beads of rosin from the sun-bleached and checked pine boards of the two-story front of the one-story building owned and occupied by "Pop" Hayes, proprietor of one of the three saloons in the town. The two-story front of Pop's building displayed two windows painted on the warped boards too close to the upper edge, the panes a faded blue, where gummy pine knots had not stained them yellow; and they were framed by sashes of a hideous red.

Inside the building Pop dozed in his favorite position, his feet crossed on a shaky pine table and his chair tipped back against the wall. Slow hoof-beats, muffled by the sand, sounded outside, followed by the sudden, faint jingling of spurs, the sharp creak of saddle gear and the soft thud of feet on the ground. Pop's eyes opened and he blinked at the bright rectangle of sunny street framed by his doorway, where a man loomed up blackly, and slowly entered the room.

"Howd'y, Logan," grunted Pop, sighing. His feet scraped from the table and thumped solidly on the floor in time with the thud of the chair legs, and he slowly arose, yawning and sighing wearily while he waited to see which side of the room would be favored by the newcomer. Pop disliked being disturbed, for by nature he was one who craved rest, and he could only sleep all night and most of the day. Rubbing the sleep out of his eyes he yawned again and looked more closely at the stranger, a quick look of surprise flashing across his face. Blinking rapidly he looked again and muttered something to himself.

The newcomer turned his back to the bar, took two long steps and peered into the battered showcase on the other side of the room, where a miscellaneous collection of merchandise, fly-specked and dusty, lay piled up in cheerful disorder under the cracked and grimy glass. Staring up at him was a roughly scrawled warning, in faded ink on yellowed paper: "Lean on yourself." The collection showed Mexican holsters, army holsters, holsters with the Lone Star; straps, buckles, bone rings, star-headed tacks, spurs, buttons, needles, thread, knives; two heavy Colt's revolvers, piles of cartridges in boxes, a pair of mother-of-pearl butt plates showing the head of a long-horned steer; pipes, tobacco of both kinds, dice, playing cards, harmonicas, cigars so dried out that they threatened to crumble at a touch; a patented gun-sight with Wild Bill Hickok's picture on the card which held it; oil, corkscrews, loose shot and bullets; empty shells, primers, reloading tools; bar lead, bullet molds—all crowded together as they had been left after many pawings-over. Pop was wont to fretfully damn the case and demand, peevishly, to know why "it" was always the very last thing he could find. Often, upon these occasions, he threatened to "get at it" the very first chance that he had; but his threats were harmless.

The stranger tapped on the glass. "Gimme that box of .45's," he remarked, pointing. "No, no; not that one. This new box. I'm shore particular about little things like that."

Pop reluctantly obeyed. "Why, just th' other day I found a box of cartridges I had for eleven years; an' they was better'n them that they sells nowadays. That's one thing that don't spoil." He looked up with shrewdly appraising eyes. "At fust glance I thought you was Logan. You shore looks a heap like him: dead image," he said.

"Yes? Dead image?" responded the stranger, his voice betraying nothing more than a polite, idle curiosity; but his mind flashed back to the trail. "Hum. He must have a lot of friends if he looks like me," he smiled quizzically.

Pop grinned: "Well, he's got some as is; an' some as ain't," he replied knowingly. "An' lemme tell you they both runs true to form. You don't have to copper no bets on either bunch, not a-tall."

"Sheriff, or marshal?" inquired the stranger, turning to the bar. "It's plenty hot an' dusty," he averred, "You have a life-saver with me."

"Might as well, I reckon," said Pop, shuffling across the room with a sudden show of animation, "though my life ain't exactly in danger. Nope; he ain't no sheriff, or marshal. We ain't got none, 'though I ain't sayin' we couldn't keep one tolerable busy while he lived. I've thought some of gettin' th' boys together to elect me sheriff; an' cussed if I wouldn't 'a' done it, too, if it wasn't for th' ridin'."

"Ridin'?" inquired the stranger with polite interest.

"It shakes a man up so; an' I allus feels sorry for th' hoss," explained the proprietor.

The stranger's facial training at the great American game was all that saved him from committing a breach of etiquette. "Huh! Reckon it does shake a man up," he admitted. "An' I never thought about th' cayuse; no, sir; not till this minute. Any ranches in this country?"

"Shore; lots of 'em. You lookin' for work?"

"Yes; I reckon so," answered the stranger.

"Well, if you don't look out sharp you'll shore find some."

"A man's got to eat more or less regular; an' cowpunchers ain't no exception," replied the stranger, his soft drawl in keeping with his slow, graceful movements.

Pop, shrewd reader of men that he was, suspected that neither of those characteristics was a true index to the man's real nature. There was an indefinable something which belied the smile—the eyes, perhaps, steel blue, unwavering, inscrutable; or a latent incisiveness crouching just beyond reach; and there was a sureness and smoothness and minimum of effort in the movements which vaguely reminded Pop of a mountain lion he once had trailed and killed. He was in the presence of a dynamic personality which baffled and disturbed him; and the two plain, heavy Colt's resting in open-top holsters, well down on the stranger's thighs, where his swinging hands brushed the well-worn butts, were signs which even the most stupid frontiersman could hardly overlook. Significant, too, was the fact that the holsters were securely tied by rawhide thongs, at their lower ends, to the leather chaps, this to hold them down when the guns were drawn out. To the initiated the signs proclaimed a gunman, a two-gun man, which was worse; and a red flag would have had no more meaning.

"Well," drawled Pop, smiling amiably, "as to work, I reckon you can find it if you knows it when you sees it; an' don't close yore eyes. I'll deal 'em face up, an' you can take yore choice," he offered, wiping his lips on the edge of the bar towel, both the action and the towel itself being vociferously described by his saddle-sitting friends as affectations, for everybody knew that a sleeve or the back of a hand was the natural thing. "Now, there's th' Circle S; but I dunno as they needs any more men. They could get along with less if them they has would work. Smith, of th' Long T, over in th' southwest, could easy use more men; but he's so close an' allfired pe-nurious that I dunno as he'd favor th' idear. He's a reg'lar genius for savin' money, Smith is. He once saved a dollar out of three cents, an' borrowed them of me to start with. Then there's th' CL, over east in th' Deepwater Valley. You might get something there; an' Logan's a nice man to work for, for a few days. He allus gives his men at least two hours sleep a night, averagin' it up; but somehow they're real cheerful about it, an' they all swears by him 'stead of at him. Reckon mebby it's th' wages he pays. He's got th' best outfit of th' three. But, lemme tell you, it's a right lively place, th' CL; an' you don't have to copper that, neither. Th' cards is all spread out in front of you—take yore choice an' foller yore nat'ral bend."

"Logan," mused the stranger. "Didn't you say something about him before?" he asked curiously.

"I did," grunted Pop. "You've got a mem'ry near as bad as Ol' Hiram Jones. Hiram, he once—"

"I thought so," interposed the cow-puncher hastily, "What kind of a ranch is th' CL?"

"Well, it was th' fust to locate in these parts, an' had its pick; an', nat'rally, it picked th' valley of th' Deepwater. Funny Logan ain't found no way to make th' river work; it wouldn't have to sleep at all, 'cept once in a while in th' winter, when it freezes over for a spell. It'd be a total loss then; mebby that's why he ain't never tried.

"But takin' a second holt," he continued, frowning with deep thought; "I dunno as I'd work for him, if I was you. You looks too much like him; an' you got a long life of piety an' bad whiskey ahead of you, mebby. An', come to think of it, I dunno as I'd stay very long around these parts, neither; an' for th' same reason. Now you have a drink with me. It shore is th' hottest spring I've seen in fifty year," he remarked, thereby quoting himself for about that period of time. Each succeeding spring and summer was to him hotter than any which had gone before, which had moved Billy Atwood to remark that if Pop only lived long enough he would find hell a cool place, by comparison, when he eventually arrived there.

"Sic 'em, Towser!" shrilled a falsetto voice from somewhere. "I'll eat his black heart!" Then followed whistling, clucking, and a string of expletives classical in its completeness. "Andy wants a drink! Quick!"

A green object dropped past the stranger's face, thumped solidly on the pine bar, hooked a vicious-looking beak on the edge of the counter, and swore luridly as its crafty nip missed the stranger's thumb.

The puncher swiftly bent his sinewy forefinger, touched it with his thumb, and let it snap forward. The parrot got it on an eye and staggered, squawking a protest.

Pop was surprised and disappointed, for most strangers showed some signs of being startled, and often bought the drinks to further prove that the joke was on them. This capable young man carelessly dropped his great sombrero over Andrew Jackson and went right on talking as though nothing unusual had occurred. It appeared that the bird was also surprised and disappointed. The great hat heaved and rocked, bobbed forward, backward, and sideways, and then slid jerkily along the bar, its hidden locomotive force too deeply buried in thought and darkness to utter even a single curse. Reaching the edge of the bar the big hat pushed out over it, teetered a moment and then fell to the floor, where Andrew Jackson, recovering his breath and vocabulary at the same instant, filled the room with shrill and clamorous profanity.

The conversation finished to his satisfaction, the stranger glanced down at his boot, where the ruffled bird was delivering tentative frontal and flank attacks upon the glittering, sharp-toothed spur, whose revolving rowel had the better of the argument. Andrew sensed the movement, side-stepped clumsily and cocked an evil eye upward.

"You should 'a' taught him to swear in th' deaf an' dumb alphabet," commented the puncher, grinning at the bird's gravity. "Does he drink?" he asked.

"Try him, an' see," suggested Pop, chuckling. He reached for a bottle and clucked loudly.

Andrew shook himself energetically, and then proceeded to go up the puncher's chaps by making diligent use of beak and claws. Reaching the low-hung belt, he hooked his claws into it and then looked evilly and suspiciously at the strange, suddenly extended forefinger. Deciding to forego hostilities, he swung himself upon it and was slowly lifted up to the bar.

Pop was disappointed again, for it was the bird's invariable custom to deftly remove a portion of strange forefingers so trustingly offered. He could crack nuts in his crooked beak. Andy shook himself violently, craned his neck and hastened to bend it over the rim of the glass.

The stranger watched him in frank disgust and shrugged his shoulders eloquently. "So all you could teach him was vile cuss words an' to like whiskey, huh?" he muttered. "He's got less sense than I thought he had," he growled, and, turning abruptly, went swiftly out to his horse.

Pop stared after him angrily and slapped the bird savagely. Emptying the liquor upon the floor, he shuffled quickly to the door and shook his fist at the departing horseman.

"Don't you tell Logan that I sent you!" he shouted belligerently.

The stranger turned in his saddle, grinning cheerfully, and favored his late host with a well-known, two-handed nose signal. Then he slapped the black horse and shot down the street without another backward glance.

Pop, arms akimbo, watched him sweep out of sight around a bend.

"Huh!" he snorted. "Wonder what yo're doin' down here? Galivantin' around th' country, insultin' honest, hard-workin' folks, an' wearin' two guns, low down an' tied! I reckon when you learns th' lay of th' country, if you stays long enough, you'll wind up by joinin' that gang up in th' Twin Buttes country. I allus like to see triggers on six-shooters, I do." He had not noticed the triggers, but that was no bar to his healthy imagination. Shuffling back to his seat, he watched the indignant Andy pecking at a wet spot on the floor.

"So you didn't chaw his finger, huh?" he demanded, in open and frank admiration of the bird's astuteness. "Strikes me you got a hull lot of wisdom, my boy. Some folks says a bird ain't got no brains; but lemme tell you that you've got a danged good instinct."