The Man from Bar-20/Chapter 11

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LIGHT gleamed from Quigley's ranch-houses and an occasional squeal came from the corral, suggesting that "Big Jake" was getting up steam for more deviltry. Occasionally a shadow passed across the lighted patches of ground below the windows and the low song of Rustler Creek could be heard as it swirled into the long, black canyon. Save for the glow of the windows and the rectangles of light below them everything was wrapped in darkness, and the canyon, the range, and the rims of the cliffs were hidden.

"A miner, 'forty-niner, and his daughter, Clementine," came from the middle house as Art Fleming dolefully made known the sorrowful details of Clementine's passing out. He put his heart into it because he had troubles of his own, for which he frankly and profanely gave Ben Gates due discredit.

Ben, tiring of the dirge, heaved a boot with a snap-shooter's judgment and instantly forsook the heavy inhospitality of the house for the peace and freedom of the great outdoors. He plumped down on a bench and immediately arose therefrom.

"Look where yo're settin', you blunderin' jackass!" snarled a hostile voice from the same bench. "Yo're as big a nuisance as a frisky bummer in a night herd!"

"A bull's eye for Mr. Harrison," chanted the man inside.

"You two buzzards are about as cheerful an' pleasant as a rattler in August," snapped Gates belligerently. "Like two old wimmin, you are, both of you! Settin' around in everybody's way, tellin' yore troubles over an' over again till everybody wishes Nelson had done a better job. How'd I know you was sprawled out, takin' up all th' room? You reminds me of a fool dog that sets around stickin' its tail in everybody's way, an' then howls blue murder when it's stepped on. Think yo're th' only people on this ranch that has any troubles?"

"A miss for Mr. Gates," said the irritated voice within the house. "An' if he will stick his infected head in that door, just for one, two, three, he'll have more troubles," prophesied Mr. Fleming, facing the opening with a boot nicely balanced in his upraised hand. "If it wasn't for him, we—"

"Shut up! Shut up!" yelled Gates, enraged in an instant. "If you says that much more I'll bust yore fool neck! For G—d's sake, is that all you know, Andrew Jackson?"

"If it wasn't for you," said the man on the bench very deliberately as his hand closed over a piece of fire-wood, "I said, if—it—wasn't—for—you, we'd be ridin' with the boys tonight, instead of stayin' around these houses like three sick babies."

"Another bull's eye for Mr. Harrison," said the man inside.

Gates wheeled with an oath. "An' if it wasn't for you sound asleep in th' valley; an' Fleming sound asleep up on that butte, I wouldn't 'a' been lammed on th' head an' tied up like a sack! It's purty cussed tough when a man with nothin' worse than a scalp wound has to lay up this way!"

"Bull's eye for Mr. Gates," announced the man in the cabin, with great relish.

"If you'd been wide awake yoreself," retorted Harrison, "you wouldn't 'a' been tied up! You didn't even squawk when he hit you, so we'd know he was around. Was you tryin' to keep it a secret?" he demanded with withering sarcasm. "An' as for them bandages, how did I know th' dog had been sleepin' on 'em? Cookie gave 'em to me!"

"Bull's eye for Mr. Harrison," said Fleming. "But he was awake," he continued with vast conviction. "He was wide awake. He ain't got no more sense awake than he has asleep. When he's got his boots on, his brains are cramped an' suffocated."

"You got him figgered wrong," said Harrison "His brains are only suffocated when he sets down."

While the little comedy was being enacted at the bunk-houses, the main body of rustlers followed Quigley down the steeply sloping bottom of a concealed crevice miles north of the ranch-house of the CL. The five men emerged quietly and paused on the edge of the curving Deepwater, and then slowly followed their leader into the icy stream. The current, weakened by a widening of the river at this point, still flowed with sufficient strength to make itself felt and the slowly moving horses leaned against it as they filed across the secret ford. Reaching the farther bank the second and third men rode quietly to right and left, rapidly becoming vague and then lost to sight. The three remaining riders sat quietly in their saddles for what, to them, seemed to be a long time. Suddenly a low whistle sounded on the left, followed instantly by another on the right; and like released springs the rustlers leaped into action.

Vague, ghostly figures moved over the open plain, finding cows with uncanny directness and certainty. Two riders held the nucleus of the little herd, which grew steadily as lumbering cows, followed inexorably by skilled riders, pushed out of the darkness. There was no conversation, no whistling now, nor singing, but a silence which, coupled to the ghost-like action and the dexterous swiftness, made the drama seem unreal.

There came an abrupt change. The two men riding herd saw no more looming cattle or riders, which seemed to be a matter of significance to them, for they faced southward, guns in hand, and pushed slowly back along the flanks of the little herd. Peering into the shrouding gray darkness, tense and alert, eyes and ears straining to read the riddle, they waited like sooty statues for whatever might occur, rigid and unmoving.

A sudden thickening in the night. A figure seemed to flow from indefinable density to the outlines of a mounted man. A low voice, profanely irritant, spoke reassuringly and grew silent as the rider oozed back into the effacing night.

"Shore," muttered a herder, relaxing and slipping his gun into its holster. He moved forward swiftly and turned back a venturesome cow. His companion, growling but relieved, shrugged his shoulders and settled back to wait.

Minutes passed and then another lumbering blot emerged out of the dark, became a cow, and found reassurance in numbers as it willingly joined the herd. The escorting rider kept on, pushed back his sombrero and growled: "They're scattered to h—l an' gone to-night; but," he grudgingly admitted, "they acts plumb do-cile. S'long."

Another wait, long and fruitless, edged anew the nerves of the herders. Then Quigley, Ackerman, and Purdy moved out of the obscurity of the night and took up positions around the herd, urging it forward. When they had it started on its way, Ackerman dropped back and became lost to sight, engaged in his characteristic patroling, suspicious and malevolent.

The little herd, skilfully guided over clean patches of rock which led deviously to the water's edge and left no signs on its hard surface, at last reached the river, where a shiver of hesitancy rippled through it and where the rear cows pushed solidly against the front rank, which appeared to be calling upon its inherent obstinacy. The craft and diplomacy of Quigley's long experience won out and the uncertain front rank slowly and grudgingly entered the stream, the others following without noticeable hesitation. As the last cow crossed and scrambled up the western bank, Ackerman rode down to the water's edge, pushed in and crossed silently, only the lengthening ripple on the black surface telling of his progress. As he climbed out he squirmed in his wet clothes and swore from sudden anger, which called forth a low ripple of laughter from the base of the Barrier, where the others took their discomforts lightly.

"Scared you'll shrink, Jim?" softly said an ironic voice.

"Or dissolve, like sugar?" inquired another scoffingly.

"Sugar?" jeered a third. "Huh! He's about as sweet as a hunk of alum!"

Ackerman's retort caused grins to bloom unseen, and the miseries of wet clothes and chilled bodies were somewhat relieved by the thought that Ackerman felt them the most.

Up the crevice in orderly array, docile as sheep, climbed the cattle, and when they reached the top of the plateau they moved along stolidly under guidance and finally gained the outer valley leading to the QE by a trail west of and parallel to the one which showed the way to Hastings.

Back on the QE, Fleming and his friends, having awakened the cook at an unseemly hour by their noise, finally turned in and found some trouble in getting to sleep, thanks to the energetic efforts of the boss of the kitchen, who most firmly believed in the Mosaic Law, and had the courage of his convictions. But things finally quieted down and peace descended upon the ranch.

Outside the bunk-house and behind it, a blot on the ground stirred restlessly and slowly resolved itself into a man arising. He moved cautiously along the wall toward the lighted cook shack and then sank down again, hand on gun, as the door opened.

Cookie threw out a pan of water, scowled up at the starry sky and then peered intently at a chicken-coop, visible in the straggling light from the door, from which a sleepy cackle suddenly broke the silence. Muttering suspiciously he reached behind him and then slipped swiftly toward the shack, a shotgun in his hands. Going around the coop he stood up and shook his fist at the darkness.

"You can dig up my traps, an' smell out my strychnine, but you can't dodge these buckshot if ever I lays th' sights on you. Dawg-gone you, I owes you a-plenty!" he growled. Striking a match he looked in the coop and around it. "Had two dozen as nice pullets as anybody ever saw, only three weeks ago; an' now I only got sixteen left. There, blast you!" he swore, as the second match revealed the telltale tracks. "There they are! O, Lord! Just let me get my gun on that thievin' ki-yote! Just once!"

He stared around belligerently and went slowly back to the house, swearing and grumbling under his breath. It is the cook's fate to be the sworn enemy of all coyotes, and let it be said without shame to him that he seldom is a victor in that game of watchfulness and wits. And also let it be said that often with tears of rage and mortification, and words beyond repetition, he pays unintentional tribute to the uncanny cunning of the four-legged thieves. With guns, dogs, traps, and poison is he armed, but it availeth him naught. And as bad as the defeat are the knowing grins of the rest of the outfit who, while openly cheering on the doughty cook, are ready to wager a month's wages on the coyote.

The man on the ground moved again, this time toward the canyon, and soon was feeling his way along the great eastern wall. Reaching the other end, he stopped a moment to listen, and then went on again, groping along by the edge of the stream until he stumbled over a dead branch, which he picked up. Then feeling for and finding a certain rock, he stepped on it and with his foot felt for and found another, which was partly submerged in the creek; and by means of this and others he crossed dry-shod to the opposite bank, using the branch as a staff.

Daylight was near when Johnny wriggled to the edge of the cliff opposite the houses and hid behind a fringe of grass on the rim. An hour passed and then his keen ears caught distant sounds. Below him the cook was rearranging his traps and swearing at the cleverness of his four-footed enemy. Suddenly he arose and hastened to the kitchen to serve a hot breakfast to the men who soon drove a bunch of cattle out of the canyon and into the small corral.

While the others hastened in for their breakfast, Quigley and Ackerman loitered at the corral.

"Purty good for five men, with one of 'em playin' sentry," said Quigley. "We'd do better if we didn't have to scout around first."

"Scoutin's necessary," replied Ackerman. "It's too wide open. This bunch ain't worth gettin' wet for. That river's cussed cold!"

Quigley chuckled. "Huh! I've swum it when th' ice was comin' down."

"You did," retorted Ackerman. "That was th' night Logan burned our houses. You had to swim an' freeze, or stay out an' get shot. You went in pronto, that night!"

"You beat me in by forty yards, an' out by sixty!" snapped Quigley.

Ackerman ignored the remark. "Not satisfied with nestin' on a man's range, you had to start a little herd. We didn't bring no cows with us, nor buy any afterward—but what's th' use? Let's eat," and he led the way toward the cook shack.

Johnny waited a few minutes and then, returning to his horse, started for his camp. He was puzzled, for no place near Big or Little Canyons was devoid of shelter, and he knew of no other places where cattle could pass the Barrier. He had noticed that the backs of the cows were dry, which meant that they had forded the river, and he was certain that the crossing had not been made at the ford near Devil's Gap. He had to learn the location of the place they visited and that unknown ford; and he wanted to learn the date of their next raid.

"We'll have to trail 'em, Pepper," he growled. "An' then bust all runnin' records to get Logan an' th' boys. Get agoin'; I'm sleepy."