The Man from Bar-20/Chapter 12

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CHAPTER XII

YEASTY SUSPICION

ACKERMAN walked to the small corral, where two straight irons were in a fire and where three men were cinching up in preparation. Fleming, Harrison, and Gates, lolling on the ground, kept up a running fire of comment, and Ackerman stopped and looked down at them.

"Three cheerful fools," he grinned.

"Here's Little Jimmy," remarked Fleming; "an' by all th' Roman gods, he's actually grinnin'! Look, fellers! Behold an' ponder! Mr. Ackerman wears a smile!"

"Sick?" solicitously inquired Harrison.

"Drunk?" suspiciously questioned Gates.

"Three children," grunted Ackerman. "An' scabby. Two sentries an' a hunter."

Holbrook poked the fire. "Kit Carson, Dan'l Boone, an' Californy Joe. Three scouts. Th' ambushin' trio."

"Faith, Hope, an' Charity," chuckled Purdy.

"You called it," grinned Holbrook.

"If Custer had only had 'em," said Ackerman, "there'd been no massacre."

"Huh!" grunted Gates. "What could I do, with them two fools herdin' with me?"

"Not so much herdin' with you, as tryin' to herd you," said Harrison blithely.

Gates sought escape by creating a diversion, and shouted: "Hey, look at him!" and pointing at the cook, who staggered past under a great load of saplings and poles.

"Hey, Cookie!" he shouted stentoriously. "Why don't you put them birds in th' house nights, an' sleep in th' coop, yoreself?"

"Or give him some of that there strych-nine that we got for you?" yelled Sanford. "There's a lot of it left," he chuckled, remembering the cook's futile rage when he had found the poisoned carcass half covered over with dirt.

The cook, his glistening face crimson, carefully lowered the forward end of the poles to the ground, eased them upright with his shoulder and wiped the perspiration from his face with a grimy sleeve. Turning a red countenance toward his grinning friends he started to speak, muttered something, spat forcibly, shouldered carefully under his load again and staggered away with as much dignity as he could command.

"That's right, Cookie," commended Gates. "Don't you waste no words on 'em a-tall. They're a lazy, worthless, shiftless lot. If they wasn't they'd help you tote them trees. But I wish you'd tell me what yo're aimin' to do, because if yo're goin' to rig up a scaffold for that ki-yote, I want to be around when he's hung." He turned and surveyed the group. "You ought to be ashamed of yoreselves, lettin' him tote that load hisself. He works harder than any man on this ranch, an' I can prove it. I can prove it by him. What with buildin' stockades an' scaffolds, diggin' holes for his traps, poisonin' baits, an' settin' up nights with his shotgun, he's a hard workin' member of this outfit. He ain't got no time to set around an' loaf all day like some I could name if I had a mind to."

"Hard workin'!" snorted Purdy. "That ain't work; that's fun! He's as happy doin' that as others is playin' cards or somethin'. He'd get mopey if that ki-yote died. A man allus works harder at his fun than he does at his work. Allus!"

"Shore!" grunted Holbrook. "I've seen men so lazy that they growled because th' sun kept 'em movin' to stay in th' shade; but show 'em a month's good huntin' an' they'd come to life quick! They'll climb an' hoof it all day to get a shot at somethin'; but if their wife asked 'em to rustle a bucket of water you could hear 'em holler, clear over in th' next county."

"Would you look at him settin' them poles!" chuckled Gates. "He's shore goin' down to bedrock!"

Holbrook pulled an iron out of the fire, glanced at it, shoved it back again and arose. "Let her go," he said.

At the word two men vaulted into their saddles and rode into the corral. A cow blundered out and was deftly turned toward the fire, and at the right instant a rope shot through the air, straightened and grew taut; and the cow, thrown heavily, was hog-tied, branded, its ears cut to conform to the QE notch, and released in a remarkably short time. Arising it waved its lowered head from side to side and started to charge Holbrook. Gates stepped quickly forward, kicked a spurt of dirt in its face and a clever cow-pony sent it lumbering out through the gate in the fence and onto the range.

"Maverick," grunted Holbrook, waiting for the next. "Logan shore is careless in his calf roundups. That's four of 'em we got in th' last two raids. Reckon he thinks brandin' is more or less unnecessary, th' way he's located. An' d—d if here don't come another! Nope; it's a sleeper. Somebody took th' trouble to cut th' notch."

Ackerman did his share of the work, silent and preoccupied, and when the last cow had been turned onto the range he wheeled abruptly, looked around, and walked over to Quigley, who was approaching.

"I reckon I better go off on a little scout," he said. "I ain't satisfied about Nelson; an' th' more I mills it over, th' less satisfied I am. You can grin; but I'm tellin' you it ain't no grinnin' matter!" he snapped, eying the group. "I'm tellin' you what I'm goin' to do, an' that's all."

"That's for you to say," smiled Quigley. "Nobody's goin' to try to stop you; but we reckon yo're only makin' trouble for yoreself. He's quit th' Twin Buttes country. I understand he's prospectin' south of town."

"He ain't prospectin' none," retorted Ackerman. "An' he wasn't prospectin' up here, neither; he was runnin' a bluff, an' makin' it stick. I looked into that gravel bed!"

Fleming laughed. "He was coverin' his rustlin' operations. His real prospectin' was to be done with a rope an' a runnin' iron."

"Yes," grunted Sanford; "an' now he's doin' th' same thing down south, I'll bet. Th' Circle S has got a lot of sleepers an' mavericks runnin' on their outlyin' range. Holmes has been threatenin' for two years to round 'em all up; but when he's ready, th' Long T ain't; an' t'other way around."

"Our friend is goin' to set right down on a rattler if he starts rustlin' down there," grinned Purdy. "Them two ranches are wide awake. I know, because I've looked 'em over."

He'll tackle th' job," said Harrison; "because he's somethin' of a pinwheel hisself."

"That's how I figger it," said Holbrook quickly. "A burned child loves th' fire, if it's stubborn. Let him alone; don't stir him up. We don't want him up here, an' that's our limit. What he does down there ain't no game for us to horn into. Let 'em fiddle an' dance an' be d—d."

Ackerman regarded them pityingly and shrugged his shoulders. "I pass! Ain't there no way to get it through yore heads that I don't believe he's interested in anythin' but us? It's like drillin' in granite. I hammer an' hammer, twist th' drill an' hammer some more; an' after hard work all I got is a little hole, with a cussed sight more granite below it! I feel like rammin' in a charge of powder an' blowin' it to h—l an' gone. Look at me! Listen! Put away yore marbles, an' think!"

"Why don't you fellers listen?" grinned Fleming.

"Just because he went south don't say he stayed there," hammered Ackerman. "He wasn't scared away; not by a d—d sight. I know that. Fleming, Gates, an' Harrison know it. We all know it. He went south. But he can turn, can't he? If he can't, lie's in a h—l of a fix! No tellin' where he'll end up—Patagonia, mebby. All right, he can turn. It's only a question of where! He's goin' to turn; an' when he does, I'm goin' to be there an' see him do it. I'm goin' to make it my business to find him, watch him, an' trail him. If he turns north I'm goin' to get him. An' if you'll take any advice from me, you'll all begin to take long rides, north, east, south, an' west; mostly southwest an' west. You'll ride in pairs, an' you'll keep yore fool eyes open. Th' time has passed for loafin' around here, shootin' craps an' swappin' lies. Yo're smokin' on an open powder keg; an' d—n you, you ain't got sense enough to know it!" He raised his clenched fists. "I mean it! D—n—you—you—ain't—got—sense—enough—to—know—it!"

Quigley laughed, although uneasily; for Ackerman's earnestness carried unrest with it. "Jim, Jim," he said kindly, "we've been up here a long time; an' we've given these hills a name that guards 'em for us. Them that bothered us disappeared; an' th' lesson was learned."

"Was it?" shouted Ackerman. "He didn't learn it! He come up here, plump in th' face of yore warnin', in spite of what he had heard in Hastings! Why? Because it's his business to come! Because he's paid to come! He ain't one of them Hastings loafers! He ain't no sleepy puncher, satisfied to draw down his pay, an' th' h—l with th' ranch! I tell you you never saw a man like him before. Can't you see it? Logan found out that he was a real man, a gun man, an' not scared of h—l an' high water. Then he quits Logan, an' comes up here. Can't you see it? Can't you? Think, d—n it; THINK!"

"I did; have been, an' am," snapped Quigley angrily. "Thinkin' is one thing; goin' loco, another. I think yo're a d—d fool!"

Ackerman threw up his hands in a helpless gesture. "All right; have it yore own way. I give it up. I pass before th' draw. But I ain't swallerin' no pap an' gazin' at th' moon. I'm goin' to keep my eyes on Nelson."

"You want to; he's a bad hombre," said Fleming uneasily.

Ackerman wheeled and smiled at the speaker. "He is; an' he's a d—d good man. I takes off my hat to him; an' I wish to heaven we had a few Nelsons up here; this ranch would hum. An' you'd 'a' done better if you'd follered yore own advice. I won't make th' same mistake twice. Th' minute he makes a false move I'll plug him. I underrated him before; now I'm goin' to overrate him, to be on th' safe side. But you ain't got a thing to say: three to one, an' you let him make fools out of you!"

"I admits it," said Fleming. "An' that's why I'm tellin' you to look out for him. He's as quiet as a flea; an' as harmless as blastin' powder. I wish you luck."

"I ain't so harmless myself," retorted Ackerman. "An' now I know what I'm buckin'. You'll see me when you see me; I'm preparin' to be gone a month or more."

They watched him enter the bunk-house, and when he came out again he had his saddle and a blanket roll; and when he rode into the canyon without a backward glance or a parting word he had his slicker, a generous supply of food, and plenty of ammunition.

Quigley watched him until he rode out of sight beyond the canyon, and turned toward his outfit, shaking his head. "He's so all-fired set on it that I'm gettin' a little restless myself. Jim ain't no fool; an' he don't often shy at a shadow. It won't do us no harm, anyhow; an' we can take turns at it. I'll start it off by takin' one side tomorrow, an' Holbrook can take th' other. Later on we'll figger it out an' arrange th' shifts. Mebby he's right."