The Man from Bar-20/Chapter 2
A QUESTION OF IDENTITY
MEANWHILE the stranger was loping steadily eastward, and he arrived at the corral of the CL ranch before sundown, nodding pleasantly to the man who emerged from it: "Howd'y," he said. "I'm lookin' for Logan."
The CL man casually let his right hand lay loosely near the butt of his Colt: "Howd'y," he nodded. "Yo're lookin' right at him."
"Do you need any more punchers?" asked the stranger.
"H'm," muttered the foreman. "Might use one. If it's you, we'll talk money on pay-day. I'll know more about you then."
A puncher, passing the corral, noticed the two guns, frowned slightly and entered the enclosure, and leaned alertly against the palisade, where a crack between two logs served him as a loophole.
The two-gun man laughed with genuine enjoyment at the foreman's way of hiring men. "That's fair," he replied; "but what's th' high an' low figgers? I like to know th' limit of any game I sets in."
Logan shrugged his shoulders. "Forty is th' lowest I'd offer a white man; an' he wouldn't draw that more'n a month. Any man as ain't worth more is in our way. It's a waste of grub to feed him. Th' sky is th' high limit—but you've got to work like h—l to pass th' clouds."
"I'm some balloon," laughed the stranger. "Where's the grub shack?"
"Hold on, young man! We ain't got that far, yet. Where are you from, an' what have you been doin' with yore sweet young life?"
The stranger's face grew grave and his eyes narrowed a trifle.
"Some folks allow that's a leadin' question. It ain't polite."
"I allow that, too. An' I'm aimin' to make it a leadin' question, 'though I ain't lackin' in politeness, nor tryin' to rile you. You don't have to answer. Th' wide world, full of jobs, is all around you."
The newcomer regarded him calmly for a moment, and suddenly smiled.
"Yore gall is refreshin'," he grinned. "I'm from th' Bar-20, Texas. I'm five feet ten; weigh a hundred an' sixty; blue eyes, brown hair; single an' sober, now an' always. I writes left-handed; eat an' shoot with both; wears pants, smokes tobacco, an' I'm as handy a cow-puncher as ever threw a rope. Oh, yes; modesty is one of my glarin' faults; you might say my only glarin' fault Some people call me 'Dearly Beloved'; others, other things; but I answer to any old handle at grub pile. My name is Johnny Nelson an' I never had no other, 'cept 'Kid,' to my friends. I'm thirty years old, minus some. An'—oh, yes; I'm from th' Tin Cup, Montanny. I get things twisted at times, an' this shore looks like one of 'em."
"Of course," grunted Logan, his eyes twinkling. "That's easy. Th' two ranches, bein' so close together, would bother a man. Sorta wander off one onto th' other, an' have to stop to think which one yo're workin' u for. They should mark th' boundaries plainer—or put up a fence."
Johnny flushed. "I allus say Bar-20 when I speaks off-hand an' have more on my mind than my hair. That man in th' corral divides my attention. He flusters me. You see, I was cussed near born on th' old Bar-20—worked there ever since I was a boy. That crack in th' wall is big enough for two men to use. Thank you, friend: you near scared me to death," he chuckled as the suspicious watcher emerged and started for the bunk-house.
"You look so much like th' boss, I couldn't help watchin' you," grinned the puncher over his shoulder. Logan grunted something, and then nodded at the stranger.
"Cut it loose," he encouraged. "I don't get a chance like this every day, my observant friend. I allus reckoned I could cover ground purty well, but I'll be hanged if I can spread myself so I can work in Texas an' Montanny at th' same time. You got me beat from soda to hock. Yo're goin' to be a real valuable man, which I can see plain. Comin' down to cases, you ain't really a cow-puncher; yo're a whole cussed outfit, barrin' th' chuck waggin an' th' cook. I have great hopes for you. Tell me about it."
Johnny swung a leg over the pommel and smiled down at the man who was grinning up at him.
"Of course," he replied, "it ain't none of yore business, which we both admits. We just can't do any business on any other understandin'. But I waives that: an' here goes.
"I worked with the Bar-20 till Buck went up to run th' Tin Cup. Cow-thieves kept him so busy that our new foreman went up to help him. He stayed there. Red got lonesome for Hoppy, and shore follered. Skinny was lost without th' pair of 'em, so he up an' follered Red. Lanky, missin' Skinny, got plumb restless an' takes th' trail a month later. Then a railroad crosses our ranch an' begins layin' out two towns, so Pete gets on his hind laigs, licks a section boss, an' chases after Lanky. I'm gettin' lonesomer and lonesomer all th' time, but I manages to stick on th' job by pullin' leather, because I was drawin' down a foreman's pay. That ranch had five foremen in three months; an' they was all good ones, 'cept, mebby, me. But when I saw barbed wire on th' siding fence posts along th' right of way, sheep on th' hills, an' plows plumb ruinin' good grass land, I hunts up that same section boss, licks him again in mem'ry of Pete, packed my war bag, an' loped north after Pete. Th' old ranch has gone plumb to h—l!"
Logan, a scowl on his face, rubbed the butt of his Colt and swore softly. "It'll be that way all over th' range, some day. Go on."
"Well, up on th' Tin Cup, Buck got married. Hoppy had been before he left Texas. Tex Ewalt's gettin' th' disease now. He quit drinkin', card playin', an' most everything worth doin'. He ain't fit company for a sheep no more. Not knowing he was framin' up th' play, I loafed along an' didn't propose quick enough. That's once more he saved my life. Th' air's plumb full of matrimony on th' Tin Cup. There was two black-eyed sisters in Twin River—Lanky takes one an' Skinny th' other. They tossed for choice. Pete, who was matrimony galled, raised such a ruction at th' doin's that there just wasn't no livin' with him. His disposition was full of sand cracks, an' he'd ruther fight than eat. We pulled off a couple of hummers, me an' him.
"Every time I'd try to get some of my friends to go to town for a regular, old time, quiet evenin' I found I didn't have no friends left; an' th' wimmin all joined hands an' made me feel like a brand-blotter. I was awful popular, I was! Ever try to argue with a bunch of wimmin? It's like a dicky bird chirpin' in a cyclone; he can't even hear hisself!
"We had a cook once, on th' Bar-2O, that would run an' grab a gun if he saw a coyote ten miles away. That's th' way they acted about me, all but Mary, who is Mrs. Hopalong. She had th' idea she could make me all over again; an' I wouldn't a-cared if she hadn't kept tryin' all th' time. At first all my ex-friends would sneak around an' sort of apologize to me for th' way their wives acted; an' then, d—d if they didn't get to sidin' in with th' wives! Whenever I wandered into sight th' wimmin would cluck to their worse halves, an' scold me like I was a chicken hawk. An' I had lots of advice, too. It was just like my shadow, only it worked nights, too. Nobody called me 'Kid' or 'Johnny' no more. Them days was past. I was that Johnny Nelson: know what I mean?
"Red did sneak off to town with me twice—an' drank ginger-ale, an' acted about as free an' happy as a calf with a red-hot old brandin' iron over his flank. He wouldn't play faro because he only had two dollars, an' reckoned he might need it for somethin' before pay-day come around again. That was on pay-day, too! An' that was Red, Red Connors! Great polecats! Why, there was a time when Red—oh, what's th' use!
"Hopalong—you call him that now when his wife's around!—he was something on some board, or something; an' he said he had to set a good example. Wouldn't even play penny ante! Think of it! There was a time when a camel, with all his stummicks, an' a Gatlin' gun on his back, couldn't a follered th' example he set. I was just as happy as a bobcat in a trap—an' about as peaceful. There wasn't nothin' I could do, if I stayed up there, but get married; an' that was like hangin' myself to keep from gettin' shot. Then, one day, Mrs. Hopalong caught me learnin' William, Junior, how to chew tobacco. As if a five-year-old kid hadn't ought to get some manly habits! An', say! You ought to see that kid ! If he won't bust his daddy's records for h—l-raisin' I miss my guess; unless they plumb spoils him in th' bringin' up. Well, she caught me learnin' him; but like th' boundin' jack rabbit I'm hard to catch. An' here I am."
Logan's grin threatened his ears. "I'm glad of it," he laughed. "There's something in yore face I like—mebby it's th' tobacco. Thanks; I will; I'm all out of it right now. How did you come to pick us out to land on? Pop recommend us to you?"
"Now don't blame me for that," rejoined Johnny. "Anyhow, he took it back later. As to stoppin' in this country, th' idea suddenly whizzed my way at them twin buttes north of town. I like this range. Things sort of start themselves, an' there's music in th' air. It reminds me of th' Bar-2O, in th' old days. A man won't grow lazy down here; he'll keep jumpin'. An' I found a trace of lead at that funny-lookin' ridge east of them freak buttes; but I couldn't find where it come from. If I had, I'd 'a' salted th' mine with a Sharp's Special. You see, I'm ambidextrous—ain't that a snorter of a word?—an' when I ain't punchin' cows with one hand, I'm prospectin' with th' other. Somebody down here is plumb careless with his gun—an' he's got a good gun, too. He's too cussed familiar on short acquaintance. But it's too bad I look like you, 'though that's why I'm offerin' you my valuable services."
"I reckon it's a cross I got to stagger under," replied Logan, the smile gone from his face; "but I'll try to live it down. An' somehow my trusting nature leans toward you, though it shouldn't. Yo're a two-gun man, which acts like yeast in th' suspicious mind. I've seen 'em before; an' you looks most disconcertin' capable. Then you says Bar-2O, an' Hopalong, an' Red Connors, an' th' others. You talk like you knew 'em intimate. I've heard of 'em, all of 'em. Like th' moon, you shine in reflected light. I've heard of you, too; I'm surprised you ain't in jail. Now then: If you are that Johnny Nelson, of that outfit, an' you can prove it, I yearns to weep on yore bosom; if you ain't, then I'll weep on yore grave. Th' question of identity is a ticklish one. It makes me that nervous I want to look under th' bed. As a two-gun man, unknown, yo're about as welcome on this ranch, right now, as a hydrophoby skunk; but as Johnny Nelson, of that old Bar-2O, yo're worth fifty a month to me, as a starter, with ten dollars extra for each six-gun. But I've just simply got to have proof about who you are, an' where you come from. Let's pause for an inspiration."
Johnny grinned. "I don't blame you; for I've had a sample of something already. An' I've got a tail holt on an inspiration. You hunt up that pen you've had since Adam was a boy; find th' ink that you put away last summer so you'd know where it was when you wanted it in a hurry; an' then, in thirty minutes' hard labor you'll have something like this:
"'Mr. William Cassidy, Senior, Tin Cup, Twin Rivers, Montanny: Dear Sir: A nice lookin' young man wants to take seventy dollars a month away from me, as a starter. His undershirt is red, with th' initials "WC" worked near th' top buttonhole in pretty blue silk thread wants Pete to send him that eight dollars that Pete borrowed to buy William, Junior, a .22 rifle to bust windows with. Tell Red his pants wear well. Does William, Junior, chew tobacco? He has been shot at already. What is this young man's name? Did he work on th' old Bar-20 with you? Yours truly, Logan.'
"Exhibit 1: Th' red undershirt. Hoppy has even more of 'em than Buck, 'though Rose is comin' along fast. Mary branded 'em all so she could pick 'em out of th' wash. It helped me pick this one off th' clothes-line, because me an' Hoppy wears th' same size. Exhibit 2: A scab on my off ear. William, Junior, was shootin' at a calf an' I stopped him. He's a spunky little cuss, all right; but they'll spoil him yet. An' Pete never did have any sense, anyhow. Th' poor kid is shootin' blanks now, an' blamin' it on th' gun. An' it was a mean trick, too. That hit about th' tobacco will get under Hoppy's scalp—he'll answer right quick. You might say to tell William, Junior, that I ain't forgot my promise, an' that I'll send him a shotgun just as soon as he gets big enough to tote it around."
"I'll shore send it," laughed Logan, whose imagination was running wild. "But outside of the identity you suits me right down to the ground. If Hopalong Cassidy says yo're all right I'll back you to my last dollar. You mentioned hearin' music in th' air. It was a tunin' up. Will you stay for th' dance?"
"Sweet bells of joy!" exclaimed Johnny, leaving the saddle as though shot out by a spring. "From wimmin', barb wire, sheep an' railroad towns, to this! I can go to town with th' boys once more! I can cuss out loud an' swagger around regardless! An' some mangey gent is careless with his gun! You can lose me just as easy as a cow can lose a tick. I feel right at home."
"All right, then. Strip off yore saddle and turn that fine cayuse loose," replied Logan, chuckling. He hoped that he might be able to coax the new man to swap horses. "Th' cook's callin' his hogs, so let's go feed"