The Man from Bar-20/Chapter 20

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CHAPTER XX

A PAST MASTER DRAWS CARDS

BACK on the CL the foreman was worried about his new, two-gun man, and had almost made up his mind to order the outfit into the saddle and to lead it up into the Twin Buttes country to aid Johnny. While he was turning the matter over in his mind he entered the bunk-house and saw Luke Tedrue, the oldest man on the ranch, dressed in a clean shirt, new trousers, and a pair of new boots. Luke looked surprisingly clean and he was busily engaged in cleaning and oiling the parts of an old .44 caliber Remington six-shooter, one of those early models which had been transformed from its original cap-and-ball class into a weapon shooting center-fire cartridges. It had been the butt of many joking remarks and the old man cherished it, and had defended it in many a hot, verbal skirmish. Considering its age and use it was in a remarkably fine state of preservation.

Luke had played many parts in his day, for he had been a hunter, frontiersman, scout, pony-express rider, miner, and cavalryman, and as an Indian fighter he had admitted but few masters. Tough, wiry, shrewd, enduring, of flawless courage and bulldog tenacity of purpose, he had behind him long years of experience; and his appearance of age was as deceptive as the pose of a basking rattler.

The lessons of such a long, precarious, and daring life as he had led were not easily ignored, and now as a cow-puncher, riding out his declining days on the range, there were certain habits which clung to him with the strength of instinct. One of these was his faith in a weapon almost universally condemned on the range. It mattered nothing to him that times and conditions had changed; he had proved its worth in years of fighting, and now he refused to lay it aside. There had been a day when Bowie's terrible weapon had entered largely into the life of the long frontier.

Logan, worried and preoccupied as he was, could not keep from smiling at the old man's patient labor.

"Luke, you waste more time an' elbow grease on that worn-out old relic than most people do with real guns. Th' whole outfit, put together, don't pamper their six-guns th' way you do that contraption. Why don't you throw it away an' get a good gun?"

Luke snorted, and screwed the walnut butt-plates into place. Then he slipped the cylinder into position, slid the pin through it, swung up the old ramrod lever and snapped it into its catch under the barrel. Spinning the cylinder, he weighed the heavy weapon affectionately, and looked up.

Luke grunted. "Huh! Mebby that's why old Betsy is a better gun today than any in this outfit. Why should I get a new one? This old Rem. has been a cussed good friend of mine. She's never balked nor laid down, an' she puts 'em where she's pointed. An old friend like her ain't goin' to rust if I can help it."

"Rust?" inquired Logan, chuckling. "Why, there ain't been enough moisture in th' air lately to rust anything, let alone any gun that's as full of grease an' oil as that contraption. Wait till th' rainy season hits us before you worry about rust. An' what arc you all dressed up for? When I saw you this mornin' you was th' dirtiest man on th' ranch; an' now you fair shines! Ain't aimin' to go an' hitch up with no female, are you?"

Luke shoved home the last greasy cartridge, snapped shut the hinged flange, laid the gun aside, and pointed to a pile of wet clothing on the floor near his bunk.

"There ain't no female livin' can put a rope on me no more," he grinned. "See them clothes? I done fell in th' crick. Some slab-sided nuisance shifted th' planks an' was too lazy to put 'em back right. They tip sideways. I got half way acrost an' up she turns. Lost my balance an' lit belly-whopper. But I put 'em back just like I found 'em."

"An' you'll get an innercent man."

"There ain't none in this outfit," grunted Luke. He searched the foreman's face with shrewd eyes. "John, worryin' never did help a man. Get shet of it, or it'll get shet of you."

"Easy said, Ol' Timer; but it ain't so easy done," replied Logan.

Luke kicked his wet holster toward the clothes and took down one belonging to someone else, and calmly appropriated it, belt and all.

"Two most generally splits a load about in half," he observed, shoving the gun into the sheath. "An' it allus helps a lot to talk things over with somebody."

"Well, I ain't heard a word from Nelson since he left that note tellin' me where he was goin' an' for me not to bother about our five-day arrangement; an' he shore started off to wrastle with trouble."

"Huh!" snorted Luke grimly. "Dunno as I'd do much worryin' about him. Real active, capable hombre, he is. Chain lightnin', an' an eye like a hawk. A few years more an' he'll steady down an' get sensible. Lord, what a fool I was at his age! Beats all how young men ever live long enough to become old ones."

"But he's been gone a month," replied Logan. "It's been two weeks since I heard from him, an' longer. He's playin' a lone hand ag'in them fellers, an' it ain't no one-man job, not by a d—d sight! He was to find out certain things an' then come back here an' report. Why ain't he got back?"

"Busy, mebby," grunted Luke. "I have an idea th' job would keep one man purty tolerable busy, with one thing an' another turning up. He don't want to get seen an' tip off his hand; an' keepin' under cover takes time."

"I should 'a' taken th' outfit up there an' combed th' hills, regardless what anybody said about squarin' up old scores."

"What you should 'a' done, an' what you did do don't track," replied Luke. "An' I ain't shore that you oughta 'a' busted loose like that a-tall. It's a good thing most generally to know where yo're goin' to light before you jump. What you should 'a' done was to 'a' sent me up there, either alone or with him. 'Tain't too late to deal me a hand. Where'd he say he was goin'?"

"West of Twin Buttes. But if you go it'll be a one-man job again, an' I don't like it."

"Uh-huh!" chuckled Luke. "That's just what it is; an' I do like it. I drove stage, carried dispatches through Injun country, an' was th' boss scout for th' two best army officers that ever fit Injuns. Reckon mebby if th' Injuns couldn't lift my scalp, no gang of thievin' cow-punchers can skin it off. An' I'm cussed tired of punchin' cows. I ain't no puncher by nature, hopes, or inclinations. I'm a scout, I am; an' I'm goin' up there somewhere west of th' Twins an' find Nelson, if he's still alive, get them facts an* bring 'em back."

"I don't like th' idea," muttered Logan.

"Huh! I ain't got them fool notions that Nelson has. I ain't no Christian when I'm on a war trail. He worries about givin' th' other feller an even break; but I worries if I lets him have it. Greasers, thieves, an' Injuns—they're all alike; an' they don't get no even break from me if I can help it. I puts th' worryin' right up to them. I'll bet he's alive, an' workin' all th' time; but he ain't got no chance to get quick results; an' it's his own handicappin', too. When a man's scoutin' around a whole passel of rustlers, a gun has got its limits. Gimme a pair of moccasins an' ol' Colonel Bowie."

"I likes you purty much; but d—d if I thinks much of any man that uses a knife!"

Luke laughed grimly and got the knife from his bunk. "There he is. He don't make a man no deader than a bullet; an' he don't make no noise. There ain't nothin' handier in a mix-up—an' a good man can drive it straight as any bullet, too. I'm gettin' het up considerable about all this palaver about this knife an' me; an' I'm goin' to lick th' next man that rides me about it. It's a' honest weapon. It was ground out of a two-inch hoof file, an* when it cuts through th' air it takes considerable to stop it. When I was younger I could send it so far into a two-inch plank that you could feel th' pint of it on th' other side. Just feel th' heft an' balance of that blade!"

"Feel it yoreself!" snapped Logan. "That ain't fair fightin'; an' if you don't like that, you can start in here an' now an' lick me."

"I never said I was a fair fighter," grinned Luke, slipping the weapon into a scabbard sewed to the inside of his boot; "but old as I am, I can put yore shoulders in th' dust. We'll argue instead. Them fellers ain't fair fighters; they dassn't be even if they wanted to be; an' when I'm tanglin' up with 'em I ain't polite a-tall. I just fights, knife, gun, teeth, hands, feet, an' head, any way as comes handy. That's why I'm still alive, too. Now I'm goin' up somewhere west of th' Buttes an' look around from there; an' Colonel Bowie goes with me, right where he is. Tell th' cook to give me what grub I wants. An' I reckon I better take Nelson some ca'tridges an' tobacco."

"Tell him yoreself; an' if he won't do it, I'll tell you who moved th' planks," grinned Logan. "But I hate to see you go alone."

"An' I'd hate to have anybody along," grunted Luke. "I'll be busy enough takin' care of myself without botherin' with a fool puncher."

The old scout sauntered into the kitchen. "Mat, you sage hen; th' next time you shifts them planks, put a stone under th' edges that don't touch th' ground. You near drownded me in three inches of water an' a foot of mud. Now you gimme a chunk of bacon, couple pounds of flour, three pounds of beans, couple of pounds of that rice, 'though I ain't real fascinated by it, couple handfuls of coffee, handful of salt, an' a pound of tobacco. I may be gone a couple of months an' get real hungry. Nope; no canned grub. I want this fryin' pan, that tin cup, an' a fork."

He sniffed eagerly and strode to a covered pan. "Beans, ready cooked! Mat, you was hidin' them! Dump some of 'em into a cloth—now I won't have to cook my first couple of meals. Stick all th' stuff in a sack, them on top," and he hurried out.

Fifteen minutes later Logan entered Mat's domain. "Where's Luke? What, already? Must 'a' been scared I'd change my mind. Why, he left his pipe an' smokin' behind," pointing at the table.

Mat grinned. "He says a smoker can't smell, an' gets smelled. An' he says for somebody to go up to Little Canyon for his bronc. He's leavin' it there to-night, hobbled. An' take that pipe out of here; I don't want them beans ruined."

Luke was crossing the CL range at a gallop, anxious to cross the river and get past the Hope-Hastings trail before dark. Reaching the Deepwater he forced his indignant horse into it and emerged, chilled, on the farther bank. Hobbling the animal, he put his boots on the saddle, slipped on a pair of moccasins, fastened the pack on his back and swung into the canyon, his mind busily forming a mental map of the country.

Placing Hope at one end and Hastings at the other, he connected them by the trail, putting in the Deepwater, the Barrier, and Twin Buttes.

"They comes to Hastings 'stead of Hope, which says Hastings is nearest. He said west of Twin Buttes. Then I'll start at th' Buttes an' go west till I find his trail; an' if I don't find it, I'll circle 'round till I finds something! I'd know that black cayuse's tracks in a hundred.

"Logan sent Nelson up here because nobody knowed him an' that he was workin' for us. Huh! What good will it do 'em to know a man if they never see him? An' they won't see me, 'less I wants 'em to. That water feels colder than it ought to—reckon I'm gettin' old. I shore ain't as young as I uster be. Got to move lively to get thawed out an' dry these clothes."

Crossing the main trail after due observation, he saw an old and well-worn trail leading westward into a deep valley.

"Huh! Hit it first shot. You just can't beat luck!"

Choosing the cover along one side of the smaller trail, he melted into it and plunged westward, swinging along with easy, lazy strides that covered ground amazingly and with a minimum of effort. His long legs swung free from his hips, the hips rolling into the movement; his knees were rather stiff and as his feet neared the ground at the end of each stride he pushed them ahead a little more before they touched. This was where the swaying hips gave him an added thrust of inches. And like all natural, sensible walkers, his toes turned in.

Night was coming on when he neared Twin Buttes and a rifle shot in their direction drew a chuckle from him. Throwing off the pack he ate his fill of Mat's cooked beans, shoved the wrapped-up remainder into his shirt, hid the pack and slipped into the deeper shadows, his rifle on his back, the old Remington in one hand and Colonel Bowie lying along the other, its handle up his sleeve and the keen point extending beyond his fingers.

A coyote might have heard him moving, but the task was beyond human ears; and after a few minutes he stopped suddenly and sniffed. The faint odor of a fire told him that he was getting close to a camp, and a moment later a distant flare lit up the treetops in the canyon proper. Looking down he noticed the buckle of his belt, thought that it was too bright, and wrapped a bandanna handkerchief around it. Slipping the six-shooter into its holster he moved forward again, bent over, going swiftly and silently, his feet avoiding twigs, branches, and pebbles as though he had eyes in his toes. Rounding the southern Twin he melted into the darkness at the side of a bowlder and peered cautiously over the rock.

A great, crackling fire sent its flames towering high in the air from a little clearing at the lower end of a path which went up the side of the butte and became lost in the darkness. Examining the scene with shrewd, keen, and appraising eyes, he waited patiently. A burst of fire darted from the top of the northern Twin and a strange voice jeered softly in the distance. From the top of the southern butte came an answering jeer in a voice which he instantly recognized.

"Treed, by G-d!" he chuckled gleefully. "Reckon he'll be tickled to see me. Wonder how long he's been up there?"

A piece of wood curved into the circle of illumination and landed on the blazing fire, sending a stream of sparks soaring up the mesa wall.

"There's Number Two," soliloquized Luke cheerfully, "feedin' th' fire an' watchin' th' trail. Cuss him for a fool! Some of them sparks will get loose, an' hell will be a nice, quiet place compared to this canyon. Well, now I got to rustle around an' locate 'em all; an' this ain't no place or time for no shootin', neither."

Half an hour later Fleming tossed more wood on the fire and settled back to fight mosquitoes. A glittering streak shot through the air and he crumpled without a sound. A shadow moved and a silent form wriggled through the brush and among the bowlders and retrieved the knife, took the dead man's weapons and wriggled back again. It slipped noiselessly across the canyon, searched along the base of the northern Twin, found the wide, up-slanting trail and flitted along it, pausing frequently to look, sniff, and listen. Reaching the top of the butte, it wriggled from bowlder to bowlder, ridge to ridge, systematically covering every foot of the plateau, and steadily working nearer the southern rim.

Holbrook yawned, stretched, and yawned again. He picked up his rifle and scowled into the canyon, where the fire engaged his critical attention.

"That lazy cuss is lettin' it burn too low," he growled. "Wonder if he's asleep!" He laughed and shook his head. "Nope; don't believe even Art could sleep down there, with them mosquitoes pesterin' him. This suits me, right here!"

He looked around uneasily. "I do so much layin' around out here in daytime that I can't sleep nights," he grumbled, not willing to admit that he felt uneasy. "Funny how a man's nerves will get hummin' when he's on a job like this. It shore is monotonous." Looking around again, he shifted so that he could see part of the mesa top behind him, and tried to shake off the premonition of evil which persisted in haunting him.

"How many cows you thieves sold so far?" called a voice from the other butte.

"Nowhere near as many as we're goin' to get," retorted Holbrook, laughing. "Changin' yore mind?" he jeered.

"Not me; I wouldn't work with no teethin' infants. I'd rather work alone. I associates with men, I do."

"You'll 'sociate with dead men purty soon," sneered Holbrook. "We got you just where we—" the words choked into a gurgle and a lean, vague figure moved slowly forward from behind a ridge.

"What's th' matter?" ironically demanded the man on the southern Twin. "Swaller yore cigarette? That's a good thing. You want to practice swallerin' hot things because tomorrow yo're goin' to swaller a snub-nosed Special." Pausing, Johnny waited expectantly for an answer, but receiving none, he grunted cheerfully. "All right; go to blazes!"

The fire burned lower and lower and Johnny became suspicious. If the rustler on the other butte hoped to keep him engaged in snappy conversation when the fire grew low, there was no telling what the man in the canyon might do; so he crept to the top of the trail and peered down it, scanning the wall intently, half expecting to glimpse some swift, shadowy movement; but his alertness was not rewarded.

"Wonder how long Hoppy or Red would loaf on a game like this," he grinned, "if they was down there! But there ain't many of their breed runnin' around."

An hour passed and the fire was a mass of glowing embers, now and then relieved by a spasmodic burst of flame, which flickered up and died. Across the little clearing a shadowy form moved slowly backward, chuckling softly. If there were any more rustlers around, one of them certainly would have investigated why the fire was allowed to die; and Luke felt quite confident that he had accounted for all of them who were in the vicinity. Still, he argued, nothing was a certainty which depended upon circumstantial evidence, and he did not relax his caution as he moved away.

Johnny, straining his eyes in trying to discover signs of enemies on the trail, suddenly stiffened, listening eagerly with every nerve taut. Again came the voice, barely audible. Moving to the outer edge of the butte he peered over cautiously, well knowing that he could see nothing.

"'Tell Red his pants wear well,'" floated up to him out of the canyon.

Johnny moved a little and leaned farther over after a glance at the black sky assured him that he would not be silhouetted for a marksman below.

"'Does William, Junior, chew tobacco?'" persisted the whisper.

Johnny wriggled back and sat bolt upright, incredulous, doubting his senses. "What th' devil!" he muttered. "Am I loco?"

"'We was scared he'd die,'" continued the canyon.

Taking another good look down the threatening trail, Johnny wriggled to the edge and again looked down.

"'Pete paid Red th' eight dollars,'" said the chasm, a little louder and with a note of irritation.

"Who th' devil are you?" demanded Johnny loudly.

"Not so loud. Luke Tedrue," whispered the darkness. "How many of them skunks are around here?"

"Yo're a liar!" retorted Johnny angrily. "An' a fool!"

"Go to th' devil!" snapped the canyon.

"Come around in daylight an' I'll send you to him!" growled Johnny. "Think I'm a fool?"

There was no answer, and, fearful of a trick, Johnny wriggled back to his snug cover at the head of the trail, finding that the fire had become only a dull, red mass of embers which gave out almost no light.

"You shore got me guessin'," he grumbled; "but I reckon mebby I'm guessin' purty good, at that. You just try it, cuss you!"

Luke explored the canyon again to make assurance doubly sure, and again approached the great wall.

"'Does William, Junior, chew tobacco?'" he demanded.

Johnny squirmed, but remained where he was. "You can't fool me!" he shouted peevishly.

"Reckon not; yo're as wise as a jackass, a dead one," said Luke. "You stubborn fool, listen to this: 'Don't look for no word from me. I'm goin' west, to try it from back of Twin Buttes. They've drove me out.'" The voice was plainer now. "How many of 'em are out here?"

Johnny grinned suddenly, for in the increase in the power of the voice he recognized a friend.

"Hello, Luke, you old skunk!" he called, laughing. "Glad to see you. There's four been hangin' around but there's only two now, or three at th' most. Look out for 'em. Goin' to try to come up?"

"No, not a-tall," replied Luke. "There's enough of our outfit up there now. I only found two of th' thieves, but th' third may be hid som'ers well back, 'though I've shore hunted a-plenty."

"Found two?"

"Yep; one down here, an' t'other up there. Colonel Bowie pushed 'em over th' Divide. Comin' down?"

"When that fire's out."

"How'd they come to drive you up there?"

"I come up myself. Couldn't watch while I slept; an' I had to sleep. Now that there's two of us it's all right."

"You called th' turn. Get yore traps together an' I'll fix th' fire. Where's yore cayuse?"

"Up here. Don't bother with th' fire. Be right down."

Half an hour later Johnny reached the bottom of the trail and paused.

"'Red's pants,'" said a humorous voice.

"Come on, Luke. We'll hold up somewhere an' get th' relief shift when it comes out from th' ranch."

"Shore. Where's th' ranch?"

"'Bout three miles west; an' it's a cussed fine one, too."

"All right; get movin'. I want to dry out these pants. They must be all cotton from th' way they feel. We'll go back a ways an' start a fire."

"No, we won't; too dangerous," growled Johnny decidedly. "We got this game won right now if we don't let 'em know there's two of us."

Luke grinned in the dark. "Suits me. You wait here a minute," he said, disappearing. When he returned he grunted with keen satisfaction, for Fleming's trousers felt snug and warm. "How many are left?" he asked, leading the way toward his hidden pack.

"Quigley, Purdy, Gates, an' th' cook."

"Them names don't surprise me," grunted Luke.

"How'd you get so wet?"

"Swimmin'," growled Luke.

"Yore shirt feels dry."

"It is, around th' shoulders; but th' tail feels like th' devil. But it's wool, all through."

"Was you trailin' Ackerman an' Long Pete?"

"Nope; didn't trail nobody a-tall. How many cows they got?"

"Plenty, d—n 'em!" growled Johnny.

"What you been doin' up here all this time; an' how many have you got?"

"Three; I've been busy."

"Why, you had time to get 'em all."

"Didn't dare do any shootin' till I had to," replied Johnny. "Didn't want 'em to know I was up here. A gun makes a lot of noise."

Luke chuckled grimly. "Shore! That's what I allus said; an' that's why I use Colonel Bowie. He don't even whisper."

Johnny snorted with disgust. "Huh! I ain't knifin' or shootin' from ambush. There's some things I won't do!"

"Uppish, huh?" chuckled Luke. "Well, young man; mebby ambushin' ain't yore style, but I feels free to remark that it's mine in any game like this. Them pants feel good. That river's gettin' colder every year."

"River!" ejaculated Johnny, pausing in his surprise. "What river?"

"Deepwater, of course. How many rivers do you reckon we got out here?"

"Th' devil!" muttered Johnny. "Say! When did you leave th' ranch?"

"'Bout three o'clock. I'd 'a' been here sooner, only I hoofed it from th' river. Cayuses can't go where a man can; they make a lot of noise, an' a man sticks up too cussed prominent in a saddle. They ain't worth a cuss in this kind of country when trouble's afoot."

"Well, I'll be hanged!" grunted Johnny.

"Pull up; here we are," said Luke, stopping and bending over some rocks, which he rolled aside. "Rocks are reg'lar telltales. They has a dark side an' a light side; an' th' deeper they're set in th' ground, th' bigger th' dark side is. When you want to cache with 'em, you picks them that sets on th' ground; an' you don't turn 'em wrong side up, neither. Then a little sand used right will fix things so that only me or an Injun can tell that anything's been moved. Here's yore ca'tridges an' tobacco. Tote 'em yoreself."

"Much obliged. But how did you find me so cussed quick?" demanded Johnny, breaking open the boxes and distributing their contents about his person.

"Smelled you," chuckled Luke, fixing the pack on his back.

"Yo're an old liar!" retorted Johnny. "Tell me about it."

"Can't; there ain't nothin' to tell," replied Luke, winking at the sky. "It's just experience, instinct, brains, knowin' how, an' a couple more things. Us old-timers done better'n that, forty year ago. I'm glad to get my hand in ag'in; punchin' cows shore does spoil a man. Now, you know this layout; where we goin' now? An' what you goin' to do with that four-laigged nuisance?"

"Put her in a draw east of here. She'll stay where I leave her."

"Then she ain't no fe-male. It just can't be did. I know 'em!"

"You an' our Pete oughta get acquainted with each other," chuckled Johnny. "You fellers has th' same ideas 'bout some things."

"Foreman, or owner?"

"Just a plain puncher."

"He oughta be th' foreman; he's got sense. I buried one, an' left two more. You can't fool me about th' sex."

"Yo're a reprobate. Come on, Pepper," said Johnny, whistling to the horse, who heeled like a dog. "It'll be light purty soon, an' we want to hide this cayuse."

"It's yore say-so; I'll string along, ready to chip."