The Man from Bar-20/Chapter 22
LUKE TEDRUE brushed flies. Since a little after dawn he had brushed them continually, insistently, doggedly, with an enforced calmness and apathy which only an iron, stubborn will made possible; and had they suddenly desisted in their eager explorations he would have kept on brushing from sheer force of habit. But while his hands and arms were moving mechanically, his mind was having an argument with itself concerning his ears, and a vague uneasiness made him restless.
He suspected that he had heard a sound, one which only a moving body would have made; but it had been so slight that he had not recognized it at the time, and it was only through the persistent, indefatigable urging of some subconscious sense that he was now trying to force his memory to repeat it for him, to give him a hold upon it that he might describe and classify it. Exasperated, fretful, uneasy, he called himself a fool with too zealous an imagination; but he kept straining at his reluctant memory, trying to force it to leap back and grasp the elusive impression. Vexed and anxious, he at last wriggled back among the bowlders which sheltered him, determined to prove or disprove the haunting subconscious sense. It had become maddening, a ghost he simply had to lay.
Realizing that the moving object is the more readily seen, Luke moved slowly and with no regard for dignity; and he proceeded, an inch at a time, upon his lean, old stomach. Nothing was too small or insignificant to escape his notice, for his eyes, close to the ground, first took in the entire field of vision with one quick, sweeping glance, and then, beginning with the more distant objects, examined everything in sight as though he had lost something of great value and of size infinitesimal. Another few inches of slow, laborious progress, and another searching scrutiny, his ears as busy as his eyes. In half an hour he had covered ten feet, and at the end of an hour he had made it twenty. And then, as he glanced around to obtain a general and preliminary view of a new vista, his eyes passed over a little patch of sand, and instantly flashed back to it, regarding it with an unwinking intentness.
He hitched forward again, more rapidly, and gained three feet before he stopped to peer about him. At last he came to the sand patch, which lay between a bowlder and a clump of dry, dead, and rustly brush; which accounted for its having a story to tell. It was the only way a cautious man could have proceeded; and the print of the heel of a hand and the five little dots where the tips of thumb and fingers had rested was well to one side of it. Furthermore, there was a smooth streak across it which contained two other streaks along the outer edges of the first one. The story was plain: a stomach, followed by two legs, had been dragged across the little patch of sand.
Luke raised his educated eyes and looked around him, but now his field of vision was considerably constricted, for he paid attention only to those few spaces in the brush and among the rocks which a clever man would be likely to use; and being a clever man himself, he unerringly picked certain openings and almost instantly riveted his gaze on a sign: a toe print at his left. Close to it was another, and the way in which the sand had been pushed up told him that the first had been made by a man crawling west; and the other announced to him that it had been made by a man moving east. Luke deduced that the same man, returning over his own trail, had made the second as well as the first.
Luke was relieved, and, having a safe trail to follow, he pushed on rapidly but silently, soon reaching the place where it ended; and in plain sight of him, through the thin growth of brush, was Fleming's body. One glance at it and Luke turned, following the trail back as he had come; and an hour later, having learned a great deal, he ran and crept, leaped and wriggled up to the place where his friend lay and petulantly cursed the flies.
"Ijut Number Two," said Luke pleasantly, "where are you?"
"Talkin' to hisself again," grumbled a low voice from the mysterious passages under a great, tumbled mass of bowlders. "If a body meet a body, reachin' for th' rye," continued the vexed voice, "whose treat is it?"
"Depends on who can't keep still," answered Luke brightly. "We are two ijuts," he said positively and flatly.
"Well, I allus like a man that speaks his mind, even if he is a liar," commented the mysterious voice. "D—n these flies! I crawled in here to get rid of 'em; but they come right along. An' a little while back I smelled a striped kitty-cat. I knowed what it was because th' wind wasn't blowin' from yore direction."
"Cuss his impudence!" said Luke. "He takes me for a wild flower! A rose, mebby. An' me comin' out here to save his worthless life!"
"You didn't do nothin' of th' kind," contradicted the sepulchral voice. "You come out here to practice with Colonel Bowie! I can prove it before any fool jury. D—n th' flies!"
"What flies?" innocently demanded Luke, his voice suggesting a hot curiosity and a thirsty yearning for knowledge.
"Time," said the other. "Time flies; an' I've had these flies all th' time. It's time they flies away, to fly back another day. You leave yours behind you, Cow Face, if you visit me."
"Ain't got none; an' ain't seen none," replied Luke cheerfully.
"Twice a liar," observed Johnny pleasantly. "Why don't you learn to speak th' truth sometimes? I'm worried about yore soul."
"I'm worried about my belly an' my knees. They're scraped clean, wrigglin' over rock."
"'Tain't possible; not at yore age," commented Johnny. "Th' accumulations of years can't be got rid of so easy, Old Timer."
"No wonder they chased him off th' Tin Cup," grinned Luke. "We are two ijuts."
"Listen to th' jackass," stid Johnny. "Th' flies that flew an' flied; th' flies that crawled an' died; th' flies that buzzed an'—an'—holy h—l! Did you ever see so many of 'em?"
"I done listened to th' jackass," grunted Luke. "An' now I observes, gentle but firm: We are two ijuts."
"We are one ijut," corrected Johnny. "You are th' one. A soft answer turneth away wrath."
"I am an ijut; an' you are an ijut," replied Luke with exaggerated patience. "That makes two; an' so we are two ijuts."
"Can't you say nothin' else, One Ijut?" demanded Johnny peevishly. "Yo're tiresome; yo're a repeater, rim fire, Chestnut, model of 1873. I'm lazy by nature; but doin' nothin' all th' time is hard work. It don't set right. They have taken her to Georgia, there to wear her life away. An' my neck aches from lookin' up, an' holdin' my head out on th' end of it. My stummick an' my elbows, my knees an' my toes all, all ache. They are rock-galled. As she toils 'mid th' cotton an' th' corn."
"Cane," corrected Luke. "Yore appalin' ignerence is discouragin'. We are two ijuts."
"All right; I quit," said Johnny wearily. "Have it yore own way; mebby we are. But it could 'a' been corn just as well as cane, anyhow. Why are we two ijuts?"
"Because we are holdin' th' bag," said Luke sadly.
Johnny turned around and stuck his head out. "Yes?" he inquired, with a rising inflection. "I'm plumb insulted. I ain't never held no bag; not never!"
"'Tain't never too late to learn," said Luke sorrowfully. "Th' snipe has come, an' went; an' we're still holdin' th' bag."
"Let's fill it full of flies," suggested Johnny. "Say! If you ain't seen no flies, how did all of them get squashed on yore face?"
"Come flyin' out of yore cave just now an' bumped into me full speed," replied Luke, grinning. "We have been out-guessed, we have. They smelled us out. We're two tenderfeet in a wild, bad camp. Somebody's likely to hurt us, first thing you know. What did you see when you wasn't killin' flies?"
"Th' sky, th' canyon, an' th' butte."
"Uh-huh; so did I. I saw th' butte, th' canyon, an' th' sky. Then I moved an' saw hand prints, belly prints, toe prints, knee prints, an' other kinds of prints. Yore friends stacked th' deck on us an' dealt 'em from th' middle. Now what?"
"First, we eat," said Johnny, arising with alacrity. "Then, mebby, we eat again. We drink an' we wash. I'm near half as dirty as you. What have you found out?"
"Did you ever see two calves, wobble-kneed, friskin' around lookin' saucy an' full of h—l an' wisdom; but actin' plumb foolish?"
"I shore did. I never saw no other kind, unless it was sick. Stiff back, humped in defiance; tail tryin' to stand up; stiff-laigged, when they didn't buckle unexpected; jumpin' sideways, tryin' to butt, an' allus hungry. I did, Old Timer; lots an' lots of times."
"Well, them's us," sighed Luke. "You hold yore trap an' listen while I speaks my piece. I saw them signs, like I said. Th' cuss that made 'em sneaked right up to my back door, went around th' side of my house, stopped just in time for his health, backed off, saw his friend's body, an' my pants, an' backed off some more. Then he climbed up on two good feet an' made toe prints plumb deep. He didn't run; no, ma'am; he just telegraphed hisself; never stopped for nothin'. He sped, he shot, he moved!
"An' us two ijuts layin' out here in th' sun till we was cussed near jerked meat!" growled Johnny. "I call that blamed unpolite."
"Didn't I tell you we was two ijuts? When an older man speaks you want to keep yore mouth shut an' yore ear tabs open. Th' young bucks go out an' steal th' horses an' lift th' scalps; but th' old fellers make good talk around th' council fires. Stick that in yore peace pipe an' smoke it. Might be good for your health sometime."
"Yo're a purty spry scalper yoreself," admitted Johnny. "Regular old he-whizzer; but you got no morals, an' a very bad, disgustin' habit. I'm surprised you didn't take scalps, too!"
"You let the Colonel alone," warned Luke. "Now, that rustler is some he-whizzer hisself, an' he won't need nobody to tell him what he saw. He's done told his tribe about that; an' bein' a stranger here I'm only guessin'. Say what's on yore mind."
"Th' young buck will now talk at th' council fire," grinned Johnny. "Yo're right, for once. It wasn't th' cook. I never saw a cook yet that could move around so nobody could hear him. It wasn't Gates, because he's wounded several; an' I don't think it was that other feller, because somehow I ain't feverishly admirin' his brains. That leaves Quigley; an' he ain't no fool all th' time. I can see him beatin' hell an' high-water to his three stone shacks, where his friends are, an' where his guns, grub, clothes, an' other things are. I can see four men lookin' out of four loopholes. They are if they ain't jumped th' country; an' if they has, we'll let 'em go.
"Takin' a new, fresh holt, I'd say that they don't know that we'd let 'em go; an' they don't know how many we are, or where all of us are located. They don't aim to lead us a chase; that is, mebby they don't. Them shacks are shore strong; an' they don't know how far they might get if they run for it. 'Tain't like open country—they got just four places to ride out of that sink an' they all can be easy guarded."
"They won't come out th' way they went in," said Luke. "That would be risky an' foolish; so they's only three places left."
"A wise man never does what he ought to do," said Johnny. "Now, I'll bet they are either in them stone houses, or some place else," he grinned. "Th' only way, after all, to see a good man's hand, is to call it. Me an' you, bein' amazin' curious, will do just that. If they're in them houses they'll be expectin' us; they'll turn th' 'Welcome' sign to th' wall an' smoke up them loopholes. Don't interrupt me yet! I'm long-winded an' hard to stop. Th' question is: Are you primed to wrastle this thing out, just me an' you, or shall I watch 'em while you go back to th' CL for help? That—"
"I will interrupt!" snorted Luke heatedly. "If it wasn't that yo're only a fool infant, d—d if I wouldn't fan yore saddle end! I ain't never yelled for help when it wasn't needed; an' lots of times when it was needed I forgot to yell. Too busy, mebby. You've been running things with a high hand out here, an' yore head reminds me of th' head of a cow bit by a snake. It's swelled scandalous. I'm goin' to show you how to get four men out of them loopholes. Bein' young an' green, you'd likely want to crawl in an' pull 'em out. But me, bein' wise, will use brains, an' more brains. I can make a cat skin itself."
"You want to be plumb shore that it ain't one of them striped kitties—they look a lot alike in a poor light; an' that entrance canyon is shore poor light. I reckon we won't eat, yet. We better rustle for their ranch."
"But Logan wants to know them facts that he sent us after," growled Luke regretfully.
"We ain't got 'em; an' we can't get 'em. Them fellers won't do no rustlin' now, so how can we trail 'em? They're too cussed busy lookin' out for their skins about now. An' only two of 'em ain't wounded; Purdy an' th' cook."
"How many cows they got?"
"Near two hundred."
"Holy Jumpin' Jerusalem!" snorted Luke. "We're lucky that we still got th' ranch-house an' th' river!"
"We're wastin' time," growled Johnny, impatiently. "There's no telling what they're doin'. Come on. Bein' desperate, mebby they're roundin' up to make a drive. Come on!"
It was past mid-afternoon when the two punchers looked down into the QE valley and found relief at the sight of the cows lazily feeding. They were scattered all over the range and both men knew that no attempt had been made to round them up.
Going down the blind-canyon trail, they crossed the range, climbed the opposite cliff and finally stopped in front of the stone houses. A gun barrel projected from a loophole in the south wall of the house nearest the canyon, and four saddled horses were in the smaller corral.
"There they are," said Johnny. A bullet stirred his hair and he drew back from the rim. "We got to get 'em. Start skinnin' that cat, Old Timer."
"It'll shore take a lot of skinnin'," growled Luke.
"Not if we uses 'brains an' more brains,'" jeered Johnny. "Th' young buck will now be heard shootin' off his mouth at th' council fire; an' you listen close, One Ijut!"
"Have yore say," said Luke, covering a loophole which showed signs of activity.
"We've got to move fast, before they learn that there's only two of us," said Johnny. "When them houses was built they was laid out with th' idea of men bein' in all of 'em; an' they'd be cussed hard to lick, then. But I reckon they're all in that one house. There ain't men enough to hold 'em all; an' so they favored th' one near th' canyon. We got to keep that door shut so they can't get out an' away. I'll do that after dark; an' I'll stampede them cayuses. That leaves 'em no chance to make a dash an' ride for it. Now you see that little trickle of water flowin' under th' houses? That's their water supply; I know something about that crick; but that's another job for th' dark. Take a look over there, where it turns. See that dirt bank, on th' bend? That's where they turned it out of its course an' sent it flowin' in th' ditch leadin' to th' houses. Do you reckon you could cut that bank with Colonel Bowie an' throw a little dam across th' ditch? 'Tain't wide; only a couple of feet. I—"
Luke fired, and grunted regretfully. "Missed him, d—n it!" he swore, reloading. "Gettin' so you can find work for my knife, huh?" he chuckled. "Not bein' blind, I see th' bank an' th' bend. An' if I can't turn that water back th' way it used to go, I'll fold up an' die. This is like old times. You must 'a' had a real elegant, bang-up time out here, crawlin' around an' raisin' h—l with 'em. What a grand place for th' Colonel! I shore missed a lot; but I'm here now, an' with both feet! Sing yore song; I'm listenin'."
"It's sung," grinned Johnny; "an' now we got to dance."
"I ain't as spry as I used to be," grunted Luke; "so I'll have to make them fellers do th' dancin'."