The Man from Bar-20/Chapter 4

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POP HAYES sighed, raised his head and watched the door as hoof-beats outside ceased abruptly.

"Dearly Beloved!" said an indignant voice. "If you tries any more of yore tricks I'll gentle you with th' butt of a six-gun, you barrel-bellied cow! Oh, that's it, huh? I savvy. You yearns for that shade. Go to it, Pepper."

"'Dearly Beloved'!" snorted Pop in fine disgust. "You'd think it was a weddin' tower! Who th' devil ever heard a cayuse called any such a name as that?" he indignantly demanded of Andrew Jackson; but Andrew paid no attention to him. The bird's head was cocked on one side and he sidled deliberately toward the door.

A figure jumped backward past the door, followed by a pair of hoofs, which shot into sight and out again. Andy stopped short and craned his neck, his beady eyes glittering with quick suspicion.

"I can shore see where you an' me has an argument," said the voice outside. "If you make any more plays like that I'll just naturally kick yore ribs in. G'wan, now; I ain't got no sugar, you old fool!" And the smiling two-gun man stepped into the room, with a wary and affectionate backward glance. "Hello, Pop!" he grinned. "You old Piute, you owes me a drink!"

"Like h—l I do!" retorted Pop with no politeness, sitting up very straight in his chair.

"You shore do!" rejoined Johnny firmly. "Didn't you tell me that th' CL was a nice ranch to work for?"

"Yo're loco! I didn't say nothin' of th' kind!" snapped Pop indignantly. "I said they'd work you nigh to death; that's what I said!"

"Oh; was that it?" asked Johnny dubiously. "I ain't nowise shore about it; but we'll let it go as it lays. Then I owe you a drink; so it's all th' same. Yo're a real prophet."

Pop hastily shuffled to his appointed place and performed the honors gracefully. "So you went an' got a job over there, huh?" he chuckled. "An' now yo're all through with 'em? Well, I will say that you stuck it out longer than some I knows of. Two weeks with Logan is a long time."

"It's so long that I've aged considerable," admitted Johnny, smiling foolishly. "But I'm cured. I'm cured of punchin' cows for anybody, for a while. Seems to me that all I've done, all my life, was to play guardian to fool cows. I've had enough for a while. Th' last two weeks plumb cured me of punchin'."

He looked down and saw Andy, feathers ruffled, squaring off for another go at the spur, stooped suddenly, scooped the squawking bird into his hand, tossed it into the air, caught it, and quickly shoved it headfirst into a pocket. Andy swore and backed and wriggled, threatened to eat his black heart and to do other unkind and reprehensible things. Giving a desperate heave he plopped out of the pocket and struck the floor with a thud. Shaking himself, he screamed profane defiance at the world at large and then made his clumsy and comical way up the chaps and finally roosted on the butt of one of the six-guns, where he clucked loudly and whistled.

Johnny gave a peculiar whistle in reply, and almost instantly Pop let out a roar and jumped toward the door to drive back a black horse that was coming in.

"Get out of here!" he yelled pugnaciously. Pepper, bared her teeth and slowly backed out again. Turning, Pop glared at the puncher. "Did you see that? Mebby Andy ain't th' only animal that drinks," he jabbed, remembering a former conversation.

Johnny laughed and scratched the bird, which stood first on one foot and then on the other, foolish with ecstatic joy.

Pop regarded the bird with surprise. "Well, if that don't beat all!" he marveled. "There ain't another man can do that, 'cept me, an' get off with a whole hand, Andy'll miss you, I reckon."

"He won't miss me much," responded Johnny, comfortably seating himself in Pop's private chair. "I ain't leavin' th' country."

"You won't have to. There's other ranches, where they treats punchers better'n cows. There's another chair, over there."

"No more ranches for me," replied Johnny, ignoring the hint. "I'm through punching I tell you. I'm goin' to play a while for a change."

"Gamblin's bad business," replied Pop, turning to get the cards.

"Mebby some gamblin' is; but there's some as ain't," grinned Johnny. "I ain't meanin' cards."

"Oh," said Pop, disappointed. "What you mean—shootin' craps?"

"Nope; I'm goin' prospectin'; an' if that ain't gamblin' then I never saw anythin' that was."

Pop straightened up and stared. "Prospectin?" he demanded, incredulously. "Regular prospectin'? Well, I'll be cussed! If yo're goin' to do it around here, lemme tell you it won't be no gamble. It'll be a dead shore loss. A flea couldn't live on what you'll earn on that game in this country."

"Well, I ain't aimin' to support no flea, unless Andy leaves me one," laughed Johnny, again scratching the restless bird. "But I'm tired of cows, an' I might as well amuse myself prospectin' as any other way. I like this country an' I'm goin' to stay a while. Besides, when I was a kid I shore wanted to be a pirate; then when I got older I saw a prospector an' hankered to be one. I can't be a pirate, but I'm goin' to be a prospector. When my money is gone I'll guard cows again."

"Lord help us!" muttered Pop. "Yo're plumb loco."

"How can I be plumb an' loco at th' same time?"

"Andy!" snapped Pop. "Come away from there! Lord knows you ain't got no sense, but there ain't no use riskin' yore instinct!"

Johnny laughed. "Leavin' jokes aside, me an' Pepper are goin' off by ourselves an' poke around pannin' th' streams an' bustin' nuggets off th' rocks till we get a fortune or our grub runs out. We can have a good time, an'—hey! You got any fishhooks?"

"Fishhooks nothin'!" snorted Pop. "Lot of call I got for fishhooks. Why, I ain't heard th' word for ten years. Say!" he grinned sheepishly. "Mebby you'll get lonesome. Now, if we went off together, with some fishhooks—but, shucks! I can't leave this here business."

Johnny hid his relief. "That's th' worst of havin' a business. You certainly can't go off an' let everythin' go to smash."

"Cuss th' luck!" growled Pop. "Gosh, I'm all het up over it! I ain't done no fishin' since I was a kid, an' there must be lots of trout in these streams." Then he brightened a little. "But I dunno. You look too cussed much like Logan to be real comfortable company for me. I reckon I'll pay attention to business."

Johnny showed a little irritation. "There you go again! You do a lot of worryin' about my looks. If they don't suit you, start right in an' change 'em!"

"There you go!" snapped Pop disgustedly. "On th' prod th' first thing! You'd show more common sense if you did some of th' worryin'. But then, I reckon it'll be all right if you does yore prospectin' an' fishin' south of here."

"No, sir! I'm goin' to do it north of here, in th' Twin Buttes country."

Pop's expression baffled description, and his Adam's apple bobbed up and down like a monkey on a stick. "Good Lord ! You stick to Devil's Gap, an' south of there!"

Johnny's eyes narrowed and he sat up very straight. "This is a free country an' I goes where I please. It's a habit of mine. I said north, an' that's where I'm goin'. I wasn't so set on it before; but now I'm as set as a Missouri mule."

Pop growled. "There ain't no chance of you havin' my company; an' you leave th' name an' address of yore next of kin before you starts."

Johnny laughed derisively. "I ain't worryin'. An' now let's figger out what a regular prospector needs. Bein' new at th' game I reckon I better get some advice. What I'm dubious about are th' proper things to pry th' nuggets loose with, an' hoist 'em on my cayuse," he grinned. "Ought to have a pick, shovel, gold pan for placer fussin'—'gold pan' sounds regular, don't it?—an' some sacks to tie it up in. A dozen'll do for a starter. I can allus come back for more."

"Or you can borrow a chuck waggin; that would be handy because it would make it easy to get yore body out, 'though I reckon they'll just bury you an' let it go that way."

"They? Meanin' who?"

"I ain't got a word to say."

"There's some consolation in that," jeered Johnny.

"Yo're a fool!" snorted Pop heatedly.

"An' so that's went an' follered me down here, too," sighed Johnny. "A man can't get away from some things. Well, let's get back on th' trail. All th' prospectors I ever saw wore cowhide boots, with low, flat heels. Somehow I can't see myself trampin' around with these I'm wearin'; an' they're too expensive to wear 'em out that way. What else? Need any blastin' powder?"

"Cussed if I wouldn't grub-stake you if you wasn't goin' up there," grinned Pop. "It takes a fool for luck; an' it'll be just like you to fall down a canyon an' butt th' dirt off'n a million dollar nugget. I got a notion to do it anyhow."

"You needn't get no notions!" retorted Johnny. "I'm goin' to hog it. Prospectors never get grubstaked unless they're busted; an' I ain't got there yet. Oh, yes; I got to get them fishhooks—you see, I ain't aimin' to cripple my back workin' hard all th' time. I'll fill a sack in th' mornin', eat my dinner an' rest all afternoon. Next day I'll fill another sack, an' so on. Now, what am I goin' to get for my outfit? I'll need a lot of things."

"Go see Charley James, acrost th' street. He keeps th' general store; an' he's got more trash than anybody I ever saw."

"Mebby he can tell me what I need," suggested Johnny, hopefully.

As Pop started to answer, the doorway darkened and a man stepped into the room. Pop's face paled and he swiftly moved to one side, out of range. The newcomer glanced at Johnny, swore under his breath and his hand streaked to his holster. It remained there, for he discovered that he was glaring squarely down a revolver barrel.

"Let loose of it!" snapped Johnny. "Now, then: What's eatin' you?"

"Why—why, I mistook you for somebody else!" muttered the other. "Comin' in from th' sunlight, sudden like, I couldn't see very well. My mistake, Stranger. What'll you have?"

Johnny grunted skeptically. "Yo're shore you can see all right now?"

"It's all right, Nelson," hastily interposed the anxious proprietor, nodding emphatic assurance. "It's all right!"

"My mistake, Mr. Nelson," smiled the stranger. "I shouldn't 'a' been so hasty—but I was fooled. Yore looks are shore misleadin'."

"They suits me. What's wrong about 'em?" demanded Johnny.

"There you go again!" snorted Pop in quick disgust. "A gent makes a mistake, says he didn't mean no harm in it, an' you goes on th' prod! Didn't I tell you that yore looks would get you into trouble? Didn't I?"

"Oh! Is that it?" He arose and slipped the gun back into its holster. "I'll take th' same, Stranger."

"Now yo're gettin' some sense," beamed Pop, smiling with relief. "Mr. Nelson, shake han's with Tom Quigley. Here's luck."

"Fill 'em again," grinned Johnny. "Not that I hankers for th' kind of liquor you sells, but because we has to do th' best we can with what's pervided."

"Pop's sellin' better liquor than he used to," smiled Quigley. "Am I to thank you for th' improvement?"

"I refuse to accept th' responsibility," laughed Johnny.

"Well, he had some waggin varnish last year, an' for a long time we was puzzled to know what he did with it. One day, somebody said his whiskey tasted like a pine knot: an' then we knew th' answer."

"You both can go to th' devil," grinned Pop.

"Aimin' to make a long stay with us, Mr. Nelson?" asked Quigley.

"That all depends on how soon I gets all th' gold out of this country."

"Ah! Prospecting?"

"Startin' tomorrow, I am: if this varnish don't kill me."

"There ain't never been none found around here, 'though I never could understand why. There was a couple of prospectors here some years ago, an' they worked harder for nothin' than anybody I ever saw. They covered th' ground purty well, but they was broke about th' time they started south of town, an' had to clear out. They claimed there was pay dirt down there, but they couldn't get a grub-stake on th' strength of that, so they just had to quit."

"That's where it is if it's any place," said Pop hurriedly. "Th' river's workin' day an' night, pilin' it ag'in them rock ledges above th' ford; an' it's been doin' it since th' world began."

Johnny shook his head. "Mebby; but there ain't no way to get it, unless you can drain th' river. I want shallow water—little streams, where there's sand an' gravel bars an' flats. I'm aimin' to work north of here."

Quigley forced a smile and shook his head. "I'm afraid you'll waste yore time. I've been all through that section, in fact I live up there, an* some of my men have fooled around lookin' for color. There ain't a sign of it anywhere."

"Well, I'm aimin' to go back north when I get tired of prospectin'," replied Johnny, grinning cheerfully; "an' I figgers I can prospect around an' gradually work up that way, toward Hope. I'll drop in an' see you if I run acrost yore place. I reckon prospectin' is a lonesome game."

"Didn't you ever try it before?" asked Quigley in surprise.

"This is my first whirl at it," reluctantly admitted Johnny. "I'm a cow-puncher, got tired of th' north ranges an' drifted down here. An' I might 'a' stayed a cow-puncher, only I got a job on th' CL an' worked there for th' last two weeks; an' I got a-plenty. It soured me of punchin'. Outside of bein' cussed suspicious, that man Logan is loco. I don't mind bein' suspected a little at first; but I ain't goin' to work like a fool when there ain't no call for it. I might 'a' stuck it out, at that, only for a fool notion of his. That's where I cut loose."

Quigley looked curious. "New notion?"

"Yes," laughed Johnny contemptuously. "He got th' idea that th' night air, close to th' river, ain't healthy for th' cows! Told us to drive all of 'em back from th' river every evenin' before we rode in. I said as how we ought to blanket 'em, an' build fires under 'em. I reckon mebby I was a mite sarcastic, at that. Well, anyhow; we had an argument, an' I drew my pay an' quit."

Pop let out a howl. "Good Lord!" he snorted. "Evenin' air too wet for cows! Drive 'em back every night! An' lemme tell you that outfit's just foolish enough to do it, too. He-he-he!"

Quigley laughed, and then looked at the proprietor: "Pop, we ain't forgettin'. We both has bought, an' it usually goes th' rounds before it stops."

"Oh, I'll set 'em up," growled Pop.

"You ranchin', Mr. Quigley?" asked Johnny.

"Well, I am, an' I ain't," answered Quigley. "I'm farmin' an* ranchin' both, on a small scale. I got a few head, but not enough to give me much bother. We sort of let 'em look after themselves."

"Oh," said Johnny regretfully. "I thought mebby if I got tired of prospectin', an' short of cash, that I might get a job with you."

"I ain't got cows enough to keep me busy," explained Quigley. "We let 'em wander, an' get 'em as we need 'em. Well," he said, turning as if to leave, "I'm sorry about that fool break of mine, Mr. Nelson; an' to prove it I'm goin' to give you some real good advice: Keep away from th' Twin Buttes country. So long, boys."

Johnny looked after him, and then faced Pop, shrugging his shoulders. "I don't quite get th' drift of that," he said slowly; "but he ought to know th' country he lives in. I'll try Devil's Gap first; but I got a cussed strong notion not to!"

Pop sighed with relief. "Let's go over an' see what Charley's got for yore kit," he suggested.

Charley James was playing solitaire on a box laid across a nail keg and he smiled a welcome as they entered.

"Charley," said Pop. "This cow-puncher's aimin' to change his spots. He's a amatchure prospector an' wants us to pick out his outfit."

"I can believe that he's an amatchure if he's goin' to try it in this part of th' country," smiled Charley. "Nobody's ever tried it down here before."

Johnny was about to mention the two prospectors referred to by Mr. Quigley, but thought better of it.

"Oh, it's been tried," said Pop casually. "But they didn't stay long. What you got in that line, Charley?"

"I ain't shore; but first you want an axe. Come on; well saunter aroun' an' pick things out as they hit our eye. Here's th' axe—double bitted, six-pounder."

"Too big," chuckled Pop. "There ain't none of them there redwood trees out here; they're in Californy."

"Huh!" grunted Charley. "Mebbyso; but that's a good axe."

"Pop's right; it's too heavy," decided Johnny. "An' I don't want it double bitted because I may want to drive stakes with it."

"All right," said Charley, who had hoped to at last get rid of the big axe. "Here's a three-pounder—'Little Gem'—an' it shore is. All right; now for th' next article."

In half an hour the outfit was assembled and they were turning to leave the store when Johnny suddenly grabbed his companions. "What about some fish-hooks?" he demanded anxiously.

Charley rubbed his head reflectively. "I think mebby I got some; don't remember throwin' 'em away. There was some with feathers, an' some without; plain hooks, an' flies. Brought 'em with me when I first came out here, an' never used 'em. Ought to have some line, too; an' a reel somewheres. I'll hunt 'em up an' put 'em with yore duffle. You can cut yoreself a pole. They'll be a little present from me."

"Thank you," beamed Johnny, and forthwith Pop dragged them to his place of business.

Johnny left the following morning, and one week later he returned, trudging along beside his loaded horse, and he was the owner of a generous amount of gold, the treasure of a "pocket" upon which he had blundered. He determined to keep this a secret, for if he let it be known that he had found "color," what excuse could he offer for leaving that field? It fit too well into his plans to be revealed.

Pop grinned a welcome: "Have any luck?"

"Fishin', yes," laughed Johnny. "Bet I moved ten acres of gravel. I wasted a week; now I'm goin' north."

Pop frowned. "I reckon you'll have yore own way; but put in yore time fishin' an' prospectin', an' mind yore own business."

"Shore," said Johnny. "Look here," unrolling a bundle and producing two of the gold sacks, which were heavy and bulging. Pop stared, speechless, until his new friend opened one of them and dumped four dressed trout on the bar.

"Slip 'em in a fryin' pan with some bacon," grinned Johnny.

"Get 'em in th' river?" demanded Pop incredulously.

"You know that draw runnin' east from th' Gap—th' one with them two dead pines leanin' against each other?"

"Yes; 'tain't more'n a mile from th' ford!"

"I found 'em up there, hidin' in a bush."

"Reckon you think that's funny," grunted Pop. "Why them's brook trout! I ain't had any since I was a boy. Th' devil with business! I'm goin' fishin' one day a week. Now where you goin'?"

"Got some for Charley," laughed Johnny from the door.

Charley looked up from his eternal solitaire: "Hello, Nelson!"

"Look what I got," exulted Johnny, extending the bag.

"God help us!" exclaimed Charley. "Did you—did you—"

"I did. Brook trout, Pop says. Prospectin' ain't nothin' compared to fishin'. Pop's goin' one day a week, an' after you eat these mebby you'll be with him."

"Pop can't put on no airs with me," chuckled Charley. "If he can afford to close up, so can I. But you shouldn't 'a' poked no bulgin' gold sack at me like that! It was a shock. Come on; let's take somethin' for it." He grabbed the fish and led the way across the street; and for the rest of the afternoon three happy men discussed prospecting and trout fishing, but the latter was by far the more important.