The Trouble at Tres Pinos
THE TROUBLE AT TRES PIÑOS
A Complete Novel
By J. ALLAN DUNN
Author of "The Men of the Mesa," "Mesquite," "The Lightning Kid," etc.
THESE WAS REALLY TROUBLE AT TRES PIÑOS AND SLIM MARVIN RODE RIGHT INTO IT. BUT SLIM WAS NOT THE SORT TO MIND TROUBLE IN A GOOD CAUSE. AND HE GOT IT—NIGHT RAIDERS, CATTLE RUSTLERS, BAD MEN, AND ALL THEIR ACCOMPANYING VILLAINIES
SLIM MARVIN rode blithely toward Caroca, the county seat, in search of a job. The last one had been spoiled for him by the advent of a new owner who cared little for cattle and less for the West, being intent only upon getting back the money he had advanced on a mortgage, the interest of which had been only intermittently paid by a man who was a good cattleman, but a better spender.
There had been words between Slim and the mortgagor, who had seemed to entertain the curious idea that because he had not reaped the financial profit he anticipated, his ranch hands should be willing to accept a loss in the wages due them.
The memory of what he had told the new owner helped to keep Slim in a good humor. His phrasing had been brief and crisp and eminently to the point. It had got under the thick hide of the man who had paid him in full and dispensed with his services after Slim had told him that he would rather sift cinders in hell than work for a hombre whose nature would contaminate a coyote—or words to that effect.
So, with his best horse and saddle under him, his second string left with a friend at a neighboring ranch, a nice pay-check in his pocket; Slim had no cares. He was a good cowman—none better—and he had small fears of not landing a job—as soon as his money gave out. Meantime he meant to sleep some, eat sweetened pies and cake, gamble, treat any friends he might make or find at Caroca, and generally relax after long weeks of work.
He had tried out his own county without finding an opening that suited him, and now he was adventuring into comparatively new fields. Only once before had he been to Caroca and he associated that visit with a measure of ill luck that he hoped ardently to redeem on this occasion. He had got into a poker game with certain individuals who made a profession of that pastime and had convinced Slim, for the time being, that he was merely an amateur. He remembered the features of those individuals, and he burned to once more sit with them at a table where the chips clicked and the limit was not mentioned.
Slim's name had grown up with him, bestowed upon him the first day he appeared, a stripling of seventeen, astride a half-broken broomtail mustang, at the fall roundup. That was ten years back, and Slim had developed in many ways. Slim was scarcely the sobriquet for him now, but he was lean and his waistline was still ten inches less than that of his chest. As he sat in the saddle his shoulders seemed ultra broad, and when the wind flattened the cloth of his shirt against his shoulders it disclosed flat masses of muscle that could work like ropes in well-oiled sheaves.
Good to look at, was Marvin. No girl had ever called him handsome, but he suggested the sun and the wind, virility and friendliness, with eyes that could chill and a jaw that could jut upon occasion into a welded firmness and insistency that caused his fellow riders to speak of Slim as one who did to take along. Girls usually looked at him twice at least. Slim's singing intentions were better than his execution. His voice was better in speech than song, but the day was fine and the wind blew free, the mesas and the sharper peaks of the Esquelitos Mountains stood out sharply defined beyond the plain down which he rode on his way to Caroca. A song bird was warbling as sweetly as any mocking bird in his own home state below the Dixie Line; his bay mount, with the three white stockings and the blaze down its roman nose, was going strong on springy pasterns; the mesquite waved lacily and Slim was constrained to express himself in sentiment—something he steadfastly abjured in everyday affairs. This was vicarious. Slim was no poet.
Her name it was Cherokee Mary,
She was sweet as a Cherokee rose;
Though her manners were often contrary
She was light as an elf on her toes.
She could dance like a zephyr-blown thistle
She could smile like the witch that she was;
And when she got mad she could bristle
And cuss like a good one, because
Although she was cute as a fairy
The cutest gal ever I saw,
Yet noboddy wedded with Mary
For—she was a Cherokee squaw!
"And I'm no squawman, Pete," he confided to the bay. "What's mo', I ain't pinin' to hitch up to any woman, brown, red or white. Me, I think too much of mah libutty, hawss. If I was married now I'd have had to take what that son of a gun offered me back to the ranch, 'stead of tellin' him to his face where he-all headed in. An' you an' me wouldn't be lopin' along this fine mawnin' with one hundred an' eighty bucks in our pockets, hawss, lookin' forward to apple pie that ain't made out of dried apples. Fo' you git one, you sweet-toothed caballo, sure's we hit Caroca. Reckon this is Owl Canyon, an' we're half way there."
Owl Canyon thrust itself out of the plain in unusual fashion, two walls of rock honeycombed with caves, so that the weathered fronts resembled sponges, the dirt sloping back from their crests to common level again and an irregular passage between the walls. Midway, a spring of water gushed, slightly warm, slightly sulphurous, but refreshing at that stage of a ride made dusty with alkali, and sufficient to cause a little oasis of grass and low trees.
Usually there were cattle there, and sometimes tracks showed where deer came down from the distant hills to drink the waters that instinct told them was good for them. But it was close to noon and all four-footed things, save those pressed into the service of man, were enjoying what shade and coolness they might find.
Slim, on his seventh stanza, which told of the horrors of an Indian mother-in-law, checked song and horse simultaneously as he rode out of a bay in the cliff, following the scanty strip of shade; and saw the tableau staged on the turf near the spring. Two ponies grazed in the background. Their riders had apparently dismounted for a drink. One was a man, not as tall as Slim, but much heavier, clad in a shirt with an aggravated pattern of plaid generally affected by the film variety of cowboy rather than by the genuine variety. He was wearing worn leather chaparejos on bowed legs, leather gauntlets, and, over all, a cartridge belt that holstered an ivory-handled gun. His Stetson hat lay on the grass. Slim took a dislike to him at first sight of the swarthy face, almost as dark as a Mexican's, and the sneeringly triumphant features, to say nothing of his action, which aroused in Slim a consuming desire to make a third in the tableau—which he did.
The man had seized by the wrist a girl, slender in riding togs of khaki breeches, brown boots, linen shirt of russet brown with a tie of bright scarlet. There seemed to have been some sort of a previous scuffle, for her dark hair was disarranged and long strands of it hung to her waist. She was sunbrowned, but color flamed high in her cheeks and Slim caught the flash of spirit in her eyes as he off-saddled and leaped to the rescue.
She was half the man's size and weight, but she defended herself with a desperation that held off his advantage. Once she scored with a rake of her fingernails across his leathern cheek that brought the quick blood and a curse as she all but broke clear, while he strove to get an arm about her.
The oath was but half delivered when Slim cracked the attacker neatly over the elbow with the barrel of his Colt, and slid the gun back into holster while the other, letting go the girl, swerved to face the newcomer. He was rubbing his tingling, temporarily useless arm, and swearing in earnest.
"Shut up," snapped Slim. "Pronto, mister, or I'll put a hole through yo' windpipe!"
The man, conscious of his lame arm, sizing up Slim's calm countenance that was only a mask for flaming eyes that shone like steel, checked his tongue, looking at the cowboy with venomous eyes that rolled in yellowish whites, slightly bloodshot.
Slim had barely glanced at the girl. He was not interfering as a personal matter—save as the man had sworn at him directly—but as one of ordinary range chivalry. It would have been the same if the girl had been an old crone—even the mother of "Cherokee Mary."
For a man to handle a woman brutally was not permissible. That was the code of the West and the other had broken it. Slim intended to administer punishment. But first he swept off his sombrero to the lady, ignoring the scowling and now silent assailant, knowing that the other's gun arm was out of commission for the time being, sure also that there was small doubt about the man's will to speed bullet—or knife—to Slim's vitals.
"Looked like to me that you all might be annoyed some by this coyote," he said in his soft drawl that took nothing away from his suggestion of efficiency, rather enhanced it, against his lithe and sinewy figure and the lights of battle already burning in his eyes. Yet he was a little abashed at the beauty of the girl; it smote him suddenly, like a light flashed in a dark room. Her eyes were a purplish gray, large of pupil and long of curling lashes; her nose, short and straight, showed above lips that were most clearly designed—even to Slim, that youthful, but sincere misogynist—for the tantalizing of all men and the ultimate reward of one. This, though at the moment they were set in a half sneer that did not relax as Slim spoke to her, while her eyes were anything but friendly.
"I suppose you meant well," she said, "but it was not at all necessary for you to interfere. I am quite capable of taking care of myself."
Like all men who are women-shy, Slim was particularly susceptible to their use of feminine weapons. He had no idea of their instinctive exaggerations. He was taken aback, feeling like a fool and fancying he looked like one, conscious of a jaw that sagged in sheer amazement.
Had he stumbled on a quarrel that was going to be eventually ended by a reconciliation the more satisfactory for the temper and violence that led up to it? He had heard of such things—usually between married folks. He knew of one or two examples personally, combinations of bullies and viragos that had helped him acquire his bachelor's degree. Did she like the roughness of this man? Was she by any chance, his wife? He saw no wedding ring on the brown, but shapely hand, and— It was incredible that a girl who looked like her could endure such familiarity! There must be some special reason for her utterance.
The ardor that, on her behalf, had fanned the flame of his chivalry, wavered and blew strong again. But he left her out of the affair from that moment.
"I'm right sorry I disturbed you all," he said gravely, and the note of sarcasm was hard to distinguish, though the girl looked at him as if she suspected its presence. Then her glance changed. Warning leaped into it. Slim's back was to the man. She might have spoken, but he whirled at the first hint of caution.
The other's gun was out of its holster before Slim's hand started to swoop down to the butt of his own weapon. The odds were all in favor of the first to draw.
"Stick yore hands up, cowboy. Paw the sky," the stranger said, his sloe eyes glittering evilly, his uncouth face twisted with rage and the desire, the intent, to kill. He was more beast than man at the moment. Slim's first dexterous blow had left him half crazy with one set purpose—to get even. Slim saw that he meant to fire, whether he lifted his hands or not.
"Sled" Raynor had started in as ranch blacksmith and wound up as foreman, partly by natural ability, partly by his bullying tactics backed by personal prowess that made him able to boss the ordinary run of hands, and aided by a cunning that was efficient, though of a low order.
He made the boast and held the reputation of being the fastest man with a gun in Caroca County—also the worst, so far as real manhood was concerned. But this last was not generally mentioned. Sled had his following, and it was not scrupulous. But he was proud of his gunplay, proud of his speed and his strength and, if anyone had told him that a man could stand with his back to him and then beat him out with a gun draw to the level, Sled would have laughed loudly before he proclaimed the other a liar, and laid bets to prove his own superiority.
"Stick 'em up, you——!"
The pause came as Sled's eyes widened in astonishment, with something of the terror of a bully who finds himself beaten at his own game.
Slim's gun came out of leather in a blue streak. His elbow stiffened close beside his hip, forearm almost level. He wore his gun low.
There was the merest jerk as the barrel settled into position with its ominous muzzle, like the eye of death, lined on Sled's heart—just a fraction of a second ahead of Sled's own weapon, that was still slightly deflected toward the ground.
Under his swarthy skin, Sled's pigmentary cells reacted like those bf a chameleon. He turned gray with the fear of the grave upon him, while he quailed and sobered at the menace and contempt in the eyes of Slim. All the urge of the mescal he had drunk in Caroca that morning died out of him.
By a tremendous effort he checked the rise of his gun. An inch more and Slim's Colt would belch fire and lead. Sled dropped the ivory-handled weapon in sign of defeat, in token of surrender, in a mute plea for mercy.
Slim stooped, supple as a big cat, picked up the gun, broke it, sprayed the cartridges on the turf and handed the weapon to the girl. She took it, in a sort of daze at the swift vision she had had of sudden and violent death, and its diversion by the swift action of the drawling stranger.
She stared wide-eyed as Slim ejected the shells from his own Colt into the palm of his hand, pocketed them, returned the empty gun to holster and deliberately slapped Sled Raynor across the face.
This was a challenge calculated as much to smooth the rebuff he had received from the girl as by a desire to give Sled the lesson he ached to administer. The girl's snub had penetrated farther, lay deeper than Slim imagined.
The color came back to Sled's face, the sting of the blow roused his spirit. The fear of death was taken from him, and the other was delivered into his great hands. He came at the lighter man with the bellow of a bull, fists half open, clutching for a clinch that Slim avoided, sending Sled staggering with a smash to the jaw that rocked his head. Slim, ducking a wild flail, landed his left full on the mouth, splitting a lip, breaking the skin of his own knuckles against the other's teeth.
From the standpoint of a sporting spectator it was a pretty, but one-sided fight. Slim had all the best of it. He had no ring to hem him in and he eluded Sled's rushes as easily as a banderillero avoids the charge of the bull. His first two blows had taken away some of Sled's new-found confidence. The bitter hemlock of defeat had actually been handed to the bully in the moment when his gunplay proved inadequate. He rushed and roared and flogged in a blind rage, one eye promptly closed and rapidly blackening, his ribs drummed in a tattoo that did his wind no good, all his best blows warded off, dodged, ducked, by the assailant who danced about him with arms shuttling in and out.
The girl stood apart with small fists clenched at her sides, her face a riddle that was hard to read. She had dropped the gun resentfully on realizing that she had apparently been made a convenience of, and she watched the swift, short combat with eyes that missed nothing, her lips parted, her slender body tense with excitement.
Once or twice she gasped, and caught her lip when, at last, Slim got home with a jolt that shot from hip to point with the propulsive force of Slim's shoulder muscles behind it. Sled hit the grass, quivered, surged vainly in an attempt to rise, and lay still, his nerve connections shattered.
Slim looked at his man, measuring his length, and then he walked away without a backward glance, ignoring the girl until he had mounted. Then he once more swept off his sombrero, touched spurs to Pete's flanks and loped away, while Sled got staggeringly to his feet and the girl gazed after him with curious speculation in her eyes.
SLIM met the same poker players in Caroca before he had been there many hours, and once again the fatuous pride of the amateur card-player was humbled by the technique of the professional, against which the best of luck was ground as against a grindstone. His second night found him with his money vanished, and his experience a little extended. He sat between two worthies who whipsawed him beautifully, tilting his raises until he was forced to drop many a good hand by their persistency, only to see a lower win.
He lost the last of his dollars on a showdown, swallowed the drink that the winner of the last jackpot had bought, according to card custom, rolled a cigarette and declared himself through.
"Empty as a last year's bird's-nest, gents," he said with a smile. "Now I've got to git me a job. Mebbe I've learned enough sense to keep away from a game I don't know how to play—not havin' a heap of practice—but I doubt it. I'll probably be back some time, soon's I git me a roll. Anyone know of someone aimin' to hire a hand?"
The players did not, but a man stopped him near the door.
"If you're lookin' for a job," he said, "Joe Walsh is in the dance-hall takin' a whirl. He owns the T. P. outfit. I heard him early this evenin' sayin' he needed a rider. Got some colts he wants busted. You look like you could ride some."
"My laigs are long enough, if that's what you mean," said Slim. "I'm much obliged to you for tellin' me. I wish I could ask you to have a little liquor, with me, suh, but I'm clean. What so't of a lookin' gent is this Walsh?"
The man described him briefly but accurately, and Slim readily picked him out as the dance ended and the partners went to the tables for the inevitable order.
Walsh was a good looking chap with a weak chin and a ready, but somewhat vacuous laugh that was encouraged by the liquor he had drunk. He was fairly sober, but his talk was inclined to babble, and his attentions to the synthetic blonde with whom he clinked glasses had long since passed the merely friendly stage.
Slim knew that in all probability the girl would leave Walsh as soon as the music started for the next dance. There were at least six men for every girl and, while some of them were dance-shy, it was not considered good form for any man to attempt a monopoly of girls hired as public entertainers, at least during business hours. The girls regarded this custom as a set rule and, as the jazzy orchestra of Mexicans struck up, the blonde diplomatically disengaged herself with a smile and a sidelong look at Slim that was clearly an invitation. But Slim, slipping into a seat next to Walsh, disregarded it.
The girl was not without her good looks and Walsh, after an ineffectual clutch at her, gazed at Slim with eyes that were becoming vacuous, but held a hint of resentment at the latter's intrusion.
If Slim had danced with the girl he would have lost all chance of a job with the T. P. outfit. But he had no fancy for it, though he liked dancing well enough on occasion. Dance-hall girls were to him impersonal objects. He was sorry for them, though he knew that in the main they were well able to take care of themselves.
"Heard you all were lookin' fo' a rider," he said to Walsh. The rancher seemed to pull his features together, and his loose lips tightened. "I'm lookin' fo' a job," Slim added.
Walsh surveyed him with a glance that took in the other's evident efficiency, visibly stamped upon him from dented Stetson to high-heeled boots.
"I can use another man," he said. "Got some colts that need breaking. After that line-riding. Been losin' stock lately. You ain't afraid to shoot—case it was necessary?"
"Reckon not," drawled Slim. "What are you all paying?"
Walsh countered with a question that showed he had business sense, for all the tell-tale signs of weakness written on his smooth-shaven face, and the odor of whisky on his breath. Slim told of previous employ, and a bargain was made.
"I ain't goin' out to Tres Piños till tomorrow morning," said Walsh. "You need an advance?"
"They got my last pay-check divided up between 'em in there," said Slim with a laugh, nodding toward the adjoining gambling room. "But I got my room an' my hawss paid fo' up till termorrer. I ate a good supper an' I reckon I can make out without drawin' none. I suah hate to do that. My belt's full of ca'tridges an' I got plenty Bull Durham an' papehs. So I'm set."
There were things about Walsh that Slim rather liked. One of them was the way in which he respected Slim's independence and did not press the loan.
"Have breakfast with me," he said. "We can talk things over. And have a drink now to cinch the contract."
Slim accepted. The man who brought the whisky told Walsh that some friends were waiting for him to make up a game.
"Promised 'em I'd play," he said. "See you later. I'll find out if my luck's any better than yours." With a reluctant look to where the blonde was dancing with a burly and none too agile cattleman, the owner of the T. P. outfit at Tres Piños lurched over the floor and disappeared.
Slim finished his drink and rolled a cigarette. He had landed a job, which was the main thing and gave him content, but there were certain things about it that provided food for thought. He was not a professional bronco buster, a job usually performed by a specialist trailing from outfit to outfit, but he had no doubt of his own ability to handle unbroken colts. It was the suggestion that stock was being taken from Walsh that interested him. It held a hint of adventure that appealed to him. Walsh was, he considered, the type of man apt to be lax in his handling of ranch affairs. He had brains enough if he cared to concentrate them upon business and not depreciate them with alcohol and affairs with dance-hall girls. That, of course, was his own affair and none of Slim's, but the latter wondered what sort of foreman he would find at the ranch. Unless that individual was essentially capable he did not think the T. P. outfit likely to be paying many dividends. It does not take the loss of many steers to swallow up profits.
The dance ended. The blonde refused a drink with her partner, which meant a percentage loss to her and his dissatisfaction. His eyes followed her resentfully as she made for the table where Slim was sitting, but he accepted the situation and vanished in the direction of the bar.
"I wouldn't dance with that bear," she told Slim as she took the seat that Walsh had just left. "Most of 'em dance like they were crushing rock. It's a treat to get a partner that's light on his feet." She flirted with the set of her dress at the shoulder strap, pouted as she saw the effect was lost on Slim, asked him for the makings, and rolled a cigarette deftly as he could have done it himself. Save for a certain hardness, like a mask, enhanced by her makeup, she possessed beauty, and a measure of individual charm that had not been altogether tarnished. Beyond doubt she was a favorite, and used to having her favors appreciated. Her singling out of Slim, a newcomer, had been noticed. She considered him with a sidelong glance between darkened lashes.
"Aren't you going to buy me a drink?" she asked. Slim flushed a little under his tan.
"I'd like to," he said, "but I'm flat as a sheet of papeh. Just hired out to the T. P. outfit because my roll done evaporated."
"Joe Walsh hired you? He's a good friend of mine. He promised to get up a picnic for me out to the ranch."
Slim eliminated all expression from his face. He might have made it too blank, for the girl looked at him sharply. A ranch where girls of the blonde's type were invited out on pleasure parties by the owner did not coincide with his idea of a properly run outfit. Play was one thing, but pastimes of this type were better kept away from the range.
"You're from the South, ain't you?" she went on. "I'm from Geo'gia myse'f. I was bohn in Savannah." Her accent was suddenly assertive and, to Slim, it sounded somewhat spurious, though he was too polite to pass even silent judgment. He knew mighty little about girls. This one made him uneasy, though that she had chosen him as a favorite was patent, even to his lack of conceit. "I like Southern boys," she continued. "They know how to treat a lady, no matteh in what circumstances they happen to find her. You'll have a drink with me? And tell me yo' name?"
Slim looked at her, smiled and shook his head.
"I don't mind tellin' you my name," he said. "It's Robert Marvin—Slim they call me mostly. But I reckon I'd ratheh wait till I can pay fo' the treat, thankin' you just the same."
The girl flared up. The spark had started some time since when her woman's instinct had told her that Slim was not falling for her blandishments. She had noticed smiles and looks between girls at other tables that meant slurs later against her powers of fascination. Slim showed well in a woman's eyes. They sensed his physical strength and mental cleanness. In a different, virile way, he was as graceful as any woman. That he had not responded to the advances of the girl who was assumed to be the main feminine attraction at the Cactus did not lessen his attractiveness to these worn sirens, but it gave them a desired tool with which to probe her. And she knew they would not hesitate to use it.
"'Slim' is right," she said, her voice a a trifle shrill, her nostrils dilating as she rose. "Slim on manners and slim on dinero. What's the idea of sitting in here if you can't buy a round? If you want to bum drinks you stand a better chance in the bar, cowboy."
Her hands were on her hips and the keen edge of a brittle temper showed in her eyes as she looked contemptuously at him, and then glanced round. Slim sensed that she was spoiling for a row, hoping to find a champion. His face hardened, and his eyes were like bits of ice when she met them again. Their chili seemed to affect the girl. She shivered and turned the action into a shrug as she walked away, the virago in her momentarily subdued, until she heard the titter of her mates.
Slim slowly turned brick red, challenged as a bum and unable to disprove it. He felt that the eyes of all the room were upon him. He developed a cold rage at the girl behind his heat, and knew that he had made an enemy of her. She might try to use her influence with Walsh to lose Slim his job. Not that Slim bothered overmuch about losing a job, but he had cottoned to Walsh somehow, for all the other's condition. He did not think Walsh was the man to fire a good hand on account of the dislike of a dance-hall girl; he did not believe that Walsh, sober, was infatuated with La Rose one half so much as La Rose was trying to get Walsh into her web by hook or crook. Slim's experience of such women was largely vicarious, but what he did know caused him to consider them hard as nails where business was concerned. And their business was one side of what men considered pleasure.
Still the taunt she flung at him rankled. It made him refuse more than one invitation from men he had met and treated while his money lasted, and he left the Cactus early and abruptly, his new employer busy at a game of stud poker. Slim went to the stable where Pete was corraled, and saw that the bay had been fed and watered properly before he strolled to his hotel. It was too early to turn in. He had nothing better to do than talk to Pete, who was at least a good listener. So Slim squatted down in the starlight where Pete pulled at his hay inside a shelter and shade shed, stretched along one side of the corral and divided into stalls for feeding purposes.
"She'd as soon knifed me as not, Pete," he said softly. "I'll say she'd be some catamount when she gits into action. It's a safe bet she's no friend of mine from now on."
It was a safe bet. La Rose, stung by the looks and whispers of the other girls, had her chagrin made superlative by the fact that the broad-shouldered narrow-hipped cowboy with his clean manliness and frank eyes had somehow broken through a hard and bitter shell to instincts she had not experienced since her girlhood, and she hated and despised herself for response to that involuntary appeal. Here was the type of man she—as a girl—would have intuitively desired for a mate. All that sort of thing was long since over.
Slim had looked at her with cold eyes, he had made her afraid, made her feel where he placed her. She had humiliated him, she hoped, but not more than she was herself humiliated.
"He ain't the kind to take up with my sort," she told herself. "Thinks I'm dirt under his feet. Damn him, I'll get even with him, if it kills me!"
Women of her type, having cast away delicacy, are the more sensitive of any depreciation by another. Excitement to them means forgetfulness, and La Rose craved for ascendancy over men. Slim had touched a side of her, long unresponsive, and his fancied contempt spurred her beyond reason.
She had no especial fondness for Walsh. With Walsh's foreman she had had an affair which threatened to terminate before she desired it. The man had grown cold. She had seen her power over him slipping and sought to bring him back by using Walsh. That was her motive for making the owner of the T. P. outfit promise her a picnic. And now Slim had hired out there. So she had a triple reason for going—to show the foreman that she could bring down bigger game than he was, at the same time to flaunt her triumph in front of Slim, whom, somehow, she would contrive to again humiliate, and to tighten her hold on Walsh. She might get him to marry her—one way or another. It began to look as if her attractions were on the wane. It was up to her to make hay while her sun still shone. To marry Walsh, to discharge the foreman and also Slim, that would wind up matters beautifully, and show her tittering, gossiping mates that La Rose still queened it over all of them.
Of the three men she liked the foreman best. He was a blackguard who bullied her, but La Rose craved a master, even if he were cruel.
She gripped fiercely the arm of her clumsy, but complimentary partner, so that the man looked at her in surprise.
"What's eatin' you?" he asked. "Yore eyes look like a pizen snake's."
She forced them to become languishing, but she had not fooled the man. He dropped her for the rest of the evening after he had bought a round when the dance ended.
"I wonder who she's gunnin' for?" he asked himself. "These gals are all hell for excitement. Me, I'm not mixin' in."
La Rose watched the door. The foreman of the T. P. had promised her he would be there. She knew of no reason why he should stay away just because Walsh had come to town. She had meant him to see her dancing with Walsh, but now she would try and work up a quarrel between him and the stranger who had rebuffed her so firmly. The foreman would not know that the other had been hired. After he had quarreled with him he would keep him out of his job—if he still wanted one worse than he did the doctor, or the undertaker. There were notches on the handle of the foreman's gun.
Butnot appear. She did not want to ask Walsh about him and Walsh was taken up by his game. Even La Rose dared not invade the gambling room. But she looked in and saw that Slim was not there, that he had left the Cactus—and charged that against his score. Three men had failed her in one evening. Her spite was the more bitter for being restrained. Women like La Rose craved hectic emotions. It helped them to forget realities that sometimes came to them in the early mornings, when the wind swept clean and sharp across the sage from the mesa, charged with sweet herbs and pungent cedar, and when little children gathered sand lilies in hot and grubby hands.
La Rose flung herself into all the excitement of the Cactus dance-hall, became the center of it, danced a mad pas seul, drank hard liquor instead of her usual synthetic crême de menthe and, two hours after midnight, burst into a fit of sobbing as one of the girls, with the eyes of a saint and the soul of a devil—if a devil has a soul —pushed the pianist away from his seat, played some simple chords, and sang in a childish voice an old, old song.
Golden years ago, in a mill beside the sea,
There lived a little maiden, who plighted her troth to me;
The mill wheel it is silent now, the maid's eyes closed be
And all that now remaineth are, the words she sang to me.
Do not forget me, do not forget me,
Think sometimes of me still.
And, when the morning breaks and the throstle awakes,
Remember the maid of the mill.
Saccharine sentiment, tawdry and tarnished the more for the time, the place and the singer. But La Rose sobbed with her head on a table.
"Must have been her favorite song when it first came out," said her principal rival. "I remember my mother singing it to me when I was a kid."
A knife flashed from La Rose's bosom and the rival fled. That was La Rose, a prey to her emotions, with memories of a wilful youth and a spirit always haunted by the ghost of what-might-have-been.
Slim had stretched himself out beside Pete. There was sufficient bedding in the stall to temper the hard clay beneath, but comparative softness of mattresses mattered little to Slim. Pete was company. It was better there than in the stuffy little hotel room. The breeze blew in on him and he could see the stars beneath the eaves of the tiled roof of the shelter.
He lay there, with a bent arm for a pillow and thought of the girl of Owl Canyon. Not deliberately. It started with a renewed satisfaction at the beating he had given the bully and then her face, beautiful, baffling in its expression, monopolized his musing. She had warned him, even though she had snubbed him. And she was the most beautiful—and the most disturbing—element that had so far entered his life. He could not get rid of her.
He didn't like that and he tried, without success, to dismiss her with thoughts of his new job and speculations as to what it would be like. But he had little to base these last upon—save the reference to his shooting ability. He had heard, vaguely, of organized cattle rustling in Caroca County, which might make things exciting. But these matters would not crystalize, he could not herd his fancies. The girl's face again obtruded, fading only before drowsiness that was natural enough, seeing that he had sat up most of the night previous and the night before that, trying, first to multiply, and then to hang on to his stake.
He was practically asleep when voices aroused him. His senses became instantly alert, but he did not move. Two men—riders by their hats and their walk, proclaimed vaguely silhouetted against the out-of-doors as they entered the open shed—glanced in where Pete turned his wise head to look at them and swung it back, indifferently, to his feed. Slim, on the floor, was indistinguishable, not to be looked for. There was the click of a matchhead against a nail, the odor of tobacco smoke.
Then came their voices, low-pitched, in the next stall.
"Seen anything of the Chief?" asked one. "Time he showed up. I want to draw some money. There's a game on that looks good to me."
"You won't git none out of the Chief ternight."
"Why won't I? He stayed behind to collect for fifteen fat three-year-olds, didn't he? I helped deliver 'em, didn't I? I got something comin' to me, ain't I?" The speaker was truculent, partly drunk. The other expostulated with him.
"We got to git back to the ranch. Hawsses are tired, an' we got to ride some to git back by breakfast."
"Aw, to hell with the ranch an' breakfast, too! Why don't the Chief pull somethin' worth while 'stead of pickin' off these picayune bunches? There's money comin' to me, and I want it."
"And spile the whole layout. Wouldn't be healthy for you if you did that. Folks see you blowin' money round like you was a millionaire, 'stead of a ranch hand, an' they'll begin talkin'."
"Let 'em talk. I'll tell the Chief straight out the way I feel about it——"
"Tell me what?"
A third man had come into the shed and stood at the end of the stall where Slim lay, wondering what rancher was going to miss fifteen steers in the morning. The newcomer's voice was harsh and threatening.
"If you boys can't keep yore tongues from clackin' we'll have to have 'em tended to," he threatened roughly.
"There ain't no one round here," defended the grumbler, a bit lamely.
"That's got nothin' to do with it. You know the rules, 'F you've got any kick comin'—an' you ain't—you put it up to the Council. There's big things movin', and we don't aim to have them sp'iled by any loose-jawed punchers. You boys git yore hawsses, an' we'll light for home. I've been busy figgerin' how to put dinero in yore pockets while you been lappin' up booze. Come on."
Slim could dimly see the horse the last comer had ridden, standing ground-anchored in the corral. The two others, silenced, brought their mounts out of stalls at the far end of the shed. The "Chief" remained at the head of Slim's improvised bedchamber, and Slim took no chances on shifting in the rustling straw.
That the fifteen steers had been stolen he held no doubt; also none that any suggestion of an eavesdropper would call for shooting first and investigation afterward. Though the voice of the Chief seemed vaguely familiar he could not place it. He had heard many new voices the past couple of days and nights. The matter was none of his immediate business. Rustlers he had no use for, as a matter of his profession, but he had his moments of discretion and all the cowboy's inherent dislike of horning in—for all his swift championing of the girl in Owl Canyon. That was quite a different affair from this. He had no proof against these men save casual talk, or talk that could easily appear casual, even if he had been employed to look out for cattle thieves.
The two others came up, leading their already saddled mounts, left in the corral while their owners liquored up, as many others had done. All three mounted with the despatch of long custom and were off, stirring up the soft dirt of the corral into a cloud that mantled itself about them, as Slim slid out of his stall for a closer look.
If Pete had been saddled he might have followed them. Not figuring on needing the bay before morning, he had taken his saddle into the office of the stable. As it was, they were outbound for the ranch, and, as he told himself, it was not he who had lost the fifteen steers. The night was chilly. He had not noticed it so much in the stall with Pete as an impromptu stove, but he did now and decided that the hotel bed, with its blankets, was the better place for the sleep he still sorely needed.
FRIENDSHIPS between men are more rapidly, more frequently and more firmly formed than between women. In these comradeships of men their instincts are as surely to be trusted as those of women under other circumstances. Unless a woman comes between—and not always then—such sudden affiliations are apt to knit into bonds that last a lifetime, untouched by jealousies. The habit and the certitude of choice date back to primitive days when it was essential to quickly distinguish between friend and foe.
Particularly is this true in frontier life when there are no conventions, no interweaving of business diplomacies or social obligations. A man's judgment of his fellow is unwarped, even as it is sharpened by the lack of other credentials, and tempered by indifference as to references or past records.
For a while, as Slim and Walsh rode out toward Tres Piños together, the latter was uncommunicative. He had not been able to eat breakfast, and he confided to his new rider that he had a splitting headache.
"I wish you'd taken an advance from me last night," he said. "I'd be that much ahead of those sharps that trimmed me last night. Either my luck's no better than yours at cards, or we both play the same game—which ain't as good as theirs is."
"Li'l of both, I reckon," Slim assented.
The fresh air of early morning and the action of the ride gradually alleviated Walsh's day-after symptoms. His eyes were still muddy and he had recourse to a "hair of the dog that had bitten him," but he grew more cheerful and communicative. The two took a mutual liking to each other. Walsh had a whimsical way of self depreciation that was alluring, and Slim liked his face for all that its markings told of weakness and indulgence. There were one or two lines that suggested bitterness, and he wondered at these. Now and then a fleeting look of hardness passed over the features of the owner of Tres Piños as if he had unpleasant thoughts, but Slim decided that the man was his own worst enemy, with plenty of good qualities that might have been better developed under different circumstances. His follies had not made him less amiable, and there was a distinct charm about him—as there was about Slim's own straightforwardness and buoyancy of perfect physique.
"Hope you'll like it at Tres Piños," said Walsh. "We'll do what we can to make you. They say we set the best table in the county. Got a Chink cook, but my sister runs the commissary and she's a wonder." His face clouded.
"I've made a full-sized ass of myself," he went on ruefully. "You know the blonde I was with—reckon you danced with her. She sure can lift a light and lively hoof and she can wheedle a man out of his back teeth, especially if there was any gold in 'em. I don't know as I ought to say that. La Rose is square enough, I reckon, and she's got to make her living.
"She wants to get out of the game she's in. Asked me would I help her, and of course I said yes. Fair enough, but I promised I'll get up some sort of a picnic for her out to the ranch. That was easy enough last night but, well, there's nothing of the snob about my sister Belle, but she draws her lines, an' I reckon a gal that dances at the Cactus is outside of 'em. On top of that La Rose'll hold me to that promise. If I don't set the day, she's liable to show up with a crowd of her friends. She say anything about it to you?"
Slim's eyes twinkled and crinkled at the corners as he nodded, and Walsh groaned.
"If Belle took a notion on her own account to help her out it 'ud be different. But she ain't strong on me goin' to the Cactus at all. It's a fact I usually come home broke, an' the worse for wear. You—you wouldn't want to invite La Rose out some Sunday on yore own account? You could say she wanted to buy a hawss. Mebbe we could fix things up that way."
"I don't reckon she'd come fo' my askin'," said Slim. "I didn't git on right well with her last night. An' I'd sure hate to git in wrong with yore sister right off the jump." Walsh groaned.
"Reckon I got to draw out my own hoof. Funny you didn't get along with La Rose. I don't go to the Cactus more'n once a month on an average, an' she always seemed a prime favorite with all the boys."
Slim turned the talk. "You said somethin' about losin' stock when you hired me," he said. "You all been havin' trouble with rustlers?"
Walsh turned in his saddle with his face suddenly grown hard and stern.
"Reckon I was drinking more'n I figgered. Makes a man talk foolish an' loose. You better forget that, Marvin."
"I sure will," said Slim, and kept his wonder to himself that a man who had been missing fat steers should want to keep quiet about it.
"Well be home inside of an hour," Walsh spoke up presently as, at mid-morning, stopping at a willowed spring to breathe and water the ponies, they halted amid the first slopes of the foothills toward which they had been steadily riding. "I've got a good ranch," Walsh went on, "belongs to Belle and myself, half an' half. Old Man left it that way. Plenty of water, good shade, lots of native grass an' open range back of it atop the mesa. Full section under wire. T. P. beef fetches top price. The Old Man always kept the stock up with thoroughbred bulls and I've done the same. We've got a lot of land under water an' in alfalfa. Modern methods all through. That's our plan. We're aimin' to get the right sort of hands who'll stay through with us. Expect to make the place coöperative. We haven't got that far yet," he added, and his voice trailed off, lost its note of pride, while his volatile features dulled.
With the other silent. Slim, finishing his smoke, pictured Belle Walsh, idly enough, unconcerned in the matter outside of his appetite and its satisfaction. She would be older than her brother, he imagined, taffy-colored of hair with a stout and shapeless figure, a prime cook and housekeeper, but inclined to be fussy as to the condition of mess-hall and bunkhouse. She would be generally intent upon keeping the riders in their places, which meant away from the ranch-house. There only the favored foreman, by right of established, unwritten law, might claim the privilege of evening entertainment and, sometimes, take his meals. But so long as the grub was good that did not bother Slim, and he did not mean to bother the lady.
They entered a draw that gradually narrowed to a gulch. Back of the mesa that ever loomed up before them like a great wall, a dark cloud was slowly rising and advancing. Against it the face of the mesa was startlingly displayed, its vivid hues glaring under the sun in shades of red, with three great pines plain in the immediate foreground as if they stood on the very verge of the mesa cliff. They were old and their shafts towered high before a bough branched off. One was bare of foliage, lightning blasted, the two others tufted with dark but vivid green.
Walsh pointed them out as they crossed the sparkling, shallow creek that suddenly looped its way across the draw, with big trout darting, broad-backed and powerful of fin, for shelter from the invading hoofs.
"Tres Piños," he said, pride once again in his tones. "They named the place for it before my dad's time. Folks claim they're three hundred years old. That's what the Indians say. Great landmarks. Look prime against that cloud, don't they? That looks like a cloudburst, but we ought to beat it home. You'll hear this crick singin' when it breaks.
"By thunder! That's Belle now. Seen us comin'."
Slim saw a rider on a pinto horse, and the rider seemed slim as a boy. In the garish light the racing object stood out theatrically, half enveloped in the cloud of dust it raised and which trailed away behind, holding a vivid color of its own as the reaching cloud obscured half the heavens and the sun, overhead, illumined the other half.
Slim chuckled to himself at his preconceived notion of Walsh's sister. No stout, taffy-haired woman of middle age would have ridden the mustang like a whirlwind. The pony's glossy hide gleamed silver and copper. There was a fleck of brilliant orange color at the girl's neck, flaring long before there was any chance of distinguishing features. Yet there came over Slim a curious feeling, the premonition he defined as a hunch, developing into certainty as the oncoming rider, catapulting down that narrow trail, tossed up an arm in greeting while Walsh shouted a welcome. Genuine affection between these two, Slim told himself, and suddenly felt an outsider, unattached and lonely.
Here was the girl he had rescued from the bully. He had considered that she had been both rude and ungrateful. Despite the visions of the night, he had ordered himself to forget her, and now his heart pumped furiously, so that he could feel the hot blood tingling to his finger-tips and stealing beneath the skin of his tanned face, flooding his brain a little until he felt confused and a little giddy. No girl had ever made him feel that way before. He resented it. He was a little frightened at it, somewhere inside of him. Just as a wild horse shudders at the touch of a human hand, fearful of loss of liberty.
But she was a beauty! That smote him again, fairly between the eyes, as the stone from David's sling smote Goliath. She wore no hat, but her black hair was sleeked around her shapely head like a helmet of shining leather. Her breath came swiftly with the speed and excitement of the ride, and her eyes shone. They were violet today, rather than gray. The silken neckerchief, the color of burned orange, the only high note in her dress, heightened the hue of them, complemented the golden transparency of her sunkissed skin, flushed with healthy rose, brought up the carmine of her lips.
A gypsy girl, a disturber of men's happiness, surely; rather than a caterer to their comforts. Her brother had called her a wonder, and only that word described her, Slim told himself. Somewhere out of the past came a song he had heard a Mexican singing in a jacal to the twang of a guitar. Slim hadn't noticed the words much, but they had stuck, and now they leaped out of his brain to fit the girl before him.
Eyes like stars that shine so bright
In the azure depths of night;
Voice that thrills like song of lark,
Breath as sweet as breeze that blows
O'er the jasmine and the rose
'Twixt the twilight and the dark.
It was the first time that Slim had ever been deliberately and personally sentimental. Something had happened to him. This slip of a girl glancing at him as if she had never seen him before, as if she did not care if she never saw him again. While he—? Inwardly he fumed with a complexity of feelings. And felt himself somehow bound.
"Slim Marvin is goin' to ride for us," said Walsh. "He's the kind we want. Goin' to start in bustin' colts. Up to you to keep him contented, Sis."
The girl's eyebrows went up slightly, as if she were surprised at her brother's enthusiastic endorsement of an untried employe. She gave Slim a cool little nod—"like a queen might hand out to a beggar," he fancied.
"A good hand's always welcome at Tres Piños," she said with irritating emphasis. "I think I saw Mr. Garvin Tuesday in Owl Canyon. He must have been on his way to Caroca."
"The name's Marvin, miss," said Slim. "Not Garvin." There was anger back of his quick flush, but he followed her lead. She might fear that he would take advantage of the affair; at all events she showed plainly she did not want it referred to. "But I don't remember meetin' you all," he drawled. "Seems like I should have."
That got him a gleam from her eyes—direct. He could not decide if it meant surprise, anger, a certain admiration or more positive amusement. She was baffling, and he was vexed at wanting to solve the riddle of her. Girls had always represented unknown quantities to him, so far, and he had been content to let it go at that. This one puzzled him and at the same time challenged him. It was annoying to feel this way; funny, too, that this girl and the one he had met just before, La Rose, should both show dislike of him. Anyway, he had assured her he was not going to say anything about what had happened in Owl Canyon.
He dropped back, letting brother and sister ride together. He could see that they soon got into talk that hinged on serious matters, the girl relating indignantly something that had happened, the man angry, receiving it wrathfully, then slumping suddenly with a shrug of his shoulders while the girl flared up and rode ahead in a flash of anger. She pricked her pinto to a lope that took them to the narrow trail that wound up the right hand cliff to the bench above.
She could hardly have told her brother of the Owl Canyon episode after practically denying it before Slim. Still, she might have eliminated Slim from her version. It was single trail now and, when the men reached the bench, the girl had vanished into a grove of cottonwoods that screened off the main portion of the T. P. buildings. Slim came up beside Walsh who rode on in gloomy self communion, and they loped in silence by fields of emerald alfalfa, growing vigorously under irrigation. The whole ranch bore signs of careful planning, though there were hints here and there of carelessness—tools left out, a broken lateral gate, a windmill that squeaked.
Though Walsh's face was somber, his brows were creased and his mouth and jaw firmer than Slim had so far seen them. He ventured a remark.
"Likely stand. Second crop, I reckon?"
"Yep." Walsh shook off his depression. Alfalfa does fine. Belle's goin' in with the car to Caroca after dinner. Nothin' you left behind?"
"My hawss is packin' all I own, 'cept my second string pony. Left him in the next county. I'll send fo' him sometime, or my friend'll ship him oveh."
The big cloud was perilously close to the sun, ominous. The three pines were still in vivid light, the middle one showing almost white, blasted and barked by a lightning flash that had spared, or only seared, the other two. It looked not unlike a great gallows, Slim thought, the fancy heightened by the presence of a buzzard on the outstanding horizontal limb.
They trotted down alane between two corrals while the sky began to darken more and more, and things became strangely silent like the world under an eclipse. The advancing cloud was dense enough to blot out any sun.
"Belle'll lay off that trip, I reckon," said Walsh, as they emerged in full sight of the long, low ranch-house, verandaed, fresh painted, a big stone chimney at one end, curtains and window boxes giving evident signs of a woman's competent direction. These were enhanced by the comfortable wicker chairs in orderly array on the porch and the unusual flower garden within a whitewashed picket fence, where old-fashioned flowers stood, their vivid blossoms strangely flat in the light that had lost all shadow as the fringe of the cloud reached out and veiled the sun.
A man came out from a small shack that had a sign on it——advancing toward them to suddenly stop and stare at Slim, who gazed back with his face as hard as granite, his body, easy in the saddle, suddenly alert, hand falling back instinctively toward his gun butt.
For a moment the man's bruised face was devilish, then it twisted into shape, the eyes still smouldering malevolently though the mouth, with its cut lip, formed into what was meant for a grin as Walsh called out, "Hello, Sled! Here's Slim Marvin. Used to be with T-in-a-box, over in the next county. Goin' to break those colts for a start. He's on the payroll. Slim, this is Sled Raynor, foreman."
Slim's watchful eyes were glinting like mica flakes in granite, but Raynor only nodded at him with rough acknowledgment that was outwardly friendly.
"We sure need a good buster," he said. "Glad to meet you, Marvin. Grub'll be ready soon. Some of the boys in. Two of them ridin' wire an' the rest on cavvy. They'll bring in those colts. Kind of worried I'd have to break 'em myself. You'll find a couple spare bunks in the bunkhouse. Take either of 'em. Make yorese'f at home. Chow's in the leanto back of the house.
Slim was plainly dismissed—with another puzzle. It began to look as if Belle Walsh and Sled Raynor had mutually agreed to say nothing of what had happened. Why? She did not seem the sort to permit insult.
"What about this fifteen head, Sled?" he heard Walsh demanding as he rode toward the bunkhouse. "Belle tells me they were run off last night. It's plumb funny I lose cattle whenever I go to town. Plumb funny they always happen to be three-year-olds." Slim caught the reply, assured, almost insolent.
"Ain't it? Thet's jest how it did happen.
"No one ridin' herd? Look here, Sled—" Walsh's voice, thickly passionate, stopped. His sister was coming down the path between the tall larkspurs. She had changed into a gingham gown and a hat that fitted snugly, pulling on gloves as she came.
"I'm going to eat in town, Joe," she said, her voice cool. "You and Sled can talk things over by yourselves."
Raynor had pulled off his hat, but the girl paid no attention to him beyond the reference in her speech. She must have caught the note of quick rage in her brother's halted speech. She passed so close to Raynor that she almost brushed him, but he might well have been the gate post, and his swarthy face turned almost purple with the bruises black upon it at the slight.
There was thunder in the air, storm about to break loose, but Slim fancied that all the tenseness did not come entirely from the atmospheric conditions.
"You can't go in now, sis. Thet cloud's goin' to break inside of a few minutes. You'll never make the crick till it goes down."
"I'll go round by the big bridge," she said coldly. "I've got my slicker in the car. And I'm eating in town. Raynor's been eating in the bunkhouse, she added, pointedly, as she left the two gazing after her. It seemed to Slim that she was skirting deliberately on the edge of some dangerous topic, as if she dared Raynor to tell why he had eaten in the bunkhouse while Walsh was absent. Yet she had clearly avoided it before.
And the fifteen rustled steers! The three men in the corral shed! The one they had called Chief. There had been a moment last night when he had wondered if Sled Raynor's had been the voice he had thought he recognized. But it was not. The girl turned—called back.
"There's a message on your desk, Joe. I found it skewered to the front door this morning. I kept the knife that fastened it."
There was challenge in that. It was likely she did not expect Slim to hear it, though he was not sure about that. But his ears were good. Walsh swung from his saddle, calling out for someone to come and take his horse as he strode up the path to the veranda, Raynor following. A cowboy with a face the color and texture of a walnut, bow-legged from the saddle, came hurrying to the horse. The girl had disappeared.
Slim unsaddled Pete hurriedly, turned him into a corral, toting his saddle and warbag for the refuge of the bunkhouse. The storm was on them.
He heard a flivver engine starting furiously as it was given gas. Then the sound was lost as a javelin of lightning rived the great curtain that was sweeping out to the plain and thunder pealed and crashed and pealed again, heralding the tremendous downpour of the rain, hissing as it struck the ground. The trees swayed. Rivulets started here and there, confluent, hurrying to the creek that would become a raging torrent in the next few minutes.
In the midst of it, racing with the storm, was the girl who had found the knife-skewered message on the door.
The interior of the bunkhouse was as dark as if it had been night. And it was empty. A flare of lightning showed it—stove and table, bunks and benches, a few chairs, odds and ends of personal belongings about. Slim dropped his heavy saddle to the floor.
There was trouble at Tres Piños—that was very evident—and Slim Marvin had a surefire hunch that he was destined to take a hand in that trouble.
THE girl and her brother sat together in the big living-room before a fire where pine burned briskly, for the nights on the mesa bench were cold. The ranch boasted an electric plant for pumping and lights and the electricity was veiled by tasteful shades of parchment. The quiet refinement of the room again evidenced the taste of Belle Walsh.
There was no one else present. Raynor's privilege had seemingly been withdrawn, or he had not chosen to exercise it. The faces of brother and sister were grave. The girl held a paper in her hand, a square of wrapping paper on which were roughly scrawled a few words in printed letters.
The paper showed a slit near its top. She fingered a cheap hunting knife, the blade worn and the vulcanite handle scarred.
"How much longer are we going to stand for this sort of thing, Joe?" she asked. "The whole county scared by a mob that steals cattle and calls itself the Night Hawks. They say in town no one knows who belongs to it, or who doesn't, and they are all afraid to talk about it.
"Raynor had no night herd out. Claims he thought they were safe in the lower end of the gulch, not half a mile from the line fence. And this the third bunch we've lost this year. Three thousand dollars won't cover the loss. What are you going to do about it? Fire Raynor—or are you afraid of him?"
She flashed the final query passionately. Her brother covered his face with his hand as if to protect it from the fire.
"I can't fire him, Belle," he said wearily. "I've got my reasons. But I'm not afraid of him, if that is what you mean. I'd like the chance to kill him," he added with a spurt of energy. The girl looked at him sadly, then her face brightened with resolve.
"Your new hand thrashed him on Tuesday," she said quietly. "He told you his horse jumped at a rattler in the road and fell over the cliff. That's what he told the rest of the boys. And Marvin hasn't said anything to the contrary, so far."
"What? Slim beat him up? You saw it. How did it happen?"
"Raynor was trying to make love to me. Marvin thought I didn't want him to. He saw me fighting with Raynor, and he interfered."
"Sled, making love to you! The yellow coyote!" Walsh was not wearing a gun, but his hand made an instinctive gesture as he sprang up, his face flaming. He started to stride toward the door while his sister watched him curiously. He stopped, turned, flinging up his arms in an impotent motion.
"Sit down, Joe," she said. "Tell me about it. I've got a right to know. Raynor's got something on you. He almost said as much when he swore I'd marry him before he was through—and be glad to." Her voice carried a contempt she seemed unable to curb entirely. "What is it, Joe?"
Walsh hesitated, standing by the fire, forearm on the mantel, head on it, kicking at a log.
"I heard some things in town today, Joe. That's why I wanted to go, why I wouldn't wait. I'll tell you about them presently. But tell me about Raynor first. Before he does."
He turned a haggard, careworn face to her.
"I'll tell you, Belle. I've hoped there was some way out. There isn't any. But he'll not marry you. He'll not lay his dirty fingers on you again. The mangy breed!"
His grandmother was Mexican—or Indian. He's got me in a cleft stick, Belle. He's been bleeding me, but I didn't dream he'd touch you—except as you lost with the steers."
"You think he's mixed up in their being rustled? I've suspected that. That ties him up with the Night Hawks."
"Mebbe. There's people use that name for a mask. He's hinted at it—at the power back of him. Hinted I should join—that I'd have to. It's been raisin' hell with me, Belle. I——"
"Go on, Joe. We'll work it out."
"We can't, unless—but that would leave you in the mess. I've gone over and over it." His fists clenched, opened. He looked like a young man suddenly stricken, grown old.
"We can, Joe, and we will. Even if—we have to go away from here."
She spoke with an effort. Her brother's face lighted, dulled again.
"I'll go with you anywhere, Joe," she said. He flashed her a look of gratitude, of love, but his features were pinched. He nerved himself to an effort.
"You can't go far on the road I may have to travel, Sis. It may lead to the penitentiary. It may— They hang for murder in this state," he ended abruptly.
"Murder!" Her face blanched, her chin quivered, as she caught up her underlip with her teeth in characteristic gesture. "You! I don't believe it." And her chin grew firm as her eyes flashed.
"It was this way, Belle. I don't know so much about it, after all," he went on hurriedly, like a man resolved to a confession and anxious to get through with it. "I had been drinking, of course. I was drunk. It was after the spring roundup—not that that's any excuse. We kept it up late, and Raynor said there was a fandango on at a place just outside the town. Said he could take me if I wanted to risk it, but he'd not take any more, because the Mexicans were not over fond of us mingling in with their rackets, and I could talk Spanish. Of course he speaks it like a native.
"They did resent it, though the dance went on. There was one chap who pretended to take offense because I threw a gold piece at the girl who danced. It's the custom, of course, but the gold drew attention. He said a lot of things in Spanish. Raynor told me to swallow them, but the state I was in—we'd been drinking that rotten Pisco, it's like fire in you, gets into your brain—I said something back.
"Sometimes I think it was all planned. I'm almost sure there was dope in my last drink. I can't remember the rest of it. I know the Mexican drew a knife, I can almost swear to that, though Raynor says he didn't. I can remember a shot—" Walsh spoke with frowning brows, striving to conjure something definite out of a hazy memory. "After that—I don't know.
"I was outside, struggling with Raynor who was trying to get me into the saddle. He said I had shot the man and killed him, that my bullet went through his head between the eyes—God!
"The door of the cantina opened and a mob came out, howling. We were in the saddle, riding like devils with a pack after us. We got clear, up to the old adobe on the Spanish grant. And we'd lost them. The ride had sobered me—with the thought of what I'd done. Still I couldn't remember drawing my gun or pulling trigger—till I looked at it. Raynor had it. Took it away from me after the shooting. One shell had been fired—only one, but that was enough. It had killed a man."
He rested his head on his crossed arms on the mantel now and his shoulders heaved. The girl went over to him and slid her arm about him, coaxing him back to his chair, sitting on the arm of it. Presently he spoke again in a flat, hopeless voice.
"Raynor seemed decent about it. He said he could fix it, that the man was wanted anyway for smuggling, if not worse. And he did hush it up. I couldn't tell you. I had to get the money. You kept our books. So—that first bunch of steers we lost—I stole my own cattle, Belle, our cattle, God help me.
"Since then Raynor has used his hold over me. He may belong to the Night Hawk gang, or he may have used that for a cover, but he's taken our steers, connived at it, and he laughs in his sleeve at me. He's threatened covertly. He's even suggested partnership and now—he's dared to think of you. I'll——"
She clung to him, soothing him, telling him she didn't believe that he had committed a crime, that it would all come to light.
"He's got it all written down, witnessed, left with someone who'll use it if anything happens to him. My hands are tied. If I killed him, it would all come out just the same. You'd be disgraced. Belle, I've drunk to forget it, I've shown the yellow streak. I'll never touch another drop, another card. I swear it. But what's the good of that?"
"Leave it to me, Joe. We'll find a way. We'll get at the truth. You didn't kill anyone. If you were drunk, drugged, someone else could have used your gun, or they could have used their own, and then fired a shell from yours to make you think you did it."
He looked at her with the face of a drowning man who has grasped a plank out of the smother. And then he found it only a straw, sinking into despondency.
But the girl was fired with resolution. She communicated some of it to him. "We'll wait, Joe. I can handle Raynor."
"You'll not encourage that snake. I won't stand for it."
"Leave that to me, Joe. We're fighting for your life, for our happiness. Trust a woman's weapons. Raynor wants this ranch. He wants—me. He'll not force the issue when it means losing everything. He may be bluffing. He can't bluff us Joe, we'll not lose out on a bluff."
For a time he sat silent. Then he got up.
"You're the better man of the two, Belle. I'm glad I've told you. I'll do what you say."
She kissed him, clung to him for a little.
"What did you hear in town?" he asked.
"It was Wing that started it. Joe, I don't think it's just curiosity on his part, but there is little goes on that that Chinaman doesn't know about—more than one suspects. And Wing has been devoted to me ever since I nursed him through pneumonia last winter. I really saved his life that night he was delirious. He had stood it up to the last minute of endurance and he would have crept away to his bunk in the cookhouse and said nothing, even if he had died, if his delirium hadn't sent him out in the snow where I saw him from my window.
"People call Chinese eyes inscrutable, but I've seen a lot in his. He came to me yesterday after you had left. It cost him something. He was terribly afraid all the time we were talking—not long. You know how he talks in his pidgin English. "Missy, something not all right along of you, along Mister Joe. I sabe. You take laundry in town tomorrow. You take along Hop Lee—he my cousin. He belong along same society. You tell him Wing send you. Maybe he tell you something."
"Of course the laundry was just an excuse, but it was a good one. I saw Hop Lee. He had been expecting me. And he was frightened, too. Afraid of the Night Hawks, I suppose."
"You sabe Raynor foreman your place?" he said. "You sabe him no good? Plenty bad. No good along your place. No good along your brother. I heap sabe. No can speak too much. Chinaman get in plenty trouble too much easy. You very good along Wing. That all same good along me. Sabe? Bimeby, maybe you get in heap trouble, I talk along some more. Not now."
"And that was all I could get out of him. He talked laundry and nothing else. Everything was "no sabe" and his face was just a mask. But his eyes were kind, Joe."
"I don't see where that helps us much."
"Neither do I. Not now. But they were both afraid, and they went out of their way to say something to cheer me up. They don't take risks for nothing. They don't talk for nothing.
"That wasn't all I heard. I had a long, confidential talk with Mrs. Jaynes. You know that Mr. Jaynes and she lived in Mexico City, and that he has always been close to President Diaz. Well, there's trouble in the air. Nearly always is. Porfirio Diaz rules with a heavy hand, and it is easy for any glib talker and fighter to stir up the peons into a revolution.
"There's one on foot now, and Diaz is letting it grow so that he can get all those who are against him in the ranks of the discontents and then crush them with one blow. His spies know all that is going on. Mrs. Jaynes likes both of us, and I think she guesses that things are not over good with us in a financial way. A Mexican federal agent has seen Mr. Jaynes in regard to negotiations about ammunition and the possible purchase of a gunboat from our government. And—this is where we come in—the federal troops are on the way to the border. They'll make headquarters almost across the river from Caroca, preliminary to swooping down on the rebels. They'll need beef. Jaynes will recommend you. They'll pay top prices for old cows. And they'll pay cash.
"Joe, if we could do that, get Raynor out of the way somewhere. Sell off the stock?"
"Go away? Run away and leave Tres Piños?"
She nodded, her lips firm pressed yet a little tremulous.
"No. I'm not going to run away. You've stiffened me, Sis. I don't think I killed that man. We'll stick. By God, we'll stick! I've told you, and that helps, a heap. But we'll sell that beef, too. We'll have money to fight with. Raynor stealing those steers, with what he might do, has had me nearly crazy. Like taking it from you. You know how slim the bank account is. And a note coming due. I've been gambling, like a fool, to try and make it up.
"We've got to do more than get Raynor out of the way. I can do that by sending him with a shipment on the reservation contract. I meant to go myself, afraid to trust him with the steers or the money. But most of the hands are his choosing. He's made it rotten for the good ones who wouldn't stand for his methods. Weeded 'em out, and I had to accept his reasons. You wondered why I let 'em go."
"That was your end of it, Joe."
"There are a few I can trust. It might be managed. That new chap, Marvin. You don't seem to like him, Belle. Seemed to me you were pretty cool the way he'd acted. Funny Sled stood for him the way he did."
"Sled Raynor won't want him to say anything about what happened at Owl Canyon. It would make his men jeer at him or lose confidence in him, anyway. He'll ask Marvin to say nothing. And I didn't know that I was going to tell you, Joe, but I had to, to make you tell me—everything. So I—discouraged him."
"I'll say you did. Think he'll keep quiet?"
She nodded, her face away from her brother.
"Mighty fine chap. He'll do to take along. It ain't fair to snub him, because he did you a favor."
There was a curious little smile on the girl's lips before she replied. "There was a minute when I wanted him to kill Raynor, Joe. But he beat him to the draw and he took his gun away and handed it to me. Then he fought him bare-handed. He'd make a good prizefighter. I think. I was afraid his interference would work wrong with Raynor. He'd been hinting things to me, too. They nerved me to talk to you tonight. But he only sulked. I suppose he was thinking up excuses for the boys, ft was a wonderful fight, Joe. Marvin can take care of himself."
"By Jings, I believe you do like him after all, Belle!"
The firelight flushed her face; perhaps something else.
"You ought to make it up to him some way, Belle. Him and me are goin' to be pals. You oughtn't to have snubbed him."
"You need a pal, Joe. A man pal. Besides me. And—if I snubbed him." the smile was again on her lips, "it was only for his own good."
"I'll be Jinged!" said her brother. "You women are beyond me."
"I'm going to find the right one to travel along with you, some day, Joe."
"Not much. Not while I've got you. Don't you go thinkin' of gittin' married."
"Me?" She laughed and left him. taking up the Night Hawks' receipt, throwing it into the fire. He did not notice that she had not replied to his remark.
"That wasn't quite all I heard today, Joe. They are talking of getting up a crowd of the owners, those who have had cattle stolen, to clean out the Night Hawks. The Cattlemen's Association will finance it, pay a big reward."
"They won't ask me, if they guess how my steers went," he said grimly. "I can't join 'em the way things stand."
"You can't refuse them, Joe. But that'll work out. It's late. I'm going to bed! Good night, Joe."
After she had gone Walsh sat late by the fire. His thoughts were bitter ones, but they strengthened his face. It was moulded into resolve when at last he followed her example.
COLT was purely a technical name for an unbroken horse, as applied to the roan that stood stiff-legged and flat-eared in protest against the rope that held and choked it while Slim reached carefully for the loose end of his single-fire cinch beneath the brute's belly. The roan was all of four years old, a wise, rangy looking beast, of hammer head that was half concealed by the blindfold. It was sick with rage since the moment it had been driven with the rest of the cavvy into the corral, then segregated with others that had managed so far to hold the freedom of the range. It was afraid—afraid of the man smell and the man noise, the whirling rope and tightening noose, and it had fought valiantly, for all its fear. It was far from spent yet, though it had only quivered when Slim gingerly set the saddle on its back. One helper held the rope, high heels dug into the soft dirt of the corral, two others had helped adjust the bridle and the heavy bit. The roan's head was high, too high to be handled. He had suddenly tossed it up from the clutch of the helpers and they waited their chance to get another hold.
The horse had shown all signs of being a twister, and they left the rope on him until the last moment, after the saddle was cinched. Slim had not expected to break horses, and his single cinch was not what he would have chosen for the job, but it would do, rather than borrow another saddle. The roan had quivered when first blanket and then leather had been placed upon his back. After that and the upswing of his head on a neck of steel, he stood taut, lips drawn back, nostrils wide to show their crimson lining. He was game, and he meant to put up the fight of his life against the servitude of the saddle. Slim had picked the horse as the hardest job of the bunch in hand, meaning to tackle it while he was freshest.
The helpers were plainly anxious of their own minor risks in the performance. They had been turned over to him by Raynor, still surface friendly, but not trusted by Slim. Belle Walsh had been right. Raynor had taken him aside the night before, after supper, while she and her brother talked together in the ranch-house, and suggested that byegones should be byegones.
"I reckon I'd have acted the same way if I was in yore place," the foreman said. "Course you don't know all the circumstances. You're sure quick on the draw, an' handy with yore fists but—I'll put it to you square an' fair: We need a good hand here an', if you stay, you can easy see it wouldn't do me no good with the boys, bein' foreman, to have a yarn like that passed round. You got all the best of it. How erbout callin' it quits?"
"Suits me," said Slim. And it did, since he had determined to remain and watch the trouble that was brewing at Tres Piños. Raynor's plea was specious. He had undoubtedly accounted for his bruises another way. The best way to get out of it was to make a pact with the new rider, or Slim might destroy much of the bully's prestige.
"Walsh does some of the hirin'," Raynor continued, "but I do the firin'. If you like the job it's all hunky with me fo' you to stay."
"Lies like the clock ticks," Slim told himself. "He's jest about as fair minded as a sheddin' rattler. If he ever gits a good chance to put me away he'll tackle it or git one of his hands to try to."
The men, ropers and riders and the rest, were, he shrewdly suspected, most of them on the ranch because of their sympathies with Raynor. It is not always as easy to tell strains of mixed blood as one might imagine, even by a range rider, where all faces are burned dark by sun and wind and rain. But where Indian blood is strong the eyes are telltales, and it was such a sign that made Slim suspicious that half a dozen at least of the hands had an admixture of blood that came from the south side of the Rio Grande. Raynor amongst them. There were plenty of good Mexicans, plenty of good Indians; it was the mixture of Yaqui and peon and degenerate white man, a mixture that never blended and in which vice, like crude oil, was apt to be always on the surface, that Slim Marvin, with others of his kind, had scant use for.
But he said nothing, even when he began to believe that Raynor had not tried to give him the best men for helpers in the breaking corral. Walsh did not appear, but it seemed as if general operations had been suspended to watch the new hand tackle his dangerous job. No buster lasts long. Broken limbs are the least of his troubles. A broken neck may finish him, but rupture is sure to claim him. He may have to sit a horse until the blood comes out of nose and ears and mouth; there is always the chance of a leg smashed against the corral fence by a maddened horse, ribs crushed by a rearing fall, a chest perforated by the steel core of the saddle tree and horn. On the range, busting holds the fascination of a bullfight, and usually the work is done by a traveling professional for high wages.
It looked as if every man on the T. P. except the boss was perched on the top rail, aside from the helpers. Raynor sat astride a chute gate. The Chinese cook peered through the bars. The tall and taciturn Englishman who seemed to attend to all the machinery on the ranch, squatted, with his grasshopper legs and brick-red face atop a hinge pole of the main gate, humped up, smoking a briar pipe.
Interest was usual enough and this attendance might be flattery. It might be lax discipline on the part of Raynor. It might be a special custom—or it might be something else. That Raynor hoped for a spill Slim was certain. There had been few friendly overtures made to the new hand in the bunkhouse overnight. The silent Britisher's attitude had been, after all, the most cordial.
Slim felt the general wish, the almost universal hope that the roan might worst him, but these hostileonly made his lean face a little grim, and his eyes hard and frosty. He was quite sure of his ability to ride the horse—given fair play.
He caught the swinging cinch with its steel ring, threaded through the latigo strap and drew it taut, while the roan grunted and instinctively blew out against the pressure.
"Git hold of his head," Slim snapped, his drawl gone in action. "Git that rope off him. Stan' ready to take off that blindfold—an' don't take it off till I give the word."
The helpers got grip on the bridle at cheek straps while Slim set his knee against the roan, watching for the first jump, hauling on the latigo, gaining inch by inch, making his turns. Still the roan stood with only the restless nostrils, the slightly twitching ears and flanks that shivered once in a while, to show that it had any idea of what was going on.
Slim gathered reins and mane into his left hand, close to the withers, facing the saddle. He swung a stirrup toward his foot, but set only enough heft upon it to hold place while his right hand stole up to the horn.
The roan would break out into an equine tornado the moment that blindfold and cheek grips were released, he knew. He had to get into the saddle at lightning speed or counteract a whirl by drawing himself flat to the withers until the jump was ended, and then fling leg over cantle. He put a little weight on the stirrup, the saddle creaked slightly as the roan leaned away and his weight came on the horn. Slowly the roan's back was arching, like a cat's. The rope was off.
The helpers sprang back, raced for the rails, one with the blindfold. Slim and the roan fought the first round in a whirling pillar of dust out of which they emerged with the roan sunfishing like a rodeo untameable, shifting to wild bucking round the corral.
There was no shouted slogan of "Ride him, cowboy," no words of either encouragement or even excitement, though the struggle was dramatic enough—while it lasted. The end came swiftly. The roan threw itself, and Slim took saddle again as it sprang up, foam flying from its bitted jaws, its hide streaked with sweat, eyes wild; rearing, starting a series of prodigious leaps.
At the third of these the cinch broke, and man and saddle went flying through the air to land with a dull smash while the roan went careering, triumphant at having rid itself of the burden it feared would master it. A rope sang and the roan was checked, snubbed to a post, flung to the dirt.
Two or three men, Raynor among them, advanced slowly to where Slim lay with the dust settling down about him. His head was tucked in like a turtle's and for a moment or two he was motionless. He sensed the silence, his brain working fast to a conclusion of foul play.
The cinch was nearly new, of good manufacture, a woven web that ended in the stout leather through which the ring was reeved. The latigo strap was of sound hide, pliable, well-oiled. He had inspected the saddle the night before to offset the lack of hospitality in the bunkhouse. Now he fancied he had better have left the inspection until that morning.
Instinctively, out of long experience, he had fallen on his shoulders and, while the breath was jolted out of him, there was no other damage done. He retrieved his gun which had flown from the holster, went over to the saddle and carefully looked at it.
"Hurt any?" asked Raynor and, to Slim, his voice held disappointment.
Slim did not answer him. He was looking at the latigo. The break—if it were a break—was curious. It was diagonal and, while such a thing was barely possible from a badly cured hide, it looked more like a cut than a tear of fibers, except for the last inch of it. To Slim, someone with a thin blade had sliced slantingly into the leather with careful if diabolical skill, cutting on a long slant two thirds of the way through, and then pasting or gluing it together, working in a little dirt and grease to hide the damage.
On a direct pull it might have lasted for hours. With a ramping, twisting devil like the roan it was a certainty that it would break within a few minutes, as it had, within a few inches of where the strap went under and through the latigo ring.
Slim exhibited it. Since his rage did not call for immediate action without a real target, his southern drawl was pronounced.
"There was nothin' wrong with that latigo lahst night," he said. "I overhauled it myse'f."
Raynor stepped out truculently, backed by the presence of his men.
"You sayin' one of this outfit did that?" he demanded.
His hand hovered above his gun butt, but did not descend. Slim was eyeing him with a look that was cynically suggestive of past humiliation.
"I didn't do it, fo' a fact," said Slim. "An' I suah reckon it's goin' to be hahd fo' me to say who did it. I ain't the kind to go huntin' fo' trouble," he drawled while the lookers-on held their breath to listen, "but, in case I happen to run into it, I aim to ride it, same's I'm goin' to ride thet roan hawss soon as I fix me a new latigo. I don't believe in showin' off none, but I——"
He stooped, all eyes upon him, and picked up an empty tobacco tin that one of the hands had tossed, empty, to the dirt. It was bright red and it made a brilliant streak as Slim suddenly tossed it into the air. The blued steel of his gun caught the light before fire spurted from the muzzle, and the tin, at the height of its flight, jerked as a bullet tore through it. Twice more Slim hit it in its zigzag fall, once again just before it touched the ground.
"What's thet play fo', if it ain't showin' off?" sneered Raynor.
"Jus' to express my appreciation of a practical joke—if cuttin' thet latigo was a joke. We'll let it go at thet, though there's been too big an audience here this mo'nin' to look jest right to me. There's two ways of bein' popular. I see a bull fight once at Juarez an' the toro was the mos' popular thing in the ring. He was there to git killed. I'll call this a joke, unless any hombre wants to announce it ain't. In which case," he added, and his voice rang like the stroke of an anvil, "I got two shells left in my gun."
"What's the matter?" asked Walsh, coming in through the gate that the lanky Englishman had swung open for him. "Anyone hurt?"
"Not yet," said Slim.
The crowd had melted away with the exception of Raynor and the Englishman, tapping out his pipe on his heel.
"My latigo busted," said Slim. "You got a new strap an' a riveter? Thet roan's a likely hawss. I wouldn't wondeh but what there was a little eagle in him somewheres."
"I'll git you a strap," said Raynor and disappeared. Walsh looked uncertainly at Slim, noticed the punctured tin and turned it over with his foot before he threw it out of the corral.
"Thought you might have started a shootin' scrap," he said.
Slim shook his head. "Jest the opposite," he said, and reached into his shirt pocket for the makings. Walsh crossed glances with him for a moment, hesitated and then offered a match for the quirly Slim completed with one hand. He said nothing, but Slim had read something in his eyes.
"She's told him," he decided. And walked toward the roan, now hitched to the corral fence. It snorted and tried to wheel.
"All right, my son," said Slim. "I ain't goin' to huht you. Jes' make you useful, caballo. You an' me are goin' to be friends."
The helpers came back with Raynor and the latigo with which Slim replaced the broken strap.
"I'll keep this fo' a souvenir," he said. "Let's git on with the roan. No need to blindfold him this time. He's part broke already."
He finished his morning's work without audience outside of the imperturbable Englishman, smoking his pipe. In him Slim sensed friendliness. Raynor left, and the helpers did their best. Four colts were turned into the right road for service before the triangle clanged for grub.
After the meal, with most of the hands absent on their various businesses, the Englishman joined Slim as he sat on a bench before starting in again.
"Good show, what?" said the other. "My name's Walters, Marvin. Didn't get a chance to talk to you last night. Turned in early. Had to go over the car after Miss Walsh brought it back. Quite a bit of a job.
"One of those blighters sliced your cinch," he went on. "They'll leave you alone after that shooting. Ripping stunt that. Most of 'em are blighters, y' know, an' Raynor's a blister.
"Mighty glad to have you here. I'm not much myself. Remittance man and a general rotter, but I like to see fair play. What? And I like to see a man score off his own bat. I'm not much on ropin' or ridin'. Never will be, though I've got a good seat, y' know. Couldn't handle anything like that roan. Admire you—immensely. I'm the handy man. If you get what I mean. Fix the dynamo, mend the pump, overhaul the tractor and the old Lizzie. Regular tinker. What? Don't talk much, but want to say this. If you ever need a man at your back I'll try to be there. So long. Got a short circuit to fix. Storm last night. Loafed this mornin'. Wonder Walsh don't kick me off the place. Fact is, Miss Walsh is sorry for me. That's the sort of chap I am, Marvin. The women get sorry for me. God made them that way. I went the other way. To the devil, old chap."
He stalked off, and Slim watched him with friendly gaze. It was just as well to have someone to depend on at the T.P.—outside of Walsh—and he felt that Walters—if that were his own name—for all his self depreciation, had good stuff in him.
THERE was a difference in the atmosphere of the bunkhouse that night. Not all of it could be attributed to Slim's display with his gun. That, he calculated, would be most likely to affect the men of mixed blood, but, while they treated him with a certain half sullen respect, it was a silent one. After the supper meal they foregathered with Raynor at one end of the table and started playing monte with a pack of greasy cards, noisily enough among themselves. But there were others who nodded at Slim as they came in, while one or two spoke. These, it seemed, were not without their feelings of fair play toward a newcomer who had acquitted himself well. The outfit appeared to be split into two factions, those who blindly regarded Raynor as something more than foreman and those who remained neutral in their regular jobs. Walters, the Englishman, mute most of the time, sat next to Slim, offered him a well read magazine. Slim was no longer an entire outsider. Two hands had gone to town in the afternoon, and these he had considered as Raynor's immediate followers.
The fifteen stolen steers still bothered Slim, though he fancied he now remembered the man who had been called Chief. A vague memory of a voice across the poker table where he had spilled his check grew stronger, but he still felt that Raynor had something to do with the deal. The steers had been placed in home pasture by Raynor preparatory to shipping, part of a car that was being made up. He had had the choice of place and he had neglected to place a night herd, ordinarily not necessary within wire, but, with the rumors of rustling that were about and had even reached Slim's ears in the next county, it would have been a wise precaution. Then there had been Raynor's almost insolent reply to Walsh, the foreman's swaggering attitude generally. Slim kept his ears open to the general talk while he turned the pages of his magazine, reading automatically. Sometimes the page was obscured by a phantasmal illustration, nothing at all to do with the story, a picture of Belle Walsh's face, always with a sentence whispered in the back of his brain—"She told him about the fight after all."
Slim was far from a fool. It was plain enough, putting things together, that Raynor had some hold over Walsh, and that explained the reluctance of the girl to have Slim interfere. She knew of that hold, or suspected it. He had been her champion once and he stood charged to help her again; but not to make a mess of things, to bring matters to an untimely head by being precipitant. Slim decided that what he needed now was the combination of a cool head, good ears and a quiet tongue.
He had an idea that he had another friend outside the bunkhouse in Wing, the presiding genius of the mess-hall. More than once he had noticed the genial Chinaman regarding him with eyes that were distinctly approving. The cook might appreciate the scene in the corral, but Slim did not analyze the reason for the friendship. It might never come to more than an extra slice of apple pie, perhaps one for Pete, an inveterate equine lover of sweets. Nevertheless it seemed worth having.
There was some jesting with the foreman that struck Slim as not altogether void of sarcasm, though it might be ordinary bunkhouse jealousy of Raynor's privileges.
"Mighty nice of you to spend an evenin' with us," said one. "We don't often see so much of you. ain't you goin' over to the Big House ternight?"
"I'm shy of dinero," retorted Raynor. "I'm takin' up a collection. You want to jine in?"
"I ain't much, on Mexican games," said the other, and by the tone of his voice Slim had little doubt that this man, at least, resented a little the probability, if not the fact, that he was working on an equality with men of mingled breed. Slim went on reading, listening. The gamblers' voices rose and fell. Raynor seemed to be winning on the turns of the cards. The four men at Slim's end of the table began to talk in comparatively low tones, but he heard them distinctly, though they apparently took it for granted that he was absorbed in his magazine. Walters, behind a cloud of smoke set out his cards at Canfield.
"Wonder if they's anything straight about this revolution?"
"Revolution, nothing. They don't call 'em revolutions across the river. They call 'em demonstrations. They have to happen every so often. Old Porfirio holds 'em checked up so hard they're bound to buck.
"I mighty nigh got demonstrated agin' a wall one time. They kin call 'em what they durn please, but I'm tellin' you they spill blood an' fire when they git goin'."
"That's the time you want to watch out fo' a Spigotty."
"That's South American wah-wah. Greaser."
One of them looked a little apprehensively toward the other end of the table.
"To blazes with them!" said the speaker. "Spigotty, dago or greaser. You can't trust none of 'em."
"You're dead wrong there. Jest as good as any folks. 'Cept the breeds."
They agreed on that and Slim felt better. If there ever came a time when issue was taken against Raynor there would be more than one or two against his crowd. Six, counting Walters, not counting Wing.
"Probably git some news from town when the boys git back."
"I ain't goin' to wait up ha'f the night to git it."
"Hear thet rumor about the Cattlemen's Association?"
"What?" The voices dropped lower still. Slim believed the precaution taken more against the monte players than himself. He could still hear fairly well in scraps when Raynor and his crowd did not make too much noise.
He heard bits about the Night Hawks, about a big reward, a vigilante organization. And, piecing them together, he drew a right conclusion. He arrived also at a pretty definite conclusion that whatever there was of inside crooked work in the stealing of T. P. cattle, these four men were neither in on it, nor were they members of the more or less mysterious Night Hawks.
There was a near row at the table end. It was curious that none of the men he fancied as breeds had other than eminently American names, but the admixture might be slight, and it was not at all uncommon for half breeds to take surnames that suggested Saxon blood, whether legally or not. Raynor threatened one of Slim's helpers, called Taylor, snatching his cards from him. Taylor flourished a knife that seemed to come out of his sleeve, but dropped it as the muzzle of Raynor's gun came above the edge of the table.
"If I didn't need you." Raynor snarled, "I'd shoot the lungs out of you."
The other mumbled something and Raynor shot a quick look down the table as if realizing that he had said something imprudent. He saw nothing that did not reassure him, and the incident passed.
Slim was genuinely tired with his day. He turned in early and soon Walters crawled into the bunk beneath him. One after another followed. The card game continued until someone expostulated loudly and forcibly from a bunk. Raynor went outside after turning down the lamp, but those who had played with him sat round the stove where wood was burning slowly under balanced drafts. Slim, half asleep, felt the cold breeze as Raynor came in again with the two who had gone to town. It was late, he knew, by the shift of moonbeams on the wall. The lamp was out now, all had gone to bunk but these three, and the room echoed with the varied snoring of the slumbering hands.
Raynor was talking in a low tone, using Spanish. Slim listened in, glad of his working knowledge of that tongue. He guessed the conversation the end of more vital matters discussed outside, but it was interesting enough, if only for the corroboration of his idea about the foreman, unmasked in his fluency.
"They might as well offer fifty thousand as ten," said Raynor. "No one will ever collect it."
"I'm not so sure of that. Dios, ten thousand American pesos is a big sum!"
"You thinking of going in for it?" came in Raynor's voice.
"Me? Heart of the Virgin, no!"
"Then keep watch on your tongue or you may lose it. A dog may eat it."
There was silence, the scuffling of men undressing in the dark, creaking of bunks, and silence. Slim did not go to sleep again that night. Ten thousand dollars was a lot of money. One might buy a good outfit with half that amount. Even aspire to think of marrying—someone with property rights of her own, for instance. And, if the collection included the elimination of Raynor? Bueno muy bueno.
The Englishman surprised Slim the next morning, finding a chance to talk apart.
"Hear those two chaps who went to town come in last night, with Raynor?"
"Yes. You awake?"
"Don't sleep, much. Thought you might not be snoozing either. Your breathing was mighty easy over me. Hear what they said? Understand it?"
"Yes. You habla Español?"
"Yes. Not saying so round here. Rotten work going on in this county, Marvin. Some of it slops over on this ranch. Can't understand it all. Don't need to. They're booking Walsh, and he's a decent sort. Sister is—well, she's sorry for me, let it go at that. I'm more or less of a rotter, but I draw the line at stealing—what? You're straight as a bit of string. Raynor's crooked as a hound's hind leg. Willing to wager his right name's more like Herrara. I've heard odds and ends, nights, when I'm awake, going over the bally mess I've made of things.
"Well, you heard 'em. These blackguards stealing cattle all over the shop call themselves the Night Hawks. No one knows who belongs. Getting afraid to talk about it. Now the Cattlemen's Association are after them. And it looks as if our little pal Raynor might be one of the bally ringleaders. Seemed to be afraid a bit. What? Thought the other party might squeal. Ten thousand's a nice little parcel of spondulix.
"You and I, now, suppose we get a rumble about something? Land our man. More with him, maybe. What say if we go halves on what we collect? Both work together. I'm not quite the ass I look and almost anyone would look silly beside you and your gun. What price us, old scout?"
Slim could see that Walters had intended to let him in on the overhead talk, even if Slim had not chanced to know Spanish, and he warmed to the Britisher. Whether they would be able to trap Raynor and, through him, the heads of the Night Hawks, was another matter. But it was worth trying, and he reflected that he had more than a suspicion he knew the man called "Chief."
"You're on, old chap? Righto."
IT WAS Sunday morning and the outfit lounging generally. Some had gone to town, but most of them loafed, mending leather or clothing, cleaning guns, skylarking. Walsh was in Caroca, trying to make final contract for the sale of beef to the Mexican federal forces who were now camped close to the border. He had kept this quiet. Not even Raynor suspected the possibility of such a deal.
The T. P. riders gaped when a roadster came down the lane from the gate that opened on the main road. There was a vision driving, alone, and most of them knew the lady, at least by sight. La Rose, in summer costume, stunning to their eyes, though her complexion, like her costume, was a trifle pronounced.
Slim, shaving meticulously by a mirror hung to a nail outside the bunkhouse door, saw her reflection and promptly drifted inside. He did not think she would be especially eager to see him, and his action was natural enough. The car slowed by the gate of the garden, then came on. La Rose liked the flowers but suspected the reason for their existence. It was only on the way out that she remembered talk of Walsh's sister, and she had almost turned back. She had seen nothing of Walsh on the road or in Caroca. But she hesitated to call at the house, and drove on to where the men rose as one from the bench and off the top rail of the opposite fence, glad that, from sheer custom, they had on their glad shirts. Those who had sombreros swept them off gallantly as she surveyed them with a smile. Walters stepped forward.
His manner evidently impressed her as a brand of politeness not common to the neighborhood.
"I've never seen you at the Cactus, have I?" she asked, her eyes roving for sight of Walsh, or Raynor or Slim. She was still vindictive, but Walters, with his unaffected gentility, checked her a little. He was a distinct type. As a string to her bow he might be efficient. And she was a little afraid of him.
"I didn't know I'd find you there," he said, and got a dazzling smile for reward. "My error. Can I serve you?"
She was not quite sure whether he was mocking her or not with his melancholy eyes. Here was a man who had seen life. Remittance man, of course. But apparently working. A phenomenon. A puzzle that intrigued her—a little. She made up her mind to see more of him.
"I'm looking for Mr. Walsh," she said. "I rather think he expects me."
She raised her voice, which was well modulated, hoping that Raynor might be within hearing, knowing that some of these men considered her more or less the foreman's girl, sufficiently so not to try to mine his claim. The long Englishman with his horse-face, was different. She rather thought he'd cut in on Raynor if she tried to make him. Slim dropped out of her mind. The man called Taylor went in search of Raynor, currying favor, and found him looking at a wirecut on his horse.
"Johnny Bull's trying to steal yore gel," he said.
Raynor looked at him in surprise. "What's eatin' you?" he asked. "What gal?"
"La Rose. She's here in her John Henry. Come out to see Walsh, she says. Ses he was expectin' her."
"That'sa damn lie." Raynor hurried off. La Rose called to him gaily. She was chagrined at the news of Walsh's absence, but she was not going to spoil her day. Raynor was the next best bet. To pit him against the Britisher might be better fun than the cowboy whose name she did not know. She considered Slim as dumb where women were concerned, anyway. He didn't matter so much with better game in hand.
Walters knew by bunkhouse gossip of Raynor's leaning. He was shrewd enough to debit La Rose with her desire for flirting and its complications. He had not trailed the world without acquiring wisdom. And he turned away, despite her alluring glance. Raynor caught it and his face grew darker. This was his girl. He did not relish interference and the word of Walsh rankled.
"Thought you weren't comin'," he began. "You're late."
La Rose gave him an admiring glance, gasping a little at his cleverness. She let him help her from the car, draw her away from the crowd.
"What's this about Walsh? Trying to start somethin' you can't finish?"
"You've no strings on me, Sled Raynor. You're hurting my arm."
"I'll twist it off if you try to make a fool out of me. Rollin' yore eyes at that British dude."
"He's a gentleman, anyway."
"Well I'm not. As for that dude, I'll spoil him if he monkeys round you. Now then, what about Walsh?"
"He invited me out here."
"I don't believe it. If he did, why ain't he here to meet you?"
He had let go her wrist and La Rose was beginning to enjoy herself.
"I didn't set any special date."
Raynor's face began to twitch. "I'll tell him where he heads in. You, too. You lay off Walsh."
"Since when did you give me orders?"
"I'm givin' 'em to you now. You came out here to see me, sabe? We'll take a ride together in thet car of yourn, back on the mesa. I'll git the Chink to put up some lunch."
This did not suit La Rose. Things were not going as she planned. Raynor was asserting his masterful manner, and she felt something of the old lure of it.
"I'm not going," she said. "If Walsh isn't home I'll call on his sister."
That was bravado, but Raynor's coarse guffaw stung her pride and unleashed her temper.
"Think she'd have anything to do with yore sort?" Raynor sneered.
La Rose, in a fury, slapped him across the cheek. Her jeweled ring struck the lip that Slim had split and which was barely beginning to heal. Blood spurted and, as La Rose started back, alarmed at the result of her blow but still angry, Raynor started for her. But he checked himself, pressing the loose ends of his neckerchief to the cut.
"I'll fix you fo' that, you hellcat!" he said. There were flakes of fire in his dark eyes and his voice was low and deadly. The girl shrank further off, watching his clutching hands, suddenly afraid.
"You'll leave me alone. I'm through with you," she panted, forgetful of the cowboys, a dozen paces away, watching them.
"I'm not through with you."
"I know too much about you, Sled Raynor," she said, and her voice grew shrill with terror.
"Yah! what you know!" He stood in front of her, covering her from the little crowd in the front rank of which stood Walters, his left hand stroking his gaunt chin, his lank figure seemingly slack, though there was a light in his too often vacuous eyes. La Rose backed against the fence of the corral, at bay. Raynor had boasted to her that the hands at Tres Piños were his tools and, with Walsh away, she became panicky. Womanlike, she seized any weapon.
"We've got a new dancer at the Cactus," she said. "She's made friends with me. Calls herself La Paloma. She knows you."
La Rose had made no definite threat; it was probably that she suspected more than she knew, but Raynor's face turned to that of a devil as he heard the name of the girl who called herself the Dove. Far from a dove was Teresa Hernandez. A hawk, too wild even for Raynor to tame. It was she who had danced at the cantina the night Raynor had dragged Walsh away after the quarrel and the shooting.
"I'll slit your throat before it cackles too much," he said, his eyes bloodshot, murderous. "And La Paloma's afterwards."
She believed him, for all the sunny day and the onlooking cowboys. It all swam before her eyes a little.
"You'll swing for it," she gasped as Raynor made motion toward his belt, the devil inside of him rejoicing at sight of the frightened woman who stared at him in genuine horror. Neither of them noticed Walters strolling toward them. He'd scare her into line, thought Raynor; flash the knife on her. He drew it halfway from its sheath at his belt, then sent it back as La Rose cowered.
"I'll do better than that," he said grimly. "I'll send in yore name to the Night Hawks, my lady. They won't slit that pretty throat of yores, mebbe, but they'll do worse than that. You won't want to call yoreself La Rose after they git through with you."
She blanched under her rouge at the name of the masked riders of the night.
"Oh, my God!" she moaned as Raynor grinned at her.
"Rotten bad form to frighten a lady, Raynor, what?"
Walters wore no weapon. His hands dangled low at his sides. There was a flame in his light blue eyes that held Raynor for a moment before he stepped back, crouching at the hips, his bruised face cruel, his hand darting to his gun.
"You damned dude!" he said, and La Rose shrieked.
It was Raynor's love of making a man cringe when he had the drop on him that saved Walters. The Englishman stood his ground as the foreman's gun came out of its holster and he let the muzzle nose its slow and deadly way upward. On the cry, Slim, his face clear of lather, his dressing finished, sensing the note of distress, sprang through the door of the bunkhouse, Colt in hand, taking in the situation as the cowboys stirred, the whole action swift as the turning of a hand.
The foreman half turned. He had Walters covered anyway, and there was an imperative accent to the calling of his name that warned him. He saw the glint of blued steel in the hand of the new hand. There were thirty yards between them, but fear laid a hand on his shoulder and his pulses slowed. In that instant Walters deftly kicked the gun out of his hand. It went flying over the bars into the corral. The Englishman offered his arm in courtly fashion to the girl and she took it, glad of the support, as he strolled off with her. Raynor was left with distorted face, convulsed with rage, humiliated, conscious of the menace of the gun in Slim's steady hand, of Slim's watchful gaze.
Then the weapon was holstered, and Raynor strode up to Slim, fists clenched.
"Damn you!" he spluttered. "You're fired. I'll give you yore time. Git yore hawss an' fog out of here, pronto. The dude goes, too."
Slim laughed quietly. "I wouldn't think of leavin' till yore eye gits well," he said softly. The words braked Raynor's fury. "Makes you look so't of one-sided," Slim went on, his head on one side as if he contemplated whether it would not be a righteous deed to restore balance by a second attack. "Man who hires me fires me," he drawled. "Thet's a rule of mine. I reckon Walters feels the same way erbout it."
"Walters'll have to wait till Walsh makes him out a check," said Raynor. "The two of you can go together." It was a lame way out of it, but better than none. Slim had worsted him. Walters and La Rose were walking toward the flower garden. Belle Walsh stood on the porch surveying them curiously. She had vaguely heard the shriek, from the back of the house where she had been in conference with Wing over culinary matters.
Raynor wheeled, lunged into a lane between two corrals. He entered one, retrieved his gun, saddled and mounted his horse and rode off toward Caroca, presumably to meet Walsh and ensure the discharge of the two hands.
Slim went back into the bunkhouse. He was still clear of La Rose, content that Walters had taken her off, though he did not suppose that the girl would want to have anything more to do with him. He had brought matters to a climax that might lose him his job. That did not worry him so much as the thought that his usefulness might be destroyed in aiding Walsh and his sister. It all depended upon how strong a hold the foreman possessed over his employer. Walsh would be loath to lose him, he felt certain. And Walters was a man hard to replace, with his knack with engines.
It would all be settled when Walsh got back from town. It was no use borrowing trouble, and Slim did not see how else he could have acted. Therefore he shrugged his shoulders and, gazing through a side window, saw a scene that rather staggered him. Belle Walsh was coming down the path to the gate. Walters, imperturbable, was halting to greet her, La Rose hanging back, uncertain of her reception.
The Englishman had secured the dancer's right name—and that was curious in itself, for no one else in Caroca knew it.
"Miss Walsh, will you permit me to introduce to you Miss Margaret Baker?" he said. The words were carefully chosen, and the emphasis as carefully placed. It neither offended La Rose nor deceived Belle Walsh. She looked a little searchingly at Walters and then at Margaret Baker. She took in the rouge, the gown, the perfume and, since she was far from a fool, it is probable that she placed the dance-hall attraction with fair accuracy. Perhaps she saw more than most people did. Perhaps La Rose showed a diffidence, an appeal, that was half shrinking rather than her usual defiance. The soul of the innocent girl in her gingham gown may have caught a glimpse of the soul of the other that showed an aspect unknown to her little world. It had not been all pretence when she had told Walsh she wanted to get out of it all.
And, besides, Walters was a favorite. Belle relied on his discretion in such matters. She was not narrow minded.
"I am glad to meet you, Miss Baker," she said. "Won't you and Mr. Walters come up to the house and have some ice cream? Wing's made some and it's pleasant on the porch."
La Rose went up between the flowers with her eyes moist, to the danger of their make-up. She was subdued and gentle and the hostess did most of the talking. She did not ask her guest what she was doing in Caroca, but she did find out where she came from, and soon the two were talking about gardens, with Walters, stroking his chin, between them. It was a curious conclave.
"I thought something had happened," Belle Walsh said once. "It sounded like a shriek, and that brought me out. It was fortunate I did, and saw you."
"Shriek of laughter, I rather think," said Walters. "Raynor was really humorous. Had to be for me to see the joke, don't you know!"
When La Rose left her voice shook a little. "I'm not fixed so's I can entertain you." she said, "but if I see any way of getting even, I'll grab it.
"She's just about an angel," she told Walters as they latched the gate, while wondering cowboys whispered and whistled softly.
These demonstrations ceased as the Englishman came up with the girl on his arm. They had seen a touch of his quality. And to cross him meant crossing Slim Marvin, still inside. Walters, unconscious of any hitches, told La Rose that he wanted her to meet his friend.
"Saved me from sudden death and all that, when Raynor started trouble," he said, and called Slim's name aloud, presenting him as Mr. Marvin. There was no enmity now in the eyes or the heart of La Rose. True hospitality had almost wrought a miracle.
"I'm glad to know your name," she said to Slim. "I saw you call the turn on Raynor."
Slim begged her not to mention it, while Walters slipped inside and came out buckling a gun belt about his waist.
"I'm going into town with you," he said to La Rose.
"How will you get back?"
"The Old Man has the car," he said. "He said he'd not likely be coming back till late. I'll find him. And you might run into Raynor."
She knew he meant Walsh by the ranch term of Old Man. And she hoped they would not meet him on the way. Things had changed since morning. As for Raynor—the fear of his threat was still upon her, though she had tried to shake it off. She knew its possibilities.
"If Raynor meets us?" she prefaced. "He's got it in, for you."
"I know one end of a gun from the other," Walters answered laconically, and the girl felt confidence in his ability to take care of himself. He had placed himself in jeopardy for her sake greater than he would generally risk, she fancied. At least she hoped it was for her sake. Not just because she was a woman. "I heard what Raynor was saying to you as I came up," Walters went on. "Don't you bother too much about that. A whole lot of that Night Hawk palaver means nothing."
"You don't know," she said.
"Know quite a lot. They've rather shot their bolt, y' know. Cattlemen's Association after them and all that sort of thing. Don't you worry."
"I won't, if you tell me not to." She said it simply, without coquetry. "I don't know what Joe Walsh will think of me having visited his sister. He'll be furious."
"I imagine you can guess if you want to try. I'm not her sort. You know what I do for a living."
"Dance your feet off. Look here, Miss Baker, I'm glad to say that Miss Walsh is a friend of mine. I'm a bad egg and she knows it. I try not to be a cad, but I'm a long way from being a saint. A sight further off than you are."
"You're a man."
"There's jolly well no difference. Woman gets the worst of it, that's all. And I'm mighty glad that you are a woman, by Jove, I am! A friend of mine is a friend of Miss Belle's, or I wouldn't have introduced you."
"You mean you really want to be a friend of mine?"
"We'll start at that." She looked at him with the searching glance of a woman often deceived, but he met it imperturbably, with a little nod that warmed her.
WALSH came back from Caroca, Walters with him in the car, triumphant. Thanks to Jaynes, he had been in touch with an empowered member of Diaz's staff and laid plans for a highly satisfactory deal. He was sure now of selling his excess beef at a good price. The Mexican federal troops were coming up close to the line at a point almost opposite Caroca. A tentative price and quantity had been discussed. He could get rid of all his grade stock and financially shelve his worries. Without the ancient prejudice and grudges of the oldtime ranchers and cattlemen, Walsh knew that the word of a Mexican gentleman was a bond, and the officer he had spoken with was of hidalgo blood.
He was able to throw off his worry about Raynor to a great extent. The foreman had found him, demanding the discharge of Walters and Slim, and Walsh had effectively denied him.
"No time to talk about such nonsense, Sled. I've got a big deal on hand. Need every hand I've got. Let it blow over. I want you to deliver the stock to the reservation. I'll be busy while you're gone. It'll all be forgotten by the time you get back."
Raynor's eyes narrowed. He'd deliver the steers and collect the money. Whether he'd turn it over to Walsh or not, he was not so sure. He did not like Walsh's manner. It was a little too confident. He seemed to be getting out of hand. But he said nothing more about firing Slim or Walters. When he had seen Walsh and the Englishman leave town he got busy in quarters that he knew as excellent sources of information, seeking to find out what Walsh meant by his big deal. What he learned caused him to grin complacently as he began to lay his plans. He, too, would have to be busy before he started for the reservation, so busy that he was willing to leave La Rose alone for the time being. He would take with him his own special crowd from the hands at Tres Piños. What he had to say to them after they got away would quite restore his prestige. It was late when he got back to the ranch. The next day he greeted Slim and Walters with a surly nod.
Walsh, telling the news to Belle, paid scant attention at the time to what she said about her guest. After she had gone to bed, however, he whistled softly and resolved to keep his peace. If Walters were really taken with La Rose his own little entanglement was over with. She was not a bad sort, he told himself. And Walters knew his own affairs best.
All he had to do was to time things properly. It would take Raynor all of ten days to go to the reservation and back. Ample time in which to round up, deliver, and collect spot cash for the Diaz contract, once that was signed. And he had leeway on the reservation delivery. Raynor would lay no hands on the Mexican pesos. He began, in his new found confidence, to almost believe that Raynor had been bluffing him. As soon as he had money in the bank he meant to start some inquiries about the man he had killed. With money he could employ the right people to find out the exact truth of the affair.
The reservation steers were rounded up, and Raynor departed. Apparently the foreman knew nothing of the projected sale to the Mexican commissary, and Walsh breathed a sigh of relief.
He summoned Slim to the ranch-house the night that Raynor left and told him of the deal.
"I'm making you acting foreman, Slim," he said. "Your salary goes up to ninety. May stay there. You don't know the place yet, but Harper does and he'll tell you where the stock is ranging. Three hundred head, including cows, at sixty dollars straight. War prices. Start rounding up tomorrow. We've a week to deliver. I can get some drivers later. We'll hold 'em in what we call Little Park, inside the wire. Don't have to cross the river. They'll take 'em over on this side. I'll go with you, of course."
Here was a different Walsh from the man Slim had first met, forceful and sure of himself. Slim rejoiced, not only for the sake of his new made friend, but on his sister's account.
She met him at supper and her mood was gracious.
"I've got a delayed acknowledgment to make to you, Mr. Marvin," she said.
"Oh, call him Slim," broke in her brother.
She hesitated, flushed a little, then did as she was asked, and the sound of his nickname on her lips was music to its owner.
It's an apology as well," she went on. "I've told my brother about what happened in Owl Canyon. There were reasons for the way I behaved. Some day Joe will tell you about that, I hope. You must have thought me very rude. I'll try and make amends. Joe says you are to be acting foreman. You'll take your meals with us, of course, as many as you can, and come over evenings."
Here was heaven for Slim, striving to say the right thing and getting tongue-tied. She laughed at him, and after supper sang and played for both of them. She asked him if he knew any of the Spanish canciones, and Slim took his courage in both hands.
"I can't sing," he said. "No more'n a crow. But mebbe you know this one?" He spoke the lines in Spanish, and Walsh snickered softly.
"I can't speak Spanish, much less sing it," said the girl. "But I've got a translation of that. It ought to have a guitar accompaniment, but I'll do the best I can." She played a few chords and began to sing:
Eyes like stars that shine so bright
In the azure depths of night;
Voice that thrills like song of lark.
Breath as sweet as breeze that blows
O'er the jasmine and the rose
'Twixt the twilight and the dark.
Slim wondered if she were a little self-conscious as she sang. He hoped so, but it was hard to tell in the half light where she sat. The song seemed at once to bring them nearer and to separate them. He was only a rough rider, schooled well enough, but better versed of late in the crude ways of the bunkhouse and mess-hall, the free and easy life of the range, than in places like this room with its symbols of refinement. Walsh was not very different from him, he comforted himself, but Walsh was an owner and Slim only a cowboy.
Yet he found himself at ease finally, after the singing was done and Walsh busy at letters and accounts. She got him talking of hunting and fishing and showed herself as no novice at either. She loved the open; saddle and rod and gun, blanket and slicker and campfire, she knew them all.
He went back to the bunkhouse walking on air, building castles in the same unstable medium. And he was up at dawn, flinging himself into the work. Raynor and the Night Hawks were forgotten in the task at hand.
Followed glorious, crisp mornings with the steaks broiling and the coffee simmering, potatoes frying, biscuits in the camp oven, Walters installed as cook for the little outfit. Swift riding after the scattered bunches of barren grade cows, culling the steers, shouting across arroyos as the stock plunged to escape the roundup, and the ponies slid down on their tails or climbed like goats, as keen for the work as their riders.
And always, early. Belle Walsh, loping out from the ranch, doing her share on a wise old cowpony, almost as good as a man, staying till sundown, going back to the ranch again with a cheery wave of hand that Slim came to think was meant for him more than the rest.
She was more than making amends. He felt sure of that sometimes. She found opportunity to be with him through the day, and there were glances besides the hand waving when they parted.
Then Walters served the savory supper, and afterward told them in his jerky, effective way, many tales by land and sea, adventures credited always to someone else, but which Slim guessed were largely personal experiences. So to bed, tarp on the ground, blankets over and boots in with the owner to save frozen wrinkles in the morning. Sometimes Walsh stayed out with them. Two nights of the five he went home with his sister to be near the telephone.
All slept like logs, unmoving, but Slim dreamed, and in his dreams his difficulties vanished and he became an ardent wooer, a faculty that left him utterly undaring when daylight came, and Belle came loping over the rise after breakfast. But he thought that she knew how he felt, and perhaps understood why he hesitated to be more bold.
By noon of the sixth day the full shipment was assembled in Little Park, a bowl in the breakdown of the mesa with a spring in the center and good feed between the sage and mesquite clumps. They were inside wire, but Slim ordered night herd. The day was sultry, the sunrise had broken through in murky crimson and saffron and he did not like the look of the weather. He remembered the day of his arrival, the three pines standing out against the big cloud, the center one blasted, looking like a great gallows, and the downpour that followed.
The stock was to rest quietly till the next day, set for delivery. Slim was responsible, and he took no chances.
"Storm may set 'em millin', if it comes after nightfall," he said. "There's enough of 'em to stampede, and I've seen less break plumb through three strand. Five wouldn't hold 'em. And we don't want to lose 'em the way other stock's been lost off this ranch. We'll split the night herd."
He was quite sure of the men under him. They were good hands, content with their wages and their jobs, and now beyond any possible influence from Raynor, if they had ever been susceptible, which he doubted. He supposed he would have to give up his authority when Raynor came back, but he was not sure of that. Walsh had meant something when he said his foreman's wage might be continued, and he had done well. He knew that aside from Walsh's commendations.
Storm masses assembled, seemed to dissolve all through the morning, and soon after noon the weather grew more ominous. Dark, slatey vapors piled up back of the mesa, the cattle were uneasy at their grazing, there was no air stirring, and every move of the men brought sweat from their skins. There was little to do, but he held them all for the night watch. Even Walters, who rode well enough. Walsh left before supper, approving Slim's plans, leaving them in his charge.
"I've got some phoning to do in winding up the business," he said. "Report things in good shape, for one thing, thanks to you. You won't stay a hand long, Slim, you know how to manage."
Belle Walsh had not come out. The Mexican commissary colonel, with one or two companions, were to come out to the ranch to inspect and pay over the money, and she had plans to attend to for their entertainment.
"Be sure to be on hand, Slim," Walsh said as he left. "Need you to help talk to 'em. I can't do it all, and you know the lingo."
"So does Walters. How about him?"
"Sure. Might have known he'd talk Mexican. Never says much, that hombre, but he knows a heap. Both of you show at lunch. Harper can run things out here till inspection."
"It did not cool off at nightfall as usual. There was a mist over half the sky, and no stars visible. A moon was due around midnight, but Slim did not think they would see much of it. The air seemed heavy, compressed under the sheer weight of the black cloud mountains behind the mesa, over it now, with streaks of lightning flickering through the mass, and now and then a low rumble of thunder.
"She'll be more'n jest a cloudburst," said Harper. "When she comes we'll be swimmin' herd stead of ridin'. Yes, sir, we'll be duckfooted befo' mornin'. Who goes on first?"
"We'll shoot for it," said Slim, and the dice were rolled on a blanket by the light of the fire. Walters had got a pile of wood, enough for the night, an extra tarpaulin to keep it dry, though Harper vowed it would float off once the storm broke.
"I know 'em when they come this time of year," he said. "Reg'lar Noah's Ark floods. Think they was a lake over you an' someone pulled a slide out of the bottom.
Two men mounted and rode round the dark mass of the herd. The sound of their crooning, melancholy songs came to the others, a word or two of the Cowboy's Lament:
"Oh, as I walked down the streets of Laredo,
As I walked there in Laredo one day!"
Tobacco glowed save where Harper softly mouthed his harmonica, the fire burned sluggishly as if lacking oxygen and the clouds imperceptibly moved eastward, a pall above them, shifting in a wind that was screened by the vapory bulk.
"I got a hunch," said Harper as he tucked his harmonica away. "I sure got a hunch this is a hoodoo night. You heed me, hombres, there's goin' to be trouble at Tres Piños befo' mornin'. I felt this way befo'. Once was the night I went an' got married, an' another time we got mixed in with some rustlers an' rode the leather off'n our saddles fo' we got clear. 'Nother time——"
"Thar's frogs down in the spring to do the croakin'," said the man next to him laconically. "Go down an' jine 'em, cowboy."
"Trouble at Tres Piños!" The phrase stayed in the front of Slim's mind. He had used it himself, and now it came with a premonition he set down to the weather and his own nervousness in handling the cattle through the night.
The two riders were walking their horses round and round the herd that 'stood un feeding, snuffing, snorting and occasionally pawing at the ground.
Harper, not to be balked, delighting in his own chronic pessimism, started a new subject.
"Fine weather for the Night Hawks," he said. "If they got wind we had this herd here all ready to stampede, they'd save the storm the trouble. Drive 'em over the line an' sell 'em to the greasers. They'd buy. Price 'ud likely be better than a regular deal."
"What would we be doin'?"
"Shootin' off our li'l guns, one bullet to every fifty agen us. It's a Night Hawk night, I'm tellin' you."
Slim shifted uneasily. The possibility was not too remote. He knew the deal had been kept quiet, but there was no telling where it might have leaked. None knew the sources of information of the Night Hawks. It was said that there was at least one active member on every outfit.
"Jolly rum thing happened once down in the South Seas," said Walters as he made his pipe draw to his satisfaction. "In the New Hebrides, at a place called Aoba. Called the Traders' Graveyard, too. Only there were no graves. The natives who killed 'em buried 'em in their bellies. There was a copra planter by the name of Heywards——"
Silently Slim blessed the Englishman as the rest craned to listen to the yarn. There was no sense talking about the Night Hawks. That sort of thing made for bad shooting if anything should happen. They would listen to Walters all night with his talk of pearlers and poachers, cannibals and wizards, club houses lined with skulls, and grisly tales of idol drums beating up for head hunting raids.
A few heavy drops fell, spitting in the fire, ceased. The gloom seemed to deepen. A livid tongue of flame that lapped the forward edge of the cloud showed it far advanced. When the rain came they would be in the middle of it. They dragged their slickers to them and put them on, while Walters yarned on.
THREE men came out in a car to Tres Piños that night, late, just before Walsh was ready to go to bed, well satisfied with the way everything was going. Belle had sat up with him. Walsh had been uneasy at the gathering storm, consulting the ranch barometer that gave an ominous reading.
"I think I ought to go out to Little Park," he said.
"Why? Slim can do everything, can't he?"
"He surely can. Mighty good man. Too good to be a hand."
"I don't think he will be long."
"That's what I told him myself. Like him, Sis?"
He asked the question without special meaning and stared as he saw a swift blush sweep over the girl's neck and face. But she did not hide her head or turn away. She nodded at him, conscious of her telltale banner of rose.
"By Jings!" he said softly. "Like that, is it? Couldn't suit me any better, Belle. I'd pick him fo' a brother-in-law without hesitatin'. He'll do to take along. But, dern his hide, he'll have to stay here at Tres Piños. I'll be Jinged I lose you fo' housekeeper. Two men won't be much more trouble'n one, will they?"
"You're a bit premature, Joe," she answered him more composedly.
"Ain't spoken yet? He will. I've seen it in his eye. Saw it the night you sang that song in here. He's a bit shy. Best men usually are that way."
"Including yourself?" Belle parried, thinking that she had seen the look her brother spoke of long before. In Owl Canyon, even when she had snubbed Slim, for Joe's sake."
"Me? I'm cut out fo' a bachelor. I'm not shy. I'm too easy. Too liable to be taken in by some designin' female who wouldn't know a saddle tree from a waffle iron. Think we better leave it to Slim tonight."
"Of course. And you're tired."
"I am, Sis. Been under a strain. There's been times I sure craved a drink, but that's out. And I wouldn't wonder but what we were out—of the woods."
The Raynor matter was taboo between them by mutual consent. She smiled at him.
"I'm sure of it, Joe. Shall we go to bed?"
It was then they saw the headlights of the car outside, halting, shut off; heard steps on the porch. They looked at each other in a quick alarm. The dead Mexican, for all their affected cheer, stalked a constant phantom through the secret places of their minds.
Joe went to the door and admitted the visitors. Two were big cattlemen, the third the sheriff of the county.
"We're a bit late, Walsh, but it's important and we had to go to other places." The speaker was a tall, gaunt man with strong features, iron gray hair, mustache and goatee of the old-timer. It was Hesketh, a close friend of the elder Walsh while the latter was alive.
Walsh produced cigars, saw them seated. Belle, reassured by the talk of other visits, slipped out to make coffee.
"Won't keep you long," said Hesketh. "It's about this Night Hawks matter. They've got to be cleaned up. I'm representing the Cattlemen's Association in this. We came to an agreement at the last meeting. A special one. You weren't there. We didn't want to say what it was about in the notice. Can't be too careful of a leak. I trust my hands, but I'm hanged if I know or not whether some of them haven't been mixed up in it. Can't keep track of 'em when they say they're goin' to town. I suppose you didn't think it important, like the rest we've seen tonight.
"We want you in with us. We've voted ten thousand dollars to be given to the men who turn in the ringleaders. Understand there are three of 'em. One called the 'Chief.' We've got the funds and, if we hadn't, we'd raise 'em by special assessment.
"You've got that shipment rounded up you were talking about to me?"
He did not mention Diaz, but he was in Walsh's confidence. He had helped in the preliminaries. Walsh nodded.
"Holding them in Little Park," he said. "Deliver 'em tomorrow."
"Tidy amount there for you. Got a night herd? One you can trust?"
"We've heard a few things. You're in with us on this, of course? In your own interests."
Walsh hesitated as his sister came in with the coffee.
"My brother will join," she said. "We were talking it over the other night."
"Good. Thanks for the coffee, Miss Belle. We need it. It's going to be a bad night, and we may be busy. We're looking for some action tonight, Walsh. I'd ask you to come along; there's thirty of us ready for a start when we get back, but I recommend you to go over to Little Park, whether you're sure of your men or not. Never can tell when those Night Hawks'll swoop. They've probably realized their time is getting short. Bound to have heard what we're up to."
He leaned forward and shot out his question. "What do you know about your man, Raynor? Is he in charge of your herd at Little Park?"
Little bunches of muscle showed along the line of Walsh's jaws as he set them for what might be coming. He did not look at his sister
"Why?" he asked. "Though Raynor ain't there. He's taking a bunch over to the reservation on the beef contract."
"Humph! Ever thought he might be mixed up in the steers run off from you? You told me it almost looked like inside work one time."
Walsh spoke slowly, picking his phrase. "I've got no evidence that way," he said.
"When did he start with the reservation bunch?" Walsh told him.
"Figure he ought to be there by this?"
"Ought to be there yesterday at the latest. Delivery's due tomorrow. They won't inspect till then. I didn't get the whole contract. They'll wait till it's filled from other ranches. I allowed two days for red tape. They use it plenty over to the Agency."
The three looked at one another and nodded. The sheriff coughed and spoke for the first time, jerking his head toward the third man.
"Pritchard, here, says he saw Raynor in town last night, or thinks he did."
"I ain't certain," said Pritchard. "I ran out of gas outside of Padilla's fonda an' went in to get some. Padilla's got a car. There was a bunch of men in the bar, talking Mex. Some of 'em went out as I went in. One of 'em sure looked like Raynor."
"That's all," said Hesketh, rising, bowing to Belle as he finished his coffee. "We'll be going along. Made time in the sheriff's car, but I wouldn't wonder if we all forked saddles tonight. It's going to be a wild one."
Gun belts showed on all of them as they stood up.
"Take my advice and go out to Little Park, Walsh," said Hesketh as they left. "An' take a good slicker along. You'll need it."
Walsh watched the car lunging off through the night, heard the first patter of heavy rain.
"You're going, Joe?"
"I think I'd better. Hesketh's advice is usually good. There's something on foot. If that Night Hawk bunch wants to make a quick haul before they get stopped, ours is a tempting proposition. Only five men with Slim. I hate to leave you alone."
"That's foolish. There's Wing. And nothing to be afraid of. I'll go to bed."
THE steers that had been destined for the wards of the Nation were herded in a narrow glen recessed on the mesa top, two days' journey from Tres Piños. Two men guarded them, though only one was on watch and he sleepily, cursing his luck at being left out of the fun.
As the rain began to come down hard he went over and woke his companion, setting his watch, the only one between them, ahead an hour. He had no intention of getting wet.
"It is not that late," said the other in Spanish. "You are a liar, Pedro, and if the moon was up I'd prove it to you."
"It's up, but you can't see it for the clouds, compadre."
"Then what in the name of God is the good of standing watch and getting drowned when you can't see the hand before the eyes. Let the steers watch themselves! They can't get out of the gulch. It's wired."
"You wouldn't say that if Raynor was here."
"Raynor! He works for us tonight. Let us rest. It is an evil night. I heard an owl after I lay down. The worst of luck. If things go wrong it will not be with us. Here are fat cattle. We know the hidden way through the mesa. We might even take them to the reservation and get the money. We could say the storm hindered us."
"Luis, you have the brain of the archangel Michael. I will share what is left in the flask with you. Good mescal. And then we will rest."
With the tarpaulins left by their absent comrades spread over them the pair, riders in the pay of Tres Piños, members of the Night Hawks on picket duty, snored in unison.
OUT from Caroca, clad in ponchos of oiled cloth, hiding them from chin to knee, save as they flapped in the gallop, like wings, a masked cavalcade swept through the dark, stormy night, racing toward Little Park where Slim and Walters, slickered, but with their gun belts outside, rode round the restless herd in their turn at night watch.
It was Slim who first caught sight of Walsh in a gleam of lightning that showed up the hides of the restless herd like wet satin, their tossing horns and restless eyes.
"Thought I'd ride over," said Walsh. "Everything O. K.?"
"All's well, so far. We're holdin' 'em. It's sure goin' to be a wet night. Everything all right to the ranch?"
"Miss Belle there alone?"
"With Wing. She wanted me to come."
Slim said nothing. A vagrant wish came into his mind that she had not been left at Tres Piños without her brother. But there could be no danger at the ranch. Somehow he felt there was trouble in the night.
"We just went on watch," he said finally.
"Good. I'll ride with you."
"There's coffee by the fire, under a tarp," said Walters.
"Fine. But I——"
He never finished the speech. Out of the black night a horde of horsemen swarmed, a shouting mob that split about the herd. Guns fired, stabbing the gloom. Lightning flared and the rain poured down as men struggled out of blankets and sought their saddles.
Riderless horses careered, charging the stampeding cattle. Clang of breaking wire. Shot after shot. Seven men against five times as many. Fighting against desperate odds as the thunder rolled and crashed.
The herd once broken, started toward the fence where the wire had been already cut to give passage to the raiders. Though many of them blundered against the wire in their frenzy from fire and storm, the rest poured through the gap toward which they were driven; while the majority of the Night Hawks seemed bent on exterminating the men in charge of the steers.
Whether they recognized Walsh, identified him as the owner, was hard to say. Tremendous bursts of electric discharge levined through the clouds or lit up their under surfaces and all the rain-soaked earth, with the steel rods of the water glittering in the instant before darkness once more shut down.
So brilliant was this display that it momentarily illumined all unmasked faces, bringing them out of the blackness as vividly as a photographer's flashlight.
Yet all this was so mingled with the speed and twisting of the horses, upflung necks, rearing bodies, men bending from their saddles to fire, or riding close to their mounts' manes while they reloaded, that distinguishing individuals was largely a question of chance.
Slim and Walters were the closest together when the rustlers came charging and shouting through the fence in their well planned offensive, surrounding the herd, driving them off, while they wiped out all witnesses of their crime. That Raynor was in this Slim did not doubt, and he guessed that the reservation delivery had never been made. The foreman and his followers had got wind of the sale to the Mexican federals and, knowing every inch of the terrain, had watched the gathering of the herd and waited until the last moment when they could strike most efficiently. Then the weather turned in favor of their deviltry with its own fearful artillery and barrage of wind and rain.
As he saw—while lightning glared a ghastly blue—the T. P. steers leaping through the gap where the wire had been nipped, plunging through breaking strands that gave before their brutish madness or piling up against it in a living wave, Slim, firing at the ponchoed figures whose disguise made it easy to distinguish friend from foe, sought for the foreman.
Here was a man's affair. Raynor arrayed against Tres Piños would be fair game to Slim's gun. The hold Slim fancied Raynor held over Walsh could be wiped out and a good riddance. But all the raiders were masked with black silk kerchiefs tied above the bridges of their noses, hanging down to join the batlike ponchos. From beneath the short folds, hands were thrust to hold reins and shoot, as the robber cavalry systematically went about their butchery.
Not without their rebuffs. On his right Slim saw Walters coolly discharging his gun with deliberate aim, waiting for the lightning flashes that came in fast succession. The Englishman would probably never acquire the cowboy seat, but he rode like a polo player, weaving through the men who opposed him and sought to shoot him down in the wild turmoil of gale-flung masses of rain, peal after peal of deafening thunder, bellowing of cattle, bawling of men, crack of pistols, plunging, galloping horses.
Slim felt the swift sear of a bullet at his right side, judged it had grazed his ribs, felt a warm gush of blood against the chill of his slicker envelope. His hat was gone, by bullet or wind, and the rain pelted at him, obscuring his sight, plastering his hair down on his forehead. What of the rest of his guard, of Walsh, he could not tell. Even Walters was lost in the mad mêlée now, but he saw ponies galloping by in the glares, their saddles empty, reins trailing, heavy stirrups clattering, and could not tell in the brief glimpses to which side they belonged. He hardly was conscious of these things, they were thrust upon his vision while he was actively occupied in looking out for his especial opponents in the wild phantasmagoria where everything seemed madly out of focus, distorted, leaping out of the dark in a mad chaos.
His roan bucked, and he guessed it stung by a bullet though it did not falter. A missile thudded into the wood of his left stirrup and splintered it, though it did not touch his foot. Now and then he caught the yells of the raiders. At first they had been meant to start the cattle; now they were calling to each other to kill.
One loud voice bellowed close to him.
Spurts of flaming powder gas shuttled through the night, hell fingers pointing the way death had gone. There came the shrill neigh of a pony, mortally hit. A buffet came to Slim, not seemingly severe, as if someone had flipped the side of his head at his left ear. Almost instantly there came a numbness that passed away again, but blood was pouring down his cheek, to be washed off by the pelting rain. A lock of his hair, lank with the wet, had gone. The top of his ear was torn away. If he got out alive from these odds, these men intent on murder, balked in their desire only by the fury of the elements and the night, he would carry a souvenir of it to his grave. It was a close call. Death had literally whispered to him and passed on.
Raynor he could not find. How could he expect to? Despair blent with rage as he saw riders closing in on him, heard the near hum of the bullets they sent, while he, in the tense defenceless moment of reloading, broke his gun. Riding like an Indian, elbow crooked about the horn, crouching on one side of his leaping roan, he thrust cartridges into the cylinder with fingers that were stiff from the rain, clumsy, so that he dropped two of the shells he had taken from his belt and straightened up again with only four loads between him and the men who rode to surround him.
The last flash had shown the cattle all through the wire, displayed little groups where one or two men fired at half a score, perhaps broke through the ring with empty gun, perhaps went down—and not alone—to the soaking earth. Guns still cracked outside his own particular affray, his comrades were not yet all killed, though none of them could long survive.
"Clean 'em up!"
That came from the Night Hawks' leader with a flash from the side of his pony's neck. Came with a blow as the bullet bored its way through Slim's left forearm, numbing it so that he could barely hold the reins. He dropped them over his saddle horn and rode with his knees, swinging the snorting roan straight for the dark bulk whence shot and voice had come.
This was not Raynor, but it was the voice of the man who had been called the Chief in the corral shed. Slim was certain of it, sure of its inflection. It had been unmistakably in command.
The other reared his horse with spurs and curb to shield the shot he expected, but Slim, wild with the pain of his disabling wound, desperate in the knowledge that soon he must go plunging out of his saddle to oblivion, yet cool enough in his intent and its performance, roweled his own mount. The roan, knowing this called for supreme effort, charged the opposing steed with weight and battle squeal, with drumming hoofs and chiseling teeth.
The horse went down, and a shot came up from the ground as the leader crashed and fired upward as he struck dirt. Slim fired back to a target behind the flash, and the struggling horse pawed its way up and went charging off, dragging by one stirrup a man who would never pull trigger again.
One shot more—hit or miss he could not tell—a swerve in a wild hide-and-seek—only two cartridges in his gun—one arm useless—the roan tiring a little, perhaps from loss of blood—it was very close to the end. Slim wheeled a little in his saddle, he seemed to see the next flash of lightning through a veil. Down by the fence the cattle seemed coming back, leaping——
By the eternal God, these were not cattle but men, riding like the whirlwind, shouting cries of grim triumph as they came! No ponchos or masks on these.
"We've got 'em, boys. Yah-yah-yah!" The hoarse gutturals of excited men who sight their human quarry after long suffering and resentment, men who rode without thought of quarter or pity, hardened with the cruelty of justice.
The lightning was gone, but ray after ray shot white arrows into the night, winked out and on again. The cattlemen had electric torches that they switched on and off as they rode, their guns barking, biting, while they picked out their targets.
The eyes of the horses shone like great jewels as the rays picked them out, and then shot dazzling into the faces of the riders. Taken by surprise, then consternation as they knew themselves outmatched and their leader no longer able to rally or direct them, the Night Hawks sought safety in helter-skelter flight. It was every man for himself, pursued by the avenging posse of the Cattlemen's Association, the raid broken, a failure, the boasted power of the Night Hawks snapped.
A lone rider, low in the saddle, raced past Slim, a dull blot in motion, until the lightning revealed him, every hair on the horse slick with rain, the man's black poncho like the hide of a broaching porpoise, his black mask roughly moulding his features, hat brim low.
On the horse's flank showed the hip brand of the Tres Piños ranch—T. P.
It was hard to be sure of color in that momentary glimpse of palpitating, fluctuating light, but if the horse were a buckskin, it was Raynor's, the one chosen by him for his first string pony in preference to his own. Incidentally it was the fastest horse on the ranch.
And Slim had seen something else that gave him fresh strength and energy to top the tide of relief that had come with the charging legion of the cattlemen—a wire scar, half healed, a triangular wound that was unmistakable. It was Raynor making toward the ranch.
He remembered that Belle was there alone—save for Wing. The scene in Owl Canyon projected itself on the screen of memory. Belle struggling in Raynor's grasp. Slim to the rescue—then, and now.
He felt the roan's quarter give a little as he wheeled him about on his hind legs, but the game and sturdy mustang leaped to the chase in full stride that seemed again unfaltering. Raynor was well away, lost in the darkness, but the roan followed a trail that his senses found, though Slim's could not. Behind them the shots and the shouting died away as they swept round the shoulder of a hill. The rain was ceasing, or passing over. A strong wind blew. Half way to the zenith there was the merest hint of a moon striving to shoulder through the flying wrack. The air was suddenly cold and sweet, and Slim responded to it, alert, forgetful of his wounds, his loss of blood; a champion going to the rescue of the girl he loved. He felt no real fear of the outcome, only an elation, a confidence that he would overtake Raynor in time and shoot it out—to Raynor's finish.
He did not believe that Raynor thought he was being followed any more than he imagined he had been recognized. One faint flutter of lightning showed the foreman, well ahead, well forward in the saddle, using the most of the buckskin's speed. He was gaining on the roan.
"Let out a link, Petey." Slim bent and patted the neck that stretched out rigid as a bar while the sound hoofs drummed the sodden turf and the belly broomed spray from the clumps of sage through which they plunged.
Up went the roan's head, with an impatient movement that seemed to say, "I am trying." But it was plain that he was doing his best and that it was not equal to the pace of the buckskin. It was too far to risk one of Slim's two precious shots. He knew know that the bullet had either bruised or broken one of the bones of his left forearm. It was no more good to him than a stick. To reload without halting was impossible. Hard to accomplish with one hand under the best conditions. And the buckskin was drawing away.
Slim's buoyancy vanished like the gas from a punctured balloon. Unseen in the night, his face became gaunt and wan and old, strained, lined deep, while his imagination ran riot as to what the fate of Belle Walsh might be at Raynor's reckless, relentless hands that night. As best he knew how, he prayed.
The roan began to falter, to shorten stride, to go lame in its off hindquarter. When Slim patted its neck he had felt the wound, high on the crest, that first had stung it. But it was plainly hit in the flank or the quarter. Like himself it had been losing blood, and it was bearing his burden, straining every energy, working the great pump of its heart to the utmost.
"Petey, you got to make it—somehow. You got to, hawss. God, make him last! I can't do it afoot. That devil of a Sled'll get her. God, help us git through—an' damn him!"
RAYNOR felt that he had got clear away from the disaster that had engulfed his companions, overtaken the organization of the rustlers, wrecked his own plans that he had devised so cunningly and given out to the members of the Night Hawks.
The men he had taken with him, when he left the two on watch over the reservation shipment, were by now either dead, badly wounded, captured. Dead, their presence would damn him, alive he knew they would squeal. His game was up in Caroca County, but he could still sting, like a crushed hornet.
He might be able to get away with the reservation stock—though not by delivering them to the Agency, for he knew the Agent there would have all the news before he could get there. He would have been warned, and offers of rewards would soon be made for him. He would have to rejoin the two and drive the cattle through secret mesa ways to where he could sell them. That was risky, but possible. But his grand coup had failed, and he was an outlaw.
Walsh! He hoped that Walsh had been killed, and then hoped that he had not. He might still milk Walsh from a distance under threat of the penitentiary and the gallows. As for the girl—he had meant to marry her, to get possession of the T. P. ranch ultimately. The Night Hawks organization was only a temporary affair to him, a money supplier, a source of excitement. Belle Walsh he did not crave from any personal, physical choice. He would like to master her, but he knew he would soon tire of her. Girls like La Rose, like La Paloma, were more in his line.
There was a grudge against La Rose that would have to be let go now. Later he might run across her and he would not forget.
But Belle Walsh. Here was his immediate revenge on Walsh, who otherwise might slip from his clutches if he had come out of the fight. Raynor had some money at Tres Piños, in the mattress of his bunk. He'd get that; there was a bottle there, as well, a flask of mescal, strong stuff that would put courage into a cripple. Quite a little money, winnings at monte from the pigeons he plucked in the bunkhouse games, his share of raids, his private stealings from Walsh.
Damn Walsh! He'd get even. Damn the girl who flouted him and told him to stay away from the house! She was stuck on Slim Marvin. He was pretty sure he had put a bullet through Slim Marvin's head, but if he had been mistaken and Slim still lived, why he would be welcome to Belle Walsh—after Sled was through with her.
She would be in her room, asleep. Wing didn't count. Save that the fool Chink left the back door to the kitchen open of a night. No need to lock doors at Tres Piños, they considered, though he believed that Walsh locked the front door from force of habit every night. But the back would be open and he knew the lay of the house downstairs, he knew where the girl slept. If her door was locked—it would not matter. He would take her by fright and force, let her scream and scratch as she would—this time.
He had no idea that he was followed. He might not have much time for what he planned, but he would have enough. The fight was still going on. The cattle would have to be rounded up again, there would be long flight and pursuit. Walsh would wait to know his cattle were safe before he came back—if he was able to.
Better let the reservation stock alone, he decided. The surprise attack of the cattlemen showed too plainly that he had been suspected, spied upon, even as he had spied on Slim working at the round-up, riding with Belle. He might run into a trap. He had better strike across the border.
He reached the ranch headquarters, pulled up in front of the bunkhouse and got down from the half-blown buckskin. He did not turn on the light, but crept to his own bunk and found his cache, paper money in a compact package, the flask of mescal, from which he took long gulps, gasping, as the fiery stuff stung tongue and palate and throat while its fumes mounted to his brain.
Outside again, he listened, fancying he heard hoofbeats, deciding it was only the drip and splash of rain from roofs and gutters.
The back door was open, as he expected. He crossed the kitchen, feeling his way, striking some object against a pan of rising biscuit, stumbling over a chair. A door opened, a voice that squeaked a little called out.
"Who that? That you, Misteh Walsh?" Raynor tore off his mask.
"It's me, Wing. Raynor. Got a message for Miss Walsh from her brother. Just rode in from Little Park. It's important."
The Chinaman was plainly suspicious. He sniffed as if he smelled the fiery mescal on Raynor's breath.
"Missy Belle, she in bed, asleep," he said. "Whasse mally you no give message in mo'ning?"
"She won't stay in bed when she hears it," said Raynor. "You give it to her, Wing. Come here and I'll tell it to you. Don't want to shout it all over the house."
A little less doubtful, Wing switched on the light in his room, then in his spotless kitchen, entering in padded slippers to where Raynor sat on the table, swinging one leg, trying to appear nonchalant though he was chafing with the delay.
"Gimme a drink of water, Wing," he said casually.
He caught the extended left arm at the wrist and pulled Wing to him. His gun barrel fell on Wing's head and the Chinaman crumpled up and fell like a wet rag, unconscious and bleeding. Raynor picked him up easily in his arms, flung him on his own bed, bound him and gagged him with strips of cloth he found in the kitchen. He turned out the light in Wing's room, locked the door, taking the key from the inside and keeping it. He picked up the heavy glass that had not broken when Wing dropped it, and poured into it half of what was left in the flask, swallowing it. Then he hesitated, and finally emptied the pint container.
Last of all he turned out the kitchen switch and stole through the pantry into the big living-room, which was also dining-room. The stairs were to his right. Through the big porch windows came a subdued light. There were gleams of pallid moonlight on the porch.
Raynor listened at the foot of the stairs, hearing nothing but the ticking of a clock, water dripping in the kitchen.
With the face of a grinning fiend he commenced to climb, a dim bulk that lost itself as he progressed, little creaks of the treads proclaiming his slow and cautious progress. At the head of the stairway he paused again, turned to the landing's right and tried the handle of a door. It moved, but it would not open.
Bolt or lock held him. With an oath he stepped back. There was a little stir inside the room, the girl's voice calling.
Raynor made no answer. He took a backward step or two and flung himself at the panels, shoulder first. They gave a hollow sound, but they resisted. Cursing, he launched a kick with all his drunken might. Something gave, or started to give, and, with two more kicks, the lock catch tore out its screws through the splintering wood. As he came through the doorway with his leering face the room was suddenly bright with light. Belle Walsh had touched a button by the bed where she sat up from the pillows, her eyes shining bravely, a gun leveled in her hand at the intruder.
"Put up your hands, Raynor, or I'll shoot," she said, and, as he lurched forward, pulled trigger.
The shot went wild, Raynor had moved too swiftly, snatching a cushion from a chair and jerking it in the same motion fairly for the bed. While she flung it aside he reached her, wrested away her weapon.
"Yah, you an' yore popgun!" he jeered. The girl drew the quilt about her, her eyes widening as she began to realize she was at bay against this beast.
There was a slight scuffling sound on the stairs. It ceased. Raynor turned slowly, wondering whether Wing could have managed to get free, a little stupid, his brain sluggish from the quantity of strong alcohol he had taken so rapidly into his system. Behind him, the girl cowered, hope lightening her face that swiftly dulled again as she saw Slim, his hair lank about his forehead, one side of his head bloody, blood dripping to the floor from the useless arm, reel against the doorframe. His eyes were set, his face racked with pain and exhaustion, as he strove to summon the reserve he had already drained heavily.
"Here's where the best man wins, Slim. An' where you lose, damn yore soul!"
He fired, deliberately, just as a blaze was beginning to come into Slim's tired eyes. Belle screamed and Raynor fired again at the figure slumping to the floor. The wounded arm was put out as uncertain prop to the failing knees, Slim's face growing gray as the blood drained away behind the tan. Lips, opening a little, shut again as the jaws clamped and from the floor, streaking upward, there came a spurt of fire—another. The emptied revolver clattered, sliding along the floor, stopped by a rug where Raynor clutched the fringe convulsively as he strove to rise—and could not.
Slim propped himself by the door frame. His voice sound hollow as the voice of a ghost.
"Got—here—in—time. Reckon—I—jus' made it—honey."
SLIM blinked at the room. Daylight now, and he was no longer by the door where he had slumped when Raynor's shot got him in the shoulder. The second had missed as he had fallen. Or maybe he had got Raynor first. Anyway he had got him.
Same room, but he was in bed. In——?
Someone came over from the window and stood beside him.
"Good man, what? Got your eyes open, have you? Got to keep quiet. Doctor's orders."
Slim opened a mouth that seemed somehow rusty at the hinges, moved a strangely feeble tongue and spoke in a foolishly weak voice.
"You're not to ask too many questions, old chap, but I'll tell you what you've got to know."
"You better, or I'll run a high fever."
"I'm not your only nurse, old chap. I'm just relief. Mealtimes you've got a better one than I am and she's a regular tyrant. What? Be on duty in a few minutes.
"Raynor? You nearly put his light out, but he wasn't quite dead when the crowd got here. One chap they said was the leader was shot through the brain."
"I shot him. They called him Chief. He was a chap named Kirk. Won my money down at the Cactus. I recognized his voice. Couldn't see his face."
"It was Kirk all right. And that ties you up with another chunk of the reward. Seems I bagged the third man they were after as the jolly old ringleaders. He was dead, too. The chaps were a bit excited. Three of our chaps got hurt besides four or five of theirs. So they took Raynor while there was some life left in him, and hung him up to the middle one of the three pines.
"None of ours killed. Harper's the worst off, and they say he'll pull through. You remember Miss Baker? Used to dance a bit at the Cactus? She is out here helping to nurse the boys over in the bunkhouse. By the way, she and I are going to get married next month. Congratulations in order and all that sort of rot. Thanks, old chap. Don't tire yourself by talking. You can talk to your other nurse in about three minutes, all she'll jolly well let you.
"You see the reward was worded ten thousand dollars for the apprehension of the three main johnnies or for such information as shall cause them to be apprehended. Something like that. That makes three thousand three hundred and thirty-three dollars and thirty-three and one-third cents for me and six thousand, six hundred and sixty-six——"
Slim interrupted him. "Nothing of the kind. Halves or nothing. Our agreement was to split."
The Englishman nodded.
"Correct. Mighty sporting of you, just the same. We got all the cattle. Turned 'em over next day. Some of them were a bit cut up, but they were all for commissary, and the troops didn't seem to care. Walsh got the money. Everything is happy and the old goose honks aloft, you know. Wing got a crack on the jolly old bean. That's healed up days ago, though he insists on wearing a bandage round the cocoanut. Badge of honor—what?"
"Hold on. Days ago? What's the idea?"
"Nothing but the natural flight of time. It will wing, old chap. You've been in bed for ten days. Doped up a bit most of the time to give the patches a chance to graft in." He looked at his wrist watch. "Sorry, but my time's up. She's always punctual. If she catches me talking there'll be wigs on the green. That's her prerogative, from now on. You're a lucky dog, Slim, but you deserve it."
There were light footsteps outside and Walters placed a finger to his lips.
"Mum's the word, old chap. I haven't told you a thing. Let her do it all over again." He nodded again and winked, slipping out of the door as a girl in crisp, white linen came in. She was not a nurse, because she wore no cap and because she broke all regulations by giving a glad cry as she saw Slim's eyes open.
The kiss, which was mutual, was quite spontaneous. So were those that followed.
"I can't put my arms round you, honey," Slim finally said. "Seems neither of 'em work real well." A statement that was corroborated by two fast healing perforations, one in the left forearm and another through the right shoulder, enough to have spoiled any man's shooting, but a lover's.
Belle Walsh responded as he wanted her to, though she protested it was against the doctor's orders for him to be excited.
"Excited, honey? If you jest knew how rested I was. Specially about money."
"Money?" She thought he was getting delirious, but his eyes laughed at her.
"I've got nigh five thousan' dollars comin' to me, honey. Enough to buy into a ranch, mebbe, or start one of our own."
"It wouldn't have made any difference, dear," she told him. "Not to me."
Slim sighed happily.
"It sure would have to me. Now I'm goin' to hurry up an' get well. Walters tells me he's goin' to get married nex' month. I don't see why I should be left out in the cold like that, jest because I happen to be sick fo' a spell."
"You are not to talk about anything exciting. If you do, I'll leave you."
"That'll excite me mo'."
"I've got something that will put you to sleep, sir."
"You wouldn't try to make me take it."
"Would you refuse me anything?"
Such talk is silly to those not taking place in it, but it was eminently satisfying to both these two.
THE shadow had passed from Tres Piños. La Rose—Miss Baker now, until she became Mrs. Walters—had got some hints from La Paloma that Raynor had deceived Walsh into thinking he was a murderer, but she declared that she hated all gringos and would not testify to anything definite. It was Wing who came to the rescue when Belle questioned him.
"Allee light. I talk now. Night Hawk all gone. Layno', him dead. Chinaboy not aflaid now. I speakee. Layno' all same makee fool of boss. One time boss get too much dlunk, go along with Layno' one place. Catchee mo' dlink. This time no good. All same dlug. Sabe?
"Then boss get in low. Layno' he take boss out—too much dlink, too much dlug. No sabe what happen. Layno' tell him he kill man.
"Man not kill. All same bad man sheliff he likee catch. Boss pay money. Layno' he give some this man. He go Mexico. Boss he think all time he kill him."
"How do you know this, Wing? Can you prove it?
"Suah. Can do. Catchee witness. L'il Mexican gal. This gal, her auntie, she belong along this place all happen. Gal she that place along that time, too. Bimeby my cousin he mally that gal. Velly foolish but he in love. Then evellybody damn fool. Waltehs, he damfool—" He checked himself.
"Slim, I don't think him damfool, Missy Belle, suppose he fall in love along of you. He allee same fine man, lide like hell, fight like hell. I think he makee love same way."
Which recommendation may or may not have had something to do with the finale of this story. Which ends—even as it does in the movies—in a clinch.