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Title: Paradise Bend
Author: White, William Patterson
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Paradise Bend" ***

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[Frontispiece: "_'Tom!' she breathed. 'Tom! you do think I betrayed you
after all...'_"]



PARADISE BEND


BY

WILLIAM PATTERSON WHITE



Author of

"_Hidden Trails,_" "_The Owner of the Lazy D,_" "_Lynch Lawyers_."



FRONTISPIECE BY

RALPH PALLEN COLEMAN



A. L. BURT COMPANY

Publishers    New York

Published by arrangement with Doubleday, Page & Company



COPYRIGHT, 1920, BY

DOUBLEDAY, PAGE & COMPANY

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED, INCLUDING THAT OF

TRANSLATION INTO FOREIGN LANGUAGES,

INCLUDING THE SCANDINAVIAN



TO MY CAPE MAY COUSINS

DOROTHY, BESS, AND MARION



CONTENTS


CHAPTER

     I.  Tom Loudon
    II.  At the Bar S
   III.  Shots on Pack-Saddle
    IV.  The Skinned Cattle
     V.  Their Own Deceivings
    VI.  Pestilent Fellows
   VII.  Paradise Bend
  VIII.  The Amazing Mackenzie
    IX.  Authors of Confusion
     X.  The Horse Thief
    XI.  Rocket
   XII.  Scotty Advises
  XIII.  The Dance
   XIV.  A Determined Woman
    XV.  A Hidden Trail
   XVI.  Kate is Helpful
  XVII.  Mrs. Burr Relieves Her Mind
 XVIII.  A Murder and a Killing
   XIX.  Marysville
    XX.  The Railroad Corral
   XXI.  The Judge's Office
  XXII.  Under the Ridge
 XXIII.  The Smoke of Conflict
  XXIV.  Before the Dawn
   XXV.  Trail's End



PARADISE BEND



CHAPTER I

TOM LOUDON

"And don't forget that ribbon!" called Kate Saltoun from the
ranch-house door.  "And don't lose the sample!"

"I won't!" shouted Tom Loudon, turning in his saddle.  "I'll get her
just like you said!  Don't you worry any!"

He waved his hat to Kate, faced about, and put his horse to a lope.

"Is it likely now I'd forget?" he muttered.  "We'd do more'n that for
her, wouldn't we, fellah?"

The horse, a long-legged chestnut named Ranger, turned back one ear.
He was accustomed to being questioned, was Ranger.  Tom Loudon loved
him.  He had bought him a five-year-old from the 88 ranch the year
before, and he would allow no one save Kate Saltoun to ride him.  For
the sun and the moon, in the estimation of Tom Loudon, rose and set in
the black eyes of Kate Saltoun, the exceedingly handsome daughter of
John T. Saltoun, the owner of the great Bar S ranch.

This day Loudon was riding into Farewell for the ranch mail, and Kate
had commissioned him to do an errand for her.  To serve his lady was
joy to Loudon.  He did not believe that she was aware of his state of
mind.  A flirt was Kate, and a charming one.  She played with a man as
a cat plays with a mouse.  At which pleasant sport Kate was an adept.
But Loudon realized nothing of all this.  Shrewd and penetrative in his
business, where Kate was concerned he saw nothing but the obvious.

Where the trail snaked over Indian Ridge, ten miles from the ranch
house, Loudon pulled up in front of a lone pine tree.  On the trunk of
the pine a notice was tacked.  Which notice set forth briefly that two
hundred dollars' reward was offered for the person or persons of the
unknown miscreant or miscreants who were depleting the herds of the Bar
S and the Cross-in-a-box outfits.  It was signed by Sheriff Block.

Who the miscreants were no one knew with certainty.  But strange tales
were told of the 88 punchers.  It was whispered that they carried
running-irons on their saddles.  Certainly they displayed, when riding
the range, a marked aversion to the company of men from the other
ranches.

The remains of small fires had been found time and again in draws
bordering the 88 range, and once a fire-marked cinch-ring had been
picked up.  As the jimmy and bunch of skeleton keys in a man's pocket
so are the running-iron and the extra cinch-ring under a puncher's
saddle-skirts.  They indicate a criminal tendency; specifically, in the
latter case, a whole-hearted willingness to brand the cattle of one's
neighbour.

Loudon read the notice of reward, slow contempt curling his lips.

"Signs," he said, gently.  "Signs----!  What we need is
Vigilantes--Vigilantes an' a bale o' rope!"

He turned in his saddle and looked back over the way he had come.
Fifty miles to the south the Frying Pan Mountains lay in a cool, blue,
tumbling line.

From where Loudon sat on his horse to the Frying Pans stretched the
rolling range, cut by a thin, kinked strip of cottonwoods marking the
course of a wandering river, pockmarked with draws and shallow basins,
blotched with clumps of pine and tamarack, and humped with knolls and
sprawling hills.  The meandering stream was the Lazy, and all the land
in sight, and beyond for that matter, was the famous Lazy River country
held by three great ranches, the Cross-in-a-box, the Bar S, and the 88.

Of these the 88 was the largest and the farthest west of the three, its
eastern line running along the high-bluffed banks of the Falling Horse,
which emptied into the Lazy some ten miles from the 88 ranch house.
East of the 88 lay the Bar S, and east of the Bar S was the
Cross-in-a-box.  The two latter ranches owned the better grazing, the
more broken country lying within the borders of the 88 ranch.

Beyond the 88 range, across the Falling Horse, were the Three Sisters
Mountains, a wild and jumbled tangle of peaks and narrow valleys where
the hunter and the bear and the mountain lion lived and had their
beings.  East of the Lazy River country lay the Double Diamond A and
the Hog-pen outfits; north and south stretched other ranches, but all
the ranges ended where the Three Sisters began.

Loudon swung his gaze westward, then slowly his eyes slid around and
fastened on the little brown dots that were the ranch buildings of the
Bar S.  He shook his head gently and sighed helplessly.

He was thinking partly of Kate and partly of her father, the gray old
man who owned the Bar S and would believe nothing evil of his
neighbours, the hard-riding 88 boys.  Loudon was morally certain that
forty cows within the last three months had transferred their
allegiance from Bar S to 88, and he had hinted as much to Mr. Saltoun.
But the latter had laughed him to scorn and insisted that only a few
cows had been taken and that the lifting was the work of independent
rustlers, or perhaps of one of the other ranches.  Nevertheless, in
response to the repeated urging of his foreman, Bill Rainey, Mr.
Saltoun had joined with the Cross-in-a-box in offering a reward for the
rustlers.

Loudon was well aware of the reason for Mr. Saltoun's fatuous
blindness.  That reason was Sam Blakely, the 88 manager, who came often
to the Bar S ranch and spent many hours in the company of Kate.  Mr.
Saltoun did not believe that a dog would bite the hand that fed him.
But it all depends on the breed of dog.  And Blakely was the wrong
breed.

"He shore is a pup," Loudon said, softly, "an' yellow at that.  He'd
steal the moccasins off a dead Injun.  An' Block would help him, the
cow-thief."

Then, being young, Loudon practised the road-agent's spin on the notice
of reward tacked on the pine tree, and planted three accurate bullets
in the same spot.

"Here, you!  What yuh doin'?" rasped a grating voice in Loudon's
immediate rear.

Loudon turned an unhurried head.  Ten yards distant a tall man,
black-bearded, of a disagreeable cast of countenance, was leaning
forward across an outcrop.

"I asked yuh what yuh was doin'?" repeated the peevish individual,
glaring at Loudon.

"I heard yuh the first time, Sheriff," replied Loudon, placidly.  "I
was just figurin' whether to tell yuh I was shoein' a horse or catchin'
butterflies.  Which answer would yuh like best?"

"Yuh think yo're mighty funny, Tom Loudon, but I tell yuh flat if yuh
don't go slow 'round here I'll find a quick way o' knockin' yore horns
off."

"Yuh don't say.  When yuh goin' to begin?"

Loudon beamed upon the sheriff, his gun held with studied carelessness.
Sheriff Block walked from behind his breastwork, his eyes watchful, his
thumbs carefully hooked in the armholes of his vest.

"That notice ain't no target," he grunted, halting beside the pine tree.

"It is now," remarked Loudon, genially.

"It won't be no more."

"O' course not, Sheriff.  I wouldn't think o' shootin' at it if you say
no.  It's a right pretty piece o' readin'.  Did yuh write it all
yoreself?"

The sheriff's eyes became suddenly blank and fixed.  His right thumb
slowly unhooked.

"I only fired three shots," observed Loudon, the muzzle of his
six-shooter bearing on the pit of the sheriff's stomach.

The sheriff's right thumb rehooked itself hurriedly.  His frame relaxed.

"Yuh shouldn't get mad over a joke," continued Loudon.  "It's plumb
foolish.  Been hidin' behind that rock long?"

"I wasn't hidin' behind it.  I was down in the draw, an' I seen you
a-readin' the notice, an' I come up."

Loudon's gray eyes twinkled.  He knew that the sheriff lied.  He knew
that Block had heard his comments on Blakely and his own worshipful
person, but evidently the sheriff did not consider this an opportune
time for taking umbrage.

"So yuh come up, did yuh?  Guess yuh thought it was one o' the rustlers
driftin' in to see what reward was out for him, didn't yuh?  But don't
get downhearted.  Maybe one'll come siftin' along yet.  Why don't yuh
camp here, Sheriff?  It'll be easier than ridin' the range for 'em, an'
a heap healthier.  Now, Sheriff, remember what I said about gettin'
red-headed.  Say, between friends, an' I won't tell even the little
hoss, who do you guess is doin' the rustlin'?"

"If I knowed," growled the sheriff, "his name'd be wrote on the notice."

"Would it?  I was just wonderin'.  Habit I got."

"Don't you fret none about them rustlers.  I'll get 'em if it takes ten
years."

"Make it twenty, Sheriff.  They'll keep right on electin' yuh."

"Do yuh mean to say the rustlers elected me?" exploded the sheriff.

"O' course not," chided Loudon, gently.  "Now what made yuh think I
meant that?"

"Well, yuh said----" began the sheriff.

"I said 'they,'" interrupted Loudon.  "You said 'rustlers'.  Stay in
the saddle, Sheriff.  You'll stub your toe sometime if yuh keep on
a-travellin' one jump ahead o' the hoss."

"Yo're ---- smart for a cow-punch."

"It is a cinch to fool most of 'em, ain't it--especially when yo're a
sheriff?"

Loudon's eyes were wide open and child-like in their gray blandness.
But the sheriff did not mistake his man.  Block knew that if his hand
dropped, a bullet would neatly perforate his abdomen.  The sheriff was
not a coward, but he had sense enough not to force an issue.  He could
afford to wait.

"I'll see yuh again," said the sheriff, harshly, and strode diagonally
down the slope.


Loudon watched him until he vanished among the pines a hundred yards
below.  Then Loudon touched his horse with the spur and rode on, chin
on shoulder, hands busy reloading his six-shooter.  Three minutes later
Loudon saw the sheriff, mounted on his big black stallion, issue from
the wood.  The great horse scrambled up the hillside, gained the trail,
and headed south.

"Bet he's goin' to the 88," said Loudon.  "I'd give ten dollars to know
what Block was roostin' behind that rock for.  Gawd!  I shore would
admire to be Sheriff o' Fort Creek County for thirty days!"

Eleven miles from Indian Ridge he topped a rise and saw below him
Farewell's straggly street, flanked by several false-fronted saloons,
two stores, one hotel leaning slightly askew, and a few unkempt houses,
the whole encircled by the twinkling pickets of innumerable bottles and
tin cans.

He rode along the street, fetlock-deep in dust, and stopped at the
hotel corral.  Freeing Ranger of the saddle and bridle, he opened the
gate and slapped the chestnut on the hip.

"Go on in, fellah," said Loudon.  "Yore dinner's a-comin'."

He walked around to the front of the hotel.  Under the wooden awning a
beefy, red-faced citizen was dozing in a chair tilted back against the
wall.  Loudon tapped the snoring individual on the shoulder.  The
sleeper awoke gaspingly, his eyes winking.  The chair settled on four
legs with a crash.

"Howdy, Bill," said Loudon, gravely.

"Howdy, Tom," gurgled the other.

"Hoss in the corral an' me here, Bill.  Feeds for two."

"Sure.  We've done et, but you go in an' holler for Lize.  She'll fix
you up."

The fat landlord waddled stableward and Loudon entered the hotel.  A
partition that did not reach the ceiling divided the sleeping
apartments from the dining room.  Carelessly hanging over the partition
were two shirts and someone's chaps.

The whole floor slanted, for, as has been said, the hotel leaned
sidewise.  The long table in the dining room, covered with cracked and
scaling oilcloth, was held unsteadily upright by three legs and a
cracker box.

Loudon, quite untouched by this scene of shiftlessness, hooked out a
chair with his foot, dropped his hat on the floor, and sat down.

"Oh, Mis' Lainey!" he called.

A female voice, somewhat softened by distance and a closed door,
instantly began to make oration to the effect that if any lazy chunker
of a puncher thought he was to eat any food he was very much mistaken.

The door banged open.  A slatternly, scrawny woman appeared in the
doorway.  She was still talking.  But the clacking tongue changed its
tone abruptly.

"Oh, it's you, Tom Loudon!" exclaimed the lean woman.  "How are yuh,
anyway?  I'm shore glad to see yuh.  I thought yuh was one o' them
rousy fellers, an' I wouldn't rustle no more chuck this noon for the
likes o' them, not if they was starvin' an' their tongues was hangin'
out a foot.  But yo're different, an' I ain't never forgot the time you
rode thirty mile for a doc when my young one was due to cash.  No, you
bet I ain't!  Now don't you say nothin'.  You jest set right patient a
short spell an' I'll rustle----"

The door swung shut, and the remainder of the sentence was lost in a
muffled din of pans.  Loudon winked at the closed door and grinned.

He had known the waspish Mrs. Lainey and her paunchy husband since that
day when, newly come to the Lazy River country, he had met them, their
buckboard wrecked by a runaway and their one child apparently dying of
internal injuries.  Though Loudon always minimized what he had done,
Mrs. Lainey and her husband did not.  And they were not folk whose
memories are short.

In less than twenty minutes Mrs. Lainey brought in a steak, fried
potatoes, and coffee.  The steak was fairly tough, so were the
potatoes, and the coffee required a copious quantity of condensed milk
to render it drinkable.  But Loudon ate with a rider's appetite.  Mrs.
Lainey, arms folded in her apron, leaned against the doorjamb, and
regaled him with the news of Farewell.

"Injun Joe got drunk las' week an' tried to hogtie Riley's bear.  It
wasn't hardly worth while buryin' Joe, but they done it.  Mis'
Stonestreet has a new baby.  This one makes the twelfth.  Yep, day
before yestiddy.  Charley's so proud over it he ain't been sober since.
Slep' in the waterin'-trough las' night, so he did, an' this mornin' he
was drunk as ever.  But he never did do things by halves, that Charley
Stonestreet.  Ain't the heat awful?  Yep, it's worse'n that.  Did yuh
hear about----"

Poor, good-hearted Mrs. Lainey.  With her, speech was a disease.
Loudon ate as hurriedly as he could, and fled to the sidewalk.  Bill
Lainey, who had fallen asleep again, roused sufficiently to accept six
bits.

"Mighty drowsy weather, Tom," he mumbled.

"It must be," said Loudon.  "So long."

Leaving the sleepy Lainey to resume his favourite occupation, Loudon
walked away.  Save Lainey, no human beings were visible on the glaring
street.  In front of the Palace Saloon two cow-ponies drooped.  Near
the postoffice stood another, bearing on its hip the Cross-in-a-box
brand.

From the door of the postoffice issued the loud and cheerful tones of a
voice whose owner was well pleased with the world at large.

"Guess I'll get that ribbon first," said Loudon to himself, and
promptly walked behind the postoffice.

He had recognized the cheerful voice.  It was that of his friend,
Johnny Ramsay, who punched cows for the Cross-in-a-box outfit.  And not
for a month's pay would Loudon have had Johnny Ramsay see him
purchasing yards of red ribbon.  Ramsay's sense of humour was too well
developed.

When four houses intervened between himself and the postoffice Loudon
returned to the street and entered the Blue Pigeon Store.  Compared
with most Western frontier stores the Blue Pigeon was compactly neat.
A broad counter fenced off three sides of the store proper.

Behind the counter lines of packed shelves lined the walls from floor
to ceiling.  Between the counter and the shelves knotted ropes, a long
arm's-length apart, depended from the rafters.  Above the
canvas-curtained doorway in the rear hung the model of a black-hulled,
slim-sparred clipper.

At the jingle of Loudon's spurs on the floor the canvas curtain was
pushed aside, and the proprietor shuffled and thumped, for his left leg
was of wood, into the store.  He was a red-headed man, was Mike Flynn,
the proprietor, barrel-chested, hairy-armed, and even the backs of his
ham-like hands were tattooed.

"Good aft'noon to yuh, Tom," said Mike Flynn.  "'Tis a fine day--hot,
mabbe, but I've seen worse in the Horse Latitudes.  An' what is it the
day?"

"Red ribbon, Mike," replied Loudon, devoutly thankful that no other
customer was in the store.

Mike glanced at the sample in Tom Loudon's hand.

"Shore, an' I have that same, width an' all," he said, and forthwith
seizing one of the knotted ropes he pulled himself hand over hand to
the top shelf.

Hanging by one hand he fumbled a moment, then lowered himself to the
floor.

"An' here yuh are!" he exclaimed.  "The finest ribbon that ever come
West.  Matches the bit yuh have like a twin brother.  One dollar two
bits a yard."

"I'll take five yards."

"Won't yuh be needin' a new necktie now?" inquired Mike Flynn, expertly
measuring off the ribbon.  "I've a fine lot in--grane ones, an' blue
ones, an' purple ones wit' white spots, an' some black ones wit' red
an' yaller figgers, not to spake o' some yaller ones wit' vi'let
horseshoes.  Very fancy, thim last.  God be with the ould days!  Time
was when I'd not have touched yaller save wit' me foot, but 'tis so
long since I've hove a brick at an Orangeman that the ould feelin'
ain't near so strong as it was.  An' here's the ribbon, Tom.  About
them neckties now.  They're worth seein'.  One minute an' I'll delight
yore eyes."

Rapidly Mike Flynn stumped around to the other side of the room, pulled
down several long boxes and deftly laid them, covers off, on the
counter.  Loudon did need a new necktie.  What man in love does not?
He passed over the yellow ones with violet horseshoes so strongly
recommended by Mike Flynn, and bought one of green silk.

"Yo're a lad after me own heart, Tom Loudon," said Mike Flynn, wrapping
the necktie.  "Grane's best when all's said an' done.  The colour of
ould Ireland, God bless her.  An' here comes Johnny Ramsay."

Loudon hastily stuffed his purchases inside his flannel shirt, and in a
careless tone asked for a box of forty-five calibre cartridges.  He
turned just in time to ward off the wild rush of Johnny Ramsay, who
endeavoured to seize him by the belt and waltz him round the store.

"Wow!  Wow!" yelled Johnny.  "How's Tommy?  How's the boy?  Allemane
left, you old bronc buster!"

"Quit it, you idjit!" bawled Loudon, the crushing of ribbon and necktie
being imminent.

Ramsay stepped back and prodded Loudon's breast with an inquiring
finger.

"Paddin'," he said, solemnly.  "Tryin' to give yoreself a chest, ain't
yuh, you old bean-pole?  Ouch!"

For Loudon had dug a hard knuckle into his friend's left side, and it
was Ramsay's turn to yell.  From behind the counter Mike Flynn beamed
upon them.  He liked them well, these careless youngsters of the range,
and their antics were a source of never-ending amusement.

Entered then a tall, lean man with black hair, and a face the good
looks of which were somewhat marred by a thin-lipped mouth and sharp,
sinister eyes.  But for all that Sam Blakely, the manager of the 88
ranch, was a very handsome man.  He nodded to the three, his lips
parting over white teeth, and asked Mike Flynn for a rope.

"Here's yore cartridges, Tom," called Mike, and turned to the rear of
the store.

Loudon picked up his box of cartridges, stuffing them into a pocket in
his chaps.

"Let's irrigate," he said to Ramsay.

"In a minute," replied his friend.  "I want some cartridges my own
self."

The two sat down on the counter to wait.  Blakely strolled across to
the open boxes of neckties.

"Cravats," he sneered, fingering them.

"An' ---- fine ones!" exclaimed Mike Flynn, slamming down the coil of
rope on the counter.  "Thim yaller ones wit' vi'let spots now, yuh
couldn't beat 'em in New York.  An' the grand grane ones.  Ain't they
the little beauts?  I just sold one to Tom Loudon."

"Green shore does suit some people," said the 88 manager, coldly.

Loudon felt Johnny Ramsay stiffen beside him.  But Loudon merely smiled
a slow, pleasant smile.

"Hirin' any new men, Sam?" he inquired, softly, his right hand cuddling
close to his belt.

"What do yuh want to know for?" demanded Blakely, wheeling.

"Why, yuh see, I was thinkin' o' quittin' the Bar S, an' I'd sort o'
like to get with a good, progressive outfit, one that don't miss any
chances."

Loudon's voice was clear and incisive.  Each word fell with the
precision of a pebble falling into a well.  Mike Flynn backed swiftly
out of range.

"What do yuh mean by that?" demanded Blakely, his gaze level.

"What I said," replied Loudon, staring into the other's sinister black
eyes.  "I shore do hate to translate my words."

For a long minute the two men gazed steadily at each other.  Neither
made a move.  Blakely's hand hung at his side.  Loudon's hand had not
yet touched his gun-butt.  But Blakely could not know that, for
Loudon's crossed knees concealed the position of his hand.

Loudon was giving Blakely an even chance.  He knew that Blakely was
quick on the draw, but he believed that he himself was quicker.
Blakely evidently thought, so too, for suddenly he grunted and turned
his back on Loudon.

"What's that?" inquired Blakely, pointing a finger at one end of the
rope.

"What--oh, that!" exclaimed Mike.  "Sure, that's what a seaman calls
whippin'.  The holdfast was missin', an' the rope was beginning' to
unlay, so I whipped the end of it.  'Twill keep the rope from frayin'
out, do yuh mind.  An' it's the last rope I have in stock, too."

Loudon, watching Blakely's hands, saw that what Mike Flynn called
whipping was whip-cord lapped tightly a dozen turns or so round the end
of the rope.  Blakely, without another word, paid for the rope, picked
it up, and departed, head high, sublimely indifferent to the presence
of Loudon.  Mike Flynn heaved a heartfelt sigh of relief.

"Praise be!" he ejaculated.  "I'd thought to lose a customer a minute
back."  Then, recollecting himself, he added quickly, "What was that
yuh said about cartridges, Johnny?"



CHAPTER II

AT THE BAR S

"That's a good-lookin' goat," observed cheerful Johnny
Ramsay, watching Loudon throw the saddle on the
long-legged chestnut.  "All he needs is horns an' a
_maa-a-a_."

"What particular tune can you play on it?" retorted
Loudon, passing the cinch-strap.

"On what?" inquired Ramsay, incautiously.

"On that four-legged accordeon yo're straddlin'."

"I wouldn't say nothin' about no accordeons--not if I was
abusin' a poor billy by cinchin' a hull on his back.  Honest,
Tommy, don't yuh like ridin' a hoss?  'Fraid he'll throw yuh
or somethin'?"

"Don't yuh worry none about this little cayuse.  He's all
hoss, he is, an' if yuh don't mind, Johnny, I'd be a heap
obliged if yuh'd follow behind when we ride out o' town.
Somebody might see us together an' take yuh for a friend o'
mine, an' that wouldn't do nohow."

"Please, mister," whined Johnny Ramsay, "let me go with
yuh.  I know where there's a pile o' nice tomatter cans for
the goat's supper.  Red Rose tomatter cans, too.  There's
more nourishment in them kind than there is in the Blue
Star brand.  Hey, quit!"

Loudon had suddenly flipped a broken horseshoe at
the hindquarters of Ramsay's pony, that surprised animal
going into the air immediately.  When Ramsay had quieted
his wild-eyed mount, the two friends rode away together.

"I wonder why Blakely didn't go to it," remarked
Ramsay, when Farewell lay behind them.

"Dunno," said Loudon.  "He wasn't afraid, yuh can
gamble on that."

"I ain't none so shore.  He's bad plumb through, Blakely
is.  An' he's a killer, by his eyes.  I guess it was just the
extra shade he wanted, an' the extra shade wasn't there.
You'd 'a' got him, Tom."

"Shore!  But don't yuh make no mistake about Blakely
bein' a coward.  He ain't.  He's seen trouble, an' seen it in
the smoke."

"You mean Skinner Jack.  Well, Jack wasn't slow with a
gun, but the other two was Injuns, an' they only had
Winchesters, an' Blakely he had a Sharp's.  So yuh can't tally
the war-whoops.  An' I did hear how Skinner Jack was drunk
when he called Blakely a liar."

"I doubt it.  Skinner could always hold his red-eye.
More likely his gun caught."

"Anyway, Tommy, you'd better not go cavortin' about on
the skyline too plenteous.  It wouldn't bother Blakely none
to bushwhack yuh."

"Oh, he wouldn't do that.  He ain't the bushwhackin' kind."

"Oh, ain't he?  Now just because he ain't never done nothin'
like that, it don't prove he won't.  He's got a killer's eyes,
I tell yuh, an' drillin' yuh would tickle him to death.  Yuh
run a blazer on him, an' he quit cold.  Other gents seen the
play.  He won't never forget that.  He'll down yuh on the
square, or what looks like an even break, if he can.  But if
he can't he'll down yuh anyway."

"Rustlers ramblin' over yore way any?" inquired Loudon
in a meaning tone.

Johnny Ramsay struck his saddle-horn a resounding
thwack with his open palm.

"If we could only get him that way!" he exclaimed.  "But
he's slicker'n axle-grease."

"The 88 will brand one calf too many some day.  Hell's
delight!  What do they do with 'em?  Yuh ride the
range an' yuh ride the range an' yuh don't find no cows
with unhealed brands.  I seen twelve, though, with the
88 brand that looked like some gent had been addin' to
Bar S with a runnin'-iron.  But the brands was all healed
up.  Anyway, we've lost forty cows, an' I dunno how many
calves."

"They'll turn up again."

"Shore--carryin' the 88 brand.  My idea is that them
rustlers brand 'em an' then hold 'em in some blind cañon
over near the Fallin' Horse till the burns heal up, an' then
they throw 'em loose on the range again.  If the cows do
drift across to the Bar S, what's the dif?  They got the 88
brand."

"That sounds good.  Why don't yuh take a little wander
'round the scenery near the Fallin' Horse?"

"I have; I didn't see nothin'.  But they got 'em hid
somewhere all right.  One day I runs across Marvin, an' I had a
job losin' him.  He stuck to me closer'n tar all day.  He was
worried some, I seen that."

"Goin' back?"

"Till I find their cache, I am."

"That's another reason for makin' Blakely so friendly.
He knows yuh won't stop lookin'.  Ain't it the devil an' all?
The measly Sheriff just squats down on his hunkers an' does
nothin' while we lose cows in car-lots.  An' when our cows go,
we kiss 'em good-bye.  They never come back--not even
with their brand altered.  Yuh can't change Cross-in-a-box
to 88."

"With the Bar S it's a cinch.  But the boss won't use another
brand.  Not him.  He'll stick to Bar S till he ain't got
a cow to run the iron on."

"Oh, it's a great system the 88 outfit are workin'!  An'
with Sheriff Block an' most all o' Marysville an' Farewell their
friends it's a hard game to buck.  Talk o' law!  There ain't
none in Fort Creek County."

"The only play is Vigilantes, an' it can't come to them till
there's proof.  We all know Blakely an' the 88 bunch are
up to their hocks in this rustlin' deal, but we can't prove it."

"There's the worst o' bein' straight," complained Johnny
Ramsay.  "Yuh know some tinhorn is a-grabbin' all yuh
own.  Yo're certain shore who the gent is, but yuh can't hop
out an' bust him without yuh catch him a-grabbin' or else
a-wearin' yore pet pants."

"That's whatever," agreed Loudon.

Five miles out of Farewell, where the trail forked, one
branch leading southeast to the Cross-in-a-box, the other to
the Bar S, Loudon checked his horse.

"Keep a-goin'," said Johnny Ramsay.  "I'm travellin' with
you a spell.  I'm kind o' sick o' that old trail.  I've rode it so
frequent I know all the rocks an' the cotton-woods by their
first names."

Which explanation Loudon did not accept at its face value.
He understood perfectly why Ramsay continued to ride
with him.  Ramsay believed that Blakely would endeavour
to drop Loudon from ambush, and it is well known that a
gentleman lying in wait for another will often stay his
hand when his intended victim is accompanied.  Neither
Loudon nor Ramsay made any mention of the true inwardness
of his thoughts.  They had been friends for a long time.

Climbing the long slope of Indian Ridge, they scanned the
trail warily.  But nowhere did the hoofprints of Blakely's
horse leave the dust of the trail.  On the reverse slope of the
ridge they picked up the larger hoofprints of Block's horse.
Fair and plain the two sets of marks led southward.

"Wonder who the other gent was," hazarded Ramsay.

"Block," said Loudon, "I met him this mornin'.  I was
puttin' holes in his notice, an' he didn't like it none."

"Did he chatter much?"

"He talked a few, but nothin' to hurt."

"The tinhorn!" laughed Ramsay.  "Bet he's goin' to the 88."

"It's some likely.  We'll know when we reach Long Coulee."

They reached Long Coulee, where the trail to the 88 swung
westward, as the sun was dropping behind the far-away peaks
of the Three Sisters Mountains.  Loudon slipped his feet
from the stirrups and stretched luxuriously.  But he did
not feel luxurious.

As he had expected, Block had turned into the 88 trail,
but as he had not expected Blakely had ridden straight on
toward the Bar S.  Which latter event was disquieting, not
that Loudon feared an act of violence on the part of Blakely,
but because Kate's evening would be preëmpted by his enemy.

Loudon keenly desired to talk to Kate that evening.  He
had a great many things to tell her, and now the coming of
Blakely spoiled it all.

"The nerve o' some folks," remarked Johnny Ramsay,
eying the tracks of Blakely's horse with disfavour.  "Better
tell old Salt to lock up the silver an' the cuckoo clock.  No
offence now, Tommy, but if I was you, I'd sleep in the corral
to-night.  Blakely might take a fancy to the goat."

"I shore hope he does," grinned Loudon.  "It would ease
the strain some."

"Make it complete, old beanpole, when you do call the
turn.  Well, I got to be skippin'.  Give my love to old Salt.
So long."

"So long."

Johnny Ramsay picked up his reins, wheeled his pony,
and fox-trotted away.  He felt that further accompanying of
Loudon was unnecessary.  The danger of an ambush was past.
Riding with Loudon had taken Ramsay some fifteen miles
out of his way, and twenty-five long miles lay between his
pony's nose and the corral bars of the Cross-in-a-box ranch.
But Ramsay wasted not a thought on his lengthened journey.
He would have ridden cheerfully across the territory and
back again in order to benefit a friend.

"Come on, fellah," said Loudon, when Ramsay had gone.

The chestnut moved off at a walk.  Loudon did not hurry
him.  He took out his papers and tobacco and rolled a
cigarette with neatness and despatch.  Tilting back his head,
he blew the first lungful of smoke straight up into the air.

"It wouldn't be right for her to marry him," he observed.
"She shore is one pretty girl.  I wonder now if I have got
any chance.  She's rich, an' I ain't, but I shore do love her
a lot.  Kate Loudon--that's a right nice-soundin' name."

He lowered his head and smoked silently for several
minutes.  The horse, reins on his neck, swung along steadily.

"Ranger fellah," said Loudon, "she'd ought to be willin'
to wait till we make a stake, oughtn't she now?  That's right.
Wiggle one ear for yes.  You know, don't yuh, old tiger-eye?"

When the lights of the ranch sparked across the flat,
Ranger pointed his ears, lifted his head, and broke into a
foxtrot.  Passing the ranch house, on his way to the corral,
Loudon heard the merry tinkle of a guitar.  Through an
open window Loudon saw the squat figure of Mr. Saltoun bent
over a desk.  On the porch, in the corner where the hammock
hung, flickered the glowing tip of a cigarette.  With a double
thrum of swept strings the guitar-player in the hammock
swung from "The Kerry Dance" into "Loch Lomond."

Loudon swore under his breath, and rode on.

Jimmy, the cook, and Chuck Morgan, one of the punchers,
were lying in their bunks squabbling over the respective
merits of Texas and New Mexico when Loudon entered the
bunkhouse.  Both men immediately ceased wrangling and
demanded letters.

"I ain't read 'em all yet," replied Loudon, dropping his
saddle and bridle in a corner.  "Wait till to-morrow."

"Jimmy's expectin' one from a red-headed gal," grinned
Chuck Morgan.  "He's been restless all day.  'Will she
write?' says he, 'an' I wonder if she's sick or somethin'.'  Don't
you worry none, cookie.  Them red-headed gals live
forever.  They're tough, same as a yaller hoss."

"You shut up!" exclaimed Jimmy.  "Who'd write to you,
you frazzled end of a misspent life?  D'jever look at yoreself
in the glass?  You!  Huh!  Gimme my letter, Tommy."

"Letter?  What letter?  I didn't say there was a letter
for yuh."

"Well, ain't there?"

"You gimme somethin' to eat, an' then we'll talk about
letters."

"You got a nerve!" roared the cook, indignantly.  "Comin'
rollickin' in 'round midnight an' want yore chuck!  Well,
there it is"--indicating Chuck Morgan--"go eat it."

"You fry him an' I will.  I'll gamble he wouldn't taste any
worse than them steaks you've been dishin' out lately."

"You punchers gimme a pain," growled the cook, swinging
his legs out of the bunk.  "Always eatin,' eatin'.  I never
seen nothin' like it nohow."

"He's sore 'cause Buff put a li'l dead snake in his bunk,"
explained Chuck Morgan placidly.  "Just a li'l snake--not
more'n three foot long at the outside.  He shore is the most
fault-findin' feller, that Jimmy is."

"There ain't anythin' for yuh, Chuck," said Loudon.
"Here's yore letter, Jimmy."

The cook seized the grimy missive and retreated to his
kitchen.  Twenty minutes later Loudon was eating supper.
He ate leisurely.  He was in no hurry to go up to the ranch
house.

"Got the makin's!"  Chuck Morgan's voice was a roar.

"Be careful," said Loudon, turning a slow head.  "Yo're
liable to strain yore throat, an' for a fellah talkin' as much as
you do, that would shore be a calamity."

"It shore would," agreed Morgan.  "I only asked yuh
for the makin's three times before I hollered."

"Holler first next time," advised Loudon, tossing paper
and tobacco across to Morgan.  "Have yuh got matches?
Perhaps yuh'd like me to roll yuh a pill an' then light it for
yuh?"

"Oh, that ain't necessary; none whatever.  I got matches.
They're all I got left.  This aft'noon Jimmy says 'gimme a
pipeful,' an' I wants to say right here that any jigger that'll
smoke a pipe will herd sheep.  'Gimme a load,' says Jimmy.
'Shore,' says I, an' Jimmy bulges up holdin' the father of all
corncobs in his hand.  I forks over my bag, an' Jimmy
wades in to fill the pipe.  But that pipe don't fill up for a
plugged nickel.

"He upends my bag, shakes her empty, an' hands her back.
'Thanks,' says Jimmy.  'That's all right,' I says, 'keep the
bag, too.  It'll fit in right handy to mend yore shirt with,
maybe.'  Come to find out, that pipe o' Jimmy's hadn't no
bottom in her, an' all the tobacco run through an' into a bag
Jimmy was holdin' underneath.  A reg'lar Injun trick, that
is.  Yuh can't tell me Jimmy ain't been a squaw-man.
Digger Injuns, too, I'll bet."

Jimmy, leaning against the door-jamb, laughed uproariously.

"Yah," he yelped.  "I'll teach yuh to steal my socks, I
will.  I'd just washed a whole pair an' I was a-dryin' 'em
behind the house, an' along comes Chuck an' gloms both of
'em, the hawg."

Leaving the two wrangling it out between them, Loudon
pushed back his chair and went to the door.  For a time he
stood looking out into the night.  Then he went to his saddle,
picked up the bag containing the mail for Mr. Saltoun, and
left the bunkhouse.

On the way to the ranch house he took out of his shirt the
parcel of ribbon and smoothed it out.  Skirting the house on
the side farthest from the porch corner where sat Kate and
Blakely, Loudon entered the kitchen and walked through the
dining room to the open doorway of the office.  Mr. Saltoun
half turned at Loudon's entrance.

"Hello," said Mr. Saltoun, screwing up his eyes.  "I was
just wonderin' when you'd pull in."

"'Lo," returned Loudon.  "Here's the mail, an' here's a
package for Miss Kate."

There was a rush of skirts, and handsome, black-haired
Kate Saltoun, her dark eyes dancing, stood in the doorway.

"Did you get my ribbon, Tom?" cried she, and pounced
on the flat parcel before Loudon could reply.

She smiled and glowed and held the ribbon under her olive
chin, exclaimed over it and thanked Loudon all in a breath.
Her father beamed upon her.  He loved this handsome girl
of his.

"Come out on the porch, Tom," said Kate, "when you're
through with father.  Mr. Blakely's here.  Thank you again
for bringing my ribbon."

Kate swished away, and Mr. Saltoun's beaming expression
vanished also.  Mr. Saltoun was not especially keen.  He
rarely saw anything save the obvious, but for several weeks
he had been under the impression that Kate and this tall,
lean puncher with the gray eyes were too friendly.

And here was Kate, while entertaining the 88 manager,
inviting Loudon to join her on the porch.  Mr. Saltoun was
ambitious for his daughter.  He had not the remotest
intention of receiving into his family a forty-dollar-a-month
cowhand.  He would have relished firing Loudon.  But the
latter was a valuable man.  He was the best rider and roper
in the outfit.  Good cowboys do not drift in on the heels of
every vagrant breeze.

Mr. Saltoun resolved to keep an eye on Loudon and arrange
matters so that Kate and the puncher should meet seldom,
if at all.  He knew better than to speak to his daughter.
That would precipitate matters.

By long experience Mr. Saltoun had learned that opposition
always stiffened Kate's determination.  From babyhood
her father had spoiled her.  Consequently the Kate of
twenty-three was hopelessly intractable.

Mr. Saltoun drummed on the desk-top with a pencil.
Loudon shifted his feet.  He had mumbled a non-committal
reply to Kate's invitation.  Not for a great deal would he
have joined the pair on the porch.  But Mr. Saltoun did not
know that.

"Chuck tells me," said Mr. Saltoun, suddenly, "that he
jerked five cows out o' that mud-hole on Pack-saddle Creek
near Box Hill.  Yeah, that one.  To-morrow I want yuh
to ride along Pack-saddle an' take a look at them other two
holes between Box Hill an' Fishtail Coolee.  If yuh see any
cows driftin' west, head 'em east.  When that ---- barb-wire
comes--if it ever does, an' I ordered it a month ago--you an'
Chuck can fence them three mud-holes.  Better get an early
start, Tom."

"All right," said Loudon, and made an unhurried
withdrawal--by way of the kitchen.

Once in the open air Loudon smiled a slow smile.  He had
correctly divined the tenor of his employer's thoughts.
Before he reached the bunkhouse Loudon had resolved to
propose to Kate Saltoun within forty-eight hours.



CHAPTER III

SHOTS ON PACK-SADDLE

  "I woke up one mornin' on the old Chisolm trail,
  Rope in my hand an' a cow by the tail.
  Crippled my hoss, I don't know how,
  Ropin' at the horns of a 2-U cow."


Thus sang Loudon, carrying saddle and bridle to the corral in the blue
light of dawn.  Chuck Morgan was before him at the corral, and
wrestling with a fractious gray pony.

"Whoa! yuh son of sin!" yelled Morgan, wrenching the pony's ear.
"Stand still, or I'll cave in yore slats!"

"Kick him again," advised Loudon, flicking the end of his rope across
the back of a yellow beast with a black mane and tail.

The yellow horse stopped trotting instantly.  He was rope-broke.  It
was unnecessary to "fasten," thanks to Loudon's training.

"They say yuh oughtn't to exercise right after eatin'," continued
Loudon, genially.  "An' yo're mussin' up this nice corral, too, Chuck."

"I'll muss up this nice little gray devil!" gasped Chuck.  "When I git
on him I'll plow the hide offen him.  ---- his soul!  He's half mule."

"He takes yuh for a relative!" called Jimmy, who had come up
unobserved.  "Relatives never do git along nohow!"

Jimmy fled, pursued by pebbles.  The panting and outraged Chuck
returned to his task of passing the rear cinch.  Still swearing, he
joined Loudon at the gate.  The two rode away together.

"That sorrel o' Blakely's," observed Chuck, his fingers busy with paper
and tobacco, "is shore as pretty as a little red wagon."

"Yeah," mumbled Loudon.

"I was noticin' him this mornin'," continued Chuck Morgan.  "He's got
the cleanest set o' legs I ever seen."

"This mornin'," said Loudon, slowly, "Where'd yuh see Blakely's sorrel
this mornin'?"

"In the little corral.  He's in there with the Old Man's string."

Loudon pulled his hat forward and started methodically to roll a
cigarette.  So Blakely had spent the night at the ranch.  This was the
first time he had ever stayed overnight.

What did it mean?  Calling on Kate was one thing, but spending the
night was quite another.

With the fatuous reasoning of a man deeply in love, Loudon refused to
believe that Blakely could be sailing closer to the wind of Kate's
affections than he himself.  Yet there remained the fact of Blakely's
extended visit.

"We've been losin' right smart o' cows lately," remarked Chuck Morgan.

"What's the use o' talkin'?" exclaimed Loudon, bitterly.  "The Old Man
says we ain't, an' he's the boss."

"He won't say so after the round-up.  He'll sweat blood then.  If I
could only catch one of 'em at it.  Just one.  But them thievin' 88
boys are plumb wise.  An' the Old Man thinks they're little he-angels
with four wings apiece."

"Yuh can't tell _him_ nothin'.  He knows."

"An' Blakely comes an' sets around, an' the Old Man laps up all he says
like a cat, an' Blakely grins behind his teeth.  I'd shore like to know
his opinion o' the Old Man."

"An' us."

"An' us.  Shore.  The Old Man can't be expected to know as much as us.
You can gamble an' go the limit Blakely has us sized up for
sheep-woolly baa-lambs."

Morgan made a gesture of exasperation.

"We will be sheep," exclaimed Loudon, "if we don't pick up somethin'
against the 88 before the round-up!  We're full-sized, two-legged men,
ain't we?  Got eyes, ain't we?  There ain't nothin' the matter with our
hands, is there?  Yet them 88 boys put it all over our shirt.
Blakely's right.  We're related plumb close to sheep, an' blind sheep
at that."

"Them 88 boys have all the luck," grunted Chuck Morgan.  "But their
luck will shore break if I see any of 'em a-foolin' with our cows.  So
long."

Chuck Morgan rode off eastward.  His business was with the cattle near
Cow Creek, which stream was one of the two dividing the Bar S range
from that of the Cross-in-a-box.  Loudon, his eyes continually sliding
from side to side, loped onward.  An hour later he forded the Lazy
River, and rode along the bank to the mouth of Pack-saddle Creek.

The course he was following was not the shortest route to the two
mud-holes between Box Hill and Fishtail Coulee.  But south of the Lazy
the western line of the Bar S was marked by Pack-saddle Creek, and
Loudon's intention was to ride along the creek from mouth to source.

There had been no rain for a month.  If any cows had been driven across
the stream he would know it.  Twice before he had ridden the line of
the creek, but his labours had not been rewarded.  Yet Loudon did not
despair.  His was a hopeful soul.

Occasionally, as he rode, he saw cows.  Here and there on the bank were
cloven hoofprints, showing where cattle had come down to drink.  But
none of them had crossed since the rain.  And there were no marks of
ponies' feet.

At the mud-hole near Box Hill a lone cow stood belly-deep, stolidly
awaiting death.

"Yuh poor idjit," commented Loudon, and loosed his rope from the
saddle-horn.

The loop settled around the cow's horns.  The yellow pony, cunningly
holding his body sidewise that the saddle might not be pulled over his
tail, strained with all four legs.

"C'mon, Lemons!" encouraged Loudon.  "C'mon, boy!  Yuh old yellow lump
o' bones!  Heave!  Head or cow, she's got to come!"

Thus adjured the pony strove mightily.  The cow also exerted itself.
Slowly the tenacious grip of the mud was broken.  With a suck and a
plop the cow surged free.  It stood, shaking its head.

Swiftly Loudon disengaged his rope, slapped the cow with the end of it,
and urged the brute inland.

Having chased the cow a full half-mile he returned to the mud-hole and
dismounted.  For he had observed that upon a rock ledge above the
mud-hole which he wished to inspect more closely.  What he had noted
was a long scratch across the face of the broad flat ledge of rock.
But for his having been drawn in close to the ledge by the presence of
the cow in the mud-hole, this single scratch would undoubtedly have
escaped his attention.

Loudon leaned over and scrutinized the scratch.  It was about a foot
long, a quarter of an inch broad at one end, tapering roughly to a
point.  Ordinarily such a mark would have interested Loudon not at all,
but under the circumstances it might mean much.  The side-slip of a
horse's iron-shod hoof had made it.  This was plain enough.  It was
evident, too, that the horse had been ridden.  A riderless horse does
not slip on gently sloping rocks.

Other barely visible abrasions showed that the horse had entered the
water.  Why had someone elected to cross at this point?  Pack-saddle
Creek was fordable in many places.  Below the mud-hole four feet and
less was the depth.  But opposite the rock ledge was a scour-hole fully
ten feet deep shallowing to eight in the middle of the stream.  Here
was no crossing for an honest man in his senses.  But for one of
questionable purpose, anxious to conceal his trail as much as possible,
no better could be chosen.

"Good thing his hoss slipped," said Loudon, and returned to the waiting
Lemons.

Mounting his horse he forded the creek and rode slowly along the bank.
Opposite the lower end of the ledge he found that which he sought.  In
the narrow belt of bare ground between the water's edge and the grass
were the tracks of several cows and one pony.  Straight up from the
water the trail led, and vanished abruptly when it reached the grass.

"Five cows," said Loudon.  "Nothin' mean about that jigger."

He bent down to examine the tracks more closely, and as he stooped a
rifle cracked faintly, and a bullet whisped over his bowed back.

Loudon jammed home both spurs, and jumped Lemons forward.  Plying his
quirt, he looked over his shoulder.

A puff of smoke suddenly appeared above a rock a quarter of a mile
downstream and on the other side of the creek.  The bullet tucked into
the ground close beside the pony's drumming hoofs.

Loudon jerked his Winchester from its scabbard under his leg, turned in
the saddle, and fired five shots as rapidly as he could work the lever.
He did not expect to score a hit, but earnestly hoped to shake the
hidden marksman's aim.  He succeeded but lamely.

The enemy's third shot cut through his shirt under the left armpit,
missing the flesh by a hair's-breadth.  Loudon raced over the lip of a
swell just as a fourth shot ripped through his hat.

Hot and angry, Loudon jerked Lemons to a halt half-way down the reverse
slope.  Leaving his horse tied to the ground he ran back and lay down
below the crest.  He removed his hat and wriggled forward to the top.

Cautiously lifting his head he surveyed the position of his unknown
opponent.  A half-mile distant, on the Bar S side of the Pack-saddle,
was the rock which sheltered the marksman.  A small dark dot appeared
above it.

Taking a long aim Loudon fired at the dot.  As he jerked down the lever
to reload, a gray smoke-puff mushroomed out at the lower right-hand
corner of the rock, and a violent shock at the elbow numbed his right
hand.

Loudon rolled swiftly backward, sat up, and stared wonderingly at his
two hands.  One held his Winchester, but gripped in the cramped fingers
of the right hand was the bent and broken lever of the rifle.  The
bullet of the sharp-shooting citizen had struck the lever squarely on
the upper end, snapped the pin, torn loose the lever, and hopelessly
damaged the loading mechanism.

"That jigger can shore handle a gun," remarked Loudon.  "If this ain't
one lovely fix for a Christian!  Winchester no good, only a
six-shooter, an' a fully-organized miracle-worker a-layin' for my hide.
I'm a-goin' somewhere, an' I'm goin' right now."

He dropped the broken lever and rubbed his numbed fingers till
sensation returned.  Then he put on his hat and hurried down to his
horse.

He jammed the rifle into the scabbard, mounted, and rode swiftly
southward, taking great pains to keep to the low ground.

A mile farther on he forded the creek and gained the shelter of an
outflung shoulder of Box Hill.

Near the top Loudon tied Lemons to a tree and went forward on foot.
Cautiously as an Indian, Loudon traversed the flat top of the hill and
squatted down in a bunch of tall grass between two pines.  From this
vantage-point his field of view was wide.  The rock ledge and the
mud-hole were in plain sight.  So was the rock from which he had been
fired upon.  It was a long mile distant, and it lay near the crest of a
low hog's-back close to the creek.

"He's got his hoss down behind the swell," muttered Loudon.  "Wish this
hill was higher."

Loudon pondered the advisability of climbing a tree.  He wished very
much to obtain a view of the depression behind the hog's-back.  He
finally decided to remain where he was.  It was just possible that the
hostile stranger might be provided with field glasses.  In which case
tree-climbing would invite more bullets, and the shooting of the enemy
was too nearly accurate for comfort.

Loudon settled himself comfortably in his bunch of grass and watched
intently.  Fifteen or twenty minutes later what was apparently a part
of the rock detached itself and disappeared behind the crest of the
hog's-back.

Soon the tiny figure of a mounted man came into view on the flat
beyond.  Horse and rider moved rapidly across the level ground and
vanished behind a knoll.  When the rider reappeared he was not more
than nine hundred yards distant and galloping hard on a course
paralleling the base of the hill.

"Good eye," chuckled Loudon.  "Goin' to surround me.  I'd admire to
hear what he says when he finds out I ain't behind that swell."

The stranger splashed across the creek and raced toward some high
ground in the rear of Loudon's old position.

Now that the enemy had headed westward there was nothing to be gained
by further delay.

Loudon had plenty of courage, but one requires more than bravery and a
six-shooter with which to pursue and successfully combat a gentleman
armed with a Winchester.

Hastily retreating to his horse, Loudon scrambled into the saddle,
galloped across the hilltop and rode down the eastern slope at a speed
exceedingly perilous to his horse's legs.  But the yellow horse somehow
contrived to keep his footing and reached the bottom with no damage
other than skinned hocks.

Once on level ground Loudon headed southward, and Lemons, that yellow
bundle of nerves and steel wire, stretched out his neck and galloped
with all the heart that was in him.

Loudon's destination was a line-camp twelve miles down the creek.  This
camp was the temporary abode of two Bar S punchers, who were riding the
country south of Fishtail Coulee.  Loudon knew that both men had taken
their Winchesters with them when they left the ranch, and he hoped to
find one of the rifles in the dugout.

With a rifle under his leg Loudon felt that the odds would be even, in
spite of the fact that the enemy had an uncanny mastery of the long
firearm.  Loudon's favourite weapon was the six-shooter, and he was at
his best with it.  A rifle in his hands was not the arm of precision it
became when Johnny Ramsay squinted along the sights.  For Johnny was an
expert.

"Keep a-travellin', little hoss, keep a-travellin'," encouraged Loudon.
"Split the breeze.  That's the boy!"

Loudon had more than one reason for being anxious to join issue with
the man who had attacked him.  At nine hundred yards one cannot
recognize faces or figures, but one can distinguish the colour of a
horse, and Loudon's antagonist rode a sorrel.  Chuck Morgan had said
that Blakely's horse was a sorrel.


Loudon sighted the dugout that was Pack-saddle line-camp in a trifle
less than an hour.  He saw with elation that two hobbled ponies were
grazing near by.  A fresh mount would quicken the return trip.
Loudon's elation collapsed like a pricked bubble when he entered the
dugout and found neither of the rifles.

He swore a little, and smoked a sullen cigarette.  Then he unsaddled
the weary Lemons and saddled the more vicious of the two hobbled
ponies.  Subjugating this animal, a most excellent pitcher, worked off
a deal of Loudon's ill-temper.  Even so, it was in no cheerful frame of
mind that he rode away to inspect the two mud-holes between Fishtail
Coulee and Box Hill.

To be beaten is not a pleasant state of affairs.  Not only had he been
beaten, but he had been caught by the old Indian fighter's trick of the
empty hat.  That was what galled Loudon.  To be lured into betraying
his position by such an ancient snare!  And he had prided himself on
being an adroit fighting man!  The fact that he had come within a
finger's breadth of paying with his life for his mistake did not lesson
the smart, rather it aggravated it.

Late in the afternoon he returned to the line-camp.  Hockling and Red
Kane, the two punchers, had not yet ridden in.  So Loudon sliced bacon
and set the coffee on to boil.  Half an hour after sunset Hockling and
Kane galloped up and fell upon Loudon with joy.  Neither relished the
labour, insignificant as it was, of cooking.

"Company," remarked Red Kane, a forkful of bacon poised in the air.

The far-away patter of hoofs swelled to a drumming crescendo.  Then
inside the circle of firelight a pony slid to a halt, and the voice of
cheerful Johnny Ramsay bawled a greeting.

"That's right, Tom!" shouted the irrepressible Johnny.  "Always have
chuck ready for yore uncle.  He likes his meals hot.  This is shore
real gayful.  I wasn't expectin' to find any folks here."

"I s'pose not," said Red Kane.  "You was figurin' on romancin' in while
we was away an' stockin' up on _our_ grub.  I know you.  Hock, you
better cache the extry bacon an' dobies.  Don't let Johnny see 'em."

"Well, o' course," observed Ramsay, superciliously, "I've got the
appetite of youth an' a feller with teeth.  I don't have to get my
nourishment out of soup."

"He must mean you, Hock," said Red Kane, calmly.  "You've done lost
eight."

"The rest of 'em all hit," asserted Hockling, grinning.  "But what
Johnny wants with teeth, I dunno.  By rights he'd ought to stick to
milk.  Meat ain't healthy for young ones.  Ain't we got a
nursin'-bottle kickin' round some'ers, Red?"

"Shore, Red owns one," drawled Loudon.  "I seen him buyin' one once
over to Farewell at Mike Flynn's."

"O' course," said Johnny, heaping his plate with bacon and beans.  "I
remember now I seen him, too.  Said he was buyin' it for a friend.  Why
not admit yo're married, Red?"

"Yuh know I bought it for Mis' Shaner o' the Three Bars!" shouted the
indignant Kane.  "She done asked me to get it for her.  It was for her
baby to drink out of."

"Yuh don't mean it," said Johnny, seriously.  "For a baby, yuh say.
Well now, if that ain't surprisin'.  I always thought nursin'-bottles
was to drive nails with."

In this wise the meal progressed pleasantly enough.  After supper, when
the four were sprawled comfortably on their saddle-blankets, Loudon
launched his bombshell.

"Had a small brush this mornin'," remarked Loudon, "with a gent over by
the mud-hole north o' Box Hill."

The three others sat up, gaping expectantly.

"Djuh get him?" demanded Johnny Ramsay, his blue eyes glittering in the
firelight.

Loudon shook his head.  He raised his left arm, revealing the rent in
his shirt.  Then he removed his hat and stuck his finger through the
hole in the crown.

"Souvenirs," said Loudon.  "He busted the lever off my Winchester an'
gormed up the action."

"An' he got away?" queried Red Kane.

"The last I seen of him he was workin' in behind where he thought I
was."

"Where was you?"

"I was watchin' him from the top o' Box Hill.  What did yuh think I'd
be doin'?  Waitin' for him to surround me an' plug me full o' holes?  I
come here some hurried after he crossed the creek.  I was hopin' you'd
have left a rifle behind."

"Wish't we had," lamented Hockling.  "Say, you was lucky to pull out of
it without reapin' no lead."

"I'll gamble you started the fraycas, Tommy," said Johnny Ramsay.

"Not this trip.  I was lookin' at some mighty interestin' cow an' pony
tracks opposite the rock ledge when this gent cuts down on me an'
misses by two inches."

"Tracks?"

"Yep.  Some sport drove five cows on to the ledge an' chased 'em over
the creek.  That's how they work the trick.  They throw the cows across
where there's hard ground or rocks on our side.  'Course the rustlers
didn't count none on us nosyin' along the opposite bank."

"Ain't they the pups!" ejaculated Hockling.

"They're wise owls," commented Johnny Ramsay.  "Say, Tom, did this
shootin' party look anyways familiar?"

"The colour of his hoss was--some," replied Loudon.  "Blakely was at
the ranch last night, an' his hoss was a sorrel."

"What did I tell yuh?" exclaimed Johnny Ramsay.  "What did I tell yuh?
That Blakely tinhorn is one bad actor."

"I ain't none shore it was him.  There's herds o' sorrel cayuses."

"Shore there are, but there's only one Blakely.  Oh, it was him all
right."

"Whoever it was, I'm goin' to wander over onto the 88 range to-morrow,
if Red or Hock'll lend me a Winchester."

"Take mine," said Hockling.  "Red's throws off a little."

"She does," admitted Red Kane, "but my cartridges don't.  I'll give yuh
a hull box."

Followed then much profane comment relative to the 88 ranch and the
crass stupidity of Mr. Saltoun.

"I see yo're packin' a Winchester," said Loudon to Johnny Ramsay, when
Hockling and Red had turned in.

"Hunter's trip," explained Johnny, his eyes twinkling.  "Jack Richie's
got his own ideas about this rustlin', so he sent me over to scamper
round the 88 range an' see what I could see.  I guess I'll travel with
you a spell."

"Fine!" said Loudon.  "Fine.  I was wishin' for company.  If we're
jumped we'd ought to be able to give 'em a right pleasant little
surprise."

Johnny Ramsay rolled a cigarette and gazed in silence at the dying fire
for some minutes.  Loudon, his hands clasped behind his head, stared
upward at the star-dusted heavens.  But he saw neither the stars nor
the soft blackness.  He saw Kate and Blakely, and thick-headed Mr.
Saltoun bending over his desk, and he was wondering how it all would
end.

"Say," said Johnny Ramsay, suddenly, "this here hold-up cut down on yuh
from behind a rock, didn't he?"

"Shore did," replied Loudon.

"Which side did he fire from?"

"Why, the hind side."

"I ain't tryin' to be funny.  Was it the left side or the right side?"

"The right side," Loudon replied, after a moment's thought.

"Yore right side?"

"Yep."

"That would make it his left side.  Did yuh ever stop to think, Tom,
that Blakely shoots a Colt right-handed an' a Winchester left-handed?"

Loudon swore sharply.

"Now, how did I come to forget that!" he exclaimed.  "O' course he
does."

"Guess Mr. Blakely's elected," said Johnny Ramsay.  "Seems likely."


Early next morning Loudon and Ramsay rode northward along the bank of
the Pack-saddle.  They visited first the boulder a quarter of a mile
below the mud-hole.  Here they found empty cartridge shells, and the
marks of boot-heels.

They forded the creek at the ledge above the mud-hole, where the cows
had been driven across, and started westward.  They were careful to
ride the low ground at first, but early in the afternoon they climbed
the rocky slope of Little Bear Mountain.  From the top they surveyed
the surrounding country.  They saw the splendid stretches of the range
specked here and there with dots that were cows, but they saw no riders.

They rode down the mountainside and turned into a wide draw, where
pines and tamaracks grew slimly.  At the head of the draw, where it
sloped abruptly upward, was a brushless wood of tall cedars, and here,
as they rode in among the trees, a calf bawled suddenly.

They rode toward the sound and came upon a dead cow.  At the cow's side
stood a lonely calf.  At sight of the men the calf fled lumberingly.
Ramsay unstrapped his rope and gave his horse the spur.  Loudon
dismounted and examined the dead cow.  When Ramsay returned with the
calf, Loudon was squatting on his heels, rolling a cigarette.

"There y'are," observed Loudon, waving his free hand toward the cow.
"There's evidence for yuh.  Ears slit with the 88 mark, an' the 88
brand over the old Bar S.  Leg broke, an' a hole in her head.  She
ain't been dead more'n a day.  What do you reckon?"

"That the 88 are damn fools.  Why didn't they skin her?"

"Too lazy, I guess.  That calf's branded an' earmarked all complete.
Never was branded before, neither."

"Shore.  An' the brand's about two days old.  Just look at it.  Raw
yet."

"Same date as its ma's.  They done some slick work with a wet blanket
on that cow, but the Bar S is plain underneath.  Give the cow a month,
if she'd lived, an' yuh'd never know but what she was born 88."

"Oh, they're slick, the pups!" exclaimed Johnny Ramsay.

"The Old Man ought to see this.  When Old Salt throws his eyes on that
brandin' I'll gamble he'll change his views some."

"You bet he will.  Better start now."

"All right.  Let's get a-goin'."

"One's enough.  You go, Tommy.  I'll stay an' caper around.  I might
run onto somethin'.  Yuh can't tell."

"I'd kind o' like to have yuh here when I get back."

"Don't worry none.  From what I know o' Old Salt you an' him won't be
here before to-morrow mornin'!  I'll be here then."

"All right.  I'll slide instanter.  So long, Johnny."



CHAPTER IV

THE SKINNED CATTLE

"This is a devil of a time to haul a man out o' bed," complained Mr.
Saltoun, stuffing the tail of his nightshirt into his trousers.  "C'mon
in the office," he added, grumpily.

Mr. Saltoun, while Loudon talked, never took his eyes from the
puncher's face.  Incredulity and anger warred in his expression.

"What do you reckon?" the owner inquired in a low tone, when Loudon
fell silent.

"Why, it's plain enough," said Loudon, impatiently.  "The rustlers were
night-drivin' them cows when one of 'em busted her leg.  So they shot
her, an' the calf got away an' come back after the rustlers had gone
on.  They must 'a' been night-drivin', 'cause if it had been daytime
they'd 'a' rounded up the calf.  Night-drivin' shows they were in a
hurry to put a heap o' range between themselves an' the Bar S.  They
were headin' straight for the Fallin' Horse an' the Three Sisters."

"I see all that.  I'm still askin' what do you reckon?"

"Meanin'?"

"Who-all's doin' it?"

"I ain't changed my opinion any.  If the rustlers don't ride for the
88, then they're related mighty close."

"You can't prove it," denied Mr. Saltoun.

"I know I can't.  But it stands to reason that two or three rustlers
workin' for themselves wouldn't drift cows west--right across the 88
range.  They'd drift 'em north toward Farewell, or south toward the
Fryin' Pans.  Findin' that cow an' calf on the 88 range is pretty near
as strong as findin' a man ridin' off on yore hoss."

"Pretty near ain't quite."

"I ain't sayin' anythin' more."

"You've got a grudge against the 88, Tom.  Just because a left-handed
sport on a sorrel cuts down on yuh it don't follow that Blakely is the
sport.  Yuh hadn't ought to think so, Tom.  Why, Blakely stayed here
the night before yuh started for Pack-saddle.  He didn't leave till
eight o'clock in the mornin', an' then he headed for the 88.  It ain't
likely he'd slope over to the creek an' shoot you up.  Why, that's
plumb foolish, Tom.  Blakely's white, an' he's a friend o' mine."

Mr. Saltoun gazed distressedly at Loudon.  The puncher stared straight
before him, his expression wooden.  He had said all that he intended to
say.

"Well, Tom," continued the owner, "I don't enjoy losin' cows any more
than the next feller.  We've got to stop this rustlin' somehow.  In the
mornin' I'll ride over with yuh an' have a look at that cow.  Tell
Chuck Morgan I want him to come along.  Now you get some sleep, an'
forget about the 88.  They ain't in on this deal, take my word for it."

It was a silent trio that departed in the pale light of the new day.
Chuck Morgan endeavoured to draw Loudon into conversation but gave it
up after the first attempt.  The heavy silence remained unbroken till
they reached the mouth of the wide draw beyond Little Bear Mountain.

"There's a hoss," said Loudon, suddenly.

A quarter of a mile away grazed a saddled pony.  Loudon galloped
forward.

The animal made no attempt to escape.  It stood quietly while Loudon
rode up and gathered in the reins dragging between its feet.  The full
_cantenas_ were in place.  The quirt hung on the horn.  The rope had
not been unstrapped.  The slicker was tied behind the cantle.  Under
the left fender the Winchester was in its scabbard.  All on the saddle
was as it should be.

"Whose hoss?" inquired Mr. Saltoun, who had followed more slowly.

"Ramsay's," replied the laconic Loudon, and started up the draw at a
lope, leading the riderless pony.

Loudon's eyes searched the ground ahead and on both sides.  He
instinctively felt that some ill had befallen Johnny Ramsay.  His
intuition was not at fault.

When the three had ridden nearly to the head of the draw, where the
trees grew thickly, Loudon saw, at the base of a leaning pine, the
crumpled body of Johnny Ramsay.

Loudon dropped from the saddle and ran to his friend.  Ramsay lay on
his back, his left arm across his chest, his right arm extended,
fingers gripping the butt of his six-shooter.  His face and neck and
left arm were red with blood.  His appearance was sufficiently ghastly
and death-like, but his flesh was warm.

Respiration was imperceptible, however, and Loudon tore open Ramsay's
shirt and pressed his ear above the heart.  It was beating, but the
beat was pitifully slow and faint.

Loudon set to work.  Chuck Morgan was despatched to find water, and Mr.
Saltoun found himself taking and obeying orders from one of his own
cowpunchers.

An hour later Ramsay, his wounds washed and bandaged, began to mutter,
but his words were unintelligible.  Within, half an hour he was raving
in delirium.  Chuck Morgan had departed, bound for the Bar S, and
Loudon and Mr. Saltoun sat back on their heels and watched their
moaning patient.

"It's a whipsaw whether he'll pull through or not," remarked the
bromidic Mr. Saltoun.

"He's got to pull through," declared Loudon, grimly.  "He ain't goin'
to die.  Don't think it for a minute."

"I dunno.  He's got three holes in him."

"Two.  Neck an' arm, an' the bone ain't touched.  That graze on the
head ain't nothin'.  It looks bad, but it only scraped the skin.  His
neck's the worst.  A half inch over an' he'd 'a' bled to death.  Yuh
can't rub out Johnny so easy.  There's a heap o' life in him."

"His heart's goin' better now," said Mr. Saltoun.

Loudon nodded, his gray eyes fixed on the bandaged head of his friend.
Conversation languished, and Mr. Saltoun began to roll and smoke
cigarettes.  After a time Loudon rose.

"He'll do till the wagon comes," he said.  "Let's go over an' take a
squint at that cow."

Loudon led Mr. Saltoun to the spot where lay the dead cow.  When the
puncher came in sight of the dead animal he halted abruptly and
observed that he would be damned.

Mr. Saltoun whistled.  The cow had been thoroughly skinned.  Beside the
cow lay the calf, shot through the head.  And from the little body
every vestige of hide had been stripped.

"I guess that settles the cat-hop," said Mr. Saltoun, and began
comprehensively to curse all rustlers and their works.

It was not the skinning that disturbed Mr. Saltoun.  It was the sight
of his defunct property.  The fact that he was losing cows had struck
home at last.  Inform a man that he is losing property, and he may or
may not become concerned, but show him that same property rendered
valueless, and he will become very much concerned.  Ocular proof is a
wonderful galvanizer.  Yet, in the case of Mr. Saltoun, it was not
quite wonderful enough.

"Oh, they're slick!" exclaimed Loudon, bitterly.  "They don't forget
nothin'!  No wonder Blakely's a manager!"

Mr. Saltoun ceased swearing abruptly.

"Yo're wrong, Tom," he reproved.  "The 88's got nothin' to do with it.
I know they ain't, an' that's enough.  I'm the loser, not you, an' I'm
the one to do the howlin'.  An' I don't want to hear any more about the
88 or Blakely."

Loudon turned his back on Mr. Saltoun and returned to the wounded man.
The cowboy yearned to take his employer by the collar and kick him into
a reasonable frame of mind.  Such blindness was maddening.

Mr. Saltoun heaped fuel on the fire of Loudon's anger by remarking that
the rustlers undoubtedly hailed from the Frying-Pan Mountains.  Loudon,
writhing internally, was on the point of relieving his pent-up feelings
when his eye glimpsed a horseman on the high ground above the draw.
The puncher reached for his Winchester, but he laid the rifle down when
the rider changed direction and came toward them.

"Block, ain't it?" inquired Mr. Saltoun.

Loudon nodded.  His eyes narrowed to slits, his lips set in a straight
line.  The sheriff rode up and halted, his little eyes shifting from
side to side.  He spoke to Mr. Saltoun, nodded to Loudon, and then
stared at the wounded man.

"Got a rustler, I see," he observed dryly, his lips crinkled in a
sneering smile.

"Yuh see wrong--as usual," said Loudon.  "Some friend o' yores shot
Johnny."

"Friend o' mine?  Who?" queried the sheriff, his manner one of mild
interest.

"Wish I knew.  Thought yuh might be able to tell me.  Ain't that what
yuh come here for?"

"Ramsay's shot--that's all we know," interposed Mr. Saltoun, hastily.
"An' there's a cow an' calf o' mine over yonder.  Skinned, both of 'em."

"An' the cow had been branded through a wet blanket," said Loudon, not
to be fobbed off.  "The Bar S was underneath an' the 88 was on top.
Johnny an' me found the dead cow an' the live calf yesterday.  I left
Johnny here an' rode in to the Bar S.  When we got here we found Johnny
shot an' the cow an' calf skinned.  What do you guess?"

"I don't guess nothin'," replied the sheriff.  "But it shore looks as
if rustlers had been mighty busy."

"Don't it?" said Loudon with huge sarcasm.  "I guess, now----"

"Say, look here, Sheriff," interrupted Mr. Saltoun, anxious to preserve
peace, "I ain't makin' no charges against anybody.  But this rustlin'
has got to stop.  I can't afford to lose any more cows.  Do somethin'.
Yo're sheriff."

"Do somethin'!" exclaimed the Sheriff.  "Well, I like that!  What can I
do?  I can't be in forty places at once.  Yuh talk like I knowed just
where the rustlers hang out."

"Yuh probably do," said Loudon, eyes watchful, his right hand ready.

"Keep out of this, Tom," ordered Mr. Saltoun, turning on Loudon with
sharp authority.  "I'll say what's to be said."

"Show me the rustlers," said the sheriff, electing to disregard
Loudon's outburst.  "Show me the rustlers, an' I'll do the rest."

At which remark the seething Loudon could control himself no longer.

"You'll do the rest!" he rapped out in a harsh and grating voice.  "I
guess yuh will!  If yuh was worth a ---- yuh'd get 'em without bein'
shown!  How much do they pay yuh for leavin' 'em alone?"

The sheriff did not remove his hands from the saddle-horn.  For Loudon
had jerked out his six-shooter, and the long barrel was in line with
the third button of the officer's shirt.

"Yuh got the drop," grunted the sheriff, his little eyes venomous, "an'
I ain't goin' up agin a sure thing."

"You can gamble yuh ain't.  I'd shore admire to blow yuh apart.  You
git, an' git now."

The sheriff hesitated.  Loudon's finger dragged on the trigger.  Slowly
the sheriff picked up his reins, wheeled his horse, and loped away.

"What did yuh do that for?" demanded Mr. Saltoun, disturbed and angry.

Loudon, his eye-corners puckered, stared at the owner of the Bar S.
The cowboy's gaze was curious, speculative, and it greatly lacked
respect.  Instead of replying to Mr. Saltoun's question, Loudon
sheathed his six-shooter, squatted down on his heels and began to roll
a cigarette.

"I asked yuh what yuh did that for?" reiterated blundering Mr. Saltoun.

Again Loudon favoured his employer with that curious and speculative
stare.

"I'll tell yuh," Loudon said, gently.  "I talked to Block because it's
about time someone did.  He's in with the rustlers--Blakely an' that
bunch.  If you wasn't blinder'n a flock of bats you'd see it, too."

"You can't talk to me this way!" cried the furious Mr. Saltoun.

"I'm doin' it," observed Loudon, placidly.

"Yo're fired!"

"Not by a jugful I ain't.  I quit ten minutes ago."

"You----" began Mr. Saltoun.

"Don't," advised Loudon, his lips parting in a mirthless smile.

Mr. Saltoun didn't.  He withdrew to a little distance and sat down.
After a time he took out his pocket-knife and began to play
mumblety-peg.  Mr. Saltoun's emotions had been violently churned.  He
required time to readjust himself.  But with his customary stubbornness
he held to the belief that Blakely and the 88 were innocent of
evil-doing.

Until Chuck Morgan and the wagon arrived early in the morning, Loudon
and his former employer did not exchange a word.



CHAPTER V

THEIR OWN DECEIVINGS

Johnny Ramsay was put to bed in the Bar S ranch house.  Kate Saltoun
promptly installed herself as nurse.  Loudon, paid off by the now
regretful Mr. Saltoun, took six hours' sleep and then rode away on
Ranger to notify the Cross-in-a-box of Ramsay's wounding.

An angry man was Richie, manager of the Cross-in-a-box, when he heard
what Loudon had to say.

The following day Loudon and Richie rode to the Bar S.  On Loudon's
mentioning that he was riding no longer for the Bar S, Richie
immediately hired him.  He knew a good man, did Jack Richie of the
Cross-in-a-box.

When they arrived at the Bar S they found Johnny Ramsay conscious, but
very weak.  His weakness was not surprising.  He had lost a great deal
of blood.  He grinned wanly at Loudon and Richie.

"You mustn't stay long," announced Miss Saltoun, firmly, smoothing the
bed-covering.

"We won't, ma'am," said Richie.  "Who shot yuh, Johnny?"

"I dunno," replied the patient.  "I was just a-climbin' aboard my hoss
when I heard a shot behind me an' I felt a pain in my neck.  I pulled
my six-shooter an' whirled, an' I got in one shot at a gent on a hoss.
He fired before I did, an' it seems to me there was another shot off to
the left.  Anyway, the lead got me on the side of the head an' that's
all I know."

"Who was the gent on the hoss?" Loudon asked.

"I dunno, Tom.  I hadn't more'n whirled when he fired, an' the smoke
hid his face.  It all come so quick.  I fired blind.  Yuh see the chunk
in my neck kind o' dizzied me, an' that rap on the head comin' on top
of it, why, I wouldn't 'a' knowed my own brother ten feet away.  I'm
all right now.  In a couple o' weeks I'll be ridin' the range again."

"Shore yuh will," said Loudon.  "An' the sooner the quicker.  You've
got a good nurse."

"I shore have," smiled Johnny, gazing with adoring eyes at Kate Saltoun.

"That will be about all," remarked Miss Saltoun.  "He's talked enough
for one day.  Get out now, the both of you, and don't fall over
anything and make a noise.  I'm not going to have my patient disturbed."

Loudon went down to the bunkhouse for his dinner.  After the meal,
while waiting for Richie, who was lingering with Mr. Saltoun, he strove
to obtain a word with Kate.  But she informed him that she could not
leave her patient.

"See you later," said Miss Saltoun.  "You mustn't bother me now."

And she shooed him out and closed the door.  Loudon returned to the
bunkhouse and sat down on the bench near the kitchen.  Soon Jimmy
appeared with a pan of potatoes and waxed loquacious as was his habit.

"Who plugged Johnny?  That's what I'd like to know," wondered Jimmy.
"Here! leave them Hogans be!  They're to eat, not to jerk at the
windmill.  I never seen such a kid as you.  Yo're worse than Chuck
Morgan, an' he's just a natural-born fool.  Oh, all right.  I ain't
a-goin' to talk to yuh if yuh can't act decent."

Jimmy picked up his pan of potatoes and withdrew with dignity.  The
grin faded from Loudon's mouth, and he gazed worriedly at the ground
between his feet.

What would Kate say to him?  Would she be willing to wait?  She had
certainly encouraged him, but----  Premonitory and unpleasant shivers
crawled up and down Loudon's spinal column.  Proposing was a strange
and novel business with him.  He had never done such a thing before.
He felt as one feels who is about to step forth into the unknown.  For
he was earnestly and honestly very much in love.  It is only your
philanderer who enters upon a proposal with cold judgment and a calm
heart.

Half an hour later Loudon saw Kate at the kitchen window.  He was up in
an instant and hurrying toward the kitchen door.  Kate was busy at the
stove when he entered.  Over her shoulder she flung him a charming
smile, stirred the contents of a saucepan a moment longer, then clicked
on the cover and faced him.

"Kate," said Loudon, "I'm quittin' the Bar S."

"Quitting?  Oh, why?"  Miss Saltoun's tone was sweetly regretful.

"Lot o' reasons.  I'm ridin' for the Cross-in-a-box now."

He took a step forward and seized her hand.  It lay in his, limp,
unresponsive.  Of which lack of sympathetic warmth he was too absorbed
to be conscious.

"Kate," he pursued, "I ain't got nothin' now but my forty a month.  But
I shore love yuh a lot.  Will yuh wait for me till I make enough for
the two of us?  Look at me, Kate.  I won't always be a punch.  I'll
make money, an' if I know yo're a-waitin' for me, I'll make it all the
faster."

According to recognized precedent Kate should have fallen into his
arms.  But she did nothing of the kind.  She disengaged her fingers and
drew back a step, ingenuous surprise written large on her countenance.
Pure art, of course, and she did it remarkably well.

"Why, Tom," she breathed, "I wasn't expecting this.  I didn't dream,
I----"

"That's all right," Loudon broke in.  "I'm tellin' yuh I love yuh,
honey.  Will yuh wait for me?  Yuh don't have to say yuh love me.  I'll
take a chance on yore lovin' me later.  Just say yuh'll wait, will yuh,
honey?"

"Oh, Tom, I can't!"

"Yuh can't!  Why not?  Don't love anybody else, do yuh?"

"Oh, I can't, Tom," evaded Kate.  "I don't think I could ever love you.
I like you--oh, a great deal.  You're a dear boy, Tommy, but--you can't
make yourself love any one."

"Yuh won't have to make yoreself.  I'll make yuh love me.  Just give me
a chance, honey.  That's all I want.  I'd be good to yuh, Kate, an' I'd
spend my time tryin' to make yuh happy.  We'd get along.  I know we
would.  Say yes.  Give me a chance."

Kate returned to the table and leaned against it, arms at her sides,
her hands gripping the table-edge.  It was a pose calculated to display
her figure to advantage.  She had practised it frequently.  Kate
Saltoun was running true to form.

"Tom," she said, her voice low and appealing, "Tom, I never had any
idea you loved me.  And I'm awfully sorry I can't love you.  Truly, I
am.  But we can be friends, can't we?"

"Friends!  Friends!"  The words were like a curse.

"Why not?"

Loudon, head lowered, looked at her under his eyebrows.

"Then it all didn't mean nothin'?"  He spoke with an effort.

"All?  All what?  What do you mean?"

"Yuh know what I mean.  You've been awful nice to me.  Yuh always acted
like yuh enjoyed havin' me around.  An' I thought yuh liked me--a
little.  An' it didn't mean nothin' 'cept we can be friends.  Friends!"

Again the word sounded like a curse.  Loudon turned his head and stared
unseeingly out of the window.  He raised his hand and pushed his hair
back from his forehead.  A great misery was in his heart.  Kate, for
once in her life swayed by honest impulse, stepped forward and laid a
hand on his arm.

"Don't take it so hard, Tom," she begged.

Loudon's eyes slid around and gazed down into her face.  Kate was a
remarkably handsome girl, but she had never appeared so alluring as she
did at that moment.

Loudon stared at the vivid dark eyes, the parted lips, and the tilted
chin.  Her warm breath fanned his neck.  The moment was tense, fraught
with possibilities, and--Kate smiled.  Even a bloodless cucumber would
have been provoked.  And Loudon was far from being a cucumber.

His long arms swept out and about her body, and he crushed her gasping
against his chest.  Once, twice, three times he kissed her mouth, then,
his grasp relaxing, she wrenched herself free and staggered back
against the table.  Panting, hands clenched at her throat, she faced
him.  Loudon stood swaying, his great frame trembling.

"Kate!  Oh, Kate!" he cried, and stretched out his arms.

But Kate groped her dazed way around the table.  Physically and
mentally, she had been severely shocked.  To meet a tornado where one
had expected a summer breeze is rather shattering to one's poise.
Quite so.  Kate suffered.  Then, out of the chaos of her emotions,
erupted wild anger.

"You!  You!" she hissed.  "How dare you kiss me!  Ugh-h!  I could kill
you!"

She drew the back of her hand across her mouth and snapped her hand
downward with precisely the same snap and jerk that a Mexican bartender
employs when he flips the pulque from his fingers.

"Do you know I'm engaged to Sam Blakely?  What do you think he'll do
when he finds this out?  Do you understand?  I'm going to marry Sam
Blakely!"

This facer cooled Loudon as nothing else could have done.  Outwardly,
at least, he became calm.

"I didn't understand, but I do now," he said, stooping to recover his
hat.  "If you'd told me that in the first place it would have saved
trouble."

"You'd have been afraid to kiss me then!" she taunted.

"Not afraid," he corrected, gently.  "I wouldn't 'a' wanted to.  I
ain't kissin' another man's girl."

"No, I guess not!  The nerve of you!  Think I'd marry an ignorant
puncher!"

"Yuh shore ain't goin' to marry this one, but yuh are goin' to marry a
cow thief!"

"A--a what?"

"A cow thief, a rustler, a sport who ain't particular whose cows he
brands."

"You lie!"

"Yuh'll find out in time I'm tellin' the truth.  I guess now I know
more about Sam Blakely than you do, an' I tell yuh he's a rustler."

"Kate!  Oh, Kate!" called a voice outside.

Kate sped through the doorway.  Loudon, his lips set in a straight
line, followed her quickly.  There, not five yards from the kitchen
door, Sam Blakely sat his horse.  The eyes of the 88 manager went from
Kate to Loudon and back to Kate.

"What's the excitement?" inquired Blakely, easily.

Kate levelled her forefinger at Loudon.

"He says," she gulped, "he says you're a rustler."

Blakely's hand swept downward.  His six-shooter had barely cleared the
edge of the holster when Loudon's gun flashed from the hip, and
Blakely's weapon spun through the air and fell ten feet distant.

With a grunt of pain, Blakely, using his left hand, whipped a derringer
from under his vest.

Again Loudon fired.

Blakely reeled, the derringer spat harmlessly upward, and then Blakely,
as his frightened horse reared and plunged, pitched backward out of the
saddle and dropped heavily to the ground.  Immediately the horse ran
away.

Kate, with a sharp cry, flung herself at the prostrate Blakely.

"You've killed him!" she wailed.  "Sam--Sam--speak to me!"

But Sam was past speech.  He had struck head first and was consequently
senseless.

Come running then Jimmy from the bunkhouse, Chuck Morgan from the
corrals, Mr. Saltoun and Richie from the office.

"He's dead!  He's dead!" was the burden of Kate's shrill cries.

"Let's see if he is," said the practical Richie, dropping on his knees
at Blakely's side.  "He didn't tumble like a dead man.  Just a shake,
ma'am, while I look at him.  I can't see nothin' with you a-layin' all
over him this-a-way.  Yo're gettin' all over blood, too.  There, now!
She's done fainted.  That's right, Salt.  You take care of her."

The capable Richie made a rapid examination.  He looked up, hands on
knees, his white teeth gleaming under his brown moustache.

"He's all right," he said, cheerfully.  "Heart's a-tickin' like a
alarm-clock.  Hole in his shoulder.  Missed the bones.  Bullet went
right on through."

At this juncture Kate recovered consciousness and struggled upright in
her father's arms.

"He shot first!" she cried, pointing at Loudon.  "He didn't give him a
chance!"

"You'll excuse me, ma'am," said Richie, his tone good-humoured, but his
eyes narrowing ever so slightly.  "You'll excuse me for contradictin'
yuh, but I happened to be lookin' through the office window an' I seen
the whole thing.  Sam went after his gun before Tom made a move."

Blakely moved feebly, groaned, and opened his eyes.  His gaze fell on
Loudon, and his eyes turned venomous.

"You got me," he gritted, his lips drawn back, "but I'll get you when
Marvin and Rudd ride in.  They've got the proof with 'em, you rustler!"

After which cryptic utterance Blakely closed his mouth tightly and
contented himself with glaring.  Richie the unconcerned rose to his
feet and dusted his knees.

"Take his legs, Chuck," directed Richie.  "Gimme a hand, will yuh,
Jimmy?  Easy now.  That's it.  Where'll we put him, Salt?"

Mr. Saltoun and his now sobbing daughter followed them into the ranch
house.  Loudon remained where he was.  When the others had disappeared
Loudon clicked out the cylinder of his six-shooter, ejected the two
spent shells and slipped in fresh cartridges.

"When Marvin an' Rudd ride in," he wondered.  "Got the proof with 'em
too, huh.  It looks as if Blakely was goin' to a lot o' trouble on my
account."

Loudon walked swiftly behind the bunkhouse and passed on to the
corrals.  From the top of the corral fence he intended watching for the
coming of Marvin and Rudd.  In this business he was somewhat delayed by
the discovery of Blakely's horse whickering at the gate of the corral.

"I ain't got nothin' against you," said Loudon, "but yuh shore have
queer taste in owners."

Forthwith he stripped off saddle and bridle and turned the animal into
the corral.  As he closed the gate his glance fell on the dropped
saddle.  The coiled rope had fallen away from the horn, and there was
revealed in the swell-fork a neat round hole.  He squatted down more
closely at the neat hole.

"That happened lately," he said, fingering the edges of the hole.  "I
thought so," he added, as an inserted little finger encountered a
smooth, slightly concave surface.

He took out his knife and dug industriously.  After three minutes' work
a somewhat mushroomed forty-five-calibre bullet lay in the palm of his
hand.

"O' course Johnny Ramsay ain't the only sport packin' a forty-five," he
said, softly.  "But Johnny did mention firin' one shot at a party on a
hoss.  It's possible he hit the swell-fork.  Yep, it's a heap possible."

Then Loudon dropped the bullet into a pocket of his chaps and climbed
to the top of the corral fence.


A mile distant, on the slope of a swell, two men were riding toward the
ranch house.  The horsemen were driving before them a cow and a calf.
Loudon climbed down and took position behind the mule corral.  From
this vantage-point he could observe unseen all that might develop.

The riders, Marvin, the 88 range boss, and Rudd, a puncher, passed
within forty feet of the mule corral.  The cow and the calf walked
heavily, as if they had been driven a long distance, and Loudon
perceived that they had been newly branded 8x8.  The brand was not one
that he recognized.

"Crossed Dumbbell or Eight times Eight."  he grinned.  "Take yore
choice.  I wonder if that brand's the proof Blakely was talkin' about.
Marvin an' Rudd shore do look serious."

He cautiously edged round the corral and halted behind the corner of
the bunkhouse.  Marvin and Rudd were holding the cow and calf near the
ranch house door.  The two men lounged in their saddles.  Marvin rolled
a cigarette.  Then in the doorway appeared Mr. Saltoun.

"Howdy, Mr. Saltoun," said Marvin.  "Sam got in yet?"

"He's in there," replied Mr. Saltoun, jerking a thumb over his
shoulder.  "He's shot."

"Who done it?"

"Tom Loudon,"

"Where is he?"

"Throw up yore hands!" rapped out the gentleman in question.

Loudon had approached unobserved and was standing some twenty feet in
the rear of Marvin and Rudd.  At Loudon's sharp command Rudd's hands
shot skyward instantly.

"I'm waitin'," cautioned Loudon.

Marvin's fingers slowly uncoiled from the butt of his six-shooter and
draggingly he followed his comrade's example.

"Now we can all be happy," remarked Loudon, nodding amiably to the
perturbed Mr. Saltoun.  "I won't shoot unless they shove me.  They can
talk just as comfortable with their hands up, an' it'll be a lot safer
all round.  Was the state o' Sam's health all yuh wanted to know,
Marvin?  No, don't either of yuh turn 'round.  Just keep yore eyes
clamped on the windmill.  About Sam, now, Marvin.  Richie says he'll
pull through.  Anythin' else?"

"You bet there is!" exploded the furious range-boss.  "You ----
rustler, you branded a cow an' a calf o' ours yest'day!"

"Shore," agreed Loudon, politely, "an' I held up the Farewell stage,
stole thirty-eight horses, an' robbed the Marysville bank the day
before.  Yuh don't want to forget all them little details, Marvin.
It's a shore sign yo're gettin' aged when yuh do.  Well, well, a cow
an' a calf yuh say.  Only the two, huh?  It don't look natural somehow.
I never brand less'n twenty-four at a clip."

Over the shoulders of the agitated Mr. Saltoun peered the faces of
avidly interested Richie, Chuck Morgan, and Jimmy the cook.  None of
these three allowed a sign of his true feeling to appear on his face.

The two 88 men were red with shame and anger.  Their lips moved with
wicked words.  Arms stretched heavenward, their gaze religiously fixed
on the windmill, they presented a ridiculous appearance, and they knew
it.  Loudon, the dominant figure in the scene, spread his legs and
smiled sardonically.

"Go on, Marvin," he said, after a moment, "yo're cussin' a lot, but yuh
ain't sayin' nothin'.  Let's hear the rest o' that interestin' story o'
the 88 cow an' her little daughter."

"You branded the both of 'em," stubbornly reiterated Marvin.  "We seen
yuh--Sam, Rudd here, an' me, we seen yuh."

"Yuh seen me!" exclaimed Loudon.  "Yuh seen me!  You was close enough
to see me, an' yuh didn't try to stop me!  Well, you shore are the
poorest liar in the territory."

"If I had my hands down yuh wouldn't call me that!"

"If yuh had yore hands down yuh'd be dead.  I'm tryin' to save yore
life.  C'mon, speak the rest o' yore little piece.  Yuh got as far as
the brandin'.  When did it all happen?"

"Gents," said Marvin, "this sport is a rustler.  There ain't no two
ways about it.  Day before yest'day, just before sundown, over near the
Sink, the three of us seen Loudon workin' round a hog-tied cow an'
calf.  We was three, maybe four miles away.  We seen him through field
glasses.  We hit the ground for the Sink, but when we got there all we
found was the cow an' calf, branded as yuh see 'em now.  Loudon had
sloped."

"Near the Sink," observed Loudon.  "In the middle of it?"

"I've quit talkin'," replied Marvin.

Richie stepped past Mr. Saltoun and stood in front of Marvin and Rudd.

"You've done made a right serious charge agin one o' my men," remarked
Richie, addressing Marvin.  "If he did brand them cattle, he'll be
stretched.  But it ain't all clear to me yet.  This here Crossed
Dumbbell brand now--see it on any other cattle besides these two,
Marvin?"

"No," said Marvin, shaking his head.

"Well," continued Richie, "why didn't yuh come here right off instead
o' waitin' two days?"

"We was busy."

"Didn't go back to the 88 ranch house before comin' here, did yuh?"

"No."

"Or stop at any o' yore line-camps?"

"No, we didn't.  We come here soon as we could make it."

"What part o' the Sink was Loudon workin' in?"

"The north side."

"Near the edge, o' course?"

"No, he was nearer the middle."

"Nearer the middle, was he?  An' yuh seen him at a distance o' three or
four miles.  Yuh must have good eyesight, because if you seen Loudon
workin' in the middle o' the Sink an' you was standin' where yuh say
yuh was, yuh looked through about two miles an' a half o' solid earth.
The middle o' the Sink is two hundred feet below the level o' the
surrounding country, an' there ain't no high land anywhere near it.
Unless yo're standin' right on the edge yuh can't see nothin' in the
bottom, an' the Sink is only about a mile from rim to rim.  I guess now
yo're mistaken, Marvin."

"I ain't none shore he was plumb in the middle," grudgingly admitted
Marvin.  "Maybe he was kind o' near the north rim.  But what's the
difference?" he added, brazenly.  "We seen him."

"Where are the field glasses?" astutely questioned Richie.

"Left 'em at our Lazy River line-camp," promptly replied Marvin.

"Now ain't that funny, Marvin.  Yuh told me not three minutes ago yuh
didn't stop at any o' yore line-camps."

"I mean we--I gave 'em to Shorty Simms.  He's at the Lazy River
line-camp, an' he took 'em there."

"Why did yuh give 'em to Shorty?" persisted Richie.

"Look here, Richie!" blazed Marvin, "this ain't no court, an' I don't
have to answer yore questions."

"Yuh'll have to answer plenty of questions," retorted Richie, "before
I'll see Loudon stretched."

"I tell yuh he's a rustler!" shouted the mulish Marvin.  "He's startin'
a herd o' his own, an' he's usin' the Dumbbell brand.  We seen him
brandin' that stock!  That's enough for you or any one else to know,
an' I tell yuh flat the 88 is out to stretch Tom Loudon the first
chance it gets!"

"Well, o' course, you know best," said Richie, "but I wouldn't do
nothin' rash, Marvin.  I just wouldn't go off at half-cock if I was
you."

"No," chipped in Loudon, briskly.  "I wouldn't set my heart on it,
Marvin, old hoss.  I ain't countin' none on dyin' yet awhile.  I've got
a heap o' little matters to attend to before I cash, an' yuh can see
how hangin' me would disarrange all my plans.  Take yore decorated cow
an' calf now an' pull yore freight, an' _don't_ look back."

When Marvin and Rudd were gone Richie hooked his thumb in his belt and
looked with twinkling eyes at Loudon and the men in the doorway.

"I guess that settles the cat-hop," said Jack Richie.



CHAPTER VI

PESTILENT FELLOWS

Before his departure Loudon visited Blakely.

"Found a bullet-hole in yore saddle," said Loudon without preliminary.
"Kind o' looks as if Johnny come near bustin' yore mainspring.  I ain't
told Johnny--yet.  Johnny bein' an impulsive sport he might ventilate
yuh plenty first time he met yuh.  Johnny's square.  He ain't shootin'
anybody unless he's pretty near certain the other party is a-layin' for
him, an' that bullet I dug out o' yore swell-fork shore makes it look
bad for yuh.

"Yuh needn't look so sour.  I got good news for yuh.  Yo're goin' to
marry Kate.  Well an' good.  I wouldn't enjoy downin' her husband
unless I'm crowded.  I could 'a' killed yuh a while back, an' I shot
wide on purpose.  Next time--but don't let there be any next time.
Just you keep away from me an' Johnny.  I'm leavin' the Lazy River
country anyway, but I tell yuh, Sam Blakely, if Johnny Ramsay is
bushwhacked by the 88 I'll come back an' get yuh first card out o' the
box.  Kate's husband or not yuh'll go shoutin' home.  Understand?"

"So yo're leavin' this country," bristled Blakely.  "Yuh'd better.
I'll shoot yuh on sight!"

"Shore yuh feel that way about it?" queried Loudon with suspicious
gentleness.

"I say what I mean as a rule.  I'll shoot yuh on sight you ----
rustler."

"All right.  Because o' Kate I was willin' to keep paws off, but if
yo're a-honin' to play the hand out, I'll give yuh every chance.
You've got to get well complete first.  Take three months.  That ought
to be time enough.  Three months from to-day I'll ride in to Farewell.
If yo're still feelin' fighty be in town when I hit it."

"I'll be there," Blakely assured him.

When Loudon had bidden Johnny Ramsay good-bye, he went out and mounted
Ranger and rode away with Jack Richie.

"I'm goin' away from here, Jack," said Loudon, after Richie had
discussed in profane detail the 88's endeavour to discredit him.

"I thought yuh was goin' to work for me?" exclaimed Richie in surprise.

"I was, but somethin's happened since then.  I'm kind o' sick o' the
Lazy River country.  I need a change."

"Well, you know best.  But----"

"I know what yo're thinkin'.  If I go now the 88 will think I've quit
cold.  Let 'em think it.  I don't care.  But I'll be back.  I made an
appointment with Blakely to meet him in Farewell three months from
to-day."

"That's good hearin'.  But I'm shore sorry you ain't goin' to ride for
me."

"So'm I."

"Stay over to-night anyway.  Yuh ain't in any howlin' rush to get away,
are yuh?"

"No, I ain't so hurried.  I dunno where I'll head--north, maybe."

"If yo're goin' north, why don't yuh try Scotty Mackenzie?  He owns the
Flyin' M horse ranch over beyond Paradise Bend.  There's three or four
good cow ranches near the Bend--the Seven Lazy Seven, the Wagon-wheel,
the Two Bar, an' the T V U."

"Maybe I will hit the Bend."

"If yuh do," pursued Richie, "yuh might stop an' say howdy at Cap'n
Burr's.  He married my sister, Burr did, an' all yuh got to do is say
yuh know me, an' they'll give yuh the house.  I guess, though, yuh know
Cap'n Burr yoreself."

"Shore I do.  It was the Cap'n who put me on to buyin' Ranger here.  He
kept tellin' me about this amazin' good cayuse over at the 88, an'
finally I went over, liked his looks, an' bought him.  The Cap'n was at
the 88 the day I took the hoss away.  He'd just freighted in a bunch o'
stuff Blakely'd ordered.  Cap'n Burr does a powerful lot o' business."

"Don't he now.  Yuh wouldn't think tin-peddlin' would pay so well.  Oh,
him an' his little old team o' blues shore glom onto the coin."


When Loudon rode into Farewell on the following day he saw half-a-dozen
88 cow-ponies hitched to the rail in front of the Palace Saloon.

"Now that's cheerful," said Loudon.  "For a peaceable feller I shore do
tie in with trouble a heap."

He turned aside at the hotel and tapped the landlord awake.  At sight
of Loudon Bill Lainey's eyes opened to their fullest extent and his red
face turned purple with excitement.

"Say," huskily whispered Lainey, "Shorty Simms, Rudd, Dakota Riley, an'
three more o' the 88 boys are in town.  They're tankin' up down in the
Palace.  Rudd's yowlin' round how he's goin' to drill yuh.  He's a heap
peevish, Rudd is.  I guess now yuh must 'a' riled him somehow, Tom."

"I guess maybe I did, Bill.  I'll take a little walk down to the Palace
after I eat.  Thanks for the warnin'.  Feed the little hoss, will yuh,
Bill?"

"Shore.  Go on in an' holler for Lize."

While Loudon was eating, a wiry, brisk little man with a white beard
entered the dining room.

"How are yuh, Cap'n?" grinned Loudon.

Captain Burr, surprise and embarrassment in his steel-blue eyes,
advanced and gripped Loudon's hand.

"Loudon!  By ----, suh!" he exclaimed.  "This is indeed a pleasuh!"

The tin-peddler slid into a chair and cleared his throat several times.

"I feah, suh," he said, shamefacedly, "that I have trespassed on youah
prese'ves.  Had I known that you were in town I would have stayed my
hand."

"Why?  What?" queried Loudon.

"Well, suh, I'll tell you the whole story.  It's sho't.  Twenty minutes
ago I ente'ed the Palace Saloon.  While drinking at the bah I could not
help but overheah the conve'sation of half-a-dozen 88 cowboys.  One of
them, a man named Rudd, mentioned youah name and called you a rustlah.

"You, Tom, are my friend, and, since I was unaware that you were in
town, I felt that I could not stand idly by.  I info'med this Rudd
person that traducing the absent was not the act of a gentleman.  I
also called him a ---- scoundrel and a liah to boot.  He took exception
to my wo'ds and, I was fo'ced to shoot him.

"You unde'stand, Tom, that I acted in complete good faith.  I believed
you to be at the Bah S.  Otherwise, I should have repo'ted the mattah
to you.  Of co'se, I would have stood at youah back while you shot the
rascal.  His ruffianly friends ah not to be trusted."

"Don't apologize, Cap'n," said Loudon, and he reached across the table
and shook hands again.

Captain Burr appeared to be greatly comforted at Loudon's ready
acceptance of his explanation, and he attacked his beef and beans with
appetite.

The captain was a good deal of a mystery to the folk with whom he came
in contact.  His mode of speech and his table manners were not those of
ordinary men.  But he was a man, with all that the name implies, and as
such they had learned to accept him.  I employ "learned" advisedly.
Certain unthinking individuals had, when the captain was a comparative
stranger in that region, commented upon his traits and received a
prompt and thorough chastening.

Captain Burr gained thereby an enviable reputation.  In reality there
was no mystery attached to the old tin-peddler.  He had simply been
born a gentleman.

"Did Rudd die?" inquired Loudon in a tone of studied casualness, when
he had finished his meal.

"He did not," replied the Captain.  "Unless blood-poisoning sets in he
will live to be hung.  My bullet broke his ahm.  He rode away with his
comrades five minutes lateh.  No doubt he was in some pain, but the
rogue was suffering much less than he dese'ved.  I realize that I
should have killed him, of co'se, but as I grow oldeh I find myself
becoming soft-heahted.  Time was--but one must not dwell in the past.
These beans ah excellent, Tom."

"They are.  Pullin' out soon?"

"At once.  I'm bound no'th.  I intend to visit all the ranches between
heah and Paradise Bend.  I hope to be home in two weeks.  Ah you
travelling my way?"

"Yep.  I guess I'm bound for the Bend, too."

"Then I will ask you to deliveh a letteh to my wife.  I missed the Bend
stage by two houahs to-day, and theah is no otheh fo' three days."

Loudon took the letter and placed it carefully in the inside pocket of
his vest.

While Captain Burr was harnessing his team, a job in which the
tin-peddler always refused assistance, Loudon rode down the street with
the intention of buying tobacco at the Blue Pigeon Store.  In front of
the Happy Heart Saloon, opposite the Palace Dance Hall, stood Sheriff
Block and five citizens.

As Loudon rode past the sheriff made a low-voiced remark and laughed
loudly.  Instantly the five citizens burst into cackles.  For Block,
besides being sheriff, owned both the Palace and the Happy Heart.
Hence most of Farewell's inhabitants took their cue from him.

The cachination in front of the Happy Heart grated on Loudon's feelings
as well as his ear-drums.  He knew that the sheriff, kindly soul, was
holding him up to ridicule.  Kate's refusal of him had made Loudon
somewhat reckless.  He had intended having it out with Rudd, but
Captain Burr had forestalled him there.  Here, however, was the sheriff
of the county, another enemy.  Loudon turned his horse.

Promptly the five friends oozed in various directions.  Sheriff Block,
a lonely figure, held his ground.

"I hear yo're lookin' for me," announced Loudon, a laughing devil in
his gray eyes.

"Who told yuh?" queried the sheriff, puzzled.  He had expected
something totally different.

"Who told me?  Oh, several little birds.  So I want to find out about
it.  I wouldn't like to put yuh to any trouble--such as huntin' me up,
for instance."

"That's good o' yuh.  But I ain't lookin' for yuh, not yet."

"I'm right glad to hear that.  Them little birds must 'a' lied.
Powerful lot o' lyin' goin' on in the world, ain't there?"

"I dunno nothin' about it," mumbled the sheriff, who was becoming more
and more puzzled at the apparently aimless words of the puncher.

"Don't yuh?" grinned Loudon.  "That's shore hard to believe."

The sheriff warily refused to take offence, and mumbled unintelligibly.

"Forget that afternoon in the draw west o' Little Bear Mountain?"
relentlessly pursued Loudon.  "We had some words--remember?  Yuh said
somethin' about me havin' the drop.  I ain't got the drop now.  My
hands are on the horn.  Yore's are hooked in yore belt.  But I'll lay
yuh two to one I bust yuh plumb centre before yuh can pull.  Take me
up?"

Loudon's lips were smiling, but his eyes stared with a disconcerting
gray chilliness into the small black eyes of Sheriff Block.  The
officer's eyelids wavered, winked, and Block shifted his gaze to
Loudon's chin.

"I ain't startin' no gun-play for nothin'," said Block with finality.

Loudon held up a ten-dollar gold piece.

"Two to one," he urged.

But the sheriff perceived that the hand holding the gold piece was
Loudon's left hand, and he could not quite screw his courage to the
sticking-point.  Block was ordinarily brave enough, but he was bad, and
as a rule there is at least one individual whom the bad man fears.  And
Block feared Loudon.

The sheriff's mean and vicious spirit writhed within him.  He hated
Loudon, hated him for his cocksureness, for his easy fearlessness.  He
would have sold his soul to the devil in return for the ability to
reach for his gun.  The sheriff licked his lips.

Loudon, still smiling, continued to hold aloft the gold piece.  The
onlookers--half of Farewell by this time--awaited the outcome in tense
silence.

Suddenly the sheriff shook his shoulders, spat on the sidewalk,
wheeled, and entered the Happy Heart.

Loudon flipped the gold piece into the air, caught it, and returned it
to his vest-pocket.  Without a glance at the keenly disappointed
populace, he turned Ranger and loped to the Blue Pigeon Store.

When he emerged, followed by the bawled "Good lucks!" of the
proprietor, Captain Burr was waiting.  The tin-peddler's face was grave
but his steel-blue eyes were twinkling with suppressed merriment.

"Well, suh----" chuckled the captain, when they were out of earshot of
the Farewell citizens--"well, suh, you ce'tainly talked to that
sheriff.  Lord, Tom, it made me laugh.  I didn't know that Block was so
lacking in honah and spo'ting spirit.  I fully expected to witness
quite a ruction."

"I wasn't lookin' for a fight," disclaimed Loudon.  "I knowed Block
wouldn't pull.  It was safe as takin' pie from a baby."

"I'm not so shuah," doubted Captain Burr.  "Any reptile is mighty
unce'tain.  And this reptile had friends.  I was watching them.  My
Spenceh seven-shooteh was ready fo' action.  You Rob'et E. Lee hoss,
pick up youah feet!  Well, I'm glad it ended peacefully.  My wife and
daughteh, as I may have mentioned, do not approve of fighting.  They
cannot realize how necessa'y it becomes at times.  It would be well, I
think, when you reach the Bend, to refrain from mentioning my little
disagreement with Rudd.  My family might heah of it, and--but you
unde'stand, don't you, Tom?"

"'Course, I do, Cap'n," heartily concurred Loudon.  "I won't say a
word."

"Thank you."

Captain Burr fell silent.  Suddenly he began to laugh.

"Po' Farewell," he chuckled.  "Theah will be some powdeh bu'nt befo'
the day is out."

"How?"

"Block.  His pride has had a fall.  Quite a few saw the tumble.  An
o'dina'y man would tuck his tail between his legs and go elsewheah.
But the sheriff is not an o'dina'y man.  He's too mean.  In order to
reinstate himself in the affections of the townspeople he will feel
compelled to shoot one of them.  Mahk my wo'ds, theah will be trouble
in the smoke fo' Farewell."

"It can stand it.  Outside o' Mike Flynn, an' Bill Lainey an' his wife,
there ain't a decent two-legged party in the whole place."

Captain Burr nodded and turned an appreciative eye on Ranger.

"That chestnut hoss ce'tainly does please me," he said.  "I wish I'd
bought him myself.  I do indeed."



CHAPTER VII

PARADISE BEND

Where the Dogsoldier River doubles on itself between Baldy Mountain and
the Government Hills sprawls the little town of Paradise Bend.  Larger
than Farewell, it boasted of two stores, a Wells Fargo office, two
dance halls, and five saloons.  The inevitable picket line of empty
bottles and tin cans encircled it, and its main street and three cross
streets were made unlovely by the familiar false fronts and waveringly
misspelt signs.

Loudon stared at the prospect with a pessimistic eye.  Solitude--he had
parted with Captain Burr the previous day--and the introspection
engendered thereby had rendered him gloomy.  The sulky devil that had
prompted him to seek a quarrel with Sheriff Block abode with him still.
Sullenly he checked his horse in front of the Chicago Store.

"Mornin'," said Loudon, addressing a dilapidated ancient sitting on a
cracker box.  "Can yuh tell me where Cap'n Burr lives?"

"Howdy, stranger?" replied the elderly person, eying with extreme
disfavour the 88 brand on Ranger's hip.  "I shore can.  Ride on down
past the Three Card, turn to the left, an' keep a-goin'.  It's the last
house."

Loudon nodded and continued on his way.  The ancient followed him with
alert eyes.

When Loudon drew abreast of the Three Card Saloon a man issued from the
doorway, glimpsed Ranger's brand, and immediately hastened into the
street and greeted Loudon after the fashion of an old friend.

"C'mon an' licker," invited the man, as Loudon checked his horse.

"Now that's what I call meetin' yuh with a brass band," remarked
Loudon.  "Do yuh always make a stranger to home this-away?"

"Always," grinned the other.  "I'm the reception committee."

"I'm trailin' yuh," said Loudon, dismounting.

He flung the reins over Ranger's head and followed the cordial
individual into the saloon.  While they stood at the bar Loudon took
stock of the other man.

He was a good-looking young fellow, strong-chinned, straight-mouthed,
with brown hair and eyes.  His expression was winning, too winning, and
there was a certain knowing look in his eye that did not appeal to
Loudon.  The latter drank his whisky slowly, his brain busily searching
for the key to the other man's conduct.

"Gambler, I guess," he concluded.  "I must look like ready money.
Here's where one tinhorn gets fooled."

After commenting at some length on the extraordinary dryness of the
season, Loudon's bottle-acquaintance, under cover of the loud-voiced
conversation of three punchers at the other end of the bar, said in a
low tone:

"Couldn't Sam come?"

Loudon stared.  The other noted his mystification, and mistook it.

"I'm Pete O'Leary," he continued.  "It's all right."

"Shore it is," conceded the puzzled Loudon.  "My name's Loudon.  Have
another."

The knowing look in Pete O'Leary's eyes was displaced by one of
distrust.  He drank abstractedly, mumbled an excuse about having to see
a man, and departed.

Loudon bought half-a-dozen cigars, stuffed five into the pocket of his
shirt, lit the sixth, and went out to his horse.  Puffing strongly, he
mounted and turned into the street designated by the dilapidated
ancient.  As he loped past the corner he glanced over his shoulder.  He
noted that not only was Pete O'Leary watching him from the window of a
dance hall, but that the tattered old person, leaning against a
hitching rail, was observing him also.

"I might be a hoss-thief or somethin'," muttered Loudon with a frown.
"This shore is a queer village o' prairie dogs.  The cigar's good,
anyway."  Then, his horse having covered a hundred yards in the
interval, he quoted, "'Couldn't Sam come?' an', 'I'm Pete O'Leary.'
Sam, Sam, who's Sam?  Now if Johnny Ramsay was here he'd have it all
figured out in no time."


"Why, Mr. Loudon!  Oh, wait!  Do wait!"

Loudon turned his head.  In the doorway of a house stood a plump young
woman waving a frantic dish-cloth.  Ranger, hard held, slid to a halt,
turned on a nickel, and shot back to the beckoning young woman.

"Well, ma'am," said Loudon, removing his hat.

"Don't you remember me?" coquettishly pouted the plump lady.

Loudon remembered her perfectly.  She was Mrs. Mace, wife of Jim Mace,
a citizen of Paradise Bend.  He had met her the year before when she
was visiting Kate Saltoun at the Bar S.  He had not once thought of
Mrs. Mace since her departure from the ranch, and of course he had
completely forgotten that she lived in Paradise Bend.  If he had
recalled the fact, he would have sought the Burrs' residence by some
other route.  One of Kate's friends was the last person on earth he
cared to meet.

"Shore, I remember yuh, Mrs. Mace," said Loudon, gravely.  "I'm right
glad to see yuh," he added, heavily polite.

"Are you?" said the lady somewhat sharply.  "Try to look happy then.  I
ain't a grizzly, an' I don't bite folks.  I won't stop you more'n a
second."

"Why, ma'am, I am glad to see yuh," protested Loudon, "an' I ain't in
no hurry, honest."

"That's all right.  I ain't offended.  Say, how's Kate an' her pa?"

"Fine when I saw 'em last.  Kate's as pretty as ever."

"She ought to be.  She ain't married.  Matrimony shore does rough up a
woman's figure an' face.  Lord, I'm a good thirty pounds heavier than I
was when I saw you last.  Say, do you know if Kate got that dress
pattern I sent her last month?"

"I dunno, ma'am.  I didn't hear her say."

"I s'pose not.  I guess you two had more important things to talk
about.  Say, how are you an' Kate gettin' along, anyway?"

"Why, all right, I guess."

Loudon felt extremely unhappy.  Mrs. Mace's keen gaze was embarrassing.
So was her next utterance.

"Well, I guess I'll write to Kate," remarked the lady, "an' find out
about that dress pattern.  She always was a poor writer, but she'd
ought to have sent me a thank-you anyway, an' me her best friend.  I'll
tell her I saw yuh, Mr. Loudon."

"Don't tell her on my account," said Loudon.  Then, realizing his
mistake, he continued hurriedly, "Shore, tell her.  She'd enjoy
hearin', o' course."

"Don't tell me you two haven't been quarrellin'," chided Mrs. Mace,
shaking a fat forefinger at Loudon.  "You'd ought to be ashamed of
yourselves, rowin' this way."

"Why, ma'am, yo're mistaken.  Me quarrel?  I guess not!  But I got to
be goin'.  Good-bye, ma'am.  I'll see yuh again."

Loudon, raging, loped away.  Meeting one of Kate's friends was bad
enough in itself.  For the friend wantonly to flick him on the raw was
intolerable.

Loudon began to believe that women were put into the world for the
purpose of annoying men.  But when he had dismounted in front of the
best house on the street, and the door had been opened in response to
his knock, he changed his mind, for a brown-haired young girl with a
very pleasant smile was looking at him inquiringly.

"Is this where Captain Burr lives?" queried Loudon.

"Yes," replied the girl, her smile broadening.

"Then here's a letter for Mis' Burr.  The Cap'n asked me to bring it up
for him."

"A letter for me?" exclaimed a sharp voice, and the speaker, a tall,
angular, harsh-featured woman, appeared at the girl's side with the
suddenness of a Jack-in-the-box.  "From Benjamin?" continued the
harsh-featured woman, uttering her words with the rapidity of a
machine-gun's fire.  "How is he?  When d'you see him last?  When's he
comin' home?"

"Heavens, Ma!" laughed the girl, before Loudon could make any reply.
"Give the poor man a chance to breathe."

"You got to excuse me, stranger," said Mrs. Burr.  "But I'm always so
worried about Benjamin when he's travellin'.  He's so venturesome.  But
come in, stranger.  Come in an' rest yore hat.  Dinner's 'most ready."

"Why, thank yuh, ma'am," stuttered the embarrassed Loudon.  "But I
guess I'll go to the hotel."

"I guess yuh won't!" snapped Mrs. Burr.  "I never let one o' my
husband's friends 'cept Scotty Mackenzie eat at the hotel yet, an' I
ain't goin' to begin now.  You'll just come right inside an' tell me
all about Benjamin while yo're eatin'.  That your hoss?  Well, the
corral's behind the house.  Dorothy, you go with the gentleman an' see
that he don't stampede."

Loudon, brick-red beneath his tan, seized Ranger's bridle and followed
Miss Burr to the corral.  While he was unsaddling he looked up and
caught her eying him amusedly.  He grinned and she laughed outright.

"I'm glad you didn't stampede," she said, her brown eyes twinkling.
"Mother would have been heart-broken if you had.  Whenever any of Dad's
friends are in town they never think of eating at the hotel--except
Scotty Mackenzie.  Scotty stubbornly refuses to dine with us.  He says
mother's cooking takes away his appetite for what he calls ranch grub.
Mother is really a wonderful cook.  You'll see."

In this manner was the ice broken, and Loudon's sullen gloom had gone
from him by the time he entered the Burr kitchen.  On the Turkey-red
tablecloth a broiled steak, surrounded by roasted potatoes, reposed on
a platter.  Flanking the platter were a bowl of peas and a large dish
of sliced beets adrip with butter sauce.  Loudon's eyes opened wide in
amazement.  Never in all his life had he beheld such an appetizing
array of edibles.

"Looks good, don't it?" beamed Mrs. Burr.

It was wonderful how her smile transformed her forbidding features.  To
Loudon she appeared as a benevolent angel.  He could only nod dumbly.

"Set now, an' don't be afraid o' the victuals," continued Mrs. Burr,
filling the coffee-cups.  "It all has to be et, an' I shore do hate to
chuck out good grub.  Lord, it makes me feel fine to cook for a man
again!  What did you say yore name is, Mister? ... Loudon, o' course; I
never can catch a name the first time.  I always got to hear it twice.
Dorothy, you reach over an' dish out them peas an' beets.  Take that
piece of steak next the bone, Mister Loudon.  Like gravy on yore
'taters?  Most do.  My man does, special.  Here's a spoon.  Dorothy,
pass the bread."

Everything tasted even better than it looked.  Loudon ate a second
piece of dried-apple pie, and had a fourth cup of coffee to top off
with.  To the puncher it had been a marvellous dinner.  No wonder
Scotty Mackenzie demurred at dining with the Burrs.  After one such
meal sowbelly and Miners Delights would be as bootsole and buckshot.

"You can smoke right here," said Mrs. Burr, after Loudon had refused a
fifth cup of coffee.  "Shove yore chair back agin' the wall, hook up
yore feet, an' be happy while Dorothy an' I wash the dishes.  I like to
see a man comfortable, I do.  So you know my brother.  Well, well,
ain't the world a small place?  How're Jack an' the Cross-in-a-box
makin' out?  He never thinks to write, Jack Richie don't, the lazy
rapscallion.  Wait till I set eyes on him.  I'll tell him a thing or
two."

Loudon, in no haste to find Scotty Mackenzie, was smoking his fifth
cigarette when the dilapidated ancient of the cracker box stuck his
head in the door.

"Howdy, Mis' Burr?" said the ancient.  "Howdy, Dorothy?"

"'Lo, Scotty," chorused the two women.  "Let me make yuh acquainted
with Mr. Loudon, Scotty," continued Mrs. Burr.  "Mr. Loudon, shake
hands with Mr. Mackenzie."

Loudon gripped hands with the ragged ancient.  In the latter's bright
blue eyes was no friendliness.

He acknowledged the introduction with careful politeness, and sat down
on a chair in a corner.  Having deftly rolled a cigarette, he flipped
the match through the doorway, tilted back his chair, remarked that the
weather was powerful dry, and relapsed into silence.  He took no
further part in the conversation.

At the end of the kitchen, between the windows, hung a small mirror.
Loudon, idly watching the two women as they moved about resetting the
table, happened to glance at the mirror.  In it he saw reflected the
face of Scotty Mackenzie.

The features were twisted into an almost demoniac expression of hate.
Slowly Loudon turned his head.  Mackenzie, his eyes on the floor, was
smoking, his expression one of serene well-being.

"He don't like me any," decided Loudon, and pondered the advisability
of asking Mackenzie for a job.

It was not Mackenzie's lack of friendliness that gave Loudon pause.  It
was the man's appearance.  Even for the West, where attire does not
make the man, Mackenzie had not an inspiring presence.  His trousers
showed several patches and a rip or two.  His vest was in a worse state
than his trousers.  His blue flannel shirt had turned green in spots,
and the left sleeve had once belonged to a red flannel undershirt.  Two
holes yawned in the corner of his floppy-brimmed hat, and his boots,
run over at the heels, would have shamed a tramp.

That this economically garbed individual could prove a good employer
seemed doubtful.  Yet he had been recommended by Jack Richie.

Mackenzie suddenly mumbled that he guessed he'd better be going, and
rose to his feet.  Loudon followed him into the street.  Mackenzie
halted and half-turned as Loudon caught up with him.  Loudon noted that
the ancient's hand was closer to his gun-butt than politeness and the
circumstances warranted.

"Hirin' any men?" inquired Loudon.

"I might," replied Mackenzie, the pupils of his blue eyes shrunk to
pin-points.  "Who, for instance?"

"Me for one."

Mackenzie continued to stare.  Loudon, who never lowered his eyes to
any man, steadily returned the ancient's gaze.

"Yo're hired," said Mackenzie, suddenly.  "Git yore hoss.  I'll meet
yuh at the corner o' Main Street."

Mackenzie walked rapidly away, and Loudon returned to the house of the
Burrs.  He took his leave of the two engaging women, the elder of whom
pressed him repeatedly to come again, and went out to the corral.

While Loudon awaited his employer's arrival at the corner of Main
Street he saw Pete O'Leary emerge from the doorway of the Three Card
Saloon and walk toward him.  But the young man of the knowing brown eye
did not cross the street.  He nodded to Loudon and swung round the
corner.

The Lazy River man shifted sidewise in the saddle and followed him with
his eyes.  Pete O'Leary interested Loudon.  Folk that are mysterious
will bear watching, and O'Leary's manner during his conversation with
Loudon had been perplexingly vague.

"Now I wonder where that nice-lookin' young fellah is goin'?" debated
Loudon.  "Burrs', for a plugged nickel!  Yep, there he goes in the
door.  Well, Mis' Burr ain't a fool, but if I owned a good-lookin'
daughter, that Pete O'Leary ain't just the right brand o' party I'd
want should come a-skirmishin' round."

Loudon's mental soliloquy was cut short by the arrival of Mackenzie.
The ancient's appalling disregard for his personal appearance did not
extend to his mount and saddlery.  His horse was a handsome bay.  The
saddle he sat in was a Billings swell-fork tree, with a silver horn,
silver conchas, carved leather skirts and cantle, and snowflake leather
strings.  The bridle was a split-ear, with a nose-band even more
marvellously carved than the saddle, and it sported a blue steel bit,
silver inlaid, and eighteen-inch rein-chains.  The most exacting dandy
in cowland could not have obtained better equipment.

Beyond a momentless sentence or two Mackenzie said nothing as he and
his new hand rode out into the valley of the Dogsoldier.  He maintained
his silence till Loudon, muttering that his cinches required
tightening, checked Ranger and dismounted.

"Throw up yore hands!" was the harsh order that fell on Loudon's
astonished ears.

Hands above his head, Loudon turned slowly and stared into the muzzle
of a well-kept six-shooter.  Behind the gun gleamed the frosty blue
eyes of Scotty Mackenzie.

"Got anythin' to say before I leave yuh?" inquired Mackenzie.

"That depends on how yuh leave me," countered Loudon.  "If yo're just
aimin' to say, 'So long,' yuh can't go too quick.  Yo're a mite too
abrupt to suit me.  But if yore intention is hostile, then I got a
whole lot to say."

"Hostile it is, young feller.  Trot out yore speech."

"That's handsome enough for a dog.  First, I'd shore admire to know why
yo're hostile."

"You know."

"I don't yet," denied Loudon.

Scotty Mackenzie stared woodenly.  His features betrayed no hint of his
purpose.  He might have been gazing at a cow or a calf or the kitchen
stove.  Nevertheless Loudon realized that the amazing old man was
within a whisper of pulling trigger.

"Yuh see," observed Loudon, forcing his lips to smile pleasantly, "it
ain't the goin' away I mind so much--it's the not knowin' why.  I get
off to fix cinches, an' yuh throw down on me.  I ain't done nothin' to
yuh--I ain't never seen yuh before, an' I don't believe I've ever met
up with any o' yore relations, so----"

"Yo're from the 88," interrupted Mackenzie.  "That's enough!"

"Bein' from the 88," said Loudon, "is shore a bad recommend for any
man.  But it just happens I'm from the Bar S.  I never have rode for
the 88, an' I don't think I ever will."

"What are yuh doin' with a 88 hoss?" pursued the unrelenting Mackenzie.

"88 hoss?  Why, that little hoss is my hoss.  I bought him from the 88."

"The brand ain't vented."

"I know it ain't.  At the time I bought him I didn't expect to have to
tell the story o' my life to every old bushwhacker in the territory, or
I shore would 'a' had that brand vented."

The six-shooter in Mackenzie's hand remained steady.  In his chill blue
eyes was no flicker of indecision.  Loudon was still smiling, but he
felt that his end was near.

"Say," said Loudon, "when you've done left me, I wish yuh'd send my
hoss an' saddle to Johnny Ramsay o' the Cross in-a-box.  Johnny's at
the Bar S now--got a few holes in him.  But you send the hoss to Jack
Richie an' tell him to keep him for Johnny till he comes back.  Don't
mind doin' that, do yuh?  Ain't aimin' to keep the cayuse, are yuh?"

"Do you know Johnny Ramsay?" queried Mackenzie.

"Ought to.  Johnny an' me've been friends for years."

"Know Jack Richie?"

"Know him 'most as well as I do Johnny.  An' I know Cap'n Burr, too.
Didn't yuh see me there at his house?"

"The Cap'n knows lots o' folks, an' it ain't hard to scrape
acquaintance with a couple o' soft-hearted women."

"I brought up a letter from Cap'n Burr to his wife.  You ask her."

"Oh, shore.  Yuh might 'a' carried a letter an' still be what I take
yuh for.'"

"Now we're back where we started.  What do yuh take me for?"

Mackenzie made no reply.  Again there fell between the two men that
spirit-breaking silence.  It endured a full five minutes, to be broken
finally by Mackenzie.

"Git aboard yore hoss," said the ranch-owner.  "An' don't go after no
gun."

"I'd rather draw what's comin' to me on the ground," objected Loudon.
"It ain't so far to fall."

"Ain't nothin' comin' to yuh yet.  Git aboard, go on to the ranch, an'
tell my foreman, Doubleday, I sent yuh, an' that I won't be back yet
awhile."

"I ain't so shore I want to work for yuh now."

"There ain't no two ways about it.  You'll either give me yore word to
go on to the ranch an' stay there till I come, or yuh'll stay right
here.  After I come back yuh can quit if yuh like."

"That's a harp with another tune entirely.  I'll go yuh."

Loudon turned to his horse and swung into the saddle.

"Keep a-goin' along this trail," directed Mackenzie, his six-shooter
still covering Loudon.  "It's about eight mile to the ranch."

Loudon did not look back as he rode away.



CHAPTER VIII

THE AMAZING MACKENZIE

Doubleday, a squat man with a sharp nose and a sharper eye, evinced no
surprise at his employer's message.  He merely swore resignedly on
learning that Mackenzie had not sent in the mail by Loudon, and in the
same breath thanked his Maker that a new man had arrived.

The advent of Loudon was most opportune, according to Doubleday.  For,
one "Lanky" having taken a wife and removed to the Sweet River Agency,
the Flying M was a man short.

"Turn yore hoss into the big corral," said Doubleday, when he had
sufficiently condemned the foolishness of Lanky, "an' take yore saddle
over to the bunkhouse.  There's three empty bunks.  Help yoreself.
Then c'mon over to the little corral an' bring yore rope.  Got an
outlaw stallion with a cut hind leg, an' it's a two-man job."

Loudon found favour in the eyes of Doubleday.  The former Bar S puncher
did his work easily and well.  He proved a better roper than Doubleday,
and he was the equal in horsemanship of "Telescope" Laguerre, the
half-breed buster.

With Laguerre, Loudon struck up an instant friendship.
Telescope--which name was the natural transformation undergone by
Telesphore in a Western climate--was a long lean man, with the straight
black hair and the swarthy complexion of his Indian mother and the
mobile features and facile speech and gestures of his French father.
When Loudon had been at the Flying M three days Telescope suggested
that they ride to town in the evening.

"We weel go to de dance hall," said Laguerre.  "Fine woman dere.  We
weel dance a leetle, we weel dreenk de w'iskey, un we weel have de good
tam.  By gar, I not been to town for two mont.  Wat your say, Tom?"

"I'd shore enjoy goin' along, Telescope, but I can't," replied Loudon,
mindful of his promise to Scotty Mackenzie.

"Dat ees all right," said the large-hearted half-breed.  "She ees my
treat.  I have more as one hundred dollar, un by gar!  I wan' for to
spen' eet.  You are my frien'.  You help me for spen' eet.  We weel
burn up de dance hall."

"Oh, I'm not broke," said Loudon.  "I'll go with yuh another time."

Laguerre, being wise in his generation, forbore to insist, and rode to
town alone.  The cook predicted a three-day orgy.

"Rats!" said Doubleday.  "Yuh don't know Telescope.  He never gets
drunk.  He can't.  He sops it up an' he sops it up, an' it don't bother
him a mite.  Wish I had his gift.  Why, I've seen him tuck away a quart
o' killer inside o' three hours, an' then hop out with his rope an'
fasten on a hoss any leg you tell him.  He's a walkin' miracle,
Telescope is, an' he'll be back in the mornin'."

Loudon, oiling his saddle in front of the bunkhouse, glanced casually
at the cook standing in the doorway, and wondered for the twentieth
time where he had seen the man before.  On his arrival at the Flying M,
Loudon had sensed that, in a vague way, the cook's face was familiar.
First impressions had taken no concrete form.  He could not remember
where or under what circumstances he had seen the cook.  But that he
had seen him, he was certain.

The cook's name was Rufe Cutting.  Which name, however, was not
enlightening.  Idly speculating, Loudon went on with his work.  The
cook returned to the kitchen.

Laguerre bore out the statement of Doubleday.  He returned while the
men were saddling in the morning.  He did not appear in the least
degree wearied.  Hurriedly changing his saddle to a fresh horse, he
rode away with Loudon.

"By gar!" exclaimed Laguerre.  "I have de fine tam.  I dance, I dreenk
de w'iskey, un I play de pokair wit' Pete O'Leary un two odder men un I
tak' deir money.  I ween feefty dollar.  By gar!  I am glad I go to
town, me."

"Yuh shore ought to be," said Loudon.  "Fifty dollars.  That's right
good hearin'."

"Pete O'Leary she wan' for know 'bout you," continued Laguerre.

"Pete O'Leary asked about me!  What did he say, huh?"

"Oh, she not say eet plain.  She walk een de watair.  But I have been
de scout; I have leeve wit Enjun; I know w'at ees een ees head.  She
talk 'bout Lanky quittin' de Flyin' M, un she wan' for know have Scotty
hired new man.  She say she see Scotty ride out wit' you, un she know
you name.  But I not say much.  I tell Pete O'Leary to ask Scotty 'bout
hees business, un I not say eef you work for de Flyin' M or not.  For I
tink mabbeso Pete O'Leary she ees not frien' to you."

"Well, he ain't strictly hostyle anyway," said Loudon, and he forthwith
told Laguerre of his meeting with Pete O'Leary and of the latter's
strange actions.

"Dat ees varree fonny," commented Laguerre.  "Pete O'Leary she was
expectin' de frien' or de message mabbee.  But dat ees not so fonny as
hees askin' 'bout you so moch.  She worry 'bout you, un dat ees fonny.
Why she worry eef she hones' man?  I tell you, my frien', I do not
trus' dat Pete O'Leary.  I would watch heem.  I would watch heem varree
sharp."

"Oh, I don't believe it means anythin'," doubted Loudon.  "But I'll
keep an eye skinned for him."

"You better, my frien', or mabbeso some tam she skeen you."


A week later Mackenzie returned.  That evening, after supper, Doubleday
told Loudon that Scotty wanted to see him.  Mackenzie, chair tilted,
feet propped on the table, his hands clasped behind his head, was
staring up at the ceiling when Loudon entered the office.  The chair
descended on four legs with a crash, and the ancient arose briskly.

"Stranger," said Mackenzie, his blue eyes no longer frosty, "I was
mistaken.  Yo're a gent an' a white man, an' I ain't holdin' out
nothin'.  Shake."

Loudon grinned and shook hands.  He was satisfied with the other's
apology.

"That's all right," said the puncher.  "I knowed yuh mistook me for
somebody else.  But I'd shore admire to know, if it ain't private, who
yuh thought I was."

"I don't mind tellin' yuh.  I ain't ever talked about it much.  Dunno
why.  No reason why I shouldn't.  Sit down, Loudon, an' I'll tell yuh.
When I first seen yuh there in Main Street that 88 brand on yore hoss
made me suspicious.

"Sam Blakely o' the 88 an' me ain't friends.  We had a run-in some
eight years ago over at Virginia City, an' I kind o' left Sam the worse
for wear.  I heard later how Sam was yellin' 'round that he'd get even.
Knowin' Sam, I believed it.  An' when I seen you ridin' a 88 hoss, I
says to myself, 'Here's Sam done gone an' hired a party to do the
gettin' even.'  When yuh wanted to ride for me, I was shore of it.

"So when you got down to fix yore cinches I expected to be plugged the
next second, an' I throwed down on yuh.  Yore askin' me to send yore
hoss an' saddle to Johnny Ramsay was what stopped me.  I knowed if
Johnny was a friend o' yores you was all right.  So I sent yuh on, an'
I trailed yuh clear to the ranch.  If you'd turned back I'd 'a' downed
yuh.  But yuh didn't turn back.

"Well, after I seen yuh talkin' to Doubleday----  Shore; yuh know that
little hill about half-a-mile south?  I was on top of it with a pair of
field glasses--after I seen yuh talkin' to Doubleday, I moseyed south
again to the Cross-in-a-box."

"Two hundred miles!" exclaimed Loudon.

"About that," said Mackenzie, easily, quite as if a four-hundred-mile
ride in ten days were an afternoon jaunt.  "Yuh see, I wanted to talk
to Jack Richie.  Didn't want to go to the Bar S if I could help it.  Me
an' Saltoun never did pull together.  He thinks I'm a fool, an' I know
he's crazy.

"Well, I talked with Jack, an' he explained everythin'.  Said who yuh
was an' how yuh'd bought yore hoss from the 88 an' how yuh'd creased
Sam Blakely, an' all.  That was fine work.  Too bad yuh didn't down him
for good.  He's a varmint.  Worse'n a rattler.  Yuh'd ought to 'a'
plugged Marvin, too, after him tryin' to make yuh out a rustler
that-away.  A sport like that'll stand shootin' any day.  What's the
matter?"

For Loudon was amazedly staring at Mackenzie.

"Four hundred miles both ways," said the puncher, "to see whether a
forty-five-dollar-a-month hand was tellin' the truth!"

"Yuh was more than a hand," rejoined Mackenzie, with a slight smile.
"Yuh was opportunity, with a big O.  Yuh see, when yuh asked for a job
I needed a man.  I needed him bad.  I was shore yuh was out to down me.
But when yuh said yuh knowed Johnny an' I changed my mind about
droppin' yuh, it come to me, provided you was straight, that you was
just the feller for me.  You was sent to me, like.  You was
Opportunity, see?

"An' I ain't never passed up an opportunity that I ain't been sorry.
I'm kind o' superstitious thataway now, an' I'll go out o' my way to
grab what I think looks like an opportunity.  I knowed I couldn't rest
easy till I found out somethin' about yuh.  So I done it.  An' I'm ----
glad I done it.

"Doubleday tells me yo're the best roper he ever seen, an' yo're a
wonder with the stallions.  A good man with stallions is somethin' I've
wished for ever since I owned the Flyin' M.  I never had him till you
come.  Opportunity!  I guess yuh was, an' then a few.  Now I don't know
whether yuh care about stayin', but I shore hope yuh will.  I'll see
that yuh don't regret it."

"Shore I'll stay," said Loudon.  "Them stallions is where I live."

"Then fifty-five a month goes for you from now on."

In this auspicious fashion began Loudon's life at the Flying M.  Yet
Loudon was not precisely happy.  The cheerfulness induced by the
whole-hearted Burrs had been but temporary.  He brooded over his
wrongs, and that is bad for a man.  Like all men who believe themselves
hard hit, he did not realize that there are a great many lonesome
ladies in the world, any one of whom will make a man utterly happy.

One young woman had proved to be an arrant flirt, therefore all young
women were flirts, and beauty was a snare and a delusion.  So reasoned
Loudon.  Surrendering almost wholly to his mood, he rarely took part in
the general conversation in the bunkhouse.  The men wondered at his
aloofness, but none essayed to draw him out.  His smoldering gray eyes
forbade any such familiarity.  When riding the range with Laguerre,
however, Loudon would emerge from his shell, and a strong friendship
swiftly grew up between the two.


One day, nearly two weeks after Mackenzie's return from the
Cross-in-a-box, Loudon was in the blacksmith shop making a set of shoes
for Ranger when Pete O'Leary rode up to the doorway and peered in.

"Hello," said O'Leary, cheerily.  "How's tricks?"

"Comin' in bunches," replied Loudon, shortly, and he blew the bellows
vigorously.

"That's good.  Hot, ain't it?  Well, I got to be weavin' along.  So
long."

Loudon walked to the doorway and watched O'Leary till he disappeared
among the cottonwoods fringing the bank of the Dogsoldier.

"Now I'd admire to know," he wondered, "if Pete O'Leary stopped here
just to ask how tricks was.  He kind o' looked at yore brand, too,
fellah," he added, addressing Ranger.

Thoughtfully he returned to his work.  Five minutes later he whacked
his knee and whistled.  Comprehension had at last come to him.  He
marvelled that it had not come sooner.

"Now, why didn't I think o' that quicker?" he muttered.  "It was that
88 brand on Ranger's hip that made Scotty suspicious.  So it was that
brand must 'a' made O'Leary freeze to me when I sifted into the Bend.
'Couldn't Sam come?' Sam Blakely o' the 88!  An' I never seen it till
just now."

The moves of an enemy are always interesting.  Even more thoughtfully
than before, Loudon pumped the handle of the bellows.  Why was Blakely
coming to Paradise Bend?  To settle his score with Scotty Mackenzie?
Loudon doubted it.  A newly engaged man does not, as a rule, jeopardize
his future happiness by reopening old issues.

Whatever the precise nature of Blakely's purpose might be, it was dark
and Machiavellian in the main.  O'Leary's peculiar actions in the Three
Card Saloon evinced as much.

"I don't see how it could have anythin' to do with me," puzzled Loudon.
"Sam couldn't 'a' knowed I was comin' to the Bend.  I didn't know
myself till just before I started.  Yet here's O'Leary askin' Telescope
about me an' skirmishin' over to see if I am at the Flyin' M.  It shore
is a heap mysterious."

Loudon decided to talk it over with Scotty Mackenzie.



CHAPTER IX

AUTHORS OF CONFUSION

When Loudon went to the office that evening he found Doubleday alone.
"Scotty's gone," said Doubleday, in response to Loudon's question.
"He's traipsin' over to the Seven Lazy Seven.  Wants to get rid o' some
of our no-account stock."

"When'll he be back?"

"Dunno.  He may take in the Two Bar, Wagonwheel, T V U, an' the Double
Diamond K before he comes back, He might stay away a week, or three
weeks, or a month.  Yuh can't keep tabs on Scotty.  I tried to once,
but I give it up long ago."

Loudon did not take the garrulous Doubleday into his confidence.  Nor
did he mention the matter to Laguerre.  The half-breed had seen O'Leary
ride up to the blacksmith shop, and his Gallic curiosity was aroused to
the full.

"My frien'," said Laguerre, when Loudon and he were mending a break in
the corral fence the following day, "my frien', I wan' for tell you
somethin'.  Somethin' mabbeso you not see.  Yes'erday O'Leary she come
to de ranch; she go to de blacksmith shop.  I see heem before she go to
de blacksmith shop.  I see heem aftair.  Before she see you dere een de
shop hees face was de face of de man who ees not satisfy, who ees hunt
for somethin'.  Wen I see heem aftair, she look satisfy.  She has foun'
w'at she hunt for.  Are you me?"

Loudon nodded.

"O'Leary's takin' a heap o' trouble on my account," he said, slowly.

"More dan I t'ought she would," vouchsafed Laguerre.  "I tell you, Tom,
she have not de good feelin' for you.  Were ees dat damn hammair gone?"

Three weeks later, Loudon and Laguerre were lazily enjoying the cool of
the evening outside the door of the bunkhouse when Doubleday came
striding toward them.  In one hand the foreman waved a letter.  He
appeared to be annoyed.  He was.

"Tom, Scotty wants yuh to meet him at the Bend Tuesday--that's
to-morrow," said Doubleday, crossly.  "Yuh'll find him at the Three
Card.  ---- it to ----!  An' I wanted you an' Telescope to ride the
north range to-morrow!  Which that Scotty Mackenzie is shore the most
unexpected gent!  Says he wants yuh to ride yore own hoss.  Dunno what
he wants yuh for.  He don't say.  Just says meet him."

Doubleday departed, swearing.

"Pore old Doubleday," drawled a bristle-haired youth named Swing
Tunstall.  "He gets a heap displeased with Scotty sometimes."

"Scotty ain't just regular in his ways," commented Giant Morton, a
dwarfish man with tremendously long arms.  "Scotty wasn't goin' beyond
the Wagonwheel, if he got that far, an' his letter was mailed in
Rocket, fifty miles south.  I brought her in from the Bend this
aft'noon, an' I noticed the postmark special."

"He wears the raggedest clo'es I ever seen," said the cook.  "An' he's
got money, too."

"Money!" exclaimed Morton.  "He's lousy with money.  Wish I had it.  Do
yuh know what I'd do?  I'd buy me a seventeen-hand hoss an' a saloon."

"I wouldn't," said Loudon, winking at Laguerre.  "I'd have a _hacienda_
down in old Mexico, an' I'd hire half-a-dozen good-lookin' _señoritas_
with black hair an' blue eyes to play tunes for me on banjos, an' I'd
hire cookie here to come an' wake me up every mornin' at five o'clock
just so's I could have the pleasure o' heavin' him out o' the window
an' goin' back to sleep."

By which it may be seen that the moody Loudon was becoming more human.
His remarks irritated the cook, who rather fancied himself.  He allowed
himself to be the more provoked because of a growing belief that
Loudon's habitually retiring and inoffensive manner denoted a lack of
mettle.  Which mental attitude was shared by none of the others.

At Loudon's careless words the cook bounced up from his seat on the
doorsill and assumed a crouching position in front of Loudon.

"Yuh couldn't throw nothin'!" yapped the man of pots and pans.  "Yuh
couldn't throw a fit, let alone me!  An' I want yuh to understand I can
throw any bowlegged misfit that ever wore hair pants!"

"What did yuh throw 'em with--yore mouth?" inquired Loudon, gently.

The Lazy River man had not moved from his seat on the washbench.  His
arms remained folded across his chest.  He smiled pleasantly at the
irate cook.

"I throwed 'em like I'm goin' to throw you!" frothed the hot-tempered
one.  "That is," he added, sneeringly, "if yuh ain't afraid."

The bristle-haired Tunstall sprang between the two.

"Don't mind him, Loudon!" he cried.  "He's only a fool idjit, but he's
a good cook, an' losin' him would be a calamity.  He don't never pack
no gun neither."

"I can see he ain't heeled," said Loudon, calmly.  "But he shore talks
just like a regular man, don't he?"

"Regular man!" bellowed the cook.  "Why----"

The sentence ended in a gurgle.  For Tunstall, Morton, and Laguerre had
hurled themselves upon the cook and gagged him with the crown of a hat.

"Ain't yuh got no sense at all?" growled Morton.

"'Tsall right," grinned Loudon, rising to his feet.  "I understand.
Turn yore bull loose."

The three doubtfully released the cook.  That misguided man promptly
lowered his head, spread wide his arms, and charged at Loudon.  The
puncher sidestepped neatly and gave the cook's head a smart downward
shove with the palm of his hand.  The cook's face plowed the earth.

Spitting dirt and gravel he scrambled up and plunged madly at his
elusive adversary.  This time Loudon did not budge.

Even as the cook gripped him round the waist Loudon leaned forward
along the cook's back, seized the slack of his trousers, and up-ended
him.  The cook's hold was broken, and again his head collided violently
with the ground.  He fell in a huddle, but arose instantly, his
stubborn spirit unshaken.  Now he did not rush.  He approached the
puncher warily.

Swaying on his high heels Loudon waited.  Then run, with a pantherlike
leap, he flung himself forward, drove both arms beneath those of the
cook and clipped him round the body.  The cook strove for a
strangle-hold, but Loudon forestalled the attempt by hooking his chin
over his opponent's shoulder.  Legs apart, Loudon lifted and squeezed.

Gradually, as Loudon put forth all his great strength, the breath of
the cook was expelled from his cracking chest in gasps and wheezes.
His muscles relaxed, his face became distorted, empurpled.

Loudon released his grip.  The cook fell limply and lay on his back,
arms outspread, his crushed lungs fighting for air.  In the struggle
his shirt had been ripped across, and now his chest and one shoulder
were exposed.  Loudon, gazing down at the prostrate man, started
slightly, then stooped and looked more closely at the broad triangle of
breast.

Abruptly Loudon turned away and resumed his seat on the bench.  After a
time the cook rolled over, staggered to his feet, and reeled into the
bunkhouse without a word.

No one commented on the wrestling-match.  Swing Tunstall started a
cheerful reminiscence of his last trip to the Bend.  Laguerre rose and
passed silently round the corner of the bunkhouse.  Loudon, chin on
hand, stared off into the distance.

Suddenly, within the bunkhouse, there was the thump of feet followed in
quick succession by a thud and a grunt.  Out through the doorway the
cook tumbled headlong, fell flat, and lay motionless, his nose in the
dirt, his boot-toes on the doorsill.  One outflung hand still clutched
the butt of a six-shooter.  From a gash on the back of his head the
blood oozed slowly.

Issued then Laguerre from the doorway.  The half-breed was in his
stocking feet.  He wrenched the gun from the cook's fingers, stuffed
the weapon into the waistband of his trousers, and squatted down on his
heels.

None of the onlookers had moved.  Gravely they regarded Laguerre and
the cook.  Loudon realized that he had narrowly escaped being shot in
the back.  A farce had developed into melodrama.

At this juncture Doubleday strolled leisurely out of the office.  At
sight of the fallen man and the serious group at the bunkhouse he
quickened his steps.

"Who done it?" demanded Doubleday, severely, for he believed the cook
to be dead.

"I heet heem on de head wit' my gun," explained Laguerre.  "Loudon she
t'row de cook.  De cook she geet varree mad un go een de bunkhouse.  I
t'ink mabbeso she do somethin' un I go roun' de bunkhouse, tak' off my
boots, un crawl een de side window.  De cook she was jus' run for door
wit' hees gun een hees han'.  I stop heem."

Complacently Laguerre gazed upon the still unconscious cook.

"The kyote!" exclaimed Doubleday.  "That's what comes o' not havin' any
sense o' humour!  ---- his soul!  Now I got to fire him.  Trouble!
Trouble!  Nothin' but ----"

The discouraged foreman slumped down beside Loudon and rolled a
cigarette with vicious energy.

Some ten minutes later the cook stirred, rolled over, and sat up.  He
stared with dull eyes at the men on the bench.  Stupidly he fingered
the cut at the back of his head.  As deadened senses revived and memory
returned, his back stiffened, and defiance blazed up in his eyes.

"Telescope," said Loudon, "I'd take it as a favour if yuh'd give him
his gun--an' his cartridges."

The cook lost his defiant look when the half-breed complied with
Loudon's request.  Helplessly he eyed the gun a moment, then, struck
with a bright idea, he waggled his right wrist and grimaced as if with
pain.  Gingerly he rubbed the wrist-bone.

"Sprained my wrist," he stated brazenly.  "Can't shoot with my left
hand nohow.  If I could, I'd shore enjoy finishin' up.  Helluva note
this is!  I start for to shoot it out with a gent, an' one o' you
sports whangs me over the head an' lays me out.  I'd admire to know
which one o' yuh done it."

"I done eet," Laguerre informed him, his white teeth flashing under his
black mustache.

"I'll remember yuh," said the cook with dignity.  "I'll remember you
too," he added looking at Loudon.  "Doubleday, I'd like my time.  I
ain't a-goin' to cook for this bunch no longer.  An' if it's all the
same to you I'll take a hoss for part o' my pay."

"Well, by ----!" exclaimed Doubleday, hugely annoyed at being thus
forestalled.  "You've got a nerve.  You ought to be hung!"

"Any gent does who works for the Flying M," countered the cook.  "But
I'm quittin'.  Do I get the hoss!"

"Yuh bet yuh do.  An' yo're hittin' the trail to-night."

"The sooner the quicker."

Within half an hour Rufe Cutting, erstwhile cook at the Flying M, a
bandage under his hat, mounted his horse and rode away toward Paradise
Bend.  As he vanished in the gathering dusk, Swing Tunstall laughed
harshly.

"All yaller an' a yard wide!" observed Giant Morton, and spat
contemptuously.

Loudon made no comment.  He was working out a puzzle, and he was making
very little headway.


In the morning he saddled Ranger and started for the Bend.  He followed
the trail for a mile or two, then, fording the Dogsoldier, he struck
across the flats where a few of Mackenzie's horses grazed.  He did not
turn his horse's head toward Paradise Bend till the Dogsoldier was well
out of rifle-range.  Loudon's caution was pardonable.  Rufe Cutting
knew that he was to ride to the Bend, and Rufe had a rifle.  Loudon had
marked him tying it in his saddle-strings.

It was quite within the bounds of possibility that the cunning Rufe was
at that very moment lying in wait somewhere among the cottonwoods on
the bank of the Dogsoldier, for the trail in many places swung close to
the creek.  Decidedly, the trail was no fit route for any one at odds
with a citizen of the Cutting stamp.

Loudon, when he drew near the Bend, circled back to the creek and
entered the town by the Farewell trail.

He dismounted in front of the Three Card, anchored Ranger to the
ground, and went into the saloon.  Several men were standing at the
bar.  They ceased talking at his entrance.

Loudon leaned both elbows on the bar and demanded liquor.  He sensed a
certain tenseness, a vague chill in the atmosphere.  The bartender, his
eyes looking anywhere but at Loudon, served him hastily.  The bartender
seemed nervous.  Bottle and glass rattled as he placed them on the bar.

"Scotty Mackenzie come in yet?" inquired Loudon of the bartender,
setting down his empty glass.

"N-no," quavered the bartender, shrilly.  "I ain't seen him."

Loudon stared at the bartender.  What was the matter with the man?  His
face was the colour of gray wrapping-paper.  Loudon turned and glanced
along the bar at the other customers.  Two of them were regarding him,
a rapt fascination in their expressions.  Swiftly the two men averted
their eyes.

Loudon hesitated an instant, then he wheeled and walked out of the
saloon.  As he crossed the sidewalk he noticed a group of men standing
near by.  He stooped to pick up his reins.  When he straightened there
was a sudden rustle and a whisk in his rear.  Something settled over
his shoulders and drew taut, pinning his arms to his sides.

"What in----" swore Loudon, and began to struggle furiously.

He was at once jerked over on his back.  He fell heavily.  The shock
partially stunned him.  Dazedly he gazed upward into a ring of faces.
The features of all save one were blurred.  And that face was the face
of Block, the Sheriff of Fort Creek County.

Loudon felt a tugging at his belt and knew that one was removing his
six-shooter.  He was pulled upright, his hands were wrenched together,
and before he was aware of what was taking place, his wrists were in
handcuffs.  Now his faculties returned with a rush.

"What seems to be the trouble, anyway?" he demanded of the crowd in
general.

"It seems yo're a hoss thief," replied a brown-bearded man wearing a
star on the left lapel of his vest.

"Who says so?"

"This gent."  The brown-bearded man pointed at Block.

"It's no good talkin', Loudon," said Block, grinning after the fashion
of the cat which has just eaten the canary.  "I know yuh.  Yuh stole
that hoss yo're ridin' from the 88 ranch.  There's the brand to prove
it.  But that ain't all.  Yuh was caught rustlin' 88 cows.  Yuh branded
'em Crossed Dumbbell.  An' yuh got away by shootin' Sam Blakely, an'
holdin' up Marvin an' Rudd.  I don't guess yuh'll get away now in a
hurry."

"Where's yore warrant?"

"Don't need no warrant."

"That's right," corroborated the brown-bearded man with the star.  "Yuh
don't need no warrant for a hoss-thief an' a rustler.  I tell yuh,
stranger, yo're lucky to be still alive.  I'm doin' yuh a favour by
lettin' yuh go south with Sheriff Block.  By rights yuh'd ought to be
lynched instanter."

"Yuh don't say," said Loudon, gently.  "Who are yuh, anyway?"

"Oh, I'm only the marshal here at the Bend," replied with sarcasm the
brown-bearded man.  "My name's Smith--Dan Smith.  Yuh might 'a' heard
o' me."

"Shore, I've heard o' yuh, an' I'd understood yuh was a party with
sense an' not in the habit o' believin' everythin' yuh hear.  Now----"

"Yuh understood right," said the marshal, drily.  "I'm listenin' to yuh
now, an' I don't believe everythin' I hear."

"Yo're believin' Block, an' he's the biggest liar in Fort Creek County,
an' that's sayin' quite it lot, seein' as how the 88 outfit belongs in
Fort Creek.  Now I never branded no 88 cows.  The 88, because they
knowed I knowed they'd been brandin' other folks' cattle, went an'
branded a cow an' a calf o' their own with the Crossed Dumbbell an'
then tried to throw the blame on me.  But the trick didn't pan out.
They couldn't prove it nohow.  Jack Richie o' the Cross-in-a-box can
tell yuh I didn't rustle them cattle."

"I thought yuh was workin' for the Bar S," put in the marshal.

"I was, but I quit."

"Then why wouldn't Saltoun o' the Bar S know all about it?  What did
yuh say Jack Richie for?"

The marshal drooped a wise eyelid.  He considered himself a most astute
cross-examiner.

"I said Jack Richie because he was there at the Bar S when Marvin an'
Rudd drove in the cow an' the calf.  It was him proved I couldn't 'a'
branded them cattle like they said I did."

"Why wouldn't Saltoun o' the Bar S speak for yuh?" inquired the marshal.

"He would, I guess," replied Loudon.  "Old Salt an' me don't just
hitch, but he's square.  He'd tell yuh about it."

"He won't tell me.  The Bar S an' the Cross-in-a-box are more'n two
hundred miles south.  I ain't ridin' that far to get yore pedigree.
No, yuh can just bet I ain't.  This gent here, Sheriff Block, will take
yuh south.  If it's like yuh say it is, then yuh needn't worry none.
Yuh'll have yore witnesses an' all right there."

"Don't yuh understand?  I'll never see none o' my friends.  The 88
outfit will lynch me soon as ever I hit Farewell.  I tell yuh I know
too much about 'em.  They want me out o' the way."

Before the marshal could reply there was a bustle in the crowd, and a
high-pitched feminine voice inquired what evil was being visited upon
Mr. Loudon.  An instant later Mrs. Burr, barearmed and perspiring,
unceremoniously pushed Block to one side and confronted the marshal.

"What yuh doin' to him?" she demanded, with a quick jerk of her head
toward Loudon.

"Why, Mis' Burr, ma'am," replied the marshal, "he's a hoss thief, an'
he's goin' south to Farewell."

"He ain't goin' to Farewell," retorted Mrs. Burr, "an' he ain't a hoss
thief.  Who says so?"

"I do, ma'am," said Block, stepping forward.  "He's a hoss thief,
an'----"

"Hoss thief yoreself!" snapped Mrs. Burr, wheeling on Block so fiercely
that the sheriff gave ground involuntarily.  "The more I look at yuh
the more yuh look like a hoss thief an' a rustler an' a road agent.
You shut up, Dan Smith!  I always guessed yuh was an idjit, an' now I
know it!  This man, Mr. Tom Loudon, is a friend o' my husband's.  I
know him well, an' if yuh think yo're goin' to string him up for a hoss
thief yo're mistaken."

"But, ma'am," explained the unhappy marshal, "we ain't a-goin' to
string him up.  This gent, Sheriff Block, is takin' him south.  He'll
get justice down there, Mis' Burr."

"Will he?  If the folks down there are as witless as you are he won't.
Justice!  Yuh make me plumb weary!  Did yuh ask to see this Block man's
warrant?  Answer me!  Did you?"

"He ain't got no warrant," replied the marshal in a small voice.

"Ain't got no warrant!" screamed Mrs. Burr.  "Ain't got no warrant, an'
yo're lettin' him take away a party on just his say-so!  Dan Smith,
since when have yuh allowed a stranger to come in an' tell you what to
do?  What right has this Block man from Fort Creek County to try an'
run Paradise Bend, I'd like to know?"

"I ain't tryin' to run the Bend," defended Block.  "I wouldn't think o'
such a thing.  But I want this hoss thief, an' I mean to have him."

The words had barely passed Block's teeth when Loudon's self-control
broke.  With an inarticulate howl of rage he sprang at Block and drove
the iron manacles into the sheriff's face.

Down went Block with Loudon on top of him.  Twice, three times, before
Dan Smith and two others pulled him up and away, Loudon smashed the
handcuffs home.  It was a bloody-faced, teeth-spitting sheriff that got
slowly to his feet.

"By ----!" gibbered Block.  "By ----!  I'll down you here an' now!"

A tall man with square features tapped the raving sheriff on the
shoulder.

"Don't cuss no more before a lady," advised the square-featured man.
"An' don't go draggin' at no gun.  This ain't Fort Creek County.  Yo're
in Paradise Bend, an' I just guess yuh won't beef any sport with his
hands tied.  This goes as it lays."

From the crowd came murmurs of approval.  Public opinion was changing
front.  Mrs. Burr smiled serenely.

"Yo're a real gent, Jim Mace," she said, addressing the square-featured
man.  "I always knowed you'd protect a defenseless female.  Dan Smith,"
she continued, turning to the marshal, "unlock them handcuffs."

Dan Smith hesitated.  Then Block spoiled his own case.  He seized
Loudon by the shoulders.  Loudon promptly kicked him in the skins
[Transcriber's note: shins?] and endeavoured to repeat his former
assault with the handcuffs.  But the two men holding him wrestled him
backward.

"Do I get him?" bellowed Block, rabid with pain, for Loudon had kicked
him with all his strength.  "Do I get him, or are yuh goin' to let a
woman tell yuh what to do?"

Jim Mace stepped close to the sheriff.

"Stranger," said Mace, sharply, "you've done chattered enough.  In yore
own partic'lar hog-waller yuh may be a full-size toad, but up here
yo're half o' nothin'.  Understand?"

The sheriff looked about him wildly.  The Paradise Benders, cold,
unfriendly, some openly hostile, stared back.  Wrought up though he
was, the sheriff had wit enough to perceive that he was treading close
to the edge of a volcano.  The sheriff subsided.

"Dan," said Mace, "it's come to a show-down.  It's the word o' Mis'
Burr agin' Block's.  There's only one answer.  If I was you I'd unlock
them handcuffs."

"Yo're right, Jim," agreed the marshal.  "I will."

"Gimme my gun," demanded Loudon, when his hands were free.

"In a minute," parried the marshal.  "Sheriff, if I was you I'd hit the
trail.  Yore popularity ain't more'n deuce-high just now."

"I'll go," glowered Block.  "But I'll be back.  An' when I come I'll
have a warrant.  I reckon the Sheriff o' Sunset will honour it, even if
you won't."

"Bring on yore warrant," retorted the marshal.

The rumble of wheels and thud of hoofs attracted Loudon's attention.
Over the heads of the crowd he saw the high sides of a
tarpaulin-covered wagon and, sitting on the driver's seat, Captain
Benjamin Burr and Scotty Mackenzie.

"Hi, Cap'n Burr.  Hi, Scotty!" shouted Loudon.

"Where are they?" exclaimed Mrs. Burr, her harsh features lighting up.
"Oh, there they are!  You Benjamin Burr, come right in here this
instant.  Yore wife wants yore help!"

Captain Burr swayed back on the reins.  Dragging a sawed-off shotgun he
hopped to the ground, Scotty Mackenzie at his heels.  The crowd made
way for them.  Captain Burr swept his hat off and bowed ceremoniously
to his wife.

"My love," said he, "in what way may I assist you?"

"That party," sniffed Mrs. Burr, levelling a long forefinger at the
wretched Block, "comes up an' accuses Mr. Tom Loudon here o' bein' a
rustler an' a hoss thief.  Says he's been brandin' 88 cows an' that he
stole that chestnut hoss yonder."

The sawed-off shotgun, an eight-gauge Greener, covered Block's belt
buckle.

"Suh, you lie," said Burr, simply.

"What did I tell all you folks?" cried Mrs. Burr, triumphantly.

Block made no attempt to draw.  He folded his arms and glared
ferociously.  He found glaring difficult, for he knew that he did not
look in the least ferocious.

"I'm doin' my duty," he said, sullenly.

"Gentlemen all, I'd like some show in this," pleaded Loudon.  "Just
gimme back my gun, an' me an' Block'll shoot it out."

"Wait a shake," said Scotty, sliding between Loudon and Block.  "Let me
get the straight of this.  You accuse Loudon here of brandin' 88
cattle?"

"Shore," insisted the stubborn Block, "an' he stole that chestnut hoss
he's ridin', too.  Just look at the 88 brand.  It's plain as day."

"Suh," burst out Burr, "I happened to be at the 88 ranch the day my
friend Tom Loudon bought that chestnut hoss.  I saw him pay Blakely.
Everybody in Fo't Creek County knows that Tom Loudon has owned that
hoss fo' upwa'ds of a yeah.  You know it, you rascal!  Don't attempt to
deny it!"

To this sweeping assertion Block made no reply.

"I guess now that settles half the cat-hop," said Scotty.  "The other
half I know somethin' about myself.  Jack Richie o' the Cross-in-a-box
told me.  It was thisaway----"

And Scotty related the tale of Marvin and Rudd and the Crossed Dumbbell
cow and calf.

"Now what yuh got to say?" Scotty demanded of Block when the story was
told.

"What can I do?" snapped Block.  "It's a whole town agin' one man.
I'll get a warrant, an' yuh can gamble on that.  If I thought I'd get a
square deal, I'd admire to shoot it out."

"Gimme my gun," begged Loudon.  "Gimme it, or lend me one, somebody.
He wants to shoot it out."

"No," said Scotty, firmly, "it's gone beyond shootin'.  Block knowed
you was innocent.  He couldn't help knowin' it.  He tried to work such
a sneakin', low-down trick that killin' don't seem to fit somehow.
He'd ought to be rode on a rail or buried up to his neck or somethin'."

"Tar an' feather him," suggested Mrs. Burr.

"We ain't got no tar," said Jim Mace, "an' there ain't a chicken in the
place."

"There's molasses an' goose-hair quilts in the Chicago Store," said
Mrs. Burr, helpfully.  "What more do yuh want?"

Molasses and feathers!  Here was an extravagant jape!  Block's hand
swept downward.  But no smooth revolver-butt met his clutching fingers.
A far-seeing soul had, in the confusion, adroitly removed the sheriff's
six-shooter.

In all seriousness the men of Paradise Bend set about their work.  They
saw no humour in the shriekingly grotesque business.  Sheriff Block
essayed to struggle.  But Scotty and other leading citizens attached
themselves to his arms and legs and pulled him down and sat upon him.

When one came running with a five-gallon jug of molasses Block,
uttering strange cries, was spread-eagled.  From his forehead to his
feet the molasses was thickly applied.  When the front of him had been
thoroughly daubed, he was rolled over upon a ripped-up quilt--this so
that none of the molasses might be wasted--and a fresh jug was brought
into play.

Dripping like a buckwheat cake, writhing in an agony of shame, Block
was rolled up in the quilt.  Then the quilt was torn away and men
showered upon him the contents of other quilts.  The Paradise Benders
used up ten gallons of molasses and three quilts on Block, and they
made a complete job.  Awful was the wreck that staggered down the
street.

Somehow the sheriff contrived to reach the stable where he had left his
horse, and somehow--for his movements were the movements of one far
gone in drink--he threw on the saddle and passed the cinch-straps.
Mounting with difficulty, he rode away.  None offered to molest him
further.



CHAPTER X

THE HORSE THIEF

Loudon, who had taken no part in the feathering, watched the departure
of the sheriff with brooding eyes.  He did not agree with Scotty
Mackenzie and the citizens of the Bend.  In his estimation the
punishment had not been sufficiently drastic.  Alive and in possession
of all his faculties the sheriff was a great power for evil.  He would
seek revenge.

Loudon swore softly.  He was far from being a bloodthirsty man, but he
regarded the killing of Block as a duty.  And he did not believe in
putting off till some future date what could be accomplished to-day.

"It's quite a list," he said to himself.  "Block, Rufe Cutting,
Blakely, an' the whole 88 outfit.  An' they won't be happy till they
get me.  It kind o' looks as if Blakely ain't expectin' to keep our
little engagement in Farewell.  Block wouldn't 'a' come up here without
Blakely sent him."

Thoughts of Blakely quite naturally induced thoughts of Pete O'Leary.
Where was O'Leary?  Loudon recollected that he had not seen O'Leary in
the crowd.  He looked up and down the street.  O'Leary was nowhere in
sight.  His absence was a small thing in itself, but it might signify a
guilty conscience.  Loudon wondered.

That disreputable person, Scotty Mackenzie, approached, leading his
horse.

"Tom," said Scotty, his blue eyes twinkling, "don't look so
downhearted.  He wasn't worth shootin'."

"I dunno, Scotty," replied Loudon.  "It'll come to it some day, or I
miss my guess."

"Yuh'll miss it while yo're workin' for me.  Block won't never come to
the Bend again, an' yuh can go the limit on that.  D'juh get the mail?"

"I ain't been to the post office.  Didn't have time.  I've been right
busy ever since I sifted in."

"I'll get it then.  Cap'n Burr wants yuh to eat dinner at his house.
I'll drift round later.  Better finish up what yuh come to town for
before yuh eat."

"I come to town to meet you."

"To meet me!" exclaimed Scotty.  "Now look here, Tom, do I look like I
need a gardeen?"

"Didn't yuh write to Doubleday," said the bewildered Loudon, "tellin'
him to send me in to meet yuh here to-day an' for me to ride my own
hoss?"

"What are yuh talkin' about?  Me write Doubleday!  I should say not!"

"Well, all I know is Doubleday got a letter from yuh, an' it was mailed
in Rocket."

"Mailed in Rocket!  Why, I never was in Rocket!  It's just luck me
bein' here to-day.  If I hadn't met Ben Burr down at the Wagonwheel I
wouldn't 'a' come for another couple o' days, mebbe."

"It's damn funny.  That letter from Rocket is no dream."

"I hope Doubleday saves the letter.  Well, you go on an' eat.  See yuh
later."

Loudon swung into the saddle and galloped to the house of Captain Burr.
On the doorsill Dorothy Burr and Pete O'Leary sat side by side.  As
Loudon dismounted Miss Bunrose to meet him.

"Oh, Mr. Loudon!" she exclaimed, "I've just heard about your frightful
experience.  I wish I'd been there.  I'd have enjoyed seeing them
plaster up that brute of a sheriff."

"He did look kind o' odd," said Loudon.  "Yore ma shore saved my life."

"Wasn't it luck Ma was down street?  I usually go myself, but this
morning Mr. O'Leary came, so Ma went.  We didn't know there was
anything going on till Ma came back and told us, and then it was all
over.  My!  I'd like to have seen Ma talking to that stupid Dan Smith.
The big idiot!  Ma's mad yet.  Oh, I forgot.  Have you met Mr. O'Leary?"

"I know him," said Loudon rather ungraciously, and nodded to the
gentleman in question.  "I guess I'll put the little hoss in the
corral."

"Yes, do.  Pa's out there.  Dinner'll be ready soon."

Miss Burr returned to the doorsill, and Loudon led away Ranger.  So
Pete O'Leary had been spending the morning at the Burrs'!  It would be
interesting to know why the engaging O'Leary had chosen to call upon
that particular morning.  Was it because he did not wish to identify
himself in any way with Sheriff Block?  Was it the guilty conscience?

"Well, suh," smiled Captain Burr, who was kneeling at the feet of one
of his horses, "well, suh, it went against the grain to let that
scoundrel go in peace, didn't it?"

Loudon smiled grimly.

"I appreciate youah feelings in the matteh, Tom," continued the
Captain.  "Such a puhson should not be allowed to live.  My impulse was
to shoot him, but I stayed my hand.  As I may have mentioned befo', I
am growing soft-heahted.  That's right, Tom, cuss away.  If Block were
otheh than he is, he would shoot himself.  No gentleman would care to
live afteh being tah'd and feath'ed.  But Block will writhe onwa'd like
the snake he is till he is crushed once fo' all.

"Do you remembeh what I said the day you made him quit right in the
street in Fa'ewell?  Well, suh, in o'deh to regain the respect of the
town he did kill a man--an inoffensive strangeh."

"Yuh might know it.  He'll be a reg'lar 'Billy the Kid' before a great
while."

"Not quite.  The Lincoln County young man was a wa'-eagle.  Block's a
buzza'd.  Tom, I'm afraid this Jeffe'son Davis hoss is developing a
wind-puff."

Loudon made no reply.  He was watching an approaching rider.  The
horseman passed by without a glance toward the corral and loped on into
town.

Now the road in front of the Burr house was the beginning of the trail
to the Flying M ranch, and the mounted man was none other than Rufe
Cutting.  It was evident to Loudon that he had not underestimated the
cook.  He resolved to seek out his would-be bushwhacker immediately.

Loudon looked quickly down at the Captain.  If Burr had perceived
Loudon's absorption he gave no sign.  He merely requested Loudon's
opinion of the slight swelling on Jefferson Davis's near fore.

"Yuh've got to excuse me, Cap'n," said Loudon, hastily.  "I've got a
little business to attend to before I eat."

"Need any help?" inquired Burr, reaching for his Greener.

"No, thanks," replied Loudon, swiftly resaddling Ranger.

"Dinner!" called Mrs. Burr, sticking her head out of the kitchen door a
moment later.  "Why, where's Tom Loudon?"

"He's gone away," grumbled her husband, regretfully eying his shotgun.

"Well, of all things!  Just as dinner's ready!  Don't he know he's
eatin' here?  Will he be gone long?"

"He may not be away twenty minutes, and then, on the otheh hand, he may
neveh retuhn."

"Never return!  What are you talkin' about, Benjamin Burr?"

"Wait and see, my love, wait and see," rejoined the Captain, and went
in to dinner.


Loudon, meanwhile, had galloped down to the corner of Main Street.
Rufe Cutting was not in sight.  But his horse was standing among the
horses in front of the Jacks Up Saloon.  Loudon rode across the street
and dismounted behind a freighter's wagon near the Chicago Store, where
he could not be observed from the windows of the Jacks Up.  Then he
walked briskly up the street and entered the saloon.

Rufe Cutting, his scratched features cast in sullen lines, was drinking
at the bar.  So were several other men.  A knot of citizens in
Cutting's immediate rear were discussing the events of the morning.
Two faro tables were crowded.  The Jacks Up was in full blast.  With
the place crowded a gun-play was apt to result in damage to the
bystanders.

However, the choice lay with Cutting.  Loudon would allow the first
move.

With this intention, Loudon edged up to the bar and called for a drink.
At the sound of his voice Cutting turned a slow head.  There were two
men in between, but they were not standing close to the bar.

Loudon, watching Cutting out of his eye-corners, picked up his glass
with his left hand.  Even as he did so, panic seized Cutting.  His
fingers closed on his own full glass and he hurled it at Loudon's head.

Involuntarily Loudon dodged.  When he recovered himself his gun was out.

The bartender promptly vanished under the bar.  Men skipped and dodged
and flung themselves over tables and chairs in their anxiety to give
Loudon a clear line of fire.  But Cutting had disappeared.

Two swearing men sprawling under an open rear window told the story.
In his fear-stricken efforts to escape Cutting had knocked them both
down.

Loudon and the two men, one of whom was Jim Mace and the other Dan
Smith, went through the window almost simultaneously.  Both sashes went
with them to a brave accompaniment of crackling glass.

Loudon landed on his knees, and was in time for a snapshot at a leg
sliding over a windowsill of the house next door.  Before Loudon could
rise Mace and the marshal tumbled over him.  The three fell in a tangle
and rolled among tin cans and bottles for a space of time.  When at
last, red-faced and almost breathless, they rushed the house next door
they were stopped by an angry woman brandishing a frying-pan.

"You drunk hunkers can't come through here!" screamed the irate lady.
"If you an' yore fool friends want to play tag yuh can play her in the
street!  What do yuh mean by bustin' into folks' houses an' wakin' my
baby up?  You idjits!  She'll be bawlin' her brains out all day now!"

"We're after a hold-up!" cried Loudon with great presence of mind.

It had the desired effect.

"Why didn't yuh say so at first?  Come right in."

Through the house and out of the front door they dashed.  Drifting
clouds of dust marked Cutting's line of flight.  He was a quarter of a
mile distant, spurring for the ford of the Dogsoldier and the Farewell
trail.  The marshal fired a futile shot.  Loudon laughed and holstered
his six-shooter.

"Look at him go!" he chuckled.  "Scared stiff."

"Get yore hosses!" commanded the marshal.  "Don't stand here gassin'!
We'll go after him right away!"

"Oh, let him go," drawled Loudon.  "He ain't worth chasin'."

"But he's a road agent, ain't he?" said Jim Mace.

"No, I just said he was," grinned Loudon.  "He ain't nothin' but a
right good cook, so far as I know."

"Ain't he done nothin'?" inquired the perplexed marshal.

"Only jerked a glass of whisky at me," replied Loudon.  "Yuh see, I
ain't right popular with him."

"From the way he's splittin' the breeze," said Jim Mace, "it looks like
he don't care for yore society none."

"I'd ought to go after him," grunted the marshal, vengefully, tenderly
feeling a skinned elbow.  "I don't mind a reg'lar gun-play, but this
here chuckin' glasses round promiscuous an' bumpin' folks over ain't
right.  It's agin' law an' order.  He'd ought to be arrested.  The
calaboose has been empty for a week, too."

Loudon left Jim Mace and Dan Smith explaining matters to the gathering
crowd, and walked back to where he had left his horse.  Ranger was not
behind the freighter's wagon.  Loudon ran into the Chicago Store.

"Shore," said the proprietor.  "I seen a feller climbin' aboard that
hoss a few minutes ago.  Seemed in a hurry, too.  What?  Yore hoss!"

The proprietor ducked under the counter for his spurs and his rifle,
and Loudon hurried out.  Cutting's mount, the bay he had bought from
Doubleday, was of course standing where he had been left among the
other horses.  Loudon threw the dropped reins over the bay's head and
swung up.

"He's a hoss thief!" he shouted to Dan Smith and Jim Mace.  "He got
away on my hoss!"

Quirting and spurring, Loudon tore down the street.  Before the horse's
hoofs spattered the water of the ford the proprietor of the Chicago
Store and the marshal were galloping in his wake.  Jim Mace and a score
of others followed at intervals.  A horse was not stolen in Paradise
Bend every day.  The inhabitants were bent on making the most of their
opportunity.

The bay was a good horse, but Ranger was the better, and Loudon knew
it--knew, too that, unless Ranger fell down, Cutting would escape.

"Ranger's good for all day," groaned Loudon.  "All day an' not strain
himself a little bit."

As the bay flashed across the top of a rise two miles beyond the
Dogsoldier, Loudon glimpsed two specks four miles ahead.

"Block!  He's with Block!" exclaimed Loudon, and drove in the spurs.

The bay leaped madly forward and rocketed down the long slope.  A
high-lipped swell concealed the two specks, and for a long ten minutes
Loudon rode between the sides of the draw.  The bay charged at the
high-lipped swell with undiminished vigour.  He was doing his level
best, but his gait was tied in.  It bore not the remotest resemblance
to Ranger's free-swinging stride.  When Loudon reached the crest of the
swell the specks had vanished.

He put the reins between his teeth and drew the Winchester from the
scabbard under his left leg.  He threw down the lever a trifle.  There
was a cartridge in the chamber.

The loading gate resisted the pressure of his thumb.  There was at
least one cartridge in the magazine, but by the weight of the rifle he
judged it to be fully loaded.  Loudon returned the Winchester to its
scabbard and slowed the willing little bay to a lope.

"Yo're all right, old hoss," he said, "but yuh can't never catch that
hoss o' mine.  Not in a million years.  We just got to wait till he
stops."

Rufe Cutting could have devised no better revenge than the stealing of
Loudon's horse.  Since Loudon had owned Ranger no one save himself and
Kate Saltoun had ridden him.  Ranger's legs were frequently
hand-rubbed.  Ranger was curried.  With his fingers--no true horseman
would dream of using the comb of commerce--Loudon frequently combed
Ranger's mane and tail.  When a horse in the cow country is curried and
combed, that horse is a highly valued horse.  Johnny Ramsay accused
Loudon of wrapping Ranger in blankets when the air was chilly, and of
taking his temperature on all occasions.  Undoubtedly Loudon was
somewhat of a crank where Ranger was concerned.

And now the inconceivable had come to pass.  Ranger had been
stolen--stolen almost under the very nose of his master.  Loudon did
not swear.  His feeling was too deeply grim for that.  But he promised
himself an accounting--a very full accounting.

Loudon rode onward at a steady lope.  Before him stretched the dusty
ribbon of trail.  Blank and bare it led between the low hills and
lifted over the ridges.  He saw no more specks ahead.  The quarry had
outdistanced him.

Fifteen miles out of Paradise Bend he heard a faint shout in his rear.
He looked over his shoulder.  A half mile distant two men were
galloping toward him.  One of them waved an arm half red, half blue.

"Scotty," muttered Loudon, and checked his horse.

The two clattered up, their horses' out-blown nostrils whistling.  One
of the men was the owner of the Flying M.  The other was the proprietor
of the Chicago Store.

"Seen him?" demanded Scotty.

"Once," replied Loudon.  "He's ridin' with Block now, but they pulled
away from me.  I ain't seen 'em for over a hour."

"They're stickin' to the trail," grunted the store proprietor, who
rejoiced in the name of Ragsdale, glancing at the hoof-marks in the
dust.

"C'mon!" snapped Scotty Mackenzie.

Three miles farther on Ragsdale's mount began to falter.

"He's done," growled Ragsdale.  "Give 'em one for me."

Ragsdale halted.  Loudon and Scotty Mackenzie rode on.

"Where did yuh get that bay?" queried Scotty, eying the Flying M brand
on the bay's hip.

"It was his--Cutting's," replied Loudon.

"Cutting's?  Djuh mean Rufe Cutting is the hoss thief?"

"Shore!  I clean forgot yuh didn't know about Cutting's quittin' his
job."

Loudon explained the manner of the cook's departure and his subsequent
actions to Mackenzie.

"An'," said Loudon, in conclusion, "I seen that feller at the 88 that
time I bought my hoss from Blakely."

"Yuh did!  Are yuh shore?"

"Shore as yo're a day old.  I was walkin' past the bunkhouse with
Blakely, an' this fellah was out in front with his shirt off a-washin'
himself, an' I seen a eagle tattooed on his chest in blue, an'
underneath a heart with a R on one side an' a T on the other.  Just
before yore cook pulled his freight his shirt got tore, an' I seen his
chest, an' there was the eagle an' the heart an' the two letters R an
T.  I knowed when I first laid eyes on him up here at the Flyin' M that
I'd seen him some'ers, but I couldn't place him till I seen the
tattoo-work.  It all come back to me then."

"What was his name at the 88?"

"I never knowed.  I never cut his trail again down there.  He wasn't
one o' the reg'lar outfit.  I know all o' them."

"Did Cap'n Burr see him?"

"No, he didn't.  I remember now, when the Cap'n come this fellah wasn't
in sight, an' he didn't show up again while we was there.  Cap'n Burr
left when I did."

"Cutting worked for me nigh onto a year.  He's always earned his pay.
Never done nothin' out of the way."

"I dunno what it means.  It's all a heap mysterious--special mysterious
when yuh come to think o' what O'Leary asked me when I first hit the
Bend.  'Couldn't Sam come?' says O'Leary to me.  Busts out into the
street to say it, too, right after I'd asked yuh the way to Cap'n
Burr's house."

"I remember," said Scotty, thoughtfully.  "I seen him talkin' to yuh.
I thought yuh knowed him.  I wonder who he took yuh for?"

"One o' Blakely's outfit, o' course," replied Loudon.  "It was that 88
brand o' Ranger's done the trick for him like it done for you.
'Couldn't Sam come?' says he.  Then he says, 'It's all right.  I'm Pete
O'Leary!'  When he seen I didn't understand him none, he got gun-shy
immediate an' wandered.  An' he didn't forget me a little bit.
Telescope told me that he'd been tryin' to find out if you'd hired me.
One day he come out to the ranch an' stopped just long enough to say
howdy.  Wanted to make shore I was there, see?  What do yuh make of it?"

"Nothin'--yet.  We got to wait an' see what happens."

"Seein' what happens may be expensive.  I tell yuh flat, Scotty, Sam
Blakely has got somethin' under the table for yuh.  He's aimin' to put
a crimp in yuh.  Yuh can go the limit on that."

"There ain't nothin' certain about it."

"O' course there ain't.  Sam ain't goin' to give himself away.  I wish
you'd let me Injun 'round some an' see what's up.  I think, maybe,
yuh'll save money if yuh do."

"Well, I dunno----" hesitated Scotty.

"O' course," said Loudon, quickly, "Blakely's got it in for me.  But
whatever he's cookin' up for you he thought of before I ever rode
north.  My comin' north has sort of upset his plans.  He knows I know
all about him, an' he wants to shut my mouth before he turns his bull
loose."

"Yo're goin' to meet him in Farewell, ain't yuh?  Seems to me Richie
said somethin' about it."

"Shore I am, but what's that got to do with it?"

"Why, maybe that's the reason he wants yuh out of the way.  He may not
hanker after shootin' it out with yuh."

"No, Sam Blakely ain't afraid," denied Loudon.  "He wouldn't object any
to meetin' me in Farewell if that was all there was to it.  No, what's
worryin' him is me bein' here at the Flying M.  An' it's worryin' him a
lot, or he'd never 'a' sent Block two hundred miles."

"Well, I dunno.  Yuh may be right, Tom, but I don't just guess Sam
Blakely will try to put any crimps in me.  He knows it would come kind
o' high.  Of course it's mighty puzzlin'.  I don't understand it none.
One thing, Blakely shore tried his best to get yuh down on the Lazy
River, an' that's why it looks to me like Block was sent to put in the
last licks."

"He was, but not the way yuh think.  I could gas my head off about
Blakely up here in the Bend, an' it wouldn't matter a ---- so long as
he was down on the Lazy.  But if he left the Lazy an' come projeckin'
up to the Bend, then what I'd be sayin' would count a lot.  See now?"

"I see," admitted Scotty.

"Well, gimme a chance to find out what he's up to."

"No, Tom, there's too much to do at the ranch.  I can't let yuh go.
Yo're too good a man.  I need yuh right at home.  We'll wait an' see
what happens.  Then we'll know what to do."

"It may be too late then," grumbled Loudon.

"If it is, then blame me.  I'm the one to lose, anyway."

"Yuh shore are."

Oh, the denseness of ranch owners!  Was Scotty Mackenzie to turn out
another Saltoun?

"It's a blind trail," observed Scotty, picking up the tangled thread of
their discourse.  "Some things kind o' fit when yuh look at 'em one
way, an' then again they don't when yuh look at 'em another.  Cutting
don't fit, none whatever.  All the time he worked for me, he only went
to town twice, an' the last time was six months ago.  O'Leary never
come to see him, so if somethin's up like yuh say there is, Rufe's out
of it.  But that won't help him none now.  He'll go out if we ever come
up with him."

"If we do," supplemented Loudon.

"My idea exactly.  That hoss o' yores can shore wriggle along, an' he
had a big start."

"I'm goin' through to Rocket anyhow."

"Me, too."

Till the latter half of the afternoon they kept the ponies loping.
Then, slowing to a walk, they risked a short-cut and did not strike the
trail again till the sun was setting.

"Still keepin' together," announced Loudon, after one look at the trail.

"An' still hittin' the high places," said Scotty.  "Them two cayuses
shore have bottom.  Cutting knowed a good hoss all right."



CHAPTER XI

ROCKET

The two men reached Rocket before midnight and rode up to the door of
the combination saloon and hotel.  While Scotty hammered on the planks
with his fist, Loudon uttered stentorian yells.  Rocket, male and
female, awoke, poked their heads out of the windows and shrilly
demanded information.

"Hoss thief!" bawled Loudon.  "He's ridin' a long-legged chestnut with
a white spot on his nose!  Fellah with him on a black horse!  The sport
on the black may or may not be dressed like a bird, accordin' to
whether he's washed himself!  Have yuh seen 'em?"

Rocket with one voice assured Loudon that he was drunk, and advised the
watering-trough.

"I ain't foolin'," expostulated Loudon.  "The gent on the black cayuse,
which his name is Block, Sheriff o' Fort Creek County, was tarred an'
feathered in Paradise Bend this afternoon."

Partisan Rocket cheered, and, in the same breath, grieved that neither
of the fugitives had been seen and clamoured to know details of the
tarring and feathering.  Rocket was in Sunset County, and it was
delightful to hear that Fort Creek, in the person of its sheriff, had
been insulted.

Loudon, sitting at ease on his weary, drooping-headed pony, told the
tale.  He carefully refrained, however, from mentioning his own leading
part in the affair.  Rocket received the story with howls of mirth.
Later, the male portion stuffed its nightshirts into trousers, pulled
on boots, and gathered three deep around Loudon and Scotty while the
two devoured cold beef and beans in the dining room of the hotel.

"Glad to see yo're feelin' better over yore hoss," observed Scotty,
when the last Rocketer had departed.

"Oh, I made 'em laugh," said Loudon, dismally.  "But it didn't make me
feel like laughin' myself a little bit.  I feel just as bad as
ever--worse if anythin'.  Why, Scotty, that hoss could do everythin'
but talk."

"Shore," said Scotty, hastily, "but we can't do nothin' now.  We've
done all we could.  They didn't come through Rocket, that's certain.
They've done turned off some'ers.  We can't trail 'em to-night, an' by
to-morrow they'll be forty mile off.  There's no use in keepin' it up."

Scotty looked anxiously at Loudon.  The latter made no reply.  He was
staring at the lamp on the table, his expression bitter in the extreme.

"Tell yuh what," hazarded Scotty.  "Yuh can have that bay yo're ridin'.
He ain't like yore reg'lar hoss, but he's a good pony.  Look at the way
he went to-day.  Got bottom, that hoss has.  Go till the Gulf o' Mexico
freezes solid."

"That's right good o' yuh, Scotty, but I couldn't take him off yuh
thataway.  I might buy him some day."

"The offer goes as it lays.  Yuh don't have to buy him.  He's yores
whenever yuh want him.  Well, what are yuh figurin' on doin'?"

"It's no use chasin' 'em any more now.  I know that.  Might as well
wander back where we come from.  Later, two or three weeks maybe, I'm
goin' south."

"Goin' south!"  Scotty was aghast.  He did not wish to lose his best
man.

"Yep.  Goin' south.  Don't expect to find Cutting first off.  But I'll
find Block, an' I guess he'll know somethin' about friend Cutting.  I'd
go instanter, only I want to give Block time to get back an' get
settled before I pay him a call.  I tell yuh, Scotty, I want that hoss
o' mine, an' I'll get him back if it takes me the rest o' my life!"

"You gents want beds?" inquired the landlord, suddenly appearing in the
doorway.

"Shore," replied Scotty.  "Two of 'em."

"Say, who's the postmaster here?" Loudon asked.

"Me," was the landlord's weary reply.

"A couple o' days ago," said Loudon, "a letter addressed to John
Doubleday in Paradise Bend was mailed here.  Remember who mailed it?"

"Couldn't say, stranger," yawned the landlord.  "Oh, shore," he added,
as Loudon looked incredulous, "I could tell yuh everybody else what
mailed mail for the last month.  But that one letter I couldn't.  I
didn't see the man, woman, child, or Injun what mailed it.  Three days
ago when I got up in the mornin' an' went outside to wash my face I
done found that letter an' two bits a-layin' on the door-step.  That's
all.  Just a letter an' two bits.  I clamps on a stamp an' sends her
along when the up-stage pulls in."

"Any parties from the Bend in town that day, or the day before?"

"Nary a party as I knows of--but then I ain't got eyes all over me.
Some sport might 'a' slid through an' me not know it."

"I ain't askin' questions just to make talk," said Loudon, sharply.
"So if yuh ain't got no real serious objections I'll ask a couple more."

"No need to get het, stranger," soothed the landlord.  "No need to get
het.  Ask away."

"Any strangers been in town lately?"

"Two, to-day.  They're the only strangers I've seen for quite a spell,
an' they're upstairs now.  Lady an' gent they are, travellin' separate.
Goin' to the Bend, I reckon.  Yest'day the off hind wheel o' the stage
dished down at Lew's Gully, an' she come in on three wheels an' half a
cottonwood.  Passengers had to stay over till Whisky Jim rustled him a
new wheel.  Whisky'll pull out in the mornin'."

"Who's the gent?"

"Drummer.  Dunno his name."

"Didn't Block--you know, Sheriff Block o' Fort Creek--didn't he stop
here a day or two ago?  He must 'a' come through Rocket."

"Shore he did.  But he ain't no stranger.  I see him as many as two or
three times a year.  Shore he come through Rocket.  He had a drink here
day before yest'day.  Goin' to the Bend, he said."

"Well, if he stops on his way back tell him Tom Loudon was askin' for
him.  Old friend o' mine, the sheriff is.  Just tell him yuh know me,
an' he'll set 'em up for the whole town."

"I expect," grinned the landlord.  "Was you wantin' beds, gents?"

"That's us," grunted Scotty.  "Me, I'm asleep from the neck down.  Show
me that bed, Mister."

Loudon, sitting on the edge of his sway-backed cot, pulled off his
boots, dropped them clattering on the floor, and looked across at
Scotty Mackenzie.

"Block didn't send that letter--or write it," he said, sliding his long
body under the blanket.

"How do yuh know?" came in muffled tones from Scotty.

"He ain't got the brains.  No sir, some gent in Paradise Bend sent that
letter, an' I think I know his name."

"Who is he?"  Scotty was plainly striving to keep awake, and making a
poor job of it.

"I'll tell yuh after we get back to the Bend."


Next morning, while the east was yet lemon and gray, the thunderous
clamour of a beaten dish-pan reverberated through the hotel.  The
hideous din ceased abruptly, and the voice of the landlord became
audible.

"Yuh half-witted idjit!  Don't yuh know better'n to beat that pan when
there's a lady in the house?  Dish-pans is for common folks, an' don't
yuh forget it!  Now you hump yoreself upstairs an' bang on her door
right gentle an' tell her the stage is due to pull out in a hour."

"Must be a real lady," commented Loudon, when a door at the other end
of the corridor had been duly rapped upon.

"Must be," said Scotty in a singularly joyless tone.  "Yuh couldn't
hear what she said to the feller.  Reg'lar female ladies always talk so
yuh got to ask 'em to say it again, they carry fancy-coloured umbrellas
when the sun shines, an' they pack their gold specs on the end of a
stick.  They watch yuh eat, too.  I know 'em.  Yuh bet I do.

"I met a pair of 'em once when they was visitin' at the Seven Lazy
Seven.  They made me so nervous a-lookin' at me that I cut the roof o'
my mouth three times with my knife.  Reg'lar ladies don't make me feel
to home nohow.  I'm goin' down now an' eat before this one scampers in
an' spoils my appetite."

So saying, Scotty almost ran from the room, buckling on his
cartridge-belt as he went.

The drummer was at the table when the two Flying M men sat down.  An
impressive person was the drummer.  He was known in his own circle as a
"perfectly elegant dresser."  If the tightest of tight-fitting suits,
the gaudiest of shirts, the highest of collars, an explosive cravat,
two watch-chains, a bartender's curl, and a perpetual leer made for
elegance, that drummer was elegant to a degree.

The three had nearly finished breakfast when there came a tapping of
quick heels on the stairs.  Scotty Mackenzie groaned.  The drummer
hastily patted his curl and broadened his leer.  Loudon raised his eyes
and gasped audibly.  His knife and fork rattled on the plate.  For the
woman entering the room was Kate Saltoun.

"Good morning, Tom," said Kate, brightly, quite as if she and he, the
best of friends, had parted the previous evening.

The nonplussed Loudon mumbled unintelligibly, but accomplished a
passable greeting by the time Kate had seated herself directly
opposite.  The drummer glanced contemptuously at Loudon, and, with a
flourish and a killing ogle, handed the bread to Kate.  Miss Saltoun
helped herself, nodded casual thanks, and bestowed a ravishing smile on
Loudon.

"I'm awfully glad to see you again, Tom," she declared, buttering her
bread.  "It's just like old times, isn't it?"

Could this smiling young girl be Kate Saltoun?  Was this the Kate that
had called him names and broken his heart and driven him from the Lazy
River?  Loudon furtively pinched himself.  The pinch hurt.

It was not all a dream then.  Kate Saltoun, in the flesh, and separated
from him by not more than four feet of scaly oilcloth, was actually
smiling at him.  Words failed Loudon.  He could do nothing but gaze.

Scotty, fearful of an introduction, oozed from the table.  The drummer,
unused to being ignored, fidgeted.  He cleared his throat raucously.
He would show this dumb person in chaps how a gentleman comports
himself in the presence of a lady.  It was the drummer's first trip
West.

"Beautiful day, Miss, beautiful," he smirked, tilting back in his
chair, and rattling his watch-chains.  "We should have a quick trip to
Paradise Bend.  Our driver, I understand, has procured another wheel,
and----"

The full-voiced utterance died abruptly.

For Kate had looked imploringly at Loudon, and Loudon had swung about
to face the drummer.  For the first time in his life the drummer
realized how cold, how utterly daunting, a pair of human eyes could be.

"You through?" demanded Loudon.

The drummer endured that disconcerting stare while a man might draw
three breaths.  Then his eyelids quivered, dropped, and a curious
mottled pallor overspread his countenance.  He glanced up, met again
that disconcerting stare, and quickly looked elsewhere.

"You through?" repeated Loudon.

"I--I don't know as that's any of your business," said the drummer,
faintly.

"Git out," ordered Loudon.

"Why, look here!  By what right----"

"Git out."  Loudon had not raised his voice.

The drummer glanced at Miss Saltoun.  She was crumbling her bread and
looking over his head with an air of intense boredom.  So far as she
was concerned, he had ceased to exist.  And she had been so friendly
and companionable on the long ride from Farewell.

"You've done kept me waitin' some time," suggested Loudon, softly.

Awkwardly, for he found his knees strangely weak, the drummer rose.
With a lame attempt at jauntiness he pulled down his vest, shot his
cuffs, and teetered from the room.  He made his way to the bar and
called for whisky.  His nerves were rather upset.

"Jake's put yore stuff in the stage," announced the landlord, who was
also the bartender.

"Then Jake can take my bags out again," said the drummer, disagreeably.
"I'm staying over till to-morrow."

"Well, hotel-keepers can't afford to be particular," the landlord said,
unsmilingly.  "But yuh'll have to unload yore truck yore own self."

The drummer would have enjoyed cursing the landlord.  But the latter
had the same peculiar look about the eyes that Loudon had.  The drummer
went out into the street, thinking evil thoughts of these unamiable
Westerners.


Kate, when the drummer left the room, smiled sweetly upon Loudon.  It
was his reward for ridding her of a pest.  She did not know that
Loudon's prime reason for squelching the drummer was practically the
same reason that impels the average man, on receiving an unpleasant
surprise, to throw things at the cat.

"How's Johnny Ramsay gettin' along?" inquired Loudon.

"He has completely recovered," Kate replied.  "He went back to the
Cross-in-a-box four days ago."

"That's good.  I'm glad to hear it."

Paying no further attention to Kate, Loudon calmly proceeded to finish
his breakfast.  Kate began to find the silence painful.

"Why, Tom," said she, "aren't you even a little bit glad to see me?"

"Why should I be glad?" parried Loudon.

"You're not very polite, Tom.  You--you make me feel very badly.  Why,
oh, why do you persist in making it so hard for me?"

Kate's voice was pitched low, and there was a running sob in it.  But
Loudon was not in the least affected.

"Last time I seen yuh," Loudon stated, deliberately, "yuh told me flat
yuh never wanted to see me again.  Yuh was engaged to Sam Blakely, too.
I don't understand yuh a little bit."

"Perhaps you will when I explain.  You see, I am no longer engaged to
Mr. Blakely."

"Yo're lucky."

"I think so myself.  Under the circumstances, can't we be friends
again?  I didn't mean what I said, boy.  Truly I didn't."

Loudon was looking at Kate, but he did not see her as she sat there in
her chair, her black eyes imploring.  Instead, he saw her as she
appeared that day in the kitchen of the Bar S, when she wiped his kiss
from her mouth and ordered him to leave her.

"Yo're too many for me," he said at last.  "I dunno what yo're drivin'
at.  But if yuh want to be friends, why, I'm the last fellah in the
world to be yore enemy.  Yuh know I never have exactly disliked yuh,
Kate.  Well, I got to be weavin' along.  Glad to have seen yuh, Kate.
I'll see yuh later, maybe."

"Of course you will, Tom.  I'll be at Lil's--Mrs. Mace, you know, at
the Bend.  You will come and see me, won't you?"

"Shore I will, an' glad to."

Loudon dropped the lady's hand as if it had been a hot iron, and
departed.  He had no intention of going near the house of Mrs. Mace.
He never wanted to see Kate Saltoun again.

In the street he found Scotty nervously awaiting him.

"Git yore hoss," said Scotty, "an' let's git out o' here."

"What's all the hurry?" queried Loudon.

"That female girl in the hotel.  She'll be out in a minute, an' then
yuh'll have to introduce me."

"She's Kate Saltoun, Scotty."

"Old Salt's daughter!  It don't sound possible.  An' him with a face
like a grizzly.  She's shorely four aces, Tom, an' as pretty as a
little red wagon.  But I ain't aimin' to make her acquaintance, an' yuh
can gamble on that."

Happily for Scotty's peace of mind he and Loudon left Rocket twenty
minutes ahead of the stage.

The drummer watched the departure of the stage with brooding eyes.
When the dust in the street had settled he had another drink at the bar
and ensconced himself in a corner of the barroom where he could glower
unobserved at the landlord.

The latter had gone to the corral, but the drummer was still sitting in
his chair, when, toward noon, two men entered.  They were
unprepossessing individuals, both of them, though one, the tall man
with the black beard, had obviously just washed himself thoroughly.
Even his clothing had been scrubbed.

The drummer sniffed inquiringly.  What was that elusive odour--that
strange smell or rather mixture of smells?  The drummer sniffed again.

"Got a cold?" growled the black-bearded man.

"No," said the drummer, sulkily.

"Then don't snuffle.  I don't like snufflin', I don't.  It makes me
jumpy, snufflin' does.  Breathe through yore mouth if yuh got to."

The look which the black-avised individual bent upon the drummer was
not reassuring.  The wretched drummer shrank into himself and took care
to breathe in an inoffensive manner.  The black-bearded man was
extremely sensitive about that odour, for it emanated from his own
person and habiliments.  Tobacco smoke had no effect upon it.  It clung
after the fashion of loving relations.  Strong soap, scorched molasses,
and singed feathers, had given birth to that odour.  No wonder he was
sensitive!

His companion, whose face bore numerous scratches, stared round the
barroom.

"Where's the barkeep?" he grunted.

"Don't need no barkeep," announced the black-bearded man, and started
to walk round the bar.

"Don't yuh?" inquired the voice of the landlord.  "Yuh got another
guess comin'.  Yuh can't run no blazers in this shack, Block, an' that
goes."

The eyes of the black-bearded man glowed evilly.  He stopped in his
tracks, his raised hand halted in the act of reaching for a bottle.  He
stared at the landlord standing in the doorway.  The landlord stared
back, his thumbs hooked in his belt.

"Get us a drink then," snarled Block, and he joined his friend in front
of the bar.

"That's what I'm here for," rejoined the landlord, cheerfully.  "I
don't care who I serve.  Why, I give that a drink awhile ago."  He
flicked a contemptuous thumb at the drummer.

"Hurry up!" admonished Block.

"No hurry," chirruped the landlord insultingly.  "I never was in a
hurry, an' I ain't goin' to begin now.  What'll yuh have--milk?"

"Say," exclaimed the man with the scratched face, "are you lookin' for
trouble?"

"Stranger," replied the landlord, turning a pair of calm brown eyes on
his questioner--"stranger, a gent don't never look for trouble.  It
comes to him unexpected-like.  But none ain't comin' to me to-day.
Soon as I seen you two tinhorns in here I told a friend o' mine.  He's
a-watchin' yuh from the window right now."

Block and his friend involuntarily turned their heads.  Framed in the
open window were the head and shoulders of a man.  In his hands was a
sawed-off shotgun.  The blunt muzzle gaped ominously at them.

"Well, by Gawd!" began the scratch-faced man.

"Shut up!" said Block.  "These folks seem scared of us.  No use
fussin'.  We'll just licker an' git."

"Them's the words I like to hear," observed the landlord, slapping
bottle and glasses on the bar.  "Yuh can't pull out too quick to suit
me, Block.  I know about yore goin's-on down in Farewell--rubbin' out
harmless strangers.  Yuh may be a sheriff an' all that, but yore office
don't travel a foot in Sunset County."

"Yuh talk big," growled Block.  "Yuh needn't think yuh can bluff me.
If I feel like takin' this town apart, I'll do it."

"Shore, just like yuh took the Bend apart.  Got the molasses out o'
yore system yet?"

Block's eyes were fairly murderous.  The landlord grinned.

"That shotgun's double-barrelled," he observed.  "Buckshot in each
barrel."

Block gulped his whisky.  The scratch-faced man had finished his drink
and was placidly rolling a cigarette.

"Never did like to quarrel," he remarked, "special not with a shotgun.
Mister"--to the landlord--"have any gents from the Bend rode in
to-day--or yesterday?"

"Lookin' for friends?" queried the landlord.

"Shore!"

"I thought so.  Well, I can't tell yuh.  Yuh see, I ain't right well
acquainted hereabouts.  I dunno everybody.  There might somebody 'a'
come through, an' then again there mightn't.  I seed a Injun yest'day,
though.  Looked like a Digger.  Might he be yore partic'lar friend?"
An exquisite solicitude was in the landlord's tone.

The other refused to take offence.  He smiled wryly.  When he spoke,
his words were without rancour.

"I can't claim the Injun.  I was thinkin' of a sport named Loudon.
Know him?"

"I told yuh I didn't know many people round here."

"I was just a-wonderin'.  I was kind o' anxious to see Loudon."

"Well, I dunno nothin' about him."

"There was a man here named Loudon," piped up the drummer, perceiving
an opportunity of annoying the landlord.  "He stayed here all night.
Another man was with him, a very dirty old character named Mackenzie.
I think Scotty was his first name."

"Which way did they go?" demanded Block.

"They rode away toward Paradise Bend."

"That drummer can lie faster'n a hoss can trot," drawled the landlord.

"You know they stayed here all night," said the drummer with a flash of
spirit.  "I had breakfast with them."

The landlord walked swiftly to the drummer, who quailed.

"Yo're lyin'!" announced the landlord.  "Say so.  Say yo're lyin', yuh
pup, or I'll pull yore neck in half."

"I'm lyin'!" cried the drummer, hastily.  "I'm lyin'."

"There wasn't nobody here but you, was there?" inquired the landlord.

"N-no."

"I guess that's enough.  You see how reliable this sport is, gents.
Can't believe a word he says."

Block turned toward the door.  The scratch-faced man winked at his own
reflection in the mirror behind the bar and stuck his tongue in his
cheek.

"C'mon," said Block.

The sheriff and his friend went out into the street.  The landlord
followed, his expression one of pleasurable anticipation.  Four
citizens of Rocket, grouped on the sidewalk, glumly watched the two men
as they swung into their saddles and loped away.  The landlord's face
fell.

"Say," he demanded, "why didn't yuh arrest him?"

"Couldn't be did," replied the largest of the quartette, who wore a
marshal's star on his vest.  "Loudon said his hoss was a chestnut,
white spot on nose, didn't he?  One o' them two cayuses was a black,
but the other was a bald-face pinto.  Nothin' like a chestnut."

"But Loudon done said the hoss thief was ridin' with Sheriff Block."

"That's all true enough, an' the party a-ridin' off with Block may be a
hoss thief, but if he is, he ain't ridin' Loudon's hoss.  An' Loudon's
hoss is the only one we know about.  Got to go by the hoss, Dave."

"Why, looky here, Sim, Loudon described the feller right plain.  That's
Rufe Cutting a-ridin' away there with Block, or I'm a Dutchman."

"He may be," returned the marshal, equably, "an' if Loudon was here an'
could identify him I'd grab him too quick.  But unless he's ridin' a
chestnut hoss with a white spot on his nose I can't arrest him without
a warrant.  An' there ain't no warrant.  See how it is, Dave?"

"Oh, I see all right," mourned the landlord, "an' it makes me sick.
Soon as I seen 'em come in my place I says to myself, 'Here's that hoss
thief.'  All I thought of was that Loudon said the sport was with
Block.  It makes me sick.  It shore does.  After me a-cookin' it all up
with you to arrest him!  C'mon in an' have somethin', an' watch me give
that drummer the prettiest lickin' he ever had in his life."



CHAPTER XII

SCOTTY ADVISES

When Loudon and Scotty reached Paradise Bend, they separated, Scotty
going to the Burrs', while Loudon strolled leisurely about the streets.
Loudon visited all the saloons and drew into conversation the
bartenders and other prominent citizens.  In less than an hour he met
Scotty behind the Burr corral.

"Five days ago an' early in the mornin'," said Loudon, "a Seven Lazy
Seven boy met O'Leary ridin' the trail to the Flyin' M.  O'Leary told
him, an' it wasn't none necessary, that he was goin' to Sucker Creek.
That's away north a good eighty mile.

"Well, that same day in the evenin' a freighter, camped on the trail
half-way between the Bend and Rocket, seen O'Leary a-peltin' south.
The freighter only got a flash at him by the light of his fire, but he
knowed him all right, an' he hollered a howdy.  O'Leary never notices.
Just leans over his horn an' keeps a-foggin' right along.  There yuh
have it--the Flyin' M trail in the mornin', an' twenty-five mile south
o' the Bend in the evenin'.  Now who mailed that letter?"

"It looks like O'Leary," admitted Scotty.  "But what yuh goin' to do
about it?  Yuh can't do nothin', Tom.  I tell yuh, yuh got to wait.
Now don't yuh go projeckin' round O'Leary an' kick up any fuss.  It
won't do no good, an' yuh might reap some lead.  Yo're needed at the
ranch, Tom.  Just you keep that in mind."

"Don't fret.  I ain't goin' to say nothin' to O'Leary--yet.  I'll give
him plenty o' rope to hang himself with.  But I wish you'd let me Injun
round some, Scotty.  Gimme two weeks, now.  Yuh won't regret it."

"Now, Tom, there yuh go again.  I need yuh to home, I tell yuh."

"Oh, all right; have it yore own way.  But if yuh won't gimme the two
weeks now, I'll take 'em later on my own account.  I aim to get my hoss
back."

"We'll talk about that later," said Scotty.  "You go on in an' see
Dorothy.  Y'ought to be ashamed o' yoreself--stickin' out here when
there's a pretty little girl like that in the house."

"Thought yuh didn't like ladies any."

"Depends on the lady.  There's brands an' brands, Tom.  But that little
girl o' the Cap'n's--well, say, she always makes a gent feel right to
home.  Wish I was younger.  Yes, sir, I shore wish I didn't have so
many rings on my horns.  I'd have you boys runnin' in circles, I would.
Go on in now, Tom, an' if yuh work it right Mis' Burr'll ask yuh to
grub."

Loudon went.

"Just in time for supper," was Mrs. Burr's greeting.  "Dorothy's out
front.  Pete O'Leary's here again.  He's stayin' to supper, too.  Thank
Heaven, I'll have a crowd for once.  I do enjoy seein' folks eat.  Say,
Tom," she added, lowering her voice, "is O'Leary a friend o' yores?"

"I know his name, Mis' Burr," said Loudon, "an' that's about all."

"Well, I was just wonderin'.  I dunno whether to like that fellah or
not.  He strikes me as bein' conceited a lot.  He always acts to me
like he thought every girl he knowed was in love with him.  He's
good-lookin' an' all that, but I don't cotton to his eyes.  They look
as if they was holdin' somethin' back all the time.  See what I mean?
Like he was sayin' one thing an' thinkin' another."

"I see," Loudon nodded.  He understood perfectly.

"He ain't never hung round Dorothy till lately.  But yuh can't say
nothin', I s'pose.  Still--oh, well, no use chatterin' about it."

Loudon wondered whether Scotty had known O'Leary was in the house when
he urged Loudon to go in and see Dorothy.  The presence of O'Leary did
not forecast an enjoyable meal.

"I just come in for a drink, Mis' Burr," said Loudon.  "I wish I could
stay for supper.  Thank yuh kindly, all the same, but I got to see a
man down street."

"Huh," grunted Mrs. Burr, skeptically.  "Yuh don't like O'Leary
neither, do yuh?"

"I didn't say nothin' about that, ma'am."

"No, o' course not.  Yuh can't fool me, Tom Loudon.  There's cool water
in that covered pail.  Say, it's too bad about that hoss o' yores.
Scotty told me yuh didn't have no luck in Rocket.  It shore is too bad.
He was a right good hoss."

"He is a good hoss, ma'am.  He ain't a goner yet, by a jugful.  I'll
get him back."

"I hope so, an' I hope yuh lynch the thief, or shoot him anyway.  He
hadn't ought to live a minute.  The Flyin' M cook, too.  Yuh can't
hardly believe it."

Loudon got his drink and departed.  As he rode past the house he saw
Dorothy and O'Leary sitting on the doorstep.  Dorothy waved her hand
and smiled.  O'Leary positively beamed.  Had Loudon been his oldest
friend O'Leary's greeting could not have been more cordial.

"Now I'd like to know," thought Loudon, as he rode down the street,
"what license he's got to be so cheerful.  Is it 'cause I ain't stayin'
to supper, or is it 'cause he's got some other card up his sleeve?"

"Why didn't you stay to supper?" chuckled Scotty, when Loudon dropped
into the chair next him at the hotel dining-table.

"I couldn't stand it to be away from you so long," retorted Loudon, and
helped himself generously to the butter.

"I kind o' thought it might be that way.  Try them pickles.  They taste
like they'd been used for tannin' saddles."

Night had not yet fallen when Loudon and Scotty started for the Flying
M.  As they passed the house of Big Jim Mace, Scotty groaned.

"Here comes that female girl o' Old Salt's," he whispered, perturbedly.
"She's headin' our way.  She's a-callin' to yuh, Tom!  She's a-callin'
to yuh!  I'm goin' on.  I'll wait for yuh on the trail."

There was no disregarding Kate Saltoun.  She had even stepped out into
the street in her efforts to attract Loudon's attention.  Scotty loped
onward, and Loudon twisted his horse toward the sidewalk.

"Well," said Kate, smiling up at him, "you are a nice one!  I believe
you'd have passed right by without speaking if I hadn't called to you.
Come on in and see Mrs. Mace and me.  Jim's down street, and we want
someone to talk to."

"Just someone?"

Loudon could have bitten his tongue off for uttering this flirty
remark.  But for the life of him he could not help saying it.

Kate smiled.

"Someone would probably do for Lil," she said, "but I want you.  I've
an awful lot to tell you, Tom."

"I can't, Kate.  Honest, I'd like to come in an' see yuh a lot.  I
shore would.  But I got to ride out to the ranch with Scotty Mackenzie."

"Is that funny old person with the parti-coloured sleeve Scotty
Mackenzie?  I've heard Dad speak of him.  They never liked each other,
I believe.  Bring him over, I'd like to meet him.  Then he can talk to
Lil."

"That'd be fine, but yuh see Scotty's in a hurry to get back to the
ranch.  I'm afraid we couldn't manage it nohow."

Kate's face fell.  Loudon glanced up and saw Dorothy Burr and Pete
O'Leary approaching.  Interest, polite in Dorothy's case, speculative
in O'Leary's, was manifest in their expressions.  Kate moved closer to
Loudon and laid a hand on the neck of his horse.

"Tom," she whispered, "I just heard what Block tried to do.  Lil told
me.  You don't believe I had anything to do with it, do you?"

"Why, no, o' course I don't."

"Are you sure?"

"Why, Kate, I know you couldn't do a thing like that.  Don't yuh think
any more about it."

"I believe you do, just the same.  Tom, no matter how much I disliked a
person I wouldn't betray him."

"I believe yuh.  Honest, I do."

Dorothy and O'Leary passing at this juncture, Loudon lifted his hat.
Kate turned and looked after the pair.  When her eyes once more met
Loudon's there was a faint trouble in their black depths.

"Who are they?" she queried.

"Cap'n Burr's daughter an' Pete O'Leary."

"Oh."  There was deep meaning in that "oh."

"She lives up yonder a ways.  Mis' Mace knows her, I guess."

"How nice!  Perhaps I shall meet her.  I should like to, really.  Tell
me, do you know her well?"

"Not very well.  Yuh see, I ain't in town such a lot.  Say, Kate, did
Mis' Mace write an' tell yuh I was up here at the Bend?"

"Yes, I believe she did."  Kate's tone was ingenuous.  But the quick
upward fling of her eyes was not.

"Did yuh tell yore father an' the boys?"

"Why, I don't remember, Tom.  I might have.  Very possibly I did.  Why?"

"I was just a-wonderin'."

"You mean----" gasped Kate, her eyes widening with genuine horror.

At first, misinterpreting the trend of his questioning, she had
believed him brazenly fishing.  Now she understood the significance
underlying his words.  She wanted to scream.  But half the street was
watching them.  Underlip caught between her teeth, she sucked in her
breath.  Piteously her eyes searched Loudon's face.

"Tom!" she breathed.  "Tom!  You do think I betrayed you after all.
Oh, Tom, Tom!"

It was Loudon's turn to be distressed.

"Yo're on the wrong trail, Kate," he soothed.  "I know yuh didn't tell
Block or the 88 outfit.  But if the Bar S boys knowed I was up here it
could easy get around.  Richie o' the Cross-in-a-box an' Cap'n Burr
knowed, too.  They might 'a' let it out.  I'm sorry I asked yuh if it
makes yuh feel that way."

"Oh, I see it now.  I must have told.  And it was my telling that sent
Block up here.  Tom, if he had taken you south and--and anything had
happened, it--it would have killed me.  Life just wouldn't have been
worth living any longer."

Was ever mortal man in a similar predicament?  Here was a beautiful
woman baring her heart to him in broad daylight on a public
thoroughfare.  Cold prickles raced madly up and down Loudon's spine.
What could he say?  He had a wild impulse to whirl his horse and gallop
after Scotty.  Obviously this was the safer course to follow.  Weakly
he temporized.

"Kate, do yuh know what yo're sayin'?"

"Of course.  Why shouldn't I say it?  I love you, don't you know that?
There, it's out!  I suppose I ought to be ashamed of myself, but I'm
not.  I'm glad."

Throughout the latter part of the conversation Kate had barely spoken
above a whisper, but to Loudon it seemed that she fairly shouted.  He
was positive that all the town had heard.  His dismayed eyes slid
round.  He half-expected to see Mrs. Mace and her neighbours craning
their necks with their hands cupped round their ears.  But Mrs. Mace
was not visible, and the score of people in view were not displaying
undue interest.  Loudon breathed more easily.

"Yuh--yuh----" he stammered, his face beet-red.  "Yuh hadn't ought to
'a' said that."

"Why not?" she demanded, coolly.  "It's true."

Her self-possession was extraordinary.  She was not even blushing.
This was a Kate that Loudon did not know.  In the face of her bald
assertion he could not tell her that matters had completely changed;
that he loved her no longer.  No, not that.  He realized his
disadvantage acutely, and squirmed.  Kate looked expectant.  He must
say something, and quickly, too, or she would propose to him on the
spot.

"I--I got to be goin'!" he exclaimed, desperately.  "Scotty's waitin'
for me.  Gug-gug-good-bye."

"Good-bye, Tom," said Kate, with a radiant smile.  "I'll see you some
other time."

"Some other time!" groaned Loudon, as he galloped down the street.
"Some other time!  She will, too.  An' what'll I do?  What'll I do?  I
don't like her any more.  I don't like her a little bit.  This is shore
one helluva of a fix!"

"What did she do to yuh?" inquired Scotty, when Loudon joined him.

"Do to me!  What do you mean?"

"Yuh look like yuh'd just missed being hugged to death by a b'ar.  No
offence, Tom, but yuh sure do look a heap shivery."

"It's them pickles I had for supper, Scotty.  I knowed they'd make me
sick."

"They was rich, for a fact."

They loped in silence for a half-hour.

"Scotty," said Loudon, suddenly, "if anybody comes out to the ranch
a-lookin' for me, tell 'em I've pulled my freight yuh dunno where."

"Anybody?" Scotty quirked an eyebrow.

"Anybody--man, woman, or child."

"Well, say, look here, Tom!" exclaimed Scotty in alarm.  "Yuh don't
mean to say that Miss Saltoun girl is a-comin' out to the Flyin' M."

"I dunno.  I hope not."

"Which I hope not, too.  She's so good-lookin' she scares me, she does.
I don't want to go nowheres near her, an' I won't, neither.  No,
sirree.  If she ever comes a-traipsin' out to the ranch yuh can do yore
own talkin'."

"Aw, keep yore shirt on.  I guess now she won't come."

"I'll bet she's a-aimin' to, or yuh wouldn't 'a' said what yuh did.
Yuh can't fool me, Tom.  She'll come, an' she'll bring Jim Mace's wife
along for a chaperon, an' they'll most likely stay for two meals, an'
I'll have to grub in the corral.  Great note this is!  Druv out o' my
own home by a couple o' female women!

"Laugh!  It's awful funny!  I never could abide Mis' Mace, either.
She's always talkin', talkin'.  Talk the hide off a cow, an' not half
try.  How Jim stands her I can't see nohow.  If she was my woman I'd
feed her wolf-pizen, or take it myself."

"I guess now yuh never was married, was yuh, Scotty?"

"Me married!  Well, I guess not!  Come mighty close to it once.  I must
'a' been crazy or drunk, or somethin'--anyway, when I was a young
feller over east in Macpherson, Kansas, me an' Sue Shimmers had it all
fixed for hitchin' up together.  Nice girl, Sue was.  Good cook, a heap
energetic, an' right pretty in the face.  The day before the weddin'
Sue cuts stick an' elopes with Tug Wilson, the blacksmith.

"I felt bad for mighty nigh a week, but I've been a heap joyous ever
since.  Yes, sir, Sue developed a lot after marriage.  Why, if Tug took
so much as one finger of old Jordan Sue'd wallop him with a axe-handle.
Poor old Tug used to chew up so many cloves he got dyspepsy.  Between
the axe-handle an' the dyspepsy Tug had all he could swing to keep
alive.  I've never stopped bein' grateful to Tug Wilson.  He saved my
life.  Yes, sir, as a rule, females is bad medicine."

"How about Mis' Burr an' her daughter?"

"I said as a general rule.  Like I told yuh once before, Mis' Burr an'
Dorothy are real ladies, all silk an' several yards wide.  A gent can
talk to them just like folks.  An' Dorothy can have my ranch an' every
cayuse on it, includin' my mules, any time she wants.  Nothin's too
good for that little girl."

"She's shore a winner."

"She's all o' that.  Now there's a girl that'll make a ace-high wife.
She wouldn't use no axe-handle.  She'd understand a gent's failin's,
she would, an' she'd break him off 'em so nice an' easy he wouldn't
know nothin' about it.  Yes, sir, the party that gets Dorothy Burr
needn't worry none 'bout bein' happy."

"I guess now there ain't no party real shore-enough fit to make her a
husband."

"There ain't.  No, sir, yuh can bet there ain't.  But she'll marry some
no-account tinhorn--them kind always does.  Say, why don't you make up
to her?"

"Well, I would," said Loudon, gravely, "only yuh see it wouldn't be
proper.  I ain't a no-account tinhorn."

"You ain't, but O'Leary is."

"It ain't gone as far as that!"

"Yuh never can tell how far anythin's gone with a woman.  Yuh never can
tell nothin' about her till it happens.  She's a heap unexpected, a
female is.  Now I don't say as Dorothy'd marry yuh, Tom.  Yuh may not
be her kind o' feller at all.  But yo're a sight better'n Pete O'Leary."

"Thanks," said Loudon, dryly.

"Then again," rushed on Scotty, deeply engrossed in his subject, "it
ain't noways necessary for yuh to marry her.  All yuh got to do is give
O'Leary the run.  Chase him off--see?  I've been thinkin' some serious
o' doin' it myself, but I'd have to beef him, an' that wouldn't suit
Dorothy.  A lady don't like it none to have her admirers shot up.  It
only makes her more set to have 'em.  But you, Tom, could go about it
in a nice, refined way, an' get Dorothy to likin' yuh better'n she does
O'Leary, an' there yuh are.  No blood's spilt, an' the lady is saved."

"But s'pose she didn't cotton to me for a cent?"

"Yuh got to risk that, o' course.  But you can win out over O'Leary,
I'll gamble on that."

"But why am I elected?  Why me at all?"

"Well, say, yuh'd ought to be ashamed o' yoreself, raisin' objections
thisaway.  Here I am, tryin' to help out as nice a little girl as ever
breathed, an' yuh got to kick.  Selfish, I call it.  Can't yuh see I'm
tryin' to do you a good turn, too?  There's gratitude for yuh!  Well,
it's like I always said: Old folks is never appreciated, no matter what
they do.  Yes, sir, I might 'a' saved my breath.  Dorothy, she talked
just like you do, only worse."

"What--why, you ain't been talkin' about this to Dor--Miss Burr, have
yuh?" demanded Loudon in horror.

"Why, shore I did," said Scotty, placidly.  "I feel like a father to
her, so why not?  I didn't say much.  I just told her O'Leary was a pup
an' a sheepman an' not fit for her to wipe her feet on, an' why didn't
she take a shine to some other gent for a change?  She says, 'Who, for
instance?'  An' I says, 'Tom Loudon,' an' that's as far as I got.  She
goes up in the air like a pony, instanter."

"Which I should say she might.  You had yore nerve, ringin' me into it!
Ain't yuh got no sense at all?"

"Lots.  Yo're the witless one.  If yuh had any brains yuh'd take my
advice."

"I can't now, even if I wanted to."

"Shore yuh can.  She spoke to yuh all right this aft'noon, didn't she?"

"Yes, but----"

"Well, I'd given her my opinion o' things just about twenty minutes
before yuh met me at the corral.  So, yuh see, she wasn't mad at you.
She wasn't really mad at me.  I seen the twinkle in her eye all the
time she was givin' me fits.  Why, look here, Tom, when she says, 'Who,
for instance?' I couldn't think o' nobody but you.  It was impulse, it
was, an' impulses are always right.  Wouldn't be impulses if they
wasn't.

"So there y'are.  Yuh don't have to marry each other if yuh don't want
to.  Shore not.  But yuh'd ought to give each other a whirl anyway.
Yuh might hit it off amazin'.  I'm bettin' yuh will, I don't care what
either o' yuh say."

Loudon, divided between anger and horrified amazement, was speechless.
Scotty Mackenzie was more than astounding.  He was hopelessly
impossible.

"Well," remarked Loudon, when he was able to speak, "yuh sure are three
kings an' an ace when it comes to other people's business.  Some day,
Scotty, yuh'll go bulgin' into the affairs o' some party who don't
understand yore funny little ways, an' he'll hang yore hide on the
fence."

"I s'pose likely," said Scotty, glumly.  "It shore is a ungrateful
world.  But," he added, brightening, "yuh'll do what I say, won't yuh,
Tom?  I tell yuh I know best.  I've sort o' cottoned to yuh ever since
I found out who yuh was an' all, an' I always did like Dorothy Burr.
Here's you, an' there she is.  Why, it's Providence, Tom, Providence;
an' nobody has a right to fly in the face o' Providence.  Yuh won't
never have no luck if yuh do.  I ask yuh like a friend, Tom--an' I
hadn't ought to have to ask yuh, not with such a good-looker as
Dorothy--I ask yuh like a friend to go see this little girl, an'----"

"An' prove yo're right," interrupted Loudon.

"Well, yes.  Though I know I'm right, an' I tell yuh plain if you two
don't hook up for keeps yuh'll be sorry.  Yes, sir, yuh will.  Now
don't say nothin', Tom.  Just think it over, an' if yuh want any help
come to me."

"Yuh make me sick.  Yuh shore do."

"Think it over.  Think it over."

"Think nothin' over!  I ain't in love with Miss Burr, an' I ain't
a-goin' to be.  Yuh can gamble on that, old-timer.  As a woman-wrangler
I'm a good hoss an' cowman, an' hereafter from now on I'm a-stickin' to
what I know best."

Loudon relapsed into sulky silence.  Yet for the life of him he could
not be wholly angry with Scotty Mackenzie.  No one could.  Scotty was
Scotty, and, where another man would have been shot, Scotty went
scatheless.


"Slick!" said Scotty, ten minutes after arriving at the Flying M;
"Slick, I guess yes.  The feller that wrote that letter knowed my
writin' better'n I do myself.  Don't blame yuh a mite, Doubleday, for
bein' fooled.  Don't blame yuh a mite.

"I'll fix this trick for good and all.  Hereafter I don't write no more
letters to yuh, see?  Then if our forgin' brother takes his pen in hand
again it won't do him no good....  What?  No, I'm too sleepy.  You go
down an' ask Loudon.  He was the centre o' curiosity, an' he knows more
about that riot at the Bend than I do."

When Doubleday had gone Scotty Mackenzie did not act like a person
overcome by sleep.  He lit a cigarette, slid down in his chair, and put
his feet on the desk.

"Yo're a great man, Scotty," he chuckled.  "Yes, sir, I dunno as I ever
seen yore like.  I didn't know yuh was such a deeplomat.  No, sir, I
shore didn't."

But Mr. Mackenzie did not realize that Loudon in his statements
regarding possible affection for Miss Dorothy Burr meant exactly what
he said.

On the corral fence Loudon sat with Telescope Laguerre and related his
adventures.  The half-breed hearkened sympathetically.  Occasionally he
removed the cigarette from his lips in order to swear.

"And," said Loudon in conclusion, "I'm goin' south after the little
hoss in two or three weeks."

"Queet?"

"Yep."

"I queet, too.  I go wit' you."

"What for?  No need o' you losin' yore job, too."

"---- de job!  I been here long tam--two, t'ree year.  I wan' for move
along un see w'at happen een de worl'.  Een you' beesness, two gun ees
better dan only wan.  Are you me?"

"Oh, I'm you all right enough.  I'll be glad to have yuh with me,
Telescope, but----"

"Den dat ees settle'," interrupted Telescope, his eyes glittering in
the glow of his cigarette.  "Wen you go, I go, un togedder we weel geet
de leetle hoss.  Ah, my frien', eet ees de luck I have you to go wit'.
I been knowin' for week now I mus' go soon."

"Gettin' restless?"

Telescope nodded, his eyes fixed on the far-away line of saw-toothed
mountains black against the stars.  When he spoke, his voice had
altered.

"Tom, de ole tam have come back to me, un w'en de old tam do dat I can
not stay.  I mus'----  My frien', have you evair love a woman?"

"Once I did."

"Den you weel understan'.  Wan tam, fifteen year ago, I have woman.  I
have odder woman now un den--five, six mabbe, but dey was Enjun un
breed.  Dees woman she was not Enjun.  She was Française, un we was
marry un leeve over on de Sweetwatair Rivière near de Medicine Mountain.

"Well, we was happy, she un me, un I was hunt de buffalo for Ole Man
Rantoul.  Rantoul she have de post dere on de Sweetwatair.  Dere was
odder men keel de buffalo for Rantoul, un wan of dese men she see my
wife Marie w'en she go wit' me to de post.  Dees man she yong man name'
Taylor--Pony George dey call heem, 'cause she was all tam bust de pony.

"Well, wan tam I go 'way two--t'ree week, mabbe.  I come home een de
afternoon.  No leetle dog she play 'roun' de log-house.  No smoke from
de chimeny.  No Marie she stan' at de door.

"I go queeck to de house.  Leetle dog lie dead in front de door.  Door
shut.  I go een.  I fin' Marie--I fin' Marie!"  A wild, fierce note
crept into the low monotone.  "I fin' my Marie on de floor.  She varree
weak, but she can talk leetle.  She tell me w'at happen.  Two day
before I geet back Pony George come to de log-house.  Pony George she
try for mak' de love to my wife.  Marie she go for rifle.  Pony George
geet de rifle firs'.  Dog try for bite heem.  Pony George keeck de dog
out un shoot heem.

"My wife she grab de knife.  She fight.  But Pony George strong man.
Get cut leetle, but not bad.  He--he--well, I can do nothin' for my
wife.  Nex' day she die.

"I ride to de post of Ole Man Rantoul.  Pony George not dere.  Rantoul
say Pony George go 'way t'ree day before--not come back.  I go after
Pony George.  I not fin' heem.  I go sout' to de Nation.  I go to
Dakota.  I go all de way from Canaday to de Rio Grande.  Five year I
heet de trail, but I never fin' Pony George.

"Now I work on de ranch, but always I can not stay.  W'en de ole tam
come back I mus' go.  Well, my frien', some day I fin' Pony George, un
w'en dat day come I weel hang hees hair on my bridle.  Ah, I weel keel
dat man--keel heem slow, so she weel have plenty tam for see hees deat'
before she die."

Abruptly Telescope Laguerre slipped down to the ground and vanished in
the darkness.



CHAPTER XIII

THE DANCE

A week later, while the outfit was eating supper, Swing Tunstall burst
yelling into the bunkhouse.  He flung his hat on the floor and thudded
into his seat.

"Dance!" he whooped, hammering on the table with his knife and fork.
"Dance!  Big dance!  Down at the Bend.  Next week.  Saturday night.
They're a-goin' to have it in the hotel.  Hooray!"

"Pass him the beans, quick!" shouted Doubleday.  "Get him to eatin'
before the roof pulls loose.  When djuh say it was, Swing?"

"Saturday night, next week.  Butter, butter, who's got the grease?  An'
the canned cow.  That's the stuffy.  Say, that's gonna be a reg'lar
elephant of a dance, that is.  They's a new girl in town--I seen her.
She's stayin' at Mis' Mace's, an' she's as pretty as a royal flush.
Miss Kate Saltoun her name is, an' she's from the Bar S down on the
Lazy River."

"We'll all go," announced Doubleday.

"You bet we will," said Giant Morton.  "Swing, where's that necktie o'
mine yuh borried last week?--yes, the red one.  You know the one I
mean.  You wanted it so's yuh could make a hit with that hash-slinger
at the hotel.  Can't fool me, yuh old tarrapin.  Where is it?"

"I'll git it for yuh later," gurgled Tunstall, his mouth full.  "I
don't guess I lost it.  Ca'm yoreself.  Giant, ca'm yoreself.  What's a
necktie?"

"Don't guess yuh've lost it!  Well, I like that!  I paid a dollar six
bits for that necktie down at the Chicago Store.  There ain't another
like it in the territory.  Ragsdale said so himself.  You gimme that
necktie or I'll pizen yore bronc."

"Goin' to de Bend to-morrow?" inquired Telescope of Loudon, when they
were riding the range the day before the dance.

"I don't guess so.  I don't feel just like dancin'.  Don't enjoy it
like I used to.  Gettin' old, I guess."

"I'm goin', but not to de dance een de hotel.  I'm goin' to de dance
hall, un I weel play de pokair, too.  Ah, I weel have de good tam.  W'y
not you come wit' me?"

"Maybe I will.  See how I feel to-morrow.  I'm goin' to pull my freight
next week sometime.  Got an engagement in Farewell in five weeks or so,
an' I want to find the little hoss before then."

"We'll fin' heem, you un me.  I am ready any tam you say."

That evening Scotty Mackenzie halted Loudon on his way to the bunkhouse.

"Goin' to the dance, Tom?" queried Scotty.

"I'm goin' to the Bend, but no dance in mine."

"Say, you make me sick!  Dorothy'll be at that dance, an' yuh'll hurt
her feelin's if yuh don't go.  She'll think yuh don't want to dance
with her or somethin'."

"I can't help what she thinks, can I?  I don't have to go to that
dance."

"Yuh don't have to, o' course not, but yuh got to think o' other folks.
Why, only day before yesterday when I was at the Bend she was askin'
after yuh, an' I told her yuh'd shore see her at the dance."

"Yuh did, did yuh?  All right, I'm goin' to the Bend to-morrow with the
rest o' the boys, but I've got a little poker game in mind.  The dance
is barred, Scotty."

"Oh, all right.  Have it yore own way.  I'm only tryin' to help yuh
out.  Say, Tom, y'ain't still thinkin' o' goin' away, are yuh?  Yuh can
have that bay like I said, an' another pony, too, if yuh like.  Yuh
see, I want yuh to stay here at the Flyin' M.  I'm hard up for men now,
an'----"

"Say," interrupted Loudon, on whom a great light had suddenly dawned,
"say, is that why yo're so anxious to have me go see Miss Burr, huh?
So I'll fall in love with her, an' stay here, huh?  Is that it?"

"Why, Tom, o' course not," denied Scotty, indignantly.  "I wasn't
thinkin' o' such a thing."

"I ain't none so shore, Scotty.  It sounds just like yuh."

"Well, it ain't like me nohow.  Yo're wrong, Tom, all wrong as usual.
Suit yoreself about the dance, suit yoreself.  I got nothin' more to
say.  Here's a letter come for yuh to-day."

Scotty handed the letter to Loudon and departed, offended dignity in
the set of his shoulders.  The pose was assumed, and Loudon knew it.
When next they met, Scotty would reopen his favourite issue as usual.

"Now how did he guess it?" wondered Scotty, gloomily, kicking the
pebbles on his way to the office.  "How did he guess the truth, I'd
like to know?  An' he's goin' away after all!  The best man in the
outfit!  I got to do somethin', that's a cinch."

Poor Scotty!  So must Machiavelli have felt when one of his dearest
schemes was upset by some clever Florentine.

Left alone, Loudon tore open the letter.  It ran:


Dere frend lowden Id uv rote sooner only Ive been sick fele bad stil
sene things fur a weak but I can rite now anyhow.  Wel, after you an
Mackenzy lef in the afternoon Block an the uther fellar rid in.  I noed
the uther fellar what stole yore hoss cause he looked just like you sed
hed look but the hoss he was ridin wasnt yore hoss he was sumbuddy
elses hoss I dunno whoos yet.  Wen I sene Block an him I had it all
fixed up with the marshul to arest the uther fellar but the hoss wasnt
yourn it was a bawlface pinto so the marshal couldnt arest him without
a warant.  Block an him rode away on the trail to Farewel.  Block tride
to find out bout you an Scotty and that drummer told him how you an
Scotty had rid back to the Bend.  Wel, I knoked the drummer down an
stepped on his face an throwed him into the waterin-troff an kiked him
three times roun the house.  I'm lookin out for yore hoss wen I see him
I'll let you noe hopin this fines you like it leeves me yore frien Dave
Sinclair.


Dave Sinclair was the landlord of the hotel in Rocket.  Loudon re-read
the letter and swore whole-heartedly.  To miss Rufe Cutting by a few
hours!  Riding a bald-faced pinto, was he?  What had he done with
Ranger?  Loudon went to the bunkhouse in a brown study.

Scotty alone of the Flying M outfit elected to remain at the ranch the
night of the dance.  All the others raced into town before sunset.  At
the ford of the Dogsoldier they met the Seven Lazy Seven boys from
beyond the Government Hills.  Doubleday greeted Dawson, the Seven Lazy
Seven foreman, with a long wolf-howl.  Whooping and yelling, the riders
squattered across the creek and poured into Paradise Bend, the
wild-eyed ponies rocketing like jack-rabbits.

It was an expansive evening in the Bend.  The corrals were full of
ponies bearing on their hips the brands of the Two Bar, TVU, Double
Diamond K, Wagonwheel, and half-a-dozen other ranches.  In the hotel
corral where the Flying M outfit unsaddled, Loudon saw horses belonging
to the Barred O and the T up-and-down, which ranches were a score of
miles southwest of Rocket.

The men of the various outfits circulated rapidly from saloon to
saloon.  By midnight many would be drunk.  But there were several hours
before midnight.

Loudon and Telescope left their comrades lining up at the hotel bar and
gravitated to the Three Card.  Here they found Jim Mace and Marshal Dan
Smith, who hailed them both with marked cordiality.  They drank
together, and Jim Mace suggested a little game.  Telescope's eyes began
to gleam, and Loudon perceived that his friend was lost to him for that
evening.  Loudon was in no mood for poker, so the three prevailed upon
a gentleman from the Barred O to make a fourth, and retired to an empty
table in the corner of the room.  Loudon remained standing at the bar,
regarding the rows of bottles on the shelves and gloomily pondering the
exigencies of life.

"Cards no good," he reflected.  "Dancin' the same.  Nothin' goes good
no more.  Even licker don't taste like it used to.  Guess I better have
another an' make shore."

He had another.  After a time he felt better, and decided to look in at
the dance.  From the open windows of the hotel issued sounds of
revelry--the shuffle and pound of boot-leather and the inspiring
strains of the "Arkansaw Traveller" played by two fiddlers sitting on a
table.

Loudon, his hat pulled forward, leaned his chest against a windowsill
and peered over the fat shoulders of Mrs. Ragsdale and a freighter's
wife, who were enjoying the festivities with such zest that the chairs
they sat in were on the point of collapse.

Kate Saltoun and Dorothy Burr were dancing in the same set.  Dawson of
the Seven Lazy Seven was Kate's partner, and Pete O'Leary swung
Dorothy.  Loudon was struck by the fact that Kate was not smiling.  Her
movements, likewise, lacked a certain springiness which was one of her
salient characteristics.

"Somebody must 'a' stepped on her toe," decided Loudon.  "Bet she don't
dance with Dawson again."

She didn't.  Marshal Dan Smith, perspiring and painfully conscious of a
hard shirt and a forest-fire necktie, was her next partner.  Loudon
wondered why he had not hitherto perceived the marked resemblance
between Dan Smith and a jack-rabbit.  He found himself speculating on
Kate's reasons for breaking her engagement.  As he looked at Kate, her
extreme beauty, contrasted with that of the other girls in the room,
was striking.

"Kate is certainly a heap good-looker."

Mrs. Ragsdale and the freighter's wife turned sharply and stared
open-mouthed at Loudon.  Not till then did that young man realize that
he had voiced aloud his estimate of Kate Saltoun.  He fled hurriedly,
his skin prickling all over, and dived into the kindly darkness behind
the corral.

"Now I have done it!" he mourned, bitterly, squatting on the ground.
"Those old tongue-wagglers heard me, an' they'll tell her.  I seen it
in their faces.  What'll she think o' me.  Luck!  There ain't no such
thing.  If all the rocks was tobacco an' all the grass
cigarette-papers, I'd be there without a match."

From the hotel drifted thinly the lilt of "Buffalo Girls."  A bevy of
convivial beings in the street were bawling "The Days of Forty-Nine."
Across the discordant riot of sound cut the sudden clipping drum of a
galloping pony.

"Injuns!" shouted a voice.  "Injuns!"

Loudon sprang up and dashed around the corral.  In the flare of light
from the hotel doorway a dusty man sat a dustier horse.  The man was
hatless, his dark hair was matted with dirt and sweat, and his eyes
were wild.

"Injuns!" cried the dusty man.  "Injuns on Hatchet Creek!  I want help!"

In thirty seconds there was a fair-sized group surrounding the
horseman.  In a minute and a half the group had become a crowd.  Up
bustled Marshal Dan Smith followed by Telescope Laguerre, Jim Mace, and
the gentleman from the Barred O.  Loudon, first on the scene, was
jammed against the rider's stirrup.

"Gents," the dusty man was saying, "my three pardners are a-standin'
off the war-whoops in a shack over by Johnson's Peak on Hatchet Creek.
There's more'n a hundred o' them feather-dusters an' they'll have my
pardners' hair if yuh don't come a-runnin'."

"Johnson's Peak!" exclaimed Jim Mace.  "That's fifty mile away!"

"All o' that," assented the dusty man, wearily, without turning his
head.  "For God's sake, gents, do somethin', can't yuh?  An' gimme a
fresh hoss."

Already three quarters of his hearers were streaking homeward for their
Winchesters and saddles.  The men from the ranches were the last to
move away.  No need for them to hurry.  The few who had brought rifles
to the Bend had left them with their saddles at the various corrals.

Within half an hour the dusty man, mounted on one of the marshal's
ponies, was heading a posse composed of every available man in Paradise
Bend.  Only the marshal and two men who were sick remained behind.

The posse, a column of black and bobbing shapes in the starlight, loped
steadily.  Many of the ponies had travelled twenty and thirty miles
that day, and there were fifty more to pass under their hoofs.  The
average cow-horse is a hardy brute and can perform miracles of work
when called upon.  Secure in this knowledge, the riders fully intended
to ride out their mounts to the last gasp.

Doubleday and Dawson rode stirrup to stirrup with the man from Hatchet
Creek.  Tailing these three were Loudon, Telescope Laguerre, the Barred
O puncher, and Jim Mace.

"How'd yuh get through, stranger?" queried Doubleday.

"I dunno," said the dusty man.  "I jus' did.  I had to.  It was make or
break.  Them war-whoops chased me quite a spell."

"You was lucky," observed Dawson.

"Yo're whistlin' I was.  We was all lucky when it comes to that.  We
was at the shack eatin' dinner when they jumped us.  S'pose we'd been
down the creek where our claims is at, huh?"

"Yo're hair would shore be decoratin' a Injun bridle," admitted Dawson.
"But I didn't know there was gold on Hatchet Creek."

"We got four claims," said the dusty man, shortly.

"Gettin' much?"

"We ain't millionaires yet."

"No, I guess not," whispered Jim Mace to Loudon.  "I'll gamble that
gravel don't assay a nickel a ton.  Been all through them hills, I
have.  I know Hatchet like I do the Dogsoldier.  There's no gold there."

"This prospector party says different," muttered Loudon.

"You'll see," sniffed Jim Mace.  "Gold on the Hatchet!  He's loco!
You'll see."

"It's a good thing, stranger," Dawson was saying, "yuh hit the Bend
when we was havin' a dance.  There ain't more'n fifty or sixty men
a-livin' reg'lar in the place."

"Well," said the dusty man, "I did think o' headin' for Fort Yardley.
But them feather-dusters was in between, so it was the Bend or nothin'.
Oh, I knowed I was takin' chances, what with no ranches in between, an'
the little hoss liable to go lame on me an' all.  It's a long ride,
gents.  Say, seems like we're a-crawlin' an' a-crawlin' an' gittin'
nowheres."

"We're a-gittin' some'ers right lively," corrected Doubleday.  "If yore
pardners have plenty o' cartridges they'll be a-holdin' out all right
when we git there.  Don't yuh fret none, stranger."

"I ain't--only--only--well, gents, there was a roarin' passel o' them
Injuns."

"Shore, shore, but we'll strike the Hatchet near Tepee Mountain 'round
sun-up, an' from Tepee to Johnson's Peak ain't more'n twenty
miles--less, if anythin'."

In the keen light of dawn the pyramidal bulk of Tepee Mountain loomed
not six miles ahead.  When the sun rose the posse had skirted its base
and was riding along the bank of Hatchet Creek.

And now the dusty man began to display signs of a great nervousness.
He fidgeted in his saddle, examined and tried the lever action of his
rifle, and gloomily repeated many times that he believed the posse
would arrive too late.  As they passed above a cut bank, the dusty man,
riding near the edge, dropped his Winchester.  The piece slipped over
the edge and splashed into the water fifteen feet below.  Swearing, the
dusty man rode back to where the bank was lower and dismounted.

"Don't wait for me!" he shouted, wading upstream.  "I'll catch up."

The posse rode onward.  Some of the horses were staggering with
fatigue.  All of them were jaded and dripping with sweat.  Suddenly
Telescope Laguerre rode from the line and vaulted out of his saddle.
He landed on his hands and knees and remained in that position, his
head thrust forward, his eyes blazing with excitement.

"What's eatin' Telescope?" demanded Doubleday.

"Tom!  Tom!  Come here!  Queeck!" shouted the half-breed.

"Say!" snorted Doubleday.  "What is this, anyway?  Do you fellers know
there's some Injuns up here a piece?"

But Loudon had joined Telescope and neither of the two gave the
slightest heed to the outraged Doubleday.

"Look!" exclaimed Laguerre, as the tail of the column passed.  "Look!
Yore hoss she come out o' de wood here!  See!"

"My hoss!  You mean Ranger?" Loudon stared, thunderstruck, at the
hoofmarks of two horses.

"Yore hoss, Ranger!  Ah, once I see de hoss-track I know heem again!
Las' tam you shoe de hoss you shoe heem all 'roun'.  Dees ees hees
track.  No man was ride heem.  She was de led hoss.  Feller ride odder
hoss.  See!  Dey come out de wood un go dees way."

Telescope waved a hand over the way they had come.

"How old are the tracks?" queried Loudon, breathlessly.

"Mabbeso four day.  No use follow dem.  We lose 'em on de hard groun'."

"Telescope, I got an idea somethin's wrong.  I dunno what, but these
tracks comin' in here thisaway, an' that fellah with the Injun story--I
guess now they hitch somehow.  I tell yuh I dunno how"--as Telescope
opened his mouth to speak--"an' I may be wrong, but I'm goin' back
after that party from Hatchet Creek."

Loudon swung into his saddle and spurred his mount.  The animal
responded gamely, but a pitifully slow lope was the best speed it could
shake out of its weary legs.  Laguerre's pony was in worse case.  The
short halt had stiffened his knees slightly and he stumbled at every
other step.  The two men lolloped jerkily downstream.  Rounding a sharp
bend, they came in sight of the cut bank where the dusty stranger had
dropped his gun.  Neither man nor horse was visible.

"By gar!" exclaimed Laguerre.  "By gar!"

Just then his horse stumbled for the last time, fell on its knees, and
rolled over on its side.  Laguerre flung himself clear and bounced to
his feet.  The pony struggled up, but Laguerre did not remount.  He
dragged his rifle from the scabbard and ran forward on foot to rejoin
his comrade.  Loudon was leaning over the saddlehorn examining the spot
where the dusty man had left his horse.

"Ground's kind o' hard," said Loudon, "but it looks like he'd headed
for that flat."

"He go dere all right!" exclaimed Laguerre, excitedly.  "Come on, Tom!"

Running awkwardly, for cow-country boots are not fashioned for rapid
locomotion, Laguerre led the way toward a broad meadow fifty yards
away.  Once in the meadow the trail was easier to follow.  The meadow
was at least a quarter-mile wide, and woods bordered it on three sides.

The trail led straight across it, and on into the forest.  The trees
did not grow thickly, and Laguerre, his eyes on the ground, threaded
his way in and out between the trunks at an ankle-straining trot.  He
had excellent wind, had Telescope Laguerre.  Loudon was forced to
employ spurs and quirt in order to keep up with him.

Four hundred yards deep in the forest they saw ahead an opening in the
trees.  A minute later they charged into a large meadow.  In the middle
of the meadow was an ancient shack, doorless, the roof fallen in,
flanked by a corral which gave evidence of having been recently
repaired.

"Somethin' movin' in that corral," said Loudon, and dragged out his gun.

Then, in half a watch-tick, a man on a chestnut horse flashed across
the open space between the corral and the shack.  Loudon and Laguerre
swung to one side, but the man did not immediately reappear on the
other side of the shack.  A few steps farther and they saw him.  He was
riding directly away from them and was within fifty yards of the forest.

The fugitive was a long two hundred yards distant, but they recognized
his back without any difficulty.  He was the dusty man from Hatchet
Creek, and his horse was Loudon's Ranger.

"Look out for the hoss!" cried Loudon, as Laguerre flung up his rifle.

The rifle cracked spitefully once and again.  The rider, with a
derisive yell, disappeared among the trees.  Laguerre dropped his
rifle-butt, and began to utter strange and awful oaths in a polyglot of
French and English.  Loudon sheathed his six-shooter, kicked his feet
out of the stirrups, and calmly rolled a cigarette.

"No use a-cussin', Telescope," he observed.  "He's done gone."

Pht-bang! a rifle spat from the distant wood.  Loudon's horse gave a
convulsive sidewise leap, dropped with a groan and rolled half over,
pinning Loudon to the ground.  Laguerre, flat on his stomach, was
firing at the thinning smoke-cloud under the trees.  But there were no
more shots from the forest.

"Say, Telescope," called Loudon, "when yuh get plumb through would yuh
mind pullin' this cayuse off o' my legs?"

Still cursing, Laguerre levered up the body of the dead pony with the
barrel of his rifle, and Loudon wriggled free.  He endeavoured to stand
on his feet, but sat down abruptly.

"What's de matter?" inquired Laguerre.  "Bullet hit you, too?"

"No," replied Loudon, gingerly feeling his right ankle, "my foot feels
funny."

"Mabbeso de leg broke," suggested Laguerre.  "Mabbeso dat feller she
try anudder shot.  Better you be behin' de log-house."

He picked up his rifle, helped Loudon to stand erect, and passed an arm
around his waist.  So, hopping on one foot, Loudon reached the shelter
of the shack wall.  Laguerre eased him to the ground and skipped nimbly
down past the corral.

"Mabbeso I geet dat feller," he called over his shoulder.  "Be back
soon."

Laguerre returned in five minutes.

"Dat feller she geet clean away," he said, disconsolately.  "Nevair
touch heem.  By gar!  Eef I not have run so hard, I shoot better.  Geet
heem shore den."

"Pull my boot off, will yuh, Telescope?" requested Loudon, extending
his leg.

Laguerre pulled.  Loudon gritted his teeth.  The pain was sharp,
nauseating.

"It's no good," said Loudon, thickly.  "Got to cut the boot off."

Laguerre whipped out his knife and slit the leather from instep to top.
Gently he removed the boot.  Loudon peeled off the sock.  The ankle was
badly swollen.

"Wiggle de toe," commanded Laguerre.

Loudon wriggled his toes and was able to move his ankle slightly, not
without a deal of pain, however.  He noted with thankfulness that the
pain was continuous, and not stabbing as it is when a bone is involved.

"Bone's all right," he observed, cheerfully.  "Only a sprain, I guess."

"Dat ees good," said Laguerre.  "I geet de odder hoss."

He strode to the dead horse and stripped off saddle and bridle.

"Say," said Loudon, "I can do that while yo're goin' for the hoss.
We'll have to leave 'em here, anyway."

"No, not dees treep, my frien'," Laguerre said, carrying saddle and
bridle toward the corral.  "Dat feller she leave Dan Smeet's hoss on de
odder side de corral.  Hoss she pretty tire', but she carry you all
right."

On his hands and knees Loudon crawled to the corral and peered between
the bars.  The corral was a large one.  Till recently the grass had
grown thickly within it.  But that grass had been nibbled to the roots,
and the marks of shod hoofs were everywhere.  From a spring near the
shack a small stream ran through one corner of the corral.

"Slick," said Loudon.  "Couldn't have been better, could it?"

"No eet could not," agreed Laguerre.  "She feex up dees ole corral
fine.  Dat Ranger hoss she been here mabbeso four day.  She have de
grass.  She have de watair.  She all ready fresh w'en dat feller she
come.  Un how can we follow wit' de tire' pony?  Oh, she have eet
figure all out.  For w'y?  Can you tell me dat, Tom?"

"I dunno.  It shore is too many for me."

He painfully made his way to the spring, drank, and then soaked his
sprained ankle in the icy stream till Laguerre came to help him into
the saddle.

On the bank of the Hatchet they found Laguerre's pony lying where it
had fallen.  The animal was not dead.  It was sound asleep.

"Hear dat?" said Laguerre, late in the afternoon.

Loudon listened.  From afar off came a buzzing murmur.  It grew louder
and louder.

"The boys are some het up," observed Loudon.

The posse straggled into view.  The boys were "het up."  They were all
talking at once.  Evidently they had been talking for some time, and
they were full of their subject.  At sight of Loudon and his bootless
leg the clamour stilled.

"Hit bad, Tom?" called Doubleday.

"Hoss fell on me," explained Loudon.  "Yuh don't have to say nothin',
Doubleday," he added, as the foreman dismounted beside him.  "I know
just what happened."

"Oh, yuh do, do yuh?" snorted Doubleday, wrathfully.  "I might 'a'
knowed there was somethin' up when that gent an' you fellers didn't
catch up.  An' us ridin' our heads off from hell to breakfast!  Why,
we'd be combin' this country yet only we met some o' the cavalry from
Fort Yardley an' they said there ain't been an Injun off the
reservation for a month.  They shore give us the laugh.  ----!  That's
his hoss!  Did yuh get him?"

"We did not.  The fellah got away nice as yuh please on my hoss
Ranger--yep, the hoss Rufe Cutting stole in the Bend.  Gimme the
makin's, somebody, an' I'll tell yuh what happened."



CHAPTER XIV

A DETERMINED WOMAN

A long, ragged line of dirty, tired men, and sweat-caked,
drooping-headed horses, the posse rode into Paradise Bend in the
afternoon of the following day.  The men were quiet.  Silently they
dispersed to the various corrals.  Loudon, his right leg dangling free,
had suffered increasingly during the long ride.  By the time the Bend
was reached the pain in his ankle was torturing.  At the hotel corral
Laguerre and Doubleday helped him to dismount.

"Yuh got to go to bed awhile, Tom," pronounced Doubleday.  "Grab my
shoulder."

"Where was you thinkin' o' takin' him?" demanded the exceedingly cross
voice of Mrs. Burr.

"The hotel, ma'am," replied Doubleday, taking off his hat.

Mrs. Burr marched forward and halted in front of the trio.  She stuck
her arms akimbo and glared at Doubleday.

"The hotel!" she snapped.  "The hotel!  An' my house close by!  What's
the matter with you, John Doubleday?  My land, it's a good thing I seen
you three a-comin' in here.  I just knowed yuh was aimin' to put him in
the hotel.  Yuh'll do nothin' o' the kind.  Yuh hear me!  I ain't goin'
to have no friend o' mine with a game leg a-roostin' in this hotel.
The beds are bad, an' the grub's worse.  What's the matter, Tom?  Shot?"

"It's only a sprain, ma'am," said Loudon.  "An' I guess if yuh don't
mind, I'll go to the hotel.  I couldn't think o' troublin' yuh, ma'am.
Thank yuh a lot, but I couldn't, honest."

"Oh, yuh couldn't, couldn't yuh?  My land, ain't yuh uppity all of a
sudden?  Yuh don't know what yo're talkin' about.  Men never do nohow
an' a sick man don't, special.  Yo're a-comin' to my house, an' I'm
a-goin' to put yuh to bed an' cure that sprained ankle.  Yuh can just
bet I am.  John Doubleday, you h'ist him aboard that pony right away
quick an' fetch him round instanter.  If he ain't outside my door in
five minutes I'll come back an' know the reason why.  Hurry now.  I'm
goin' ahead an' get some hot water ready."

Twenty minutes later Loudon was sitting in the Burr kitchen.  He was
smoking a cigarette and soaking his sprained ankle in a bucket of hot
water.  At the kitchen table stood Mrs. Burr shaking up a bottle of
horse liniment.

"What's this John Doubleday tells me about yore ride no'th bein' a
joke?" asked Mrs. Burr.

"I dunno no more'n Doubleday," replied Loudon.  "It's all beyond me."

"It's shore a heap funny.  No feather-dusters, no miner folks
a-standin' 'em off, an' that gent who brought the news runnin' off
thataway an' shootin' at yuh an' all.  It must mean somethin', though.
A feller wouldn't do all that just for a real joke.  It's too much."

"I wish I knew what it meant, ma'am."

"Well, it's a queer world, full o' queer folks an' queerer doin's,"
observed the lady, holding the bottle against the light.  "Anyhow, this
here liniment will fix yuh up fine as frog's hair.  Now yuh must just
lift yore foot out an' I'll dry it.  Shut up!  Who's running this, I'd
like to know?  Land sakes, why shouldn't I dry yore ankle?  Shut up, I
tell yuh.

"My fathers, Tom, you men make me plumb tired!  Idjits, the lot o' yuh.
No more sense than so many fool hens.  What yuh all need is wives to
think for yuh, tell yuh what to do, an' all that.  There now, it's dry.
Where's that cloth?  Hold the foot still while I wrap it 'round.  Now
this liniment's a-goin' to burn.  But the burnin's healin'.  The harder
it burns the quicker yuh'll get well.  Shore!

"As I was sayin', Tom, yuh'd ought to get married.  Do yuh good.  Make
yuh steadier--give yuh a new interest in life, an' all that.  Ever
think of it, Tom?"

Mrs. Burr rose to her feet and beamed down upon Loudon.  That young man
was beginning to feel strangely weak.  First Scotty, and now Mrs. Burr!
What was the matter with everybody?  Scotty, of course, was an
eccentric.  But for Mrs. Burr brazenly to hurl her daughter at his head
was incomprehensible.  Loudon, red to the ears, mustered a weak smile.

"I dunno, ma'am," he gulped, uncomfortably.  "I--I hadn't thought of
it, I guess."

"Well, yuh'd ought to think of it.  An' if yuh know what's best for
yuh, yuh will think of it--hard.  I tell yuh flat, Tom, a single man
ain't no-account.  He don't gather no moss, but he does collect bad
habits.  Now a wife she stops all this rattlin' round a-diggin' up what
St. Peter will ask yuh questions about.  Yessir, a good wife keeps yuh
up to the bit an' a-headin' the right way."

Nervously Loudon began to roll another cigarette.  He hoped that Mrs.
Burr had finished.  His hope was vain.

"Well, now, Tom, ain't I right?" she demanded.

"Shore, ma'am, shore, plumb right," Loudon hastened to assure her.

"'Course I am.  I knowed yuh'd see it that way.  Why don't yuh do it?"

"Do it?"

"Yuh know perfectly well what I mean.  Ask a girl to marry yuh."

"Any girl?"

"Not just any girl.  If yuh was to ask me I could tell yuh who right
quick.  But I suppose that wouldn't do."

Loudon was devoutly thankful that the lady possessed some sense of
propriety.

"We-e-ell, ma'am," he said, slowly, "no girl would have me."

"Did yuh ever ask one?"  This with a shrewd cock of the eyebrow.

"I did once."

"An' she give yuh the mitten, huh?  More fool she.  Listen to me: when
a hoss bucks yuh off, what do yuh do?  Give up, or climb aboard again?"

"That's different."

"'Tain't a bit different.  Girl or hoss, a man shouldn't ever give up.
Y'asked a girl once, didn't yuh?  Yuh said yuh did.  Well, ask her
again.  Land sakes alive, give her a chance to change her mind!"

Good heavens!  Did Mrs. Burr mean Kate Saltoun?  Impossible.  But was
it impossible?  Of late, the seemingly impossible had had an uncanny
habit of coming to pass.  Loudon shivered.  He was quite positive that
he did not love Kate.  The longer he considered the matter the more
fully convinced he became that he did not wish to marry any one.  Which
was natural.  Bid a man fall in love with a girl and he will at once
begin to find fault with her.

"She--she wouldn't have me," dissembled Loudon.  "It's no use talkin',
ma'am, I'm what the fellah in the book calls a shore-enough blighted
being.  It makes me feel terrible, ma'am, but yuh can't do nothin'.
Nobody can.  I just got to bear it, I guess."

He sighed enormously, but there was a twinkle in the gray eyes.

"Yo're laughin'!" exclaimed Mrs. Burr, severely.  "I'd like to shake
yuh, I would.  It ain't for nothin' that man an' mule begin with the
same letter.  Stubborn!  My land o' livin', a girl's feelin's ain't
nothin' to yuh!  What do you care, yuh great big good-for-nothin'
lummox!"

"Now, ma'am," chided Loudon, grinning, "yo're gettin' real excited."

"Who wouldn't?  Here I am----"

"Say," interrupted Loudon, "when it comes to that, here I am gettin'
fifty-five dollars a month.  However can I get married, even if
anybody'd have me, with silk dresses at five dollars a yard?"

"Silk dresses!  What d'yuh mean by that?"

"Why, ma'am, I wouldn't let my wife wear nothin' but silk dresses
mornin', noon, an' night.  Nothin' would be too good for my wife.  So
yuh see how it is.  I dassent think o' marriage."

Words failed Mrs. Burr.  It was probably the first time that they had
failed her.  She gasped, gasped again, then stamped to the stove and
furiously rattled the frying-pan.

"Well," she suddenly remarked, "wherever can that girl o' mine be?
Gallivantin' 'round with that O'Leary feller just when I want her to go
to the store.  Now look here, Tom, you set right still till I come
back, do yuh hear?  No projeckin' 'round on that ankle.  I'll get Ben
to put yuh to bed after supper."

"He needn't bother," said Loudon, hastily.  "I can get into bed my own
self.  I ain't a invalid."

"Yo're just what I say yuh are.  If yuh make any fuss I'll put yuh to
bed myself.  So you watch out."

The masterful lady departed.  Loudon, undisturbed by her threat, gazed
after her with admiration.

"She's a whizzer," he said under his breath.  "Got a heart like all
outdoors.  But that ankle ain't as bad as she makes out.  Bet I can hop
to the door an' back just as easy."

So, because he had been forbidden to budge, Loudon hoisted himself out
of the chair, balanced on one leg, and hopped across the room.  Holding
himself upright by the door-jambs he peered out cautiously.  He wished
to assure himself that Mrs. Burr was well on her way to the store
before proceeding farther on his travels around the kitchen.

Mrs. Burr was not in sight.  Surely she could not have reached the
corner so soon.  Vaguely disturbed, Loudon kept one eye cocked down the
street.  His vigilance was rewarded by the emergence from the Mace
doorway of both Mrs. Burr and Kate Saltoun.  Mrs. Burr went on toward
Main Street.  Kate turned in his direction.

"Good Lord!" gurgled Loudon, despairingly.  "She's a-comin' here!"

In a panic he turned, slipped, overbalanced, and his whole weight
ground down hard on his sprained ankle.  The most excruciating pain
shot through his whole being.  Then he toppled down in a dead faint.

When he recovered consciousness Kate's arm was around his shoulders,
and Kate's voice was saying, "Drink this." Through a mist he saw Kate's
face and her dark eyes with a pucker of worry between them.

"Drink this," repeated Kate, and Loudon drank from the glass she held
to his lips.

The whisky cleared away the mist and injected new life into his veins.
Ashamed of his weakness, he muttered hasty thanks, and essayed to rise.

"Don't move!" Kate commanded, sharply.  "Hold still till I pull that
chair over here."

"I can get up all right, Kate.  I ain't hurt."

"No, of course not.  You've just shown how much you aren't hurt.  Do as
I say."

Kate pulled the chair toward her and was helping Loudon into it when
Mrs. Burr entered.  That she had gone to the store was doubtful.  At
least, she was empty-handed.

"My land!" exclaimed Mrs. Burr, running to Kate's assistance.  "What's
the matter?  Tom, did yuh get up after I told yuh not to?"

Loudon mumbled unintelligibly.

"I found him in a dead faint on the floor," was the illumining remark
of Kate.

"Oh, yuh did, did yuh?  I might 'a' knowed it!  Can't do nothin' yo're
told, can yuh, Tom?  I'll bet yuh twisted that ankle again!  My
fathers, yuh make me tired!  Bet yuh it's all swelled up now worse'n
ever.  Lemme look."

Expertly Mrs. Burr stripped the wrappings from Loudon's ankle.

"Thought so!" she grunted, and took the dishpan from its hook.

"Is it very bad?" queried Kate.

"Not near so bad as he's tryin' to make it with his hoppin' 'round.
Land alive!  He'll be lucky if it ain't lame the rest of his life.
Now, Tom, I'm goin' to use hotter water'n I did before.  Yuh deserve to
have that foot good an' scalded, yuh do.  I'll get the swellin' down,
too, if I have to parboil yuh.  Don't yuh make no mistake about that.
Say, I don't see how steppin' on this here could 'a' made yuh faint,
unless----  Say, Tom, when did yuh eat last?"

"Why, ma'am, I don't--well, I guess it was yesterday some time."

Kate uttered a soft exclamation.

"Yesterday some time!" cried Mrs. Burr, hurrying to the stove.
"Yesterday mornin' too, I'll bet.  I might 'a' knowed it.  You fellers
didn't take much grub with yuh when yuh went north.  An' I never
thought to ask when yuh et last.  A sprained ankle, a fifty-mile ride,
an' nothin' to eat on top of it.  No wonder yuh fainted.  Yuh poor
feller.  An' here I been a-callin' yuh all kinds o' names.  We won't
wait for Dorothy.  I'll have somethin' to eat for yuh in a minute."

"No hurry, ma'am," remarked Loudon.  "I ain't a bit hungry."

"Kate," said Mrs. Burr, paying him no attention, "cut some bread, will
yuh, an' start feedin' him.  The butter's yonder."

Fifteen minutes later Loudon was sitting at the table devouring steak
and potatoes.  He was hungry.  With great satisfaction Mrs. Burr
watched him tuck away the food.

"There," she announced, filling his coffee cup for the second time, "I
guess that'll hold yuh for awhile.  I'll just set the coffeepot back on
the stove an' Kate can give yuh some more when yuh want it.  I'm goin'
down street a minute."

When Mrs. Burr had gone Kate sat down opposite Loudon and locked her
fingers under her chin.  Loudon steadfastly kept his eyes glued to his
plate.  Confound the girl!  Why must she pursue him in this brazen
fashion?  Couldn't she realize--but apparently she realized nothing
save the importance of her own desires.  Man-like, Loudon hardened his
heart.  Curiously enough, the strictly impersonal tone of Kate's
opening remark gave him a distinct feeling of annoyance.

"Isn't Mrs. Burr great?" said Kate.

"Shore," mumbled Loudon.

"And Dorothy, too.  I like her an awful lot.  She came over to Lil's
this morning, and we sewed and gossiped, and had a perfectly lovely
time.  She--Dorothy, I mean--showed me a new stitch--but, of course,
you aren't interested in embroidery.  Tell me, how do you like the new
job?"

"All right."

"I'm glad.  Is Mr. Mackenzie a good boss?"

"Fine.  Couldn't beat him--that is--er--yore dad always treated me
white."

"I know," nodded Kate, her black eyes twinkling.  "Don't apologize.  I
quarrel with Dad myself sometimes.  Tom," she added, her expression
sobering, "have you had any news from Farewell lately?"

"Ain't heard a word since I left.  Why?"

"I received a letter from Dad to-day.  He says there's a warrant for
rustling out for you."

"That's good hearin'," said Loudon, cheerfully.  "I'm one popular
jigger in the Lazy River country.  They just can't get along without
me, can they?"

"Apparently not.  Dad told me to tell you.  Listen, it isn't generally
known in Farewell or anywhere else in Fort Creek County, for that
matter, that a warrant is out for you.  It was issued by Judge Allison
in Marysville.  Block's keeping it as dark as possible."

"Goin' to spring it on me when I ain't lookin', I suppose.  He won't
try fetchin' any warrant up here, that's a cinch."

"Hardly.  I always hated that man."

"I never liked him a whole lot, neither.  Say, how did yore dad hear
about that warrant?"

"He didn't say, but I imagine somebody in Marysville wrote him.  He has
friends there, you know."

"I didn't know, but I'm shore glad he has.  Next time yuh write yuh
might thank yore dad for me."

"I will, of course.  I'm awfully glad you're safe up here, Tom.  All
the straight people in the Lazy River country know you didn't have any
hand in the branding of those Crossed Dumbbell cattle, but that doesn't
help much when Block and his friends are in the majority."

"Yo're right, it don't; but I got to go to Farewell anyway in about
five weeks."

"What?"  Kate's eyes widened with something very like fear.

"Shore," nodded Loudon.  "I got a little business to attend to that
can't be put off."

"Put it off," begged Kate, stretching out a pleading hand.  "Put it
off, Tom.  You mustn't--you can't go back to Farewell now.  Some day
everything will be all right again, and then you can go back.  But not
now, Tom.  Your life is much more important than any silly business.
Please wait."

"Can't be did," said Loudon with finality.  "I just got to go, an'
that's all there is to it."

"But, Tom," cried Kate, "don't you understand?  They'll--they'll h-hang
you."

"They'll have to catch me first.  'Tain't legal otherwise."

"Oh, how can you make fun?  I could cry.  I could, indeed.  I will,
too, in a minute--only, you are fooling, aren't you?  You don't really
intend to go back."

"I never fool.  Dunno how.  I'm goin' back, an' if Farewell gets gay,
why, I'll just naturally rope that village o' tinhorns an' scatter it
over a full section o' land.  That'll cure 'em o' gettin' out warrants
for peaceable folks, won't it now?"



CHAPTER XV

A HIDDEN TRAIL

A pounding at his door woke Loudon in the morning.

"'Lo," he called, sleepily.

"Time for yore dinner!" shouted Mrs. Burr through the panels.  "It's
noon."

"I'll get right up."

"Yuh will not.  Yuh'll stay right where yuh are.  I'm comin' in."

She entered, bearing a basin and towels.

"There," she said, setting the basin on the chair at the bedside.
"There, yuh can wash yore own face.  Hungry?"

"Some," he sputtered through streaming water.

"That's good.  I got a nice steak an' 'taters an' gravy an' hot bread,
an' there's a friend wants to see yuh."

"Who?"

"Swing Tunstall.  He just rode in from the Flyin' M.  I'm goin' out
there this afternoon.  Dunno how long I'll be gone.  But yuh'll be all
right.  I done asked Lil Mace to come over here an' live while I'm
away.  Lil an' Kate an' Dorothy'll look after yuh.  An' mind yuh, do
what they tell yuh, or I'll make it hot for yuh when I come back."

"What's the matter?  Anythin' happened at the ranch?"

"Oh, nothin' much--over a hundred head o' hosses run off, an' Scotty's
got two bullets in him."

"What!"

"Yep.  That's why I'm goin' out.  Got to look after Scotty.  Swing says
he ain't hurt bad, an' Scotty is tougher'n back-leather, but still
there'd ought to be a woman there, so I'm elected.  No, I can't give
yuh no details.  Ain't got time.  Swing will tell yuh all he knows.
Good-bye, an' don't forget what I said 'bout mindin' them three girls,
Tom."

She picked up the basin and hastened from the room, leaving the door
open.  Through the doorway Loudon could see a section of the kitchen
and Kate and Dorothy busy at the stove.  But the objects in view did
not register any impressions on his shocked brain.  Scotty shot!  A
hundred horses stolen!  Here was a grim matter indeed, one requiring
instant action, and he was laid up with a sprained ankle!  Very
arbitrary ladies, the three Fates.  Heartily, but under his breath, for
Dorothy was coming, Loudon cursed his luck.

"Well, invalid," smiled Dorothy, "here's your dinner.  Shall I feed
you, or perhaps you'd prefer Mrs. Mace or Kate?  How about it?"

"I only sprained my ankle," said Loudon, red to the ears.

He was wearing one of the Captain's nightgowns.  The middle-aged
scrutiny of the mother had not quickened him to the fact that the
garment was much too small for him, but under the eyes of the daughter
he became burningly self-conscious.  The knowledge that Scotty had
advised Dorothy to fall in love with him did not lessen the agony of
the moment.

"I'll put it on this chair," said tactful Dorothy, partly fathoming the
cause of Loudon's distress.  "Would you like to see Mr. Tunstall?"

"Shore I would.  I didn't know he was here at the house."

"He's camping on the doorstep.  I'll send him in.  Isn't it awful about
Scotty Mackenzie?  And all those horses, too.  Nothing as bad as this
ever happened in Sunset County before."

"It won't happen again.  Not right away, yuh can bet on that."

Dorothy withdrew, and Swing Tunstall entered.  The bristle-haired young
man shut the door, grinned toothfully at Loudon, and sat down
cross-legged on the floor.

"Howdy, Swing," said Loudon, "why ain't yuh chasin' the hoss thieves?"

"'Cause," replied Tunstall, "Doubleday sent me in to tell the sheriff
an' get a doc for Scotty.  The doc's on his way, an' the sheriff's due
in to-day from Rocket.  All the outfit, 'cept Doubleday an' Giant
Morton, are cavortin' over the hills an' far away a-sniffin' to pick up
the trail."

"When did it happen?"

"Well, as near as we could make out, after siftin' out Scotty's
cuss-words an' gettin' down to hard-rock, Scotty was shot 'bout eight
or nine o'clock in the evenin'."

"How?"

"Says he heard a racket in the stallion corral.  No more'n he slips out
of the office when he's plugged twice--once in the left leg, an' a deep
graze on his head.  The head shot is what knocked him out.  He said he
didn't come to till after midnight.  He drug himself into the office
an' tied himself up the best he could an' lived offen airtights till we
pulled in.  He didn't even know any hosses had been run off till after
we got back."

"I s'pose he was shot the evenin' of the dance?"

"Shore.  Oh, ain't it lovely?  While we're chasin' imaginary
feather-dusters, the Flyin' M hosses are vanishin'.  It shore was a
slick trick.  The gent that thought up that plan for getting' every
two-legged man in the country out of the way is a wizard.  I'd admire
to see him, I would.  I'll bet he's all head."

"He ain't exactly a fool," admitted Loudon, thinking of Sam Blakely.

Certainly the manner in which the horse-stealing had been carried out
bore the ear-marks of 88 methods.

"They had two days' start," observed Swing Tunstall.  "Time to ride to
Old Mexico almost."

"Telescope's a good tracker," said Loudon, and began to eat his dinner.

"None better.  But even Telescope can't do wonders.  By the trail the
hoss-band headed east.  Them hosses was over a hundred, maybe a hundred
an' fifty, miles away by the time our outfit got started.  In a hundred
an' fifty miles o' country yuh'll find lots o' hard ground an' maybe a
rainstorm."

"Rain ain't none likely at this time o' year."

"It ain't likely, but hoss thieves with a two-day start are in luck at
the go-off.  An' luck comes in bunches.  If they's any rain wanderin'
'round foot-free an' fancy-loose these gents will get it.  An' then
where's Telescope an' his trackin'?"

When Tunstall had departed in search of diversion and to buy
cartridges, Loudon locked his hands behind his head and stared at the
ceiling.  In his mind he turned over the events of the past few days.
He was sure that Sam Blakely and the 88 outfit were the prime movers in
the shooting of Scotty and the stealing of Scotty's horses.

Yet, save that the exceeding cleverness of procedure smacked of
Blakely, there were no grounds for suspecting the 88 men.  Blakely and
his gang were not the only cunning horse thieves in the territory.
There were dozens of others free and unhung.  Nevertheless, Loudon's
instinct fastened the guilt on the 88.

"I'm shore," he muttered, "certain shore.  But there ain't nothin' to
go by.  Not a thing.  An' yuh can't prove nothin' lyin' on yore back
with a bumped ankle."

Half an hour later the entrance of Kate Saltoun interrupted his gloomy
reflections.

"Feeling worse, Tom?" she inquired, her expression anxious.

"Me?  Oh, not a little bit.  I feel just like a flock o' birds with
yaller wings."

"You needn't be snippy.  I know how your ankle must pain you, but----"

"It ain't the ankle, Kate.  That feels fine, only I know I can't stand
on it.  It's what I'm thinkin' about.  I was wonderin' 'bout Scotty an'
all."

"If I sit with you, would--would you like to talk?" said she with a
hesitant smile, the slow red mounting to her cheeks.

"If it wouldn't bother yuh too much."

"I'll be right back."

Kate took away the dishes, and Loudon, who had pulled the blankets up
to his chin at her entry, snuggled deeper into the bed and wished
himself elsewhere.

"What else could I say?" he asked himself, dismally, "Lord A'mighty, I
wish she'd keep away from me."

Kate returned quickly, carried the chair to the foot of the bed, and
sat down.  She crossed one leg over the other and clasped her hands in
her lap.  Silence ensued for a brief space of time.

"Well," said Kate, leadingly.

"I was just a-wonderin' about this hoss deal," began Loudon.  "I
think----"

"I know what you intended saying," Kate observed, calmly.  "You see in
it the fine Italian hand of Blakely."

"You always could talk high, wide, and handsome," said Loudon,
admiringly.  "How djuh guess it?"

"I know Sam Blakely.  That's enough.  He'd hesitate at nothing, no
matter how vile or wicked it might be.  Oh, don't look so eager.  I
can't prove it.  It's my instinct, that's all.  I hate him--hate
him--hate him!"

Kate covered her face with her hands.

"They'll hear yuh in the kitchen," cautioned Loudon in a whisper.

Kate lowered her hands and looked at him wearily.  When she spoke her
voice was perfectly composed.

"No, they won't.  Dorothy's over at Lil's.  Don't worry, though.  I
sha'n't lose control of myself.  Something came over me then.  I won't
do it again."

"Well, you think like I do, but I can't prove nothin', neither.  Never
have been able to prove nothin' against the 88.  Say, does yore dad
still believe like he used to about them cows?"

"The Crossed----"

"No, _his_ cows.  Them cows that disappeared now an' then."

"I believe he does.  He never talks much, you know, and it's sometimes
hard for me to tell what he thinks.  But I don't believe he suspects
the 88.  He was very angry when I broke the engagement.  I wouldn't
give him my reason, and he stormed and stamped around, and quarrelled
with me all the time.  That's partly why I came up here to visit Lil
Mace."

"If we could only wake up Fort Creek County--but them fellahs, most of
'em, are for the 88, an' them that ain't have to take it out in
thinkin' a lot.  Now if we could cinch this hoss-stealin' on the 88 it
would help a lot down in Fort Creek County.  The honest folks down
there would have somethin' to go on, an' they'd paint for war
immediate, an' with the boys from up here it would be a cinch.  We'd go
over the 88 outfit like a landslide.  An' here I am throwed an'
hog-tied.  Say----"  Loudon's mouth opened wide.  His eyes shone.  In
his excitement he raised himself on his elbow--"I got it!  I got it!"

"What?"  Kate leaned toward him, lips parted.

"It ain't possible that dance was just luck," said Loudon, rapidly.
"It couldn't just 'a' happened all hunky-dory so that fellah from
Hatchet Creek would find all the boys in town.  Not by a jugful it
couldn't!  It was set for that night a-purpose.  Now who started the
ball a-rollin' for that dance?"

He gazed triumphantly at Kate.  Her eyes sparkled.

"I'll try and find out for you," she said.

"Howdy, folks?"

It was Pete O'Leary who spoke, and he was standing beside the kitchen
table looking in on them.  Loudon's mouth tightened.  How much of their
conversation had O'Leary heard?

"Good afternoon, Mr. O'Leary," said Kate, rising and advancing to the
doorway.  "Looking for Dorothy, aren't you?  Oh, I know you are.
You'll find her down at Mrs. Mace's....  Yes, it's a beautiful day,
beautiful.  Good afternoon, Mr. O'Leary, good afternoon."

In the face of this Pete O'Leary departed.  Kate went into the kitchen.
In a few minutes she returned, laughing.

"He didn't go into Lil's," she said.  "He went on toward Main Street.
I watched him.  He's a nervy individual.  Dorothy doesn't like him, and
I don't, either."

"I wonder if he did come to see Dorothy, or----"

"He came to see me."

"You!"  Loudon's surprise was patent.

"Yes, isn't it charming?  Turned him out in quick fashion, didn't I?
The pest!  Dorothy said he clung to her like glue till I came.  He's
deserted her for me ever since the dance.  She baked me a cake.  Said
it was a reward.  She'd never been able to get rid of him.  But I'm
afraid Dorothy's too tender-hearted.  I don't mind being rude.  Why,
what's the matter?"

"I was just a-wonderin' how much that fellah heard?"

"Oh, nothing," said Kate, carelessly.  "We weren't talking loudly, were
we?  Does it make any difference?"

"It shore does.  O'Leary's in with the 88, or I'm a Dutchman."

"He is!"

"Shore," Loudon nodded.  "I got proof o' that, anyhow."

"Heavens!  If he heard what we were saying he'll warn Blakely and the
rest.  And we can't stop him!  We can't stop him!"

"Not yet we can't.  I can't, special."

Kate stared steadily at Loudon.

"Tom," said she, after a silence, "if Pete O'Leary is Blakely's friend
then Pete O'Leary got up that dance."

"Oh, I'm bright!" groaned Loudon.  "I must be losin' my mind.  There it
was, plain as the brand on a hoss, an' I never seen it.  O' course it
was him."

"I'll soon find out," Kate exclaimed, briskly.  "I'll ask Lil and
Dorothy and Mrs. Ragsdale and Mrs. Dan Smith.  They'll know.  Do you
mind being left alone for a while?"

"Not a bit--I mean----"

"Now never mind.  I know perfectly well what you mean.  Here, I'll put
your gun where you can reach it.  If you want anything, shoot."

She plumped his pillow, patted and pulled the blankets to smoothness,
and was off.

"Ain't it amazin'?" marvelled Loudon.  "Now if anybody had told me that
I could talk friendly again with Kate Saltoun, I'd 'a' called him a
liar.  I shore would."

Ten minutes later plump Mrs. Mace entered and interrupted a flow of
very bitter reflections on Pete O'Leary.

"Well, Mister Man, how's the ankle?" inquired Mrs. Mace, brightly.
"Now don't look so glum.  Kate'll be back before a great while."

"I wasn't thinkin' o' her," was Loudon's ungallant retort.

"Yuh'd ought to.  I guess yuh was, too.  Yuh needn't be bashful with
me.  I'm Kate's best friend.  An' I want to tell you right now I'm
awful glad the pair of yuh got over yore mad.  It don't pay to quarrel.
I never do, not even when Jim Mace comes in all mud without wipin' his
feet.  Lord, what trials you men are!  I don't really know how we poor
women get along sometimes, I don't indeed.  Want a drink o' water?  Yuh
can't have nothin' else.  Mis' Burr said yuh couldn't."

"Then I guess that goes as it lays.  But I ain't thirsty, an' I don't
need nothin'.  Honest."

"Yes, yuh do," contradicted Mrs. Mace, gazing critically at him.  "Yuh
need yore hair brushed.  It's all mussed, an' invalids should look
neat.  Don't start in to sputter.  I sha'n't brush yore hair, but I'll
tell Kate she's no great shakes for a nurse.  Now I think of it, Kate's
hair was mussed up some, too.  H'm-m-m.  What yuh gettin' red about?
No call to blush that I can see.  Oh, you men!"

With a significant wink Mrs. Mace whisked kittenishly into the kitchen.
Loudon could hear her lifting stove-lids.  He perspired freely.  The
lady's weighty bantering had raised his temperature.

What a world!  Scotty urged him to make love to Dorothy.  Mrs. Burr
advised him to set matters right with Kate.  While Mrs. Mace had
everything settled.  Between the three of them and his other troubles
he believed he would go mad.



CHAPTER XVI

KATE IS HELPFUL

At six o'clock Kate returned.

"It took me longer than I expected," she whispered, Dorothy and Mrs.
Mace being in the kitchen.  "It's just as we thought.  Our friend, Mr.
O'Leary, was back of the dance.  He suggested it to Mrs. Ragsdale, and
she got it up.

"I don't believe O'Leary heard any of our conversation.  He met me down
street and smirked and grinned and tried to invite himself up to see me
to-night.  But I settled him.  I said I'd be busy for the next two
weeks.  Look here, Tom, don't look so worried.  If he heard what we
said, don't you suppose he'd leave town immediately?  Of course he
would.  He wouldn't dare stay."

"I ain't so shore about that.  He's no fool, Pete O'Leary ain't.  He
knows there ain't no real evidence against him.  We only got
suspicions, that's all.  Enough for us, all right, but nothin' like
enough to land him.  No, he wouldn't vamoose right now.  That'd give
him away.  He'll stay an' bluff it through as long as he can.  Then,
again, if he pulls out he ain't no good to the 88 no more.  He's needed
up here to let 'em know how things are pannin' out.  Say, yuh didn't
let them ladies suspicion what yuh was after, did yuh?"

"Of course not.  I have a little sense.  I made my inquiries quite
casually in the course of conversation.  Don't fret, they won't have a
thing to gossip about."

"That's good.  I might 'a' knowed yuh'd be careful."

With a start he realized that he was commending her, actually
commending the girl who had once informed him in withering accents that
she would never marry an ignorant puncher.  Here she was pathetically
anxious to execute his every wish.  Apparently she had stopped
flirting, too.

As she flitted between his room and the kitchen he looked at her out of
amazed eyes.  Measuring her by her one-time frivolous and coquettish
actions, the new Kate was rather astonishing.  Man-like, Loudon began
to suspect some trap.  The lady was too good to be true.

"Bet she's tollin' me on," he told himself.  "I'll ask her again, an'
then pop'll go the weasel.  No, sirree, I know when I'm well off.  As a
friend, so long as she acts thisaway, she's ace-high, but I'll bet
after marriage she'd develop tempers an' things like that Sue Shimmers
girl Scotty told me about.  Shore she would.  Not a doubt of it.
Yessir, single cussedness for Tom Loudon from now on henceforward.
I'll gamble an' go the limit, it's got double blessedness backed clean
off the table."

Lying in bed was not doing Tom Loudon a bit of good.  He was fast
becoming priggishly cynical.  Which attitude of mind may have been
natural, but was certainly abominably ungallant.

Long after the others in the house were asleep Loudon lay awake.  His
brain was busy fashioning plans for the undoing of the 88 outfit.  It
suddenly struck him that the guileful O'Leary undoubtedly wrote
letters.  A knowledge of the addresses on those letters was of
paramount importance.  It would wonderfully simplify matters.

The storekeeper, Ragsdale, was the Bend postmaster.  Loudon knew that
Ragsdale was not given to idle chatter.  He resolved to take Ragsdale
into his confidence.

In the morning after breakfast, Kate, first making sure that Mrs. Mace
and Dorothy were out of earshot, stooped over the bed.

"Tom," she said, "don't you think I'd better find out whether O'Leary
writes any letters and, if he does, to whom he writes them?"

Loudon stared at her in astonishment.

"Huh--how did yuh think o' that?" he blurted out.

"I don't know.  It came to me last night.  It's a good idea, don't you
think?"

"Shore, it's a good idea.  I was thinkin' the same thing myself.  But
don't yuh bother.  I'll find out soon's I'm able to get around."

"Don't be silly.  You'll be on your back ten days at the least.
O'Leary may write several in the meantime, and the sooner we know about
it the better.  Now I can find out very easily.  Mrs. Ragsdale, the
prying soul, reads the addresses on every letter coming in or going
out.  None ever escapes her eagle eye.  And she's a great gossip.  I've
only seen her half-a-dozen times, but nevertheless she's managed to
give me detailed histories of the private lives of most of the
inhabitants.  She enjoys talking to me because I never interrupt, so
you see how simple it will be."

"But I don't like to use you thisaway," objected Loudon.  "Yuh've done
enough, too much, as it is."

"Nonsense!  It will be great fun turning Mrs. Ragsdale's tattlings into
useful information.  Tattle!  Why, she even told me how much you
approved of me at the dance.  According to her story you came and
shouted your opinion into her ear.  Did you?"

"I knowed it!" groaned Loudon.  "I knowed she'd tell!  I only said----"

"Never mind getting red.  I didn't mind a bit.  I hoped you did like
me.  I wanted you to."

Here was thin ice.  Loudon, pink about the ears, squirmed inwardly.

"I--I," he stuttered, then, with a rush, "yo're doin' too much, I tell
yuh.  I'll see about these letters when I get up."

"No, you won't.  I want to, and I'm going to.  It's settled and you
needn't argue.  I'll go to the postoffice right away.  After dinner
I'll tell you all about it."

"Wait a minute!" cried Loudon, but Kate was gone.

Loudon had little time to reflect on feminine wilfulness, for Mrs. Mace
insisted on spending the morning with him.  Dorothy helped her spend
it.  The buzz of their chatter was lulling.  Loudon dozed off and slept
till Mrs. Mace awakened him at noon.

"Nice way to treat two ladies," sniffed Mrs. Mace.  "Nice way, I must
say.  Here we come in to entertain yuh while Kate's away and yuh fall
asleep, so yuh do.  Bet yuh wouldn't have fell asleep if Kate had been
here.  No, I guess not.  You'd have been chipper enough--grinnin' and
smilin' all over yore face.  But yuh can't even be polite to Dorothy
and me."

"Why, ma'am, I----"

"Oh, never mind makin' excuses.  We understand.  It's all right.
Say"--Mrs. Mace stooped down and guarded one side of her mouth with her
hand--"say, when's the weddin' comin' off?"

"Weddin'?  What weddin'?"

"Oh, yes, I wonder what weddin'.  I do, indeed.  Well, of course yuh
don't have to tell if yuh don't want to.  I'll ask Kate.  Dorothy"--she
straightened and called over her shoulder--"you can bring in Mr.
Loudon's dinner.  He's decided to stay awake long enough to eat it."

He ate his dinner alone, but he did not enjoy it.  For, in the kitchen,
Dorothy and Mrs. Mace with painful thoroughness discussed all the
weddings they had ever seen and made divers thinly veiled remarks
concerning a certain marriage that would probably take place in the
fall.

"Say," called Loudon, when he could endure their chatter no longer,
"say, would yuh mind closin' that door?  I got a headache."

Silence in the kitchen for a brief space of time.  Then, in a small
demure voice, Mrs. Mace said:

"What was that?  I didn't quite catch it."

With elaborate politeness Loudon repeated his request.

"Oh, no," said Mrs. Mace, "the door must be left open.  Mis' Burr said
so.  A sick-room needs lots of fresh air.  I wouldn't dare close the
door.  Mis' Burr wouldn't like it."

"She'd scalp us if we closed it during the day," observed Dorothy.

The wretched Loudon could almost see the wink which accompanied this
statement.

"But he's got a headache," said Mrs. Mace.  "We'd ought to do somethin'
for that.  Can't allow him to have a headache, Dorothy.  You get the
towels an' I'll get some cold water.  We'll bathe his head for him.
That'll fix him up."

"It ain't as bad as all that," denied Loudon.  "It's goin' away
already.  An' I don't want my head bathed nohow.  An' I ain't goin' to
have it bathed, an' that's flat!"

At this juncture Kate entered the kitchen, announcing that she was
starved.  Dorothy and Mrs. Mace, both talking at once, asserted that
Loudon had a violent headache and would not allow them to alleviate his
suffering; that he had been a most troublesome patient and had kept
them busy attending to his manifold desires.

"Don't you believe 'em!" cried Loudon.  "I ain't done a thing.  They
been pesterin' me all mornin'.  Won't let me sleep or nothin'."

"There!  Listen to him!" exclaimed Mrs. Mace.  "We did our level best
to please, an' that's all the thanks we get.  C'mon, Dorothy, let's go
over to my house.  We ain't wanted now.  Yore dinner's in the oven,
Kate.  He's had his.  Hope you'll have better luck managin' him than we
did.  I'd sooner wrangle forty hosses than one sick man."

The slam of the kitchen door put a period to her remarks.  Kate entered
Loudon's room, a pucker of concern between her eyebrows.

"Have you really a headache?" she inquired.

"Of course I haven't.  But they was botherin' me--oh, I dunno, makin'
fool remarks an' all like that.  Say, did yuh find out anythin'?"

"Not much of any value, I'm afraid.  But you're the better judge of
that.  Pete O'Leary writes to only one person--William Archer of
Marysville.  O'Leary writes to him once a week usually, but for the
last month he's written twice a week, and this week he mailed four
letters to Marysville."

"Archer--Archer," mused Loudon.  "I can't think just now of anybody o'
that name in Marysville.  But that town ain't such a great way from the
88 ranch house--not more'n thirty mile at the most.  Archer, whoever he
is, could easy keep in touch with--with----"

"Don't boggle so over that man's name.  You don't hurt my feelings in
the least by mentioning Sam Blakely.  Yes, he could keep in touch with
Blakely very easily.  I learned, too, that O'Leary receives letters
about as frequently as he mails them.  They are all in the same
handwriting, and they are all postmarked Marysville.  One came for him
this morning.  Mrs. Ragsdale let me see it, but the handwriting was
strange to me.  If it had been Blakely's I'd have recognized it.  I'll
keep in with Mrs. Ragsdale.  I'll visit her every time a mail arrives."

"No, it ain't necessary.  It's enough to know he writes to Marysville.
First thing to do is see Archer, an' find out some of his habits.  He's
the link between Pete O'Leary an' the 88, that's a cinch."

"Then I really did learn something of value.  I am glad.  I was afraid
it wouldn't be worth a very great deal, and I do so want to help you."

"Well, yuh shore have, Kate.  Nobody could 'a' helped me any better.
But don't do no more.  There ain't no reason why you should.  It ain't
a woman's job anyhow."

"Oh, you've said that before.  I intend to help you all I can.  I'm as
interested as you are in the ultimate crushing of the 88 outfit."

"Yes, but----"

"We won't discuss it, please.  How does the ankle feel?"

"It's comin' along fine.  I want to get up right now."

"Day after to-morrow you can get dressed if you like and sit out in the
kitchen for a while.  Oh, I know how hard it is to lie in bed, but one
can't hurry a sprain.  You have a lot of hard work ahead, and you must
be in shape to go through with it.  Listen, how would it be if I wrote
to Mr. Richie of the Cross-in-a-box and asked him to find out about
this Archer man?"

"No, I'd rather manage that myself.  I'll go to Marysville."

"You can't!  Why, the judge who issued that warrant for you lives
there!  You insist on going to Farewell, and that's madness.  But
visiting Marysville would be worse."

"Oh, no, it wouldn't.  Nobody knows me there.  I was never in the place
in my life.  It'll be a lot safer than Farewell."

"B-but I'm afraid!  I know something will happen to you!  I know it!  I
know it!"

"Nothin'll happen," said Loudon, acutely conscious that the situation
was getting out of hand.

Presently his worst fears were realized.  Kate, genuine misery in her
dark eyes, stared at him silently.  Her hands were gripped together so
that the knuckles showed white.  Suddenly she turned side wise, flung
an elbow over the back of the chair and buried her face in her hands.
She began to cry softly.

"Oh!" she wailed, her shoulders shaking.  "Oh, I love you so!  I love
you so!  And you don't care--you don't care a bit!"

Sobs racked her whole body.  She completely lost control of herself and
burst into a storm of passionate weeping.  To Loudon it seemed that
this state of affairs endured for an age, but not more than five
minutes elapsed before Kate swayed to her feet and stumbled from the
room.  She did not close the door, and Loudon could hear her muffled
gasps as she strove with her distress.

At that moment it seemed to him that the girl who had called him an
ignorant puncher was a wraith of the dim and misty past.  Certainly the
present Kate Saltoun was a different person.  She no longer flirted,
she was plainly sorry for what she had done, and apparently she loved
him utterly.

No man can remain unmoved while a beautiful woman weeps for love of
him.  Loudon was moved.  He was impelled to call to her, to tell her to
come to him.  But he hesitated.  He was not at all sure that his
feeling was any emotion other than pity.  He had spent miserable weeks
schooling himself to forget his love and her.  Now he did not know his
own mind, and he could not decide what to do.  While he lay hesitating
he heard the scraping of a chair being pushed back, the sound of her
feet crossing the floor, and the slam of the kitchen door.

Half an hour later Mrs. Mace came in like a whirlwind.  She halted in
the doorway and surveyed Loudon with unfriendly eyes.  She opened her
mouth as if to speak, but closed it without uttering a word, flounced
back into the kitchen and shut his door.  Almost immediately she opened
it.

"Want anythin'?" she inquired, ungraciously.

"No, thank yuh just the same," replied the mystified Loudon.

Mrs. Mace closed the door without comment.  It was not opened again
till Dorothy brought in his supper.  She inquired politely after his
health, but he could see that she was displeased with him.

"What's the matter with everybody?" he asked.  "What makes Mis' Mace
look at me like I was poison, an' what makes you look as if yuh had a
pain?"

"You ought to be ashamed of yourself," said Dorothy, severely, and
marched out, her back stiff as a rifle-barrel.

"I've done somethin' desperate, whatever it is," he said, addressing
the closed door.  "I shore have.  I might 'a' come to like that Dorothy
girl real well--sometime maybe.  But I never will now, an' that's no
merry jest."

Gloomily he ate his supper.  When Dorothy entered to take away the
dishes he demanded to know why he should be ashamed of himself.

"Because you should!" she snapped.  "I'm not going to bandy words with
you!  Just wait till mother comes home--just you wait!"

After which ominous utterance she departed.  Loudon scratched his head
and thought long and deeply.

"Now I'd like to know what I've done," he mused.  "Mis' Mace don't like
me a little bit, an' that Dorothy girl talks an' acts like I'd poisoned
a well or scalped a dozen babies.  It's one too many for me.  But I'll
know about it when Mis' Burr gets home, will I?  That's fine, that is.
I'll bet she'll explain till the cows come home.  Why didn't I go to
that hotel?  I will as soon's I'm able.  This house ain't no place for
a peace-lovin' man."

He was rather relieved that Kate no longer came near him.  It saved
trouble.  He did not quite know what he would say to Kate at their next
meeting.  What could he say?  What, indeed?  He pondered the question
till he fell asleep, having arrived at no conclusion.

Next morning Jim Mace came to see him.  Loudon besought Jim to help him
move to the hotel.

"What's the matter?" said the surprised Jim.  "Don't my wife an'
Dorothy treat yuh right?"

"Shore they do, but I don't want to bother 'em no more.  I'll be better
off where I can cuss when I feel like it."

"Mis' Burr won't like it none, yore goin' off thisaway."

"I can't help that--I want to go."

"An' my wife won't like it, neither.  Lordy, Tom, yuh don't know my
wife.  She'd hit the ceilin' if I was to tote yuh down to the hotel."

"Say," exclaimed Loudon, "can't a married man do nothin' without askin'
his wife?"

"Not if he knows what's healthy," replied Jim Mace, warmly.  "I tell
yuh, Tom, yuh'll jump through a hoop if yore wife says so.  Oh, yuh can
laugh all yo're a mind to.  Wait till yo're married, an' yuh'll see
what I mean."

"I'll wait, yuh can gamble on that.  Will yuh help me or do I have to
walk there on my hands?"

"I won't help yuh a step.  Yuh don't know what yo're askin', Tom.
Honest, I'm sorry, but I wouldn't dare help yuh without Lil said I
could.  Fix it up with her an' I will."

When Jim had gone Loudon swore soulfully, and thought with amazement of
the manner in which Jim was under his wife's thumb.  If that was the
effect of marriage upon a man he wanted none of it.  He had no desire
to be tied to any one's apron-strings.  He wished to be able to call
his soul his own.  Marriage--bah!

"I want my clothes," he announced to Mrs. Mace at noon.

"Oh, yuh do, do yuh?" cried the lady.  "Well, yuh can just want, so yuh
can!  Yuh won't get 'em, an' that's flat!  An' Jim Mace nor nobody else
ain't goin' to help yuh down to that hotel.  Yo're a-goin' to stick
right here.  Jim told me yuh wanted to go, an' what I told him was
a-plenty.  Here yuh stay till yuh go back to the ranch."

"But I want to get up.  I'm gettin' plumb weary o' stayin' in bed."

"It won't hurt yuh a bit.  You'll have lots o' time to think over yore
sins."

"I'll get up anyhow."

"You just try it!  I'd shore admire to see yuh try it!  You ain't goin'
to play any fool tricks with that ankle if I have to get Jim an' a few
o' the boys to hogtie yuh.  Tell yuh what I will do.  To-morrow, if
you'll give me yore word not to leave the house till Mis' Burr or I say
you can, I'll give yuh yore clothes an' you can sit in the kitchen."

"I suppose I'll have to," grumbled Loudon.

"You shore will if yuh want to get up," stated the uncompromising lady.

"All right.  I give yuh my word.  Lemme get up now.  The ankle feels
fine."

"To-morrow, to-morrow--not one second sooner."



CHAPTER XVII

MRS. BURR RELIEVES HER MIND

Loudon, sitting comfortably in a big chair, his lame ankle supported on
an upturned cracker-box, gazed at the world without through the frame
of the kitchen doorway.  Leaving his bed had raised his spirits
appreciably.  He rolled and smoked cigarettes and practised the
road-agent's spin in pleasant anticipation of the day when he would
ride away on his occasions.

He wondered what luck Telescope and the boys were having.  Since Swing
Tunstall's visit no news had come from the Flying M.  Humanly, if
selfishly, he hoped that the trailing would meet with no success till
he was able to take a hand.  His altruism was not proof against his
exceedingly lively desire to share in the downfall of the 88 outfit.

He essayed to draw Mrs. Mace and Dorothy into conversation, but both
ladies were grumpy, and he gave it up in disgust.  He found himself
listening for Kate's footstep.  Awkward as their meeting undoubtedly
would be, his dread of it was wearing off.

But Kate Saltoun did not appear.  Loudon was too stubborn to make
inquiries, and Mrs. Mace and Dorothy vouchsafed no information.  In
fact, save to squabble with him, they rarely opened their mouths in his
presence.

A week later Loudon, a home-made crutch under his armpit, was able to
hobble about a little.  Within two weeks he discarded the crutch and,
having obtained permission from Mrs. Mace, limped to the corral and
overhauled his saddle.  That afternoon Mrs. Burr returned.  Loudon saw
her first and crab-footed to the other side of the corral.  The precise
nature of his sin was not clear to him, but Dorothy's words had been
disquieting.  And now "mother" was home.

Like a disobedient small boy Loudon wished to put off the interview as
long as possible.  But there was no escape for him.  Mrs. Burr marched
out to the corral and cornered him.

"How's Scotty?" inquired Loudon, affecting an ease of manner he was far
from feeling.

"Scotty's doin' very well," said Mrs. Burr, eying him grimly.  "He
don't need me no more.  That's why I'm here.  Young man, I ain't
pleased with yuh.  I ain't a bit pleased with yuh."

"Why, ma'am, I dunno what yuh mean."

"Yuh will before I'm through.  Gimme that saddle-blanket to set on.
There!  Now, Mister Man, I'm goin' to talk to yuh like I was yore
mother, an' I expect yuh to take it that way."

"Shore, ma'am, fly at it.  I'm a-listenin'."

"Do yuh remember a certain evenin' down at the Bar S when yuh'd just
rid in from Farewell with the mail an' some ribbon for Kate Saltoun?"

Loudon nodded.

"Well, Kate asked yuh to come out on the porch, an' yuh didn't come.
Yes, Sam Blakely was there.  Yore not comin' at her invite riled Kate.
She allowed yuh didn't give a hoot for her, an' when Blakely proposed
she took him.  She was hoppin' mad with you, an' she was bound to teach
yuh a lesson.

"No, don't interrupt.  Wait till I'm through, an' yuh can talk all
yo're a mind to.  Before that evenin' it'd been nip an' tuck between
you an' Sam Blakely.  An' you was slow.  My fathers! you was slow about
speakin' yore little piece!  Tom, a girl don't like for a man to keep
his mouth shut.  If he loves her, let him say so.  An' you didn't say
so.

"Then again, Kate was flattered by Blakely's attention.  What girl
wouldn't be?  Tom, yuh've got to remember a girl's mind ain't built
like a man's.  She don't reason the same way.  She can't.  Then, again,
every girl is a coquette.  Take the homeliest slabsided critter in
creation, an' at heart she's just as much of a coquette as a she-angel
with a pretty figger.  They can't help it.  It's born in 'em like their
teeth are.

"An' you men don't take that into account.  You think the girl you
admire ain't got no right to look at nobody but you, an' that she's got
to be all ready to fall into yore arms when you say the word.  An' if
she don't do these things yuh rise up in the air like a mean pony an'
go cavortin' off sayin', 'Drat the women!'  I know yuh.  Yo're all
alike."

"But, ma'am, I----"

"No time for 'I's' now.  Like I says before, yuh can talk later.  Well,
here's Kate Saltoun--pretty as all git-out, an' assayin' twelve ounces
o' real woman to the pound, troy.  Naturally, like I says, she's a
coquette an' don't know her own mind about the boys.  None of 'em
don't.  I didn't.  Well, times Kate knows she loves you, an' times she
thinks she loves Blakely."

"How did she know I loved her?  I hadn't said a word about it."

"My fathers! don't yuh s'pose a woman knows when a man loves her?  He
doesn't have to tell her.  She knows.  Well, as I was sayin', she's
a-waverin' this way an' that, an' then along comes that evenin' you
don't go out on the porch, an' she kind o' guesses she loves Blakely
an' she takes that party.  Mind yuh, she thought she loves him.  Kate's
honest.  She couldn't lie to herself."

"She did when she said I drawed first," said Loudon in a low voice.  "I
can't get over that, somehow."

"Tom, at the time you an' Blakely was cuttin' down on each other Kate
was excited.  She couldn't 'a' seen things straight.  She told me she
thought yuh drawed first.  I believe her--why can't you?"

"But I didn't draw first."

"I know yuh didn't, but I believe Kate when she says she thought you
did draw first.  That's what I mean.  Under the circumstances, yuh'd
ought to believe her, too.  But never mind about that now.  You cut
stick an' come here to the Bend.  An' Kate begun to find out there was
somethin' missin'.  Somehow, the Bar S without you didn't seem like the
Bar S.  Before yuh lit out she'd gotten used to havin' yuh around.

"Yuh don't miss a saddle, Tom, till yuh have to ride bareback.  Same
way with Kate.  She missed yuh, an' as every day went by she missed yuh
more an' more.  Then it come to her.  She knowed the man she loved, an'
that feller was you, yuh big, thick-skulled lummox!  Oh, if you was
fifteen years younger I'd lay yuh over my knee an' wear out a quirt on
yuh for bein' a fool!  I never could abide a fool.  But yuh'll know
somethin' before I get through."

"Don't mind me, ma'am."

"I don't--not a bit!  I like you, an' I just love that Kate girl, or I
wouldn't be a-settin' here now.  Well, when Kate knowed her own mind at
last, she gave Blakely back his ring, an' that settled him.  She wanted
you back, an' the only way she could think of to get yuh back was to go
after yuh.  So she done it.  An' you had to fight with her an' drive
her away!  She just couldn't wait for the stage.  She done hired a
buckboard an' drove back to the Bar S.  She made Dorothy an' Lil
promise not to tell yuh she'd gone.  They told me.  She wouldn't tell
'em what had happened between you two.  But she was cryin' when she
left, so don't tell me yuh didn't fight with her.

"Lil an' Dorothy guessed it right away, an' they're mad at yuh, you
bet.  Yuh've busted Kate's heart, that's what yuh've done.  Now ain't
yuh ashamed o' yoreself?  Don't yuh think yuh didn't act just right?
Don't yuh think yuh might 'a' been just a little bit forgivin' when you
could see the girl loved yuh with all her heart?"

"She said she'd never marry a ignorant puncher."

"I know.  She told me about that time in the Bar S kitchen.  Don't yuh
understand--can't yuh get it through yore head that happened _before_
she woke up to the fact that you was the only feller on earth?"

"Did she tell yuh all this?"

"She did.  Poor little girl, she come to me one evenin', an' she was
all wrought up.  I seen somethin' was the matter, an' I knowed it would
do her a heap o' good to get it off her chest, an' I got it out of her
little by little.  She was sobbin' like a young one before she was
through, an' I was a-holdin' her in my arms, an' I was cryin' some
myself.  She made me promise not to let on to you, but I ain't a-goin'
to set by an' see her hurt when a word or two from me can set things
straight.  It's the first time I ever broke my word, but I don't care.
I aim to help her all I can."

"Say, did she tell yuh what Blakely done?"

"No.  What did he do?"

"I dunno.  She hates him worse'n poison now.  He's done somethin', but
she wouldn't tell me what."

"He's been botherin' her likely, the skunk!  You'd ought to crawl his
hump first chance yuh get."

"Maybe I will."

"Looky here.  I ain't quite through.  What did you'n her fight about?"

"Nothin', ma'am.  Honest.  I'm there in bed, an' all of a sudden she
busts out cryin' an' says she loves me, an' then she goes into the
kitchen an' pretty soon she goes out--an' she never does come back.
Then in comes Mis' Mace an' she acts mighty unpleasant, an' Dorothy
acts the same, an' I believe I'd ruther been at the hotel, considerin'."

"I s'pose yuh just lay there like a bump on a log after Kate told yuh
she loved yuh."

"Well, ma'am, I--I--what could I do, ma'am?  I couldn't get up."

"Yuh might 'a' spoken."

"I couldn't think o' nothin' to say, ma'am," pleaded Loudon.

"Well, yuh poor tongue-tied galoot!  Yuh don't deserve no luck, yuh
don't!  Well, I've said my say.  I've done all I could.  Yuh got to do
the rest yore own self.  But if yuh don't go an' do it like a man, then
I'm disappointed in yuh."

"Did Kate tell Mis' Mace an' yore daughter what she told you?"

"No, she didn't.  She only told me."

"Then they took an awful lot for granted.  They acted like Kate an' me
was in love with each other."

"Well, my land!  They could see Kate cared for yuh.  Anybody with half
an eye could see that.  Naturally they didn't s'pose yuh was actin'
like a complete idjit.  What yuh goin' to do?"

"I dunno."

"Yuh dunno!  Yuh dunno!  An' Kate all but goes on her knees to tell yuh
how sorry she is for what she done!  Not only that, but she says she
loves yuh besides!  An' all yuh can say is yuh dunno.  My land!  I
can't say what I think o' yuh."

"But I dunno, I tell yuh, Mis' Burr.  I wish I'd stayed in Fort Creek
County.  This here town o' Paradise Bend is shore a hot-house o'
matchmakers.  First Scotty--then you--then Mis' Mace.  Fine lot o'
Cupids, you are.  Can't let a fellah alone.  Any one would think I
couldn't manage my own affairs."

"Yuh can't.  In a case like this yuh need help."

"I'm gettin' it."

"Which I hope it does yuh some good.  Now I ain't a-goin' to say
another word.  I've told yuh just exactly what yuh needed to be told.
Do what yuh think best.  How's the ankle gettin' along?"

"Can't bear my full weight on it yet."

"No, nor yuh won't for a few days.  In a week yuh can go out to the
ranch if yuh like.  Scotty wants to see yuh but he said special yuh
wasn't to think o' comin' till yuh was all right.  Oh, shore, yuh'd
like to lope right off an' have the ankle go back on yuh an' be no good
at all while the rest o' the boys are out in the hills.  Don't worry,
I'll tend to yore interests--an' Scotty's.  I'll see that yuh don't go."

"I wasn't thinkin' o' goin', ma'am," hastily disclaimed Loudon.  "Are
Telescope an' the outfit havin' any luck?"

"Not a smidgen.  The boys got in just before I left.  They trailed the
hoss-band over a hundred miles an' then lost the trail near Miner
Mountain.  A rainstorm did that trick, an' they couldn't pick up the
trail again nohow."

"Swing Tunstall was right.  He said if there was a rainstorm round,
them rustlers would locate it."

"They did."

"The outfit ain't quit, has it?"

"They're a-goin' out again.  Scotty says he won't quit till he finds
his hosses."


Loudon spent the following week in unobtrusive shadowing of Pete
O'Leary.  But not once did that young man leave the confines of
Paradise Bend.  The fellow spent all of his time loafing in the
vicinity of the Burr house or playing poker at the Three Card.  He may
have known that he was being watched.  For Loudon's methods were not
those of a Pinkerton shadow.

When the time came for Loudon to depart, Mrs. Burr followed him out to
the corral.

"Tom," said she, when his horse was saddled, "Tom, I like you an' Kate.
I like yuh both an awful lot.  I'd shore enjoy seein' yuh both happy.
Forgive her, Tom, an' yuh will be happy.  I'm an old woman, but I've
seen a lot o' life, an' it's taught me that love is the biggest thing
in the world.  If yuh got it yuh don't need nothin' else.  Don't throw
it away.  Don't.  Now don't forget to remember me to that old
reprobate, Scotty Mackenzie, an' tell him me an' Dorothy are comin' out
to see him in a couple o' days."

The new Flying M cook, a citizen of the Bend, greeted Loudon with
fervour.

"Thank Gawd yuh've come!" he exclaimed.  "That there Scotty is shore
the ---- invalid I ever seen!  Forty times a day reg'lar he r'ars an'
sw'ars 'cause yuh ain't arrove yet, an' forty times a day he does
likewise for fear yuh'll come before yore ankle's all right.  Yo're the
bright apple of his eye, Tom.  How yuh done it, I don't see.  I can't
please his R'yal Highness in a million years."

"Oh, it's a cinch when yuh know how," grinned Loudon.  "Where's the
outfit?"

"Most of 'em are out with Telescope.  Doubleday an' Swing Tunstall are
drivin' a bunch o' hosses over to the north range.  Mister Mackenzie is
a-settin' up in the office doin' like I said."

Loudon went at once to the office.  Scotty, propped in an armchair,
evinced no sign of the restlessness mentioned by the cook.  He shook
hands calmly and smiled cheerfully.

"Glad to see yuh," he said.  "Set down an' be happy.  How's the peg?
All right, huh?  That's good.  Me?  Oh, I'm pullin' through like a
greased fish.  I'll be poppin' round jovial an' free in another week or
so.  About them rustlers, now.  I think----"

"Say, Scotty," interrupted Loudon, eagerly, "I got a small jag o' news.
I dunno what yore plans are, but I'll gamble what I got to say'll make
a difference."

"Let her flicker."

For half an hour Loudon spoke rapidly.  At the end of his recital the
eyes of Scotty Mackenzie were cold and hard and very bright.

"What's yore plan?" he queried.

"Go to Farewell an' Marysville.  What I find out in them two places
will show me what to do next.  I'm goin' to Farewell anyhow on my own
hook."

"If I say no, would yuh quit me now?"

"I'd have to.  I got business with a certain party in Farewell.  After
I'd finished up I'd come back o' course--if yuh still wanted me."

"Well, I don't say no.  I think yuh've hit it.  I knowed yuh was
Opportunity with a big O when I hired yuh.  Yuh've proved it.  Fly at
it, Tom, an' prove it some more.  Get the evidence, an' I'll do the
rest.  We'll wipe out the 88 ranch, hide, hoof, an' taller.  There
ain't a ranch in Sunset County that won't help.  We can count in the
Cross-in-a-box, the Double Diamond A, an' the Hawgpen, in the Lazy
River country, too.  Oh, we'll fix 'em.  How many o' the boys do yuh
want?  I don't begrudge 'em to yuh, but go as light as yuh can.  I
still got quite a few hosses left to wrangle."

"Gimme Telescope."

"Is he enough?  I can spare another--two if I got to."

"Well, yuh see, I was countin' on borrowin' Johnny Ramsay from Jack
Richie, an' there's Chuck Morgan o' the Bar S.  I guess I can get him."

"Get him, an' I'll give him a job after it's all over.  Wish I could
get Johnny Ramsay, too, but he'd never quit Richie.  Well, yuh shore
done noble in findin' out that truck about Pete O'Leary."

"Yuh've got to thank Miss Saltoun for that.  She done it all."

"Her!  Old Salt's daughter!  Say, I take it all back.  She can come out
here whenever she wants.  I'll be proud to shake her hand, I will.
Well, I did hope it'd be Dorothy, but now I suppose it's Miss Saltoun.
Dunno's I blame yuh.  Dunno's I blame yuh."

"As usual, yo're a-barkin' up the wrong stump.  I'm gun-shy of all
women, an' I don't want to talk about 'em."

"Oh, all right, all right," said Scotty, hastily.  "How soon can yuh
start?"

"Right now, soon's I get another hoss."

"Take Brown Jug.  He'll tote yuh from hell to breakfast an' never feel
it.  Yuh'll find the outfit som'ers over north o' Miner Mountain, I
guess.  Tell Telescope I want him to go with yuh, an' the rest of 'em
are to come home on the jump.  Doubleday an' Swing have got their hands
full twenty times over.  First thing I know there won't be a cayuse
left on the ranch."

Two days later Loudon and Laguerre rode into Rocket and spent the night
at the hotel.  The landlord, Dave Sinclair, had an interesting tale to
tell.

"Yest'day," said Dave, "Lanky Bob finds Jim Hallaway's body in a gully
near the Bend trail.  Jim had been shot in the back, an' he'd been dead
quite a while.  Jim an' his brother Tom have a little ranch near the
Twin Peaks, an' Tom hadn't missed him none 'cause Jim, when he left the
ranch, expected to be gone a month.

"Come to find out, Jim had been ridin' a bald-face pinto.  Accordin' to
Tom's description that pinto was the livin' image of the one that
friend o' Block's was ridin' the day they come into my place a-lookin'
for information.  The sheriff's got a warrant out for that Cutting
gent."

"Hope he gets him," said Loudon; "but he won't.  He's got too big a
start.  I'd shore admire to know what he done with my hoss."

"You hoss brak hees laig," stated Laguerre.  "Sartain shore dat what
happen."

"I guess yo're right," glumly agreed Loudon.  "He wouldn't change
Ranger for no bald-face pinto less'n the chestnut was out o' whack for
keeps."



CHAPTER XVIII

A MURDER AND A KILLING

Loudon and Laguerre did not ride directly to Farewell.  The three
months Loudon had given Blakely would not be up for five days.  The two
men spent the intervening time in the country between the Farewell
trail and the Dogsoldier River.  Of their quarry they found no trace.

Not at all disheartened, however, they rode into Farewell on the
morning of the day set for the meeting.  As usual, Bill Lainey was
dozing in front of his hotel.  They put their horses in the corral, and
awakened Lainey.

"Shake hands with Mr. Laguerre, Bill," said Loudon, "an' tell me what
yuh know."

"Glad to know yuh, Mr. Laguerre," wheezed the fat man.  "I only know
one thing, Tom, an' that is, Farewell ain't no place for you.  I've
heard how there's a warrant out for yuh."

"Is Block in town?"

"Not just now.  He rid out yest'day.  But he may be back any time.  The
Sheriff o' Sunset's here.  He's lookin' for Rufe Cutting.  Seems Rufe's
been jumpin' sideways up north--killed a feller or somethin'.  The
Sunset Sheriff allows Rufe drifted south in company with Block.  Block,
he says he never seen Cutting.  Looked like a shootin' for a minute,
but Block he passed it off, an' left town 'bout a hour later."

"Well, the Sheriff o' Sunset don't want me," observed Loudon, "an' he's
a good fellah, anyway.  Guess I'll stick here to-day.  Maybe Block'll
come back an' make it amusin'.  See anythin' of our friend, Mr. Sam
Blakely?"

"Sam don't never drift in no more," replied Lainey.  "Ain't seen him
since I dunno when.  Some o' the boys do now an' then, but even they
don't come like they useter.  Why, last Monday, when Rudd an' Shorty
Simms sifted in, was the first time in three weeks that any o' the 88
boys had been in town.  Shorty said they was powerful busy at the
ranch."

"That's good.  It's probably the first time they ever was busy.  See
yuh later, Bill.  S'long."

"So long."

"I'll bet they was busy them three weeks," said Loudon, as he and
Laguerre walked away.  "The evidence is beginnin' to show itself, ain't
it?"

"You bet," assented Laguerre, his eyes shining.

Most of the citizens they met regarded Loudon with noncommittal eyes,
but a few of the glances were frankly unfriendly.  The two men entered
the Happy Heart Saloon, there being sounds of revelry within.

On a table sat the Sheriff of Sunset County.  He was heartily
applauding the efforts of a perspiring gentleman who was dancing a jig.
Loudon perceived that the sheriff, while not precisely drunk, was yet
not sober.  His gestures were free and his language freer.

There were at least a score of men in the saloon, and they were all
Block's close friends.  They muttered among themselves at Loudon's
entrance.  The story of Block's tarring and feathering had lost nothing
in transmission.

Loudon and Laguerre made their way to the far end of the bar and
ordered drinks.  With the wall at their backs they were reasonably
secure from treachery.  The Sheriff of Sunset nodded to the two men
from the Bend and continued to shout encouragement to the jigging
citizen.  Finally, the dancer succumbed to exhaustion.  The sheriff
slid from the table.

"Well, I got to be wrigglin' along," he said.  "See yuh later."

"Not yet, Sheriff, not yet," protested a tall man with wolfish
features.  "Have another drink first.  Just one.  Step up, gents, step
up.  Name yore poison."

"No, not another one," said the sheriff, but his tone lacked conviction.

He had another, two in fact.  Again he started for the door.  But the
wolf-faced man barred the way.

"Sheriff," he wheedled, "what yuh say to a little game?  Just one
little game.  Only one.  Yuh can't be in such a all-fired hurry yuh
can't stop for just one."

"I got to get Rufe Cutting," said the sheriff.  "I ain't got no time
for poker."

"Now, looky here, Sheriff," coaxed the tempter, "yuh'll stand just as
much show o' gettin' Rufe right here in Farewell as yuh will anywhere
else.  What's the use o' ridin' the range an' workin' yoreself to
death, when yuh can stay here cool and comf'table?"

"Aw, shut up!  I'm a-goin'."

"Well, o' course, if yo're broke----"

"I ain't broke.  What do----"

"No offence, Sheriff.  No harm meant.  None whatever."

"I'll play yuh one game an' that's all.  C'mon."

The sheriff played more than one game, for he won the first.  He
continued to win.  He thought no more of Rufe Cutting.  And he sat with
his back toward the doorway.  Which position is the most eminently
unsafe of any that an officer of the law may assume.  Once, during that
time, Laguerre suggested to Loudon that they go elsewhere.  But Loudon
had whispered:

"Wait.  There's somethin' crooked here."

So they waited, Loudon watching for he knew not what piece of evil,
Laguerre mystified but thoroughly prepared for eventualities.  It was
noticeable that, excepting the card-players, the men in the room were
afflicted with a strange restlessness.  They moved aimlessly about;
they hitched their chairs to new positions; they conversed by fits and
starts; they threw frequent glances toward the doorway.

Suddenly it happened.

A squat-bodied man with bat ears appeared on the threshold.  As at a
signal, the three men playing with the sheriff flung themselves down on
the floor.  The hand of the squat-bodied man shot up and forward.  A
revolver cracked twice, and the Sheriff of Sunset County quietly
crumpled across the card-table.

Through the swirling smoke of the discharge two red streaks flashed as
the six-shooters of Loudon and Laguerre barked in unison.  The
squat-bodied man fell forward on his face.

Head and shoulders on the floor of the saloon, his legs on the
sidewalk, he lay motionless.  Side by side, the souls of the sheriff
and his murderer sped homeward.

The habitués of the Happy Heart unhurriedly deserted their points of
vantage against the wall, on the floor, or behind the bar, and gathered
about the corpse of the squat-bodied man.  They gazed upon the body for
a brief space of time, then, one by one, they stepped carefully over it
and departed.

"Gents," squeaked the perturbed bartender, "would yuh mind goin' out in
the street?  I--I'm goin' to close up."

"It's only the mornin'," said Loudon.  "Why close up?"

"I'm sick.  I got indigestion right bad," the bartender explained.

Indeed, the bartender looked quite ill.  His complexion had turned a
pasty yellow and his teeth were clicking together.

"Yuh look right bad," agreed Loudon.  "But yo're mistaken about closin'
up.  Yo're a-goin' to keep open.  Telescope, let's get the sheriff
spread out right."

They pushed two tables together.  Then they lifted the sheriff's body
and laid it on the tables.  They unbuckled the spurs, straightened the
limbs, covered the still face with the neck handkerchief, and put the
hat over the gaping wound in the chest where the bullets had come out.
When they had done all that they could they needed a drink.  The
shivering bartender served them.

"For Gawd's sake, gents!" he pleaded.  "Block'll be here in a minute!
Go out in the street, won't yuh?"

"'Block'll be here,'" repeated Loudon.  "How do yuh know he'll be here?"

The bartender began to stutter.  His complexion became yellower.
Loudon turned to Laguerre.

"Talks funny, don't he?" he observed.  "Can't say nothin' but 'I.'"

Reaching across the bar, he seized the bartender by the shoulder.

"Say, fellah," he continued, "how do yuh know so much about Block?"

"I--I--I----" sputtered the bartender.

"I thought Block had left town.  How do yuh know he's back?"

The bartender changed his tune.

"Ow!  Ow!" he yelled.  "Yo're hurtin' me!  My shoulder!  Ow!"

"I'll hurt yuh worse if yuh don't spit out what yuh know about Block
an' his doin's."

"He--he--oh, I can't!  I can't!" wailed the bartender.

"Block shore has you an' the rest o' these prairie-dogs buffaloed.  I
just guess yes.  Well, yuh needn't tell me.  I'm a pretty good guesser
myself.  Telescope, let's you'n me go call on Block."

"I am you," said Laguerre, and slid through a rear window.  Loudon
followed.  They hastened along the rear of the line of houses and
crouched beneath the windowsill of a small two-room shack at the end of
the street.  There were sounds of a hot discussion in progress in the
front room.

"Guess he's home!" whispered Loudon.  "Might as well go in."

Gently they opened the back door, and very quietly they tiptoed across
the floor of the back room to a closed door.

"We've got to hurry," a voice was saying.

"Shore," said the voice of Sheriff Block.  "You three cover 'em through
the back window when me an' the rest come in the front door.  Yuh know
there won't be no fuss if yore fingers slip on the trigger.  I'd rather
bury a man any day than arrest him."

With a quick motion Loudon flung open the door.

"'Nds up!" cried he, sharply, covering the roomful.

Ten pairs of hands clawed upward.  There were eleven men in the room.
Every one of the lot, save the eleventh man, had the impression that
the six-shooters of Loudon and Laguerre bore upon him personally.

The eleventh citizen, being nearest the door and possessing a gambler's
spirit, attempted to reach the street.  He reached it--on his face.
For Loudon had driven an accurate bullet through the fleshy part of his
thigh.

"The next fellah," harshly announced Loudon, "who makes any fool breaks
will get it halfway beneath his mind an' his mouth.  There's a party in
the corner, him with the funny face--he ain't displayin' enough
enthusiasm in reachin' for the ceilin'.  If he don't elevate his
flippers right smart an' sudden, he won't have no trouble at all in
reachin' the stars."

The biceps of the gentleman of the face immediately cuddled his ears.
The ten men were now painfully rigid.  They said nothing.  They did not
even think to swear.  They knew what they deserved and they dreaded
their deserts.

"Telescope," observed Loudon, softly, "s'pose yuh go round an' unbuckle
their belts.  Better go through 'em, too.  They might carry
shoulder-holsters under their shirts.  Take the hono'ble Mister Sheriff
Block first.  That's right.  Now, Mister Sheriff, go an' stand in that
corner, face to the side wall, an' keep a-lookin' right at the wall,
too.  I wouldn't turn my head none, neither.  Yuh see, I don't guess
there'd be no fuss made if my finger should slip on the trigger.  It's
a heap easier to bury a man than arrest him, ain't it?"

Loudon laughed without mirth.  Block's nine friends, murder in their
eyes, stared at Loudon.  He stared back, his lips drawn to a white line.

"Yo're a healthy lot o' killers," commented he.

The last belt and six-shooter thudded on the floor just as Loudon
perceived that the wounded citizen in the street was endeavouring to
crawl away.

"Telescope," he said, "I guess now the party in the street would feel a
heap easier in here with all his friends."

Telescope marched out into the street and removed the wounded man's
gun.  Then he seized him by the collar, dragged him into the shack, and
dumped him in a corner.  Meanwhile, Loudon had lined up the nine
beltless citizens beside Block against the side wall.  They stood,
stomachs pressed against the planks, a prey to violent emotions.

"Yuh can rest yore hands against the wall," said Loudon, kindly, "an'
that's just all yuh can do."

"Gimme a drink!" gasped the wounded man.

Telescope scooped up a dipperful from the bucket under the table.  When
the man had drunk, Telescope proceeded to cut away his trouser-leg and
wash and expertly bandage the wound.  His work of mercy finished, the
efficient Telescope took post near the doorway where he could watch the
street.

Loudon seated himself on the edge of the table and rolled a cigarette
one-handed.  A silence, marred only by the flurried breathing of the
stuck-up gentlemen, fell upon the room.

"Block," said Loudon, suddenly, "where's Blakely?"

Block maintained his attitude of silent protest.  Loudon gently
repeated his question.  Block made no reply.

Bang-g!  Block convulsively shrank to one side.  The line of citizens
shook.  Smoke curled lazily from the muzzle of Loudon's six-shooter.

"Block," observed Loudon, serenely, "get back in position.  That's
right.  Next time, instead o' shadin' yore ear I'll graze it.  Now
where's Blakely?"

"I dunno," replied Block in a choked tone of voice.

"Well, maybe yuh don't, maybe yuh don't.  Ain't he at the ranch no
more?"

"I ain't been to no ranch."

"I didn't say yuh had, did I?" mildly reproved Loudon.  "But now that
yuh've brought it up, where did yuh pick up Shorty Simms?"

"What do yuh mean?"

"Oh, I'll explain to yuh.  I always do that.  Habit I got.  Yuh see,
Block, yest'day after you an' the Sheriff o' Sunset had a few words yuh
left town.  To-day in comes Shorty Simms an' kills the sheriff--shoots
him in the back, which is natural for a killer like Shorty.

"Well, Block, between the time of yore ridin' away yest'day an' the
murder o' the sheriff to-day a fellah on a hoss like yores would just
about have time to ride to the 88 ranch an' back.  O' course the fellah
wouldn't have time for pickin' posies on the way, but he could make it
by steady ridin'.  Think hard now, Block, think hard.  Ain't it just
possible yuh rid over to the 88?"

"No, ---- yuh, I didn't!"

"No?  Well, now, ain't that curious?  I shore thought yuh did.
Telescope, I think I see a couple o' hosses in Block's corral.  Would
yuh mind ridin' herd on this bunch while I go out an' look at 'em?"

Loudon went out into the street.  Far down the street a group of men
had gathered.  Otherwise the street was deserted.  Even Bill Lainey had
disappeared.

Loudon stopped and stared at the distant figures.  They made no hostile
motions, but appeared to hold converse with each other.  One detached
himself from the group and came toward Loudon.  He saw that it was his
friend, Mike Flynn, the one-legged proprietor of the Blue Pigeon Store.
The red-headed Irishman, his mouth a-grin from ear to ear, halted in
front of Loudon and stretched out his hamlike paw.

"H'are yuh, Tom, me lad," he said, giving Loudon's hand a terrific
grip.  "I'm glad to see yuh, an' that's the truth.  Others are not so
glad, I'm thinkin'."  He peered through the doorway.  "I thought so.
'T's all right, Tommy, me an' me friends is with yuh heart an' soul.
Though Farewell don't look it they's a few solid min like meself in the
place who are all for law an' order an' a peaceful life.  But they
ain't enough of us, djuh see, to get all we want to once.

"Still, we can do somethin', so, Tommy, me lad, go as far as yuh like
with Block an' his constituents yuh got inside.  Put 'em over the
jumps.  Me an' me frinds will see that they's no attimpts made at a
riscue.  We will that.  Be aisy.  If yuh have a chance come to the Blue
Pigeon.  Not a word.  Not a word.  I know yo're busy."

Mike Flynn returned whence he came.  Loudon was considerably relieved
by what the Irishman had said.  For only ten of the men who had been in
the Happy Heart were in Block's shack, and the absence of the others
had given him much food for thought.  He hastened to inspect the horses
in the corral.  Within three minutes he had resumed his seat on Block's
table.

"'Course I ain't doubtin' yore word, Block," he observed, "but one o'
them hosses is yore black, an' the other hoss is a gray pony branded 88
an' packin' a saddle with Shorty Simms's name stamped on the front o'
the cantle.  Both hosses look like they'd been rode fast an' far.
Well, Shorty's dead, anyway.  You yellow pup, yuh didn't have nerve
enough to shoot it out with the sheriff yore own self!  Yuh had to go
get one o' Blakely's killers to do yore dirty work for yuh."

"Wat you say, Tom?" queried Laguerre.  "Keel heem un tak hees hair,
huh?"

"It'd shore improve him a lot.  I got a plan, Telescope.  Just wait a
shake.  Block, where's Rufe Cutting an' what happened to my hoss
Ranger?"

"I dunno nothin' about Cutting," mumbled Block.

Instantly Loudon's six-shooter cracked.  With a yelp of pain Block
leaped a yard high and clapped a hand to his head.

"Up with them hands!" rapped out Loudon.  "Up with 'em!"

Block, shaking like a cedar branch in a breeze, obeyed.  From a ragged
gash in the Darwinian tubercle of his right ear blood trickled down his
neck.

"Block," said Loudon in his gentlest tone, "I wish yuh'd give me some
information about Rufe.  I'll ask yuh again, an' this time if yuh don't
answer I'll ventilate yore left ear, an' I'll use one o' these guns on
the floor here.  Yuh got to make allowances for ragged work.  I won't
know the gun like I do my own, an' I may make more of a shot than I
mean to.  Yuh can't tell."

He drew a six-shooter from one of the dropped holsters, and cocked it.

"Where's Rufe Cutting an' my hoss Ranger?" continued Loudon.

"I dunno!  I tell yuh I dunno!" squealed the desperate sheriff.

One of the two guns in Loudon's hands spoke twice.  Block fell to his
knees, his hands gripping his head.

"Get up!" shouted Loudon.  "Get up!  It's only yore ear again.  I used
my own gun after all!"

Then, both what he had undergone at the hands of Block and the loss of
his pet suddenly overwhelming him, he leaped at the crouching sheriff
and kicked him.

"You ---- murderer!" he gritted through his teeth.

"Where's my hoss?  Where is he?  ---- yore soul!  What did Rufe do to
him?  Tell me, or by ---- I'll beat yuh to death here an' now!"

And with his wire-bound Mexican quirt Loudon proceeded savagely to lash
the sheriff.  Loudon was a strong man.  He struck with all his might.
The double thongs bit through vest and flannel shirt and raised raw
welts on the flesh.

The sheriff writhed around and flung himself blindly at his torturer.
But Loudon kicked the sheriff in the chest and hurled him, a groaning
heap, into his corner.  Nor did he cease to thrash him with the quirt.
Between blows he bawled demands for news of his horse.  Loudon felt
sure that Ranger was dead, but he wished to clinch the fact.

"He's gone!  Oh, my Gawd!  He's gone south!" screamed Block, unable to
withhold utterance another second.

Loudon held the quirt poised over his shoulder.

"Yuh mean Rufe Cutting?" he inquired.

"Both of 'em!  Rufe an' the hoss!  They're both gone!"

"Yuh mean Rufe has took my hoss away?"

"Yes!  Yes!  Don't hit me with that again."

Loudon did not know whether to believe the sheriff.  It was more than
possible that Block was lying to escape further punishment.  Loudon
stared at him.  He made an ugly picture lying there on the floor, his
face a network of red welts.  His shirt was dabbled and stained with
the blood from his wounded ears.

"I was goin' to give yuh a chance," said Loudon, slowly.  "I was aimin'
to give yuh yore gun an' let yuh shoot it out with me.  But I can't do
that now.  Yuh ain't in no shape for shootin'.  It'd be like murder to
down yuh, an' I ain't goin' to practise murder even on a dog like you.
I'm kind o' sorry I feel that way about it.  Yuh don't deserve to live
a minute."

"You keel heem," put in Laguerre.  "She try for keel you een de Ben'.
Or I keel heem.  I don' care.  So she die, dat's enough."

"Can't be did, Telescope."

"I tell you, my frien', you let heem go, she mak plenty trouble."

"We've got to risk that.  Yuh can't murder a man, Telescope.  Yuh just
can't."

Laguerre shrugged expressive shoulders and said no more.  It was
Loudon's business.  He was boss of the round-up.

"Yuh see how it is, Block," observed Loudon.  "I can't down yuh now,
but next time we meet it's shoot on sight.  Next time yuh see Blakely
tell him I expected to meet him here in Farewell.  I don't guess he'll
come now.  Still, on the off chance that he does, me an' my friend will
stay till sunset.  Telescope, I feel sort o' empty.  Guess I'll go in
the back room an' rustle some chuck."

While Loudon and Laguerre were eating, the sheriff fainted.  The strain
of standing upright combined with the rough handling he had received
had proved too much for him.  Laguerre threw the contents of the water
bucket over the sheriff.

When the sheriff recovered consciousness Loudon gave the nine citizens
permission to sit on the floor.  And they sat down stiffly.

Slowly the long hours passed.  Occasionally Loudon walked to the door
and looked up and down the street.  Apparently Farewell dozed.

But it was far from being asleep.  Here and there, leaning against the
house walls in attitudes of ease, were men.  These men were posted in
pairs, and Loudon saw Mike Flynn stumping from one couple to another.
One pair was posted across the street from the sheriff's shack.  The
first time Loudon appeared in the doorway these two nodded, and one
waved his arm in friendly fashion.  There were only twelve in all of
these sentinels, but their positions had been chosen with strategic
wisdom.  Any attempt at a rescue would be disastrous to the rescuers.

"Well," said Loudon when the sun was near its setting, "we might as
well be movin', Telescope."

"Mabbeso our hosses been rustle'," suggested Laguerre.

"If they are we'll get 'em back.  Our friends here'll fix that up O.K."

The friends glared sullenly.  They wanted blood, and lots of it.  They
had been stuck up and reviled, two of them had been wounded, and their
self-respect had been grievously shattered.  Vengeance would be very
sweet.  They wished for it with all the power of very evil hearts.

Loudon gathered up all the cartridge-belts and six-shooters and strung
them together.  He slung the bundle over his shoulder and addressed his
captives.

"You fellahs stand on yore feet.  Yo're goin' down street with us.
Telescope, I'll wait for 'em outside.  Send 'em out, will yuh."

Loudon stepped into the street.  One by one the men came out and were
lined up two by two in the middle of the street.

The last man was the sheriff.  He did not shamble, and he did not keep
his eyes on the ground in the manner of a broken man.  It was evident
that the virtue which passed with him for courage had returned.  Even
as Captain Burr had remarked, Sheriff Block was not as other men.  He
was a snake.  Nothing but the bullet that killed him could have any
effect upon his reptilian nature.  This Loudon realized to the full.

"I'm watchin' yuh, Block," he said.  "My hand ain't none shaky yet,
even if I have been holdin' a gun on yuh all day."

Block shot him a venomous side glance and then looked straight ahead.

"Git along, boys," ordered Loudon.  "We'll be right behind yuh."

With Loudon and Laguerre marching on the right and left flank rear
respectively the procession trailed down the street till it arrived
opposite Bill Lainey's hotel.  There, in obedience to Loudon's sharp
command, it halted.  While Laguerre guarded the prisoners Loudon went
to the corral.  He found Lainey sitting on a wagon-box beside the gate,
a double-barrelled shotgun across his knees.  Lainey was excessively
wide awake.

"Did somebody come a-lookin' in at our hosses?" drawled Loudon.

"Somebody did," wheezed Lainey.  "Somebody near had both of 'em out the
gate, but I had this Greener handy, an he faded.  By ----!  I'd shore
admire to see any tin-horn rustle hosses out o' my corral.  They're fed
an' watered, Tom, an' my wife's done----"

"Yes, Mr. Loudon," interrupted Mrs. Lainey, sticking her lean head out
of the kitchen window.  "I knowed yuh wouldn't have no time to eat, so
I just rolled up some canned tomatters an' canned peaches an' some
beans an' some bacon an' a little jerked beef in yore slickers.  Ain't
it hot?  My land!  I'm most roasted to death.  How'd yuh like it up
no'th?"

"Fine, Mis' Lainey, fine," replied Loudon.  "I'm obliged to yuh, ma'am.
I hope next time I'm in town I won't be so rushed an' I'll have time to
stay awhile an' eat a reg'lar dinner.  I tell yuh, ma'am, I ain't
forgot yore cookin'."

"Aw, you go 'long!"  Mrs. Lainey giggled with pleasure and withdrew her
head.

"Bill," said Loudon, "yo're a jim-hickey, an' I won't forget it.  Let's
see--four feeds, two dinners.  How much?"

"Nothin', Tom, nothin' a-tall.  Not this trip.  It's on the house.
This is the first time I ever had a real chance to pay yuh back for
what yuh done for my kid.  Don't say nothin', now.  Tom, I kind o'
guess Farewell is due to roll over soon.  Me an' Mike Flynn an' Piney
Jackson, the blacksmith, an' a few o' the boys are gettin' a heap tired
o' Block an' his little ways."

"I thought Piney was a friend o' Block's."

"He was, but Block ain't paid for his last eight shoein's, an' Piney
can't collect, an' now he ain't got a bit o' use for the sheriff.  Some
day soon there's goin' to be a battle.  Downin' the Sheriff o' Sunset
just about put the hat on the climax.  Folks'll take us for a gang o'
murderers.  Well, I'm ready.  Got this Greener an' a buffler gun an'
four hundred cartridges.  Oh, I'm ready, you bet!"

Loudon, leading the two horses, rejoined his comrade.  The animals were
fractious, yet Loudon and Laguerre swung into their saddles without
losing for an instant the magic of the drop.

"We got here without no trouble," Loudon observed in a loud tone.
"We're goin' back the way we came.  We'll hope that nobody turns loose
any artillery from the sidewalk.  If they do you fellahs won't live a
minute."

No shots disturbed the almost pastoral peace of Farewell as prisoners
and guards retraced their steps.  Opposite the sheriff's shack the
convoy began to lag.

"Keep a-goin'," admonished Loudon.  "We don't like to part with yuh
just yet."

The prisoners were driven to where a tall spruce grew beside the
Paradise Bend trail, three miles from Farewell.

"Yuh can stop here," said Loudon.  "We'll drop yore guns an' belts a
couple o' miles farther on.  We're goin' back to the Bend, an' we'll
tell the boys what a rattlin' reception yuh give me an' my friend.  If
yuh see Sam Blakely, Block, don't forget to tell him I was a heap
disappointed not to find him to-day.  So long, sports, yo're the
easiest bunch o' longhorns I ever seen."

Loudon laughed in the sheriff's blood-caked face, and set spurs to his
horse.

"How far we go, huh?" queried Laguerre, when a fold in the ground
concealed the tall spruce.

"About four mile.  There's a draw runnin' southeast.  We'll ride down
that.  We'd ought to be at the Cross-in-a-box round two o'clock.  We
could turn off right after we dump this assortment o' cannons.  They
won't follow us to see whether I told 'em the truth or not.  They'll
just keep right on believin' we're a-headin' for the Bend hot-foot."

"I guess dey weel.  Say, my frien', why deed'n you geet dat warran'
from de sher'f un mak heem eat eet?  I would, me."

"I don't want to let on I know anythin' about the warrant.  Block wants
to spring it nice an' easy.  All right--let him."

Between two and three in the morning they dismounted in front of the
Cross-in-a-box ranch house.  Loudon pushed open the front door and
walked in.  He closed the door and set his back against it.

"Hey, Jack!" he called.  "Wake up!"

"Who's there?" came in the incisive voice of Richie, accompanied by a
double click.

"It's me--Tom Loudon.  I want to see yuh a minute."

"That's good hearin'.  I'll be right out.  Light the lamp, will yuh,
Tom?"

Tousle-headed Jack Richie brisked into the dim circle of lamplight and
gripped his friend's hand.  He was unfeignedly glad to see Loudon.

"C'mon where it's light," invited Richie.  "What yuh standin' by the
door for?  I'll turn the lamp up."

"No, yuh won't.  Don't touch the lamp, Jack.  There's plenty o' light
for my business.  I'm standin' here 'cause I don't want nobody to know
I come here to-night--nobody but you an' Ramsay."

"I see," said Richie.  "Want a hoss?"

"No, ours'll do.  Yeah, I've got a friend with me.  I can't bring him
in.  Got to be movin' right quick.  I just stopped to know could I
borrow Johnny Ramsay for a while.  It's on account o' the 88 outfit."

"Yuh shore can.  The 88, huh?  Well, I wish yuh luck.  When yuh need
any more help, let me know."

"Thanks, Jack.  I knowed I could count on yuh."

"I'll get Johnny right away."

"No, to-morrow 'll do.  There's somethin' I want Johnny to do first.
I'd like him to ride over to the Bar S an' tell Chuck Morgan that if he
feels like makin' a change there's a job waitin' for him at the Flyin'
M.  I hate to take one of his men away from Old Salt, but it's root hog
or die.  I need another man, an' Chuck'll just fill the bill."

"Lemme fix it up.  I can borrow Chuck for yuh.  Old Salt'll listen to
me.  No, I won't have to tell him nothin' about yore business.  Leave
it to me."

"All right.  That's better'n takin' Chuck away from him.  Yuh needn't
mention no name, but yuh can guarantee to Old Salt that Chuck's wages
will be paid while he's off, o' course.  Yuh can tell Chuck on the side
that Scotty Mackenzie will do the payin'."

"Scotty, huh?  I did hear how he lost a bunch o' hosses.  How many--two
hundred, wasn't it?"

"One hundred.  But that's enough."

"Yuh don't suspect the 88, do yuh?  Why, the Flyin' M is two hundred
mile north."

"What's two hundred mile to the 88?  An' didn't Scotty ride it just to
find out whether I was straight or a murderer?"

"He shore did," laughed Richie.  "Yuh couldn't blame the old jigger,
though.  That 88 brand on yore hoss was misleadin' some."

"That hoss o' mine's been stole.  Yep, lifted right in the street in
Paradise Bend.  Rufe Cutting done it."

"I don't remember him.  Is he anybody special besides a hoss thief?"

"Friend o' Blakely's.  Block says Rufe's drifted south--him an' the
hoss.  But Block may be lyin'.  Yuh can't tell."

"Did the sheriff give yuh that information free of charge?"

"Not so yuh could notice it.  I got it out of him with a quirt, an' I
had to drill both his ears, he was that stubborn."

"Drilled both his ears.  Well!  Well!  Yuh'd ought to have killed him."

"I know it.  He went an' got Shorty Simms to kill the Sheriff o'
Sunset."

"What?"

"Shore.  It was thisaway."

Loudon related the circumstances of the sheriff's murder.

"An'," he said in conclusion, "Sunset ain't a-goin' to take it kindly."

"Which I should say not!  His friends'll paint for war, that's a cinch.
This country's gettin' worse an' worse!"

"No, only the people are, an' maybe we can get some of 'em to change.
But I been here too long already.  We're ridin' to Marysville, Jack,
an' we aim to stay there a couple o' days.  Tell Johnny an' Chuck to
meet us there, an' tell 'em not to bawl out my name when they see me.
It'd be just like the two of 'em to yell her out so yuh could hear it
over in the next county.  An' I've got plenty of reasons for wishin' to
be private."

"Don't worry none.  They'll keep their mouths shut.  I'll fix that up.
I wish yuh luck, Tom.  I shore hope yuh get the 88 an' get 'em good.  I
ain't lost no more cows lately, but I don't like 'em any better for
that."

"I wish I could make Old Salt see the light," Loudon grumbled.

"I kind o' think he's comin' round.  I seen him a week ago, an' he
didn't talk real friendly 'bout the 88.  But then, he might have had a
bellyache at the time.  Old Salt's kind o' odd.  Yuh can't always tell
what he's thinkin' inside."



CHAPTER XIX

MARYSVILLE

Judge Allison, portly and forty, sat on the porch of the Sunrise Hotel
in Marysville.  The judicial hands were clasped over the judicial
stomach, and the judicial mind was at peace with all mankind.  However,
a six-shooter in a shoulder-holster nudged the judicial ribs beneath
each arm-pit.  For mankind is peevish and prone to hold grudges, and in
order to secure an uninterrupted term on the bench a judge must be
prepared for eventualities.

Tied to the hitching-rail in front of the hotel was a good-looking
sorrel horse.  It bore the Barred Twin Diamond brand.  Judge Allison
had bought the horse that very morning.  He had bought him from the
keeper of the dance hall, Mr. William Archer, who, it seemed, had five
others for sale.

Judge Allison was delighted with his bargain.  He knew a horse when he
saw one, and he felt that he had gotten the best of Archer in the deal.
True, as Archer had said, the sorrel was a little footsore, but two or
three weeks of light work would cure that.

"Yes," mused the Judge, "a good animal.  Sixteen hands high if he's an
inch, and I'll bet he can run rings round any cow-pony in the
community.  By Jove, here come two unusually fine animals!"

Which last remark was called forth by the approach of two big rangy
horses, a bay and a gray.  The riders, very dusty, both of them, were
hard-looking characters.  A week's growth of stubble does not add to
the appearance of any one.  They were tall, lean men, these two, and
one of them was exceedingly swarthy.

They dismounted at the hitching-rail, tossed the reins over their
horses' heads, and went into the bar.  Both, as they passed, glanced
casually at the Judge's sorrel.

"Flying Diamond A," said the judge to himself, eying the strangers'
mounts.  "I don't believe I ever heard of that outfit.  It must be a
southwestern ranch."

Judge Allison had never heard of his sorrel's brand, the Barred Twin
Diamond, either.  But then the Judge knew Mr. William Archer, or
thought he did, and to question the authenticity of the brand had not
entered his head.

The two tall, lean riders would have been greatly pleased had they
known of the ease with which the Judge read the brands on their horses'
hips.  It was a tribute to their skill in hair-branding.  Pocket-knives
in their hands, they had spent hours in a broiling hot draw altering
the Flying M to the Flying Diamond A.

On paper it is ridiculously simple.  Merely prolong upward, till they
meet, the outer arms of the Flying M, and there you have it, a
perfectly good Flying Diamond A.  But it is quite another story when
one's paper is the hide of a nervous horse which frantically objects to
having its hair pinched out.

The strangers happened to be sitting on the porch when the Judge rode
homeward on his sore-footed purchase.  They noted how tenderly the
Barred Twin Diamond sorrel walked, and promptly retired to the bar and
made a fast friend of the bartender.

That afternoon the younger of the two hard-looking characters, the
gray-eyed man, became exceedingly intoxicated and quarrelled with his
swarthy friend who remained quite sober.  The friend endeavoured to get
him to bed--they had taken a room at the hotel--but the drunken one ran
away.  For a gentleman overcome by drink he ran remarkably well.

He was discovered an hour later in Mr. Archer's corral, making
hysterical endeavours to climb the fence, and bawling that he was being
detained against his will and would presently make a sieve of the
individual who had hidden the gate.  To which end he flourished a
six-shooter.

Mr. Archer opened the gate and invited the tippler to come out.  But
this he refused to do, and offered to fight Mr. Archer rough-and-tumble
or with knives on a blanket.

Mr. Archer, with an eye to future patronage, did not send for the
marshal.  He sent for the man's friend.  When the swarthy one appeared,
the other immediately sheathed his six-shooter, burst into maudlin
tears, and fell on his neck.  Weeping bitterly, he was led away to the
hotel and to bed.

"I've seen drunks," observed a plump dance-hall girl, "but I never seen
one as full as he is that could walk so good.  His licker only seems to
hit him from the belt up."

"Oh, there's drunks an' drunks," sagely replied Mr. Archer.  "When
yo're as old as I am, Clarice, yuh won't wonder at nothin' a drunk
does."

When the two strangers were in their room with the door shut the
younger one lay down on his cot and stuffed the end of a blanket into
his mouth.  His whole big frame shook with uproarious mirth.  He kicked
the cot with his boot-toes and bounced up and down.  His friend laughed
silently.

"Telescope," whispered the man on the bed, when he could open his mouth
without yelling, "Telescope, I got it all.  They's five hosses in that
corral o' Archer's, all of 'em sore-footed an' all branded Barred Twin
Diamond.  It's done mighty slick, too.  Yuh can't hardly tell it ain't
the real thing.  An' one of 'em, a black with two white stockings, I
can swear to like I can to that sorrel the bartender said the Judge
bought.  I've rode 'em both."

"Sleeck work," breathed Laguerre.  "I kin sw'ar to dat sorrel, too.  I
know heem, me.  He ees six year old, un dat red one I see een de
corral, I know heem.  I bust heem a t'ree-year old.  He ees five now.
But de odders I not so shore."

"It don't matter.  They're all Scotty's horses.  That's a cinch."

"I won'er eef de rest back een de heel.  W'at you t'ink?"

"No, they ain't.  Why, look here, Telescope, them six sorefoots tell
the story.  If the rustlers was holdin' the band in the hills they'd
'a' kept the six.  But they didn't.  They turned 'em over to Archer.
That shows they was drivin' 'em, an' drivin' 'em some'ers near here.
Well, the railroad ain't more'n fifty mile south.  Farewell's about
sixty mile north.  If them rustlers got the band this far their best
move would be to keep right on to the railroad an' ship the hosses east
or west.  An' I'll gamble that's what they've done."

Loudon gazed triumphantly at Laguerre.  The latter nodded.

"You are right, you bet," he said, his eyes beginning to glitter.  "I
hope dem two odder boys geet a move on."

"They ought to pull in to-morrow.  To-night, when I'm all sober again,
we'll go down to the dance hall an' find out if Archer's made any
little out-o'-town trips lately.  Telescope, I'm shore enjoyin' this.
To-morrow I'm goin' to make the acquaintance o' the Judge an' see what
he thinks o' this rustler Loudon who goes spreadin' the Crossed
Dumbbell brand up an' down the land.  Yes, sir, I got to shake hands
with Judge Allison."

Again mirth overcame him, and he had recourse to the blanket.

"I wouldn' go see dat Judge," advised Laguerre, with a dubious shake of
the head.  "She may not be de damfool.  She might have you' face
describe', huh.  She might see onder de w'iskair.  You leave heem
'lone, my frien'."

But Loudon remained firm in his resolve.

Mr. Archer was a good business man.  His two fiddlers were excellent,
and his girls were prettier than the average cow-town dance-hall women.
Consequently, Mr. Archer's place was popular.  When Loudon and Laguerre
entered, four full sets were thumping through a polka on the dancing
floor, and in the back room two gamblers sat behind their boxes,
players two deep bordering the tables.

After a drink at the bar the two watched the faro games awhile.  Then
Laguerre captured a good-looking brunette and whirled with her into a
wild waltz.  Loudon singled out a plump little blonde in a short red
skirt and a shockingly inadequate waist and invited her to drink with
him.

"I seen yuh this mornin'," she confided, planting both elbows on the
table.  "Yuh shore was packin' a awful load.  I wondered how yuh walked
at all."

"Oh, I can always walk," said Loudon, modestly.  "Liquor never does
affect my legs none--only my head an' my arms."

"Different here, dearie.  When I'm full it hits me all over.  I just go
blah.  Yuh got to carry me.  I can't walk nohow.  But I don't tank up
much.  Bill Archer don't like it.  Say, honey, what djuh say to a
dance?  Don't yuh feel like a waltz or somethin'?"

"I'd rather sit here an' talk to yuh.  Besides, my ankle's strained
some.  Dancin' won't do it no good."

"That's right.  Well, buy me another drink then.  I want to get forty
checks to-night if I can."

"Help yoreself.  The bridle's off to you, Mary Jane."

"Call me Clarice.  That's my name.  Ain't it got a real refined sound?
I got it out of a book.  The herowine was called that.  She drowned
herself.  Gee, I cried over that book!  Read it six times, too.  Here's
luck, stranger."

"An' lots of it, Ethel.  Have another."

"Just for that yuh don't have to call me Clarice.  Yuh can call me
anythin' yuh like 'cept Maggie.  A floozie named that stole ninety-five
dollars an' four bits an' a gold watch offen me once.  I ain't liked
the name since.  Well, drown sorrow."

"An' drown her deep.  Say, I kind o' like this town.  It suits me down
to the ground.  How's the cattle 'round here?"

"Nothin' to brag of.  They's only a few little ranches.  They's gold in
the Dry Mountains over east a ways.  Placers, the claims are.  Bill
Archer's got a claim some'ers west in the foot-hills o' the Fryin'
Pans.  He works it quite a lot, but he ain't never had no luck with it
yet.  Leastwise, he says he ain't."

"Has he been out to it lately?" asked Loudon, carelessly.

The girl did not immediately reply.  She stared fixedly into his eyes.

"Stranger," she said, her voice low and hard, "stranger, what do yuh
want to know for?"

"Oh, I was just a-wonderin'.  Not that I really want to know.  I was
just talkin'."

"Yuh seem to enjoy talkin' quite a lot."

"I do.  Habit I got."

"Well, what do yuh want to know about Bill Archer for?"

"I don't.  Say, can't I make a natural remark without yore jumpin'
sideways?"

"Remarks is all right.  It's yore questions ain't.  Stranger, for a
feller who's just makin' talk yore eyes are a heap too interested.  I
been in this business too long a time not to be able to read a gent's
eyes.  Yo're a-huntin' for somethin', you are."

"I'm a-huntin' a job--that's all.  What do yuh take me for, anyway?"

"I dunno how to take yuh.  I----"

"Oh, have another drink an' forget it."

"Shore I'll have another drink, but I dunno as I----  Oh, well, yo're
all right, o' course.  I'm gettin' foolish, I guess."

Her words did not carry conviction, and certainly she did not cease to
watch Loudon with furtive keenness.  He strove by means of many drinks
and a steady flow of conversation to dispel her suspicions.  The girl
played up to perfection, yet, when he bade her good-night, it was with
the assured belief that she and Archer would have a little talk within
five minutes.

The bar was nearly empty when Loudon and Laguerre entered the hotel.
Two drunken punchers were sleeping on the floor, a mongrel under a
table was vigorously hunting for fleas, and the bartender was languidly
arranging bottles on the shelves.  Loudon ordered drinks and treated
the bartender.

"Any chance o' pickin' up a stake in the Dry Mountains?" hazarded
Loudon.

"How?" queried the bartender.

"Placer minin'."

"Well, gents, if yuh don't care how hard yuh work for five dollars a
day, the Dry Mountains is the place.  I never had no use for a
long-tailed shovel myself."

"I heard how them stream-beds was rich."

"Don't yuh believe it, gents.  If they was, there wouldn't be no
Marysville 'round here.  It'd be all over in the Dry Mountains.  No,
gents, it's like I says.  Yuh can get the colour all right enough, but
yuh won't make more'n five a day on an average.  Who wants to rock a
cradle for that?"

"Now ain't that a fright?" complained Loudon.  "Chucked up our jobs
with the Flyin' Diamond A 'cause we heard how there was gold in the Dry
Mountains, an' come all the way up here for nothin'.  It shore does
beat the devil!"

"It does, stranger, it does.  Have one on the house, gents."

"Say," said Loudon, when the liquor was poured, "say, how about east in
the foothills o' the Fryin' Pans?  Any gold there?"

"Stranger, them Fryin' Pans has been prospected from hell to breakfast
an' they ain't showed the colour yet.  Take my word for it, gents, an'
leave the Fryin' Pans alone.  Bill Archer's got a claim some'ers over
that way an' he goes traipsin' out to it every so often.  Stays quite a
while, Bill does, sometimes.  Don't know why.  He don't never get
nothin'."

"How do yuh know?"

"Stranger, I know them hills.  I've prospected that country myself.
There's no gold in it."

"Maybe Bill Archer don't agree with yuh."

"Likely he don't.  He's a hopeful cuss as ever was.  Why, gents, only
about ten days ago he got back from a two weeks' trip to his claim.  A
month ago he was gone maybe a week.  An' it goes on like that.  Why,
I'll bet Bill Archer spends mighty nigh four months in every year out
on his claim.  There's perseverance for yuh, if nothin' else."

The two friends agreed that it was indeed perseverance and retired to
their room.

"We've got Archer pretty nigh hog-tied," murmured Loudon as he pulled
off his trousers.

"You bet," whispered Laguerre.  "Archer she ees w'at you call de fence,
huh?  De odder feller dey run off de pony un de cow, un Archer she sell
dem.  Eet ees plain, yes."

"Plain!  I guess so.  It'll be a cinch."

It might appear cinch-like, but there were more dips and twists in the
trail ahead than Loudon and Laguerre dreamed of.

In the morning Loudon strolled down the street and entered the dance
hall.  Mr. Archer was behind the bar, and he greeted Loudon with grave
politeness.

There was nothing in Archer's manner to indicate that Clarice had
talked.  In perfect amity the two men drank together, and Loudon took
his departure.  His visit to the dance hall had one result.  The depth
of Mr. Archer's character had been indicated, if not revealed.  Loudon
had hoped that he was a hasty person, one given to exploding at
half-cock.  Such an individual is less difficult to contend with than
one that bides his time.

Loudon, not wholly easy in his mind, went in search of Judge Allison.
He found him in the Sweet Dreams Saloon telling a funny story to the
bartender.  The Judge was an approachable person.  Loudon had no
difficulty in scraping an acquaintance with him.  Half-an-hour's
conversation disclosed the fact that the Judge's hobby was the horse.
Loudon talked horse and its diseases till he felt that his brain was in
danger of developing a spavin.

Judge Allison warmed to the young man.  Here was a fellow that knew
horses.  By Jove, yes!  Reluctantly the Judge admitted to himself that
Loudon's knowledge of breeding secrets far exceeded his own.  In a land
where horses are usually bred haphazard such an individual is rare.

The Judge took Loudon home with him in order to pursue his favourite
subject to its lair.  Which lair was the Judge's office, where, cheek
by jowl with "Coke upon Littleton" and Blackstone's ponderous volumes,
were books on the horse--war, work, and race.

"It's astonishing, sir," pronounced the Judge, when his negro had
brought in a sweating jug of what the Judge called cocktails, "truly
astonishing what vile poison is served across our bars.  And I say
'vile' with feeling.  Why, until I imported my own brands from the East
my stomach was perpetually out of order.  I very nearly died.  Have
another?  No?  Later, then.  Well, sir, my name is Allison, Henry B.
Allison, Judge of this district.  What may I call you, sir?"

"Franklin, Judge, Ben Franklin," replied Loudon, giving the name he had
given the landlord of the hotel.

"Any relation of Poor Richard?" twinkled the Judge.

"Who was he?" queried Loudon, blankly.

"A great man, a very great man.  He's dead at present."

"He would be.  Fellah never is appreciated till he shuffles off."

"We live in an unappreciative world, Mr. Franklin.  I know.  I ought
to.  A judge is never appreciated, that is, not pleasantly.  Why, last
year I sentenced Tom Durry for beating his wife, and Mrs. Tom
endeavoured to shoot me the day after Tom was sent away.  The mental
processes of a woman are incomprehensible.  Have another cocktail?"

"No more, thanks, Judge.  I've had a-plenty.  Them cocktail jiggers
ain't strong or nothin'.  Oh, no!  Two or three more of 'em an' I'd go
right out an' push the house over.  I'm feelin' fine now.  Don't want
to feel a bit better.  Ever go huntin', Judge?"

"No, I don't.  I used to.  Why?"

"I was just a-wonderin'.  Yuh see, me an' my friend are thinkin' o'
prospectin' the Fryin' Pans, an' we was a-wonderin' how the game was.
Don't want to pack much grub if we can help it."

"The Frying Pans!  Why, Bill Archer has a claim there.  Never gets
anything out of it, though.  Works it hard enough, too, or he used to
at any rate.  Odd.  About three weeks ago he told me he was riding out
to give it another whirl.  Last week, Tuesday, to be exact, I was
riding about twenty miles south of here and I met Bill Archer riding
north.  He seemed quite surprised to meet me.  I guess he doesn't work
that claim as much as he says."

"That's the way we come north--through that country east of the Blossom
trail."

"Oh, I was west of the Blossom trail--fully ten miles west.  What?
Going already?  Why, I haven't had time to ask you about that
extraordinary case of ringbone you ran across in Texas.  Wait.  I'll
get a book.  I want to show you something."

It was fully an hour before Loudon could tear himself away from Judge
Allison.  As he crossed the street, a buckboard drawn by two sweating,
dust-caked ponies rattled past him and stopped in front of the Judge's
office.  The driver was a woman swathed in a shapeless duster, her face
hidden by a heavy veil, and a wide-brimmed Stetson tied
sunbonnet-fashion over her ears.  At first glance she was not
attractive, and Loudon, absorbed in his own affairs, did not look twice.

"Find out anythin'?" inquired Laguerre, when Loudon met him at the
hotel corral.

"I found out that when Archer came back from that claim in the Fryin'
Pans he come from the direction o' the railroad.  The Judge met him
twenty mile south an' ten mile west o' the trail to Blossom.  Blossom
is almost due south o' here.  The next station west is Damson.  We'll
go to Damson first.  C'mon an' eat."

The long table in the dining room was almost deserted.  At one end sat
Archer and a lanky person in chaps.  Loudon caught the lanky gentleman
casting sidelong glances in his direction.  Archer did not look up from
his plate.  It was the first meal at which they had met either the
dance-hall keeper or his tall friend.

"I wonder," mused Loudon.  "I wonder."

After dinner Loudon inquired of the bartender whether it was Archer's
custom to eat at the hotel.

"First time he ever ate here to my knowledge," said the bartender.
"He's got a home an' a Injun woman to cook."

"It's the little tumble-weeds show how the wind blows," thought Loudon
to himself, and sat down in a corner of the barroom and pondered deeply.

A few minutes later he removed his cartridge-belt, hung it on the back
of his chair, and composed himself ostensibly to doze.  His
three-quarter shut eyes, however, missed nothing that went on in the
barroom.

Archer and his lanky friend entered and draped themselves over the bar.
Loudon, after a brief space of time, arose, stretched, and yawningly
stumbled upstairs.  He lay down on his cot and smoked one cigarette
after another, his eyes on the ceiling.

Laguerre wandered in, and Loudon uttered cogent sentences in a whisper.
Laguerre grinned delightedly.  His perverted sense of humour was
aroused.  Loudon did not smile.  What he believed to be impending gave
him no pleasure.

"Guess I'll go down," announced Loudon, when an hour had elapsed.  "No
sense in delayin' too long."

"No," said Laguerre, "no sense een dat."

He followed his friend downstairs.

"Seems to me I took it off in here," Loudon flung back over his
shoulder, as though in response to a question.  "Shore, there it is."

He walked across the barroom to where his cartridge-belt and
six-shooter hung on the back of a chair.  He buckled on the belt,
Archer and his lanky friend watching him the while.

"How about a little game, gents?" suggested Archer.

In a flash Loudon saw again the barroom of the Happy Heart and the
Sheriff of Sunset County surrounded by Block's friends.  The wolf-faced
man had employed almost those very words.  Loudon smiled cheerfully.

"Why, shore," he said, "I'm with yuh.  I left my coin upstairs.  I'll
be right down."

He hurried up to his room, closed the door, and set his back against
it.  Drawing his six-shooter he flipped out the cylinder.  No circle of
brass heads and copper primers met his eye.  His weapon had been
unloaded.

"Fell plumb into it," he muttered without exultation.  "The ----
murderers!"

He tried the action.  Nothing wrong there.  Only the cartridges had
been juggled.  He reloaded hastily from a fresh box of cartridges.  He
would not trust those in his belt.  Heaven only knew how far ahead the
gentleman who tampered with his gun had looked.

When Loudon returned to the barroom, Laguerre and the other two men
were sitting at a battered little table.  The vacant chair was opposite
Archer's lanky friend, and the man sitting in that chair would have his
back to the door.

"I don't like to sit with my back to the door," stated Loudon.

"Some don't," said the lanky man, shuffling the cards.

"Meanin'?" Loudon cocked an inquisitive eyebrow.

"Oh, nothin'."

"Shore?"

"Positive, stranger, positive."

"That's good.  Change seats, will yuh?"

The lanky citizen hesitated.  Loudon remained standing, his gray eyes
cold and hard.  Then slowly the other man arose, circled the table, and
sat down.  Loudon slid into the vacated chair.

The lanky man dealt.  Loudon watched the deft fingers--fingers too deft
for the excessively crude exhibition of cheating that occurred almost
instantly.  To Archer the dealer dealt from the bottom of the pack, and
did it clumsily.  Hardly the veriest tyro would have so openly bungled
the performance.  For all that, however, it was done so that Loudon,
and not Laguerre, saw the action.

"Where I come from," observed Loudon, softly, "we don't deal from the
bottom of the pack."

"Do you say I'm a-dealin' from the bottom of the pack?" loudly demanded
the lanky man.

"Just that," replied Loudon, his thumbs hooked in the armholes of his
vest.

"Yo're a liar!" roared the lanky one, and reached for his gun.

Archer fell over backwards.  Laguerre thrust his chair to one side and
leaped the other way.

No one saw Loudon's arm move.  Yet, when the lanky man's fingers closed
on the butt of his gun, Loudon's six-shooter was in his hand.

The lanky man's six-shooter was half drawn when Loudon's gun spat flame
and smoke.  The lanky's one's fingers slipped their grip, and his arm
jerked backward.  Lips writhing with pain, for his right elbow was
smashed to bits, the lanky man thrust his left hand under his vest.

"Don't," cautioned Loudon.

The lanky man's hand came slowly away--empty.  White as chalk, his left
hand clenched round the biceps of his wounded arm, the lanky man swayed
to his feet and staggered into the street.

Archer arose awkwardly.  His expression was so utterly nonplussed that
it would have been laughable had not the situation been so tragic.  A
thread of gray smoke spiraled upward from the muzzle of Loudon's
slanting six-shooter.  Laguerre, balanced on his toes, watched the
doorway.

Loudon stared at Archer.  The latter moved from behind the table and
halted.  He removed his hat and scratched his head, his eyes on the
trail of red blots leading to the door.

"----!" exclaimed Archer, suddenly, raising his head.  "This here kind
o' puts a crimp in our game, don't it?"

"That depends on how bad yuh want to play," retorted Loudon.  "I'm
ready--I'm always ready to learn new tricks."

"I don't just feel like poker now," hedged Archer, ignoring the insult.
"I reckon I'll see yuh later maybe."

"Don't strain yoreself reckonin'," advised Loudon.

"I won't.  So long, gents."

With an airy wave of his head Bill Archer left the barroom.

Inch by inch the head of the bartender uprose from behind the
breastwork of the bar.  The barrel of a sawed-off shotgun rose with the
head.  When Loudon holstered his six-shooter the bartender replaced the
sawed-off shotgun on the hooks behind the bar.

"Well, sir, gents," remarked the bartender with an audible sigh of
relief, "which I'm never so glad in my life when Skinny Maxson don't
pull that derringer.  She's a .41 that derringer is, the bar's right in
the line o' fire--it ain't none too thick--an' Skinny always shoots
wide with a derringer.  Gents, the drinks are on the house.  What'll
yuh have?"

"Yo're a Christian," grinned Loudon.  "Is Skinny Maxson anythin'
special 'round here?"

"He's a friend o' Bill Archer's," replied the bartender, "an' he's
got--I mean he had a reputation.  I knowed he was lightning on the draw
till I seen you--I mean till I didn't see yuh pull yore gun.  Mr.
Franklin, that was shore the best exhibition o' quick drawin' I ever
seen, an' I used to work in Dodge City.  Good thing yuh was some swift.
Skinny don't shoot a six-gun like he does a derringer.  No, not for a
minute he don't!  But look out for Skinny's brother Luke.  He's got a
worse temper'n Skinny, an' he's a better shot.  This nickin' o' Skinny
is a heap likely to make him paint for war.  He's out o' town just now."

A clatter of running feet was heard in the street.  Through the doorway
bounded a stocky citizen, blood in his eye, and a shotgun in his hand.

"Where's the ---- shot Skinny!" he howled.

"Luke!" cried the bartender, and dived beneath the bar.

"Stranger, I wouldn't do nothin' rash," observed Loudon, squinting
along the barrel of his six-shooter.  "Drop that shotgun, an' drop her
quick."

Loudon's tone was soft, but its menace was not lost on the wild-eyed
man.  His shotgun thudded on the floor.

"By Gar!" exclaimed Laguerre.  "Eet ees----"

"Shut up!" roared Loudon.  "I'm seein' just what yo're seein', but
there's no call to blat it out!"

For the wild-eyed man was the same individual who had brought the tale
of the Hatchet Creek Indian uprising to Farewell.  But there was no
recognition in the man's eyes, which was not remarkable.  Loudon and
Laguerre, on that occasion, had been but units in a crowd, and even
when they exchanged shots with the fellow the range was too long for
features to be noted.  Besides, the thick growth of stubble on their
faces effectually concealed their identity from any one who did not
know them well.

"I'd kind o' elevate my hands, Brother Luke," suggested Loudon.
"That's right.  Yuh look more ornamental thataway.  An' don't shake so
much.  You ain't half as mad as yo're tryin' to make out.  If you was
real hot you'd 'a' took a chance an' unhooked that shotgun when yuh
come in.  Brother Luke, yo're a false alarm--like Skinny."

"Lemme pick up my shotgun, an' I'll show yuh!" clamoured Luke Maxson,
whom the purring voice was driving to a frenzy.

"Yuh lost yore best chance, an' chances don't travel in pairs--like
brothers."

"Do somethin'!  Do somethin'!" chattered Luke.

"No hurry.  Don't get het, Brother Luke.  If I was to do somethin' yore
valuable an' good-lookin' carcass would be damaged.  An' I just ain't
got the heart to shoot more than one man a day."

Laguerre laughed outright.  From behind the bar came the sound of a
snicker hastily stifled.

"You let me go," yapped Luke Maxson, "an' I'll down yuh first chance I
git!"

"Good argument against lettin' yuh go."

At the window flanking the door appeared the plump face and shoulders
of Judge Allison.

"Why don't yuh do somethin', ---- yuh?" yelled Luke Maxson.  "I'm
gettin' tired holdin' my arms up!"

"Well," said Loudon, "as I told yuh before, though yuh can't seem to
get it through yore thick head, it's a mighty boggy ford.  I feel just
like the fellah swingin' on the wildcat's tail.  I want to let go, but
I can't.  If I was shore none o' yore measly friends would shoot me in
the back, I'd let yuh go get yore Winchester an' shoot it out with me
in the street at a hundred yards.  But the chance o' yore friends
bustin' in shore dazzles me."

"None of 'em won't move a finger!" Luke hastened to assure Loudon.

The latter looked doubtful.  The Judge coughed gently and rubbed his
clean-shaven chin.

"Mr. Franklin," said Judge Allison, "should you care to try conclusions
with Mr. Maxson in the street, pray accept my assurances that no one
will interfere.  I speak unofficially, of course.  Furthermore, in a
wholly unofficial capacity I shall oversee proceedings from the
sidewalk.  If any one should be so ill-advised as to----  But no one
will, no one will."

"You hear what the Judge says?" Loudon cocked an eyebrow at Luke Maxson.

"Shore, shore," said that worthy, feverishly.  "Lemme pick up my
shotgun, an' in five minutes I'll be back in the middle o' Main Street
a-waitin' for yuh."

"Five minutes is too long," observed Loudon.  "Make it three.  An' yuh
needn't touch that shotgun.  Yuh can get it later--if yo're able."

"Yo're shore in a hurry!" sneered Luke.

"I always am with a coward an' a liar an' a low-down, baby-robbin'
road-agent."

At these words rage almost overwhelmed Luke Maxson.  Only the long
barrel of that steady six-shooter aimed at his abdomen prevented him
from hurling himself barehanded upon his tormentor.

"One moment, gentlemen!" exclaimed the Judge.  "In the interest of fair
play permit me to settle one or two necessary preliminaries.  The
street runs approximately north and south so the sun will not favour
either of you.  Mr. Maxson will take his stand in the middle of the
street opposite the dance hall.  Mr. Franklin will also post himself in
the middle of the street but opposite the hotel.  The hotel and dance
hall are about a hundred yards apart.  I shall be on the sidewalk
midway between the two places.  At a shot from my revolver you
gentlemen will commence firing.  And may God have mercy on your souls.
Gentlemen, the three minutes start immediately."

"Git," ordered Loudon.

Luke Maxson fled.  The Judge vanished from the window.  Loudon hurried
upstairs for his rifle.  In the street could be heard the voice of
Judge Allison booming instructions to the passersby to remove
themselves and their ponies from the range of fire.

"Geet heem, by Gar!" enjoined Laguerre, clicking a cartridge into the
chamber of his own rifle.  "Geet heem!  You got to geet heem!  I'm
behin' you, me!  I trus' dat judge feller, but I trus' myself more.
Eef anybody jump sideway at you, I geet heem."

"I'll get him," muttered Loudon.  "Don't worry none, Telescope.  He'll
get it like his brother."

"No, no, Tom, no fancy shootin' at de elbow," exclaimed Laguerre in
alarm.  "Geet hees hair."

"You just wait.  C'mon."



CHAPTER XX

THE RAILROAD CORRAL

Loudon stepped out into the street.  Laguerre stationed himself on the
sidewalk twenty yards in Loudon's rear.  Every window and doorway
giving a view of the scene of hostilities was crowded with spectators.
On the sidewalk, fifty yards from the hotel, stood Judge Allison, watch
in hand.

Loudon stood, one leg thrust slightly forward, his eyes on the
dance-hall door, and his cocked rifle in the hollow of his left arm.

Not for an instant did he fear the outcome.  His self-confidence was
supreme.  Oddly enough, his mind refused to dwell on the impending
duel.  He could think of nothing save the most trivial subjects till
Luke Maxson stepped out of the dance-hall doorway.

Then a prickling twitched the skin between Loudon's shoulders, and he
experienced a curious species of exhilaration.  It reminded him of a
long-ago evening in Fort Worth when he had drunk a bottle of champagne.
The exhilaration vanished in a breath.  Remained a calculating coldness
and the pleasing knowledge that Luke Maxson was still excited.

_Bang_!  The Judge's six-shooter spoke.  Instantly the upper half of
Maxson's figure was hidden by a cloud of smoke.

Loudon worked his Winchester so rapidly that the reports sounded like
the roll of an alarm-clock.  At his sixth shot, simultaneously with a
blow on his left foot that jarred his leg to the knee, he saw Luke
Maxson drop his rifle and fall forward on his hands and knees.

Then Maxson jerked his body sidewise and sat up, his back toward
Loudon, his hands clutching his legs.

Loudon lowered the hammer of his Winchester and gazed down at his
numbed foot.  Most of the high heel of his boot had been torn away.
Which was the sole result of his opponent's marksmanship.  Walking with
a decided list to port he unhurriedly crossed to the hotel.

"Gimme a drink!" he called to the bartender.  "An' have one yoreself."

"Forgeet me, huh?" chuckled Laguerre, hard on his friend's heels.
"Mak' eet t'ree, meestair."

"Say, Tom," Laguerre said, when they were alone.  "W'y deed you tell me
to shut up, huh?"

"Don't yuh see, Telescope?" replied Loudon.  "Here's Bill Archer a heap
suspicious of us already.  He's guessed we're from the Bend, but if we
don't recognize Luke Maxson he won't know what to think.  Anyway, I'm
gamblin' he won't canter right off an' blat out to the 88 that two
fellahs are on their trail.  Instead o' doin' that it's likely he'll
trail us when we pull our freight, an' try to make shore just what our
game is.  It's our job to keep him puzzled till everythin's cinched.
Then he can do what he likes.  It won't make a bit of difference."

"You are right," nodded Laguerre.  "You t'ink sleecker dan me dees tam.
But w'y you not keel de man, huh?"

"'Cause, dead an' buried, he can't be identified.  Gripped up in bed
he'll make a fine Exhibit A for our outfit."

"You was tak' a beeg chance."

"Oh, not so big.  He was mad when he came into the saloon, an' I made
him a heap madder before I got through talkin' to him.  Yuh can't shoot
good when yo're mad."

And Loudon grinned at Laguerre.

"You old sun-of-a-gun!" said his friend, admiringly.

That hearty soul, Judge Allison, brought the news half an hour after
the shooting that Luke Maxson was far from being badly wounded.  There
were, it seemed, three bullets in Luke's right leg and two in his left.
And the left leg was broken.

At this last Loudon brightened visibly.  He had feared that his
adversary had merely sustained flesh wounds.  A broken leg, however,
would confine the amiable Luke to his bed for a period of weeks, which,
for the proper furtherance of Loudon's plans, was greatly to be desired.

Loudon began to fear for the safety of Judge Allison.  Marysville was
not apt to take kindly the Judge's rather open espousal of the
stranger's cause.  And Loudon liked Judge Allison.  He felt that the
Judge was honest; that he had been duped by Block and Archer and the
others of their stripe; that, his eyes once opened to the true state of
affairs, the Judge would not hesitate to show the malefactors the error
of their ways.

In time Loudon intended to take the Judge into his confidence, but that
time was not yet.  In the meantime, no evil must come to Judge Allison.
Loudon took the Judge aside.

"Yore Honour," said he, "ain't yuh just a little too friendly to me an'
my friend?  We don't have to live here, but you do."

The Judge did not immediately make reply.  He put his head on one side
and looked at Loudon under his eyebrows.

"In so far as I may," said the Judge at last, "I do what pleases me.
Even so, no man in the possession of his senses performs any act
without good reason.  Regarding my reason for what little I did, I can
at present say, 'Cherchez la femme.'  Ah, here comes the stage!  I must
go to the postoffice.  Come to my office in about fifteen minutes, Mr.
Franklin, and remember, '_Cherchez la femme_.'"

Loudon stared in perplexity after the retreating figure.

"'_Shershay la fam_,'" he repeated.  "Now I'd like to know what that
means.  _Shershay la fam_.  Don't sound like Injun talk.  An' he wants
to see me in fifteen minutes, does he?  Maybe, now, he'll bear watchin'
after all."

At the time appointed Loudon entered the Judge's office.  The Judge,
smoking a long cigar, his feet on the table, waved Loudon to a chair.
Loudon unobtrusively hitched his six-shooter into easy drawing position
as he sat down.  He watched the Judge like a cat.  The Judge smiled.

"Friend," he said, "you may relax.  It's quite too hot to look for
trouble where none is.  My intentions are of the friendliest.  Quite
recently there have come to my ears several important bits of
information.  Among other interesting facts, I am told that Sheriff
Block has sworn in twelve deputies for the purpose of arresting one
Thomas Loudon, lately employed by the Bar S ranch, but working at
present for the Flying M in Sunset County.

"The man Loudon is alleged to have committed divers crimes, ranging in
their heinousness from rustling and assault with murderous intent, to
simple assault and battery.  Thomas Loudon is supposed to have returned
to the Flying M, but the worthy sheriff has in some manner gained the
impression that the fugitive is still within the confines of Fort Creek
County.  Hence the dozen deputies."

The Judge paused.  Loudon leaned back in his chair, crossed one leg
over the other, and rolled a cigarette.  He realized now that Judge
Allison was unreservedly his friend.

"It is only a question of time," continued the Judge, "when a batch of
these deputies will ride into Marysville.  If Thomas Loudon were in
Marysville at present, and if I were in his boots, I should saddle my
horse and seek refuge in parts unknown--for a time at least.  I
understand that Thomas Loudon is taking steps in a certain matter that
will, if he is successful, criminally involve large and powerful
interests.  If Thomas Loudon is a man of parts and wisdom he will take
his steps with all speed.

"Evidence is evidence, and the more there is of it, and the stronger it
is, and the sooner it is brought forward, the better.  For the better
information of Thomas Loudon, I will say that, under the laws of this
territory, a warrant issued by any judge may be withdrawn by that judge
at his discretion.  For instance, should Thomas Loudon present evidence
tending to discredit the individuals swearing out the warrant against
him, said warrant would stand an excellent chance of being immediately
annulled.  Do I make myself clear?"

"Couldn't be clearer," Loudon said, staring up at the ceiling.  "I'll
bet Tom Loudon would be a heap grateful to yuh if he could 'a' heard
what yuh had to say."

"Doubtless--doubtless.  I trust some day to make the gentleman's
acquaintance.  As I was saying, these deputies may arrive at any time.
I do not believe they will come before to-morrow at the earliest.  Yet
one can never tell.  Parts unknown are the best health resorts on earth
at times like these."

"Yo're shore whistlin', Judge.  I guess we'll pull our freight this
afternoon or to-night."

When Loudon informed Laguerre in the privacy of their room of what the
Judge had said, the swarthy man slapped his leg and laughed aloud.

"By Gar!" he exclaimed.  "By Gar!  Dat ees damn fonny!"  Then, in a
lower tone, he added, "She shore one good feller.  Wat was dose word
she say--dose fonny word you not know w'at dey mean?"

"_Shershay la fam_."

"_Cherchez la femme_, huh?  Dat ees _Français_.  Un it mean, 'Fin' de
woman.'"

"'Find the woman'!  I'd like to know what findin' the woman's got to do
with it."

"I dunno.  But dat's w'at de word mean, all right.  W'at I wan' for
know ees how de Judge she know so much 'bout you.  She issue de
warran', un now she not follow eet up.  I do not understan', me."

"Me neither.  Lend me yore knife, Telescope, will yuh?  Yores is
sharper'n mine, an' I got to cut some leather offen my chaps an' make
me a new heel.  I'll prob'ly have time to make me a whole new pair o'
boots an' a saddle before Johnny an' Chuck drift in.  Which they're the
slowest pair of bandits livin'.  We'll give 'em till daylight
to-morrow."

Marysville, whatever opinions it may have held concerning the shooting
affray, did not openly disapprove.  No one came forward to take up the
quarrel of the Maxson brothers.

As to Archer, he sat alone in front of his dance hall.  Loudon
perceived, in the course of a casual stroll, that the man wore his
spurs, and that two of the horses in the corral were saddled and
bridled.  He also noted that the five Barred Twin Diamond horses were
still in the corral.  He dropped in at the Judge's office.

"Judge," said Loudon, "it just struck me that somebody might want to
buy that sorrel hoss o' yores.  Yuh see, I've taken quite a fancy to
that hoss.  I might want to buy him myself some day.  Would yuh mind
hangin' on to him till I come back from where I'm goin'?"

"So that's how the wind blows?" the Judge said, disgustedly.  "I might
have known it, too.  He was so cheap.  Well, Mr. Franklin, you may rest
assured that the sorrel horse remains in my possession until your
return.  Confound it all, I hate to part with him!  He's a good horse."

"He's all that.  But maybe, now, yore keepin' him could be arranged if
you like him so much.  I might not want him so bad after all."

"Corruption, corruption!" exclaimed Judge Allison, violently winking
his right eye.  "Would you bribe the bench, Mr. Franklin?  No, not
another word, sir.  We are drawing a trifle ahead of our subject.  Let
me impress upon you the necessity for prompt action.  I should make my
departure before sunset, if I were you."

"Deputies?"

"As to them, I cannot say," said the Judge, shaking his head, "but I am
of the opinion that Marysville will not be a health resort to-night.
The wicked walk in the darkness, you know, and not half-an-hour ago I
heard something that makes me quite positive that the said evildoers
will endeavour to walk to some purpose this evening.  I was on the
point of sending you warning when you came in."

"Now that's right friendly of yuh, Judge.  Me an' my friend won't
forget it.  But ain't there just some chance o' these here evildoers
a-comin' to see you?"

"I have a friend or two here myself.  I told you this morning that I
stand in no danger.  I have had no reason to change my opinion."

"All right, you know best.  I guess Telescope an' me'll pull our
freight instanter.  We won't wait for my friends.  When they come would
yuh mind tellin' 'em we've gone to Damson?"

"I shall be delighted.  Who are your friends?"

"Johnny Ramsay o' the Cross-in-a-box an' Chuck Morgan o' the Bar S."

"'Chuck Morgan.'  Well do I know the gentleman.  I fined him
twenty-five dollars last fall for riding his horse into Billy West's
saloon, roping the stove, and trying to drag it through the doorway."

"That's Chuck all over!  But he didn't tell the Bar S nothin' about a
fine."

"The Bar S!  What are you talking about?  You're from the southern
ranges, and I'd advise you not to forget it."

"I won't again," Loudon grinned.  "So long, Judge, an' we're obliged to
yuh for----"

"For nothing!  For nothing!  And don't forget that either.  Now
good-bye and good luck."

Loudon and Laguerre, having paid their bill, left the hotel by the back
way.  A pale little man, one of the dance-hall fiddlers, was flirting
with the cook at the kitchen doorway.  When the two men appeared,
carrying their saddles and rifles, the pale one glided swiftly around
the corner of the house.

"See that?" muttered Loudon, cinching up rapidly.

Laguerre nodded.

"---- 'em!" he whispered.  "Hope dey follow!  By Gar!  I do, me!"

"No use tryin' to slide out past the corral now," said Loudon.  "We
might as well use Main Street."

They were glad of their decision.  They rode into Main Street just in
time to see Archer and a companion turning the corner of the dance
hall.  The Flying M men headed northward.  The other two turned their
horses' heads to the south.

Where Main Street became the trail, Loudon and Laguerre swung eastward
and loped steadily for several miles.  When their shadows were long in
front of them they climbed the reverse slope of a little hill.

Picketing their horses below the crest they lay down behind an outcrop
and watched the back trail.  Within thirty minutes appeared two dots on
a ridge three miles distant.

"Just like wolves, ain't they?" chuckled Loudon, and wriggled backward.

"We weel bushwhack dem here, huh?" growled Laguerre.  "Eet ees de good
plass.  Dey weel pass on our trail not two hundred yard away.  We geet
dem easy."

"No, not yet, Telescope," said Loudon.  "It ain't necessary, anyhow.
We'll ride on till it gets dark.  Then we'll light a fire an' vamose,
an' leave them holdin' the bag."

"Dat ees all right," Laguerre said, "but keelin' ees better.  W'y not?
No one weel know.  Un eef dey do, w'at mattair?  Dey are de teenhorn.
We weel have dat all prove'.  I say, keel dem, me."

Unconsciously Laguerre fingered the handle of his skinning-knife.
Loudon laughed.

"C'mon," he said.  "There'll be enough o' killin' before this job's
over."

Grumbling, for to him an ambush was such a ridiculously simple method
of disposing of two enemies, Laguerre followed his comrade.  They rode
till night came on.  Then, in the middle of a mile-wide flat, where
cottonwoods grew beside a tiny creek, they dismounted and loosened
cinches.

Hobbled, their bridles off, the horses grazed.  Laguerre, still
protesting, made the fire.  He built it cunningly, after the Indian
manner, with an arrangement of sticks to leeward, so that it would burn
slowly and for a long time.

"Dere," said Laguerre, as the flames bit and took hold, "dat weel fool
dem.  But I t'ink de Winchestair be de bes' t'ing, me."

Loudon laughed as he swung into the saddle.  Inwardly he quite agreed
with Laguerre in the matter of an ambush.  Enemies should be crushed as
expeditiously and with as little danger to one's self as possible.  Yet
Loudon was too humanly normal to practise the doctrine in all its
ruthlessness.  To do that one must be either a great general or a
savage.  Laguerre was not abnormal, but he was half Indian, and at
times he became wholly one.  This was one of the times.

For three miles the two men rode in the creek water, then, guided by
the stars, they headed southwest.  Toward midnight they came upon a
well-marked trail.  They knew it could be none other than the trail to
Blossom, and they turned into it.  Under the spell of the horses'
steady walk-along Laguerre became reminiscent.

"De ole tam, dey are wit' me now, my frien'," he observed, "but I do
not feel varree bad, me.  I am on de move.  Un soon dere weel be beeg
fight.  I have been de scout, I have leeve wit' Enjun, I have hunt all
t'ing', un I tell you, Tom, dere ees nothin' like huntin' de man.  Dat
mak' me feel fine.

"By Gar! w'en I was young man een Blackfoot camp, I was go ovair to de
Assiniboine, un I run off seex pony un geet two scalp.  Dat mak' me
beeg man wit' de Blackfoot.  Dey say my medicine was good, un eet was
good, by Gar!  Eet was de Winchestair.  De Assiniboine w'at chase me
was surprise'.  Dey not know de Winchestair den.  Deir gun all
single-shot."

And Laguerre laughed at this recollection of aboriginal amazement.
Loudon made no comment.  The laughter died in a grunt.  The harsh voice
resumed:

"By Gar!  I bless de luck dat Scotty sen' me wit' you.  I mean for
queet un go 'way wit' you like I tol' you, un w'en dem horse t'ief run
off de pony, I know I can not queet.  I can not leave Scotty like dat.
She ees good frien' to me.  But now I go 'way like I wan', un I work
for Scotty, too.  I am almost satisfy.  But at de las' I weel go 'way.
De ole tam, dey weel mak' me.  I mus' fin' Pony George before de en'."

"Maybe he's dead," suggested Loudon, moved to cheer up his friend.

"No, she ees not dead.  She 'live yet.  I can not tell you how I know.
I not know how myself, me.  But I know.  Somew'ere she wait teel I
come.  Un I weel come.  I weel come.  Den, w'en hees hair ees on my
bridle, I weel be complete satisfy, un I weel work on de ranch steady.
I not care w'at happen den."

Laguerre fell silent.  His reminiscent mood passed on to his comrade.
Since leaving the Bend the days had been so crowded that Loudon had had
no time to think of anything save the work in hand.  But now the
tension had slackened, the old days came back to Loudon, and he thought
of the girl he had once loved.

He saw her as he used to see her on their rides together along the Lazy
River; he saw her swinging in the hammock on the porch of the Bar S
ranch house; he saw her smiling at him from the doorway of the room in
the Burr house; and he saw her dark eyes with the hurt look in them,
her shaking shoulders when she turned sidewise in the chair and wept,
her blindly swaying figure when she stumbled from the room.  All these
things he saw on the screen of his mind.

Apparently she loved him.  But was the semblance the reality?  It was
all very well for Mrs. Burr to talk about coquettes.  Kate Saltoun had
played with him, had led him on to propose, and then at the end had
with contumely and scorn refused him.  His sense of injury had so
developed that his brain had come to dwell more on the contumely and
the scorn than it did on the refusal.  Mankind is apt to lose sight of
the main issue and to magnify minor events till at last the latter
completely overshadow the former.

"It ain't possible," reasoned Loudon, "to care for a girl that called
yuh a ignorant puncher.  Some day she might get mad an' call yuh that
again, an' then where'd yuh be?  Wouldn't yuh look nice with a wife
that knowed she was better'n you an' told yuh so whenever she felt like
it?"

"Well, ain't she better'n you?" queried the honest voice of Inner
Consciousness.

"She's lots better," admitted Innate Stubbornness.  "But she wants to
keep still about it."

"An' she's shore a razzle-dazzler in looks, ain't she?" persisted Inner
Consciousness.  "An' her ways have changed a lot.  An' she acts like
she likes yuh.  Lately yuh been kind o' missin' her some yoreself,
ain't yuh?  Ain't yuh, huh?  Be kind o' nice to have her round right
along, wouldn't it?  Shore it would.  Which bein' so, don't yuh guess
Mis' Burr knows what she's talkin' about?  Why can't yuh have sense an'
take the lady's advice?"

"I won't be drove," insisted Innate Stubbornness.  "I won't be drove,
an' that's whatever."

Inner Consciousness immediately curled up and went to sleep.  It had
recognized the futility of arguing with Innate Stubbornness.  Loudon
wondered why he could no longer think connectedly.  He gave up trying.

When day broke, the two men left the trail and rode southward.  They
were tired, but they did not dare halt.  In the middle of the
afternoon, emerging from a draw, they saw the rails of the Great
Western Railroad a hundred yards ahead.  They rode westward along the
line and reached Damson an hour later.

Two saloons, a blacksmith shop, three houses, the station, and a
water-tank, all huddling on the flanks of a railroad corral, made up
the town of Damson.  It was an unlovely place, and, to complete the
effect, a dust-devil received them with open arms.

"Looks like that corral had been used lately," observed Loudon between
coughs.

"Bunch o' pony stay dere tree-four day, two week ago, mabbeso,"
qualified Laguerre.

They dismounted and entered the cracked and peeling station.  The
agent, a pale, flat-chested young man, responded readily to Loudon's
inquiries.

"Surely," he said, "about two weeks ago"--riffling duplicate
way-bills--"yep, on the seventeenth, Bill Archer shipped ninety-five
head Barred Twin Diamond hosses to Cram an' Docket in Piegan City.  The
two Maxson boys an' a feller they called Rudd was with Archer.  Nope,
no trouble at all.  Eastbound?  She's five hours late.  Due maybe in an
hour an' a half if she don't lose some more.  Yep, I'll set the board
against her."


When Mr. Cram, senior member of the great horse-dealing firm of Cram &
Docket, came down to his office in the morning, Tom Loudon was sitting
on the office-steps, an expression of keenest satisfaction on his
sunburnt, cinder-grimed face.  He had spent the greater part of the
preceding two hours strolling among the corrals of Cram & Docket.  Mr.
Cram acknowledged by a curt nod the greeting of Loudon.

"I have all the men I can use," began Mr. Cram, gruffly, "and----"

"T'sall right," interrupted Loudon.  "I ain't needin' a job this
mornin'.  I just thought I'd tell yuh that there's ninety-five head o'
stolen hosses in number eight corral."

"Wha-what?" gasped Mr. Cram.

"Hurts, don't it?  Shouldn't wonder.  Yes, sir, them ninety-five Barred
Twin Diamonds yuh bought offen Bill Archer o' Marysville an' shipped
from Damson was all stole from Scotty Mackenzie's Flying M ranch up
north near Paradise Bend, in the Dogsoldier valley."

"Why--why--I don't understand," stuttered Mr. Cram.  "I don't believe a
word of it."

Mr. Cram became suddenly aware of the exceeding chilliness in a pair of
gray eyes.

"Meanin' how?" queried Loudon, softly.

"Well, of course, I believe you're acting in good faith, but----  Oh,
come inside."

"No need.  My train's due in thirty minutes.  Scotty Mackenzie an' his
foreman Doubleday will come down here an' prove ownership in about a
week or so."

"But I've just sold that bunch to a firm in Omaha!"

"Yuh won't ship 'em.  Yuh see, I thought o' yore sellin' 'em, an' I
woke up Judge Curran at six o'clock an' got him to issue a injunction
against yore shippin' 'em.  So I guess yuh'll keep 'em till Scotty
comes.  Yep, I guess yuh will, Mr. Cram.  See, here comes the marshal
now.  Looks like that white paper he's got might be the injunction,
don't it?"



CHAPTER XXI

THE JUDGE'S OFFICE

Loudon dropped off the train at Damson into the arms of Johnny Ramsay
and Chuck Morgan.  Bawling "Pop goes the weasel" they fell upon him,
and the three danced upon the platform till a board broke and Chuck
Morgan fell down.

Then, in company with the more sedate Laguerre, they jingled across the
street to one of the saloons.  An hour later they were riding
northward, and Loudon was telling Johnny and Chuck what had occurred.

"O' course, just my luck!" complained Johnny.  "All done, an' I don't
have a look-in.  It's all the fault o' that criminal Chuck Morgan.
He's out on Cow Creek, an' I have to comb the range for him."

"Yuh act like I done it a-purpose!" barked Chuck.  "O' course I knowed
yuh was comin'!  That's why I went out there.  Think I'm a mind-reader?"

"Yuh wouldn't know a mind if yuh seen one," retorted Johnny.  "How
could yuh, not ownin' such a thing yoreself?  Hey!  Don't kick my
cayuse!  He's a orphan.  Go on, Tom, tell us some more about Archer."

The four men did not push their mounts.  There was no necessity for
haste, and they spent the following afternoon playing cards in a draw
five miles out of Marysville.  When the sun had set, they rode onward.

Separating at the edge of the town, that their arrival might be
unremarked, they met in the rear of Judge Allison's corral.  Alone,
Loudon approached the house on foot.  There was a light in the office.
He rapped on the door.

"Come in," called the Judge.

Loudon pushed open the door.  For an instant he glimpsed the fat figure
of the Judge and beyond him the surprised faces of Archer and Sheriff
Block, and then Archer's hand flung sidewise and knocked over the lamp.
Loudon's gun was out, but he did not dare fire for fear of hitting the
Judge.

_Bang_!  A tongue of flame spat past Loudon's chin.  Burning
powder-grains singed his neck.  A hard object smote him violently in
the pit of the stomach and knocked the wind out of him.  Loudon fell
flat on his back.  He was dimly conscious that somebody, in leaping
over him, stepped on his face, and that a horse had broken into the
Judge's office and was kicking the furniture to pieces.

"Whatsa matter?  Whatsa matter?" demanded Johnny Ramsay, stooping over
the prostrate Loudon.  "Who plugged yuh?"

"Ah--ugh--ugh--I--ca--ugh--can't--ugh--can't b-b-breathe!" gasped
Loudon.

Johnny began to tear open his friend's shirt.

"Where's he hit?" queried Chuck Morgan, anxiously.

Laguerre squatted down and struck a match.  None of the three paid the
slightest attention to the terrific uproar in the office of the Judge.

_Smash_!  A table skittered across the room and brought up against the
wall.

_Thud_!  _Bump_!  _Crash_!  A chair was resolved into its component
parts.  The horse lay down on his back and rolled to the accompaniment
of falling books, pictures, and finally the bookcase.

Loudon suddenly regained his breath and, to the astonishment of his
comrades who believed him to be seriously wounded, scrambled to his
feet and plunged through the doorway into the office.  Apparently the
horse had gathered a friend unto himself and both animals were striving
to kick their way through the wall.

Loudon felt his way across the wreckage and laid hold of a waving leg.
He worked his way up that leg, and was kicked three times in the
process, but at last his clawing fingers found a throat--a too fat
throat.  Loudon, realizing his mistake, groped purposefully for thirty
seconds, and then closed his hands round another neck and exerted
pressure.  The tumult stilled.

"Thank you, friend," huskily breathed the Judge's voice.  "Choke him
some more, but don't quite strangle him."

The Judge wriggled to his feet, and Loudon choked his squirming victim
almost into unconsciousness.  A match crackled and flared.  By its
flickering light were revealed Loudon kneeling on Archer's chest,
Archer himself purple in the face, the Judge, naked to the waist and
panting like a mogul's air-pump, and in the background the intensely
interested faces of Loudon's three friends.

Loudon eased the pressure of his fingers, and Archer breathed again.
Eyes rolling in fright, the Judge's negro peered around the door-jamb.
His master ordered him to fetch a lamp.

"Did the sheriff bring any deputies with him?" inquired Loudon,
hopefully.

"Not a deputy," replied the Judge.

"That's tough.  Well, maybe we'll find 'em later.  No use chasin' the
sheriff anyhow."

When the lamp arrived, Loudon introduced his friends.  The Judge shook
hands cordially, and recalled himself to Chuck Morgan's memory in a way
to make that gentleman grin.  One could not help but like Judge Allison
even if he did fine one on occasion.  His pink nakedness covered by a
new frock coat, the Judge sat down on the overturned bookcase.

Came a knock then at the door, and the voice of the marshal requesting
news of the Judge's welfare.  The marshal entered and gazed about him
with incurious eyes.

"I thought mebbe yuh was plugged or somethin', Judge," announced the
marshal.  "Need me?"

"No, Jim," replied the Judge.  "A gun went off by accident, and I and
my friends have been taking a little exercise.  Have you see the
sheriff anywhere in the vicinity?"

"I seen him leavin' the vicinity as fast as his hoss could carry him.
If he keeps on a-goin' at the rate he was travellin' an' don't stop
nowheres he'd ought to be in Canada inside o' two days.  Some o' yore
friends is outside, Judge.  I'll just go tell 'em it's all right.  If
yuh want me later I'll be right across the street."

The marshal departed to allay popular anxiety.  The Judge smiled.
Archer raised himself on one elbow.

"No use feelin' for yore gun," said Loudon.  "I've got it."

"Well, I'd like to know what yuh wrastled with me for, Judge,"
complained Archer.  "You an' me's always been friends."

"Friendship ceases when any friend upsets my reading-lamp," countered
the Judge.  "You might have set the house in a blaze.  It struck me,
you know, that you might possibly leave without explaining your action.
Hence my attempt at forcible restraint.  I had no other reason, of
course.  What other reason could I have?"

Archer looked his unbelief.  The Judge winked at Loudon.

"Judge," said Loudon, "in the corrals o' Cram an' Docket in Piegan City
are ninety-five head o' Barred Twin Diamond hosses, all stole from the
Flyin' M ranch up near Paradise Bend.  Them hosses was shipped from
Damson by Bill Archer here, the two Maxson boys, an' Rudd o' the 88.

"The five hosses in Archer's corral an' the one he sold you was in the
stolen bunch, too.  My friend, Telescope Laguerre, an' I can swear to a
few of 'em, an' any expert could tell yuh the brand was altered from
the Flyin' M.  How about it, Archer?"

"Nothin' to say," replied Archer, defiantly.

"This is a serious charge," murmured Judge Allison.  "Do you wish me to
issue warrants for Archer and the others, Mr. Franklin?"

"Issue all the ---- warrants yo're a mind to!" cried Archer.  "I ain't
talkin'!"

"Now look here," said Loudon.  "Turn yore tongue loose an' it won't go
so hard with yuh.  We know who's behind yuh.  What's the use o' yore
swingin' for them?  Have sense, man.  There's enough evidence against
yuh to lynch yuh forty times."

"Bring on yore bale o' rope," snarled Archer.  "I ain't worryin' none.
If yuh know who's behind me, what's the use o' askin' me anythin'?"

The contumacious Archer had the rights of the matter, and Loudon
realized it.

"We'd ought to lynch him," declared Johnny Ramsay with conviction.

"Not in Marysville, young man," said the Judge.  "Having, as it were,
been the means of preventing Archer's escape, I can not allow him to be
hung without due process of law.  I shall be delighted to commit him to
the calaboose.  Archer, you confounded rascal, I shall attach your
dance hall until I recover the price of that horse you sold me!  I
thought you were a friend of mine, and you make me a receiver of stolen
property.  The best animal I ever bought, too.  Damit, sir!  I shall
try you separately for each horse!"

"He might mebbe escape or somethin'," dubiously suggested Chuck Morgan.

"Chuck, the individuals whom I commit do not escape," the Judge said,
severely.  "And in the case of Archer I shall take particular pains to
see that he does not break jail.  Have no doubts on that score."

He broke off and cursed Archer with wholly unjudicial fervour.

"Damit!" he continued.  "If I hadn't known that the rascal wanted the
horse in order to conceal evidence, I'd have sold it back to him
to-night.  The five Barred Twin Diamond horses in his corral are no
longer there.  They vanished yesterday.  But the sorrel won't vanish.
He'll stay right in my corral till wanted.  Gentlemen, last night
someone endeavoured to steal him.  Luckily, I was watching and with a
couple of shots I drove off the would-be thief.

"To-night Archer and the sheriff came to me and wished to buy the
animal.  I refused, and they were endeavouring to persuade me when you
entered, Mr. Franklin.  By the way, if you run across Thomas Loudon,
you might tell him that the warrant issued for him has been quashed.
Tell him that I hope to meet him in the not-too-distant future.
Understand--in the future?  I shall see that the Maxson boys are put
under arrest, and a warrant issued for Rudd."

"No need of issuin' one for him," said Loudon.

"Probably not.  Still, the legal formalities must be observed."

"Shore, you've got the right idea, Judge.  Well, I guess we might as
well be weavin' along.  So long, Judge."

"So long, Mr. Franklin.  So long, gentlemen.  On your way out I wish
you'd request the marshal to step in."

"Wat ees next?" inquired Laguerre, when the four were in the saddle.

"Somebody's got to go north an' notify Scotty," replied Loudon.  "You
an' I'll scamper round the Lazy River country an' see what we can dig
up."

"I know just what's comin'!" exclaimed Johnny Ramsay, disgustedly.
"Chuck an' me are elected to travel while you an' Telescope have all
the fun.  Yo're glommin' all the excitement.  It ain't right."

"Don't fret none, Johnny-jump-up," grinned Loudon.  "Yuh'll have all
the excitement on the map when yuh come back with Scotty Mackenzie an'
the Flyin' M outfit.  What do yuh s'pose'll happen when we go bulgin'
out to the 88 to grab Rudd?  Yuh don't think there won't be a battle,
do yuh?"

"There'll be a skirmish, anyway, before we get back," complained
Johnny, "or I don't know you."

"I can't help that, can I?  If some 88 sport tries to ventilate me an'
Telescope we can't wait for you fellahs.  So that's the how of it.  You
an' Chuck slide up to the Flyin' M, an' when yuh come back yuh'll find
Telescope an' me waitin' for yuh at the Cross-in-a-box.  See?"

"Oh, I see all right," grunted Chuck Morgan.  "I see yo're a hawg, Tom.
All yuh need is bristles.  Tell yuh what, send Johnny, an' let me stay
with you.  Don't need two fellers to carry one little message."

"Not on yore life!" cried the indignant Johnny.  "Send Chuck by
himself.  I don't wanna go.  I never did like the climate up on the
Dogsoldier nohow.  It ain't healthy, an' it'll make me sick or
somethin'.  An' I ain't a-goin' to risk my valuable health for no man.
No, sir, little Johnny Ramsay ain't goin' to."

"When yuh see Scotty," said Loudon, totally unmindful of Johnny's
tirade, "tell him to bring four or five o' the boys from the Bend
besides the reg'lar outfit.  He'll want to leave a couple at the ranch.
With us four that'll be fifteen or sixteen men."

"We're elected all right, Chuck," said Johnny, mournfully.

"An' don't get rambunctious an' ride through Farewell," pursued Loudon.
"Ride round it--ride 'way round it."

"An' be sure an' wrap up our tootsies good an' warm every night,"
contributed Chuck Morgan.

"An' take our soothin' sirup before each meal," added Johnny Ramsay.
"Lend us yore teethin' ring, Tom.  I done forgot mine, an' I'm plumb
shore that careless infant, Chuck, has lost his."



CHAPTER XXII

UNDER THE RIDGE

At day's end, some forty-eight hours after parting with Johnny Ramsay
and Chuck Morgan, Loudon and Laguerre rode up to the Bar S line-camp on
Pack-saddle Creek.  Hockling and Red Kane were unsaddling.

"Hello, rustler!" bawled Red Kane.  "Don't yuh know no better'n to come
fussin' round me when I'm broke?  There's two hundred dollars reward
for yuh."

"Howdy, Red," said Loudon, grinning.  "Hello, Hock.  Shake hands with
my friend, Mr. Laguerre.  Telescope, these here bandits are Mr.
Hockling an' Mr. Kane--Red for short.  Boys, did I hear yuh say two
hundred?  Well, that shore makes me plumb ashamed.  A thousand ain't
none too much for a road-agent like me."

"Yo're right it ain't," laughed Hockling.  "But say, Tom, no jokin',
yesterday Red an' me cut the trail o' six deputies--yeah, some o' that
Farewell crowd--an' they was a-huntin' for yuh.  It was them told us
about the reward."

"Where'd yuh meet 'em?" questioned Loudon.

"Down on the Lazy.  They was ridin' east."

"Headin' for the Cross-in-a-box likely."

"Dunno as they'll go that far.  From what they said I guess now they
think yo're either on this range or holin' out in the Fryin' Pans.  Red
asked 'em didn't they need some more men--said six gents didn't seem
none too plenteous for the job.  They got kind o' mad, but they managed
to hawg-tie their tempers.  I dunno why."

"No, yuh don't!" chuckled Red Kane.  "Why, gents, Hock had his
Winchester across his horn an' was a-coverin' 'em the whole time.
Quarrelsome feller, that Hock.  Just as soon shoot yuh as say howdy."

"I never did like that Farewell gang," Hockling explained,
shamefacedly.  "They always remind me o' kyotes, rattlers, an' such.
Anyway, Tom, the outfit's with yuh.  If them fellers jump yuh, Farewell
will see some fun.  Speakin' o' fun, Farewell ain't knucklin' to Block
any too much lately.  Mike Flynn an' Buck Simpson had words the other
day, an' Buck got fourteen buckshot in his leg.  He was lucky he didn't
lose his foot.  Buck bein' a plumb favouryte o' the sheriff, Block come
bulgin' down to arrest Mike, an' Mike he stood off the sheriff with a
Winchester, an' cussed him to hellenback, an' the sheriff didn't arrest
him.  Now Mike's friends take turns livin' with him, an' keepin' guard
while he sleeps.  Dunno how it'll end.  Be a blowoff mighty soon, I
guess."

"You bet," concurred Loudon.  "Seen anythin' o' Marvin or Rudd lately?"

"Seen Rudd down near Box Hill two days ago.  He was over on our side
the creek.  Said he was huntin' strays.  I knowed he was lyin', an' I
watched him from the top o' Box Hill till he went back."

"Yeah," cried Red Kane, busy at the cooking-fire, "Hock come in that
night a-cussin' an' a-swearin' 'cause Rudd hadn't given him a chance to
finish what Cap'n Burr started.  Talked real brutal 'bout Rudd, Hock
did.  Me, I like the 88 outfit.  They're real gentle little woolly
lambs, an' some day when I ain't got nothin' else to do I'm goin' over
there with a rifle an' make 'em a heap gentler."

"Yuh'll have the chance before a great while," Loudon said, seriously.

"Is it them cows we lost?" inquired Hockling, eagerly.

"I can't tell yuh yet awhile," replied Loudon.  "Just keep yore mouths
shut an' be ready."

"Them's the pleasantest words I've heard in years," stated Red Kane.
"Grub pile, folks.  Come an' get it."

Loudon and Laguerre spent the night at the line-camp.  In the morning
they recrossed the creek.  They rode with Winchesters across their
laps, and they took advantage of every bit of cover the broken country
afforded.  Occasionally they halted, and one or the other went forward
on foot and spied out from ridge-crest or knoll-top the line of advance.

By ten o'clock they had worked south to the foot of a plateau-like
ridge opposite Box Hill and about a mile from the creek.  For the tenth
time that morning Loudon dismounted.  He sweated up the incline, panted
across the broad flat top of the ridge, and plumped himself down behind
an outcrop on the edge of the reverse slope.  He took off his hat,
poked his head past the ragged corner of the rock, and peered down into
a wide-bottomed draw.

What he saw was sufficiently amazing.  Halfway down the reverse slope,
where a stunted pine grew beside a boulder, a man lay on his stomach.
Loudon could see only his legs.  The branches of the pine concealed the
upper half of his body.  At the bottom of the slope, outlined against a
thicket of red sumac, Kate Saltoun, mounted on a black horse, was
talking to the puncher Rudd.

The duplicity of woman!  Loudon's first thought was that Kate was at
her old-time tricks--flirting again.  His second was that she was
aiding the 88 in their nefarious practices.

What did it mean?  Loudon, his eyes hard as gray flint, edged
noiselessly backward, and sat up behind the outcrop.  He signalled
Laguerre by placing two fingers on his lips, pointing over his
shoulder, and holding up one finger twice.

Then Loudon flattened his body at the corner of the outcrop, shoved his
rule forward, and covered Rudd.  Forefinger on trigger, thumb ready to
cock the hammer, he waited.

He could not hear what the two by the sumac bushes were saying.  They
were fully a hundred yards distant.  But it was evident by the way Kate
leaned forward and tapped her saddle-horn that she was very much in
earnest.  Frequently Rudd shook his head.

Loudon heard a faint rustle at his side.  He turned his head.  Laguerre
was crawling into position.

"Dunno who that sport under the pine is," whispered Loudon.  "You take
him anyhow, an' I'll take Rudd.  Get 'em both without a shot.  It's a
cinch."

Suddenly, after a decidedly emphatic shake of Rudd's head, Kate's
figure straightened, and she struck her saddle-horn a sharp blow with
the flat of her hand.  It was an action characteristic of Kate.  She
always employed it when annoyed.

Loudon smiled grimly.  With an impatient tug Kate pulled a white object
from her saddle-pocket and flung it at Rudd.  Then she wheeled her
horse on his hindlegs, jumped him ahead, and set off at a tearing run.

Rudd stooped to pick up the fallen white object, and Loudon opened his
mouth to bawl a command when he was forestalled by the watcher under
the pine.

"Hands up!" came in the unmistakable bellow of Marvin, the 88
range-boss.

Rudd stood up, his hands above his head.  The white object lay at his
feet.  Kate had halted her horse at Marvin's shout.  She turned in her
saddle and looked back.

"Keep a-goin', lady!" yelled Marvin.  "You've done enough, you have!
Now you wander, an' be quick about it!"

"Shut up, Marvin!" called Loudon.  "You always did talk too much!  Keep
yore paws up, Rudd!  This ain't nothin' like a rescue for yuh!"

"You know dat feller under de tree?" demanded Laguerre.

"Not the way you mean, Telescope," replied Loudon, without removing his
eyes from Rudd.  "He's one o' Blakely's gang--their range-boss."

"Geet up on you han's un knees, you feller," instantly ordered
Laguerre, "un move back slow."

Loudon and Laguerre, covering their men, moved down the slope.  The 88
puncher took his defeat well.  The light-blue eyes above the snub nose
met Loudon's stare serenely.

"Yo're a whizzer," observed Rudd.  "I wouldn't play poker with yuh for
a clay farm in Arkinsaw.  Yo're too lucky."

"It's a habit I've got," said Loudon.  "Now if I was you, Rudd, I'd
lower my left hand nice an' easy, an' I'd sort o' work my gun-belt down
till it slid over my knees, an' I could step out of it."

Rudd complied with this suggestion, and obeyed Loudon's request that he
step rearward a few feet and turn his back.  Loudon laid down his rifle
and drew his six-shooter.  With his left hand he scooped the belt to
one side and picked up the white object.  His eyes told him that it was
a lady's knotted handkerchief, and his fingers that three twenty-dollar
gold pieces were contained therein.  Loudon could not have been more
astounded if Rudd had suddenly sprouted two horns and a tail.

"Good-bye one small drunk an' a new saddle," remarked Rudd, hearing the
clinking of the gold.

"You ---- sneak!" snarled Marvin, approaching under convoy of Laguerre.
"I wondered what yuh wanted yore money for this mornin'.  I've been
watchin' yuh for the last two weeks.  I seen yuh a-comin' back from the
Bar S range three days ago.  Tryin' to sell us out, huh?"

"Yo're a liar," retorted Rudd, calmly.  "I ain't tellin' nothin' I
know.  Not that I know nothin' nohow."

"By ----, gents!" exclaimed Marvin.  "I ask yuh as a favour to just
gimme ten minutes barehanded with that tin-horn!  Yuh can do what you
like with me after."

"We will anyway," said Loudon.

"What is this--a sewin' circle?" Rudd inquired, contemptuously.  "I'd
as soon die o' snakebite as be talked to death."

"Well, if I was you, Tom Loudon," sneered Marvin, "I'd try to find out
just what Rudd means by meetin' Old Salt's girl.  There may be more to
it than----"

"Come round in front here, Marvin," commanded Loudon.  "Come all the
way round.  That's it.  Telescope, will yuh kindly keep an eye on the
other party?  Now, Marvin, get down on yore knees.  Down, yuh yellow
pup!  Yo're a-crowdin' the Gates Ajar so close yuh can hear 'em creak.
Marvin, say, 'I'm ashamed o' myself, an' I take it back, an' I didn't
mean nothin' nohow.'  Say it out real loud."

Slowly, his face a mask of venomous hate, Marvin repeated the words.

"Get up, an' face round," continued Loudon.  "No, not so close to Rudd.
About five yards to his right, so yuh won't be tempted."

For the past two minutes Loudon had been aware of Kate's approach.  But
he did not turn his head even when she halted her horse almost beside
him.

"What do you intend doing with these men, Tom?" she inquired, a
perceptible pause between the last two words of the sentence.

"Take 'em to the Cross-in-a-box," replied Loudon, without looking at
her.  "They'll hang--in time."

"May I have a few words alone with you?"

"Shore, ma'am, shore.  I guess two won't be too many to watch,
Telescope."

He walked at Kate's stirrup till they were out of earshot.  Then he
turned and looked up into her face in silence.  She gazed at him with a
curious, questioning look in her black eyes.

She had become thinner since their last meeting.  But her lips were as
red as ever.  She had lost none of her beauty.  Loudon raised his hand.
In the open palm was the knotted bit of linen containing the gold
pieces.

"Here's yore handkerchief," said he.

Kate made no move to take it.  Instead, she continued to look at him, a
crooked little smile on her lips.  Loudon was the first to lower his
gaze.  His arm dropped to his side.

"You are trying to be disagreeable," said Kate, "and you succeed in
being foolish.  The money belongs to that man.  He earned it, and it's
his."

"It won't do him any good," muttered Loudon.

"That depends on how he spends it."

"He'll never live to spend it."

"You're mistaken.  You will let him go."

"That's likely, that is!"

"It's quite likely.  In fact, it's a certainty.  You will let Rudd go."

"Djuh know he's a hoss thief?  Do yuh?  I've got proof.  He's one o'
the bunch stole Scotty's hosses.  An' yuh want me to let him go?"

"I want you to let him go."

"Well, I won't."

"Listen, Tom, listen to me, please.  And take off that horrid, stubborn
expression.  You look exactly like a sulky child.  There, that's much
better.  Don't smile if it hurts you, grumpy.  There, I knew it would
come.  Oh, it's gone again.  Well, anyhow, you haven't forgotten how to
smile, and that's a blessing."

"I hate to hurry yuh, but----"

"I know what a bore it is to be compelled to listen to me, but you'll
have to endure the ordeal.  Listen, if it hadn't been for me Rudd
wouldn't have been here to-day, and you wouldn't have caught him."

"We'd have caught him later."

"Perhaps you wouldn't.  At any rate, he'd probably have had a chance to
make a fight.  As it is, he was caught like a rat in a trap.  And if it
wasn't for me he wouldn't be in the trap."

"Marvin would 'a' got him if we didn't."

"Marvin has nothing to do with it.  The fact remains that I am to blame
for the capture of Rudd."

"We're much obliged to yuh."

"That isn't worthy of you, Tom."

"I beg yore pardon.  I was too quick."

"Granted.  You were.  Since I am to blame, I can do no less than see
that he goes free."

"It's no use a-talkin'.  He don't go free."

"He will--if I have to keep you here till doomsday.  Listen, did you
remark the sublime manner in which Marvin jumped at conclusions?  You
did.  Exactly."

"I knowed he was wrong, o' course."

"Oh, you did.  How did you know?"

"Well--I--knowed you."

To Loudon's astonishment Kate burst into shrill laughter.

"For this certificate of good character I thank you," said she, wiping
her eyes.  "Heavens, if you hadn't made me laugh I'd have gone off into
hysterics!  What odd minds you men have.  Upon my word, I--but no
matter.  Marvin has no grounds for saying that Rudd tried to sell out
the 88.  I ought to know.  I did my best to pump him, but I couldn't
get a word out of him.  He is a clam.  I worked so hard, too.  It made
me frightfully angry."

"So that was it!  I know yuh was mad about somethin' when yuh banged
yore horn thataway an' throwed that handkerchief at him.
But--but--say, what was the money for, anyhow?"

"That I cannot tell you.  I am endeavouring at the present moment to
point out the difference between Marvin and Rudd.  Marvin
thought--various things, while Rudd, with good reason for believing
that I had betrayed him--it really had a suspicious look about it, you
know--uttered no word of reproach."

"Well, just 'cause he acts like a white man, is that any reason for
lettin' him go?"

"It is my reason for standing by him."

"Well, you've stood by him.  Yuh can't do more.  An' it ain't done a
bit of good."

"If you knew what he did you'd let him go."

"I do know.  That's why I'm freezin' to him."

"If you knew what he did for--for me," patiently persisted Kate, "you'd
let him go."

"What did he do for you?"

"I can't tell you.  Take my word for it, can't you?"

"How can I?  He's a hoss thief."

"Listen, he was leaving this country.  He's quitting the 88 for good.
If he had gotten away he'd never have troubled again the Lazy or
Dogsoldier ranches.  What, then, will you gain by hanging him?"

"It's the law, Kate--the law of the range.  You know that."

"Law!  Piecrust!  If I told you that Rudd had saved my life at the risk
of his own would you let him go?"

"An' he took money for that?"  Disgust was rampant in Loudon's tone.

"The taking part is neither here nor there.  Remains the fact of his
saving my life--at the risk of his own, remember.  Now will you let him
go?  Oh, it's no use asking him," she added, quickly, as Loudon half
turned.  "He'd probably deny it."

"Oh, what's the use, Kate?" exclaimed Loudon, impatiently.  "If Rudd
had stolen my hoss or done somethin' special to me I'd let him go to
oblige yuh, but it's Scotty has the say.  His hosses was stole.  An'
I'm workin' for Scotty.  Can't yuh see how it is?"

"I see that you intend to deny my request," Kate said, her black eyes
fixed unwaveringly on Loudon's gray ones.

"I've got to."

"Very well.  But suppose we have Rudd come here a moment.  I'd like you
to hear what he has to say.  Oh, I'll make him talk."

"But----"

"Good heavens!  You're not going to refuse me this little favour, are
you?  Rudd's a prisoner.  He can't get away.  Call him over, and
afterward if you intend to hold him there's nothing to prevent you."

Loudon shouted to Laguerre.  Rudd, his arms still elevated, walked
toward them slowly.  Loudon kept him covered.  Kate dismounted, leaving
the reins on her horse's neck.

"Tom," said she, "give me that money, please.  I'd like to give it to
him myself."

Loudon handed her the handkerchief.  Kate took it and leaned against
her horse's shoulder.  One arm was flung across the saddle.  Rudd
halted in front of Loudon.  Kate, holding the horse by the bit, stepped
forward and stood beside Loudon.

"Here he is," said Loudon.  "What----"

With surprising agility Kate whirled, seized Loudon's gun hand in a
desperate grip and jammed her thumb down between the hammer and the
firing-pin.  Her left arm encircled his waist, and her head was twisted
sidewise under his chin.

"Run!" she panted.  "My horse!  The money's in the saddle-pocket!"

Kate hardly needed to speak.  Rudd had leaped the instant Loudon's
six-shooter was deflected.  Before the word "saddle-pocket" had passed
Kate's lips Rudd was in the black's saddle, and the animal was
thundering away at a furious gallop.

Loudon, straining to break the girl's hold without hurting her, failed
lamentably.  The two struggling figures swayed to and fro, Kate, her
teeth set, hanging on like a bulldog.  Loudon's muscles suddenly
relaxed.

"All right," he said, "he's out o' range."

Kate loosened her hold on his waist and endeavoured to draw back.  But
her right hand was fast.

"You pulled the trigger, Tom," said she, calmly.  "My thumb's caught."

Loudon raised the hammer, and the hand fell away.  The tender flesh of
the thumb was cruelly torn.  The blood dripped on the grass.  Loudon
holstered his six-shooter.

"Gimme yore hand," ordered Loudon, roughly.

He lifted her hand, placed her thumb to his lips, and sucked the wound
clean.  Kate watched him in silence.  When the edges of the torn flesh
were white and puckery Loudon cut away part of Kate's sleeve and made a
bandage of the fabric.

"Guess yuh'll be all right now," he said.  "But yuh hadn't ought to 'a'
done a fool trick like that.  Yuh might 'a' got lockjaw."

"Thank you," Kate said, white-lipped.  "Why--why don't you give me fits
for--for helping him to escape?"

"It's done," Loudon replied, simply.  "Yuh had yore reasons, I guess."

"Yes, I had my reasons."  Kate's tone was lifeless.

Without another word they walked back to where Laguerre stood beside
the sumac bushes.  The half-breed's face was impassive, but there was a
slight twinkle in his eye as he threw a quick look at Kate.

"You'll be leavin' us now, Miss Saltoun," observed Loudon, coldly.
"I'll get yuh Rudd's pony."

Silently he led forward Rudd's rawboned cayuse and held him while Kate
mounted.  She settled her feet in the stirrups and picked up the reins.
She met Loudon's gaze bravely, but her eyes were shining with unshed
tears.  Kate slid her tongue across the edges of her dry lips.  She
tried to speak, but could not.  She bowed her head and touched her
horse with the spur.

"Where's yore hoss, Marvin?" inquired Loudon.

"Over behind the ridge in a gully," replied Marvin.  "What yuh goin' to
do with me?"

"Hang yuh--in time."

"What for?"

"For bein' too active, Marvin, an' for pickin' the wrong friends.  Yuh
see, Marvin, we've caught Bill Archer an' the Maxson boys, an' the
hosses are waitin' for Scotty in Cram an' Docket's corrals in Piegan
City.  Shorty Simms has cashed.  Rudd's wandered, an' now we've caught
you.  We're sort o' whittlin' yuh down like.  When Scotty comes we'll
get the rest o' yuh.  Yuh see, Marvin, yuh hadn't ought to 'a' used
Bill Archer.  He talks when he's drunk."

To this statement Marvin immediately attributed the most sinister
meaning even as Loudon intended he should.  Wherein he had failed with
Archer, Loudon hoped to succeed with Marvin.  The latter, given time to
consider impending death might, if promised immunity, talk freely.

"Where we goin' now?" Marvin inquired, uneasily.

"To the Cross-in-a-box," replied Loudon, strapping on Rudd's
cartridge-belt--Laguerre was wearing Marvin's.  "I want Jack Richie to
see yuh.  An' don't get talkative about how Rudd got away.  I tell yuh
flat if yuh open yore mouth about that lady yuh'll be committin'
suicide."

"Dat ees right," declared Laguerre, staring fixedly at the range-boss.
"Only you un Rudd was here.  I see nobody else."

"You hear, Marvin," Loudon said, grimly.  "Now stick yore hands behind
yore back.  I'm goin' to tie 'em up."

Marvin swore--and obeyed.

"Don't tie 'em so tight," he entreated.

"Yo're too slippery to take chances on," retorted Loudon.  "Seen the
sheriff lately?"

"Ain't seen him for a month."

"Yo're a cheerful liar.  Still it don't matter much.  He'll be gathered
in with the rest o' you murderers when the time comes.  They say
hangin's an easy death--like drownin'.  Djever think of it, Marvin?"

That luckless wight swore again.  Black gloom rode his soul.

"All set," announced Loudon.  "C'mon."

The three plodded up the slope of the ridge.  When Loudon's head rose
above the crest he saw to his intense disgust that six horsemen were
picturesquely grouped about Brown Jug and the gray.  The six were
staring in various directions.  Two were gazing directly at the three
on the ridge.  Loudon and Laguerre, forgetting their charge for the
moment, flung themselves down.

Promptly the six men tumbled out of their saddles and began to work
their Winchesters.  Loudon, aiming with care, sent an accurate bullet
through a man's leg.  Laguerre dropped a horse.

Then Loudon, mindful of the prisoner, looked over his shoulder.
Marvin, running like a frightened goat, was half-way to the shelter of
the sumacs.

"Blow ---- out of 'em, Telescope!" cried Loudon.  "I got to get Marvin!"

He rolled a few yards down the slope and knelt on one knee.  He dropped
two bullets in quick succession in front of Marvin's flying feet.

"C'mon back!" he shouted.  "The next one goes plumb centre!"

Marvin halted.  He returned slowly.  Loudon, watching him, became aware
that Laguerre's rifle was silent.  He glanced quickly around.
Laguerre, with his skinning-knife, was picking frantically at a jammed
cartridge.  At his feet lay Marvin's rifle, the lever half down, and
the bullet end of a cartridge protruding from the breech.  Both rifles
had jammed at the crucial moment.

"Take mine," said Loudon, and tossed his rifle to Laguerre.  "'Tsall
right, Marvin," he continued in a shout, "Keep a-comin'.  I can reach
yuh with a Colt!  What yuh cussin' about, Telescope?  Mine jam, too?"

"Dem feller pull out," growled Laguerre.  "While I was try for feex my
Winchestair dey spleet un go two way.  Dey behin' de nex' heel now.
Dey tak' our pony too, ---- 'em."

"Set us afoot, huh?  That's nice.  Couldn't have a better place to
surround us in, neither.  No cover this side.  Let's cross the draw.
There's somethin' that looks like rocks over there."

Driving Marvin ahead of them they crossed the draw at a brisk trot and
climbed the opposite slope.  Loudon had not been mistaken.  There were
rocks on the ground beyond.  From the edge of the draw the land fell
away in a three-mile sweep to the foot of a low hill.  Loudon grinned.

"They can't Injun up on us from this side," he said.  "We'll stand 'em
off all right."

Swiftly they filled in with rocks the space between two fair-sized
boulders.  Then they tied the wretched Marvin's ankles and rolled him
over on his face behind their tiny breastwork.

"I don't think any lead'll come through," said Loudon, cheerfully.  "It
looks pretty solid.  But it would shore be a joke if one o' yore
friend's bullets should sift through yuh, Marvin, now wouldn't it?"

Leaving Marvin to discover, if Providence so willed, the point of the
joke, Loudon picked up his rifle and lay down behind the smallest
boulder.  Laguerre, lying on his side, was working at his jammed breech
action.  He worried the shell out at last, and took his place.

Loudon saw Laguerre put a small pebble in his mouth, and he frowned.
Not till then had he realized that he was thirsty.  He followed
Laguerre's example.  Pack-saddle Creek was close by, and it might as
well have been distant a hundred miles.  The thought made Loudon twice
as thirsty, in spite of the pebble rolling under his tongue.  Far down
the draw, on Loudon's side of the breastwork, two riders appeared.

"Two of 'em in sight, Telescope," said Loudon.  "See any?"

"Me, no.  What dey do, dem two?"

"They're crossin' the draw.  Now they're climbin' up.  They think we're
still where we was.  Hope they come right along."

The two riders galloped toward the boulders.  Loudon and Laguerre,
flattening their bodies, squeezed close to the rock.  When the
galloping pair were three quarters of a mile distant they halted.

"They don't just like the looks o' these rocks," observed Loudon.
"Well, they give us credit o' havin' sense, anyway."

The two horsemen began to circle.  Loudon settled himself and squinted
along his sights.  His finger dragged on the trigger.  It was a long
shot, and he missed.  The two men immediately separated.  One rode back
over the way they had come.  The other galloped out a mile and a half,
then turned and rode parallel to the draw.  Opposite the rear of the
breastwork he halted.

"How they do think of everythin'," remarked Loudon.  "But if they guess
we can't get away to-night they can guess again.  I dunno what we'll do
with Marvin.  Yo're puttin' us to a heap o' trouble, you are, Mister
Range-Boss.  Say, while I think of it, have yuh branded anymore Crossed
Dumbbell cows?"

Marvin was silent.  The mocking voice continued:

"That was shore well thought of, Marvin, but yuh was whirlin' too wide
a loop.  Instead o' tryin' to make me out a rustler yuh'd ought to 'a'
shot me in the back like yuh did the Sheriff o' Sunset."

"I didn't kill him," grunted the stung Marvin.

"I know yuh didn't.  When I said you I meant yore outfit.  Shorty Simms
pulled the trigger."

"Nothin' to do with me."

"Maybe not.  We'll see."

"Yuh can't prove nothin'."

"Keep on a-thinkin' so if it helps yuh any.  Yuh'd ought to know,
Marvin, that in any gang o' thieves there's always one squealer,
sometimes two.  In this case, one's enough, but we don't object to
another."

"Oh, ----!" grunted Marvin.  "Yuh give me a pain."

"I expect.  Yuh see, Marvin, a while back yuh accused Rudd o' sellin'
yuh out.  Them words have a right innocent sound, ain't they now?
Shore they have.  Why, yuh blind fool, do yuh s'pose we'd be a-freezin'
to yuh this way if we didn't have yuh dead to rights?"

Marvin lay very still.  He almost appeared not to breathe.

"Yuh ain't got out o' this hole yet," he muttered.

"We will, don't yuh worry none about that.  An' we'll take yuh with
us--wherever we go.  Think it all over, Marvin.  I may have something'
to say to yuh later."

_Crack_!  A rifle spoke on the opposite ridge, and a bullet glanced off
Loudon's boulder with a discordant whistle.  _Crack_!  _Crack_!
_Crack_!  Long 45-90 bullets struck the breast-work with sharp
splintering sounds, or ripped overhead, humming shrilly.

"Let's work the old game on 'em," suggested Loudon.  "There's room for
two my side."

Laguerre crawled over and lay down beside Loudon.  The latter had
aligned several large rocks beside his boulder.  Between these rocks
the two thrust the barrels of their rifles.  One would fire.  On the
heels of the shot an opposing rifle would spit back.  Then the other
would fire into the gray of the smoke-cloud.

It is an old trick, well known to the Indian fighters.  Loudon and
Laguerre employed it for half an hour.  Then the enemy bethought
themselves of it, and Laguerre returned to the other end of the
breastwork with a hole in his hat and his vest neatly ripped down the
back.

The five deputies kept up a dropping fire.  But the two behind the
breastwork replied infrequently.  Ammunition must be conserved.  They
anticipated brisk work after nightfall.  They waited, vigorously
chewing pebbles, and becoming thirstier by the minute.  The boulders
radiated heat like ovens.

The afternoon lengthened.  It was nearing five o'clock when Loudon
suddenly raised his head.

"Where was that rifle?" he inquired, sharply.

"Ovair yondair--not on de ridge," replied Laguerre.

"That's what I thought.  Maybe--there she goes again.  Two of 'em."

The rifles on the ridge snarled angrily.  But no bullets struck the
breastwork.  The barking of the deputies' rifles became irregular,
drifted southward, then ceased altogether.  A few minutes later five
horsemen and a led horse crossed the draw a mile to the south.

"Two of 'em hit bad," declared Loudon.

"Yuh bet yuh," said Laguerre.  "See dat!  One of 'em tumble off."

"They're gettin' him aboard again.  Takin' our hosses along, the
skunks!  There goes our friend out yonder."

The man who had been watching the rear of the breast-work galloped to
meet his friends.  Five minutes later they all disappeared behind one
of the western hills.

"Hey, you fellers!" bawled a voice from the shelter of the ridge across
the valley.  "Where are yuh, anyway?"

"That's Red Kane," laughed Loudon, and stood up.  "Here we are!" he
yelled.  "C'mon over!  We're all right.  Not a scratch!"

Red Kane and Hockling, leading three horses, appeared on the crest of
the ridge.



CHAPTER XXIII

THE SMOKE OF CONFLICT

"Found him hid right pretty in a gully," said Hockling, indicating the
extra horse.

"Yore hoss, Marvin?" queried Loudon.

Marvin nodded surlily.  He had had his share of the water in the
rescuers' canteens, but he was no happier.

"It's shore providential, yore happenin' down this way," said Loudon.
"We'll do as much for you some day."

"Yo're welcome, but it ain't none providential, Tom," denied Hockling.
"Me an' Red was fixin' the corral fence at the camp when up come Kate
Saltoun on the jump an' says how yuh was standin' off six men opposite
Box Hill.  'It's them deputies!' shouts Red, an' ropes a hoss
immediate.  Well, we come along, the three of us, an' that's all.  It
was long range, but I think I drilled one deputy.  Red creased one,
too."

"Yuh bet I did!" cried Red Kane.  "I seen his arm flop when I fired."

"What's that about the three o' yuh comin' along?" said Loudon.

"Why, Kate, she was with us.  She changed her saddle to one of our
fresh hosses.  She wouldn't quit nohow till she heard yuh say yuh was
all right.  Then she started off home.  Funny, she was ridin' a 88 pony
when she struck the line-camp."

"That's odd, but it don't matter none.  I'll--I'll see Kate later."

"Shore," said Hockling, wondering at the lack of warmth in Loudon's
tone.  But Western etiquette forbids the questioning of another's
motives.

"Say," remarked Red, hastening to break the awkward silence, "say,
won't Block feel happy when he finds we've done ventilated his
deputies?"

"Yeah," replied Loudon, "an' the funny part of it is, they ain't got no
right to arrest me.  That warrant has been pulled in."

"Yuh shore forgot to mention that last night," Hockling said,
disgustedly.  "Here Red an' me have been pattin' ourselves on the back
for runnin' a blazer on the law.  An' now, come to find out, them
deputies was in the wrong, an' so we only give 'em what was comin' to
'em, anyway."

"Well, you've got a nerve, you have!" exclaimed the indignant Loudon.
"Do yuh think I'm goin' round dodgin' warrants so you two jiggers can
run blazers on the sheriff?"

He made a swift movement.

"Leggo my legs!" yelled Hockling.  "I got on my new pants, an' I don't
want the seat tore out!  Hey, yuh idjit!  Leggo!"

When order was restored and Hockling was tenderly feeling his precious
trousers, Loudon suggested that Red, the lightest man, take Marvin's
fresh pony and ride to the line-camp for food and two horses.

"Yuh'll have yore work cut out," said Red as he mounted, "to ride them
ponies bareback.  We ain't even got a extra bridle."

"Don't worry none," Loudon said.  "We'll make bridles an' Injun
surcingles out o' Marvin's rope, an' we'll toss for his saddle."


"How you feel, Tom?" inquired Laguerre, stretched at ease on a cot in
the Cross-in-a-box ranch house.

"Whittled to the chin," replied Loudon.  "Which that pony's ridgepole
could give odds to a knife-blade on bein' sharp.  We might 'a' knowed
Marvin would win the toss.  His own saddle, too."

"Eet ees de las' piece o' luck she weel have for varree long tam."

"I ain't so shore about that.  There's no real evidence to show that
Marvin's a rustler.  'Ceptin' Rudd, yuh can't connect any of the 88
outfit with the hoss stealin'.  I know they done it.  I always knowed
Sam Blakely was at the bottom of it, an' I can't prove it yet.  Here's
you an' I rode from hell to breakfast an' back, an' all we've got to
show for it is Archer an' the Maxson boys--an' the hosses, o' course.
Unless I find out somethin' more soon an' sudden, I've got to take off
Marvin's hobbles.  My bluff about Bill Archer's blabbin' ain't workin'
with Marvin.  He's worried, an' he shows it, but he's standin' pat.  I
spent a solid hour with him to-night, an' all he does is cuss an' beef
about what'll happen when Blakely finds out his range-boss has been
kidnapped.  It makes me sick!"

Laguerre nodded sympathetically.

"Yuh can't tell me," continued Loudon, "that them Marysville sports was
the only ones in the hoss-stealin' deal.  If they was, then why was
Pete O'Leary expectin' Sam Blakely the day I struck the Bend, an' why
was Rufe Cutting planted in the cook's job at the Flyin' M?  It all
points--so far.  An' the rustlin' o' the Bar S an' Cross-in-a-box
cattle--there's another mystery.  Oh, it's a great life, this here
detective business!"

"Tell you w'at, Tom," Laguerre suggested, hopefully, "you un me, huh,
we weel bushwhack dees Blak'lee feller.  W'at you say?"

"Can't be did, Telescope.  We've got to get him the right way, so the
folks o' Sunset an' Fort Creek'll know just why he went.  That goes for
his outfit an' Block an' his deputies, too.  They're all in it up to
their belts.  They've made Fort Creek County what it is--a place where
a straight gent has to watch himself an' what's around him all the
time.  Shorty Simms killed the Sheriff o' Sunset, but Blakely an' the
88 made the killin' possible.  Oh, what's the use?  I'm goin' to sleep."

But Loudon did not go to sleep at once.  He had too much on his mind.
From Blakely and the 88 his perplexed thoughts shifted to Kate Saltoun
and the sinful ease with which she had made a fool of him; he had
trusted her, and she had betrayed him.  The daughter of a ranchman, she
had flouted the law of the range.  Given the thief money, too.  It was
almost incredible.

Idiot that he was, to believe for an instant that she loved him!
Knowing her of old, it served him right, he told himself.  He thanked
Heaven that he did not love her, had not loved her since that day in
the Bar S kitchen.

Quite naturally then, since he was so absolutely sure of himself and
his emotions, he wondered how Rudd had had the luck to save Kate's
life.  He wished that it had been himself, in order that he might have
made some small return for services rendered.

She had done a great deal for him at the Bend.  She had simplified a
most complex situation by bringing to his assistance Hockling and Red
Kane.  He undoubtedly owed a lot to Kate.  Nevertheless, he assured
himself that her conduct in the matter of Rudd's escape had squared the
account.  Of course it had.  And he was glad of it.  For, under the
circumstances, he would never have to see her again.  The Spinning
Sister heard, and smiled--and Loudon fell asleep.

"Hey, Tom!  Wake up!"

It was Jack Richie's voice that shouted, and it was Jack Richie's hand
that shook Loudon awake.

"Whatsa matter?"  Loudon opened sleepy eyes.

"Yore hoss is outside.  Yore hoss, Ranger, an'----"

Jack Richie was almost overset by the blanket-shedding cyclone that
whirled out of bed and through the doorway.  In front of the ranch
house stood Ranger, surrounded by Richie's amazed and conjecturing
cowboys.  The horse raised his wise head, cocked his ears, and nickered
softly at Loudon's approach.

"It's him," grinned Loudon.  "It's the little hoss.  Well, fellah, you
old tiger-eye!"

He rubbed the white spot on Ranger's nose.  The horse nipped his
fingers with soft lips.

"Found him tied to the post out back o' the wagon shed," volunteered
the cook.  "I thought I was seein' things."

"Funny he didn't whinner," said Loudon.

"There was a flour-sack over his head," explained the cook.  "Here it
is."

"That don't tell me nothin'," Loudon said.  "Everybody uses Triple X.
An' that hackamore could be just anybody's, too.  Whoever brought him
shore walked in the water."

"It ain't likely possible now," observed Jack Richie, "that Rufe
Cutting could 'a' got religion or somethin'."

"It's possible, but it ain't likely," said Loudon.  "Well, fellah,
c'mon an' get yuh a drink, an' then for the big feed.  Yo're gone off a
good forty pounds since yuh quit me."

Later, Loudon, in company with Laguerre, visited the post where Ranger
had been tied.  Laguerre closely scrutinized the ground in the vicinity.

"Hoss she been tied up six-seven hour," observed Laguerre.

"It's 'bout half-past five now.  That makes it ten or eleven when he
was brought in."

"'Bout dat.  Feller lead heem een.  Hard to read de sign on de grass,
but eet look lak de feller not walk good een hees boot--dey too beeg,
mabbeso.  Come 'long.  We weel see w'ere feller she leave hees hoss."

They followed the trail a hundred yards, and then Laguerre knelt down,
his eyes searching the grass.  He picked up a small stone and held it
up.  The stone was sharp-cornered.  It was stained a dark red.

"Feller she treep un fall on hees han's un knees," explained Laguerre.
"Lef han' heet de leetle rock, un geet cut some.  Han' bleed on eet."

Laguerre rose, tossed away the stone, and proceeded to follow the
trail.  He led the way to a tall pine some three hundred yards distant
from the ranch house.  Even Loudon's unpractised eyes told him that a
horse had stood beneath the pine.

"Here feller she climb een de saddle un go 'way," said Laguerre.  "No
use follow de trail any more."

They returned to the ranch house, Loudon wondering greatly as to the
identity of the mysterious philanthropist.  In Cow Land a stolen horse
is not returned except under compulsion.  While they were at dinner the
cook stuck his head through the doorway.

"Bunch o' riders a-comin' from the north," he announced, "an' they're
a-comin' some swift."

"Scotty!" exclaimed Loudon, and ran to the window.

"It may be the sheriff," said Jack Richie, hastening to provide himself
with a Winchester.

"It's Scotty," Loudon said.  "I can tell him a mile off.  He's wearin'
the same shirt, red sleeve an' all."

The horsemen, some thirty men, rode up at an easy lope.  Besides
Scotty, Loudon recognized Doubleday, Johnny Ramsay, Chuck Morgan, Swing
Tunstall, Giant Morton, Ragsdale, and many others.

"He's brought the whole ranch an' half the Bend," chuckled Loudon, and
then swore gently, because he suddenly remembered that there was no
evidence against Blakely.

With thirty men the 88 could be shown the error of its ways most
effectually.  And now the thirty could not be used.  What a waste of
good material!

The band of horsemen, bawling greetings to the group in the doorway,
jingled to a halt.  Loudon stepped forward and shook Scotty's proffered
hand.

"Yuh've sure done fine," said Scotty.  "Yuh've filled out just what I
said 'bout opportunity with a big O.  I ain't forgettin' it, neither.
Besides Rudd now, did yuh run across anythin' touchin' Sam Blakely?"

"Not a thing," Loudon replied, "an it's no use a-goin' out to the 88
lookin' for Rudd.  He's sloped.  My fault he got away, too."

"That's tough, but it don't matter a heap.  Yuh found the hosses an'
three o' the thieves, anyway."

"Yeah, but they ain't enough.  We'd ought to get 'em all, an' as far's
I can see there ain't no chance o' gettin' 'em all."

"Don't yuh care.  What yuh've done suits me.  I'm satisfied."

"I ain't," said Loudon, "but I s'pose I've got to be.  It makes me
sick!  Lot o' work gone for nothin'.  We grabbed the 88 range-boss on
the off-chance he'd chatter, but he won't say a word.  He's tied up in
Jack Richie's storeroom right now."

"Blakely's range-boss, huh?  Well, yuh can't hang him without proof,
Tom."

"I know that.  Got to turn him loose, o' course.  Did yuh see anythin'
o' Block or Blakely or that gang when yuh come through Farewell?"

"We didn't strike Farewell.  We rode here the shortest way.
Why--what's the matter?"

For Loudon had ripped out an amazed oath.

"Yore rope!" exclaimed Loudon.  "Where did yuh get that rope?"

"Oh, Doubleday found it down by the little corral the mornin' after him
an' the boys rode in from the Bend--after them hosses was stole."

"Why didn't yuh tell me about it then?  That rope was all I needed.
Say, Johnny, djever see this rope before?"

Loudon held up the end of the rope.  The holdfast was missing, and the
end had been lapped with many turns of whip-cord.  Johnny squinted at
the rope's end.  Jack Richie and the others crowded in.

"Yeah," said Johnny Ramsay, "now I think of it, you an' me was in Mike
Flynn's store in Farewell when Sam Blakely bought him that rope with
the whip-cord on the end.  That was the day you bought a green necktie.
Shore, I remember.  Blakely he asked Mike what that whip-cord was, an'
Mike called it whippin'."

"That's what he did," declared Loudon.  "I noticed this whippin' jigger
special, an' I can swear to it on a stack o' Bibles a mile high.  It's
the same rope all right enough."

Scotty observed that he would be consigned to everlasting damnation.
Ropes, he had supposed, were all alike.

"I knowed that rope must 'a' belonged to one o' the rustlers," said
Scotty, "but it was such a little thing that I'd forgot all about it by
the time you got back to the ranch, Tom.  Blakely's rope!  It's shore
amazin'."

"It sort o' settles the cat-hop, don't it?" said Loudon.

"Kind o'," Scotty said, his frosty blue eyes gleaming.  "We'll wander
over to the 88 right away.  I guess now we'll leave Marvin tied up yet
awhile.  We'll attend to him later.  Can yuh give us fresh hosses,
Jack?"

"Can I?" exclaimed Jack Richie.  "Watch me.  I guess me an' a few o'
the boys will ride along with yuh.  Just to see fair play like."

"Say, Scotty," Loudon said, while the fresh horses were being roped, "I
hope Pete O'Leary didn't see you an' the bunch leavin' the Bend."

"He didn't," replied Scotty.  "O'Leary ain't with us no more--No, not
that way.  He's alive yet so far as I know.  But he pulled his freight
some sudden 'bout two weeks ago.  Dunno why."

"Maybe we'll see his smilin' face again pretty soon," Loudon observed,
significantly.

"Then here's hopin' it'll be in bad company," said Scotty Mackenzie.

An hour later the band, now numbering forty-two men, started for the 88
ranch.  They rode northwest, intending to pass through Farewell, for it
was quite possible that Brown Jug and the gray had been taken into town.

As they neared the town a rattle of shots came down the wind.  With one
accord the forty-two drove the spurs into their mounts.

At the top of the slight rise above the little town they halted.  The
windows of Bill Lainey's hotel and Piney Jackson's blacksmith shop were
banked in drifting smoke through which red tongues of flame flashed at
intervals.  From the cover of boulders, wagon-bodies, the hotel corral,
and the Happy Heart Saloon, rule-working citizens were pouring lead
into the two places.  Farther up the street several Winchesters in the
Blue Pigeon Store were replying to the fire from the opposite houses
and from a barn in the rear of the store.

"Sheriff Block an' his outfit are lockin' horns with some friends o'
mine, I guess," observed Loudon.

"That ain't no way for a sheriff to act," said Scotty.  "Let's go down
an' tell him so.  Friends o' Tom's, boys."

Loudon was already galloping down the slope.  In his wake scattered
hoof-beats became a thuttering drum.  Men whooping and yelling,
wild-eyed horses straining every muscle, the charge swept down upon the
besiegers of Lainey's Hotel and Jackson's blacksmith shop.

The sheriff's friends broke like a covey of quail.  The rifles in the
hotel and blacksmith shop chattered like mad.  Loudon headed toward the
hotel corral to whose shelter two men had retreated.  But there was no
one there when he reached it.

He rode past the corral and galloped along the rear of the buildings
fronting on the street.  Twice he was shot at, one bullet nicking his
horse's hip.  But he contrived to reach the other end of the town
unwounded, raced across the street, and dismounted behind the sheriff's
corral.  His feet had barely touched the ground when Johnny Ramsay,
Laguerre, and Chuck Morgan joined him.

"Yuh idjit!" cried Johnny.  "Don't yuh know no better'n that?  Don't
yuh suppose they can hit yuh at twenty yards?  Yuh wasn't that far away
from the backs of them houses.  Ain't yuh got no sense at all?"

"Well, they didn't hit me, an' I notice three other idjits didn't have
no better sense.  Duck!"

Loudon jerked Johnny down just as a bullet gashed the side of a post
above his head.  Johnny ceased talking and ran hurriedly to where Chuck
Morgan was kneeling behind a corner of the corral.  Loudon joined
Laguerre at the other corner.

The four were in an excellent position.  The corral commanded the rear
and one side of the sheriff's shack, the rear of the Happy Heart
Saloon, and one side of the barn in the rear of the Blue Pigeon Store.

A man ran out of the barn.  Laguerre's rifle cracked.  The man
stumbled, dropped, dragged himself to his hands and knees, and then
huddled down slackly.  Laguerre pumped in another cartridge.  The
staccato din at the other end of town was increasing.  The heavy roars
of several buffalo guns punctuated the steady crackling of the
Winchesters' whip-like reports.  Loudon smiled a slow smile and cuddled
his rifle-butt against his shoulder.  The world was coming his way at
last.

"That sheriff wouldn't 'a' built his corral so solid," observed Loudon,
"if he'd looked ahead."

"You bet he wouldn'," said Laguerre.  "Dees log ees fine.  No bullet
come troo dem.  Bimeby we geet Meestair Block, mebbeso."

"He may be down in the Happy Heart.  There ain't been a shot from the
shack yet.  He's in town all right though.  His hoss and seven others
are in the corral"--Loudon peered through a crack in the logs--"I can't
see the brands.  They're turned the wrong way."

"Dere ees a lot o' pony een dat corral down dere," said Laguerre.

"That's behind the Happy Heart Saloon.  Lord help 'em if they try to
slide out on 'em."

_Zing-g-g_!  A bullet ricochetted from a near-by boulder and hummed
above Loudon's hat.

"That came from the barn," said Loudon, firing at a gray smoke-cloud
high up on the side of the structure.  "They've knocked a hole in a
board, I guess.  Yep"--as the thinning smoke revealed a black
opening--"they have."

Shooting carefully and without haste, Loudon and Laguerre rendered
firing from that hole in the barn a case of suicide.  From their corner
Johnny Ramsay and Chuck Morgan alternately drove questing bullets into
the barn and the rear of the Happy Heart Saloon.

The firing from the barn slackened.  That from the Happy Heart
redoubled in vigour.  The glass window-sashes began to fall in tinkling
rain on the ground.

"The boys must 'a' gotten into the houses across the street," said
Loudon.  "They're a-firin' right through the saloon."

"She weel be dark een two hour," Laguerre remarked, irrelevantly.

"I know it.  We'll have to finish up before then or they'll getaway.
Plug any, Johnny?"

"One," was the laconic reply of that expert with a rifle.

"He didn't, neither!" denied Chuck Morgan.  "I got him.  Johnny was
loadin' his rifle at the time the feller cashed.  Johnny couldn't hit a
flock o' barn doors flyin' low--not with his rifle."

"Oh, couldn't I, huh?" yapped Johnny Ramsay.  "Well, if I hadn't 'a'
got him you'd be a-lyin' there right quiet an' peaceful with yore hat
over yore face.  I hit what I aim at.  I ain't been shootin' holes in
boards like some people."

At this juncture the door of the Happy Heart opened a crack, and Johnny
and Chuck forgot their argument at once.  The door closed abruptly, the
wood near the knob gashed and scarred by several bullets.

"This is gettin' monotonous," said Loudon.  "I thought there'd be
action this side an' there ain't a bit.  The barn has gone to sleep.
I'm goin' into the sheriff's shack.  I'll bet it's empty."

"Dey geet you from the barn, mabbeso," Laguerre suggested.

"No, they won't--not if yuh keep 'em away from that hole."

Loudon laid his rifle down, pulled his hat firmly over his ears, and
raced toward the shack, jerking out his revolvers as he ran.  He
reached the door of the shack without a shot having been fired at him.

Fully aware that death might be awaiting his entry, he drove his
shoulder against the door and burst it open.  He sprang across the
doorsill and halted, balancing on the balls of his feet.

Save for the loud ticking of an alarm clock there was no sound in the
shack.  The door of the front room stood open.  Through the doorway
Loudon glimpsed a broken chair, and beside it, where the floor sagged,
a pool of blood.  Loudon walked into the front room.

His eyes beheld a scene of the wildest disorder.  There had been a
fierce fight in that front room.  On his back on the floor, his legs
under the table, lay Sheriff Block, his black beard reddened with blood
from a wound in the cheek.  One hand gripped the butt of a six-shooter
and the other clutched the breast of his flannel shirt.  There were two
bullet-holes in the sheriff's chest.

Across the base of the closed front door lay the body of Rufe Cutting.
He had been literally cut to pieces.  Only his face was unmarked.
Otherwise he was a ghastly object.  From beneath his body oozy runlets
of blood had centred in the pool beside the chair.

Propped up against the side wall, his legs outstretched, sat a
stranger.  Blood spotted and stained the floor about him.  He had been
shot in the legs and the chest.  Across his knees lay a Winchester.
Beside him a long knife, red from hilt to point, was stuck upright in
the floor.  The stranger's chin was on his breast, a bloody froth
flecked his lips.  So positive was Loudon that the stranger was dead,
that, when the man jerked his head upright, he jumped a full yard
backward.  Weakly the wounded man plucked at his Winchester, his dull
eyes fixed on Loudon.  The latter ran to his side.

"It's all right, stranger," cried Loudon, "I'm a friend."

At this assurance the stranger ceased in his effort to raise his rifle.

"Water," he muttered, faintly, "water."

In a corner stood a bucket and a tin dipper.  Loudon scooped up a
dipperful and held it to the man's lips.  He drank chokingly, and half
the water spilled out on his shirt.

"Stranger," muttered the wounded man, "I'm goin' away from here in a
hurry.  Pull off my boots, will yuh?"

Loudon complied with the request.  The removal of the boots must have
cruelly hurt the wounded legs, but the man did not even groan.

"That's better," muttered the man, when the boots were off.  "I was
hopin' I wouldn't have to cash with 'em on.  Who's yore friend?"

Loudon whirled, for his nerves were on edge, and Laguerre, who had
entered without a sound, only saved himself from death by a cat-like
leap to one side.  As it was, Loudon's bullet missed him by the veriest
fraction of an inch.  Loudon shamefacedly holstered his weapon.

"My fault," said Laguerre, calmly.  "Nex' time eet ees bes' I speak
firs', yes.  Who ees de man?"

"I dunno.  Who are yuh, stranger?"

"Did yuh kill him?" queried the stranger, his eyes beginning to film
over.

"No, he's a friend, too.  Can't yuh tell yore name?"

"I'm Tom Hallaway," was the thickly uttered response.  "Rufe Cutting
killed my brother Jim an' stole his pinto hoss.  Block was with
Cutting, an' helped him.  I got 'em both.  I said I'd cut Rufe's heart
out--an' I sure--done it.  Gimme a--drink."

But before the water came Tom Hallaway's head fell forward, and he died.

"Look here," said Laguerre, who had looked out of the window opposite
Tom Hallaway.

Loudon went to the window.  Beneath it two dead men were sprawled.
Their stiffened fingers clutched six-shooters.

"They drilled him through the window," said Loudon, "an' he got 'em
both."

Laguerre nodded solemnly.

"Brave man, dat Tom Hallaway," said Telescope Laguerre.



CHAPTER XXIV

BEFORE THE DAWN

The window through which Tom Hallaway had been shot faced the open
country.  The other two windows in the room flanked the front door.
The thoughtful Laguerre had brought Loudon's rifle in with him, and the
two men squatted down behind the windows.  Their view of Main Street
was excellent.  They could see almost the whole width of the street
from one end of the town to the other.

Far down the street the windows of Lainey's Hotel were smoking like the
gunports of an old-time line-o'-battle-ship.  The men in the hotel
seemed to be devoting all their attention to the Happy Heart and the
houses between it and Piney Jackson's blacksmith shop.

Directly opposite the Happy Heart was a small store from which three or
four men were directing a heavy fire at the saloon.  Next to the store
were four empty corrals, and then came some twenty houses, the
twentieth opposite the sheriff's shack.  Of these houses all save the
three nearest the corrals were silent.  The folk in these three were
carrying on a duel: with the defenders of the Blue Pigeon Store, whose
fire had slackened somewhat.

"I hope they haven't got Mike," said Loudon, and drove a bullet close
above a window-sill of the middle house of the three.  "He's a good
fellah."  Another bullet nicked the window-sill.  "This can't go on
forever."  Again a bullet shaved the window-sill.  "Somethin's going'
to pop some soon."

Something did pop.  The firing from the Happy Heart culminated in a
terrific volley, and then ceased abruptly.

"That's funny," commented Loudon.  "It can't----  They're sliding out!"

Which latter remark was called forth by a sudden outburst of firing
from the corral where Johnny and Chuck were stationed.  Loudon and
Laguerre ran out the back way.  The former's surmise was correct.

The Happy Heart defenders had broken cover and reached the big corral
behind the saloon.  Four of them were down in front of the corral gate.
They would never pull trigger again.  But the others, in number a score
or more, had reached their horses and were pouring out of the gate in
the far side of the corral.

Loudon perceived that the two riders in the lead were mounted on Brown
Jug and the gray.  These two kept together.  The remaining fugitives
wisely fled separately and in many directions.

Loudon and Laguerre did not fire.  The range was a long six hundred
yards; too long for accurate shooting when the target is astride a
racing horse.  Imbued with the same idea they ran to their horses,
flipped the reins over their heads, and jammed their Winchesters into
the scabbards.  Both ponies were galloping at full speed when the two
were settled in their saddles.

"We can not catch dem!" cried Laguerre ten minutes later.

"We'll try, anyhow," replied Loudon, standing up in the stirrups to
ease his horse, and wishing that he had ridden Ranger.

Half an hour later it became obvious that pursuit was useless.  Brown
Jug and the gray had the legs of the pursuer's horses.  The sun was
setting, too.  Loudon and Laguerre pulled in their panting mounts.

"Here comes Johnny an' Chuck," said Loudon.

"Could yuh tell who they was?" demanded Johnny, breathlessly.

"They kept their backs to us," Loudon replied, drily, "an' they didn't
leave any cards."

"Ain't got no manners at all," said Johnny Ramsay.  "They're headin'
northwest, an' they shore ought to get there.  C'mon back, I'm dry."

"They was seven 88 ponies in Block's corral," said Chuck Morgan.
"Let's hurry.  Maybe we can get the owners yet."

"If they ain't already been got," said Johnny Ramsay.

"Seven 88 ponies," repeated Loudon.  "I seen 'em in the corral, but I
couldn't see the brand.  Seven.  That means seven o' the outfit was in
Farewell, an' more'n seven, maybe.  I don't believe Blakely was there.
He's been mighty cautious lately.  Well, anyhow, countin' seven at
Farewell, there'd ought to be eight more at the four line-camps.
Rudd's quit, an' Marvin is hogtied, an' Shorty Simms is dead.
Accordin' to my figurin', that makes eighteen."

"Yo're well educated, Mr. Loudon," said Johnny Ramsay.

"Correct.  Well, then, unless Blakely has hired a bunch o' new men,
which ain't likely, then eighteen from twenty-five leaves seven."

"First class in 'rithmetic will take the front seats," remarked Chuck,
solemnly.  "The little boys mustn't sit with the little girls.
Attention, children, an' I'll interduce our new teacher, Mr. Thomas
Loudon, a well-known----  Hi!  you leave my cayuse alone, Tom!  I'm the
only gent he allows to spur him.  Damitall, he's goin' to buck, an' I'm
all het up, anyhow.  Oh, ----!  I knowed it!"

"Chuck ought to ride pitchers for a livin'," commented Loudon.  "Ain't
he graceful?  Go yuh ten, Telescope, he pulls leather."

Chuck returned to them ten minutes later.  He sidled his now thoroughly
chastened pony in between Ramsay and Laguerre.

"I'll have nothin' more to do with that long-legged feller on the left
o' the line," Chuck announced to the world at large.  "He'd just as
soon break a friend's neck as not.  He ain't got no feelin's whatever.
'Rithmetic's done locoed him."

"As I was sayin' before I was interrupted," said Loudon, grinning,
"eighteen from twenty-five leaves seven.  There oughtn't to be more'n
seven men at the 88 ranch house an' they won't be expectin' callers.
There's four of us.  What's the answer?"

"Dat ees fine," Laguerre said.  "We weel geet dere before Scotty un de
odders come.  I say we go."

"Me, too," said Johnny Ramsay.

"But no more 'rithmetic!" Chuck Morgan cried in mock alarm.  "It shore
makes my head ache, 'rithmetic does."

They swung away from Farewell and entered a long draw, dark with the
purple shadows of the twilight.

"Wasn't there nobody at all in Block's shack?" queried Johnny Ramsay,
rolling a cigarette one-handed.

"Three," replied Loudon.

"Huh!" Johnny Ramsay was startled.

"Two was dead an' the third was dyin'," explained Loudon.  "He cashed
before we come out.  His name was Tom Hallaway.  You remember about
Cutting stealin' my hoss.  Well, him an' Block turned up in Rocket, an'
Cutting was ridin' a blaze-face pinto.  Come to find out, the pinto
belonged to a fellah named Jim Hallaway, an' Jim was found murdered.
The way I figure it: Cutting knowed better'n to ride in on my hoss, so
he killed Jim an' took his pony, leavin' my hoss back in the hills
some'ers.  Later he went back after Ranger, an' sloped with the pair.

"This Tom Hallaway was Jim's brother.  The two dead men in the shack
was the sheriff an' Cutting.  Yeah, Rufe Cutting.  It'd been better for
him if he'd gone south like the sheriff said he did.  Rufe was carved
up tremendous, an' Block had been plugged three times.  Hallaway got
'em both.  Two o' the Farewell boys got him though--through the window.
But they didn't live long enough to tell about it.  He got them plumb
centre.  Yep, four was Hallaway's tally.  He shore paid 'em in full for
killin' Jim."

"Which I should say as much," murmured Chuck Morgan, admiringly.  "He
was some man!"

"An' he had to die," said Loudon.  "All on account o' them measly
skunks.  Well, by the time Scotty an' that crowd get through with
Farewell a Sunday-school won't be in it with the town."

"Yo're whistlin'," said Johnny Ramsay.

The four pushed their mounts almost to the limit of their strength.  At
three in the morning they dismounted in a grove of singing pines.  The
88 ranch buildings were a bare quarter-mile distant.

They tied their horses and went forward on foot.  Their plan was to
enter the ranch house and take Blakely prisoner while he slept.  It was
a sufficiently foolhardy proceeding, for Blakely was known to be a
light sleeper.  And there might be more than seven men in the
bunkhouse.  If the scheme miscarried, and Blakely should give the
alarm----  But the four men wasted little thought on that contingency.

Silently they approached the dark blots that were the ranch buildings.
Foot by foot they edged along between the two corrals.

At the blacksmith shop they halted.  To the right, and fifty or sixty
yards away, was the bunkhouse.  In front of them stretched the square
shape of the ranch house.  Loudon sat down and pulled off his boots.
The others followed his example.

"I'm goin' down to the bunkhouse first," Loudon whispered.  "I can tell
by the snores, maybe, how many we've got to count in."

Loudon slid silently toward the bunkhouse.  In ten minutes he was back.

"Not a snore," he whispered.  "I listened at each window.  There ain't
a sound in that bunkhouse.  If the boys are gone, then Blakely's gone.
There's only one window open in the ranch house.  I didn't hear nothin'
there, either."

Leaving Johnny on guard at the back door, Loudon and the others tiptoed
around the ranch house.  They leaned their rifles against the wall
beside the door and Loudon laid his hand on the latch.  Slowly he
lifted the latch and slowly, very slowly, so that it would not creak,
he pushed the door open.  Once inside they halted, nerves a-stretch,
and ears straining to catch the slightest sound.  But there was no
sound.

Loudon knew that there were three rooms, an office, and a wide hall in
the ranch house, but where Blakely was in the habit of sleeping he did
not know.  While Laguerre and Chuck Morgan remained in the hall, Loudon
felt his way from room to room.

Still hearing no sound he grew bolder and struck a match.  He found
himself in the office.  In company with the others he visited every
room in turn.  Each was empty.  In one room the flickering matchlight
revealed a bed.  The blankets were tumbled.  An alarm clock hanging on
a nail above the bed had stopped at half-past two.

"Blakely left yesterday, all right," said Loudon.  "It takes a day an'
a half for them clocks to run down.  Guess he must 'a' been at Farewell
after all."

"Maybe some o'the boys got him," Chuck said, hopefully.

"No such luck."

The match went out, and Loudon scratched another, intending to light a
lamp.

"Put out that light!" came in a hoarse whisper from the back door.
"Somebody's a-comin'."

Loudon crushed the match between his fingers and hurried to the back
door.  Laguerre and Chuck crowded against him.

"Listen!" commanded Johnny Ramsay.

"Sounds like two horses," said Loudon.

"Comin' the way we come," growled Loudon.

The hoof-beats, at first a mere ripple of distant sound, grew louder
rapidly.

"If they're comin' here, they'll come in the ranch house, shore," said
Loudon.  "They're only two, so they must be a couple o' the 88.  We'll
take 'em alive.  Telescope, you an' Chuck take this door, an' Johnny
an' I'll take the front.  If they come yore way bend yore guns over
their heads.  Don't shoot till yuh know who they are for shore.  It's
just possible they may be friends."

Loudon and Johnny Ramsay ran through the hall, brought in the rifles,
and closed the front door.  Side by side they waited.  The door was
poorly hung.  Through the cracks they could hear quite plainly the drum
of the galloping horses' feet.  Suddenly a horse neighed shrilly.

"Our hosses in the grove!" breathed Loudon.  "I forgot 'em, an'----"

But the approaching horsemen did not halt.  As they came closer Loudon
heard one call to the other and the latter make a reply, but the words
were unintelligible.  They were still talking when they pulled up in
front of the ranch-house door.

"I tell yuh I don't like that whinnerin'!" one man was insisting,
angrily.  "Maybe, now----"

"Gittin' scared, huh!" sneered the other.  "It's just some o' our
hosses strayed.  They often go over in that bunch o' pines.  You take
the hosses down to the corral, Pete, an' change the saddles, an' I'll
rustle us some grub an' the cartridges.  Skip now!"

The speaker lifted the door latch.  The door crashed open.  A boot
scuffed the doorsill.  The heavy barrel of Loudon's six-shooter smashed
down across hat and hair with a crunch.

Even as the man dropped, Loudon, taking no chances, flung his arms
around the falling body and went down with it.  Johnny Ramsay, drawing
his own conclusions as to the friendliness of the man with the horses,
sprang through the doorway, his six-shooter spitting.  In mid-leap he
checked and fell flat, his six-shooter flying from his hand.  He was up
in an instant and feeling about for his gun.  Panting and swearing, for
in his ears was the tuckle-tuck-tuckle-tuck of a furiously ridden
horse, he found his six-shooter at last.

"Deed you heet heem?" called Laguerre from the doorway.

"I did not," replied Johnny.  "Leastwise he didn't wait to tell me.  If
I hadn't tripped over somebody's feet an' lost my gun in the shuffle,
I'd have got him all right.  He wasn't five yards away.  By the time I
got hold o' the gun he was over the hills an' far away, so far as
hittin' him was concerned.  He left the other sport's hoss, though."

Johnny went up to the horse, a big light-coloured animal, and flung its
dragging rein over a post near the door.  The horse stood quietly, legs
spread, breathing heavily.

"Hey!" bawled Loudon.  "Somebody gimme a match!  I can't find mine, an'
I want to look at Blakely!"

"So eet ees Blakely," said Laguerre.  "I deed not know."

"Shore," Loudon said, "I knowed both voices instanter.  The other party
was that Paradise Bender named Pete O'Leary.  Ain't anybody got a
match?"

Johnny Ramsay pulled a match out of his hat-band and scratched it.  He
held the flame above the face of the unconscious man on the floor.

"It's Blakely.  No mistake about that," said Loudon in a tone of great
satisfaction.

A guttural exclamation from Laguerre drew Loudon's eyes to the
half-breed.  Laguerre was bending forward, his eyes fixed in a terrible
glare on the face of Blakely.  Laguerre's lips writhed open.  His teeth
were bared to the gum.  His countenance was a mask of relentless hate.

"Pony George!" almost whispered Laguerre.  "At las'!"

The match went out.

"Gimme them matches!" exclaimed Loudon, harshly.

He went into the office, found a lamp and lit it.  He carried it into
the hall and placed it on a chair.  Laguerre had squatted down on his
heels.  His eyes, now mere slits, were still fixed on Blakely.  Johnny
Ramsay and Chuck Morgan covertly watched Laguerre.  They did not
understand.  Laguerre's head pivoted suddenly.

"Dat man ees mine," he said, staring at Loudon.

"Of course.  Yuh don't need to say nothin' more, Telescope."

"I weel tell why.  Dese odders mus' know.  My frien's," the swarthy
face with the terrible eyes turned toward Chuck and Johnny, "my
frien's, long tam ago, ovair eas' on de Sweetwatair, I know dees man.
She was not call Blakely den.  Hees name was Taylor--Pony George, dey
call heem.  Pony George she keel my wife, my leetle Marie.  Feefteen
year I have hunt Pony George.  Now I have foun' heem.  Un I weel keel
heem, me."

Johnny and Chuck nodded gravely.  The primitive code of the broken
lands is bluntly simple.  Vengeance was Laguerre's.



CHAPTER XXV

TRAIL'S END

"Shoot me!  Hang me!  I don't care.  Only don't turn me over to that
devil there.  He'll torture me!  For God's sake, don't do it!  I'll
confess!  I'll tell yuh all I ever done.  I an' my outfit's been
rustling them cows from the Bar S an' the Cross-in-a-box.  We've done
it for years!

"We used to hold the cows in a blind cañon south o' Smoky Peak till the
brands healed.  There's more'n a hundred cows there now!  They're Hawg
Pen an' Cross-in-a-box an' Bar S cows!  An' we rustled Scotty
Mackenzie's hosses while Skinny Maxson o' Marysville toled yuh away up
to Hatchet Creek, an' 'twas me shot Scotty.  I'd 'a' done for him only
I thought he was dead.  An' I sent Rufe Cutting to the Flying M so he
could help us when the time come!  Pete O'Leary the same way!  He was
with me to-night.  Djuh get him?"

"No, we didn't," replied Loudon.  "It's no use a-takin' on thisaway.
We trailed the hosses to Piegan City, an' Archer an' the Maxson boys
are under arrest.  Yuh see how it is.  We know all about you an' yore
gang.  We can't do nothin' for yuh."

"But yuh don't know all I done myself!" Blakely pursued, wildly.  "I
tell yuh, I'd ought to be hung!  I'd ought to be hung ten times over.
It was me shot Johnny Ramsay that time he found the dead Bar S cow an'
her calf on our range.  An' I tried to get you, Loudon, when yuh was
snuffin' 'round that ledge on Pack-saddle where we used to throw the
cows across.  An' I thought up that scheme for makin' yuh out a rustler
with them Crossed Dumbbell cows.  I done it, I tell yuh!  Can't yuh
understand?  Hang me!  Oh, please hang me, gents!"

Blakely, fairly gibbering with fear, crawled on his knees toward
Loudon.  Blakely's hands were bound behind his back.  The drying blood
from the scalp wound, inflicted by the barrel of Loudon's six-shooter,
had stiffened his black hair into upstanding matted masses.  He was a
wretched spectacle.

"Loudon!  Loudon!" shrinked Blakely.  "It was me swore out that warrant
for yuh for stealin' the chestnut I sold yuh.  I sent the sheriff up
the Bend after yuh, an' I'd 'a' hanged yuu sure as ---- if I'd ever
laid hands on yuh.  Now hang me!  Hang me quick, an' get it over with!"

"Telescope!" exclaimed Loudon, "I guess we'll go down to the corrals."

When Blakely perceived that there was no hope for him, that his was to
be no easy death, he went frantic.  Hysteria seized him.  He sobbed,
laughed, and uttered the most blood-chilling screams, his body
thrashing about like a shark in its death-throes.

Laguerre, sitting cross-legged on the floor, had been whetting his
skinning-knife on his boot-leg for the past half-hour.  Now he held up
the knife and thumbed the broad blade.

Loudon and the others, their eyes lowered, passed out of the ranch
house into the pale light of dawn.  The morning star blazed
diamond-bright above the lemon-yellow splendour in the east.  A little
wind blew past their faces.  The air was fresh with the promise of the
new day.  They drew long, grateful breaths and looked from under their
eyebrows at each other.

"I feel sick," Johnny Ramsay said, frankly.

The horse which Johnny had tied to the post had been lying down.  It
rose with a heave and a plunge and stood blowing and cracking its
nostrils.

"Well, if there ain't Telescope's gray," announced Loudon.  "So the
fellahs we chased out o' Farewell was Blakely an' O'Leary after all.
They shore picked the best hosses in the corral when they took Brown
Jug an' the gray.  No wonder we couldn't catch 'em."

"Yo're right," Johnny and Chuck chorused, loudly.

"Life's a funny thing," Loudon rambled on, speaking quite rapidly.
"Here we run our legs off after them two fellahs, an' they turn 'round
an' come back to us all prompt an' unexpected.  I guess I'll water that
hoss an' take his saddle off."

He turned back.  The others crawled up on the corral fence.

"Wish I'd thought o' the hoss," grumbled Johnny.  "I want somethin' to
do."

With shaking fingers he rolled a cigarette and spilled most of the
tobacco.  The clamour within the ranch house suddenly became louder.

"He shore takes it hard," muttered Chuck Morgan, repressing a shudder
with difficulty.

Loudon slid around the corner of the ranch house and joined them on the
top rail.

"Thought yuh was goin' to water the hoss," said Chuck.

"Telescope's goin' to use him," said Loudon, and endeavoured to whistle
"The Zebra Dun."

"I'm kind o' glad to know who did plug me that time," remarked Johnny.

"I've always knowed who done it," Loudon said.  "I dug a forty-five
bullet out o' Blakely's swell-fork the day we had the run-in at the Bar
S."

"Why didn't yuh tell me?" demanded Johnny.

"The bullet wasn't proof, when yuh come right down to it.  No use o'
yore lockin' horns with Blakely, anyway.  It wouldn't 'a' done no good."

"Well, it don't----  Hellenblazes!  Hear him yell!"

Loudon began to swear under his breath.  A door banged suddenly.
Blakely's insane shrieking abruptly stilled.  Soon the three men heard
the trample of the gray's feet.  Then, beyond the ranch house, appeared
Laguerre.  He was mounted.  Face downward across his lap lay Blakely,
gagged with his own holster and silk neckerchief.

Riding at a walk, Laguerre headed toward the grove of singing pines
where they had left their horses.  When Brown Jug and his double burden
disappeared among the trees Loudon drew a long breath.

"I ain't in a bit of a hurry for my hoss," he declared.

"Which I should say not!" Johnny Ramsay exclaimed with fervour.

The sun was an hour high when Laguerre loped out of the grove.  He was
leading their four horses.  They watched him with morbid fascination.

Laguerre rode up to the corral and halted.  The gray, hard held, shook
his head.  On the right cheek-piece of the horse's bridle a
black-haired scalp flapped soggily.  And Laguerre looked up at the
three men on the top rail of the corral.

"No use hangin' round here no more," said Loudon, slipping to the
ground.  "Might as well mosey over to that blind cañon south of Smoky
Peak an' see if them cattle really are there."


Three days later Loudon and his comrades, their horses drooping-headed
and heavy-legged, rode into Farewell.  Signs of the late skirmish were
plentiful.  There was not a whole pane of glass in any of the buildings
which had served as forts; and doors, facades, and window casings were
pock-marked with bullet-holes.

Bill Lainey, consistent always, was dozing under the wooden awning of
his hotel.  Awakened, the hotelkeeper solemnly shook hands all around,
and wheezed that it was a fine day.

"Yeah," said Loudon, "the air round these parts does seem clearer a
lot.  An' there ain't so many folks on the street, either."

"There won't be for a while," declared Bill Lainey.  "We buried
twenty-three gents day before yesterday, hanged twelve up the road a
piece, an' Scotty an' Jack Richie an' that crowd rubbed out nine o' the
boys that slid out o' the Happy Heart over by Dead Horse Spring."

"How many got away?" inquired Johnny Ramsay.

"'Bout twenty--twenty-four maybe," replied the hotel-keeper.  "I dunno
for shore.  But anyhow the 88 outfit is shot full o' holes.  Eleven of
'em cashed here in town, an' seven was got outside o' town.  The rest
made it safe, I guess."

"Was they all here before the riot?" queried Loudon.

"Every last one of 'em, 'ceptin' Rudd an' Marvin.  They come in
a-huntin' trouble.  They've been sore 'count o' Mike Flynn's sassin'
the sheriff an' darin' him an' the 88 to lock horns with him.  Well,
there was a gent in town that day, dunno who he was, but anyhow when
Rufe Cutting went into the sheriff's shack the stranger went in, too.
Oh, you seen the inside o' the shack, did yuh?  Well, it was what the
stranger done started things a-rollin'.  Two o' the deputies plugged
him through the window, an' the rest of us wouldn't stand no such
actions as that, so we started.  Good thing you gents an' Jack Richie
an' the others happened along when yuh did."

"Any of our boys get it?"

"Long Riley an' Masters o' the Cross-in-a-box went out here in town,
an' three fellers, Newhall an' Lane o' Paradise Bend, an' Morton o' the
Flyin' M, in the battle at Dead Horse.  Our tally was more.  We lost
seven of our best citizens.  Four of 'em died right here in my
hotel--two in the dinin' room, one at the door, an' one in the kitchen.
There's quite a jag o' gents nicked an' creased, but the doc says
they'll pull through all right."

"But look here, Bill, has Rufe Cutting been holin' out over at the 88
right along?"

"I dunno how long he's been there, Tom, but anyway he rid in with
half-a-dozen o' the 88 'bout two weeks ago, an' he was with 'em when
they all come in for their battle."

"Do yuh remember what Rufe rode for a hoss the first time he come in?"

"Bald-face pinto--both times."

"I was wonderin'," Loudon said.  "Yuh see, Bill, Rufe stole my hoss,
Ranger, up in Paradise Bend, an' the mornin' o' the fight here the
little hoss turns up at the Cross-in-a-box.  It ain't none likely Rufe
brought him.  I'm tryin' to figger out the mystery."

Bill Lainey's fat body shook with laughter.  He gripped his sides and
panted for breath.

"That explains it," he wheezed, "It was yore hoss that the 88 was
fussin' round after."

"What are yuh talkin' about?" demanded Loudon.

"Why, it's thisaway, Tom.  When Blakely an' his gang come in they
scampered round a-pokin' into every corral in town.  Said one o' their
hosses had been stole five days before, an' they was out to find the
pony an' the thief.  I didn't pay no attention, 'cept to see they
didn't take one o' my hosses by mistake.  Yuh see, I allowed they was
lyin' all along an' just huntin' any old excuse to unhook their
artillery.  Yore hoss!  Well, if that ain't rich!"

"It must 'a' been my hoss," averred Loudon, solemnly.  "I guess now
Rufe might have been anxious to get him back--some."

"Yeah," cut in Johnny Ramsay, "but who stole him from the 88?  Guess
the mystery's thicker'n ever, Tom."

"Looks like it," agreed Loudon.  "Scotty or any of 'em in town now,
Bill?"

"Scotty ain't.  Him an' the Flyin' M bunch have rode south--Damson, I
heard Mike Flynn say.  Jack Richie's around some'ers.  Here he comes
now!"

"Which I'd admire to know where you fellers went," exclaimed Jack
Richie, his expression radiating relief.  "I was bettin' yuh'd been
bushwhacked, but Scotty he said no, yuh was more likely bushwhackin'
somebody else, an' yuh'd all turn up like plugged dollars bimeby.  By
the looks of that led horse Scotty had yuh sized up right.  Who'd yuh
gather in?"

"Blakely," Loudon replied, quietly.

At this juncture Richie perceived the scalp on the gray's bridle.

"I see," said Jack Richie.  "Run across any one else?"

"Fellah named O'Leary--yuh don't know him.  He got away.  We was at the
88 at the time.  Before--before Blakely went he confessed to a whole
raft o' stuff.  We followed up part o' what he said, an' over in a
blind cañon south o' Smoky Peak in the Three Sisters we found a hundred
an' twenty Bar S, Hawg Pen, an' Cross-in-a-box cows.  Some o' the
brands was almost healed up, but there was enough that wasn't to tell
where they come from.  There wasn't nobody with 'em."

"Smoky Peak, huh?  Hoofs shaved down or burnt, I s'pose?"

"Shore," replied Loudon.  "They won't be able to travel under two
weeks."

"Did yuh tell Old Salt the joyful news--about the cattle?"

"I'll send him word."

"He's down at Mike Flynn's now.  Go an' make him happy.  But first
c'mon in an' irrigate.  If we don't do it right away, Johnny'll faint.
His tongue's hangin' out a foot."

"I'll see yuh later.  Guess I'd better tell Old Salt first."

Loudon did not feel particularly cheerful as he walked down the street.
His work was done--and well done.  His enemies were either no more or
journeying swiftly elsewhere.  There was peace for honest men in Fort
Creek County at last.  But there was no peace in Loudon's soul.  He was
learning for the second time that forgetfulness comes not easily.

In front of the Blue Pigeon Store a buckboard was standing.  The rangy
vehicle and its team of ponies struck a chord in Loudon's memory.  He
had seen them recently.  Where?  Idly speculating he entered the Blue
Pigeon.  Mr. Saltoun, leaning over the counter, was talking to Mike
Flynn.

"Ahoy, Tom!" bawled Mike Flynn, thrusting forward his immense, freckled
paw.  "'Tis a sight for sore eyes yuh are.  Glory be, but I thought yuh
kilt!"

Mr. Saltoun's greeting was less enthusiastic, but it was friendly.
Loudon sat down on the counter and swung his spurred heels.

"About them cattle now," he said, slowly, his eyes fixed on Mr.
Saltoun's face.  "Yuh remember I told yuh the 88 was rustlin' 'em?"

Mr. Saltoun nodded.

"I remember," he said.

"Them cows," Loudon said, distinctly, "are in a blind cañon south o'
Smoky Peak, along with Hawg Pen an' Cross-in-a-box cattle.  That is,
most of 'em are there.  The rest yuh'll have to pick out o' the 88
herds, I guess."

Mr. Saltoun's capitulation was instant and handsome.

"You was right!" he exclaimed, warmly, holding out his hand.  "You was
right all along.  I shore had the 88 sized up wrong, an'"--vigorously
pumping Loudon's hand--"any time yuh want a job there's one at the Bar
S for yuh.  Er--my range-boss is quittin' next month.  What do yuh say
to his job?"

"Now that's right good hearin'," replied Loudon, "but I guess I'll
stick with the Flyin' M awhile.  Thank yuh just as much."

"Oh, that's all right.  Any time yuh feel like makin' a change, why,
yuh know where to come.  Well, I got to be goin'.  Say, Mike, don't
forget to order them collars for my buckboard harness."

"I shore won't.  So long."

Loudon followed Mr. Saltoun into the street.

"Somethin' new, ain't it?" queried Loudon, flicking a thumb at the
buckboard.

"Yep," said Mr. Saltoun, gathering up the reins.  "Bought team an' all
a month ago from Shaner o' the Three Bars.  Got 'em cheap, too.  Judge
Allison was after 'em, but I got 'em.  Huh?  What did yuh say?"

"I didn't say nothin'.  Somethin' stuck in my throat."

"Well, so long, take care o' yoreself."

Loudon stood on the sidewalk gazing after the dwindling buckboard.  The
mention of Judge Allison had supplied the missing link in the chain of
memory.  He had seen that buckboard, driven by a woman, stop in front
of Judge Allison's house in Marysville, and it had been considerably
less than a month ago.  Hence, at the time, the buckboard must have
been the property of Mr. Saltoun.  And Kate was the only woman at the
Bar S ranch.  The driver must have been Kate Saltoun.  Why should Kate
call on Judge Allison?

"_Shershay la fam_," the Judge had remarked in explanation of his
rather bald espousal of Loudon's cause.  "Find the woman."  Did the
Judge mean Kate, and was it because of Kate's visit that he had become
Loudon's friend?  It did not seem possible, yet, if Kate actually had
pleaded for him it was on a par with her actions in Paradise Bend.

Loudon, pondering the matter, stood quite still, utterly oblivious to
his surroundings.  The sudden creak of wheels, a familiar tinny
clatter, and a cry of "Howdy, Tom!" brought him out of his reverie with
a jerk.

He looked up.  Ten feet distant, Captain Burr, on the seat of his
peddler's wagon, regarded him with kindly eyes.

"Wool-gatherin', Tom?" said the lean little man, waggling his white
beard.  "I'm surprised."

"I was just a-wonderin'," Loudon said, forcing a smile, "whether we was
goin' to have rain or not."

"I shouldn't wondeh," Captain Burr remarked, gravely staring up into
the cloudless blue.  "I've just come in from the Bah S," he continued,
abruptly.  "Miss Kate has two right soah hands.  Right soah, they ah.
I sold the young lady some salve."

"Sore hands," repeated Loudon, stupidly.  "Why, I--I heard her thumb
was tore pretty bad, but--but I didn't know both of 'em was hurt."

"Yes, the young lady's right thumb has quite a gash, and the palm of
her left hand is cut all the way across.  She cut it on a rock!"

"Cut it on a rock?"

"On a rock!  She was comin' out o' the house, she said, an' she tripped
on the doorsill an' fell.  Fell pretty heavy, Her hand was sho' cut
quite a lot."

"Lemme get this straight.  Yuh say she cut her left hand, an' on a
rock?"

"Yes, Tom," said Captain Burr, gently, "that's the how of it."

Without a word Loudon turned and fled.  Five minutes later, mounted on
Bill Lainey's toughest horse, he was galloping out of Farewell.  Two
miles out he passed Mr. Saltoun.  The latter called to him but received
no response save a hand-wave.

"Well," observed Mr. Saltoun, "if he's changed his mind about that job,
he's shore actin' mighty odd."

Within two hours after leaving Farewell Loudon halted his staggering
pony in front of the Bar S ranch house.  In the hammock on the porch
sat Kate Saltoun.  Her face was rather white, and there were dark
shadows beneath her black eyes.

Loudon sucked in his breath sharply at the sight of the poor, bandaged
hands.  Kate sat motionless, her gaze level, her face without
expression.  Loudon felt like a stranger.

"Kate," he began, "Kate----" and stopped.

"Well," said Kate at last, dropping her eyes.

Released from the spell of that chill stare, Loudon found his tongue.

"I come to have a little talk with yuh," he said.  "Yuh see, I've been
findin' out things lately.  You drove over to Marysville an' talked to
Judge Allison on my account, didn't yuh?"

"Who told you?" Kate did not raise her head.

"Nobody told me.  But I ain't a fool.  I seen the Bar S buckboard in
Marysville, an' a woman was drivin', an' the judge said, '_Shershay la
fam_,' meanin' 'Find the woman.'  Well, yo're the woman all right.  I
know yuh are.  An' that cut left hand yuh didn't get by trippin' over
the doorsill like yuh told Cap'n Burr.  Yuh got it by fallin' on a rock
back o' the Cross-in-a-box ranch house after yuh'd tied Ranger to the
post.  Yuh can't tell me different.

"Yore cut hand, an' yore knowin' that I'd be at the Cross-in-a-box, an'
the way it was done an' all, makes it certain.  Yuh gave me my hoss
back.  An' yuh paid Rudd to get him for yuh.  Ranger was at the 88 all
right.  An' yuh couldn't 'a' got hold o' him 'cept through somebody
like Rudd.  No wonder yuh stuck by Rudd!  It was the only thing yuh
could do, 'specially when he'd saved yore life, too."

"He didn't save my life.  I thought if I told you that he had, you
might let him go.  I lied.  I'd have told any number of lies to save
him.  He was a horse thief, and he and Marvin tried to prove you a
rustler, but he trusted me.  You wouldn't take my word when I asked you
to, but Rudd did when he brought me Ranger and I didn't have the full
amount I'd promised him.  I told him that I'd bring the money three
days later in the draw where the sumac bushes grow, and he believed me
and he led Ranger all the way to that lonesome spruce grove on Cow
Creek where I wanted to keep the horse till I could return him to you.
After that I couldn't desert Rudd.  I couldn't have lived with myself
if I had."

"I know.  I should 'a' took yore word, but--well, anyhow, I should 'a'
took it an' let it go at that.  I owe everythin' to yuh.  Yuh took care
o' me in Paradise Bend.  Yuh worked for me, an' it was yore doin' that,
that made findin' Scotty's hosses almost a cinch.  Yuh went an' got
Hockling an' Red when the deputies jumped us over near Pack-saddle.

"Yuh done it all, you did, an' I'm here to tell yuh I'm a dog, an' I
ain't fit to saddle yore hoss.  I can't thank yuh.  Thanks don't mean
nothin' 'side o' what yuh done for me.  But--but how much besides the
sixty did yuh pay Rudd?  I can settle that, anyhow."

"It doesn't matter in the least," said Kate, her eyes still on the
floor.

"It does matter.  It matters a lot.  I've got to know.  I can't----"

"Listen," interrupted Kate, flinging up her head and meeting his gaze
squarely, "I'm going to tell you something.  Once upon a time you told
me you loved me.  I treated you very badly.  Later I was sorry, and I
did everything in my power to make amends.  I even told you I loved
you.  I loved you with all my heart and soul and body.  I could have
made you happy as no other woman on earth could have made you happy.
Well, that's over.  I've learned my lesson."

"Kate!  Kate!  I do love yuh--I do!  I do!"

Loudon's hat was under his feet.  His long body was trembling.

"You do, do you?" said Kate, her voice icy.  "Then perhaps I can make
you suffer as you made me suffer.  I don't believe I can, but I'll try.
I don't love you!  Do you understand?  I don't love you!"

"Then--then why did yuh go to the Judge?  Why did yuh get my hoss?
Why----"

"Why?  Because I wanted you, if such a thing were possible, to go
through life in my debt.  You won't forget me now.  And I'm glad--glad!"

"Then why did yuh walk in the water if yuh wanted me to know I owed yuh
so much?  Why did yuh wear boots too big for yuh to make me think it
was a man brought Ranger to the Cross-in-a-box?  Why did yuh go to
Marysville all wrapped up, so nobody'd know yuh?  What yuh say don't
hang together."

"Doesn't it?  I'm sorry.  You'd have found out about the Judge and
Ranger before a great while.  I'd have seen to it that you did.  I
merely didn't care to have you know about these things at the time."

"I guess I understand," Loudon muttered.  "I'll--I'll send yuh Ranger.
Yuh've done bought him.  He's yores.  I'll go now."

"Oh, don't bother about Ranger----  Look out!"

So engrossed had been the two that neither had heard the gallop of an
approaching horse till it shot around the corner of the house and was
almost upon them.  As Kate shrieked her warning she sprang from the
hammock and flung herself in front of Loudon.  For the man on the horse
was Pete O'Leary, and he was apparently aiming a six-shooter at Loudon.

"You ---- spy!" yelled O'Leary.

Even as O'Leary's six-shooter cracked, Loudon swept Kate to one side
and fired from the hip.  O'Leary swayed, dropped his gun, then pitched
forward over his saddle-horn.  Loudon ran to him.  As he reached
O'Leary the latter rolled over on his back.

"Teach her to spy on my letters!" he gasped.  "If it hadn't been for
her I----"

He choked and died.

Loudon thrust his sixshooter into its holster and turned.  Kate, her
lips colourless, her eyes dilated, was clinging to one of the porch
uprights.  Loudon crossed the intervening space in two leaps.

"Where yuh hit?" he cried.

"I'm not hit," she replied, shakily.  "But--but did he--did you--are
you hurt?"

"I ain't even creased.  Now you go in the house an' stay.  Here come
Jimmie an' Rainey.  We'll take care o' what's out here."

Obediently Kate went into the house.

Half an hour later, in the living room, Loudon found her.  She rose
from her chair at his entrance and faced him in silence.  The cold,
defiant expression had vanished from her face.  In its stead was the
look of a frightened child.  Loudon halted within a yard of her.

"Kate," said he, "yuh can say what yuh like about yore reasons for
goin' to Judge Allison an' takin' that night ride to the
Cross-in-a-box, an' I've got to believe yuh.  But if yuh don't love me
why did yuh jump in front o' me when O'Leary fired?"

"I thought he was going to shoot you," she replied, forcing herself to
meet his eyes.  "I--I didn't know I was the one till I heard him say
so."

"Yuh thought he was goin' to drop me, an' yuh jumped in front o' me;
why?"

Kate's face was upturned.  Her lips parted.  Her body swayed toward him.

"Take me!" she cried.  "Oh, take me!"

      *      *      *      *      *

"Why did yuh say what yuh did about wantin' to make me suffer when yuh
loved me all the time?"

"I couldn't help it.  I thought I'd lost you, and then you came,
and--and then I wanted to hurt you, and I did.  I don't know what I'd
have done if you'd gone away.  For I do love you, boy!"

Loudon held her close as the dark head snuggled against his shoulder.

"I know," said he, soberly.

"I guess I've always loved you," murmured Kate, "I must have.  I--I
hate myself when I think of--of Blakely.  I found out what he was while
he was lying here wounded.  He was delirious and he spoke of a woman,
another man's wife, named Marie, down on the Sweetwater.  Oh, it was
awful--what he said.  I can't tell you.  It--it woke me up.  Then I
knew what I had lost when you left the ranch.  You'll never leave me
again, will you?"

"Of course I won't!"


It was a large wedding for the Lazy River country.

Scotty Mackenzie privately informed Jack Richie that he didn't know,
the marriage might turn out all right, but Kate was such a good-looker,
and he'd always mistrusted good-lookers himself.

Scotty's pessimism was pardonable.  He had lost a good employee, while
Mr. Saltoun was the gainer by an excellent range-boss.



THE END





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