"That's all right," sulked Lanpher, then added, with a sudden flare of spite: "When I hired you as foreman I shore never expected to draw a skypilot full o' sermons into the bargain."
"No?" drawled Alicran, looking hard at Lanpher. "I often wonder just what you did hire me for."
On which Lanpher made no comment.
"Yeah," resumed Alicran, the fish having failed to bite, "I often wonder about that. Was it a foreman you wanted or a—gunman? And what did Racey mean about Jack Harpe a-bearing down on you so hard, huh?"
"Nothing, nothing, nothing a-tall," Lanpher replied, irritably.
"If Racey didn't mean nothing by it, what did yore eyes flip for and why didja shuffle yore feet?"
"Whatell business is it of yores?" burst out the goaded manager.
"None," Alicran replied, calmly. "I was just wondering. I got a curiosity to know why, thassall."
"Then hogtie yore curiosity—or you'll be gettin' yore time. I'm free to admit I need you, like I said before, but I can do without you if I gotta."
"That's just where yo're dead wrong," Alicran promptly contradicted. "You can't do without me. Lanpher, I like the job of bein' yore foreman. I like it so well that if you was to fire me I dunno what I wouldn't do. You know, Lanpher, a man is a whole lot bigger target than the branch of a wild currant bush."
Frankly speculative, the eyes of Alicran travelled up and down the spare frame of the 88 manager. Which gave Lanpher furiously to think, as it were.
"Why," said he, forcing a smile, "I guess we understand each other, Alicran."
"Shore we do," said Alicran, cheerfully. "And don't you forget it."
When the two 88 men had departed Molly Dale continued to stand where she was for a space and stare dumbly at nothing. Racey, realizing well enough that her world had crashed to pieces about her, wished that she would burst into tears. A sobbing woman is easily comforted. It is simply necessary to pet her and keep on petting her till her grief is assuaged. But this hard stillness of Molly Dale's gave Racey no opening. He could but gaze at her uncomfortably and shift his weight from one foot to the other.
"That was a dirty trick of the Marysville bank." Thus tentatively.
It is doubtful whether Molly heard him. "Poor Father," she said in a low tone.
"Lookit here, Molly," said Racey, struck by a bright idea, "I've got a li'l money I been saving. I—I want you should take it."
Molly continued to stare into the distance.
"I've got some money—" he began again, thinking that Molly had not heard.
But she turned her face toward him at that, and he saw that her eyes were shining with unshed tears.
"Racey," she said, with a slight catch in her voice, and laid her hand lightly on his arm. "Racey, you're a dear, good boy. We—we'll manage somehow. I mum-must tell Mother."
Abruptly she swung away and left him. He watched her cross the garden and enter the kitchen of the ranch-house. Then slowly, thoughtfully, he set to work repairing as best he could the ravages left in the garden by the hoofs of Lanpher's horse.
Came then Swing Tunstall on a paint pony and was moved to mirth at sight of Racey Dawson engaged in earthy labour.
"See the pret-ty flowers," mouthed Swing Tunstall, after the fashion of a child wrestling with the First Reader. "Does Racey like pret-ty flow-ers? Yeth, he'th crathy ab-out them. Ain't he cute squattin' there all same hoptoad and a-workin' away two-handed? Only he ain't a-workin' now. He's stopped workin'. He's gettin' all red in the face. He's mad at Swing who never done him no harm nohow. Whatsa matter, Racey?" he added in his natural voice. "What bit you on the ear this fine an' summer day?"
Racey looked over his shoulder toward the house. Then he got to his feet and strode across the garden to where Swing Tunstall sat his horse.
"Swing," said he, quietly, "are you busy just now?"
Swing, suspecting a catch somewhere, stared in swift suspicion. "Why—uh—no," was his cautious reply.
"Then go off some'ers and die."
Without waiting for Swing's possible comment Racey turned his back on his friend and walked unhurriedly to his horse Cuter. Swing slouched sidewise in the saddle and watched him go.
He rolled a cigarette, lit it, and inhaled luxuriously. And all without removing his gaze from Racey's back. He watched while Racey flung the reins crosswise over Cuter's neck, mounted, and rode down into the creek. When he saw that Racey, after allowing Cuter to drink nearly all he wanted, rode on across the creek and up the farther bank, Swing's brow became corrugated with a puzzled frown.
"He means business," muttered Swing. "I ain't seen that look on his face for some time. I wonder what did happen this morning."
His eyes still fixed on the dwindling westward moving object that was Racey Dawson and his horse, he smoked his cigarette to a butt. Then he picked up his reins, found his stirrups, and rode away.
Racey Dawson, bound for the 88 ranch-house, did not smoke. He did not feel like it. He did not feel like doing anything but facing Lanpher. What he would be moved to do while facing Lanpher he was not sure. Time enough to cross that bridge when the crucial moment should arrive. He knew what he wanted to do, but he knew, too, that he could not do it unless Lanpher made the first break. Otherwise it would be murder, and Racey was no murderer.
"He'll back down if he can, the snake," Racey said aloud. "And he'll be shore to slick and slime round till all's blue. Damn him, riding over those flowers of hers!"
Racey did not hurry. He had no desire to come up with Lanpher on the open range. It would be better to meet the man at his own ranch-house—where there were apt to be plenty of witnesses. Racey realized perfectly that he might need a witness, several witnesses, before the sunset. He hoped that all the boys of the 88 outfit would be at the ranch. He hoped that Luke Tweezy would be there, too. Lanpher and Tweezy together, the pups.
"Fat Jakey Pooley's li'l playmates," he muttered and swore again—heartily.
He understood now the true reason for Jack Harpe's lack of activity. This purchasing by Lanpher and Tweezy of the Dale mortgage was the eminently safe and lawful plan of Jakey Pooley. In his letter Fat Jakey had written that it would take longer. And wasn't it taking longer? It was. Racey thought he saw the plan in its entirety, and was in a boil accordingly. He would have been in considerably more of a boil had he been blessed with the ability to read the future.
When he rode in among the buildings of the 88 ranch his eyes were gratified by the sight of freckle-faced Bill Allen straddling a cracker-box in front of the bunkhouse and having his hair cut by Rod Rockwell.
"That's right," Bill Allen was complaining, "whynell don't you cut off the whole ear while yo're about it?"
"Aw, shut up," said Rod Rockwell, "it was only the tip, and I didn't go to cut it, anyway."
"I don't giveadamn whether you went to cut it or not, you cut it! I can feel the blood running down the back of my neck."
"That's only sweat, you bellerin' calf! Hold still, can't you? Djuh want me to hurt you?"
"You done have already," snarled Bill Allen, fidgeting on his cracker-box. "You wait till I cut yore hair after. I'll fix you. I'll scalp you, you pot-walloper."
"That's right, Bill," said Racey, checking his horse beside the quarrelling pair. "Talk to him. Givem hell."
"'Lo, Racey," grinned the two youngsters in unison.
"Where did you rustle this hoss?" asked Bill Allen.
"Nemmine where," smiled Racey, for both Bill and Rod had been his friends in his 88 days and could therefore insult him with impunity. "I wouldn't wanna put li'l boys in the way of temptation. Does the cook still spank him regular, Rod?"
"Stab his hoss with the scissors, Rod," begged Bill Allen. "Let's see what for a rider Mr. Dawson is."
Racey pressed his off rein against his horse's neck. The animal whirled on a nickel, and reared, hard held, after the first plunge. The flying pebbles plentifully showered the two punchers. Bill Allen swore heartily, for one of the pebbles had clipped his damaged ear.
"You see what a good rider I am," Racey said, sweetly. "Can't feaze me, nohow. Sit still, Bill, and lemme try can I jump the li'l hoss over you. Rod, do you mind movin' back a yard?"
"No," said Bill Allen, decidedly, and picked up his cracker-box and retreated backward to the bunkhouse door. "No, you don't play any such tricks as that on me. He'd just as soon try it as not, the idjit," he added over his shoulder to Tile Stanton who was peering out to see what all the racket was about.
"Let him try it," Tile Stanton advised promptly. "If the cayuse does happen to hit yore head, it won't hurt yore thick skull. G'on, Bill, be a sport."
"Be a sport yoreself," returned Bill Allen, skipping into the bunkhouse. "Where's the other scissors? I'll finish this job myself."
Racey, left alone with Rod Rockwell, smiled slightly. "Bill ain't got a sense of humour this mornin'," he observed, softly. "He must 'a' thought I meant it."
There was no answering smile on Rod's features as he looked up at Racey Dawson. "Racey," said he, laying a hand on the horse's mane, "have you been to McFluke's lately?"
"I ain't," replied Racey, his smile fading out.
"Then keep on stayin' away."
"As bad as that?"
"As bad as that."
"McFluke been talking?" was Racey's next question.
"If McFluke was the only one it would be a mighty short hoss to curry."
"Then there are others?"
"Plenty." Rod Rockwell gave a short, hard laugh.
"All of Nebraska's bunch, huh?"
"All but Nebraska."
"How long has this been going on—this talking, I mean?"
"Doc Coffin started it about a week ago. He told Windy Taylor of the Double Diamond A he was gonna ventilate yore good health some fine day. He wasn't drunk, neither."
"Then he must have serious intentions."
"Somethin' like that. Five of us heard him say it. Lookit, while I was at McFluke's alone day before yesterday Doc and Peaches Austin and Honey Hoke was all three bellying the bar, and while I was tucking away my nosepaint they was mumbling to themselves how you was all kinds of a pup and would stand shootin' any day."
"Mumblin' loud enough for you to hear, huh?"
"Naturally, or I wouldn't 'a' heard it."
"Then they wanted you to hear. Guess they know yo're a friend of mine."
"Guess they do now," Rod Rockwell said, grimly.
"What do you mean?"
"Oh, nothin'. I just talked to 'em a li'l bit."
"And you wasn't shot? Didn't they do anything?"
"Hell, no," Rod denied, disgustedly. "Kansas Casey come in just at the wrong time, and throwed down on the four of us and said he'd do all the shooting they was to be done. And when he went he took me with him. Said he'd arrest me if I didn't go peaceable. Ain't that just like Kansas?"
"Wearing the star shore means a lot to him."
"Aw, since he's been deputy he's gotten too big for his boots. And Jake the same way. The country's played out, that's whatsa matter. Law and order, law and order, till a feller can't turn round no more without fallin' into jail."
"She's one lucky thing for you, cowboy," said Racey, seriously, "that Kansas did come. Three of 'em! You had yore gall. Lookit here, next time you let 'em talk. Names don't hurt less they're said to a feller's face."
"They knowed you was my friend," said Rod, simply. "Anyway, you keep away from McFluke's."
"Maybe I will take yore advice. It has its points of interest, as the feller said when he sat down on the porkumpine. And speakin' of porkumpines, have you seen Lanpher?"
"Shore. Him and Alicran pulled in a hour ago. Guess he's in the office—Lanpher."
"See anything of Tweezy lately?"
"Luke seems to be living with us lately."
"I never knowed him and Lanpher was good friends?" Racey cast at a venture.
"I didn't either—till lately."
"Jack Harpe ever come out here?"
"Long-geared feller—supposed to have capital? Hangs out in Farewell? The one that Marie girl tried to down? Bo, he ain't been here as I know of, but then he could easy drift in and out and me not know it."
Racey nodded. "Marie jump Jack again, do you know?" he asked.
"Damfino. Don't guess so, though. I seen her pass him on Main Street, and she didn't even look at him."
"I'll bet he looked at her."
"You can gamble he did. He ain't trustin' her, not him. I wonder what was at the bottom of the fuss between him an' her?" A sharp glance at Racey accompanied this remark.
"I dunno," yawned Racey. "They say Mr. Harpe has had a career both high, wide, and handsome."
"That's what I'd call one too many," grinned Rod Rockwell.
"You can put down a bet the career has been one too many, too."
"Yeah?" said Rod, wondering what was coming next.
"Yeah," said Racey, nodding mysteriously, but disappointing his friend by immediately changing the subject. "Say, Rod, I'd take it as a favour if you and Tile and Bill would sort of freeze round the bunkhouse till after I'm through with Lanpher."
"Shore," said Rod. "Tweezy's in the office, too, I guess."
Racey nodded, and started his horse toward the office.
He understood well enough that Rod and the other two punchers would not interfere in any way with him and whatever acts he might be called upon to perform during his conversation with Lanpher. Loyal to the last cartridge and after whenever it was ranch business, none of the 88 punchers ever felt it incumbent upon him to go out of his way so far as Lanpher personally was concerned. The manager was not the man either to engender or to foster personal loyalty.
At the open doorway of the office Racey dismounted. He dropped the reins over his horse's head and walked to the doorway. There he stopped and looked in. He saw Lanpher sitting behind his big homemade desk. Lanpher was watching him. At one side of the desk, on a chair tilted back against the wall, sat Luke Tweezy. Luke was chewing a straw. His eyes were half closed, but Racey detected their glitter. Luke Tweezy was not overlooking any bets at that moment.
Racey stepped across the doorsill and halted just within the room. The thumb of his left hand was hooked in his belt. His right hand hung at his side. He was ready for action.
"Lanpher," said Racey without preliminary, "I want to serve notice on you here and now that if I catch you within one mile of Moccasin Spring you come a-shooting because I will."
Lanpher's hand remained motionless on the desktop. Then the man picked up a pencil and began to tap it on the wood. He licked his lips cat-fashion.
"Is that a threat or a promise?" he asked.
"You can take it she's both," Racey told him.
"You hear that, Luke?" Lanpher turned to Luke Tweezy. "Threatenin' my life, huh?"
"Shore," nodded Luke Tweezy. "Actionable, that is. Mustn't threaten a man's life, Racey. Against the law, you know."
Racey moved to one side and leaned his back comfortably against the wall. "Against the law, huh, Luke?" he said nervously. "Then I can be arrested?"
"You can," Luke Tweezy declared with evident relish. "That is, you can if Lanpher wants to make a complaint."
"You hear, Lanpher?" asked Racey, still more nervously. "You wanna make a complaint, huh?"
Lanpher had not failed to note the nervousness of Racey's tone. Now he licked his lips again. He felt quite cheerful of a sudden. It gave him a warm and pleasant feeling to think that Racey Dawson was to a certain degree in his power. Having licked his lips several times he rubbed his chin judicially and coughed, likewise judicially.
"Well, I dunno as I wanna make a complaint exactly," he said, slowly. "But you wanna walk a chalkline round here, Racey. You got too much to say for a fact."
"What do you think, Luke?" queried Racey. "Have I got too much to say?"
"You heard what Lanpher said," replied the cautious Luke.
"Yep, I heard all right. I just wanted to get yore opinion, because I ain't through yet—through talking, I mean. What I was going to say is that I wouldn't be particular about catching Lanpher round Moccasin Spring. If I only heard he'd been hanging round there it would be enough."
"Meaning you'll drill him on suspicion?"
"Meaning I'll do just that."
"Now yo're threatenin' me again." Thus Lanpher.
"Takes you a long time to wake up, don't it?" The nervousness had vanished from Racey's voice. "Lanpher, you lousy skunk! Why don't you pull? There's a gun in that open drawer not six inches from your hand. Go after it, you hound-dog!"
Lanpher was not inordinately brave. He would go out of his way to avoid an appeal to lethal weapons. But Racey's words were more than he could stand. His hand jerked sidewise and down toward the sixshooter in the open drawer.
Bang! Shooting from the hip Racey drove an accurate bullet through the manager's right forearm. Lanpher grunted and gurgled with pain. But he made no attempt to seize his weapon with his left hand.
Luke Tweezy picked himself up from the floor where he had thrown himself a split second before the shot. Luke Tweezy's leathery face was mottled yellow with rage.
"I'll get you ten years for this!" he squalled, pointing a long arm at Racey. "You started this fight! You tried to murder him!"
"Oh, say not so," said Racey. "If I'd wanted to kill him I wouldn't 'a' plugged him in the arm, would I? That wouldn't 'a' been sensible."
"You provoked this fraycas!" snarled Luke, disregarding Racey's point in a true lawyer-like way. "You—"
"Why, no, Luke, yo're wrong, all wrong," interrupted Swing Tunstall, leaning over the windowsill at Tweezy's back. "I seen the whole thing, I did, and I didn't see Racey do anything he shouldn't. I could swear to it on the stand if I had to," he added, thoughtfully.
Come then Rod Rockwell, Bill Allen, and Tile Stanton from the bunkhouse. None made any comment on the state of affairs. But while Rod fetched water in a basin, Bill Allen cut away the sleeve of his groaning employer, and made all ready.
A few minutes later Alicran Skeel entered the office. "I thought I heard a gun," he drawled, his calm eyes embracing everyone in the room.
"That man!" bubbled Luke Tweezy, shaking his fist at Racey. "That man tried to kill Lanpher! I call upon you not to let him leave the premises until I can go to Farewell and swear out a warrant for his arrest."
"That man," said Swing Tunstall, pointing a derisive finger at Luke Tweezy, "is a liar by the clock. I saw the whole thing. And all I gotta say is that Lanpher went after his gun first."
"I ain't doubting yore word, Swing," Alicran said, tactfully, "but they seems to be a difference of opinion sort of, and—"
"I say that Luke Tweezy is a damn liar," reasserted Swing, "and they ain't no difference of opinion about that."
"Well, of course, if Luke—" Alicran did not complete the sentence.
"I am a lawyer," Luke Tweezy explained, hurriedly. "I ain't paying any attention to what his man says—now."
"Or any other time," jibed Swing.
"Any of you boys see this?" Alicran asked of his three punchers.
"He tried to kill me, I tell you!" Lanpher gritted through his teeth. "He didn't gimme a chance!"
"Any of you boys see it?" repeated Alicran, paying no attention to Lanpher.
"How could we?" asked Rod Rockwell, glancing up from the bandaging of Lanpher's arm. "We was all in the bunkhouse."
"Then for the benefit of the gents who wasn't here," said Racey, smoothly, "I don't mind saying that I told Lanpher to go after his gun, and he did, and I did."
"He's a liar," gibbered Lanpher. "Alicran, ain't you man enough to take care of Racey Dawson?"
Alicran nodded composedly. "I guess him and me would come to some kind of an agreement provided I was shore he needed taking care of. But I ain't none shore he does. Looks like it was a even break to me—the word of you and Luke against his and Swing's. And what's fairer than that I'd like to know?"
"Alicran!" squalled Lanpher. "I'm telling you to—"
"Yo're all worked up, that's whatsa matter," Alicran assured him. "You don't mean more'n half you say. You lie down now after Rod gets through with you and cool off—cool off considerable, I would. Do you a heap o' good. Yeah."
"And when you get all well, Lanpher," put in Racey, "will I still be a liar like you say?"
Lanpher looked at Racey and looked away. His heated blood was cooling fast. His arm—Lord, how it hurt! He perceived that discretion was necessary to preserve the rest of his precious skin from future perforation.
"I—I guess I was a li'l hasty," he mumbled, his eyelids lowered.
"Now that's what I call right down handsome—for you," drawled Racey. "Gawd knows I ain't a hawg. I'm satisfied. Luke, s'pose you and me walk out to the corral together. I got a secret for yore pearly ear."
It was obvious that Luke Tweezy was of two minds. Racey grinned to see the other's hesitation.
"What you scared of, Luke?" he inquired. "It ain't far to the corral, and you can ask Alicran to come outside and watch me while I'm talkin' to you."
"I ain't got any business with you," denied Luke Tweezy.
"Oh, yo're mistaken, a heap mistaken. Yes, indeedy, you got business with me. But it ain't my fault, Luke. I can't help it. Of course, if you don't wanna talk to me private like, I can reel her off in here. My thoughts were all of you and yore feelin's, Luke, when I said the corral. I was shore you'd be happier there."
"I ain't got a thing to hide, not a thing," declared Luke Tweezy. "But if you want to we'll go out to the corral."
They went out to the corral and Racey found a seat on an empty nailkeg. Luke Tweezy sat perforce on the hardbaked ground. He hunched up his legs, clasped his hands round his shins, and rested his sharp chin on his bony knees. His eyes were fixed on Racey. The latter seemed in no hurry to begin. He rolled a cigarette with irritating slowness. To force one's opponent to wait is always good strategy.
"Well," said Luke Tweezy.
"Is it?" smiled Racey. "Have it yore own way, if you like. Lookit, Luke, you buy a lot of scrip now and then, don't you?"
"Shore," nodded Luke.
"Good big discount, I'll bet."
"Why not? I ain't in business for my health. They's no law—"
"Of course there ain't. And yore mortgages, Luke. Do a good business in mortgages, don't you?"
"This mortgage of Old Man Dale's now—you figurin' on foreclosin' if he can't pay?"
"Whadda you know about Dale's mortgage?"
"I heard Lanpher yawpin' about it. He talks too loud sometimes, don't he? You gonna foreclose on him, I suppose?"
"Like that!" Luke Tweezy snapped his teeth together with a click.
"But foreclosing takes time. You can't sell a man up the minute his mortgage is due. There's got to be notices in the papers and the like of that. Suppose now he gets to borrow the money some'ers before the sale? He'll have plenty of time to look round."
"Who'd lend him money?"
"Old Salt would. He's tight, but he'd rather have Dale at Moccasin Spring than someone else, and he'd lend Dale money rather than have him drove out."
"Shucks, he wouldn't lend him a dime. I know Old Salt. Don't fret, we'll foreclose when we get ready."
"I ain't fretting," said Racey. "You'll foreclose, huh? Aw right. I just wanted to be shore. You can go now, Luke."
Thus dismissed Tweezy rose to his feet and glared down at Racey Dawson. His little eyes shone with spite.
"Say it," urged Racey. "You'll bust if you don't."
But Luke Tweezy did not say it. He knew better. Without a word he returned to the house.
"They ain't going to foreclose, that's a cinch," said Racey when the ponies were fox-trotting toward Soogan Creek and the Bar S range five minutes later. "Luke's telling me they were proves they ain't."
"Shore," acquiesced Swing, "but what are they gonna do?"
"I ain't figured that out yet."
"You mean you dunno. That's the size of it,"
"How'd you happen to be at that window so providential this mornin'?" Racey queried, hurriedly.
"How'd you s'pose? Don't you guess I'd know they was something up from the nice, kind way you said so-long to me back there at the Dales'? Huh? 'Course I did—I ain't no fool. You'd oughta had sense enough to take me along in the first place instead of makin' me trail you miles an' miles. And where would you 'a' been if I hadn't come siftin' along, I'd like to know? Might know you'd need a witness. Them two jiggers put together could easy make you lots of trouble. What was you thinking of, anyhow, Racey?"
"How could I tell they were both gonna be together? Besides, three of the 88 boys were over in the bunkhouse. I was counting on them."
"Over in the bunkhouse, huh? A lot of good they'd done you there. A lot of good. Oh, yo're bright, Racey. I'd tell a man that, I would."
Racey, walking suddenly round the corner of the Dale stable, came upon Mr. Dale tilting a bottle toward the sky. The business end of the bottle was inserted between Mr. Dale's lips. His Adam's apple slid gravely up and down. He did not see Racey Dawson.
"Howdy," said the puncher.
Mr. Dale removed the bottle, whirled, and thrust the bottle behind him.
"Oh, it's you," he said, blinking, and slowly producing the bottle. "Huh-have one on me."
"Not to-day," refused Racey, shaking his head. "I got a misery in my stummick. Doctor won't lemme drink any."
"Yeah?" Thus Mr. Dale with interest. Then, again proffering the liquor, he said: "This here's fine for the misery. Better have a snooter."
"No, I guess not."
"Well, I will," averred Mr. Dale and downed three swallows rapidly. "Yeah," he continued, driving in the cork with the heel of his hand, "a feller needs a drink now and then."
"Helps him stand off trouble, don't it?" Racey hazarded, sympathetically, perceiving an opening.
"Shore does," answered Mr. Dale. "I should say so. Dunno who'd oughta know that better'n I do. Trouble, Racey—well, say, I'm just made of trouble I am."
"Aw, it ain't as bad as that," encouraged Racey.
"Yes, it is, too," contradicted the other. "I got more trouble on my hands than a rat-tailed hoss tied short in fly-time. Trouble—nothing but."
"Nothing is as bad as it looks."
"Heaps of times she's worse."
"I'm yore friend. You know me. If I can help you—"
"Nobody can help me. I dunno what to do, Racey."
"Well, you know best, I expect, but I've always found if I talk over with somebody else anythin' that bothers me it don't seem to stick up half so big."
Mr. Dale sank down upon one run-over heel and stared blearily off across the flats. The bottle in his hip-pocket made a pronounced bulge under the cloth.
"I dunno what to do, Racey," he said, looking up sidewise at Racey where he stood in front of him, his hands in his pockets and his hat on the back of his head. "I owe a lot of money. I dunno how I'm gonna pay it, and I'm worried."
"Let the other feller do the worrying," suggested Racey.
"I wish I could," said Mr. Dale, drearily. "I wish I could."
"Why don't you, then?"
"He'll foreclose—they'll foreclose, I mean."
"Aw, maybe not."
"Yeah, they will. I know 'em! —— 'em! They'd have the shirt off my back if they could. You see, Racey, she's thisaway: I borrowed five thousand dollars from the Marysville bank, on a mortgage, and there they went and sold the mortgage to Lanpher of the 88 and Luke Tweezy. And there's the rub, Racey. The bank would 'a' renewed all right, but you can put down a bet and go the limit that Lanpher and Tweezy won't. I done asked 'em."
"Five thousand dollars is a lot of money," said Racey, soberly. He had been thinking that the mortgage would not have been above two thousand at the outside. But five thousand! What in Sam Hill had old Dale done with the money? In the next breath Dale answered the unspoken question.
"I needed the money," he said in a low voice, his eyes lowered, "and—and I had bad luck with it."
"Yeah, I know, the cattle dying and all."
"Cattle! What cattle?" Mr. Dale stared blankly at Racey. "Oh, them! Hell, they didn't have nothin' to do with it, them cattle didn't. I'd worked out a system, Racey—a system to beat roulette, and I was shore it was all right. By Gawd, it was all right! They was nothin' wrong with that system. But I had bad luck. I had most awful bad luck."
"And the system, I take it, didn't work?"
"It didn't—against my bad luck."
Mr. Dale again dropped his eyes, and Racey stared down at the hump-shouldered old figure with something akin to pity in his gaze. Certainly he was sorry for him. He was not in the least scornful despite the fact that it did not seem possible that any sensible man could be such a fool. A system—a system to beat roulette! And bad luck! The drably ancient and moth-eaten story with which every unsuccessful gambler seeks to establish an alibi.
"Whose wheel was it?" said Racey.
"Lacey's at Marysville."
"In the back room of the Sweet Dreams, huh? An' there's nothing crooked about Lacey's wheel, either. It's as square as Lacey himself."
"Lacey's wasn't the only wheel. They was McFluke's, too."
So McFluke had a wheel, had he? This was news to Racey Dawson.
"How long has McFluke been runnin' a wheel?" inquired Racey.
"Quite a while," was the vague reply.
"Maybe longer. I dunno."
"Funny it never got round."
"It was a private wheel. Only for his friends. Nothin' public about it."
"Who used to play it besides you?" persisted Racey, hanging to his subject like a bull-pup to a tramp's trousers.
Mr. Dale wrinkled his forehead. "Besides me? Lessee now. They were Doc Coffin, Nebraska Jones, Honey Hoke, and Punch-the-breeze Thompson."
"Aw, Galloway and Norton and that bunch," Mr. Dale said, shamefacedly.
Racey nodded his head slowly. A crooked wheel. Of course it was crooked. Why not? That Dale, Galloway, Norton, and a few other gentlemen of the neighbourhood were under their wives' thumbs to such a degree that they did not dare to gamble openly was a matter of common knowledge. What more natural than that someone should provide them with a private gambling place? With such cappers as Nebraska and his gang, losers would not feel equal to making much of an outcry. It must be a paying occupation for McFluke, Nebraska, or whoever was at the bottom of the business.
Racey nodded again and squatted down on his heels. He picked up a stick and squinted along its length.
"None of my business, of course," he said, casually, "but would you mind telling me how much you lost to McFluke?"
"About seven thousand."
Racey looked up at the sky. Seven thousand dollars. The full amount of the mortgage and two thousand more. And McFluke had it all.
"You see," said Mr. Dale, dolefully. "I began to make money after I'd been here awhile and my health come back. Yeah, I made money all right, all right." He pushed back his hat and scratched a grizzled head. "I had luck," he added. "But you wasn't round here then. You'd gone to the Bend."
"Yep, I'd gone to the Bend, damitall, and it shore seems like I'd stayed there too long. Didn't you ever guess McFluke's wheel wasn't straight?"
"Aw, it was so straight. Mac wouldn't cheat nobody. Yo're—yo're mistaken, Racey."
"I am, huh? Likell I'm mistaken. I know what I'm talking about. I tell you flat, McFluke is so crooked he could swallow a nail and spit out a corkscrew. And he's got that wheel trained. You just bet he has. Look under the table and see what he's doing with his feet or his knees. My Gawd, Dale, didn't you know they make roulette wheels with a brake like a wagon?"
"I—I've heard of 'em," Mr. Dale nodded, hesitatingly. "But I'm shore Mac's is on the level."
"And you bet seven thousand dollars it was on the level, didn't you?"
"But where did you come out? Do you think you ever got a show for yore money?"
"Oh, I won a bet now and then," defended Mr. Dale.
"Small ones, shore. Naturally he has to let you win now and then to sort of toll you along and keep you good-natured. You won now and then, yep. But did you ever win when you had a sizable stake up?"
Mr. Dale shook his head. "No, come to think of it, I don't believe I ever did."
"I knowed you didn't," exclaimed Racey, triumphantly. "I tell you that wheel is crooked."
"Not so loud," cautioned Mr. Dale. "They'll hear you in the house."
"Don't they know nothing about it a-tall?" probed Racey.
"They know about the five-thousand-dollar mortgage," admitted Dale, reluctantly.
Racey rubbed his chin. "I was here when Molly found it out."
Mr. Dale nodded miserably. He was too utterly wretched to resent Racey's interference with his affairs. "She—she told me," he said.
"Don't they know about the other two thousand you lost to McFluke, or what you dropped at Lacey's?"
Mr. Dale shook his head. "I never told 'em. I—I only lost fifteen or sixteen hundred at Lacey's, anyway."
"Fifteen or sixteen hundred is a whole lot when you ain't got it," said the direct and brutal Racey. "Instead of seven thousand then, you done lost eighty-five or eighty-six hundred. I swear I don't see how you managed to lose all that and yore family not find it out."
"I kept quiet."
"I guess you did keep quiet. Gawd, yes! Lookit, Dale, I'm going to help you out of this. But you'll have to start fresh. You've got to go in and make a clean breast to the family about where the other thirty-six hundred over and above the five thousand went."
Mr. Dale's jaw dropped. "I—I never even told 'em where the five thousand went."
"Huh? I thought you said they knew about the mortgage—after Molly found it out."
"They knew about the mortgage all right enough, but they dunno where the money went. Yuh see, Racey, I—I done told 'em I lost it in a land deal."
"You did! Aw right, you go right in and tell 'em the truth, all of it, every last smidgen."
"I cuc-can't!" protested Mr. Dale. "I ain't got the heart!"
"You ain't got the nerve, you mean. You go on and tell 'em, Dale, an' I'll fix it up for you, but I won't fix up anything for you if you ain't gonna play square with those women from now on. And you can't play square with 'em without you begin by telling 'em the truth."
"How you gonna help me out?" temporized Mr. Dale.
"I'm goin' to Old Salt, that's what I'm going to do. I'll fix it up with him to lend you the money."
Mr. Dale shook his head. "He won't do it."
"Shore he'll do it. You don't think he's gonna have somebody else come in here in yore place, do you? Not much he ain't. He'll lend you the money and glad to."
"I done already asked him, an' he wouldn't."
"'You asked him, and he wouldn't?'" repeated Racey, stupidly. "When did you ask him?"
"About two months ago—soon as ever I found out I wouldn't be able to pay off the mortgage."
"And he wouldn't lend it to you? I don't understand it, damfi do. It ain't reasonable. Lookit here, did you tell him what you wanted it for? Did you tell him about the mortgage?"
"Non-no," said Mr. Dale in a still, small voice. "I didn't."
"Why didn't you?"
"Because I was afraid he'd take advantage of me. I was afraid he'd fix it so as to take my ranch away from me if he knowed how bad and what for I needed it."
"But ain't that exactly what the Marysville bank could 'a' done if it wanted?" demanded Racey, aghast at the Dale obtuseness.
"Yeah, but I had hopes of standing off the bank, and—"
"But you ain't got any hope of standing off Lanpher and Tweezy. Nary a hope. Now lookit, Old Salt is yore only chance round here. Of course, he'd fix it to take away yore ranch if he could. That's his business. And it's yore business to see he don't. An' it's my business to help you see he don't. Suppose now I go to Old Salt and get him to lend you the money on a mortgage, say a ten-year mortgage?"
"But I got one mortgage on the place now. He'd never take a second mortgage."
"Naw, naw, that ain't gonna be the way of it a-tall. It will be fixed so's Old Salt's mortgage won't go into effect till the first one's paid off."
"But then till the first one is paid off—maybe it will be three-four days—Old Salt's five thousand will be unsecured."
"It won't be unsecured. It won't go out of Saltoun's hands. He'll pay off the mortgage himself."
"Do you think you can get a easy rate from Old Salt?" asked Dale, the light of a new hope dawning in his faded old eyes. "It's a awful tax on a feller paying the full legal rate."
"We'll have to take what we can get, but I'll do my best to tone it down. Sometimes a man will take less if he has another object in view besides the interest. And you bet Old Salt will have a plenty big object in view in keeping out Lanpher and Tweezy. Money ain't tight now, anyway. I'll do the best I can for you. Don't you fret. You go on in now and square up with the women and I'll slide out to the Bar S instanter."
Mr. Dale, the poor old man, laid a hand on Racey's strong young forearm. "I'll tell 'em," he said. "I'll tell 'em. You—you fix it up with Old Salt."
Abruptly he turned away and hobbled hurriedly around the corner of the barn.
Racey Dawson, riding back to Moccasin Spring, was in a warm and pleasant frame of mind. With him rode Old Salt, and with Old Salt rode Old Salt's check book. Racey had, after much argument and persuasion, made excellent arrangements with Mr. Saltoun. The latter, anxious though he was to own the Dale place himself, had agreed to pay off the mortgage bought by Lanpher and Tweezy and take in return a 6 per cent. mortgage for ten years. No wonder Racey was pleased with himself. He had a right to be.
As they crossed the Marysville and Farewell trail Racey's horse picked up a fortuitous stone. Racey dismounted. Mr. Saltoun, slouching comfortably back against his cantle, looked doubtfully down at Racey where he stood humped over, the horse's hoof between his knees, tapping with a knife handle at the lodged stone.
"A ten-year mortgage is a long one, kind of," he said, slowly.
"I thought we'd settled all that." Racey lifted a quick head.
"Shore we've done settled it," Mr. Saltoun acquiesced, promptly. "That's all right. I'm going through with my part of it. Gotta do it. Nothing else to do. I was just a-thinking, that's all."
Racey merely grunted. He resumed his tapping.
"Alla same," Mr. Saltoun said, suddenly, "I don't believe this Jack Harpe feller had anything to do with this mortgage deal, Racey."
"No, I don't. You can't make me believe they's any coon in that tree. If they was why ain't Jack Harpe done something before this? Tell me that. Why ain't he?"
"Shore you don't. You was mistaken, Racey. Badly mistaken. Yore judgment was out by a mile. She's all just Luke Tweezy and that lousy skunk of a Lanpher trying to act spotty. No more than that."
"Well, ain't that enough?"
"But nothing. Where'd you be if I hadn't found out about it, huh? Wouldn't you look nice feedin' other folks' cows on yore grass?"
"Alla same, they wouldn't 'a' been Jack Harpe's cows."
"Which is all you know about it. You never would take warning, and you know it. How about the time when Blakely was the 88 manager, and they were rustling yore cattle so fast it made a quarter-hoss racing full split look slow?"
"Well, but—" interrupted Mr. Saltoun, beginning to fidget with his reins.
"And the time Cutnose Canter tried to run off a whole herd of hosses on you?" Racey breezed on, warming to his subject. "You wouldn't let Chuck warn you. Oh, no, not you. He didn't know what he was talking about. No, he didn't. And how did it turn out, huh? What did that li'l party cost you? Yeah, I would begin frizzling round if I was you. You'll generally notice the feller who's the last to laugh enjoys it the most. I'm that feller—me and Swing both."
"Yeah, me and Swing will be thanking you for a healthy big check apiece when our time-limit is up. Yes, indeedy, that's us."
"Is that so? Is that so? You got another guess, Racey, and it's me that will get the most out of that laugh. If it's like I say, even if Lanpher and Tweezy are trying a game you don't get paid a nickel if Jack Harpe and his cattle ain't in on the deal. You done put in the Jack Harpe end of it yoreself. I heard you. So did Tom Loudon, and Swing, too. Jack Harpe. Yeah. He is the tune you was playing alla time. And up to now I can't see that Jack Harpe has made a move, not a move."
"Lanpher and Tweezy wasn't in the bet," insisted Mr. Saltoun. "It was Jack Harpe, and you know it. 'If Jack Harpe don't start trying to get Dale's ranch away from him and run cattle in on you inside of six months you don't have to pay us.' Them was yore very words, Racey. I got 'em wrote down all so careful. I know 'em by heart."
"I'll bet you do," Racey told him, heartily. "I'll gamble you been studying those words in all yore spare time."
"It pays to be careful," smiled Mr. Saltoun. "Always bear that in mind. I ain't wanting to rub anything in, Racey, but if you'd been a mite more careful, just a mite more careful, you wouldn't be out so much at the finish. Drinks are on you, cowboy. And when you stop to think that I'd 'a' made the bet just the same if you'd wanted Lanpher and Tweezy in on it. Only you didn't."
"Guess I must 'a' overlooked 'em, huh?" grinned Racey. "Feller can't think of everything, can he?"
"I'm glad to see yo're taking it thisaway," approved Mr. Saltoun. "Working for six months for nothing don't seem to bother you a-tall."
"I ain't worked six months for nothing—yet," pointed out Racey. "The six months ain't up—yet. You wanna remember, Salt, that a race ain't over till the horses cross the line."
"You gotta prove Jack Harpe's connection," began Mr. Saltoun.
Racey topped his mount, but as the horse started he held him up.
"Lessee who's coming," he suggested, jerking his thumb over his shoulder.
He and Mr. Saltoun both turned their heads. Someone was riding toward them along the trail from the direction of the Lazy River ford—Racey had caught the clatter of the horse's hoofs on the rocks of a wash wherein the trail lay concealed.
"Siftin' right along," said Mr. Saltoun.
Racey nodded. Horse and rider slid into sight above the side of the wash and trotted toward them.
"Looks like Punch-the-breeze Thompson," said Mr. Saltoun.
"It is Thompson," confirmed Racey. "Didn't it strike you he sort of hesitated a li'l bit when he first seen us—like a man would whose breakfast didn't rest easy on his stomach, as you might say."
Mr. Saltoun nodded. "He did sway back on them lines at the top."
"And he ain't boiling along quite as fast now as he was in the wash," elaborated Racey.
"I noticed that, too," admitted Mr. Saltoun.
They waited, barring the trail. Punch-the-breeze Thompson did not attempt to ride around them. He pulled up and nodded easily to the two men.
"They's been a fraycas down at McFluke's," Thompson said.
"Fraycas?" Racey cocked an eyebrow.
"Yeah—old Dale and a stranger."
Racey nodded. He knew with a great certainty what was coming next. "Anybody hurt?" he asked.
Racey nodded again. "Even break?"
"We don't think so," Thompson stated, frankly.
"Who's we?" queried Racey.
"Oh, Austin, Honey Hoke, Doc Coffin, McFluke, Jack Harpe, Lanpher, and Luke Tweezy. We all just didn't like the way the stranger went at it, so I'm going to Farewell after the sheriff."
"Yo're holdin' the stranger then, I take it?" put in Mr. Saltoun.
"Well, no, not exactly," replied Thompson. "He got away, that stranger did."
"And didn't none of you make any try at stopping him a-tall?" demanded Racey.
"Plenty," Thompson replied with a stony face. "I took a shot at him myself just as he was hopping through the window. I missed."
"Yet they say yo're a good snap shot, Thompson," threw in Racey.
"I am—most usual," admitted Thompson. "But this time my hand must 'a' shook or something."
"Yep," concurred Racey, "I shore guess it must 'a' shook or—something."
Thompson faced Racey. "'Or something,'" he repeated, hardily. "Meaning?"
"What I said," replied Racey, calmly. "I never mean more'n I say—ever."
Thompson continued to regard Racey fixedly. Mr. Saltoun was glad that he himself was two yards to the right, and he would not have objected to double the distance.
Racey's hands were folded on the horn of his saddle. Thompson's right hand hung at his side. Racey had told the truth when he spoke of Thompson as a good snap shot. He was all of that. And he was fairly quick on the draw as well. It would seem that, taking into consideration the position of Thompson's right hand, that Thompson had a shade the better of it. Racey thought so. But he hoped, nevertheless, by shooting through the bottom of his holster, to plant at least one bullet in Thompson before the latter killed him.
The decision lay with Thompson. Would he elect to fight? Racey could almost see the thoughts at conflict behind Thompson's frontal bone. Mr. Saltoun, hoping against hope, sat tensely silent. Racey's eyes held Thompson's steadily.
Slowly, inch by inch, Thompson's right hand moved upward—and away from the gun butt. He gathered his reins in his left hand and with his hitherto menacing right he tilted his hat forward and began to scratch the back of his head.
"If you don't mean more'n you say," offered Thompson, "you don't mean much."
"Which is all the way you look at it," said Racey.
"And a damn good way, too," nipped in Mr. Saltoun, hurriedly, inwardly cursing Racey for not letting well enough alone. "What was the fight about, Thompson?"
"Cards," said Thompson, laconically, switching his eyes briefly to Mr. Saltoun's face.
"And the stranger cold-decked him?" inquired Racey.
"Something like that, but I can't say for shore. I wasn't playing with him. Doc Coffin was, and so was Honey Hoke and Peaches Austin. Peaches said he kind of had an idea the stranger dealt himself a card from the bottom just before old Dale started to crawl his hump. But Peaches ain't shore about it. Seemin'ly old Dale is the only one was shore, and he's dead."
"And yo're going for the coroner, huh?" asked Racey.
"I said so."
"But you didn't say if anybody was chasing the stranger now. Are they?"
"Shore," was the prompt reply. "They all took out after him—all except McFluke, that is."
Racey nodded. "I expect McFluke would want to stay with Dale," he said, gently, "just as you'd want to go to Farewell after the coroner. Yo're shore it is the coroner, Thompson?"
"Say, how many times do you want me to tell you?" demanded the badgered Thompson. "Of course it's the coroner. In a case like this the coroner's gotta be notified."
"I expect," assented Racey. "I expect. But if yo're really goin' for the coroner, Thompson, what made you tell us when you first met us you were going for the sheriff?"
"Why," said Thompson without a quiver, "I'm a-goin' for him, too. I must 'a' forgot to say so at first."
"Yeah, I guess you did." Thus Racey, annoyed that Thompson had contrived to crawl through the fence. He had hoped that Thompson might be tempted to a demonstration, for which potentiality he, Racey, had prepared by removing his right hand from the saddle horn.
"It don't always pay to forget, Thompson," suggested Mr. Saltoun, coldly.
"It don't," Thompson assented readily. "And I don't—most always."
"Don't stay here any longer on our account, Thompson," said Racey. "You've told us about enough."
"Try and remember it," Thompson bade him, and lifted his reins.
"We will, and, on the other hand, don't you forget yore sheriff and yore coroner."
"I won't," grinned Thompson and rode past and away.
"He ain't goin' for the sheriff and the coroner any more'n I am," declared Mr. Saltoun, disgustedly, turning in the saddle to gaze after the vanishing horseman.
"Of course he ain't!" almost barked Racey. "In this country fellers like Thompson don't ride hellbent just to tell the sheriff and the coroner a feller has been killed. Murder ain't any such e-vent as all that. Unless," he added, thoughtfully, "Thompson is the stranger."
"You mean Thompson might 'a' killed him?"
"I don't think it would spoil his appetite any. You remember how fast he was pelting along down in the wash, and how he slowed up after seeing us? A murderer would act just thataway."
Mr. Saltoun nodded. "A gent can't do anything on guesswork," he said, bromidically. "Facts are what count."
"You'll find before we get to the bottom of this business," observed Racey, sagely, "that guesswork is gonna lead us to a whole heap of facts."
"I hope so," Mr. Saltoun said, uncomfortably conscious that the death of Dale might seriously complicate the lifting of the mortgage.
Racey was no less uncomfortable, and for the same reason. He felt sure that the killing of Dale had been inspired in order to settle once for all the future of the Dale ranch. No wonder Luke Tweezy had been so positive in his assertion that Old Man Saltoun would not lend any money to Dale. The latter had been marked for death at the time.
Despite the fact that Tweezy and Harpe were at last being seen together in public, thus indicating that the "deal," to quote Pooley's letter to Tweezy, had been "sprung," Racey doubted that the murder formed part of Jacob Pooley's "absolutely safe" plan for forcing out Dale. While in some ways the murder might be considered sufficiently safe, the method of it and the act itself did not smack of Pooley's handiwork. It was much more probable that the killing was the climax of Luke Tweezy's original plan adhered to by the attorney and his friends against the advice and wishes of Jacob Pooley.
"Guess we'd better go on to McFluke's," was Racey's suggestion.
"Looks like they got back mighty soon from chasing the stranger," said Racey, when they came in sight of the place, eying the number of horses tied to the hitching-rail.
"Maybe they got him quick," Mr. Saltoun offered, sardonically.
They rode on and added their horses to the tail-switching string in front of the saloon. Racey did not fail to note that none of the other horses gave any evidence of having been ridden either hard or lately. Which, in the face of Thompson's assertion that the men he left behind had ridden in pursuit of the murderer, seemed rather odd. Or perhaps it was not so odd, looking upon it from another angle.
The saloon, when they had ridden up, had been quiet as the well-known grave. It remained equally silent when they entered.
McFluke, behind the bar, wearing a black eye and a puffed nose, nodded to them civilly. In chairs ranged round the walls sat an assortment of men—Peaches Austin, Luke Tweezy, Jack Harpe, Doc Coffin, Honey Hoke, and Lanpher. The latter was nursing a slung right arm. They were all there, the men mentioned by name by Thompson as having been in the place when Dale was killed.
"What is this, a graveyard meetin'?" asked Racey of McFluke, glancing from the assembled multitude to McFluke and smiling slightly. It was no part of wisdom, thought Racey, to let these men know of his encounter with Thompson. He had Thompson's story. He was anxious to hear theirs.
'"A graveyard meeting,'" repeated the saloon-keeper. "Well, and that's what it is in a manner of speaking."
Racey stared. "I bite. What's the answer?"
The saloon-keeper cleared his throat. "Old Dale's been killed."
"Has, huh? Who killed him?" Racey allowed his eyes casually to skim the expressionless faces of the men backed against the walls.
"A stranger killed him," replied McFluke, heavily.
Racey removed his eyes from the slack-chinned countenance of the saloon-keeper to thin-faced, foxy-nosed Luke Tweezy. Luke's little eyes met his.
"You saw this stranger, Luke?" he asked.
Luke Tweezy nodded. "We all saw him."
"He was playing draw with Honey Hoke and Peaches Austin and me," Doc Coffin offered, oilily.
"And the stranger?" amended Racey.
"And the stranger," Doc Coffin accepted the amendment.
"What was the trouble?" pursued Racey.
"Well, we kind of thought"—Doc Coffin's eyes slid round to cross an instant the shifty gaze of Peaches Austin—"we thought maybe this stranger dealt a card from the bottom. We ain't none shore."
"Dale said he did, anyhow," said Peaches Austin.
"He said so twice," put in Lanpher.
Racey turned deliberately. "You here," said he, softly. "I didn't see you at first. I must be getting nearsighted. You saw the whole thing, did you, Lanpher?"
"Yeah," replied Lanpher.
"Who pulled first?"
"The stranger." The answer came patly from at least five different men.
Racey looked grimly upon those present. "Most everybody seems shore the stranger's to blame," he observed. "Besides saying the stranger was dealing from the bottom did Dale use any other fighting words?"
"He called him a—tinhorn," burst simultaneously from the lips of McFluke and Peaches Austin.
"Only two this time," said Racey, shooting a swift glance at Jack Harpe and overjoyed to find the latter dividing a glare of disgust between McFluke and Austin. "But you'll have to do better than that."
Mr. Saltoun shivered inwardly. He was a man of courage, but not of foolhardy courage, the species of courage that dares death unnecessarily. He was getting on in years, and hoped, when it came his time to die, to pass out peacefully in his nightshirt. And here was that fool of a Racey practically telling Harpe and the other rascals that he was on to their game. No wonder Mr. Saltoun shivered. He expected matters to come to push of pike in a split second. So, being what he was, a fairly brave man in a tight corner, he put on a hard, confident expression and hooked his thumbs in his belt.
Racey Dawson spread his legs wide and laughed a reckless laugh. He felt reckless. He likewise felt for these men ranged before him the most venomous hate of which he was capable. These men had killed the father of Molly Dale. It did not matter whether any one or all of them had or had not committed the actual murder, they were wholly responsible for it. They had brought it about. He knew it. He knew it just as sure as he was a foot high. And as he looked upon them sitting there in flinty silence he purposed to make them pay, and pay to the uttermost. That the old man had been a gambler and a drunkard, and the world was undoubtedly a better world for his leaving it, were facts of no moment in Racey's mind. He, Racey, was not one to condone either murder or injustice. And this murder and the injustice of it would cruelly hurt three women.
He laughed again, without mirth. His blue eyes, glittering through the slits of the drawn-down eyelids, were pin-points of wrath. His hard-bitten stare challenged his enemies. Damn them! let them shoot if they wanted to. He was ready. He, Racey Dawson, would show them a fight that would stack up as well as any of which a hard-fighting territory could boast. So, feeling as he did, Racey stared upon his enemies with a frosty, slit-eyed stare and mentally dared them to come to the scratch.
But in moments like these there is always one to say "Let's go," or give its equivalent, a sign. And that one is invariably the leader of one side or the other. Racey Dawson saw Luke Tweezy turn a slow head and look toward Jack Harpe. He saw Doc Coffin, Honey, and Austin, one after the other, do the same. But Jack Harpe sat immobile. He neither spoke nor gave a sign. Perhaps he did not consider the present a sufficiently propitious moment. No one knew what he thought. Had he known what the future held in store he might have gone after his gun.
Tense, nerves wire-drawn, Racey and Mr. Saltoun awaited the decision.
It came, and like many decisions, its form was totally unexpected. Jack Harpe looked at Racey and said smilelessly:
"Wanna view the remains?"
DRAWING THE COVER
"You don't understand it, do you, Peaches?" Racey inquired genially of Peaches Austin when he found himself neighbours with that slippery gentleman at the inquest.
Peaches shied away from Racey on general principles. He feared a catch. There were so many things about Racey that he did not understand.
"Whatcha talking about?" Peaches grunted, surlily.
"You—me—Chuck—everybody, more or less. You don't, do you?"
"Don't what?" A trifle more surlily.
"You don't see how and why Chuck Morgan is so all-fired friendly with me, and how I'm a-riding for a good outfit like the Bar S, when the last you seen of me, Chuck was a-hazing me up the trail with my hands over my head. You don't understand it none. I can see it in your light green eyes, Peaches."
Peaches modestly veiled his pale green eyes beneath dropped lids and turned his head away. He would have given a great deal to go elsewhere. But to do that would be to make himself conspicuous, and there were many reasons, all more or less cogent, why he did not wish to make himself conspicuous. Peaches sat still on his chair and broke into a gentle perspiration.
Racey perceived the other's discomfort and ached to increase it. "Did you stay here three-four days like I told you to that time a few weeks ago? And was Jack Harpe most Gawd-awful hot under the collar when you did see him final? And if so, what happened?"
Racey gaped at Peaches like an expectant terrier watching a rat-hole. It may be that Peaches felt like a holed rat in a hole too small for comfort. He turned on Racey with a flash of defiance.
"There was a feller once," said Peaches, "who bit off more'n he could chew."
"I've heard of him," Racey admitted, gravely. "He was first cousin to the other feller that grabbed the bear by the tail."
"I dunno whose first cousin he was," frowned Peaches. "All I know is he didn't show good sense."
"Now that," said Racey, "is where you and I don't think alike. I may be wrong in what I think. I may have made a mistake, but I gotta be showed why and wherefore. Anybody is welcome to show me, Peaches, just anybody."
Racey accompanied his remarks with a chilling look. The perspiration of Peaches turned clammy.
"Meaning?" Peaches queried.
"Meaning? Why, meaning that you can show me if you like, Peaches."
This was too much for Peaches. He was out of his depth and unable to swim. He sank with a gurgle of, "I dunno what yo're drivin' at."
Racey shook a sorrowful head. "I'm shore sorry to hear it. I was guessin' you did. I had hopes of you, Peaches. You've done gimme a disappointment. Yep, she's a cruel world when all's said and done."
This was too much for Peaches. He resolved to shift his seat whether it made him conspicuous or not. The gambler removed to a vacant windowsill, upon which he sat and looked anywhere but at Racey Dawson. That young man leaned back in his chair and surveyed the multitude.
Besides the citizens found in the saloon on his and Mr. Saltoun's arrival there were now present Dolan, who combined with his office of justice of the peace that of coroner, and twelve good men and true, the coroner's jury and most intimate friends, ready and willing at any and all times to serve the territory for ten dollars a day and expenses. In addition to this representative group Alicran Skeel had dropped in from nowhere, Chuck Morgan had driven over with a wagon from Soogan Creek (mercifully the family at Moccasin Spring had not yet been informed of their bereavement), and Sheriff Jake Rule and his deputy Kansas Casey had ridden out from Farewell. Punch-the-breeze Thompson had returned with the sheriff. Which circumstance either disposed of the theory that Thompson was the murderer, or else Thompson had more nerve than he was supposed to have. Racey began to nurse a distinct grievance against Thompson.
The main room of the saloon, into which the body had been brought from the back room, was a fog of smoke and a blabber of voices. McFluke had not been idle at the bar, and the coroner's jury was three parts drunk. The members had not yet agreed on a verdict. But the delay was a mere matter of form. They always liked to stretch the time, and give the territory a good run for her money.
Racey Dawson, conscious that both Jack Harpe and Luke Tweezy were watching him covertly, rolled a meticulous cigarette. He scratched a match on the chair seat, held it to the end of the cigarette, and stared across the pulsing flame straight into the eyes of the Marysville lawyer. Tweezy's gaze wavered and fell away. Racey inhaled strongly, then got to his feet and lazed across to the bar where Jake Rule, with Kansas Casey at his elbow, was perfunctorily questioning McFluke. The latter's hard, close-coupled blue eyes narrowed at Racey's approach.
Racey, as he draped himself against the bar, was careful to nudge Casey's foot with a surreptitious toe.
"Jake," said Racey, "would I be interruptin' the proceedings too much if I made a motion for us to drink all round?"
"Not a-tall," declared the sheriff, heartily.
Racey turned to McFluke.
When their hands had encircled the glasses for the third time, Racey, instead of drinking, suddenly looked across the bar at McFluke who was industriously swabbing the bar top.
"Mac," he said, easily, "when that stranger ran out the door how many gents fired at him?"
"Punch Thompson," replied McFluke, the sushing cloth stopping abruptly. "You heard him tell the coroner how he fired and missed, didn't you?"
"Oh, I heard, I heard," Racey answered. "No harm in asking again, is there? Can't be too shore about these here—killin's, can you? Mac, which door did the stranger run through—the one into the back room or the one leadin' outdoors?"
"Why, the one leadin' outdoors, of course." McFluke's surprise at the question was evident.
"Jake," said Racey, "s'pose now you ask Punch Thompson what the stranger was doing when he cut down on him."
The sheriff regarded Racey with his keen gray gaze. Then he faced about and singled out Thompson from a conversational group across the room.
"Punch," he called, and then put Racey's question in his own words.
"What was he doin'?" said Thompson, heedless of McFluke's agonized expression. "Which he was hoppin' through that window there"—here he indicated the middle one of three in the side of the room—"when I drawed and missed. I only had time for the one shot."
At this there was a sudden scrabbling behind the bar. It was McFluke trying to retreat through the doorway into the back room, and being prevented from accomplishing his purpose by Racey Dawson who, at the innkeeper's first panic-stricken movement, had vaulted the bar and grabbed him by the neck.
"None of that now," cautioned Racey Dawson, his right hand flashing down and up, as McFluke, finding that escape was out of the question, made a desperate snatch at the knife-handle protruding from his bootleg.
The saloon-keeper reacted immediately to the cold menace of the gun-muzzle pressing against the top of his spinal column. He straightened sullenly. Racey, transferring the gun-muzzle to the small of McFluke's back, stooped swiftly, drew out McFluke's knife and tossed it through a window.
"You won't be needing that again," said Racey Dawson. "Help yoreself, Kansas."
Which the deputy promptly proceeded to do by snapping a pair of handcuffs round the thick McFluke wrists.
"Whatell you trying to do?" bawled McFluke in a rage. "I ain't done nothing! You can't prove I done nothing! You—"
"Shut up!" interrupted Kansas Casey, giving the handcuffs an expert twitch that wrenched a groan out of McFluke. "Proving anything takes time. We got time. You got time. What more do you want?"
The efficient deputy towed the saloon-keeper round the bar and out into the barroom. He faced him about in front of Jake Rule. The sheriff fixed him with a grim stare.
"What did you try to run for, Mac?" he demanded.
"I had business outdoors," grumbled McFluke.
"What kind of business?"
"What's that to you? You ain't got no license to grab a-hold of me and stop me from transacting my legitimate business whenever and wherever I feel like it."
"You seem to know more about it than I do. Alla same unless you feel like telling me exactly what all yore hurry was for, we'll have to hold you for a while. Yo're shore it didn't have nothing to do with yore saying the stranger run out the door and Thompson saying he jumped through the window?"
"Why, shore I am," grunted McFluke.
"Glad to hear that. But how is it you and Thompson seen the same thing different ways? It's a cinch the stranger, not being twins, didn't use both the door and the window. Yo're shore he run out the door, Mac?"
"Shore I am. I seen him, I tell you." But McFluke's tone rang flat.
"Punch," said the sheriff to Thompson who, in company with everyone else in the room had crowded round the sheriff and the prisoner, "Punch, how did the stranger who shot Dale leave the room?"
"Through the window, like I said," Thompson declared, defiantly. "Ask anybody. They all seen him. Mac's drunk or crazy."
"Yo're a liar!" snarled McFluke. "I tell you he run out the door."
"Aw, close yore trap!" requested Thompson with contempt. "You ain't packin' no gun."
"Lanpher," said the sheriff, "how did the murderer get away."
"Through the window," was the prompt reply of the 88 manager.
The sheriff asked Harpe, Coffin, Tweezy, and the others who had been present at the killing, for their versions. In every case, each had seen eye-to-eye with Thompson. The evidence was overwhelmingly against the saloon-keeper. But he, a glint of fear in his hard blue eyes, stuck to his original statement, swearing that all men were liars and he alone was telling the truth.
Racey, standing a little back from the crowd, pulled out his tobacco-bag. But his fingers must have been all thumbs at the moment for he dropped it on the floor. He stooped to retrieve it. The movement brought his eyes within a yard of the body of Dale. And now he saw that which he had not previously taken note of—an abrasion across the knuckles of Dale's right hand. Not only that, but the hand, which was lying over the left hand on the body's breast, showed an odd lumpiness at the knuckles of the first and second fingers.
Racey stuffed his tobacco-bag into his vest pocket and knelt beside the body. It was cold, of course, but had not yet completely stiffened. He laid the two hands side by side and compared them. The left hand was as it should be—no lumpiness, bruises, or any discolouration other than grime. But now that the two hands were side by side the difference in the right hand was most apparent.
Certainly it was badly bruised across the knuckles and the skin was broken, too. Furthermore, there was that odd lumpiness about the knuckles of the first and second fingers, a lumpiness that gave the knuckles almost the appearance of being double.
He picked up the dead hand and gingerly fingered the lumpy knuckles. Then, in a flash of thought, it came to him. The hand was broken.
He raised his head and looked across the room. And as it chanced he looked across the packed shoulders and between the peering heads of the crowd straight into the face of McFluke and the black eye adorning that face.
He rose to his feet and pushed his way through the crowd to the side of the sheriff.
"Can I ask a question?" said he to the officer.
"Shore," nodded the sheriff. "Many as you like."
"Thompson," Racey said, but watching McFluke the while, "did Dale have any trouble here with anybody besides the stranger?"
"Not as I know of," came the reply after a moment's hesitation.
"He didn't have any fuss with anybody," spoke up Luke Tweezy.
"I was talking to Thompson," Racey reminded the lawyer. "When I want to ask you any questions I'll let you know."
"Huh," Luke contented himself with grunting, and subsided.
"No fuss a-tall, Thompson?" resumed Racey.
"Nary a fuss."
"And you was here alla time Dale was here?"
"I was here before Dale come, and I was still here when Dale—went away."
"In the same room with him?"
"In this room, yeah. In the same room with him alla time. Shore."
"Then if Dale had had a riot with anybody else but the stranger man you'd 'a' knowed it."
"You betcha. He didn't have no trouble, only with the stranger."
"Did anybody else have any trouble with anybody while you was here?"
At this Thompson frowned. Where were Racey's questions leading him? Was it a trap? Knowing Racey as he did, he feared the worst. He would have liked to leave the questioned unanswered. But this was impossible. As it was, he was delaying his answer longer than good sense warranted. Both Jake Rule and Kansas Casey were staring at him fixedly. Racey regarded him steadily, a slight and sinister smile lurking at the corner of his mouth.
"Well," prompted Racey, "you'd oughta be able to tell us whether there was any other fights while you was here?"
"They wasn't," plunged Thompson. "Everything was salubrious till Dale started his battle."
"And when did you get here?" pursued Racey.
"Oh, I'd been here all night."
"And you dunno of any other brush except the one between Dale and the stranger?"
"I done said so forty times," Thompson declared, peevishly. "How many times have I gotta repeat it?"
"As many times as yo're asked," put in the sheriff, sharply.
"Didja see anybody get hurt—have a accident or something while you were here, Thompson?" Racey bored on.
Thompson shook an impatient head. "Nobody got hurt or had a accident."
"Then," said Racey, turning suddenly on McFluke, "how did you get that black eye?"
McFluke's eyes flickered at the question. His body appeared to sink inward. Then he straightened, and flung back his wide shoulders, and glowered at Racey Dawson.
"I ran into a door this morning," said the saloon-keeper in a tone of the utmost confidence.
"Oh, you ran into a door, did you," Racey observed, sweetly. "And what particular door did you run into?"
"The front door."
"That one?" Racey indicated the door of the barroom.
"We'll just take a look at that door."
Accompanied by the deeply interested sheriff, who was beginning to sniff his quarry like the old bloodhound he was, Racey crossed to the barroom door. He looked at the door. He looked at the sheriff. The sheriff looked only at the door.
"Door's opened back flat against the wall, Mac," said the sheriff. "Was she like this when you ran into her?"
"Course not," was the heated reply. "She was swingin' open."
Racey squatted down on the floor. "Lookit here, Sheriff."
The sheriff stooped and regarded the wooden wedge under the door that jammed it fast. Racey drew a finger across the top of the wedge. He held up the finger-tip for the sheriff's inspection. The tip was black with the dust of weeks.
"That door has been wedged back all this hot weather," said Racey, gently. "Look at the dust under the door on both sides of the wedge, too. Bet that wedge ain't been out of place for a month."
Softly as he spoke McFluke heard him. "—— you! I tell you that door was opened this mornin'! I hit my head on it! Ask 'em all! Ask anybody! Jack, lookit here—"
"I didn't see you hit yore head on the door," interrupted Jack Harpe. "Maybe you did, I dunno."
Racey raised a quick head as Jack Harpe spoke. Quite plainly he saw Jack Harpe accompany his words with a slight lowering of his left eyelid. Racey glanced at McFluke. He saw the defiant expression depart from the McFluke countenance, and a look of unmistakable relief take its place.
Racey dropped his head. The sheriff was speaking.
"Mac," he was saying, "yo're lyin'. Yo're lyin' as fast as a hoss can trot. You never got yore black eye on this door. I dunno why yo're sayin' you did, but I'm gonna find out. Till—"
"You won't have far to go to find out," struck in Racey Dawson. "I know how he got his black eye."
"How?" demanded the sheriff, his grizzled eyebrows drawing together.
"Dale gave it to him," was the answer pat and pithy.
"He did not!" The saloon-keeper began to roar instantly, and had to be quieted by Kansas Casey.
When order was restored Racey explained his deductions. The sheriff listened in silence. Then he went to the body of the dead man, and examined the bruised and broken right hand.
"I'm tellin' you," declared Racey with finality, "he hit somebody when he broke that hand."
"He might 'a' broke it when he fell after being shot," put in Luke Tweezy.
The sheriff shook his head. "He couldn't fall hard enough to break them bones as bad as that. It's like Racey says. Question is, who did he hit? McFluke's eye and McFluke's lies are a good enough answer for me."
"You'll have to prove it!" snapped Luke Tweezy.
"I expect we'll do that, Luke," the sheriff said, calmly. "Have you agreed on a verdict, Judge?"
"We had," replied Dolan. "We was about satisfied that a plain 'killin' by a person unknown,' was as good as any, but I expect now we'll change it to murder with the recommendation that McFluke be arrested on suspicion. Whadda you say, boys?"
"Shore," chorussed the "boys," and hiccuped like so many bullfrogs.
"Whu-why not lul-let the shush-shpicion shlide," suggested one bright spirit, "an' cue-convict him right now an' lul-lynch him after shupper whu-when it's cool?"
"No," vetoed Dolan, "it can't be done. He's gotta be indicted and held for the Grand Jury at Piegan City. I ain't allowed to try murder cases."
"Tut-too bad," mourned the bright spirit, and refused to be comforted.
"Can I take him now, Judge?" inquired Chuck Morgan, referring to the dead man.
"Any time," nodded Dolan.
Racey Dawson, whose eyes that day were missing nothing, saw that Jack Harpe was looking steadily at Luke Tweezy. Luke's nod was barely perceptible.
"Where were you thinking of taking him, Chuck?" was Tweezy's query.
"Moccasin Spring," Chuck replied, laconically.
"I wouldn't if I were you," said Luke Tweezy. "Better save trouble by taking him to yore house."
It was coming now—the answer to one puzzle at least. Racey was sure of it. He was not disappointed.
"And why had I better take him to my house?" demanded Chuck.
"Because the ranch at Moccasin Spring don't belong to the Dale family any more," Tweezy explained, smoothly. "Dale has turned over the place to Lanpher and me."
"It's a damn lie!" declared Chuck.
Tweezy smiled. He was a lawyer, not a fighter. Names signified nothing in his greasy life. "It's no lie," he tossed back. "You know Lanpher and me bought the mortgage on the Dale place from the Marysville bank. The mortgage is due in a couple of days. Dale didn't have the money to satisfy the mortgage. We was gonna foreclose. In order to save trouble all round he made the ranch over to us."
"You mean to tell me Dale did that just to save trouble?" burst out Racey. "Just because he liked you two fellers and wanted to make it as easy as possible for you? Aw, hell, Tweezy. Aw, hell again. Yo're as poor a liar as yore side-kicker McFluke."
Tweezy smiled once more and drew forth a long and shiny pocket-book from the inner pocket of his vest. From the pocket-book he extracted a legal-looking document. Which document he handed to Sheriff Rule.
"Read her off, Jake," requested Luke Tweezy.
The sheriff read aloud the lines of writing. Shorn of the impressive terms so beloved of law and lawyers, the document set forth that in consideration of being allowed to retain all his live-stock, wagons, and household goods, instead of merely the fixed number of cattle, horses, and wagons, and those specified household articles, exempt from seizure under the law, Dale voluntarily released to the mortgagers, without the formality of foreclosure proceedings, the mortgaged property comprising six hundred and forty acres as described hereinafter, etcetera.
The document was signed by Dale and witnessed by Doc Coffin and Honey Hoke:
The sheriff held the paper out to Chuck Morgan. "This Dale's signature, Chuck?"
Chuck Morgan examined the signature closely and long.
"Looks like it," he said, hesitatingly.
"It's his signature, all right," spoke up Honey Hoke. "I saw him sign it."
"Me, too," said Doc Coffin.
"Paper's dated to-day," said the sheriff. "How long before he was killed did Dale sign it, Luke?"
"About a hour," replied Tweezy.
"It's made out in yore writin', ain't it?" went on the sheriff.
"Shore," nodded Luke. "All but the signature. So, you see, Chuck," he continued, turning to Morgan, "you might as well pack him to yore house. We intend to take possession immediately."
"You do, huh," said Chuck. "You try it, thassall I gotta say. You try it."
"I'd admire to see you drive those women out of their home on the strength of that paper, Tweezy," remarked Racey.
"Sheriff, I'll make out eviction papers immediately and Judge Dolan will have you serve them on the Dale family." Thus Luke Tweezy, blustering.
"That's yore privilege," said the sheriff, "and I'll have to serve 'em, I suppose. But only in the regular course of business, Luke. I'm mighty busy just now. Yore eviction notice will have to take its turn."
"My punchers will throw 'em out then," averred Lanpher.
"They ain't nary a one of 'em would gorm up their paws on a job like that for you, Lanpher," Alicran stated in no uncertain tones. "If you got any dirty work to do you'll do it yoreself."
"Yo're—" began the 88 manager, and stopped suddenly.
"What was you gonna say?" Alicran's voice cut sharply across the general silence.
Lanpher controlled himself by an effort. Or perhaps it was not such an effort, after all. It may have been that he remembered the object lesson of the severed branch of the wild currant bush. At any rate, he did not pursue further the subject of the 88 cowboys cast as an eviction gang.
"I'll talk to you later, Alicran," said he in a tone he strove to make grimly menacing, but which actually imposed upon no one, least of all the truculent Alicran.
"We won't need yore boys, Lanpher," said Racey. "The sheriff will attend to it."
"Lookit here, Tweezy," said Judge Dolan, slouching to the front of the crowd, "are you gonna run them women off thataway after this?" Here the Judge jerked his head backward in the direction of the body.
"Why not?" Tweezy demanded, sulkily. "We got a right to."
"It don't always pay to stand on our rights, Luke," suggested the Judge. "I'd go a li'l easy if I was you."
"You ain't me," said Tweezy, rudely.
"Which is something I gotta be grateful for," the Judge returned to the charge. "But alla same, Luke, I'd scratch my head and think how this here is gonna look. Here Dale gives you this paper, and a hour later he's cashed. Of course, it looks like his signature, and you got witnesses who say it's his signature, but—" The Judge paused and gravely contemplated Luke Tweezy.
"I'll tell you what it looks like to me," announced Racey in a loud, unsympathetic tone. "The whole deal's too smooth. She's so smooth she's slick, like a counterfeit dollar. You and Lanpher are a couple of damn thieves, Tweezy."
But the sheriff's gun was out first. "None of that, Lanpher," he cautioned. "They ain't gonna be no lockin' horns here. That goes for you, too, Racey."
"I don't need to pull any gun," Racey declared, contemptuously. "All I'd have to use is my fingers on that feller. He never went after his gun till he seen you pull yores. He ain't got any nerve, that's all that's the matter with him."
Lanpher snarled curses at this. He yearned for the daredevil courage sufficient to risk all on a single throw by pulling his gun left-handed and sending a bullet smack through the scornful face of Racey Dawson. But it was precisely as Racey said. He did not have the nerve. With half-a-dozen drinks under his belt he undoubtedly would have made an attempt to clear his honour. But he was not carrying the requisite amount of liquor. Lanpher snarled another string of oaths. "If I didn't have my right arm in a sling—" he began.
"I guess," interrupted the sheriff, "this will be about all. Lanpher, yore hoss is outside. Git on and git out."
"Lookit here, Judge," said Racey, earnestly, "do you mean to say yo're gonna let the sheriff serve them eviction papers?"
Judge Dolan elevated his feet upon his desk and tilted back his chair before replying.
"Racey," he said, teetering gently, "I gotta do what the law says in this thing."
"Then yo're gonna sic the sheriff on, huh?"
"I ain't doin' no sicin', not me. Luke Tweezy's the boy you mean."
"But the law makes you back up Luke."
"In this case it does."
"Then it's a helluva law that lets a feller take away the home of two women."
"They's lots of times," observed Dolan, judicially, "when I think she's a helluva law, too. But what you gonna do? Under the law one man's word is as good as another's till he's proved a liar. And two men's words are better than one, and so on. And so far nobody ain't proved Doc Coffin and Honey Hoke and Luke Tweezy are liars."
"Of course we know they are," protested Racey.
"Not legally. You gotta remember that knowing a man is a liar is one thing, and being able to prove it is another breed of cat."
"Then they ain't nothing to be done short of rubbing out Lanpher and Tweezy?"
"And what good would wiping out either or both of them do? Beyond Lanpher and Tweezy are their heirs and assigns, whoever they may be. You can't go down the line and abolish 'em all."
"I s'pose not," grumbled Racey.
"Of course not. It ain't reasonable. You don't wanna bull along regardless like a bufflehead in this, Racey. You wanna use yore brains a few. They'll always go farther than main strength. You got brains, and you can bet you'll need every single one of 'em if you wanna get to the bottom of this business."
"Under the circumstances, then, what's yore advice, Judge?"
"I ain't got no particular advice to give," replied Dolan, promptly. "I'm a judge, not a lawyer, but I'm free to say even if I was a lawyer, I dunno exactly what I'd do, or where I'd begin."
Racey nodded. He didn't see exactly where to begin, either.
"Lookit, Judge," he said at last, "can't you sort of delay the proceedin's for a while?"
"I'll do what I can," assented Dolan, "but I can't keep it up forever. I'm sworn to obey the law and see that it is obeyed. And if Luke Tweezy's paper can't be proved a forgery certain and soon, they's only one thing for me to do and one thing for the Dales to do. I'm sorry, but that's the way it stands under the law."
It was then that the door-latch clicked and one entered without knocking. It was Luke Tweezy. Beyond the merest flicker of a glance he did not acknowledge the presence of Racey Dawson. He nodded perfunctorily to Dolan.
"Mornin', Judge," said he, "are the papers ready for the sheriff yet?"
"Not yet, Luke, not yet," Dolan assured, him blandly. "I ain't had time to get at 'em."
"When you gonna get at 'em?"
"Soon as I get time."
"But lookit here, Judge. We're bein' delayed. We wanna get the Dales off their ranch soon as we can."
"Off their ranch is shore the truth," struck in Racey. "You do tell it sometimes, don't you, Luke?"
But Luke Tweezy was not to be drawn that morning. He focussed his eyes and attention steadily on Judge Dolan.
"We wanna take possession soon as we can," persisted Luke Tweezy.
"Shore you do," said the Judge, heartily. "No reason why you shouldn't wanna as I know of."
"If you can't see yore way to getting at this business within a reasonable time I'll have to sue out a mandatory injunction against you, Judge, and—"
Dolan smiled wintrily. "What judge are you figuring on to grant this injunction?"
Luke Tweezy was silent.
"You don't expect me to grant a mandatory injunction against myself, do you?" pursued Dolan.
"I can go to Judge Allison at Marysville or to Piegan City, and I guess—"
"I guess not," interrupted the Judge. "Judge Allison, as you know, is a Federal Judge, and these here eviction proceedin's are territorial business. And, furthermore, lemme point out that the Piegan City court ain't got any jurisdiction in this case."
"Because the case ain't come to a hearing yet. That's why. You oughta know that, Luke. Yo're a lawyer."
"Alla same—" began Luke.
"Alla same nothing!" declared Judge Dolan. "After eviction proceedin's have been started, and if you don't have any luck in getting them women off the place, then you can apply to this court for redress. I'll set a date for a hearing. After the hearing, if you got a notion in yore numskull that I ain't doing you right, you can apply to the Piegan City court for all the —— mandatory injunctions you feel like and be —— to you. Is they any further business you got with me, Luke, or any more points of law you wanna be instructed on? 'Cause if they ain't, here's you, there's the door, and right yonder is outside."
Luke Tweezy departed abruptly.
Dolan laughed harshly as the door slammed. "He can't bluff me, the chucklehead. He knew he couldn't sue out a mandatory injunction yet, knew it damn well, but he didn't think I knew it, damn his ornery soul."
"Oh, he's slick, Luke Tweezy is," said Racey Dawson, "but like most slick gents he thinks everybody else is a fool."
"He makes a mistake once in a while," grunted Dolan.
At which Racey looked up sharply. "A mistake," he repeated. "There's an idea. I wonder if he has made any mistake."
"Who ain't?" nodded Dolan. "Luke's made plenty, I'll bet."
"I dunno about plenty," doubted Racey. "One would be enough."
Dolan rasped a hand across his stubbly chin. "One would be enough," he admitted. "If you could find the one."
"It wouldn't have to be a mistake having to do with this particular case, either, would it?"
"Not necessarily. Of course it would be better to trip him up on this case, but if you can get hold of something else Luke has done that can be proved anyways shady it would be four aces and the joker. Luke would have to pull in his horns about this mortgage. And if I know Luke, he'd do it. He's got nerve, but it ain't cold enough nor witless enough to go up against the shore thing."
"If only McFluke would talk. He knows the ins and outs of this business."
Dolan nodded. "Shore as yo're a foot high Dale gave him that black eye."
"And shore as yo're a foot high he downed Dale."
"I guess likely. But circumstantial evidence is amazing queer. You can't ever tell how the jury's gonna take it. But anyway we got McFluke, and he'll do to start in on."
Entered then Kansas Casey with a serious face. "McFluke has sloped," said he without preliminary.
"What!" cried Judge Dolan.
But it was characteristic of Racey Dawson that he did not say "What!" He asked "How?"
"Because the jail was burned down," said Kansas; "you know we had to put him in yore warehouse, Judge, as the next strongest place, and they dug him out."
"'Dug him out?'" Thus Judge Dolan.
"That's what they did."
"'They!' 'They!' Who's 'they?'" Again Judge Dolan.
"If I knowed who they was," Kansas replied, "I'd dump 'em just too quick. Way I know it's a 'they,' is because the job of diggin' is bigger than a one-man job."
"We'll go look into this," Dolan exclaimed, wrathfully, and reached for his hat.
"He'd never 'a' been pulled out of the calaboose so easy," said Kansas, as he led Dolan and Racey up the street to the rear of the Dolan warehouse, "but yore foundation logs ain't sunk more'n six inches, and diggin' under and in was a cinch."
"But why didn't you handcuff this sport to a roof stanchion inside?" demanded the Judge.
"We did, man, we did. We got a log chain and the biggest pair of handcuffs in our stock and we ironed McFluke by the ankles to a stanchion in the middle of the warehouse. Besides that his hands was handcuffed, and no matter how he stretched he couldn't reach nothing. We seen to that."
"But, my Gawd, hownell did they have time to file through that log chain or them cuffs? A log chain ain't made of wire an' them cuffs is all special steel."
"They didn't file neither the chain nor the cuffs," explained Kansas, wearily. "They unlocked the cuffs."
"Unlocked 'em, huh? Where'd they get the key? Lose one of yores, did yuh?"
"Ours is all safe. They must 'a' had a key. Anyway, there's the handcuffs wide open when I found McFluke gone this mornin'."
Dolan pulled out his watch. "Nine o'clock," said he. "When did you first find Mac was gone, Kansas?"
"When I took his breakfast in less'n five minutes ago."
"Howcome you went to the warehouse so late?"
"Well," said Kansas, somewhat shamefacedly, "we didn't lock him up in the warehouse till one o'clock this morning, and I figured a li'l extra sleep wouldn't do him any harm."
"Or a li'l extra sleep wouldn't do yoreself any harm neither, huh?"
"Maybe I did sleep later than usual," admitted Kansas.
"I guess you did," said Dolan. "I guess you did. And Jake, too. Told anybody else about this?"
They had left the street while they talked, and walked down the long side wall of the warehouse. Now they turned the corner and saw, heaped against a foundation log, a pile of freshly dug dirt. Beyond the dirt pile gaped the mouth of a hole leading beneath the log. The hole was quite large enough for an over-size man to crawl through without difficulty.
Judge Dolan got down on his hands and knees and peered into the hole. Then he eased down into it headfirst and pawed his way through.
"That's what you get for not walking in by the front door in the first place, Kansas," grinned Racey. "Root hog or die, feller, root hog or die."
Swearing under his breath Kansas went to ground like a badger. His broad shoulders did not scrape the sides of the hall. Observing which Racey knew that it must have been an easy matter for McFluke to crawl through, for the saloon-keeper's shoulders, wide as they were, were not as broad as those of Kansas Casey by a good inch and a half.
"That hole is four or five inches wider than necessary," ruminated Racey, preparing to follow the deputy. "I wonder why. Yep, I shore wonder why. Here they are in a harris of a hurry and they take time to make a hole big enough for two men almost. Maybe they robbed the warehouse, too."
He suggested as much to Dolan when he joined the latter within.
"No," said Dolan, sweeping with a glance the stacks of cases and crates that half filled the single floor of the warehouse. "No, I don't think they's anything missing. Who'd steal truck like this here, anyway? It ain't valuable enough. Where's Jake, Kansas?"
"I left him here when I went after you," replied the deputy. "Guess this is him," he added, as the front door opened.
It was the sheriff. He shut the door behind him and advanced toward the little group gathered about the stanchion. "This is a great note, Jake," said Dolan, eyeing the sheriff severely. "Can't you make out to hang onto yore prisoners no more?"
"Hang onto hell!" snapped back the sheriff. "Short of sleeping in here with him, I done all that could be expected. I put Shorty Rumbold on as guard, and Shorty—"
"Went to the Starlight for a drink. He'll be along in a minute."
"Maybe he went to sleep," suggested Dolan.
"Not Shorty," denied the sheriff, with a decisive shake of his head. "I've used Shorty before. He don't go to sleep on duty, Shorty don't. Here he is now."
Entered then Shorty Rumbold, a tall, lean-bodied man with a twinkling eye and a square chin.
"Shorty," said Dolan, "Jake says he put you on guard here last night."
"Not here," said Shorty, always painfully meticulous as to facts. "Outside."
"Just outside. I sat on the doorstep all night."
"And didn't you go round to the back once even?"
"I didn't think they was any use. They's no door in the back, and the logs are forty inches through, some of 'em. I never thought of 'em gopherin' under this away."
"I guess the sheriff didn't, either," said Dolan, with a glance of strong disapproval at the sheriff. "You didn't hear anything, huh? Yo're shore of that?"
"Shore I am. If I'd heard anything I'd 'a' scouted round to see what made the noise."
"Maybe you went to sleep."
"Not me." The twinkle in Shorty's eyes was replaced by a frosty stare. "I don't sleep on duty, Judge."
"That's what the sheriff said, Shorty. But, hownell they could dig that tunnel and not make some noise I don't see."
"I don't, either," Shorty Rumbold admitted, frankly. "But I didn't hear a single suspicious sound either inside or outside the jail the whole night."
"Did you hear any noise a-tall?" asked Racey Dawson.
"Only when some drunk gents had a argument out in front of the dance hall. You couldn't help hearin' 'em. They made noise enough to hear 'em a mile."
"How long did the argument last?"
"Oh, maybe a hour—a long time for a plain argument without any shooting."
"Did they call each other any fighting names?" pressed on Racey.
"And no shooting?"
"Nary a shot."
"Didn't that hit you as kind of odd?"
"It did at the time sort of."
"Recognize any of the voices?"
Shorty Rumbold shook his head. "They was all too hoarse an' loud."
"That's the how of it, Judge," said Racey to Dolan. "That's why Shorty didn't hear any sounds of diggin'. The drunk gents a rowing together for a long time like that without any shooting proves they were doing it on purpose to keep Shorty from hearing anything else."