As he jogged along across the levels Bailey thought it all over. He would have a talk with Young Pete when he returned and try to show him that his recent attitude toward Gary militated against the Concho's unprinted motto: "The fewer quarrels the more beef."
Halfway across the mesa there was what was known as "The Pit "; a circular hole in the plain; rock-walled, some forty or fifty yards in diameter and as many yards deep. Its bottom was covered with fine, loose sand, a strange circumstance in a country composed of tufa and volcanic rock. Legend had it that the Pit was an old Hopi tank, or water-hole—a huge cistern where that prehistoric tribe conserved the rain. Bits of broken pottery and scattered beads bore out this theory, and round the tank lay the low, crumbling mounds of what had once been a village.
The trail on the Blue ran close to the Pit, and no rider passing it failed to glance down. Cattle occasionally strayed into it and if weak were unable to climb out again without help from horse and rope. As Bailey approached, he heard the unmistakable bark of a six-shooter. He slipped from his horse, strode cautiously to the rim, and peered over.
Young Pete had ridden his horse down the ragged trail and was at the moment engaged in six-gun practice. Bailey drew back and sat down. Pete had gathered together some bits of rock and had built a target loosely representing a man. The largest rock, on which was laid a small round, bowlder for a head, was spattered with lead. Pete, quite unconscious of an audience, was cutting loose with speed and accuracy. He threw several shots at the place which represented the vitals of his theoretical enemy, punched the shells from his gun, and reloaded. Then he stepped to his horse and led him opposite the target and some twenty feet from it. Crouching, he fired under the horse's belly. The horse bucked and circled the enclosure. Pete strode after him, caught him up, and repeated the performance. Each time Pete fired, the horse naturally jumped and ran. Patiently Pete caught him up again. Finally the animal, although trembling and wild-eyed, stood to the gun. Pete patted its neck. Reloading he mounted. Bailey was curious to see what the boy would do next. Pete turned the horse and, spurring him, flung past the target, emptying his gun as he went. Then he dismounted and striding up to within ten yards of the man-target, holstered his gun and stood for a moment as still as a stone itself. Suddenly his hand flashed to his side. Bailey rubbed his eyes. The gun had not come from the holster, yet the rock target was spattered with five more shots. Bailey could see the lead fly as the blunt slugs flattened on the stone.
"The young son-of-a-gun!" muttered Bailey. "Dinged if he ain't shootin' through the open holster! Where in blazes did he learn that bad-man trick?"
Thus far Pete had not said a word, even to the horse. But now that he had finished his practice he strode to the rock-target and thrust his hand against it. "You're dead!" he exclaimed. "You're plumb salivated!" He pushed, and the man-target toppled and fell.
"Ain't you goin' to bury him?" queried Bailey.
Pete whirled. The color ran up his neck and face. "H'lo, Jim."
"How'd you know it was me?" Bailey stood up.
"Knowed your voice."
"Well, come on up. I was wonderin' who was down there settin' off the fireworks. Didn't hear you till I got most on top of you. You sure got some private shootin'-gallery."
Pete led his pony up the steep trail and squatted beside Bailey. "How long you been watching me, Jim?"
"Oh, jest since you started shooting under your hoss. What's the idea?"
"Nothin', jest practicin'."
"You must 'a' been practicin' quite a' spell. You handle that smoke-wagon like an ole-timer."
"I ain't advertisin' it."
"Well, it's all right, Pete. Glad I got a front seat. Never figured you was a top-hand with a gun. Now I'm wise. I know enough not to stack up against you."
Pete smiled his slow smile and pushed back his hat. "I reckon you're right about that. I never did no shootin' in company. Ole Jose Montoya always said to do your practicin' by yourself, and then nobody knows just how you would play your hand."
Bailey frowned and nodded. "Well, seein' as I'm in on it, Pete, I'd kind of like to know myself."
"Why, I'm jest figurin' that some day mebby somebody'll want to hang my hide on the fence. I don't aim to let him."
"The same. I ain't lookin' for Gary—even if he did shoot down Pop Annersley—nor I ain't tryin' to keep out of his way. I'm ridin' this country and I'm like to meet up with him 'most any time. That's all."
"Shucks, Pete! You forget Gary. He sure ain't worth gettin' hung for. Gary ain't goin' to put you down so long as you ride for the Concho. He knows somebody 'd get him. You jest practice shootin' all you like—but tend to business the rest of the time and you'll live longer. You can figure on one thing, if Gary was to get you he wouldn't live to get out of this country."
"You're handin' me your best card," said Pete. "Gary killed Annersley. The law didn't get Gary. And none of you fellas got him. He's ridin' this here country yet. And you was tellin' me to forget him."
"But that's different, Pete. No one saw Gary shoot Annersley. It was night. Annersley was killed in his cabin—by a shot through the window. Anybody might have fired that shot. Why, you were there yourself—and you can't prove who done it."
"I can't, eh? Well, between you and me, Jim, I know. One of Gary's own men said that night when they were leavin' the cabin, 'It must 'a' been Steve that drilled the ole man because Steve was the only puncher who knowed where the window was and fired into it.'"
"I didn't know that. So you aim to even up, eh?"
"Nope. I jest aim to be ready to even up."
Bailey strode back to his horse. "I'm goin' up in the hills and look for a deer. Want to take a little pasear with me?"
"Suits me, Jim."
"Come on, then."
They mounted and rode side by side across the noon mesa.
The ponies stepped briskly. The air was like a song. Far away the blue hills invited exploration of their timbered and mysterious silences.
"Makes a fella feel like forgettin' everything and everybody—but jest this," said Pete, gesturing toward the ranges.
"The bucks'll be on the ridges," remarked Bailey.
They got their buck—a big six-point—just before the sun dipped below the flaming sky-line. In order to pack the meat in, one or the other would have to walk. Pete volunteered, but Bailey generously offered to toss up for the privilege of riding. He flipped a coin and won. "Suits me," said Pete, grinning. "It's worth walkin' from here to the ranch jest to see you rope that deer on my hoss. I reckon you'll sweat."
It took about all of the foreman's skill and strength, assisted by Pete, to rope the deer on the pony, who had never packed game and who never intended to if he could help it. And it was a nervous horse that Pete led down the long woodland trail as the shadows grew distorted and grim in the swiftly fading light Long before they reached the mesa level it was dark. The trail was carpeted with needles of the pine and their going was silent save for the creak of the saddles and the occasional click of a hoof against an uncovered rock. Pete's horse seemed even more nervous as they made the last descent before striking the mesa. "Somethin' besides deer is bother'n' him," said Pete as they worked cautiously down a steep switchback. The horse had stopped and was trembling. Bailey glanced back. "Up there!" he whispered, gesturing to the trail above them. Pete had also been looking round, and before Bailey could speak again, a sliver of flame split the darkness and the roar of Pete's six-gun shattered the eerie silence of the hillside. Bailey's horse plunged off the trail and rocketed straight down the mountain. Pete's horse, rearing from the hurtling shape that lunged from the trail above, tore the rope from his hand and crashed down the hillside, snorting. Something was threshing about the trail and coughing horribly. Pete would have run if he had known which way to run. He had seen two lambent green dots glowing above him and had fired with that quick instinct of placing his shot—the result of long practice. The flopping and coughing ceased. Pete, with cocked gun poked ahead of him, struck a match. In its pale flare he saw the long gray shape of a mountain lien stretched across the trail. Evidently the lion had smelled the blood of the deer, or the odor of the sweating horses—a mountain lion likes horse-flesh better than anything else—and had padded down the trail in the darkness, following as close as he dared. The match flamed and spluttered out. Pete wisely backed away a few paces and listened. A little wind whispered in the pines and a branch creaked, but there came no sound of movement from the lion. "I reckon I plugged him right!" muttered Pete. "Wonder what made Jim light out in sech a hurry?" And, "Hey, Jim!" he called.
From far below came a faint Whoo! Halloo! Then the words separate and distinct: "I—got—your—horse."
"I—got—a—lion," called Pete shrilly.
"Who—is lyin'—?" came from the depths below.
Pete grinned despite his agitation. "Come—on—back!" shouted Pete. He thought he heard Bailey say something like "damn," but it may have been, "I am." Pete struck another match and stepped nearer the lion this time. The great, lithe beast was dead. The blunt-nose forty-five at close range had torn away a part of its skull. "I done spiled the head," complained Pete. In the succeeding darkness he heard the faint tinkle of shod feet on the trail.
Presently he could distinctly hear the heavy breathing of the horse and the gentle creak of the saddle. Within speaking distance he told the foreman that he had shot a whopper of a lion and it looked as though they would need another pack-horse. Bailey said nothing until he had arrived at the angle of the switchback, when he lighted a match and gazed at the great gray cat of the rocks.
"You get twenty dollars bounty," he told Pete. "And you sure stampeded me into the worst piece of down timber I've rode for a long time. Gosh! but you're quick with that smoke-wagon of yours! Lost my hat and liked to broke my leg ag'in' a tree, but I run plumb onto your horse draggin' a rope. I tied him down there on the flat. I figure you've saved a dozen calves by killin' that kitty-cat. Did you know it was a lion when you shot?"
"Nope, or I'd 'a' sure beat the hosses down the grade. I jest cut loose at them two green eyes a-burnin' in the brush and whump! down comes Mr. Kitty-cat almost plumb atop me. Mebby I wasn't scared! I was wonderin' why you set off in sech a hurry. You sure burned the ground down the mountain."
"Just stayin' with my saddle," laughed Bailey. "Old Frisco here ain't lost any lions recent."
"Will he pack?"
"I dunno. Wish it was daylight."
"Wish we had another rope," said Pete. "My rope is on my hoss and yours is cinchin' the deer on him. And that there lion sure won't lead. He's dead."
"'Way high up in the Mokiones,'" chanted Bailey.
"'A-trippin' down the slope'!" laughed Pete. "And we ain't got no rope. But say, Jim, can't we kind of hang him acrost your saddle and steady him down to the flats?"
"I'll see what I can do with the tie-strings. I'll hold Frisco. You go ahead and heave him up."
Pete approached the lion and tried to lift it, but it weaved and slipped from his arms. "Limper 'n wet rawhide!" asserted Pete.
"Are you that scared? Shucks, now, I'd 'a' thought—"
"The doggone lion, I mean. Every time I heave at him he jest folds up and lays ag'in' me like he was powerful glad to see me. You try him."
The horse snorted and shied as the foreman slung the huge carcass across the saddle and tied the lion's fore feet and hind feet with the saddle-strings. They made slow progress to the flats below, where they had another lively session with Pete's horse, who had smelled the lion. Finally with their game roped securely they set out on foot for the ranch.
The hunting, and especially Pete's kill, had drawn them close together. They laughed and talked, making light of high-heeled boots that pinched and blistered as they plodded across the starlit mesa.
"Let's put one over on the boys!" suggested Pete. "We'll drift in quiet, hang the buck in the slaughter-house, and then pack the kitty-cat into the bunk-house and leave him layin' like he was asleep, by Bill Haskins's bunk. Ole Bill allus gits his feet on the floor afore he gits his eyes open. Mebby he won't step high and lively when he sees what he's got his feet on!"
Bailey, plodding ahead and leading Frisco, chuckled. "I'll go you, Pete, but I want you to promise me somethin'."
Bailey waited for Pete to come alongside. "It's this way, Pete—and this here is plain outdoor talk, which you sabe. Mrs. Bailey and me ain't exactly hatin' you, as you know. But we would hate to see you get into trouble on account of Gary or any of the T-Bar-T boys. And because you can shoot is a mighty good reason for you to go slow with that gun. 'T ain't that I give two whoops and a holler what happens to Gary. It's what might happen to you. I was raised right here in this country and I know jest how those things go. You're workin' for the Concho. What you do, the Concho's got to back up. I couldn't hold the boys if Gary got you, or if you got Gary. They'd be hell a-poppin' all over the range. Speakin' personal, I'm with you to the finish, for I know how you feel about Pop Annersley. But you ain't growed up yet. You got plenty time to think. If you are a-hankerin' for Gary's scalp, when you git to be twenty-one, why, go to it. But you're a kid yet, and a whole lot can happen in five or six years. Mebby somebody'll git Gary afore then. I sure hope they do. But while you're worldly for me—jest forget Gary. I ain't tellin' you you got to. I'm talkin' as your friend."
"I'll go you," said Pete slowly. "But if Steve Gary comes at me—"
"That's different. Let him talk—and you keep still. Keepin' still at the right time has saved many a man's hide. Most folks talk too much."
Pete and Bailey took off their boots just before they entered the bunk-house. They lugged the defunct mountain lion in and laid it by Bill Haskins's bunk.
Pete propped the lion's head up with one of Haskin's boots. The effect was realistic enough. The lion lay stretched out in a most natural way, apparently gazing languidly at the sleeping cow-puncher. This was more or less accidental, as they dare not light the lamp for fear of waking the men. Bailey stole softly to the door and across to the house. Pete undressed and turned in, to dream of who knows what ghostly lions prowling through the timberlands of the Blue Range. It seemed but a few minutes when he heard the clatter of the pack-horse bell that Mrs. Bailey used to call the men to breakfast. The chill gray half-light of early morning discovered him with one cautious eye, gazing across at Haskins, who still snored, despite the bell. "Oh, Bill!" called Pete. Haskins's snore broke in two as he swallowed the unlaunched half and sat up rubbing his eyes. He swung his feet down and yawned prodigiously. "Heh—hell!" he exclaimed as his bare feet touched the furry back of the lion. Bill glanced down into those half-closed eyes. His jaw sagged. Then he bounded to the middle of the room. With a whoop he dashed through the doorway, rounded into the open, and sprinted for the corral fence, his bare legs twinkling like the side-rods of a speeding locomotive and his shirt-tail fluttering in the morning breeze. Andy White leaped from his bunk, saw the dead lion, and started to follow Haskins. Another cowboy, Avery, was dancing on one foot endeavoring to don his overalls.
Hank Barley, an old-timer, jumped up with his gun poised, ready for business. "Why, he's daid!" he exclaimed, poking the lion with the muzzle of his gun.
Pete rose languidly and began to dress. "What's all the hocus, fellas? Where's Haskins?"
"Bill he done lit out like he'd lost somethin'," said Barley. "Now I wonder what young ijjut packed that tree-cat in here last night? Jim said yesterday he was goin' to do a little lookin' round. Looks like he sure seen somethin'."
"Yes," drawled Pete. "Jim and me got a buck and this here lion. We didn't have time to git anything else."
"Too bad you didn't git a bear and a couple of bob-cats while you was at it."
"Hey, boys!" called Andy from the doorway. "Come see Bill!"
The men crowded to the door. Perched on the top rail of the corral fence sat Bill Haskins shivering and staring at the house. "We killed your bed-feller!" called Barley. "He done et your pants afore we plugged him, but I kin lend you a pair. You had better git a-movin' afore Ma Bailey—"
"Ssh!" whispered Andy White. "There's Ma standin' in the kitchen door and—she's seen Bill!"
Bill also realized that he had been seen by Mrs. Bailey. He shivered and shook, teetering on the top rail until indecision got the better of his equilibrium. With a wild backward flip he disappeared from the high-line of vision. Ma Bailey also disappeared. The boys doubled up and groaned as Bill Haskins crawled on all fours across the corral toward the shelter of the stable.
"Oh, my Gosh!" gasped Barley. "S-s-ome—body—sh-shoot me and put me out of my m-misery!"
A few seconds later Bailey crossed the yard carrying an extra pair of those coverings most essential to male comfort and equanimity.
It was a supernaturally grave bevy of cow-punchers that gathered round the table that morning. Ma Bailey's silence was eloquent of suppressed indignation. Bailey also seemed subdued. Pete was as placid as a sleeping cherub. Only Andy White seemed really overwrought. He seemed to suffer internally. The sweat stood out on Bill Haskins's red face, but his appetite was in no way impaired. He ate rapidly and drank much coffee. Ma Bailey was especially gracious to him. Presently from Pete's end of the table came a faint "Me-e-ow!" Andy White put down his cup of coffee and excusing himself fled from the room, Pete stared after him as though greatly astonished. Barley the imperturbable seemed to be suffering from internal spasms, and presently left the table. Blaze Andrews, the quietest of the lot, also departed without finishing his breakfast.
"Ain't you feelin' well, Ma?" queried Pete innocently.
Bailey rose and said he thought he would "go see to the horses"—a very unusual procedure for him. Pete also thought it was about time to depart. He rose and nodded to Bill. "Glad to see you back, Bill." Then he went swiftly.
Haskins heaved a sigh. "I—doggone it—I—You got any sticking-plaster, Ma?"
"Yes, William"—and "William" because Ma Bailey was still a bit indignant, although she appreciated that Bill was more sinned against than sinning. "Yes, William. Did you hurt yourself?"
"Stepped on a nail—er—this mawnin'. I—I wasn't lookin' where I stepped."
"What started you out—that way?" queried Mrs. Bailey.
"Why, hell, Ma—I—wasn't meanin' hell, Ma,—but somebody—I reckon I know who—plants a mountain lion right aside my bunk last night when I was sleepin'. Fust thing this mawnin' I heard that bell and jumped out o' my bunk plumb onto the cuss. Like to bruk my neck. That there lion was a-lookin' right up into my face, kind of sleepy-eyed and smilin' like he was hungry. I sure didn't stop to find out. 'Course, when I got my wind, I knowed it was a joke. I reckon I ought to kill somebody—"
"A lion, Bill? Hev you been drinkin'?"
"Drinkin'! Why, Ma, I ain't had a drop sence—"
"I reckon I better go see what's in that bunk-house," said Mrs. Bailey, rising. "I'll get you that stickin'-plaster when I come back."
Mrs. Bailey realized that something unusual had started Bill Haskins on his wild career that morning, but she could not quite believe that there was a mountain lion—alive or dead—in the bunk-house until she saw the great beast with her own amazed eyes. And she could not quite believe that Pete had shot the lion until Bailey himself certified to Pete's story of the hunt. Mrs. Bailey, for some feminine reason, felt that she had been cheated. Bailey had not told her about the lion. She had been indignant with Haskins for his apparently unseemly conduct, and had been still more indignant with Pete when she appreciated that he was at the bottom of the joke. But Haskins was innocent and Pete was now somewhat of a hero. The good woman turned on her husband and rebuked him roundly for allowing such "goings-on." Bailey took his dressing-down silently. He felt that the fun had been worth it. Pete himself was rather proud and obviously afraid he would show it. But the atmosphere settled to normal when the men went to work. Pete was commissioned to skin and cut up the deer. Later in the day he tackled the lion, skinned it, fleshed out the nose, ears, and eyelids, and salted and rolled the hide. Roth, the storekeeper at Concho, was somewhat of a taxidermist and Mrs. Bailey had admired the lion-skin.
Pete felt that he could have used the twenty dollars bounty, but he was nothing if not generous. That afternoon he rode to Concho with the lion-skin tied behind the cantle. He returned to the ranch late that night. Next morning he was mysteriously reticent about the disappearance of the hide. He intended to surprise Ma Bailey with a real Christmas present. No one guessed his intent. Pete was good at keeping his own counsel.
A few evenings later the men, loafing outside the bunk-house, amused themselves by originating titles for the chief actors in the recent range-drama. Pete, without question, was "The Lion Tamer," Bailey was "Big-Chief-not-Afraid-of-a-Buck." Ma Bailey was "Queen of the Pies"—not analogous to the drama but flattering—and Haskins, after some argument and much suggestion, was entitled "Claw-Hammer." Such titles as "Deer-Foot," "Rail-Hopper," "Back-Flip Bill," "Wind-Splitter," and the like were discarded in favor of "Claw-Hammer"—for the unfortunate Bill had stepped on a rusty nail in his recent exodus from the lion's den, and was at the time suffering from a swollen and inflamed foot—really a serious injury, although scoffed at by the good-natured Bill himself despite Mrs. Bailey's solicitude and solution of peroxide.
Winter, with its thin shifts of snow, its intermittent sunshiny days, its biting winds that bored through chaps and heavy gloves, was finally borne away on the reiterant, warm breezes of spring. Mrs. Bailey was the proud and happy possessor of a lion-skin rug—Pete's Christmas present to her—proud of the pelt itself and happy because Young Pete had foregone the bounty that he might make the present, which was significant of his real affection. Coats and heavy overshoes were discarded. Birds sang among sprouting aspen twigs, and lean, mangy-looking coyotes lay on the distant hillsides soaking in the warmth. Gaunt cattle lowed in the hollows and spring calves staggered about, gazing at this new world with round, staring eyes.
Houck, the T-Bar-T foreman, had discussed with Bailey the advisability of defining a line between the two big ranches. They came to an agreement and both stated that they would send men to roughly survey the line, fix upon landmarks, and make them known to the riders of both outfits. Bailey, who had to ride from Concho to the railroad to meet a Kansas City commission man, sent word back to the Concho to have two men ride over to Annersley's old homestead the following day. Mrs. Bailey immediately commissioned Young Pete and Andy to ride over to the homestead, thinking that Pete was a particularly good choice as he knew the country thereabouts. She cautioned the boys to behave themselves—she always did when Andy and Pete set out together—and giving them a comfortable package of lunch, she turned to her household work.
"I'm takin' Blue Smoke," stated Pete as Andy packed his saddle to the corral.
"You're takin' chances then," observed Andy.
"Oh, I got him so he knows which way is north," asserted Pete. "I been gittin' acquainted with that cayuse, Chico."
"Yes. I seen you settin' on the ground watchin' him buck your saddle off a couple of times," snorted Andy.
"Well, seein' as this here pasear is straight riding I reckon I'll crawl him and turn him loose. He needs exercisin'."
"Well, I don't," asserted Andy. "'Course, some folks has always got to be showin' off. If Bailey was here you wouldn't be ridin' that hoss."
"'And up and down and round and 'cross, that top-boss done his best!'" sang Pete as he lugged his saddle into the corral.
"'All hell can't glue you to that hoss when he gits headed west,'" Andy misquoted for the occasion.
"You jest swing that gate open when I git aboard," suggested Pete. "I'm the Ridin' Kid from Powder River."
"The Ridin' Kid from Powder River Ain't got no lungs nor ary liver, Some says it was a blue cayuse . . ."
"Go git you a sack and gather up the leavin's," laughed Pete, as he kicked his foot into the stirrup and hit the saddle before Blue Smoke knew what had happened. Andy swung the gate open. The horse headed for the mesa, pitching as he ran. This was not half so bad for Pete as though Blue Smoke had been forced to confine his efforts to the corral. Pete had long since discovered that when Blue Smoke saw space ahead of him, he was not apt to pitch hard, but rather to take it out in running bucks and then settle down to a high-lope—as he did on this occasion, after he had tried with his usual gusto to unseat his rider. There is something admirable in the spirit of a horse that refuses to be ridden, and there was much to be said for Blue Smoke. He possessed tremendous energy, high courage, and strength, signified by the black stripe down his back and the compact muscles of his flanks and fore legs. Pete had coveted the horse ever since that first and unforgettable experience in the corral. Bailey had said jokingly that he would give Pete the outlaw if Pete would break him. Pete had frequently had it out with Blue Smoke when the men were away. He had taken Bailey at his word, but as usual had said nothing about riding the animal.
Andy watched Pete until he saw that Blue Smoke had ceased to pitch and was running, when he swung up and loped out after his companion. He overtook him a half-mile from the ranch, and loped alongside, watching Pete with no little admiration and some envy. It struck Andy that while Pete never made much of his intent or his accomplishment, whatever it might be, he usually succeeded in gaining his end. There was something about Pete that puzzled Andy; a kind of silent forcefulness that emanated neither from bulk nor speech; for Pete was rather lithe and compact than "beefy" and more inclined to silence than to speech. Yet there was none of the "do or die" attitude about him, either. But whatever it was, it was there—evident in Pete's eye as he turned and glanced at Andy—an intenseness of purpose, not manifest in any outward show or form.
"You sure tamed him," said Andy admiringly.
"Only for this mornin'," acknowledged Pete. "To-morrow mornin' he'll go to it ag'in. But I aim to sweat some of it out of him afore we hit the Blue. Got the makin's?"
Pete grew silent as he rode with Andy toward the hill-trail that led to his old home on the Blue Mesa, where he finally surveyed the traces of old man Annersley's patient toil. The fences had been pulled down and the water-hole enlarged. The cabin, now a rendezvous for occasional riders of the T-Bar-T, had suffered from weather and neglect. The door sagging from one hinge, the grimy, cobwebbed windows, the unswept floor, and the litter of tin cans about the yard, stirred bitter memories in Pete's heart. Andy spoke of Annersley, "A fine old man," but Pete had no comment to make. They loafed outside in the afternoon sunshine, momentarily expecting the two men from the T-Bar-T. Presently Andy White rose and wandered off toward the spring. Pete sat idly tossing pellets of earth at a tin can. He was thinking of Annersley, of the old man's unvarying kindliness and quaint humor. He wished that Annersley were alive, could know of his success—Pete had done pretty well for a lad of sixteen—and that they could talk together as in the old days. He rose presently and entered the abandoned cabin. The afternoon sunlight flickered palely through the dusty windows. Several window-panes had been broken out, but the one marked with two bullet holes, radiating tiny cracks in the glass, was still there. The oilcloth on the table was torn and soiled. The mud of wet weather had been tracked about the floor. The stove was rusted and cracked. Pete wondered why men must invariably abuse things that were patently useful, when those things did not belong to any one especially; for the stove, the windows, the table, the two home-made chairs showed more than disuse. They had been wantonly broken, hacked, or battered. Some one had pried the damper from the stove, broken it in two, and had used half of it for a lid-lifter. A door had been torn from the wall-cupboard and split into kindling, as a few painted splinters attested. And some one had shot several holes in the door, evidently endeavoring to make the initial "T" with a forty-five. An old pair of discarded overalls lay in one corner, a worn and useless glove in another. Pete was glad that Annersley would never know of all this—and yet it seemed as though Annersley could see these things—and Pete, standing alone in the room, felt as though he were in some way to blame for this disorder and squalidness. Time and occupation had rather dulled Pete's remembrance of the actual detail of the place, but now its original neatness and orderliness came back to him vividly.
He was mentally rehabilitating the cabin when a boot-heel crunched on the ground outside and Andy appeared in the doorway. "The T-Bar-T boys are comin'. Seen 'em driftin' down the Ranger Trail."
"They was to be here this mornin'," said Pete. "Reckon they aim to bush here all night and ride to-morrow. Hope they brought some grub along."
"We got plenty. Come on outside. This here ole room kind o' gits on my nerves."
Pete strode out. They stood watching the approaching riders. Suddenly Andy White touched Pete's arm. "One of 'em is Gary!" he said, speaking low.
Pete stopped and, picking up a clod, jerked it toward a fence-post. The clod happened to hit the post and was flicked into dust. "That for Gary," said Pete.
Andy grinned, but his eyes were grave. "We'll be right busy," he said in a sort of tentative way.
Pete nodded and hitched up his chaps. One of the approaching horsemen waved a hand. Andy acknowledged the salute.
The T-Bar-T men rode in and dismounted. "Where's Bailey?" was Gary's first word.
"Jim sent us to fix up that line with you," replied Andy. "He's over to Enright."
Gary glanced at Pete, who stared at him, but made no gesture of greeting. But Pete had read Gary's unspoken thought. "Bailey had sent a couple of kids over to the Blue to help survey the line." And Pete did not intend to let Gary "get by" with the idea that his attitude was not understood.
"Where's Houck?" asked Pete, naming the foreman of the T-Bar-T.
Cotton, Gary's companion, a light-haired, amiable but rather dull youth, stated that Houck was over to the ranch.
"I reckoned he'd come hisself," said Pete. "He knows this country better 'n most."
"Oh, I dunno," sneered Gary. "Some of us been here before."
"They wasn't no line then," said Pete quietly, "but they's goin' to be one."
"You makin' it?" queried Gary.
Pete smiled. "I was sent over here with Andy to do that same thing. But you're sure welcome to hand out any idees you got, seein' your fo'man ain't here."
Andy, who saw the inevitable end of this kind of talk, nudged Pete. "Let's eat," he said. "I reckon we're all willin'."
Gary, like most of his type, was always anticipating an insult, possibly because his general attitude toward humanity was deliberately intended to provoke argument and recrimination. He was naturally quarrelsome—and a bully because of his unquestioned physical courage. He was popular in a way with those of his fellows who looked upon a gunman—a killer—as a kind of hero. The foreman of the T-Bar-T found him valuable as a sort of animate scarecrow. Gary's mere presence often served to turn the balance when the T-Bar-T riders had occasion to substantiate a bluff or settle a dispute with some other outfit riding the high country. And because Gary imagined that Bailey of the Concho had deliberately sent such youngsters as Andy White and Young Pete to the Blue Mesa to settle the matter of a boundary line, Gary felt insulted. He was too narrow-minded to reason that Bailey could hardly know whom Houck of the T-Bar-T would send. Gary's ill-humor was not improved by the presence of Young Pete nor by Pete's pugnacious attitude. Strangely enough, Gary was nervous because he knew that Young Pete was not afraid of him.
Andy White was keenly aware of this, and found occasion that evening in Gary's temporary absence to caution Pete, who immediately called attention to the fact that they had all hung up their guns except Gary.
"All the better!" asserted Andy. "That lets you out if he was to start something."
"Yes. And it mebby might let me out for good, Andy. Gary is jest the kind to shoot a man down without givin' him a chanct. It ain't like Gary was scared of me—but he's scared of what I know. I hung up my gun 'cause I told Jim I wouldn't set to lookin' for a scrap with Gary, or any man. Gary ain't got sand enough to do the same. But there won't be no fuss. I reckon he dassent draw on me with you two fellas here. Where 'd he and Cotton go, anyhow?"
"I dunno, Pete. They moseyed out without sayin' anything."
"Looks like Gary wanted to put Cotton wise."
"Well, if anything starts, I'll sure keep my eye on that Cotton hombre," said Andy.
"He's easy—and slow," stated Pete. "He ain't got a fightin' eye."
"Here they come," whispered Andy. "I kin hear 'em talkin'."
Pete immediately began to whistle. Andy rose and poked a stick of wood in the stove. "She's right cool up here," he remarked.
"We been kind o' sizin' up things," stated Cotton as Gary and he entered the cabin; an excuse for their absence that was unnecessary and obviously manufactured.
Pete smiled. "I got 'em sized up. Never did cotton to workin' in the dark."
Gary paused in the act of unsnapping his chaps.
He was about to say something when Andy White interrupted by suggesting that they turn in early and rise early that they might get the work done in daylight and not have to spend another night at the cabin.
Gary dragged an old mattress from the bedroom and, dropping it beneath the window, spread his blanket, rolled up in it, and at Cotton's query as to sharing half of the mattress told Cotton to "sleep where he dam' pleased."
"He's a friendly cuss, ain't he?" remarked Pete.
"Who?" asked Gary, half-rising.
"Why, Cotton, there," replied Pete. "You didn't think I was meanin' you, did you?"
Andy nudged Pete in the dark. "All right," said Pete, ignoring Andy's meaning. "You git your blanket and we'll bush outside."
They spread their blankets under a cedar, some distance from the cabin, and lay gazing at the stars.
Presently Andy turned to Pete. "Pete," he said gravely, "you're walkin' right into trouble. Every time Gary starts to lope, you rein him up mighty short. He's fightin' the bit, and first thing you know—"
"I'll git pitched, eh? Well, mebby you're right. I done told Bailey that if I ever did meet Steve Gary I would leave him do the talking but I sure can't stand for his line o' talk. He's plumb mean."
"I'll be mighty glad when we git through with this job," said Andy.
"Shucks! It won't take three hours! I know every tree and stump on this flat. We'll be driftin' home 'long about four to-morrow."
THE OPEN HOLSTER
If there ever was a morning calculated to inspire good-will and heartiness in a human being it was that morning. The dawn came swiftly, battering through a fleece of clouds and painting the Blue Mesa in all the gorgeous and utterly indescribable colors of an Arizona sunrise. The air was crisp and so clear that it seemed to sparkle, like water. Andy White whistled as he gathered up the blankets and plodded toward the cabin. Pete felt like whistling, but for some reason he was silent. He followed Andy to the cabin and saw that the cowboy Cotton was making coffee.
"All we got is cold grub," stated Pete, "but we got plenty for everybody."
"We fetched some coffee and bacon," said Cotton. But he did not invite them to eat.
Pete glanced at Andy. Evidently Cotton had had his instructions or was afraid to make any friendly overtures. Gary was still lying on the mattress by the window, apparently asleep.
Pete stepped to where his own gun hung and buckled it on. "Let's mosey over to the spring and wash," he suggested to Andy. "I ain't no dude, but I kind o' like to wash before I eat."
"Here, too," said Andy. "Mebby we can locate the horses on the way."
When they returned to the cabin, Gary and Cotton were eating breakfast. Pete flung a pair of broken hobbles on the floor. "Somebody's cayuse got rid of these," he stated casually. He knew that they had been on Gary's horse, as he had seen Gary hobble him. Pete turned and strode out. Andy was unwrapping their lunch. Presently Gary and Cotton appeared and picked up their ropes. Andy White, who had seen his own easily caught pony, graciously offered the use of it in hunting the strayed horse, but Gary declined the offer gruffly.
"He's so doggone mean his face hurts him," stated Pete, as Gary and Cotton set off together.
"We'll lose some time if his hoss has lit out for home," said Andy.
"Gary's doin' all he kin to make a job of it," declared Pete. "But I don't wait for him. Soon's we finish eatin' I'm goin' to locate Blue Smoke and git to work. We kin run that line without any help from them. Let 'em walk till they're tired."
"And what do you think of a couple of punchers—punchers, mind you—that sit down and eat bacon and drink coffee and don't as much as say 'come in'?"
"I don't waste time thinkin' about such, Andy. You finish up the grub. I got all I want."
"Shucks! This ain't all. We ain't touched the grub in your saddle-pockets yet. Ma Bailey sure fixed us up right."
"That'll do for noon," said Pete. "I'll run your hoss in, when I git Blue Smoke. Your hoss'll follow, anyway."
"Jest a minute till I git my rope."
"Nope, you stay here. That Blue Smoke hoss knows me. If he spots two of us comin' he's like to git excited and mebby bust his hobbles and light out. I'll ketch him all right."
"Jest as you say, Pete."
The sun was warming the air and it was pleasant to sit and watch the light clouds trail along the far horizon. Andy leaned back against the cedar and rolled a cigarette. He grinned as he recalled how Pete had called Gary at every turn, and yet had given the other no chance to find excuse for a quarrel. Pete was certainly "a cool hand—for a kid." White, several years Pete's senior, always thought of him as not much more than a boy.
Meanwhile Pete, who knew every foot of ground on the homestead, trailed through the scrub toward the spring. Down an occasional opening he could see the distant forest that edged the mesa, and once he thought he saw a horse's head behind a bush, but it turned out to be the stub of a fallen tree. The brush hid the cabin as he worked toward the timber. Presently he discovered Blue Smoke's tracks and followed them down into a shallow hollow where the brush was thick. He wound in and out, keeping the tracks in sight and casually noting where the horse had stopped to graze. Near the bottom of the hollow he heard voices. He had been so intent on tracking the horse that he had forgotten Gary and Cotton. The tracks led toward the voices. Pete instinctively paused and listened, then shrugged his shoulders and stepped forward. A thick partition of brush separated him from the unseen speaker. Pete stopped midway in his stride.
"If you squat down here you can see the winder, right under this bush. The moon was shinin'. It was a plumb easy shot. And it sure stopped homesteadin' in this end of the country."
Gary was speaking. Pete drew a step nearer.
"You ain't sayin' who fired that shot,"—and Cotton laughed obsequiously.
Pete stepped from behind the bush. Gary was facing toward the cabin. Cotton was squatting near by smoking a cigarette.
"Tell him," said Pete. "I want to know myself."
"What's it to you?" snarled Gary, and he stepped back. Gary's very attitude was a challenge. Pete knew that he could not drop his rope and pull his own gun quick enough to save himself. He saw Gary's hand move almost imperceptibly toward his holster.
"I reckon I made a mistake," said Pete slowly—and he let the rope slip from his hand as though utterly unnerved. "I—I talked kind o' quick," he stammered.
"Well, you won't make no more mistakes," sneered Gary, and he dropped his hand to his gun. "You want to know who plugged that old hoss-thief, Annersley, eh? Well, what you goin' to say when I tell you it was me?"
Pete saw that Gary was working himself up to the pitch when he would kill. And Pete knew that he had but one chance in a thousand of breaking even with the killer. He would not have time to draw—but Montoya had taught him the trick of shooting through the open holster . . . Cotton heard Pete's hand strike the butt of his gun as the holster tilted up. Pete fired twice. Staring as though hypnotized, Gary clutched at his shirt over his chest with his free hand. He gave at the knees and his body wilted and settled down—even as he threw a desperate shot at Pete in a last venomous effort to kill.
"You seen it was an even break," said Pete, turning to Cotton, who immediately sank to his knees and implored Pete not to kill him.
"But I reckon you'd lie, anyhow," continued Pete, paying no attention to the other's mouthings. "Hunt your cayuse—and git a-movin'."
Cotton understood that. Glancing over his shoulder at Gary he turned and ran toward the timber. Pete stepped to the crumpled figure and gazed at the bubbling hole in the chest. Then he stepped hack and mechanically holstered his gun which he had pulled as he spoke to Cotton. "They'll git me for this," he whispered to himself. "It was an even break—but they'll git me." Pete fought back his fear with a peculiar pride—the pride that scorned to appear frightened before his chum, Andy White. The quarrel had occurred so unexpectedly and terminated so suddenly, that Pete could not yet realize the full extent of the tragedy. While quite conscious of what he was doing and intended to do, he felt as though he were walking in a horrible dream from which he would never awaken. His instincts were as keen as ever—for he was already planning his next move—but his sensibilities had suffered a blunt shock—were numb to all external influence. He knew that the sun was shining, yet he did not feel its warmth. He was walking toward the cabin, and toward Andy. He stumbled as he walked, taking no account of the irregularities of the ground. He could hardly believe that he had killed Gary. To convince himself against his own will he mechanically drew his gun and glanced at the two empty shells. "Three and two is five," he muttered. "I shot twict." He did not realize that Gary had shot at him—that a shred of his flannel shirt was dangling from his sleeve where Gary's bullet had cut it. "Wonder if Andy heard?" he kept asking himself. "I got to tell Andy."
Almost before he realized it he was standing under the cedar and Andy was speaking. "Thought I heard some one shoot, over toward the woods."
As Pete did not answer, Andy thought that the horse had got away from him. "Did you get him?" he queried.
Pete nodded dully. "I got him. He's over there—in the brush."
"Why didn't you fetch him in? Did he get the best of you? You look like he give you a tussle."
"I got him—twict," said Pete.
"Twict? Say, Pete, are you loco? What's ailin' you, anyhow?"
"Nothin'. Me and Gary just had it out. He's over there—in the brush."
"Yes. I reckon I got him."
"Hell!" The ruddy color sank from Andy's face. He had supposed that Gary and Cotton were by this time tracking the strayed horses toward the T-Bar-T. "Where's Cotton?" he asked.
"I told him to fan it."
"I know. They's no use talkin', Andy. I come back to tell you—and to git your rope. Mine's over by Gary."
"What you goin' to do, Pete?"
"Me? Why, I'm goin' to drift as soon as I can git a saddle on Blue. Cotton he seen the shootin'—but that don't do me no good. He'll swear that I pulled first. He'd say 'most anything—he was too scared to know what come off. Gary's hand was on his gun when I let him have it—twict."
Andy noticed then Pete's torn sleeve. "I reckon that's right. Look at that!"
Pete turned his head and glanced at his sleeve. "Never knowed he shot—it was all done so quick." He seemed to awaken suddenly to the significance of his position. "I'll take your rope and go git Smoke. Then I'm goin' to drift."
"You're my pardner, Andy, but I ain't sayin'. Then you won't have to lie. You'll have to tell Jim—and tell him it was like I said—if Gary come at me, that would be different. I'm leavin' it to you to square me with Jim Bailey." Pete picked up the rope and started toward the spring.
"I'm goin' with you," said White, "and ketch my hoss. I aim to see you through with this."
In an hour they were back at the cabin with the horses. Andy White glanced at his watch. "Cotton is afoot—for I seen his hoss over there. But he can make it to the T-Bar-T in three hours. That'll give us a start of two hours, anyhow. I don't know which way you aim to ride, but—"
"I'm playin' this hand alone," stated Pete as he saddled Blue Smoke. "No use your gittin' in bad."
White made no comment, but cinched up his pony. Pete stepped to him and held out his hand. "So-long, Andy. You been a mighty square pardner."
"Nothin' doin'!" exclaimed Andy. "I'm with you to the finish."
"Nope, Andy. If we was both to light out, you'd be in it as bad as me."
"Then what do you say if we both ride down to Concho and report to the sheriff?"
"I tried that onct—when they killed Pop Annersley. I know how that would work."
"But what you goin' to do?"
"I'm ridin'," and Pete swung to his horse. Blue Smoke pitched across the clearing under the spur and rein that finally turned him toward the south. Pete's sombrero flew off as he headed for the timber. Andy, reining 'round his horse, that fretted to follow, swung down and caught up Pete's hat on the run. Pete had pulled up near the edge of the timber. Andy, as he was about to give Pete his hat, suddenly changed it for his own. "For luck!" he cried, as Pete slackened rein and Blue Smoke shot down the dim forest trail.
Pete, perhaps influenced by Montoya's example, always wore a high-crowned black sombrero. Andy's hat was the usual gray. In the excitement of leaving, Pete had not thought of that; but as he rode, he suspected Andy's motive, and glanced back. But Andy was not following, or if he were, he was riding slowly.
Meanwhile Andy cheerfully put himself in the way of assisting Pete to escape. He knew the country and thought he knew where Pete was headed for. Before nightfall a posse would be riding the high country hunting the slayer of Gary. They would look for a cowboy wearing a black sombrero. Realizing the risk that he ran, and yet as careless of that risk as though he rode to a fiesta, Young Andy deliberately turned back to where Gary lay—he had not yet been to that spot—and, dismounting, picked up Pete's rope. He glanced at Gary, shivered, and swung to his horse. Riding so that his trail would be easy to read he set off toward the open country, east. The fact that he had no food with him, and that the country was arid and that water was scarce, did not trouble him. All he hoped for was to delay or mislead the posse long enough to enable Pete to reach the southern desert. There Pete might have one chance in twenty of making his final escape. Perhaps it was a foolish thing to do, but Andy White, inspired by a motive of which there is no finer, did not stop to reason about it. "He that giveth his life for a friend . . ." Andy knew nothing of such a quotation. He was riding into the desert, quite conscious of the natural hazards of the trail, and keen to the possibilities that might follow in the form of an excited posse not too discriminating, in their eagerness to capture an outlaw, yet he rode with a light heart. After all, Pete was not guilty of murder. He had but defended his own life. Andy's heart was light because of the tang of adventure, and a certain appreciation of what a disappointed posse might feel and express—and because Romance ran lightly beside him, heartening him on his way; Romance, whose ears are deaf to all moral considerations and whose eyes see only the true adventurer, be he priest or pirate; Romance whose eyes are blind to those who fear to dare.
A FALSE TRAIL
"Sure he's dead!" reiterated Cotton. "Didn't I see them two holes plumb through him and the blood soakin' his shirt when I turned him over? If I'd 'a' had my gun on me that Young Pete would be right side of Steve, right now! But I couldn't do nothin' without a gun. Pete Annersley was plumb scared. That's why he killed Steve. Jest you gimme a gun and watch me ride him down! I aim to settle with that Jay."
Cotton was talking to Houck of the T-Bar-T, blending fact and fiction in a blustering attempt to make himself believe he had played the man. During his long, foot-weary journey to the ranch he had roughly invented this speech and tried to memorize it. Through repetition he came to believe that he was telling the truth. Incidentally he had not paused to catch up his horse, which was a slight oversight, considering the trail from the Blue to his home ranch.
"What's the matter with the gun you're packin'?" asked Houck.
Cotton had forgotten his own gun.
"I—it was like this, Bill. After Young Pete killed Gary, I went back to the shack and got my gun. At first, Andy White wasn't goin' to leave me have it—but I tells him to fan it. I reckon he's pretty nigh home by now."
"Thought you said you didn't see White after the shooting—that he forked his horse and rode for the Concho? Cotton, you're lyin' so fast you're like to choke."
"Honest, Bill! If I'd 'a' had my gun . . ."
"Oh, hell! Don't try to swing that bluff. Where's your horse?"
"I couldn't ketch him, honest."
"Thought you said you caught him in the brush and tied him to a tree and Young Annersley threatened to kill you if you went for your saddle."
"That's right—honest, Bill, that's what he said."
"Then how is it that Bobby Lent caught your horse strayin' in more 'n a hour ago? Dam' if I believe a word you say. You're plumb crazy."
"Honest, Bill. I hope to die if Steve Gary ain't layin' over there with two holes in him. He's sure dead. Do you think I footed it all the way jest because I like walkin'?"
Houck frowned and shook his head. "You say him and Young Pete had come to words?"
"Yep; about ole man Annersley. Steve was tellin' me about the raid when Pete steps up and tells him to say it over ag'in. Steve started to talk when Pete cuts down on him—twict. My God, he was quick! I never even seen him draw."
"Did Gary say he was the one that plugged Annersley?"
"Yep. Said he did it—and asked Pete what he was goin' to do about it."
"Then Steve was drunk or crazy. You go git a horse and burn the trail to Concho. Tell Sutton that Young Pete Annersley killed Gary, up to the Blue Mesa. Tell him we're out after Young Pete. Can you git that straight?"
"What if the sheriff was to pinch me for bein' in that scrap?"
"You! In a gun-fight? No. He wouldn't believe that if you told him so. You jest tell Sutton what I said, and git goin'! Don't lie to him—or he'll spot it and pinch you dam' quick."
With Cotton gone, Houck saddled up and rode out to where one of his men was mending fence. "Take your horse and git all the boys you can reach before night. Young Pete Annersley shot Steve over to the Blue this mornin'."
The cowboy, unlike Cotton, whistled his surprise, dropped his tools, mounted, and was off before Houck had reined back toward the ranch-house.
It was near twelve that night when a quiet band of riders dismounted at the Annersley cabin, separated, and trailed off in the darkness to look for Gary. One of them found him where he had fallen and signaled with his gun. They carried Gary to the cabin. In the flickering light of the open stove they saw that he was still alive. There was one chance in a thousand that he could recover. They washed his wounds and one of the men set out toward Concho, to telephone to Enright for a doctor. The rest grouped around the stove and talked in low tones, waiting for daylight. "Chances are the kid went south," said Houck, half to himself.
"How about young White?" queried a cowboy.
"I dunno. Either he rode with Pete Annersley or he's back at the Concho. Daylight'll tell."
"If Steve could talk—" said the cowboy.
"I guess Steve is done for," said Houck. "I knew Young Pete was a tough kid—but I didn't figure he'd try to down Steve."
"Supposin' they both had a hand in it—White and Young Pete?"
Houck shook his head. "Anybody got any whiskey?" he asked.
Some one produced a flask. Houck knelt and raised Gary's head, tilting the flask carefully. Presently Gary's lips moved and his chest heaved.
"Who was it? White?" questioned Houck.
Gary moved his head in the negative.
"Young Pete?" Gary's white lips shaped to a faint whisper—"Yes."
One of the men folded a slicker and put it under Gary's head.
Houck stood up. "I guess it's up to us to get Pete Annersley."
"You can count me out," said a cowboy immediately. "Steve was allus huntin' trouble and it looks like he found it this trip. They's plenty without me to ride down the kid. Young Pete may be bad—but I figure he had a dam' good excuse when he plugged Steve, here. You can count me out."
"And me," said another. "If young Pete was a growed man—"
"Same here," interrupted the third. "Any kid that's got nerve enough to down Steve has got a right to git away with it. If you corner him he's goin' to fight—and git bumped off by a bunch of growed men—mebby four to one. That ain't my style."
Houck turned to several cowboys who had not spoken. They were Gary's friends, of his kind—in a measure. "How is it, boys?" asked Houck.
"We stick," said one, and the others nodded.
"Then you boys"—and Houck indicated the first group—"can ride back to the ranch. Or, here, Larkin, you can stay with Steve till the doc shows up. The rest of you can drift."
Without waiting for dawn the men who had refused to go out after Pete rode back along the hill-trail to the ranch. But before they left, Houck took what hastily packed food they had and distributed it among the posse, who packed it in their saddle-pockets. The remaining cowboys lay down for a brief sleep. They were up at dawn, and after a hasty breakfast set out looking for tracks. Houck himself discovered Andy White's tracks leading from the spot where Gary had been found, and calling the others together, set off across the eastern mesa.
Meanwhile Andy White was sleeping soundly in a coulee many miles from the homestead, and just within sight of a desert ranch, to which he had planned to ride at daybreak, ask for food and depart, leaving the impression that he was Pete Annersley in haste to get beyond the reach of the law. He had stopped at the coulee because he had found grass and water for his horse and because he did not want to risk being found at the ranch-house. A posse would naturally head for the ranch to search and ask questions. Fed and housed he might oversleep and be caught. Then his service to Pete would amount to little. But if he rode in at daybreak, ahead of the posse, ate and departed, leaving a hint as to his assumed identity, he could mislead them a day longer at least. He built all his reasoning on the hope that the posse would find and follow his tracks.
Under the silent stars he slept, his head on his saddle, and near him lay Pete's black sombrero.
In the disillusioning light of morning, that which Andy had taken to be a ranch-house dwindled to a goat-herder's shack fronted by a brush-roofed lean-to. Near it was a diminutive corral and a sun-faded tent. The old Indian herder seemed in no way surprised to see a young rider dismount and approach cautiously—for Andy had entered into the spirit of the thing. He paused to glance apprehensively back and survey the western horizon. Andy greeted the Indian, who grunted his acknowledgment in the patois of the plains.
"Any vaqueros ride by here this morning?" queried Andy.
The herder shook his head.
"Well, I guess I got time to eat," said Andy.
A faint twinkle touched the old Indian's eyes, but his face was as expressionless as a dried apple.
"Si," he said.
"But not a whole lot of time," asserted Andy.
The Indian rose and fetched a pail of goat's milk and some tortillas from the shack. He shuffled back to his hermitage and reappeared with a tin cup. Andy, who meanwhile had consumed one leathery tortilla, shook his head. "Never mind the cup, amigo." He tilted the pail and drank—paused for breath, and drank again. He set the pail down empty. "I was some dry," he said, smiling. "Got any more of these rawhide flapjacks?"
The herder nodded, stooped to enter the shack, and came out with a half-dozen of the tortillas, which Andy rolled and stuffed in his saddle-pocket. "Mighty good trail bread!" he said enthusiastically. "You can't wear 'em out."
Again the herder nodded, covertly studying this young rider who did not look like an outlaw, whose eye was clear and untroubled. Well, what did it matter?—a man must eat.
The old Indian had given unquestioningly from his poverty, with the simple dignity of true hospitality. As for who this stranger was, of what he had done—that was none of his affair. A man must eat.
"I'm payin' for this,"—and Andy proffered a silver dollar.
The other turned the piece round in his fingers as though hesitating to accept it.
"Si. But has not the senor some little money?"
"That's all right, amigo. Keep it."
The herder shook his head, and held up two fingers. Andy smiled. "I get you! You don't aim to bank all your wealth in one lump. Lemme see? All I got left is a couple of two-bit pieces. Want 'em?" The herder nodded and took the two coins and handed back the dollar. Then he padded stolidly to the shack and reappeared, bearing a purple velvet jacket which was ornamented with buttons made from silver quarters. He held it up, indicating that two of the buttons were missing. "Muchacha," he grunted, pointing toward the south.
"I get you. Your girl is out looking after the goats, and you aim to kind of surprise her with a full set of buttons when she gets back. She'll ask you right quick where you got 'em, eh?"
A faint grin touched the old Indian's mouth. The young vaquero was of the country. He understood.
"Well, it beats me," said Andy. "Now, a white man is all for the big money. He'd take the dollar, get it changed, and be two-bits ahead, every time. But I got to drift along. Say, amigo, if any of my friends come a-boilin down this way, jest tell 'em that Pete—that's me—was in a hurry, and headed east. Sabe?"
"Pete—with the black sombrero." Andy touched his hat.
"Adios. Wisht I could take a goat along. That milk was sure comfortin'."
The herder watched Andy mount and ride away. Then he plodded back to the shack and busied himself patiently soldering tiny rings on the silver pieces, that the set of buttons for his daughter's jacket might be complete. He knew that the young stranger must be a fugitive, otherwise he would not have ridden into the desert so hurriedly. He had not inquired about water, nor as to feed for his horse. Truly he was in great haste!
Life meant but three things to the old Indian. Food, sleep, and physical freedom. He had once been in jail and had suffered as only those used to the open sky suffer when imprisoned. The young vaquero had eaten, and had food with him. His eyes had shown that he was not in need of sleep. Yet he had all but said there would be men looking for him.
The old Indian rose and picked up a blanket. In the doorway he paused, surveying the western horizon. Satisfied that no one was in sight, he padded out to where Andy had tied his horse and swept the blanket across the tracks in the loose sand. Walking backwards he drew the blanket after him, obliterating the hoof-prints until he came to a rise where the ground was rocky. Without haste he returned and squatted in the shack. He was patiently working on a silver piece when some one called out peremptorily.
The old Indian's face was expressionless as he nodded to the posse of cowboys.
"Seen anything of a young fella ridin' a blue roan and sportin' a black hat?" asked Houck.
The Indian shook his head.
"He's lyin'," asserted a cowboy. "Comes as natural as breathin' to him. We trailed a hoss to this here wickiup"—the hot lust of the man-hunt was in the cowboy's eyes as he swung down—"and we aim to see who was ridin' him!"
Houck and his three companions sat their horses as the fourth member of the posse shouldered the old Indian aside and entered the shack. "Nothin' in there," he said, as he reappeared, "but somebody's been here this mornin'." And he pointed to the imprint of a high-heeled boot in the sand of the yard.
"Which way did he ride?" asked Houck, indicating the footprint.
The old herder shook his head. "Quien sabe?" he grunted, shrugging his shoulders.
"Who knows, eh? Well, you know—for one. And you're goin' to say—or there'll be a heap big bonfire right here where your shack is."
Meanwhile one of the men, who had pushed out into the desert and was riding in a circle, hallooed and waved his arm.
"He headed this way," he called. "Some one dragged a blanket over his trail."
The cowboy who was afoot strode up to the herder. "We'll learn you to play hoss with this outfit!" He swung his quirt and struck the Indian across the face. The old Indian stepped back and stiffened. His sunken eyes blazed with hatred, but he made no sound or sign. He knew that if he as much as lifted his hand the men would kill him. To him they were the law, searching for a fugitive. The welt across his face burned like the sear of fire—the cowardly brand of hatred on the impassive face of primitive fortitude! This because he had fed a hungry man and delayed his pursuers.
Long after the posse had disappeared down the far reaches of the desert, the old Indian stood gazing toward the east, vaguely wondering what would have happened to him had he struck a white man across the face with a quirt. He would have been shot down—and his slayer would have gone unpunished. He shook his head, unable to understand the white man's law. His primitive soul knew a better law, "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth," a law that knew no caste and was as old as the sun-swept spaces of his native land. He was glad that his daughter had not been there. The white men might have threatened and insulted her. If they had . . . The old herder padded to his shack and squatted down, to finish soldering the tiny rings on the buttons for his daughter's jacket.
THE BLACK SOMBRERO
When Andy had ridden far enough to feel secure in turning and riding north—in fact, his plan was to work back to the Concho in a wide circle—he reined in and dismounted. From a low ridge he surveyed the western desert, approximated his bearings, and had his foot in the stirrup when he saw four tiny dots that bobbed up and down on the distant sky-line of the west. He had left an easy trail to follow and the pursuers were riding hard. They were still a long distance from him. He led his horse down the far side of the ridge and mounted. He rode straight east for perhaps a quarter of a mile. Then he turned and at right angles to his trail sped north behind the long, low, sandy ridge. He could not be seen until the posse had topped it—and even then it was probable they would fling down the slope, following his tracks until they came to where he had turned. Straight ahead of him the ridge swung to the left. In half an hour or so he would again cross it, which he hoped to do before he was discovered. Once over the ridge, he would head for the Concho. To follow him would mean that his pursuers would be riding directly away from Pete's trail. Many long desert miles lay between Andy and the Concho, but he argued that his horse was as fresh as the horses of his pursuers. He would give them a good run. If they overtook him before they reached the ranch, the most they could do would be to curse him for misleading them. He reasoned that the posse was from the T-Bar-T—that at best the sheriff could not have been advised of the shooting in time to join them. They would have no official right to detain him or interfere with his progress—once they knew who he was.
A trot, a lope, then back to a swinging trot again—and as yet no riders had appeared on the hills. Andy was making good time. The crest of the ridge shimmered in the noon sun. At this pace he would be over and down the western side before they saw him.
When the posse finally caught sight of the man they were after far out across the level and riding toward the west, they knew at once that he was making for the Concho and what protection his fellows might afford him under the circumstances. This did not fit into their scheme. The man-hunt had tuned their pulses to a high pitch. They wanted to lay hands on Gary's slayer—to disarm him and bring him into the town of Concho themselves—or, if he showed fight, to "get" him. They forgot that he was little more than a boy. He was an enemy—and potently dangerous.
"It's Young Pete," said a cowboy. "I know him by that black hat."
Plying quirt and spur the posse flung down the ridge and out across the plain below. They would ride their quarry down before he reached the boundary of the Concho—before he got among his friends.
Andy turned and glanced back. They were gaining on him. He knew that his own horse was doing his best. Again he glanced back. The riders were forcing their horses to a terrific pace that could not last long. In a mile or so they would be close enough to use their rifles. But the harder they rode the better Andy liked it. They would be in sorry shape to make the long ride south after Pete, when they realized that they were chasing the wrong man. If he could get out of it without getting shot, he would consider himself lucky. Ahead of him lay a flat of brushless land offering no shelter. He hoped that his horse would not be killed by a chance shot. In that event his pride would force him to retaliate, until he was either killed or captured. He had about made up his mind to rein up and surrender when he heard the singing whizz-zip of a bullet that sprayed sand ahead of him. Then came the faint pop of a rifle far behind. He pulled up, swiftly unbuckled his belt, and hung his gun on the saddle-horn. Then he stepped away from his horse—an unconsciously fine thing to do—and turned toward the distant posse. Again came that shrill, sinister whizz-zip and he was standing bareheaded in the glaring sun as the black sombrero spun round and settled lightly in the sand beside him. He wisely thrust up his hands—arguing that if the posse could see to shoot with such accuracy they could see and possibly appreciate his attitude. He felt outraged, and wanted to fight. He did not realize at the moment that his pursuers were acting in good faith according to their viewpoint.
Meanwhile they flung toward him, spreading out fanwise in case of some possible treachery. Without moving a muscle Andy stood with his hands raised, blinkingly trying to identify each individual rider.
There was Houck on his big gray cow-horse. To the left rode Simpson, known all over the range as Gary's close friend. Andy half-expected to see Cotton with the posse, but Cotton was not there. He did not recognize the two riders on the wings of the posse.
"Mornin', fellas!" he called as the cowboys swept up. "What's the idea?"
"This!" snarled Simpson as he took out his rope.
"Hold on!" cried Houck, dismounting and covering White. "This ain't our man! It's young Andy White!"
"You might 'a' found that out before you started shootin'," said Andy, lowering his hands. "My gun's on the saddle there."
Despite the fact that it was Andy White, Houck took no chances, but searched him. Then, "what in hell was your idea?"
"Me? Why, I was ridin' to the Concho when one of you guys shot my hat off. I reckoned it was about time to pull up."
"Ridin' to the Concho, eh? I suppose you'll say next that you got lost and thought the Concho was over this way?"
"Nope. I was ridin' to the Concho to report the shootin' of Steve Gary to my boss."
Houck, who had imagined that White would disclaim any knowledge of the shooting until forced to admit it, took a new tack. "Where's Pete Annersley?"
"That's jest what I was wonderin'. Last time I see him he was fannin' it east. I took out after him—but I must 'a' missed him."
"That'll do to tell the sheriff. We want to know what you know about the shootin'-up of Steve."
"Nothin'. I was over by the shack waiting for Pete when I thought I heard a couple of shots. Didn't pay no attention to that—'cause Pete was always poppin' his gun at somethin'. Then pretty soon Pete walks in, and I go out with him and help him ketch his hoss. He don't say much—and I don't. Then first thing I know he lights on that little buckskin hoss of his—"
"And forgets his hat," interrupted Houck.
"Nope. He was wearin' a hat the last I seen of him."
"And ridin' a buckskin cayuse, eh? Now Cotton says it was a blue roan."
Andy laughed. "That hombre Cotton's got mighty poor eyesight. Why, he couldn't see good enough to ketch up his own hoss. Pete told me Cotton set out for home afoot. I didn't see him, but I'd take Pete's word against Cotton's any time."
"Mebby you think we're takin' your word about Young Pete—and the shootin'??
"We can make you talk!" threatened Simpson.
"I reckon you could," said Andy easily. "Four to one—and my gun hangin' over there on the saddle-horn. But suppose you did? How are you goin' to' know I'll talk straight or lie to you? You ain't throwed any big scare into me yet"—and Andy stooped and caught up his hat and thrust his finger through the hole in the crown—"because I ain't done nothin' to be scared about. I ain't shot nobody and I ain't seen nobody get shot. Cotton could 'a' told you that."
"That's right," asserted Houck reluctantly. "White here had nothin' to do with the shootin'. Cotton said that. We lost some time trailin' you"—Houck turned to Andy—"but we don't aim to lose any more. Which way did young Pete ride?"
Andy laughed. "You would say I lied if I told you. But I'm goin' to tell you straight. Young Pete took the old Ranger Trail south, through the timber. And I want to tell you gentlemen he was goin' like hell a-smokin' when I seen him last. Mebby you don't believe that? And there's somethin' else—that old Ranger Trail forks three times this side of Cienegas—and she forks twice afore she crosses the line. She's a dim trail when she's doin' her best acrost the rocks, and they's places in her where she's as blind as a dead ox. Water is as scarce as cow-punchers at a camp-meetin' and they ain't no feed this side of Showdown. And Showdown never tore its shirt tryin' to be polite to strangers. I been there. 'Course, when it comes to rustlers and cardsharps and killers—but you fellas know how that is. I—"
"Come on, boys," said Houck, reining round. "White here is puttin' up a talk to hold us—and Young Pete's usin' the time."
Andy watched them ride away, a queer expression lighting his face. "They hate like the Ole Scratch to believe me—and they are hatin' themselves for havin' to."
He pulled off Pete's hat and turned it over, gazing at the two little round holes curiously. "Pete, old scout," he said, smiling whimsically, "here's hopin' they never come closer to gettin' you than they did to gettin' me. Keep a-ridin'—for you sure got to be that 'Ridin' Kid from Powder River' this journey—and then some."
Andy turned the black sombrero round in his hands. "All this here hocus comes of the killin' of a old man that never lifted a finger against nobody—and as game a kid as ever raked a hoss with a spur. But one killin' always means more. I ain't no gunman—or no killer. But, by cracky! some of my ideas has changed since I got that hole in my hat. I wisht I'd 'a' rode with Pete. I wouldn't ask nothin' better right now than to stand back to back with him, out in the open somewhere and let 'em come! Because why? Because the only law that a man's got in this country is hisself—and if he's right, why, crossin' over with his gun explainin' his idees ain't the worst way to go. Anyhow, it ain't any worse than gettin' throwed from a bronc and gettin' his neck broke or gettin' stomped out in a stampede. Them's just regular, common ways of goin' out. I just wonder how Pete is makin' it?"
Andy put on his hat, glanced at the sun, and strode to his pony. Far across the eastern desert he saw the posse—a mere moving dot against the blue. "Wolf-hungry to make a killin' because they're foolin' themselves that they're actin' out the law! Well, come on, Chico, old hoss, we got to make home before sundown."
Where the old Ranger Trail, crossing the Blue Mesa, leaves the high mesa and meanders off into the desert, there is a fork which leads southwest, to the Apache country—a grim and waterless land—and finally swings south toward the border. Pete dismounted at this fork, pulled up his slackened cinches, and making certain that he was leaving a plain track, rode down the main trail for half a mile. Then he reined his pony to a bare spot on the grass-dotted tufa, and again dismounted. He looped Blue Smoke's fore feet, then threw him, and pulled his shoes with a pair of wire nippers, and stowed the shoes in his saddle-pockets.
He again rode directly down the trail, surmising that the occasional track of a barefoot horse would appear natural enough should the posse, whom he knew would follow him, split up and ride both trails. Farther on he again swung from the trail to the tufa, never slackening pace, and rode across the broken ground for several miles. He had often seen the unshod and unbranded ponies of the high country run along a trail for a mile or so and then dash off across the open. Of course, if the posse took the direct trail to the border, paying no attention to tracks, they would eventually overtake him. Pete was done with the companionship of men who allowed the wanton killing of a man like Annersley to go unpunished. He knew that if he were caught, he would most probably be hanged or imprisoned for the shooting of Gary—if he were not killed in being taken. The T-Bar-T interests ruled the courts. Moreover, his reputation was against him. Ever since the raid on Annersley's place Pete had been pointed out as the "kid who stood off the raiders and got two of them." And Pete knew that the very folk who seemed proud of the fact would be the first to condemn him for the killing of Gary. He was outlawed—not for avenging the death of his foster-father, but actually because he had defended his own life, a fact difficult to establish in court and which would weigh little against the evidence of the six or eight men who had heard him challenge Gary at the round-up. Jim Bailey had been right. Men talked too much as a usual thing. Gary had talked too much.
Pete realized that his loyalty to the memory of Annersley had earned him disrepute. He resented the injustice of this, and all his old hatred of the law revived. Yet despite all logic of justice as against law—he could see Gary's hand clutching against his chest, his staring eyes, and the red ooze starting through those tense fingers—Pete reasoned that had he not been so skilled and quick with a gun, he would be in Gary's place now. As it was, he was alive and had a good horse between his knees.
To ride an unshod horse in the southern desert is to invite disaster. Toward evening, Pete pulled up at a water-hole, straightened the nails in the horseshoes and tacked them on again with a piece of rock. They would hold until he reached the desert town of Showdown—a place of ill-repute and a rendezvous for outlawry and crime.
He rode on until he came within sight of the town—a dim huddle of low buildings in the starlight. He swung off the trail, hobbled his horse, fastened his rope to the hobbles, and tied that in turn to a long, heavy slab of rock, and turned in. He would not risk losing his horse in this desert land. At best a posse could not reach Showdown before noon the next day, and rather than blunder into Showdown at night and take unnecessary risks, he decided to rest, and ride in at sunup, when he would be able to see what he was doing and better estimate the possibilities of getting food for himself and his horse and of finding refuge in some out-of-the-way ranch or homestead. In spite of his vivid imaginings he slept well. At dawn he caught up his pony and rode into town.
Showdown boasted some fifteen or eighteen low-roofed adobes, the most pretentious being the saloon. These all faced a straggling road which ran east and west, disappearing at either end of the town as though anxious to obliterate itself in the clean sand of the desert. The environs of Showdown were garnished with tin cans and trash, dirt and desolation. Unlike the ordinary cow-town this place was not sprightly, but morose, with an aspect of hating itself for existing. Even the railroad swung many miles to the south as though anxious to leave the town to its own pernicious isolation.
The fixed population consisted of a few Mexicans and one white man, known as "The Spider," who ran the saloon and consequently owned Showdown body and—but Showdown had no soul.
Men arrived and departed along the several desert trails that led in and out of the town. These men seldom tarried long. And they usually came alone, perchance from the Blue, the Gila, the T-Bar-T, or from below the border, for their business was with the border rustlers and parasites. Sheriffs of four counties seldom disturbed the place, because a man who had got as far south as Showdown was pretty hard to apprehend. From there to the border lay a trackless desert. Showdown was a rendezvous for that inglorious legion, "The Men Who Can't Come Back," renegades who when below the line worked machine guns for whichever side of the argument promised the more loot. Horse- and cattle-thieves, killers, escaped convicts, came and went—ominous birds of passage, the scavengers of war and banditry.
The Spider was lean, with legs warped by long years in the saddle. He was called The Spider because of his physical attributes as well as because of his attitude toward life. He never went anywhere, yet he accumulated sustenance. He usually had a victim tangled in his web. It was said that The Spider never let a wounded outlaw die for lack of proper attention if he considered the outlaw worth saving—as an investment. And possibly this was the secret of his power, for he was ever ready to grub-stake or doctor any gentleman in need or wounded in a desert affair—and he had had a large experience in caring for gun-shot wounds.
Pete, dismounting at the worn hitching-rail, entered the saloon, nodded casually to The Spider, and called for a drink. The Spider, who always officiated at the bar for politic reasons, aside from the selling of liquor, noticed that the young stranger's eyes were clear and steady—that he showed no trace of hard night-riding; yet he had arrived in Showdown at sunup. As Pete drank, The Spider sized up his horse—which looked fresh. He had already noticed that Pete's gun hung well down and handy, and assumed correctly that it was not worn for ornament. The Spider knew that the drink was a mere formality—that the stranger was not a drinking man in the larger sense.
Neither spoke until a Mexican, quite evidently in haste, rode up and entered the saloon. The Mexican bore the strange news that four riders were expected to reach Showdown that day—perhaps by noon. Then The Spider spoke, and Pete was startled by the voice, which was pitched in a high key yet was little more than a whisper.
The Mexican began to expostulate shrilly. The Spider had cursed him for a loud-mouthed fool. Again came that sinister whisper, like the rush of a high wind in the reeds. The Mexican turned and silently left the room. When Pete, who had pretended absorption in thought, glanced up, the Spider's eyes were fixed on Pete's horse, which had swung around as the Mexican departed. The Spider's deep-set eyes shifted to Pete, who smiled. The Spider nodded. Interpreted this would have read: "I see you ride a horse with the Concho brand." And Pete's eyes had retorted: "I sure do. I was waiting for you to say that."
Still The Spider had not addressed his new guest nor had Pete uttered a word. It was a sort of cool, deliberate duel of will power. Pete turned his head and surveyed the long room leisurely. The Spider pushed the bottle toward him, silently inviting him to drink again. Pete shook his head. The Spider hobbled from behind the bar and moving quickly across the room flung open the back door, discovering a patio set with tables and chairs. Pete nodded.
They were establishing a tentative understanding without speech. The test was hard for Pete. The Spider was uncanny—though quick of movement and shifty of eye—intensely alive withal.
As for The Spider himself, he was not displeased. This was but a youth, yet a youth who was not unfamiliar with the fine points of a rendezvous. The back door opened on a patio and the door in the wall of the patio opened on a corral. The corral bars opened to the desert—Pete had almost sensed that, without seeing farther than the patio, and had nodded his approval, without speaking. The Spider considered this highly commendable.
Pete knew at a glance that The Spider was absolutely without honor—that his soul was as crooked as his badly bowed legs; and that he called no man friend and meant it.
And The Spider knew, without other evidence than his own eyes found, that this young stranger would not hesitate to kill him if sufficient provocation offered. Nor did this displease the autocrat of Showdown in the least. He was accustomed to dealing with such men. Yet one thing bothered him. Had the stranger made a get-away that would bring a posse to Showdown—as the Mexican had intimated? If so the sooner the visitor left, the better. If he were merely some cowboy looking for easy money and excitement, that was a different matter. Or perhaps he had but stolen a horse, or butchered and sold beef that bore a neighbor's brand. Yet there was something about Pete that impressed The Spider more deeply than mere horse- or cattle-stealing could. The youth's eye was not the eye of a thief. He had not come to Showdown to consort with rustlers. He was somewhat of a puzzle—but The Spider, true to his name, was silently patient.
Meanwhile the desert sun rolled upward and onward, blazing down on the huddled adobes, and slowly filtering into the room. With his back to the bar, Pete idly flicked bits of a broken match at a knot-hole in the floor. Tired of that, he rolled a cigarette with one hand, and swiftly. Pete's hands were compact, of medium size, with the finger joints lightly defined—the hands of a conjuror—or, as The Spider thought, of a born gunman. And Pete was always doing something with his hands, even when apparently oblivious to everything around him. A novice at reading men would have considered him nervous. He was far from nervous. This was proven to The Spider's satisfaction when Malvey entered—"Bull" Malvey, red-headed, bluff and huge, of a gaunt frame, with large-knuckled hands and big feet. Malvey tossed a coin on the bar noisily, and in that one act Pete read him for what he was—a man who "bullied" his way through life with much bluster and profanity, but a man who, if he boasted, would make good his boast. What appeared to be hearty good-nature in Malvey was in reality a certain blatantly boisterous vigor—a vigor utterly soulless, and masking a nature at bottom as treacherous as The Spider's—but in contrast squalid and mean. Malvey would steal five dollars. The Spider would not touch a job for less than five hundred. While cruel, treacherous, and a killer, The Spider had nothing small or mean about him. And subtle to a degree, he hated the blunt-spoken, blustering Malvey, but for reasons unadvertised, called him friend.
"Have a drink?"
"Thanks." And Pete poured himself a noticeably small quantity.
"This is Malvey—Bull Malvey," said The Spider, hesitating for Pete to name himself.
"Pete's my name. I left the rest of it to home."
Malvey laughed. "That goes. How's things over to the Concho?"
"I ain't been there since yesterday."
The Spider blinked, which was a sign that he was pleased. He never laughed.
Malvey winked at The Spider. "You ain't ridin' back that way to-day, mebby? I'd like to send word—"
Pete shook his head. "Nope. I aim to stay right here a spell."
"If you're intendin' to keep that horse out there, perhaps you'd like to feed him." And The Spider indicated the direction of the corral with a twist of the head.
"Which is correct," said Pete.
"Help yourself," said The Spider.
"I get you," said Pete significantly; and he turned and strode out.
"What in hell is he talkin' about?" queried Malvey.
Malvey frowned. "Some smooth kid, eh?"
The Spider nodded.
Pete appreciated that his own absence was desired; that these men were quietly curious to find out who he was—and what he had done that brought him to Showdown. But Malvey knew nothing about Pete, nor of any recent trouble over Concho way. And Pete, unsaddling his pony, knew that he would either make good with The Spider or else he would make a mistake, and then there would be no need for further subterfuge. Pete surveyed the corral and outbuildings. The whole arrangement was cleverly planned. He calculated from the position of the sun that it lacked about three hours of noon. Well, so far he had played his hand with all the cards on the table—card for card with The Spider alone. Now there would be a new deal. Pete would have to play accordingly.