Rowdy of the Cross L by B.M. Bower
Chapter 12. "You Can Tell Jessie."
In the days that followed Rowdy was much alone. There was water to hunt, far ahead of the herd, together with the most practicable way of reaching it. He did not take the shortest way across that arid country and leave the next day's camping-place to chance--as Wooden Shoes had done. He felt that there was too much at stake, and the cattle were too thin for any more dry drives; long drives there were, but such was his generalship that there was always water at the end.
He rode miles and miles that he might have shirked, and he never slept until the next day's move, at least, was clearly defined in his mind and he felt sure that he could do no better by going another route.
These lonely rides gave him over to the clutch of thoughts he had never before harbored in his sunny nature. Grim, ugly thoughts they were, and not nice to remember afterward. They swung persistently around a central subject, as the earth revolves around the sun; and, like the earth, they turned and turned on the axis of his love for a woman.
In particularly ugly moods he thought that if Harry Conroy were caught and convicted of horsestealing, Jessie must perforce admit his guilt and general unworthiness--Rowdy called it general cussedness--and Rowdy be vindicated in her eyes. Then she would marry him, and go with him to the Red Deer country and--air-castles for miles! When he awoke to the argument again, he would tell himself savagely that if he could, by any means, bring about Conroy's speedy conviction, he would do so."
This was unlike Rowdy, whose generous charity toward his enemies came near being a fault. He might feel any amount of resentment for wrong done, but cold-blooded revenge was not in him; that he had suffered so much at Conroy's hands was due largely to the fact that Conroy was astute enough to read Rowdy aright, and unscrupulous enough to take advantage. Add to that a smallminded jealousy of Rowdy's popularity and horsemanship, one can easily imagine him doing some rather nasty things. Perhaps the meanest, and the one which rankled most in Rowdy's memory, was the cutting of Rowdy's latigo just before a riding contest, in which the purse and the glory of a championship-belt seemed in danger of going to Rowdy.
Rowdy had got a fall that crippled him for weeks, and Harry had won the purse and belt--and the enmity of several men better than he. For though morally sure of his guilt, no one could prove that he had cut the strap, and so he got off unpunished, except that Pink thrashed him--a bit unscientifically, it is true, since he resorted to throwing rocks toward the last, but with a thoroughness worthy even of Pink.
But in moods less ugly he shrank from the hurt that must be Jessie's if she should discover the truth. Jessie's brother a convicted thief serving his sentence in Deer Lodge! The thought was horrible; it was brutal cruelty. If he could only know where to look for that lad, he'd help him out of the country. It was no good shutting him up in jail; that wouldn't help him any, or make him better. He hoped he would get off--go somewhere, where they couldn't find him, and stay there.
He wondered where he was, and if he had money enough to see him through. He might be no good--he sure wasn't!--but he was Jessie's brother, and Jessie believed in him and thought a lot of him. It would be hard lines for that little girl if Harry were caught. Bill Brown, the meddlesome old freak!--he didn't blame Jessie for not wanting to stop there that night. She did just the right thing.
With all this going round and round, monotonously persistent in his brain, and with the care of four thousand lean kine and more than a hundred saddle-horses--to say nothing of a dozen overworked, fretful cow-punchers--Rowdy acquired the "corrugated brow" fast enough without any cultivation.
The men were as the Silent One had predicted. They made drives that lasted far into the night, stood guard, and got along with so little sleep that it was scarce worth mention, and did many things that shaved close the impossible--just because Rowdy looked at them straightly, with half-closed lids, and asked them if they thought they could.
Pink began to speak of their new foreman as "Moses"; and when the curious asked him why, told them soberly that Rowdy could "hit a rock with his quirt and start a creek running bank full." When Rowdy heard that, he thought of the miles of weary searching, and wished that it were true.
They had left the home ranch a day's drive behind them, and were going north. Rowdy had denied himself the luxury of riding over to see Jessie, and he was repenting the sacrifice in deep gloom and sincerity, when two men rode into camp and dismounted, as if they had a right. The taller one--with brawn and brain a-plenty, by the look of him--announced that he was the sheriff, and would like to stop overnight.
Rowdy gave him welcome half-heartedly, and questioned him craftily. A sheriff is not a detective, and does not mind giving harmless information; so Rowdy learned that they had traced Conroy thus far, and believed that he was ahead of them and making for Canada. He had dodged them cleverly two or three times, but now they had reason to believe that he was not more than half a day's ride before them. They wanted to know if the outfit had seen any one that day, or sign of any one having passed that way.
Rowdy shook his head.
"I bet it was Harry Conroy driving that little bunch uh horses up the creek, just as we come over the ridge," spoke Pink eagerly.
Rowdy could have choked him. "He wouldn't be driving a lot of horses," he interposed quickly.
"Well, he might," argued Pink. "If I was making a quick get-away, and my horse was about played out--like his was apt t' be--I'd sure round up the first bunch I seen, and catch me a fresh one--if I was a horse-thief. I'll bet yuh--"
The sheriff had put down his cup of coffee. "Is there any place where a man could corral a bunch on the quiet?" he asked crisply. It was evident that Pink's theory had impressed him.
"Yes, there is. There's an old corral up at the ford--Drowning Ford, they call it--that I'd use, if it was me. It was an old line camp, and there's a cabin. It's down on the flat by the creek, and it's as God-forsaken a place as a man'd want t' hide in, or t' change mounts." Pink hitched up his chapbelt and looked across at Rowdy. He was aching for a sight of Harry Conroy in handcuffs, and he was certain that Rowdy felt the same. "If it was me," he added speculatively, "and I thought I was far enough in the lead, I'd stop there till morning."
"How far is it from here?" demanded the sheriff, standing up.
Pink told him he guessed it was five miles. Whereupon the sheriff announced his intention of going up there at once, and Pink hinted rather strongly that he would like to go with them. The sheriff did not know Pink; he looked down at his slimness and at the yellow fringe of curls showing under his hat brim, at his pink cheeks and dimples and girlish hands, and threw back his head in a loud ha! ha!
Pink asked him politely, but rather stiffly, what there was funny about it. The sheriff laughed louder and longer; then, being the sort of man who likes a joke now and then, even in the way of business, he solemnly deputized Pink, and patted him on the shoulder and told him gravely that they couldn't possibly do without him.
It looked for a minute as if Pink were going at him with his fists--but he didn't. He reflected that one must not offer violence to an officer of the law, and that, being made a deputy, he would have to go, anyway; so he gritted his teeth and buckled on his gun, and went along sulkily.
They rode silently, for the most part, and swiftly.
Even in the dusk they could see where a band of horses had been driven at a gallop along the creek bank. When they neared the place it was dark. Pink pulled up and spoke for the first time since leaving the tent.
"We better tie up our horses here and walk," he said, quite unconscious of the fact that he was usurping the leadership, and thinking only of their quest.
But the sheriff was old at the business, and not too jealous of his position. He signed to his deputy proper, and they dismounted.
When they started on, Pink was ahead. The sheriff observed that Pink's gun still swung in its scabbard at his hip, and he grinned--but that was because he didn't know Pink. That the gun swung at his hip would have been quite enough for any one who did know him; it didn't take Pink all day to get into action
Ten rods from the corral, which they could distinguish as a black blotch in the sparse willow growth, Pink turned and stopped them. "I know the layout here," he whispered. "I'll just sneak ahead and rubber around. You Rubes sound like the beginning of a stampede, in this brush."
The sheriff had never before been called a Rube--to his face, at least. The audacity took his breath; and when he opened his mouth for scathing speech, Pink was not there. He had slipped away, like a slim, elusive shadow, and the sheriff did not even know the exact direction of his going. There was nothing for it but to wait.
In five minutes Pink appeared with a silent suddenness that startled them more than they would like to own.
"He's somewheres around," he announced, in a murmur that would not carry ten feet. "He's got a horse in the corral, and, from the sound, he's got him all saddled; and the gate's tied shut with a rope."
"How d'yuh know?" grunted the sheriff crossly.
"Felt of it, yuh chump. He's turned the bunch loose and kept up a fresh one, like I said he would. It's blame dark, but I could see the horse--a big white devil. It's him yuh hear makin' all that racket. If he gits away now--"
"Well, we didn't come for a chin-whackin' bee," snapped the sheriff. "I come out here t' git him."
Pink gritted his teeth again, and wished the sheriff was just a man, so he could lick him. He led them forward without a word, thinking that Rowdy wanted Harry Conroy captured.
The sheriff circled warily the corral, peered through the rails at the great white horse that ran here and there, whinnying occasionally for the band, and heard the creak of leather and the rattle of the bit. Pink was right; the horse was saddled, ready for immediate flight.
"Maybe he's in the cabin," he whispered, coming up where Pink stood listening tensely at all the little night sounds. Pink turned and crept silently to the right, keeping in the deepest shade, while the others followed willingly. They were beginning to see the great advantage of having Pink along, even if he had called them Rubes.
The cabin door yawned wide open, and creaked weirdly as the light wind moved it; the interior was black and silent--suspiciously silent, in the opinion of the sheriff. He waited for some time before venturing in, fearing an ambush. Then he caught the flicker of a shielded match, called out to Conroy to surrender, and leveled his gun at the place.
There was no answer but the faint shuffle of stealthy feet on the board floor. The sheriff called another warning, cocked his gun--and came near shooting Pink, who walked composedly out of the door into the sheriff's astonished face. The sheriff had been sure that Pink was just behind him.
"What the hell " began the sheriff explosively.
"He ain't here," said Pink simply. "I crawled in the window and hunted the place over."
The sheriff glared at him dumbly; he could not reconcile Pink's daredevil behavior with Pink's innocent, girlish appearance.
"I tell yuh the corral's what we want t' keep cases on," Pink added insistently. "He's sure somewheres around--I'd gamble on it. He saddled that horse t' git away on. That horse is sure the key t' this situation, old-timer. If you fellows'll keep cases on the gate, I'll cover the rear."
He made his way quietly to the back of the corral, inwardly much amused at the tractability of the sheriff, who took his deputy obediently to watch the gate.
Pink squatted comfortably in the shade of a willow and wished he dared indulge in a cigarette, and wondered what scheme Harry was trying to play.
Fifty feet away the big white horse still circled round and round, rattling his bridle impatiently and shaking the saddle in an occasional access of rage, and whinnying lonesomely out into the gloom.
So they waited and waited, and peered into the shadows, and listened to the trampling horse fretting for freedom and his mates.
The cook had just called breakfast when Pink dashed up to the tent, flung himself from his horse, and confronted Rowdy--a hollow-eyed, haggard Rowdy who had not slept all night, and whose eyes questioned anxiously.
"Well," Rowdy said, with what passed for composure, "did you get him?"
Pink leaned against his horse, with one hand reaching up and gripping tightly the horn of the saddle. His cheeks held not a trace of color, and his eyes were full of a great horror.
"They're bringin' him t' camp," he answered huskily. "We found a horse--a big white horse they call the Fern Outlaw"--the Silent One started and came closer, listening intently; evidently he knew the horse--"saddled in the corral, and the gate tied shut. We dubbed around a while, but we didn't find--Harry. So we camped down by the corral and waited. We set there all night--and the horse faunching around inside something fierce. When--it come daybreak--I seen something--by the fence, inside. It was--Harry." Pink shivered and moistened his dry lips. "That Fern Outlaw--some uh the boys know--is a devil t' mount. He'd got Harry down--hell, Rowdy! it--it was sure--awful. He'd been there all night--and that horse stomping. "
"Shut up!" Rowdy turned all at once deathly sick. He had once seen a man who had been trampled by a maddened, man-killing horse. It had not been a pretty sight. He sat down weakly and covered his face with his shaking hands.
The others stood around horrified, muttering disjointed, shocked sentences.
Pink lifted his head from where it had fallen upon his arm. "One thing, Rowdy--I done. You can tell Jessie. I shot that horse."
Rowdy dropped his hands and stood up. Yes, he must tell Jessie.
"You'll have to take the herd on," he told Pink in his masterful way. "I'll catch you to-morrow some time. I've got to go back and tell Jessie. You know the trail I was going to take--straight across to Wild Horse Lake. From there you strike across to North Fork--and if I don't overtake you on the way, I'll hit camp some time in the night. It's all plain sailing."