Rowdy of the Cross L by B.M. Bower
Chapter 6. A Shot From the Dark.
"I call that a bad job well done," Pink remarked, after a long silence, as he gave over trying to catch a fish in the muddy Milk River.
"What?" Rowdy, still prone to day-dreams of matters domestic, came back reluctantly to reality, and inspected his bait.
"Oh, come alive! I mean the horse round-up. How we're going to keep that bunch uh skeletons under us all summer is a guessing contest for fair. Wooden Shoes has got t' give me about forty, instead of a dozen, if he wants me t' hit 'er up on circle the way I'm used to. I bet their back-bones'll wear clean up through our saddles."
"Oh, I guess not," said Rowdy calmly. "They ain't so thin--and they'll pick up flesh. There's some mighty good ones in the bunch, too. I hope Wooden Shoes don't forget to give me the first pick. There's one I got my eye on--that blue roan. Anyway, I guess you can wiggle along with less than forty."
Pink shook his head thoughtfully and sighed. Pink loved good mounts, and the outlook did not please him. The round-up had camped, for the last time, on the river within easy riding distance of Camas. The next day's drive would bring them to the home ranch, where Eagle Creek was fuming over the lateness of the season, the condition of the range, and the June rains, which had thus far failed even to moisten decently the grass-roots.
"Let's ride over to Camas; all the other fellows have gone," Pink proposed listlessly, drawing in his line.
Rowdy as listlessly consented. Camas as a town was neither interesting nor important; but when one has spent three long weeks communing with nature in her sulkiest and most unamiable mood, even a town without a railroad to its name may serve to relieve the monotony of living.
The sun was piling gorgeous masses of purple and crimson clouds high about him, cuddling his fat cheeks against their soft folds till, a Midas, he turned them to gold at the touch. Those farther away gloomed jealously at the favoritism of their lord, and huddled closer together--the purple for rage, perhaps; and the crimson for shame!
Pink's face was tinged daintily with the glow. and even Rowdy's lean, brown features were for the moment glorified. They rode knee to knee silently, thinking each his own thoughts the while they watched the sunset with eyes grown familiar with its barbaric splendor, but never indifferent.
Soon the west held none but the deeper tints, and the shadows climbed, with the stealthy tread of trailing Indians, from the valley, chasing the after-glow to the very hilltops, where it stood a moment at bay and then surrendered meekly to the dusk. A meadow-lark near-by cut the silence into haunting ripples of melody, stopped affrighted at their coming, and flew off into the dull glow of the west; his little body showed black against a crimson cloud. Out across the river a lone coyote yapped sharply, then trailed off into the weird plaint of his kind.
"Brother-in-law's in town to-day; Bob Nevin saw him," Pink remarked, when the coyote ceased wailing and held his peace.
"Who?" Rowdy only half-heard.
"Bob Nevin," repeated Pink naively.
"Don't get funny. Who did Bob see?"
"Brother-in-law. Yours, not mine. Jessie's tin god. If he's there yet, I bid for an invite to the 'swatfest.' Or maybe"--a horrible possibility forced itself upon Pink--"maybe you'll kill the fattest maverick and fall on his neck--"
"The maverick's?" Rowdy's brows were rather pinched together, but his tone told nothing.
"Naw; Harry Conroy's a fellow's liable to do most any fool thing when he's got schoolma'amitis."
Pink snorted. The possibility had grown to black certainty in his mind. He became suddenly furious.
"Lord! I hope some kind friend'll lead me out an' knock me in the head, if ever I get locoed over any darned girl!"
"Same here," agreed Rowdy, unmoved.
"Then your days are sure numbered in words uh one syllable, old-timer," snapped Pink.
Rowdy leaned and patted him caressingly upon the shoulder--a form of irony which Pink detested. "Don't get excited, sonny," he soothed. "Did you fetch your gun?"
"I sure did!" Pink drew a long breath of relief. "Yuh needn't think I'm going t' take chances on being no human colander. I've packed a gun for Harry Conroy ever since that rough-riding contest uh yourn. Yuh mind the way I took him under the ear with a rock? He's been makin' war-talk behind m' back ever since. Did I bring m' gun! Well, I guess yes!" He dimpled distractingly.
"All the same, it'll suit me not to run up against him," said Rowdy quite frankly. He knew Pink would understand. Then he lifted his coat suggestively, to show the weapon concealed beneath, and smiled.
"Different here. Yuh did have sense enough t' be ready--and if yuh see him, and don't forget he's got a sister with a number two foot, damned if I don't fix yuh both a-plenty!" He settled his hat more firmly over his curls, and eyed Rowdy anxiously from under his lashes.
Rowdy caught the action and the look from the tail of his eye, and grinned at his horse's ears. Pink in warlike mood always made him think of a four-year-old child playing pirate with the difference that Pink was always in deadly earnest and would fight like a fiend.
For more reasons than one he hoped they would not meet Harry Conroy. Jessie was still in ignorance of his real attitude toward her brother, and Rowdy wanted nothing more than to keep her so. The trouble was that he was quite certain to forget everything but his grievances, if ever he came face to face with Harry. Also, Pink would always fight quicker for his friends than for himself, and he felt very tender toward Pink. So he hoped fervently that Harry Conroy had already ridden back whence he came, and there would be no unpleasantness.
Four or five Cross L horses stood meekly before the Come Again Saloon, so Rowdy and Pink added theirs to the gathering and went in. The Silent One looked up from his place at a round table in a far corner, and beckoned.
"We need another hand here," he said, when they went over to him. "These gentlemen are worried because they might be taken into high society some day, and they would be placed in a very embarrassing position through their ignorance of bridge-whist. I have very magnanimously consented to teach them the rudiments."
Bob Nevin looked up, and then lowered an eyelid cautiously. "He's a liar. He offered to learn us how to play it; we bet him the drinks he didn't savvy the game himself. Set down, Pink, and I'll have you for my pretty pardner."
The Silent One shuffled the cards thoughtfully. "To make it seem like bona-fide bridge," he began, "we should have everybody playing."
"Aw, the common, ordinary brand is good enough," protested Bob. "I ain't in on any trimmings."
The Silent One smiled ever so slightly. "We should have prizes--or favors. Is there a store in town where one could buy something suitable?"
"They got codfish up here; I smelt it," suggested Jim Ellis. Him the Silent One ignored.
"What do you say, boys, to a real, high society whist-party? I'll invite the crowd, and be the hostess. And I'll serve punch--"
"Come on, fellows, and have one with me," called a strange voice near the door.
"Meeting's adjourned," cried Jim Ellis, and got up to accept the invitation and range along the bar with the rest. He had not been particularly interested in bridge-whist anyway.
The others remained seated, and the bartender called across to know what they would have. Pink cut the cards very carefully, and did not look up. Rowdy thrust both hands in his pockets and turned his square shoulder to the bar. He did not need to look--he knew that voice, with its shoddy heartiness.
Men began to observe his attitude, and looked at one another. When one is asked to drink with another, he must comply or decline graciously, if he would not give a direct insult.
Harry Conroy took three long steps and laid a hand on Rowdy's shoulder--a hand which Rowdy shook off as though it burned. "Say, stranger, are you too high-toned t' drink with a common cowpuncher?" he demanded sharply.
Rowdy half-turned toward him. "No, sir. But I'll be mighty thirsty before I drink with you." His voice was even, but it cut.
The room stilled on the instant; it was as if every man of them had turned to lay figures. Harry Conroy had winced at sight of Rowdy's face--men saw that, and some of them wondered. Pink leaned back in his chair, every nerve tightened for the next move, and waited. It was Harry--handsome, sneering, a certain swaggering defiance in his pose --who first spoke.
"Oh, it's you, is it? I haven't saw yuh for some time. How's bronco-fighting? Gone up against any more contests?" He laughed mockingly--with mouth and eyes maddeningly like Jessie's in teasing mood.
Rowdy could have killed him for the resemblance alone. His lids drooped sleepily over eyes that glittered. Harry saw the sign, read it for danger; but he laughed again.
"Yuh ought to have seen this bronco-peeler pull leather, boys," he jeered recklessly "I like to 'a' died. He got piled up the slickest I ever saw; and there was some feeble-minded Canucks had money up on him, too: He won't drink with me, 'cause I got off with the purse. He's got a grouch--and I don't know as I blame him; he did get let down pretty hard, for a fact."
"Maybe he did pull leather--but he didn't cut none, like you did, you damn' skunk!" It was Pink--Pink, with big, long-lashed eyes purple with rage, and with a dead-white streak around his mouth, and a gun in his hand.
Harry wheeled toward him, and if a new light of fear crept into his eyes, his lips belied it in a sneer. "Two of a kind!" he laughed. "So that's the story yuh brought over here, is it? Hell of a lot uh good it'll do yuh!"
Something in Pink's face warned Rowdy. Harry's face turned watchfully from one to the other. Evidently he considered Pink the more uncertain of the two; and he was quite justified in so thinking. Pink was only waiting for a cue before using his gun; and when Pink once began, there was no telling where or when he would leave off.
While Harry stood uncertain, Rowdy's fist suddenly spatted against his cheek with considerable force. He tumbled, a cursing heap, against the foot-rail of the bar, scrambled up like a cat--a particularly vicious cat--and came at Rowdy murderously. The Come Again would shortly have been filled with the pungent haze of burned powder, only that the bartender was a man-of-action. He hated brawls, and it did not matter to him how just might be the quarrel; he slapped the gaping barrels of a sawed-off shotgun across the bar--and from the look of it one might imagine many disagreeable things.
"Drop it! Cut it out!" he bellowed. "Yuh ain't going t' make no slaughter-pen out uh this joint, I tell yuh. Put up them guns or else take 'em outside. If you fellers are hell-bent on smokin' each other up, they's all kinds uh room outdoors. Git! Vamose! Hike!"
Conroy wheeled and walked, straight-backed and venomous, to the door. "Come on out, if yuh ain't scared," he sneered. "It's two agin' one and then some, by the look uh things. But I'll take yuh singly or in bunches. I'm ready for the whole damn' Cross L bunch uh coyotes. Come on, you white-livered--!"
Rowdy rushed for him, with Pink and the Silent One at his heels. He had forgotten that Harry Conroy ever had a sister of any sort whatsoever. All he knew was that Harry had done him much wrong, of the sort which comes near to being unforgivable, and that he had sneered insults that no man may overlook. All he thought of was to get his hands on him.
Outside, the dusky stillness made all sounds seem out of place; the faint starlight made all objects black and unfamiliar. Rowdy stopped, just off the threshold, blinking at the darkness which held his enemy. It was strange that he did not find him at his elbow, he thought--and a suspicion came to him that Harry was lying in wait; it would be like him. He stepped out of the yellow glare from a window and stood in more friendly shade. Behind him, on the door-step, stood the other two, blinking as he had done.
A form which he did not recognize rushed up out of the darkness and confronted the three belligerently. "You're a-disturbin' the peace," he yelled. "We don't stand for nothing like that in Camas. You're my prisoners--all uh yuh." The edict seemed to include even the bartender, peering over the shoulder of Bob Nevin, who struggled with several others for immediate passage through the doorway.
"I guess not, pardner," retorted Pink, facing him as defiantly as though the marshal were not twice his size.
The marshal lunged for him; but the Silent One, reaching a long arm from the door-step, rapped him smartly on the head with his gun. The marshal squawked and went down in a formless heap.
"Come on, boys," said the Silent One coolly. "I think we'd better go. Your friend seems to have vanished in thin air."
Rowdy, grumbling mightily over what looked unpleasantly like retreat, was pushed toward his horse and mounted under protest. Likewise Pink, who was for staying and cleaning up the whole town. But the Silent One was firm, and there was that in his manner which compelled obedience.
Harry Conroy might have been an optical--and aural--illusion, for all the trace there was of him. But when the three rode out into the little street, a bullet pinged close to Rowdy's left ear, and the red bark of a revolver spat viciously from a black shadow beside the Come Again.
Rowdy and the two turned and rode back, shooting blindly at the place, but the shadow yawned silently before them and gave no sign. Then the Silent One, observing that the marshal was getting upon a pair of very unsteady legs, again assumed the leadership, and fairly forced Rowdy and Pink into the homeward trail.