The Mysterious Rider by Zane Grey
The rancher thought it best to wait till after the round-up before he turned over the foremanship to his son. This was wise, but Jack did not see it that way. He showed that his old, intolerant spirit had, if anything, grown during his absence. Belllounds patiently argued with him, explaining what certainly should have been clear to a young man brought up in Colorado. The fall round-up was the most important time of the year, and during the strenuous drive the appointed foreman should have absolute control. Jack gave in finally with a bad grace.
It was unfortunate that he went directly from his father's presence out to the corrals. Some of the cowboys who had ridden all the day before and stood guard all night had just come in. They were begrimed with dust, weary, and sleepy-eyed.
"This hyar outfit won't see my tracks no more," said one, disgustedly. "I never kicked on doin' two men's work. But when it comes to rustlin' day and night, all the time, I'm a-goin' to pass."
"Turn in, boys, and sleep till we get back with the chuck-wagon," said Wilson Moore. "We'll clean up that bunch to-day."
"Ain't you tired, Wils?" queried Bludsoe, a squat, bow-legged cowpuncher who appeared to be crippled or very lame.
"Me? Naw!" grunted Moore, derisively. "Blud, you sure ask fool questions.... Why, you--mahogany-colored, stump-legged, biped of a cowpuncher, I've had three hours' sleep in four nights!"
"What's a biped?" asked Bludsoe, dubiously.
Nobody enlightened him.
"Wils, you-all air the only eddicated cowman I ever loved, but I'm a son-of-a-gun if we ain't agoin' to come to blows some day," declared Bludsoe.
"He shore can sling English," drawled Lem Billings. "I reckon he swallowed a dictionary onct."
"Wal, he can sling a rope, too, an' thet evens up," added Jim Montana.
Just at this moment Jack Belllounds appeared upon the scene. The cowboys took no notice of him. Jim was bandaging a leg of his horse; Bludsoe was wearily gathering up his saddle and trappings; Lem was giving his tired mustang a parting slap that meant much. Moore evidently awaited a fresh mount. A Mexican lad had come in out of the pasture leading several horses, one of which was the mottled white mustang that Moore rode most of the time.
Belllounds lounged forward with interest as Moore whistled, and the mustang showed his pleasure. Manifestly he did not like the Mexican boy and he did like Moore.
"Spottie, it's drag yearlings around for you to-day," said the cowboy, as he caught the mustang. Spottie tossed his head and stepped high until the bridle was on. When the saddle was thrown and strapped in place the mustang showed to advantage. He was beautiful, but not too graceful or sleek or fine-pointed or prancing to prejudice any cowboy against his qualities for work.
Jack Belllounds admiringly walked all around the mustang a little too close to please Spottie.
"Moore, he's a fair-to-middling horse," said Belllounds, with the air of judge of horseflesh. "What's his name?"
"Spottie," replied Moore, shortly, as he made ready to mount.
"Hold on, will you!" ordered Jack, peremptorily. "I like this horse. I want to look him over."
When he grasped the bridle-reins out of the cowboy's hand Spottie jumped as if he had been shot at. Belllounds jerked at him and went closer. The mustang reared, snorting, plunging to get loose. Then Jack Belllounds showed the sudden temper for which he was noted. Red stained his pale cheeks.
"Damn you--come down!" he shouted, infuriated at the mustang, and with both hands he gave a powerful lunge. Spottie came down, and stood there, trembling all over, his ears laid back, his eyes showing fright and pain. Blood dripped from his mouth where the bit had cut him.
"I'll teach you to stand," said Belllounds, darkly. "Moore, lend me your spurs. I want to try him out."
"I don't lend my spurs--or my horse, either," replied the cowboy, quietly, with a stride that put him within reach of Spottie.
The other cowboys had dropped their trappings and stood at attention, with intent gaze and mute lips.
"Is he your horse?" demanded Jack, with a quick flush.
"I reckon so," replied Moore, slowly. "No one but me ever rode him."
"Does my father own him or do you own him?"
"Well, if that's the way you figure--he belongs to White Slides," returned the cowboy. "I never bought him. I only raised him from a colt, broke him, and rode him."
"I thought so. Moore, he's mine, and I'm going to ride him now. Lend me spurs, one of you cowpunchers."
Nobody made any motion to comply. There seemed to be a suspense at hand that escaped Belllounds.
"I'll ride him without spurs," he declared, presently, and again he turned to mount the mustang.
"Belllounds, it'd be better for you not to ride him now," said Moore, coolly.
"Why, I'd like to know?" demanded Belllounds, with the temper of one who did not tolerate opposition.
"He's the only horse left for me to ride," answered the cowboy. "We're branding to-day. Hudson was hurt yesterday. He was foreman, and he appointed me to fill his place. I've got to rope yearlings. Now, if you get up on Spottie you'll excite him. He's high-strung, nervous. That'll be bad for him, as he hates cutting-out and roping."
The reasonableness of this argument was lost upon Belllounds.
"Moore, maybe it'd interest you to know that I'm foreman of White Slides," he asserted, not without loftiness.
His speech manifestly decided something vital for the cowboy.
"Ahuh!... I'm sure interested this minute," replied Moore, and then, stepping to the side of the mustang, with swift hands he unbuckled the cinch, and with one sweep he drew saddle and blanket to the ground.
The action surprised Belllounds. He stared. There seemed something boyish in his lack of comprehension. Then his temper flamed.
"What do you mean by that?" he demanded, with a strident note in his voice. "Put that saddle back."
"Not much. It's my saddle. Cost sixty dollars at Kremmling last year. Good old hard-earned saddle!... And you can't ride it. Savvy?"
"Yes, I savvy," replied Belllounds, violently. "Now you'll savvy what I say. I'll have you discharged."
"Nope. Too late," said Moore, with cool, easy scorn. "I figured that. And I quit a minute ago--when you showed what little regard you had for a horse."
"You quit!... Well, it's damned good riddance. I wouldn't have you in the outfit."
"You couldn't have kept me, Buster Jack."
The epithet must have been an insult to Belllounds. "Don't you dare call me that," he burst out, furiously.
Moore pretended surprise. "Why not? It's your range name. We all get a handle, whether we like it or not. There's Montana and Blud and Lemme Two Bits. They call me Professor. Why should you kick on yours?"
"I won't stand it now. Not from any one--especially not you."
"Ahuh! Well, I'm afraid it'll stick," replied Moore, with sarcasm. "It sure suits you. Don't you bust everything you monkey with? Your old dad will sure be glad to see you bust the round-up to-day--and I reckon the outfit to-morrow."
"You insolent cowpuncher!" shouted Belllounds, growing beside himself with rage. "If you don't shut up I'll bust your face."
"Shut up!... Me? Nope. It can't be did. This is a free country, Buster Jack." There was no denying Moore's cool, stinging repetition of the epithet that had so affronted Belllounds.
"I always hated you!" he rasped out, hoarsely. Striking hard at Moore, he missed, but a second effort landed a glancing blow on the cowboy's face.
Moore staggered back, recovered his balance, and, hitting out shortly, he returned the blow. Belllounds fell against the corral fence, which upheld him.
"Buster Jack--you're crazy!" cried the cowboy, his eyes flashing. "Do you think you can lick me--after where you've been these three years?"
Like a maddened boy Belllounds leaped forward, this time his increased violence and wildness of face expressive of malignant rage. He swung his arms at random. Moore avoided his blows and planted a fist squarely on his adversary's snarling mouth. Belllounds fell with a thump. He got up with clumsy haste, but did not rush forward again. His big, prominent eyes held a dark and ugly look. His lower jaw wabbled as he panted for breath and speech at once.
"Moore--I'll kill--you!" he hissed, with glance flying everywhere for a weapon. From ground to cowboys he looked. Bludsoe was the only one packing a gun. Belllounds saw it, and he was so swift in bounding forward that he got a hand on it before Bludsoe could prevent.
"Let go! Give me--that gun! By God! I'll fix him!" yelled Belllounds, as Bludsoe grappled with him.
There was a sharp struggle. Bludsoe wrenched the other's hands free, and, pulling the gun, he essayed to throw it. But Belllounds blocked his action and the gun fell at their feet.
"Grab it!" sang out Bludsoe, ringingly. "Quick, somebody! The damned fool'll kill Wils."
Lem, running in, kicked the gun just as Belllounds reached for it. When it rolled against the fence Jim was there to secure it. Lem likewise grappled with the struggling Belllounds.
"Hyar, you Jack Belllounds," said Lem, "couldn't you see Wils wasn't packin' no gun? A-r'arin' like thet!... Stop your rantin' or we'll sure handle you rough."
"The old man's comin'," called Jim, warningly.
The rancher appeared. He strode swiftly, ponderously. His gray hair waved. His look was as stern as that of an eagle.
"What the hell's goin' on?" he roared.
The cowboys released Jack. That worthy, sullen and downcast, muttering to himself, stalked for the house.
"Jack, stand your ground," called old Belllounds.
But the son gave no heed. Once he looked back over his shoulder, and his dark glance saw no one save Moore.
"Boss, thar's been a little argyment," explained Jim, as with swift hand he hid Bludsoe's gun. "Nuthin' much."
"Jim, you're a liar," replied the old rancher.
"Aw!" exclaimed Jim, crestfallen.
"What're you hidin'?... You've got somethin' there. Gimme thet gun."
Without more ado Jim handed the gun over.
"It's mine, boss," put in Bludsoe.
"Ahuh? Wal, what was Jim hidin' it fer?" demanded Belllounds.
"Why, I jest tossed it to him--when I--sort of j'ined in with the argyment. We was tusslin' some an' I didn't want no gun."
How characteristic of cowboys that they lied to shield Jack Belllounds! But it was futile to attempt to deceive the old rancher. Here was a man who had been forty years dealing with all kinds of men and events.
"Bludsoe, you can't fool me," said old Bill, calmly. He had roared at them, and his eyes still flashed like blue fire, but he was calm and cool. Returning the gun to its owner, he continued: "I reckon you'd spare my feelin's an' lie about some trick of Jack's. Did he bust out?"
"Wal, tolerable like," replied Bludsoe, dryly.
"Ahuh! Tell me, then--an' no lies."
Belllounds's shrewd eyes had rested upon Wilson Moore. The cowboy's face showed the red marks of battle and the white of passion.
"I'm not going to lie, you can bet on that," he declared, forcefully.
"Ahuh! I might hev knowed you an' Jack'd clash," said Belllounds, gruffly. "What happened?"
"He hurt my horse. If it hadn't been for that there'd been no trouble."
A light leaped up in the old man's bold eyes. He was a lover of horses. Many hard words, and blows, too, he had dealt cowboys for being brutal.
"What'd he do?"
"Look at Spottie's mouth."
The rancher's way of approaching a horse was singularly different from his son's, notwithstanding the fact that Spottie knew him and showed no uneasiness. The examination took only a moment.
"Tongue cut bad. Thet's a damn shame. Take thet bridle off.... There. If it'd been an ornery hoss, now.... Moore, how'd this happen?"
"We just rode in," replied Wilson, hurriedly. "I was saddling Spottie when Jack came up. He took a shine to the mustang and wanted to ride him. When Spottie reared--he's shy with strangers--why, Jack gave a hell of a jerk on the bridle. The bit cut Spottie.... Well, that made me mad, but I held in. I objected to Jack riding Spottie. You see, Hudson was hurt yesterday and he appointed me foreman for to-day. I needed Spottie. But your son couldn't see it, and that made me sore. Jack said the mustang was his--"
"His?" interrupted Belllounds.
"Yes. He claimed Spottie. Well, he wasn't really mine, so I gave in. When I threw off the saddle, which was mine, Jack began to roar. He said he was foreman and he'd have me discharged. But I said I'd quit already. We both kept getting sorer and I called him Buster Jack.... He hit me first. Then we fought. I reckon I was getting the best of him when he made a dive for Bludsoe's gun. And that's all."
"Boss, as sure as I'm a born cowman," put in Bludsoe, "he'd hev plugged Wils if he'd got my gun. At thet he damn near got it!"
The old man stroked his scant gray beard with his huge, steady hand, apparently not greatly concerned by the disclosure.
"Montana, what do you say?" he queried, as if he held strong store by that quiet cowboy's opinion.
"Wal, boss," replied Jim, reluctantly, "Buster Jack's temper was bad onct, but now it's plumb wuss."
Whereupon Belllounds turned to Moore with a gesture and a look of a man who, in justice to something in himself, had to speak.
"Wils, it's onlucky you clashed with Jack right off," he said. "But thet was to be expected. I reckon Jack was in the wrong. Thet hoss was yours by all a cowboy holds right an' square. Mebbe by law Spottie belonged to White Slides Ranch--to me. But he's yours now, fer I give him to you."
"Much obliged, Belllounds. I sure do appreciate that," replied Moore, warmly. "It's what anybody'd gamble Bill Belllounds would do."
"Ahuh! An' I'd take it as a favor if you'd stay on to-day an' get thet brandin' done:"
"All right, I'll do that for you," replied Moore. "Lem, I guess you won't get your sleep till to-night. Come on."
"Awl" sighed Lem, as he picked up his bridle.
* * * * *
Late that afternoon Columbine sat upon the porch, watching the sunset. It had been a quiet day for her, mostly indoors. Once only had she seen Jack, and then he was riding by toward the pasture, whirling a lasso round his head. Jack could ride like one born to the range, but he was not an adept in the use of a rope. Nor had Columbine seen the old rancher since breakfast. She had heard his footsteps, however, pacing slowly up and down his room.
She was watching the last rays of the setting sun rimming with gold the ramparts of the mountain eastward, and burning a crown for Old White Slides peak. A distant bawl and bellow of cattle had died away. The branding was over for that fall. How glad she felt! The wind, beginning to grow cold as the sun declined, cooled her hot face. In the solitude of her room Columbine had cried enough that day to scald her cheeks.
Presently, down the lane between the pastures, she saw a cowboy ride into view. Very slowly he came, leading another horse. Columbine recognized Lem a second before she saw that he was leading Pronto. That struck her as strange. Another glance showed Pronto to be limping. Apparently he could just get along, and that was all. Columbine ran out in dismay, reaching the corral gate before Lem did. At first she had eyes only for her beloved mustang.
"Oh, Lem--Pronto's hurt!" she cried.
"Wal, I should smile he is," replied Lem.
But Lem was not smiling. And when he wore a serious face for Columbine something had indeed happened. The cowboy was the color of dust and so tired that he reeled.
"Lem, he's all bloody!" exclaimed Columbine, as she ran toward Pronto.
"Hyar, you jest wait," ordered Lem, testily. "Pronto's all cut up, an' you gotta hustle some linen an' salve."
Columbine flew away to do his bidding, and so quick and violent was she that when she got back to the corral she was out of breath. Pronto whinnied as she fell, panting, on her knees beside Lem, who was examining bloody gashes on the legs of the mustang.
"Wal, I reckon no great harm did," said Lem, with relief. "But he shore hed a close shave. Now you help me doctor him up."
"Yes--I'll help," panted Columbine. "I've done this kind--of thing often--but never--to Pronto.... Oh, I was afraid--he'd been gored by a steer."
"Wal, he come damn near bein'," replied Lem, grimly. "An' if it hedn't been fer ridin' you don't see every day, why thet ornery Texas steer'd hev got him."
"Who was riding? Lem, was it you? Oh, I'll never be able to do enough for you!"
"Wuss luck, it weren't me," said Lem.
"No? Who, then?"
"Wal, it was Wils, an' he made me swear to tell you nuthin'--leastways about him."
"Wils! Did he save Pronto?... And didn't want you to tell me? Lem, something has happened. You're not like yourself."
"Miss Collie, I reckon I'm nigh all in," replied Lem, wearily. "When I git this bandagin' done I'll fall right off my hoss."
"But you're on the ground now, Lem," said Columbine, with a nervous laugh. "What happened?"
"Did you hear about the argyment this mawnin'?"
"You can ask Ole Bill aboot thet. The way Pronto was hurt come off like this. Buster Jack rode out to where we was brandin' an' jumped his hoss over a fence into the pasture. He hed a rope an' he got to chasin' some hosses over thar. One was Pronto, an' the son-of-a-gun somehow did git the noose over Pronto's head. But he couldn't hold it, or didn't want to, fer Pronto broke loose an' jumped the fence. This wasn't so bad as far as it went. But one of them bad steers got after Pronto. He run an' sure stepped on the rope, an' fell. The big steer nearly piled on him. Pronto broke some records then. He shore was scared. Howsoever he picked out rough ground an' run plumb into some dead brush. Reckon thar he got cut up. We was all a good ways off. The steer went bawlin' an' plungin' after Pronto. Wils yelled fer a rifle, but nobody hed one. Nor a six-shooter, either.... I'm goin' back to packin' a gun. Wal, Wils did some ridin' to git over thar in time to save Pronto."
"Lem, that is not all," said Columbine, earnestly, as the cowboy concluded. Her knowledge of the range told her that Lem had narrated nothing so far which could have been cause for his cold, grim, evasive manner; and her woman's intuition divined a catastrophe.
"Nope.... Wils's hoss fell on him."
Lem broke that final news with all a cowboy's bluntness.
"Was he hurt--Lem!" cried Columbine.
"Say, Miss Collie," remonstrated Lem, "we're doctorin' up your hoss. You needn't drop everythin' an' grab me like thet. An' you're white as a sheet, too. It ain't nuthin' much fer a cowboy to hev a hoss fall on him."
"Lem Billings, I'll hate you if you don't tell me quick," flashed Columbine, fiercely.
"Ahuh! So thet's how the land lays," replied Lem, shrewdly. "Wal, I'm sorry to tell you thet Wils was bad hurt. Now, not real bad!... The hoss fell on his leg an' broke it. I cut off his boot. His foot was all smashed. But thar wasn't any other hurt--honest! They're takin' him to Kremmlin'."
"Ah!" Columbine's low cry sounded strangely in her ears, as if some one else had uttered it.
"Buster Jack made two bursts this hyar day," concluded Lem, reflectively. "Miss Collie, I ain't shore how you're regardin' thet individool, but I'm tellin' you this, fer your own good. He's bad medicine. He has his old man's temper thet riles up at nuthin' an' never felt a halter. Wusser'n thet, he's spoiled an' he acts like a colt thet'd tasted loco. The idee of his ropin' Pronto right thar near the round-up! Any one would think he jest come West. Old Bill is no fool. But he wears blinders when he looks at his son. I'm predictin' bad days fer White Slides Ranch."