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BOWDRIE RIDES A
Only a moment before, Chick Bowdrie had been dozing in the saddle, weary from the long miles behind; then a sudden tensing of muscles of the hammerheaded roan brought him out of it.
Pulling the black flat-crowned hat lower over his eyes, he studied the terrain with the eyes of a man who looked that he might live. His legs, sensitive to every reaction of the horse he rode, had warned him. If he needed more, he had only to look at the roan's ears, tipped forward now, and the flaring nostrils. Whatever it was, the roan did not like it.
Soft-footing it along the dusty trail, he approached the grove of trees with wary attention. He let his right hand drop back to loosen the thong that held his six-gun in place on the long rides. There was no change in expression on the dark, Apache-like face except that the scar under his right cheekbone seemed to deepen and his eyes grew more intent.
The trail he followed led along the base of a rocky ridge scattered with trees and boulders broken off from the crest of the ridge and toppled down the slope. The strawberry roan, stepping daintily, walked into the trees.
"Hold it, boy." He spoke gently as he brought the horse to a stand. A few yards away lay the sprawled figure of a man.
He sat his horse, his eyes sweeping the area with the attention of one who knows he may have to testify in court and would certainly have to file an account of his discovery.
The man beside the trail was dead. No examination was required to demonstrate that. No man could take a bullet where he had taken this one without dying. Also, he was lying on his back with the sun in his eyes.
No tracks showed near the body except those of the dead man's horse, which stood nearby. From the size of the hole in the dead man's chest, the bullet had gone in from behind. Bowdrie turned in the saddle, measuring the distance, and his eyes found a large brush-covered boulder some fifty yards away.
The killer had not taken any chances. Chick still sat his horse. The killer had been smart to take no risks, as the man on the ground was no pilgrim. His was a good-looking face but one showing grim strength and the seasoning of many suns and the winds from long trails. He also wore two guns, and there were not many who did.
Bowdrie walked his horse closer, careful to disturb no tracks. He noted the chain loops hanging from the strap button of the dead man's spurs, looking from them to the horse, taking in the ornate Santa Barbara bit and the elaborate hand-tooled tapaderos that hooded his stirrups.
"California," Bowdrie said aloud. "He came a long way to get killed."
Dismounting, he walked over to the horse. It shied a bit, but when he spoke it hesitated, then reached for him with its nose, cautious but friendly.
"Your rider," Chick told himself, "must have been all right. You certainly haven't been abused."
He scratched the horse on the neck, his eyes taking in all the details. The rawhide riata suspended from a loop near the pommel attracted his attention.
"Eighty or eighty-five feet, I'll bet! I've heard of ropes like that. California, you were a hand!"
Texas riders stuck to hair ropes thirty-five to forty feet long and they worked close to a steer before making a toss. It needed an artist to handle such a rope, but he had heard talk of the California vaqueros who used ropes this long.
Walking over to the dead man, he went through his pockets. Dust was heavy on the man's clothing. He showed evidence, as did his horse, of riding far and fast. The horse was a tall black, heavier than most Texas cow horses, and was obviously well-bred and carefully trained. He was a horse who could stand long miles of hard riding, and by the looks of him he had done just that.
"Riding to see somebody," Chick guessed, "because from the look of you, you never ran from anything."
Making a neat pack of the man's pocket belongings, Chick tucked them into a hip pocket. Then he took the dead man's guns and hung them from his saddle horn.
The nearest town was too far away to carry a body, and there would be coyotes.
"I mean the four-legged kind." Bowdrie, like many a long riding man, often talked to himself. "You've already run into the two-legged kind."
He found a shallow place where the ground was not too hard, dug it out a little with a stick, and laid the body neatly in the trough he hollowed. Covering the rider's face with his vest, Chick scraped dirt over him, caved more from the bank above, then piled on juniper boughs and rocks.
When he swung to the saddle again he was leading the black horse. Starting away, he took a route that led past the brush-covered boulder.
A minute and painstaking examination told him little. He was about to leave when he saw the place where the killer's horse had been tethered. Something caught his eye and he studied the rough side of the rock, scowling thoughtfully.
The horse had waited for some time, judging by the hoof marks, and evidently had tried to scratch himself on the rock.
Bowdrie gathered several tiny fragments of wood from the rough surface. Dry and hard on one side, they were fresh and unweathered on the other. Carefully he picked off several of the bits of wood, scarcely more than shreds, and put them in a cigarette paper.
Hours later, when the shadows reached out over the little town of Hacker, Chick Bowdrie ambled the roan down the town's dusty main street to the livery stable. The black trotted behind.
Sitting in a chair tipped back against the outer wall of a saloon was a man who watched his arrival with some attention. As Bowdrie pulled up at the livery stable the man turned his head and apparently spoke to someone inside. A moment later the doors pushed wide and a man in a white hat stepped out and looked to where Bowdrie was stepping down from his horse.
Stabling the horses, Chick rubbed them down with care, fed and watered them himself. A stable-hand, chewing methodically, strolled over and watched without comment.
"Come far?" he asked, finally.
"Quite a piece. What's doin' around town?"
"Nothin' much." The hostler looked at Chick's lean, hard face and the two guns. "Huntin' a job?"
"Herman an' Howells are hirin'. If a man's handy with a six-shooter it won't hurt none."
"There's two sides to a fight. What about the other?"
"Jack Darcy. Pitchfork outfit. Young sprout, but he ain't hirin' gunhands. He's got no money."
The stable-hand's eyes went to the black. "You usually carry two horses?"
"It's handy sometimes." Chick straightened and his black eyes looked into the stable-hand's blue eyes. "You askin' for yourself or gettin' news for somebody?"
"Just askin'." He indicated the black horse. "You look to be a Texas man but that ain't no Texas outfit."
Chick smiled. "That'll give you something to keep you from sleepin' too sound. Somethin' to think about, Rainy."
Astonished, the stable-hand stared at him. "How'd you know my name?"
"Pays a man to keep his eyes open, Rainy," Chick replied. "When I rode up, you were diggin' tobacco out of your pouch. Your name's burned on it."
The stable-hand was embarrassed. "Why, sure! I forget sometimes it's there."
Bowdrie walked up the street, estimating the town. Quiet, weather-beaten, and wind-blasted, a few horses at the hitching rails, a stray dog or two, and a half-dozen saloons, a few stores. Only the saloons, a cafe, and the hotel showed lights in a town deceptively dead. He had seen many such towns before. A wrong word and they could explode into action.
The killing on the trail and the fact that at least one outfit was hiring gunhands meant there was more than was easily visible.
After booking a room at the two-story frame hotel, he went to the cafe. Ordering, he sat at a long wooden table and ate in silence. The slatternly woman who served him manifested no interest in the silent, leather-faced young man with the twin guns. She had seen them come and go and helped prepare a few for burial after they were gone.
He ate thoughtfully, turning over in his mind the problem that brought him here. Somewhere in the town of Hacker was a cow-stealing killer known as Carl Dyson. He was wanted in Texas for murder. Chick Bowdrie had been working out the man's carefully concealed trail for nearly a month.
He was sitting over his coffee when Rainy came in, slumping into a seat across the table. He had no more expression than Bowdrie. Picking up the pot, he poured a cup of coffee, black and strong.
"Couple of gents lookin' your gear over," he said without looking up. "Figured you might like to know. One of them is Russ Peters, a gunhand for the H&H outfit. The other was Murray Roberts, who ramrods for the H&H."
"Thanks." Chick pushed back from the table. "Where do they hang out?"
"Wagon Wheel Saloon, mostly. A couple of sidewinders, mister. Better watch yourself." Rainy's range-wise eyes dropped to the guns in their worn holsters as the stranger went out the door. "Or," he added, "maybe they'd better watch out!"
Several poker games were in progress in the Wagon Wheel, a few punchers were casually bucking a faro layout, and four men stood at the bar. One was a tall, fine-looking man in a white hat and neat range clothes. The other was shorter, heavier, and roughly dressed, with a brutal, unshaved face and a mustache. He wore a low-crowned sombrero with a crease through the middle.
He muttered something to his companion as Bowdrie came to the bar, but the bigger man merely shot a glance at Chick and went on talking.
"Darcy better sell while the sellin' is possible. At this rate he won't have anything left."
The man with the creased sombrero stared at Chick. "Right nice horse you led into town," he commented, "and a good many of us are wondering what became of its rider."
Chick turned slowly. His left elbow rested on the bar; his right hand held a glass of rye. He stared into the yellow eyes of the man in the creased sombrero, and somebody in the room swallowed audibly. Menace seemed to rise like a cloud in the smoke-laden air of the room.
Bowdrie's Apache face did not change. He lifted his glass and drank the rye, putting the glass back on the bar. Tension in the room was a living thing, and the studied moves of the young man at the bar awakened something in the minds of the onlookers.
"I said," the man in the creased sombrero repeated, "a lot of folks want to know what became of the rider."
Chick's eyes held steady, and then in a casual, almost bored tone he said, "The name is Russ Peters," making it clear he referred to the man he faced. "Used to call himself Rusty Padwill. Fancies himself a gunfighter but is always careful who he does his shootin' with. Ran with the Murphy-Dolan crowd in the Lincoln County War. Wanted in Colorado for stealin' horses, suspected of dry-gulchin' a prospector in Arizona. Run out of Tombstone by Virgil Earp."
Peters' mouth dropped open and he started to speak, but Chick Bowdrie continued.
"I might add that the man who rode that horse I brought in was dry-gulched, and I suspect everybody in town knows who is most liable to shoot a man in the back."
Peters had been startled into immobility by the quiet recital of his background. His face turned white, then red as a wild anger swept over him. "You pointin' that at me?" he demanded.
"When you throw a stone into a pack of dogs, the one that yelps is the one that got hit."
Overcome by fury, Peters lunged at him, but Bowdrie brushed Peters' grasping hand away and snapped a jolting right uppercut to the chin. Peters' knees buckled and he fell forward.
Bowdrie moved back a step to let him fall, then said to the astonished bartender, "I'll have one more. The riding across country was kind of dry an' dusty."
Peters pulled himself to his knees, shaking his head. Realization struck him and he lunged to his feet, grasping for his gun. He got his hand on it and stiffened. He was looking into the unwavering muzzle of Bowdrie's gun.
"I'm in no mood for a shooting," Bowdrie said, "and this ain't your night. You'd better mount up and head back for the home ranch."
Murray Roberts glanced over at Bowdrie. "That tip is appreciated, mister. We had no idea Russ was a wanted man." He glanced at the two guns. "You handle yourself pretty well. Where did you say you came from?"
"I didn't say."
"If you're huntin' a job, drop out to the H&H. We need men."
"If Peters is a sample of what you have"--he drained his glass--"I reckon you do."
Turning on his heel, he walked out, leaving Roberts staring after him, his features taut with anger.
Bowdrie had reached the hotel porch when a dark figure detached itself from the shadows.
"Hold it!" The man lifted a hand. "I'm friendly!" He was a short, blond man in worn boots, jeans stuffed into them.
"You're talking," Bowdrie said. "Shall we step inside?"
The young man wore a gun, a black-and-white-checkered shirt, and an unbuttoned vest. He had a wide, friendly face, very worried now. "You led a black horse into town? A California rig?"
"What happened to the rider?"
"Shot in the back about ten miles south. Do you know him?"
"He was my friend, and I was expecting him. I'm Jack Darcy, of the Pitchfork. That was Dan Lingle, and he was coming in to help me."
Bowdrie was surprised, then irritated with himself. He should have known the man. "That was Dan Lingle, the lawman? The one who cleaned out the Skull Canyon crowd?"
"That's him. What beats me is why they would shoot him. Nobody knew he was coming, nobody even knew I knew him. Lingle was my brother-in-law. Then my sister was killed."
"Some hand she hired while Dan was away. She caught him stealing. He knocked her down. In falling, she struck her head, apparently, and died. Dan knew the man by sight, and he was hunting him."
"When did your fight begin here?" Bowdrie asked. "Tell me about it."
Darcy hesitated, then shrugged. "We were getting along all right, the H&H an' me. In fact"--he flushed--"I sort of was courtin' Meg Howells.
"Murray Roberts come in and hires out to Howells. Before long he's got Herman and Howells down on me. He showed 'em some doctored brands, and I never rustled a cow in my life! Then he started courting Meg, an' they wouldn't let me on the place.