|Publisher:||Western Series Level II (24)|
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|Product dimensions:||5.70(w) x 8.70(h) x 1.20(d)|
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The Bar-20 Three
By Clarence E. Mulford
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2015 Clarence E. Mulford
All rights reserved.
"Put a 'T' in It"
IDAHO NORTON, laughing heartily, backed out of the barroom of Quayle's hotel and trod firmly on the foot of Ward Corwin, sheriff of the county, who was about to pass the door. Idaho wheeled, a casual apology trembling on his lips, to hear a biting, sarcastic flow of words, full of profanity, and out of all proportion to the careless injury. The sheriff's coppery face was a deeper color than usual and bore an expression not pleasant to see. The puncher stepped back a pace, alert, lithe, balanced, the apology forgotten, and gazed insolently into the peace officer's wrathful eyes.
"— an' why don't you look where yo're steppin'? Don't you know how to act when you come to town?" snarled the sheriff, finishing his remarks.
Idaho looked him over coolly. "I know how to act in any company, even yourn. Just now I ain't actin'— I'm waitin'."
The sheriff's eyes glinted. "I got a good mind —"
"You ain't got nothin' of th' sort," cut in the puncher, contemptuously. "You ain't got nothin' good, except, mebby, yore reg'lar plea of self-defense. I'm sayin' out loud that that ain't no good, here an' now; an' I'm waitin' to take it away from you an' use it myself. You been trustin' too cussed much to that nickel badge."
Bill Trask, deputy, who had a reputation not to be overlooked, now took a hand from the rear, eager to add to his list of victims from any of that outfit. The puncher was between him and the sheriff, and hardly could watch them both. Trask gently shook his belt and said three unprintable words which usually started a fight, and then glared over his shoulder at a sudden interruption, tense and angry.
"Shut up, you!" said the voice, and he saw a two-gun stranger slouching away from the hotel wall. The deputy took him in with one quick glance and then his eyes returned to those of the stranger and rested there while a slick prickling sensation ran up his spine. He had looked into many angry eyes, and in many kinds of circumstances, but never before had his back given him a warning quite so plainly. He grew restless and wanted to look away, but dared not; and while he hung in the balance of hesitation the stranger spoke again. "Two to one ain't fair, 'specially with the lone man in middle; but I'll make th' odds even, for I'm honin' to claim self-defense, myself. It's right popular. I saw it all — an' I'm sayin' you are three chumps to get all het up over a little thing like that. Mebby his toes are tender — but what of it? He ain't no baby, leastawise he don't look like one. An' I'm tellin' you, an' yore badge-totin' friend, that I know how to act, too." A twinkle came into the hard, blue eyes. "But what's th' use of actin' like four strange dogs?"
Somewhere in the little crowd a man laughed, others joined in and pushed between the belligerents; and in a minute the peace officers had turned the corner, Idaho was slowly walking toward the two-gun stranger and the crowd was going about its business.
"Have a drink?" asked the puncher, grinning as he pushed back his hat.
"Didn't I just say that I knowed how to act?" chuckled the stranger, turning on his heel and following his companion through the door. "You musta met them two before."
"Too cussed often. What'll you have? Make mine a cigar, too, Ed. No more liquor for me today — Corwin don't forget."
The bartender closed the box and slid it onto the back-bar again. "No, he don't," he said. "An' Trask is worse," he added, looking significantly at the stranger, whose cigar was now going to his satisfaction and who was smilingly regarding Idaho, and who seemed to be pleased by the frank return scrutiny.
"You ain't a stranger here no longer," said Idaho, blowing out a cloud of smoke: "You got two good enemies, an' a one-hoss friend. Stayin' long?"
"About half an hour. I got a little bunch of cows on th' drive west of here, an' they ought to be at Twitchell an' Carpenter's corrals about now. Havin' rid in to fix up bed an' board for my little outfit, I'm now on my way to finish deliverin' th' herd. See you later if yo're in town tonight."
"I don't aim to go back to th' ranch till tomorrow," replied Idaho, and he hesitated. "I'm sorry you horned in on that ruckus — there's mebby trouble bloomin' out of that for you. Don't you get careless till yo're a day's ride away from this town. Here, before you go, meet Ed Doane. He's one of th' few white men in this runt of a town."
The bartender shook hands across the bar. "Pleased to meet up with you, Mr. — Mr —?"
"Nelson," prompted the stranger. "How do you do, Mr. Doane?"
"Half an' half," answered the dispenser of liquids, and then waved a large hand at the smiling youth. "Shake han's with Idaho Norton, who was never closer to Idaho than Parsons Corners, thirty miles northwest of here. Idaho's a good boy, but shore impulsive. He's spent most of his life practicin' th' draw, et cetery; an' most of his money has went for ca'tridges. Some folks say it ain't been wasted. Will you gents smoke a cigar with me?"
After a little more careless conversation Johnny nodded his adieus, mounted and rode south. Not long thereafter he came within sight of the Question-Mark, Twitchell and Carpenter's local ranch.
Its valley sloped eastward, following the stream winding down its middle between tall cottonwoods, and the horizon was limited by the tops of the flanking hills, which dipped and climbed and zigzagged into the gray of the east, where great sand hills reared their glistening tops and the hopeful little creek sank out of sight into the dried, salty bed of a one-time lake. Near the trail were two buildings, a small stockaded corral and a wire-fenced pasture of twenty acres; and the Question-Mark brand, known wherever cattlemen congregated, even beyond the Canadian line, had been splashed with red paint on the wall of the larger building. The glaring, silent interrogation-mark challenged every passing eye and had started many curious, grim, and cynical trains of thought in the minds of tired and thirsty wayfarers along the trail. To the north of the twenty-acre pasture a herd of SV cattle grazed, spread out widely, too tired, too content with their feeding to need much attention.
Johnny saw the great, red question-mark and instantly drew rein, staring at it. "Why?" he muttered, and then grew silent for a moment. Shaking his head savagely he urged the horse on again, and again glanced at the crimson interrogation. "Damn you!" he growled. "There ain't no man livin' can answer."
He passed the herd at a distance and rode up to the larger building, where a figure suddenly appeared in the doorway, looked out from under a shielding hand, and quickly stepped forward to meet him.
"Hello, Nelson!" came the cheery greeting.
"Hello, Ridley!" replied Johnny. "Glad to see you again. Thought I'd bring 'em down to you, an' save you goin' up th' trail after 'em. Why don't you paint out that glarin' question-mark on th' side of th' house?"
Ridley slapped his hands together and let out a roar of laughter. "Has it got you, too?" he demanded in unfeigned delight.
"Not as much as it would before I got married," replied Johnny. "I'm beginnin' to see a reason for livin'."
"Good!" exclaimed Ridley. "If I ever meet yore wife I'll tell her somethin' that'll make her dreams sweet." The expression of his face changed swiftly. "Do you know —" he considered, and changed the form of his words. "You'd be surprised if you knew th' number of people hit by that painted question-mark. I've had 'em ride in here an' start all kinds of conversations with me; th' gospel sharps are th' worst. One man blew his brains out in Quayle's hotel because of what that sign started workin' in his mind. Go look at it: it's full of bullet holes!"
"I don't have to," replied Johnny, and quickly answered his companion's unspoken challenge. "An' I can sleep under it, an' smile, cuss you!" He glanced at the distant cattle. "Have you looked 'em over?"
Ridley nodded. "They're in good shape. Ready to count 'em now?"
"Be glad to, an' get 'em off my han's."
"Bring 'em up in front of th' pasture, an' I'll wait for you there," said Ridley.
Johnny wheeled and then checked his horse. "What kind of fellers are Corwin an' Trask?" he asked.
Ridley looked up at him, a curious expression on his face. "Why?"
"Oh, nothin'; I was just wonderin'."
"As long as you ain't aimin' to stop around these parts for long, th' less you know about 'em th' better. I'll be waitin' at th' pasture."
Johnny rode off and started the herd again, and when it stopped it was compacted into a long V, with the point facing the pasture gate, and it poured its units from this point in a steady stream between the two horsemen at the open gate, who faced each other across the hurrying procession and built up another herd on the other side, one which spread out and grazed without restraint, unless it be that of a wire fence. And with the shrinking of the first and the expanding of the second the SV ownership changed into that of the Question-Mark.
The shrewd, keen-eyed buyer for Twitchell and Carpenter looked up as the gate closed after the last steer and smiled across the gap at the SV foreman as he announced his count.
Johnny nodded. "My figgers, to a T," he said. "That 2-Star steer don't belong to us. Joined up with us somewhere along th' trail. You know 'em?"
"Belongs to Dawson, up on th' north fork of th' Bear. I'll drop him a check in a couple of days. This feller musta wandered some to get in with yourn. Well, yourn is a good bunch of four-year-olds. You'll have to wait till I get to town, for I ain't got a blank check left, an' I shore ain't got no one thousand one hundred and forty-three dollars layin' around down here. Want cash or a check?"
"If I took a check I'd have to send somebody up to Sherman with it," replied Johnny. "I might take it at that, if I was goin' right back. Better make it cash, Ridley."
Ridley grinned. "I've swept up this part of th' country purty good."
Johnny shook his head. "I'm lookin' for weaners — an' not in this part of th' country. I'll see you in town."
"Before supper," said Ridley. "You puttin' up at Quayle's?"
"You called it," answered Johnny, wheeling. He rode off, picked up his small outfit and led the way to Mesquite, where he hoped to spend but one night. The little SV group cantered over the thin trail in the wake of their bobbing chuck wagon, several miles ahead of them, and reached the town well ahead of it, much to the cook's vexation. As they neared Quayle's hotel Johnny pulled up.
"This is our stable," he said. "Go easy, boys. We leave at daylight. See you at supper."
They answered him laughingly and swept on to Kane's place, which they seemed to sense, each for his favorite drink and game.
The afternoon shadows were long when Ridley, just from the bank, left his rangy bay in front of the hotel and entered the office, nodding to several men he knew. He went on through and stopped at the bar.
"Howd'y, Ed," he grunted. "That SV foreman around? Nelson's his name."
Ed Doane mopped up the bar mechanically and bobbed his head toward the door. "Here he comes now. Make a deal?"
Ridley nodded as he turned. "Hello, Nelson! Read this over. If it's all right, sign it, an' we'll let Ed disfigure it as a witness. I allus like a witness."
Johnny signed it with the pen the bartender provided and then the bartender labored with it and blew on it to dry the ink.
"Disfigure it, hey?" chuckled Ed, pointing to his signature, which was beautifully written but very much overdone. "That bill of sale's worth somethin' now."
Johnny admired it frankly and openly. "I allus did like shadin', an' them flourishes are plumb fetchin'. Me, now; I write like a cow."
"I'm worse," admitted Ridley, chuckling and giving Johnny a roll of bills. "Count 'em, Nelson. Folks usually turn my writin' upside down for th' first try. Speakin' of witnesses, there's another little thing I like. I allus seal documents, Ed. Take 'em out of that bottle you hide under th' bar. Three of 'em. Somehow, Ed, I allus like to see you stoop like that. Well, Nelson; does it count up right? Then, business bein' over, here's to th' end of th' drought."
It went the rounds, Ed accumulating three cigars as his favorite beverage, and as the glasses clicked down on the bar Ridley felt for the makings. "Sorry th' bank's closed, Nelson. It might be safer there over night."
"Mebby — but it's safe enough, anyhow," smiled Johnny, shrugging his shoulders. "Anyhow th' bank wouldn't be open early enough in th' momin' for us. Which reminds me that I better go out an' look around. My four-man outfit's got to leave at daylight."
"I'll go with you as far as th' street," said Ridley. As they neared the door Johnny hung back to let his companion pass through first and as he did so he heard a soft call from the bartender, and half turned.
"Come here a minute," said Doane, leaning over the bar. "It ain't none of my business, Nelson, but I'm sayin' I wouldn't go into Kane's with th' wad of money you got on you; an' if I did I shore wouldn't show it nor get in no game. You don't have to remember that I said anythin' about this."
"I never gamble with money that don't belong to me," replied Johnny, "nor not even while I've got it on me; an' already I've forgot you said anythin'. That place must be a sort of 'sink of iniquity,' as that sanctified parson called Abilene."
"Huh!" grunted Doane. "You can put a 'T' in that 'sink,' an' there's only one place where a 'T' will fit. Th' money would be enough, but in yore case there's more. Idaho said it."
"He's only a kid," deprecated Johnny.
"'Out of th' mouths of babes —'" replied Doane. "I'm tellin' you — that's all."
Ridley stuck his head in at the door. "So-long, fellers," he said.
"Hey, Ridley!" called the bartender hurriedly. "Would you go into Kane's if you had Nelson's roll on you?"
"Not knowin' what I might do under th' infloonce of likker, I can't say," answered Ridley; "but if I did I wouldn't drink in there. So-long, an' I mean it, this time," and he did.
Johnny left soon afterward and wandered along the street toward the building on the northern outskirts of the town where Pecos Kane ran a gambling-house and hotel. Johnny ignored the hotel half and lolled against the door as he sized up the interior of the gambling-hall, and instantly became the center of well-disguised interest. While he paused inside the threshold a lean, tall man arose from a chair against the wall and sauntered carelessly out of sight through a narrow doorway leading to a passage in the rear. Kit Thorpe was not a man to loaf on his job when a two-gun stranger entered the place, especially when the stranger appeared to be looking for someone. Otherwise there was no change in the room, the bartender polishing his glasses without pause, the card players silently intent on their games and the man at the deserted roulette table who held a cloth against the ornate spinning wheel kept on polishing it. They seemed to draw reassurance from Thorpe's disappearance.
One slow look was enough to satisfy Johnny's curiosity. The room was about sixty feet long by half as wide and on his left-hand side lay the bar, built solidly from the floor by close-fitting planks running vertically, which appeared to be of hardwood and quite thick, and the top was of the same material. Several sand-box cuspidors lay before it. The backbar was a shelf backed by a narrow mirror running well past the middle half, and no higher than necessary to give the bartender a view of the room when he turned around, which he did but seldom. Round card-tables, heavy and crude, were scattered about the room and a row of chairs ran the full length along the other side wall. Several loungers sat at the tables, one of them an eastern tough, judging from his clothes, his peaked cap pulled well down over his eyes. At the farther end was a solid partition painted like a checkerboard and the few black squares which cunningly hid several peepholes were not to be singled out by casual observation. Those who knew said that they were closed on their inner side by black steel plates which hung on oiled pivots and were locked shut by a pin. At a table in front of the checkerboard were four men, one flung forward on it, his head resting on his crossed arms; another had slumped down on the edge of his chair, his chin on his chest, while the other two carried on a grunted, pessimistic conversation across their empty glasses.
Excerpted from The Bar-20 Three by Clarence E. Mulford. Copyright © 2015 Clarence E. Mulford. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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Table of Contents
I. "Put a 'T' in It",
II. Well-Known Strangers,
III. A Question of Identity,
IV. A Journey Continued,
V. What the Storm Hid,
VI. The Writing on the Wall,
VII. The Third Man,
VIII. Notes Compared,
IX. Ways of Serving Notice,
X. Twice in the Same Place,
XI. A Job Well Done,
XII. Friends on the Outside,
XIII. Out and Away,
XIV. The Staked Plain,
XVI. A Vigil Rewarded,
XVII. A Well-Planned Raid,
XVIII. The Trail-Boss Tries His Way,
XIX. A Desert Secret,
XX. The Redoubt Falls,
XXI. All Wrapped Up,
XXII. The Bonfire,
XXIII. Surprise Valley,
XXIV. Squared Up All Around,
Clarence E. Mulford books from Tom Doherty Associates,