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   Chapter 3 No.3

I Conquered"" By Harold Titus Characters: 13946

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


"I've Done My Pickin'"

Then he felt his gaze drawn away from those vague, alluring distances. It was one of those pulls which psychologists have failed to explain with any great clarity; but every human being recognizes them. Danny followed the impulse.

He had not seen the figure squatting there on his spurs at the shady end of the little depot, for he had been looking off to the north. But as he yielded to the urge he knew its source-in those other eyes.

The figure was that of a little man, and his doubled-up position seemed to make his frame even more diminutive. The huge white angora chaps, the scarlet kerchief about his neck and against the blue of his shirt, the immense spread of his hat, his drooping gray mustache, all emphasized his littleness.

Yet Danny saw none of those things. He looked straight into the blue eyes squinting up at him-eyes deep and comprehensive, set in a copper-colored face, surrounded by an intricate design of wrinkles in the clear skin; eyes that had looked at incalculably distant horizons for decades, and had learned to look at men with that same long-range gaze. A light was in those eyes-a warm, kindly, human light-that attracted and held and created an atmosphere of stability; it seemed as though that light were tangible, something to which a man could tie-so prompt is the flash from man to man that makes for friendship and devotion; and to Danny there came a sudden comfort. That was why he did not notice the other things about the little man. That was why he wanted to talk.

"Good morning," he said.

"'Mornin'."

Then a pause, while their eyes still held one another.

After a moment Danny looked away. He had a stabbing idea that the little man was reading him with that penetrating gaze. The look was kindly, sincere, yet-and perhaps because of it-the boy cringed.

The man stirred and spat.

"To be sure, things kind of quiet down when th' train quits this place," he remarked with a nasal twang.

"Yes, indeed. I-I don't suppose much happens here-except trains."

Danny smiled feebly. He took his hat off and wiped the brow on which beads of sweat glistened against the pallor. The little man still looked up, and as he watched Danny's weak, uncertain movements the light in his eyes changed. The smile left them, but the kindliness did not go; a concern came, and a tenderness.

Still, when he spoke his nasal voice was as it had been before.

"Take it you just got in?"

"Yes-just now."

Then another silence, while Danny hung his head as he felt those searching eyes boring through him.

"Long trip this hot weather, ain't it?"

"Yes, very long."

Danny looked quickly at his interrogator then and asked:

"How did you know?"

"Didn't. Just guessed." He chuckled.

"Ever think how many men's been thought wise just guessin'?"

But Danny caught the evasion. He looked down at his clothes, wrinkled, but still crying aloud of his East.

"I suppose," he muttered, "I do look different-am different."

And the association of ideas took him across the stretches to Manhattan, to the life that was, to-

He caught his breath sharply. The call of his throat was maddening!

The little man had risen and, with thumbs hooked in his chap belt, stumped on his high boot heels close to Danny. A curious expression softened the lines of his face, making it seem queerly out of harmony with his garb.

"You lookin' for somebody?" he ventured, and the nasal quality of his voice seemed to be mellowed, seemed to invite, to compel confidence.

"Looking for somebody?"

Danny, only half consciously, repeated the query. Then, throwing his head back and following that range of flat tops off to the north, he muttered: "Yes, looking for somebody-looking for myself!"

The other shifted his chew, reached for his hat brim, and pulled it lower.

"No baggage?" he asked. "To be sure, an' ain't you got no grip?"

Danny looked at him quickly again, and, meeting the honest query in that face, seeing the spark there which meant sympathy and understanding-qualities which human beings can recognize anywhere and to which they respond unhesitatingly-he smiled wanly.

"Grip?" he asked, and paused. "Grip? Not the sign of one! That's what I'm here for-in Colt, Colorado-to get a fresh grip!" After a moment he extended an indicating finger and asked: "Is that all of Colt-Colt, Colorado?"

The old man did not follow the pointing farther than the uncertain finger. And when he answered his eyes had changed again, changed to searching, ferreting points that ran over every puff and seam and hollow in young Danny's face. Then the older man set his chin firmly, as though a grim conclusion had been reached.

"That's th' total o' Colt," he answered. "It ain't exactly astoundin', is it?"

Danny shook his head slowly.

"Not exactly," he agreed. "Let's go up and look it over."

An amused curiosity drove out some of the misery that had been in his pallid countenance.

"Sure, come along an' inspect our metropolis!" invited the little man, and they struck off through the sagebrush.

Danny's long, free stride made the other hustle, and the contrast between them was great; the one tall and broad and athletic of poise in spite of the shoulders, which were not back to their full degree of squareness; the other, short and bowlegged and muscle-bound by years in the saddle, taking two steps to his pacemaker's one.

They attracted attention as they neared the store buildings. A man in riding garb came to the door of a primitive clothing establishment, looked, stepped back, and emerged once more. A moment later two others joined him, and they stared frankly at Danny and his companion.

A man on horseback swung out into the broad street, and as he rode away from them turned in his saddle to look at the pair. A woman ran down the post-office steps and halted her hurried progress for a lingering glance at Danny. The boy noticed it all.

"I'm attracting attention," he said to the little man, and smiled as though embarrassed.

"Aw, these squashies ain't got no manners," the other apologized. "They set out in there dog-gone hills an' look down badger holes so much that they git loco when somethin' new comes along."

Then he stopped, for the tall stranger was not beside him. He looked around. His companion was standing still, lips parted, fingers working slowly. He was gazing at the front of the Monarch saloon.

From within came the sound of an upraised voice. Then another in laughter. The swinging doors opened, and a man lounged out. After him, ever so faint, but insidiously strong and compelling, came an odor!

For a moment, a decade, a generation-time does not matter when a man chokes back temptation to save himself-Danny stood in the yellow street, under the white sunlight, making his feet remain where they were. They would have hurried him on, compelling him to follow those fumes to their source, to push as

ide the flapping doors and take his throat to the place where that burning spot could be cooled.

In Colt, Colorado! It had been before him all the way, and now he could not be quit of its physical presence! But though his will wavered, it held his feet where they were, because it was stiffened by the dawning knowledge that his battle had only commenced; that the struggle during the long journey across country had been only preliminary maneuvering, only the mobilizing of his forces.

When he moved to face the little Westerner his eyes were filmed. The other drew a hand across his mouth calculatingly and jerked his hat-brim still lower.

"As I was sayin'," he went on a bit awkwardly as they resumed their walk, "these folks ain't got much manners, but they're good hearted."

Danny did not hear. He was casting around for more resources, more reserves to reinforce his front in the battle that was raging.

He looked about quickly, a bit wildly, searching for some object, some idea to engage his thoughts, to divert his mind from that insistent calling. His eyes spelled out the heralding of food stuffs. The sun stood high. It was time. It was not an excuse; it was a Godsend!

"Let's eat," he said abruptly. "I'm starving."

"That's a sound idee," agreed the other, and they turned toward the restaurant, a flat-roofed building of rough lumber. A baby was playing in the dirt before the door and a chained coyote puppy watched them from the shelter of a corner.

On the threshold Danny stopped, confusion possessing him. He stammered a moment, tried to smile, and then muttered:

"Guess I'd better wait a little. It isn't necessary to eat right away, anyhow."

He stepped back from the doorway with its smells of cooking food and the other followed him quickly, blue eyes under brows that now drew down in determination.

"Look here, boy," the man said, stepping close, "you was crazy for chuck a minute ago, an' now you make a bad excuse not to eat. To be sure, it ain't none of my business, but I'm old enough to be your daddy; I ain't afraid to ask you what's wrong. Why don't you want to eat?"

The sincerity of it, the unalloyed interest that precluded any hint of prying or sordid curiosity, went home to Danny and he said simply:

"I'm broke."

"You didn't need to tell me. I knowed it. I ain't, though. You eat with me."

"I can't! I can't do that!"

"Expect to starve, I s'pose?"

"No-not exactly. That is," he hastened to say, "not if I'm worth my keep. I came out here to-to get busy and take care of myself. I'll strike a job of some sort-anything, I don't care what it is or where it takes me. When I'm ready to work, I'll eat. I ought to get work right away, oughtn't I?"

In his voice was a sudden pleading born of the fear awakened by his realization of absolute helplessness, as though he looked for assurance to strengthen his feeble hopes, but hardly dared expect it. The little man looked him over gravely from the heels of his flat shoes to the crown of his rakishly soft hat. He pushed his Stetson far back on his gray hair.

"To be sure, and I guess you won't have to look far for work," he said. "I've been combin' this town dry for a hand all day. If you'd like to take a chance workin' for me I'd be mighty glad to take you on-right off. I'm only waitin' to find a man-can't go home till I do. Consider yourself hired!"

He turned on his heel and started off. But Danny did not follow. He felt distrust; he thought the kindness of the other was going too far; he suspected charity.

"Come on!" the man snapped, turning to look at the loitering Danny. "Have I got to rope an' drag you to grub?"

"But-you see it's-this way," the boy stammered. "Do you really want me? Can I do your work? How do you know I'm worth even a meal?"

A slow grin spread over the Westerner's countenance.

"Friend," he drawled in his high, nasal tone, "it's a pretty poor polecat of a man who ain't worth a meal; an' it's a pretty poor specimen who goes hirin' without makin' up his mind sufficient. They ain't many jobs in this country, but just now they's fewer men. We've got used to bein' careful pickers. I've done my pickin'. Come on."

Only half willingly the boy followed.

They walked through the restaurant, the old man saluting the lone individual who presided over the place, which was kitchen and dining room in one.

"Hello, Jed," the proprietor cried, waving a fork. "How's things?"

"Finer 'n frog's hair!" the other replied, shoving open the broken screen door at the rear.

"This is where we abolute," he remarked, indicating the dirty wash-basin, the soap which needed a boiling out itself, and the discouraged, service-stiffened towel.

Danny looked dubiously at the array. He had never seen as bad, to say nothing of having used such; but the man with him sloshed water into the basin from a tin pail and said:

"You're next, son, you're next."

And Danny plunged his bared wrists into the water. It was good, it was cool; and he forgot the dirty receptacle in the satisfaction that came with drenching his aching head and dashing the cooling water over his throat. The other stood and watched, his eyes busy, his face reflecting the rapid workings of his mind.

They settled in hard-bottomed, uncertain-legged chairs, and Jed-whoever he might be, Danny thought, as he remembered the name-gave their order to the man, who was, among other things, waiter and cook.

"Make it two sirloins," he said; "one well done an' one-" He lifted his eyebrows at Danny.

"Rare," the boy said.

"An' some light bread an' a pie," concluded the employer-host.

Danny saw that the cook wore a scarf around his neck and down his back, knotted in three places. When he moved on the floor it was evident that he wore riding boots. On his wrists were the leather cuffs of the cowboy.

Danny smiled. A far cry, indeed, this restaurant in Colt, Colorado, from his old haunts along the dark thoroughfare that is misnamed a lighted way! The other was talking: "We'll leave soon's we're through an' make it on up th' road to-night. It'll take us four days to get to th' ranch, probably, an' we might's well commence. Can you ride?"

Danny checked a short affirmative answer on his lips.

"I've ridden considerably," he said. "You people wouldn't call it riding, though. You'll have to teach me."

"Well, that's a good beginnin'. To be sure it is. Them as has opinions is mighty hard to teach-'cause opinions is like as not to be dead wrong."

He smeared butter on a piece of bread and poked it into his mouth. Then:

"I brought out my last hand-I come with him, I mean. Th' sheriff brought him. His saddle an' bed's over to th' stable. You can use 'em."

"Sheriff?" asked Danny. "Get into trouble?"

"Oh, a little. He's a good boy, mostly-except when he gets drinkin'."

Danny shoved his thumb down against the tines of the steel fork he held until they bent to uselessness.

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