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   Chapter 1 THE HORSE THIEF

The Heart of the Range By William Patterson White Characters: 7072

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

It was a warm summer morning in the town of Farewell. Save a dozen horses tied to the hitching-rail in front of various saloons and the Blue Pigeon Store and Bill Lainey, the fat landlord of the hotel, who sat snoring in a reinforced telegraph chair on the sidewalk in the shade of his wooden awning, Main Street was a howling wilderness.

Dust overlay everything. It had not rained in weeks. In the blacksmith shop, diagonally across the street from the hotel, Piney Jackson was shoeing a mule. The mule was invisible, but one knew it was a mule because Piney Jackson has just come out and taken a two-by-four from the woodpile behind the shop. And it was a well-known fact that Piney never used a two-by-four on any animal other than a mule. But this by the way.

In the barroom of the Happy Heart Saloon there were only two customers and the bartender. One of the former, a brown-haired, sunburnt young man with ingenuous blue eyes, was singing:

"Jog on, jog on, the footpath way,

An' merrily jump the stile O!

Yore cheerful heart goes all the day,

Yore sad tires in a mile O!"

Mr. Racey Dawson, having successfully sung the first verse, rested both elbows on the bar and grinned at the bartender. That worthy grinned back, and, knowing Mr. Dawson, slid the bottle along the bar.

"Have one yoreself, Bill," Mr. Dawson nodded to the bartender.

"Whu-where's Swing? Oh, yeah."

Mr. Dawson, head up, chest out, stepping high, and walking very stiffly as befitted a gentleman somewhat over-served with liquor, crossed the barroom to where bristle-haired Swing Tunstall sat on a chair and slumbered, his head on his arms and his arms on a table.

Mr. Dawson stooped and blew into Mr. Tunstall's right ear. Mr. Tunstall began to snore gently. Growing irritated by this continued indifference on the part of Mr. Tunstall, Mr. Dawson seized the chair by rung and back and incontinently dumped Mr. Tunstall all abroad on the saloon floor.

Mr. Tunstall promptly hitched himself into a corner and drifted deeper into slumber.

Mr. Dawson turned a perplexed face on the bartender.

"Now what you gonna do with a feller like that?" Mr. Dawson asked, plaintively.

Mr. Jack Richie, manager of the Cross-in-a-box ranch, entering at the moment, temporarily diverted Mr. Dawson's attention. For Mr. Dawson had once ridden for the Cross-in-a-box outfit. Hence he was moved literally to fall upon the neck of Mr. Richie.

"Lean on yore own breakfast," urged Mr. Richie, studiously dissembling his joy at sight of his old friend, and carefully steering Mr. Dawson against the bar. "Here, I know what you need. Drink hearty, Racey."

"'S'on me," declared Mr. Dawson. "Everythin's on me. I gug-got money, I have, and I aim to spend it free an' plenty, 'cause there's more where I'm goin'. An' I ain't gonna earn it punchin' cows, neither."

"Don't do anything rash," Mr. Richie advised, and took advantage of a friend's privilege to be insulting. "I helped lynch a road-agent only last month."

"Which the huh-holdup business is too easy for a live man," opined Mr. Dawson. "We want somethin' mum-more diff-diff-diff'cult, me an' Swing do, so we're goin' to Arizona where the gold grows. No more wrastlin' cows. No more hard work for us. We're gonna get rich quick, we are. What you laughin' at?"

"I never laugh," denied Mr. Richie. "When yo're stakin' out claims don't forget me."

"We won't," averred Mr. Dawson, solemnly. "Le's have another."

They had another-several others.

The upshot was that

when Mr. Richie (who was the lucky possessor of a head that liquor did not easily affect) departed homeward at four P.M., he left behind him a sadly plastered Mr. Dawson.

Mr. Tunstall, of course, was still sleeping deeply and noisily. But Mr. Dawson had long since lost interest in Mr. Tunstall. It is doubtful whether he remembered that Mr. Tunstall existed. The two had begun their party immediately after breakfast. Mr. Tunstall had succumbed early, but Mr. Dawson had not once halted his efforts to make the celebration a huge success. So it is not a subject for surprise that Mr. Dawson, some thirty minutes after bidding Mr. Richie an affectionate farewell, should stagger out into the street and ride away on the horse of someone else.

The ensuing hours of the evening and the night were a merciful blank to Mr. Dawson. His first conscious thought was when he awoke at dawn on a side-hill, a sharp rock prodding him in the small of the back and the bridle-reins of his dozing horse wound round one arm. Only it was not his horse. His horse was a red roan. This horse was a bay. It wasn't his saddle, either.

"Where's my hoss?" he demanded of the world at large and sat up suddenly.

The sharp movement wrung a groan from the depths of his being. The loss of his horse was drowned in the pains of his aching head. Never was such all-pervading ache. He knew the top was coming off. He knew it. He could feel it, and then did-with his fingers. He groaned again.

His tongue was dry as cotton, and it hurt him to swallow. He stood up, but as promptly sat down. In a whisper-for speech was torture-he began to revile himself for a fool.

"I might have known it," was his plaint. "I had a feelin' when I took that last glass it was one too many. I never did know when to stop. I'd like to know how I got here, and where my hoss is, and who belongs to this one?"

He eyed the mount with disfavour. He had never cared for bays.

"An' that ain't much of a saddle, either," he went on with his soliloquy. "Cheap saddle-looks like a boy's saddle-an' a old saddle-bet Noah used one just like it-try to rope with that saddle an' you'd pull the horn to hellen gone. Wonder what's in that saddle-pocket."

He pulled himself erect slowly and tenderly. His knees were very shaky. His head throbbed like a squeezed boil, but-he wanted to learn what was in that saddle-pocket. Possibly he might obtain therein a clue to the horse's owner.

He slipped the strap of the pocket-flap, flipped it open, inserted his fingers, and drew forth a small package wrapped in newspaper and tied with the blue string affected by the Blue Pigeon Store in Farewell.

Mr. Dawson balanced the package on two fingers for a reflective instant, then he snapped the string and opened the package.

"Socks an' a undershirt," he said, disgustedly, and started to say more, but paused, for there was something queer about that undershirt. His head was still spinning, and his eyes were sandy, but he perceived quite plainly that there were narrow blue ribbons running round the neck of that undershirt. He unrolled the socks and found them much longer in the leg than the kind habitually worn by men. Mr. Dawson agitatedly dived his hand once more into the saddle-pocket. And this time he pulled out a tortoise-shell shuttle round which was wrapped several inches of lingerie edging. But Mr. Dawson did not call it lingerie edging. He called it tatting and swore again.

"That settles it," he said, cheerlessly. "I've stole some woman's cayuse."

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