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   Chapter 3 THE TALL STRANGER

The Heart of the Range By William Patterson White Characters: 26580

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


"You'll have to manage it yoreself." Lanpher, the manager of the 88 ranch, was speaking, and there was finality in his tone.

"You mean you don't wanna appear in the deal a-tall," sneered his companion.

Racey Dawson, who had been kneeling on the ground engaged in bandaging a cut from a kick on the near foreleg of the Dale pony when the two men led their horses into the corral, craned his neck past the pony's chest and glanced at Lanpher's tall companion. For the latter's words provoked curiosity. What species of deal was toward? Having ridden for Lanpher in the days preceding his employment by the Cross-in-a-box and consequently provided with many opportunities for studying the gentleman at arm's-length, Racey naturally assumed that the deal was a shady one. Personally, he believed Lanpher capable of anything. Which of course was unjust to the manager. His courage was not quite sufficient to hold him abreast of the masters in wickedness. But he was mean and cruel in a slimy way, and if left alone was prone to make life miserable for someone. Invariably the someone was incapable of proper defense. From Farewell to Marysville, throughout the length and breadth of the great Lazy River country, Lanpher was known unfavourably and disliked accordingly.

To his companion's sneering remark Lanpher made no intelligible reply. He merely grunted as he reached for the gate to pull it shut. His companion half turned (his back had from the first been toward Racey Dawson), and Racey perceived the cold and Roman profile of a long-jawed head. Then the man turned full in his direction and behold, the hard features vanished, and the man displayed a good-looking countenance of singular charm. The chin was a thought too wide and heavy, a trait it shared in common with the mouth, but otherwise the stranger's full face would have found favour in the eyes of almost any woman, however critical.

Racey Dawson, at first minded to reveal his presence in the corral, thought better of it almost immediately. While not by habit an eavesdropper he felt no shame in fortuitously overhearing anything Lanpher or the stranger might be moved to say. Lanpher merited no consideration under any circumstances, and the stranger, in appearance a similar breed of dog as far as morals went, certainly deserved no better treatment. So Racey remained quietly where he was, and was glad that besides the pony to whom he was ministering there were several others between him and the men at the gate.

"Why don't you wanna appear in this business?" persisted the stranger, pivoting on one heel in order to keep face to face with Lanpher.

"I gotta live here," was the Lanpher reply.

"Well, ain't I gotta live here, too, and I don't see anything round here to worry me. S'pose old Chin Whisker does go on the prod. What can he do?"

"'Tsall right," mumbled Lanpher, shutting the gate and shoving home the bar. "You don't know this country as well as I do. I got trouble enough running the 88 without borrowing any more."

"Now I told you I was gonna get his li'l ranch peaceable if I could. I got it all planned out. I don't do anything rough unless I gotto. But I'm gonna get old Chin Whisker out o' there, and you can stick a pin in that."

"'Tsall right. 'Tsall right. You wanna remember ol' Chin Whisker ain't the only hoss yo're trying to ride. If you think that other outfit is gonna watch you pick daisies in their front yard without doing anything, you got another guess. But I'll do what I said-and no more."

"I s'pose you think that by sticking away off yonder where the grass is long nobody will suspicion you. If you do, yo're crazy. Folks ain't so cross-brained as all that."

"Not so dam loud!" Lanpher cautioned, excitedly.

"Say, whatsa matter with you?" demanded the stranger, leaning back against the gate and spreading his long arms along the top bar. "Which yo're the most nervous gent I ever did see. The hotel ain't close enough for anybody to hear a word, and there's only hosses in the corral. Get a-hold of yoreself. Don't be so skittish."

"I ain't skittish. I'm sensible. I know-" Lanpher broke off abruptly.

"What do you know?"

"What yo're due to find out."

"Now lookit here, Mr. Lanpher," said the stranger in a low, cold tone, "you said those last words a leetle too gayful to suit me. If yo're planning any skulduggery-don't."

"I ain't. Not a bit of it. But I got my duty to my company. I can't get mixed up in any fraycas on yore account, because if I do my ranch will lose money. That's the flat of it."

"Oh, it is, huh? Yore ranch will lose money if you back me up, hey? And you ain't thinkin' nothin' of yore precious skin, are yuh? Oh, no, not a-tall. I wonder what yore company would say to the li'l deal between you and me that started this business. I wonder what they'd think of Mr. Lanpher and his sense of duty. Yeah, I would wonder a whole lot."

"Well-" began Lanpher, lamely.

"Hell!" snarled the stranger. "You make me sick! Now you listen to me. Yo're in this as deep as I am. If you think you ain't, try to pull yore wagon out. Just try it, thassall."

"I ain't doing none of the work, that's flat," Lanpher denied, doggedly.

"You gotta back me up alla same," declared the stranger.

"That wasn't in the bargain," fenced Lanpher.

"It is now," chuckled the stranger. "If I lose, you lose, too. Lookit," he added in a more conciliatory tone, "can't you see how it is? I need you, an' you need me. All I'm asking of you is to back me up when I want you to. Outside of that you can sit on yore shoulder-blades and enjoy life."

"We didn't bargain on that," harked back Lanpher.

"But that was then, and this is now. Which may not be logic, but it is necessity, an' Necessity, Mr. Lanpher, is the mother of all kinds of funny things. So you and I we got to ride together."

Lanpher pushed back his hat and looked over the hills and far away.

The well-known carking care was written large upon his countenance.

Slowly his eyes slid round to meet for a brief moment the eyes of his companion.

"I can't answer for my men," said Lanpher, shortly.

"Can you answer for yoreself?" inquired the stranger quickly.

"I'll back you up." Grudgingly.

"Then that's all right. You can keep the men from throwing in with the other side, anyway, can't you?"

"I can do that much."

"Which is quite a lot for a ranch manager to be able to do," was the

stranger's blandly sarcastic observation. "C'mon. We've gassed so much

I'm dry as a covered bridge. I-What does Thompson want now? 'Lo,

Punch."

"'Lo, Jack. Howdy, Lanpher." Racey could not see the newcomer, but he recognized the voice. It was that of Punch-the-breeze Thompson, a gentleman well known to make his living by the ingenious capitalization of an utter lack of moral virtue. "Say, Jack," continued Thompson, "Nebraska has been plugged."

"Plugged?" Great amazement on the part of the stranger.

"Plugged."

"Who done it?"

"Feller by the name of Dawson."

"Racey Dawson?" nipped in Lanpher.

"Yeah, him."

Lanpher chuckled slightly.

"Why the laugh?" asked Jack Harpe.

"I'd always thought Nebraska could shoot."

"Nebraska is supposed to be some swift," admitted the stranger. "How'd it happen, Punch?"

Thompson told him, and on the whole, gave a truthful account.

"What kind of feller is this Dawson?" the stranger inquired after a moment's silence following the close of the story.

"A skipjack of a no-account cow-wrastler," promptly replied Lanpher.

"He thinks he's hell on the Wabash."

"Allasame he must be old pie to put the kybosh on Nebraska thataway."

"Luck," sneered Lanpher. "Just luck."

"Is he square?" probed the stranger.

"Square as a billiard-ball," said Lanpher. "Why, Jack, he's so crooked he can't lay in bed straight."

At which Racey Dawson was moved to rise and declare himself. Then the humour of it struck him. He grinned and hunkered down, his ears on the stretch.

"Well," said the stranger, refraining from comment on Lanpher's estimate of the Dawson qualities, "we'll have to get somebody in Nebraska's place."

"I'm as good as Nebraska," Punch-the-breeze Thompson stated, modestly.

"No," the stranger said, decidedly. "Yo're all right, Punch. But even if we can get old Chin Whisker drunk, the hand has gotta be quicker than the eye. Y' understand?"

Thompson, it appeared, did understand. He grunted sulkily.

"We'll have to give Peaches Austin a show," resumed the stranger. "Nemmine giving me a argument, Punch. I said I'd use Austin. C'mon, le's go get a drink."

The three men moved away. Racey Dawson cautiously eased his long body up from behind the pony. With slightly narrowed eyes he stared at the gate behind which Jack Harpe and his two friends had been standing.

"Now I wonder," mused Racey Dawson, "I shore am wonderin' what kind of skulduggery li'l Mr. Lanpher of the 88 is a-trying to crawl out of and what Mr. Stranger is a-trying to drag him into. Nebraska, too, huh? I was wondering what that feller's name was."

He knelt down again and swiftly completed the bandaging of the cut on the pony's near fore.

As he rode round the corner of the hotel to reach Main Street he saw Luke Tweezy single-footing into town from the south. The powdery dust of the trail filled in and overlaid the lines and creases of Luke Tweezy's foxy-nosed and leathery visage. Layers of dust almost completely concealed the original colour of the caked and matted hide of Luke Tweezy's well-conditioned horse. It was evident that Luke Tweezy had come from afar.

In common with most range riders Racey Dawson possessed an automatic eye to detail. Quite without conscious effort his brain registered and filed away in the card-index of his subconscious mind the picture presented by the passing of Luke Tweezy, the impression made thereby, and the inference drawn therefrom. The inference was almost trivial-merely that Luke Tweezy had come from Marysville, the town where he lived and had his being. But triviality is frequently paradoxical and always relative. If Dundee had not raised an arm to urge his troopers on at Killiekrankie the world would know a different England. A single thread it was that solved for Theseus the mystery of the Cretan labyrinth.

Racey Dawson did not like Luke Tweezy. From the sparse and sandy strands of the Tweezy hair to the long and varied lines of the Tweezy business there was nothing about Mr. Tweezy that he did like. For Luke Tweezy's business was ready money and its possibilities. He drove hard bargains with his neighbours and harder ones with strangers. He bought county scrip at a liberal discount and lent his profits to the needy at the highest rate allowed by law.

Luke Tweezy's knowledge of what was allowed by territorial law was not limited to money-lending. He had been admitted to the bar, and no case was too small, too large, or too filthy for him to handle.

In his dislike of Luke Tweezy Racey Dawson was not solitary. Luke Tweezy was as generally unpopular as Lanpher of the 88. But there was a difference. Where Lanpher's list of acquaintances, nodding and otherwise, was necessarily confined to the Lazy River country, Luke Tweezy knew almost every man, woman, and child in the territory. It was his business to know everybody, and Luke Tweezy was always attending to his business.

He had nodded and spoken to Racey Dawson as they two passed, and Racey had returned the greeting gravely.

"Slimy ol' he-buzzard," Racey Dawson observed to himself and reached for his tobacco.

But there was no tobacco. The sack that he knew he had put in his vest pocket after breakfast had vanished. Lack of tobacco is a serious matter. Racey wheeled his mount and spurred to the Blue Pigeon Store.

Five minutes later, smoking a grateful cigarette, he again started to ride out of town. As he curved his horse round a freight wagon in front of the Blue Pigeon he saw three men issue from the doorway of the Happy Heart Saloon. Two of the men were Lanpher and the stranger. The third was Luke Tweezy. The latter stopped at the saloon hitching-rail to untie his horse. "See yuh later, Luke," the stranger flung over his shoulder to Luke Tweezy as he passed on. He and Lanpher headed diagonally across the street toward the hotel. It seemed odd to Racey Dawson that Luke Tweezy by no word or sign made acknowledgment of the stranger's remark.

Racey tickled his mount with the rowels of one spur and stirred him into a trot. Have to be moving along if he wanted to get there some time that day. He wished he didn't have to go alone, so he did. The old lady would surely lay him out, and he wished for company to share his misery. Why couldn't Swing Tunstall have stayed reasonably in Farewell instead of traipsing off over the range like a tomfool. Might not be back for a week, Swing mightn't. Idiotic caper (with other adjectives) of Swing's, anyway. Why hadn't he used his head? Oh, Racey Dawson was an exceedingly irritable young man as he rode out of Farewell. The aches and pains were still throbbingly alive in his own particular head. The immediate future was not alluring. It was a hard world.

When he and his mount were breasting the first slight ri

se of the northern slope of Indian Ridge-which ridge marks with its long, broad-backed bulk the southern boundary of the flats south of Farewell and forces the Marysville trail to travel five miles to go two-a rider emerged from a small boulder-strewn draw wherein tamaracks grew thinly.

Racey stared-and forgot his irritation and his headache. The draw was not more than a quarter-mile distant, and he perceived without difficulty that the rider was a woman. She quirted her mount into a gallop, and then seesawed her right arm vigorously. Above the pattering drum of her horse's hoofs a shout came faintly to his ears. He pulled up and waited.

When the woman was close to him he saw that it was the good-looking, brown-haired Happy Heart lookout, the girl whose dog he had protected. She dragged her horse to a halt at his side and smiled. And, oddly enough, it was an amazingly sweet smile. It had nothing in common with the hard smile of her profession.

"I'm sorry I had to leave without thanking you for what you done for me back there," said she, with a jerk of her head toward distant Farewell.

"Why, that's all right," Racey told her, awkwardly.

"It meant a lot to me," she went on, her smile fading. "You wouldn't let that feller hurt me or my dog, and I think the world of that dog."

"Yeah." Thus Racey, very much embarrassed by her gratitude and quite at a loss as to the proper thing to say.

"Yes, and I'm shore grateful, stranger. I-I won't forget it. That dog he likes me, he does. And I'm teaching him tricks. He's awful cunnin'. And company! Say, when I'm feeling rotten that there dog knows, and he climbs up in my lap and licks my ear and tries his best to be a comfort. I tell you that dog likes me, and that means a whole lot-to me. I-I ain't forgetting it."

Her face was dark red. She dropped her head and began to fumble with her reins.

"You needn't 'a' come riding alla way out here just for this," chided

Racey, feeling that he must say something to relieve the situation.

"It wasn't only this," she denied, tiredly. "They was something else. And I couldn't talk to you in Farewell without him and his friends finding it out. That's why I borrowed one of Mike Flynn's hosses an' followed you thisaway-so's we could be private. Le's ride along. I expect you was going somewhere."

They rode southward side by side a space of time in silence. Racey had nothing to say. He was too busy speculating as to the true significance of the girl's presence. What did she want-money? These saloon floozies always did. He hoped she wouldn't want much. For he ruefully knew himself to be a soft-hearted fool that was never able to resist a woman's appeal. He glanced at her covertly. Her little chin was trembling. Poor kid. That's all she was. Just a kid. Helluva life for a kid. Shucks.

"Lookit here," said Racey, suddenly, "you in hard luck, huh? Don't you worry. Yore luck is bound to turn. It always does. How much you want?"

So saying he slid a hand into a side-pocket of his trousers. The girl shook her head without looking at him.

"It ain't money," she said, dully. "I make enough to keep me going." Then with a curious flash of temper she continued, "That's always the way with a man, ain't it? If he thinks yo're in trouble-Give her some money. If yo're sick-Give her money. If yo're dyin'-Give her money. Money! Money! Money! I'm so sick of money I-Don't mind me, stranger. I don't mean nothing. I'm a-a li'l upset to-day. I-it's hard for me to begin."

Begin! What was the girl driving at?

"Yes," said she. "It's hard. I ain't no snitch. I never was even when I hadn't no use for a man-like now. But-but you stuck up for me and my dog, and I gotta pay you back. I gotta. Listen," she pursued, swiftly, "do you know who that feller was you shot?"

"No." Racey shook his head. "But you don't owe me anything. Forget it. I dunno what yo're drivin' at, and I don't wanna know if it bothers you to tell me. But if I can do anything-anything a-tall-to help you, why, then tell me."

"I know," she nodded. "You'd always help a feller. Yo're that kind.

But I'm all right. That jigger you plugged is Tom Jones."

The girl looked at Racey Dawson as though the name of Tom Jones should have been informative of much. But, Fieldings excluded, there are many Tom Joneses. Racey did not react.

"Dunno him," denied Racey Dawson. "I heard his name was Nebraska."

"Nebraska is what the boys call him," she said. "He used to be foreman of the Currycomb outfit south of Fort Seymour."

"I've heard of Nebraska Jones and the Currycomb bunch all right," he admitted, soberly. "And I'd shore like to know what was the matter with Nebraska to-day."

"So would I. You were lucky."

Racey nodded absently. The Currycomb outfit! That charming aggregation of gunfighters had borne the hardest reputation extant in a neighbouring territory. Regarding the Currycomb men had been accustomed to speak behind their hands and under their breaths. For the Currycomb politically had been a power. Which perhaps was the reason why, although the rustling of many and many a cow and the killing of more than one man were laid at their unfriendly door, nothing had ever been proved against them.

They had prospered exceedingly, these Currycomb boys, till the election of an opposition sheriff. Which election had put heart into the more decent set and a crimp in the Currycomb. It did not matter that legally the Currycomb possessed a clean bill of health. The community had decided that the Currycomb must be abolished. It was-cow, cayuse, and cowboy.

While some had remained on the premises at an approximate depth beneath the grass of two feet (for the ground was hard), the other Currycombers had scattered wide and far and their accustomed places knew them no more.

Now it seemed that at least one of the Currycomb boys, and that one the most notorious character of the lot, had scattered as far as Farewell and obtruded his personality upon that of Racey Dawson. Nebraska Jones! A cold smile stretched the corners of Racey's mouth as he thought on what he had done. He had beaten to the draw the foreman of the Currycomb. Which undoubtedly must have been the first time Nebraska had ever been shaded.

The girl was watching his face. "Don't begin to get the notion you beat him to it," she advised, divining his thought. "He was stunned sort of that first time, an' the second time his gun caught a little. Nebraska is slow lightnin' on the pull. Keep thinkin' you was lucky like you done at first."

Racey laughed shamefacedly. "Yo're too much of a mind reader for me. But what you telling all this to me for? I ain't the sheriff with a warrant for Nebraska Jones."

"I'm telling you so you'll know what to expect. So you'll get out of town and stay out. Because, shore as yo're a foot high, you won't live a minute longer than is plumb necessary if you don't."

"I beat Nebraska once, and he won't get well of that lead in the shoulder so jo-awful soon."

"Can you beat a shot in the dark? Can you dodge a knife in the night? It ain't a question of Nebraska Jones himself. It's the gang he's managed to pick up in this town. They are meaner than a nest of cross rattlesnakes. I know 'em. I know what they'll do. Right this minute they're fixing up some way to give you yore come-uppance."

"Think so?"

"Think so! Say, would I come traipsing out here just for my health-or yores? Figure it out."

"Seems like you know a lot about Nebraska and his gang," he cast at a venture, glancing at her sharply.

"I lived with Nebraska-for a while," she said, matter-of-factly, giving him a calm stare. "Li'l Marie knows all they is to know about Nebraska Jones-and a little bit more. Which goes double for his gang."

"Shucks," Racey grunted contemptuously. "Does he and his gang run

Farewell? I'd always thought Farewell was a man's size town."

"They're careful," explained the girl. "They got sense enough not to run any blazers they can't back to the limit. Yeah, they're careful-now."

"Now, huh? Later, when they've filled their hands and there's more of 'em playin' they might not be so careful, huh, Marie?"

"Unless yo're a heap careful right now you won't have a thing to do with 'later,'" she parried. "You do like I say, Mister Man. I ain't a bit anxious to see you wiped out."

"Wiping me out would shore cramp my style," he admitted. "I-"

At this juncture hoofbeats sounded sharply on the trail behind them.

Racey turned in a flesh, his right hand dropping. But it was only

Lanpher and the stranger riding out of a belt of pines whose deep and

lusty soughing had drowned the noise of their approach.

Lanpher and his comrade rode by at a trot. The former mumbled a greeting to Racey but barely glanced at the girl. Women did not interest Lanpher. He was too selfishly stingy. The stranger was more appreciative. He gave the girl a stare of frank admiration before he looked at Racey Dawson. The latter perceived that the stranger's eyes were remarkably black and keen, perceived, too, that the man as he rode past and on half turned in the saddle for a second look at the girl.

"Who's yore friend?" asked Marie, an insolent lift to her upper lip and a slightly puzzled look in her brown eyes as her gaze followed the stranger and Lanpher.

"Friend?" said Racey. "Speaking personal, now, I ain't lost either of 'em."

"I know who Lanpher is," she told him, impatiently. "I meant the other."

"I'll never tell yuh. I dunno him."

"I think I've seen him somewhere-sometime. I can't remember where or how-I see so many men. There! I almost had it. Gone again now. Don't it make you sick when things get away from you like that? Makes you think yo're a-losing yore mind almost."

"He looked at you almighty strong," proffered Racey. "Maybe he'll remember. Why don't you ask him?"

"Maybe I will at that," said she.

"Didja know he was a friend of Nebraska's?" he asked, watching her face keenly.

She shook her head. "Nebraska knows a lot of folks," she said, indifferently.

"He knows Punch-the-breeze Thompson, too."

"Likely he would, knowing Nebraska. He belongs to Nebraska's bunch."

"What does Nebraska do for a living?"

"Everybody and anything. Mostly he deals a game in the Starlight."

"What does Peaches Austin work at?" he pursued, thinking that it might be well to learn what he could of the enemy's habits.

"He deals another game in the Happy Heart."

"'The hand is quicker than the eye,'" he quoted, cynically, recalling what the stranger had said to Punch-the-breeze Thompson.

"Oh, Peaches is slick enough," said she, comprehending instantly. "But

Nebraska is slicker. Don't never sit into no game with Nebraska Jones.

Lookit here," she added, her expression turning suddenly anxious, "did

I take my ride for nothing?"

"Huh?… Oh, that! Shore not. You bet I'm obliged to you, and I hope I can do as much for you some day. But I wasn't figuring on staying here any length of time. Swing-he's my friend-and I are going down to try Arizona a spell. We'll be pulling out to-morrow, I expect."

"Then all you got to look out for is to-night. But I'm telling you you better drag it to-morrow shore."

Racey smiled slowly. "If it wasn't I got business down south I'd admire to stay. I ain't leaving a place just because I ain't popular, not nohow. I'm over twenty-one. I got my growth."

"It don't matter why you go. Yo're a-going. That's enough. It's a good thing for you you got business, and you can stick a pin in that."

"I'll have to do something about them friends of his alla same, before

I go," Racey said, thoughtfully.

"Huh?" Perplexedly.

"Yeah. If they're a-honing to bushwhack me for what I did to Nebraska, it ain't fair for me to go sifting off thisaway and not give 'em some kind of a run for their alley. Look at it close. You can see it ain't."

"I don't see nothing-"

"Shore you do. It would give 'em too much of a chance to talk. They might even get to saying they ran me out o' town. And the more I think of it the more I'm shore they'll be saying just that."

"But you said you was going away. You said you had business in

Arizona."

"Shore I have, and shore I'm going. But first I gotta give Nebraska's friends a chance to draw cards. A chance, y' understand."

"You'll be killed," she told him, white-lipped.

"Why, no," said he. "Not never a-tall. Drawing cards is one thing and playing the hand out is a cat with another kind of tail. I got hopes they won't get too rough with me."

"Well, of all the stubborn damn fools I ever saw-" began the girl, angrily.

At which Racey Dawson laughed aloud.

"That's all right," she snapped. "You can laugh. Might 'a' knowed you would. A man is such a plumb idjit. A feller does all she can to show him the right trail out, and does he take it? He does not. He laughs. That's what he does. He laughs. He thinks it's funny. You gimme a pain, you do!"

On the instant she jerked her pony round, whirled her quirt cross-handed, and tore down the back-trail at full gallop.

"Aw, hell," said Racey, looking after the fleeing damsel regretfully.

"I clean forgot to ask her about the rest of Nebraska's friends."

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