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   Chapter 5 No.5

The Heart of the Range By William Patterson White Characters: 18840

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


"They been after him to sell a long time," said Chuck Morgan, rolling a cigarette as he and Racey Dawson jogged along toward McFluke's at the ford of the Lazy.

"Who?" asked Racey.

"I dunno. Can't find out. Luke Tweezy is the agent and he won't give the party's name."

"Has Old Salt tried to buy him out?"

"Not as I know of. Why should he? He knows he won't sell to anybody."

"Have they been after you, too?"

"Not yet. Dad Dale's the lad they want special. My ranch would be a good thing, but it ain't noways necessary like Dale's is to anybody startin' a big brand. Lookit the way Dale's lays right across the valley between them two ridges like a cork in a bottle. A mile wide here, twenty mile away between Funeral Slue and Cabin Hill she's a good thirty mile wide-one cracking big triangle of the best grass in the territory. All free range, but without Dale's section and his water rights to begin with what good is it?"

"Not much," conceded Racey.

"And nobody would dast to start a brand between Funeral Slue and Cabin

Hill," pursued Chuck. "Free range or not, it as good as belongs to the

Bar S."

"Old Salt used to run quite a bunch round Cabin Hill and another north near the Slue."

"He does yet-one or two thousand head in all, maybe. Oh, these fellers ain't foolish enough to crowd Old Salt that close. They know Dale's is their best chance."

Racey's eyes travelled, from one ridge to the other. "How come they allowed Dale to take up a six-forty?" he inquired.

"They didn't," was the answer. "The section is made up of four claims, his'n, Jane's, Molly's, an' Mis' Dale's. But they're proved up now, and made over to him all regular. That's how come."

"Haven't Silvertip Ransom and Long Oscar got a claim some'ers over yonder on Dale's land?" inquired Racey, looking toward the northerly ridge.

"They had, but they got discouraged and sold out to Dale the same time Slippery Wilson and his wife traded in their claims on the other side of the ridge to Old Salt and Tom Loudon. None of 'em's worth anything, though."

Racey nodded. "Dale ever drink much?" was his next question.

"He used to before he come here. But he took the cure and quit.

To-day's the first bust-up he's had since he hit this country."

"That's it, then. Luke gave him the redeye so's he'd be easy meat for the butcher. Does he ever gamble any?"

"Shore-before he came West. Jane done told me how back East in McPherson, Kansas, he used to go the limit forty ways-liquor, cards, the whole layout o' hellraising. But his habits rode him to a frazzle final and he knuckled under to tooberclosis, and they only saved his life by fetchin' him West. All of us thought he was cured for good."

"Now Luke Tweezy has started him off so's Nebraska-Peaches Austin, I mean, can get in his fine work. It's plain enough."

"Shore," assented Chuck Morgan. "Yonder's McFluke's," he added, nodding toward two gray-brown log and shake shacks and a stockaded corral roosting on the high ground beyond the belt of cottonwoods and willows marking the course of the Lazy. "Them's his stables and corral," went on Chuck. "The house she's down near the river. Can't see her on account of the cottonwoods."

"And they can't see us count of the cottonwoods. So-"

"Unless he's at the corral."

"I'll take the chance, Chuck. You stay here-down that draw is a good place. I'll go on alone. McFluke don't know me. Maybe I can find out something, see. Bimeby you come along-half-hour, maybe. You don't know me, either. I'll get into conversation with you. You follow my lead. We'll pull McFluke in if we can. Between the two of us-Well, anyhow, we'll see what he says."

Chuck Morgan nodded, and turned his horse aside toward the draw.

Ten minutes later the water of the Lazy River was sluicing the dust from the legs and belly of Racey Dawson's horse. Racey spurred up the bank and rode toward the long, low building that was McFluke's store and saloon.

There were no ponies standing at the hitching-rail in front of the place. For this Racey was devoutly thankful. If he could only catch McFluke by himself.

As Racey dismounted at the rail a man came to the open doorway of the house and looked at him. He was a heavy-set man, dewlapped like a bloodhound, and his hard blue eyes were close-coupled. The reptilian forehead did not signify a superior mentality, even as the slack, retreating chin denoted a minimum of courage. It was a most contradictory face. The features did not balance. Racey Dawson was not a student of physiognomy, but he recognized a weak chin when he saw it. If this man were indeed McFluke, then he, Racey Dawson, was in luck.

Without a word the man turned from the doorway. Racey heard him walking across the floor. And for so heavy a man his step was amazingly light. Racey went into the house. The room he entered was a large one. In front of a side wall tiered to the low ceiling with shelves bearing a sorry assortment of ranch supplies was the store counter. Across the back of the room ran the long bar. Behind the bar, flanking the door giving into another room, were two shelves heavily stocked with rows of bottles.

The man that had come to the door was behind the bar. His hands were resting on top of it, and he was staring fixedly and fishily at Racey Dawson. There was no welcome in his face. Nor was there any unfriendliness. It was simply exceedingly expressionless.

Racey draped himself against the bar. "Liquor," said he.

Having absorbed a short one, he poured himself a second. "Have one with me," he nodded to the man.

"All right." The man's tone was as expressionless as his face. "Here's hell." He filled and drank.

Racey looked about the room.

"Where's Old Man Dale?" he asked, casually.

"He got away on me," replied the man. "He-Say!"-with sudden suspicion-"who are you?"

"Are you McFluke?" shot back Racey.

The man nodded slowly, suspicion continuing to brighten his hard blue eyes.

"Then what didja let him get away for?" persisted Racey. "Luke Tweezy said he left him here, and he said he'd stay here. That was yore job-to see he stayed here."

"Who are-" began the suspicious McFluke.

"Nemmine who I am," rapped out Racey, who believed he had formed a correct estimate of McFluke. "I'm somebody who knows more about this deal than you do, and that's enough for you to know. Why didn't you hold Old Man Dale?"

"I-He got away on me," knuckled down McFluke. "I was in the kitchen gettin' me some coffee, and when I come back he had dragged it."

"Luke Tweezy will be tickled to death with you," said Racey Dawson.

"What do you s'pose he went to all that trouble for?"

"I couldn't help it, could I? I ain't got eyes in the back of my head so's I can see round corners an' through doors. How'd I know Old Man Dale was gonna slide off? When I left him he was all so happy with his bottle you'd 'a' thought he'd took root for life. Anyway, Peaches Austin oughta come before the old man left. He was supposed to come, and he didn't. If anything slips up account o' this it's gotta be blamed on Peaches."

"Yeah, I guess so. And Peaches ain't been here yet?"

"Not yet, and I wish to Gawd he was never comin'."

The man's tone was so earnest that Racey looked at him, startled.

"Why not?" he asked, coldly.

"Because I don't wanna get my head blowed off, that's why."

"Aw, maybe it won't come to that. Maybe Luke will win out."

"It ain't only Luke Tweezy who's gotta win out, and you know it. And they's an 'if' the size of Pike's Peak between us and winning out. I tell you, I don't like it. It's too damn dangerous."

"Shore, it's dangerous," assented Racey, slowly revolving his glass between his thumb and fingers, and wondering how far he dared go with this McFluke person. "But a gent has to live."

"He don't have to get himself killed doin' it," snarled McFluke, swabbing down the bar. "Who's that a-comin'?"

He went to the doorway to see for himself who it was that rode so briskly on the Marysville trail. "Peaches Austin!" he sneered. "He's only about three hours late."

It was now or never. Racey risked all on a single cast.

"What did the boss say when him and Lanpher got here and found old

Dale gone?" he asked, carelessly.

"He raised hell," replied McFluke. "But Lanpher wasn't with him. Yuh know old Dale hates Lanpher like poison. Well, I told Jack, like I tell you, that if anything slips up account o' this, Peaches Austin can take the blame."

Racey nodded indifferently and slouched sidewise so that he could watch the doorway without dislocating his neck. McFluke, his back turned, still stood in the doorway. Racey lowered a cautious hand and loosened his sixshooter in its holster. He wished that he had taken the precaution to tie it down. It was impossible to foresee what the next few minutes might bring forth. Certainly the coming of Peaches Austin was most inopportune.

Peaches Austin galloped up. He dismounted. He tied his horse. He greeted cheerily the glowering McFluke. The latter did not reply in kind.

"This is a fine time for you to get here," he growled. "A fi-ine time."

"Shut up, you fool!" cautioned Peaches in a low voice. "Ain't you got no better sense, with the old man-"

"Don't let the old man worry you," yapped McFluke. "The old man has done flitted. And Jack's been here and he's d

one flitted."

"Whose hoss is that?" demanded Peaches, evidently referring to Racey's mount.

"One of the boys," replied McFluke. "One o' Jack's friends. C'mon in."

Entered then Peaches Austin, a lithe, muscular person with pale eyes and a face the colour of a dead fish's belly. He stared non-committally at Racey Dawson. It was evident that Peaches Austin was taking no one on trust. He nodded briefly to Racey, and strode to the bar. McFluke went behind the bar.

"Ain't I seen you in Farewell, stranger?" Peaches Austin asked, shortly.

"You might have," returned Racey. "I'm mighty careless where I travel."

"Known Jack long?" Peaches was becoming nothing if not personal.

"Long enough," smiled Racey.

"Lookit here, who are you?"

"That's what's worryin' McFluke," dodged Racey, wishing that he could see just what it was McFluke was doing with his hands.

But McFluke was employing his hands in nothing more dangerous than the fetching of a bottle from some recess under and behind the bar. Now he laughed.

"He ain't tellin' all he knows," he said to Peaches Austin. "Don't be so damn suspiciony, Peaches. He's a friend of Jack's, I tell you. He knows all about the deal."

"That don't make him no friend of Jack's," declared Peaches, stubbornly. "I-"

At which juncture Peaches' flow of language was interrupted by the sudden entrance of Chuck Morgan. Chuck, after a sweeping glance round the room, headed straight for the bar.

"McFluke," said Chuck, halting a yard from the bar, "did you sell any redeye to Old Man Dale to-day?"

"What's that to you?" demanded McFluke, truculently.

"Why, this," replied Chuck, producing a sixshooter so swiftly that McFluke blinked. "You listen to me," he resumed, harshly. "It don't matter whether you sold it to him or not. He got it here, and that's the main thing. I'm telling you if he gets any more I'm gonna make you hard to find."

"Is that a threat or a promise?" inquired McFluke.

"Don't do that," Racey said, suddenly, as his hand shot out and pinned fast the right wrist of Peaches Austin. "C'mon outside now, where we can talk. Right through the door. To yore left. Aw right, now they can't hear us. Lookit, they ain't any call for a gunplay, none whatever. This gent is only laying down the law to Mac. And here you have to get serious right away. See how easy Mac takes it. He ain't doing a thing, not a thing. Good as gold, Mac is. Can't you see how a killing thisaway, and a fellah like Morgan, too, would maybe put a crimp in this place for good? Have some sense, man. We need McFluke's."

"He hadn't oughta drawed on Mac," said Peaches, his pale eyes, shifty as a cat's, darting incessantly between Racey and the doorway.

"He didn't shoot him. And he ain't. You lemme attend to this, will you? I'll get him away quiet and peaceable-if I can. But you keep out of it. Y'understand?"

Peaches Austin gnawed his lower lip. "I never did like Chuck Morgan," he grumbled. "It was a good chance."

"A good chance to get yoreself lynched. Shore. It was all that."

"Say, I'd like to know where you come in, stranger. Jack never said anything to me about any feller yore size."

"Jack is like me. He ain't tellin' all he knows. And while we're talking about Jack, I'll tell you something. And that's to keep away from Farewell for three-four days."

"Why for?"

"So's to give Jack a chance to cool off. He's hotter than a wet wolf 'cause you didn't turn up here on time."

"I ain't afraid of Jack."

"'Course you ain't. But you know how Jack is. Even if it don't come to a showdown, there'll be words passed. And I don't wanna run any risk of you quitting the outfit. Every man is needed. You be sensible and stick here with McFluke three-four days like I say, and after that c'mon in to Farewell. In the meantime, I'll see Jack and tell him how it happened you didn't get here on time. And how did it happen, anyway?"

Peaches Austin looked this way and that before replying.

"I shore don't like to tell how it happened," he said. "Sounds so babyish like. But my hat blowed off over this side of Injun Ridge a ways and when I leaned down to pick her up, my hoss started, my hand slipped, and I went off on my head kerblam. And do you know, I'll bet I was three hours a-running from hell to breakfast before I caught that hoss where he was feedin' in a narrow draw. I'm all tired out yet. They ain't no strength in my legs."

"I'll fix it up with Jack," Racey lied with a wonderfully straight face. "Don't you worry."

"I ain't worryin'," Peaches denied, irritably. "I ain't afraid of

Jack, I tell you."

"Shore," soothed Racey, who, having formed an estimate of Peaches, ranked him scarcely higher than McFluke and treated him accordingly. "Shore, I know you ain't. But alla same you need considerable of a coolin' off yoreself. Just you stay out here now and watch me get Morgan away."

Racey nodded blithely to Peaches Austin, and turned to go into the house. He saw that Chuck Morgan had come outside, that he had brought McFluke with him, and was observing events with a cold and calculating eye.

"I tell you I couldn't help his getting the whiskey," McFluke was whining. "It ain't my fault if somebody gives it to him, is it?"

"Of course not," chimed in Racey, briskly. "Mac means all right. He didn't know there was any law against providing old Dale with whiskey."

"They is a law," insisted Chuck Morgan, belligerently, his gun trained unswervingly on McFluke's broad stomach. "They is a law. I made it. And it goes. Peaches," he added, raising his voice, "don't you slide round the house now. If you move so much as a yard from where yo're standing I ventilate McFluke immediate."

"I wouldn't do that," said Racey, mildly.

"I got my eye on you, too," declared Chuck. "What I said to Peaches goes for you, and don't you forget it."

"I ain't likely to, not me. All I want you to do is go some'ers else peaceful. You ain't figuring on living here, are you?"

Chuck uttered a short, hard laugh. McFluke's back was toward Racey. Peaches Austin was behind him, thirty feet away. Racey's left eyelid drooped. His head moved almost imperceptibly toward his horse.

"I'm going now," said Chuck.

"I'll go with you just to see you on yore way sort of," said Racey.

"You was going with me anyway sort of," Chuck told him. "Yo're the only man round here so far's I can see, and I ain't taking any chances on you, not a chance. Yo're going down the trail a spell with me. Later you can come back. Keep yore hands where they are."

Quickly Chuck shoved McFluke to one side, rushed forward, and possessed himself of Racey's gun. "Crawl yore hoss," he commanded.

Racey obeyed without a word. Chuck climbed into his own saddle without losing the magic of the drop and without losing sight for an instant of McFluke and Peaches Austin.

"Take the trail south," said Chuck Morgan, and backed his horse in a wide half-circle.

Racey did as he was ordered. Three minutes later he was joined by his friend. Until the trail took them down into a draw grown up in spruce Chuck's gun remained very much in evidence. Any unbiased spectator without a knowledge of the facts would have said that he was keeping a close watch on Racey Dawson.

Once out of sight of the house of McFluke, Chuck sheathed his sixshooter with a jerk and returned Racey's gun.

"You did fine at the last," Racey said, admiringly, as he bolstered his weapon. "But what did you jump McFluke for thataway at first? That come almighty near kicking the kettle over, that play did."

"I know," said Chuck, shamefacedly, "and when I rode up to the shack I hadn't intended anything like that. But when I saw that slickery juniper McFluke standing there behind the bar so fat and sassy, it come over me all of a sudden what he'd done to the Dale family by letting old Dale have whiskey, that I couldn't help myself. Gawd, I wanted to knock him down and tromp his face flat as a floor. It ain't as if McFluke ain't been told about old Dale's failing. I warned him when he first came here last year not to let old Dale have redeye on any account."

"I know," nodded Racey, soberly, "but you want to remember his giving old Dale whiskey ain't the particular cow we're after. There's more to it than that, a whole lot more. We've got to be a li'l careful, Chuck, and go a li'l slow. If we go having a fraycas now they'll get suspicious and go fussbudgettin' round like a hound-dog after quail."

"Just as if they won't suspicion something's up soon as Peaches Austin gets back to Farewell."

"Peaches Austin ain't going back to Farewell right away. I've fixed Peaches for a few days. And a few days is all I need to find out what I want to. And even after Peaches does float in will he know me after I've changed my shirt, dirtied my hat, and got me a clean shave twice over? He ain't got no idea what I look like under the whiskers. He wasn't living in Farewell before I went north, so all he knows about me is my voice and my hoss. It will shore be the worst kind of luck if I can't keep Peaches from hearing the one and seeing the other until after I'm ready. You leave it to yore uncle, Chuck. He knows."

"He's a great man, my uncle," assented Chuck, and struck a derisive tongue in his cheek. "What did you find out from McFluke-anything?"

"Anything? Gimme a match and I'll tell you."

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