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   Chapter 6 CHANGE OF PLAN

The Heart of the Range By William Patterson White Characters: 14822

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


"It's a long way to Arizona," offered Racey Dawson, casually-too casually.

Swing Tunstall's bristle-haired head jerked round. Swing bent two suspicious eyes upon his friend. "You just find it out?" he queried.

"No, oh, no," denied Racey. "I've been thinking about it some time."

"Thinking!" sneered Swing. "That's a new one-for you."

"Nemmine," countered Racey. "It ain't catchin'-to you."

"Is that so?" yammered Swing, now over his head as far as repartee was concerned. "Is that so? What you gassing about Arizona for thisaway? You gonna renig on the trip?"

"I'll bet there's plenty of good jobs we can find right here in Farewell," dodged Racey. "And vicinity," he amended. "Yep, Swing, old-timer, I'll bet the Bar S or the Cross-in-a-box would hire us just too quick. Shore they would. It ain't every day they get a chance at a jo-darter of a buster like-"

"Like the damndest liar in four states meaning you," cut in Swing.

"You're right," admitted Racey, promptly. "When I was speaking of a jo-darter I meant you, so I was a liar. I admit it. I might 'a' known you wouldn't appreciate my kind words. Besides being several other things, you're an ungrateful cuss. Gimme the makin's."

"Smoke yore own, you hunk of misery. You had four extra sacks in yore warbags this morning."

"Had? So you been skirmishin' round my warbags, have you? How many of those sacks did you rustle?"

"I left two."

"Two! Two! Say, I bought that tobacco myself for my own personal use, and not for a lazy, loafing, cow-faced lump of slumgullion to glom and smoke. Why don't you spend something besides the evening now and then? Gawda-mighty, you sit on yore coin closer than a hen with one egg! I'll gamble that Robinson Crusoe spent more money in a week than you spend in four years. Two sacks of my smoking. You got a gall like a hoss. There was my extra undershirt under those sacks. It's a wonder you didn't smouch that, too."

"It didn't fit," replied Swing Tunstall, placidly constructing a cigarette. "Too big. Besides, all the buttons was off, and if they's anything I despise it's a undershirt without any buttons. Sort of wandering off the main trail though, ain't we, Racey? We was talking about Arizona, wasn't we?"

"We was not," Racey contradicted, quickly. "We was talking about a job here in Fort Creek County. T'ell with Arizona."

"T'ell with Arizona, huh? You're serious? You mean it?"

"I'm serious as lead in yore inwards. 'Course I mean it. Ain't I been saying so plain as can be the last half-hour?"

"You're saying so is plain enough. And so is the whyfor."

"The whyfor?"

"Shore, the whyfor. Say, do you take me for a damfool? Here you use up the best part of two days on a trip I could make in ten hours going slow and eating regular. Who is she, cowboy, who is she?"

"What you talking about?"

"What am I talking about, huh? I'd ask that, I would. Yeah, I would so. Is she pretty?"

"Poor feller's got a hangover," Racey murmured in pity. "I kind o' thought it must be something like that when he began to talk so funny. Now I'm shore of it. You tie a wet towel round yore head, Swing, and take a good pull of cold water. You'll feel better in the morning."

"So'll I feel better in the morning if you jiggers will close yore traps and lemme sleep," growled a peevish voice in the next room-on the Main Street side.

"As I live," said Racey in a tone of vast surprise, "there's somebody in the next room."

"Sounds like the owner of the Starlight," hazarded Swing Tunstall.

"It is the owner of the Starlight," corroborated the voice, "and I wanna sleep, and I wanna sleep now."

"We ain't got any objections," Racey told him. "She's a fine, free country. And every gent is entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, three things no home should be without."

"Shut up, will you?" squalled the goaded proprietor of the Starlight Saloon. "If you wanna make a speech go out to the corral and don't bother regular folks."

"Hear that, Swing?" grinned Racey, and twiddled his bare toes delightedly. "Gentleman says you gotta shut up. Says he's regular folks, too. You be good boy now and go by-by."

"Shut up!"

"Here, here, Swing!" cried Racey, struck by a brilliant idea. "What you doing with that gun?"

"I-" began the bewildered Swing who had not even thought of his gun but was peacefully sitting on his cot pulling off his boots.

"Leave it alone!" Racey interrupted in a hearty bawl. "Don't you go holding it at the wall even in fun. It might go off. You can't tell. You're so all-fired careless with a sixshooter, Swing. Like enough you're aiming right where the feller's bed is, too," he added, craftily.

Ensued then sounds of rapid departure from the bed next door. A door flew open and slammed. The parting guest padded down the stairs in his socks, invoking his Maker as he went.

"And that's the last of him," chuckled Racey.

"Oh, you needn't think I'm forgetting," grumbled Swing Tunstall, sliding out of his trousers and folding them tidily beside his boots. "You soft-headed yap, have you gotta let a woman spoil everything?"

"Spoil everything?"

"You don't think I'm going alla way to Arizona by myself, nobody to talk to nor nothing, do you? Well, I ain't. You can stick a pin in that."

Racey immediately sprang up, seized his friend's limp hand, and pumped it vigorously. "Bless you for them kind words," he said. "I knew you'd stick by me. I knew I could depend on old Swing to do the right thing. To-morrow you and I will traipse out and locate us a couple of jobs."

Swing doubled a leg, flattened one bare foot against Racey's chest, straightened the leg, and deposited Racey upon his own proper cot with force and precision.

"Don't you come honey-fuglin' round me," warned Swing. "And I didn't say anything about sticking by you, neither. And when it comes to the right thing you and me don't think alike a-tall. I-"

"I wish you'd pull yore kicks a few," interrupted Racey, rubbing his chest. "You like to busted a rib."

"Not the way you landed," countered the unfeeling Swing. "You're tryin' to get off the trail again. Here you and me plan her all out to go to-"

"You bet," burst in Racey, enthusiastically. "We planned to go to either the Bar S or the Cross-in-a-box and get that job. Shore we did. You got a memory like all outdoors. Swing. It plumb amazes me how clear and straight you keep everything in that head of yores. Yep, it shore does."

Hereupon, in the most unconcerned manner, Racey Dawson began to blow smoke rings toward the ceiling.

Swing Tunstall sank sulkily down upon an elbow. "Whatsa use?" said

Swing Tunstall. "Whatsa use?"

It was then that someone knocked upon their chamber door.

"Come in," said Racey Dawson.

The door opened and Lanpher's comrade of the attractive smile and the ruthless profile walked into the room. He closed the door without noise, spread his legs, and looked upon the two friends silently.

"I heard you talking through the wall," he said in a studiedly low tone, a tone that, heard through a partition, would have been but an indistinguishable murmur.

"Hearing us talk through walls seems to be a habit in this hotel," commented Racey, tactfully following the other's lead in lowness of tone.

"I couldn't help hearing," apologized the stranger-he was vestless and bootless. Evidently he

had been on the point of retiring when the spirit moved him to visit his fellow-guests. "I'd like to talk to you."

"You're welcome," said Racey, hospitably yanking his trousers from the only chair the room possessed. "Sit down."

The stranger sat. Racey Dawson, sitting on the bed, his knees on a level with his chin, clasped his hands round his bare ankles and accorded the stranger his closest attention. To the casual observer, however, Racey looked uncommonly dull and sleepy, even stupid. But not too stupid. Racey possessed too much native finesse to overdo it.

It was apparent that the stranger did not recognize him. Which was not surprising. For, at the Dale ranch, Racey had been wearing all his clothes and a beard of weeks. Now he was clean-shaven and attired in nothing but a flannel shirt. True, the stranger must have heard him singing to Miss Dale. But a singing voice is far different from a speaking voice, and Racey had not uttered a single conversational word in the stranger's presence. Now he had occasion to bless this happy chance.

Swing Tunstall, slow to take a cue, and still suffering with the sulks, continued to lie quietly, his head supported on a bent arm, and smoke. But he watched the stranger narrowly.

The stranger tilted back his chair, and levering with his toes, teetered to and fro in silence.

"I heard you say you were looking for a job in the morning," the stranger said suddenly to Racey.

"You heard right," nodded Racey.

"Are you dead set on working for the Bar S or the Cross-in-a-box?"

"I ain't dead set on working for anybody. Work ain't a habit with either of us, but so long as we got to work the ranches with good cooks have the call, and the Bar S and Richie's outfit have special good cooks."

The stranger nodded and began to smooth down, hand over hand, his tousled hair. It was very thick hair, oily and coarse. When sufficiently smoothed it presented that shiny, slick appearance so much admired in the copper-toed, black walnut era.

Not till each and every lock lay in perfect adjustment with its neighbour did the stranger speak.

"Cooks mean a whole lot," was his opening remark. "A good one can come mighty nigh holding a outfit together. Money ain't to be sneezed at, neither. Good wages paid on the nail run the cook a close second. How would you boys like to work for me?"

The stranger, as he asked the question, fixed Racey with his black eyes. The puncher felt as if a steel drill were boring into his brain. But he returned the stare without appreciable effort. Racey Dawson was not of those that lower their eyes to any man.

"I take it," drawled Racey, "that you're fixing to install all the comforts of home you were just now talking about-a good cook and better wages for the honest working-man?"

"Naturally I am." The stranger's eyes shifted to Swing Tunstall's face.

"Yeah-naturally." Thus Racey Dawson. The stranger's eyes returned quickly to Racey. There had been a barely perceptible pause between the two words uttered by Racey Dawson. Pauses signify a great deal at times. This might be one of those times and it might not. The stranger couldn't be sure. From that moment the stranger watched Racey Dawson even as the proverbial cat watches the mouse hole.

Racey knew that the stranger was watching him. And he knew why. So he smiled with bland stupidity and nodded a foolish head.

"What wages?" he inquired.

"Fifty per," was the reply.

"Where?"

"Southeast of Dogville-the Rafter H ranch."

"The Rafter H, huh? I thought that was Haley's outfit."

"I expect to buy out Haley," explained the stranger, smoothly. "My name's Harpe, Jack Harpe. What may I call you gents?… Dawson and Tunstall, eh? I-"

"Haley ain't much better than a nester," interrupted Racey. "He don't own more'n forty cows. What you want with two punchers for a small bunch like that-and at fifty per?"

"I know she ain't much of a ranch now," admitted Jack Harpe. "But everything has to have a beginning. I'm figuring on a right smart growth for the Rafter H within the next year or two."

"Figuring on opposition maybe?" probed Racey Dawson.

"You never can tell."

"You can if you go to cutting any of Baldy Barbee's corners. Haley's little bunch never bothers Baldy none, but a man-size outfit so close to the south thataway would shore give him something to think about. Then there's the Anvil ranch east of the B bar B. They'll begin to scratch their heads, you bet. Hall, too, maybe, although he is a good ways to the east."

"She's all free range," said Jack Harpe. "I guess I got as good a right here as the next gent."

"Providing you can make the next gent see yore side of the case," suggested Racey.

"Most folks are willing to listen to reason," stated Jack Harpe.

"I ain't so shore," doubted Racey. "You ain't looked at the whole of the layout yet. How about the 88 ranch?"

"'The 88?'" repeated Jack Harpe in a tone of surprise. "What'll I have to do with the 88, I'd like to know?"

"I dunno," said Racey, his eyes more stupid than ever. "I was just a-wonderin'."

Jack Harpe laughed without a sound. It seemed to be a habit of his to laugh silently.

"You saw me with Lanpher, didn't you? Well, Lanpher and I are just friends, thassall. My cattle won't graze far enough south to overlap on the 88 anywheres."

"Nor the Bar S?" suggested Racey.

"Nor the Bar S."

"That's sensible." Thus Racey, watching closely Jack Harpe from under lowered lids.

Did his last remark strike a glint from the other man's eyes? He thought it did. Certainly Jack Harpe's eyes had narrowed suddenly and slightly.

"Yeah," Jack Harpe said, "I ain't counting on having any fussing with either the 88 or the Bar S. Of course Baldy Barbee and the Anvil are different. Dunno how they'll take it. Dunno that I care-much."

"Which is why you're payin' fifty per."

Jack Harpe nodded. "Yep. Gotta be prepared for them fellers-Baldy

Barbee and the Anvil outfit."

"You're right," assented Racey Dawson. "Mustn't let 'em catch you napping. You would look foolish then, wouldn't you?" He broke off with a sounding laugh and slapped a silly leg.

"How about it, gents?" inquired Jack Harpe. "Are you riding for me or not?"

"You wanting to know right now this minute?"

"I don't have to know right now, because I won't be ready for you to begin for two or three weeks, but knowing would help my plans a few. I gotta figure things out ahead."

"Shore, shore. Let you know day after to-morrow, or sooner, maybe.

How's that?"

"Good enough. Remember yore wages start the day you say when, even if you don't begin work for a month yet. All I'd ask is for you to stay round town where I can get hold of you easy. G'night."

With this the stranger slid from the chair, opened the door part way, and oozed into the hall. He closed the door without a sound. He regained his own room in equal silence. Racey did not hear the shutting of the other's door, but he heard the springs of the cot squeak under Jack Harpe's weight as he lay down.

Swing Tunstall framed a remark with his lips only. Racey Dawson shook his head. The partition was too thin and Jack Harpe's ears were too long and sharp for him to risk even the tiniest of whispers. With his hand he made the Indian sign for "to-morrow," stretched out his long legs, yawned-and fell almost instantly asleep.

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