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The Sunset Trail By Alfred Henry Lewis Characters: 33408

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

Aunt Nettie Dawson, because of her tenderness of heart and the hard acridities of her tongue, had made for herself a place in the popular esteem. The well-to-do and healthy feared her for her sarcasms, while upon the sick she descended in the guise of an unmixed blessing. Those who mourned, and by whose hearths sat trouble, found in her the shadow of a great rock in a weary land.

Cimarron Bill was the personal nephew of Aunt Nettie, the other inhabitants of Dodge being nephews and nieces by brevet, and it was to Cimarron Bill that Mr. Masterson was indebted for the advantage of Aunt Nettie's acquaintance.

"She's some frosty, Bat," explained Cimarron Bill, in apology for the frigid sort of Aunt Nettie's reception, "she's shore some frosty. But if you-all was ever to get shot up, now, for mebby holdin' four aces, or because you had become a drawback to a quadrille, she'd nacherally jump in an' nuss you like you was worth savin'."

Mr. Masterson and Cimarron Bill had met for the first time the Autumn before, and their friendship came about in this fashion. Sun City, a thriving metropolis, consisting of a tavern and a store, lay far to the south of Dodge and close against the Indian Territory line. Mr. Masterson, coming north from the buffalo range, rode into Sun City late one October afternoon, and since his affairs were not urgent decided to remain till morning.

Mr. Stumps, proprietor of the Palace Hotel, being the tavern aforesaid, wore an uneasy look when Mr. Masterson avouched his intention to tarry, and submitted that his rooms were full.

"Leastwise," observed the doubtful Mr. Stumps, "all three beds is full but one; an' that is took by Cimarron Bill."

"Is this Bill person here?" queried Mr. Masterson.

"Well he ain't exactly here none just now," responded Mr. Stumps, "but he's liable to come pirootin' in. He p'inted out this mornin' for Tascosa; but he's a heap uncertain that a-way, an' it wouldn't surprise me none if he was to change his mind. All I know is he says as he rides away, 'Don't let no shorthorn have my room, Mr. Stumps, as I may need it myse'f a whole lot; an' in case I do I don't want to be obleeged to bootcher no harmless stranger for its possession.'"

"All the same," said Mr. Masterson with asperity, "I reckon I'll take that room."

"Thar'll be an uprisin' if Cimarron Bill comes back," said Mr. Stumps, as he led Mr. Masterson to the second floor.

"You won't be in it," replied Mr. Masterson confidently. "I won't ask you to help put it down."

Mr. Masterson was searching his war-bags for a clean blue shirt, meaning to do honour to Sun City at its evening meal. Suddenly a youth of his own age appeared in the door. So cat-foot had been his approach that even the trained ear of Mr. Masterson was given no creaking notice of his coming up the stair. The youthful stranger was equipped of a dancing eye and a Colt's-45, and Mr. Masterson by some mighty instinct knew him for Cimarron Bill. The question of identity, however, was instantly made clear.

"My name's Cimarron Bill," remarked the youthful stranger, carefully covering Mr. Masterson with his weapon, "an' I'd like to ask whatever be you-all doin' in my apartments?" Then, waiving reply, he went on: "Thar, don't answer; take the short cut out of the window. I'm fretted, an' I wants to be alone."

Mr. Masterson, to facilitate those proposed improvements in his garb, had unbuckled his pistol and laid it on the bed. Cimarron Bill, with militant genius, stepped in between Mr. Masterson and his artillery. Under these convincing circumstances the suggested window seemed the one solution, and Mr. Masterson adopted it. The twelve-foot leap to the soft prairie grass was nothing; and since Cimarron Bill, with a fine contempt for consequences in nowise calculated to prove his prudence, pitched Mr. Masterson's belt and pistol, as well as his war-bags, after him, the latter was driven to confess that erratic personage a fair and fearless gentleman. The tacit confession, however, served as no restraint upon his movements, and seizing his weapon Mr. Masterson in his turn went cat-foot up the stair. As had Cimarron Bill before him, he towered presently in the narrow doorway, his steady muzzle to the fore.

"Jump!" quoth Mr. Masterson, and Cimarron Bill leaped from the same window which so lately had been the avenue of Mr. Masterson's departure.

Cimarron Bill did not have the luck which had attended the gymnastics of Mr. Masterson, and sprained his ankle. Whereupon, Cimarron Bill sat up and called for a glass of liquor, solacing himself the while with evil words. Following the drink, Mr. Stumps negotiated a truce between his two guests, and Mr. Masterson came down and shook Cimarron Bill by the hand. "What I like about you," said Cimarron Bill, as he met Mr. Masterson's courtesy halfway, "is your persistency. An' as you seem sort o' took with them apartments of mine, on second thought we'll ockepy 'em in yoonison."

Mr. Masterson and Cimarron Bill became as Damon and Pythias. In the months that followed they were partners, killing buffaloes and raiding Indians for ponies, share and share alike. Mr. Masterson came finally to know Aunt Nettie. And because Cimarron Bill loved her, he also loved her, and suffered in humble silence from her caustic tongue as did his mate. For was not the fortune of one the fortune of the other? and were they not equal partners in all that came their way?

Cimarron Bill's most glaring fault was a complete inaptitude for commerce. It was this defect that taught him, while at play in Mr. Webster's Alamo saloon, to place a value on "queens-up" so far in advance of their merits, that in one disastrous moment he was swept clean of his last dollar and his last pony. For a buffalo hunter thus to be set afoot was a serious blow; more, it smelled of disgrace. Your Western gentleman, dismounted and obliged to a painful pedestrianism, has been ever a symbol of the abject; also his standing is shaken in what social circles he affects. These several truths were abundantly known to Cimarron Bill, and on the morning after his bankruptcy he begged the use of a pony from Mr. Masterson with a purpose of straightening up his prostrate destinies.

"I'll ride down," explained Cimarron Bill, easily, "to the divide between Medicine Lodge Creek an' the Cimarron, an' the first Cheyenne who comes teeterin' along on a proper pony ought to fit me out. I won't be afoot long enough to wear out my moccasins; you can bet a blue stack on that!"

Cimarron Bill's plan to remount himself was one feasible enough. True, as stated in a previous chapter, there existed an official peace between the Cheyennes and their paleface brothers. Unofficially, it was the quenchless practice of both sides to kill and scalp each other, whenever an opportunity linked with secrecy and safety was presented. It was the pleasure of the Cheyennes to fall upon isolated camps of buffalo hunters and exterminate them; the broad prairies, had they spoken, would have told a hundred such red stories. By way of reprisal, the enterprising paleface wiped out what Cheyennes crossed his path. Moreover, it was the delight of the paleface, when not otherwise engaged, to raid a Cheyenne village, and drive off the ponies. The ponies, saleable as hot cakes, went at thirty dollars the head in Dodge; wherefore the practice, apart from the thrill and joy thereof, was not without its profit. Cimarron Bill, however, did not contemplate a raid; what he aimed at was a single pony, and there were safer, even if more sanguinary methods by which a single pony might be arrived at.

Bear Shield's band of Cheyennes had pitched their tepees on the Cimarron, thirty miles to the south of Sun City. The region was a fair hunting ground, rife of buffalo. The attraction to Bear Shield's people, however, was Sun City itself. What was a thirty-mile ride to a Cheyenne, with nothing upon his mind but firewater? The latter refreshment abode privily to his call in Sun City, and he might purchase at the rate of a pint for a buffalo robe. So brisk was trade that every day from one to a dozen Cheyennes, whose hearts were low and thirsty, rode into Sun City, each with a modest pack of robes, to presently ride forth robeless but rapturous.

Southward from Sun City ran the trail for that point on the Cimarron where Bear Shield and his tribesmen, their squaws and pappooses and dogs and ponies, lived and moved and had their aboriginal being. As the trail crossed Medicine Lodge Creek it crowded the base of a thickly wooded knoll, at the back of which a bald precipice fell away for a sheer two hundred feet.

It was the wont of that paleface, who felt pressed upon by the need of a Cheyenne scalp or pony or both, to lie in hopeful ambush on the wooded knoll. He would not grow weary with much watching; his reward was sure to appear within the hour, in the shape of a drunken Cheyenne, reeling in his saddle with the robe-bought hospitality of Sun City fifteen miles away. The sullen Sharp's would speak, and the bibulous Cheyenne go headlong. Then the paleface who had sniped him would mount his own pony with speed, and round up the riderless pony of that Cheyenne who had been. Once the Cheyenne's pony was secured, the paleface would scalp and strip his victim; then, using his lariat, he would drag what he didn't want to the precipice adverted to, and toss it over.

Full two hundred leading citizens of Bear Shield's village had been blotted out, before the Cheyennes became aware of their fate and the grim manner of it; for the paleface never exposed his ambush by letting any Cheyenne get away. If the census of the Cheyenne party exceeded the count of rifles on the knoll, they were permitted to ride by in innocent drunkenness, unconscious of the death they had grazed. As for what dead Cheyennes went over the cliff, certain coyotes and ravens, educated of a prevailing plenty to haunt the spot, would in an hour remove the last trace of their taking off. Full two hundred Cheyennes, the flower of Bear Shield's band, were sent to the happy hunting grounds, at the base of the wooded knoll on Medicine Lodge Creek, before their wondering relatives solved the puzzle of their disappearance. Once the gruesome riddle was read, the Cheyennes as a nation painted for war. It was then that Bear Shield drove North like a storm, leaving Sun City a memory, and killing out the last injurious paleface for forty miles around. That, however, is to one side of our narrative, which has to do with Cimarron Bill, about to re-establish himself as a mounted and therefore reputable member of society.

Mr. Masterson sought to dissuade Cimarron Bill from his enterprise. It was not that he objected to the other's vigorous scheme of gaining a remount; he wasn't so tenderly given towards Cheyennes as all that. The government, in favor of appearances, might pretend to preserve the Cheyenne; but Mr. Masterson knew that in reality no close season for Cheyennes existed more than it did for gray wolves. But the wooded knoll on Medicine Lodge Creek was distant; to go and come meant days; the profit, one pony, was slight for so much effort and time and travel. Mr. Masterson, in comparison with the investment, pointed out the meagre sort of the reward. Also he offered to give Cimarron Bill a pony.

Mr. Masterson's arguments availed nothing; Cimarron Bill was in that temper of diligent virtue, common with folk who have just finished a season of idleness and wicked revelry. He declined Mr. Masterson's pony; he would win a pony for himself.

"No se'f-respectin' gent," observed Cimarron Bill, "can accept gifts from another gent. As you sow so shall you reap; havin' recklessly lost my pony, I must now win out another by froogality an' honest industry. Besides it ain't jest the pony; thar's the skelp-worth twenty-five dollars, it is, at the Dodge Bank. That's a bet you overlooks. With that pony, an' them twenty-five dollars for the skelp, I can begin life anoo."

"Then," returned Mr. Masterson, disgustedly, "if you're going to play the fool, and waste five days and ride seventy-five miles and back to get a thirty-dollar pony and a twenty-five-dollar scalp, I might as well be a fool mate to you, and go along."

"No, you stay here," expostulated Cimarron Bill. "I might get downed; in which event it'll be for you to look after Aunt Nettie."

Cimarron Bill, despite his restless ways and careless want of forethought, always provided for Aunt Nettie. This was no work of difficulty; Aunt Nettie's needs were neither numerous nor expensive, and, since a gentleman of the lively accuracy of Cimarron Bill could in the season kill and cure for his share fifty dollars' worth of buffalo robes a day, they were readily overcome.

"One hundred shots," Cimarron Bill was wont to say, "from my old eight-squar', an' Aunt Nettie is fixed for one plumb year."

Mr. Masterson was about to remonstrate against remaining in Dodge, but Cimarron Bill interrupted.

"As a favor to me, Bat," he said, "merely as a favor to me. I won't be gone a week; an' I'll feel easier thinkin' you're left to look after Aunt Nettie in case of accidents. It's inside o' the possible, d'ye see, for this B'ar Shield outfit to get me; an Injun, now an' then, does win a pot, you know."

Mr. Masterson made over to the use of Cimarron Bill a chestnut broncho, famous for bottom and bad habits. After he had cantered away, Mr. Masterson reflected uneasily on Cimarron Bill's anxiety over Aunt Nettie, the same being out of common. Mr. Masterson thought this a portent of bad luck. The notion made Mr. Masterson nervous; when Cimarron Bill had been absent a fortnight and no news of him, the nervousness grew into alarm.

"I wonder," mused Mr. Masterson, gloomily, "if those Bear Shield outcasts have bumped him off. He was that careless, Bill was, some such turn might have been waiting in the deck for him any deal at all," and Mr. Masterson sighed.

Mr. Trask's freight teams came sauntering into Dodge from Fort Elliot; they might have cut the trail of the missing Cimarron Bill, and Mr. Masterson sought the Trask mule-skinners for information. They had freighted through Sun City, indeed their route ran by the wooded knoll so fatal to Cheyennes; not one, however, had heard sound or beheld sign of the vanished Cimarron Bill. At that, Mr. Masterson buckled on his six-shooter, thrust his rifle into the scabbard that garnished his saddle, and while the frost was on the short dry buffalo grass one December morning, sped southward for news.

At Sun City, Mr. Stumps of the Palace Hotel bore testimony that Cimarron Bill had passed one night at his caravansary, making merry, and departed full of confidence and Old Jordan in the morning.

"But he didn't pack no outside liquor with him," observed the experienced Mr. Stumps, who was capable of a deduction, "an' what jag he carried would have been worn plumb away long before ever he reached Medicine Lodge Creek."

Mr. Stumps averred that this was the last and all he knew of Cimarron Bill.

Mr. Masterson might have gone thirty miles further and interviewed Bear Shield himself. That befeathered chieftain, however, was a savage of prudence and counsel, and no one to boast of paleface scalps, though a thousand were drying in the lodges of his people. No, nothing could be gathered from the Cheyennes themselves. It was less trouble, and quite as sagacious, for Mr. Masterson to believe that Cimarron Bill had fallen a Cheyenne sacrifice, and abandon investigation. Adjusting it, therefore, in his own mind that Cimarron Bill had perished, Mr. Masterson started for Dodge, cogitating vengeance.

Mr. Masterson, while sad, was not to be shocked by a thing so commonplace as death, even though the one fallen had been his own blanket-mate. And he blamed no one-neither Cimarron Bill nor the Cheyenne who had taken his hair. Such events were as the certain incidents of existence, and might be counted on in their coming. Yesterday it had been the fate of Cimarron Bill; it might be his own to-morrow. Meanwhile, by every Western rule, it was his instant business to take a price from the Cheyennes, in scalps and ponies, for the lost life.

And there was Aunt Nettie. Mr. Masterson recalled the final urgency of Cimarron Bill's exhortations to look after her in case he never returned.

"And I surely will," ruminated Mr. Masterson. "When he said that, Bill must have felt, even if he couldn't see, the cloud that hung over the future."

Mr. Masterson deemed it his duty to acquaint Aunt Nettie with the demise of Cimarron Bill; at the terror of s

uch a mission he shook in his saddle. Slowly he rode up to the little three-room cottage where Aunt Nettie made her home.

"Miss Dawson," began Mr. Masterson, for while the lady was "Aunt Nettie" in the conversation of Dodge, she was invariably "Miss Dawson" to her face, "Miss Dawson, I'm afraid Bill's dead." Mr. Masterson faltered as he spoke these words. "If I knew how," he went on, "to break the information soft, I'd do it; but such delicate plays are beyond my reach. All I can do is ride in and say that in my judgment Bear Shield's outfit has downed him."

"Oh!" retorted Aunt Nettie, retaining, with hand on hip, that attitude of scorn which she had assumed as she listened to Mr. Masterson, "oh, all you can do is ride in an' say that in your jedgment"-the word came off Aunt Nettie's tongue most witheringly-"B'ar Shield's outfit has downed my Billy! Well then let me tell you this, Bat Masterson; thar ain't no Cheyenne ever painted his face who could corral my Billy. Thar, vamos; I ain't got no time to waste talkin' to children in their teens-which you ain't seen twenty none as yet, Bat Masterson-who can't think of nothin' better to do than come pesterin' into camp with a theery that them B'ar Shield felons has bushwhacked my Billy."

"But, Miss Dawson," urged Mr. Masterson, "what I wanted--"

"No matter what you wanted," interrupted Aunt Nettie. "You get yourself together an' pull your freight! If, as you says, in your jedgment Billy's gone, what be you doin' in Dodge, I'd like to ask? Why ain't you back on the Cimarron gatherin' ha'r an' ponies, an' gettin' even for Billy? Thar, line out o' here! While I'm throwin' away time on you-all, my bread's burnin'. I can smell it plumb here."

"Aunt Nettie," thought Mr. Masterson, as he withdrew, "is goin' to be a difficult lady to take care of. It's four for one, when I have to offer her money, or try to hang up a hindquarter of buffalo in her kitchen, she'll chunk me up with stove-wood, or anything else that's loose and little, and handy at the time. However, it'll have to be gone through with; Cimarron Bill is dead, and his last word was for me to look out for Aunt Nettie."

As he swung into the saddle, following his visit to Aunt Nettie, a flush of shame and anger, which even the terrors of that formidable spinster could not suppress, showed through the bronze on Mr. Masterson's face. The taunt about being in Dodge when he ought to be over on the Cimarron, harvesting a vengeance, had stirred him deeply. To have it intimated that his courage was slow, and his friendship cool, wore sorely on the soul of Mr. Masterson. It was the harder to bear when flung from the tongue of a woman; for his hands were tied, and his mouth was closed against resentment. "One thing," thought Mr. Masterson, by way of self-consolation, "the man never made a moccasin track in Dodge who could have said as much and got away. Aunt Nettie's right though; I ought to be evening up for Billy right now."

Time stood a week later, and along the shallow Cimarron-as in every other region civilised or savage-it was Christmas night. The weather was mild, the bare earth without frost, while on the slow wind creeping in from the north there rode the moist odour of snow. The moon, old and on the wane, was swinging low in the western sky, and what dim lights it offered were made more dim by a constant drift of clouds across its yellow face.

Scattered along the north bank of the Cimarron, a straggling mile or more, stood the tepees of Bear Shield's people. It was well beyond midnight, and nothing vocal about the camp save the occasional short yelp of a dog, made melancholy by the hour's lonesomeness. Now and then an ember of some dying fire burned for a fierce moment, and then blinked out. Mr. Masterson, riding slowly down the opposite bank, and taking shrewd care to keep deep within the shadow of the woods, counted seventy-two lodges-a probable population of seven hundred and twenty, for a plainsman's census argues ten to a lodge.

Mr. Masterson had located the band of ponies, which made up the riches of Bear Shield, late in the dull gray afternoon, while he lay hidden in a dry arroyo. As it grew darker, he had crept nearer, keeping ever the location of the ponies which, in a rambling, ragged herd, were grazing up the wind. Mr. Masterson, on the south bank of the Cimarron, was heedfully to leeward of the herd; a proper piece of caution, for an Indian pony, at the earliest paleface taint to alarm the breeze, will scream like a wronged panther.

Arriving at the place where he meant to ford the river and begin his drive, Mr. Masterson halted for a cloud of unusual size and thickness to blanket the blurred radiance of the dwindling moon. Such a cloud was on its way; from where it hung curtain-wise on the horizon it should take ten minutes before its eclipse of the interfering moon began.

While he waited Mr. Masterson removed his sombrero and fastened it back of the cantle by a saddle-string. Also, he unstrapped his blanket and wrapped it about his shoulders, for it was part of Mr. Masterson's strategy to play the Cheyenne for this raid. It was among the chances that he would run across an Indian herder or meet with some belated savage coming into camp. The latter was not likely, however, since the last journey an Indian will make is a night journey. The night is sacred to spirits, and he hesitates to violate it by being abroad; in the day the spirits sleep.

While Mr. Masterson waited deep beneath the cottonwoods, a splash from the river's brink would now and again show where the bank was caving, or the crackling of branches, and the profound flapping of great wings overhead, mark how some wild turkey-a heavy old gobbler, probably-had broken down a bough with sheer stress of fat, and was saving himself from a fall. Far away could be heard the faltering cry of a coyote, bewailing a jackrabbit which he had not caught.

That thick cloud, waited for, began to encroach on the moon, and Mr. Masterson, his pony stepping as though walking on a world of eggs, headed for the river. The place had been well considered; there was no tall bank off which to plump, but instead a gradual sandy descent.

The pony walked into the water as silently as a ghost. The current rippled and rose in petulant chuckles of protest about the pony's legs; but, since its deepest was no more than to the hocks, Mr. Masterson honoured it with scant attention.

Among Bear Shield's ponies was a giant mule, renegade and runaway from some government train. This long-eared traitor remembered his days of burden, and the thing to please him least was the sight or sound or scent of a paleface. The paleface was the symbol of thralldom and sore stripes, and the old bellsharp desired none of his company.

By stress of brain, which counts among mules as among men, the old bellsharp had risen to the rank of herd leader, and the Bear Shield ponies would drill and wheel and go charging off at his signal. As Mr. Masterson and his pony scrambled up the bank a flaw in the wind befell, and a horrifying whiff of the stealthy invader reached the old bellsharp. Thereupon, he lifted up his voice in clangorous condemnation, after the manner of his species. The harsh cry echoed up and down the slumbrous Cimarron like an outcry of destruction.

With that cry for his cue, Mr. Masterson drove home the spurs and began a rapid round-up of the startled ponies. At the warning call of the old bellsharp, the herd members came rushing towards him. Placing himself at their head, his "hee-haw" of alarm still ringing like a bugle, he bore them away at a thunderous gallop for the tepees.

Hard at the hocks of the flying battalion came Mr. Masterson. The outfit swept through Bear Shield's village for its entire length, Mr. Masterson lying low along his pony's neck and letting his blanket flap in the wind bravely, for purposes of deception. After the ponies, charged Mr. Masterson; after Mr. Masterson, charged a riotous brigade of dogs; the uproar might have been heard as far as Crooked Creek.

As the mad stampede swept on, ever and anon a pony more blind or more clumsy than his fellows would bump into a lodge. At that, an indignant Cheyenne would tear aside the lodge-flap, protrude his outraged head, and curse the ponies aboriginally. Observing the blanketed Mr. Masterson, the savage would go back to bed, gratefully taking him for some public-spirited neighbour who was striving to return the ponies to their grazing ground and inspire them with normal peace.

The flying ponies-the vociferous old bellsharp having fallen to the rear, through lack of speed-wheeled against a thick clump of cottonwood, and then broke north into the open. Their fever of fear was subsiding, they were taking a more modest pace, and Mr. Masterson began turning in the corners, and closing up the flanks, of the retreating band. He made no effort to crowd or press, but gave them every encouragement to regain their confidence, and moderate their flight. Presently the herd was jogging comfortably; and because the wind was in their faces they were furnished no disquieting notice of Mr. Masterson's paleface identity through the medium of their noses.

The ponies had traveled twenty minutes, and were cleverly bunched, when Mr. Masterson made a discovery. Off to the right in the dull half-dark he beheld a figure, blanketed, mounted, riding like the wind, and busy with the stragglers as they pointed out of the herd. Like a flash, Mr. Masterson whipped his rifle from its scabbard. Throwing the blanket aside, to free his hands and arms, he fell a trifle to the rear, and began edging towards the stranger.

From his riding, and because he seemed so willingly bent on sending the ponies northward, Mr. Masterson felt assured that the stranger was a white man. The expiring moon threw a last parallel ray along the surface of the plains, and Mr. Masterson saw that the stranger's pony was a chestnut. Also it had the hard and bitter gait of Alazan, the bronco wherewith he had equipped Cimarron Bill when that lost one issued south from Dodge to his wiping out.

Mr. Masterson drew nearer; of a truth the jolty pony was Alazan! Who then was the stranger? Could he, by some miracle of heaven, be Cimarron Bill? Mr. Masterson gave a curlew's whistle, which had been a signal between him and Cimarron Bill. At the sound the stranger wheeled upon him.

Mr. Masterson pulled up his pony; the sharp cluck! cluck! of the buffalo gun clipped the night air as he cocked it, for Mr. Masterson was a prudent man. The stranger, sitting fearlessly straight in his stirrups, bore down upon him with speed. Mr. Masterson watched him with the narrowed gaze of a lynx; as much as he might tell in the night, there was no weapon in the stranger's hands.

"Howdy, Bat!" cried the stranger, as he came up with a great rush. "I've knowed you for an hour."

Then Mr. Masterson let down the hammer of his Sharp's, slammed it back in its scabbard beneath his saddle-flap, and taking the stranger in a bear-hug, fairly tore him from the saddle. The stranger was Cimarron Bill; and in his youth Mr. Masterson was sentimental.

"Where have you been these weeks?" cried Mr. Masterson.

"I'll tell you later," returned Cimarron Bill. "We'd better clot up these ponies an' begin the drive, or they'll get our wind an' stampede for B'ar Shield's village."

It was beginning to snow-great soft clinging flakes, and each like a wet cold pinch of wool! The snow storm was both good and bad; it made it difficult to handle the ponies, but it subtracted from the chances of Bear Shield's successful pursuit.

Mr. Masterson and Cimarron Bill, one on the right and one on the left flank of the herd, riding to and fro like setter dogs quartering for birds, drove on throughout a hard four hours. They broke eastward to avoid Sun City; for it would have been impolite to bring those ponies through hamlet or ranch, and so threaten it with Bear Shield's anger.

With the first of dawn the tired riders, having brought the bunch into a stretch of country choice for that purpose, halted to make an inspection. The snow had ceased to fall, and the sun coming up gave them light enough to tell good from evil as presented in the shape of ponies. While Mr. Masterson held the herd, Cimarron Bill commenced cutting out the spent and worthless ones. When the weeding was over, there remained one hundred and thirty head, and the worst among them worth thirty dollars in the Dodge corrals. Throwing the riff-raff loose, Mr. Masterson and Cimarron Bill again took up their travels at a stiff road gait. They were forty-five miles from Dodge; worn as they were, they should still reach the Arkansas and Dodge by nightfall.

"And now," quoth Mr. Masterson, when they were straightened away for the north, "what have you been doing? Aunt Nettie was scared speechless. She thought the Cheyennes had run their brand on you."

Cimarron Bill's adventures were laid open. Ten miles out from Sun City he had crossed up with Red River Tom of the Bar-8-bar ranch. That well-informed boy had told him of a dance to be given three nights away, in the new camp-house of the B-in-a-Box outfit. "No common fandango," explained Cimarron Bill, "but the real thing, with people comin' from as far away as Tascosa an' Fort Sill. Nacherrally, I decided to attend. That Cheyenne I was after, an' his pony, could wait; the dance couldn't."

Cimarron Bill, continuing, told how he had cut across country for the home ranch of the B-in-a-Box. He arrived in good time, that is to say four hours prior to the fiddlers, which, as he expressed it, gave him space wherein "to liquor up" and get in proper key for the festival impending. While engaged upon these preliminaries he was shot in the leg by a fellow-guest with whom he disagreed.

"You see," explained Cimarron Bill, "this outlaw was a Texas ranger, an' after about six drinks I started to tell him what I thought of a prairie dog who would play policeman that a-way, for thirty dollars a month an' furnish his own hoss. One word leads to another an' the last one to the guns, an' the next news is I get plugged in the off hind laig. I wouldn't have cared so much," concluded Cimarron Bill, in mournful meditation over his mishap, "only he shot me before the first dance."

Cimarron Bill had been laid up in the new camp-house of the hospitable B-in-a-Box. Being able to mount and ride away, three days before Mr. Masterson encountered him, he had deemed it expedient to make a driving raid on Bear Shield's village on his journey home, and carry off a handful of ponies. Thus, by a coincidence of pony-raiding impulse, the two had been restored to one another.

"For you see," said Cimarron Bill, "I was still shy a hoss, the same as when I started out of Dodge."

"All the same," observed Mr. Masterson, severely, "you ought to have sent word to Aunt Nettie."

"Send Aunt Nettie word!" exclaimed Cimarron Bill. "I wasn't that locoed! Aunt Nettie would have been down on me like a fallin' star! Shore! she'd have deescended on that B-in-a-Box outfit like a mink on a settin' hen! I saveyed a heap better than to send Aunt Nettie word."

Vast was the joy of Dodge as Mr. Masterson and Cimarron Bill rode in with those Bear Shield ponies; prodigious was the trade-hubbub when, over at Mr. Trask's corrals-Mr. Wright officiating as auctioneer-one by one the herd was struck down to the highest bidder. Under the double stimulation of the holidays and the ponies, commerce received a boom, the like of which had not before been known in the trade annals of Dodge. In proof whereof, not alone Mr. Short at the Long Branch but Mr. Kelly at the Alhambra declared that never since either of them last saw the Missouri, had so much money been changed in at roulette and farobank in any similar space of time. Mr. Wright of the outfitting store confirmed these tales of commercial gorgeousness, and Mr. Masterson and Cimarron Bill were greeted and treated as public benefactors. Meanwhile, far away on the ravished Cimarron, Bear Shield was making wrathful medicine, and dancing the dances and singing the songs of him who has been robbed.

"Thar, you Bat Masterson!" exclaimed Aunt Nettie, as she heaped high the banquet board before him and her prodigal nephew. "Which it goes to show how feeble-witted you be. Yere you comes ghost-dancin' 'round with a yarn about my Billy bein' killed an' skelped! I told you then, what you now have the livin' sense to see, I hope, that thar was never the Cheyenne painted his face who could down my Billy, B'ar Shield himse'f not barred."

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