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   Chapter 1 THE LINE-RIDER

Oh, You Tex! By William MacLeod Raine Characters: 10650

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Day was breaking in the Panhandle. The line-rider finished his breakfast of buffalo-hump, coffee, and biscuits. He had eaten heartily, for it would be long after sunset before he touched food again.

Cheerfully and tunelessly he warbled a cowboy ditty as he packed his supplies and prepared to go.

"Oh, it's bacon and beans most every day,

I'd as lief be eatin' prairie hay."

While he washed his dishes in the fine sand and rinsed them in the current of the creek he announced jocundly to a young world glad with spring:

"I'll sell my outfit soon as I can,

Won't punch cattle for no damn' man."

The tin cup beat time against the tin plate to accompany a kind of shuffling dance. Jack Roberts was fifty miles from nowhere, alone on the desert, but the warm blood of youth set his feet to moving. Why should he not dance? He was one and twenty, stood five feet eleven in his socks, and weighed one hundred and seventy pounds of bone, sinew, and well-packed muscle. A son of blue skies and wide, wind-swept spaces, he had never been ill in his life. Wherefore the sun-kissed world looked good to him.

He mounted a horse picketed near the camp and rode out to a remuda of seven cow-ponies grazing in a draw. Of these he roped one and brought it back to camp, where he saddled it with deft swiftness.

The line-rider swung to the saddle and put his pony at a jog-trot. He topped a hill and looked across the sunlit mesas which rolled in long swells far as the eye could see. The desert flowered gayly with the purple, pink, and scarlet blossoms of the cacti and with the white, lilylike buds of the Spanish bayonet. The yucca and the prickly pear were abloom. He swept the panorama with trained eyes. In the distance a little bunch of antelope was moving down to water in single file. On a slope two miles away grazed a small herd of buffalo. No sign of human habitation was written on that vast solitude of space.

The cowboy swung to the south and held a steady road gait. With an almost uncanny accuracy he recognized all signs that had to do with cattle. Though cows, half hidden in the brush, melted into the color of the hillside, he picked them out unerringly. Brands, at a distance so great that a tenderfoot could have made of them only a blur, were plain as a primer to him.

Cows that carried on their flanks the A T O, he turned and started northward. As he returned, he would gather up these strays and drive them back to their own range. For in those days, before the barbed wire had reached Texas and crisscrossed it with boundary lines, the cowboy was a fence more mobile than the wandering stock.

It was past noon when Roberts dropped into a draw where an immense man was lying sprawled under a bush. The recumbent man was a mountain of flesh; how he ever climbed to a saddle was a miracle; how a little cow-pony carried him was another. Yet there was no better line-rider in the Panhandle than Jumbo Wilkins.

"'Lo, Texas," the fat man greeted.

The young line-rider had won the nickname of "Texas" in New Mexico a year or two before by his aggressive championship of his native State. Somehow the sobriquet had clung to him even after his return to the Panhandle.

"'Lo, Jumbo," returned the other. "How?"

"Fat like a match. I'm sure losin' flesh. Took up another notch in my belt yestiddy."

Roberts shifted in the saddle, resting his weight on the horn and the ball of one foot for ease. He was a slim, brown youth, hard as nails and tough as whipcord. His eyes were quick and wary. In spite of the imps of mischief that just now lighted them, one got an impression of strength. He might or might not be, in the phrase of the country, a "bad hombre," but it was safe to say he was an efficient one.

"Quick consumption, sure," pronounced the younger man promptly. "You don't look to me like you weigh an ounce over three hundred an' fifty pounds. Appetite kind o' gone?"

"You're damn whistlin'. I got an ailment, I tell you, Tex. This mo'nin' I didn't eat but a few slices of bacon an' some lil' steaks an' a pan or two o' flapjacks an' mebbe nine or ten biscuits. Afterward I felt kind o' bloated like. I need some sa'saparilla. Now, if I could make out to get off for a few days-"

"You could get that sarsaparilla across the bar at the Bird Cage, couldn't you, Jumbo?" the boy grinned.

The whale of a man looked at him reproachfully. "You never seen me shootin' up no towns or raisin' hell when I was lit up. I can take a drink or leave it alone."

"That's right too. Nobody lets it alone more than you do when it can't be got. I've noticed that."

"You cayn't devil me, boy. I was punchin' longhorns when yore mammy was paddlin' you for stealin' the sugar. Say, that reminds me. I'm plumb out o' sugar. Can you loan me some till Pedro gits around? I got to have sugar or I begin to fall off right away," the big man whined.

The line-riders chatted casually of the topics that interest men in the land of wide, empty frontiers. Of Indians they had something to say, of their diminishing grub supply more. Jumbo mentioned that he had found an A T O cow dead by a water-hole. They spoke incidentally of the Dinsmore gang, a band of rustlers operating in No Man's Land. They had little news of people, since neither of them had for three weeks seen

another human being except Quint Sullivan, the line-rider who fenced the A T O cattle to the east of Roberts.

Presently Roberts nodded a good-bye and passed again into the solitude of empty spaces. The land-waves swallowed him. Once more he followed draws, crossed washes, climbed cow-backed hills, picking up drift-cattle as he rode.

It was late afternoon when he saw a thin spiral of smoke from a rise of ground. Smoke meant that some human being was abroad in the land, and every man on the range called for investigation. The rider moved forward to reconnoiter.

He saw a man, a horse, a cow, a calf, and a fire. When these five things came together, it meant that somebody was branding. The present business of Roberts was to find out what brand was on the cow and what one was being run on the flank of the calf. He rode forward at a slow canter.

The man beside the fire straightened. He took off his hat and swept it in front of him in a semicircle from left to right. The line-rider understood the sign language of the plains. He was being "waved around." The man was serving notice upon him to pass in a wide circle. It meant that the dismounted man did not intend to let himself be recognized. The easy deduction was that he was a rustler.

The cowboy rode steadily forward. The man beside the fire picked up a rifle lying at his feet and dropped a bullet a few yards in front of the advancing man.

Roberts drew to a halt. He was armed with a six-shooter, but a revolver was of no use at this distance. For a moment he hesitated. Another bullet lifted a spurt of dust almost at his horse's feet.

The line-rider waited for no more definite warning. He waved a hand toward the rustler and shouted down the wind: "Some other day." Quickly he swung his horse to the left and vanished into an arroyo. Then, without an instant's loss of time, he put his pony swiftly up the draw toward a "rim-rock" edging a mesa. Over to the right was Box Ca?on, which led to the rough lands of a terrain unknown to Roberts. It was a three-to-one chance that the rustler would disappear into the ca?on.

The young man rode fast, putting his bronco at the hills with a rush. He was in a treeless country, covered with polecat brush. Through this he plunged recklessly, taking breaks in the ground without slackening speed in the least.

Near the summit of the rise Roberts swung from the saddle and ran forward through the brush, crouching as he moved. With a minimum of noise and a maximum of speed he negotiated the thick shrubbery and reached the gorge.

He crept forward cautiously and looked down. Through the shin-oak which grew thick on the edge of the bluff he made out a man on horseback driving a calf. The mount was a sorrel with white stockings and a splash of white on the nose. The distance was too great for Roberts to make out the features of the rider clearly, though he could see the fellow was dark and slender.

The line-rider watched him out of sight, then slithered down the face of the bluff to the sandy wash. He knelt down and studied intently the hoofprints written in the soil. They told him that the left hind hoof of the animal was broken in an odd way.

Jack Roberts clambered up the steep edge of the gulch and returned to the cow-pony waiting for him with drooping hip and sleepy eyes.

"Oh, you Two Bits, we'll amble along and see where our friend is headin' for."

He picked a way down into the ca?on and followed the rustler. At the head of the gulch the man on the sorrel had turned to the left. The cowboy turned also in that direction. A sign by the side of the trail confronted him.

THIS IS PETE DINSMORE'S ROAD-

TAKE ANOTHER

"The plot sure thickens," grinned Jack. "Reckon I won't take Pete's advice to-day. It don't listen good."

He spoke aloud, to himself or to his horse or to the empty world at large, as lonely riders often do on the plains or in the hills, but from the heavens above an answer dropped down to him in a heavy, masterful voice:

"Git back along that trail pronto!"

Roberts looked up. A flat rock topped the bluff above. From the edge of it the barrel of a rifle projected. Behind it was a face masked by a bandana handkerchief. The combination was a sinister one.

If the line-rider was dismayed or even surprised, he gave no evidence of it.

"Just as you say, stranger. I reckon you're callin' this dance," he admitted.

"You'll be lucky if you don't die of lead-poisonin' inside o' five minutes. No funny business! Git!"

The cowboy got. He whirled his pony in its tracks and sent it jogging down the back trail. A tenderfoot would have taken the gulch at breakneck speed. Most old-timers would have found a canter none too fast. But Jack Roberts held to a steady road gait. Not once did he look back-but every foot of the way till he had turned a bend in the ca?on there was an ache in the small of his back. It was a purely sympathetic sensation, for at any moment a bullet might come crashing between the shoulders.

Once safely out of range the rider mopped a perspiring face.

"Wow! This is your lucky day, Jack. Ain't you got better sense than to trail rustlers with no weapon but a Sunday-School text? Well, here's hopin'! Maybe we'll meet again in the sweet by an' by. You never can always tell."

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