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Oh, You Tex! By William MacLeod Raine Characters: 9371

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

Jack Roberts was in two minds whether to stop at the Longhorn saloon. He needed a cook in his trail outfit, and the most likely employment agency in Texas during that decade was the barroom of a gambling-house. Every man out of a job naturally drifted to the only place of entertainment.

The wandering eye of the foreman decided the matter for him. It fell upon a horse, and instantly ceased to rove. The cow-pony was tied to a hitching-rack worn shiny by thousands of reins. On the nose of the bronco was a splash of white. Stockings of the same color marked its legs. The left hind hoof was gashed and broken.

The rider communed with himself. "I reckon we'll 'light and take an interest, Jack. Them that looks for, finds."

He slid from the saddle and rolled a cigarette, after which he made friends with the sorrel and examined carefully the damaged foot.

"It's a li'l bit of a world after all," he commented. "You never can tell who you're liable to meet up with." The foreman drew from its scabbard a revolver and slid it back into place to make sure that it lay easy in its case. "You can't guess for sure what's likely to happen. I'd a heap rather be too cautious than have flowers sent me."

He sauntered through the open door into the gambling-house. It was a large hall, in the front part of which was the saloon. In the back the side wall to the next building had been ripped out to give more room. There was a space for dancing, as well as roulette, faro, chuckaluck, and poker tables. In one corner a raised stand for the musicians had been built.

The Longhorn was practically deserted. Not even a game of draw was in progress. The dance-girls were making up for lost sleep, and the patrons of the place were either at work or still in bed.

Three men were lined up in front of the bar. One was a tall, lank person, hatchet-faced and sallow. He had a cast in his eye that gave him a sinister expression. The second was slender and trim, black of hair and eye and mustache. His clothes were very good and up to date. The one farthest from the door was a heavy-set, unwieldy man in jeans, slouchy as to dress and bearing. Perhaps it was the jade eyes of the man that made Roberts decide instantly he was one tough citizen.

The line-rider ordered a drink.

"Hardware, please," said the bartender curtly.

"Enforcin' that rule, are they?" asked Roberts casually as his eyes swept over the other men.

"That's whatever. Y'betcha. We don't want no gay cowboys shootin' out our lights. No reflections, y'understand."

The latest arrival handed over his revolver, and the man behind the bar hung the scabbard on a nail. Half a dozen others were on a shelf beside it. For the custom on the frontier was that each rider from the range should deposit his weapons at the first saloon he entered. They were returned to him when he called for them just before leaving town. This tended to lessen the number of sudden deaths.

"Who you ridin' for, young fellow?" asked the sallow man of Roberts.

"For the A T O."

The dark young man turned and looked at the cowboy.

"So? How long have you been riding for Wadley?"

"Nine months."

"Don't think I've seen you before."

"I'm a line-rider-don't often get to the ranch-house."

"What ground do you cover?"

"From Dry Creek to the rim-rock, and south past Box Ca?on."

Three pair of eyes were focused watchfully on Roberts. The sallow man squirted tobacco at a knot in the floor and rubbed his bristly chin with the palm of a hand.

"Kinda lonesome out there, ain't it?" he ventured.

"That's as how you take it. The country is filled with absentees," admitted Roberts.

"Reckoned it was. Never been up that way myself. A sort of a bad-lands proposition, I've heard tell-country creased with arroyos, packed with rocks an' rattlesnakes mostly."

The heavy-set man broke in harshly. "Anybody else run cattle there except old man Wadley?"

"Settlers are comin' in on the other side of the rim-rock. Cattle drift across. I can count half a dozen brands 'most any day."

"But you never see strangers."

"Don't I?"

"I'm askin', do you?" The voice of the older man was heavy and dominant. It occurred to Roberts that he had heard that voice before.

"Oh!" Unholy imps of mirth lurked in the alert eyes of the line-rider. "Once in a while I do-last Thursday, for instance."

The graceful, dark young man straightened as does a private called to attention. "A trapper, maybe?" he said.

The cowboy brought his level gaze back from a barefoot negro washing the floor. "Not this time. He was a rustler."

"How do you know?" The high voice of the questioner betrayed excitement.

"I caught him brandin' a calf. He waved me round. I beat him to the Box Ca?on and saw him ridin' through."

"You saw him ridin' through? Where were you?" The startled eyes of the dark young man were fixed on him imperiously.

"From the bluff above."

"You don't say!" The voice of the heavy man cut in with jeering irony. The gleam of his jade eyes came through narrow-slitted lids. "Well, did you take him back to the ranch for a necktie party, or did you bury him in the gulch?"

The dark young man interrupted irritably. "I'm askin' these questions, Dinsmore. Now you, young fellow-what's your name?"

"Jack Roberts," answered the cowboy meekly.

"About this rustler-would you know him again?"

The line-rider smiled inscrutably. He did not intend to tell all that he did not know. "He was ridin' a sorrel with a white splash on its nose, white stockin's, an' a bad hoof, the rear one-"

"You're a damn' liar." The words, flung out from some inner compulsion, as it were, served both as a confession and a challenge.

There was a moment of silence, tense and ominous. This was fighting talk.

The lank man leaned forward and whispered some remonstrance in the ear of the young fellow, but his suggestion was waved aside. "I'm runnin' this, Gurley."

The rider for the A T O showed neither surprise nor anger. He made a business announcement without stress or accent. "I expect it's you or me one for a lickin'. Hop to it, Mr. Rustler!"

Roberts did not wait for an acceptance of his invitation. He knew that the first two rules of battle are to strike first and to strike hard. His brown fist moved forward as though it had been shot from a gun. The other man crashed back against the wall and hung there dazed for a moment. The knuckles of that lean fist had caught him on the chin.

"Give him hell, Ford. You can curry a li'l' shorthorn like this guy with no trouble a-tall," urged Dinsmore.

The young man needed no urging. He gathered himself together and plunged forward. Always he had prided himself on being an athlete. He was the champion boxer of the small town where he had gone to school. Since he had returned to the West, he had put on flesh and muscle. But he had dissipated a good deal too, and no man not in the pink of condition had any right to stand up to tough Jack Roberts.

While the fight lasted, there was rapid action. Roberts hit harder and cleaner, but the other was the better boxer. He lunged and sidestepped cleverly, showing good foot-work and a nice judgment of distance. For several minutes he peppered the line-rider with neat hits. Jack bored in for more. He drove a straight left home and closed one of his opponent's eyes. He smashed through the defense of his foe with a power that would not be denied.

"Keep a-comin', Ford. You shore have got him goin' south," encouraged Gurley.

But the man he called Ford knew it was not true. His breath was coming raggedly. His arms were heavy as though weighted with lead. The science upon which he had prided himself was of no use against this man of steel. Already his head was singing so that he saw hazily.

The finish came quickly. The cowboy saw his chance, feinted with his left and sent a heavy body blow to the heart. The knees of the other sagged. He sank down and did not try to rise again.

Presently his companions helped him to his feet. "He-he took me by surprise," explained the beaten man with a faint attempt at bluster.

"I'll bet I did," assented Jack cheerfully. "An' I'm liable to surprise you again if you call me a liar a second time."

"You've said about enough, my friend," snarled the man who had been spoken to as Dinsmore. "You get away with this because the fight was on the square, but don't push yore luck too far."

The three men passed out of the front door. Roberts turned to the barkeeper.

"I reckon the heavy-set one is Pete Dinsmore. The cock-eyed guy must be Steve Gurley. But who is the young fellow I had the mixup with?"

The man behind the bar gave information promptly. "He's Rutherford Wadley-son of the man who signs yore pay-checks. Say, I heard Buck Nelson needs a mule-skinner, in case you're lookin' for a job."

Jack felt a sudden sinking of the heart. He had as good as told the son of his boss that he was a rustler, and on top of that he had given him a first-class lacing. The air-castles he had been building came tumbling down with a crash. He had already dreamed himself from a trail foreman to the majordomo of the A T O ranch. Instead of which he was a line-rider out of a job.

"Where can I find Nelson?" he asked with a grin that found no echo in his heart. "Lead me to him."

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