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   Chapter 6 CLINT WADLEY'S MESSENGER

Oh, You Tex! By William MacLeod Raine Characters: 12128

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Outside the door of the commandant's office Arthur Ridley stood for a moment and glanced nervously up and down the dirt road. In a hog-leather belt around his waist was six thousand dollars just turned over to him by Major Ponsford as the last payment for beef steers delivered at the fort according to contract some weeks earlier.

Arthur had decided not to start on the return journey until next morning, but he was not sure his judgment had been good. It was still early afternoon. Before nightfall he might be thirty miles on his way. The trouble with that was that he would then have to spend two nights out, and the long hours of darkness with their flickering shadows cast by the camp-fires would be full of torture for him. On the other hand, if he should stay till morning, word might leak out from the officers' quarters that he was carrying a large sum of money.

A drunken man came weaving down the street. He stopped opposite Ridley and balanced himself with the careful dignity of the inebriate. But the gray eyes, hard as those of a gunman, showed no trace of intoxication. Nor did the steady voice.

"Friend, are you Clint Wadley's messenger?"

The startled face of Ridley flew a flag of confession. "Why-what do you mean?" he stammered. Nobody was to have known that he had come to get the money for the owner of the A T O.

"None of my business, you mean," flung back the man curtly. "Good enough! It ain't. What's more, I don't give a damn. But listen: I was at the Buffalo Hump when two fellows came in. Me, I was most asleep, and they sat in the booth next to me. I didn't hear all they said, but I got this-that they're aimin' to hold up some messenger of Clint Wadley after he leaves town to-morrow. You're the man, I reckon. All right. Look out for yourself. That's all."

"But-what shall I do?" asked Ridley.

"Do? I don't care. I'm tellin' you-see? Do as you please."

"What would you do?" The danger and the responsibility that had fallen upon him out of a sky of sunshine paralyzed the young man's initiative.

The deep-set, flinty eyes narrowed to slits. "What I'd do ain't necessarily what you'd better do. What are you, stranger-high-grade stuff, or the run o' the pen?"

"I'm no gun-fighter, if that's what you mean."

"Then I'd make my get-away like a jackrabbit hell-poppin' for its hole. I got one slant at these fellows in the Buffalo Hump. They're bully-puss kind o' men, if you know what I mean."

"I don't. I'm from the East."

"They'll run it over you, bluff you off the map, take any advantage they can."

"Will they fight?"

"They'll burn powder quick if they get the drop on you."

"What are they like?"

The Texan considered. "One is a tall, red-headed guy; the other's a sawed-off, hammered-down little runt-but gunmen, both of 'em, or I'm a liar."

"They would probably follow me," said the messenger, worried.

"You better believe they will, soon as they hear you've gone."

Arthur kicked a little hole in the ground with the toe of his shoe. What had he better do? He could stay at the fort, of course, and appeal to Major Ponsford for help. But if he did, he would probably be late for his appointment with Wadley. It happened that the cattleman and the army officer had had a sharp difference of opinion about the merits of the herd that had been delivered, and it was not at all likely that Ponsford would give him a military guard to Tascosa. Moreover, he had a feeling that the owner of the A T O would resent any call to the soldiers for assistance. Clint Wadley usually played his own hand, and he expected the same of his men.

But the habit of young Ridley's life had not made for fitness to cope with a frontier emergency. Nor was he of stiff enough clay to fight free of his difficulty without help.

"What about you?" he asked the other man. "Can I hire you to ride with me to Tascosa?"

"As a tenderfoot-wrangler?" sneered the Texan.

Arthur flushed. "I've never been there. I don't know the way."

"You follow a gun-barrel road from the fort. But I'll ride with you-if the pay is right."

"What do you say to twenty dollars for the trip?"

"You've hired me."

"And if we're attacked?"

"I pack a six-shooter."

The troubled young man looked into the hard, reckless face of this stranger who had gone out of his way to warn him of the impending attack. No certificate was necessary to tell him that this man would fight.

"I don't know your name," said Ridley, still hesitating.

"Any more than I know yours," returned the other. "Call me Bill Moore, an' I'll be on hand to eat my share of the chuck."

"We'd better leave at once, don't you think?"

"You're the doc. Meet you here in an hour ready for the trail."

The man who called himself Bill Moore went his uncertain way down the street. To the casual eye he was far gone in drink. Young Ridley went straight to the corral where he had put up his horse. He watered and fed the animal, and after an endless half-hour saddled the bronco.

Moore joined him in front of the officers' quarters, and together they rode out of the post. As the Texan had said, the road to Tascosa ran straight as a gun-barrel. At first they rode in silence, swiftly, leaving behind them mile after mile of dusty trail. It was a brown, level country thickly dotted with yucca. Once Moore shot a wild turkey running in the grass. Prairie-chicken were abundant, and a flight of pigeons numbering thousands passed at one time over their heads and obscured the sky.

"Goin' down to the encinal to roost," explained Moore.

"A man could come pretty near living off his rifle in this country," Arthur remarked.

"Outside o' flour an' salt, I've done it many a time. I rode through the Pecos Valley to Fort Sumner an' on to Denver oncet an' lived off the land. Time an' again I've done it from the Brazos to the Canadian. If he gets tired of game, a man can jerk the hind quarters of a beef. Gimme a young turkey fed on sweet mast an' cooked on a hackberry bush fire, an' I'll never ask for better chuc

k," the Texan promised.

In spite of Ridley's manifest desire to push on far into the night, Moore made an early camp.

"No use gauntin' our broncs when we've got all the time there is before us. A horse is a man's friend. He don't want to waste it into a sorry-lookin' shadow. Besides, we're better off here than at Painted Rock. It's nothin' but a whistlin'-post in the desert."

"Yes, but I'd like to get as far from the fort as we can. I-I'm in a hurry to reach Tascosa," the younger man urged.

Moore opened a row of worn and stained teeth to smile. "Don't worry, young fellow. I'm with you now."

After they had made camp and eaten, the two men sat beside the flickering fire, and Moore told stories of the wild and turbulent life he had known around Dodge City and in the Lincoln County War that was still waging in New Mexico. He had freighted to the Panhandle from El Moro, Colorado, from Wichita Falls, and even from Dodge. The consummate confidence of the man soothed the unease of the young fellow with the hogskin belt. This plainsman knew all that the Southwest had to offer of danger and was equal to any of it.

Presently Arthur Ridley grew drowsy. The last that he remembered before he fell asleep was seeing Moore light his pipe again with a live coal from the fire. The Texan was to keep the first watch.

It was well along toward morning when the snapping of a bush awakened Ridley. He sat upright and reached quickly for the revolver by his side.

"Don't you," called a voice sharply from the brush.

Two men, masked with slitted handkerchiefs, broke through the shin-oak just as Arthur whipped up his gun. The hammer fell once-twice, but no explosion followed. With two forty-fives covering him, Ridley, white to the lips, dropped his harmless weapon.

Moore came to life with sleepy eyes, but he was taken at a disadvantage, and with a smothered oath handed over his revolver.

"Wha-what do you want?" asked Ridley, his teeth chattering.

The shorter of the two outlaws, a stocky man with deep chest and extraordinarily broad shoulders, growled an answer.

"We want that money of Clint Wadley's you're packin'."

The camp-fire had died to ashes, and the early-morning air was chill. Arthur felt himself trembling so that his hands shook. A prickling of the skin went goose-quilling down his back. In the dim light those masked figures behind the businesslike guns were sinister with the threat of mystery and menace.

"I-haven't any money," he quavered.

"You'd better have it, young fellow, me lad!" jeered the tall bandit. "We're here strictly for business. Dig up."

"I don't reckon he's carryin' any money for Clint," Moore argued mildly. "Don't look reasonable that an old-timer like Clint, who knocked the bark off'n this country when I was still a kid, would send a tenderfoot to pack gold 'cross country for him."

The tall man swung his revolver on Moore. "'Nuff from you," he ordered grimly.

The heavy-set outlaw did not say a word. He moved forward and pressed the cold rim of his forty-five against the forehead of the messenger. The fluttering heart of the young man beat hard against his ribs. His voice stuck in his throat, but he managed to gasp a surrender.

"It's in my belt. For God's sake, don't shoot."

"Gimme yore belt."

The boy unbuckled the ribbon of hogskin beneath his shirt and passed it to the man behind the gun. The outlaw noticed that his fingers were cold and clammy.

"Stand back to back," commanded the heavy man.

Deftly he swung a rope over the heads of his captives, jerked it tight, wound it about their bodies, knotted it here and there, and finished with a triple knot where their heels came together.

"That'll hold 'em hitched a few minutes," the lank man approved after he had tested the rope.

"I'd like to get a lick at you fellows. I will, too, some day," mentioned Moore casually.

"When you meet up with us we'll be there," retorted the heavy-weight. "Let's go, Steve."

The long man nodded. "Adiós, boys."

"See you later, and when I meet up with you, it'll be me 'n' you to a finish," the Texan called.

The thud of the retreating, hoofs grew faint and died. Already Moore was busy with the rope that tied them together.

"What's the matter, kid? You shakin' for the drinks? Didn't you see from the first we weren't in any danger? If they'd wanted to harm us, they could have shot us from the brush. How much was in that belt?"

"Six thousand dollars," the boy groaned.

"Well, it doesn't cost you a cent. Cheer up, son."

By this time Moore had both his arms free and was loosening one of the knots.

"I was in charge of it. I'll never dare face Mr. Wadley."

"Sho! It was his own fault. How in Mexico come he to send a boy to market for such a big stake?"

"Nobody was to have known what I came for. I don't see how it got out."

"Must 'a' been a leak somewhere. Don't you care. Play the hand that's dealt you and let the boss worry. Take it from me, you're lucky not to be even powder-burnt when a shot from the chaparral might have done yore business."

"If you only hadn't fallen asleep!"

"Reckon I dozed off. I was up 'most all last night." Moore untied the last knot and stepped out from the loop. "I'm goin' to saddle the broncs. You ride in to Tascosa and tell Wadley. I'll take up the trail an' follow it while it's warm. We'll see if a pair of shorthorns can run a sandy like that on me." He fell suddenly into the violent, pungent speech of the mule-skinner.

"I'll go with you," announced Ridley. He had no desire to face Clint Wadley with such a lame tale.

The cold eyes of the Texan drilled into his. "No, you won't. You'll go to town an' tell the old man what's happened. Tell him to send his posse across the malpais toward the rim-rock. I'll meet him at Two Buck Crossin' with any news I've got."

A quarter of an hour later the hoofs of his horse flung back faint echoes from the distance. The boy collapsed. His head sank into his hands and his misery found vent in sobs.

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