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   Chapter 29 BURNT BRANDS

Oh, You Tex! By William MacLeod Raine Characters: 8613

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

At the end of the third day of scouting Jack came back to camp late, but jubilant.

"I've found what we're lookin' for, Art. I drifted across a ridge an' looked down into a draw this evenin'. A fellow was ridin' herd on a bunch of cows. They looked to me like a jackpot lot, but I couldn't be sure at that distance. I'm gonna find out what brands they carry."


"The only way I know is to get close enough to see."

"Can you do that without being noticed?"

"Mebbe I can. The fellow watchin' the herd ain't expectin' visitors. Probably he loafs on the job some of the time. I'm gamblin' he does."

Roberts unloaded from the saddle the hindquarters of a black-tail deer he had shot just before sunset. He cut off a couple of steaks for supper and Ridley raked together the coals of the fire.

"Throw these into a fry-pan, Art, while I picket old Ten-Penny," said Jack. "I'm sure hungry enough to eat a mail sack. I lay up there in the brush 'most two hours an' that fellow's cookin' drifted to me till I was about ready to march down an' hold him up for it."

"What's the programme?" asked Arthur later, as they lay on their tarpaulins smoking postprandial cigarettes.

"I'll watch for a chance, then slip down an' see what's what. I want to know who the man is an' what brand the stock are carryin'. That's all. If it works out right mebbe we'll gather in the man an' drive the herd back to town."

"Then I go along, do I?"

"Yes, but probably you stay back in the brush till I signal for you to come down. We'll see how the thing works out."

Ridley lay awake for hours beneath a million stars, unable to get his alert nerves quiet enough for sleep. The crisis of his adventure was near and his active imagination was already dramatizing it vividly. He envied his friend, who had dropped into restful slumber the moment his head touched the saddle. He knew that Roberts was not insensitive. He, too, had a lively fancy, but it was relegated to the place of servant rather than master.

In the small hours Arthur fell into troubled sleep and before his eyes were fully shut-as it seemed to the drowsy man-he was roused by his companion pulling the blankets from under him. Ridley sat up. The soft sounds of the desert night had died away, the less subdued ones of day showed that another life was astir.

"Time to get up, Sleepy Haid. Breakfast is ready. Come an' get it," called Jack.

They packed their supplies on the extra horse and saddled their mounts. The day was still young when they struck across the plains to the north. The way they took was a circuitous one, for Roberts was following the draws and valleys as far as possible in order to escape observation.

The sun was high in the heavens when he drew up in the rim-rock.

"We'll 'light here an' picket the broncs," he said.

This done, both men examined their rifles and revolvers carefully to guard against any hitch in the mechanism. Then, still following the low country, they worked forward cautiously for another half-mile.

Jack fell back to give the other Ranger final instructions. "There's a clump of cactus on the summit. We'll lie back o' there. You stay right there when I go forward. If I get the breaks I'll wave you on later. If I don't get 'em you may have to come a-shootin' to help me."

They crept up an incline, wriggling forward on their stomachs the last few yards to the shelter of the cactus on the crest. Before them lay a little valley. On the cactus-covered slope opposite a herd of cattle was grazing. No guard was in sight.

For two hours they lay there silently, watching intently.

"I'll slip down right now an' take a look at the brands," said Jack.

"Hadn't I better come too?"

"You stick right where you're at, Art. I might need a friend under cover to do some fancy shootin' for me if the Dinsmores arrived unexpected."

There was no cover on the near slope. Jack made no attempt to conceal himself, but strode swiftly down into the valley. Goosequills ran up and down his spine, for he did not know at what moment a bullet might come singing down at him.

He reached the outgrazers of the herd and identified the A T O brand on half a dozen cows. The brand had been changed by an adroit touch or two of a running-iron. Probably the cattle were

being held here until the hair had grown again enough to conceal the fact of a recent burn.

The Ranger circled the herd, moving toward the brow of the land swell. He made the most of the cactus, but there was an emptiness about the pit of his stomach. If some one happened to be watching him, a single shot would make an end of Tex Roberts. His scalp prickled and drew tight, as though some unseen hand were dragging at it.

From one clump to another he slipped, every sense keyed to alertness. The rifle in his hand, resting easily against the right hip, could be lifted instantly.

At the top of the rise the Ranger waited behind a prickly pear to search the landscape. It rolled away in long low waves to the horizon. A mile or more away, to the left, a faint, thin film of smoke hung lazily in the air. This meant a camp. The rustlers, to play safe, had located it not too near the grazing herd. It was a place, no doubt, where water was handy and from which the outlaws, if caught by surprise, could make a safe and swift retreat to the rim-rock.

Again, in a wide circuit in order not to meet anybody who might be riding from the camp to the herd, the Ranger moved forward warily. The smoke trickle was his guide and his destination.

He took his time. He was in no hurry. Speed was the least part of his programme. Far more important was secrecy. With that patience which the frontiersman has learned from the Indian he followed a tortuous course through the brush.

His trained eye told him the best direction for approach, the side from which he could get nearest to the camp with the least risk of being seen. Through the curly mesquite he crawled, hiding behind the short bushlike clumps until he had chosen the next line of advance. At last, screened by a Spanish bayonet, he commanded a view of the camp.

So far as he could tell it was deserted. Camp equipment lay scattered about. A frying-pan, a coffee-pot, tin cups and plates, had been dropped here and there. The coals of the fire still smouldered and gave forth a wisp of smoke. Fifty yards away a horse was picketed. It was an easy guess that the campers had not gone permanently, but were away from home for a few hours.

Where were they? Recalling the horses he and his companion had left picketed not far away, Jack felt a momentary qualm. If the Dinsmores should happen to stumble on them the situation would be an awkward one. The hunters would become the hunted. Deprived of their horses and supplies, the Rangers would be at a decided disadvantage. The only option left them would be to come to close quarters with the rustlers or to limp back home discouraged and discredited. Roberts preferred not to have his hand forced. He wanted to wait on opportunity and see what it brought him.

He moved forward to the camp and made a swift examination of it. Several men had slept here last night and four had eaten breakfast a few hours since. He could find no extra supplies, which confirmed his opinion that this was only a temporary camp of a night or two. A heavy buzzing of flies in a buffalo wallow not far away drew his steps. The swarm covered a saddle of deer from which enough for a meal had been slashed before it was thrown away.

The Ranger moved nothing. He left no signs other than his tracks to show that a stranger had been at the camp. As soon as he had inspected it he withdrew.

He had decided that the first thing to do was to join Ridley, make sure of their horses, and leave his companion in charge of them. Afterward he could return alone and watch the rustlers.

Since he knew that the rustlers were away from their camp, the Ranger did not feel the need of taking such elaborate precautions against discovery during the return journey. He made a wide circuit, but his long, easy stride carried him swiftly over the ground. Swinging round the valley in which the herd was grazing, he came up from the rear to the brush-covered summit where he had left Ridley.

Arthur had gone. He was nowhere in sight. Nor was there any sign to show where he had gone.

It was possible that some alarm might have sent him back to look after the horses. Jack ran down the incline to the little draw where the animals had been picketed. The broncos were safe, but Ridley was not with them.

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