The mysterious rider, p.3
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       The Mysterious Rider, p.3
 

           Zane Grey
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  CHAPTER III

  The rancher thought it best to wait till after the round-up before heturned over the foremanship to his son. This was wise, but Jack did notsee it that way. He showed that his old, intolerant spirit had, ifanything, grown during his absence. Belllounds patiently argued withhim, explaining what certainly should have been clear to a young manbrought up in Colorado. The fall round-up was the most important time ofthe year, and during the strenuous drive the appointed foreman shouldhave absolute control. Jack gave in finally with a bad grace.

  It was unfortunate that he went directly from his father's presence outto the corrals. Some of the cowboys who had ridden all the day beforeand stood guard all night had just come in. They were begrimed withdust, weary, and sleepy-eyed.

  "This hyar outfit won't see my tracks no more," said one, disgustedly."I never kicked on doin' two men's work. But when it comes to rustlin'day and night, all the time, I'm a-goin' to pass."

  "Turn in, boys, and sleep till we get back with the chuck-wagon," saidWilson Moore. "We'll clean up that bunch to-day."

  "Ain't you tired, Wils?" queried Bludsoe, a squat, bow-legged cowpuncherwho appeared to be crippled or very lame.

  "Me? Naw!" grunted Moore, derisively. "Blud, you sure ask foolquestions.... Why, you--mahogany-colored, stump-legged, biped of acowpuncher, I've had three hours' sleep in four nights!"

  "What's a biped?" asked Bludsoe, dubiously.

  Nobody enlightened him.

  "Wils, you-all air the only eddicated cowman I ever loved, but I'm ason-of-a-gun if we ain't agoin' to come to blows some day,"declared Bludsoe.

  "He shore can sling English," drawled Lem Billings. "I reckon heswallowed a dictionary onct."

  "Wal, he can sling a rope, too, an' thet evens up," added Jim Montana.

  Just at this moment Jack Belllounds appeared upon the scene. The cowboystook no notice of him. Jim was bandaging a leg of his horse; Bludsoe waswearily gathering up his saddle and trappings; Lem was giving his tiredmustang a parting slap that meant much. Moore evidently awaited a freshmount. A Mexican lad had come in out of the pasture leading severalhorses, one of which was the mottled white mustang that Moore rode mostof the time.

  Belllounds lounged forward with interest as Moore whistled, and themustang showed his pleasure. Manifestly he did not like the Mexican boyand he did like Moore.

  "Spottie, it's drag yearlings around for you to-day," said the cowboy,as he caught the mustang. Spottie tossed his head and stepped high untilthe bridle was on. When the saddle was thrown and strapped in place themustang showed to advantage. He was beautiful, but not too graceful orsleek or fine-pointed or prancing to prejudice any cowboy against hisqualities for work.

  Jack Belllounds admiringly walked all around the mustang a little tooclose to please Spottie.

  "Moore, he's a fair-to-middling horse," said Belllounds, with the air ofjudge of horseflesh. "What's his name?"

  "Spottie," replied Moore, shortly, as he made ready to mount.

  "Hold on, will you!" ordered Jack, peremptorily. "I like this horse. Iwant to look him over."

  When he grasped the bridle-reins out of the cowboy's hand Spottie jumpedas if he had been shot at. Belllounds jerked at him and went closer. Themustang reared, snorting, plunging to get loose. Then Jack Bellloundsshowed the sudden temper for which he was noted. Red stained hispale cheeks.

  "Damn you--come down!" he shouted, infuriated at the mustang, and withboth hands he gave a powerful lunge. Spottie came down, and stood there,trembling all over, his ears laid back, his eyes showing fright andpain. Blood dripped from his mouth where the bit had cut him.

  "I'll teach you to stand," said Belllounds, darkly. "Moore, lend me yourspurs. I want to try him out."

  "I don't lend my spurs--or my horse, either," replied the cowboy,quietly, with a stride that put him within reach of Spottie.

  The other cowboys had dropped their trappings and stood at attention,with intent gaze and mute lips.

  "Is he your horse?" demanded Jack, with a quick flush.

  "I reckon so," replied Moore, slowly. "No one but me ever rode him."

  "Does my father own him or do you own him?"

  "Well, if that's the way you figure--he belongs to White Slides,"returned the cowboy. "I never bought him. I only raised him from a colt,broke him, and rode him."

  "I thought so. Moore, he's mine, and I'm going to ride him now. Lend mespurs, one of you cowpunchers."

  Nobody made any motion to comply. There seemed to be a suspense at handthat escaped Belllounds.

  "I'll ride him without spurs," he declared, presently, and again heturned to mount the mustang.

  "Belllounds, it'd be better for you not to ride him now," said Moore,coolly.

  "Why, I'd like to know?" demanded Belllounds, with the temper of one whodid not tolerate opposition.

  "He's the only horse left for me to ride," answered the cowboy. "We'rebranding to-day. Hudson was hurt yesterday. He was foreman, and heappointed me to fill his place. I've got to rope yearlings. Now, if youget up on Spottie you'll excite him. He's high-strung, nervous. That'llbe bad for him, as he hates cutting-out and roping."

  The reasonableness of this argument was lost upon Belllounds.

  "Moore, maybe it'd interest you to know that I'm foreman of WhiteSlides," he asserted, not without loftiness.

  His speech manifestly decided something vital for the cowboy.

  "Ahuh!... I'm sure interested this minute," replied Moore, and then,stepping to the side of the mustang, with swift hands he unbuckled thecinch, and with one sweep he drew saddle and blanket to the ground.

  The action surprised Belllounds. He stared. There seemed somethingboyish in his lack of comprehension. Then his temper flamed.

  "What do you mean by that?" he demanded, with a strident note in hisvoice. "Put that saddle back."

  "Not much. It's my saddle. Cost sixty dollars at Kremmling last year.Good old hard-earned saddle!... And you can't ride it. Savvy?"

  "Yes, I savvy," replied Belllounds, violently. "Now you'll savvy what Isay. I'll have you discharged."

  "Nope. Too late," said Moore, with cool, easy scorn. "I figured that.And I quit a minute ago--when you showed what little regard you hadfor a horse."

  "You quit!... Well, it's damned good riddance. I wouldn't have you inthe outfit."

  "You couldn't have kept me, Buster Jack."

  The epithet must have been an insult to Belllounds. "Don't you dare callme that," he burst out, furiously.

  Moore pretended surprise. "Why not? It's your range name. We all get ahandle, whether we like it or not. There's Montana and Blud and LemmeTwo Bits. They call me Professor. Why should you kick on yours?"

  "I won't stand it now. Not from any one--especially not you."

  "Ahuh! Well, I'm afraid it'll stick," replied Moore, with sarcasm. "Itsure suits you. Don't you bust everything you monkey with? Your old dadwill sure be glad to see you bust the round-up to-day--and I reckon theoutfit to-morrow."

  "You insolent cowpuncher!" shouted Belllounds, growing beside himselfwith rage. "If you don't shut up I'll bust your face."

  "Shut up!... Me? Nope. It can't be did. This is a free country, BusterJack." There was no denying Moore's cool, stinging repetition of theepithet that had so affronted Belllounds.

  "I always hated you!" he rasped out, hoarsely. Striking hard at Moore,he missed, but a second effort landed a glancing blow on thecowboy's face.

  Moore staggered back, recovered his balance, and, hitting out shortly,he returned the blow. Belllounds fell against the corral fence, whichupheld him.

  "Buster Jack--you're crazy!" cried the cowboy, his eyes flashing. "Doyou think you can lick me--after where you've been these three years?"

  Like a maddened boy Belllounds leaped forward, this time his increasedviolence and wildness of face expressive of malignant rage. He swung hisarms at random. Moore avoided his blows and planted a fist squarely onhis adversary's snarling mouth. Belllounds fell with a thump. He got upwith clumsy
haste, but did not rush forward again. His big, prominenteyes held a dark and ugly look. His lower jaw wabbled as he panted forbreath and speech at once.

  "Moore--I'll kill--you!" he hissed, with glance flying everywhere for aweapon. From ground to cowboys he looked. Bludsoe was the only onepacking a gun. Belllounds saw it, and he was so swift in boundingforward that he got a hand on it before Bludsoe could prevent.

  "Let go! Give me--that gun! By God! I'll fix him!" yelled Belllounds, asBludsoe grappled with him.

  There was a sharp struggle. Bludsoe wrenched the other's hands free,and, pulling the gun, he essayed to throw it. But Belllounds blocked hisaction and the gun fell at their feet.

  "Grab it!" sang out Bludsoe, ringingly. "Quick, somebody! The damnedfool'll kill Wils."

  Lem, running in, kicked the gun just as Belllounds reached for it. Whenit rolled against the fence Jim was there to secure it. Lem likewisegrappled with the struggling Belllounds.

  "Hyar, you Jack Belllounds," said Lem, "couldn't you see Wils wasn'tpackin' no gun? A-r'arin' like thet!... Stop your rantin' or we'll surehandle you rough."

  "The old man's comin'," called Jim, warningly.

  The rancher appeared. He strode swiftly, ponderously. His gray hairwaved. His look was as stern as that of an eagle.

  "What the hell's goin' on?" he roared.

  The cowboys released Jack. That worthy, sullen and downcast, mutteringto himself, stalked for the house.

  "Jack, stand your ground," called old Belllounds.

  But the son gave no heed. Once he looked back over his shoulder, and hisdark glance saw no one save Moore.

  "Boss, thar's been a little argyment," explained Jim, as with swift handhe hid Bludsoe's gun. "Nuthin' much."

  "Jim, you're a liar," replied the old rancher.

  "Aw!" exclaimed Jim, crestfallen.

  "What're you hidin'?... You've got somethin' there. Gimme thet gun."

  Without more ado Jim handed the gun over.

  "It's mine, boss," put in Bludsoe.

  "Ahuh? Wal, what was Jim hidin' it fer?" demanded Belllounds.

  "Why, I jest tossed it to him--when I--sort of j'ined in with theargyment. We was tusslin' some an' I didn't want no gun."

  How characteristic of cowboys that they lied to shield Jack Belllounds!But it was futile to attempt to deceive the old rancher. Here was a manwho had been forty years dealing with all kinds of men and events.

  "Bludsoe, you can't fool me," said old Bill, calmly. He had roared atthem, and his eyes still flashed like blue fire, but he was calm andcool. Returning the gun to its owner, he continued: "I reckon you'dspare my feelin's an' lie about some trick of Jack's. Did he bust out?"

  "Wal, tolerable like," replied Bludsoe, dryly.

  "Ahuh! Tell me, then--an' no lies."

  Belllounds's shrewd eyes had rested upon Wilson Moore. The cowboy'sface showed the red marks of battle and the white of passion.

  "I'm not going to lie, you can bet on that," he declared, forcefully.

  "Ahuh! I might hev knowed you an' Jack'd clash," said Belllounds,gruffly. "What happened?"

  "He hurt my horse. If it hadn't been for that there'd been no trouble."

  A light leaped up in the old man's bold eyes. He was a lover of horses.Many hard words, and blows, too, he had dealt cowboys for being brutal.

  "What'd he do?"

  "Look at Spottie's mouth."

  The rancher's way of approaching a horse was singularly different fromhis son's, notwithstanding the fact that Spottie knew him and showed nouneasiness. The examination took only a moment.

  "Tongue cut bad. Thet's a damn shame. Take thet bridle off.... There. Ifit'd been an ornery hoss, now.... Moore, how'd this happen?"

  "We just rode in," replied Wilson, hurriedly. "I was saddling Spottiewhen Jack came up. He took a shine to the mustang and wanted to ridehim. When Spottie reared--he's shy with strangers--why, Jack gave a hellof a jerk on the bridle. The bit cut Spottie.... Well, that made me mad,but I held in. I objected to Jack riding Spottie. You see, Hudson washurt yesterday and he appointed me foreman for to-day. I needed Spottie.But your son couldn't see it, and that made me sore. Jack said themustang was his--"

  "His?" interrupted Belllounds.

  "Yes. He claimed Spottie. Well, he wasn't really mine, so I gave in.When I threw off the saddle, which _was_ mine, Jack began to roar. Hesaid he was foreman and he'd have me discharged. But I said I'd quitalready. We both kept getting sorer and I called him Buster Jack.... Hehit me first. Then we fought. I reckon I was getting the best of himwhen he made a dive for Bludsoe's gun. And that's all."

  "Boss, as sure as I'm a born cowman," put in Bludsoe, "he'd hev pluggedWils if he'd got my gun. At thet he damn near got it!"

  The old man stroked his scant gray beard with his huge, steady hand,apparently not greatly concerned by the disclosure.

  "Montana, what do you say?" he queried, as if he held strong store bythat quiet cowboy's opinion.

  "Wal, boss," replied Jim, reluctantly, "Buster Jack's temper was badonct, but now it's plumb wuss."

  Whereupon Belllounds turned to Moore with a gesture and a look of a manwho, in justice to something in himself, had to speak.

  "Wils, it's onlucky you clashed with Jack right off," he said. "But thetwas to be expected. I reckon Jack was in the wrong. Thet hoss was yoursby all a cowboy holds right an' square. Mebbe by law Spottie belonged toWhite Slides Ranch--to me. But he's yours now, fer I give him to you."

  "Much obliged, Belllounds. I sure do appreciate that," replied Moore,warmly. "It's what anybody'd gamble Bill Belllounds would do."

  "Ahuh! An' I'd take it as a favor if you'd stay on to-day an' get thetbrandin' done:"

  "All right, I'll do that for you," replied Moore. "Lem, I guess youwon't get your sleep till to-night. Come on."

  "Awl" sighed Lem, as he picked up his bridle.

  * * * * *

  Late that afternoon Columbine sat upon the porch, watching the sunset.It had been a quiet day for her, mostly indoors. Once only had she seenJack, and then he was riding by toward the pasture, whirling a lassoround his head. Jack could ride like one born to the range, but he wasnot an adept in the use of a rope. Nor had Columbine seen the oldrancher since breakfast. She had heard his footsteps, however, pacingslowly up and down his room.

  She was watching the last rays of the setting sun rimming with gold theramparts of the mountain eastward, and burning a crown for Old WhiteSlides peak. A distant bawl and bellow of cattle had died away. Thebranding was over for that fall. How glad she felt! The wind, beginningto grow cold as the sun declined, cooled her hot face. In the solitudeof her room Columbine had cried enough that day to scald her cheeks.

  Presently, down the lane between the pastures, she saw a cowboy rideinto view. Very slowly he came, leading another horse. Columbinerecognized Lem a second before she saw that he was leading Pronto. Thatstruck her as strange. Another glance showed Pronto to be limping.Apparently he could just get along, and that was all. Columbine ran outin dismay, reaching the corral gate before Lem did. At first she hadeyes only for her beloved mustang.

  "Oh, Lem--Pronto's hurt!" she cried.

  "Wal, I should smile he is," replied Lem.

  But Lem was not smiling. And when he wore a serious face for Columbinesomething had indeed happened. The cowboy was the color of dust and sotired that he reeled.

  "Lem, he's all bloody!" exclaimed Columbine, as she ran toward Pronto.

  "Hyar, you jest wait," ordered Lem, testily. "Pronto's all cut up, an'you gotta hustle some linen an' salve."

  Columbine flew away to do his bidding, and so quick and violent was shethat when she got back to the corral she was out of breath. Prontowhinnied as she fell, panting, on her knees beside Lem, who wasexamining bloody gashes on the legs of the mustang.

  "Wal, I reckon no great harm did," said Lem, with relief. "But he shorehed a close shave. Now you help me doctor him up."

  "Yes--I'll help," panted Columbine. "I've
done this kind--of thingoften--but never--to Pronto.... Oh, I was afraid--he'd been gored bya steer."

  "Wal, he come damn near bein'," replied Lem, grimly. "An' if it hedn'tbeen fer ridin' you don't see every day, why thet ornery Texas steer'dhev got him."

  "Who was riding? Lem, was it you? Oh, I'll never be able to do enoughfor you!"

  "Wuss luck, it weren't me," said Lem.

  "No? Who, then?"

  "Wal, it was Wils, an' he made me swear to tell you nuthin'--leastwaysabout him."

  "Wils! Did he save Pronto?... And didn't want you to tell me? Lem,something has happened. You're not like yourself."

  "Miss Collie, I reckon I'm nigh all in," replied Lem, wearily. "When Igit this bandagin' done I'll fall right off my hoss."

  "But you're on the ground now, Lem," said Columbine, with a nervouslaugh. "What happened?"

  "Did you hear about the argyment this mawnin'?"

  "No. What--who--"

  "You can ask Ole Bill aboot thet. The way Pronto was hurt come off likethis. Buster Jack rode out to where we was brandin' an' jumped his hossover a fence into the pasture. He hed a rope an' he got to chasin' somehosses over thar. One was Pronto, an' the son-of-a-gun somehow did gitthe noose over Pronto's head. But he couldn't hold it, or didn't wantto, fer Pronto broke loose an' jumped the fence. This wasn't so bad asfar as it went. But one of them bad steers got after Pronto. He run an'sure stepped on the rope, an' fell. The big steer nearly piled on him.Pronto broke some records then. He shore was scared. Howsoever he pickedout rough ground an' run plumb into some dead brush. Reckon thar he gotcut up. We was all a good ways off. The steer went bawlin' an' plungin'after Pronto. Wils yelled fer a rifle, but nobody hed one. Nor asix-shooter, either.... I'm goin' back to packin' a gun. Wal, Wils didsome ridin' to git over thar in time to save Pronto."

  "Lem, that is not all," said Columbine, earnestly, as the cowboyconcluded. Her knowledge of the range told her that Lem had narratednothing so far which could have been cause for his cold, grim, evasivemanner; and her woman's intuition divined a catastrophe.

  "Nope.... Wils's hoss fell on him."

  Lem broke that final news with all a cowboy's bluntness.

  "Was he hurt--_Lem_!" cried Columbine.

  "Say, Miss Collie," remonstrated Lem, "we're doctorin' up your hoss. Youneedn't drop everythin' an' grab me like thet. An' you're white as asheet, too. It ain't nuthin' much fer a cowboy to hev a hoss fallon him."

  "Lem Billings, I'll hate you if you don't tell me quick," flashedColumbine, fiercely.

  "Ahuh! So thet's how the land lays," replied Lem, shrewdly. "Wal, I'msorry to tell you thet Wils was bad hurt. Now, not _real_ bad!... Thehoss fell on his leg an' broke it. I cut off his boot. His foot was allsmashed. But thar wasn't any other hurt--honest! They're takin' him toKremmlin'."

  "Ah!" Columbine's low cry sounded strangely in her ears, as if some oneelse had uttered it.

  "Buster Jack made two bursts this hyar day," concluded Lem,reflectively. "Miss Collie, I ain't shore how you're regardin' thetindividool, but I'm tellin' you this, fer your own good. He's badmedicine. He has his old man's temper thet riles up at nuthin' an' neverfelt a halter. Wusser'n thet, he's spoiled an' he acts like a coltthet'd tasted loco. The idee of his ropin' Pronto right thar near theround-up! Any one would think he jest come West. Old Bill is no fool.But he wears blinders when he looks at his son. I'm predictin' bad daysfer White Slides Ranch."

 
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