SIGNS, AND NO ONE TO READ THEM
Bill Hayden's mouth was pinched into a straight line across his desert-scarred face. He shortened his hold on the rope that held Jake and passed the flat of his hand down Jake's neck under the heavy mane. He held up a moistened palm and looked at it needlessly. He stepped back and surveyed the drawn-in flanks, and with his eye he measured the length and depth of the saddle marks, as though he half hoped thereby to identify the saddle that had made them. His eyes were hard with the cold fury that lumped the muscles on his jaw.
He turned his head and surveyed the scattered group of boys busy with ropes, bridles and saddles--making ready for the day's work, which happened to be the gathering of more horses to break, for the war across the water used up horses at an amazing rate, and Sudden was not the man to let good prices go to waste. The horse herd would be culled of its likeliest saddle horses while the market was best.
To-day, and for several days, the boys would ride north and west, combing the rough country that held two broad-bottomed streams and therefore fair grazing for horses. Bill had meant to ride Jake, but he was changing his mind. Jake, from the look of him, had lately received exercise enough to last him for one day, at least. Suspicion dwelt in Bill's eyes as they rested on each man in turn. They halted at Tex, who was standing with his head up, staring at Jake with more interest than Bill believed an innocent man had any right to feel. Tex caught his glance and came over, trailing his loop behind him.
"What yo' all been doing to Jake, gantin' him up like that, Bill?" Tex inquired, his black eyes taking in the various marks of hard riding that had infuriated Bill.
Bill hesitated, spat into the dust, and turned half away, stroking Jake's roughened shoulder.
"Me, I been workin' him out, mebby. What's it to yuh?"
"Me? It ain't nothin' a-tall to me, Bill. Only--yo' all shore done it thorough," grinned Tex, and passed on to where a horse he wanted was standing with his head against the fence, hoping to dodge the loop he felt sure would presently come hissing his way.
Bill watched him from under his eyebrows, and he observed that Tex sent more than one glance toward Jake. Bill interpreted those glances to suit himself, and while he unobtrusively led Jake into a shed to give him a hurried grooming before saddling another horse, Bill did some hard thinking.
"Shore is a night-rider in this outfit," he summed up. "He shore did pick himself a top hoss, and he shore rode the tail off'n 'im just about. Me, I'm crazy to know who done it."
Bill had to hurry, so he left the matter to simmer for the present. But that did not mean that Bill would wear "blinders," or that he would sleep with his head under his tarp for fear of finding out what black-hearted renegade had sacrilegiously borrowed Jake. Black-hearted renegade, by the way, was but the dwindling to mild epithets after Bill's more colorful vocabulary had been worn to rags by repetition.
All unconsciously Mary V had set another man in the outfit to sweating his brain and swearing to himself. Tex would not sleep sound again until he knew who had taken to night-riding--on a horse of Jake's quality. Tex would have believed that Bill himself was the man, had he not read the look on Bill's face while he studied the marks of hard riding. Tex was no fool, else his income would have been restricted to what he could earn by the sweat of his skin. Bill had been unconscious of scrutiny when Tex had caught that look, and Bill had furthermore betrayed suspicion when Tex spoke to him about the horse. Bill was mad, which Tex took as proof that Bill had lain in his bed all night. Besides, Bill would hardly have left Jake in the corral where he could have free access to the water trough after such a ride as that must have been. Some one had brought Jake home in such a hurry that he had merely pulled his saddle and bridle off and--hustled back to bed, perhaps.
Tex was worried, and for a very good reason. He had been abroad the night before, dodging off down the draw to the west until he could circle the ridge and ride south. He had been too shrewd to ride a fagged horse home and leave him in the corral to tell the tale of night prowling, however. He had taken the time to catch a fresh horse from the pasture, tie his own horse in a secluded place until his return, and re-saddle it to ride back to the ranch, careful not to moisten a hair. He felt a certain contempt for the stupidity that would leave such evidence as Jake, but for all that he was worried. Being the scoundrel he was, he jumped to the conclusion that some one had been spying on him. It was a mystery that bred watchfulness and much cogitation.
"What's that about some geeser riding Jake las' night?" Bud, riding slowly until Bill overtook him, asked curiously, with the freedom of close friendship. "Tex was saying something about it to Curley when they rode past me, but I didn't ketch it all. Anything in it?"
Bill cleared his mind again with blistering epithets before he answered Bud directly. "Jake was rode, and he was rode hard. It was a cool night--and I know what it takes to put that hawse in a lather. I wisht I'd a got to feel a few saddle blankets this morning! The--" Bill cussed himself out of breath.
When he stopped, Bud took up the refrain. It was not his horse, of course, but an unwritten law of the range had been broken, and that was any honest rider's affair. Besides, Bill was a pal of Bud's. "Hangin''s too good for 'im, whoever done it," he finished vindictively. "I'd lay low, if I was you, Bill. Mebby he'll git into the habit, and you kin ketch 'im at it."
"I aim to lay low, all right. And I aim to come up a-shootin' if the--"
"Yore dead right, Bill. Night-ridin' 's bad enough when a feller rides his own hawse. It'd need some darn smooth explainin' then. But when a man takes an' saddles up another feller's hawse--"
"I kin see his objeck in that," Bill said. "He had a long trail to foller, an' he tuk the hawse that'd git 'im there and back the quickest. Now what I'd admire to know is, who was the rider, an' where was he goin' to? D' you happen to miss anybody las' night, Bud?"
"Me? Thunder! Bill, you know damn well I wouldn't miss my own beddin' roll if it was drug out from under me!"
"Same here," mourned Bill. "Ridin' bronks shore does make a feller ready for the hay. Me, I died soon as my head hit my piller."
"Mary V, she musta hit out plumb early this morning," Bud observed gropingly. "She was saddled and gone when I come to the c'rel at sun-up. Yuh might ast her if she seen anybody, Bill. Chances is she wouldn't, but they's no harm askin'."
"I will," Bill said sourly. "Any devilment that's goin' on around this outfit, Mary V's either doin' it er gettin' next to it so's she kin hold a club over whoever done it. She mebby mighta saw him--if she was a mind to tell."
"Yeah--that shore is Mary V," Bud agreed heartily. "Bawl yuh out quick enough if they's anything yuh want kep' under cover, and then turnin' right around and makin' a clam ashamed of itself for a mouthy cuss if yuh want to know anything right bad. Bound she'd go with us getherin' hosses when she wasn't needed nor wanted, and now when we're short-handed, she ain't able to see us no more a-tall when we start off. You'll have to git upon 'er blind side some way, Bill, er she won't tell, if she does know who rode Jake."
"Blind side?" Bill snorted. "Mary V ain't got no blind side 't I ever seen."
"And that's right too. Ain't it the truth! I don't guess, Bill, yuh better let on to Mary V nothin' about it. Then they's a chance she may tell yuh jest to spite the other feller, if she does happen to know. A slim chance--but still she might."
"Slim chance is right!" Bill stated with feeling.
During this colloquy Mary V's ears might have burned, had Mary V not been too thoroughly engrossed with her own emotions to be sensitive to the emotions of others.
Mary V was pounding along toward Black Ridge--or Snake Ridge, as some preferred to call it. She was tired, of course. Her head ached, and more than once she slowed Tango to a walk while she debated with herself whether it was really worth while to wear herself completely out in the cause of righteousness.
Mary V did not in the least suspect just how righteous was the cause. How could she know, for instance, that Rolling R horses were being selected just as carefully on the southern range as they were to the north, since even that shrewd range man, her father, certainly had no suspicion that the revolutionists farther to the east in Mexico would presently begin to ride fresh mounts with freshly blotched brands? He had vaguely feared a raid, perhaps, but even that fear was not strong enough to impel him to keep more than one man at Sinkhole.
Sudden was not the man to overlook a sure profit while he guarded against a possible danger. He needed all the riders he had, or could get, to break horses for the buyers that were beginning to make regular trips through the country. He knew, too, that it would take more than two or three men at Sinkhole to stand off a raid, and that one man with a telephone and a rifle and six-shooter could do as much to protect his herds as three or four men, and with less personal risk. Sudden banked rather heavily on that telephone. He was prepared, at any alarming silence, to send the boys down there posthaste to investigate. But so long as Johnny reported every evening that all was well, the horse-breaking would go on.
It is a pity that he had not impressed these facts more deeply upon Johnny. A pity, too, that he had not confided in Mary V. Because Mary V might have had a little information for her dad, if she had understood the situation more thoroughly. As thoroughly as Tex understood it, for instance.
Tex knew that any suspicion on the part of the line rider at Sinkhole, or any failure on his part to report every evening, would be the signal for Sudden to sweep the Sinkhole range clean of Rolling R horses. He had worried a good deal because he had forgotten to tell his confederates that they must remember to take care of the telephone somehow, in case Johnny was lured away after the airplane. It had been that worry which had sent him out in the night to find them and tell them--and to learn just what was taking place, and how many horses they had got. When a man is supposed to receive a commission on each horse that is stolen successfully, he may be expected to exhibit some anxiety over the truth of the tally. You will see why it was necessary to the peace and prosperity of Tex that the surface should be kept very smooth and unruffled.
Tex, of course, overlooked one detail. He should have worried over Mary V and her industrious gathering of "Desert Glimpses," lest she glimpse something she was not wanted to see. I suppose it never occurred to Tex that Mary V's peregrinations would take her within sight of Sinkhole, or that she would recognize a suspicious circumstance if she met it face to face. Mary V was still looked upon as a spoiled kid by the Rolling R boys, and she had not attained the distinction of being taken seriously by anyone save Johnny Jewel. Which may explain, in a roundabout way, why her interest had settled upon him, though Johnny's good looks and his peppery disposition may have had something to do with it too.
Mary V, having climbed to the top of Black Ridge, adjusted her field glasses and swept every bit of Sinkhole country that lay in sight. Almost immediately she saw a suspicious circumstance, and she straightway recognized it as such. Away over to the east of Sinkhole camp she saw two horsemen jogging along, just as the Rolling R boys jogged homeward after a hard day's work at the round-up. She could not recognize them, the distance was so great. She therefore believed that one of them might be Johnny Jewel, and the suspicion made her head ache worse than before. He had no business to be away at night, and then to go riding off somewhere with someone else so early in the morning, and she stamped her foot at him and declared that she would like to shake him.
She watched those two until they were hidden in one of the million or so of little "draws" or arroyos that wrinkle the face of the range west. When she finally gave up hope of seeing them again, she moved the glasses slowly to the west. Midway of the arc, she saw something that was more than suspicious; it was out-and-out mysterious.
She saw something--what it was she could not guess--moving slowly in the direction of Sinkhole Camp,--something wide and queer looking, with a horseman on either side and with a team pulling. Here again the distance was too great to reveal details. She strained her eyes, changed the focus hopefully, blurred the image, and slowly turned the little focusing wheel back again. She had just one more clear glimpse of the thing before it, too, disappeared.
Mary V waited and waited, and watched the place. If it was crossing a gully, it would climb out again, of course. When it did not do so she lost all patience and was putting the glasses in their case when she saw a speck crawling along a level bit, half a mile or so to the left of where she had been watching.
"Darn!" said Mary V, and hastened to readjust the glasses. But she had no more than seen that it was the very same mysterious object, only now it was not wide at all, but very long--when it crawled behind a ridge like a caterpillar disappearing behind a rock. Mary V waited awhile, but it did not show itself. So she cried with vexation and nervous exhaustion, stamped her foot, and made the emphatic assertion that she felt like shooting Johnny Jewel for making her come all this long way to be driven raving distracted.
After a little, when the mysterious thing still failed to reappear anywhere on the face of the gray-mottled plain, she ate what was left of her lunch and rode home, too tired to sit up straight in the saddle.