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Chapter 21


Old Sudden in the ranch Ford, and Bill and Mary V on horseback, overtook the jogging cavalcade of riders and loose horses. Sudden looked pained and full of determination, as he always did when necessity called him forth upon the range in a lurching mechanical conveyance where once he had ridden with the best of them. Too many winters had been spent luxuriously in the towns; a mile or two, at a comfortable trail trot, was all that Sudden cared to attempt nowadays on horseback. But that did not lessen his dislike of negotiating sand and rocks and washes and rough slopes with an automobile. Every mile that he traveled added something to his condemnation of that young reprobate, Johnny Jewel, who had let the Rolling R in for all this trouble.

A bend in the trail brought him close to the boys, who had ridden straight across country. Mary V and Bill had just joined the group, and Sudden gave a snort when he saw Mary V maneuver Jake so that he sidled in alongside Tex, who rode a little apart with his hat pulled over his eyes, evidently in deep thought. Sudden had all the arrogance of a strong man who has managed his life and his business successfully. He wanted to attend to Tex himself, without any meddling from Mary V.

He squawked the horn to attract her attention, and caused a wave of turbulence among the horses that made more than one of his men say unpleasant things about him. Mary V looked back, and he beckoned with one sweeping gesture that could scarcely be mistaken. Mary V turned to ride up to him, advanced a rod or two and abruptly retreated, bolting straight through the group of riders and careening away across the level, with Bill and Tex tearing after her. Presently they slowed, and later Bill was seen to lag behind. Tex and Mary V kept straight on, a furlong in advance of the others.

The road swung away to the right, to avoid a rough stretch of rocks and gullies, and Sudden perforce followed it, feelingly speaking his mind upon the subjects of spoiled daughters and good-for-nothing employees, and horses and the men that bestrode them, and Fords, and the roads of Arizona, and the curse of being too well fed and growing a paunch that made riding a martyrdom. He would put that girl in a convent, and he would see that she stayed there till she was old enough to have some sense. He would have that young hound at Sinkhole arrested as an accomplice of the horse thieves. He would put a bullet through that fool of a horse, Jake, and he would lynch Tex if he ever got his hands on him. He would sell out, by glory, and buy himself a prune orchard.

And then he had a blow-out while he was down in a hollow a mile from the outfit. And some darned fool had lost the handle to the jack, and the best of the two extra tires was a darn poor excuse and wouldn't last a mile, probably, and he got hold of a tube that had a leaky valve, and had to hunt out another one after he had worked half an hour trying to pump up the first one. And what in the blinkety blink did any darn fool want to live in such a country for, anyway?

Thus it happened that Mary V was not forbidden to ride with Tex. And, not being forbidden, Mary V carried out her own ideas of diplomacy and tact. Her idea was to make Tex believe that she liked him better than the other boys. Just what she would gain by that, Mary V did not stop to wonder. It was the approved form of diplomacy, employed by all the leading heroines of ancient and modern fiction and of film drama, and was warranted to produce results in the way of information, guilty secrets, stolen wills, plots and plans and papers.

Tex was inclined to eye her askance, just at first. He was also very curious about her riding Jake, and he seemed inquisitive about whether that was the first time she had ever ridden him. He was, too, very absent-minded at times, and would go off into vacant-eyed reveries that sealed his ears against her artfully artless chatter.

Some girls would have been discouraged. Mary V was merely stimulated to further efforts. Tex did not mention the stealing of any horses at Sinkhole. He seemed to take it for granted that they were going to work the range to get horses for breaking, and Mary V wondered if perhaps her dad had not thought it best to confine the knowledge of horse-stealing to himself and Bill--at least until he had made an investigation. That would be like dad--and also like Bill Hayden. Mary V was glad that she had not said anything about it. She thought she would try Tex out first on the subject of airplanes. None of the boys knew that Johnny had one, and she was perfectly sure that she would detect any guilty knowledge of it in the mind of Tex. She had just read a long article in a magazine about "How our Faces Betray our Thoughts," and this seemed a splendid chance to put it to the test.

"Bill says an aeroplane came and stampeded all you boys yesterday," she began with much innocence.

"Yeah. One did fly over our haids. I didn't git to see much of it. My fool hawse, he started in pitchin' right away, soon as he seen it."

Mary V paused, meditating upon the significance of his words, his tone, his profile. That there was no particular significance did not in the least affect her deliberate intention.

"I wonder who it could have been!" she said, stealing a glance from under her lashes.

"Hunh? Who? The flyin' machine? Search me!" This time his tone was surely significant. It signified, more than anything else, that the mind of Tex was busy with other matters. Contrary to the magazine article, his face did not betray his thoughts. "Yore dad buy Jake off'n Bill for yo' all to ride?" he asked suddenly.

"No. Bill just lent him to me."

"Hnh! Bill, he shore is generous-hearted to lend yuh Jake."

"Yes," said Mary V, smiling at Tex innocently. "Yes, isn't he?"

But Tex did not reiterate, as pleasant converse demanded. He went off again into meditation so deep that it quite excluded Mary V.

"Yo' all going to help round up?" Tex asked her suddenly. "You shore can ride the ridges, with that hawse. I guess yo' all can bring in more hawses than what any two of us kin."

"That's exactly what I mean to do," Mary V assured him promptly. "You'll see me riding the ridges almost exclusively."

Tex looked at her and grinned, which did not enhance his good looks, because his teeth were badly stained with tobacco.

"Yo' all don't want to ride away over in them breaks toward the southeast corner," he advised. "That's a long, hard ride to make. It's too much for a girl to tackle--combin' the hawses outa them little brushy draws. They like to git in there away from the flies, in the heat uh the day. But yo' all better not tackle it, even if Bill lets yuh. I don't guess he would, though."

"Bill," said Mary V with a little tilt to her chin, "does not enjoy the privilege of 'letting' me do things. I shall ride wherever I please. And it is possible that I may please to bring in what horses are in the red-hill end of the range. I'm sure I don't see why I shouldn't, if I like."

"Well," said Tex, "that country's plumb hard to ride. It takes real work to bring in hawses from there. I wouldn't tackle that, if I was you; I'd ride out where it's easier."

"Oh, would you? Well, thank you very much for the advice, I'm sure." Mary V looked back, saw the other boys jogging closer, and held Jake in to wait for them. She did not want to tell Tex that she certainly would make it a point to ride the red-hill side of the range. There was probably some sly, secret reason Tex did not want her to go over that way. She remembered that she had seen the Mexican coming from that direction both times. Certainly, there must be some secret reason. Tex was afraid she might find out something.

Mary V waited for the boys, and talked to them prettily, and wondered aloud where her dad was all this time, and hoped he had not had a puncture or anything. Because, she said, it was bad enough for his temper to have to drive the flivver, without any bad luck to make it worse.

She was particularly nice to Bill, and forced him to confess that she really got along perfectly all right with Jake. She comported herself so agreeably, in fact, that Bill was reconciled to her coming and paid no attention when she presently swung off to the southeast, saying that she wanted to get a picture of a perfectly ducky giant cactus which she had seen through her glasses one day. Indeed, the dismal honking of the machine called Bill back to the trail, where Sudden came jouncing along like a little, leaky boat laboring through a choppy sea. Bill rode off without noticing Mary V at all.

It was a little after noon, and the boys were eating dinner at the camp set up close to the creek at Sinkhole cabin. Sudden, sprawled in the shade of the wagon, was staring glumly at the sluggish little stream, smoking his after-dinner cigar and trying to formulate some plan that would promise results where results were most vital to his bank account. It would, of course, take two or three days to gather in all the horses on Sinkhole range, and the restless lot in the corral yonder might be a large or a small part of the entire number down there. Sudden was not worrying so much over those that were left, as he was over what had been stolen. It seemed to him that there ought to be some way of getting those horses back. He was trying to think of the way.

"Oh, Bill!" he called, getting stiffly to his feet. "Let's get into the cabin and go over those tally books." Which was merely a subterfuge to get Bill away from the wagon without letting the boys know something was wrong. Bill got up, brushed the dirt off his trousers with a flick of his fingers, lighted the cigarette he had just rolled and followed the boss.

"Bill, what's your idea about this horse-stealing, anyway? If they were going to steal horses, why didn't they run off a whole herd and be done with it?"

Bill seated himself on Johnny's bunk, spat toward the stove, pulled a splinter off the rough board of the bunk's side, and began carefully nipping off tiny shreds with his finger nails. Bill, by all these signs and tokens, was limbering up his keen old range-bred wits for action.

"Well, I'll tell yuh. The way to get at the thing is to figger out why you'd do it, s'posin' you was in their place. Now if it was me that was stealin' these hawses--say, s'posin' I was aimin' to sell 'em over across the line--I'd aim to take the best I could git holt of, because I'd be wanting 'em for good, all-round, tough saddle hawses. Them greasers, the way they're hellin' around over the country shootin' and fightin', they got to have good hawses under 'em. Er they want good hawses, if they can git 'em.

"Well, s'posin' 't I was out to furnish what I could. Chances is I wouldn't have a very big bunch in with me--say five or six of us, jest enough to handle a few head at a time. I'd aim to git 'em over acrost the line first shot. Anybody would do that. Well, s'posin' I didn't have a place that'd take care of very many at a time. Feed's pore, over there, and a hawse has got to eat. These here hawses are in purty fair condition, and I'd aim to keep 'em in flesh whilst I was breakin' 'em--I'd git better prices. And then again, mebby I wouldn't want too many on hand at once, in case some party come along with the gall to loot 'em instead of buy 'em.

"I figger I'd be plumb content if I could take over a few at a time, and let the rest go ahead eatin' grass here till I was ready for 'em. The longer I could keep that up, the better I'd like it. Same as we been doin' at the home ranch, y' see. We didn't go t' work and haze in the hull bunch and keep 'em up, eatin' their heads off, waitin' till we got ready for 'em. No, sir, we go out and bring in half a dozen, or a dozen at most and cut out what we want. We bust them, and git more.

"I figger, Mr. Selmer, that these geezers down here have been doin' that very same way. They had the kid baited with that flyin' machine, so he wouldn't have no eyes for anything else. And he was here, so you wouldn't be worryin' none about the stock. And they've been helpin' theirselves at their own convenience--like Mary V would put it. I dunno, but that's the way I figger it. And I don't guess, Mr. Selmer, you'll see none of yore hawses again, unless mebby it's the last ones they took. And I don't guess there's very much chance of gittin' them back, either, because we don't know whereabouts they took 'em to. Way I look at it, you're doin' about the only thing that can be did--cleanin' out this range and drivin' the hawses all up on the north range. That kinda leaves the jam pot empty when they come lickin' their lips for more of the same."

"Well, I guess you're right, Bill. And how do you figure young Jewel not being here? His saddle is out there in the shed, and all his horses are here."

"Him?" Bill laughed a little. "Me, I don't aim to do no figgerin' about Skyrider. He's got his flyin' machine workin', though, accordin' to Mary V. I guess Skyrider has mebby flew the country. He'd likely think it was about time--way he gummed things up around here."

Sudden permitted himself a snort, probably in agreement with Bill's statement that things were "gummed up" at Sinkhole. He went to the door and stood looking out, his face sour as one may expect a face to be when thoughts of loss are behind it.

"Where's Mary V?" he turned abruptly to ask of Bill.

"Mary V? Why, I guess she went home. Said something about takin' a picture of some darn thing; she never come on with the boys to camp, anyhow."

"She didn't go foolin' off with Tex, did she?"

"Tex? No, Tex rode after stock. Had some trouble with his hawse. I heard him tellin' the boys. Said his hawse run away with him. Come in all lathered up."

Sudden turned back, went to the telephone, changed his mind. No use worrying her mother by asking if she had got home, he thought.

"You're sure she went home?" his eyes dwelt rather sharply upon Bill's lean, leathery face. Bill looked up from the slow disintegration of the splinter. He spat toward the stove again, looked down at the splinter, and then got up quite unexpectedly.

"Hell, no! I ain't shore, but I can quick enough find out." He brushed past Sudden and took long steps toward the camp. Sudden followed him.

The boys were standing in a group, holding their hat brims down to shield their eyes from the bitter glare of the sun while they gazed up into the sky, their faces turned towards the south. A speck was scudding across the blue--a speck that rapidly grew larger, circled downward in a great, easy spiral. Sudden and Bill perforce turned and held their own hat brims while they looked.

"Sa-ay, if that there's Skyrider sailin' around in an airship, he's shore got the laugh on us fellers," Aleck observed, squinting his nose until his gums showed red above his teeth. "Look at 'im come down, would yuh!"

"Wonder where he got it?" little Curley hazarded. "I always told you fellers--"

"Does anybody know where Mary V went?" Sudden's voice brought them all facing him. They looked at him uncomprehendingly for a minute, then uncertainly at one another.

"Why--she was going to take a picture of a cactus. I dunno where she went after that." This was Bud, a shade of uneasiness creeping into his face.

"Which way did she go? Toward home?"

"She started that way--back toward Snake Ridge--"

"I seen her riding east," Curley broke in. "Jake shore was pickin' 'em up and layin' 'em down too. I thought at first he was running off with her, but he wasn't. He slowed down, climbin' that lava slope--and after that I didn't see no more of 'er."

Sudden looked at his watch, frowning a little. Mary V probably was all right; there was nothing unusual in her absence. But this country south of Snake Ridge was closer to the lawless land across the boundary than he liked. Their very errand down there gave proof enough of its character. North of Snake Ridge, Sudden would merely have stored away a lecture for Mary V. Down here at Sinkhole--

"You boys get out and hunt her up!" he snapped, almost as though they were to blame for her absence. "I didn't tell you before, but I'm telling you now that rustlers have been at work down here, and that's why we're taking the horses off this range. This is no place for Mary V to be riding around by herself."

"It's a wonder he wouldn't of woke up to that fact before," Bud grumbled to Aleck, while he went limping to the corral. "If she was a girl uh mine, she'd be home with her maw, where she belongs!"

"Rustlers--that sounds like greasers had been at work here. Runnin' hawses acrost the line. For Lord sake, git a faster wiggle on than that limp, Bud! If that poor little kid meets up with a bunch of them damn renegades--"

Bud swore and increased his pace in spite of the pain. Others were before him. Already Tex had his loop over the head of a speedy horse, and was leading it toward his saddle. Curley, the quickest of them all, was giving frantic tugs to his latigo. Bill was in the saddle ready to direct the search, and Sudden was standing by his car, wondering whether it would be possible to negotiate that rough country to the eastward with a "mechanical bronk."

Nothing much was said. You would have thought, to look at them, that they were merely in a hurry to get back to the work. Nevertheless, if it should happen that Mary V was being annoyed or in any danger, it would go hard with the miscreants if the Rolling R boys once came within sight of them.

B.M. Bower

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