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ON THE DODGE
Up in the hills back of Bear Caņon two men were camping. They breakfasted on slow elk, coffee, and flour-and-water biscuits. When they had finished, they washed their tin dishes with sand in the running brook.
"Might's well be hittin' the trail," one growled.
The other nodded without speaking, rose lazily, and began to pack the camp outfit. Presently, when he had arranged the load to his satisfaction, he threw the diamond hitch and stood back to take a chew of tobacco while he surveyed his work. He was a squat, heavy-set man with a Chihuahua hat. Also he was a two-gun man. After a moment he circled an arrowweed thicket and moved into the chaparral where his horse was hobbled.
The man who had spoken rose with one lithe twist of his big body. His eyes, hard and narrow, watched the shorter man disappear in the brush. Then he turned swiftly and strode toward the shoulder of the ridge.
In the heavy undergrowth of dry weeds and grass he stopped and tested the wind with a bandanna handkerchief. The breeze was steady and fairly strong. It blew down the caņon toward the foothills beyond.
The man stripped from a scrub oak a handful of leaves. They were very brittle and crumbled in his hand. A match flared out. His palm cupped it for a moment to steady the blaze before he touched it to the crisp foliage. Into a nest of twigs he thrust the small flame. The twigs, dry as powder from a four-months' drought, crackled like miniature fireworks. The grass caught, and a small line of fire ran quickly out.
The man rose. On his brown face was an evil smile, in his hard eyes something malevolent and sinister. The wind would do the rest.
He walked back toward the camp. At the shoulder crest he turned to look back. From out of the chaparral a thin column of pale gray smoke was rising.
His companion stamped out the remains of the breakfast fire and threw dirt on the ashes to make sure no live ember could escape in the wind. Then he swung to the saddle.
"Ready, Dug?" he asked.
The big man growled an assent and followed him over the summit into the valley beyond.
"Country needs a rain bad," the man in the Chihuahua hat commented. "Don't know as I recollect a dryer season."
The big hawk-nosed man by his side cackled in his throat with short, splenetic mirth. "It'll be some dryer before the rains," he prophesied.
They climbed out of the valley to the rim. The short man was bringing up the rear along the narrow trail-ribbon. He turned in the saddle to look back, a hand on his horse's rump. Perhaps he did this because of the power of suggestion. Several times Doble had already swung his head to scan with a searching gaze the other side of the valley.
Mackerel clouds were floating near the horizon in a sky of blue. Was that or was it not smoke just over the brow of the hill?
"Cayn't be our camp-fire," the squat man said aloud. "I smothered that proper."
"Them's clouds," pronounced Doble quickly. "Clouds an' some mist risin' from the gulch."
"I reckon," agreed the other, with no sure conviction. Doble must be right, of course. No fire had been in evidence when they left the camping-ground, and he was sure he had stamped out the one that had cooked the biscuits. Yet that stringy gray film certainly looked like smoke. He hung in the wind, half of a mind to go back and make sure. Fire in the chaparral now might do untold damage.
Shorty looked at Doble. "If tha's fire, Dug--"
"It ain't. No chance," snapped the ex-foreman. "We'll travel if you don't feel called on to go back an' stomp out the mist, Shorty," he added with sarcasm.
The cowpuncher took the trail again. Like many men, he was not proof against a sneer. Dug was probably right, Shorty decided, and he did not want to make a fool of himself. Doble would ride him with heavy jeers all day.
An hour later they rested their horses on the divide. To the west lay Malapi and the plains. Eastward were the heaven-pricking peaks. A long, bright line zig-zagged across the desert and reflected the sun rays. It was the bed of the new road already spiked with shining rails.
"I'm goin' to town," announced Doble.
Shorty looked at him in surprise. "Wanta see yore picture, I reckon. It's on a heap of telegraph poles, I been told," he said, grinning.
"To-day," went on the ex-foreman stubbornly.
"Big, raw-boned guy, hook nose, leather face, never took no prize as a lady's man, a wildcat in a rough-house, an' sudden death on the draw," extemporized the rustler, presumably from his conception of the reward poster.
"I'll lie in the chaparral till night an' ride in after dark."
With the impulsiveness of his kind, Shorty fell in with the idea. He was hungry for the fleshpots of Malapi. If they dropped in late at night, stayed a few hours, and kept under cover, they could probably slip out of town undetected. The recklessness of his nature found an appeal in the danger.
"Damfidon't trail along, Dug."
"Yore say-so about that."
"Like to see my own picture on the poles. Sawed-off li'l runt. Straight black hair. Some bowlegged. Wears two guns real low. Doncha monkey with him onless you're hell-a-mile with a six-shooter. One thousand dollars reward for arrest and conviction. Same for the big guy."
"Fellow that gets one o' them rewards will earn it," said Doble grimly.
"Goes double," agreed Shorty. "He'll earn it even if he don't live to spend it. Which he's liable not to."
They headed their horses to the west. As they drew down from the mountains they left the trail and took to the brush. They wound in and out among the mesquite and the cactus, bearing gradually to the north and into the foothills above the town. When they reached Frio Caņon they swung off into a timbered pocket debouching from it. Here they unsaddled and lay down to wait for night.
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