Chapter IX. Billie Stands Pat




Clanton came back out of the haze to find his friend's arm around his waist, the sound of his strong, cheerful voice in his ears.

"Steady, old fellow, steady. Where did they hit you, Jim?"

"In the shoulder. I'm sick."

Billie supported him to a chair and called to the bartender, who was cautiously rising from a prone position behind the bar. "Bring a glass of water, Mike."

The wounded man drank the water, and presently the sickness passed. He saw a little crowd gather. Some of them carried out the body of Hugh Roush. They returned for that of his brother.

"Dave ain't dead yet. He's still breathing," one of the men said.

"Not dead!" exclaimed Clanton. "Did you say he wasn't dead?"

"Now, don't you worry about that," cautioned Prince. "Looks to me like you sure got him. Anyhow, it ain't your fault. You were that quiet and game and cool. I never saw the beat."

The admiration of his partner did not comfort Jim. He was suspiciously near a breakdown. "Why didn't I take another crack at him when I had the chance?" he whimpered. "I been waitin' all these years, an' now--"

"I tell you he hasn't a chance in a thousand, Jim. You did the job thorough. He's got his,"

Prince had been intending to say more, but he changed his mind. Half a dozen men were coming toward them from the front door. Buck Sanders was one of them, Quantrell's trooper another. Their manner looked like business.

Sanders was the spokesman. "You boys ride for the Flying V Y, don't you?" he asked curtly.

"We do," answered Billie, and his voice was just as cold. It had in it the snap of a whiplash.

"You came in here to pick trouble with us. Your pardner--Clanton, whatever his name is--gave it out straight that he was goin' to kill Roush."

"He didn't mention you, did he?"

"The Roush brothers were in our party. We ride for the Lazy S M. We don't make distinctions."

"Don't you? Listen," advised Prince. In five sentences he sketched the cause of the trouble between Jim Clanton and the Roush brothers. "My bunkie didn't kill any of the Roush clan because they worked for Snaith and McRobert. He shot them for the reason I've just given you. That's his business. It was a private feud of his own. You heard what was said before the shootin' began," he concluded.

"Tha's what you say. You'll tell us, too, that he got Ranse Roush in a fair fight. But you've got to show us proof," Sanders said with a sneer.

"I expect just now you'll have to take my word and his. I'll tell you this. Ranse Roush was a renegade. He was ridin' with a bunch of bronco bucks. They attacked the Roubideau place an' we rode--Jim an' I did--to help Pierre an' his family. We drove the 'Paches off, but they picked up Miss Pauline while she was out ridin' alone. We took after 'em. I got wounded an' Jim here went up a gulch lickety-split to catch the red devils. He got four 'Paches an' one hell-hound of a renegade. Is there a white man here that blames him for it?"

When all is said, the prince of deadly weapons at close range is the human eye. Billie was standing beside his friend, one hand resting lightly on his shoulder. The cowpuncher was as lithe and clean of build as a mastiff, but it was the steady candor of his honest eye that spoke most potently.

"Naturally you tell a good story," retorted the foreman with dry incredulity. "It's up to you to come through with an explanation of why Webb's men have just gunned three of our friends. Your story doesn't make any hit with me. I don't believe a word of it."

"You can take it or let it alone. It goes as I've told it," Prince cut back shortly.

Another man spoke up. He was a tinhorn gambler of Los Portales and for reasons of his own foregathered with the Snaith-McRobert faction. "Look here, young fellow. You may or may not be in this thing deep. I'm willin' to give you the benefit of the doubt if my friends are. I'd hate to see you bumped off when you didn't do any of the killin'. All we want is justice. This is a square town. When bad men go too far we plant 'em on Boot Hill. Understand? Now you slide out of the back door, slap a saddle on your bronc, an' hit the high spots out of here,"

"And Clanton?" asked Billie.

"We'll attend to Clanton's case,"

A faint smile touched the sardonic face of Prince. "What did you ever see me do to give you the notion that I was yellow, Bancock?"

"This ain't your affair. You step aside an' let justice--"

"If those that holler for justice loudest had it done to them there would be a lot of squealin' outside of hogpens."

"You won't take that offer, then?"

"Not this year of our Lord, thank you."

"You've had your chance. If you turn it down you're liable to go out of here feet first."

Not a muscle twitched in the lean, brown face of the young cowpuncher. "Cut loose whenever you're ready."

"Hold yore hawsses, friend," advised the ex-guerrilla, not unkindly. "There's no occasion whatever for you to run on the rope. We are six to two, countin' the kid, who's got about all he can carry for one day. We're here askin' questions, an' it's reasonable for you to answer 'em."

"I have answered 'em. I'll answer all you want to ask. But I'd think you would feel cheap to come kickin' about that fight. My friend fought fair. You know best whether your friends did. He took 'em at odds of two to one, an' at that one of your gunmen hunted cover. What's troublin you, anyhow? Didn't you have all the breaks? Do you want an open an' shut cinch?"

"You're quite a lawyer," replied Dumont, the man who found the climate of Texas unhealthy. "I reckon it would take a good one to talk himself out of the hole you're in."

Billie looked at the man and Dumont decided that he did not have a speaking part in the scene. He was willing to remain one of the mob. In point of fact, after what he had seen in the last few minutes, he was not at all anxious to force the issue to actual battle. A good strong bluff would suit him a great deal better. Even odds of six to two were not good enough considering the demonstration he had witnessed.

"What is it you want? Another showdown?" asked Clanton unexpectedly.

Quantrell's man laughed. "I never did see such a fire-eater."

He turned to his companions. "I told you how it would be. We can't prove a thing against the kid except that he was lookin' for a fight an' got it. He played the hand that was dealt him an' he played it good. I reckon we'll have to let him go this time, boys."

"We'll make a mistake if we do," differed Sanders.

"You'll make one if you don't," said Prince pointedly.

He stood poised, every nerve and muscle set to a hair-trigger for swift action. Of those facing him not one of the six but knew they would have to pay the price before they could exact vengeance for the death of the Roush brothers.

"What's the use of beefing?" grumbled a one-armed puncher in the rear. "They shot up three of our friends. What more do you want?"

"Don't be in a hurry, Albeen," advised Billie. "It's easy to start something. We all know you burn powder quick. You're a sure-enough bad man. But I've got a hunch it's goin' to be your funeral as well as mine if once the band begins to play."

"That so?" replied Albeen with heavy sarcasm. "You talk like you was holdin' a royal flush, my friend."

"I'm holdin' a six-full an' Clanton has another. We're sittin' in strong."

Dumont proposed a compromise. "Why not just arrest 'em an' hold 'em at Bluewater till we find whether their story is true?"

"Bring a warrant along before you try that," Billie countered. "Think we were born yesterday? No Lazy S M sheriff, judge, an' jury for me, if you please."

The old guerrilla nodded. "That's reasonable, too. We haven't got a leg to stand on, boys. This young fellow's story may be true an' it may not. All we know is what we've seen. Clanton here took a mighty slim chance of comin' through alive when he tackled Dave an' Hugh Roush. I wouldn't have give a chew of tobacco against a week's pay for it. He fought fair, didn't he? Now he's come through I'll be doggoned if I want to jump on him again."

"You're too soft for this country, Reb," sneered Albeen. "Better go back to Arkansas or wherever you come from."

"When I get ready. You don't mean right away, Albeen, do you?" demanded the old-timer sharply.

"Well, don't hang around all day," said Prince, his eye full in that of the foreman. "Make up your minds whether you want to jump one man an' a wounded boy. If you don't mean business I'd like to have a doctor look at my friend's shoulder."

Sanders's eyes fell at last before the quiet steadiness of that gaze. With an oath he turned on his heel and strode from the gambling-hall. His party straggled morosely after him. The old raider lingered for a last word.

"Take a fool's advice, Prince. There's a gunbarrel road leads out of town for the north. Hit it pronto. Stay with it till you come up with Webb's herd. You won't see his dust any too soon."

"I guess you're right, Reb," agreed Prince.

"You know I'm right. Just now you've got the boys bluffed, but it isn't going to last. They'll get busy lappin' up drinks. Quite a crowd of town toughs will join 'em. By night they'll be all primed up for a lynching. I'd spoil their party if I was you by bein' distant absentees."

"Soon as I can get Jim's shoulder fixed up we'll be joggin' along if he's able to travel," promised Billie.

"Good enough. And I'd see he was able if it was me."



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