Jack Goodheart followed the gun-barrel road into a desert green and beautiful with vegetation. Now he passed a blooming azalea or a yucca with clustering bellflowers. The prickly pear and the cat-claw clutched at his chaps. The arrowweed and the soapweed were everywhere, as was also the stunted creosote. The details were not lovely, but in the sunset light of late afternoon the silvery sheen of the mesquite had its own charm for the rider.
Back of the saddle he carried a "hot roll" of blankets and supplies, for he would have to camp out three or four nights. Flour, coffee, and a can of tomatoes made the substance of his provisions. His rifle would bring him all the meat he needed. The one he used was a seventy-three because the bullets fired from it fitted the cylinder of his forty-four revolver.
Solitude engulfed him. Once a mule deer stared at him in surprise from an escarpment back of the mesa. A rattlesnake buzzed its ominous warning.
He left the road to follow the broad trail made by the Flying V Y herd. A horizon of deep purple marked the afterglow of sunset and preceded a desert night of stars. Well into the evening he rode, then hobbled his horse before he built a camp-fire.
Darkness was still thick over the plains when he left the buffalo wallow in which he had camped. All day he held a steady course northward till the stars were out again. Late the next afternoon he struck the dust of the drag in the ground swells of a more broken country.
The drag-driver directed Goodheart to the left point. He found there two men, One of them--Dad Wrayburn--he knew. The other was a man of sandy complexion, hard-faced, and fishy of eye.
"Whad you want?" the second demanded.
"I want to see Webb."
"Can't see him. He ain't here."
"Where is he?"
"He's ridden on to the Fort to make arrangements for receiving the herd," answered the man sulkily.
"Who's the big auger left?"
"I'm the foreman, if that's what you mean?"
"Well, I've come to tell you that two of yore men are hidin' in the chaparral below Los Portales. There was trouble at Tolleson's. Two of the Lazy S M men were gunned an' one of yours was wounded."
"Which one was wounded?"
"I heard his name was Clanton."
"Suits me fine," grinned the foreman, showing two rows of broken, stained teeth. "Hope the Lazy S M boys gunned him proper."
Dad Wrayburn broke in softly. "Chicto, compadre!" ("Hush, partner!") He turned to Goodheart. "The other man with Clanton must be Billie Prince."
"I reckon the Lazy S M boys are lookin' for 'em."
"You guessed right first crack out of the box."
"Where are our boys holed up?"
"In a cave the other side of town. They're just beyond the big bend of the river. I'll take you there."
"You've seen 'em."
"No." Goodheart hesitated just a moment before he went on. "I was sent by the person who has seen 'em."
"Listens to me like a plant," jeered Yankie.
"Meanin' that I'm a liar?" asked Goodheart coldly.
"I wasn't born yesterday. Come clean. Who is yore friend that saw the boys?"
"I can't tell you that."
"Then yore story doesn't interest me a whole lot."
"Different here," dissented Wrayburn. "Do you know how badly Clanton is hurt, Jack?"
"No. He was able to ride out of town, but my friend told me to say he wasn't able to ride now. You'll have to send a wagon for him."
Wrayburn turned to the foreman. "Joe, we've got to go back an' help the boys."
"Not on yore topknot, Dad. I'm here to move these beeves along to the Fort. Prince an' that Clanton may have gone on a tear an' got into trouble or they may not. I don't care a plugged nickel which way it is. I'm not keepin' herd on them, an' what's more I don't intend to."
"We can't leave 'em thataway. Dad gum it, we got to stand by the boys, Joe. That's what Webb would tell us if he was here."
"But he ain't here, Dad. An' while he's gone I'm major-domo of this outfit. We're headed north, not south."
"You may be. I'm not. An' I reckon you'll find several of the boys got the same notion I have. I taken a fancy to both those young fellows, an' if I hadn't I'd go help 'em just the same."
"You ain't expectin' to ride our stock on this fool chase, are you?"
"I'll ride the first good bronc I get my knees clamped to, Joe."
"As regards that, you'll get my answer like shot off'n a shovel. None of the Flyin' V Y remuda is goin'."
Wrayburn cantered around the point of the herd to the swing, from the swing back to the drag, and then forward to the left point. In the circuit he had stopped to sound out each rider.
"We all have decided that ten of us will go back, Joe," he announced serenely. "That leaves enough to loose-herd the beeves whilst we're away."
Yankie grew purple with rage. "If you go you'll walk. I'll show you who's foreman here."
"No use raisin' a rookus, Joe," replied the old Confederate mildly. "We're goin'. Yore authority doesn't stretch far enough to hold us here."
"I'll show you!" stormed the foreman. "Some of you will go to sleep in smoke if you try to take any of my remuda."
"Now don't you-all be onreasonable, Joe. We got to go. Cayn't you get it through yore cocoanut that we've got to stand by our pardners?"
"That killer Clanton is no pardner of mine. I meant to burn powder with him one of these days myself. If Wally Snaith beats me to it I'm not goin' to wear black," retorted Yankie.
"Sho! The kid's got good stuff in him. An' nobody could ask for a squarer pal than Billie Prince. You know that yore own self."
"You heard what I said, Dad. The Flyin' V Y horses don't take the back trail to-day," insisted the foreman stubbornly.
The wrinkled eyes of Wrayburn narrowed a little. He looked straight at Yankie.
"Don't get biggety, Joe. I'm not askin' you or any other man whether I can ride to rescue a friend when he's in trouble. You don't own these broncs, an' if you did we'd take 'em just the same."
The voice of Wrayburn was still gentle, but it no longer pleaded for understanding. The words were clean-cut and crisp.
"I'll show you!" flung back the foreman with an oath.
When the little group of cavalry was gathered for the start, Yankie, rifle in hand, barred the way. His face was ugly with the fury of his anger.
Dad Wrayburn rode forward in front of his party. "Don't git promiscuous with that cannon of yours, Joe. You've done yore level best to keep us here. But we're goin' just the same. We-all will tell the old man how tender you was of his remuda stock. That will let you out."
"Don't you come another step closeter, Dad Wrayburn!" the foreman shouted. "I'll let you know who is boss here."
Wrayburn did not raise his voice. The drawl in it was just as pronounced, but every man present read in it a warning.
"This old sawed-off shotgun of mine spatters like hell, Joe. It always did shoot all over the United States an' Texas."
There was an instant of dead silence. Each man watched the other intently, the one cool and determined, the other full of a volcanic fury. The curtain had been rung up for tragedy.
A man stepped between them, twirling carelessly a rawhide rope.
"Just a moment, gentlemen. I think I know a way to settle this without bloodshed." Jack Goodheart looked first at the ex-Confederate, then at the foreman. He was still whirling as if from absent-minded habit the loop of his reata.
"We're here to listen, Jack. That would suit me down to the ground," answered Wrayburn.
The loop of the lariat snaked forward, whistled through the air, dropped over the head of Yankie, and tightened around his neck. A shot went wildly into the air as the rifle was jerked out of the hands of its owner, who came to the earth with sprawling arms. Goodheart ran forward swiftly, made a dozen expert passes with his fingers, and rose without a word.
Yankie had been hog-tied by the champion roper of the Southwest.
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