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The boy had spent the night at a water-hole in a little draw near the foot of the mesa. He had supped on cold rations and slept in his blanket without the comfort of glowing pinon knots. For yesterday he had cut Indian signs and after dark had seen the shadow of Apache camp-fires reflected in the clouds.
After eating he swung to the bare back of his pony and climbed to the summit of the butte. His trained eyes searched the plains. A big bunch of antelope was trailing down to water almost within rifle-shot. But he was not looking for game.
He sniffed the smoke from the pits where the renegades were roasting mescal and judged the distance to the Apache camp at close to ten miles. His gaze swept toward the sunrise horizon and rested upon a cloud of dust. That probably meant a big herd of cattle crossing to the Pecos Valley on the Chisum Trail that led to Fort Stanton. The riders were likely just throwing the beeves from the bed-ground to the trail. The boy waited to make sure of their line of travel.
Presently he spoke aloud, after the fashion of the plainsman who spends much time alone in the saddle. "Looks like they'll throw off to-night close to the 'Pache camp. If they do hell's a-goin' to pop just before sunup to-morrow. I reckon I'll ride over and warn the outfit."
From a trapper the boy had learned that a band of Mescalero Apaches had left the reservation three weeks before, crossed into Mexico, gone plundering down the Pecos, and was now heading back toward the Staked Plains. Evidently the drover did not know this, since he was moving his cattle directly toward the Indian camp.
The young fellow let his cowpony pick its way down the steep shale hill to the draw. He saddled without a waste motion, packed his supplies deftly, mounted, and was off. In the way he cut across the desert toward the moving herd was the certainty of the frontiersman. He did not hurry, but he wasted no time. His horse circled in and out among the sand dunes, now topped a hill, now followed a wash. Every foot of the devious trail was the most economical possible.
At the end of nearly an hour's travel he pulled up, threw down his bridle reins, and studied the ground carefully. He had cut Indian sign. What he saw would have escaped the notice of a tenderfoot, and if it had been pointed out to him none but an expert trailer would have understood its significance. Yet certain facts were printed here on the desert for this boy as plainly as if they had been stenciled on a guide-post. He knew that within forty-eight hours a band of about twenty Mescalero bucks had returned to camp this way from an antelope hunt and that they carried with them half a dozen pronghorns. It was a safe guess that they were part of the large camp the smoke of which he had seen.
Long before the young man struck the drive, he knew he was close by the cloud of dust and the bawling of the cattle. His course across country had been so accurate that he hit the herd at the point without deflecting.
An old Texan drew up, changed his weight on the saddle to rest himself, and hailed the youngster.
"Goin' somewheres, kid, or just ridin'?" he asked genially.
"Just takin' my hawss out for a jaunt so's he won't get hog-fat," grinned the boy.
The Texan chewed tobacco placidly and eyed the cowpony. The horse had been ridden so far that he was a bag of bones.
"Looks some gaunted," he commented.
"Four Bits is so thin he won't throw a shadow," admitted the boy.
"Come a right smart distance, I reckon?"
"You done said it."
"Where you headin' for?"
"For Deaf Smith County. I got an uncle there. Saw your dust an' dropped over to tell you that a big bunch of 'Paches are camped just ahead of you."
The older man looked at him keenly. "How do you know, son?"
"Smelt their smoke an' cut their trail."
"Know Injuns, do you?"
"I trailed with Al Sieber 'most two years."
To have served with Sieber for any length of time was a certificate of efficiency. He was the ablest scout in the United States Army. Through his skill and energy Geronimo and his war braves were later forced to give themselves up to the troops.
"'Nuff said. Are these 'Paches liable to make us any trouble?"
"Yes, sir. I think they are. They're a bunch of broncos from the reservation an' they have been across the line stealin' horses an' murderin' settlers. They will sure try to stampede your cattle an' run off a lot of 'em."
"Hmp! You better go back an' see old man Webb about it. What's yore name, kid?"
For just an eye-beat the boy hesitated. "Call me Jim Thursday."
A glimmer of a smile rested in the eyes of the Texan. He was willing to bet that this young fellow would not have given him that name if to-day had not happened to be the fifth day of the week. But it was all one to the cowpuncher. To question a man too closely about his former residence and manner of life was not good form on the frontier.
"I'll call you Jim from Sunday to Saturday," he said, pulling a tobacco pouch from his hip pocket. "My name is Wrayburn--Dad Wrayburn, the boys call me."
The Texan shouted to the man riding second on the swing. "Oh, you, Billie Prince!"
A tanned, good-looking young fellow cantered up.
"Meet Jimmie Thursday, Billie," the old-timer said by way of introduction. "This boy says there's heap many Injuns on the war-path right ahead of us. I reckon I'll let you take the point while I ride back with him an' put it up to the old man."
The "old man" turned out to be a short, heavy-set Missourian who had served in the Union Army and won a commission by intelligence and courage. Wherever the name of Homer Webb was known it stood for integrity and square-dealing. His word was as good as a signed bond.
Webb had come out of the war without a cent, but with a very definite purpose. During the last year of the Confederacy, while it was tottering to its fall, he had served in Texas. The cattle on the range had for years been running wild, the owners and herdsmen being absent with the Southern army. They had multiplied prodigiously, so that many thousands of mavericks roamed without brand, the property of any one who would round them up and put an iron on their flanks. The money value of them was very little. A standard price for a yearling was a plug of tobacco. But Webb looked to the future. He hired two riders, gathered together a small remuda of culls, and went into the cattle business with energy. To-day the Flying V Y was stamped on forty thousand longhorns.
The foreman of the Flying V Y was riding with the owner of the brand at the drag end of the herd. He was a hard-faced citizen known as Joe Yankie. When Wrayburn had finished his story, the foreman showed a row of tobacco-stained teeth in an unpleasant grin.
"Same old stuff, Dad. There always is a bunch of bucks off the reservation an' they're always just goin' to run our cattle away. If you ask me there's nothin' to it."
Young Thursday flushed. "If you'll ride out with me I'll show you their trail."
Yankie looked at him with a sneer. He guessed this boy to be about eighteen. There was a suggestion of effeminacy about the lad's small, well-shaped hands and feet. He was a slender, smooth-faced youth with mild blue eyes. It occurred to Webb, too, that the stranger might have imagined the Apaches. But in his motions was something of the lithe grace of the puma. It was part of the business of the cattleman to judge men and he was not convinced that this young fellow was as inoffensive as he looked.
"Where you from?" asked the drover.
"From the San Carlos Agency."
"Ever meet a man named Micky Free out there?"
"I've slept under the same tarp with him many's the time when we were followin' Chiricahua 'Paches. He's the biggest dare-devil that ever forked a horse."
"Micky's face is a map of Ireland. He's got only one eye; a buck punched the other out when he was a kid. His hair is red an' he wears it long."
"A bristly little red mustache."
"That's Micky to a T." Webb made up his mind swiftly. "The boy's all right, Yankie. He'll do to take along."
"It's your outfit. Suits me if he does you." The foreman turned insolently to the newcomer. "What'd you say your name was, sissie?"
The eyes of the boy, behind narrowed lids, grew hard as steel.
"Call me Jimmie-Go-Get-'Em," he drawled in a soft voice, every syllable distinct.
There was a moment of chill silence. A swift surprise had flared into the eyes of the foreman. The last thing in the world he had expected was to have his bad temper resented so promptly by this smooth-faced little chap. Since Yankie was the camp bully he bristled up to protect his reputation.
"Better not get on the prod with me, young fellow me lad. I'm liable to muss up your hair. Me, I'm from the Strip, where folks grow man-size."
The youngster smiled, but there was no mirth in that thin-lipped smile. He knew, as all men did, that the Cherokee Strip was the home of desperadoes and man-killers. The refuse of the country, driven out by the law of more settled communities, found here a refuge from punishment. But if the announcement of the foreman impressed him, he gave no sign of it.
"Why didn't you stay there?" he asked with bland innocence.
Yankie grew apoplectic. He did not care to discuss the reasons why he had first gone to the Strip or the reasons why he had come away. This girl-faced boy was the only person who had asked for a bill of particulars. Moreover, the foreman did not know whether the question had been put in child-like ignorance of any possible offense or with an impudent purpose to enrage him.
"Don't run on the rope when I'm holdin' it, kid," he advised roughly. "You're liable to get thrown hard."
"And then again I'm liable not to," lisped the youth from Arizona gently.
The bully looked the slim newcomer over again, and as he looked there rang inside him some tocsin of warning. Thursday sat crouched in the saddle, wary as a rattlesnake ready to strike. A sawed-off shotgun lay under his leg within reach of his hand, the butt of a six-gun was even closer to those smooth, girlish fingers. In the immobility of his figure and the steadiness of the blue eyes was a deadly menace.
Yankie was no coward. He would go through if he had to. But there was still time to draw back if he chose. He was not exactly afraid; on the other hand, he did not feel at all easy.
He contrived a casual, careless laugh. "All right, kid. I don't have to rob the cradle to fill my private graveyard. Go get your Injuns. It will be all right with me."
Webb drew a breath of relief. There was to be no gunplay after all. He had had his own reasons for not interfering sooner, but he knew that the situation had just grazed red tragedy.
"I'm goin' to take the boy's advice," he announced to Yankie. "Ride forward an' swing the herd toward that big red butte. We'll give our Mescalero friends a wide berth if we can."
The foreman hung in the saddle a moment before he turned to go. He had to save his face from a public back-down, "Bet you a week's pay there's nothin' to it, Webb."
"Hope you're right, Joe," his employer answered.
As soon as Yankie had cantered away, Dad Wrayburn, ex-Confederate trooper, slapped his hand on his thigh and let out a modulated rebel yell.
"Dad burn my hide, Jimmie-Go-Get-'Em, you're all right. Fustest time I ever saw Joe take water, but he shorely did splash some this here occasion. I wouldn't 'a' missed it for a bunch of hog-fat yearlin's."
Webb had not been sorry to see his arrogant foreman brought up with a sharp turn, but in the interest of discipline he did not care to say so.
"Why can't you boys get along peaceable with Joe, I'd like to know? This snortin' an' pawin' up the ground don't get you anything."
"I reckon Joe does most of the snortin' that's done," Wrayburn answered dryly. "I ain't had any trouble with him, because he spends a heap of time lettin' me alone. But there's no manner of doubt that Joe rides the boys too hard."
The drover dismissed the subject and turned to Thursday.
"Want a job?"
"I need another man. Since you sabe the ways of the 'Paches I can use you to scout ahead for us."
"What you payin'?"
"Fifty a month."
"You've hired a hand."
"Good enough. Better pick one of the boys to ride with you while you are out scoutin'."
"I'll take Billie Prince," decided the new rider at once.
"You know Billie?"
"Never saw him before to-day. But I like his looks. He's a man to tie to."
"You're right he is."
The drover looked at his new employee with a question in his shrewd eyes. The boy was either a man out of a thousand or he was a first-class bluffer. He claimed to have cut Indian sign and to know exactly what was written there. At a single glance he had sized up Prince and knew him for a reliable side partner. Without any bluster he had served notice on Yankie that it would be dangerous to pick on him as the butt of his ill-temper.
In those days, on the Pecos, law lay in a holster on a man's thigh. The individual was a force only so far as his personality impressed itself upon his fellows. If he made claims he must be prepared to back them to a fighting finish.
Was this young Thursday a false alarm? Or was he a good man to let alone when one was looking for trouble? Webb could not be sure yet, though he made a shrewd guess. But he knew it would not he long before he found out.
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