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From Live-Oaks a breakneck trail runs up the side of the mountain, drops down into the valley beyond, and twists among the hills and through canons to the Ruidosa. In the darkness a man followed this precarious path. His horse climbed it like a cat, without the least uncertainty or doubt. Both mount and rider had covered this ground often during the Washington County War. Joe Yankie expected to continue to use it as long as he found a profit in other men's cattle.
When he had reached the summit he swung to the right, dipped abruptly into a narrow gulch, skirted a clump of junipers, and looked down upon a little basin hidden snugly in the gorge. A wisp of pungent smoke rose to his nostrils. The pony began cautiously the sharp descent. The escarpment was of disintegrated granite which rang beneath the hoofs of the animal. A pebble rolled to the edge of the bluff and dropped into the black pit below.
From the gulf a challenging voice rose. "Hello, up there!"
"It's me--Joe," answered the rider.
"Time you were gettin' here," growled the other, as yet only a voice in the darkness.
Slowly the horse slid forward to a ribbon of trail that led less precipitously to the camp.
"'Lo, Joe. Fall off an' rest," a one-armed man invited. By the light of the camp-fire he was a hard-faced, wall-eyed citizen with a jaw like a steel trap.
Yankie dismounted and straddled to the fire. "How-how; I'm heap hungry, boys. Haven't et since mornin'."
"We're 'most out of grub. Got nothin' but jerked beef an' hard-tack. How are things a-stackin', Joe?" asked a heavy-set, bow-legged man with a cold, fishy eye.
"Looks good, Dave. I'll lead the cattle to you. It'll be up to you an' Albeen an' Dumont to make a get-away with 'em."
"Don't you worry none about that. Once I get these beeves on the trail there can't no shorthorn cattleman take 'em away from me."
"Oh, you're doin' this thing, are you?" drawled Albeen offensively. "There's been a heap of big I talk around here lately. First off, I want to tell you that when you call Homer Webb a shorthorn cattleman you've got another guess comin'. He's a sure enough old-timer. Webb knocked the bark off'n this country when it was green, an' you got to rise up early an' travel fast if you want to slip over anything on him,"
"That's whatever," agreed Yankie. "I don't love the old man a whole lot. I've stood about all from him I'm intendin' to. One of these days it's goin' to be him or me. But the old man's there every jump of the road. He knew New Mexico when Los Portales was a whistlin' post in the desert. He's fought through this war an' come through richer than when he started. If I was lookin' for an easy mark I'd sure pass up Webb."
"He's got you lads buffaloed," jeered Roush. "Webb looks like anybody else to me. I don't care if he's worth a million. If he fools with me he'll find I fog him quick."
"I've known fellows before that got all filled up with talk an' had to steam off about every so often," commented Albeen to the world at large.
Albeen carefully raked a live coal from the fire and pressed it down into the bowl of his pipe. The eyes in his leathery, brown face had grown hard as jade. For some time he and Dave Roush had been ready for an explosion. It could not come any too soon to suit the one-armed man.
"Meanin' you if you want to take it that way." Albeen looked straight at him with an unwinking gaze. "You're not the only man on the reservation that wears his gun low, Roush. Maybe you're a wolf for fair. I've sure heard you claim it right often. You're a two-gun man. I pack only one, seem' as I'm shy a wing. But don't git the notion you can ride me. I won't stand for it a minute."
"Sho! Dave didn't mean anything like that. Did you, Dave?" interposed Dumont hastily. "You was just kind o' jokin', wasn't you?"
"Well, I'm servin' notice right now that when any one drops around any jokes about me bein' buffaloed, he's foolin' with dynamite. No man alive can run a sandy on me an' git away with it."
The chill eyes of Albeen, narrowed to shining slits, focused on Roush menacingly. All present understood that he was offering Devil Dave a choice. He could draw steel, or he could side-step the issue.
The campers had been playing poker with white navy beans for chips. Roush, undecided, gathered up in his fingers the little pile of them in front of him and let them sift down again to the blanket on the edge of which he sat. Some day he and Albeen would have to settle this quarrel once for all. But not to-night. Dave wanted the breaks with him when that hour came. He intended to make a sure thing of it. Albeen was one of those fire-eaters who would play into his hand by his reckless courage. Better have patience and watch for his chance against the one-armed gunman.
"I ain't aimin' to ride you any, Albeen," he said sulkily.
"Lay off'n me, then," advised the other curtly.
Roush grumbled something inaudible. It might have been a promise. It might have been a protest. Yankie jumped into the breach and began to talk.
"I couldn't git away from the old man yesterday. I think he's suspicious about me. Anyhow, he acts like he is. I came in to Live-Oaks to-night without notifyin' him an' I got to be back in camp before mornin'. Here's my plan. I've got a new rider out from Kansas for his health. He's gun-shy. I'll leave him in charge of this bunch of stock overnight on. the berrendo. He'll run like a scared deer at the first shot. Hustle the beeves over the pass an' keep 'em movin' till you come to Lost Cache."
Crouched over the blanket, they discussed details and settled them. Yankie rose to leave and Roush followed him to his horse.
"Don't git a notion I'm scared of Albeen, Joe," he explained. "No one-armed, hammered-down little runt can bluff me for a second. When I'm good an' ready I'll settle with him, but I'm not goin' to wreck this business we're on by any personal difficulty."
"That's right, Dave," agreed the foreman of the Flying V Y. "We all understand how you feel."
Yankie, busy fastening a cinch, had his forehead pressed against the saddle and could afford a grin. He knew that the courage of a killer is largely dependent on his physical well-being. If he is cold or hungry or exhausted, his nerve is at low ebb; if life is running strong in his arteries his grit is above par. For years Roush had been drinking to excess. He had reached the point where he dared not face in the open a man like Albeen with nerves of unflawed steel. The declension of a gunman, if once it begins, is rapid and sure. One of those days, unless Roush were killed first, some mild-looking citizen would take his gun from him and kick him out of a bar-room.
The foreman traveled fast, but the first streaks of morning were already lighting the sky when he reached Rabbit Ear Creek, upon which was the Flying V Y Ranch No. 3 of which he was majordomo. He unsaddled, threw the bronco into the corral, and walked to the foreman's bunkhouse. Without undressing, he flung himself upon the bed and fell asleep at one. He awoke to see a long slant of sunshine across the bare planks of the floor.
Some one was hammering on the door. Webb opened it and put in his head just as the Segundo jumped to his feet.
"Makin' up some lost sleep, Joe?" inquired the owner of the ranch amiably.
"I been out nights a good deal tryin' to check the rustlers," answered Yankie sullenly. He had been caught asleep in his clothes and it annoyed him. Would the old man guess that he had been in the saddle all night?
"Glad to hear you're gettin' busy on that job. They've got to be stopped. If you can't do it I'll have to try to find a man that can, Joe."
"Mebbe you think it's an easy job, Webb," retorted the other, a chip on his shoulder. "If you do it costs nothin' Mex to fire me an' try some other guy."
"I don't say you're to blame, Joe. Perhaps you're just unlucky. But the fact stands that I'm losin' more cattle on this range than at any one of my other three ranches or all of 'em put together."
"We're nearer the hills than they are," the foreman replied sulkily.
"I don't want excuses, but results, Joe. However, I came to talk about that gather of beeves for Major Strong."
Webb talked business in his direct fashion for a few minutes, then strolled away. The majordomo watched him walk down to the corral. He could not swear to it, but he was none the less sure that the Missourian's keen eye was fixed upon a sweat-stained horse that had been traveling the hills all night.
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