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Webb was just leaving for one of his ranches lower down the river when a horseman galloped up. The alkali dust was caked on his unshaven face and the weary bronco was dripping with sweat.
The owner of the Flying V Y, giving some last instructions to the foreman, turned to listen to the sputtering rider.
"They--they done run off that bunch of beeves on the berrendo," he explained, trembling with excitement.
"I don't know. A bunch of rustlers. About a dozen of 'em. They tried to kill me."
Webb turned to Yankie. "You didn't leave this man alone overnight with that bunch of beeves for Major Strong?"
"Sure I did. Why not?" demanded the foreman boldly.
"We'll not argue that," said the boss curtly, "Go hunt you another job. You'll draw yore last pay-check from the Flying V Y to-day."
"If you're loaded up with a notion that some one else could do better--"
"It's not yore ability I object to, Yankie" cut in the ranchman.
"Say, what are you insinuatin'?" snarled the segundo.
"Not a thing, Yankie. I'm tellin' you to yore face that I think you're a crook. One of these days I'm goin' to land you behind the bars at Santa Fe. No, don't make another pass like that, Joe. I'll sure beat you to it."
Wrayburn had ridden up and now asked the foreman a question about some calves.
"Don't ask me. Ask yore boss," growled Yankie, his face dark with fury.
"Don't ask me either," said Webb. "You're foreman of this ranch, Dad."
"Since when?" asked the old Confederate.
"Since right this minute. I've fired Yankie."
Dad chewed his cud of tobacco without comment. He knew that Webb would tell him all he needed to know.
"Says I'm a waddy! Says I'm a crook!" burst out the deposed foreman. "Wish you joy of yore job, Wrayburn. You'll have one heluva time."
"You will if Yankie can bring it about," amended the cattleman. He spoke coldly and contemptuously just as if the man were not present. "I've made up my mind, Dad, that he's in cahoots with the rustlers."
"Prove it! Prove it!" demanded the accused man, furious with anger at Webb's manner.
The ranch-owner went on talking to Wrayburn in an even voice. "I've suspected it for some time. Now I'm convinced. Yesterday mornin' I found him asleep in bed with his clothes on. His horse looked like it had been travelin' all night. I made inquiries. He went to Live-Oaks an' was seen to take the trail to the Ruidosa. Why?"
"You've been spyin' on me," charged Yankie. He was under a savage desire to draw his gun but he could not shake off in a moment the habit of subordination bred by years of service with this man.
"To let his fellow thieves know that he meant to leave a bunch of beef steers on the berrendo practically unguarded. That's why. I'd bet a stack of blues on it. You'll have to watch this fellow, Dad."
The new foreman took his cue from the boss. None the less, he meant just what he said. "You better believe I'll watch him. I've had misgivin's about him for a right smart time."
"He'll probably ride straight to his gang of rustlers. Well, he can't do us half as much harm there as here."
"I'll git you both. Watch my smoke. Watch it." With a curse the rustler swung his horse round and gave it the spur. Poison hate churned in his heart. At the bend of the road he turned and shook a fist at them both.
"There goes one good horse an' saddle belongin' to me," said Webb, smiling ruefully. "But if I never get them back it's cheap at the price. I'm rid of one scoundrel."
"I wonder if you are, Homer," mused his friend. "Maybe you'd better have let him down easy. Joe Yankie is as revengeful as an Injun."
"Let him down easy!" exploded the cattleman. "When he's just pulled off a raw deal by which I lose a bunch of forty fat three-year-olds. I ought to have gunned him in his tracks."
"If you had proof, but you haven't. It's a right doubtful policy for a man to stir up a rattler till it's crazy, then to turn it loose in his bedroom."
The Missourian turned to the business of the hour. "We'll get a posse out after the rustlers right away. Dad. I'll see the boys an' you hustle up some rifles and ammunition."
Half an hour later they saw the dust of the cowpunchers taking the trail for the berrendo.
"I'll ride down an' get Billie Prince started after 'em. I can go with his posse as a deputy," suggested the ranchman.
To save Webb's time, Dad rode a few miles with him while the cattleman outlined to him the policy he wanted pursued.
The sun was high in the heavens when they met, not far from Ten Sleep, a rider. The cattleman looked at him grimly. In the Washington County War just ended, this young fellow had been the leading gunman of the Snaith-McRobert faction. If the current rumors were true he was now making an easy living in the chaparral.
The rider drew up, nodded a greeting to Wrayburn, and grinned with cool nonchalance at Webb. He knew from report in what esteem he was held by the owner of the Flying V Y brand.
"Yankie up at the ranch?" he asked.
"What do you want with him?" demanded Webb brusquely.
"I got a message for him."
Clanton was conscious of some irritation against this sharp catechism. In point of fact Billie Prince had asked him to notify Yankie that he had heard of the rustling on the berrendo and was taking the trail at once. But Go-Get-'Em Jim was the last man in the world to be driven by compulsion. He had been ready to tell Webb the message Billie had given him for Yankie, but he was not ready to tell it until the Missourian moderated his tone.
"Mebbe that's my business--an' his, Mr. Webb," he said.
"An' mine too--if you've come to tell him how slick you pulled that trick on the berrendo."
Jim stiffened at once. "To Halifax with you an' yore cattle, Webb. Do you claim I rustled that bunch of beeves last night?"
"I see you know all about it?" retorted Webb with heavy sarcasm.
"Mebbeso. I'm not askin' yore permission to live--not just yet."
Webb flushed dark with anger. "You've got a nerve, young fellow, to go up to my ranch after last night's business. Unless you want to have yore pelt hung up to dry, keep away from any of the Flying V Y ranges. As for Yankie, if you go back to yore hole you'll likely find him. I kicked the hound out two hours ago."
"Like you did me three years ago," suggested Clanton, looking straight at the grizzled cowman. "Webb, you're the high mogul here since you fixed it up with the Government to send its cavalry to back yore play against our faction. You act like we've got to knock our heads in the dust three times when we meet up with you. Don't you think it. Don't you think it for a minute. If I've rustled yore cattle, prove it. Until then padlock yore tongue, or you an' me'll mix it."
"You're threatenin' me, eh?"
"If that's what you want to call it."
"You're a killer, I'm told," flashed back Webb hotly. "Now listen to me. You an' yore kind belong in the penitentiary, an' that's where the honest folks of Washington County are goin' to send you soon. Give me half a chance an' I'll offer a reward of ten thousand dollars for you alive or dead. That's the way to get rid of gunmen."
"Is it?" Clanton laughed mockingly. "You advise the fellow that tries to collect that reward to get his life insured heavy for his widow."
If this was a boast, it was also a warning. Jimmie-Go-Get-'Em may not have been the best target shot on the border, but give him a man behind a spitting revolver as his mark and he could throw bullets with swifter, deadlier accuracy than any old-timer of them all. He did not take the time to aim; it was enough for him to look at his opponent as he fired.
The young fellow swung his horse expertly and cantered into the mesquite.
"I'll give you two months before you're wiped off the map," the cattleman called after him angrily.
At the edge of a heavy growth of brush Clanton pulled up, flashed a six-shooter, and dropped two bullets in the dust at the feet of the horses in the road. Then, with a wave of his hand, he laughed derisively and plunged into the chaparral.
Webb, stung to irritable action, fired into the cholla and the arrowweed thickets. Shot after shot he sent at the man who had disappeared in the maze.
"Let him go. Homer. You're well quit of him," urged Wrayburn.
The words were still on his lips when out of the dense tangle of vegetation rang a shot. The owner of the Flying VY clutched at his saddle-horn. A spasmodic shudder shook the heavy body and it began to sink.
Wrayburn ran to help. He was in time to catch his friend as he fell, but before he could lower the inert weight to the ground the life of Homer Webb had flickered out.
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