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Half a dozen cowboys cantered up the main street of Los Portales in a cloud of dust. One of them, older than the rest, let out the wild yell he had known in the days when he rode with Quantrell's guerrillas on the infamous raids of that bandit. A second flung into the blue sky three rapid revolver shots. Plainly they were advertising the fact that they had come to paint the town red and did not care who knew it.
The riders pulled up abruptly in front of Tolleson's Gaming Palace & Saloon, swung from their horses, and trailed with jingling spurs into that oasis of refreshment. Each of them carried in his hand a rope. The other end of the rawhide was tied to the horn of a saddle.
A heavy-set, bow-legged man led the procession to the bar. He straddled forward with a swagger. The bartender was busy dusting his stock. Before the man had a chance to turn, the butt of a revolver hammered the counter.
"Get busy here! Set 'em up, Mike. And jump!" snarled the heavy man.
The barkeeper took one look at him and filed no demurrer. "Bad man" was writ on every line of the sullen, dissipated face of the bully. It was a safe bet that he was used to having his own way, or failing that was ready to fight at the drop of the hat.
Swiftly the drinks were prepared.
Every glass was tilted and emptied.
It was high noon by the sun and Tolleson's was practically deserted. No devotees sat round the faro, roulette, and keno tables. The dealers were asleep in bed after their labors. So too were the dance girls. The poker rooms upstairs held only the stale odor of tobacco and whiskey. Except for a sleepy negro roustabout attendant and two young fellows at a table well back from the bar, the cowboys had the big hall all to themselves.
The bay was near the front of the barnlike room and to the right. To the left, along the wall, were small tables. Farther back were those used for gaming. In the rear one corner of the floor held a rostrum with seats for musicians. The center of the hall was kept clear for dancing. Three steps led to a door halfway back on the left-hand side of the building. They communicated with an outer stairway by means of which one could reach the poker rooms.
The older of the two young men at the table nodded toward the roisterers and murmured information. "Some of the Snaith-McRobert crowd."
His companion was seated with his back to the bar. He had riot turned his head to look at those lined up in front of the mirrors for drinks, but a curious change had come over him. The relaxed body had grown rigid. No longer was he lounging against the back of his chair. From his eyes the laughter had been wiped out, as a wet sponge obliterates writing on a slate. All his forces were gathered as if for instant action. He was tense as a coiled spring. His friend noticed that the boy was listening intently, every faculty concentrated at attention.
A man leaning against the other end of the bar was speaking. He had a shock of long red hair and a squint to his eyes.
"Sure you're right. A bunch of Webb's gunmen got Ranse--caught him out alone and riddled him. When Webb drove through here two days ago with a herd, his killers bragged of it. Ask Harsha up at the Buffalo Corral if youse don't believe me. Sure as hell's hot we got to go on the war-path. Here, you Mike! Set 'em up again."
The boy at the table had drawn back his lips so that the canine teeth stood out like tusks. There was something wolfish about the face, from which all the color had been driven. It expressed something so deadly, so menacing, that the young man across from him felt a shock almost of fear. "We'd better get out of here," he said, glancing toward the group near the front door.
The other young man did not answer, but he made no move to leave. He was still taking in every syllable of what the drinkers were saying.
The ex-guerrilla was talking. "Tha's sure sayin' something, Hugh. There ain't room in New Mexico for Webb's outfit an' ours too."
"Better go slow, boys," advised another. He was a thick-set man in the late thirties, tight-lipped and heavy-jawed. His eyes were set so close together that it gave him a sinister expression. "Talkin' don't get us anywhere. If we're goin' to sit in a game with Homer Webb an' his punchers we got to play our hand close."
"Buck Sanders, segundo of the Lazy S M ranches," explained again the young man at the table in a low voice. "Say, kid, let's beat it while the goin' is good."
The big bow-legged man answered the foreman. "You're right, Buck. So's Hugh. So's the old rebel. I'm jus' servin' notice that no bunch of shorthorn punchers can kill a brother of mine an' get away with it. Un'erstand? I'll meet up with them some day an' I'll sure fog 'em to a fare-you-well." He interlarded his speech with oaths and foul language.
"I'll bet you do, Dave," chipped in the man next him, who had had a run-in with the Texas Rangers and was on the outskirts of civilization because the Lone Star State did not suit his health. "I would certainly hate to be one of them when yore old six-gun begins to pop. It sure will be Glory-hallelujah for some one."
Dave Roush ordered another drink on the strength of the Texan's admiration. "Mind, I don't say Ranse wasn't a good man. Mebbe I'm a leetle mite better 'n him with a hogleg. Mebbe--"
"Ranse was good with a revolver all right, but sho! you make him look like a plugged nickel when you go to makin' smoke, Dave," interrupted the toady.
"Well, mebbe I do. Say I do. I ain't yet met up with a man can beat me when I'm right. But at that Ranse was a mighty good man. They bushwhacked him, I'll bet a stack of blues. I aim to git busy soon as I find out who done it."
The red-headed man raised his voice a trifle. "Say, you kid--there at the table--come here an' hold these ropes! See you don't let the hawses at the other end of 'em git away!"
Slowly the boy turned, pushing his chair round so that he half-faced the group before the bar. He neither rose nor answered.
"Cayn't you-all hear?" demanded the man with the shock of unkempt, red hair.
"I hear, but I'm not comin' right away. When I do, you'll wish I hadn't."
If a bomb had exploded at his feet Hugh Roush could not have been more surprised. He was a big, rough man, muscular and sinewy, and he had been the victor of many a rough-and-tumble fight. On account of his reputation for quarrelsomeness men chose their words carefully when they spoke to him. That this little fellow with the smooth, girlish face and the small, almost womanish hands and feet should defy him was hard to believe.
"Come a-runnin', kid, or I'll whale the life out of you!" he roared.
"You didn't get me right," answered the boy in a low, clear voice. "I'm not comin' till I get ready, Hugh Roush."
The wolf snap of the boy's jaw, the cold glitter in his eyes, might have warned Roush and perhaps did. He wondered, too, how this stranger knew his name so well.
"Where are you from?" he demanded.
"From anywhere but here,"
"Meanin' that you're here to stay?"
"Meanin' that I'm here to stay."
"Even if I tell you to git out of the country?"
"You won't be alive to tell me unless you talk right sudden."
They watched each other, the man and the boy. Neither as yet made any motion to draw his gun, the younger one because he was not ready, Roush because he did not want to show any premature alarm before the men taking in the scene. Nor could he yet convince himself, in spite of the challenge that rang in the words of the boy, of serious danger from so unlikely a source.
Dave Roush had been watching the boy closely. A likeness to someone whom he could not place stirred faintly his memory.
"Who are you? What's yore name?" he snapped out.
The boy had risen from the chair. His hand rested on his hip as if casually. But Dave had observed the sureness of his motions and he accepted nothing as of chance. The experience of Roush was that a gunman lives longer if he is cautious. His fingers closed on the butt of the revolver at his side.
"My name is James Clanton."
Roush let fall a surprised oath. "It's 'Lindy Clanton you look like! You're her brother--the kid, Jimmie."
"You've guessed it, Devil Dave."
The eyes of the two crossed like rapiers.
"Howcome you here? Whad you want?" asked Roush thickly.
Already he had made up his mind to kill, but he wanted to choose his own moment. The instinct of the killer is always to take his enemy at advantage. Clanton, with that sixth sense which serves the fighter, read his purpose as if he had printed it on a sign.
"You know why I'm here--to stomp the life out of you an' yore brother for what you done to my sister. I've listened to yore brags about what you would do when you met up with them that killed Ranse Roush. Fine! Now let's see you make good. I'm the man that ran him down an' put an end to him. Go through, you four-flushin' coward! Come a-shootin' whenever you're ready."
The young Southerner had a definite motive in his jeering. He wanted to drive his enemies to attack him before they could come at him from two sides.
"You--you killed Ranse?"
"You heard me say it once." The eyes of the boy flashed for a moment to the red-headed man. "Whyfor are you dodgin' back of the bar, Hugh Roush? Ain't odds of two to one good enough for you--an' that one only a kid--without you runnin' to cover like the coyote you are? Looks like you'll soon be whinin' for me not to shoot, just like Ranse did."
If any one had cared to notice, the colored roust-about might have been seen at that moment vanishing out of the back door to a zone of safety. He showed no evidence whatever of being sleepy.
The silence that followed the words of the boy was broken by Quantrell's old grayback. Dave Roush was a bad man--a killer. He had three notches on his gun. Perhaps he had killed others before coming West. At any rate, he was no fair match for this undersized boy.
"He's a kid, Dave. You don't want to gun a kid. You, Clanton--whatever you call yourself--light a shuck pronto--git out!"
It is the habit of the killer to look for easy game. Out of the corner of his eye the man who had betrayed 'Lindy Clanton saw that Hugh was edging back of the bar and dragging out his gun. This boy could be killed safely now, since they were two to one, both of them experts with the revolver. To let him escape would be to live in constant danger for the future.
"He's askin' for it, Reb. He's goin' to get it."
Dave Roush pulled his gun, but before he could use it two shots rang out almost simultaneously. The man at the corner of the bar had the advantage. His revolver was in the clear before that of Clanton, but Jim fired from the hip without apparent aim. The bullet was flung from the barrel an imperceptible second before that of Roush. The gunman, hit in the wrist of the right hand, gave a grunt and took shelter back of the bar.
The bystanders scurried for safety while explosion followed explosion. Young Clanton, light-footed as a cat, side-stepped and danced about as he fired. The first shot of the red-headed man had hit him and the shock of it interfered with his accuracy. Hugh had disappeared, but above the smoke the youngster still saw the cruel face of Devil Dave leering triumphantly at him behind the pumping gun.
The boy kept moving, so that his body did not offer a static target. He concentrated his attention on Dave, throwing shot after shot at him. That he would kill his enemy Clanton never had a doubt. It was firmly fixed in his mind that he had been sent as the appointed executioner of the man.
It was no surprise to Jim when the face of his sister's betrayer lurched forward into the smoke. He heard Roush fall heavily to the floor and saw the weapon hurled out of reach. The fellow lay limp and still.
Clanton did not waste a second look at the fallen man. He knew that the other Roush, crouched behind the bar, had been firing at him through the woodwork. Now a bullet struck the wall back of his head. The red-headed man had fired looking through a knot-hole.
The boy's weapon covered a spot three inches above this. He fired instantly. A splinter flew from a second hole just above the first. Three long, noiseless strides brought Clanton to the end of the bar. The red-headed man lay dead on the floor. The bullet had struck him just above and between the eyes.
"I reckon that ends the job."
It was Jim's voice that said the words, though he hardly recognized it. Overcome by a sudden nausea, he leaned against the bar for support. He felt sick through and through.
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