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B. M. Bower

  Produced by Al Haines.

  At sight of a rattler his gun leaped into crashing life(Page 314)]



  AUTHOR OF _"Bar 20," "Bar 20 Days," "Bar 20 Three," "Buck Peters, Ranchman," "The Coming of Cassidy," "Hopalong Cassidy," "Johnny Nelson," "The Man from Bar 20," etc._

  A. L. BURT COMPANY Publishers New York

  Published by arrangement with A. C. McClurg & Co. Printed in U. S. A.

  Copyright A. C. McClurg & Co. 1922

  Published March, 1922

  _Copyrighted in Great Britain_

  _Printed in the United States of America_



  I The Trail CallsII Refreshed MemoriesIII Tempted AnewIV A Crowded DayV A Trimmer TrimmedVI Friendly InterestVII Weights and MeasuresVIII After DarkIX A Pleasant ExcursionX Speed and GuileXI Empty HonorsXII Closer FriendshipsXIII Outcheating CheatersXIV Tact and CourageXV A Good SamaritanXVI Buffalo Creek in the SpotlightXVII The RushXVIII "Here Lies the Road to Rome!"XIX A Lecture WastedXX Plans AwryXXI An Equal GuiltXXII The False Trail and the True




  Memory's curtain rises and shows a scene softened by time and blurred byforgetfulness, yet the details slowly emerge like the stars at twilight.There appears a rain-washed, wind-swept range in Montana, a greatpasture level in the center, but rising on its sides like a vast,shallow saucer, with here and there a crack of more somber hue where aravine, or sluggish stream, lead toward the distant river. Greenunderfoot, deep blue overhead, with a lavender and purple rim under ahorizon made ragged and sharp by the not too distant mountains andfoothills. An occasional deep blue gash in the rim's darker tones markswhere some pass or canyon cuts through the encircling barriers. Acloser inspection would reveal a half-dozen earthy hollows, the ruttingholes of the once numerous buffalo which paused here on their periodicmigrations. In the foreground a white ranchhouse and its flanking redbuildings, framed by the gray of corral walls, nestles on the southernslope of a rise and basks in the sunlight. From it three faint trailsgrow more and more divergent, leading off to Everywhere. Scattered overthe vast, green pastures are the grazing units of a great herd, placidand content, moving slowly and jerkily, like spilled water down agentle, dusty slope. But in the total movement there is one thread withdefinite directness, even though it constantly turns from side to sidein avoiding the grazing cattle. This, as being different and indicatingpurpose, takes our instant attention.

  A rider slowly makes his way among the cattle, by force of habitobserving everything without being fully conscious of it. His chaps ofsoft leather, worn more because of earlier associations than from anyurgent need on this northern range, have the look of long service andthe comfort coming from such. His hat is a dark gray sombrero, worn ina manner suggesting a cavalier of old. Over an open vest are thecareless folds of a blue kerchief, and at his right hip rubs a holsterwith its waiting, deadly tenant. A nearer approach reveals him to be aman in middle life, lean, scrupulously neat, clean shaven, with lines ofdeep humor graven about his eyes and mouth, softening a habitualexpression which otherwise would have been forbiddingly hard andcynical.

  His roving glances reach the purple horizon and are arrested by thecerulean blue of a pass, and he checks his horse with a gesturehopelessly inadequate to express the restlessness, the annoyinguncertainty of his mood, a mood fed unceasingly by an inborn yearning towander, regardless of any aim or other condition. Here is a prospectabout him which he knows cannot be improved upon; here are duties lightenough practically to make him master of his time, yet heavy enough tobe purposeful; his days are spent in the soothing solitudes of clean,refreshing surroundings; his evenings with men who give him perfectfellowship, wordless respect, and repressed friendship, speaking whenthe mood urges, or silent in that rare, all-explaining silence of strongmen in perfect accord. His wants are few and automatically supplied:yet for weeks the longing to leave it all daily had grown stronger--toleave it for what? Certainly for worse; yet leave it he must.

  He sat and pondered, retrospective, critical. The activities of hisearlier days passed before him, with no hypocritical hiding or bluntingof motives. They revealed few redeeming features, for he carelessly hadfollowed the easy trails through the deceptive lowlands of morality, andamong men and women worse even than himself in overt acts and shamelessplanning, yet better because they did not have his intelligence or moralstandards. But he slowly rose above them as a diver rises abovetreacherous, lower currents, and the reason was plain to those who knewhim well. First he had a courage sparkling like a jewel, unhesitant,forthright, precipitate; next he had a rare mixture of humor andcynicism which better revealed to him things in their right proportionsand values; and last, but hardly least by any means, an intelligence ofhigh order, buttressed by facts, clarified by systematic study, andedged by training. In his youth he had aimed at the practice ofmedicine, but gave too much attention to more imaginative targets andfound, when too late, that he had hit nothing. His fondness fordrinking, gambling at cards, and other weedy sowings resulted from,rather than caused, the poor aim. Certain unforgivable episodes,unforgivable because of their notoriety more than because of the thingsthemselves, brewed a paternal tempest, upon which he had turned ascornful back, followed Horace Greeley's famous advice, and sought thehealing and the sanctuary of the unasking West.

  In his new surroundings he soon made a name for himself, in bothmeanings, and quickly dominated those whose companionship he eithercraved or needed. An inherent propensity for sleight of hand providedhim an easy living at cards; and his deftness and certainty with asix-gun gave him a pleasing security. However, all things have an end.There came a time when he nearly had reached the lowest depths of moralsubmersion when he met and fought a character as strong as his own, butin few other ways resembling him; and from that time on he swam on thesurface. It would be foolish to say that the depths ceased to lure him,for they did, and at times so powerfully that he scarcely could resistthem. For this he had to thank to no small degree one of the bitterestexperiences of his life: his disastrous marriage. Giving blind love andunquestioning loyalty, he had lost both by the unclean evidenceunexpectedly presented to his eyes. In that crisis, after the firstmadness, his actions had been worthy of a nature softer than his own andhe had gone, by devious ways, back to his West and started anew with aburning cynicism. But for the steadying influence of his one-timeenemy, and the danger and the interest in the task which HopalongCassidy had set before him, the domestic tragedy certainly would havesent him plunging down to his former level or below it.

  Time passed and finally brought him news of the tragic death of hisfaithless wife, and he found that it did not touch him. He had feltneither pity, sorrow, nor relief. It is doubtful if he ever had given athought to the question of his freedom, for with his mental attitude itmeant nothing at all to him. He had put among his belongings the letterfrom his former employer, who had known all about the affair and thenames and addresses of several of his western friends, telling him thathe was free; and hardly gave it a second thought.

  Turning from his careless scrutiny of the distant pass he rode on againand soon became aware of the sound of hoofbeats rapidly nearing him. Ashe looked up a rider top
ped a rise, descried him, and waved a sombrero.The newcomer dashed recklessly down the slope and drew rein sharply athis side, a cheerful grin wreathing his homely, honest face. Pete wasslow-witted, but his sterling qualities masked this defect even in theeyes of a man as sharp as his companion, who felt for him a strong, warmfriendship.

  "Hello, Tex!" said the newcomer. "What's eatin' you? You shore lookglum."

  Tex thought if it was plain enough for Pete Wilson to notice it, it mustbe plain, indeed. "Mental worms an' moral cancer, Pete," replied thecynic, smiling in spite of himself at the cogitation started in hisfriend by the words.

  "Whatever that means," replied Pete, cautiously. "However, if it's whatI reckon it is, there's just two cures." Pete was dogmatic by nature."An' that's likker, or a new range."

  "Somethin's th' matter with you today, Pete," rejoined Tex. "Yo're asquick as a reflex." He studied a moment, and added: "An' yo're deadright, too."

  "There ain't no reflection needed," retorted Pete; "an' there ain'tnothin' th' matter with me a-tall. I'm tellin' you common sense; butit's shore a devil of a choice. If it's likker, then you lose; if it'sdriftin' off som'ers, then we lose. Tell you what: Go down to TwinRiver an' clean 'em out at stud, if you can find anybody that ain'tplayed you before," he suggested hopefully. "Mebby there's a strangerin town. You'll shore feel a whole lot better, then." He grinnedsuddenly. "You might find a travelin' man: they're so cussed smart theydon't think anybody can learn 'em anythin'. Go ahead--try it!"

  Tex laughed. "Where you goin'?" he abruptly demanded. He could notafford to have any temptations thrown in his way just then.

  "Over Cyclone way, for Buck. Comin' along?"

  Tex slowly shook his head. "I'm goin' th' other way. Wonder why wehaven't got word from Hoppy or Red or Johnny?" he asked, and thequestion acted like alum in muddy water, clearing away his doubts andwaverings, which swiftly precipitated and left the clear fluid ofdecision.

  "Huh!" snorted Pete in frank disgust. "You wait till any of themfellers write an' there'll be a white stone over yore head with niceletterin' on it to tell lies forever. You know 'em. Comin' along withme?" he asked, wheeling, and was answered by an almost imperceptibleshake of his friend's head.

  "I'll shake hands with you, Pete," said Tex, holding out his deft butsinewy hand. "In case I don't see you again," he explained in answer tohis friend's look of surprise. "I'm mebby driftin' before you getback."

  "Cuss it!" exploded Pete. "I'm allus talkin' too blamed much. Now I'vegone an' done it!"

  "You've only hastened it a little," assured Tex, gripping theoutstretched hand spasmodically. "Cheer up; I don't aim to stay awayforever!" He spurred his mount and shot away up the incline, Petelooking after him and slowly shaking his head.

  When the restless puncher stopped again it was at the kitchen door ofthe white ranchhouse. As he swung from the saddle something stung himwhere his trousers were tight and he stopped his own jump to grab thehorse, which had been stung in turn. A snicker and a quick rustlesounded under the summer kitchen and Tex took the coiled rope from hissaddle, deftly unfastening the restraining knot. The rustling soundedagain, frantic and sustained, followed by a half-defiant,half-supplicating jeer.

  "You can't do it, under here!" said Pickles, reloading the bean-shooterfrom a bulging cheek. "I can shoot yore liver out before you can whirlit!" Pickles was quite a big boy now, but threatened never to growdignified; and besides, he had been badly spoiled by everybody on theranch.

  "Whirling livers never appealed to me," rejoined Tex, putting the ropeback. "Never," he affirmed decidedly; "but I'm goin' to whirl yournsome of these days, an' you with it!"

  "Those he loves, he annoys," said a low, sweet voice, its timbrestimulating the puncher like a draught of wine. His sombrero sweepingoff as he turned, he bowed to the French Rose, wife of the big-heartedhalf-owner of the ranch. If only he had chosen a woman like this one!

  "I seem to remember him annoyin' Dave Owens, at near half a mile, withHoppy's Sharps," he slowly replied. "Nobody ever told me that he lovedDave a whole lot." At the momentary cloud the name brought to her facehe shook his head and growled to himself. "I'm a fool, ma'am, thesedays," he apologized; "but it strikes me that you ought to smile at thatname--it shore played its unwilling part in giving you a good husband;an' Buck a mighty fine wife. Where is Buck?"

  "Inside the house, walking rings around the table--he seems so, so--"she shrugged her shoulders hopelessly and stepped aside to let Texenter.

  "I don't know what he seems," muttered Tex as he passed in; "but I knowwhat he is--an' that's just a plain, ornery fool." He shook his head atsuch behavior by any man who was loved by the French Rose.

  Buck stopped his pacing and regarded him curiously, motioning toward aneasy chair.

  "Standin's good enough for me, for I'm itchin' with th' same diseasethat you imagine is stalkin' you," said Tex, looking at his old friendwith level, disapproving gaze. "It don't matter with me, but it's plaincriminal with you. I'm free to go; yo're not. An' I'm tellin' youfrank that if I had th' picket stake that's holdin' you, all h--lcouldn't tempt me. Yo're a plain, d--d fool--an' you know it!"

  Buck leaned back against the edge of the table and thoughtfully regardedhis companion. "It ain't so much that, as it is Hoppy, an' Red, an'Johnny," he replied, spreading out his hands in an eloquent gesture."They could write, anyhow, couldn't they?" he demanded.

  "Shore," affirmed Tex, grinning. "How long ago was it that you answeredtheir last letters?" He leaned back and laughed outright at the guiltyexpression on his friend's face. "I thought so! Strong on words, butcussed poor on example."

  "I reckon yo're right," muttered Buck. "But that south range shorecalls me strong, Tex."

  "'Whither thou goest, I go' was said by a woman," retorted Tex. "'Yorepeople are my people; yore God, my God.' I'm sayin' it works both ways.You ought to go down on yore knees for what's come to you. An' youwill, one of these days. Think of Hoppy's loss--an' you'll do it beforemornin'. But I didn't come in to preach common sense to a lunatic--Icome to get my time, an' to say good-bye."

  Buck nodded. Vaguely disturbed by some unnamed, intermittent fever, hehad been quick to read the symptoms of restlessness in another,especially in one who had been as close to him as Tex had been. He wentover to an old desk, slowly opened a drawer and took out a roll of billsand a memorandum.

  "Here," he said, holding both out. "Far as I know it's th' same as whenyou gave it to me. Ought to be seven hundred, even. Count it, to makeshore." While Tex took it and shoved it into his pocket uncounted andcrumpled the memorandum, Buck also was reaching into a pocket, andcounted off several bills from the roll it gave up. These he gravelyhanded to his companion, smiling to hide the ache of losing anotherfriend.

  "I shore haven't earned it all," mused Tex, looking down at the wages inhis hand. "I reckon I'm doin' this ranch a favor by leavin', for thereain't no real job up here no more for any man as expensive as I am. Yougot th' whole country eatin' out of yore hand, an' th' first thing youknow th' cows will catch th' habit an' brand an' count 'emselves to saveyou th' trouble of doin' it."

  "You'll be doin' us a bigger favor when you come back, one of thesedays," grinned Buck. "You shore did yore share in trainin' it to eatout of my hand. For a while it looked like it would eat th' hand--an'it would 'a', too. Aimin' to ride down?"

  Tex's eyes twinkled. "How'd you come to figger I'm goin' down?"

  Buck smiled.

  "No, reckon not," said Tex. "Ridin' as far's th' railroad. I'll leavemy cayuse with Smith. When one of th' boys goes down that way he canget it. I'll pay Smith for a month's care." Reading the unspokenquestion in his friend's eyes, he carelessly answered it. "Don't knowwhere I'm goin'. Reckon I'll get down to th' SV before I stop. That'dbe natural, with Red an' Hoppy stayin' with Johnny."

  "They might need you, too," suggested Buck, hopefully. If he couldn'tbe with his distant friends himself, he at least wished as many of themt
o be together as was possible.

  "I'm copperin' that," grunted Tex. His eyes shone momentarily. "Yo'reforgettin' that our best three are together. Lord help any misguidedfools that prod 'em sharp. Well, I'm dead shore to drift back ag'insome day; but as you say, those south ranges shore do pull a feller'sheart." He looked shrewdly at his friend and his face beamed from asudden thought. "We're a pair of fools," he laughed. "You ain't gotth' wander itch! You don't want to go jack-rabbitin' all over th'country, like me! All you want is that southwest country, with yorewife an yore friends on th' same ranch; down in th' cactus country,where th' winters ain't what they are up here. I'm afraid my brain'satrophied, not havin' been used since Dave Owens rolled down from hisambush with Hoppy's slugs in him for ballast."

  Buck looked at him with eager, hopeful intentness and his sigh was oneof great relief and thankfulness. He need not be ashamed of thatlonging, now vague and nameless no longer. His head snapped back and hestood erect, and his voice thrilled with pride. Tex had put his fingeron the trouble, as Tex always did. "I've been as blind as a rattler inAugust!" he exclaimed.

  "Not takin' th' time to qualify that blind-rattler-in-August phrase, Iadmits yo're right," beamed Tex. He arose, shoved out his hand for thequick, tight grasp of his friend and wheeled to leave, stopping short ashe found himself face to face with Rose Peters. "A happy omen!" hecried. "Th' first thing I see at th' beginnin' of my journey is arose."

  She smiled at both of them as she blocked the door, and the quick catchin her voice did not escape Tex Ewalt.

  "I was but in the other room," she said, her face alight. "I could notbut hear, for you both speak loud. I am so glad, M'sieu Tex--that now Iknow why my man is so--so restless. Ruth, she said what I think,always. We are sorry that you mus' go--but we know you will not forgetyour friends, and will come back again some day."

  Buck put his arm around his wife's shoulders and smiled. "An' if hebrings th' other boys back with him, we'll find room for 'em all, ehRose?" He looked at his friend. "We're shore goin' to miss you, Tex.Good luck. We'll expect you when we see you."

  Tex bowed to Rose and backed into the curious Pickles, whom he lightlyspanked as a fitting farewell; and soon the noise of his departuredrummed softer and softer into the south.