Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

Ronicky Doone's Reward (1922)

Max Brand

  Ronicky Doone's Reward

  Max Brand


  Chapter I. ENTER, BLONDY

  The rider shot down the street, swung out of one stirrup, and rested all this weight on the other; then, when his pony flung back on braced legs, still traveling with great speed, he leaped down and ran up the steps to the hotel. His eyes were shining. He whipped off his hat and beat the dust from the crown against his leg, a great cloud of it rolling lazily down the wind.

  "Boys," he cried, "what d'you think's up? Old Steve Bennett's new man has come to town!"

  This announcement was greeted with such a roar of cheers that even Ronicky Doone turned his head. He was seated at the far end of the veranda, stretched low in his chair and so posed that the keen, hot sunshine fell upon all of him, saving one shoulder and his head, above which his arms were thrown for greater ease. He was taking a sun bath which might have set a lizard boiling, but Ronicky Doone enjoyed every instant of it. As he turned he literally flashed with color, turning from sunlight into shadow. For Ronicky was one of those dandies of the mountain desert who adopted the gaudiness of the Spanish-Indian habits. No band but one of carved gold could surround his sombrero. No ready-made boot could surround his ankles and slope with glove-fitted smoothness about his feet The red of his bandanna was glowing scarlet and of the purest silk. Silk also was his shirt, though of a heavier and coarser make. What vain, and almost womanly, vanity had made him have such gloves worked to order? The leather was as thin as a fine tissue, it seemed, and clothed his hand so that it hardly impeded the movement of the fingers in flexing. Even his cartridge belt, that symbol of all the grimmer side of the cow business, could not be allowed to remain as it had come from its maker. No, the webbing must needs be taken to some Mexican silver worker who wrought upon it, with infinite patience and skill, figures of birds and beasts and the strange flowers of cacti.

  He stretched himself in the shadow now, as if he enjoyed the coolness fully as much as he had enjoyed the heat. He showed, as he turned, a rather lean, handsome face, dark of skin and hair and eyes and with a singularly youthful look. The strangeness of those youthful lines came out of the contrast with a certain weariness which, now and again, dulled his eyes. Just as one was about to write him down as a half-breed for his luxurious laziness and his olive skin, one caught a glimpse of that time-tired look in his eyes, and there was a suggestion of sadness beyond words.

  It came and went in his face, however, so quickly that the observer could not be entirely sure. So he lounged in his chair, for he had appropriated to his uses the only long wicker chair in that vast county. It creaked with shrill voices whenever he stirred.

  As for the rider who had dismounted in such haste to rush upon the hotel veranda with the tidings that old Steve Bennett's new man had come to town, he had stepped back, laughing and still dusting clouds out of his sombrero and nodding his head to affirm his tidings, as the cow-punchers yelled.

  "It's the blond-headed kid," he repeated. "He's come in to look us over, maybe."

  This remark provoked a yet heartier chorus of mirth, and Ronicky Doone thrust himself slowly into a more erect position.

  "Who's the blond-headed kid?" he asked. "And who's Bennett?"

  Now, as a rule, people west of the Rockies avoid direct questions and prefer to learn by inference and by patient waiting. He who bluntly asked to find out what he wishes to know, instead of trailing the information stealthily to the ground, is usually put down as a greenhorn; or else he is an established man with a known reputation, a man born and bred in the West and possessed of sufficient fame to free him from the danger of being put down as a blockhead.

  The man to whom Ronicky Doone had put the question had never seen his face before that day, nevertheless, no matter to what other conclusions he may have come, he decided that the olive-skinned youth was not a tenderfoot. The smile of cold derision and aloofness faded instantly from his lips, and he returned: "You're new to these parts, I reckon?"

  "I'm plumb new," admitted Ronicky.

  "Bennett is the old gent tried to put Al Jenkins out of business thirty years back. But now Jenkins has come back after making a stake in Alaska gold. He sunk that gold right back in the oil range land, bought in the acres that Bennett had robbed him of, and now he's giving Bennett some of his own medicine. And Bennett don't like it. This blond-headed kid well, I dunno. Every now and then Bennett gets some new hands, and they try to hold down jobs for a while on the ranch, but sooner or later they got to come to town. Well, partner, when they come to town they meet up with the boys, and the boys give 'em a pretty rough ride. You watch the way they handle 'Blondy' when he sails in. Maybe he'll sashay into town as a peacock, but before he leaves Twin Springs I reckon some of the starch will be took out of him!"

  He twisted himself from side to side in the ecstasy of his emotion.

  "Yes sir, something is sure going to happen to that gun fighter!"

  "Gunfighter?" echoed Ronicky. "You know this Blondy, then?"

  "Sure I don't. But I know that everybody out on Bennett's ranch has to know that when they wander into Twin Springs they're going to have a rough ride. And the ones that come in, come because they're all set for the party. They know well that the man that can ride into Twin Springs off'n the ranch of old Steve Bennett and get out without having his guns and his spurs took from him, is quite some party!"

  He set his teeth to prove the strength of his own convictions on the matter.

  "Why," continued Ronicky, forced to raise his voice because of the gathering clamor, as new men came out from the interior of the hotel to hear the tidings, "why should the whole town be agin Bennett and for Al Jenkins?"

  "That's easy," responded his informant "It works this way. The money that Al Jenkins sunk into Twin Springs is what brung it to life. You'd ought to have seen this here town a few years back. Any respectable junk dealer would have laughed himself to death if he'd been asked to make a bid on it. There wasn't a piece of a board in it that wasn't rotten. There wasn't a nail that wasn't rusted in two. Why? Just because the old toll road had been allowed to go bust. That's why! When the railroad picked out The Falls as the place it was going to run through, why everybody in Twin Springs just sat down and folded their hands and said: 'Here's where we slip off the map and get all rubbed out!'

  "And that's what was happening, too. Twin Springs done just that same thing. It begun to die like a tree when the taproot's cut. The old toll road was allowed to go to pieces. The rains of a couple of winters put a crimp in that roadbed and made every teamster take chances on cross-country rather than use the old toll road from here to The Falls.

  "Well, then along comes old Al Jenkins that Bennett had run out of the country a half lifetime before. What did he do? Did he sit down and fold his hands in his lap like the rest of 'em? No, sir!

  "'If the old town is dead,' he says, 'we'll bring the old town back to life,' says he.

  "And that is what he's done, just as sure as if you'd read about him in the Bible. He climbed down into his purse and come up covered with gold and greenbacks. He spilled money everywhere, and everything that money touched turned green and begun to put out shoots like springtime. Yes, sir, he was like irrigation. Old Al Jenkins, the first thing he done, was to send out a gang to work on the toll road, and he got that back into better shape than it ever was before. It cost a sight of money but he slicked it up as smooth as glass. He got all the old-timers that had used to team on it before the railroad went through, and he got them to tell him every good feature of the old road. After they'd told him, he went ahead and fixed up this road just the same and better. He got it so good that not a one of the old boys could drive over it without admitting that that road cou
ldn't give a man a bump in the worst wagon that was ever made.

  "And when the road was fixed, Twin Springs begin to come to life. The railroad went to The Falls, sure, and so Glendon Falls now is a real city. But we ain't dead any more, no, sir. We're alive and coming! Look down the street. You see all those new houses? Well, they mean new folks and folks with money and folks that are making more money and spending it right where they make it, improving Twin Springs, all because Al Jenkins has put faith in 'em that Twin Springs means good business next year as well as this year. Yes, sir, the railroad is a long way off, and stuff has to be hauled to it, and Twin Springs is a good halfway point. So they all stop here. There's blacksmith shops for shoeing the hosses and fixing the wagons; and there's saddle stores and harness shops; and there's them two eating houses. And well, everywhere along the line you'll see the signs of what Al Jenkins has done for the town."

  "And he done it all for charity?" asked Ronicky Doone.

  "Why should he do it for charity?" asked his companion hotly. "No, sir. What he done was to show his faith by buying up a lot of the old folks around here that had let the town die on their hands and the result is now that he owns pretty near all of the ground that the town is built on and "

  "H'm," chuckled Ronicky Doone. "I call it good business, partner."

  "I call it public spirit!" asserted the other stoutly. Apparently that was the interpretation which the townsmen and those from the adjacent country wished to place upon the conduct of old Al Jenkins, and it was folly to argue with them. This man's eye lighted to fiery earnestness the moment he suspected that the intentions of Jenkins were being questioned. And Ronicky at once shrugged his shoulder and turned his head away. It made small difference to him what the opinions of this or any other man in the town might be on this or any other subject, but, just as he was sliding back into his old mental languor, he heard the voices near him hushed, and then a warning murmur: "Watch yourselves, now. Here comes Blondy. Make out that you don't know who he is or where he come from."


  Unable to remain indifferent when such a crisis had come, Ronicky turned his head again to observe.

  What he saw was a youth in his early twenties, riding jauntily down the exact center of the street, sitting his pony straight and tall, with one hand dropped in careless self-assurance on his hip and the broad brim of his sombrero furling back from his face. It was a handsome, clean-cut face. The sun and wind had tanned him deepest brown, and out of the tan looked two clear eyes, ready to exchange glances with any one in the world.

  His horse, also, though hardly above the average diminutive stature of cow ponies, was rather smaller in the head and more shapely of neck and quarters than the general run of such animals. This was one point on which Ronicky Doone was an expert. He read the capabilities of a horse at a glance, just as some master minds are able to penetrate to the character of other men. And this horse he knew to be a speedster of the first water. Instinctively his glance turned to the side where his own mare stood under the shed, a silken-flanked bay running to black points and with a white-starred forehead. As if she felt the power of his glance, she jerked up her head and whinnied to him softly. He replied with a low whistle which, it seemed, contented her as much as speech would have contented a human being. For she lowered her head again and resumed her occupation of worrying at some shreds of grass.

  Ronicky looked back. The youth had brought his horse to a halt before the hotel and was now making a pretense, having dismounted, at tethering the animal. Yet it was only a pretense, as Ronicky's accurate eye could see. The reins were wrapped around and around the crossbar, but they were not slipped one above the other to form a fast knot. One strong jerk was all that was needed to free those reins and set the horse at liberty to run.

  Plainly, then, the blond-headed rider expected that he might have need of making a quick exit from the village. Mentally Ronicky Doone sat up. When both sides were prepared for mischief, it would be strange indeed, considering the metal of which they were made, if the sparks did not fly.

  Blondy was a big fellow, strongly made around the shoulders, narrow of hips, long and lean of legs in short, the beau ideal of the cow-puncher who must live so large a portion of his life in the saddle. Ronicky himself, an athlete from his head to his feet, looked with suspicion upon such a build, but he knew it was the height of good opinion.

  The moment Blondy turned from his horse Ronicky knew that the youngster had courage. His head was still high. His cheek had blanched a little, to be sure, as he approached the long line of prospective enemies, but his eye was still bold and unabashed. And he walked with an unshortened stride.

  And something about him his youth, his boldness appealed strongly to Ronicky. He lunged forward until he was erect, sitting lightly on the very edge of his chair and ready to jump into action in any direction.

  Whether the courage of the stranger was the courage of mere dare-deviltry which makes a man ready in taking up a dare, for instance, he could not guess. But something told him that it was well for Blondy that the test he was meeting was merely to pass through the village rather than one which demanded a long stay under fire in it. There was something immensely attractive in this proposition to Ronicky. If Blondy could stay here on the veranda of the hotel for the length of time needed to pass a few words about the weather, for instance, and then step back to his horse and ride on out of town, all would be well. He would have accomplished the thing which the men of Twin Springs had sworn that no hired man of Bennett could ever do.

  But, before he had been ten seconds on that veranda, it was very probable that about twenty different kinds of trouble would start happening to the tall cow-puncher.

  He advanced magnificently up the steps, however, waving his hand in careless good cheer to the waiting line. And when he reached the top of the steps he said to the nearest man, smiling: "Mighty hot day, partner, eh?"

  Much, much would depend upon the manner in which that question was answered. If the person addressed acquiesced with a nod, all was well. But he might make some impertinent answer which, to be sure, would draw danger upon his own head, but which would also insure him the enlisted support of all the other men on either side of him. Ronicky listened breathlessly.

  The man addressed was little. He was wiry and sun-dried in appearance. And he had two yellow streaks of mustaches which dripped down past his mouth. He took some moments in answering.

  "I dunno," he said at last. "It might be hot to some and cold to others. But I always been taught: If you don't like a place, leave it!"

  This had been uttered in the unmistakable accent. It was surcharged with scorn. But the important point was that the old man had not been able to find a remark stinging enough to force Blondy into a sharp retort which, in turn, would have precipitated action of one kind or another. The best that the old cow-puncher had been able to find in his mental armory had been a remark which might have its point turned in the manner in which it was taken, and this was exactly what Blondy proceeded to do. He took off his hat, nodded, and laughed good-naturedly.

  "That's just what I've done, you see," he said. "I was hot in the sun, so I've come into the shade."

  And so saying, he slowly and deliberately turned his back upon the other and stood resting one shoulder against a pillar of the porch.

  It had been very well done, Ronicky decided, Blondy had acquitted himself with just the right edge to his voice. He had not been sickeningly acquiescent. Neither had he been stupidly defiant. But with a nice twist of the wrist he had avoided the full brunt of danger and still retained his dignity. And now, behold, his broad back was turned full upon the others!

  The beauty of this maneuver actually filled Ronicky with awe. It was, he decided, perfect. They could not strike a man from behind. Neither could they find it very easy to think up insulting things to say to that same back. Ronicky Doone clasped his hands around his knees and rocked himself back and forth in a silent ecstasy. He was de

  And now he saw Blondy slowly produce cigarette papers and tobacco. He saw the cigarette manufactured; he saw it placed between Blondy's lips; he saw the sulphur match separated carefully from the rest of the pack; he saw the cigarette lighted; he saw the handsome head of Blondy wreathed in thin blue-brown smoke.

  And every other person on the veranda was following every act with similar exactitude of interest and observation. For they had instantly seen the throwing of the gage. The unspoken challenge of Blondy, as plain as words could have stated it, was this: "I shall stand here calmly upon the veranda, roll my cigarette, light and smoke it, and then depart. And if I am able to do this in peace, then I shall consider myself at liberty to go forth into the world and tell other men that I have bearded the citizens of Twin Springs and come off unscathed."

  This was all understood. Not only that, but it drew a scowl of rage from the stupidest of the men on the veranda. They were challenged, and yet they knew not how to rise to meet the challenge. Of course some one could arise and, striding forward, shout an insult. But this would make Blondy, if he were half of the man that he seemed to be, whirl upon his heel and pump a stream of leaden slugs at the other. And gun play was not what was desired. The rules of the game required that Blondy should be taken in hand and disciplined for his folly. But the rules also required that he should not be fatally injured unless he really made himself obnoxious. Certainly that should not be done when such tremendous odds were arrayed against him.

  The quandary grew. The perspiration poured down the faces of those horny-handed sons of battle. Not a man there but would have sooner died than be shamed. But would could they do?

  Ronicky Doone, fairly quivering with excitement, leaned forward and scanned the line of faces. He saw hands go convulsively back and grasp at gun butts and then drop, as though ashamed of the impulse. He saw jaws thrusting out, as the rage for battle grew. But still there did not arise any young Napoleon to show them the manner in which they should strike in honor. One giant-limbed cow-puncher half arose from his chair, as though about to stride up to Blondy and call to him to turn.