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The Two Gun Man

by Stewart Edward White

 

Chapter I

THE CATTLE-RUSTLERS

  Buck Johnson was American born, but with a black beard and a dignity of manner that had earned him the title of Señor. He had drifted into southeastern Arizona in the days of Cochise and Victorio and Geronimo. He had persisted, and so in time had come to control the water--and hence the grazing--of nearly all the Soda Springs Valley. His troubles were many, and his difficulties great. There were the ordinary problems of lean and dry years. There were also the extraordinary problems of devastating Apaches; rivals for early and ill-defined range rights-and cattle-rustlers.

  Señor Buck Johnson was a man of capacity, courage, directness of method, and perseverance. Especially the latter. Therefore he had survived to see the Apaches subdued, the range rights adjusted, his cattle increased to thousands, grazing the area of a principality. Now, all the energy and fire of his frontiersman's nature he had turned to wiping out the third uncertainty of an uncertain business. He found it a task of some magnitude.

  For Señor Buck Johnson lived just north of that terra incognita filled with the mystery of a double chance of death from man or the flaming desert known as the Mexican border. There, by natural gravitation, gathered all the desperate characters of three States and two republics. He who rode into it took good care that no one should ride behind him, lived warily, slept light, and breathed deep when once he had again sighted the familiar peaks of Cochise's Stronghold. No one professed knowledge of those who dwelt therein. They moved, mysterious as the desert illusions that compassed them about. As you rode, the ranges of mountains visibly changed form, the monstrous, snaky, sea-like growths of the cactus clutched at your stirrup, mock lakes sparkled and dissolved in the middle distance, the sun beat hot and merciless, the powdered dry alkali beat hotly and mercilessly back-and strange, grim men, swarthy, bearded, heavily armed, with red-rimmed unshifting eyes, rode silently out of the mists of illusion to look on you steadily, and then to ride silently back into the desert haze. They might be only the herders of the gaunt cattle, or again they might belong to the Lost Legion that peopled the country. All you could know was that of the men who entered in, but few returned.

  Directly north of this unknown land you encountered parallel fences running across the country. They enclosed nothing, but offered a check to the cattle drifting toward the clutch of the renegades, and an obstacle to swift, dashing forays.

  Of cattle-rustling there are various forms. The boldest consists quite simply of running off a bunch of stock, hustling it over the Mexican line, and there selling it to some of the big Sonora ranch owners. Generally this sort means war. Also are there subtler means, grading in skill from the rebranding through a wet blanket, through the crafty refashioning of a brand to the various methods of separating the cow from her unbranded calf. In the course of his task Señor Buck Johnson would have to do with them all, but at present he existed in a state of warfare, fighting an enemy who stole as the Indians used to steal.

  Already he had fought two pitched battles, and had won them both. His cattle increased, and he became rich. Nevertheless he knew that constantly his resources were being drained. Time and again he and his new Texas foreman, Jed Parker, had followed the trail of a stampeded bunch of twenty or thirty, followed them on down through the Soda Springs Valley to the cut drift fences, there to abandon them. For, as yet, an armed force would be needed to penetrate the borderland. Once he and his men had experienced the glory of a night pursuit. Then, at the drift fences, he had fought one of his battles. But it was impossible adequately to patrol all parts of a range bigger than some Eastern States.

  Buck Johnson did his best, but it was like stopping with sands the innumerable little leaks of a dam. Did his riders watch toward the Chiricahuas, then a score of beef steers disappeared from Grant's Pass forty miles away. Pursuit here meant leaving cattle unguarded there. It was useless, and the Señor soon perceived that sooner or later he must strike in offence.

  For this purpose he began slowly to strengthen the forces of his riders. Men were coming in from Texas. They were good men, addicted to the grass-rope, the double cinch, and the ox-bow stirrup. Señor Johnson wanted men who could shoot, and he got them.

  "Jed," said Señor Johnson to his foreman, "the next son of a gun that rustles any of our cows is sure loading himself full of trouble. We'll hit his trail and will stay with it, and we'll reach his cattle-rustling conscience with a rope."

  So it came about that a little army crossed the drift fences and entered the border country. Two days later it came out, and mighty pleased to be able to do so. The rope had not been used.

  The reason for the defeat was quite simple. The thief had run his cattle through the lava beds where the trail at once became difficult to follow. This delayed the pursuing party; they ran out of water, and, as there was among them not one man well enough acquainted with the country to know where to find more, they had to return.

  "No use, Buck," said Jed. "We'd any of us come in on a gun play, but we can't buck the desert. We'll have to get someone who knows the country."

  "That's all right--but where?" queried Johnson.

  "There's Pereza," suggested Parker. "It's the only town down near that country."

  "Might get someone there," agreed the Señor.

  Next day he rode away in search of a guide. The third evening he was back again, much discouraged.

  "The country's no good," he explained. "The regular inhabitants 're a set of Mexican bums and old soaks. The cowmen's all from north and don't know nothing more than we do. I found lots who claimed to know that country, but when I told 'em what I wanted they shied like a colt. I couldn't hire 'em, for no money, to go down in that country. They ain't got the nerve. I took two days to her, too, and rode out to a ranch where they said a man lived who knew all about it down there. Nary riffle. Man looked all right, but his tail went down like the rest when I told him what we wanted. Seemed plumb scairt to death. Says he lives too close to the gang. Says they'd wipe him out sure if he done it. Seemed plumb scairt." Buck Johnson grinned. "I told him so and he got hosstyle right off. Didn't seem no ways scairt of me. I don't know what's the matter with that outfit down there. They're plumb terrorised."

  That night a bunch of steers was stolen from the, very corrals of the home ranch. The home ranch was far north, near Fort Sherman itself, and so had always been considered immune from attack. Consequently these steers were very fine ones.

  For the first time Buck Johnson lost his head and his dignity. He ordered the horses.

  "I'm going to follow that ---- ---- into Sonora," he shouted to Jed Parker. "This thing's got to stop!"

  "You can't make her, Buck," objected the foreman. "You'll get held up by the desert, and, if that don't finish you, they'll tangle you up in all those little mountains down there, and ambush you, and massacre you. You know it damn well."

  "I don't give a ----," exploded Señor Johnson, "if they do. No man can slap my face and not get a run for it."

  Jed Parker communed with himself.

  "Señor," said he, at last, "it's no good; you can't do You got to have a guide. You wait three days and I'll get you one."

  "You can't do it," insisted the Señor. "I tried every man in the district."

  "Will you wait three days?" repeated the foreman.

  Johnson pulled loose his latigo. His first anger had cooled.

  "All right," he agreed, "and you can say for me that I'll pay five thousand dollars in gold and give all the men and horses he needs to the man who has the nerve to get back that bunch of cattle, and bring in the man who rustled them. I'll sure make this a test case."

  So Jed Parker set out to discover his man with nerve.

Chapter II

THE MAN WITH NERVE

  At about ten o'clock of the Fourth of July a rider topped the summit of the last swell of land, and loped his animal down into the single street of Pereza. The buildings on either side were flat-roofed and coated with plaster. Over the sidewalks extended wooden awnings, beneath which opened very wide doors into the coolness of saloons. Each of these places ran a bar, and also games of roulette, faro, craps, and stud poker. Even this early in the morning every game was patronized.

  The day was already hot with the dry, breathless, but exhilarating, heat of the desert. A throng of men idling at the edge of the sidewalks, jostling up and down their center, or eddying into the places of amusement, acknowledged the power of summer by loosening their collars, carrying their coats on their arms. They were as yet busily engaged in recognizing acquaintances. Later, they would drink freely and gamble, and perhaps fight. Toward all but those whom they recognized they preserved an attitude of potential suspicion, for here were gathered the "bad men" of the border countries. A certain jealousy or touchy egotism lest the other man be considered quicker on the trigger, bolder, more aggressive than himself, kept each strung to tension. An occasional shot attracted little notice. Men in the cow-countries shoot as casually as we strike matches, and some subtle instinct told them that the reports were harmless.

  As the rider entered the one street, however, a more definite cause of excitement drew the loose population toward the center of the road. Immediately their mass blotted out what had interested them. Curiosity attracted the saunterers; then in turn the frequenters of the bars and gambling games. In a very few moments the barkeepers, gamblers, and look-out men, held aloof only by the necessities of their calling, alone of all the population of Pereza were not included in the newly-formed ring.

  The stranger pushed his horse resolutely to the outer edge of the crowd where, from his point of vantage, he could easily overlook their heads. He was a quiet-appearing young fellow, rather neatly dressed in the border costume, rode a "center fire," or single-cinch, saddle, and wore no chaps. He was what is known as a "two-gun man": that is to say, he wore a heavy Colt's revolver on either hip. The fact that the lower ends of his holsters were tied down, in order to facilitate the easy withdrawal of the revolvers, seemed to indicate that he expected to use them. He had furthermore a quiet grey eye, with the glint of steel that bore out the inference of the tied holsters.

  The newcomer dropped his reins on his pony's neck, eased himself to an attitude of attention, and looked down gravely on what was taking place.

  He saw over the heads of the bystanders a tall, muscular, wild-eyed man, hatless, his hair rumpled into staring confusion, his right sleeve rolled to his shoulder, a wicked-looking nine-inch knife in his hand, and a red bandana handkerchief hanging by one corner from his teeth.

  "What's biting the locoed stranger?" the young man inquired of his neighbor.

  The other frowned at him darkly.

  "Dare's anyone to take the other end of that handkerchief in his teeth, and fight it out without letting go."

  "Nice joyful proposition," commented the young man.

  He settled himself to closer attention. The wild-eyed man was talking rapidly. What he said cannot be printed here. Mainly was it derogatory of the southern countries. Shortly it became boastful of the northern and then of the man who uttered it. He swaggered up and down, becoming always the more insolent as his challenge remained untaken.

  "Why don't you take him up?" inquired the young man, after a moment.

  "Not me!" negatived the other vigorously. "I'll go yore little old gunfight to a finish, but I don't want any cold steel in mine. Ugh! it gives me the shivers. It's a reglar Mexican trick! With a gun it's down and out, but this knife work is too slow and searchin'."

  The newcomer said nothing, but fixed his eye again on the raging man with the knife.

  "Don't you reckon he's bluffing?" he inquired.

  "Not any!" denied the other with emphasis. "He's jest drunk enough to be crazy mad."

  The newcomer shrugged his shoulders and cast his glance searchingly over the fringe of the crowd. It rested on a Mexican.

  "Hi, Tony! come here," he called.

  The Mexican approached, flashing his white teeth.

  "Here," said the stranger, "lend me your knife a minute."

  The Mexican, anticipating sport of his own peculiar kind, obeyed with alacrity.

  "You fellows make me tired," observed the stranger, dismounting. "He's got the whole townful of you bluffed to a standstill. Damn if I don't try his little game."

  He hung his coat on his saddle, shouldered his way through the press, which parted for him readily, and picked up the other corner of the handkerchief.

  "Now, you mangy son of a gun," said he.

Chapter III

THE AGREEMENT

  Jed Parker straightened his back, rolled up the bandana handkerchief, and thrust it into his pocket, hit flat with his hand the touselled mass of his hair, and thrust the long hunting knife into its sheath.

  "You're the man I want," said he.

  Instantly the two-gun man had jerked loose his weapons and was covering the foreman.

  "Am I!" he snarled.

  "Not jest that way," explained Parker. "My gun is on my hoss, and you can have this old toad-sticker if you want it. I been looking for you and took this way of finding you. Now, let's go talk."

  The stranger looked him in the eye for nearly a half minute without lowering his revolvers.

  "I go you," said he briefly, at last.

  But the crowd, missing the purport, and in fact the very occurrence of this colloquy, did not understand. It thought the bluff bad been called, and naturally, finding harmless what had intimidated it, gave way to an exasperated impulse to get even.

  "You --- --- --- bluffer!" shouted a voice, "don't you think you can run any such ranikaboo here!"

  Jed Parker turned humorously to his companion.

  "Do we get that talk!" he inquired gently.

  For answer the two-gun man turned and walked steadily in the direction of the man who had shouted. The latter's hand strayed uncertainly toward his own weapon, but the movement paused when the stranger's clear, steel eye rested on it.

  "This gentleman," pointed out the two-gun man softly, "is an old friend of mine. Don't you get to calling of him names."

  His eye swept the bystanders calmly.

  "Come on, Jack," said he, addressing Parker.

  On the outskirts he encountered the Mexican from whom he had borrowed the knife.

  "Here, Tony," said he with a slight laugh, "here's a peso. You'll find your knife back there where I had to drop her."

  He entered a saloon, nodded to the proprietor, and led the way through it to a box-like room containing a board table and two chairs.

  "Make good," he commanded briefly.

  "I'm looking for a man with nerve," explained Parker, with equal succinctness. "You're the man."

  "Well?"

  "Do you know the country south of here?"

  The stranger's eyes narrowed.

  "Proceed," said he.

  "I'm foreman of the Lazy Y of Soda Springs Valley range," explained Parker. "I'm looking for a man with sand enough and sabe of the country enough to lead a posse after cattle rustlers into the border country."

  "I live in this country," admitted the stranger.

  "So do plenty of others, but their eyes stick out like two raw oysters when you mention the border country. Will you tackle it?"

  "What's the proposition?"

  "Come and see the old man. He'll put it to you."

  They mounted their horses and rode the rest of the day. The desert compassed them about, marvellously changing shape and colour, and every character, with all the noiselessness of phantasmagoria. At evening the desert stars shone steady and unwinking, like the flames of candles. By moonrise they came to the home ranch.

  The buildings and corrals lay dark and silent against the moonlight that made of the plain a sea of mist. The two men unsaddled their horses and turned them loose in the wire- fenced "pasture," the necessary noises of their movements sounding sharp and clear against the velvet hush of the night. After a moment they walked stiffly past the sheds and cook shanty, past the men's bunk houses, and the tall windmill silhouetted against the sky, to the main building of the home ranch under its great cottonwoods There a light still burned, for this was the third day, and Buck Johnson awaited his foreman.

  Jed Parker pushed in without ceremony.

  "Here's your man, Buck," said he.

  The stranger had stepped inside and carefully closed the door behind him. The lamplight threw into relief the bold, free lines of his face, the details of his costume powdered thick with alkali, the shiny butts of the two guns in their open holsters tied at the bottom. Equally it defined the resolute countenance of Buck Johnson turned up in inquiry. The two men examined each other--and liked each other at once.

  "How are you," greeted the cattleman.

  "Good-evening," responded the stranger.

  "Sit down," invited Buck Johnson.

  The stranger perched gingerly on the edge of a chair, with an appearance less of embarrassment than of habitual alertness.

  "You'll take the job?" inquired the Señor.

  "I haven't heard what it is," replied the stranger.

  "Parker here----?"

  "Said you'd explain."

  "Very well," said Buck Johnson. He paused a moment, collecting his thoughts. "There's too much cattle-rustling here. I'm going to stop it. I've got good men here ready to take the job, but no one who knows the country south. Three days ago I had a bunch of cattle stolen right here from the home-ranch corrals, and by one man, at that. It wasn't much of a bunch--about twenty head--but I'm going to make it starter right here, and now. I'm going to get that bunch back, and the man who stole them, if I have to go to hell to do it. And I'm going to do the same with every case of rustling that comes up from now on. I don't care if it's only one cow, I'm going to get it back--every trip. Now, I want to know if you'll lead a posse down into the south country and bring out that last bunch, and the man who rustled them?"

  "I don't know----" hesitated the stranger.

  "I offer you five thousand dollars in gold if you'll bring back those cows and the man who stole 'em," repeated Buck Johnson. "And I'll give you all the horses and men you think you need."

  "I'll do it," replied the two-gun man promptly.

  "Good!" cried Buck Johnson, "and you better start to-morrow."

  "I shall start to-night--right, now."

  "Better yet. How many men do you want, and grub for how long?"

  "I'll play her a lone hand."

  "Alone!" exclaimed Johnson, his confidence visibly cooling. "Alone I Do you think you can make her?"

  "I'll be back with those cattle in not more than ten days."

  "And the man," supplemented the Señor.

  "And the man. What's more, I want that money here when I come in. I don't aim to stay in this country over night."

  A grin overspread Buck Johnson's countenance. He understood.

  "Climate not healthy for you?" he hazarded. "I guess you'd be safe enough all right with us. But suit yourself. The money will be here."

  "That's agreed?" insisted the two-gun man.

  "Sure."

  "I want a fresh horse--I'll leave mine--he's a good one. I want a little grub."

  "All right. Parker'll fit you out."

  The stranger rose.

  "I'll see you in about ten days."

  "Good luck," Señor Buck Johnson wished him.

Chapter IV

THE ACCOMPLISHMENT

  The next morning Buck Johnson took a trip down into the "pasture" of five hundred wire-fenced acres,

  "He means business," he confided to Jed Parker, on his return. "That cavallo of his is a heap sight better than the Shorty horse we let him take. Jed, you found your man with nerve, all right. How did you do it?"

  The two settled down to wait, if not with confidence, at least with interest. Sometimes, remembering the desperate character of the outlaws, their fierce distrust of any intruder, the wildness of the country, Buck Johnson and his foreman inclined to the belief that the stranger had undertaken a task beyond the powers of any one man. Again, remembering the stranger's cool grey eye, the poise of his demeanor, the quickness of his movements, and the two guns with tied holsters to permit of easy withdrawal, they were almost persuaded that he might win.

  "He's one of those long-chance fellows," surmised Jed. "He likes excitement. I see that by the way he takes up with my knife play. He'd rather leave his hide on the fence than stay in the corral."

  "Well, he's all right," replied Señor Buck Johnson, "and if he ever gets back, which same I'm some doubtful of, his dinero 'll be here for him."

  In pursuance of this he rode in to Willets, where shortly the overland train brought him from Tucson the five thousand dollars in double eagles.

  In the meantime the regular life of the ranch went on. Each morning Sang, the Chinese cook, rang the great bell, summoning the men. They ate, and then caught up the saddle horses for the day, turning those not wanted from the corral into the pasture. Shortly they jingled away in different directions, two by two, on the slow Spanish trot of the cowpuncher. All day long thus they would ride, without food or water for man or beast, looking the range, identifying the stock, branding the young calves, examining generally into the state of affairs, gazing always with grave eyes on the magnificent, flaming, changing, beautiful, dreadful desert of the Arizona plains. At evening when the colored atmosphere, catching the last glow, threw across the Chiricahuas its veil of mystery, they jingled in again, two by two, untired, unhasting, the glory of the desert in their deep-set, steady eyes.

  And all the day long, while they were absent, the cattle, too, made their pilgrimage, straggling in singly, in pairs, in bunches, in long files, leisurely, ruminantly, without haste. There, at the long troughs filled by the windmill or the blindfolded pump mule, they drank, then filed away again into the mists of the desert. And Señor Buck Johnson, or his foreman, Parker, examined them for their condition, noting the increase, remarking the strays from another range. Later, perhaps, they, too, rode abroad. The same thing happened at nine other ranches from five to ten miles apart, where dwelt other fierce, silent men all under the authority of Buck Johnson.

  And when night fell, and the topaz and violet and saffron and amethyst and mauve and lilac had faded suddenly from the Chiricahuas, like a veil that has been rent, and the ramparts had become slate-gray and then black--the soft-breathed night wandered here and there over the desert, and the land fell under an enchantment even stranger than the day's.

  So the days went by, wonderful, fashioning the ways and the characters of men. Seven passed. Buck Johnson and his foreman began to look for the stranger, Eight, they began to speculate. Nine, they doubted. On the tenth they gave him up--and he came.

  They knew him first by the soft lowing of cattle. Jed Parker, dazzled by the lamp, peered out from the door, and made him out dimly turning the animals into the corral. A moment later his pony's hoofs impacted softly on the baked earth, he dropped from the saddle and entered the room.

  "I'm late," said he briefly, glancing at the clock, which indicated ten; "but I'm here."

  His manner was quick and sharp, almost breathless, as though he had been running.

  "Your cattle are in the corral: all of them. Have you the money?"

  "I have the money here," replied Buck Johnson, laying his hand against a drawer, "and it's ready for you when you've earned it. I don't care so much for the cattle. What I wanted is the man who stole them. Did you bring him?"

  "Yes, I brought him," said the stranger. "Let's see that money."

  Buck Johnson threw open the drawer, and drew from it the heavy canvas sack.

  "It's here. Now bring in your prisoner."

  The two-gun man seemed suddenly to loom large in the doorway. The muzzles of his revolvers covered the two before him. His speech came short and sharp.

  "I told you I'd bring back the cows and the one who rustled them," he snapped. "I've never lied to a man yet. Your stock is in the corral. I'll trouble you for that five thousand. I'm the man who stole your cattle!"

End.

 
 
 
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