Twin Sombreros - Zane Grey - ebook

Twin Sombreros ebook

Zane Grey

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Opis

A novel of honor lost, redemption found, and rip-roaring wild adventure from the original master of the American Western. Falsely accused of murdering Allen Neece, cowboy Brazos Keene had narrowly escaped a lynch mob. With his name at last cleared, Keene discovered that Neece’s twin sisters had being forced off their ranch after the death of their brother, something that honorable cowboy Brazos Keene couldn’t allow to happen. Brazos made a pledge to track down their brother’s killers and get the ranch back. He became an instrument of vengeance, furiously shooting his way through the web of lies and greed that now hangs over Twin Sombreros Ranch. But Brazos also found himself hopelessly in love with both twins!

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Liczba stron: 436

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Contents

CHAPTER I

CHAPTER II

CHAPTER III

CHAPTER IV

CHAPTER V

CHAPTER VI

CHAPTER VII

CHAPTER VIII

CHAPTER IX

CHAPTER X

CHAPTER XI

CHAPTER XII

CHAPTER XIII

CHAPTER XIV

CHAPTER XV

CHAPTER I

THE SUN hung gold and red above the saw-toothed, snow-tipped ramparts of the Colorado Rockies. On a bluff across the sunset-flushed Purgatory River a group of Indians sat their mustangs watching the slow, winding course of a railroad train climbing toward the foothills. Five years had passed since first the iron trail and smoke devil had crossed out of Kansas to the slopes of Colorado; and still the Indians watched and wondered, doubtful of the future, fearful of this clattering whistling monster on wheels that might spell doom to the red man. Had they not seen train after train loaded with buffalo hides steam eastward across the plains?

A lithe rider, dusty and worn, mounted on a superb bay horse, halted on the south side of the river to watch the Indians.

“Utes, I reckon,” he said, answering to the habit of soliloquy that loneliness had fostered in him. “Like the Kiowas they shore die hard. Doggone me if I don’t feel sorry for them! The beaver an’ the buffalo aboot gone! The white man rangin’ with his cattle wherever grass grows!… Wal, Reddies, if yu air wise, yu’ll go way back in some mountain valley an’ stay there.”

The rumble of the railroad train died away and the black snakelike string of cars wound out of sight between bold gray bluffs. A moment longer the Indians lingered, their lean and wild shapes silhouetted against the sky, then they wheeled their ragged mustangs and disappeared in red dust clouds over the ridge.

“Wal, come to think aboot it,” mused the lone rider, “they’re not so bad off as me…. No money. No job. No home…. Ridin’ a grub line, an’ half starved. Nothin’ but a hawse an’ a gun.”

Brazos Keene’s usual cool and reckless insouciance had suffered a blight. The outcast state he had bitterly avowed was far from new to him. It had been his fate for years to ride the trails from cow camp to ranch, from one cattle town to another. He could not stay long in one place. Always he had been driven. Wherefore the sadness of the hour scarcely had its source in this cowboy wandering. He put a slow hand inside his open vest to draw forth a thick letter, its fresh whiteness marred by fingerprints and sundry soiled spots. He had wept over that letter. Marveling again, with a ghost of the shock which had first attended sight of that beautiful handwriting, he reread the postmark and the address. Lincoln, New Mexico, May 3, 1880. Mr. Brazos Keene, Latimer, Colorado, ? Two-bar X Ranch. The Latimer postmark read a day later.

“My Gawd, but this heah railroad can fetch a man trouble pronto,” he complained, and swallowing a lump in his throat he stuck the letter back. “What in the hell made me go into thet post office for? Old cowboy habit! Always lookin’ for letters thet never came. I wish to Gawd this one had been like all the others…. But aw no!… Holly Ripple remembers me–has still the old faith in me… An’ she named her boy Brazos–after me. Aw! thet hurts somethin’ sweet an’ turrible! Shore as I’m forkin’ this hawse heah thet’ll be bad for me… or mebbe good!”

Lost in memory Brazos saw the green river brawling between its gray banks where the willows had a reddish tinge not all from the sunset. A brace of wild ducks winged swift flight over the water; coyotes watched the rider from the slope opposite; the willows shook with the movement of deer or cattle working down to the river; far across the valley on a rising slope black horses showed against the gray. The cold keen air, the fresh odor of the swollen river, the faint color along the brush-lined banks told that the time was early spring. Beyond the Purgatory the land climbed in level benches row on row, always higher and rougher, leading to the gray-ledged ridges, and these in turn to the shaggy foothills that ended abruptly in the mountain wall of slate cliffs and russet slopes and black belts above which the snow crown gleamed white and rose.

“Only five years!” mused the rider, with unseeing eyes on the west. “Five years since I rode along heah down the old trail from Don Carlos’ Rancho… An’ what have I done with my life?”

A savage shake of his head was Brazos’ answer to that disturbing query as also it was a passionate repudiation of memory. It had been his wont in dark hours like this to seek oblivion in the bottle. But with that letter heavy against his heart, with the past vivid and stingingly sweet on him, with the indisputable proof that Holly Ripple’s faith in him would never die, he could not be so base, so treacherous. Not in the hour of his remorse and shame! If he could destroy the letter and forget… but that was vain and futile.

Brazos rode on down the river trail toward Las Animas. He did not know how far it was in to town. His horse was lame and weary. This stretch along the Purgatory was not prolific of cow camps; nevertheless, Brazos hoped to run into one before nightfall.

The sun set, a nipping wind blew down from the heights, the winding river lost its glow of rose to shade dark and steely under the high banks opposite. A coyote wailed out its piercing mournful cry.

“Purgatory, huh?” muttered Brazos, somberly. “Wal, the son-of-a-gun Spaniard thet named this heah creek shore hit it plumb center. Purgatory? River of Lost Souls!… Doggone if thet doesn’t fit me proper. I’m shore a ridin’ fool–a gone goslin’–a lost soul!”

The trail worked up from the river to an intersection with a road. In the gathering darkness, Brazos’ quick eye caught sight of three horsemen riding out from a clump of dead trees which only partly obscured a dark cabin. The riders wheeled back apparently thinking Brazos had not seen them.

“Ump-umm,” muttered Brazos to himself. “Yu gotta be cuter’n thet, my bocos…. Now, I just wonder what’n hell kind of a move yu call thet.”

All the instincts and faculties of a range rider had been remarkably magnified in Brazos Keene. He reined his horse some rods before passing in front of that clump of trees.

Brazos heard a sibilant hissing “hold thar!” and a sound that seemed like a gloved hand slapped on metal. A hoarse voice, thick tongued from liquor, rasped low. Then came a young high-pitched answer: “But Bard, I’m not risking….” The violent gloved hand cut that speech short. To Brazos the name that had been mentioned sounded like Bard, but it might have been Bart or even Brad.

“Hey, riders,” called Brazos, curtly. “I seen yu before yu seen me.”

After a moment of silence, Brazos heard the word “Texan” whispered significantly. Then one of the three rode out.

“What if you did, stranger?” he asked.

“Nothin’. I just wanted yu to know all riders ain’t blind an’ deaf.”

Brazos’ interrogator halted just so far away that his features were indistinguishable. But Brazos registered the deep matured voice, the sloping shoulders, the bull neck.

“Thar’s been some holdups along hyar lately,” he said.

“Ahuh. An’ thet’s why yu acted so queer?”

“Queer?”

“Shore. I said queer.”

“Playin’ safe, stranger.”

“Yeah?–Wal, if yu took me for a bandit yu’re way off.”

“Glad to hear thet.–An’ who might you be?”

“I’m a grub-line ridin’ cowboy. I’m tired an’ hungry, an’ my hawse is lame.”

“Whar you from?”

“Texas.”

“Hell! A deaf man could tell thet. Whar you ridin’ from?”

“Montana. Straight as a crow flies.”

“An’ whar you makin’ for?”

“Mister, if I wasn’t hungry an’ tired I wouldn’t like yore pert questions. I’m not goin’ anywhere in particular. How far to Las Animas?”

“All night drill fer a tired hoss.”

“Any cow camp near?”

“Nope. Nearest ranch is Twin Sombreros, three miles from town.”

“Excuse me for askin’,” went on Brazos, with sarcasm, “but do yu fellars belong to an ootfit thet’ll feed a hungry cowpuncher?”

“My boss hasn’t any use fer grub-line riders.”

“Yu don’t say. Wal, I reckon I don’t eat. Small matter. But would yu tell me if there’s any grass heahaboots for my hawse?”

“Good grass right hyar, stranger. An’ you can bunk in the old cabin thar.”

“Thanks,” returned Brazos, dryly.

The burly rider turned to his silent companions, just discernible in the gloom. “Come on, men. If we’re makin’ Lamar tonight we got to rustle.”

The couple joined him and they rode by Brazos too swiftly for him to distinguish anything. They took to the north, soon passing out of sight. Brazos kept staring in the direction they had gone. The thing that struck him on the moment was the fact of his insatiable curiosity. These three riders had not acted out of order, considering the time and place. They had a perfect right to be suspicious of him, as he likewise had of them. But there had been something wrong about them, something insincere, something hidden. A meeting with strangers on the ranges was nothing unusual for Brazos Keene. He had an uncanny instinct for recognizing dishonest men. That was one reason why he rode so many grub-line trails. He was honest himself, flaming of spirit, bitter toward the outlaws, the rustlers, and crooked cowmen who dominated the ranges from the Little Big Horn to the Rio Grande.

“Surly hombre,” soliloquized Brazos, ponderingly. “He wanted to be shore I was a stranger. Now I wonder why? An’ if he didn’t stop one of them from takin’ a pot shot at me, I’ll eat my sombrero…. An’ thet one I heahed clear an’ shore…. ‘Bard, I’m not risking!’ Thet’s a stumper. Thet hombre was goin’ to bore me. What wasn’t he riskin’? Why shore it was my ridin’ in on them. Doggone queer! But he had been hittin’ the bottle. I heahed liquor in his voice. An’ it’s no use tryin’ to figger oot any deal thet has to do with red-eye.”

Brazos dismissed the incident from mind. Dismounting, he led his horse off the road to the clump of trees. Long bleached grass of last year’s growth appeared to be plentiful, and this fact relieved Brazos from worry about feed for his animal. The cabin proved to be close at hand. Brazos peeped in the open door. It was pitch dark inside and smelled dry. He removed saddle and bridle from the bay and turned him loose. Brazos carried his paraphernalia inside and deposited it upon the floor. He felt in his pockets for matches. He had none. Then he groped around, hands outstretched, until he bumped into a bench made of boughs. This, with his saddle blankets, would furnish a better bed than many to which he had of late been accustomed. Lastly, he went to the door to look out.

Bay was cropping the grass near by. The sky had become overcast with dark clouds and the cold air had moderated. Brazos felt rain or snow in it. Coyotes were wailing. A few dead leaves rustled on the trees. The black melancholy range seemed to envelop the cabin. Brazos did not like the place, the night, the nameless oppression. But how many times had that very mood weighed upon him? He groped his way back to the bench where, heartsick and hungry, too bitter to care what happened, too weary to think longer, he lay down and fell asleep.

Some time in the night he awoke. At first he imagined he had awakened from a vague grotesque dream, details of which he could not remember. Usually a light sleeper, he thought nothing of being aroused. But after a moment he felt that this was different. And he attended to outside sensations.

He heard a drip, drip, drip of rain on the floor. Evidently the roof of this shack leaked. A low moaning wind swept by under the cabin eaves. The night was so black that he could not locate either door or window. Mice rustled the rubbish in a corner. The dry musty smell of the cabin appeared to have been permeated with a damp odor, which, of course, came from the rain. Drip–drip–drip–slowly the dropping sounds faded in his consciousness.

From that hour on he slept fitfully, restlessly, harassed by strange dreams. One by one these increased in their morbid vagaries until finally a ghastly climax brought him awake, wet with cold sweat.

Dawn was at hand. Through the window he discerned a faint blue of sky. Apparently the weather had cleared. But all of a sudden–drip–drip–drip. The drops of rain water were slow and heavy. They spattered on the earthen floor. It was now light enough in the cabin to make out a ladder leading up to a loft. The old yellow-stone chimney and fireplace had crumbled out of shape. How gloomy and still this square within its four log walls! Brazos wondered what had happened there. But for that matter, no log cabin in the West could be without its history, much of which was dark, violent and bloody.

All at once a cold chill crept over his skin. That dank odor, dominating the pungent dry smell of the cabin, assailed his nostrils. Drip–drip–drip! Brazos was wide awake now, on the verge of being startled by he knew not what. Like his sight and hearing his olfactory sense had been abnormally developed by an outdoor life. Drip–drip! The odor he had connected with this sound did not come from dropping rain water. It was blood. Fresh blood! Brazos seemed suddenly transfixed with a sickening icy clutch at his vitals. He had smelled human blood far too often ever to mistake it.

In a single action, he slid upright off the bench. That drip came from the loft just about the center of the cabin. Brazos could not see the drops, but by their sound, he located them–stretched out his upturned palm. Spat! Despite his steely nerve the heavy wet contact on his hand gave him a shock. He strode to the light of the doorway, there to confirm his suspicion.

“Blood!” he ejaculated, his eyes fixed on the red splotch in his palm. “Cold an’ thick…. There’s a daid man up in thet loft…. Aha! them three hombres last night!… Brazos, I reckon yu better be rustlin’ oot of heah pronto.”

Hurrying back to the bench, Brazos wiped the blood on his saddle blankets, and carried these with his saddle to the door. Dawn had given way to daylight with a ruddy tinge in the eastern sky. And at that moment a clattering roar of hoofs swept up like a storm before the wind, and a group of riders pulled their horses to a sliding halt before the cabin.

“Ahuh. Jig aboot up! I savvy,” muttered Brazos, and stepping out of the door he flung down the saddle and blankets to stand at attention. He needed not to see the rifles to grasp that this was a posse and that he was the object of their onslaught upon the cabin.

“Hands up, cowboy!” came a harsh command.

“They’re up,” replied Brazos, laconically, suiting action to words. The leveled guns and grim visages of this outfit showed that they meant business. Brazos had seen many posses and had been a member of not a few. Most of these riders had the cowboy stripe, but some of them, particularly the harsh-voiced, hard-faced leader, appeared to be matured men.

“Pile off, Stuke, an’ you, Segel,” ordered this leader. Whereupon two riders flung themselves out of their saddles to rush at Brazos from each side. “Grab his guns! Search him…. Take everythin’.”

“Heah!” flashed Brazos, hotly. “Don’t take thet letter!”

“Careful, cowboy, or we’ll bore you…. Search the cabin…. Jim, rustle up his hoss.”

Brazos’ rage had burst from his cool mien owing to the rude theft of his precious letter. But he was quick to recognize real peril and on the instant became his old self. He surveyed the group of horsemen to ascertain that they were all strangers to him and no different from any hard determined outfit of Westerners. In a moment, he made certain that not one of them had ever seen him. He had not been in that vicinity for six years, which was a long time on the range.

“Bodkin,” called a rider from within the cabin, his voice queer.

“What! You found him?” queried the leader, sharply.

“Yes. Up in the loft. Send someone in to help us let him down.”

Brazos listened with strained ears to the sounds and husky voices inside the cabin. Murder had been perpetrated. And he was to be held for it. The situation was critical and his life depended upon his nerve and wit. Presently three of the posse came out of the cabin, carrying the body, which they deposited upon the grass. Brazos’ startled gaze bent down upon a handsome youth scarcely twenty years old, evidently a cowboy from his garb, dark-haired and dark-skinned. He had been shot through the back. All his pockets were turned inside out.

“Allen Neece,” burst out Bodkin, in surprise. He had not expected to see the owner of that name.

“Shot in the back.”

“Robbed!”

“Purty cold-blooded, I’d say.”

“Bod, I reckon we might jest as wal string this hombre up.”

These and various other comments greeted Brazos’ ears, and drew from Bodkin the harsh decree:

“Cowboy, you’re under arrest.”

“Hell! I’m not blind or deaf,” retorted Brazos, sarcastically. “May I ask who yu air?”

“I’m Deputy Sheriff Bodkin of Las Animas, actin’ under Kiskadden’s orders.”

“An’ what’s yore charge?”

“Murder.”

Brazos laughed outright. “My Gawd, man, air yu loco? Do I look like I am drunk or crazy?”

“I reckon you don’t,” replied Bodkin, with glinting eyes taking stock of Brazos.

“Do I look like a hombre who’d shoot a boy in the back, rob him, an’ hang aboot waitin’ for an ootfit to come get me?”

“You can’t never tell what a cowboy will do from his looks.”

“Aw, the hell yu cain’t,” replied Brazos, contemptuously, with piercing glance of scorn flashing from Bodkin to his men. “What kind of Westerners air yu?”

Brazos’ scornful stand, his cool nerve in the face of a critical situation obviously impressed some of the riders.

“Bod, I’d recommend a fair trial fer this fellar,” said one.

“It shore has a queer look, this whole deal,” interposed another. “Kiskadden has grown testy of late. Better let him be the jedge.”

“Wal, if you-all ain’t fer hangin’ him pronto, I’ll hev to take him into town,” said Bodkin, in gruff reluctance.

“See heah, Mister Deputy,” spoke up Brazos, keen to catch his advantage. “Last night aboot dark I was held up by three men. I saw them first, pullin’ their hawses behind the trees there. One of them was goin’ to shoot me when another knocked up his arm. I’ll shore remember his voice an’ the name he called thet man…. Wal, I hailed them an’ one fellar rode oot. Never mind what he said. But by Gawd! his dodge is clear to me now. They rode away, an’ I turned my hawse loose an’ went to bed in the cabin heah. Sometime in the night I woke up. I heahed what I thought was rain drippin’. Aboot daybreak I woke again an’ heahed thet same drip–drip–drip. Then I smelled blood. I got up an’ caught some of thet drip on my hand. It was blood. I was carryin’ my saddle oot when yu rode up.”

“Haw! Haw!” laughed Bodkin, with a leering sneer. “An’ what way was you goin’ to ride, cowboy?”

“Hot for Las Animas, Mister Deputy Bodkin, yu can bet yore life on thet,” rang out Brazos.

“You expect me to believe that?”

“I don’t care a damn what yu believe. I’m tellin’ yu, thet’s all. It’s my way of givin’ yu a hunch.”

“Say, I’m an officer of the law an’ you’re one of these rowdy windy cowboys, of which this hyar range is too thickly populated.”

“Wrong again, officer. You may have the law behind yu, but yu’re not very bright. I don’t resist arrest. But I’m innocent of this charge. I want a fair trial an’ a chance to prove it. What’s more, if yu knew me yu’d be most damn shore of yore proofs before yu pressed this charge.”

“I would, huh? Suppose you acquaint us with your name an’ status in Colorado.”

Brazos made no reply to the deputy, and spent the following interval in a hard scrutiny of the members of this posse. It was significant that two of them in the background moved to hide behind those in front.

“Bod, you cain’t hang this Texan on such heahsay evidence,” advised the slow-spoken member.

“Why not? ’Cause you’re a Texan yourself?”

“Wal, as to thet, Texans, whether they’re guilty of crime or not, ain’t very often hanged. Personally, I reckon this cowboy is innocent as I am of this murder. An’ mebbe I’m not the only one. If you hang him, Kiskadden will be sore. An’ if by any chance he ain’t guilty an’ it comes oot–wal, it’d kind of heat up the stink thet hasn’t died oot cold yet.”

During the brief duration of that quiet speech Brazos gauged both men–the sandy-haired, sallow-faced Texan whose looks and words were significant–and the swarthy Bodkin, dark-browed, shifty of gaze, chafing under the other’s cool arraignment of the case, and intense with some feeling hardly justified by the facts herein presented.

“All right, Inskip,” rejoined Bodkin, with suppressed anger. “We’ll take him before Kiskadden…. Prod him to his hoss, men. An’ if he bolts, blow his towhead off.”

Brazos’ captors shoved him forward. Bay had been found and saddled. He did not like this crowd and pulled at his bit, held hard by one of the posse. Brazos mounted. The body of the boy Neece was lifted over a saddle and covered with a slicker. The rider of this horse essayed to walk, which gave Brazos the impression that Las Animas was not far distant. Presently the cavalcade started toward the road, with Brazos riding in the center.

For a while, Brazos was too busy scrutinizing the faces of Bodkin’s men to pay much attention to the lay of the land. When he did look beyond them, however, it was to see the Purgatory River winding down through a beautiful stretch which he remembered. At its extreme eastern terminus the sunrise over the horizon flooded the range with a soft rose light. Vast gray prairie lands rolled away to the north. Dots and strings and herds of cattle dominated the landscape. Columns of smoke rising about green field and red and white houses marked the location of Las Animas. Manifestly the town had grown since Brazos’ last visit there six years and more ago. At that time the railroad had just reached it.

Brazos inquired of the rider on his left as to the size of Las Animas, but received no response from that worthy. The posse appeared to be a surly lot, not given to much talk.

“Say, pardner,” he ventured, accosting the young man on his right, “how big is Las Animas now?”

“Right pert town. About twenty-five hundred, I’d reckon,” was the civil reply.

“Gee! Thet’s shore a metropolis. Wide open like it used to be?”

“Purty wide. I’ve only been there a year. Folks say it’s slow now.”

Bodkin turned to glare at the young rider. “Shet up. This man is under arrest fer murder.”

Brazos felt the old gusty fire thrill along his veins, and he had to bite his tongue to keep from a sharp retort. But he would bide his time. He had seen numberless Westerners of Bodkin’s type. His knowledge of them equaled his contempt. There would be men in Las Animas who would remember Brazos Keene and who would be certain to give this fourflush deputy a jar.

The cavalcade traveled on at a slow trot and at length reached a site strangely familiar to Brazos. It was the head of the valley. He identified a grove of cottonwoods stretching far on each side of the river. Many a time had he camped there. The difference consisted in that the wildness of the sylvan spot had given place to a ranch that would have gladdened the eye of any cowboy. A long, low, red-roofed, red-walled adobe ranch house stood upon the north bank of the river, and below it, where the cottonwoods trooped into the valley, spread barns and sheds, corrals and racks in picturesque confusion. The droves of horses in the pastures, the squares of alfalfa, and the herds of cattle dotting the valley and the adjacent slopes attested to the prosperity of some cattle baron.

“Doggone!” ejaculated Brazos in the enthusiastic appreciation of his kind. “Whose ootfit is thet?”

Inskip, the Texan, riding second on Brazos’ left, took it upon himself to reply.

“Twin Sombreros Ranch,” he replied, his dry drawl significant of something more than information. “Operated now by Raine Surface, runnin’ eighty thousand haid of the Twin Sombreros brand. Used to belong to Abe Neece, father of the daid boy we’re packin’ to town. Abe is livin’ still, but a broken man over the loss of thet ranch.”

“Wal, I don’t wonder,” returned Brazos, feelingly. “Gosh, I’d rather be a grub-line-ridin’ cowboy.”

Bodkin turned again with malignance in his visage. “You’ll be a swingin’ cowboy before sundown.”

“Yeah?” drawled Brazos in his cool slow speech. “Bodkin, I savvy thet if I don’t swing, it shore won’t be owin’ to yore kind offices.”

It so happened that when the cavalcade reached the crossroad to the ranch a sextette of riders, some of them cowboys, rode down from above to halt their mounts at sight of the posse. Brazos espied two young women riders and he burned both inwardly and outwardly. His proud, fiery nature rebelled at the indignity Bodkin had forced upon him.

“What’s this, Bodkin?” demanded the leader.

“Mornin’, Mr. Surface,” replied Bodkin, with both importance and servility. “We been out arrestin’ a cowboy. Charged with murder. An’ I’ve got the proofs on him.”

“Murder! You don’t say? Who?”

“No other than Abe Neece’s boy–young Allen Neece.”

“Open up here!” ordered Surface, and in another moment a few feet of unobstructed lane intervened between the rancher and Brazos Keene. For Brazos it was one of those instinctively potent meetings of which his life on the ranges had been so full. He turned from his long glance at the two girls, the older of whom had hair as red as flame, a strikingly beautiful face, with blue-green eyes just now dilated in horror.

“Who are you?” demanded Surface, with intense curiosity, not one iota of which denoted sympathy.

Brazos gave the rancher a long stare. Among Brazos’ gifts was the rare one of an almost superhuman perspicuity. The time had long passed in his eventful career when he distrusted that peculiar faculty. Surface fell under a category of Westerners far removed from the open-faced, eagle-eyed, great-hearted pioneers whom Brazos revered.

“Wal, who I am is shore none of yore business,” replied Brazos, coldly.

“Cowboy, I’m Raine Surface, an’ I have a good deal to say with the business of this county,” returned the rancher, plainly nettled.

“I reckon. Do you happen to be in cahoots with this fourflush, Deputy Bodkin?”

The sharp unexpected query disconcerted Surface and elicited a roar from Bodkin.

“I put Kiskadden in office,” said the rancher stiffly, putting forward a fact Brazos could see no reason for mentioning. “I recommended to the Cattlemen’s Association that we appoint deputies to help rid this range of desperadoes an’ rustlers–an’ rowdy cowboys.”

“Wal, Mr. Surface, yu shore impress me powerful,” drawled Brazos, scornfully.

“What’s your name?”

“Wal, I’m not advisin’ yu to ride into town an’ find oot. Yu might, along with yore deputy hired hand heah, find yoreself disappointed.”

“You insolent ragamuffin of a Texan!” fumed Surface, evidently resenting his failure to be given due importance.

“See heah, Surface,” flashed Brazos, his piercing tenor stiffening his hearers. “I am a Texan an’ one of the breed thet don’t forget insult or injustice. You’re a hell of a fine Westerner to act as an adviser to a Cattlemen’s Association. A real Westerner–a big-hearted cattleman who was on the square wouldn’t condemn me without askin’ for proofs. You take this Bodkin’s word. If he hasn’t got some queer reason to fasten this crime on me, it’s a shore bet he itches to hang someone…. Wal, I happen to be innocent an’ I can prove it. I could choke up an’ spit fire at the idee of my bein’ taken for a low-down greaser who’d shoot a boy in the back to rob him…. An’ swallow this, Mister Raine Surface–you’ll rue the day you insulted a ragamuffin of a cowboy who was only huntin’ for a job.”

The silence which followed Brazos’ arraignment was broken by Inskip.

“Surface,” he said caustically, to the pale-faced rancher. “You’re new to this range. All you Kansas cattlemen need to be reminded thet this is western Colorado. Which is to say the border of New Mexico. An’ mebbe yore years oot heah air too few for you to know what thet means. All the same, Bodkin an’ you should have given this cowboy the benefit of a doubt.”

“Bodkin said he had proofs,” rejoined Surface, testily. “I took his word.”

“Texans hang together,” tartly interposed the deputy sheriff, giving a double meaning to the verb. “Inskip wanted to ride out on this hunt. I reckon he had a hunch. I really didn’t want him.”

“Bodkin, I’m givin’ you a hunch,” drawled Inskip, with tone and glance that warmed Brazos. “Kiskadden is a Texan. Mebbe you didn’t know thet.”

At this juncture, when a strong argument seemed imminent, the redheaded girl moved her horse close to Surface and put a hand on his shoulder.

“Dad, don’t say any more,” she implored. “There must be a mistake. You stay out of it. That cowboy never murdered Allen Neece.”

“Lura, don’t interfere here,” snapped her father, impatiently.

“Mr. Surface, we’ll ride on in,” said Bodkin, and gave his men a peremptory order to move on.

Before the riders closed in on Brazos, he gave the red-headed girl an intent look and a smile of gratitude for her championship. Her big eyes, still wide and dark, appeared to engulf him. Then the cavalcade started. Brazos soon regained his composure. Presently, it occurred to him that this situation had approached a provoking complexity. He cursed his luck. It was bad enough to fall into a perilous predicament without having it assume irresistible interest. He would fight that, and the hour he was freed, he would ride away from Las Animas.

Before they had ridden many paces a clatter of hoofs behind and a call for Bodkin again halted the riders. The rancher Surface followed.

“A word with you, Bodkin,” he said, reining his mount.

“Sartinly, Mister Surface,” returned the deputy, hastening to fall out of line.

“About that suit of mine against–” he began, with something of pomposity. But Brazos made quick note of the fact that that was all he could hear. Bodkin and Surface walked their horses out of hearing. Brazos was not missing anything. The two riders who had the disagreeable task of holding the corpse in the saddle and keeping it covered swore openly at this second loss of time. As Brazos turned to face forward again, he met Inskip’s deep gray eyes in which there flashed a bright steely glint that could be interpreted in only one way. Brazos’ blood took a hot leap, then receded to leave him cold. This halt boded ill to him. Sight of Bodkin’s grim visage, as he came riding back from his short colloquy with Surface, warned Brazos of the unexpected and the worst.

But Bodkin took the lead of the cavalcade again without a word other than a command to ride. His tenseness seemed to be communicated to all. Their faces set away from the prisoner. Inskip took off his heavy coat and laid it back across the cantle of his saddle–an action Bodkin might have taken as thought-provoking had he noticed it. Brazos’ reaction revolved around sight of the two big gun butts sticking out of Inskip’s belt. They spoke a language to Brazos as clear as had been the gray lightning in Inskip’s eyes.

The outskirts of Las Animas lay just ahead, beyond a bridge over a brook that brawled down to the Purgatory. Oaks and cottonwoods lined the west bank.

“Stop hyar, man,” ordered Bodkin, wheeling his horse. “Inskip, you ride on in an’ report.”

The Texan made no reply nor any move to act upon the deputy’s command.

“Segel, you an’ Bill wait hyar with Neece,” went on Bodkin. “The rest of you come with me.”

He turned to ride off the road. “Inskip,” he said, suddenly, halting again. “Are you takin’ orders?”

“Not when it doesn’t suit me,” replied the Texan. “What you up to, Bodkin?”

“I’m goin’ to finish this job right hyar,” rejoined the deputy, fiercely. “An’ if you don’t want your Texas pride hurt, you’d better not see what’s comin’ off.”

“Wal, I ain’t so sensitive as all thet,” drawled Inskip.

Brazos realized the game now and what a slim chance he had for his life. That chance was vested in Inskip. An awful instant he fought the shuddering clutch on his vitals, the appalling check to his thought. It was succeeded by the desperate will and nerve, the unlimited resourcefulness of the cowboy whose flame-spirit had been engendered by such terrible situations as this. There would be one chance for him and when it came he must grasp it with the speed of lightning.

Bodkin led down the west bank of the brook. The trees and rocks broke up the formation of the posse. Brazos’ sharp eye caught the rider behind Bodkin bending forward to untie his lasso from his saddle. They entered a rocky glade comminated by an old cottonwood tree with spreading branches and a dead top. Brazos had been under that tree before.

“Open up,” shouted Bodkin. “Prod his hoss out hyar.”

A moment of cracking ironshod hoofs on rock and Brazos’ horse champed his bit under a widespreading arm of the cottonwood. All the men faced Brazos, pale, with thin lips set.

“Boss,” spoke up one of them, hoarsely. “I’m bound to speak out. This deal is too raw fer my stomach.”

“Rustle then. Git out of hyar,” yelled the leader, livid with passion.

“I sure will. Come on, Ben. We didn’t join this outfit to hang a cowboy thet ain’t proved guilty.”

The lean rider addressed detached himself from the group.

“Bodkin,” he said, forcefully. “You’re too damn keen on this necktie party. Frank an’ me are slopin’.”

“Yellow, huh?” shouted the deputy, as the couple rode off. “All right. I’ll bear it in mind.”

“See heah, Bodkin,” interposed Inskip, “did you ride all this way to have yore mind changed by Surface?”

“Inskip, you go to hell!” hissed Bodkin, enraged at the sarcastic implication. Nevertheless, it could scarcely have been rage that paled the redness out of his malignant visage.

Brazos read in Inskip’s eyes what Bodkin failed to see; and it was that intelligence which sustained him. The Texan might have a trump card up his sleeve, but Brazos could only think of two desperate chances, one of which he was sure would be presented.

“Flip thet noose, Barsh,” ordered Bodkin, sardonically, addressing a lean rider whose hat shaded his face. He had a coiled rope in his left hand. He gave the coil a toss. The loop spread to fall over Brazos’ head and lodge on his shoulders. Another flip and the noose closed round his neck. The feel of the hard smooth hemp against Brazos’ bare flesh liberated in him the devil that he had kept leashed. Brazos had never before suffered the odium of this phase of border law. Barsh plainly quailed before Brazos’ steady gaze.

“Pile off, all of you,” shouted Bodkin, stridently, dismounting to lean his rifle against the tree. “Barsh, throw the end of your rope over thet branch.”

“Hold on!”

This order issued from the Texan, whose hand obstructed Barsh’s arm in his effort to toss up the rope.

“Wha-at?” bawled Bodkin, rudely disrupted, glaring at Inskip.

Bodkin was the only rider beside Brazos who had not dismounted. The others had laid aside their rifles and shotguns to crowd back of Barsh, nervously hurrying to get the gruesome job done.

Inskip deliberately rode between them and Brazos. “Bodkin, he might have a mother or sweetheart. An’ he’ll want to send some word.”

“Aw, hell! Let him blab it pronto then.”

“Cowboy, do you want to tell me who you air an’ send some message?” queried Inskip, calmly.

“I shore do. But I don’t want this skunk to heah it.”

“Wal, you can tell me,” returned Inskip, and pulled his horse toward Brazos.

“Hyar, Inskip… not so close!” shrieked Bodkin.

The Texan leaned toward Brazos to whisper swift and low: “Grab my guns, but don’t kill onless you have to.”

Brazos’ clawlike hands swept out. As he jerked loose the two big guns, Inskip spurred his horse to lunge away.

“Freeze! –– yu!” pealed out Brazos, as he covered Bodkin and the startled posse.

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