Friday, July 15, 2005
THE BARRED 0 BRAND
IT was nearly noon when the two men reached Morgan City. They stopped at a restaurant and ate a generous meal of ham and eggs and pie, after which they sauntered across the street to a saloon and entered. Neither of them had noticed the man in the rough clothes and spurred boots of a range rider who watched them in mingled surprise and dismay from the window of a pool room, nor did they know that as soon as they entered the saloon this man ran furtively into the street and disappeared in the direction of the railroad yards.
“Whisky,” ordered Robbins, stepping up to the bar. “Pete, name yore poison.”
“I'll take the same. Two fingers will do me.”
They drank the liquor the bartender brought them, and paid for it.
“Any cattle bein' shipped from here to-day or tomorrow?” Robbins asked of the saloon keeper, who seemed inclined to gossip.
“Not an awful lot,” the man answered, leaning on the bar with his elbows. “Two-three hundred head goin' out to-night, I hear. Barred 0's and somethin' else, I disremember what. You gents work around here?”
“No, we're from over Del Rio way,” Craig told him. “Who owns the stock that's bein' shipped, do yuh know?”
“Naw. A fella was in here a while ago for a shot of redeye, and I heard him sayin' somethin' about the stock that's all. Dunno who he was.”
“What sort of a lookin' fella? Tall and thin, with his face?”
“No-o. He was tall, all right, but he didn't have no scar. Kinda runs to loud clothes. Never saw him before.”
“Well, I guess he ain't the fella we're lookin' for, then,” said Robbins. “Thanks, anyhow.”
They put down their glasses and going to a table against the wall, sat down and began conversing in low tones. Possibly five minutes had elapsed, no more, when the swinging doors of the saloon were pushed open and three men walked in. Robbins looked up. Craig saw his lean, lithe form stiffen and his face harden.[one word was erased about here, but I couldn’t find the place the second time.]
“What's the trouble?” he asked quietly.
“Don't look up,” Robbins replied in a whisper. “Les Davids, the fella that was with Catamount Perkins when he tried to kill me in the Del Rio saloon, just came in with two pards. One of them looks familiar, and I think he was with Whortle when June and I had the fight with him the day we tracked the grizzly.”
“What are they doin’ here, do yuh suppose?”
“They must have seen us come in,” Robbins said, still in a whisper. “The way Davids looked around when he came in showed me that. Look out for trouble. If that’s what they want, we’ll carry it to them.”
He looked at Davids and his partners, making certain that the man saw him do so. Then, in a louder tone, he said:
“Let's leave, Pete.”
They got up casually and started toward the door. Davids and the two men with him, both unshaven, coarse-featured citizens, turned and stared at them.
“Well, well,” Davids leered, “if it ain't Mister High-and-mighty himself! What are yuh doin' clear over here, Robbins?”
“Mindin' my own business,” the cowboy said shortly. “That's what some other people ought to do more, seems to me.”
Davids flushed red. “Meanin'?” he invited harshly.
“Meanin' whatever yuh want to take it as! If yuh just have to know what I'm doin' in Morgan City, why I'm lookin' for some gents who got too free and easy with C Bar cattle to the extent of makin' off with a hundred head. What's more, I'm not standin' very far from one of the rustlers right now.”
Davids took a step away from the bar, a vein in his throat throbbing angrily. His right hand hovered two or three inches above the butt of his revolver. His companions also stepped away from the bar, but made no move toward their guns.
“Are you insinuatin' that I'm a cattle thief?” Davids demanded raspingly.
“No, yuh got me wrong,” Robbins said softly. His words caused a sneer to appear on Davids' lips. The man evidently thought that the C Bar rider was backing down before a superior force. He should have known Robbins better, but he didn't. However, the sneer vanished instantly as Robbins added: “I ain't insinuatin' nothin' about you bein' a rustler, Davids. I know dang well yo're one.”
Davids crouched and half drew his gun. The muzzle did not clear the holster, despite the fact that he had moved first, for a revolver appeared in Robbins' hand, its black muzzle covering Davids' heart.
“I wouldn't if I were you,” Robbins advised softly. “It wouldn't be at all healthy. I ought to turn yuh over my knee and spank yuh good, I presume. Maybe it would improve yore memory. Have yuh forgotten how Catamount Perkins passed out? If yuh ain't careful, you'll grab a harp mighty quick, along with a dose of lead.
“Yuh haven't fooled me a bit, Davids. You and yore pards came in here all set to pick a quarrel with me. Honest, I don't know whether you've got more nerve than a lion tamer, or whether yo're just plain fool. I'm inclined to believe the latter. After what happened when you and two other gents tried the same stunt on me in Del Rio I'd be willin' to swear yuh haven't any more brains than a flea. A fool walks in where a lion tamer'd fear to tread, yuh might say, and in that case some fools get carried out feet first.”
Davids straightened slowly so as not to startle Robbins into firing, and took his hand away from his gun. His two comrades gave him plenty of room, being careful not to get in the line of fire, should a gun battle ensue.
“I told yuh once, Davids,” went on Robbins in the same gentle voice, “that somethin' was gonna happen to you if I ever caught sight of yuh again. I'm feelin’ at peace with the world to-day, though, so unless you develop an awful cravin' to have a wooden kimono wrapped around you I'm willin' you should walk out of here under yore own power. Get goin' before I change my mind.”
Davids scowled viciously at the unperturbed puncher, his hands clenching with suppressed wrath. He knew he was beaten, and mumbling something under his breath, he turned and stamped angrily out.
“Let's go on about our business now, Pete,” Robbins said, as the swinging doors closed after Davids. Purposely he spoke loud enough for the T Square man to hear, and then ran softly to an open window at the side of the saloon. Vaulting over the sill, he tiptoed to the corner of the building and peered cautiously around it.
He smiled inwardly as he caught sight of a crouching form pressing against the wall of the saloon to the right of the swinging doors. He had not been far off in divining the thoughts surging through Davids' brain when he had faced the man inside. Davids wanted only a chance to even scores with the C Bar man, and Robbins' remark to Craig had shown him the way, or at least he thought it had.
His back was toward the corner where Robbins stood, and in his hand was a Colt .45 revolver, cocked and poised for instant use the second Robbins stepped through the swinging doors. He waited breathlessly, intently watching for his enemy. So engrossed was he that he did not hear Robbins sneak up behind him. He did, however, feel the impact of the latter's boot toe as the cowboy settled himself and kicked with all his might.
Davids bellowed loudly in hurt surprise and fell forward. His gun exploded. He leaped up and started to turn, but Robbins' fist, timed accurately to the fraction of a second, smashed full on the angle of his jaw. He collapsed inertly, moaning feebly.
“Well, that's that,” Robbins observed to the world at large, breathing on his skinned knuckles.
Craig ran out to him, his anxious face smoothing as he saw his friend was safe.
“Gosh, I was afraid he'd plugged you, Bill,” he said. “What happened to him?”
Robbins grinned and showed him the knuckles of his right hand.
“He got rash and ran up against my fist, that's all. Did yuh ever seen such a sleepin' beauty? I figured him right to the dot, partner. He was wait-in' for me to walk through those doors and then he was goin' to donate a chunk of lead to me and sort of settle my hash for good and all. I kicked him and then pasted him on the jaw when he got up. He never saw me, but he sure felt me.”
“He'll be madder'n a wet hen when he wakes up,” laughed Craig. “What are we goin' to do now?”
Robbins squinted down the street toward where he heard the tooting of a locomotive whistle.
“I've got an idea we'd better take a look at those three hundred cattle that somebody's shippin'. Let's leave our friend to come to all by his lonesome and mosey down to the loadin' pens.”
This was agreeable to Craig, so they headed toward the railroad yards. The loading pens were only a short distance from the end of the street they were on, and a string of cars was standing at the chutes. Three of them were filled already with bawling, nervous cattle, and upon the top of one of the fences sat two men, smoking and talking together. Robbins drew Craig into a lane between two buildings.
“They're waitin' for Davids and his men,” he said hurriedly. “We don't want to rush up there now. Let's just stick around and see what happens.”
Craig stooped and stared at the cattle through the bars of the nearest pen. “Can't we get closer?” he questioned. “I think I see somethin', but I want to be sure.”
Robbins looked out cautiously. Across the tracks from the waiting string of cars, on the same side he was on, was a small shack.
“Yes, I guess we can get closer,” he replied. “Come on back to the street and we'll come around on the other side of the block.”
He led his friend through the lane to the sidewalk, went along it for half a block or so, and cut through another lane between buildings. This brought them past the string of cars and out of sight of the men on the fence. Quickly they gained the shelter of the shack, where Craig once more stared at the cattle.
“Uh-huh,” he murmured in satisfaction, “I saw what I thought I did. I dunno as I ever saw the Big Bear brand, Bill, but some of those cows have got a bear's head stamped on their sides. Whatcha think of that?”
The cowboy breathed deeply.
“Big Bear and Barred 0's!” he burst out. “Pete, we've got them! Les Davids and those other fellas are the ones that stole our cattle, workin' for Whortle! They likely picked up the Big Bear bunch on the way out with ours!”
“I don't quite get what you mean, Bill! There aren't any C Bar stock in those pens or cars that I can see.”
Robbins stooped and picked up a rusty nail, with which he scratched the C Bar brand on the wall of the shack.
“Look there,” he instructed, pointing to his handiwork. “All yuh have to do to make a Barred 0 out of a C Bar is to draw the bar straight on to the right, and then make an 0 out of the C.”
“The polecats!” Craig muttered in awe. “That T Square bunch is due for a tough time when the boss hears of this. What are yuh gonna do about it?”
Before Robbins could answer, two men came around the end of the street, walking fast, and made for the loading corrals. The cowboy recognized them as the ones who had accompanied Davids a few minutes previous, when the latter had attempted to start a fight in the saloon. They disappeared around the string of cars.
“You and I are goin' to sashay after those gents and inquire a little into past history,” Robbins replied to Craig's question. “Looks to me. like they want to get those cattle on their way quick as they can so's we won't see them. Wonder where Davids is?”
“Search me. Maybe he's still slumberin' from the tap you gave him on the jaw.”
“Maybe. Well, let's not wait for him. Come on.”
Hitching up their cartridge belts and making certain that their guns were loose in their holsters, they went as silently as possible across the tracks and crawled under one of the loaded cars. The two men they had observed sitting on the fence were standing on the ground flow, arguing with the two who had just come up. One of them was dressed in more of a Western-town fashion than the others, and Robbins judged him to be a cattle buyer.
“What's all the rush?” this man was saying. “We've got all day to get these cattle loaded. Tryin' to hurry me so's you can slip by some scrubs, Harris?”
“Naw,” denied the fellow he called Harris, one of the two who had been with Davids. “Only the boss says we've got to get back to the ranch right away. What for I dunno, but orders is orders. So let's get busy and hustle them cows aboard and get the deal settled.”
Robbins stepped out away from the car, Craig by his side.
“Let's not do any such thing!” he said softly, swiftly drawing his gun. “Stick up yore hands, all of yuh!”
At his words the cattle buyer whirled and gasped, but at sight of the gun threw his hands up and stumbled backward. The others were not so easily dealt with. They were caught, and they knew it. All of them made lightninglike movements downward and up, their guns spitting flames and lead the instant they were clear of the holsters.
Robbins and Craig had the advantage of the draw, if not the advantage of numbers. Their weapons crashed first. The man beside Harris dropped his gun and clapped his hands to his stomach, bawling out in agony. Harris ducked, shooting a hole through Craig's sombrero, but went down as the slender puncher pulled trigger again. The third man dropped to one knee, thereby causing Robbins to miss his second shot, and was steadying himself to fire when the cowboy plunged into him, knocking him under the feet of several frightened, snorting cows halfway across the corral. Craig covered the cattle buyer while Robbins followed up his advantage by rushing forward and kicking the gun out of the survivor's hand. Reaching down, he twisted his fingers into the man's collar and jerked him to his feet. The cattle buyer turned frightened eyes to Robbins as he dragged his struggling captive up to him. He was a middle-aged man, and fairly honest looking.
“What's all this?” he cried. “Don't shoot me, for Heaven's sake! I'm not mixed up with those gents.”
“Yuh needn't be afraid,” Robbins reassured him. “We won't hurt yuh unless yuh start somethin'. Didn't yuh know those cattle were rustled?”
“Huh?” the buyer gasped in consternation. “Are those fellows rustlers?”
“Are they? I'll tell the world they are! And I'm not so certain you didn't know all about the thing. Start talkin', and talk fast. Those Barred 0 cows have been changed from C Bar's, wet-blanket stuff, I'd say. I could see how yuh might be fooled on them, but what I want to know is how did yuh come to accept those Big Bear critters? That's a brand that can't be changed easy.”
Why, that fellow Harris said his boss had bought them from Melvin Kurtz. Showed me a bill of sale. He's probably still got it, because I saw him put it in his vest pocket. Simms, the boss, was here a while ago, but I haven't seen him for an hour or so.”
“What sort of a lookin' gent was he?”
The buyer described Davids to perfection.
[End of chapter]