Musaicum Books presents to you this great western collection containing adventure tales, romance novels and stories inspired by historical events. These tales have an ambiance and milieu of the old West and paint the picture of the West as it really was, with people as they really were. Burnt Creek Stories A Burnt Creek Yuletide Budd Dabbles in Homesteads When Money Went to His Head Stubborn People Prairie Yule False Face Rockbound Honesty Murder on the Frontier Mcquestion Rides Court Day Officer's Choice The Colonel's Daughter Dispatch to the General On Texas Street In Bullhide Canyon Wild Enough When You Carry the Star Other Short Stories At Wolf Creek Tavern Blizzard Camp Born to Conquer Breed of the Frontier Custom of the Country Dead-Man Trail Dolorosa, Here I Come Fourth Son The Last Rodeo The Silver Saddle Things Remembered
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Table of Contents
Coming across the flat valley floor, Lin Ballou, riding a paint horse and leading a pack animal, struck the Snake River Road at a point where Hank Colqueen's homestead made a last forlorn stand against the vast stretch of sand and sage that swept eastward mile after mile until checked by the distant high mesa. It was scorching hot. The saddle leather stung his fingers when he ventured to touch it, and the dry thin air seemed to have come straight out of a blast furnace. Colqueen's dreary little tarpaper shack stood alone in all this desolation, with a barbed wire fence running both ways from it along the road—a fence that separated just so much dry and worthless land from a whole sea of dry and worthless land. And by the ditch side, Hank Colqueen himself was working away at a stubborn strand; a slow- moving giant of a man whose face and arms were blistered and baked to the color of a broiled steak.
Lin Ballou stopped beside the homesteader and threw one leg around the pommel, taking time to build himself a cigarette while passing the news of the day. He had to prime his throat with a little tobacco smoke before the words would issue from its parched orifice.
"Hank," he said, croaking, "when I see a man laboring in such misery I get mighty curious as to his hope of reward. Being a plumb honest man, just tell me what you figure that effort is going to bring you."
Colqueen straightened, dropped his wire-puller, and grinned. Speech came slowly to him, as did everything else. And first he must remove his hat and scratch a head as bald as an egg to stimulate thought. His blue eyes swept Lin, the road, the sky, and the distant mesa.
"Well," he replied at last, "I don't know as I can tell you what I'm working for. But a man's got to keep at it, ain't he? Can't see as I'm getting anywhere, but it keeps a man cooler to move than to lop around the house."
Lin Ballou laughed outright. "Always said you were honest. That's admitting more than these misguided settlers would."
Colqueen grew serious. "Well now, I don't know. When water comes to this land, it'll be Eden, and don't you forget it. This soil will grow anything from sugar beets to door knobs. Just needs a mite of water. When that comes—"
Lin groaned. "Oh, my God, you're like all the rest of them! Where's the water coming from? It won't rain in these parts six months on end. The Snake's too low to dam—and still you fellows keep hoping."
"It'll come some day," Colqueen said. "Government will find a way. Then we'll all be rich. Lin, you shouldn't be so doggoned pessimistic about it. You got a fine piece of ground yourself if you'd only farm it instead of traipsing off to the mesa all the time."
Ballou exhaled cigarette smoke and settled himself in the saddle. "My opinion of homesteading, if stated in a few words, would be something scandalous to hear. No, sir! What's the news?"
"Nothing much," Colqueen said, eyeing Lin's pack animal more closely. "Still prospecting?"
Colqueen studied the younger man at some length and finally turned toward his work. Quite as if by afterthought he threw one piece of information over his shoulder. "Been more cattle rustled this last week while you was gone. Cattlemen's Committee is about ready to do something."
"Yeah?" Lin drawled. "Cattle certainly are fickle creatures. Well, so long." He spoke to his tired horse and traveled on, the dust rising behind him.
Colqueen shot a last look at the pack animal and issued a statement to himself. "Says he's prospecting out in the high mesa—but I swear I never seen him packing pick or shovel. Kind of funny, too, when a man stops to think of it, that some of this rustling goes on while he's doing this prospecting. Guess it ain't none of my business. I sure like Lin—but he's getting a bad name for himself with all this mysterious loping around the country."
Lin Ballou kept on his way. Colqueen's shanty dwindled in the distance and finally was lost behind a solitary clump of poplars. The morning's sun grew hotter, and the mesa became but a shadow in the heat fog that shimmered over the earth. Relaxing, Lin noted occasional patches of land enclosed by fence, that had been given up long ago, and homestead shacks that were vacant and about to fall apart. It took unusual persistence to stick in this country. Once it had belonged exclusively to cattlemen—free range that had no fence or habitation from one day's ride to another. Then the craze for farms had stricken the country and a wave of settlers had penetrated the valley. The sturdy and the stubborn had stayed on while the weak departed.
It was no place, Lin reflected, for a fellow who didn't have a lot of sand in his craw and a boundless store of hope in his heart. As for himself, he failed to see where the homesteader could ever prosper. The land was meant for cattle—and possibly for one other industry. He rode on, thinking about that.
The sun flamed midway in the sky when he came to his own house—which in his early enthusiasm he had built somewhat larger and better than most others in the valley—and put up his horses. He cooked himself a dinner, looked around to see what had happened during his week's absence, saddled again and set out southward toward town—especially toward Gracie Henry's home. Traversing the three-mile stretch, he kept thinking about Hank Colqueen's last statement. More cattle missing, he mused. Guess I knew that before Hank did. And from all appearances there'll be others missing shortly. He smiled somewhat grimly. Hank sure aimed that statement at me. He sure did.
The Henry house, a neat affair in white and green, showed through a group of trees, and Lin, with a quick rise of spirits, trotted into the yard and slid from the saddle, grinning widely.
"Alley-alley-ahoo! Come and see what the great snowstorm left on your porch."
A girl pushed through a screen door and waved her hand gaily.
"Welcome, dusty traveler. You've been gone longer than you said you would be."
She was a lithe, straight girl with burnished red hair and clear, regular features. In some manner the heat and the sand and the hardships had left no mark on her. She seemed as exuberant and happy as if this valley were a blossoming paradise. And she also seemed glad to find Liu Ballou before her. Lin removed his hat and rubbed the whiskers on his face ruefully.
"Shucks," he said, "I guess nobody'd care much if I never got back."
"Fishing, Mister Man," she retorted. "I never answer that statement, and you ought to know it by now."
"Uh-huh, I do, but a fellow can keep trying, can't he? You might make a mistake some day. And where is the Honorable Judge Robert Lewis Henry?"
"Dad's in the house." Suddenly eagerness spread over her face. "Tell me, quick, Lin, did you have any luck this time? Did you find color?"
"There's color all over the earth, ma'am. In the sky, in the grass—"
She stamped her foot. "Don't fool me. I mean your prospecting. Did you find a sign of gold?"
The humor died from him and his lean sunburned face became impassive. "Well, I think we've got a chance—"
"We? Who is 'we'?"
He caught himself. "Just a way of saying myself," he corrected.
She moved fonvard and caught his eye with such soberness and speculation that after a moment he looked away. Not that he was shifty-eyed. There was just something so troubled in her face, something so wistfully troubled that it troubled him.
"Lin, you always fence with me. I never know the truth. Why don't you tell me things? Especially now when everybody—" She stopped short, seeing that her tongue was about to betray her.
Lin Ballou spoke sharply. "Everybody saying what? What's folks been telling you? Meddling like they always do, I suppose. Nosing into other folks business. Gracie girl, what have they said to you?"
"No," she replied, "I'll not repeat gossip. You'd think I believed it, and I don't. Only—"
The screen door groaned. A short, stubby man with a choleric face and white hair came to the porch and adjusted his glasses. This operation completed, he bent upon Lin a glum, severe gaze, pursing his lips first one way and then another. He had an air of self-importance, and though no more than a dirt farmer, he always wore a stiff shirt and high collar. Once upon a time he had been justice of the peace in some eastern state. On coming west he had clung to the title, and since he knew a smattering of law, the homesteaders often brought trivial legal matters to him for his advice.
"Howdy, Judge," Lin said, throwing up a friendly hand. "Hope you got wood enough to keep you warm in this winter weather."
"Hem," said the judge, as if reluctant to answer Lin. "Back from your futile occupation, I see." Sarcasm came readily in his words. "Find any fool's gold?"
"Well, to pair that question, I might ask you if you found any fool's water yet," Lin replied amiably.
Judge Henry threw back his head as if the answer had been an affront to his dignity. Presently he went on, in a still more sarcastic strain. "You may speak lightly if you choose, but water is more apt to come to us as a result of our labor than gold is to you—if indeed you go into the mesa for that particular purpose."
The intent of the last phrase was too plain to overlook. Gracie put an arm on her father's shoulder as if to curb his hostility. Lin regarded him soberly.
"What might you believe I do in the mesa, Judge? Have you got some idea on the matter?"
But the judge, having launched the hint, would not develop it. "Meanwhile your land lies idle. What do you intend to do with it, young man?"
Lin had recovered his temper again. "Do as everybody else does, sir. Pray for water that will never come."
Judge Henry shook his finger at Lin. "As to that, young man, you are mistaken. We will get water." He turned on his heel and retreated into the house. The screen slammed behind him. Lin smiled at Gracie.
"Judge Robert Lewis Henry entertains no high opinion of me, that's mighty plain. Well, the way of true love—"
"Lin!" Gracie said, and grew somewhat red. "But don't be angry at Dad. He has his own troubles."
"Yeah. I guess we all do, Gracie girl. Let me see, this is dance night, ain't it? Are you going with me, or have I lost out?"
"Going with you, Lin. Come to supper?"
He retreated to his pony. "You bet I will. Now, I've got to journey into the metropolis of Powder and stock up. Bye-bye."
Three hundred yards down the road he turned in his saddle to see her by the corral, watching him with shaded eyes. He flung up a hand and went on.
That father of yours is sure a snorter, he thought. It does seem like there's a lot of unkind words being propagated against me lately.
He would have been more certain of that if he had been able to overhear Judge Henry's remarks to Gracie when she stepped back into the house. The judge stood framed in the office doorway, a pudgy, disapproving statue of righteousness.
"Daughter, did I understand you to say you would go to the dance with that Ballou vagrant?"
"Vagrant? Dad, what queer, unkind words you use."
"Hem! He's no less than that and probably a great deal more. Do you know what's being said about him, daughter? It's said that he's no less than a cattle thief, and I'll not—"
"Dad, he is no such thing!" Gracie cried. "Don't you spread gossip like that. It's not right. Who told you he was a thief?"
"Oh, different parties," Judge Henry answered vaguely.
"And how do those different parties know?" she persisted. "How I hate a man or woman who'll sneak around spreading gossip. Lin Ballou is as honest as daylight!"
The judge's favorite weapon was sarcasm and he fell back upon it. "So he's such a fine, upright, industrious man, eh? Seems to me you take a great deal of interest in protecting him."
"I do," Gracie admitted.
"Hem," the judge muttered. "I don't want him around this place. I'm an honest man and I've got a reputation to keep."
But Gracie had a mind and temper of her own. She had cooked and washed and labored and kept books many years for her father and she was not afraid of him.
"Don't you mind your reputation." she said, turning into the kitchen. "He's coming to supper, and I'm going to make him the best apple pie he's ever tasted. He looked thin."
Lin Ballou, in jest, had styled Powder a metropolis, and indeed some of the merchants of the town assiduously worked to make it such. But when Lin Ballou drove into the main street from the road, he had to admit that Powder seemed doomed to crumble into the element it was named after and float away. Once it had been a sinful, turbulent little cattle town. In a later day the homesteaders had appropriated it. Now, with the land boom a thing of mournful history, it rested somnolently and nearly bankrupt under the baking sun, its single row of buildings half tenantless, the paint peeling off. With an eventful history behind it, Powder looked forward—or at least the merchants did—to the time when water should come to the valley and give it another era of prosperity.
Lin hitched his pony on the shady side of the street and walked into the post office for his mail. There was, he found, quite a stack of letters and printed matter, the latter bearing the stamp of the U.S. Geological Service. Primus Tabor, the postmaster, passed them through the wicket with a question propounded in an innnocent tone.
"Ain't seen you for a spell, Lin. Been back on the high mesa?"
"Well, is prospecting any better than homesteading?"
There was an edge to the question, but when Lin looked up from his mail, he saw nothing but a cadaverous and foolish countenance that seemed incapable of much malice.
"About fifty-fifty," he said, and departed.
"Huh," muttered the postmaster, slamming the wicket door.
No anger like that of a born gossip foiled, Lin meditated, holding one particular envelope to the light. And to judge from all the finger marks on these here epistles, somebody's been trying to read through them. Guess I'll have to get my mail through another channel. Won't do at all to have the news inside become common property. No, sir.
He was on the point of crossing the street when he became aware of a burly figure in sombrero and riding boots stamping down the walk toward him. No second glance was needed to recognize the man; Lin saw him with a sudden quickening of pulse. Instead of crossing, he walked straight forward. Abreast of the big man, he nodded and spoke casually.
"Howdy, Mr. Offut."
The man slowed in his course, cast one glance beneath his broad hat brim, and then without as much as a nod, swung on. Lin turned sharply, traversed the street and, with a face bereft of emotion, went into the store. It took him but a few minutes to get a gunny sack filled with provisions. Emerging, he got to his horse and soon was beyond the town, striking toward his own place by a short-cut.
Ballou had no sooner left town than Postmaster Tabor left his office and crossed over to the store. Tabor found no one in the dim interior except the owner of the place, and after a glance behind him, Tabor broke into a mysterious mumble-jumble.
"See it! See what I saw? Guess that makes it certain, don't it?"
"Huh? Grab hold of your tongue," the storekeeper advised.
"Why, damnation," the postmaster growled, "didn't you see Offut snub Lin Ballou? Passed him by with nary a word."
"Yeah, I saw it."
"Well, then, what do you think?"
"Same as you."
"Lin Ballou," the postmaster stated with gusto, "is guiltier than a licked dog. If he wasn't, why should old man Offut—he's the body and soul of the Cattlemen's Committee remember—Why should Offut treat him so cold, 'specially when he and Ballou was once the best of friends?"
"Two and two make four," the storekeeper stated. "Now he says he's prospecting all by himself. Yet he comes and buys grub enough for two-three people. What's that mean?"
"Means him and somebody else is rustling cows," the postmaster said. "And I reckon Offut and the cattlemen know it. Oh, there'll be a necktie party plenty soon enough."
"Doggone," the storekeeper broke in, aggrieved. "When that happens, I'll lose a darn good account."
"I reckon lots of people hereabouts have got Lin Ballou judged right," the postmaster said. "As for all them papers from the Geology Department—that's just a bluff."
"Listen," warned the storekeeper, "don't you go talking too much. Mebbe he's rustling and mebbe folks are getting onto it, but even so, he's got a powerful lot of friends and he's a hard, hard fellow himself. So be careful."
The sun, going westward, threw its long shadows across the valley and struck the high mesa with a glow of flame. Presently, as Lin traveled, something like a breath of air fanned his cheeks, and the distant mesa turned to purple. The heat of the day vanished and then the outline of the distant crags and turrets stood out as if but a short mile or two away.
How deceptive that high mesa was, Lin mused, sweeping its bulk with an affectionate eye. The sight of it was deceptive, and over beyond, among its folds and pockets, there were other deceptions. For along its base and beyond its farther side lay the last of the cattle ranges. And a man might wander for days from point to point, never catching a clear sign of man or beast, yet all the while be within a quarter mile of some hidden bowl harboring both.
Folks might be surprised if they knew what was going on right now in those ridges, he thought, and sunk his head, grateful for the freshening breeze. Half a mile away his house stood to view, the windmill beside it catching the first puffs of wind.
Offut now—he certainly did make a fine spectacle, Ballou told himself. I guess most of the citizens of Powder saw that little scene. Lin Ballou, spumed, scorned, rebuked in plain daylight. Marked, branded, scorched and otherwise labeled as being a cattle thief. He spoke aloud bitterly, wrinkles crowding around his eyes. There was an impotent anger in the way he struck his doubled fist against the saddle leather. "Sure. The story will be all over the country in five hours. Well, I guess I can play the game through now. Man's got to make a living somehow in this cussed country. Gracie, you poor kid. You'll sure have a heart burning when you hear it."
He halted in front of his house and slid from the saddle. Throwing the sack of provisions down, he was on the point of leading' the horse around to the barn when an outline in the sand caught his eye. It was the long narrow print of a cowhand's boot with the sharp heel gouging well into the earth; not a single print, but several, each leading forward and ending at the door. Lin's eye caught a small slit of light between the casing and the door itself. He had closed that door on leaving the house, and now it stood slightly ajar.
In a single move he drew his gun and kicked the portal wide, weaving aside a little to protect himself.
"Come out of there!"
A chair scraped and a voice said gruffly, "Put your thunder wagon down. Hell, can't a man take a rest without being called on it?" And directly after the voice, a strange, uncommonly ugly creature stepped up to the threshold. He was a larger man than Lin Ballou, though his frame carried more fat than Ballou's. He was older, too, with a jaw that shot out beyond the rest of his face and was covered with a metal-blue stubble. He wore black, slouchy clothes and from below his hat came a cowlick that plastered itself closely to his forehead. A toothpick hung from one side of his mouth and gold teeth glittered when he spoke. A gun rested against each hip, and his eyes were themselves almost as piercing as weapons, being a kind of steely black.
"Well, well," Lin said with assumed pleasure, "if it ain't our friend Beauty Chatto. Lost your way, Beauty? Last I knew, your shanty was west about two miles."
"I come on a particular, personal visit," Beauty said. "And I been waiting for quite a spell. Took you a powerful time to negotiate the road between here and Powder and back."
"Watchin' me pretty close, Beauty?"
The steely eyes emitted a flash and the jaw closed vigorously. "Tell a man, Lin. You don't know how close I been a-watching you—me and Nig both."
"Guess it must be a professional interest," Lin murmured.
"Well," Beauty growled, abandoning the toothpick, "I'm getting tired of the watching, so I come to warn you. Make out as if you're prospecting if you want, but that ain't fooling the Chatto family. Nary a bit. A prospector don't go sashaying from hell to breakfast like you do. 'Tween day before yesterday and yesterday night you was all the way from Rooster's Pinnacle to the Punch Bowl. Prospector? Hell, no!"
"Proceed," Lin urged. "What follows?"
Chatto straightened. "This, hombre. You ain't nothing more nor less than a spy, and we ain't gonna have you cluttering the high mesa. Cut it out. Stay away. Vamoose—or get took real sick."
"Moving papers, in short," Lin summed up, watching the man through half-closed eyes. "Your business won't stand inspection, will it, Beauty?"
"Why," Chatto said frankly, "I ain't afraid to admit Nig and me is rustlers—to you, at least. Reckon lots of folks suspect it, but that ain't proof. Point is—you stay away or you'll stumble on us one of these times and get killed."
"Which is bad. But you got me completely wrong, Beauty. I'm a prospector and I'll stick to it. Going into the high mesa tomorrow."
Chatto stretched his ami and stabbed Ballou with a finger. "Take warning, now! I ain't going to look for trouble. You know me. I know you. Just stay away. There's plenty of places to prospect aside from the high mesa."
"Going in tomorrow night," Lin announced. "Much obliged for the warning."
Chatto turned the corner of the house, dived into the barn and reappeared with his horse. From the saddle he made his last announcement. "You think that over, Lin. I ain't sore—yet. Don't like to kill a man before I give him time for studying. Think it over."
He flung his quirt at the horse's lump and rode off at a lope. Ballou put up his pony and returned to the house. Before going inside, he scanned the heavens.
Rain? he thought. Shucks, no. No water in sight. Yet I bet every blessed man inside of fifty miles is praying for it. Some of these homesteaders would kill for an inch of water. He shook his head, far from feeling the humor that he had used all day among the people of the valley.
In that gloaming hour everything seemed discouraging. Even more, there was a portent of ruin in the air. All over this parched floor men were keeping up a flame of hope that must inevitably flicker out; and as for himself, he knew that by morning his own name would be further blackened by suspicion. What was to come of all this? And what would Gracie think?
At the very time Lin Ballou had ridden in and out of Powder, a secret parley of three men was going on in the back room of Lawyer Dan Rounds' office. Of all places to meet this was the strangest, for it was piled high with dusty, unclaimed trunks, bundles of law journals, and all the bric-a- brac that a man of the legal profession might collect in fifteen years of varied practice. However, these three wished no publicity on this particular occasion and had gathered as quietly as possible. Rounds had casually slipped from the front of his office to the rear and locked the intervening door. Archer Steele, cashier of the bank, had traversed the back lots and was already present. While the two debated in a subdued tone, they were joined in the same manner by the third, James J. Lestrade.
He was easily the most imposing of the group, this Lestrade; a jolly, bluff man, who wore good clothes and had a ready tongue for everyone he met. He was a cattleman, though he spent little enough time on the Double Jay, preferring to leave most of the routine to his foreman. It suited him better to have a small office adjoining that of Rounds and here he liked to play politics on a small scale. When he was not doing this, he was traveling across the country or to the stockyards at Portland—anything to give an outlet to his restless nature. Since he liked the limelight, it was therefore very strange to find him in this dusty lumber room of old relics. Characteristically, he had a joke on the tip of his tongue as he brushed the top of a trunk and gingerly sat down.
'"Well, boys, you can't say I'm modest, but this time the old man doesn't want everybody hearing his big bassoon."
"Better lower your tone, then," Rounds advised dryly. "Sometimes I think you must have learned to speak amongst a bunch of bawling heifers."
"Well, Dan, the louder you talk the more people will hear you. And I like to be heard. Howsomever, we'll try to 'bide the warning. Now as to the business in hand, here's some reading material that ought to be interesting. Cast an eye over it." He drew a long yellow paper from his inner pocket, smoothed it on his knees and gave it to Rounds. The latter settled down to a slow, painstaking perusal, at which Lestrade presently grew impatient. "For God's sake, it ain't necessary to read the commas and periods. Hurry along. Get the nubbin—that's all."
Rounds finished with it and passed it to Steele, who flashed a rather careless glance across the page and folded it. "Not being scientific," he said, "I don't comprehend all the figures."
"Sum and substance is," Lestrade explained, "that the quicker we get the land in this valley tied up, the sooner we'll be millionaires."
Rounds looked behind him uneasily and again warned Lestrade to lower his voice. There was a long period of silence, broken finally by the lawyer.
"This much is certain—we're not going to get any place trying to buy land piece by piece. Sooner or later the folks would wake up and get suspicious of our purpose. Another thing, there's homesteaders who are holding on with their eyeteeth, and it would take considerable money to meet their price. Conservatively speaking, you hold mortgages on about a thousand acres and you might buy—quietly, a piece at a time—as many more without exciting comment. Why won't that satisfy?"
"No," Lestrade said, and explained himself in a single phrase. "Whole hog or none. What's two thousand acres in a deal like this? I want the whole valley—or most of it—right under my finger. Moreover, the most important location is where I'd have the hardest time buying. I mean the stretch from Colqueen's down through Henry's and clear to the edge of the town. You see it shaded on the map you've got."
"Don't see how it's to be done," Rounds stated.
Lestrade sat back, his round pink face beaming. "I do. Came to me in a flash last week. Been nursing it ever since. Even got the ball rolling. Simple as falling off a horse. We're going to bankrupt the folks in the valley. Make 'em so poor they can't pay their interest on their mortgages—seventy per cent have got their places in hock—and then take up these mortgages. The rest will be so doggoned discouraged they'll sell for a song and leave the country. See?"
"Simple," Rounds agreed, but with some amount of sarcasm. "How does a man bankrupt a hundred and fifty settlers all at once?"
Lestrade put a counter-question, leaning forward on his trunk and waggling a finger at the two. "What's the single thing folks in this country want most of all?"
"Water," Steele answered as if the word had been on the tip of his tongue.
"Right!" Lestrade boomed, forgetting himself. "And they're in a state of mind where they'll fall in with any harebrained scheme to get it. Well, my scheme ain't harebrained. Up on the mesa is Lake Esprit. That's in my holdings. Well, we are going to organize a settlers' company and run a ditch into the valley from the lake. Each stockholder gets the benefit of it. The more money he puts in, the more stock he gets and the more dividends he draws when the profits begin to arrive. Then—"
"When you've got the money from them to start building the ditch," Rounds interrupted thoughtfully, "you'll slap out, I suppose, and let some dummy corporation foreclose."
"Oh, nothing as raw as that," Lestrade protested. "We'll actually start work. Make some mistake in construction so that it'll cost a lot of money and finally go busted. That won't be difficult. Make it seem like there's no fraud. But the settlers, having put their money into the scheme—and I'll lay they'll fall for it hand over head—won't have a dime to keep on with homesteading. Them that are mortgaged will sell out in order to save something from the wreck. The rest will be so plumb discouraged they'll do likewise. I've already organized a corporation, a dummy one, like you say, in Portland, and transferred the mortgages to it. Meanwhile, it'll be buying more mortgage paper off the local bank, which is pretty heavily loaded—"
"Wait a minute," Steele said. "I don't understand half of this."
Both Rounds and Lestrade looked impatiently toward the cashier. Lestrade made another effort to explain the plan, but broke off in the middle with a grunt. "Hell, it ain't necessary for you to get the workings of it. All you need to know is that we're making a move to get control of this valley. We'll do it in a legal way, what's more."
"Yes," Steele said, "but if the settlers find out we're working crooked there'll be trouble for us. I don't fancy violence."
"No," Lestrade agreed, "you wouldn't. You like your skin. Never mind. When the storm breaks, we'll all be out of the way and let the dummy corporation and the law officers execute the rest of the plan. We'll be in Portland, directing things from there."
Rounds was surveying the plan from various angles, his busy mind bolstering it here and there with certain expedients.
"Now, first of all, you'll have to keep the money you raise in the local bank. That's for the sake of appearances. Everybody knows the bank is honest."
"Agreed," Lestrade said.
"Next, we'll have Steele here made treasurer of the fund. He'll issue money on the labor warrants and for supplies. He being also connected with the bank, he'll be above suspicion."
"Well," Lestrade chuckled, "nobody but you and I know he's crooked."
Steele's impassive comitenance reddened a little. "That's a harsh word, Lestrade."
"Don't be mealy-mouthed," the big man retorted. "I never drew an honest breath and I ain't ashamed to admit it. Only folks don't know I'm crooked. So long as we three keep that information under our hats, all will be fine. Go on, Dan. Your legal mind can fix things up as they ought to be fixed."
"The most essential thing," Rounds went on, "is to have some one of the settlers promote this thing himself. They'll take it better if one of their own kind sets the ball rolling. Then you can come in as the man willing to do the organizing and directing."
Lestrade smiled again. "Already thought of the very person."
"Judge Henry. He's a damn fool if there ever was one. An ounce of flattery will swell his head bigger than a balloon. But the settlers seem to think he's pretty shrewd, so he's our instrument. That's easy. I'll go out this afternoon and see him myself."
"As for organization and the legal end, I'll take care of that," Rounds' resumed. "But why are you in such a hurry?"
Lestrade lost his good humor. "I got a reason to believe there's others who suspect what we've already discovered. Can't let a thing like this lag. I won't have an easy minute until the land's under my thumb."
"Who do you suspect?" Rounds demanded.
"Lin Ballou. He's doing too much prospecting to suit me. Common talk is that he's looking for gold, but if that's so, why should he be traveling back and forth on the valley floor? Any fool knows gold ain't found in such places."
Dan Rounds got up, and for the first time he showed anger. "Yes, and there's a lot of talk around here about his being a rustler. I'd like to find the gent who said as much to me! By Godfrey, I'd wring his neck. Lin Ballou's my friend. He don't know I'm crooked, but I know he's as straight as a string. Rustling talk is all nonsense. As for him being what you think—I doubt that, too. If he says he's prospecting for color, you can believe every word of it."
"All right, all right," Lestrade said. "I didn't mean to rub your fur the wrong way. But, anyhow, it don't pay to let the fat fry too long. I want to get things wound up. Meeting's adjourned. I'm going down to see Henry right off."
Rounds moved toward the door. "I'll rig up the preliminary papers. Now, as I see it, you're the only one interested in this scheme, so far as folks are to understand. Steele and I are just to be instruments. Naturally you and the settlers will come to me to take care of the legal end, but they won't know our connection."
"You've got a good head," Lestrade said. He opened the back door, surveyed the lot for a moment and disappeared.
Shortly, Steele followed suit. Rounds unlocked the intervening portal and let himself back into the front office. The street was deserted. The sun blazed down, relentless in its heat. Rounds took a drink of water from the cooler and wiped the sweat away from his forehead. The meeting had not left him in any serene frame of mind, for though money and power were things he worshiped and now was on the path to gaining, he could not quite bury the uneasy voice of conscience. He strode to the door and looked up and down the dusty thoroughfare. Some distance away, Lestrade cruised slowly toward the stables, his corpulent body swaying and his loose coat flapping. A town loafer sprawled in the shade, asleep. Other than that, the place seemed abandoned, utterly dead. Rounds thought about it, bitterly.
Fifteen years I've spent hereabouts. What's it brought me? Not so much as a county judge's job. Heat and sand and trouble! Why the devil should I worry about what happens to the homesteaders? They wouldn't worry about me if I was sunk. Let 'em scrabble.
But even as he thought it, he knew he would never convince himself. Somehow, they made no men in the world like the men of this valley. There was, for instance, Lin Ballou. Why, he could trust his very life to Lin.
Yet all Lin gets is a bad name for cruising around, he thought. A lot of buzzards!
Suddenly he remembered that when this new plan was consummated he would have to leave the valley forever and at the thought of it he retreated to his desk and sat down. The heat and the grit and all the troublous elements were a part of him. Going back over the years, he remembered the flaring feuds, the shooting scrapes, and the torrid courthouse trials. There was vitality in this land that he knew he should never find in another.
Trouble with me is, I'm not enough of a crook, he thought. Funny thing. Now, Steele, he never did have a conscience—but I think he's yellow. Lestrade's the man! He never had a conscience and he never showed far. A born crook. Well, the eggs are broken now. Got to go through with it.
A nondescript figure ambled through the door.
"Dan, I want you should fix me an affidavit," he said. "It's a personal matter—but I know you're plumb honest."
James J. Lestrade took his time, for he had discovered long ago that a fast pace unsettled his corpulent body and soon tired any horse that carried him. He thought better, too, when giving his animal free rein; and that, despite the torrid sun and the dust creeping up his nostrils, made him in a degree oblivious to physical discomfort. He was always pulling strange schemes from the back of his head, and turning them over and over, and returning most as being too daring or too impractical. Nearly anything was grist for his mind and above all, he liked to take the various men he knew and pull them apart.
He prided himself in this. It was his own belief that he understood perfectly the foibles and vanities of the settlers; and he found a great deal of pleasure in running down the roster of friends and acquaintances and affixing to each name a certain tag. This man had a price. That man could not be bought. In the present circumstances he was inspecting those particular ones who were most vitally connected with his irrigation plan. Foremost, of course, were Dan Rounds and Archer Steele, and as he closed his heavy lids, he summoned their faces before him.
Best I could do under the situation, he thought. Howsomever, both are feeble props. Dan, he might go back on me. I can see that right plain. Got to get him involved so he can't. When the time arrives that I can do without his help, I'll find a way to throw him over. As for Steele, it's plumb necessary to watch him close. That man's a snake. He'd do me in in a minute if he had the nerve. Got to watch him. Now, let's see what we're going to tell Judge Henry.
By the time he reached the Henry place he had smoothed every wrinkle of his plan, making note of little points here and there that would appeal to the Judge's inordinate vanity. And when he tied his horse to the corral and mounted the porch he summoned all his affability and humor. The judge, he found, was rocking himself on the porch, half shrouded in the settling dusk.
"Howdy, Judge Henry," he said, stressing the title. "You see a weary man before you that's traveled a mighty hot road just to make a particular call. Hope you bear this heat better than I do."
The judge, instantly flattered by the visit, pursed his lips and motioned to an adjoining chair. "Hem. Sit down. Not going any farther tonight, are you? Well, you'll have supper with us. A particular visit, you say?"
"Let's go into your office," Lcstrade suggested.
Judge Henry rose with alacrity. At the screen door Lestrade met Gracie and drew off his hat, all smiles. "Miss Gracie, your dad asked me to supper and I sure hope you'll second the motion."
"Good evening, sir. We'll be mighty glad to have you, providing you won't mind the cooking."
Lestrade looked down at the red hair, shimmering now under the hall light. His heavy lids drooped. "Gracie, I'd feel honored to eat it the rest of my born days. Judge, your girl's getting pretty enough to steal. You want to watch out."
"Well," the judge said, "there's some that I got an eye on. A man that's an ordinary vagrant can't marry my daughter."
Lestrade's body shook with a kind of internal laughter. He touched Gracie's shoulder with a finger, but at the sight of her eyes, he suddenly drew the finger away.
"Guess I better not be so shiftless then. Might want to throw my hat in the ring if I drought there was a chance."
The two men passed down the hall, and presently shut themselves in the judge's office. Gracie stood silent, her face turned toward the door. She had come out of the kitchen at the first sound of the visitor, thinking it was Lin Ballou. Lestrade had received her welcoming smile quite under false pretenses, for it certainly had not been meant for him.
What does he want with my father? she asked herself, the worry creeping into her forehead. What would any cattleman want from a homesteader? He may flatter poor Dad, but I see through that fine talk. And he'd better keep his fat old hands away from me.
There was a whistle from the corral. She went eagerly through the screen to meet Lin.
"Hope I ain't late," he apologized, "but I had to do a little currying and brushing. Fellow like me is under an awful handicap. Nature did such a blame poor job that it takes a lot of bear oil and harness grease to piece out. Anyhow, I guess you can recognize me."
"Lin," she said plaintively, "I wish you wouldn't always low- grade yourself. Why, I think you're good looking—"
"Now, Gracie, you be careful. You're a lot too young to start in on perjury."
"Lin, you come out to the kitchen with me while I dish up. Dad, he's got company. Mr. Lestrade came on some errand and they're in the office. I know I shouldn t be fussing about such things, but this worries me. Why should a cattleman have business with a homesteader?"
She looked up to see his expression. Lin was staring down the hall.
"Can't tell," he replied. "Lestrade's got an iron in 'most every fire."
Her fingers went up to a button of his coat. "You're thinking something else," she said. "Whenever you assume that poker face, I know there's solemn thoughts behind it. But what if he has got an iron in every fire? There's no fire here."
"Yes, there is. Gracie, you're the fire."
"Lin, how you talk! Mr. Lestrade wouldn't spend any time on me."
"No?" Lin said. "He'd be crazy if he didn't."
"Hush." She led him into the kitchen and ordered him around so fast he had little time to talk. But when the pie came out of the pantry and was placed on the table, he grinned from ear to ear.
"Gal, you know how to flatter a man's stomach. I've got a notion—"
The notion, whatever its nature, was interrupted. The office door opened and the judge, followed by Lestrade, came into the dining room. The judge had a glum, owlish look for Lin which the young man answered with a cheerful grin. Lestrade spoke jovially to him, though he passed one swift appraising glance to the girl first.
"Howdy, Lin, howdy. Ain't seen you for a small coon's age. What keeps you away from the town these days?"
"Prospecting," the judge said ironically. "Sit down, Mr. Lestrade, and eat. Pass the meat and gravy, Gracie. Hem. Guess you never believed me when I said we'd get water some day, did you, young man? Well, I'm old enough, I hope, to know better. We're going to have water in this valley and we're going to have it soon. How's that sound to your intelligence?"
The man was inflated with importance. He pursed his lips in all manner of shapes, his shoulders thrown back and his pudgy body as straight as a ramrod. Lestrade beamed at him, which caused Lin to make a thoughtful reservation.
"Of course there was an iron in the fire," he said to himself. "Maybe two of 'em." Aloud he asked, "Where's this water coming from, up or down?"
"It's coming," the judge announced, "from Lake Esprit, and it'll be brought by a main ditch right into the valley. Mr. Lestrade and I have come to several important conclusions which the settlers will agree with as soon as I call a meeting. If you should like to know more —though from the foolishness in your head I'm not sure you would—I might say it will be a cooperative concern, headed by myself and Mr. Lestrade."
"Oh," Lin said, and for a moment he forgot the company and the food. His mind raced back and forth, all the while filling with suspicion. "Who's to supply the money?"
"The stockholders. In other words, the settlers."
Lin pushed his plate back and spoke with a sudden vehemence that surprised them all. "You mean to tell me you're rushing into a private irrigation system when none of you knows beans about it? How much money do you think this valley holds, anyhow? It will cost a pile and don't you forget it. Mr. Lestrade, if this is your suggestion, I sure don't think much of it."
Lestrade was annoyed and showed it. But a lifelong training in suavity came to his rescue. "You understand, of course, that as soon as news of the project gets abroad, the whole valley will fill with prospective landowners and they'll take up their part of the burden."
"Maybe they will, and maybe they won't," Lin said. "Seems like there's a lot of guesswork in that. And when you build water ditches you don't want to do any guessing."
"As for that," Lestrade said, "I've already had an engineer estimate the cost. I'm afraid, Lin, that you're a little shortsighted on this water situation. I think the settlers have more faith than you've got."
"That's the point," Lin said. "They've got water on the brain and they'll rush into all sorts of foolish things."
"Let them judge whether it's foolish or not," Judge Henry shouted. His pride had been sadly punctured by Ballou's questioning of his judgment and he viewed the young man with increased dislike.
"They can judge all they please," Lin said, '"but not before I've done a little campaigning myself. I don't like the notion and I'll tell them why."
"Why should you concern yourself?" Lestrade said sharply.
Lin looked the big man directly in the face. "Mr. Lestrade, I was born and raised hereabouts and I've seen a heap of suffering from this dry-land farming. Maybe I'm a fool, but I can't stand by and see all these folks rush into crazy ideas. They're my kind of people, that's why."
Gracie, who had been listening with troubled eyes, broke in. "No more, you folks. I'll not have my supper spoiled this way. Stop your arguing."
And so the meal ended in a truce. The men retired to the porch while Gracie prepared for the dance. Judge Henry became so interested in his talk with Lestrade that he forgot about hitching up and had to be sent to the job by his daughter after she was ready.
The Saturday night dance at the cross-roads school was almost the only recreation the valley had and consequently it was the gathering point for all those within forty miles. The younger ones, like Lin and Gracie, came to enjoy themselves, while the older men and women sat around the wall and talked. Neighbor met neighbor to thresh out dickers. Families who had grown up and separated to different parts of the country were brought in touch once more. And while the fiddles scraped and the guitar strings twanged and the partners swung around the floor, the news and the gossip of all four corners of the region shuttled back and forth.
When Lin and Gracie arrived, the dance had already been started and the first few numbers run off. The judge wandered over to meet some old friend and promptly began to talk water. Lestrade, bowing and shaking hands, was occupied for a moment. But he shook himself free from the crowd to overtake Gracie and lay a hand on her shoulder.
"Gracie, I'm going to demand the privilege of this first dance. Lin, he's a patient fellow and can wait."
"Mr. Lestrade, I'm sorry. I gave him the first two. We always dance the first two. If you'd care to have the third—"
For once in his life Lestrade made a poor show. He bobbed his head up and down and said, "Certainly," in a half-angry tone and wheeled away. Lin, suppressing a smile, led Gracie into the moving couples.
"He's got no right using my first name like that!" said she, flaring up. "I don't like it."
Lin didn't answer, being too busy taking care of himself and his partner. There were a great many other things in the world he did better than dancing. Unlike most men of the valley, he had been left alone at an early age and in the years that followed he had fended for himself at almost every outdoor job. In fact, only since Gracie Henry's smile had securely captured him had he been inside a dance hall. Therefore, he often missed the beat of the music and he would shuffle one foot, then the other, while the sweat worked up above his collar and he swore savagely to himself. But Gracie never seemed to mind. She hummed the tune with the fiddles and she cast her shining eyes on this couple and that, always thoroughly enjoying herself.
Yet, this evening, as their first dance ended and the second one began, she seemed to lose a measure of her happiness. Her eyes clouded and presently she raised her hand to Lin's aim, speaking in a puzzled manner.
"Lin, why are folks looking at us so queerly? I've caught several doing it. Seems like they won't meet my eyes, either. Is there something wrong with my dress?"
Lin Ballou evaded her glance. "Why, no, Gracie. You look as pretty as a picture, and that's a fact. Guess they wonder why you put up with my clodhopping."
"Don't be foolish. They've seen us before. No, it's not that. It gives me the strangest feeling."
Lin shut his mouth. He had noticed this attention the moment he entered the schoolhouse, and quickly divined what it meant. The news of Offut's rebuff had got this far and passed from ear to ear. The thought of it filled him with anger that he struggled to suppress. He lost the sound of the music and brought up against a wall. Gracie stepped back, smiling at his awkwardness until she saw his face. Then the music stopped and Lestrade came up, once more his jovial self.
"No excuse this time, Gracie. It's the third dance." He led her away into the trouping couples.
Lin, thankful for the respite, moved toward the door and bumped against a freckled, red-thatched fellow of his own age.
"Hello, Pete," he said.
"'Lo," Pete said coolly, and moved off.
Lin made his way into the open and through a lane of trees to the gathered wagons. Wiping his forehead, he sat down on a tongue and stared across the valley to where the dim outline of the mesa stood forth. There was no moon and the scattered stars gave no light to the earth. Yet he could see in his mind every outline of that mesa, every trail and gully.
Maybe, he told himself, with a fresh touch of bitterness, I'd better saddle up and get back where I belong. Blamed little good I'll ever do by staying here now. Well, I got to play the hand out. Gracie, kid, your'e going to have a hard time...
A foot struck the wagon tongue and a match burst like a bomb directly in front. By the glow of it he saw Beauty Chatto's evil, swarthy face.
"Thinking it over, Lin?" the man asked in a voice thickened and blurred by whisky. "Coming 'round to my point of view? Better do it."
"Beauty, I'm not in any humor to be kidded. We threshed this matter out a couple hours ago."
Chatto had worked himself into a more belligerent frame of mind. "Now, look here, Lin, do you figure to declare war? Like I say, it don't do nothing but stir up trouble when a guy's got to fall back on gunplay, and I'd just as soon live and let live. But me and Nig is tired of your snooping. Gimme an answer now. Peace or trouble?"
"Going into the mesa tomorrow, Beauty. That's my answer."
"All right, by God!" Chatto growled. "You made yourself a bed to lie in. I'm serving notice now. Nig and me will shoot on sight."
Lin was silent for a time. "All right, Beauty," he said finally. "Have it your own way. But you better be well covered when you start the fireworks."
Suddenly his attention was diverted to the schoolhouse. The music had stopped some time back and a man's voice had taken up the interval. Lin, preoccupied with other matters, had given it little consideration. Now, as the voice stopped, it seemed as if bedlam had broken loose. A tremendous cheering burst out, from both men and women. Somebody rushed from the place and fired a gun. Feet stamped on the floor and the board walls rattled imder pounding fists. Lin and Chatto, moved by a common curiosity, walked back to the door and looked in.
The crowd was packed loosely toward one end of the hall where James J. Lestrade and the judge were standing on chairs. The judge's face was scarlet with satisfaction, and Lestrade had his fingers hooked in his vest, beaming at everybody. After a while the noise quieted down and he spoke what appeared to be the last words of a speech.
"And so, as our good friend Judge Henry has said, we're on the road to prosperity at last. Let's set a formal meeting for tomorrow night at this same place and get every last homesteader to come. We'll draw up articles on the spot and then we'll start work. Why, folks, there's a fortune ahead for us all!"
Lin jumped through the door and up on a bench, shouting at the top of his voice to attract the crowd his way. "Wait a minute—wait a minutel Now, just before you folks all stampede toward this siren's call, I want to ask one question. Just one single question."
There was a quick switching of interest, a craning of heads. Even then he saw that nothing he might say would ever change their temper or subdue the leaping optimism in their hearts. They had fought so long with so little success; they had nourished the idea so tenaciously that some day water would come to them that now they were in but one state of mind. Judge Hemy was swinging his hands up and down, on the verge of apoplexy. Lestrade had turned to frowning disfavor. In the moment's lull Lin put his question.
"I want to ask you folks this: Where—is the—money—coming from—for this project?" He spaced the words and emphasized them with a thrust of his finger. A murmur, a kind of breathless rustle went from man to man, and he hurried on. "How much do you think it costs to build an irrigation system? If the United States Government has passed us by, what makes you figure a parcel of green homesteaders can turn the trick?"
And then he was overwhelmed by such a shouting and booing as he had never before heard. It poured upon his head in ever- increasing force. As it died down, men began to move swiftly upon his vantage point, and he heard one voice and another saying, "What's biting your nose?" "You're no farmer—you're a prospector!" And at last came the words he had feared would come. "Go on back to your cows! Cows! Yeah—what brand do you like best?"
He saw Gracie Henry's face in that unreasoning multitude. Never before had it been so white and drawn. And right beneath his feet Beauty Chatto stared at him with mouth agape, like a man who has found his well formed opinions suddenly betray him. The foremost rank of men bore down, and Lin felt the bench sway. He was picked up bodily, struck at and badly shaken. Whirled around and shoved and pulled, he went staggering through the door, and then, as darkness protected him, he heai'd Lestrade's voice calling out. The men went inside and left him alone.
He spent a moment pulling his clothes back into shape. Then, sadly and quietly, he got his horse and turned homeward. Gracie would wonder what had happened—but the judge must take care of that. As for himself, there was but one thing left to do.
Well, they know how I feel about it, anyway, he thought. And some day those words will bear fruit. God, I'd like to find the man who shouted 'cows' at me! But the eggs are busted now, and maybe some good will come of it.
He reached his house, fried himself a meal and packed his lead horse. Within an hour he was striking eastward toward the high mesa, taking care now and then to stop and put his ear to the ground. He wanted no one following. What he was about to do had to be done without observation.
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