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At Calamity Crossing








From: The Range Boss

Getting up the shoulder of the mesa was no easy job, but judging from the
actions and appearance of wiry pony and rider it was a job that would be
accomplished. For part of the distance, it is true, the man thought it
best to dismount, drive the pony ahead of him, and follow on foot. At
length, however, they reached the top of the mesa, and after a breathing
spell the man mounted and rode across the table-land.

A short lope brought pony and rider to a point where the mesa sloped down
again to meet a plain that stretched for miles, to merge into some
foothills. A faint trail came from somewhere through the foothills, wound
over the plain, and followed a slope that descended to a river below the
rider, crossed the stream, led over a level, up another slope, to another
plain, and so away into the distance.

Up and down the river the water ran deeply in a canyon, the painted
buttes that flanked it lending an appearance of constriction to its
course, but at the crossing it broadened formidably and swirled
splashingly around numerous rocks that littered its course.

The man's gaze rested briefly on the river and the crossing.

"She's travelin' some, this mornin'," he said aloud, mentally referring
to the water. "I reckon that mud over there must be hub deep on a
buckboard," he added, looking at the level on the opposite side of the
crossing. "I'd say, if anybody was to ask me, that last night's rain has
made Calamity some risky this mornin'--for a buckboard." He drew out a
silver timepiece and consulted it with grave deliberation. "It's eleven.
They'd be due about now--if the Eight O'clock was on time--which she's
never been knowed to be." He returned the timepiece to the pocket and
rode along the edge of the mesa away from the river, his gaze
concentrated at the point where the trail on the plains below him
vanished into the distant foothills. A little later he again halted the
pony, swung crossways in the saddle and rolled a cigarette, and while
smoking and watching drew out two pistols, took out the cylinders,
replaced them, and wiped and polished the metal until the guns glittered
brightly in the swimming sunlight. He considered them long before
restoring them to their places, doubt in his gaze. "I reckon she's been
raised a lot different," was his mental conclusion.

"But anyway, I reckon there ain't nothin' in Poughkeepsie's name to give
anyone comin' from there any right to put on airs." He tossed the butt of
the cigarette away and frowned, continuing his soliloquy: "The Flyin' W
ain't no place for a lady. Jim Pickett an' Tom Chavis ain't fit for no
lady to look at--let alone talkin' to them. There's others, too. Now, if
she was comin' to the Diamond H--why, shucks! Mebbe she wouldn't think
I'm any better than Pickett an' Chavis! If she looks anything like her
picture, though, she's got sense. An'--"

He saw the pony flick its ears erect, and he followed its gaze to see on
the plain's trail, far over near where it melted into the foothills, a
moving speck crawling toward him.

He swung back into the saddle and smilingly patted the pony's neck.

"You was expectin' them too, wasn't you, Patches? I reckon you're a right
knowin' horse!"

He wheeled the pony and urged it slowly back over the mesa, riding along
near the edge until he reached a point behind a heavy post-oak thicket,
where he pulled the pony to a halt. From here he would not be observed
from the trail on the plains, and he again twisted in the saddle, sagging
against the high pommel and drawing the wide brim of his hat well over
his eyes, shading them as he peered intently at the moving speck.

He watched for half an hour, while the speck grew larger in his vision,
finally assuming definite shape. He recognized the buckboard and the
blacks that were pulling it; they had been inseparable during the past
two years--for Bill Harkness, the Flying W owner, would drive no others
after his last sickness had seized him, the sickness which had finally
finished him some months before. The blacks were coming rapidly,
shortening the distance with the tireless lope that the plains' animal
uses so effectively, and as they neared the point on the mesa where the
rider had stationed himself, the latter parted the branches of the
thicket and peered between them, his eyes agleam, the color deepening in
his face.

"There's four of them in the buckboard," he said aloud, astonished, as
the vehicle came nearer; "an' Wes Vickers ain't with them! Now, what do
you think of that! Wes told me there'd be only the girl an' her aunt an'
uncle. It's a man, too, an' he's doin' the drivin'! I reckon Wes got
drunk an' they left him behind." He reflected a moment, watching with
narrowed eyes, his brows in a frown. "That guy doin' the drivin' is a
stranger, Patches," he said. "Why, it's mighty plain. Four in the
buckboard, with them bags an' trunks an' things, makes a full house, an'
there wasn't no room for Wes!" He grinned.

The buckboard swung close to the foot of the slope below him, and he
eagerly scrutinized the occupants, his gaze lingering long on the girl on
the seat beside the driver. She had looked for one flashing instant
toward him, her attention drawn, no doubt, by the fringing green of the
mesa, and he had caught a good glimpse of her face. It was just like the
picture that Wes Vickers had surreptitiously brought to him one day some
weeks before, after Harkness' death, when, in talking with Wes about the
niece who was now the sole owner of the Flying W, and who was coming soon
to manage her property, he had evinced curiosity. He had kept the
picture, in spite of Vickers' remonstrances, and had studied it many
times. He studied it now, after the passage of the buckboard, and was
supremely pleased, for the likeness did not flatter her.

Displeasure came into his eyes, though, when he thought of the driver. He
was strangely disturbed over the thought that the driver had accompanied
her from the East. He knew the driver was an Easterner, for no Westerner
would ever rig himself out in such an absurd fashion--the cream-colored
Stetson with the high pointed crown, extra wide brim with nickel spangles
around the band, a white shirt with a broad turndown collar and a flowing
colored tie--blue; a cartridge belt that fitted snugly around his waist,
yellow with newness, so that the man on the mesa almost imagined he could
hear it creak when its owner moved; corduroy riding-breeches, tight at
the knees, and glistening boots with stiff tops. And--here the observer's
eyes gleamed with derision--as the buckboard passed, he had caught a
glimpse of a nickeled spur, with long rowels, on one of the ridiculous
boots.

He chuckled, his face wreathing in smiles as he urged the pony along the
edge of the mesa, following the buckboard. He drew up presently at a
point just above the buckboard, keeping discreetly behind some brush that
he might not be seen, and gravely considered the vehicle and its
occupants. The buckboard had stopped at the edge of the water, and the
blacks were drinking. The girl was talking; the watcher heard her voice
distinctly.

"What a rough, grim country!" she said. "It is beautiful, though."

"She's a knowin' girl," mused the rider, strangely pleased that she
should like the world he lived in. For it was his world; he had been born
here.

"Don't you think so, Willard?" added the girl.

The rider strained his ears for the answer. It came, grumblingly:

"I suppose it's well enough--for the clodhoppers that live here."

The girl laughed tolerantly; the rider on the mesa smiled. "I reckon I
ain't goin' to like Willard a heap, Patches," he said to the pony; "he's
runnin' down our country." He considered the girl and the driver gravely,
and again spoke to the pony. "Do you reckon he's her brother, Patches? I
expect it ain't possible--they're so different."

"Do you think it is quite safe?" The girl's voice reached him again; she
was looking at the water of the crossing.

"Vickers said it was," the driver replied. "He ought to know." His tone
was irritable.

"He's her brother, I reckon," reflected the man on the mesa; "no lover
would talk that way to his girl." There was relief in his voice, for he
had been hoping that the man was a brother.

"Vickers said to swing sharply to the left after passing the middle,"
declared the driver sonorously, "but I don't see any wagon tracks--that
miserable rain last night must have obliterated them."

"I reckon the rain has obliterated them," grinned the rider, laboring
with the word, "if that means wipin' them out. Leastways, they ain't
there any more."

"I feel quite sure that Mr. Vickers said to turn to the right after
passing the middle, Willard," came the girl's voice.

"I certainly ought to be able to remember that, Ruth!" said the driver,
gruffly. "I heard him distinctly!"

"Well," returned the girl with a nervous little laugh, "perhaps I was
mistaken, after all." She placed a hand lightly on the driver's arm. And
the words she spoke then were not audible to the rider, so softly were
they uttered. And the driver laughed with satisfaction. "You've said it!"
he declared. "I'm certainly able to pilot this ship to safety!" He pulled
on the reins and spoke sharply to the blacks. They responded with a jerk
that threw the occupants of the buckboard against the backs of the seats.

The rider's eyes gleamed. "Hush!" he said, addressing no one in
particular. "Calamity's goin' to claim another victim!" He raised one
hand to his lips, making a funnel of it. He was about to shout at the
driver, but thought better of the idea and let the hand drop. "Shucks,"
he said, "I reckon there ain't any real danger. But I expect the boss
gasser of the outfit will be gettin' his'n pretty quick now." He leaned
forward and watched the buckboard, his lean under jaw thrown forward, a
grim smile on his lips. He noted with satisfaction that the elderly
couple in the rear seat, and the girl in the front one, were holding on
tightly, and that the driver, busy with the reins, was swaying from one
side to the other as the wagon bumped over the impeding stones of the
river bed.

The blacks reached the middle of the stream safely and were crowding of
their own accord to the right, when the driver threw his weight on the
left rein and swung them sharply in that direction. For a few feet they
traveled evenly enough but when they were still some distance from the
bank, the horse on the left sank quickly to his shoulders, lunged, stood
on his hind legs and pawed the air impotently, and then settled back,
snorting and trembling.

Too late the driver saw his error. As the left horse sank he threw his
weight on the right rein as though to remedy the accident. This movement
threw him off his balance, and he slipped off the seat, clawing and
scrambling; at the instant the front of the buckboard dipped and sank,
disappearing with a splash into the muddy water. It had gone down awry,
the girl's side high out of the water, the girl herself clinging to the
edge of the seat, out of the water's reach, the elderly couple in the
rear also safe and dry, but plainly frightened.

The girl did not scream; the rider on the mesa noted this with
satisfaction. She was talking, though, to the driver, who at first had
disappeared, only to reappear an instant later, blowing and cursing, his
head and shoulders out of the water, his ridiculous hat floating serenely
down stream, the reins still in his hands.

"I reckon he's discovered that Vickers told him to swing to the right,"
grinned the rider from his elevation. He watched the driver until he
gained the bank and stood there, dripping, gesticulating, impotent rage
consuming him. The buckboard could not be moved without endangering the
comfort of the remaining occupants, and without assistance they must
inevitably stay where they were. And so the rider on the mesa wheeled his
pony and sent it toward the edge of the mesa where a gentle slope swept
downward to the plains.

"I reckon I've sure got to rescue her," he said, grinning with some
embarrassment, "though I'm mighty sorry that Willard had to get his new
clothes wet."

He spoke coaxingly to the pony; it stepped gingerly over the edge of the
mesa and began the descent, sending stones and sand helter-skelter before
it, the rider sitting tall and loose in the saddle, the reins hanging, he
trusting entirely to the pony's wisdom.





Next: The Sympathetic Rescuer

Previous: The Calm



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