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Brand Blotting







Part of: MELISSY OF THE BAR DOUBLE G
From: Brand Blotters

The tenderfoot, slithering down a hillside of shale, caught at a
greasewood bush and waited. The sound of a rifle shot had drifted across
the ridge to him. Friend or foe, it made no difference to him now. He had
reached the end of his tether, must get to water soon or give up the
fight.

No second shot broke the stillness. A swift zigzagged across the cattle
trail he was following. Out of a blue sky the Arizona sun still beat down
upon a land parched by aeons of drought, a land still making its brave show
of greenness against a dun background.

Arrow straight the man made for the hill crest. Weak as a starved puppy,
his knees bent under him as he climbed. Down and up again a dozen times,
he pushed feverishly forward. All day he had been seeing things. Cool
lakes had danced on the horizon line before his tortured vision. Strange
fancies had passed in and out of his mind. He wondered if this, too, were
a delusion. How long that stiff ascent took him he never knew, but at
last he reached the summit and crept over its cactus-covered shoulder.

He looked into a valley dressed in its young spring garb. Of all deserts
this is the loveliest when the early rains have given rebirth to the hope
that stirs within its bosom once a year. But the tenderfoot saw nothing of
its pathetic promise, of its fragile beauty so soon to be blasted. His
sunken eyes swept the scene and found at first only a desert waste in
which lay death.

"I lose," he said to himself out loud.

With the words he gave up the long struggle and sank to the ground. For
hours he had been exhausted to the limit of endurance, but the will to
live had kept him going. Now the driving force within had run down. He
would die where he lay.

Another instant, and he was on his feet again eager, palpitant, tremulous.
For plainly there had come to him the bleating of a calf.

Moving to the left, he saw rising above the hill brow a thin curl of
smoke. A dozen staggering steps brought him to the edge of a draw. There
in the hollow below, almost within a stone's throw, was a young woman
bending over a fire. He tried to call, but his swollen tongue and dry
throat refused the service. Instead, he began to run toward her.

Beyond the wash was a dead cow. Not far from it lay a calf on its side,
all four feet tied together. From the fire the young woman took a red-hot
running iron and moved toward the little bleater.

The crackling of a twig brought her around as a sudden tight rein does a
high-strung horse. The man had emerged from the prickly pears and was
close upon her. His steps dragged. The sag of his shoulders indicated
extreme fatigue. The dark hollows beneath the eyes told of days of
torment.

The girl stood before him slender and straight. She was pale to the lips.
Her breath came fast and ragged as if she had been running.

Abruptly she shot her challenge at him. "Who are you?"

"Water," he gasped.

One swift, searching look the girl gave him, then "Wait!" she ordered, and
was off into the mesquit on the run. Three minutes later the tenderfoot
heard her galloping through the brush. With a quick, tight rein she drew
up, swung from the saddle expertly as a vaquero, and began to untie a
canteen held by buckskin thongs to the side of the saddle.

He drank long, draining the vessel to the last drop.

From her saddle bags she brought two sandwiches wrapped in oiled paper.

"You're hungry, too, I expect," she said, her eyes shining with tender
pity.

She observed that he did not wolf his food, voracious though he was. While
he ate she returned to the fire with the running iron and heaped live
coals around the end of it.

"You've had a pretty tough time of it," she called across to him gently.

"It hasn't been exactly a picnic, but I'm all right now."

The girl liked the way he said it. Whatever else he was--and already faint
doubts were beginning to stir in her--he was not a quitter.

"You were about all in," she said, watching him.

"Just about one little kick left in me," he smiled.

"That's what I thought."

She busied herself over the fire inspecting the iron. The man watched her
curiously. What could it mean? A cow killed wantonly, a calf bawling with
pain and fear, and this girl responsible for it. The tenderfoot could not
down the suspicion stirring in his mind. He knew little of the cattle
country. But he had read books and had spent a week in Mesa not entirely
in vain. The dead cow with the little stain of red down its nose pointed
surely to one thing. He was near enough to see a hole in the forehead just
above the eyes. Instinctively his gaze passed to the rifle lying in the
sand close to his hand. Her back was still turned to him. He leaned over,
drew the gun to him, and threw out an empty shell from the barrel.

At the click of the lever the girl swung around upon him.

"What are you doing?" she demanded.

He put the rifle down hurriedly. "Just seeing what make it is."

"And what make is it?" she flashed.

He was trapped. "I hadn't found out yet," he stammered.

"No, but you found out there was an empty shell in it," she retorted
quickly.

Their eyes fastened. She was gray as ashes, but she did not flinch. By
chance he had stumbled upon the crime of crimes in Cattleland, had caught
a rustler redhanded at work. Looking into the fine face, nostrils
delicately fashioned, eyes clear and deep, the thing was scarce credible
of her. Why, she could not be a day more than twenty, and in every line of
her was the look of pride, of good blood.

"Yes, I happened to throw it out," he apologized.

But she would have no evasion, would not let his doubts sleep. There was
superb courage in the scornful ferocity with which she retorted.

"Happened! And I suppose you happened to notice that the brand on the
cow is a Bar Double G, while that on the calf is different."

"No, I haven't noticed that."

"Plenty of time to see it yet." Then, with a swift blaze of feeling,
"What's the use of pretending? I know what you think."

"Then you know more than I do. My thoughts don't go any farther than this,
that you have saved my life and I'm grateful for it."

"I know better. You think I'm a rustler. But don't say it. Don't you dare
say it."

Brought up in an atmosphere of semi-barbaric traditions, silken-strong,
with instincts unwarped by social pressure, she was what the sun and wind
and freedom of Arizona had made her, a poetic creation far from
commonplace. So he judged her, and in spite of the dastardly thing she had
done he sensed an innate refinement strangely at variance with the
circumstances.

"All right. I won't," he answered, with a faint smile.

"Now you've got to pay for your sandwiches by making yourself useful. I'm
going to finish this job." She said it with an edge of self-scorn. He
guessed her furious with self-contempt.

Under her directions he knelt on the calf so as to hold it steady while
she plied the hot iron. The odor of burnt hair and flesh was already acrid
in his nostrils. Upon the red flank F was written in raw, seared flesh. He
judged that the brand she wanted was not yet complete. Probably the iron
had got too cold to finish the work, and she had been forced to reheat
it.

The little hand that held the running iron was trembling. Looking up, the
tenderfoot saw that she was white enough to faint.

"I can't do it. You'll have to let me hold him while you blur the brand,"
she told him.

They changed places. She set her teeth to it and held the calf steady,
but the brander noticed that she had to look away when the red-hot iron
came near the flesh of the victim.

"Blur the brand right out. Do it quick, please," she urged.

A sizzle of burning skin, a piteous wail from the tortured animal, an
acrid pungent odor, and the thing was done. The girl got to her feet,
quivering like an aspen.

"Have you a knife?" she asked faintly.

"Yes."

"Cut the rope."

The calf staggered to all fours, shook itself together, and went bawling
to the dead mother.

The girl drew a deep breath. "They say it does not hurt except while it is
being done."

His bleak eyes met hers stonily. "And of course it will soon get used to
doing without its mother. That is a mere detail."

A shudder went through her.

The whole thing was incomprehensible to him. Why under heaven had she done
it? How could one so sensitive have done a wanton cruel thing like this?
Her reason he could not fathom. The facts that confronted him were that
she had done it, and had meant to carry the crime through. Only
detection had changed her purpose.

She turned upon him, plainly sick of the whole business. "Let's get away
from here. Where's your horse?"

"I haven't any. I started on foot and got lost."

"From where?"

"From Mammoth."

Sharply her keen eyes fixed him. How could a man have got lost near
Mammoth and wandered here? He would have had to cross the range, and even
a child would have known enough to turn back into the valley where the
town lay.

"How long ago?"

"Day before yesterday." He added after a moment: "I was looking for a
job."

She took in the soft hands and the unweathered skin of the dark face.
"What sort of a job?"

"Anything I can do."

"But what can you do?"

"I can ride."

She must take him home with her, of course, and feed and rest him. That
went without saying. But what after that? He knew too much to be turned
adrift with the story of what he had seen. If she could get a hold on
him--whether of fear or of gratitude--so as to insure his silence, the
truth might yet be kept quiet. At least she could try.

"Did you ever ride the range?"

"No."

"What sort of work have you done?"

After a scarcely noticeable pause, "Clerical work," he answered.

"You're from the East?" she suggested, her eyes narrowing.

"Yes."

"My name is Melissy Lee," she told him, watching him very steadily.

Once more the least of pauses. "Mine is Diller--James Diller."

"That's funny. I know another man of that name. At least, I know him by
sight."

The man who had called himself Diller grew wary. "It's a common enough
name."

"Yes. If I find you work at my father's ranch would you be too particular
about what it is?"

"Try me."

"And your memory--is it inconveniently good?" Her glance swept as by
chance over the scene of her recent operations.

"I've got a right good forgettery, too," he assured her.

"You're not in the habit of talking much about the things you see." She
put it in the form of a statement, but the rising inflection indicated the
interrogative.

His black eyes met hers steadily. "I can padlock my mouth when it is
necessary," he answered, the suggestion of a Southern drawl in his
intonation.

She wanted an assurance more direct. "When you think it necessary, I
suppose."

"That is what I meant to say."

"Come. One good turn deserves another. What about this?" She nodded toward
the dead cow.

"I have not seen a thing I ought not to have seen."

"Didn't you see me blot a brand on that calf?"

He shook his head. "Can't recall it at all, Miss Lee."

Swiftly her keen glance raked him again. Judged by his clothes, he was one
of the world's ineffectives, flotsam tossed into the desert by the wash of
fate; but there was that in the steadiness of his eye, in the set of his
shoulders, in the carriage of his lean-loined, slim body that spoke of
breeding. He was no booze-fighting grubliner. Disguised though he was in
cheap slops, she judged him a man of parts. He would do to trust,
especially since she could not help herself.

"We'll be going. You take my horse," she ordered.

"And let you walk?"

"How long since you have eaten?" she asked brusquely.

"About seven minutes," he smiled.

"But before that?"

"Two days."

"Well, then. Anybody can see you're as weak as a kitten. Do as I say."

"Why can't we both ride?"

"We can as soon as we get across the pass. Until then I'll walk."

Erect as a willow sapling, she took the hills with an elastic ease that
showed her deep-bosomed in spite of her slenderness. The short corduroy
riding skirt and high-laced boots were made for use, not grace, but the
man in the saddle found even in her manner of walking the charm of her
direct, young courage. Free of limb, as yet unconscious of sex, she had
the look of a splendid boy. The descending sun was in her sparkling hair,
on the lank, undulating grace of her changing lines.

Active as a cat though it was, the cowpony found the steep pass with its
loose rubble hard going. Melissy took the climb much easier. In the way
she sped through the mesquit, evading the clutch of the cholla by supple
dips to right and left, there was a kind of pantherine litheness.

At the summit she waited for the horse to clamber up the shale after her.

"Get down in your collar, you Buckskin," she urged, and when the pony was
again beside her petted the animal with little love pats on the nose.

Carelessly she flung at Diller a question. "From what part of the East did
you say?"

He was on the spot promptly this time. "From Keokuk."

"Keokuk, Indiana?"

"Iowa," he smiled.

"Oh, is it Iowa?" He had sidestepped her little trap, but she did not give
up. "Just arrived?"

"I've been herding sheep for a month."

"Oh, sheep-herding!" Her disdain implied that if he were fit for nothing
better than sheep-herding, the West could find precious little use for
him.

"It was all I could get to do."

"Where did you say you wrangled Mary's little lamb?"

"In the Catalinas."

"Whose outfit?"

Question and answer were tossed back and forth lightly, but both were
watching warily.

"Outfit?" he repeated, puzzled.

"Yes. Who were you working for?"

"Don't remember his name. He was a Mexican."

"Must have been one of the camps of Antonio Valdez."

"Yes, that's it. That's the name."

"Only he runs his sheep in the Galiuros," she demurred.

"Is it the Galiuros? Those Spanish names! I can't keep them apart in my
mind."

She laughed with hard, young cruelty. "It is hard to remember what you
never heard, isn't it?"

The man was on the rack. Tiny beads of perspiration stood out on his
forehead. But he got a lip smile into working order.

"Just what do you mean, Miss Lee?"

"You had better get your story more pat. I've punched a dozen holes in it
already. First you tell me you are from the East, and even while you were
telling me I knew you were a Southerner from the drawl. No man ever got
lost from Mammoth. You gave a false name. You said you had been herding
sheep, but you didn't know what an outfit is. You wobbled between the
Galiuros and the Catalinas."

"I'm not a native. I told you I couldn't remember Spanish names."

"It wasn't necessary to tell me," she countered quickly. "A man that can't
recall even the name of his boss!"

"I'm not in the witness box, Miss Lee," he told her stiffly.

"Not yet, but you're liable to be soon, I reckon."

"In a cattle rustling case, I suppose you mean."

"No, I don't." She went on with her indictment of his story, though his
thrust had brought the color to her cheek. "When I offered you Antonio
Valdez for an employer you jumped at him. If you want to know, he happens
to be our herder. He doesn't own a sheep and never will."

"You know all about it," he said with obvious sarcasm.

"I know you're not who you say you are."

"Perhaps you know who I am then."

"I don't know or care. It's none of my business. But others may think it
is theirs. You can't be so reckless with the truth without folks having
notions. If I were you I'd get a story that will hang together."

"You're such a good detective. Maybe I could get you to invent one for
me," he suggested maliciously.

Her indignation flashed. "I'm no such thing. But I'm not quite a fool. A
babe in arms wouldn't swallow that fairy tale."

Awkward as her knowledge might prove, he could not help admiring the
resource and shrewdness of the girl. She had virtually served notice that
if she had a secret that needed keeping so had he.

They looked down over a desert green with bajadas, prickly pears, and
mesquit. To the right, close to a spur of the hills, were the dwarfed
houses of a ranch. The fans of a windmill caught the sun and flashed it
back to the travelers.

"The Bar Double G. My father owns it," Miss Lee explained.

"Oh! Your father owns it." He reflected a moment while he studied her.
"Let's understand each other, Miss Lee. I'm not what I claim to be, you
say. We'll put it that you have guessed right. What do you intend to do
about it? I'm willing to be made welcome at the Bar Double G, but I don't
want to be too welcome."

"I'm not going to do anything."

"So long as I remember not to remember what I've seen."

The blood burned in her cheeks beneath their Arizona tan. She did not look
at him. "If you like to put it that way."

He counted it to her credit that she was ashamed of the bargain in every
honest fiber of her.

"No matter what they say I've done. You'll keep faith?"

"I don't care what you've done," she flung back bitterly. "It's none of my
affair. I told you that before. Men come out here for all sorts of
reasons. We don't ask for a bill of particulars."

"Then I'll be right glad to go down to the Bar Double G with you, and say
thanks for the chance."

He had dismounted when they first reached the pass. Now she swung to the
saddle and he climbed behind her. They reached presently one of the
nomadic trails of the cattle country which wander leisurely around hills
and over gulches along the line of least resistance. This brought them to
a main traveled road leading to the ranch.

They rode in silence until the pasture fence was passed.

"What am I to tell them your name is?" she asked stiffly.

He took his time to answer. "Tom Morse is a good name, don't you think?
How would T. L. Morse do?"

She offered no comment, but sat in front of him, unresponsive as the
sphinx. The rigor of her flat back told him that, though she might have to
keep his shameful secret for the sake of her own, he could not presume
upon it the least in the world.

Melissy turned the horse over to a little Mexican boy and they were just
mounting the steps of the porch when a young man cantered up to the house.
Lean and muscular and sunbaked, he looked out of cool, gray eyes upon a
man's world that had often put him through the acid test. The plain,
cactus-torn chaps, flannel shirt open at the sinewy throat, dusty,
wide-brimmed hat, revolver peeping from its leather pocket on the thigh:
every detail contributed to the impression of efficiency he created. Even
the one touch of swagger about him, the blue silk kerchief knotted loosely
around his neck, lent color to his virile competency.

He dragged his horse to a standstill and leaped off at the same instant.
"Evenin', 'Lissie."

She was busy lacing her shoe and did not look up. He guessed that he was
being snubbed and into his eyes came a gleam of fun. A day later than he
had promised, Jack Flatray was of opinion that he was being punished for
tardiness.

Casually he explained. "Couldn't make it any sooner. Burke had a hurry-up
job that took us into the hills. Fellow by the name of Bellamy, wanted for
murder at Nemo, Arkansas, had been tracked to Mesa. A message came over
the wires to arrest him. When Burke sent me to his room he had lit out,
taken a swift hike into the hills. Must a-had some warning, for he didn't
even wait for a horse."

The dilated eyes of the girl went past the deputy to the man she had
rescued. He was leaning against one of the porch posts, tense and rigid,
on his face the look of the hunted brought to bay.

"And did you find him?" she asked mechanically of the deputy.

"We found him. He had been trampled to death by a cattle stampede."

Her mind groped blindly for an explanation. Her woman's instinct told her
that the man panting on the porch within six feet of the officer was the
criminal wanted. There must be a mistake somewhere.

"Did you identify him?"

"I guess there is no doubt about it. His papers and belongings all showed
he was our man."

"Oh!" The excitement of his news had for a moment thawed her, but a
dignified aloofness showed again in her manner. "If you want to see father
you'll find him in the corral, Mr. Flatray."

"Well, I don't know as I'm looking for him awful hard," the blue
kerchiefed youth smiled genially. "Anyway, I can wait a few minutes if I
have to."

"Yes." She turned away indifferently. "I'll show you your room, Mr.
Morse."

The deputy watched them disappear into the house with astonishment printed
on his face. He had ridden twenty-seven miles to see Melissy Lee and he
had not quite expected this sort of a greeting.

"If that don't beat the Dutch. Looks like I'll do my callin' on the old
man after all, maybe," he murmured with a grin.





Next: An Accusation

Previous: A Crossed Trail



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