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Cutting Sign








From: The Fighting Edge

Dud's observation, when he and Bob took the back trail along the river to
find the missing bronco, confirmed that of Buck Hawks. He found the place
where a horse had clawed its way out of the stream to the clay bank. From
here it had wandered into the sage and turned toward the home ranch. The
tracks showed that Powder River was moving slowly, grazing as it went.

"I reckon by noon we can say 'Hello!' to yore bronc," Dud prophesied. "No
need to trail it. All we got to do is follow the river."

An hour later he drew up and swung from the saddle. "Now I wonder who
we've had with us this glad mawnin'."

Dud stooped and examined carefully tracks in the mud. Bob joined him.

"Powder River ain't so lonesome now. Met up with friends, looks like.
Takin' a li'l' journey north." The cowpuncher's blue eyes sparkled. The
prosaic pursuit of a stray mount had of a sudden become Adventure.

"You mean--?"

"What do you read from this sign we've cut?"

Bob told his deductions. "Powder River met some one on horseback. The man
got off. Here's his tracks."

"Fellow, use yore haid," admonished his friend. "Likewise yore eyes. You
wouldn't say this track was made by the same man as this one, would
you?"

"No. It's bigger."

"An' here's another, all wore off at the heel. We got three men anyhow.
Which means also three horses. Point of fact there are four mounts, one
to carry the pack."

"How do you know there are four?"

"They had four when they camped close to us night 'fore last."

Dillon felt a sinking at the pit of his stomach. "You think this is
Houck's outfit?"

"That'd be my guess."

"An' that they've taken Powder River with them?"

"I'm doing better than guessin' about that. One of the party saw a bronc
with an empty saddle an' tried to rope it. First time he missed, but he
made good when he tried again."

"If I had yore imagination, Dud--"

"Straight goods. See here where the loop of the rope dragged along the
top of the mud after the fellow missed his throw."

Bob saw the evidence after it had been pointed out to him. "But that
don't prove he got Powder River next time he threw," he protested.

"Here's where that's proved." Dud showed him the impressions of two hoofs
dug deep into the ground. "Powder River bucked after he was roped an'
tried to break away. The other horse, like any good cowpony does, leaned
back on the rope an' dug a toe-hold."

"Where's Houck going?"

"Brown's Park likely, from the way they're headed."

"What'll we do?"

"Why, drap in on them to-night kinda casual an' say 'Much obliged for
roundin' up our stray bronc for us.'"

This programme did not appeal to Bob. In that camp were two enemies of
his. Both of them also hated Dud. Houck and Walker were vindictive. It
was not likely either of them would forget what they owed these two young
fellows.

"Maybe we'd better ride back an' tell the boss first," he suggested.

"Maybe we'd better not," Hollister dissented. "By that time they'd be so
far ahead we'd never catch 'em. No, sir. We'll leave a note here for the
boss. Tack it to this cottonwood. If we don't show up in a reasonable
time he'll trail back an' find out what for not."

"That'd do us a lot of good if Houck had dry-gulched us."

Dud laughed. "You're the lad with the imagination. Far as Houck goes, an'
Bandy Walker, too, for that matter, I'll make you a present of the pair
of 'em as two sure-enough bad eggs. But they've got to play the hands
dealt 'em without knowin' what we're holdin'."

"They've prob'ly got rifles, an' we haven't."

"It's a cinch they've got rifles. But they won't dare use 'em. How do
they know we're playin' this alone? First off, I'll mention that I sent
Buck back to tell the boss we'd taken the trail after them. That puts it
up to them to act reasonable whether they want to or not. Another thing.
We surprise 'em. Give the birds no chance to talk it over. Not knowin'
what to do, they do nothing. Ain't that good psycho-ology, as Blister
says when he calls a busted flush?"

"Trouble is we're holdin' the busted flush."

"Sure, an' Houck'll figure we wouldn't 'a' trailed him unless we'd fixed
the play right beforehand. His horse sense will tell him we wouldn't go
that strong unless our cards was all blue. We're sittin' in the golden
chair. O' course we'll give the birds a chance to save their faces--make
it plain that we're a whole lot obliged to 'em for lookin' after Powder
River for us."

Bob's sagging head went up. He had remembered Blister's injunction. "All
right, Dud. Turn yore wolf loose. I'll ride along an' back the bluff."

They left the river and climbed to the mesa. The trail took them through
a rough country of sagebrush into the hills of greasewood and pinon. In
mid-afternoon they shot a couple of grouse scuttling through the bunch
grass. Now and again they started deer, but they were not looking for
meat. A brown bear peered at them from a thicket and went crashing away
with an awkward gait that carried it over the ground fast.

From a summit they saw before them a thin spiral of smoke rising out of
an arroyo.

"I reckon that's the end of the trail," Dud drawled. "We're real pleased
to meet up with you, Mr. Houck. Last time I had the pleasure was a sorta
special picnic in yore honor. You was ridin' a rail outa Bear Cat an'
being jounced up considerable."

"If he thinks of that--"

"He'll think of it," Dud cut in cheerfully. "He's gritted his teeth a lot
of times over that happenstance, Mr. Houck has. It tastes right bitter in
his mouth every time he recollects it. First off, soon as he sees us,
he'll figure that his enemies have been delivered into his hand. It'll be
up to us to change his mind. If you're all set, Sure-Shot, we'll drift
down an' start the peace talk."

Bob moistened his dry lips. "All set."

They rode down the hillside, topped another rise, and descended into the
draw where a camp was pitched.

A young fellow chopping firewood moved forward to meet them.

"There's Powder River with the broncs," Bob said in a low voice to his
friend.

"Yes," said Dud, and he swung from the saddle.

"'Lo, fellows. Where you headed for?" the wood-chopper asked amiably.

Two men were sitting by the fire. They waited, in an attitude of
listening. Dusk had fallen. The glow of the fire lighted their faces, but
the men who had just ridden up were in the gathering darkness beyond the
circle lit by the flames.

"We came to get Powder River, the bronc you rounded up for us," Hollister
said evenly. "Harshaw sent us ahead. We're sure much obliged to you for
yore trouble."

The larger of the two men by the fire rose and straddled forward. He
looked at Dud and he looked at Bob. His face was a map of conflicting
emotions.

"Harshaw sent you, did he?"

"Yes, sir. Bob had bad luck in the river an' the horse got away from him.
I reckon the pony was lightin' out for home when yore rope stopped the
journey." The voice of Dud was cheerful and genial. It ignored any little
differences of the past with this hook-nosed individual whose eyes were
so sultry and passionate.

"So he sent you two fellows, did he? I'll say he's a good picker. I been
wantin' to meet you," he said harshly.

"Same here, Houck." Bandy Walker pushed to the front, jerking a
forty-five from its scabbard.

Houck's hand shot forward and caught the cowpuncher by the wrist. "What's
bitin' you, Bandy? Time enough for that when I give the word."

The yellow teeth of the bow-legged man showed in a snarl of rage and
pain. "I'd 'a' got Dillon if you'd let me be."

"Didn't you hear this guy say Harshaw sent them here? Use yore horse
sense, man." Houck turned to Hollister. "Yore bronc's with the others.
The saddle's over by that rock. Take 'em an' hit the trail."

In sullen rage Houck watched Dud saddle and cinch. Not till the Slash
Lazy D riders were ready to go did he speak again.

"Tell you what I'll do," he proposed. "Get down off'n yore horses, both
o' you, an' I'll whale the daylight outa the pair of you. Bandy'll stay
where he's at an' not mix in."

Hollister looked at Bandy, and he knew the fellow's trigger finger
itched. There was not a chance in the world that he would stand back and
play fair. But that was not the reason why Dud declined the invitation.
He had not come to get into trouble. He meant to keep out of it if he
could.

"Last fellow that licked me hauled me down off'n my bronc, Mr. Houck,"
Dud answered, laughing. "No, sir. We got to turn down that invite to a
whalin'. The boss gave us our orders straight. No trouble a-tall. I
expect if it was our own say-so we might accommodate you. But not the way
things are."

"No guts, either of you. Ain't two to one good enough?" jeered Houck
angrily.

"Not good enough right now. Maybe some other time, Mr. Houck," Dud
replied, his temper unruffled.

"You want it to be twelve to one, like it was last time, eh?"

"Harshaw will be lookin' for us, so we'll be sayin' good-evenin'," the
rider for the Slash Lazy D said quietly.

He turned his horse to go, as did his companion. Houck cursed them both
bitterly. While they rode into the gloom Bob's heart lifted to his
throat. Goosequills ran up and down his spine. Would one of his enemies
shoot him in the back? He could hardly keep from swinging his head to
make sure they were not aiming at him. He wanted to touch his mount with
a spur to quicken the pace.

But Dud, riding by his side, held his bronco to the slow even road gait
of the traveler who has many miles to cover. Apparently he had forgotten
the existence of the furious, bitter men who were watching their exit
from the scene. Bob set his teeth and jogged along beside him.

Not till they were over the hill did either of them speak.

"Wow!" grunted Dud as he wiped the sweat from his face. "I'm sure enough
glad to have that job done with. My back aches right between the shoulder
blades where a bullet might 'a' hit it."

Bob relaxed in the saddle. He felt suddenly faint. Even now he found
himself looking round apprehensively to make sure that a man carrying a
rifle was not silhouetted on the hilltop against the sky-line.





Next: Partners In Peril

Previous: The Rio Blanco Puts In A Claim



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