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Edwards' Ultimatum








From: Bar-20 Days

Edwards slid off the counter in Jackson's store and glowered at the
pelting rain outside, perturbed and grouchy. The wounded man in the
corner stirred and looked at him without interest and forthwith renewed
his profane monologue, while the proprietor, finishing his task, leaned
back against the shelves and swore softly. It was a lovely atmosphere.

"Seems to me they've been gone a long time," grumbled the wounded man.
"Reckon he led 'em a long chase--had six hours' start, the toad." He
paused and then as an afterthought said with conviction: "But they'll
get him--they allus do when they make up their minds to it."

Edwards nodded moodily and Jackson replied with a monosyllable.

"Wish I could 'a' gone with 'em," Johnny growled. "I like to square my
own accounts. It's allus that way. I get plugged an' my friends clean
the slate. There was that time Bye-an'-Bye went an' ambushed me--ah,
the devil! But I tell you one thing: when I get well I'm going down to
Harlan's an' clean house proper."

"Yo're in hard luck again: that'll be done as soon as yore friends get
back," Jackson replied, carefully selecting a dried apricot from a
box on the counter and glancing at the marshal to see how he took the
remark.

"That'll be done before then," Edwards said crisply, with the air of
a man who has just settled a doubt. "They won't be back much before
to-morrow if he headed for the country I think he did. I'm going down
to the Oasis an' tell that gang to clear out of this town. They've been
here too long now. I never had 'em dead to rights before, but I've got
it on 'em this time. I'd 'a' sent 'em packing yesterday only I sort
of hated to take a man's business away from him an' make him lose his
belongings. But I've wrastled it all out an' they've got to go." He
buttoned his coat about him and pulled his sombrero more firmly on
his head, starting for the door. "I'll be back soon," he said over his
shoulder as he grasped the handle.

"You better wait till you get help--there's too many down there for one
man to watch an' handle," Jackson hastily remarked. "Here, I'll go with
you," he offered, looking for his hat.

Edwards laughed shortly. "You stay here. I do my own work by myself when
I can--that's what I'm here for, an' I can do this, all right. If I took
any help they'd reckon I was scared," and the door slammed shut behind
him.

"He's got sand a plenty," Jackson remarked. "He'd try to push back a
stampede by main strength if he reckoned it was his duty. It's his good
luck that he wasn't killed long ago--I'd 'a' been."

"They're a bunch of cowards," replied Johnny. "As long as you ain't
afraid of 'em, none of 'em wants to start anything. Bunch of sheep!" he
snorted. "Didn't Jerry shoot me through his pocket?"

"Yes; an' yo're another lucky dog," Jackson responded, having in mind
that at first Johnny had been thought to be desperately wounded. "Why,
yore friends have got the worst of this game; they're worse off than you
are--out all day an' night in this cussed storm."

While they talked Edwards made his way through the cold downpour to
Harlan's saloon, alone and unafraid, and greatly pleased by the order
he would give. At last he had proof enough to work on, to satisfy his
conscience, for the inevitable had come as the culmination of continued
and clever defiance of law and order.

He deliberately approached the front door of the Oasis and, opening it,
stepped inside, his hands resting on his guns--he had packed two Colts
for the last twenty-four hours. His appearance caused a ripple of
excitement to run around the room. After what had taken place, a
visit from him could mean only one thing--trouble. And it was entirely
possible that he had others within call to help him out if necessary.

Harlan knew that he would be the one held responsible and he ceased
wiping a glass and held the cloth suspended in one hand and the glass in
the other. "Well?" he snapped, angrily, his eyes smouldering with fixed
hatred.

"Mebby you think it's well, but it's going to be a blamed sight better
before sundown to-morrow night," evenly replied the marshal. "I just
dropped in sort of free-like to tell you to pack up an' get out of town
before dark--load yore wagon an' vamoose; an' take yore friends with
you, too. If you don't--" he did not finish in words, for his tightening
lips made them unnecessary.

"What!" yelled Harlan, red with anger. He placed his hands on the bar
and leaned over it as if to give emphasis to his words. "Me pack up
an' git! Me leave this shack! Who's going to pay me for it, hey? Me
leave town! You drop out again an' go back to Kansas where you come
from--they're easier back there!"

"Well, so far I ain't found nothing very craggy 'round here," retorted
Edwards, closely watching the muttering crowd by the bar. "Takes more
than a loud voice an' a pack of sneaking coyotes to send me looking
for something easier. An' let me tell you this: You stay away from
Kansas--they hangs people like you back there. That's whatever. You pack
up an' git out of this town or I'll start a burying plot with you on
yore own land."

The low, angry buzz of Harlan's friends and their savage, scowling faces
would have deterred a less determined man; but Edwards knew they were
afraid of him, and the men on whom he could call to back him up. And he
knew that there must always be a start, there must be one man to show
the way; and each of the men he faced was waiting for some one else to
lead.

"You all slip over the horizon before dark to-night, an' it's dark early
these days," he continued. "Don't get restless with yore hands!" he
snapped ominously at the crowd. "I means what I say--you shake the mud
from this town off yore boots before dark--before that Bar-20 outfit
gets back," he finished meaningly.

Questions, imprecations, and threats filled the room, and the crowd
began to spread out slowly. His guns came out like a flash and he
laughed with the elation that comes with impending battle. "The first
man to start it'll drop," he said evenly. "Who's going to be the
martyr?"

"I won't leave town!" shouted Harlan. "I'll stay here if I'm killed
for it!"

"I admire yore loyalty to principle, but you've got damned little
sense," retorted the marshal. "You ain't no practical man. Keep yore
hands where they are!"--his vibrant voice turned the shifting crowd to
stone-like rigidity and he backed slowly toward the door, the poor
light gleaming dully from the polished blue steel of his Colts.
Rugged, lion-like, charged to the finger tips with reckless courage and
dare-devil self-confidence, his personality overflowed and dominated the
room, almost hypnotic in its effect. He was but one against many, but
he was the master, and they knew it; they had known it long enough
to accept it without question, and the training now stood him in good
stead.

For a moment he stood in the open doorway, keenly scrutinizing them for
signs of danger, his unwavering guns charged with certain death and
his strong face made stronger by the shadows in its hollows. "Before
dark!"--and he was gone.

He left behind him deep silence, which endured for several moments.

"By the Lord, I won't!" cried Harlan, still staring at the door.

The spell was broken and a babel of voices filled the room, threats
mingling with excuses, hot, vibrant, profane. These men were not cowards
all the way through, but only when face to face with the master. They
had flourished in a way by their wits alone on the same range with the
outfits of the C-80 and the Double-Arrow, for individually they were
"bad," and collectively they made a force of no mean strength. Edwards
had landed among them like a thunderbolt and had proved his prowess, and
they still held him in awesome respect. His reckless audacity and grim
singleness of purpose had saved him on more than one occasion, for
had he wavered once he would have been shot down without mercy. But
gradually his enforcement of hampering laws became more and more
intolerable, and their subordinated spirits were nearly on the point
of revolt. When he faced them they resumed their former positions in
relation to him--but once out of his sight they plotted to destroy
him. Here was the crisis: it was now or never. They could not evade his
ultimatum--it was obey or fight.

Submission was not to be thought of, for to flee would be to lose caste,
and the story of such an act would follow them wherever they went, and
brand them as cowards. Here they had lived, and here they would stay if
possible, and to this end they discussed ways and means.

"Harlan's right!" emphatically announced Laramie Joe. "We can't pull out
and have this foller us."

"We should have started it with a rush when he was in here," remarked
Boston, regretfully.

Harlan stopped his pacing and faced them, shoving out a bottle of
whiskey as an aid to his logic.

"That chance is past, an' I don't know but what it is a good thing," he
began. "He was primed an' looking fer trouble, an' he'd shore got a few
of us afore he went under. What we want is strategy--that's the game.
You fellers have got as much brains as him, an' if we thrash this thing
out we can find a way to call his play--an' get him! No use of any of us
getting plugged 'less we have to. But whatever we do we've got to start
it right quick an' have it over before that Bar-20 gang comes back.
Harper, you an' Quinn go scouting--an' don't take no guns with you,
neither. Act like you was hitting the long trail out, an' work back here
on a circle. See how many of his friends are in town. While you are gone
the rest of us will hold a pow-wow an' take the kinks out of this game.
Chase along, an' don't waste no time."

"Good!" cried Slivers Lowe emphatically. "There's blamed few fellers
in town now that have any use for him, for most of them are off on the
ranges. Bet we won't have more than six to fight, an' there's that many
of us here."

The scouts departed at once and the remaining four drew close in
consultation.

"One more drink around and then no more till this trouble is over,"
Harlan said, passing the bottle. The drinks, in view of the coming
drought and the thirsty work ahead, were long and deep, and new courage
and vindictiveness crept through their veins.

"Now here's the way it looks to me," Harlan continued, placing the
bottle, untasted by himself, on the floor behind him. "We've got to work
a surprise an' take Edwards an' his friends off their guard. That'll be
easy if we're careful, because they think we ain't looking for fight.
When we get them out of the way we can take Jackson's store an' use one
of the other shacks and wait for the Bar-20 to ride in. They'll canter
right in, like they allus do, an' when they get close enough we'll open
the game with a volley an' make every shot tell. 'T won't last long,
'cause every one of us will have his man named before they get here.
Then the few straddlers in town, seeing how easy we've gone an' handled
it'll join us. We've got four men to come in yet, an' by the time the
C-80 an' Double-Arrow hears about it we'll be fixed to drive 'em back
home. We ought to be over a dozen strong by dark."

"That sounds good, all right," remarked Slivers, thoughtfully, "but can
we do it that easy?"

"Course we can! We ain't fools, an' we all can shoot as well as them,"
snapped Laramie Joe, the most courageous of the lot. Laramie had taken
only one drink, and that a small one, for he was wise enough to realize
that he needed his wits as keen as he could have them.

"We can do it easy, if Edwards goes under first," hastily replied
Harlan. "An' me an' Laramie will see to that part of it. If we don't get
him, you all can hit the trail an' we won't be sore about it. That is,
unless you are made of the stuff that stands up an' fights 'stead of
running away. I reckon I ain't none mistaken in any of you. You'll all
be there when things get hot."

"You can bet the shack I won't do no trail-hitting," growled Boston,
glancing at Slivers, who squirmed a little under the hint.

"Well, I'm glued to the crowd; you can't lose me, fellers," Slivers
remarked, re-crossing his legs uneasily. "Are we going to begin it from
here?"

"We ought to spread out cautions and surround Jackson's, or wherever
Edwards is," Laramie Joe suggested. "That's my--"

"Yo're right! Now you've hit it plumb on the head!" interrupted Harlan,
slapping Laramie heartily across the back. "What did I tell you about
our brains?" he cried, enthusiastically. He had been on the point of
suggesting that plan of operations when Laramie took the words out
of his mouth. "I'd never thought of that, Laramie," he lied, his face
beaming. "Why, we've got 'em licked to a finish right now!"

"This is a hummer of a game," laughed Slivers. "But how about the
Bar-20 crowd?"

"I've told you that already," replied the proprietor.

"You bet it's a hummer," cried Boston, reaching for the whiskey bottle
under cover of the excitement and enthusiasm.

Harlan pushed it away with his foot and raised his clenched fist. "Do
you wonder I didn't think of that plan?" he demanded. "Ain't I been too
mad to think at all? Hain't I seen my friends treated like dogs, an'
made to swaller insults when I couldn't raise my hand to stop it? Didn't
I see Jerry Brown chased out of my place like a wild beast? If we are
what we've been called, then we'll sneak out of town with our tails
atween our laigs; but if we're men we'll stay right here an' cram the
insults down the throats of them that made 'em! If we're men let's
prove it an' make them liars swaller our lead."

"My sentiments an' allus was!" roared Slivers, slapping Harlan's
shoulder.

"We're men, all right, an' we'll show 'em it, too!"

At that instant the door opened and four guns covered it before it had
swung a foot.

"Put 'em down--it's Quinn!" exclaimed the man in the doorway, flinching
a bit. "All right, Jed," he called over his shoulder to the man who
crowded him. After Quinn came Big Jed and Harper brought up the rear.
They had no more than shaken the water from their sombreros when the
back door let in Charley Rich and his two companions, Frank and Tom
Nolan. While greetings were being exchanged and the existing conditions
explained to the newcomers, Harper and Quinn led Harlan to one side and
reported, the proprietor smiling and nodding his head wisely. And while
he listened, Slivers surreptitiously corralled the whiskey bottle and
when the last man finished with it there was nothing in it but air.

"Well, boys," exclaimed Harlan, "things are our way. Quinn, here, met
Joe Barr, of the C-80, who said Converse an' four other fellers, all
friends of Edwards, stopped at the ranch an' won't be back home till the
storm stops. Harper saw Fred Neil going back to his ranch, so all we've
got to figger on is the marshal, Barr, an' Jackson, an' they're all in
Jackson's store. Lacey might cut in, since he'd sell more liquor if I
went under, but he can't do very much if he does take a hand. Now
we'll get right at it." The whole thing was gone over thoroughly and in
detail, positions assigned and a signal agreed upon. Seeing that weapons
were in good condition after their long storage in the cellar, and that
cartridge belts were full, the ten men left the room one at a time or
in pairs, Harlan and Laramie Joe being the last. And both Harlan and
Laramie delayed long enough to take the precaution of placing horses
where they would be handy in case of need.





Next: Harlan Strikes

Previous: The End Of The Trail



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