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Harlan Rides Alone








From: 'drag' Harlan

Upon the morning of the fourth day following Haydon's visit to the Rancho
Seco, a dust cloud developed on the northwestern horizon. Harlan observed
the cloud; he had been watching for it since dawn, when he had emerged
from the stable door, where he had been looking after Purgatory.

From the ranchhouse Barbara also saw the cloud, and she ran upstairs to
one of the north windows. There, with her face pressed against the glass,
she watched the cloud grow in size, observed that it was dotted with the
forms of horsemen; saw at last that the horsemen were headed straight for
the Rancho Seco. Then, wondering, anxious, eager, she descended the
stairs and ran out to where Harlan was standing, speaking breathlessly:

"What does it mean? Who are they?"

"It'll be Red Linton an' some T Down boys."

"'T Down'?"

"Pardo men. From where I used to work. I sent Linton for them. If I'm
going to run a ranch I aim to run it with men I can depend on."

She had hardly spoken to him in the four days that had elapsed since
Haydon's last visit, for the disgust she had felt that day had endured.
But there was something new in his manner now--a briskness, a
business-like air that made her look sharply at him.

He smiled at her, and in the smile was a snapping humor that puzzled her.

She stood, watching for a while--until the group of horsemen became
clearly defined--and then, with a sudden fear that the men might be
outlaws of the same type as Harlan--possibly he had sent for them because
they were--she returned to the ranchhouse and watched from one of the
windows.

When the T Down men rode up to the corral gate they dismounted and
surrounded Harlan. There were ten of them--rugged-looking fellows of
various ages, bepistoled, begrimed with dust, and articulate with profane
expressions of delight.

"Hell's a-poppin', Red says!" yelled one. "He says there's geezers here
which is pinin' for yore gore. Turn me loose on 'em--oh, turn me loose!"

The men, tired, dusty, and hungry, swarmed into one of the bunkhouses
immediately after they had turned their horses into the corral and cared
for their saddles.

The men were in good spirits, despite their long ride; and for half an
hour after they descended upon the bunkhouse the air pulsed with their
talk and their laughter, as they washed their dust-stained faces from the
tin washbasin on the bench outside the door, and combed their hair with a
comb attached to a rawhide thong that swung from the wall above the
basin.

They had been informed by Red Linton regarding the situation that had
developed at the Rancho Seco--fully informed before they had begun their
trip westward--Linton scrupulously and faithfully presenting to them the
dangers that confronted them. And though some of them were still curious,
and sought a word with Harlan in confirmation, they seemed to be
satisfied to trust to Harlan's judgment. Their faith was of the kind that
needs but little verbal reassurance.

That they admired the man who had sent for them there was little doubt;
for they watched him with glowing eyes as he talked with them, revealing
their pride that they had been selected. Hardy, clear-eyed, serenely
unafraid, they instantly adapted themselves to the new "job," and before
their first meal was finished they were thoroughly at home.

Shortly afterward--while the men were lounging about inside--Harlan drew
Linton outside.

"That's the bunch I would have picked if I had gone myself," complimented
Harlan. "I'm thankin' you a heap."

He whispered to Linton the story of Haydon's last visit and for the first
time Linton heard about the section of chain which convicted Haydon of
the murder of Lane Morgan. Linton's eyes gleamed.

"I've always sort of suspected the son-of-a-gun!" he declared. "An' him
makin' love to Barbara! The sneakin' coyote! An' so you're goin' to see
him? I'd be a whole lot careful."

Harlan's smile was grave. "I'm reckonin' to be. I'd have gone before
this, but I was waitin' for you boys. Nobody is sayin' anything to
anybody. You're stickin' close to the Rancho Seco, not lettin' Barbara
out of your sight. That's what I wanted you an' the other guys for. I'm
playin' the rest of it a lone hand."

Leaving Linton standing near the bunkhouse, he went to the stable, where
he threw saddle and bridle on Purgatory. Then he mounted, waved a hand at
Linton, who was watching him, and rode to the ranchhouse. At the
northwest corner--around which Haydon had ridden on the occasion of his
last visit--he brought Purgatory to a halt, for he saw Barbara just
emerging from the patio gate.

She halted in the opening when she observed him; making a picture that
was vivid in his memory for many days afterward--for her eyes were alight
with wonder, her cheeks were flushed, and she was breathing fast.

For she had watched from a window the coming of the T Down men; she had
noted the conference between Harlan and Linton; and she had seen Harlan
waving a hand at the red-haired man, seemingly in farewell. She stood
now, afflicted with a strange regret, suddenly aware that she would feel
the absence of the man who sat on his horse before her--for she divined
that he was going.

"I'm sayin' so-long to you, ma'am," smiled Harlan.

"Oh!" she said, aware of the flatness of her tone. "Are you going away?"

"I'm figurin' to go. I ain't used to hangin' around one place very long.
But I'm comin' back some day. Red Linton an' the boys will be seein' that
things go smooth with you. You can depend on Red, and all the boys.
They're Simon-pure, dyed-in-the-wool, eighteen-carat men." And now he
grinned, gravely. "Remember this, Barbara: A man will do things when he's
handlin' a gold chain--things that he wouldn't do if there didn't happen
to be any chain."

He doffed his hat and slapped Purgatory sharply, heading the animal
westward, toward the yawning mouth of the big basin that stretched its
mighty length into the mystery of distance.

But his words left her with a conviction that she had again misjudged
him, and that when he had appeared to fawn on Haydon he had been merely
acting, merely pretending. She watched him, regretfully, longingly,
assailed by emotions that she could not understand--until he and
Purgatory grew small in the gulf of distance; until horse and rider were
swallowed in the glowing haze.





Next: Harlan Joins The Gang

Previous: Forging A Letter



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