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Harlan Takes Charge

From: 'drag' Harlan

Barbara could not have told why she had not acted upon her determination
to ride westward to the Star ranch to acquaint John Haydon with the
predicament into which the events of the past few hours had plunged her.
She could not have explained why she permitted the first day--after
Harlan's coming--to pass without going to see Haydon, any more than she
could have explained why she permitted many other days to pass in the
same manner.

She was almost convinced, though, that it was because of the manner in
which Harlan took charge of the ranch--the capable and business-like way
he had of treating the men.

For the outfit came in late in the afternoon following the night which
had marked the death of Lawson--the straw-boss explaining that he had
received explicit orders from Lawson to "work" a grass level several
miles down the river.

One other reason for Barbara's failure to ride to the Star--a reason that
she did not permit to dwell prominently in her thoughts--was resentment.

She had permitted the first day to pass without going to see Haydon. But
when it had gone and another day dawned without Haydon coming to see
her, she felt that he was deliberately absenting himself. For certainly
he must have heard what had happened, and if he thought as much of her as
he had led her to believe he would have come to her instantly.

Had Haydon seen the defiant gleam of her eyes when she gazed westward--in
the direction of the Star--he might have realized that each day he stayed
away from the Rancho Seco would make it that much more difficult for him
to explain.

Barbara stayed indoors much of the time during the first days of Harlan's
control of the ranch, but from the windows she saw him--noted that the
men obeyed him promptly and without question.

A sense of loss, of emptiness, still afflicted the girl, and yet through
it all there ran a thrill of satisfaction, of assurance that the
steady-eyed man who had saved her from Deveny, and who had treated her
like a courtier of old on the night she had killed Lawson, seemed to have
her welfare in mind, seemed--despite the reputation the people of the
country had given him--to have constituted himself her guardian, without
expectation of reward of the kind she had feared he sought.

Harlan's method of assuming control of the Rancho Seco had been direct
and simple. When the twenty-seven men of the outfit had straggled into
the yard surrounding the big corral--the chuck-wagon, bearing the cook
and his assistant, trailing a little behind, and followed by the horses
of the remuda with the wrangler hurling vitriolic language in the
rear--Harlan was standing beside Purgatory near the corral fence in front
of one of the bunkhouses.

He had paid--apparently--no attention to the men as they dismounted,
unsaddled, and turned their horses into the corral, and he did not even
look at the belligerent-eyed cook whose sardonic glance roved over him.

But the men of the outfit watched him out of the corners of their eyes;
as they passed him to go to the bunkhouses, they shot inquiring,
speculating glances at one another, full of curiosity, not unmixed with
astonishment over his continued silence.

It was when, drawn by the wonder that consumed them, they gathered in a
group near the door of one of the bunkhouses, that Harlan moved toward

For he had noted that they had become grouped, and that into the
atmosphere had come a tension.

Harlan's actions had been governed by design. His continued silence had
been strategy of a subtle order. It had attracted the attention of the
men, it had intrigued their interest.

If he had spoken to them while they had been moving about on their
different errands, telling them that henceforth he was to manage the
Rancho Seco, they would have given him scant attention. Also, he would
not have been able to study their faces as he had studied them while they
had been watching him, and he would not have gained the knowledge of
their characters that he now possessed.

Besides, a humorous malice possessed Harlan--he wanted to view them
collectively when he gave them his news, to note the various ways in
which they would receive it.

Absolute silence greeted Harlan's forward movement. He could hear the
labored breathing of some of the men--men of violent temper who sensed
trouble--and his grin grew broad as he halted within a dozen feet of the

"Boys," he said, slowly, "you've got a new boss. It's me. A day or so
ago, crossin' from Pardo, I run into a ruckus at Sentinel Rock. Lane
Morgan was the center of the ruckus--an' he got perforated--plenty. But
before he cashed in he got a gleam of downright sense an' told me he'd
been lookin' for me, to make me manager of the Rancho Seco.

"I'm reckonin' to be manager--beginnin' now. If there's any of you men
that ain't admirin' to do the jumpin' when I yap orders to you, you're
doin' your gassin' right now. Them that's pinin' to work under me is sure
of a square deal, beginnin' now, and continuin' henceforth. I reckon
that's all."

Into Harlan's eyes as he talked had come that vacuous light that had been
in them when he had faced Deveny's men in Lamo--the light that was always
in his eyes whenever he faced more than one man, with trouble imminent.

He saw the face of every man in the group--while seeming not to be
looking at any of them. He noted the various shades of expression that
came into their faces as they digested his words, he saw how some of them
watched him with sober interest and how others permitted themselves a
sneer of incredulity or dislike.

He noted that a tall, slender, swarthy man on the extreme left of the
group watched him with a malevolent gaze, his eyes flaming hate; he saw a
black-haired, hook-nosed fellow near the center of the group watching him
with a grin of cold contempt.

It seemed to Harlan that a fair proportion of the men were willing to
acknowledge his authority--for they were frankly studying him, ready to
greet him as their employer. Many others, however, were as frankly

After Harlan ceased speaking there came a short silence, during which
many of the men looked at one another inquiringly.

It was a moment during which, had a leader appeared to take the
initiative for those who intended to dissent from Harlan's rule, the
outfit might have been divided.

Evidently the tall, swarthy man divined that the time to dissent had
come, for he cleared his throat, and grinned felinely.

Before he could speak, however, a short man with keen eyes that, since
the instant they had rested upon Harlan, had been glowing with something
that might have been defined as mingled astonishment and delight thinly
concealed by a veneer of humor--said distinctly:

"You crossed over from Pardo--you say?"

Harlan nodded, and a pin-point of recognition glowed in his eyes as he
looked at the man.

The other laughed, lowly. "Seems I know you," he said. "You're 'Drag'

A tremor ran through the group. There was a concerted stiffening of
bodies, a general sigh from lungs in process of deflation. And then the
group stood silent, every man watching Harlan with that intent curiosity
that comes with one's first glimpse of a noted character, introduced
without expectation.

Harlan noted that a change had come over the men. Those whose faces had
betrayed their inclination to accept his authority had taken--without
exception--a glum, disappointed expression. On the other hand, those who
had formerly betrayed hostility, were now grinning with satisfaction.

A tremor of malicious amusement, expressed visibly by a flicker of his
eyelids, was Harlan's only emotion over the change that had come in the
men of the group. He could now have selected those of the men who--as
Lane Morgan had said--could not be trusted, and he could have pointed out
those who had been loyal to Morgan, and who would be loyal to Barbara and

Among the former were the tall, swarthy man on the extreme left, and the
hook-nosed fellow near the center. There were perhaps ten of the latter,
and it was plain to Harlan that the short man who had spoken was their

"'Drag' Harlan--eh?"

This was the tall, swarthy man. The malevolence had gone from his eyes,
he was grinning broadly, though there was respect of a fawning character
in his manner as he stepped out from the group and halted within a few
feet of Harlan.

"Me an' my friends wasn't none tickled to find that we was goin' to have
a new manager. We was sort of expectin' Miss Barbara to do the runnin'
herself. But if you say you're runnin' things, that makes it a whole
lot different. We ain't buckin' 'Drag' Harlan's game."

"Thank you," grinned Harlan. "I saw you reportin' to Miss Morgan. You're
straw-boss, I reckon."

"You've hit it. I'm Stroud--Lafe Stroud."

"You'll keep on bein' straw-boss," said Harlan, shortly. "I'm appointin'
a foreman."

"Where's Lawson?"

It was Stroud who spoke. There was a shadow of disappointment in his

"Lawson won't be needin' a title any more," said Harlan, narrowing his
eyes at the other. "He needs plantin'. Soon as we get set some of you
boys can go over an' take care of him. You'll find him in the harness
shop. He busted down the door of Miss Barbara's room last night, an' she
made a colander out of him."

Harlan ignored the effect of his news on the men, fixing his gaze on the
short man who had spoken first, and who was now standing silent, in an
attitude that hinted of dejection.

"You'll be foreman, Linton," he stated shortly.

Linton, who had been glumly listening, was so startled by the sudden
descent upon his shoulders of the mantle of authority that he
straightened with a snap and grabbed wildly at his hat--which dropped
from his head despite his effort to clutch it, revealing a mop of fiery
red hair. When he straightened, after recovering the hat, his freckled
face was crimson with embarrassment and astonishment.

"I'm obliged to you," he mumbled.

That had ended it. The following morning Linton came to Harlan for
orders, and a little later the entire outfit, headed by Stroud, and
trailed by the chuck-wagon and the horses of the remuda, started
southward to a distant section of the big level, leaving Linton and
Harlan at the ranchhouse.

And as the outfit faded into the southern distance, Harlan, walking near
the larger of the two bunkhouses, came upon Linton.

Harlan grinned when he saw the other.

"You didn't go with the outfit, Red?" he said. "Seems a foreman ought to
be mighty eager to be with his men on their first trip after he's

Linton's face was pale, his gaze was direct.

"Look here, Harlan," he said, steadily. "I've knowed you a long time, an'
I know that you're a damn' sight straighter than a lot of men which has
got reputations better than yourn. But there's some things want
explainin'. I've sort of took a shine to that little girl in there.
There's things brewin' which is goin' to make it mighty bad for her. It
wasn't so bad while old Morgan was here, but now he's gone, an' she's got
to play it a lone hand.

"You git riled an' sling your gun on me if you want to. I know I wouldn't
have a chance. But just the same, I'm tellin' you. You know that more'n
half that outfit you've put me at the head of is Deveny's men--sneakin',
thievin', murderin' outlaws?"

"You wantin' to quit, Red?" said Harlan, smoothly.

"Quit! Hell's fire! I'm hangin' on to the finish. But I'm findin' out
where you stand. What you meanin' to do with Barbara Morgan?"

Harlan grinned. "I answered that question when I appointed you foreman,
Red. But I reckon I made a mistake--I ought to have appointed a man who
knows what his think-box is for."

Linton flushed, and peered intently at the other.

"Meanin' that you're backin' Barbara in this here deal?" he demanded.

"A real thoughtful man would have tumbled to it quicker," was Harlan's
soft, ironical reply.

For an instant Linton's gaze was intense with searching, probing inquiry.
And Harlan's steady eyes were agleam with a light that was so quietly
honest that it made Linton gasp:

"Damn me! You mean it! You're playin' 'em straight, face up. That talk of
yourn about Lane Morgan makin' you manager was straight goods. I know
Dolver an' Laskar an' the guy they call 'Chief' plugged Morgan--for I
heard Stroud an' some more of them talkin' about it. An' I heard that you
got Dolver an' Laskar, an' kept Deveny from grabbin' off Barbara Morgan,
over in Lamo. But I thought you was playin' for Barbara, too--an' I
wasn't figurin' on lettin' you."

Harlan laughed lowly.

"Things don't always shape up the way a man thinks they will, Red. I
started for Lamo, figurin' to salivate Dolver an' the other guy who
killed Davey Langan. I got Dolver at Sentinel Rock, an' I figured I'd be
likely to run into the other guy somewheres--mebbe findin' him in
Deveny's gang. But runnin' into Lane Morgan sort of changed the deal. An'
now I'm postponin' a lot of things until Barbara Morgan is runnin' free,
with no coyotes from the Deveny crowd tryin' to rope her."

Linton's eyes were glowing, he crowded close to Harlan, so close that his
body touched Harlan's, and he stood thus for an instant, breathing fast.
Then, noting the unwavering, genial gleam in Harlan's eyes--a visible
sign of Harlan's knowledge of his deep emotion--Linton seized one of the
other's hands and gripped it tightly.

"Damn your hide," he said, lowly, "you had me goin'. I'm dead set on
seein' that girl git a square deal, an' when I saw you makin' a play for
them damned outlaws that are in the outfit, I sure figured there'd be
hell a-poppin' around the Rancho Seco. You sure had me flabbergasted when
you named me foreman, for I couldn't anticipate your trail none.

"But I reckon I'm wised up, now. You're goin' to run a whizzer in on
'em--playin' 'em for suckers. An' I'm your right-hand man--stickin' with
you until hell runs long on icebergs!"

Next: Shadows

Previous: Barbara Sees A Light

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