Cutting Sign

: 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," D
d 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


"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


"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


"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


"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


"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


"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.