The next morning Johnny said good-bye to Pop and walked by Pepper’s
side, watching the big pack on her back, while Pop, shaking his head,
entered his place of business and forthwith began work on a crude sign
which, one day a week, would hang on his locked front door.

Well to the north of Hastings, Johnny came to a brook flowing through
a deep ravine, and, forsaking the trail, followed the little stream
westward and evening found him encamped in a small clearing. He spent
several days here, panning the stream and fishing during daylight, and
scouting in his moccasins at night. He paid a visit to Little Canyon
and explored the valley he was in, and at the head of the valley he
found a deep-walled pasture above a short, narrow canyon. Deciding to
erect a cabin at the canyon entrance as a monument to the innocence of
his activities, he prospected a sand bar near by and rediscovered the
gold which he had found at Devil’s Gap, which served as an excellent
excuse for locating there permanently; and after a week of hard work,
the cabin became a reality.

His every movement had been made upon the supposition that he was
being watched; and the supposition became a fact when he discovered
boot-prints along the opposite bank of the creek. These promised him
a trail by which he could easily locate the rustlers’ ranch, and at
daylight the next morning he was following them and finally reached a
great ridge, which he ascended with caution.

Below him was a deep valley, through which a stream moved sluggishly,
and at the upper end was a narrow canyon, not more than ten paces wide,
through which the stream escaped from another valley above. Twin Buttes
were several miles to the east of him, lying a mile or more north of
the valley. He looked through the deep canyon and at the corner of a
stone house at its other end, and as he watched he saw several men come
into view. One of them motioned toward the south and paused to speak to
his companions, whereupon Johnny wriggled down the slope and set out
for his camp.

Back again in his own valley, he built a sapling fence across the
little canyon, cut a pile of firewood near by, and then rode to
Hastings, where he nearly gave Charley heart failure by displaying
a pleasing amount of virgin gold. He did not see Pop because on the
saloon door he found a sign reading: “Back at 4 P. M.”

It was a very cheerful cow-puncher who rode to the new cabin that
evening, for he was matching his wits against those of his natural
enemies, he was playing a lone hand in his own way against odds, and
the game was only beginning.

In perfect condition, virile, young, enduring, he had serene confidence
in his ability to take care of himself. He admitted but one master in
the art of gun-play, and that man had been his teacher and best friend
for years. Even now Hopalong could beat him on the draw, but barely,
and he could roll his two guns forward, backward and “mixed;” but he
could shoot neither faster nor straighter than his pupil.

Johnny could not roll a gun because he never had tried very hard to
master that most difficult of all gun-play, regarding it as an idle
accomplishment, good only for exhibition purposes, and, while awe
inspiring, Johnny had no yearning for it. He clove to strict utility
and did not care to call attention to his wooden-handled, flare-butt
Frontiers. There was no ornamentation on them, no ivory, inlay, or
engraving. The only marks on their heavy, worn frames were a few dents.
He had such a strong dislike for fancy guns that the sight of ivory
grips made his lips curl, and such things as pearl handles filled him
with grieving contempt for the owner.

He never mentioned his guns to any but his closest friends, and they
were as unconscious a part of him as his arms or his legs. And it
was his creed that no man but himself should touch them, his friends
excepted. He wore them low because utility demanded it; and to so wear
them, and to tie them down besides, was in itself a responsibility, for
there were men who would not be satisfied with the quiet warning.

In other things, from routine ranch work to man-hunting, from roping
and riding to rifle shooting, the old outfit of the Bar-20 had been his
teachers and they had taken him in hand at an early age. His rifle he
had copied from Hopalong; but Red had taught him the use of it, and to
his way of thinking Red Connors was without a peer in the use of the
longer weapon.

Johnny was a genius with his six-guns, one of those few men produced in
a generation; and he did not belong to the class of fancy gun-workers
who shine at exhibitions and fall short when lead is flying and the
nerves are sorely tried. He shot from his hips by instinct, and that is
the real test of utility. Had he turned his talents to ends which lay
outside the law he would have become the most dangerous and the most
feared man in the cow-country.

John Logan awoke with a start, sat up suddenly in his bunk and grunted
a profane query as his hand closed over his Colt.

“It’s Nelson,” softy said a voice from outside the window. “Don’t make
so much noise,” it continued, as its owner dropped a handful of pebbles
on the ground. “I wanted you awake before I showed myself. Never
like to walk into a man’s room in th’ dark, when he’s asleep an’ not
expectin’ visitors. ‘Specially when he’s worryin’ about rustlers. It
ain’t allus healthy.”

“All right,” growled the foreman, “but you don’t have to throw ’em; you
can toss ’em, easy, from there. I’ve got a welt on my head as big as
a chew of tobacco. I’m shore glad you couldn’t find nothin’ out there
that was any bigger. You comin’ in or am I comin’ out?”

The door squeaked open and squeaked shut and then a chair squeaked.

“You got a musical room,” observed Johnny, chuckling softly. “Yore bunk
squeaked, too, when you sat up.”

“It was a narrow squeak for you,” grunted Logan, reluctantly putting
down the Colt. “If I’d seen a head I’d ‘a’ let drive on suspicion. I
was havin’ a cussed bad dream an’ was all het up. My cows was goin’ up
Little Canyon in whole herds an’ I couldn’t seem to stop ’em nohow.”

“Keepin’ my head out of trouble is my long suit,” chuckled Johnny. “An’
there ain’t none of yore cows goin’ up Little Canyon–not till I steal
some of ’em. Been wonderin’ where I was an’ what I was doin’?”

“Not very much,” answered the foreman. “Got a match? We been gettin’
our mail reg’lar every week, an’ th’ boys allus drop in for a drink at
Pop’s; an’ they’re good listeners. Say! What th’ h–l is this I hears
about puttin’ blankets on my cows an’ shovin’ ’em into th’ river every
night? Well, that can wait. You’ve shore made an impression on Ol’ Pop
Hayes. Th’ old Piute can’t talk about nothin’ but you. Every time th’
boys drop in there they get fed up on you. Of course they don’t show
much interest in yore doin’s; an’ they don’t have to. They says yo’re
a d–d quitter, an’ stuff like that, an’ Pop gets riled up an’ near
scalps ’em. What you been doin’ to get him so friendly? I never thought
he’d be friendly, like that, to anythin’ but a silver dollar.”

“I don’t know–just treat him decent,” replied Johnny.

“Huh! I been treatin’ him decent for ten years, an’ he still thinks
I’m some kind of an unknown animal. If he saw me dyin’ in th’ street
he wouldn’t drag me five feet, unless I was blockin’ his door; but
he’s doin’ a lot of worryin’ about you, all right. What you been doin’
besides courtin’ Pop an’ Andy Jackson, washin’ gravel an’ ketchin’

Johnny laughed. “I’ve been playin’ cautious–an’ right now I ain’t
shore that I’ve fooled ’em a whole lot. Here, lemme tell you th’ whole
thing–” and he explained his activities since leaving the CL.

At its conclusion Logan grunted. “You got nerve an’ patience; an’ mebby
you got brains. If you can keep ’em from bein’ shot out of yore head,
you have. An’ you say they ain’t usin’ Little Canyon? I know they ain’t
usin’ it now; but was they?”

“Not since th’ frost come out of th’ ground,” replied Johnny. “I can’t
tell you about what they _are_ doin’ because I’m just beginnin’ to get
close to ’em. Th’ next time you see me I may know somethin’. Now you
listen to me,” and he gave the foreman certain instructions, which
Logan repeated over after him. “Now, then: I want about sixty feet of
rope strong enough to hold me, an’ I want a short, straight iron.”

“Come with me,” ordered the foreman, slipping on his clothes; and in
ten minutes they emerged from the blacksmith shop, which also was a
storeroom, and Johnny carried a coil of old but strong rope and an iron

“I never thought I’d be totin’ a runnin’ iron,” he chuckled. “If
my friends could only see me now! Johnny Nelson, cow-thief an’

“You needn’t swell up,” growled Logan. “You ain’t th’ only one in this
country right now.”

“Well,” said Johnny, “go back an’ finish yore dream–mebby you can find
out how to make them cows come back through Little Canyon.”

“Yo’re goin’ to do that,” responded Logan; “an’ _I’m_ goin’ to close
that window in case _you_ come back. I ain’t forgot nothin’ you
said–an’ if we don’t see one of yore signs for a period of five days,
we’ll comb yore valley an’ th’ whole Twin Buttes country. So long!”

Johnny melted into the dark, a low whistle sounded and in a few minutes
Logan heard the rhythmic drumming of hoofs, rapidly growing fainter.

The evening following his visit to the CL, Johnny went to bed early but
not to sleep. For several hours he lay thinking and listening, and then
he arose and put on his moccasins, threw on his shoulder Logan’s rope,
now knotted every foot of its length, slipped out of the cabin and
was swallowed up in the darkness along the base of the rocky wall. To
cover the few yards between the cabin and the narrow crevice took ten
minutes, and to go softly up the crevice took twice as long.

Reaching the top he listened intently, and then moved slowly and
silently to a small clump of pines growing close to the rim of the
steep wall enclosing the walled-in pasture, at a point where it was so
sheer and smooth that he believed it would not be watched. Fastening
one end of the rope to a tree, he lowered the rest of it over the wall
and went down. Pausing again to listen, he made his way to a line of
stones which lay across the creek, crossed with dry feet, and reached
the northern wall of the pasture. This could be climbed at half a dozen
places and he soon was up it and on his way north. After colliding with
several bowlders and tripping twice he waited until the moon arose and
then went on again at a creditable speed.

The crescent moon had risen well above the tops of Twin Buttes when
a man in moccasins moved cautiously across a high plateau some miles
north of Nelson’s creek and finally dropped to all fours and proceeded
much more slowly. From all fours to stomach was his next choice and
he wriggled toward the edge of the plateau, pausing every foot or so
to remove loose stones. These he put aside before going on again, for
there is no telling where a rolling pebble will stop, or the noise it
may make, when the edge of a mesa wall is but a few feet away. Coming
to within an arm’s length of the edge, he first made sure that the
rim was solid rock and free from dirt and pebbles; and then, hitching
forward slowly, he peered down into the deep valley.

Its immensity amazed him, for upon the occasion of his former
reconnaissance he had viewed it from the outside; and as a picture
of his own pasture flashed into his mind he snorted softly at the
contrast, for where he had acres, this great “sink” had square miles.
It was wider than his own was long, and it stretched away in the faint
moonlight until its upper reaches were lost to his eyes. It was large
enough to hold one great butte in its middle, and perhaps there were
more; and from where he lay he judged the wall below him dropped
straight down for three hundred feet.

“There ain’t no line ridin’ here, unless th’ cows grow wings,” he

To the south of him were four lighted windows near the forbidding
blackness of the entrance canyon, and from their spacing he deduced
two houses. And across from the windows he could make out a vague
quadrangle, which experience told him was the horse corral. As if to
confirm his judgment there came from it at that moment a shrill squeal
and the sound of hoofs on wood, muffled by the distance. And from the
corral extended a faint line which ran across the valley and became
lost in the darkness near the opposite cliff. This he knew to be a

“If this valley ends like it begins, three or four men can handle an
awful lot of cows, ‘cept at drive time,” he soliloquized, and then
listened intently to the sound of distant voices.

_… many happy hours away,_
_A sittin’ an a singin’ by a little cottage do-o-r._
_Where lived my darlin’ Nel-lie Gr-a-ay,_

came floating faintly from far below him.

He peered in the direction of the singing and barely made out a moving
blot well out in the valley. As it came steadily nearer, the blot
resolved itself into several dots, and the chorus had greater volume.
It appeared that the group was harmonizing.

“You’ll be doin’ somethin’ more than sittin’ an’ singin’ at yore little
cottage door one of these days,” grunted Johnny savagely. It was his
rebuff to the thought which came to him of how long it had been since
he had ruined the silence in company with his friends. “That first
feller is purty good; but one of ’em shore warbles like a sick calf.”

Several other dots arose suddenly from the earth and lumbered sleepily
away as the horsemen approached them.

“There’s some of Logan’s cows, I reckon,” grunted the watcher grimly.
“Wish I could see better. I’ve got to do my prospectin’ in daylight;
an’ I got to find some way to ride over here–waste too much time on

More squealing came from the corral and grew in volume as other
horses joined in it. From the noise it appeared to be turning into
a free-for-all. A door in one of the distant houses suddenly opened
and framed a rectangular patch of light, dull and yellow; and from it
emerged a bright little light which swung in short, jerky arcs close
to the ground and went rapidly toward the corral. Soon thereafter the
squealing ceased and a moment later the little light went bobbing back
again, blotted out in rhythmic dashes by the swinging legs beside it.

“Big Jerry fightin’ again,” laughed one of the horsemen during a pause
in the singing. Johnny barely was able to hear him.

_Oh my darlin’ Nellie Gra-a-y, they have taken her awa-a-y;_
_An’ I’ll never see my darlin’ any more_–ANY MORE!

rumbled the harmonizers, bursting into a thundering perpetration on the
repetition of the last two words.

“Th’ farther off they get th’ better they sound,” growled Johnny as the
harmonizers were swallowed up in the darkness near the opposite cliff.
“They’d sound better at about ten miles.”

Lying comfortably on his stomach, his head out over the rim of the
wall, he was lost in thought when a sudden, startled snort behind him
nearly caused him to go over the edge. A contortionist hardly could
have changed ends quicker than he did; he simply went up in the air
and when he came down again he was on hands and knees, one foot where
his head had been. But he did not stop there; indeed, he did not even
pause there, for he kept on moving until he was on his feet, his knees
bent and his head thrust forward, and each hand, without conscious
direction, held a gun. And almost instantly they chocked back into the

A gray shape was backing slowly into the shadows of a bowlder, two
green eyes boring through the gloom, and Johnny’s hair became ambitious.

“I dassn’t shoot, I dassn’t run, an’ I can’t back up! All right; when
in doubt try a bluff; but I shore hopes it’s th’ bluffin’ kind!”

He emitted a throaty, ferocious snarl, dropped the tips of his fingers
to the earth and started for the bowlder and the green eyes, on a
series of back-humping, awkward jumps, like a weak-kneed calf cavorting
playfully. Another snort, curious, incredulous, frightened, came from
the bowlder and a great gray wolf backed off hastily, but with a
hesitating uncertainty which was not as reassuring as might be hoped

Johnny let out another snarl, more terrifying than the first, humped
his back energetically, waved his legs, and then with a low-toned but
blood-curdling shriek, leaped at the wavering cow-killer. The gray
silhouette lengthened and vanished, simply melting into the darkness as
though it had urgent business elsewhere.

Johnny arose, a rock in his hand, and sighed with relief; and his
ambitious hair settled back again into its accustomed place while the
prickling along his spine died out.

“Holy smoke! What if it had been half-starved, or a grizzly! Blast
you!” he growled, shaking a vengeful fist at the presumed locality of
the wolf.

“You just come snortin’ around _my_ valley! I’ll shoot yore insides all
over th’ landscape!”

Hanging onto the rock, he readjusted his belts and went nearer the
entrance canyon to get a closer view of the houses and surroundings.
When again he looked over the edge of the precipice he was directly
over the corral and across from the houses, which the rays of the moon,
slanting through a break in the opposite cliff, now faintly revealed.

There were three houses and they were low, long and narrow, and built
of stone, with the customary adobe roofs; and they were built in
echelon, the three end walls appearing as one from the canyon. He
nodded appreciatively, for it required no great imagination to see,
in his mind’s eye, the loopholes which undoubtedly ornamented that
end of the houses. The narrow canyon, straight as an arrow and fully
half a mile long, lay at almost perfect right angles to the three
walls. A handful of determined men, cool and accurate, in those houses
could hold the canyon against great odds while their food, water and
ammunition held out. Moving his head, he caught a sudden glint, and
peered intently to discover what had caused it. He moved again until
he saw it the second time, and then he knew. A small trickle of water
flowed from a spring back near the great wall, and it passed under one
corner of each house.

“That’s purty good!” he ejaculated in ungrudging admiration. He was
something of a strategist himself and he was not slow to pay respect to
the handiwork of genius when he saw it. “Built ’em like steps so as to
cover th’ canyon from all three houses; an’ diverted that little stream
so they could get water without showing themselves. No matter which
side of them houses is rushed, there is allus three walls to face.
Th’ only weak spots are th’ north an’ south corners. If they ain’t
loopholed a good man could sneak right up to th’ corner of th’ end
houses; but what he’d do after he got there, I don’t know.”

He studied the problem in silence and then nodded his head: “Huh! Them
walls don’t overhang, an’ so they can’t shoot down close to ’em. Mebby
I’ve found th’ weak spot–but I’ll have to get a whole lot closer than
I am now before I’m shore of it. An’ that can wait.”

He wriggled back from the wall and arose. “Seen all I can at night.
Don’t even know if these fellers _are_ rustlin’. Bein’ suspicious an’
bein’ shore ain’t th’ same. But th’ next time I come up here I won’t
leave until I am shore, not if it takes all summer. Logan said to be
shore to find out how many there are, their trail from his ranch an’
th’ place where they operates on th’ CL. Says he’s got to get ’em
actually stealin’ his cows on his ranch. Says he ain’t got no friends
out here and that th’ other ranches acts like they was sort of on th’
side of th’ thieves. That’s a h–l of a note, that is! Buck, an’ Hoppy,
an’ us: we never gave a whoop where we found rustlers if they had our
cows; an’ we never gave two whoops in h–l what th’ rest of th’ country
thought about it. Times have changed. Imagine us askin’ anybody if we
could shoot rustlers! Huh!”

He started back the way he had come up, and reached his own valley
without incident; but when he wriggled toward the wall he was puzzled,
and worried. There was the clump of pines up above him, ghostly in the
faint moonlight; but he could see no rope. Thankful that he had been
cautious in crossing the valley, he wriggled a little closer and then
started back over his trail, recrossed the valley, climbed the other
wall in the shelter offered by a crevice and slipped along the great
ridge. All he cared about now was to get back into the cabin without
being seen. All kinds of conjectures ran through his head concerning
the absence of the rope, and while he thrashed them out he kept going
ahead, careful to take full advantage of the wealth of cover at hand.

His senses were keyed to their highest pitch of efficiency and at times
he concentrated on one of them at the expense of the others. While he
used his eyes constantly, it was in his ears that he placed the most
confidence. The man who does the moving about is at a disadvantage,
which he keenly realized.

He did not mind so much being away from the cabin if he could make it
appear to be innocent; and to that end he moved steadily toward the
Hastings trail. His horse was not to be seen, and that worried him. It
could have strayed, for he had neither picketed nor hobbled it, but he
feared that it had not strayed.

Passing his old camp site he heard a noise, and flattened himself on
the ground. It came again and from the edge of the clearing where he
had spent his first few nights in the valley. Anyone foolish enough to
make a noise, under the circumstances, was foolish enough to be stalked
by any man who had good sense; and he proceeded to do the stalking.

It took him quite a while to get around back of the place where his
tent had stood, but when he finally got there he was repaid for his
time and trouble. It was not the direction from which he would be
expected, if the rustlers’ suspicions were aroused; and there was a
certain twisting path through the brush which was devoid of twigs and

Foot by foot he crept forward until he could see the big bowlder in
the clearing, and then he paused as the sound was heard again, and he
tried to classify it. A twig snapped, and then another sound made him
nod quickly. It was a horse; that was certain; but could it be Pepper?
While he pondered and listened to the slow, interrupted steps, a dark
shape moved out from the deep shadows of the trees, pricked its ears,
stretched out its head toward him, nickered softly and slowly advanced.

He stared in amazement, for while it was Pepper, the saddle was on her
back; and when he had left the cabin the saddle was inside. But, was
it, though? In a moment his mind had marshaled in review before him all
his acts of the previous day; all but one. Had he unsaddled the horse
when he had ridden back from the upper end of his little valley? Of
course he had; why should he have neglected to do such a thing as that?
But, perhaps he hadn’t. He swore under his breath and backed away, for
the horse was coming nearer all the time. It was his saddle; he could
tell that easily. And then all of his doubts cleared in a flash. When
he had ridden in from the pasture he had started to remove the saddle,
but when he thought of his boiling pots he had pushed the end of the
cinch strap back under the little holding strap, and he had not shoved
it home. Right now that cinch end should be sticking out in a loop.
Craning his neck and shifting silently he managed to see it; and a
chuckle escaped from him. He whistled softly, so softly that anyone a
hundred feet away could not have heard it; but the horse heard it and
nickered again. What fools these men were! Did her master think that
she had to hear a whistle to know that he was about, when the wind was
right and he was so close?

Pepper was a well-trained, intelligent animal, and Johnny knew it
better than anyone else; and Pepper had a strong aversion to strangers,
which he also knew; and knowing that, he was instantly assured that
there were no strangers in the immediate vicinity because Pepper was
thoroughly at her ease. The black head thrust forward into his face
and the bared teeth snapped at him, whereupon he playfully cuffed the
velvety nozzle. Pepper forthwith swung her head suddenly and knocked
off her master’s hat, and pretended to be in a fine rage.

“You old coyote!” chuckled Johnny, cuffing her again. “Cussed if you
ain’t th’ most no-account old fool I ever saw. But I ought to be kicked
from here to Hastings an’ back again for leavin’ that saddle on you
all afternoon an’ night. Will some sugar square it? Hey! Get out of my
pocket–it’s in th’ shack,” he laughed. And there was a note in his
laughter that a horse of Pepper’s intelligence might easily understand.

Mounting, he rode across the clearing, and when he reached the water
course he followed it to his cabin. Pepper had given him the card he
needed now for, in the saddle and careless of being seen, which was his
best play, dangerous as it might be, he was riding home from an evening
spent in Hastings. As to answering any questions about the dangling
rope, he either would inform the curious that it was none of their
business, or lie; and whether the lie would be a humorous exaggeration
which could not possibly be believed, or adroit, plausible, and
convincing would be a matter of mood.

Whistling softly he rode across the little plateau, stripped the saddle
from Pepper, who waited until he returned with some sugar, and lit the
lantern. Pepper was not the only member of that partnership whose nose
was useful; and the faint odor of a vile, frontier cigar had lingered
after its possessor had departed.

“Huh! We must ‘a’ swapped ends tonight; but I’ll bet he’s doin’ more
wonderin’ than me. He thinks he’s got a lead, findin’ that rope. I know
he didn’t see me put it there, or go down it; an’ I’ll bet he don’t
know that I came back to it. He can watch an’ be cussed.”

Clearing away the breakfast pans the following morning, Johnny did some

“This is a nice little shack, but I ain’t stuck on it a whole lot. Now
that I’ve built it, I’ve got to use it or tip off my hand; an’ as long
as I use it they know where to find me. I’ve got to come back to it.
At th’ worst I can hold it against them for five days; an’ then th’
outfit’ll be up here an’ drive ’em off. But if it comes to trouble they
won’t let me get to it; they’ll pick me off when I’m outside. They’re
gettin’ more suspicious all th’ time, too, judgin’ from that missin’
rope an’ th’ smell of that cigar. Nope; I don’t like this shack a
little bit. An’ some night when I’m sneakin’ back to it, suppose one of
’em is in it, waitin’ for me? That wouldn’t be nice. First chance I get
I’ll tote my tarpaulin an’ some supplies out of here an’ cache ’em some
place not too far away.”

Going into the little valley he was greatly surprised to see the rope
hanging as he had left it, but he did not give it a second glance, and
acted as though he was ignorant that it had been removed. He busied
himself carrying firewood from the pile and heaping it up in the
center of a cleared space, ready to be lit later on, and then removed
the two saplings which made the gate to his rough fence and swung them
aside so that they formed a V-shaped approach to the opening. Having
performed these mysterious rites he passed the cabin, climbed up the
crevice, recovered the rope, and returned. Carrying it into the house
he carelessly closed the door behind him, went swiftly to the loose
log in the rear wall and removed the things he had hidden behind it,
rolling them up in the tarpaulin. Then he picked ravelings from an
empty salt sack, tied them together and rolled them in the dirt on the
floor until they matched it in color. After filling the water pails and
chopping some firewood he took the gold pan and his rod and sought the
creek, where he spent the rest of the day working and fishing.

Darkness found his supper dishes washed and put away, and, kneeling by
the door, he stretched a string of weak ravelings across the opening,
six inches above the sill. Cord not only would have been too prominent,
but too strong; a foot would break the ravelings and never feel the
contact. Whistling to Pepper, he took his saddle and the tarpaulin,
stepped high over the door sill and in a few minutes was riding down
the valley. Just before he came to the Hastings trail he threw the
tarpaulin far into the brush without slowing the horse, and then,
crossing the trail, plunged into the sloping draw which eventually
became Little Canyon.

Pepper gingerly picked her way down the rough canyon trail without any
directions from her rider, crossed the level, bowlder-strewn flat to
the river, and stopped at the water’s edge.

The Deepwater gurgled and swished, cold, swift, deep, and black, and
Johnny shivered in anticipation of the discomforts due to be his for
the next few hours. Unbuckling his belts, he slung them around his
neck, and in his hat he placed the contents of his pockets. Giving
Pepper a friendly and encouraging slap, he urged her into the river, a
task which she did not like; but she overcame her prejudices against
ice water and plunged in, swimming with powerful strokes. Emerging on
the other bank they cantered briskly to the faintly beaten trail where
Billy Atwood spent so many hours, and along it until a small, isolated
clump of trees loomed up. There was a stump among them and on this
Johnny placed a stone. Then he waited, shivering, until the moon came

A black blot arose hastily from the earth and became a cow. Two more
near it also arose, and the three lumbered off clumsily, driven in the
right direction by a horse that knew her work. It was her firm belief
that cows had been put on earth to be bossed by her, and no matter how
quickly they swerved she was always at the right place at the right
time and kept them going as her master wished. She neither hurried them
too fast nor pressed them too closely, for she knew that when a range
cow is pushed too hard it is likely to go “on the prod” and change
instantly from an easy-going, docile victim to a stubborn, vicious
quadruped with no sense whatever and a strong yearning to use its horns.

It did not take long to get six cows to the edge of the Deepwater; but
it took two hours of careful but hard riding, perseverance and profuse
profanity to get them into the water. It was no one-man job, and with
a horse that had less training than Pepper it might have proved to be
an impossibility; but at last one cow preferred the water to being
made a fool of, and when it went in the others reluctantly followed.
Scrambling out on the farther bank they doubtless were congratulating
themselves upon having escaped a pest, when the pest itself emerged
behind them and drove them slowly but steadily toward Little Canyon.
In it they went, and up it; and as they paused on the main trail to
determine which way to go, the pest arrived and decided the question
for them, drove them across it and into a small valley; and as day
broke, six unhurried, placid cows wandered slowly into the crooked
canyon and through the opening in the fence.

Having changed the brands from the original CL to an equally sprawling
GB, he returned to the cabin, unsaddled, and entered, stepping high
over the sill. No one was there and nothing had been disturbed, but
when he looked for the thread he found it snapped and lying on the

Starting a brisk fire he hung his wet clothes before it on crude
tripods made of sticks, hastily ate a substantial breakfast, fastened
the shutter of the window, hung the gold pan over the closed door to
serve as an alarm if anyone should enter, and in a few minutes was

Across the creek, high up on the great ridge, a man lay behind a
bowlder, a rifle in his hands, and he kept close watch on the cabin.
Waiting a reasonable length of time, he finally arose, waved his hand
and settled down again, the rifle covering the cabin door. In the
pasture another man emerged from a thicket and hurried toward the
canyon, swearing softly when he saw the changed brands. It took no
second sight to tell him what the original brand had been. Emerging
from the canyon he paused, glanced up at his friend, who made a
significant sign, debated something in his mind, and then, pulling out
a notebook, scrawled something in it and tore out the page. Creeping
softly he reached the cabin door, stuck the page on it and then
hurried away to join his friend. They climbed the ridge and hastened
northward, conversing with animation.

When they reached the canyon leading to their ranch a tall, rangy man
advanced to meet them. “Well,” he said, smiling: “what did you find out
about the rope? An’ what kept you so long?”

“We found out a-plenty,” growled Ackerman angrily. “That feller ain’t
no prospector. I’ve said so all along. He don’t know enough about
prospectin’ to earn a livin’ on th’ top of a pile of gold!”

His companion nodded quickly. “Jim’s right; he’s a rustler. Doin’ it
single-handed, on a small scale.”

“_I_ ain’t nowise shore that rustlin’ is his game, neither,” said
Ackerman. “If he is he’s a new hand at it. I could rebrand them cows
in just about half th’ time it took him, an’ do a better job. He’s
dangerous; an’ he should ‘a’ been shot long before this. I can get him
today,” he urged.

“I don’t doubt that; but I wouldn’t do it,” smiled Quigley. “An’ I hope
_yo’re_ shore he ain’t Logan.”

Jim swore. “Yes; but if he keeps on rustlin’ he’ll have Logan after
him. An’ that’ll mean that we’ll have to look sharp, an’ mebby fight.
You let me get him, Tom.”

Quigley shook his head. “‘Tain’t necessary. All we got to do is let
him know he ain’t wanted. Steal his cows, burn his cabin; an’ shoot
near him a couple of times, until he realizes how easy we can shoot
_through_ him. But I ain’t shore I want him drove away.”

“Huh!” ejaculated Ackerman.

“Huh!” repeated Fleming foolishly.

“Well,” drawled Quigley, “for one thing Logan’s purty shore to begin
missin’ cows before long. What puzzles me is that he ain’t missed ’em
long ago. Then he’ll begin watchin’ his range nights.”

“But he won’t watch up there,” interrupted Fleming. “He don’t know
about that ford.”

“There’s only two breaks in th’ Barrier,” continued Quigley, ignoring
the interruption, “that are near Nelson’s valley; an’ they’re th’
first places Logan’ll watch. They’re Big an’ Little Canyons. Some fine
night Nelson will get caught or followed. Bein’ a stranger, an’ once
workin’ for th’ CL, Logan will think he’s got th’ rustlers. He’ll find
signs that’ll make him look in Nelson’s pasture–if they ain’t there
naturally we’ll put ’em there. They’ll find his cabin an’ his rebranded
herd. When they go back again they’ll reckon that th’ rustlin’ is all
over; an’ we’ll still be in th’ game, lettin’ up a little for a while,
an’ be better off than ever. Savvy my drift?”

Ackerman shook his head savagely. “With them six cows, an’ Logan
missin’ hundreds?” he sarcastically demanded.

Quigley smiled patronizingly. “Findin’ only a few won’t mean nothin’,
except that he’s driven off th’ rest every time he has got a few
together, an’ sold ’em. Now if you was to take that notebook that’s
stickin’ out of yore pocket, an’ write in it some words an’ figgers
showin’ that he’s sold so many cows, an’ what he got for ’em each time,
it might help. We’ll know when Logan’s due, an’ we can drop that book
where he’ll find it. You never want to kill anythin’ till yo’re shore
it ain’t goin’ to be useful. There’s one thing I’m set on: there ain’t
going to be no unnecessary killin’.”

Ackerman laughed grimly. “Well, anyhow; I’ve started things. I left a
note on his door tellin’ him what to do.”

“What did you write?” demanded Quigley.

Ackerman told him defiantly. “An’ what’s more,” he added, “I’m goin’ to
do some pot-shootin’ before long.”

“Well,” replied Quigley, “I’d rather drive him out, an’ then watch him
for a while. I ain’t shore he can’t be scared. Do you think he suspects
he’s bein’ watched?”

“I don’t think so,” answered Fleming.

“I know he does!” snapped Ackerman. “Why does he paw around that gravel
bed an’ pertend that he’s found gold in it? There ain’t no gold there!”

Quigley laughed. “He found gold, all right. Charley James saw it: an’
he got it right there. He wanted Charley to take it in pay. I don’t
doubt that you know somethin’ about prospectin’ but ‘gold is where it’s

Ackerman thrust his head forward. “Gold in that gravel! H–l!”

“Charley saw it,” grunted Quigley.

“Charley be d–d!” snorted Ackerman. He looked closely at Quigley and
suddenly demanded: “What makes you so set ag’in us shootin’ him?”

Quigley regarded him evenly. “There was a lot of talk when Porter was
found dead. I told you all at th’ time. Four men have got curious, come
up in these hills an’ never went out again. Twin Buttes has a bad name;
an’ th’ next dead man that’s blamed on us is goin’ to make a lot more
talk an’ may stir up trouble.

“Now then: Pop knows that Nelson’s up here, an’ that means that
everybody knows it. He saw me reach for my gun, an’ heard me tell him
to keep out of here. An’ let me tell you Pop knows more about us than
he lets on; an’ he’s as venomous as a snake when he gets riled. An’ he
ain’t th’ only one that knows things.

“Now we’ll add it up: If we can scare Nelson away, or discourage him,
he’ll quit of his own accord; an’ he won’t talk because he knows that
somebody knows he’s been rustlin’.” He turned on his heel. “Am I plain

“Wait a minute,” called Ackerman. “That feller has got me worried.
Mebby it would be reckless to let him disappear up here; but suppose I
go on a spree in town when he’s there? It’s easy to start a fight with
a gunman, because he’s got to toe th’ mark. I can do th’ job open an’
above board, an’ make it natural; an’ that will keep us clear.”

“Jim,” smiled Quigley, “I don’t want to lose you; an’ if you pick a
square fight with that man, th’ even break that you demand in yore
personal quarrels, we _will_ lose you. I looked down his gun, an’ I
tell you that I didn’t see him move. He’s a _gun_ man!”

Ackerman laughed. “We won’t say anythin’ about _that_. But if he did
get th’ worst of it in an even break an’ a personal quarrel, would it
hurt us up here? That’s all I want to know.”

Quigley thought deeply and made a slow and careful reply. “If it wasn’t
bungled I don’t see how it could. You’d have to rile him subtle, make
him declare war an’ be th’ injured party yoreself; an’ you’d want
witnesses. But don’t you do it, Jim; not nohow. I got a feelin’ that
he’s th’ best man with a Colt in this section. Yo’re a wizard with a
six-gun; but you ain’t good enough for him. When he’s around yo’re in
th’ little boy’s class; an’ I ain’t meanin’ no offense to you, neither.”

Ackerman, hands on hips, stared at Quigley’s back as he walked away.
“Th’ h–l you say!” he snorted wrathfully. “‘Little boy’s class,’ huh?”
He wheeled and turned a scowling face to his friend Fleming. “Did you
hear that? I calls that rubbin’ it in! I got a notion to take that
feller’s two guns away from him an’ make Tom eat ’em! D–d if I don’t,
too! You ride to town with me an’ I’ll show you somethin’ you won’t
never forget!”

It may not be out of place here to say that the time soon came when he
did show Fleming something; and that Fleming never did forget it.

Mr. Quigley smiled grimly as he entered the house, for it was his
opinion that Mr. Ackerman had no peer in his use and abuse of Mr.
Colt’s most famous invention. He hardly could ask Mr. Ackerman to
sally forth and engage in a personal duel with a common enemy, for it
would smack too much of asking a friend to do his fighting for him. He
believed that leadership is best based when it rests upon the respect
of those led. He had no doubt about the outcome of such a duel, for
he implicitly believed that the stranger, despite his vaunting two
guns, had as much chance against Mr. Ackerman’s sleight-of-hand as an
enraged rattler had against a cool and businesslike king snake. The
appropriateness of the simile made him smile, because the rattler is
heavily armed and calls attention to the fact, while the king snake is
modest, unassuming, and sounds no war-cry. Two guns meant nothing to
Mr. Quigley, because he knew that one was entirely sufficient in the
hand of the right man.

He had carefully pointed out the way for Mr. Ackerman to proceed
in such a situation, and then warned him in an irritating way not
to go ahead. So now he sighed with relief at a problem solved, for
his knowledge of Mr. Ackerman’s character was based upon accurate
observations extending over a long period of time.

Johnny got up at noon, and when he saw the sign on his door its single
word “Vamose” told him that the valley and the cabin were of no further
use to him; that the time for subterfuge and acting a part was past.
That the rustlers were not certain of his intentions was plain, for
otherwise there would have been a bullet instead of a warning; and he
was mildly surprised that they had not ambushed him to be on the safe

It now remained for him to open the war, and warn them further; or
to pretend to obey the mandate and seek new fields of observation.
Pride and anger urged the former; common sense and craftiness, the
latter; and since he had not accomplished his task he decided to
swallow his anger and move. Had he been only what he pretended to be,
Nelson’s creek would have seen some stirring times. As a sop to his
pride he printed a notice on a piece of Charley’s wrapping paper and
fastened it on the door. Its three, short words made a concise, blunt
direction as to a certain journey, popularly supposed to be the more
heavily traveled trail through the spirit world. Packing part of his
belongings on Pepper, he found room to sit in the saddle, and started
off for an afternoon in Hastings, after which he would return to the
cabin to spend the night and to get the rest of his effects.

When he rode into town he laughed outright at the sign on Pop’s door,
and he laughed harder when he saw another on Charley’s door; and
leaving his things behind Pop’s saloon, he pushed on to Devil’s Gap.
At the ford he met the two happy anglers returning and they paused in
mid-stream to hold up their catch.

“You come back with us,” grinned Pop. “We’ll pool th’ fish an’ have a
three-corner meal. Where was you goin’?”

“To find you,” chuckled Johnny. “I’m surprised at th’ way you both
neglects business.”

“Comin’ from you that makes me laugh,” snorted Pop.

Charley grinned. “Did you see that whoppin’ big feller I got? Bet it’ll
go three pounds.”

“Lucky if it’s half that,” grunted Pop. “If I’d ‘a’ got that one _I_
had hold of, we’d ‘a’ had a three-pounder, or mebby a four-pounder.”

Charley snorted. “Who ever heard of a four-pound brook trout? Been a
brown, now, it might ‘a’ been that big.”

“Why, I caught ’em up to eight pounds, back East, when I was a kid!”
retorted Pop.

“Yo’re a squaw’s dog liar!” snapped Charley. “Eight-pound brook trout!
You must ‘a’ snagged a turtle, or an old boot full of mud!”

“Bet you five dollars!” retorted Pop, bristling.

“How you goin’ to prove it?” jeered Charley. “Call th’ dead back to
life to lie for you?”

“Reckon I can’t prove it,” regretted Pop. “But when a man hangs around
with a liar he shore gets th’ name, too.”

“Nobody never called me a liar an’ got off without a hidin’!” snapped
Charley. “I may be sixty years old, but I can lick you an’ yore whole
fambly if you gets too smart!”

Pop drew rein, his chin whiskers bobbing up and down. “I’m older’n that
myself; but I don’t need no relations to help me lick you! Get off that
hoss, if you dares!”

“Here! Here!” interposed Johnny. “What’s th’ use of you two old friends
mussin’ each other up? Come on! I’m in a hurry! I’m hungry!”

“I won’t go a step till he says I ain’t no liar!” snapped Charley.

“I won’t go till he says I caught a eight-pound brook trout!”

“Mebby he did–how do _I_ know what he did when he was a boy?” growled
Charley, full of fight. “But I ain’t no liar, an’ that’s flat!”

“Who said you was, you old fool?” asked Pop heatedly.

“You did!”

“I didn’t!”

“You did!”

“Yo’re a liar!”

“Yo’re another!”

“Get off that hoss!”

“You ain’t off yore own yet!”

Johnny was holding his sides and Pop wheeled on him savagely. “What th’
h–l _you_ laughin’ at?”

“That’s what _I_ want to know!” blazed Charley.

“Come on, Charley!” shouted Pop. “We’ll eat them fish ourselves. It’s
a fine how-dy-do when age ain’t respected no more. An’ th’ next time
you goes around callin’ folks liars,” he said, shaking a trembling fist
under Johnny’s nose, “you needn’t foller _us_ to do it on!”

Down the trail they rode, angrily discussing Johnny, the times, and the
manners of the younger generation.

When Johnny arrived at the saloon and tried the door he found it
locked. He could hear footsteps inside and he stepped back, chuckling,
to wait until Pop had forgiven him; but after a few minutes he gave it
up and went around to try the window of a side room.

“What you think yo’re doin’?” inquired a calm voice behind him.

He wheeled and saw a man regarding him with level gaze, and across the
street was a second, who sat on one horse and held fast to another.

“Tryin’ to get in for a treat,” grinned Johnny, full of laughter. “Had
a spat with Pop an’ Charley, an’ cussed if they ain’t locked me out!”

The stranger showed no answering smile. “That so?” he sneered. “Reckon
you better come along with me, ’round front, till I hears what Hayes
has to say about it. _I_ don’t believe he’s home.”

Johnny’s expression changed from a careless grin to an ominous frown.
“If you do any walkin’ you’ll do it alone.”

Several people had been drawn to the scene and took in the proceedings
with eager eyes and ears, but were careful to keep to one side. Jim
Ackerman had a reputation which made such a location very much a part
of discretion; and the two-gun man had been well discussed by Pop.

“I finds you tryin’ a man’s window,” said Ackerman. “So I stopped to
ask about it. As long as I’ve took this much trouble I’ll go through
with it. You comin’ peaceful, or must I drag you around?”

“Mebby that’s a job you’d like to tackle?” replied Johnny.

“I’m aimin’ to be peaceful,” rejoined Ackerman, his voice as smooth as
oil; “but I allus aim to do what I say. You comin’ with me?”

“If yo’re aimin’ to be peaceful, yo’re plumb cross-eyed,” retorted
Johnny, slouching away from the wall.

Quick steps sounded within the building and a frightened, high-pitched
voice could be heard, “Couple of bobcats lookin’ for holts,” it said.
“That feller Nelson is pickin’ on somebody else.”

The window raised and Pop stuck his angry face out to see what was
going on; and his wrinkled countenance paled suddenly when he saw
Ackerman, and the look in his eyes. He had a trout in one hand and a
bloody knife in the other, and both fell to the ground.

“Jumpin’ mavericks!” he whispered. “It’s Ackerman! What’s wrong, Jim?”
he quavered.

“You saved us a walk,” replied Ackerman, not taking his eyes from the
flushed face of his enemy. “I caught _him_ tryin’ to open that window.”

Charley thrust his head out as Pop replied. “We was playin’ a joke on
him. It’s all right, Jim. Much obliged for yore unusual interest.”

“Well, I’m glad of _that_,” smiled Ackerman; “but he looked
_suspicious_ an’ I reckoned I ought to drag him around an’ show you
what I _found_ tryin’ to bust in. But if you _say_ it’s all right, why
I reckon it _is_!”

“I reckon it ain’t!” snapped Johnny, enraged at his humiliating
position and at the way Ackerman accented his words. “An’ if that
itchin’ _trigger_-finger of _yourn_ wants to get _busy_ it has my
permission,” he mimicked “Pop,” he said, sharply, “who _is_ this

“No need to get riled over a thing like that,” faltered Pop.

“Shut yore trap!” snapped Charley, battle in his eyes. “That’s
Ackerman, relative of Quigley’s; th’ best six-gun man in th’ country.”

“Thanks,” growled Johnny, staring through narrowed lids at Ackerman,
who stood alert, his lips twitching with contempt. “When a dog pesters
me I kick him; if he snaps at me I shoot him. I’m goin’ to kick you
to yore cayuse an’ yore friend.” He had been sliding forward while he
spoke and now they stood face to face, an arm’s length apart.

Ackerman suddenly made two lightning-like movements. His left hand
leaped out to block his enemy’s right in its draw, while his own right
flashed down to his gun. As his fingers closed on the butt, Johnny’s
heavy Colt by some miracle of speed jabbed savagely into the pit of
the scheming man’s stomach with plenty of strength behind it, and
Ackerman doubled up like a jackknife, his breath jolted out of him with
a loud grunt. Johnny’s right hand smacked sharply on his enemy’s cheek,
left vivid finger marks, which flashed white and then crimson, and
continued on down; and when it stopped a plain, Frontier Colt peeked
coyly from his hip at the surprised and chagrined gentleman across
the street, who had been instructed to remain a noncombatant; and had
no intention, whatsoever, of disobeying Ackerman’s emphatic order. To
reveal his status he quickly raised his hands and clasped them on the
top of his hat, which is a more comfortable position than holding them
stiffly aloft.

Ackerman was dazed and sick, for the solar plexus is a peculiarly
sensitive spot, and his hands instinctively had forsaken offense and
spasmodically leaped to the agonized nerve center.

“Turn around!” snapped Johnny viciously. “_Pronto!_ There’s dust on th’
seat of yore pants.”

Ackerman groaned and obeyed, and the hurtling impact of a boot drove
him to his hands and knees.

“Get agoin’!” ordered Johnny, aflame with anger, slipping the right
hand gun back into its holster and motioning with the other.

Ackerman, his eyes blazing, started on his humble journey, assisted
frequently by the boot; and having crossed the street, he paused.

“Get up on that cayuse!” crisply ordered Johnny, making motions which
increased the mounted man’s uneasiness.

The further Ackerman had crawled the angrier he had become, and tears
of rage streaked the dust on his face. At Johnny’s last command and the
kick which accompanied it, his good sense and all thought of safety
left him. He arose with a spring, a berserker, trembling with rage,
and reached for his gun with convulsive speed while looking into his
enemy’s weapon with unseeing eyes. There was a flash, a roar, and a
cloud of smoke at Johnny’s hip, and a glittering six-shooter sprang
into the air, spinning rapidly. Ackerman did not feel the shock which
numbed his hand, but leaped forward straight at his enemy’s throat.
Johnny swerved quickly and his right hand swung up in a short, vicious
arc. Ackerman, too crazed to avoid it, took the blow on the point of
his jaw and dropped like a stone.

Johnny stepped back and looked evilly at the man on the horse.

“Gimme yore gun, butt first. Thanks. You work for Quigley?”

The other nodded slowly.

“Friend of this hombre?”

“Yes; sort of.”

“Then why didn’t you cut in?”

“Why, I–I–” the other hesitated, and stopped.

“Spit it!”

“Well, I wasn’t supposed to,” coldly replied the horseman.

“Then it was talked over?”

“Not particular. Jim does his own fightin’, hisself.”

“Good thing for Jim, an’ you, too,” retorted Johnny. “When it’s crowded
I can’t allus be polite. Who put that sign on my door?”

“What sign?”

“_I_’m askin’ _you_ questions!” snapped Johnny, his eyes blazing anew.

“Dunno nothin’ about it,” answered the other.

“I reckon yo’re a practiced liar,” retorted Johnny. “But it don’t make
no difference. I’m leavin’ th’ valley, for I can’t fight pot-shooters
an’ do any work at th’ same time. Quigley don’t own this country, an’
you tell him that while he’s boss of that little valley, _I_’m boss in
this town. If him or any of his men come to town while I’m here I’ll
shoot ’em down like I would a snake. That means one at a time or all
together; an’ if he don’t believe me, you tell him I’ll be here all
day tomorrow. There ain’t no bushes in town, an’ none of yore gang can
fight without ’em. Now you say to him that I don’t want no remarks made
about what I was doin’ up there–you savvy that? If I hear of any I’ll
slip up there some night an’ blow him all over his shirt. An’ d–n you,
I mean it!”

Ackerman stirred and sat up, looking around in a dazed way. When his
eyes fell on Johnny they lost their puzzled look and blazed again with
rage. He reached swiftly to his holster, found it empty, and shrugged
his shoulders.

Johnny regarded him coldly. “Get on that cayuse, an’ start goin’. This
town ain’t big enough for both of us at once.”

Ackerman silently obeyed, but his face was distorted with passion. When
he had clawed himself into the saddle he looked down on the grim master
of the situation.

“Words are foolish,” he whispered. “We’ll meet again!”

Johnny nodded. “I reckon so. Everybody plays their cards accordin’ to
their own judgment. Just now I got a high straight flush, so you hit
th’ trail, _pronto_!”

He stepped aside to get out of the dust-cloud which suddenly swirled
around him, and watched it roll northward until the dim figures in it
were lost to sight around a bend. The slouch went out of his bearing as
he straightened up and slid his gun into its holster, and walking over
to Ackerman’s glittering six-shooter he picked it up and sneered at it.

“I ain’t surprised,” he laughed, eying the ivory handle and the ornate
engraving. Wheeling abruptly he glanced carelessly at the grinning
audience and strode to the door of Pop’s saloon.

“I’ll be d–d!” sputtered Pop, his eyes still bulging.

“Reckon you will,” laughed Johnny, “unless you mends yore sinful ways.”

“What you been doin’ to make Jim Ackerman pick a fight with you?”
demanded Pop, recovering his faculties and his curiosity at the same

“Here’s his gun; an’ here’s his friend’s,” said Johnny. “Keep ’em for
’em. They plumb went off without ’em.”

Pop openly admired Ackerman’s weapon. “Bet that cost a heap,” he
remarked. “Ain’t she a beauty?” He rubbed energetically at a leaden
splotch on the cylinder.

“It was in good company,” replied Johnny.

“You got to look out for him,” Pop warned. “He’s a bad Injun.” Then he
grinned suddenly. “But he come d–d near bein’ a _good_ Injun!”

“Hey!” called a peeved voice from within. “If you reckon I’m goin’ to
clean all these fish myself, you better copper yore bets.” Footsteps
approached the door and Charley roughly elbowed Pop aside. “That means
you, too, Nelson,” he growled. “What you mean, hangin’ back at th’
ford? Figger we’d have ’em all cleaned before you arrove? Well, if
you aim to eat any of ’em, you grab holt of a knife an’ get busy!” He
shuffled back into the room again, muttering: “Cripes! I’m fish from
my head to my heels, an’ bloody as a massacre. An’ what’s more, I ain’t
goin’ to clean another d–d one, not nohow!”