(The Bar-20 Three)

by Clarence E. Mulford

Grosset & Dunlap Publishers 1921



IDAHO NORTON, laughing heartily, backed out of the barroom of Quayle's hotel and trod firmly on the foot of Ward Corwin, sheriff of the county, who was about to pass the door. Idaho wheeled, a casual apology trembling on his lips, to hear a biting, sarcastic flow of words, full of profanity, and out of all proportion to the careless injury. The sheriff's coppery face was a deeper color than usual and bore an expression not pleasant to see. The puncher stepped back a pace, alert, lithe, balanced, the apology forgotten, and gazed insolently into the peace officer's wrathful eyes.

'—an' why don't you look where yo're steppin'? Don't you know how to act when you come to town?' snarled the sheriff, finishing his remarks.

Idaho looked him over coolly. 'I know how to act in any company, even yourn. Just now I ain't actin'—I'm waitin'.'

The sheriff's eyes glinted. 'I got a good mind—'

'You ain't got nothin' of th' sort,' cut in the puncher, contemptuously. 'You ain't got nothin' good, except, mebby, yore reg'lar plea of self-defense. I'm sayin' out loud that that ain't no good, here an' now; an' I'm waitin' to take it away from you an' use it myself. You been trustin' too cussed much to that nickel badge.'

Bill Trask, deputy, who had a reputation not to be overlooked, now took a hand from the rear, eager to add to his list of victims from any of that outfit. The puncher was between him and the sheriff, and hardly could watch them both. Trask gently shook his belt and said three unprintable words which usually started a fight, and then glared over his shoulder at a sudden interruption, tense and angry.

'Shut up, you!' said the voice, and he saw a two-gun stranger slouching away from the hotel wall. The deputy took him in with one quick glance and then his eyes returned to those of the stranger and rested there while a slight prickling sensation ran up his spine. He had looked into many angry eyes, and in many kinds of circumstances, but never before had his back given him a warning quite so plainly. He grew restless and wanted to look away, but dared not; and while he hung in the balance of hesitation the stranger spoke again. 'Two to one ain't fair, 'specially with the lone man in th' middle; but I'll make th' odds even, for I'm honin' to claim self-defense, myself. It's right popular. I saw it all—an' I'm sayin' you are three chumps to get all het up over a little thing like that. Mebby his toes are tender—but what of it? He ain't no baby, leastawise he don't look like one. An' I'm tellin' you, an' yore badge-totin' friend, that I know how to act, too.' A twinkle came into the hard, blue eyes. 'But what's th' use of actin' like four strange dogs?'

Somewhere in the little crowd a man laughed, others joined in and pushed between the belligerents; and in a minute the peace officers had turned the corner, Idaho was slowly walking toward the two-gun stranger and the crowd was going about its business.

'Have a drink?' asked the puncher, grinning as he pushed back his hat.

'Didn't I just say that I knowed how to act?' chuckled the stranger, turning on his heel and following his companion through the door. 'You must 'a' met them two before.'

'Too cussed often. What'll you have? Make mine a cigar, too, Ed. No more liquor for me today—Corwin don't forget.'

The bartender closed the box and slid it onto the backbar again. 'No, he don't,' he said. 'An' Trask is worse,' he added, looking significantly at the stranger, whose cigar was now going to his satisfaction and who was smilingly regarding Idaho, and who seemed to be pleased by the frank return scrutiny.

'You ain't a stranger here no longer,' said Idaho, blowing out a cloud of smoke. 'You got two good enemies, an' a one-hoss friend. Stayin' long?'

'About half an hour. I got a little bunch of cows on th' drive west of here, an' they ought to be at Twitchell an' Carpenter's corrals about now. Havin' rid in to fix up bed an' board for my little outfit, I'm now on my way to finish deliverin' th' herd. See you later if yo're in town tonight.'

'I don't aim to go back to th' ranch till tomorrow,' replied Idaho, and he hesitated. 'I'm sorry you horned in on that ruckus—there's mebby trouble bloomin' out of that for you. Don't you get careless till yo're a day's ride away from this town. Here, before you go, meet Ed Doane. He's one of th' few white men in this runt of a town.'

The bartender shook hands across the bar. 'Pleased to meet up with you, Mr.—Mr.—?'

'Nelson,' prompted the stranger. 'How do you do, Mr. Doane?'

'Half an' half,' answered the dispenser of liquids, and then waved a large hand at the smiling youth. 'Shake han's with Idaho Norton, who was never closer to Idaho than Parsons Corners, thirty miles northwest of here. Idaho's a good boy, but shore impulsive. He's spent most of his life practicin' th' draw, et cetery; an' most of his money has went for ca'tridges. Some folks say it ain't been wasted. Will you gents smoke a cigar with me?'

After a little more careless conversation Johnny nodded his adieus, mounted and rode south. Not long thereafter he came within sight of the Question-Mark, Twitchell and Carpenter's local ranch.

Its valley sloped eastward, following the stream winding down its middle between tall cottonwoods, and the horizon was limited by the tops of the flanking hills, which dipped and climbed and zigzagged into the gray of the east, where great sand hills reared their glistening tops and the hopeful little creek sank out of sight into the dried, salty bed of a one-time lake. Near the trail were two buildings, a small stockaded corral and a wire-fenced pasture of twenty acres; and the Question-Mark brand, known wherever cattlemen congregated, even beyond the Canadian line, had been splashed with red paint on the wall of the larger building. The glaring, silent interrogation-mark challenged every passing eye and had started many curious, grim, and cynical trains of thought in the minds of tired and thirsty wayfarers along the trail. To the north of the twenty-acre pasture a herd of SV cattle grazed, spread out widely, too tired, too content with their feeding to need much attention.

Johnny saw the great, red question-mark and instantly drew rein, staring at it. 'Why?' he muttered, and then grew silent for a moment. Shaking his head savagely he urged the horse on again, and again glanced at the crimson interrogation. 'Cuss you!' he growled. 'There ain't no man livin' can answer.'

He passed the herd at a distance and rode up to the larger building, where a figure suddenly appeared in the doorway, looked out from under a shielding hand and quickly stepped forward to meet him.

'Hello, Nelson!' came the cheery greeting.

'Hello, Ridley!' replied Johnny. 'Glad to see you again. Thought I'd bring 'em down to you, an' save you goin' up th' trail after 'em. Why don't you paint out that glarin' question-mark on th' side of th' house?'

Ridley slapped his hands together and let out a roar of laughter. 'Has it got you, too?' he demanded in unfeigned delight.

'Not as much as it would before I got married,' replied Johnny. 'I'm beginnin' to see a reason for livin'.'

'Good!' exclaimed Ridley. 'If I ever meet yore wife I'll tell her somethin' that'll make her dreams sweet.' The expression of his face changed swiftly. 'Do you know—' he considered, and changed the form of his words. 'You'd be surprised if you knew th' number of people hit by that painted question-mark. I've had 'em ride in here an' start all kinds of conversations with me; th' gospel sharps are th' worst. One man blew his brains out in Quayle's hotel because of what that sign started workin' in his mind. Go look at it: it's full of bullet holes!'

'I don't have to,' replied Johnny, and quickly answered his companion's unspoken challenge. 'An' I can sleep under it, an' smile, cuss you!' He glanced at the distant cattle. 'Have you looked 'em over?'

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