'I'm lookin' for a man.'
The words--of sinister import in the West--arrested the attention of everyone within hearing, and had the desired effect of collecting a crowd of the curious. Yet the speaker had not the appearance of one engaged upon an errand of vengeance. A youthful cowboy--he was no more than twenty --in town for a spree, seemed to explain him. So thought at least one of the onlookers.
'Young Dan Dover o' the Circle Dot ranch over to Rainbow,' he told an enquirer. 'Now what in 'ell is he after? They ain't got no money to throw about.'
' 'Pears like they have,' was the reply.
For the object of their interest, standing on the raised platform before the Paradise Saloon, his Stetson pushed jauntily back to disclose curly hair of a particularly aggressive shade of red, had produced two gold pieces-- double eagles--and a Mexican silver dollar. With these he began to perform the elementary conjuring trick of passing the coins from hand to hand, keeping one in the air. It was not much of a show, and in an Eastern town would have attracted little notice, but in this far-flung outpost of civilization, it held his audience and brought others.
'The man I'm in search of has gotta have nerve,' the young man announced, his narrowed gaze sweeping over the spectators, 'an' be able to use his hardware. The fella who can stand the test, pockets these two twenties an' gets the offer of a worth-while job. Don't all speak at once--I on'y got one pair o' ears.'
'Good long 'uns, though,' one of the crowd chuckled.
'An, that's terrible true, brother,' the youth replied, with whimsical gravity. 'I have to keep 'em pared down to get my hat on.'
The onlookers laughed and continued to enjoy the entertainment, unaware that while the performer's eyes appeared to be occupied solely with his trick, they were, in fact, closely scanning the faces about him. Tradesmen, teamsters, half-breeds, drummers, and loafers--he could place them all, and shook his head slightly.
'I'm outa luck--there ain't an outfit in town,' he muttered.
For Sandy Bend boasted a railway station, from which a single branch line travelled East, and was therefore a shipping point for cattle. Only among the reckless sons of the saddle could he hope to find what he sought. He let the coins drop into his right hand, closed, and opened it again. One was missing.
'Now where has that pesky Mex dollar got to?' he mused. With an exaggerated frown of perplexity he displayed the palms of both hands; they were empty. 'Blame it, the twenties have gone too; must be floatin' around.' His right fist clawed at the air, and when the fingers unclosed again, there were the three coins. 'Dead easy,' he commented. 'The on'y difficult part is gettin' the gold to start with.'
Applause greeted the feat, and some of the audience began to drift. The conjurer grinned knowingly.
'Don't go away, folks; this is a free show an' I ain't comin' round with a hat,' he assured. 'Shorely there must be one o' you who could use forty bucks.'
He was talking at one man, whose presence the movement of others had uncovered. Tall, broad-shouldered, with a lithe, athletic frame, black hair, cold grey-blue eyes, and a lean, hard-jawed face, he was lounging against a hitching-post on the outskirts of the crowd, watching the scene with satirical amusement. No dandy cowboy this; the plain leathern chaps, woollen shirt, and high-crowned hat all bore signs of wear; even the silk kerchief knotted loosely round his neck was of sombre hue, and the two guns, hanging low on his thighs with the holsters tied down, were not fancy-butted. Red-head chinked the coins in his hand, eyes on the stranger.
'Who'll take a chance?' he asked.
The look made the words a direct challenge, and the man by the hitching-post seemed to accept it as such. He stepped forward, moving with an indolent ease which suggested the latent powers of a great cat.
'I'll try anythin'--once,' he drawled. 'What's yore proposition?'
The young man suppressed a smile of triumph. 'It's right simple,' he replied. Slipping his first finger and thumb round the silver coin, he held it at arm's length. 'All you gotta do is let me shoot that out'n yore grasp at twelve paces.'
The black-haired cowboy's face was expressionless. 'Yu ain't lackin' in nerve yore own self,' he said slowly.
The crowd agreed. The slightest deviation would result in a smashed hand for the holder of the target, and though there were many of them to whom forty dollars meant temporary affluence, not one was prepared to take such a risk. The maker of the offer knew what they were thinking, and confined himself to the man before him.
'The twenties is just a circumstance,' he mentioned. 'Point is, will you gamble?'
The grey-blue eyes studied those of the questioner with grave intentness, and then, 'I tote two guns; cripplin' one paw won't stop me usin' the other.'
'Which is where I gamble,' the conjurer grinned.
'I'll go yu,' was the quiet reply. 'Yon's a good place.'
He pointed to the blank wall of a stout log building across the street. Deftly catching the coin the other flipped in his direction, he moved through the crowd, which split into two lines. Dover followed, placed him in position, and then returned, counting off the paces.
'What's his game?' one of the bystanders queried. 'He don't seem the showin'-off kind.'
'you can search me, but he'd better make the shot,' replied a neighbour. 'That other fella's no kind to fool with. Look at him--just as unconcerned as a corpse.'
It was true; resting comfortably against the building behind him, the man who was to be shot at appeared to be the least interested of those present. Only when he saw that the other had taken up his place and was waiting did he straighten up and extend his left arm. Framed in finger and thumb, the disc of silver twinkled in the sunlight; it presented a perilously small mark, but the audience sensed that something more than mere cowboy conceit was behind the exhibition.
'Gosh! there ain't no margin for a mistake, 'less he misses the hand complete,' was one comment.
'He won't do that; these cowpunchers can all shoot.'
Silence ensued as the marksman drew his six-shooter, flung the muzzle upwards, and chopped down on the target. For a long moment he held it poised, squinting through the sights, and then pulled the trigger. The report was followed by a cheer from the breathless watchers as they saw the coin driven from the holder's fingers, hit a log, and drop in the sand. Amidst a hum of approbation, the stranger thrust his left hand into the pocket of his chaps, picked up the silver piece, and pitched it to Dover.
'Now it's yore turn,' he said.
The grin of triumph on the young cowboy's face faded a little.
'What's the idea?' he asked.
'Yu mentioned a fella who can shoot,' the other reminded. 'I'm aimin' to ease yore mind thataway.'
The grin had gone now, but a snigger from someone nearby brought it back. The boy was game.
'Fair enough,' he admitted.
The crowd, eager for more excitement, lined up again as the two men took their places. The stranger, left hand still in his pocket, waited until he saw that Dover was ready, and then.... No one of the onlookers could have sworn to seeing the loosely-hanging right hand move, but the gun was out, hip-high, and the spirt of flame followed instantly. Again the coin was torn from its frame and hurled against the timber. The speed of the draw, apparent lack of aim, and amazing accuracy had an almost paralysing effect on those who saw it.
'Gawda'mighty!' ejaculated one. 'That's shootin', that is.'
Dover himself was staggered, but he was also jubilant. He hurried to congratulate. 'Never seen anythin' like it,' he said. 'Figured I could use a six-gun, but hell! I'm on'y a yearlin'. Say, my throat's fair crackin'; let's irrigate.'
They adjourned to the saloon and selected a table in a quiet corner. Their drinks sampled, Dover fished out the Mexican dollar and examined it curiously; there was a dent in the middle, and another on the edge. He pointed