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Sudden - The Range Robbers

Oliver Strange

*

Chapter I

The desert! As far as the eye could reach it stretched, alternating swells and levels of greyish-white sand, broken only by occasional ridges and hummocks of sun-scorched rock, protruding from the surface like the bared bones of a giant skeleton. Stunted mesquite, sagebrush, and the tortured forms of cactus, weird of leaf and beautiful of flower, were the only evidence of vegetation. Over all danced a shimmering heat which, flung down from a brazen sky and reflected back by the sand, made the eyes ache and the brain dizzy.

Following a faintly-defined trail came a wiry little cow-pony, pacing wearily but steadily through the burning sand, and picking its way without the apparent assistance of its rider, who, humped forward in the saddle, seemed oblivious of everything.

An hour passed, and the pony's ears pricked up and its pace quickened slightly. Aware of this, the rider looked up and saw that the weary desert tramp was at last coming to an end. On the horizon now the vivid blue of the sky deepened to an almost black serrated line, which he knew to be a range of hills. Far as they still were, they carried a message of hope, and the traveler pressed on.

Gradually the character of the desert changed. The sand became dotted with an occasional scrub-oak and clumps of bunch-grass, while the mesquite bushes were bigger and more numerous. Another hour of steady plodding, and the edge of the desert was reached. The trail entered the foothills, twisting and turning as though to escape the grasping tentacles of the sand, which, like an encroaching sea, sought to engulf it.

A whirring rattle, and a venomous flat head shot into view from the roots of a mesquite bush at the side of the trail. Instantly the pony jumped sideways into the air, coming down with all four legs stiff as rods. The rider, taken unawares, was almost hurled from the saddle, but gripping the animal with instinctive knees, kept his seat. His left hand streaked to his side, there was a sharp report, and the snake's head flew from its body. Replacing the smoking weapon, the man applied himself to quieting his mount, which was again attempting to buck. Snatching off his hat, he slammed the pony over the ears with it, and a cloud of alkali dust enveloped the pair.

`Playin' yu never saw a rattler before, eh?' he said, in a slow, soft drawl. `Thought I'd done broke yer of that sort o' foolishness, yu animated bone-bag.'

Another larrup from the hat accompanied the words, and the pony, changing its tactics, reached round and took a snap at the chap-covered leg of the rider, only to encounter the thrust-forward heavy wooden stirrup with a jar, which effectually discouraged any further attempt of the kind.

`I shore thought yu knew better than to try that,' admonished the soft voice, sarcastically. `Now yu have had yore play, s'pose we get on: I'm 'bout as dry as a second-hand sermon.'

They paced along over a plain trail through the increasing vegetation, and presently the animal, scenting water, began to trot. Passing along a narrow gully with precipitous sides, they emerged on the banks of a stream, shallow enough now, but with a wide sandy bed which showed there were times when it might justly be called a river; and indeed, when the snow on the mountains melted, Two Feather Creek became a raging torrent.

The horse walked into the water and drank eagerly. The man only gazed at it reflectively, a sardonic smile on his lips.

`An hour back, yes, an' thank yu,' he soliloquized, `but to spoil a thirst like mine with that slush now. Why, it can't be more than a mile to a drink.'

Starting his unwilling mount, he rode to the other bank and followed the trail across an open stretch of prairie at an easy lope. In a little while he came in sight of a collection of wood and adobe structures strung along the two sides of a dusty wallow called by courtesy a street.

`That'll be Hatchett's Folly,' he muttered. `It shore looks it.'

Years before, a wandering prospector, finding gold on the banks of the Two Feather, made for the nearest settlement, got gloriously drunk, and proclaimed a new Eldorado. Scores of eager fortune-hunters followed him, and a town sprang up with the mushroom speed of Western enterprise. But the gold proved hard to find and scanty in quantity; many of the seekers got killed in quarrels among themselves, or by raiding redskins, and others migrated in disgust. The town of Hatchett's, named after the discoverer, became Hatchett's Folly, and only the coming of the cattle saved it from extinction.

To the newcomer the place presented the familiar characteristics of the frontier settlements. The same squalid shacks, litter of tin cans, board sidewalks, and ever-prevailing alkali dust. On the largest of the buildings was a rudely-painted sign which read: `The Folly Saloon.'

`That shore is the best name for a s'loon I've struck yet,' commented the stranger, as he dismounted and secured his pony to the hitching-rail outside. `Town appears to be 'bout dead,' he added, and in fact, with the exception of two men loafing in front of a board edifice further along the street, which called itself an `hotel,' there was no one in sight.

The bar of the `Folly' occupied the back of the room, facing the entrance, a strategic position which gave the barkeeper an opportunity of preparing for trouble before it arrived. At either end of the space in front of it were the tables used for the various games of chance promoted by the establishment, or desired by the customers. At one of these tables two men were playing poker. The only other occupant--the dispenser of liquids--instantly transferred his interest from the game to the new arrival.

He saw a tall, lithe man of well under thirty, with a clean-shaven face tanned to the color of new copper, keen steel-blue eyes, and an out-thrust chin which spoke eloquently of determination. There was a suggestion of humor in the little lines round the eyes and at the corners of the firm lips. The leather chaps, blue shirt with loosely-knotted neckerchief, wide-brimmed Stetson and high-heeled boots, denoted the cowpuncher, but the heavy belt with two guns--the holsters tied down to facilitate easy extraction--might mean the gunman.

The barkeeper absorbed all these details while the object of his scrutiny was reaching the bar. He was a quick observer--the nature of his occupation required it. Without a word the stranger spun a dollar upon the counter, and the barman pushed forward a bottle and a glass.

`No, seh,' said the customer softly. `I just naturally hate drinkin' alone, an' yu are havin' one with me, Babe?'

The barkeeper grinned understandingly, added another glass, and replaced the bottle with one from the back shelf. The visitor poured himself a generous three-finger dose, sent it down his throat at a gulp, and refilled the glass.

`Good stuff,' he said approvingly. `That desert o' yores is some fierce.'

`I don't claim to own her, but she shore is,' replied the other. `Come a long ways?'

`Right from where I started,' was the reply, with a smile which robbed the snub of its venom.

`An' I reckon yu will keep a-goin' till yu git there,' said the barkeeper pleasantly, falling into the other's humor.

`Yu hit her, first pop,' rejoined the stranger, adding, `I'm just havin' a look at the country.'

`Well, she's shore worth it, in parts, Mister--. What did yu say yore name was?' said the man of liquids, taking another chance.

`I didn't say,' smiled the newcomer. `Yu can call me Green.' `I've heard of more appropriate labels, but it's yore bet, an' she goes as she lays,' agreed the barkeeper. `I answers to Silas my own self. Here's how!'

They drank again, and the conversation turned to less personal topics. The stranger learned that the country round was interested only in cattle, the two principal ranches being the Frying Pan and the Y Z.

`Then there's the Double X up in the hills, but that's only a little one,' Silas explained. `If it's a job yo're huntin', I've heard that the Y Z can use another puncher. The old man is all right, but the foreman, Blaynes, is a blister. That's one o' the Y Z boys playin' there.'

He indicated the younger of the card-players, little more than a boy, whose face was getting more and more solemn as his hard-earned money passed to his opponent. The stranger looked at the pair for a moment and then said:

`Reckon he'll be a 'wiser head' before he's much older. Who's the hard citizen?'

The barkeeper laughed at the pleasantry, though it was a joke he heard every time a `wise-head' puncher

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