Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
The sun was reaching for the sawtoothed western rim of the Chinese rancher’s isolated broad valley, when the stranger rode into it by way of a hidden pass. Tall and lean and sombreeyed the newcomer was, and young, with the dust of two states clinging to his clothes, bedroll, and saddle. About him and his lank bay horse there was unmistakable, sagging weariness.
He rode slowly through a herd of fat whitefaces and to a slim, lantern-jawed cowboy who lolled, smoking, in his saddle.
“Hi, pilgrim,” growled Lantern-jaw. “Where yuh think yuh goin’?”
“Followin’ my nose,” the stranger said. “I’m half starved for real grub and my little hoss has got to have some dry-feed. What’s the chance for that with this here outfit?”
The cowboy squinted pale blue, unfriendly eyes. “Wing Lun don’t cotton to hombres he don’t know, pilgrim. Yeah, a Chinaman owns this here big spread— never heard o’ anythin’ like it before, huh? Old Ben Brading started it, and old Wing Lun was his cook, and Brading didn’t git along with folks much, and when he died he willed everythin’ to the Chink. Me, my name’s Pickens. Nickname’s Easy. But if yuh think I am, try me! What do yuh happen to be callin’ yoreself right now?”
“The name I’m usin’ right now,” drawled the stranger, voice a little hard, “is Hill. Nickname’s Rocky. If you don’t think I am, try me and see. Never mind reachin’ for iron, because I kin beat yuh to it, Easy. Er—an old Chinese owns this spread, yuh say? I’ll bet somebody else runs it for him. Downright crazy brand yuh got there. Looks like about a dozen Chinese characters all mixed together. Wing Lun’s idea?”
“Right,” said Easy Pickens. His manner was still unfriendly. “Wing won’t tell what the brand means. Ride on, hombre.”
The other did—straight to ranch headquarters.
The ranchhouse was big, rambling, of frame and ‘dobe, in a setting of retamas, pepper trees and cottonwoods. On the cool front gallery an old Chinese, resplendent in colorful silk, reclined in a deep rocker, apparently asleep. The lean young stranger dismounted at the front hitch-rack, dropped rein, and hastened soundlessly toward the Chinese. He was not more than halfway to the gallery steps when a huge black-bearded man appeared at a corner of the house.
“Come here, you!” he called in a low, belligerent voice.
Under his right hip he carried a heavy Colt six-gun exactly like that carried by the tall young man who had chosen to be known by the name of Rocky Hill. Rocky strode over to him. The countenance of the big man became crafty.
“When old Wing’s siesta is busted up,” he said, “it makes him four times meaner’n hell. I’m Jackson, his range boss, and I hafta live in the house with him, y’see. Anyhow, yuh’ve got no business here. Yeah, I know. It’s talked that two Cattle Association men rode in here and never was seen any more. Well, whatever happened, none o’ us had any thin’ to do with it. There ain’t anythin’ crooked goin’ on in this outfit, pilgrim, so yuh kin hightail it back where yuh come from!”
Rocky Hill laughed rarely. But he laughed now.
“Funny,” he said, “yuh takin’ me for another range detective!”
“I notice yuh ain’t denyin’ it,” said Wing Lun’s burly foreman as he narrowed a flint-hard eye.
“Yuh wouldn’t believe me if I did deny it.” Hill shrugged. “Jackson, I want some honest-to-goodness grub for myself and oats for my hoss. I’ll pay yuh five dollars, five prices, for the same.”
“Sold,” quickly said Kelso Jackson. “Take yore nag around to the back. Yuh’ll eat in the cook shack behind the bunkhouse, and when yuh’re through yuh needn’t to bother tellin’ anybody goodby.”
Night had fallen thickly over the isolated valley when Rocky Hill finished his supper in the cook shack. The cowboys—each and every one of them a hard stick, beyond a doubt—had been drifting in singly and in pairs. They eyed the newcomer with suspicion that they made no attempt to conceal. Easy Pickens of the lantern-jaw sat down opposite Hill, gulped a pint of scalding black coffee, then rose hurriedly and went out.
Hill followed into the darkness, turned off toward his horse. The bay had not yet emptied the oats bucket, and Rocky sat down wearily on a bootheel, with his back to a corral post, to wait. Off toward the ranchhouse he could see the dim outlines of two men who stood talking in low tones, a huge man and one of medium size. Jackson and Lantern-jaw, he told himself. If he could but manage to overhear a little of their conversation— Then they vanished.
Five minutes later, Rocky swung up to his saddle and rode off. But he did not go far. He left the bay tethered in creek willows, crept back on foot, and was soon stealing up to a lighted living room window. In there sat old Wing Lun, hands hidden in his voluminous sleeves, eyes staring fixedly at nothing at all. His lined yellow face was intelligent, and not that of one who would greatly mind having his siesta interrupted.
“Put that lamp out and slip over here, Wing, pronto!” Hill whispered.
The old Celestial gave no sign that he had heard. The stranger’s head and shoulders came above the window ledge and into the light. Wholly unlike this man, it was, to be either impulsive or incautious. He was about to call again when there was a sharp sound in the darkness to his right. Hill dropped below the window and snaked his gun from leather. But the man who had stolen up on his left—behind him now—had come prepared. The heavy barrel of a six-gun rose and fell hard, and Rocky crumpled into oblivion.
“We couldn’t have done that neater,” whispered Kelso Jackson to Easy Pickens, his right-hand man, as the two carried the limp form away.
“I shore hit him a buster. And old Wing never heard a bit of it,” whispered back Easy.
Hill came to not so long afterward. He was in thick blackness and thicker silence, and he was smothering. He tried to move and couldn’t. He lay under something— earth and weedy sod, rock and brush. Then he remembered. They had thought him dead, and—realization of it gave him sheer horrors—had buried him alive in a gully!
Kicking off the overhanging edges of the banks had turned that old trick quickly and easily. Hill threw the strength of desperation into his struggle, and soon was able to breathe fairly well. He found a round, cold, clammy object in his hand. It carried a sickening odor. Shivering, he released it and fought on through earth and sod, rock and brush. When at last he had drawn his bruised body into the starlight, he collapsed from weakness and from the throbbing pain under his head wound.
Of course, he had no gun now. But they hadn’t bothered to take off his cartridge belt. Lucky he’d been carrying his money—no great amount—in the bottom of one of his cowboy boots. His hat was gone. Presently he rose and began to make his way unsteadily down the gully. The terrain was extremely rugged. No longer was he anywhere near the old Chinese ranchhouse.
Early in the afternoon of the next day, Rocky Hill made his appearance in a small, very old cowtown aptly called Brimstone. He was still hatless, gunless, horseless. His gaze went ferreting up and down the dusty main street, and picked out a restaurant owned and operated by a thin young Chinese with an outlandish name. Soon Hill was dropping into a chair at a rear corner table and ordering a hefty meal.
When he had eaten, he asked the Chinese for paper and pencil, got them, and proceeded to draw from memory the apparently much jumbled, queer cattle brand that had so puzzled him the day before. Then he called the young Celestial to him and indicated the drawing.
“Yuh sabe what that means in yore language, hombre?” he asked.
The slant-eyed one bent over the paper and studied the drawing for a moment. Unmistakable fear came into his yellowish countenance.
“No sabe,” he answered with a shrug.
Rocky noted that they were alone in the restaurant. He seized one of the other’s thin shoulders and shook it vigorously.
“Shore, yuh know what that means. Out with it!” he commanded.
“No can read!” wailed the yellow little man, now more frightened than ever. “Velly solly! No can!” He crumpled and dropped the paper.
On the sun-warped boardwalk outside, there was the tread of a big, stock man in flat-heeled boots. He came into the restaurant and asked for a cup of coffee. He went back to Hill’s table, sat down there.
“Hi, stranger. Seen yuh when yuh fust come to town. Yuh ain’t on foot in this country, for gosh sakes!”
While he spoke, he was frowning at the stranger’s head wound. Hill had twice bathed it in a creek, but it was still visible.
“Why, yeah,” drawled Rocky, “I’m on foot. Lost my hoss. Hard luck for the poor cowboy. I notice yuh’re sportin’ a badge half hid under yore vest there. You a deputy?”
“Chief Deputy Ed Lyerly”—with an air of importance. “Actin’ sheriff, now that Jim Tolliver’s in bed with a rustler bullet snaggin’ his spine. Lost yore gun and hat too, I see. Reckon I’ll hafta arrest yuh as a s’picious character. Come along with me, cowboy!”
Hill disliked Lyerly on sight, and he was now not one whit surprised. A thing Hill didn’t know was that Lyerly had his heart set on landing Jim Tolliver’s job for himself at the next election, and was determined to get it by fair work or foul.
“Lots o’ big cow outfits in this section, ain’t there,” remarked Rocky as they rose and turned toward the street, Lyerly with his gun out and menacing. “That Chink has got a big one, for instance. Funny, ain’t it—Chinese cattleman!”
“Shore is funny,” agreed the deputy. “Old Ben Brading leavin’ his ranch to his cook! Wise jigger, old Wing Lun. Makin’ money, I’m told.”
“Happen to know Jackson, his range boss?”
“Kelso Jackson? Yeah, and he’s all right.” Lyerly allowed a little too much enthusiasm to creep into his voice, a fact that did not escape the new prisoner’s notice. “Do yuh know Kelso Jackson, cowboy?”
Rocky didn’t answer. “Nothin’ to it about that pair o’ Cattle Association men disappearin’ on the Chink’s spread, is there?” he asked.
He was thinking of the round, cold, clammy object he had found in the makeshift gully grave—the thighbone of a man.
“Shore they wasn’t anythin’ to that,” promptly said Lyerly.
Rocky Hill smiled a hard little smile. He had learned all he wanted to learn about the chief deputy. It had been to enlist the aid of the law—which he had flouted more than once in his wild past— that he had made that exhausting walk to Brimstone. This particular representative of the law would make sheer travesty of the effort. Rocky Hill would have to fight Kelso Jackson and the rest all by himself.
One lone man against a cutthroat outfit like that! And it was a far bigger outfit than he suspected.
The sheriff’s office was in a front corner of the squat jail building. Lyerly shoved the prisoner rudely across the threshold and searched his clothing quite thoroughly—he thought. Then he summoned the one-eyed old jailer, and they placed Hill in a cell. Rocky didn’t mind being locked up. When he wanted out, he’d get out. Just now he was sorely in need of rest. He lay down on the narrow cell bed and slept until nightfall.
Then he rose and peered from his small, barred window, and smiled. Here, at last, was a bit of luck. Tied near the middle of a dozen horses at a hitch-rack in front of a saloon across the dim street was his own lank bay! Some of Wing Lun’s crew had come to town for a night of it, he guessed correctly.
A few minutes later Rocky slipped over to the barred door and called through. The jailer had gone to supper. Ed Lyerly came.
“See this?” Rocky held a flat sheaf of paper money to the light of the smoky corridor lamp. There was a twenty on top, much smaller money below it. “Don’t matter where I got the dinero. Let me out and take it. I’ll leave town right off.”
The chief deputy’s eyes were greedy. Any man running far any public office could use money. Very soon he was escorting his late prisoner to the rear doorway of the jail corridor. The light here was poor. Before Lyerly realized what had happened, Rocky Hill had the deputy’s brand new, staghorn-handled six-gun and was thrusting its muzzle into the pit of its owner’s stomach!
“Now give me my money back,” whispered Hill. “Quick, and mebbe I won’t tell about buyin’ yuh off, crooked deputy!” He got his money back instantly. “I’m keepin’ yore gun awhile,” he hurried on. “Yuh see, I aim to do somethin’ with it that yuh ought to do, but won’t.”
Rocky disappeared in the alley gloom. Lyerly raised no outcry. Hill stole across the dim street and to his bay horse, found that the rein had been tied in a jam knot. While he worked at it, two hard-faced Jackson men appeared in the nearby saloon doorway, and saw him beside the animal. One of the pair stepped to the bar and returned with another hard-visaged Jackson man.
Hill had the rein untied now, and was swinging into his saddle. In the doorway three dependable specimens of Colt hardware leaped out of half-breed holsters. Then the trio saw that the tall young stranger had beaten them to it, and froze.
“Leather ‘em, hombres!” ordered Rocky, voice brittle.
They leathered their guns. Still with the Lyerly Colt bearing up on them, Hill backed his horse across the street and into deeper gloom. There followed the swift staccato of the lean bay’s hoofs. The men in the saloon entrance began to shoot. Rocky returned the fire—and one of the trio sagged with a .45 slug in his shoulder.
When the hoofbeats had begun to fade, the chief deputy rushed over with a Winchester rifle in his hands, to have a question flung at him:
“Who the hell was that, Ed?”
“I’m askin’ you,” Lyerly flung back, “who the hell it was. See him plain?”
“No, it was too dark.”
A hard ride of two hours took Rocky Hill to a point within half a mile of Wing Lun’s rambling old ranchhouse. Again he left his horse among creek willows and advanced on foot, and this time he was doubly careful. If they had another chance at him, they’d make sure that he was dead.
A Cattle Association man! He grinned a little at their very natural mistake. Well, it was better that they did think it, dangerous though the idea was.
He crept up to a bunkhouse window, and reached to draw his hat rim low over his eyes; he forgot that he no longer had a hat. Peering through cautiously, he noted that the huge, black-bearded Kelso Jackson and lantern-jawed Easy Pickens sat playing stud on a box; that seven other men were lounging in their bunks. Not one of the nine but had either one weapon or two ready to hand.
These should account for those of the villainous crew who were off duty and not in town; Wing Lun, doubtless, was alone now.
Hill stole back in the darkness and went to the ranchhouse.
The old Chinese lay on a couch in the living room, under a thin coverlet. A large oil lamp on a table across the room from him was turned very low. Rocky felt his way across the gallery and entered without a telltale sound. A few seconds more and he was kneeling beside the couch. Wing Lun’s sleep was fitful, beset by bad dreams, apparently; his face muscles worked, and a low, gurgling moan escaped his lips.
“Wing—” guardedly whispered Hill. “Wake up, but don’t yell out, Wing!”
The Celestial’s eyes snapped open wide. There was horror in them as they beheld the lean, bronzed face less than a yard away. Rocky lifted a warning finger. “Keep quiet, old-timer—”
Interrupting him, a small revolver blazed through the coverlet— Bang!— blazed again. Hill fell over backward in order to be under the bullet path.
“Stop, yuh locoed—” he cried.
Bang—yet again, and a streak as of flame licked across his left arm. He jerked the staghorn-handled Colt from his holster, put down the impulse to defend himself, rose and dove through the open dining room doorway and into pitchy blackness— stumbled over something and fell hard, striking his head against a corner of the dining table, opening his wound—
It dazed him. He fought out of it, sat up with blood trickling down his forehead.
He had dropped the Lyerly gun in the fall. As he began a hurried search for the weapon, he heard the clatter of heavy boots on the gallery at the front and that of the back. The shots had brought Kelso Jackson and his men. Of course, they would soon have the house surrounded completely.
Hill went to his feet and began to feel his way around a wall. A door knob filled his hand suddenly. He opened the door and passed through just as Easy Pickens and another man entered the dining room from the kitchen, wheeled and found that instead of being outside he was in a closet!
Gunless again. If that wasn’t the luck of a lousy calf—the one that lived through a hard winter, to die in the balmy spring. Rocky swore. Then he heard the rumbling voice of Kelso Jackson in the living room.
“Yuh hurt, Wing? Who was that shootin’? Oh, I see—you, with the popgun. Where’d he go?”
The old Chinese’ answer was in a voice so low and soft that Hill was unable to catch it. He heard the scraping of a match. Light flared up in the dining room as the man with Pickens lighted a lamp. Then there was Pickens’ cry of mingled surprise and amazement.
“Hey, Kelso, look at this!” Jackson’s tread shook the floor. Easy held out to him a big Colt with a staghorn grip. “Know this hardware, Kelso, don’t yuh?”
“Shore as hell I know it,” said Jackson. “Wing said he fell in here. Likely he dropped the hardware then. Well, he ought to be still here somewhere. We’ll find him and when we do—”
It was not necessary for Rocky Hill to hear the rest of it. When they found him— and they’d look in this closet just about the first thing—very soon afterward, the overhanging edges of a gully would be kicked in upon all that was left of him.
Suddenly Hill remembered that in most of these old, one-story ranchhouses, the ceilings were not nailed down. Silently he climbed upon an ancient trunk in a corner, and put his hands upward.
When Kelso Jackson peered into the closet, he saw no person.
They searched the place well, but they did not think to look into the cobwebby attic. Hill was now over the living room. Tiny splinters of light filtered through the cracks. His wound was still bleeding; he kept pressing a bandanna to it; his head throbbed painfully. The search ended below. Jackson and Pickens left the others outside and went for more talk with old Wing Lun.
“Big man, wasn’t he?” began Jackson. “Dressed up a good deal, better than us, wasn’t he?”
This Chinese was not of the ordinary laundryman breed. He used very good English.
“No, not different—from you. I thought—”
“What?” as Wing Lun broke off. “What did yuh think?”
“That it was some one of you. I’d been dreaming—”
“Now that’s not reasonable,” Pickens said. “Oh, well, Kelso, we know who it was. That gun is the only gun like it anywhere near here. The only important thing now is—er—”
“Sometimes yuh talk too much, Easy,” Jackson growled. “S’pose yuh lissen and see if yuh hear what I hear.”
Easy tried his patience—the little that he had—sometimes. Easy listened.
“Hoofs, coming rapid. The boys from town. Nothin’ strange about that, is they?”
“No?” Kelso sneered. “Comin’ in too early, and two instead o’ the three that went. This thing is gittin’ thicker.”
In the loft above, Rocky Hill smiled grimly and mopped at his bleeding wound once more. The pair of riders dismounted at the hitchrack in front of the house. Another moment, and they had bolted into the living room. Jackson and his segundo confronted them and heard all they had to tell, after which Jackson growled:
“The Rocky hombre’s hoss, eh? Pity yuh couldn’t see what the jigger looked like. Yuh say that Ed Lyerly was there when yuh left, and that yuh rode a streak. It’s not possible that Ed could’a rode a short cut across country and beat yuh here by a little?”
“No, boss. Not if he had the fastest hoss that ever kicked the earth in the face with four feet.”
Again the listening Hill smiled a grim little smile. So the chief deputy had been ashamed to confess that he’d had his gun taken from him. But he should have expected that.
“This is the tallest tree I’ve ever been up,” Jackson muttered. “But I’ll git out of it, all right. There’s nothin’ we kin do tonight, howsomever, so you boys go to the bunkhouse and git yore shuteye. Might leave that stag-handled iron with me, Easy.”
With noticeably poor grace, Pickens surrendered it, then trooped out with the others. Wing Lun lay back on the couch and drew the bullet-holed thin coverlet over him. Kelso Jackson dropped into a rocker, relaxed and closed his eyes.
The ensuing gravelike silence was most hazardous for the man in the loft; the tiniest sound now would betray his presence and bring a fusillade of leaden slugs tearing through the ceiling boards. He hardly dared breathe while he waited for Jackson to go off to bed and to sleep, or fall asleep in his chair.
Hill’s thoughts went backward, presently, to the queer jumble of a cattle I brand used on the old Chinese rancher’s spread. The first sight of this had brought a suspicion into his mind. But that had been only a suspicion. Now, however, it had grown until it was, to him an iron fact. Small wonder that the young Chinese in Brimstone had not interpreted the brand for him; he could understand easily now!
Then a raucous snore came jarring upward to his ears. That would be the burly, black-bearded range boss, beyond a doubt. Rocky Hill moved a little and glued his eyes to one of the wider ceiling cracks. A rare bit of luck was his once more.
He could see Wing Lun stretched on the couch below. To Rocky’s right was Kelso Jackson lying back in the big rocker, while directly under the concealed man was the table on which burned the large, opal-shaded oil lamp. Jackson continued to snore. It was no fake. He was sound asleep. But he had pulled his holstered gun into his lap, and he kept a hand ready on the walnut butt.
Hill’s gaze returned to the thin face of old Wing. The Chinese cattleman was wide awake. He lay there staring at the hulking ranch foreman, and in his eyes Hill could read fear, hate, and sheer desperation. Then Wing Lun sat up soundlessly and brought out his little gun. His intention was plain to the watcher above—old Wing meant to shoot Kelso Jackson and allow the blame for it to fall upon the unknown intruder—upon him, Rocky Hill!
Before Rocky had time for either word or action, a strikingly dramatic incident took place. A drop of blood from his head wound fell through the ceiling crack, and splashed red on the opalescent lamp shade. Wing Lun couldn’t help seeing it. To him, perhaps, there was something of the supernatural connected with it. He gasped, trembled. But suddenly he got a grip on himself, and his gaze flashed upward. What he would do now was unpredictable, Hill knew, so he whispered through hoarsely:
“Hold it, Wing. I’m yore friend.”
Kelso Jackson, to Rocky’s intense relief, snored on. Wing Lun blinked. Then his lips shaped a single Spanish word.
He hid the small revolver under the coverlet. Rocky crept across the loose boards and toward the dining room closet, came down as he had gone up. Soon he was stealing into the living room on tiptoe. Jackson had placed the Lyerly Colt on the mantel. Hill saw it, reached for it, and got it. He took another silent step and swung the heavy barrel hard against Kelso Jackson’s temple.
The range boss slumped, gurgling in his throat. Wing Lun choked back a cry of triumph.
“Hated to do it thataway, old-timer,” whispered Rocky, thrusting the Lyerly gun inside his shirt. “Looks downright sneakin’. But there was nothin’ else, on account o’ that sidewinder crowd in the bunk.”
“My friend, you!” breathed the Celestial. “But you are a stranger. Who—”
Hill interrupted in turn: “Later I’ll tell yuh. Jest now it’s enough for yuh to know that I sabe exactly what yuh’re up against and am goin’ to help yuh out o’ the hole yuh’re in. Bring enough rope to tie this hombre up tight—and hustle.”
“But I think he is dead!”
“We won’t risk it. Bring the rope.”
Already he was halfway through with the task of binding the foreman’s neckerchief in his mouth as an effective gag. Wing Lun went limping into another room to return with odds and ends of rawhide strips, lariat material. Jackson was still blissfully unaware of his plight when Rocky finished binding his wrists and ankles securely. Then Rocky took off the big man’s gunbelt and buckled it around his own waist.
“Wing,” he said hastily, “I’m only one lone man against this whole outfit o’ thieves and killers, and I’ve got to work fast. Don’t ask questions, but answer ‘em quick. Does anybody live in any o’ the old Mexican ‘dobe houses off the Brimstone road a little ways and some miles from here?”
“No,” answered Wing. “Mexican sheepmen used to live there.”
“I see. And the cattlemen ran ‘em off.” Rocky waved a hand toward the couch. “Lay down there and pretend yuh’re asleep; not that I’m expectin’ somebody to come in on yuh, but yuh never kin tell. I’ll be back before very long if nothin’ breaks.”
He gathered up the huge, limp form of Kelso Jackson, shouldered it, and carried it away. A few minutes later he draped it across the saddle on his lean bay horse, climbed up behind the saddle, and rode off. When he returned to Wing Lun, he was smiling.
“The ‘dobe house I picked has got walls two feet thick, little bitsy windows, and a stout door, and makes a first class jail; I don’t believe Jackson could git out even if he was loose from the rawhide. Next thing, I want Easy Pickens to come here by hisself. S’pose yuh step to a window and call him, Wing. Tell him Kelso wants him, which won’t be any lie, either!”
Pickens came at once, alone. Although he was not more than half dressed, he had his gun-belt on. He entered the living room from the front. Rocky Hill stepped from behind the door and slyly lifted Pickens’ Colt from its holster. Then the lantern-jawed puncher saw, and blinked bewilderedly.
“Take it easy, Easy,” Hill said, with the Lyerly gun threatening. He closed the door and locked it. Simultaneously Wing Lun closed and locked the dining room door, then he hastened to draw the window shades. Rocky kept his voice low, for the bunkhouse was filled with deadly menace and there was more on the nearby range.
“Thought I was dead, Easy, didn’t yuh? Yeah, dead and buried in a gully grave with two other strangers. Yuh needn’t look around for Kelso Jackson. He’s all through. He’s now in my own private jail, and from there he’ll go on to the jail in Brimstone, and then on to figger as the star guest at a necktie party held by some sheriff!”
AS Rocky had shrewdly judged, Pickens had been more tool than anything else here. Without Jackson, he was almost a rag. His worried gaze sought the face of Wing Lun. Old Wing’s countenance was beaming. He had lived in a state of constant dread for so long!
“It’ll pay yuh now to be a man, Easy,” Hill pursued, “and not a louse. Since he’s not scared to death any more, Wing will likely make a good witness, but we ought to have two. Who killed the Cattle Association men?”
“I can answer that,” the Celestial said. “On that day, Pickens was here with me— there was always somebody watching to see that I didn’t leave the place. For two years I was a prisoner in my own house, with nobody enough interested in a lone old Chinese to investigate! The two strangers rode off with Jackson, and never came back. Later I managed to hear Jackson tell Pickens that he’d shot them.”
“Shore, he told me that,” admitted the fast wilting Pickens. “And he showed me two guns and a little money he said he’d took off ‘em. Say, Rocky Hill, yuh’re a range detective, ain’t yuh?”
“Talk low!” warned Rocky. “Who I am will shore surprise yuh. The crazy Chinese-Iookin’ brand was Jackson’s idea, wasn’t it?” Pickens nodded.
“Jackson forced me to help him with that,” Wing Lun elaborated in his very good English. “I tried to put a call for help in it. But if any man of my race recognized it, fear kept him silent.”
Hill remembered the frightened Chinaman in Brimstone. He grinned.
“Well, Easy Pickens, I figured yuh’d be easy pickin’s, and yuh was. And mebbe yuh found me a rocky hill to climb. But I’m braggin’ too soon—”
He broke off and bent an ear, heard the slow hoofbeats of one horse, and made a sign for silence. Soon afterward there were footfalls on the front gallery, followed by a light rap at the door. Hill went to the door and opened it. The next split second he was jabbing the muzzle of the Ed Lyerly’s Colt almost against the Ed Lyerly face!
“Come right in, big feller,” he whispered.
The chief deputy crossed the threshold with his hands up. He had gone pale. Rocky disarmed him, closed the door and locked it.
“After me, Eddie, I reckon?” he said. “Shore. Well, I’m glad to see yuh. Now lissen. I’ll give yuh a chanct to straighten up—that is, if yuh’re not too deep in this cussedness here—and yuh’d better take it. Don’t talk loud, big feller. Yuh willin’?”
In point of fact, the ambitious deputy’s interest in the ranch was only a matter of votes at the coming election. He said as much, and Hill decided to believe him.
“Then yuh’ll jail Kelso Jackson for double murder and a few other crimes,” Hill began. “I’m goin’ along to make shore yuh do it. We’ll rouse out the Brimstone judge and tell him everythin’— only we won’t tell him how I got out o’ jail, not if yuh’ll withdraw from the sheriff race. Also, we’ll take Easy Pickens and hold him as a state’s evidence witness.
“Yeah, I’m doin’ things with yore purty stag-handled gun that yuh wouldn’t do! Now slip the irons on Pickens, and we’ll start. My hoss and yores kin carry the four of us. Hustle!”
Ed Lyerly hustled.
The tall young stranger who had chosen to call himself Rocky Hill returned to the ranch at noon of the next day, and with him rode fifteen cowboys borrowed from other outfits. Uneasy representative members of the Jackson cutthroat crew gathered to make snarling inquiry.
“Yuh’re finished here,” Hill told them, “and I’m advisin’ yuh to fade and never come back. The law would find yuh interestin’, but—well, I used to be a wild sorta hombre myself, and I’ve got some feelin’ for yuh. These men I brought— What? Oh, Jackson and Pickens. They’re in jail. Anythin’ else yuh’d like to know?”
The old crew faded, and the new, temporary crew took its place. Rocky Hill went to the ranchhouse and found the happy and grateful Chinese on the front gallery.
“Next thing,” began Hill, “the brand oughta be changed and registered. If yuh don’t know what that crazy brand was for, old-timer, I’ll tell yuh. It could be put on over nearly any other brand in the state, obliteratin’ it complete! Yeah, Jackson was usin’ this place as a sorta clearin’ house for stolen cattle, and mebbe he wasn’t doin’ a land-office business! Took advantage o’ the fact that yuh was Chinese, yuh see?”
Wing Lun had suspected that. Now he knew. “You, one man, you did all this— for me, a poor, lone old Chinese. Why?” he said.
“Well,” drawled Rocky, broadly smiling, “I reckon there’s time to tell yuh about it now. I wasted some years as a wildcat cowboy drifter, and then I decided to settle down. Didn’t come from any big family; there was only a few of us, and the few was scattered from hell to breakfast and back. I rode down here from Montana tryin’ to find a bachelor uncle, brother o’ my mother—yeah, old Ben Brading. The fact that this was his place, or had been, was enough. Understand now?”
“Ah!” cried Wing Lun, seizing the other’s hand. “Rocky, I loved Ben Brading. We were friends, rather than master and servant. He took me as a youth and educated me—so I loved him. It was in his will that this ranch was mine if no worthy relative ever turned up to claim it. So the ranch is yours, for have you not proven your worth? But I am glad. My years now are not many. I can’t believe you’d mind if I remained here with you—”
“Now yuh jest try leavin’, old-timer!” laughed Rocky Hill, bright-eyed. “Jest yuh try it!”