Read CHAPTER III - AN UNSETTLED SCORE of The Free Range , free online book, by Francis William Sullivan, on ReadCentral.com.

As soon after dinner as possible Larkin disengaged himself from the rest of the party and motioned Caldwell to follow him. He led the way around the house and back toward the fence of the corral. It was already dark, and the only sounds were those of the horses stirring restlessly, or the low bellow of one of the ranch milch cows.

“What are you doing out here?” demanded Bud.

“I came to see you.” The other emitted an exasperating chuckle at his own cheap wit.

“What do you want?”

“You know what I want.” This time there was no chuckle, and Bud could imagine the close-set, greedy eyes of the other, one of them slightly crossed, boring into him in the dark.

“Money, I suppose, you whining blood-sucker,” suggested Bud, his voice quiet, but holding a cold, unpleasant sort of ring that was new to Caldwell.

“‘The boy guessed right the very first time,’” quoted Smithy, unabashed.

“What became of that two thousand I gave you before I left Chicago?”

“I got little enough of that,” cried Caldwell. “You know how many people there were to be hushed up.”

“Many!” snapped Larkin. “You can’t come any of that on me. There were just three; yourself, your wife, and that red-headed fellow, I forget his name.”

“Well, my wife doesn’t live with me any more,” whined Smithy, “but she makes me support her just the same, and threatens to squeal on you if I don’t produce regularly; she knows where the money comes from.”

Suddenly Larkin stepped close to the other and thrust something long and hard against his ribs.

“I’m going to do for you now, Smithy,” he said in a cold, even voice. Caldwell did not even move from his position.

“If you do,” was his reply, “the woman will give the whole thing to the newspapers. They have smelled a rat so long they would pay well for a tip. She has all the documents. So if you want to swing and ruin everybody concerned, just pull that trigger.”

“I knew you were lying.” Bud stepped back and thrust his revolver into the holster. “You are still living with your wife, for she wouldn’t have the documents if you weren’t. A man rarely lies when he is within two seconds of death. You are up to your old tricks, Smithy, and they have never fooled me yet. Now, let’s get down to business. How much do you want?”

“Two thousand dollars.”

“I haven’t got it. You don’t know it, perhaps, but my money is on the hoof out in this country, and cash is very little used. Look here. You bring your wife and that red-headed chap out to Arizona or California and I will set you up in the sheep business. I’ve got herds coming north now, but I’ll turn a thousand back in your name, and by the time you arrive they will be on the southern range. What do you say?”

“I say no,” replied the other in an ugly voice. “I want money, and I’m going to have it. Good old Chi is range enough for me.”

“Well, I can’t give you two thousand because I haven’t got it.”

“What have you got?”

“Five hundred dollars, the pay of my herders.”

“I’ll take that on account, then,” said Caldwell insolently. “When will you have some more?”

“Not until the end of July, when the wool has been shipped East.”

“All right. I’ll wait till then. Come on, hand over the five hundred.”

Larkin reached inside his heavy woolen shirt, opened a chamois bag that hung by a string around his neck, and emptied it of bills. These he passed to Caldwell without a word.

“If you are wise, Smithy,” he said in an even voice, “you won’t ask me for any more. I’ve about reached the end of my rope in this business. And let me tell you that this account between you and me is going to be settled in full to my credit before very long.”

“Maybe and maybe not,” said the other insolently, and walked off.

Five minutes later Bud Larkin, sick at heart that this skeleton of the past had risen up to confront him in his new life, made his way around the ranch house to the front entrance. Just as he was going in at the door a man appeared from the opposite side so that the two met. The other skulked back and disappeared, but in that moment Bud recognized the figure of Stelton, and a sudden chill clutched his heart.

Had the foreman of the Bar T been listening and heard all?

Entering the living-room, where the Bissells were already gathered, Larkin expected to find Caldwell, but inquiry elicited the fact that he had not been seen. Five minutes later the drumming of a pony’s feet on the hard ground supplied the solution of his non-appearance. Having satisfactorily interviewed Larkin, he had mounted his horse, which all this time had been tethered to the corral, and ridden away.

Half an hour later Stelton came in, his brow dark, and seated himself in a far corner of the room. From his manner it was evident that he had something to say, and Bissell drew him out.

“Red came in from over by Sioux Creek to-night,” admitted the foreman, “and he says as how the rustlers have been busy that-a-way ag’in. First thing he saw was the tracks of their hosses, and then, when he counted the herd, found it was twenty head short. I’m shore put out about them rustlers, chief, and if something ain’t done about it pretty soon you won’t have enough prime beef to make a decent drive.”

Instantly the face of Bissell lost all its kindliness and grew as dark and forbidding as Stelton’s. Springing out of his chair, he paced up and down the room.

“That has got to stop!” he said determinedly. Then, in answer to a question of Larkin’s: “Yes, rustlers were never so bad as they are now. It’s got so in this State that the thieves have got more cows among ’em than the regular cowmen. An’ that ain’t all. They’ve got an organization that we can’t touch. We’re plumb locoed with their devilment. That’s the second bunch cut out of that herd, ain’t it, Mike?”

“Yes.”

Beef Bissell, his eyes flashing the fire that had made him feared in the earlier, rougher days of the range, finally stopped at the door.

“Come on out with me and talk to Red,” he ordered his foreman, and the latter, whose eyes had never left Juliet since he entered the room, reluctantly obeyed.

Presently Mrs. Bissell took herself off, and Bud and the girl were left alone.

“I suppose you’ll marry some time,” said Larkin, after a long pause.

“I sincerely hope so,” was her laughing rejoinder.

“Any candidates at present?”

“Not that I know of.”

“Well, I know of a very active one he just left the room.”

“Who, Mike? Bud, that’s preposterous! I’ve known him ever since I was a little girl, and would no more think of marriage with him than of keeping pet rattlesnakes.”

“Perhaps not, Julie, but Mike would. Will you take the word of an absolutely disinterested observer that the man is almost mad about you, and would sell his soul for one of your smiles?”

The girl was evidently impressed by the seriousness of his tone, for she pondered a minute in silence.

“Perhaps you are right, Bud,” she said at last. “I had never thought of it that way. But you needn’t worry; I can take care of myself.”

“I’m sure of it, but that doesn’t make him any the less dangerous. Keep your eye on him, and if you ever find yourself in a place where you need somebody bad and quick, send for me. He hates me already, and I can’t say I love him any too well; I have an idea that he and I will come to closer quarters than will be good for the health of one of us.”

“Nonsense, Bud; your imagination seems rather lively to-night. Now, just because I am curious, will you tell me why you went into the sheep business?”

“Certainly. Because it is the future business of Wyoming and Montana. Sheep can live on less and under conditions that would kill cows. Moreover, they are a source of double profit, both for their wool and their mutton. The final struggle of the range will be between sheep and cattle and irrigation, and irrigation will win.

“But the sheep will drive the cattle off the range, and, when they, in turn, are driven off, will continue to thrive in the foothills and lower mountains, where there is no irrigation. I went into the sheep business to make money, but I won’t see much of that money for several years. When I am getting rich, cowmen like your father will be fighting for the maintenance of a few little herds that have not been pushed off the range by the sheep. Cattle offer more immediate profit, but, according to my view, they are doomed.”

“Bud, that’s the best defense of wool-growing I ever heard,” cried the girl. “Up to this I’ve held it against you that you were a sheepman a silly prejudice, of course, that I have grown up with but now you can consider yourself free of that. I believe you have hit the nail on the head.”

“Thanks, I believe I have,” said Bud dryly, and a little while later they separated for the night, but not before he had remarked:

“I think it would benefit all of us if you drilled some of that common-sense into your father.”