Read CHAPTER XI - THE QUEST BEGINS of Trailin, free online book, by Max Brand, on ReadCentral.com.

“You know the old place on the other side of the range?”

“Like a book.  I got pet names for all the trees.”

“There’s a man there I want.”

“Logan?”

“No.  His name is Bard.”

“H-m!  Any relation of the old bird that was partners with you back about the year one?”

“I want Anthony Bard brought here,” said.  Drew, entirely overlooking the question.

“Easy.  I can make the trip in a buckboard and I’ll dump him in the back of it.”

“No.  He’s got to ride here, understand?”

“A dead man,” said Nash calmly, “ain’t much good on a hoss.”

“Listen to me,” said Drew, his voice lowering to a sort of musical thunder, “if you harm a hair of this lad’s head I’ll-I’ll break you in two with my own hands.”

And he made a significant gesture as if he were snapping a twig between his fingers.  Nash moistened his lips, then his square, powerful jaw jutted out.

“Which the general idea is me doing baby talk and sort of hypnotizing this Bard feller into coming along?”

“More than that.  He’s got to be brought here alive, untouched, and placed in that chair tied so that he can’t move hand or foot for ten minutes while I talk.”

“Nice, quiet day you got planned for me, Mr. Drew.”

The grey man considered thoughtfully.

“Now and then you’ve told me of a girl at Eldara — I think her name is Sally Fortune?”

“Right.  She begins where the rest of the calico leaves off.”

“H-m! that sounds familiar, somehow.  Well, Steve, you’ve said that if you had a good start you think the girl would marry you.”

“I think she might.”

“She pretty fond of you?”

“She knows that if I can’t have her I’m fast enough to keep everyone else away.”

“I see.  A process of elimination with you as the eliminator.  Rather an odd courtship, Steve?”

The cowpuncher grew deadly serious.

“You see, I love her.  There ain’t no way of bucking out of that.  So do nine out of ten of all the boys that’ve seen her.  Which one will she pick?  That’s the question we all keep askin’, because of all the contrary, freckle-faced devils with the heart of a man an’ the smile of a woman, Sally has ’em all beat from the drop of the barrier.  One feller has money; another has looks; another has a funny line of talk.  But I’ve got the fastest gun.  So Sally sees she’s due for a complete outfit of black mournin’ if she marries another man while I’m alive; an’ that keeps her thinkin’.  But if I had the price of a start in the world — why, maybe she’d take a long look at me.”

“Would she call one thousand dollars in cash a start in the world — and your job as foreman of my place, with twice the salary you have now?”

Steve Nash wiped his forehead.

He said huskily:  “A joke along this line don’t bring no laugh from me, governor.”

“I mean it, Steve.  Get Anthony Bard tied hand and foot into this house so that I can talk to him safely for ten minutes, and you’ll have everything I promise.  Perhaps more.  But that depends.”

The blunt-fingered hand of Nash stole across the table.

“If it’s a go, shake, Mr. Drew.”

A mighty hand fell in his, and under the pressure he set his teeth.  Afterward he covertly moved his fingers and sighed with relief to see that no permanent harm had been done.

“Me speakin’ personal, Mr. Drew, I’d of give a lot to seen you when you was ridin’ the range.  This Bard — he’ll be here before sunset to-morrow.”

“Don’t jump to conclusions, Steve.  I’ve an idea that before you count your thousand you’ll think that you’ve been underpaid.  That’s straight.”

“This Bard is something of a man?”

“I can say that without stopping to think.”

“Texas?”

“No.  He’s a tenderfoot, but he can ride a horse as if he was sewed to the skin, and I’ve an idea that he can do other things up to the same standard.  If you can find two or three men who have silent tongues and strong hands, you’d better take them along.  I’ll pay their wages, and big ones.  You can name your price.”

But Nash was frowning.

“Now and then I talk to the cards a bit, Mr. Drew, and you’ll hear fellers say some pretty rough things about me, but I’ve never asked for no odds against any man.  I’m not going to start now.”

“You’re a hard man, Steve, but so am I; and hard men are the kind I take to.  I know that you’re the best foreman who ever rode this range and I know that when you start things you generally finish them.  All that I ask is that you bring Bard to me in this house.  The way you do it is your own problem.  Drunk or drugged, I don’t care how, but get him here unharmed.  Understand?”

“Mr. Drew, you can start figurín’ what you want to say to him now.  I’ll get him here — safe!  And then Sally — ”

“If money will buy her you’ll have me behind you when you bid.”

“When shall I start?”

“Now.”

“So-long, then.”

He rose and passed hastily from the room, leaning forward from the hips like a man who is making a start in a foot-race.

Straight up the stairs he went to his room, for the foreman lived in the big house of the rancher.  There he took a quantity of equipment from a closet and flung it on the bed.  Over three selections he lingered long.

The first was the cartridge belt, and he tried over several with conscientious care until he found the one which received the cartridges with the greatest ease.  He could flip them out in the night, automatically as a pianist fingers the scale in the dark.

Next he examined lariats painfully, inch by inch, as though he were going out to rope the stanchest steer that ever roamed the range.  Already he knew that those ropes were sound and true throughout, but he took no chances now.  One of the ropes he discarded because one or two strands in it were, or might be, a trifle frayed.  The others he took alternately and whirled with a broad loop, standing in the centre of the room.  Of the set one was a little more supple, a little more durable, it seemed.  This he selected and coiled swiftly.

Last of all he lingered — and longest — over his revolvers.  Six in all, he set them in a row along the bed and without delay threw out two to begin with.  Then he fingered the others, tried their weight and balance, slipped cartridges into the cylinders and extracted them again, whirled the cylinders, examined the minutest parts of the actions.

They were all such guns as an expert would have turned over with shining eyes, but finally he threw one aside into the discard; the cylinder revolved just a little too hard.  Another was abandoned after much handling of the remaining three because to the delicate touch of Nash it seemed that the weight of the barrel was a gram more than in the other two; but after this selection it seemed that there was no possible choice between the final two.

So he stood in the centre of the room and went through a series of odd gymnastics.  Each gun in turn he placed in the holster and then jerked it out, spinning it on the trigger guard around his second finger, while his left hand shot diagonally across his body and “fanned” the hammer.  Still he could not make his choice, but he would not abandon the effort.  It was an old maxim with him that there is in all the world one gun which is the best of all and with which even a novice can become a “killer.”

He tried walking away, whirling as he made his draw, and levelling the gun on the door-knob.  Then without moving his hand, he lowered his head and squinted down the sights.  In each case the bead was drawn to a centre shot.  Last of all he weighed each gun; one seemed a trifle lighter — the merest shade lighter than the other.  This he slipped into the holster and carried the rest of his apparatus back to the closet from which he had taken it.

Still the preparation had not ended.  Filling his cartridge belt, every cartridge was subject to a rigid inspection.  A full half hour was wasted in this manner.  Wasted, because he rejected not one of the many he examined.  Yet he seemed happier after having made his selection, and went down the stairs, humming softly.

Out to the barn he went, lantern in hand.  This time he made no comparison of horses but went directly to an ugly-headed roan, long of leg, vicious of eye, thin-shouldered, and with hips that slanted sharply down.  No one with a knowledge of fine horse-flesh could have looked on this brute without aversion.  It did not have even size in its favour.  A wild, free spirit, perhaps, might be the reason; but the animal stood with hanging head and pendant lower lip.  One eye was closed and the other only half opened.  A blind affection, then, made him go to this horse first of all.

No, his greeting was to jerk his knee sharply into the ribs of the roan, which answered with a grunt and swung its head around with bared teeth, like an angry dog.  “Damn your eyes!” roared the hoarse voice of Steve Nash, “stand still or I’ll knock you for a goal!”

The ears of the mustang flattened close to its neck and a devil of hate came up in its eyes, but it stood quiet, while Nash went about at a judicious distance and examined all the vital points.  The hoofs were sound, the backbone prominent, but not a high ridge from famine or much hard riding, and the indomitable hate in the eyes of the mustang seemed to please the cowpuncher.

It was a struggle to bridle the beast, which was accomplished only by grinding the points of his knuckles into a tender part of the jowl to make the locked teeth open.

In saddling, the knee came into play again, rapping the ribs of the brute repeatedly before the wind, which swelled out the chest to false proportions, was expelled in a sudden grunt, and the cinch whipped up taut.  After that Nash dodged the flying heels, chose his time, and vaulted into the saddle.

The mustang trotted quietly out of the barn.  Perhaps he had had his fill of bucking on that treacherous, slippery wooden floor, but once outside he turned loose the full assortment of the cattle-pony’s tricks.  It was only ten minutes, but while it lasted the cursing of Nash was loud and steady, mixed with the crack of his murderous quirt against the roan’s flanks.  The bucking ended as quickly as it had begun, and they started at a long canter over the trail.