Ward McQueen reined in the strawberry roan and dug for the "makin's." His eyes squinted against the sun as he stared across the moving herd toward Kim Sartain, who was hazing a pair of restless steers back to the mass of tossing horns. "Bud" Fox loped his horse out of the dust along the flank of the herd and then walked him up the slope. Digging out his papers, he reached for McQueen's tobacco.
"Recollect that old brindle ladino with the scarred side?" he said. "This here's his range, but we ain't seen hide nor hair of him."
"That mossyhorn?" Ward glanced cynically at Fox. "Reckon I won't forget him too quick. He's prob'ly back in one of them canyons. Yuh cleaned 'em out yet?"
"Uh-huh, we have. Baldy and me both worked in there. No sign of him. Makes a body plumb curious."
"Yeah." Ward's brow puckered. "Ain't like him not to be down here makin' trouble. Missed any other stock since I been gone?"
Fox shrugged. "If there's any missin' it can be only a few. But yuh can bet if that ol' crowbait's gone some others went with him. He ramrods a good-sized herd all by hisself."
"Baldly" Jackson joined them on the grassy slope. The cattle were moving steadily down the widening valley. Kim Sartain and the long-geared "Tennessee" were enough to keep the herd moving. Working them out of the cedar brakes and the canyons had been the job.
Baldy jerked his head back toward the nearest canyon mouth. "Seen some mighty queer tracks over yonder," he said. "Like a man afoot."
"We'll have a look." Ward McQueen touched a spur to the roan and loped it across the narrow valley. Jackson and Fox fell in behind him.
The canyon mouth was narrow and high-walled. It was choked with tumbled boulders and dense brush with only a dry watercourse making a winding trail down the canyon floor. In the spreading fan of sand where the watercourse emptied into the valley, Baldy swung down.
Ward, a big, wide-shouldered rider with keen eyes, stared thoughtfully at the tracks. "Yeah," he muttered, "they do look odd. Got him some home-made footgear. Wonder if that's man blood or critter blood?" Turning, he followed the tracks back up the narrow watercourse.
After a few minutes, he stopped. "Uh-huh, he's hurt. Look at them tracks headed thisaway. Fairly long, steady step. I reckon he's a tall man. Goin' back the steps are shorter, an' he's staggerin' some. He stopped twice in about twenty yards. Both times he leaned against somethin'."
"Reckon we better foller him?" Baldy squinted doubtfully at the jumble of boulders. "If'n he don't aim to git ketched he can make us a powerful lot of trouble!"
"Uh-huh," Ward agreed. "But we'll foller him. Baldy, you go back and help Kim. Tell him where we're at. Bud will stay with me. Mebbe we can trail this hombre down, an' he should be grateful. It looks like he's bad hurt."
* * * *
They had moved along for a hundred yards or so when Bud Fox stopped, mopping perspiration from his face.
"He don't aim to be follered," he answered. "He's makin' a try at losin' his trail for us. Even tried to wipe out a spot of blood."
Ward McQueen drew thoughtfully on his cigarette and glanced up the watercourse with keen, probing eyes. There was something wrong about all this. He had been riding this range for almost a year now, and believed he knew it well. Yet he remembered no such man as this must be, and had seen no tracks.
They moved on, working along the trail in the close, hot air of the draw. The tracks ended suddenly on a wide ledge of stone where the canyon divided into two branches.
"We're stuck," Bud said, puzzled. "He won't leave no tracks with them makeshift shoes on this stone. There ain't nowheres he can go up either one of them canyons, that I know of."
The right-hand branch ended in a steep, rocky slide, impossible to climb in less than hours of struggle up the shifting rock. The left branch ended against the sheer faces of a cliff against whose base were a heaped-up jumble of boulders and rocky debris.
"He must've doubled back," Fox suggested doubtfully. "Mebbe hid in the brush."
Ward threw his cigarette down in disgust. "Reckon he don't aim t' be found," he remarked. "But wounded like he is, he'd better be. He'll die shore as shootin'!"
Turning their horses they rode back down the canyon to rejoin the herd.
Ruth Kermitt was waiting on the ranchhouse steps when they left the grassy bottom and rode up to the bunkhouse. With her was a slender, dark man in a frock coat and black trousers. He wore, a new white hat. As Ward McQueen walked his horse toward the steps he saw the man's quick, cold, all-encompassing glance take him.
"Ward," Ruth said, "this is Jim Yount. He's buying cattle, and wants to have a look at some of ours."
"Howdy," Ward said agreeably.
He glanced at Yount's horse and then, his eyes more speculative, at the man's tied-down guns."
Two more men were sitting on the steps of the bunkhouse. A big, square-bodied man in a checkered shirt, and a slim redhead with a rifle over his knees.
"We're wantin' to buy five hundred to a thousand head," Yount said. "Heard yuh had some good stock."
"No. Stockin' a ranch. I'm locatin' on the other side of the Newton's."
Ward looked at him and nodded. "Well, we've got some cattle," he said. "Or rather, Miss Kermitt has. I'm just the foreman."
"Oh?" Yount looked around at the girl with a quick, flashing smile. "Widow?"
"No." She flushed a little. "My brother and I came here together. He was--killed."
"Kind of hard for a girl runnin' a cow ranch alone, ain't it?" He smiled sympathetically.
"Miss Kermitt does mighty well," Ward suggested dryly, "and she ain't exactly alone!"
"Oh?" Jim Yount glanced at McQueen thoughtfully, one eyebrow lifted. "No," he said after a minute, "I don't expect one could rightly say she was alone as long as she had some cowhands on the place, or cattle."
Ruth's eyes widened a little at the sudden tightening of Ward's mouth. "Mr. Yount," she interrupted hastily, "wouldn't you like to come in for some coffee? Then we could talk business."
When they had gone inside, Ward turned on his heel and strode back to the bunkhouse. He was mad, and didn't care who knew it. The thin-faced rider with the red hair glanced at him as he drew near.
"What's the matter, friend?" he asked. "Somebody take yore girl?"
Ward McQueen halted and turned his head. Baldy Jackson got up hastily and moved out of line. It was a move which brought him alongside the corner of the bunkhouse and put Yount's two riders at the apex of a triangle of which McQueen and himself formed the other two corners.
"Miss Kermitt," McQueen said coldly, "is my boss. She's also a lady. Don't get any funny notions!"
The redhead chuckled. "Yeah, and the boss is a ladies' man! He knows how to handle 'em!" Deliberately, he turned his back on Baldy. "Ever been a foreman on a spread like this, Dodson? Mebbe you or me'll have us a new job."
For an instant Ward hesitated, then he turned on his heel and walked into the bunkhouse. Bud Fox was loitering by the window. He straightened as McQueen came in. Ward saw that he, too, had been watching the pair.
"Don't seem like they want to make friends," Bud suggested, pouring warm water into the wash basin. "Like they might even want to start trouble!"
Ward glanced at the young cowhand thoughtfully, "What would be the idea of that?" he demanded.
Yet curiously he wondered over it. Certainly the attitude of the two wasn't typical of the West. He glanced toward the house and his lips tightened. Jim Yount was a slick-looking gent. He was a smooth talker, and probably a woman would think him good-looking.
He sat down on his bunk and dug out the "makin's." Out there beyond the ranchhouse was a distant light. That light would be in Gelvin's store, down to Mannerhouse. Gelvin had ranched the country beyond the Newtons. Suddenly, McQueen made up his mind. After chow he would ride into Mannerhouse and have a talk with Gelvin.
Supper was a quiet meal except for Ruth and Jim Yount who talked and laughed at the head of the table. Ward, seated opposite Yount, had little to say. Baldy, Bud and Tennessee sat in strict silence, and "Red" Lund sat beside Pete Dodson, only occasionally venturing some comment. At the foot of the table, lean, wiry Kim Sartain let his eyes move from face to face.
Ward left the table early, and paused on the step to light a smoke. Kim moved up beside him.
"What goes on?" he asked softly. "Never seen everybody so quiet."
Briefly, Ward explained. Then he added, "Yount may be a cattle buyer, but the two hombres with him ain't ordinary punchers. That Red Lund is a gun slick if I ever saw one, and Dodson looks to me like an owlhooter." He drew on his cigarette. "I'm ridin' into town. Keep an eye on things, will yuh?"
"Shore thing!" Kim's voice was dry, cold. "That Lund, I don't like him, myself!" Then glancing at Ward, "Nor Yount," he said.