LIT A SHUCK FOR TEXAS
The Sandy Kid slid the roan down the steep bank into the draw and fast walked it over to where Jasper Wald sat his big iron gray stallion. The Kid, who was nineteen and new to this range, pulled up a short distance from his boss. That gray stallion was mighty near as mean as Wald himself.
"Howdy, Boss! Look what I found back over in that rough country east of here."
Wald scowled at the rock the rider held out. "I ain't payin' yuh to hunt rocks," he declared. "You get back there in the breaks roundin' up strays like I'm payin' yuh for."
"I figgered yuh'd be interested. I reckon this here's gold."
"Gold?" Wald's laugh was sardonic, and he threw a contemptuous glance at the cowhand. "In this country? Yuh're a fool!"
The Sandy Kid shoved the rock back in his chaps pocket and swung his horse back toward the brush, considerably deflated. Maybe it was silly to think of finding gold here, but that rock sure enough looked it, and it was heavy. He reckoned he'd heard somewhere that gold was a mighty heavy metal.
When he was almost at the edge of the badlands, he saw a steer heading toward the thick brush, so he gave the roan a taste of the diggers and spiked his horse's tail after the steer. That old ladino could run like a deer, and it headed out for those high rocks like a tramp after a chuckwagon, but when it neared the rocks, the mossy-horn ducked, and head down, cut off at right angles, racing for the willows.
Beyond the willows was a thicket of brush, rock and cactus that made riding precarious and roping almost suicidal, and once that steer got into the tangle beyond he was gone.
The Kid shook out a loop and hightailed it after the steer, but it was a shade far for good roping when he made his cast. Even at that, he'd have made it but just as his rope snagged the steer, the roan's hoof went into a gopher hole, and the Sandy Kid sailed right off over the roan's ears.
As he hit the ground all in a lump, he caught a glimpse of the ladino. Wheeling around, head down with about four or five feet of horn, it started for him.
With a yelp, The Kid grabbed for his gun, but it was gone, so he made a frantic leap for a cleft in the ground. Even as he rolled into it, he felt the hot breath of the steer, or thought he did.
The steer went over the cleft, scuffing dust down on the cowboy. When The Kid looked around, he saw he was lying in a crack that was about three feet wide and at least thirty feet deep. He had landed on a ledge that all but closed off the crack for several feet.
Warily he eased his head over the edge, then jerked back with a gasp, for the steer was standing, red-eyed and mean, not over ten feet away, and staring right at him.
Digging out the makings, The Kid rolled a cigarette.
After all, why get cut up about it? The steer would go away after a while, and then it would be safe to come out. In the meantime it was mighty cool here and pleasant enough, what with the sound of falling water and all.
The thought of water reminded The Kid that he was thirsty. He studied the situation and decided that with care he could climb to the bottom without any danger. Once down where the water was, he could get a drink. He was not worried, for when he had looked about he had seen his horse, bridle reins trailing, standing not far away. The roan would stand forever that way.
His six-gun, which had been thrown from his holster when he fell, also lay up there on the grass. It was not over twenty feet from the rim of the crevice, and once it was in his hand, it would be a simple thing to knock off that steer. Getting the pistol was quite another thing. With that steer on the prod, it would be suicide to try.
When he reached the bottom of the crevice he peered around in the vague light. At noon, or close to that, it would be bright down here but at any other time it would be thick with shadows. Kneeling by the thin trickle of water, The Kid drank his fill. Lifting his face from the water, he looked down stream and almost jumped out of his skin when he saw a grinning skull.
The Sandy Kid was no pilgrim. He had fought Apaches and Comanches, and twice he had been over the trail to Dodge. But seeing a skull grinning at him from a distance of only a few feet did nothing to make him feel comfortable and at ease.
"By grab, looks like I ain't the first to tumble into this place," he said. "That hombre must have broken a leg and starved to death."
Yet when he walked over and examined the skeleton, he could see he was wrong. The man had been shot through the head.
Gingerly, The Kid moved the skull. There was a hole on the other side, too, and a bullet flattened against the rock.
He was astonished.
"Well now! Somebody shot this hombre while he laid here." The Kid decided.
Squatting on his haunches, The Sandy Kid puffed his cigarette and studied the situation. Long experience in reading signs had made it easy for his eyes to see what should be seen. A few things he noticed now. This man, already wounded, had fallen or been pushed into the crack, and then a man with a gun had leaned over the edge above and shot him through the head!
There was a notch in his belt that must have been cut by a bullet, and one knee had been broken by a bullet for the slug was still there, embedded in the joint.
The Kid was guessing about the notch, but from the look of things, and the way the man was doubled up, it looked like he had been hurt pretty bad aside from the knee.
The shirt was gone except for a few shreds, and among the rocky debris there were a few buttons, an old pocket knife, and some coins. The boots, dried and stiff, were not a horseman's boots, but the high-topped, flat-heeled type that miners wear. A rusted six-shooter lay a bit further down stream, and The Kid retrieved it. After a few minutes he determined that the gun was still fully loaded.
"Prob'ly never got a shot at the skunk," The Sandy Kid said thoughtfully. "Well, now! Ain't this a purty mess?"
When he studied the skeleton further, he noticed something under the ribs that he had passed over, thinking it a rock. Now he saw it was a small leather sack, which the dead man had evidently carried inside his shirt. The leather was dry and stiff, and it ripped when he tried to open it. Within were several fragments of the same ore The Kid had himself found!
Tucking the-samples and the remnants of the sack under a rocky ledge, The Kid stuck the rusty six-shooter in his belt and climbed back to the ledge where a cautious look showed that the ladino was gone.
The roan pricked up its ears and whinnied, not at all astonished that this peculiar master of his should come crawling out of the ground. The Kid had lost his rope, which was probably still trailing from the steer's horns, but he was not thinking of that. He was thinking of the murdered man.